Buried 120 feet below Washington D.C., the War Room is almost completely dark. The lights have just gone down, and the massive view screen along the eastern wall is still dark.
The only illumination in the room is the faint blue glow of the flat screen monitors embedded in the boardroom style table. That glow casts itself against the bodies of as many people as have ever occupied the space--diplomats, soldiers, scientists--and, of course, the president himself.
At the moment, these people are all visible only as dimly lit blue shapes against the blackest of backgrounds.
And then the main monitor lights up. As the feed comes online, the darkness of the War Room is lifted. The people sitting around the War Room table are now visible as more than just shadows. Their eyes are all focused on the screen.
The information strip along the bottom margin of the screen reads "longitude 35.5766, latitude -106.3666, 12:03:00, air temperature 102degF." The image is a live video feed from an almost empty field near Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is very sunny and very bright. In the darkness of the War Room, the sunlight on the screen is almost blinding in its intensity.
"What are we seeing?" asks the president, his clear voice cutting through the darkness. He is a former general. In fact, he is the first president to have served in the active military since George Bush Sr. and the first general since Dwight David Eisenhower to be elected as President of the United States. This president didn't even seem to run for the office; it was as if he had been conscripted. When he was elected, the national government and a fair number of the state governments were operating in bankruptcy, the economy was in slow decline, government budgets were running over 50% of gross domestic product, and entitlement programs constituted 90% of government expenditures. The despair and decline were not unique to the United States of course. A seemingly endless economic depression had hit most of the nations of the world.
And then there was the war in Africa. Somehow America had been dragged into the cataclysmic web of continuing wars that stretched from Morocco to Mozambique, most spurred by radical Islamist jihadists. The man who was now the president had been the general selected to head the African campaign where he had proven himself to be a hard-nosed problem solver. He had emerged a hero in a nation in need of heroes.
Despite his intelligence, drive and powerful executive skills, Washington seems to have proven tougher for him than any military campaign. The constant struggle against grasping politicians and interest groups seems to have left him a harried man. His eyes are tired, his once fit body has generously filled out and he has the look of someone who has gone ten rounds and is near collapse. Or so it seems. As most of the people in that room today know, even as a general he had always looked like he had just come through ten rounds against a far superior force. Most of the people in the room know that despite the illusion of weariness, the President is sharp and alert. This president, by his very presence, is giving them order and direction.
Without looking away from the screen the president addresses the Director of Homeland Security. "What is it, Director? And when were you notified?"
The Director of Homeland Security speaks with practiced assurance. "We don't know what it is, Mr. President. We were first notified by the farmer who woke up this morning and saw it in his field. He called it in immediately."
"When?" the president asks.
The Director swallows. "It was about four hours ago. We notified NASA immediately."
"NASA?" the president asks.
"Uh, sir," says the Director of NASA, "Five hours ago, NORAD's sensors recorded an object moving towards Earth in a slightly unusual pattern. It appeared to be relatively free of the normal constraints of gravity and it wasn't moving like a meteor."
The president cuts him off, "At this point, gentlemen, I don't need analysis from either of you. Nor do I need explanations for the delays and for the lack of interagency communication. I need your conclusions and a brief description of how you reached them."
"Yes, sir," says the Director. NASA hasn't been a national priority in some time--he hadn't been through any briefings with this President. "We believe--or at least we have good reason to believe that what we're seeing, in the middle of that field is an alien spaceship. Judging from its size, it is probably a landing pod of some sort."
"Why do we believe it is alien? Why a spaceship?" The president's head pivots slightly in the direction of the CIA's Director of Intelligence.
"Sir," the director of the CIA answers, "To the best of our knowledge neither the Russians nor the Chinese have developed anything that looks like that. We agree with NASA and NORAD that it is likely extraterrestrial.
"What of terrorists?" the president asks.
Both CIA and Homeland Security begin to answer. The CIA director defers to Homeland Security. "We don't believe that any of the known terrorist groups could have developed that sort of technology. It is not in their M.O. They would target population centers, not empty fields in New Mexico, sir."
"Thank you, Director," the President says. "Is there anything else I need to know at this point?"
"Permission to speak, ma'am." The voice belongs to a much younger man who is fiddling with his ear piece, his attention on his superior officer.
"Permission granted, Lieutenant Thompson." The woman who answers him is the current head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She is a four-star general with a doctorate in military strategy and she is one of the few women who have come up through the combat ranks. She was the president's second-in-command during the African campaign and she was known to be as seasoned and almost as tough as he was.
Lieutenant Thompson pivoted to address the president directly. "We know that it is extraterrestrial, sir. The hull of the thing is emitting some radiation. With our X-ray spectrum analyzer we have picked up high energy lines consistent with ultra heavy elements. We have only ever seen those elements in the lab and then only for microseconds. We have never come close to creating those elements in stable form here on earth."
The President turns toward the Secretary of State. "Have we notified the Russians, the Chinese, and our allies?"
The Secretary of State is a tall Boston Brahmin whose ancestors had been founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He is a man who had expected himself to be elected president in the last election, "No, sir."
"Do so, now."
"Yes, sir. If you think it is wise."
"Is that wise, Mr. President?" the director of the CIA asks.
The president ignores the question.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs fills the silence. "The site is close to Los Alamos, so we've got pretty much every sensor imaginable pointing at the thing. I've got a team running constant analyses for me. As you know, I have asked one of the army scientists to join this meeting. The Lieutenant is in contact with his fellow scientists in the field. We have a full ground perimeter established, multiple air units overhead and nuclear warheads on standby."
The Director of Homeland Security interrupts. "Albuquerque should be evacuated by the New Mexico National Guard. Since Katrina every major city in the United States has had an evacuation plan. We are prepared for emergencies. We should be able to evacuate the city in a matter of ten hours. You only have to give the orders, sir."
"Don't give the order yet. Instead, have the New Mexico National Guard stand ready for orders."
The Ambassador to the UN speaks. Despite a slight stammer his voice is mellow and ministerial. He and the Secretary of State were inherited from the previous administration. They are both respected, but like many State Department employees, they are not known to be terribly effective. "I have to advise you, sir, that we should be extremely cautious, extremely cautious about the use of m-military force against w-whatever emerges out of that pod."
"If anything emerges out of that pod," the president interjects.
"Yes, sir. If anyone emerges out of the pod. We know n-nothing about these visitors. This could be our first contact with s-sentient beings from outer space. I have to remind you, Mr. President, that in the eyes of the world the United States has not had a stellar record at avoiding confrontation."
"Noted," says the President. "Sec State?"
The Secretary of State looked up after being updated by his staff, "We have now notified our counterparts in Russia, China, and the EU. It seems that the Russians, the Chinese, and the Australians all registered the landing."
"And they gave no reason for neglecting to notify us?" the president asked.
"No they did not."
"Thank you," says the president, "Can we zoom in on the thing?"
An operator seated near the screen flicks his wrist and the image expands. The device is like nothing on Earth. It hovers about four feet above the ground, but the grass below it is not moving. There is no evidence of a mechanical propulsion system. It has smooth black skin, sharply angled edges and flat sides. It is lined with vents that seem to jet out steam at uneven intervals. It looks like a stealth fighter with four noses.
"Is that actually steam?" the president asks.
The young lieutenant, earpiece squawking, answers, "We've run a spectrographic analysis on the gas. It's largely methane. It is being released into the atmosphere."
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs asks, "Is the methane being used to suspend or maneuver the vehicle?"
The lieutenant answers, "Not as near as we can tell, ma'am."
"Christ," the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs mutters. "The whole thing doesn't seem to be more than a few feet in diameter. How did NORAD pick it up on entry?"
The Director of NORAD confers with his support people and then answers, "We didn't pick it up on entry--we reviewed our data after the farmer notified Homeland Security and Homeland Security notified us."
The President asks, "Could there still be a larger space ship in orbit or hovering where we cannot see it? Could this simply be a landing pod?"
After conferring with his support staff again, the Director of NASA seems undecided. "We think if a larger space ship were out there we would be able to see it. Our own satellites would be able to pick it up."
"Hell, NORAD's radar should be able to pick it up," the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs says.
"But could it be stealth?" the president asks.
"Yes, sir. And if it is stealth, it might be able to evade all our monitoring devices," the general replies. "We have no way of knowing what their technology is capable of."
Every person in the War Room cranes their necks forward for a closer look.
The Ambassador to the UN breaks the silence. "Sir, this is a s-small device and quite possibly h-harmless. Clearly it is manned by or sent by sentient beings. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity to reach out in peace to these people."
The Secretary of State shrugs. "We can spin this as a friendly visit, no matter what the outcome."
The Ambassador to the UN nods wisely. "True. But even if we couldn't spin it favorably, we must be careful to project the right image to other nations. Particularly after the war in Africa, sir."
"We won that war," the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs barks.
"Yes, ma'am, we did, but at what c-cost in world opinion? Should we have even g-gone into that war?"
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs stands to full attention--all 5'3" of her. "Mr. Ambassador, everyone in this room knows damn well that we got into that war only because all the various governments represented in your UN suckered us into it. When the UN force hadn't ended the suffering; the African Union hadn't ended the suffering, and our own bleeding-heart mainstream media begged us to intervene. It was our men and women--American men and women--who went in there and died to end the genocides in Africa. And now that everyone is safe, and Africa is at peace and prosperous, you're telling us that we shouldn't have gone in there?"
The President raises his right hand a few inches, "Stand down, General, that's all past history. Take it from me, Ambassador, my only interest in that thing that has landed in New Mexico is to make certain we protect American lives and American territory."
"But, Mr. President," the Ambassador says, "we should not act unilaterally."
The President ignores him, and all eyes return to the screen.
And then, with a puff of gas, a hole appears in a section of the side of the space ship. It expands outward--like the pupil of an eye adjusting to the dark. And now there is a sort of gas fog surrounding the vehicle.
The War Room is silent.
A small furry brown creature leaps down from the side of the craft.
The lieutenant's earpiece squawks and he settles it more deeply into his ear. "It looks like it may be a mammal, sir," he says. "Approximately 2 feet high. It looks like a rabbit, but it's not a rabbit. It's clearly alive, but it is not any sort of species we can recognize. One moment..." He fiddles with the earpiece again and continues, "As near as we can gather, the thing is breathing. His chest, if it is a he, is contracting and expanding and he has what appears to be a mouth and a nose. Our readings show that the gas it is exhaling is predominantly methane. The methane seems to be coming from the mouth."
"Let's try talking to it," says the President motioning in the general direction of the Secretary of State.
"Yes, of course," the Secretary of State, speaks into his transmitter and on his order a metal robot scurries into view and starts towards the alien. It is carrying a metal sheet of greetings in seventy-three human languages. The small brown alien looks at the robot.
The robot starts to speak--first in English, then Chinese, then Russian and then Spanish. The alien hops up next to it. It looks genuinely interested in the robot. It licks it once, and then takes a bite out of it. With loose wires hanging at odd angles and large chunks of metal missing, the robot is disabled. The alien eats the rest of it, including the sheet of greetings, and then it starts to eat the grass.
"Lieutenant, what's your name, son?" the president asks.
"My name is Spencer Thompson, sir."
"Lieutenant Spencer Thompson."
"And your scientific colleagues in New Mexico?"
"Lieutenant Alexandra Schwartz is the biologist, and Corporal Henry Ramirez is the chemist. We are all part of the general's geek team."
"Okay, Lieutenant Thompson," says the President, "Do they know anything more?"
Lieutenant Thompson speaks into his transmitter and his earpiece squawks.
"Not much, sir," says the lieutenant, "As you can see, the alien is eating an enormous amount given its size. It is also producing significant amounts of methane gas."
"Thank you," says the president, and turning to the Secretary of State he says, "Let's send a human being to go talk to it."
Speaking through his transmitter, the Secretary of State orders one of the diplomats who have been standing behind the perimeter established by the military to cross over the perimeter. There is some hesitation in New Mexico. The Secretary of State hardens his voice and reissues the order. Then a civilian steps into view. The diplomat is a man in his early thirties. He is dressed in a grey suit and tie, and with his hands spread away from his body and slightly elevated he is signaling that he is unarmed.
The screen zooms in on the diplomat.
The people around the War Room table can see the sweat on his brow. In all fairness, they are probably not seeing signs of the man's fear. In New Mexico, it is 102 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade and in that field there is no shade.
He approaches the alien very slowly. The alien lifts his head from the grass and looks up at him. The diplomat holds out a hand and begins to speak. Its eyes turned in the direction of the diplomat, and the alien seems to be concentrating on what the diplomat is trying to say. The alien seems to tighten up as if concentrating more intensely on what the diplomat is trying to say. And then, for no discernible reason, and in direct violation of everything known about vertebrate biology, the alien falls apart. Not in any psychological sense. It simply falls apart into two furry blobs. A moment later, those blobs shape themselves into two complete aliens. Now, there are two aliens.
"HOLY SHIT," says the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Her words echo the sentiment around the room. Everyone is stunned. In front of their eyes a fairly large animal just multiplied like a single cell organism--it just divided in two.
On the screen the diplomat turns and runs.
"I guess it's not a mammal?" the president says calmly. He continues, "Lieutenant Thompson, do your people see any signs that these two aliens are communicating with each other?"
"Why wouldn't they be?" asks the NASA Director.
The President doesn't bother to answer.
The Ambassador to the UN and the Secretary of State confer quietly together. It is the Ambassador who speaks to the President. "The aliens appear to be harmless and furry and r-rabbit-like, sir. Quite harmless really."
The President remains silent.
"We can't know that." The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs says, "These aren't creatures in a Disney movie, Mr. Ambassador."
"But we have no evidence that they are a threat," the ambassador counters. "Until we do have enough evidence, the Secretary of State and I believe that our best option is to continue to pursue the possibility of communications with the aliens."
The Secretary of State adds, "How are you proposing we sell the American people much less the nations of the world on a war with cute, furry, sentient aliens, General?"
Without answering, the general turns back to the screen.
There are now four furry creatures on the screen.
After a moment of stunned silence, the lieutenant speaks up again, surprise in his voice, "Sir, our people in the field cannot actually detect any signs of communication."
The president does not seem surprised.
The aliens continue to eat grass and begin to eat tree stumps in the field. They divide again--now there are eight.
"The methane concentration in the air is rising rapidly, sir," says the Lieutenant, "I'd say that these critters are a threat in at least one way. Talk about spikes in greenhouse gasses."
One of the newest creatures accidentally walks into the edge of its own spaceship. The space bunny shakes its head, stunned, and goes back to eating.
Over the course of the next thirty minutes, the population of small rabbit like creatures expands exponentially. There are now over sixty little creatures--eating and reproducing with gusto.
And then one of them begins to walk straight towards the military perimeter.
"Orders, sir?" asks the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
"Use a megaphone or something and tell the creature it is approaching a perimeter," the president barks.
An authoritative voice gives the warning, "APPROACHING ISOLATION PERIMETER, TURN BACK." Although most of the people around the War Room table have been in communication with their people on the perimeter of the field, this is the first sound to emanate directly from the large screen on the eastern wall. It blasts through the soft murmurings in the War Room.
The people in the War Room stare at the screen.
The alien ignores the command.
"Orders, sir?" asks the General.
"Can we slow it down?" asks the president.
"I don't know, sir," says the general.
The Secretary of State adds, "I believe we should let it pass. We have no idea what kind of interspecies diplomatic and military problems we'd face if we killed one of those creatures. We may be inviting horrible reprisals from a peaceful species. It is obviously a species capable of producing interplanetary spaceships. Good god, we can't just start killing them. On your instructions, Mr. President, we have kept the Russians, the Chinese, and the other developed nations informed of what is going on. How will they react if we kill one of these aliens?"
"I won't let the alien past the perimeter," says the president. "Fire a warning shot."
A crack rings out over the New Mexico field and into the War Room.
The alien looks up.
The Secretary of State asks, "Are you certain you want to play this game, sir?"
"The alien might call your bluff, sir," said the NASA Director, worry in his voice.
The alien pauses, and then keeps moving. Some of his compatriots have started digging tunnels.
The one approaching the perimeter is within five feet of the wire, when the president gives the order to shoot to kill. The general repeats the order to her troops in New Mexico.
Another shot rings out. The alien jumps into the air and then simply falls over--seemingly dead.
Half the people in the War Room are now white with fear.
"Is it actually dead, Lieutenant?" The President asks.
After a moment, the lieutenant answers, "Near as Lieutenant Schwartz and Corporal Ramirez can tell it is stone dead. There is no visible movement, no sign of respiration, and no methane being emitted. It's not moving and not breathing, sir."
None of the other aliens, who now number over one hundred, react to the death of their compatriot. There is no reaction at all.
"What's going on?" asks the NASA Director.
"We still have an opportunity to approach them p-peacefully," says the Ambassador to the UN. "They might be some sort of collective being--like bees and ants. Maybe the loss of one individual isn't significant." The Ambassador clearly believes what he says.
"Thank you," the president says. "I appreciate your concerns, Mr. Ambassador, but this is my decision to make."
"General?" the president looks away from the screen for a moment and turns to his Chief of Staff.
"Yes, sir?" answers the general.
"Kill them all," says the President.
"Excuse me?" says the Secretary of State.
Without turning to address the Secretary of State, the president replies, "I have just given the order to kill every last one of the aliens--now. And for the record that is a direct order from your Commander-in-Chief, General."
"Sir," objects the ambassador, "They are clearly intelligent c-creatures. Look at their ship--it is more advanced than anything we have. They could d-destroy us. We might be able to explain the one dead alien--approaching our perimeter and all. But all of them?"
"Kill every alien," says the President. "Every single one."
The General barks her orders into her microphone. A voice from the screen replies, "Yes, ma'am."
Moments later, the peaceful quiet in that field is shattered by heavy caliber machine gun fire blasts The machine gun fire continues for several minutes. Then there is silence. Every one of the aliens is dead or near death.
The silence in the War Room is near absolute as well.
Then the president laughs.
There is another moment of stunned silence while the others turn away from the screen to finally look directly at their President.
"Are you stark raving mad, Mr. President?" The Secretary of State barks, "Do you have any idea what you may have unleashed? Other aliens might come back for revenge."
"It doesn't matter," says the President. "They aren't here to conquer us or to make friends."
"How do you know that?" asks the Secretary. "How can you possibly know that?"
"Lieutenant Thompson, perhaps you can explain this better than I can."
Spencer Thompson nods, "Those creatures," he says, "They were stupid. They weren't an intelligent species. And they weren't part of some sort of borg-like intelligence. Bees and ants are organized. Those creatures were not. They were stupid."
"Nonsense," the Director of NASA interjects. "Why would unintelligent aliens visit our planet? How would they get to our planet? It takes an intelligent, advanced species to launch a space ship, young man."
The Lieutenant answers with a question of his own. "If NASA were thinking about colonizing Mars, what would your first step be?"
"Genetically customized bacteria," says the NASA Director, just now beginning to get it.
"Right, Mr. Director, We would use bacteria to make the planet inhabitable by humans. They would show up, eat, multiply and create an oxygen-rich atmosphere. They would make Mars someplace we could live."
"Exactly," continues the President, "These aliens were simply somebody else's bacteria. And whoever sent them breathes methane."
"It doesn't mean whoever sent them won't come again," says the Director of Homeland Security.
"No," says the president. "It doesn't. But now they will have learned that this planet is inhabited, and that we too are an intelligent species, they will not simply send in their methane-producing bacteria. And we can hope that they will come to establish peaceful contact and trade relations. They may come to conquer us, but, if so, I'm sure they won't be any more antagonistic toward us simply because we eliminated the contents of their Petri dish."
"And if they come in force? Prepared to use force?" asks the Secretary of State.
"We'll face that when and if it happens." says the president. "We will know more about them after examining the pod and the bodies of the creatures, but we saw no signs of weapons on that ship. And when it comes to weapons, I believe we humans can compete with anybody. I would like to think the intelligent species that sent this probe would prefer peace and trade."
The president pauses, and then goes on. "The decision had to be made quickly, and I made it." He turns to Lieutenant Thompson, "Lieutenant, tell us, if these creatures continued growing, how long would it have been until they had eaten all of Albuquerque?"
Spencer Thompson turns to his computer. A drumroll of buttons later, he has an answer. "Maybe three hours, sir. They would have been unstoppable by then."
"Thank you," says the president. "Look, I concede that we don't have all the answers," And then he shrugs, "Hell, we don't even begin to have all the questions, do we?"
Then he smiles. "For now, gentlemen," he concludes, "Let's just be happy that we were able to destroy them before they ate Albuquerque and everyone in it."
Check out the next piece in this release, Rough Trade by Mark Ellis!