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They Were Coming

A short story

Another straight fiction story. I think stories are best presented without as little advance context as possible, so please see below for any notes.

They Were Coming

The President gazed out into the night. From his window in the Oval Office he could see the top of the Washington Monument above the trees. But it wasn't the landmarks on the ground that interested him, it was the stars beyond them. He was never particularly interested in stars or astronomy, no more or less than anyone else. Tonight, however, the stars had a particular interest. Anyone who ever looked at the stars as more than just pinpoints of light knew a little of how the President felt. In between the stars was the infinite blackness of space which was full of possibilities.

It wasn't just idle speculation about what might be out there that held the President’s interest. Tonight, there really was something out there. Behind him on the desk was a folder marked for his eyes only, filled with reports and papers containing all the information science could muster, in the cryptic mathematics that only a scientist could understand. What the President understood about the situation was all in the summary report prepared for him by the Secretary of State.

There was something out there, an object that had been noticed about a week before, during a scan for asteroids or comets that might collide with the Earth some day. There had been a short briefing about it at the time of its discovery, since it stood out from any other known objects by being different in ways that were a little opaque to the President. No one could say anything about what it was, just what it wasn't, and until someone could, it didn't seem like there was much point in worrying about it.

It caused quite a stir on the Internet. For the scientific community, the fact that it was hard to know what it was made it the most exciting thing out there. Mention of it went around the social media networks, and even made some news channels, though not quite enough to really spark the imagination of the public at large.

It was too small for amateur astronomers, so the only people who could even distinguish its shiny blur from the background of space were the scientists with access to the best equipment. They had ways of figuring out what it wasn’t, using spectrograms and radiograms. It wasn’t a comet. It wasn’t a previously undiscovered planet. It wasn’t an asteroid. It wasn’t a black hole, quasar, white dwarf, or anything else on a long list of obscure space objects, some well understood, others only theorized.

Then, just a few hours before now, it did something which identified it beyond a shadow of a doubt, at least as far as the scientists were concerned.

It changed direction.

It was previously passing through the solar system, somewhere out between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus, on a path that would have carried it out of our solar system again, heading toward the centre of the galaxy. But them it turned. Towards Earth. It didn’t do a ninety degree turn or anything quite so obvious. It made a gentle arc, which, in the diagrams prepared for the President, didn’t look like much of a change at all. But the scientists down at NASA had practically exploded with excitement about it. The head of the Science Advisory Counsel explained that with all the various planetary gravitational forces at work, that gentle arcing was exactly the right move to take this thing from where it was to where we were.

Once that was made clear, that this thing had made a deliberate move to come this way, all hell broke loose. The security services caught wind of it and immediately started shutting everybody up any way they could think of. This was big, really big, and essentially they threw the constitution out the window for a few hours to gain control of the flow of information and bring it to the President. They couldn’t let something like this just unfold haphazardly. They needed a plan. They needed a decision.

Earth was about to meet it’s first extraterrestrial visitor.

The object's trajectory change was subtle enough to avoid the notice of most casual observers, but anyone with access professional equipment would already be aware. Possibly some hadn’t noticed yet, probably others were re-checking their equipment this moment, and others probably were already sure of what the President knew. Data about the event was probably screaming over the Internet, being copied and multiplied every minute. Until a plan was formed, the security services all agreed that that it would be good to just slow things down a bit. Give the government some time to come up with a plan and be able to offer people some comfort that their government was ready. So far they had shut down servers, put out some misinformation and redirections, and quietly informed some people in the know to refrain from posting to any social networks. The President thought he read somewhere in his report that they had even shut power down completely in certain urban areas. They were pulling out the stops, and they were probably doing even more than they were comfortable telling the President about. There would be hell to pay later, but the issue of this UFO was far more pressing.

The thing was that all the constitutional wranglings, or senate hearings, or even impeachment, paled in comparison to having an alien civilization come swooping out of the sky and destroy every living thing in sight. That was a distinct possibility pointed out to him by the military contingent at the briefing in the Oval Office less than an hour ago. It might have sounded like the paranoid ramblings of the military psyche, always ready to assume the worst, except that this possibility was strongly backed by some of the world's most gifted scientists. The science advisers agreed, noting that the use of such science fiction concepts as “warp drives” or moving at “light speed”, was basically impossible given our current understanding of physical reality. It would take a superhuman effort to get from one place in the universe to another, and such a trip wouldn’t be taken lightly. The notion that aliens came to Earth on a whim to steal cows or strafe highway roads was basically just silly. With the amount of effort needed to start an interstellar journey, and the time it would take to get where one was going, one would only make the journey with a serious purpose in mind. Columbus didn’t just cross the Atlantic for a lark. He did it for gain.

And look what it did for the Natives of America.

This had implications far beyond freedom of speech. These aliens may not want to talk about it. They may not even recognize us as being something to talk to, much like we don’t negotiate with bugs before squashing them.

On the other hand, some of the more optimistic scientists argued that maybe a race that has achieved the technological level of space travel would by necessity have to be benevolent, lest they destroy themselves at the hands of their own scientific accomplishment. Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe it makes more sense to be ready in case they’re looking to take over.

But then there’s also the problem that by being ready to fight, we may provoke it. It’s hard to look welcoming to your galactic neighbours when your waving atomic missiles at them. And maybe theirs is a highly sensitive race who would view even the notion of defensiveness as being a provocation, and would wipe us out just to be safe. History has shown that when nations prepare for war, they're more likely to have that war, no matter how defensive their intentions are.

The President wiped his hands across his face. How long had he been staring out this window? A window which was made of the toughest materials available in order to deter any would be assassin from using a long range rifle and shooting the President while he sat signing documents about economic bailouts. Issues which seemed much more important yesterday than today. The President felt like opening the window right now and inviting any snipers to end his troubles right there and then. Instead, he turned and sat at his desk.

He opened the folder and casually skimmed through the papers again. He was looking for something he knew he wouldn’t find among all the equations and diagrams. He needed to find an answer, not more explanations of the problem. But an answer wasn’t in the report. It wasn’t in all the summaries and notes provided to him by all his advisers. It wasn’t the job of the military, or NASA, the science advisers, the intelligence community, or anyone else to provide anything except advice on a matter as important as this. Answers and decisions had to come from the top. It wasn't just that, in theory, that was how the government structure was supposed to work, with information flowing up and decisions flowing down. It was just as much because, especially this time, no one else wanted to be responsible for the consequences.

The President pushed the folder away from him. He looked at his phone. There had been no communication, official or unofficial, from other nations or world leaders yet. Surely they were also informed by their own scientists of what was going on. No doubt some of them had learned through their spies in the United States. Probably they were doing exactly what the President was doing - trying to develop their own plan of action before initiating anything.

This presented another problem. What if another country came up with a plan completely different from that of the President. What if America decides to attempt peaceful greetings, and France launches all it’s nuclear warheads at the visitors? Well, that problem would have to wait for a while. The President wanted to be have some clearer idea of what his plan would be, before arguing about it with anyone else. Besides, it was likely that since the United States currently had the most technology, information, and capable military and space program, that the world would be looking to the US for guidance. They probably didn’t want to be responsible for the consequences either.

There was one small consolation in all this, the President thought. If these aliens did come down and destroy everything and everybody, at least there wouldn’t be anyone left to remember that the President made the wrong choice.

Assuming the President had a choice. This was almost too much. It was like coming up with an answer before the question. To not have a plan of action would undermine peoples confidence, both in the general public, and in government. To wait and see might mean waiting until it was too late.

The President let out a deep breath. The entire content of what he knew, and what he was to base his decision on, could be summed up in one sentence. They were coming. Who they were, what they did when they got here, and how much we could do about it were all complete mysteries. Based on that one piece of information alone, the President had to make a decision which would affect the lives of probably every single living being on the planet.

How should one decide in such a matter? With everything in the world in the balance, and the absolute minimum to go on, any decision at all would seem arbitrary and risky. There were a million variables, but as far as the President could see, it all came down to two essential possibilities. Either assume that they are peaceful and stand ready to welcome them with open arms, or assume they are hostile and point all the missiles skyward. Of course there was some room for error. If we presented peace and they wanted war, we might have time to scramble and fight back. If we presented war and they wanted peace, we could stand down.

What if they have long range sensors though? What if long before they arrive they see which way we move and act accordingly, not giving us the chance to alter our posture. What if they see us getting ready for peaceful welcoming, and they decide we are easy pickings? What if they see us arming for war and decide we aren’t worth talking to before they wipe us out with death rays? What if…

Stop it.

The President pushed himself back from the desk. He had to stay focused. Too much thinking and too much guessing wasn’t helping. Two possibilities - that’s what the President felt he should deal with if he was to come out of this office with any capable plan.

A plan that would likely be shot down in Congress, the President figured. The opposing party dominated the Congress and they never saw eye to eye on anything. Would they want an argument over this, though? This wasn’t like arguing over social issues. He could maybe declare a state of emergency and bypass any problems there, but it would serve everybody better if the government presented a unified front. Besides, they probably didn’t want the responsibility either.

If only there was a higher power to consult. If only the President could pass the buck one more level up. He looked upwards, and although the ceiling blocked his view, he was looking higher. The President was not a deeply religious man, but in this situation, well…

He moved the chair away from the desk and knelt in front of it. With his elbows propped against the desk and his palms firmly together, he closed his eyes and bowed his head. He didn’t know any scripted prayers off by heart, but he had his own way of praying. In this situation he felt it was best to just try and clear his mind a little and find a little communion. The President wanted desperately to ask for a sign, but knew that would just result in disappointment. He relaxed his position and rested his head in one hand. But then, just as he felt prayer was not the way, inspiration did come. He quickly glanced up at the ceiling with an enquiring look. There was a way to ask for direction. After all, wasn’t God in the details?

The President reached into his pants pocket. Nothing there. His jacket was draped around the chair. He reached back and felt around for the front pockets. He found what he needed and held it in his palm. Again he glanced up at the ceiling. Just who’s idea was it to do this, anyway? He stood up and stiffened as if he was about to do something official. There was a moment of doubt, and then a moment of resolve.

With a flick of his thumb, he tossed the coin into the air.

Thank you for having read my story. I wrote this one a long time ago, and there were all sorts of style qualities to it that I really didn't like, so I edited it again to make it a little more palatable, but story repair only goes so far, so it's still a bit awkward. This is one of those things that I'm putting out there just so the effort won't have been completely wasted.

I feel that the idea behind this story is a little forced, in that the idea was to try and construct a situation in which any information behind a critical situation is so limited that you're pretty much just as well off leaving it to random chance. For dramatic purposes, that decision needs to be huge. But, I can't escape the feeling that the reality is that just about no situation is so devoid of particulars as to make it free of deciding indicators. More importantly, humans generally have too much bias going into any decision for it to be without preconceptions. What's missing from this story is the President's character that would let us know if he was the type who would assume to be pessimistic or optimistic. Put that character determination in, and it's not the story I was going for, leave it out and it's a little lacking for believability.

The story I was going for was a sense that if there was any sort of force at work in the universe, a god or whatever, then it seems to me that its presence would be felt in the chaos, the randomness of life. I think it's pretty clear that any powers that be don't ever respond with anything humans recognize as communication. If there was form and guidance to the universe, though, then nothing random is ever truly random, and that's were you would see the threads of guidance.

Which means that, as far as I'm concerned, most churches should be rolling dice or using magic 8 balls to commune with their gods. That probably wouldn't too popular, though, because no one would be happy when the dice went against them.