Stranded in a Foreign Land
Copyright© 2014 by Vincent Berg
"This is your Captain; I'm ordering an immediate evacuation. Head immediately to your escape pods. You have less than five minutes before we evacuate all the air and water from the ship. Everything else onboard will be jettisoned.
"The wounded we picked up in response to our opponents' distress call were infected with a highly contagious agent. This was clearly a planned sabotage in a desperate attempt to harm us by taking advantage of our humanitarian efforts. We've fled that system to prevent our ship from being captured and anyone attempting to rescue us from being infected. It appears the infection spread via the ship's air supply—generated from our internal water—which we also fear is infected. If we ever hope to return, we must evacuate the ship.
"We jumped to an unknown system far from our normal transit routes and we've sent no alerts, so rescue is unlikely. We've broadcast a local distress call, hoping any inhabitants of this system will be genetically dissimilar enough not to be affected. Your escape pods are programmed to take you to the only hospitable planet, which does appear to contain an intelligent native population.
"We'll be on our own from now, on a strange world with few resources. Escaping this poisoned environment may help, but the odds are against us. I hope to see anyone who survives. May God be with each and every one of you! That is all."
"Excuse me, Mr. President," the nervous aide said, shuffling from one foot to the other beside the bed of the most powerful man in the world.
"Err ... what is it?" the president asked, opening his eyes, groping around for his glasses. "I certainly hope it's important waking me and the First Lady up at this hour. What time is it anyway?"
"Uh, it's three seventeen in the morning, Sir," the aide said, checking his watch once more.
"OK, OK, I'm up. What is it?" The president wrestled with the sheets tangled around him and his wife.
"I think it might be better if you heard this alone and in a secure location, Sir."
"It's OK. My wife can hear whatever it is."
The aide frowned; he knew this information was critical, but he didn't want to argue with the man responsible for determining what to do with it.
"I don't know if there's a need for any immediate action, but we thought you should know. There's... ," the aide fidgeted nervously. "We've finally received a message from SETI, the Search for Exterrestr—"
"Extraterrestrial Life, I know." President Alan Atkinson rubbed sleep from his eyes and looked up at the young man. "What could they possibly report? They've never picked up a thing in their entire history."
"We don't know, Sir. We can't decode it. It's a short message, broadcast every four hundred and thirty-six seconds."
"You're telling me they actually received a response from some alien intelligence somewhere?" Atkinson asked, incredulous
"Yes, Sir." The young aide allowed the president to adjust to this news at his own pace.
"Four hundred and thirty-six seconds, huh?" Atkinson asked, scratching his ear. "That's certainly significant. But I can't imagine a signal from some far-flung galaxy needing my immediate attention. I'll sleep on it and deal with it in the morning. Do we know it origin?"
"We don't believe it's from a distant system. It's too regular and the signal hasn't degraded over time, but we haven't been able to track it."
"I thought that was the whole purpose of SETI, to track broadcast signals?"
"That's correct, but it's a strange signal. It's a very short message, possibly a regularly repeated SOS, but we can't pinpoint it. It covers a broad spectrum and seems to be echoing."
"Echoing, huh? I guess the science guys will explain that to me. Here I thought nothing echoed in space. So the experts suspect it may be an SOS?"
"That's their best guess at the moment." The aide's collar felt clammy from the sweat trickling down his neck. This was way above his pay grade, and if he said the wrong thing there was no telling what the fallout might be.
"Yeah, either that or a demand for our surrender," the president said. "That wouldn't take many words either."
"That's exactly why we wanted you to know, Mr. President."
"Do you have any idea how far away the signal's source is?"
"Since it's so hard to track, it's difficult to triangulate, but it appears to be very close—possibly within the solar system, Sir."
The president's eyes popped open. "Here?" he asked, as if there were more than one solar system under consideration. Even his wife sat up and looked at the aide.
"It's a very strong signal, Sir; we just haven't been able to identify it."
"So we don't know if it's on the outskirts of the system, or parked on the other side of the moon?"
"Yes, Sir. Both of those are a very real possibility." The aide swallowed hard.
"OK, I'm getting up." The president threw his legs over the edge of the bed. "I want you to contact other major observatories to see if there's any more intel on this."
"SETI has already conferred with them. They wanted to know more before they were willing to report the issue. With every step up the chain of command they've been sent back to reconfirm. No one wanted to disturb anyone for either an insignificant anomaly or a malfunctioning sensor." The aide paused for a second. "The signal began fifty-seven hours ago, Sir. That's—"
"I know how long fifty-seven hours are!" President Atkinson barked. "Two full DAYS?"
"OK, check directly with the various observatories and see if they've noted anything else or have any other input into this."
The president got up and the aide hurried to gather his clothing, glad to finally have something practical to do.
"Yes, Sir. What about foreign observatories or nationalities?"
"Shit! They're likely to have received the same signals as us. Talk to the British, French, German and Swiss observatories. Set me up a connection to the leaders of those countries as well. It's likely they won't release anything unless it goes through their leaders first. Don't contact anyone else. And NO press! Understand?"
"Absolutely, Sir, except ... it's not exactly restricted information. All it would take is someone tuning in to the correct frequency. And, Sir, it's broadcasting across many different frequencies. So far it's coming across as interference on radio, television and short wave, but if someone suspects it's more than just ordinary static, they might figure it out."
"Shit! OK, put out a short press release in the morning. Say it appears there's some sort of space anomaly—, no, that's no good. Don't admit ANYTHING. Just make sure SETI doesn't release any information. Also, rein in anyone connected to this."
The aide shuffled uneasily. "That'll be hard to do, Sir. SETI has been crowdsourcing their data, asking the general public to review it for any anomalies."
"Damn, shut down SETI's communications. Claim their computers have crashed. Blame the Chinese or the Iranians. If the information isn't available, no one can pick anything out of it."
"Except there are astronomy labs in colleges and universities around the world; anyone there could detect this signal. Hell, if it interferes with public or private broadcasts, it won't take long for them to discover what's going on."
"We can't afford for this information to get out," Alan stressed, speaking slowly and emphasizing each word, glaring at the aide. "It could cause panic and disrupt the entire economy. If this becomes a crisis, the last thing we need is a disorganized response. We can't afford to let a bunch of students gossip about matters of National Security." The president paced back and forth in his pajamas, considering it. "Issue strict instructions that no one is to publicize or even talk about it to anyone but us. Threaten them with the Patriot Act. Hell, threaten to send them to Gitmo if necessary. No one is to talk about this. Threaten to cut off all government funding, not only to their programs but to their departments, their universities and their private student loans. Make it painful enough that no one would dare whisper this information to anyone. I want all electronic communications about the topic shut down, now!"
"Yes, Sir. I'll take care of it immediately, Sir." The young man laid the president's suit on the bed and quickly backed out of the room, closing the door before turning to the people outside anxiously awaiting word of President Atkinson's response.
"Get me someone at the Pentagon, the FBI and the CIA," he ordered. Everyone scurried away to do his bidding, but he had little chance to gloat. He knew if he screwed this up, he'd likely end up in a Gitmo prison cell along with whatever science nerds wound up there.
Another aide stepped into the room. "Mr. President, we've got an update on the SETI information." He stepped out of the doorway, clutching the latest reports in his hand and waited for President Atkinson to acknowledge him.
"Good. It's been too long since the last update." The president turned so he was facing the aide, lowering his glasses and focusing his attention squarely on him.
"We've been able to locate the signal, Sir." The young man in the perfectly tailored suit held the slim report aloft while glancing at both the president and the impressive yet familiar décor of the Oval Office. This was his first time addressing the president in this room, and while he appreciated it, it also terrified him. The formality of the room echoed the importance of his message. What he was revealing could very well change history. "The reason we couldn't identify the source was because it's being sent across a variety of alternating frequencies, originating from several different locations."
"Several?" President Atkinson asked, cocking his head to the side. "What does that mean?"
The aide, Robert Finch, opened the report and raised his voice to be heard at the president's desk. "Well... , it either means there are several sources or 'ships' broadcasting, or ... we think it's more likely it's an attempt to hide their actual location." Not having been invited in, Robert remained by the door but closed it to ensure their privacy. "But the signals originate within the Oort cloud, that's much further than Pluto."
"So there isn't much chance of us reaching this 'ship' then?" Atkinson asked, resting his elbow on his massive oak desk.
"Sir, even if we knew where it was, it would take our fastest ship several decades to reach it." Robert shifted from one foot to the other to ease his tension. "These are tremendous distances we're discussing."
"Do we know how long it would take them to reach here?" President Atkinson asked, changing the focus.
Robert cocked his head, not sure how to address the question. "No, Sir, the signals don't seem to be moving."
"If it's an SOS, why don't they broadcast from a clearly designated position where we could respond?" the president asked rhetorically, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
"Probably because they don't know our intentions. I'd assume they're broadcasting some sort of standard distress call, but won't issue a specific location until we return an acceptable standardized response."
"A reasonable supposition, however it's important to remember it's only a guess. We have no idea what these—I hate to say 'people'—are thinking."
"Understood, Sir. We're continually monitoring for any signs of change and we have experts reviewing the information."
"Good," Atkinson said, putting his fingers together and glancing over them at Robert. "Now, who else knows of this?"
"Uh ... you're not going to like this, but it's pretty much an open secret. Basically any scientifically capable government knows, and most of the Astronomy Department heads and researchers already know. However we've had the Pentagon, the FBI and members of the staff calling the various agencies, applying pressure to keep this under wraps. They've all agreed there's to be NO press coverage of any kind concerning this news. We feel secure we can keep a lid on it for now, but we can't limit those who already know. With so many people aware, it's only a matter of time until someone leaks the news."
"Damn it, I hate losing control," the president swore, clenching his fists and staring at the young aide.
"Sir, I don't think this was ever under our control. It's an open broadcast to whoever is capable of listening."
"All right. As always, keep me informed," the president told him, effectively dismissing him with a wave of his hand, his mind already on other things.
"Yes, Sir," the aide responded as he hurried away. While it was impressive being involved in something this major, it was nerve-racking having no control over what was playing out, and especially having no clear answers to report.
"Mr. President?" President Atkinson looked up from his economic report as yet another aide stepped forward to deliver the latest news. "There's been a change in the mysterious broadcasts, Sir."
Though he still didn't have enough information to convene a national security meeting, Alan Atkinson had canceled most of his scheduled events to be better able to respond to these multiple interruptions.
"I'm listening," he said, giving the senior aide his full attention.
"They've halted. Well, not completely. It's stopped signaling constantly over a variety of channels. Now it only broadcasts on a single channel every 5.83 hours."
"Hmmm, I wonder what that portends?" Atkinson asked, glancing at the ceiling as he pondered the question.
"We don't know, Sir, but we believe whoever sent the signal assumed no one would acknowledge their message and set the signal to repeat for an extended period instead, possibly to save on battery life."
"Hmmm," Alan responded, still considering its potential implications. However the aide didn't wait for him to figure it out on his own.
"That could be good news. It supports the SOS theory. If their ship was damaged, they might be looking to save power over a long period of time."
"I sure hope that's it. Any change in the basic message?"
"No, Sir, it's the same."
The president ran his hand through his graying temples. "And we've had no breakthrough in decoding it yet?"
"No, we haven't. We assume it is being broadcast in a foreign language using an unknown encoding, so we have no idea which is message and which is formatting."
Alan sighed. There were just too many unknowns. He knew this was the single most important incident of his entire presidency, but he didn't have enough information to come to any conclusion about what risks they might be exposed to.
"Have we tried broadcasting anything back?"
"Yes, Sir, several locations have been broadcasting a variety of messages, including repeating the same broadcast and sending simple binary arithmetic signals. The hope is they would see we're trying to communicate and respond with something we could use to establish communications, but so far there's been no response of any kind. It may even be a recorded message of some kind. There may be no life forms connected with it at all."
"That's certainly a consoling thought, but we can't assume it's the case. Even if it is, we'd have to assume it's broadcasting messages home, alerting whoever sent it. We still don't know whether this is a request for aid or a threat. Since we have no way of responding, it would be nice to know there's no danger of invasion, but we need to consider our options. There has to be some way to evaluate what's happening. Is there any way to determine what's at the source of these broadcasts?"
"I'm afraid not, Sir. The object is too far away, and it's in a region of the sky which doesn't reflect any light. What's more, being in the Oort cloud, there's a large number of objects there, and without better optics we can't differentiate between the objects we can observe."
"Damn. OK, keep me apprised. We already have experts working on the issue, but if anyone has any new ideas, bring it to my attention immediately, understand?"
"Yes, Sir, we're focused on this and everyone is scrambling to come up with a solution," the aide answered before President Atkinson turned his attention back to his daily briefings. Realizing he'd been excused, the aide left with no specific task but to report to those in the outer office how the president was handling the situation.
"Alan, we need to discuss something we really shouldn't do here," the Chief of Staff, Samuel White, whispered to President Atkinson during a highly publicized dinner with the Chinese Ambassador to the US. They were attempting to impress the Chinese to gain some latitude regarding the Chinese government's responses to political discourse in their own country. As such, the president wasn't happy being interrupted.
"Can it wait?" he asked, addressing the handsome man leaning over his shoulder, not attempting to lower his voice. "As you can see, we're only part way through our meal, and I hate to inconvenience the ambassador and his lovely wife," Atkinson said, pouring it on thick.
"I'm sorry, Sir, but it's a time critical event," Samuel stressed.
There was something in the way he said it which got Alan's attention. Looking up at him, he tried again.
"Is this concerning Anton?" he asked, using the name of the latest boy band singing celebrity as a code word they'd devised to discuss the presence of a minor celestial body, a relative newcomer with a lot of clout and prestige despite his youth who was popular with young girls eager to listen to his latest message.
"It is, Sir, and you need to make a decision about him right away," Samuel told him, smiling at the women at the table. "Otherwise you might miss the tickets for his opening night concert." The women giggled at the idea of President Alan Atkinson attending an Anthony Anton concert, but Alan didn't miss the reference.
"I'm sorry, but it seems I'm being called away on some pressing business," Alan joked, standing up and placing his napkin beside his plate to show he was done. "Alas, the job of president is never finished. Sometimes one has to put one's preferences aside to take care of important matters. But there's a certain thirteen-year-old who's waiting for my immediate response."
The women giggled again at the striking contradiction in his words, but the ambassador wasn't so easily fooled. He'd been briefed on the 'astrological anomaly' and had been asked to observe how the president and his staff responded. It wasn't hard to tell this was hardly a trivial matter, and if the president was rushing out, he assumed it was because something important had happened. Not being privy to the latest intel, he only knew he had to relay the fact President Atkinson seemed ready to take some decisive action. His superiors would be interested in knowing what the Americans were up to.
Once the president left, the ambassador signaled his secretary, writing out a short message in the Chinese Wu dialect he knew no one at the dinner would be likely to decipher. He whispered a key word to her, indicating it was to be sent immediately to China using the strictest security protocols. She hurried off as the ambassador got back to laughing with the president's wife, who like the ambassador, seemed more concerned with her missing husband than with the current table talk.
Once they'd reached a secure location a safe distance from any potential eavesdroppers, President Atkinson confronted his Chief of Staff. "OK, what's so important you'd interrupt a critical State Department dinner?"
"Anton's tickets are starting to drop," Samuel said, still keeping to the code they'd worked out ahead of time.
"No one's listening," Alan responded in exasperation. "Speak English. This is too important to obfuscate."
Samuel took a deep breath, readjusting the explanation he'd planned to deliver. "We've observed several meteors streaking across the sky. While meteoric activity in the middle of the day is odd enough, these are even more so. There were a variety of them which appeared simultaneously, and each struck the Earth's atmosphere at an odd angle, as if skimming the surface."
"You think it's the alien invasion force?" Alan asked, his brow furrowing with concern.
"It's too small to be much of an invading force, but there's no other reasonable explanation for it occurring at this particular time. Our guess is it's an expedition unit, gathering information for the main force."
"Or the aliens really were hurt in some sort of accident?"
"Then they could be seeking refuge," Samuel acknowledged. "Either way, it's an alien force trying to access the Earth through less than open methods. What's more, if they were seeking aid, why not announce they were landing and pick a safe place we could watch and observe each other from. No, this seems too calculated. It's only a few craft, they're cleverly disguised and it just seems ... disingenuous," he concluded with a shrug, indicating he was expressing a hunch with no supporting evidence.
"How many meteors are we discussing?"
"Since they appeared so quickly and no one was actively recording it, we really don't know. But there were at least twenty."
"Where were they detected and where were they headed?" Alan pressed, his brow furrowing as he tried to determine just how bad the situation was.
"That's the thing. When they first appeared over the western Pacific, visible from the coastal observatories, they burned brightly for several minutes and then completely disappeared from sight."
"Come again? What about our satellites, radar and missile detection systems?"
"We have the best in the world, but it didn't help. We observed the initial approach mostly because they used the friction of reentry to burn off their momentum; as soon as they'd slowed sufficiently for the friction to dissipate to less than incendiary, they vanished. None of our technology could trace them."
"Damn! So we've got no clue where they were headed?"
"None whatsoever," Samuel responded as he waited patiently for the president's next question.
"Where were they headed before they disappeared?"
"We couldn't tell. As I said, it appeared to be a braking action, burning off their momentum. They were only skimming the upper atmosphere, just dipping low enough to generate sufficient friction to slow them down. But once they had, there was no way to track them."
"Shit, we've got to locate them! We've got eyes all over the globe, both commercial and military. We need to know where to look. Where's their most likely destination?"
"It appears they're trying to hide, using basic physics to hide in plain sight," the Chief of Staff explained. "While our satellites can observe much of the surface of the Earth, there's currently a major low pressure system moving eastward across the North American continent. I'd guess they'd head there, using the cloud cover to hide their motion and land undetected."
"And just where is this low pressure system?" President Atkinson asked, unable to believe Samuel would force him to pry each and every minor detail out of him.
"Ah, that's the thing, it's a major system. The cloud bank covers from Canada all the way to Mexico, spanning thousands of miles. If they wanted to use it as cover they could be anywhere in it. Or, if their technology is advanced enough, we may not be able to photograph them anyway, in which case they could land anywhere. But if that were the case, I'd expect they'd head to where it's currently night, in order to avoid being casually observed by people wandering the streets during the day. That would put them somewhere on the Asian continent."
"Damn, we can't let them slip away. For all we know, this could be the first wave of an invasion. If not, they hold the keys to a technology centuries ahead of ours, and we can't afford to let it slip out of our hands." President Alan tapped his finger against his temple, considering the situation before continuing.
"As soon as the clouds start to break up, I want all our satellites photographing the whole region. On the off chance they went to China or Russia, set one or two up to locate anything there that looks odd. And increase our electronic eavesdropping. Any suspicious comments from any foreign government or entity gets reported to us. We've got to get a handle on this. This could be the defining moment of my Presidency, making everything else I've accomplished pale into insignificance."
"I'll get on it then. Your staff and the various military and security people are gathered in the Situation Room. They've got satellite images of our target areas so you can see what we're facing."
"Good work. Let's get things moving. I don't want these... things getting away from us."