The Lad Who Poked the Devil in the Eye
Chapter 5: Capitulation
Copyright© 2016 by Vincent Berg
"WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED!"
President Taylor was not is a terribly diplomatic mood. His face was flushed. His hair was disarrayed from running his hand through it. His hands shook as he balled them into fists by his side.
Things had been in disarray following the announcement over the public airwaves. No one in the White House heard it. The same thing happened during the Atkinson administration. Despite multiple news channels playing in the background, they—and the vast majority of the country—were unprepared when the news anchors revealed what occurred. The broadcasts hadn't affected cable and satellite, so most of Washington was caught flat footed.
Standing in the middle of the staff office area, with interns scurrying around uncovering information, Joseph was beyond frustrated. Since the news had just broken, they couldn't contact the people necessary for a high-level Security Council meeting. The technical people in the situation rooms were worthless, as all their detail was digital. Everyone was working to uncover what the broadcasts had said. So far, it was limited to isolated recollections. One intern was talking to a radio group, trying to determine whether anyone had thought to record the broadcast. Runners were also keeping him updated on the military's response. Despite missing the alien's demands and the initial reports of widespread power outages in Illinois, one thing was clear: their world had changed forever. More than anything else, political figures abhor changes to the status quo.
"Have they shut down the stock markets yet?"
"Not before the New York market lost two thousand points. Obviously, there's no word from the Chicago exchanges."
"I want to see the videos of Chicago," Jonathon growled. "I want damage assessments, both the immediate and outlying areas. I want every damn telescope scanning the skies to reveal where these ... friggin' aliens are hiding out."
"Sorry, sir, but we don't have a live satellite feed here, and there weren't any satellites over the Chicago area at the time."
The president spun on the military attaché trailing him. "That's because they couldn't tell me Jack Shit about what's happening. So far, these interns are delivering better intel than the armed forces, FBI, CIA and NSA combined!"
"Why weren't there any military satellites over the area?" someone asked.
A military liaison held his hands up. "They're all in geostationary orbits, which aren't hard to calculate. If we want to schedule a fly over, it takes several hours, at best, to move a satellite if there's one already in the region. There were supposedly a couple military drones being tested in the region, but they haven't been heard from."
"We can't wait hours for a satellite feed," the president snapped. "They can pour over the high def satellite images all they want in the years to come, but for now, we need more immediate answers!"
"The video feed is still not ready, Sir. The Air Force hasn't had a chance to upload the video from the planes' cameras. We're in contact with their base. They're putting it together as we speak. We should get the video feed in several minutes. The detailed still photos will take slightly longer."
"Do we have any idea of the death toll yet?"
"None whatsoever, Sir," someone responded. "Until we can determine how far the blast zone extended, we can't calculate how many homes were impacted. Even then, we have no way of determining who was in those regions at the time. Our best estimates could be off by as much as ten to forty percent depending on the region."
"We're under attack by an alien invasion force—by aliens who expressed no hostility to us before—and we have no idea what's happening? How the hell are we to respond? We've been searching for them for weeks, but haven't turned up any sign of them, and now this. Someone turn the spy satellites around and scan the space around them!"
"Sir, we're in a similar situation to Pearl Harbor in 1942 or New York City on 911. Everyone was caught unprepared. We had no indication anything was happening."
"They told the entire WORLD what they were doing, and yet peasants in Bangladesh knew about it long before we got any notification."
"They didn't exactly post it to Twitter," one of the interns mumbled under their breath.
Jonathon spun on his heels. "What's that? If you've got a criticism of this administration, either tell it to my face or join the damn talk show circuit. You don't have to waste my time informing me of what we don't know. I'm all too aware of that. What I need are results. The longer it takes to uncover those details, the more people are likely to die."
Another figure running from the situation room approached, panting and holding up a small tablet. "We have a copy of the onboard camera from the Air Force flyover." He hesitated before handing it to President Taylor. "You're not going to like it."
Jonathon's brow furrowed, the veins pulsing on his temple. He waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. "No, I'm guaranteed not to like it, but we need to know. Get that damn thing away from me. Get it up on the monitor. What the hell do we need with all this technology if we can't use it?"
It took them several anxious moments to transfer the video to the room's display. The people running in and out of the room with updates weren't helping. The screen flickered to life and a grainy black and white shot of wheat fields flashing past filled the monitor.
"This hasn't been edited yet," the military liaison warned.
"We can't afford to wait for editing," Jonathon reminded him, never taking his eyes from the display. The video feed was from high overhead. The numbers showing the altitude kept changing, but stayed within the 30,000 to 40,000 foot range.
More and more buildings began filling the screen. Soon the first suburbs flashed past with nondescript architecture. The tallest ones were still only a couple stories. It was obvious the jet was a ways off when the footage was filmed.
Though hard to establish from the jet's vantage, they could make out numerous figures lying on the ground.
"Are those casualties?"
"I suspect they were knocked over by the initial shock wave. I don't believe they represent actual fatalities. I'm guessing they were simply ... swept off their feet."
"How long does it take to stand?" Jonathon demanded. "It seems more severe than a simple gust of wind."
Walter Phelps, the President's Chief of Staff, spoke up in a calming voice. "If the windows were blown out, like the meteor strike in Russia years ago, they may be reluctant to move."
The simple rationale voice amongst all the chaos helped to settle everyone's nerves. President Taylor stopped fretting, though his fists remained tightly clenched. As the buildings in the video grew in size, the debris was already apparent. Sheets of paper floated hundreds of feet in the sky, blocking out portions of what lay underneath.
They now witnessed isolated overturned trucks and a few wrecks when the driver's windshields shattered. Talk in the room halted as most watched in fascination over what wasn't even in view yet.
The jet crossed a threshold. The stately procession of buildings gave way to a ring of debris from collapsed structures before turning to the black landscape of an abyss. Beyond that clear demarcation, everything was utterly demolished. On one side, homes stood with little damage, about three blocks were in disarray, further on there was nothing but a flat, blackened mess. It looked like a failed chemistry experiment.
The surface appeared odd. While uneven, it was level with some regions reflecting sunlight while others were pitch black.
"Those must be the melted buildings' substructure," someone suggested.
"No, I'm guessing the heat of the explosion fused everything into a form of glass," Walter surmised. "I doubt you'd find a single bit of metal remaining."
As miles of empty, blackened terrain stretched across the screen, President Taylor turned, never taking his eyes off the terrible footage. "What kind of weapon would produce that?"
"You'd have to ask your science advisor, Dr. Muznard, but I'm guessing it approached the heat of nuclear fusion."
"You mean like Hiroshima?" someone asked.
"No, I'm talking about the process which powers the sun. This is a level of force we've never witnessed on Earth before."
Everyone stared at the terrible visage, stunned by the amount of devastation. There were no landmarks to pinpoint which areas were affected, but soon the shore of Lake Michigan came into view. It was clear the shoreline was a constant but irregular sheet of glass.
"I suspect the black we're seeing isn't a burn pattern," Walter said. "Instead it looks like fulgurites on a massive scale."
"When lightning strikes the beach and fuses the sand into glass. It appears blackish when you come across it, but if you polish it, it's an irregular form of glass. Essentially, the blast was so strong, it destroyed everything and fused what was left into a massive field of glass."
"But that's got to be more than twenty miles, if not more."
"It's got to be millions of people, all gone in the blink of an eye," someone said.
President Taylor turned, assuming he wouldn't learn much more from the film. "OK, let's stop speculating. We need details. Someone analyze the image and calculate the distances involved. We need the exact dimensions of the blast zone. We'll need to determine which areas of the city were impacted to tally the ultimate death toll."
"We also don't know the damage on the outlier regions. I assume the heat wave given off would have killed and injured millions more," Walter suggested.
"We can calculate the secondary fatalities later, when we get more detail. For now, let's focus on the direct impact zone." He turned to his military liaison. "I want all air travel shut down for the indefinite future. I don't want tourists snapping pictures of this devastation. We'll have to choose which images to release. We also don't know whether there are residual effects which might disrupt civilian aircraft electronics. There's no sense having planes dropping from the sky adding to the scene. I want Illinois declared a disaster zone. Move the National Guard into the suburbs to monitor the effects. Have them test radiation levels. I want all civilians evacuated. If we have to, have military copters fly over and order people to flee via speakers. I want to minimize the death toll in any way we can. No one's going to claim we sat on our hands when the news spreads."
"I thought the aliens were peaceful," a mild voice ventured.
"Apparently not," Jonathon snapped. "I'm guessing they got home, discussed what they witnessed, and decided we weren't safe on our own."
Walter Phelps held his finger up. "You know, it may not be the same aliens. Don't forget, the first group was infected by another alien faction. That's why they had no defense against the virus they suffered from. If they were at war, we might be seeing the other side of their conflict."
"It doesn't matter who they are," Jonathon said, leveling Walter with a withering gaze. "Aliens are aliens. They can kill millions at a moment's notice, with technological weapons we're centuries from comprehending. We need to determine how to protect everyone. Give me data and options, people. The longer we gab, the more potential for further fallout."
President Taylor sat before the full National Security Council, in one of the situation rooms. They were still receiving updates on the extent of the damage inflicted on Chicago, but things were not looking positive. Jonathon spread his hands before him. "Can anyone provide any additional information to help us understand what we're facing?"
Peter Muznard spoke, raising his hands to emphasize his words. "What Walter summarized yesterday is essentially correct. The aliens utilized nuclear fusion to destroy Chicago. We've been able to trigger a non-reactive fusion reaction in the laboratory with lasers, but we've never witnessed anything greater than a few atoms at a time. We simply don't understand the process. However, they've achieved a particularly effective technique to control it, both triggering and limiting its spread. Beyond losing millions of lives, the area once known as Chicago will remain a wasteland for millennia. I can't envision ever making it productive again."
"That's encouraging," Jonathon mumbled.
"You asked for new information. I'm providing what we've determined."
"Help us understand what it entails."
"In principal, it's incredibly straightforward. In a nuclear fission reaction, you force atoms to break apart into simpler elements, splitting off parts of the nucleus. When you do, you release a tremendous amount of energy, resulting in a massive explosion. Your traditional mushroom cloud.
"With fusion, you're doing the opposite. Instead of breaking each atom down, you're combining them. You still produce phenomenal energy, but it takes a lot to trigger the reaction. With fission you get a single explosion. With fusion, the reaction continues until everything on the planet is destroyed! Once started, it'll continue indefinitely. Rather than creating a simpler atom, it produces increasingly heavier atoms. This is the force that powered our sun long before the Earth was formed. The heat and light produced by these reactions—only a secondary byproduct—is what allows life on Earth."
General Halpern, the Secretary of Defense, paused scribbling notes. "So you're saying they could conceivably destroy the entire planet if they wanted?"