A news report appeared on the television, showing old film footage. It displayed a podium set up in an open field with a row of public officials in the background. The President of the United States was signing a Peace Accord, but before he could sign it, the camera shifted. The Secret Service rushed up, dragging him away as the cameras began jerking back and forth.
“Do you remember this, Grandpa? Were you there?”
The older man smiled. “We all remember it. It was a pivotal moment in our history, and the resulting struggle touched each of our lives. Life has never been the same since.”
Despite his words, the kids didn’t pay much attention to the video. They’d seen it multiple times before, and the old man found it hard to watch. It was the first time he’d seen the footage, though his memories of the event were forever burned into his consciousness. The fuzzy, shaky scenes didn’t convey the heightened sensitivity he’d felt. There’s nothing like mortal danger to cement events in your memory.
As the film played out, he idly touched the long deactivated device embedded in his ear, feeling as if it occurred last week. Despite his central role in history, he’d never sought attention, and thus his own grandkids didn’t recognize what he’d done. The story seemed like second nature to his impatient grandkids, so it hardly registered on them. The elderly man reflected on the severe costs it inflicted, but even more, he remembered the role he’d played in the struggle, long before this seminal event.
He believed he was doing the right thing, helping someone searching for assistance, not understanding their malevolent intent. He’d patterned his actions on those who’d gone before, swallowing his fears. Yet, despite those noble intents, he helped launch the events which killed millions, something he couldn’t forgive himself for. He knew they, and billions more, would have perished even if he hadn’t assisted. But that kind of rationale has little effect on a survivor’s guilt. He assisted in the death of millions, aiding the enemy, flouting the rule of law and running for weeks.
As the kids laughed and teased, his memories unfolded unbidden, recounting what had transpired. It was a time he’d never forget. Despite wishing he’d never been involved, if he hadn’t, the children sitting in front of him wouldn’t be here today.
The sharp rap on the double doors disrupted Jonathon’s reading. Glancing at his wife, he noted she was already awake. It was late and, like he so often did, he brought his work home with him. Actually, home was in the same building as his office, but it was a decent hike from the other wing. He placed his paperwork, an economic report not scheduled to be released for another two weeks, on the bed beside him. The knock on the door told him a lot about the disruption. If they were only informing him of tomorrow’s appointments, they’d knock quietly. The fact they’d risk awakening the first lady told him something significant was up.
The door opened and a meek woman entered. President Taylor observed the woman stop, taking a breath before standing taller and begin speaking.
“Excuse me, Mr. President. We knew you’d want this right away, unlike the last time when everyone sat on the report for days.”
Sighing, Jonathan signaled her to hurry up. He rarely saw the young woman, and couldn’t remember her name.
“We’ve received another signal from beyond our solar system.” She didn’t wait for him to respond before continuing. “As you know, after the last encounter, SETI was repurposed. They no longer search for distant extraterrestrial communications since they never detected the aliens who reached Earth twelve years ago. They now scan for signals from within our system.”
“Yeah, I remember voting to revoke their charter and authorizing their changes. It now looks like it was a good call. So did we decipher the message?”
President Taylor’s full name was Jonathon Phillip-José Taylor. The name had served him well, but it was also a distraction. His friends and family called him Jonathon—distinct from the more casual ‘John’ he insisted on in public—but the rest of the world knew him as President José Taylor. The name José, which helped catapult him to office, was one he’d always hated.
His mother wanted to honor her grandfather and insisted on naming their white Anglo-Saxon son José, but his father balked. When she insisted, they compromised by combining his two great-grandparent’s names as his middle name. Since his father disapproved of the name so intensely, he’d avoided it his entire life—until entering politics. Then a single name substitution granted a stable white man from an influential family a claim of Mexican heritage, making him a cultural icon. He never liked the name, but understood it was unavoidable at this point. The fact the press mocked him by referring to him as “Presidente” bothered him even more.
“No, Sir. Even with as little as we understand of the language from before, this signal is completely different. It wasn’t hidden and appeared clearly across a range of broadcast signals. It was also longer, but again, not one we understand.”
“Is it a clear broadcast, directed at us, or are we simply receiving it second hand?” Jonathon realized the answer was key. It determined whether the returning aliens were interested in contacting the world’s leaders or in reestablishing contact with those who’d ended the Presidency of Alan Atkinson, twelve-years ago.
“No, Sir. It appears to be a tightly focused beam directed at the Earth as a whole, rather than across the entire solar system. The Mars probe didn’t pick it up.
Jonathon made a vague waving motion. “Although we’ve been waiting for this moment for the last twelve years, such an approach isn’t surprising. They’re not here to establish communications, they’re here to set up the satellite they threatened would restrict us from accessing space. I doubt they’re trying to contact us, instead they’re probably contacting anyone they worked with before.”
“That may be, Sir, but the signal is different. Not only is it more detailed and clearer, but the format and language structure is distinct.”
“Again, it’s not unexpected. The aliens are a multi-species culture, so it’s not unusual they’d speak a variety of languages. Each species would have their own vocal range. The ship is probably commanded by a different species.”
“That’s a possibility, but we wanted to keep you appraised.”
“Good, that’s better than surprising me when they land like the last time” He scowled at her, even though she wasn’t responsible for those actions from so long ago. “Have we identified where the ship is located?”
“No, Sir. We suspect that, like before, they’re disguising their location, broadcasting from several transmitters, far from their actual location. However, this time they’re more localized, so we know what region they’re in. They’re just this side of the Oort Cloud where the last ship was stationed, well beyond our ability to monitor.”
“Again, they’re aware of our limitations. Since we can’t reach them without decades of preparation, they’re unconcerned with our capacity to affect them. Without plans to land or interact with anyone, they have no need for caution.”
“Peter Muznard, your Science Advisor, is on his way in. He’ll examine all our information and prepare a report for you first thing in the morning. Is there anything the staff needs to do before then?”
“I don’t think there’s an…,” Jonathon sat up, tilting his head as something occurred to him. “On second thought, I want you to arrange a Security Council meeting early tomorrow. Contact everyone involved, but don’t broadcast any details over the air. These … beings … can clearly intercept anything we transmit, and our encryptions are unlikely to impress them. I want only face-to-face communications concerning this information.”
“Sir, while that works regarding those within Washington, it doesn’t for those monitoring the deep space signals. Since the large arrays are located far from here, we can’t contact them directly.”
“It doesn’t matter. They’ll expect us to monitor them. It’s only natural for us to be concerned, but I don’t want them recording our responses.”
“Good, Sir. I’ll get the word out. I’ll tell the participants it’s for a situation in the Middle-East without giving specifics. Since those messages are always hot potatoes, our people won’t find the lack of details surprising.”
Instead of answering, he made a waving dismissal motion and the young intern turned and left, closing the door more carefully than she’d entered minutes ago.
Jonathon’s wife, Abigail, sat up, her brow wrinkled. “Is this a problem? The last time it happened, it cost President Atkinson the presidency.”
Jonathon rolled his eyes, grabbing a notepad and scribbling some notes. “Atkinson was a fool. If he kept his mouth shut, he’d have finished his term. Instead he froze up once word of his actions leaked out. It was his inaction which ended his career. If he’d denied it, or come out with a specific plan to address the issue, he’d have survived.”
“Even after exposing the population to an unknown viral contagion and potentially starting an interplanetary war we were unprepared to fight?”
Jonathon shrugged. “He did what anyone would; he tried to limit his liabilities. The fact he got carried away was understandable. If that cretin hadn’t broadcast his interrogation, no one would know anything.”
“Josh Evens,” his wife reminded him. “Although he never exposed himself, the entire country learned his identity when the reporter published her book about him.”
Jonathon didn’t even glance up from his scribbled notes. “The CIA identified him shortly after he took off for the stars. With no one capable of communicating with him, there wasn’t anything his friends could tell us. It would have looked like a witch hunt if we’d conducted an intense manhunt for his friends.”
“Still, it brought his party down and almost destroyed our political system.”
Jonathon glanced up, smirking at her response. “Ha, it did anything but. Sure, there was a lot of noise about change. But without anyone charismatic to carry their banner, the protestors couldn’t mount a significant effort. Sure, they ran the Democrats out of office, but it didn’t disrupt the political landscape. All it took was reinforcing everyone’s traditional fears about strangers, immigrants, the poor and minor flashpoints, and they forgot to throw everyone out of office. As long as we have a two-party system, it’s easy enough to waylay any serious talk of change. The American Public is too easily distracted by small issues to ever follow through on anything. All we need is wave a red flag dealing with gay rights or illegal immigration and any organized opposition disappears overnight.”
“But the aliens came back. Don’t you think they might have more of an impact than a disgraced opposition party?”
“No, they told us we’d never be allowed to join the other advanced societies, but it’s an empty threat. It would take us centuries to learn enough to make contact. I don’t know a single politician who’s concerned with anything beyond the next election cycle. It won’t hurt anyone if our children’s, children’s children can’t waste billions of dollars going nowhere. These aliens aren’t interested in harming us, they’re pacifists. They disapprove of our political system. By the time we gain the necessary skills, they’ll forget about the issue just as the voting public has. People, of whatever species, are fickle. They’ll insist they believe in something until it comes time to choose between it and something else.”
“Then what’s with the secret meeting with your Security Council?” she pressed.
The President gave her an enigmatic smile. “We may not be able to affect them much, but I’ve got a few ideas to limit their attempts to tie us permanently to the Earth. There’s nowhere for us to go, but no one likes being locked in their room simply for being curious.”
A young intern stepped inside the door. “Sir, we’ve been monitoring the chatter in the scientific community. As you’d expect, they’re all abuzz about the signals beaming to us from the Oort cloud.”
Jonathon stiffened, considering the implications, but then relaxed again. “Is the press running with it?”
“Not yet. So far, they’re trying to make sense of the message, but that won’t distract them for long.”
The president rubbed his chin. “We can’t warn them off the way Atkinson did. That would raise suspicions. See if we can call a few influential figures, respected professors. See if Muznard can establish contact, rather than us doing it directly. Have him suggest that it’s premature to say anything until we understand what this involves, for fear it may panic or disrupt the markets. It won’t stop them from talking, but it’ll make them think twice before speaking to the press. And continue monitoring their communications. If they contact the news media, alert me right away.”
“Will do, Sir. NSA is tracking their email and phone calls, using an expanded set of keywords. We’ll know before they try anything.”
“Good. It’ll be wonderful seeing the NSA actually accomplishing something for a change, rather than just soaking up cash.”