"Please come to Tom's office at 3 p.m.," the email said. Clayton Wilhelm had dropped what he was doing to study the email. When summoned to the White House Chief of Staff's office, you go. The email was sent at 2:50; it was time to go.
Clayton stood up, locked his computer, grabbed a legal pad and a pen, and started the walk. He was fortunate enough to work in the actual White House -- or at least the basement of it -- unlike most people who claimed to work in the White House but spent their days in the connected office buildings. Clayton had started in one of those spots when he first came in as a junior attorney supporting the White House counsel's office. This president had experienced difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff, but Clayton had been here from the beginning.
As he approached Tom's office, Clayton wondered why he was being called in to see the Chief of Staff and why the White House Counsel himself -- Clayton's boss -- wasn't invited. Clayton had never met with the Chief of Staff without his boss. He stopped, waiting for a second as a thought crossed his mind -- maybe his boss Derek was on the way out. Derek had only been in the role for 30 days, not even long enough to get all the security clearances, but it was possible he was flaming out. Maybe Clayton was going to be asked to be the next White House counsel -- or at least interim counsel. He was still a little young for that, but there really weren't other candidates.
Clayton slowed his walk to perfectly land the timing of his approach to Tom's office. The secretary was on the phone but gestured for Clayton to walk right in.
"Wilhem," Tom roared with a smile on his face, "close the door and sit down."
"What can I help you with?" Clayton asked, pen and paper in hand. Tom didn't respond right away; he was typing furiously on his phone. Clayton noticed the last bit of ice melting in the whiskey glass on the bar cart behind Tom and wondered if that had been Tom's first glass of the day or tenth.
"It's the UFO thing," Tom said looking up from his phone.
"The UFO thing?"
"Yeah," Tom said, a tone of annoyance in his voice but not seemingly directed at Clayton. "You've seen the news, right, there's more and more of this shit going on."
Clayton had seen the news. He didn't get much time to consume the news, but he had seen the uptick in coverage on UFOs. Years ago the military had started releasing footage of fighter pilots encountering unknown phenomena in the skies. Things -- if they were things -- that moved in odd ways. The military reported on it to Congress, tracked it, and updated the media. Clayton hadn't given it much thought. He generally liked the idea of government transparency. He wasn't a sci fi-fan and had listened to roommates debate whether intelligent life existed on other planets without weighing in.
"What about them?" Clayton asked, wondering what legal issue might be implicated by UFOs.
"Well, they're increasing in number. And the nerds have some kind of algorithm that says there is some significance to this or pattern. There's a Pentagon task force on this. Serious people are seriously working on it. The president has been briefed. He wants someone on it. He wants one of our people on it."
It all made sense to Clayton now. The president notoriously hated the swamp -- the career politicians, career policy wonks, career military types who stayed in Washington no matter who occupied the White House. Clayton was not one of them. He had been around long enough to count as a loyalist.
He had top secret security clearance -- something presumably required for UFO stuff -- and very few of the non-swamp people did. After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School, Clayton joined the Air Force's JAG core. It had been an interesting four year term, culminating with him serving in the Pentagon advising on legal issues related to drone strikes. He left the Air Force with the rank of captain, a top secret security clearance, and a prestigious clerkship for a politically-connected judge. That landed him at a white shoe law firm in Washington where the signing bonus erased his student loans. Clayton spent two years dealing with legal discovery work for Boeing, being tapped for some of the most tedious document review due to his security clearance. He maintained all the right society and club memberships, and when the president got elected, he put his name in and was hired into the White House legal team.
Clayton had always figured he'd spend 18-24 months in the role before trying to cash in and getting hired in as a law firm partner. Now he was nearing four years in the job. Clayton had been promoted repeatedly and was now the Deputy White House Counsel. Yes, he worked hard -- everyone in these roles does -- and he had the right security clearance to work on the legal issues in the juiciest areas. But mostly, he was able to survive in this White House. The turnover was constant. He'd had 4 different bosses in less than four years. The staffers who had public facing roles ended up in all sorts of drama. People leaked things, got caught up in leak investigations, were angry at being accused, and more. This was not something anybody had accused Clayton.
Something about the clearance, his demeanor, and everyone knowing that a lawyer would lose his law license if he leaked privileged information kept him out of the witch hunts. Clayton also didn't have a problem with the president. He didn't really know the president on a personal level or anything, but he wasn't the kind to up and quit if he disagreed with something the president did. Clayton agreed with the president on enough things, and particularly on the national security issues he mostly dealt with, and he had been raised to not make the perfect the enemy of the good.
So he was still in the White House, and he had the security clearance that others didn't. They didn't have it from before the job and weren't in the job long enough to get it. Even his boss didn't have that kind of clearance yet. The president knew there was a task force on a critical issue and it was full of swamp people -- career D.C. types that couldn't be trusted. A lawyer was an odd tool for the job, but the president didn't have many options here.
"Okay," Clayton responded, "so how do I proceed?"
"I told Sheila the president was appointing you to the task force. She'll be in touch. The next session is tomorrow afternoon."
* * *
Sheila was a swamp thing. She was the Deputy National Security Advisor, which came with a seat on the National Security Council. Clayton didn't know all her career details, but he had the basic sketch -- she came out of the CIA, worked for a senator on the select committee on intelligence, and knew all the national security think tank policy wonk types. She was tough and aloof. She was hired into this role because the president had liked her senator; now the president hated her senator, and she was still here. Clayton thought the president wasn't a fan of her. Sheila had arranged a car to take them over the Pentagon.
"So what should I expect here?" Clayton asked Sheila as the car pulled out of the White House.
"It's a typical inter-agency / inter-departmental working group, except this one has a few big hitters," Sheila explained, clearly considering herself to be the big hitter. "It's a lot of information sharing and analysis, everybody putting their cards out on the table. The Navy and the Air Force are the ones who see the flying objects; CIA and NSA have been trying to make sense of it. Trying to learn from it. There's really one person who does the most talking."
"And who is that," Clayton prodded.
"Dr. Silverfleur. He's weird," Sheila explained, pausing at first for effect and then to briefly make sure there were no new notifications on her phone. "Dr. Silverfleur is the NSA's long-time UFO guy; he's been the person staffing the issue for decades. He's weird."
"Huh," Clayton breathed, "so he's some alien-obsessed Agent Mulder type?"
"No. A different kind of weird. He's not alien-obsessed at all. He's a mathematician, PhD is from MIT. Smart guy. But weird. Wilhelm, I mean, he's very weird. He has been there studying and tracking of UFOs. Since you're new, you're going to get his lecture that UFOs aren't necessarily aliens and all that. Oh, there's another new guy coming too. NSA is bringing in a rising star to avoid only being represented by the odd-ball."
"Oh, and who is he or she?" Clayton asked, making sure he didn't read too much into the term "new guy."
"Captain Jenkins. Eagle Scout. Westpoint. All that shit. Field intelligence officer. Saw combat in Afghanistan. Lost a foot and part of a leg. Medals. Now a bright desk job guy. You'd probably like him," Sheila added, which didn't seem like a compliment. "But Silverfleur is the point person on all this. He's staffed it for a long time, but it's mostly the algorithm now that's got everybody hot and bothered."
"A UFO algorithm?"
"Yes," Sheila continued. "We all know there've been more sightings in recent years. But the rate is increasing. More in the last few months, more in the last few weeks, more in the last few days even. The DoD has been tracking all of this, gathering data. We've got it from our allies. We pull it in online; we crowdsource it. We've been spying on Chinese and Russian efforts to monitor it as well. So, we've got enough data gathered that the eggheads and the machines are able to suss some kind of pattern to it all. It's growing and pointing to something. Silverfleur is very persuasive on that point; and the NSA is really good with that computer stuff." As they finished the journey, Sheila detailed the process and workings of the algorithm as best a layperson could.
* * *
Clayton had never liked the Pentagon as a building, but he respected the work done there. They walked towards the nondescript conference room as Captain Jenkins approached. Clayton knew it was Jenkins because of the titanium prosthetic leg sticking up out of his loafer. Captain Jenkins, Clayton thought, they might as well call him Captain America. He was well put together and in fantastic shape -- clearly the injury hadn't stopped him from working out. Clayton was barely able to find time to exercise; the long hours at his job left him exhausted.
The meeting began with all the appropriate introductions. During the awkward pause before any agenda started, Clayton decided to jump in. The President of the United States of America had put him on this task force, so he had the right to ask the question.
"So, are these aliens?"
People shifted uncomfortably at the question. Clayton wondered what they knew. Dr. Silverfleur spoke up.
"Probably not, but how can we know?" Clayton noticed everyone start to fidget with their phones. He realized that the discomfort was at the lecture that was about to come, not the reveal of a true state secret. "It's extremely unlikely that life has evolved anywhere else. The earth has a very unique Goldilocks situation. For these sightings -- I do hate the word UFO -- we don't even know if what we're seeing is an actual object. For these sightings to be aliens, intelligent life must have evolved elsewhere. That's extremely unlikely, it's ... " Silverfleur trailed off, seemingly self-aware that the rest of the room was bored by this. "Look, it's damned near impossible," he explained, looking at Clayton and Jenkins. "I'll spare you the details; the rest have heard this before. So to be aliens, you need to have life, then it becomes intelligent life, then it has to travel across the galaxy. We're talking faster than light speed. This means that we have to be wrong about our fundamental understanding of physics, of science, for interstellar travel to be possible. So take the extremely low probability of intelligent life existing, then add in a low probability that we're all just wrong about how the universe works. That's why I say it's unlikely this is aliens."
"So what is it?" Captain Jenkins interjected.
"We don't know. Actually, the better question is whether we can even know. Imagine being an albatross flying in the pacific and seeing a Spanish Galleon sail by for the first time. You see the ship. You don't know what it is. It behaves differently than anything else you're used to seeing. Is it land, is it not land, is it a big animal -- all that stuff. Except that you're not a human trying to understand this, you're a stupid bird. You don't even have the ability to conceptualize what this is. At best, you can only notice that it's different from other things you see. That's us looking at these sightings. Yes, the UFO moves differently, and it moves weird. The Chinese can't possibly have built an aircraft that can turn, accelerate, or stop that quickly. We can see it but it doesn't show up on radar. But we're a stupid bird looking at this and not knowing what it was. Calling it an alien vessel is like a bird thinking of the Spanish ship as a tree-whale. You're just trying to fit what you're seeing into your bird-brained paradigm. We have no clue."
"Do we have theories?" Clayton asked.
"Of course we have theories, Mr. Wilhelm, everyone does. Aliens are a popular theory. That's pretty unlikely as I said. But these sightings are also extremely unlikely; they don't make sense. What we see doesn't make sense. So when you're in the realm of not making sense and what we understand about science being wrong, of course aliens is a possibility, but so are other things. Maybe these are demons."
"Demons," Jenkins and Clayton asked simultaneously, while everyone else played with their phones.
"Yes, why couldn't it be demons? Scientists don't like God or the devil, but scientists can't explain what we're seeing here. These could be physical demons up to whatever demons are up to. Or maybe it's an elaborate ruse by the devil to get you to stop going to church. Why not? We're in the extremely low probability range, in the area that science can't explain. Personally, I think it's most likely to be physical manifestations of an Einstein-Pelogian Wave Inversion." Half the room looked up from their phones. Clayton guessed this was a new theory, given the interest.
"And what exactly is a ..."
"Oh, I just made that up. The point is, it could be some kind of ... process that we just can't understand. Maybe we're not smart enough. Think about the native flora of Haiti trying to understand what was happening when the Island of Hispaniola was colonized. Europeans displace the native humans, transport in slaves, and start destroying the native vegetation to grow sugar cane. If you're a -- I don't know, clover -- trying to watch that happen, you don't even have the sensory systems to properly observe what's going on let alone the brain to make sense of it." This was clearly a lecture everyone had heard before as their attentions returned to their phones. "My actual favorite is the time traveler angle."
"Aliens from the future," Clayton jumped in. "That doesn't seem to solve the aliens-aren't-real problem."
"Well actually it would help a little since one of the problems is that the universe hasn't existed long enough, but no, I mean earthlings from the future. The idea is that the little gray men are some future version of humans that evolved on a wrecked or diseased or post-nuclear holocaust or whatever earth. They look kind of like us but weird because they live in caves or whatever. They're coming back to probe us for pure DNA or to understand what happened or avert the disaster. I like this one because it fits the pattern we've identified."
"What's the pattern?" Jenkins asked.
"Frequency is going up." The naval officer jumped in before Silverfleur could answer the question. clearly trying to cut the lecture short. It made sense for the navy to speak up; the Office of Naval Intelligence had been publicly tracking UFOs for years. "The algorithm suggests both a location and time for some kind of event this is leading towards. The timing suggests some kind of peak is coming. The location seems to be a search pattern if you will. The target has been military, either military bases with aircraft, naval bases, or naval deployments. The search pattern is growing more refined, with an emphasis on the Pacific, and particularly the North Pacific."
"That sounds intelligent," Jenkins said, before Silverfleur could jump in. Silverfleur beamed in pride. "I mean it sounds like there is an intelligence behind this. This isn't some kind of geographic pattern of swamp gas moving towards the magnetic North Pole, it's racing to and focusing on military locations, and it's getting more focused. Doesn't this suggest intelligent life behind it? Aliens?"
"That assumes," Silverfleur was able to jump back in, "that we're intelligent enough to know what intelligence is. But like I was saying earlier, it could be time travelers. Like these are actual ships but they come from the future. Again, aliens are very low probability, UFOs at all are very low probability, so if we're in the category of not going along with what existing science tells us, why not time-traveling earthlings?"
"But time travel isn't possible, right?" Clayton asked, a little uncertainty in the question. Before he had thought aliens weren't possible, now he was considering them the more likely thing.
"Meh, probably not," Silverfleur conceded, "there's all sorts of problems with that, like changing timelines and things. Not that we know. It's all speculation. Nobody actually knows. But presumably if you interacted with the past all hell would break loose."
"Actually," Jenkins interjected, "in some theoretical ways it is possible to interact with the past." He spoke with authority; the eyes started to move towards the decorated combat veteran as he seemed to know something they didn't.
Sheila looked up from her phone. It had seemed as if she wasn't paying attention until she asked, "What do you know, Captain?"
"Well," Jenkins continued, "there is a concept in quantum mechanics where you can influence something at one time and it causes an influence on something at another time, essentially allowing one to alter something very tiny back in the past or at a great distance away. If you do it in a way that it serves as a signal, it allows you to encode some information to travel either really far really fast or back in time. They call it nonlocal quantum communication."
"And this is purely hypothetical?" Sheila inquired, shooting daggers at him.
"Actually, it's not. But it's not really that practical either. Corporations were looking at it to speed up trading algorithms. The NSA jumped in when it had real potential intelligence implications -- if someone was going to get messages from the future, we wanted it to be the U, S, of A, not the Chinese. My best friend ran point on the project for the NSA. They did manage to receive very limited messages from the near future, but then the project failed."
Silverfleur was on the edge of his seat, asking, "It failed, how did it fail?"
"I don't know all the details," Jenkins conceded, "but I did consult briefly on a tangential effort to figure out one of the issues related to failure. The main thing is that it is very ... uh ... costly to send messages. And so they only sent a few. I mean, when the machine turned on, they had their handful of messages from the future. But they should have had a huge scroll of messages from the future. Instead, they only had a handful. And the last one made no sense. The scramble has been trying to figure out what flaw there is in the machine or the system or the math that causes it to fail. A number of people with diverse were backgrounds consulted. But we had no ideas, nothing in science or on the human intel side. The last message is actually dated to next week."
"What the fuck!" Silverfleur was standing up. Everyone else was confused.
"Excuse me?" Sheila took control.
"You're telling me you have a machine that sends messages from the future to the past and it stops working and you just think it's no big deal? Like, not even worth sharing with the NSA's primary member of this task force?" Silverfleur was turning red.
"I'm not sure I see the connection," Jenkins inquired earnestly.
"Not seeing the connection? We've got UFOs buzzing all around the planet. One half of the NSA is building an algorithm figuring where they're going and when they're going. The other half is getting messages from the future. And they don't seem to care. Wouldn't it be nice to get a message from the future that says 'Don't accept the blankets with the space pox on it from the little green men' or 'Prepare to meet your maker when the world ends next week'?" Silverfleur was starting to lose his breath.
Clayton could see how these things could be interesting to Silverfleur, but didn't see why he was so upset.
"The algorithm predicts the UFO events will peak next week," the naval officer explained. "We need to go see this quantum communicator. Tomorrow morning."
* * *
Clayton Wilhelm arrived at the appointed spot two minutes early, exactly as he liked. Sheila wasn't able to make it due to a National Security Council meeting. His GPS took him to an industrial park in Baltimore County. He went through a gate with a low price rent-a-cop and then another gate with a seemingly more impressive rent-a-cop. And in the last stages of security, he was ushered into a waiting room by what he perceived to be real federal officers. He cooled his heels in a small waiting room in some kind of factory or warehouse -- Clayton hadn't spent much time in industry -- while they waited for the others to arrive. When their time came, they went through a door, and another door, before entering a giant open space. The facility was clearly designed to house something much larger. But a hundred yards in were a series of machines and computer terminals and a tall, bearded man walking towards them.
"Dr. Silverfleur, I presume?" he asked, walking up to the bunch. The bearded man was wearing corduroys and a nice flannel shirt with the last button undone. He had the easy air of a grad student who thought he was cooler than he was, with a decade of extra years. Silverfleur was clearly happy to be recognized. He was there in the same ugly olive suit sans bow tie.
"And you're the Dr. Clitherow we've heard so much about in the last 12 hours?"
"Indeed. Let me show you our lab. This is all old stuff to us at this point; we've been focused on trying to figure out what breaks, but it must be exciting to you. I'm guessing you want to know what this all does," he trailed off, looking over the military uniforms and suits as if to try and gauge the level of sophistication.
"Yes," Clayton jumped in, "what is this and what does it do?"
"Okay," Clitherow started, "let's go back to the beginning. There are different theories at work in physics. Quantum mechanics has something called the uncertainty principle. Way back in the days of Einstein, he called out the idea of something being 'spooky action at a distance' and flagged a flaw in quantum mechanics that would allow either communication faster than the speed of light or communication back in time -- things that weren't supposed to happen. The funny thing is, decades later, the experiments seemed to show that this was right. The uncertainty principle was real.
"Then come some very smart people trying to make this practical. John Cramer, a professor at U Washington, he figures out that if you split photons with a series of synthetic crystals, you demonstrate this quantum non-locality." The audience was starting to get visibly lost at the phrase photons. "Let me put it more simply, you split these two pieces and they are connected. So you measure one of them at some future point and it affects how the other is measured at the other time and point. That's our quantum nonlocality. So you mess with one photon, altering it, but the connected one behaves differently. If you force one to behave like a wave, and the other does too. This is really interesting stuff. But if you figure out how to control your influence and a way to translate that at the other end, then you have a way to communicate. Think of it like Morse code, but way more complicated than dots and dashes. This was my breakthrough. It was small at first, but that small was worth a lot of money to the right people."
"Goldman Sachs," said a slender man in a major's uniform as he walked up and gave Jenkins a familiar handshake. "Dr. Clitherow's research got patronized by the moon-shot unit within Goldman Sachs. They figured that if they could get a few milliseconds' advantage over trading algorithms, they could gain billions of dollars. Know how the market is going to react to a trade and then alter it. We learned that it was working for them, and then we pressured them to transfer the technology to the federal government." The major was clearly proud of himself, and he gave a slight nod to Jenkins.
Clayton wondered what kind of pressure the NSA had applied. Did they threaten to shoot somebody? Were they threatening some kind of criminal prosecution for unfair trading? Or was the kind of spy agency that knew you were running these experiments also able to come up with personal dirt to leverage a buyout? Or maybe they promised to trade spy secrets that could generate more lucrative profits than even a few milliseconds of time travel.
"Yes, this is the house that Goldman Sachs built." Clitherow went on. "They paid for all the applied research I needed. When the NSA stepped in and helped, we were able to put the cherry on the top. We calibrated it to be able to make a measurement or alteration that we could interpret at the moment of machine activation and receive nine characters worth of information from the future. When we turned it out, we'd received all of our messages back in time from the future at this one specific point. It wasn't quite Twitter, but we figured more would come. Before it broke."
Silverfleur jumped in, "Take us back to the beginning, that appears to be a particularly powerful laser over there."
"Actually," Clayton stopped him, "perhaps you could explain the details to Dr. Silverfleur later. Right now, we'd like to know about the messages."
"Sure," Clitherow answered. "We only got four. It takes a lot of energy, which is expensive, and a lot of rare isotopes, also expensive, to do a message. So we weren't planning on sending them too frequently. But we didn't get as many as expected. All of the messages are over here."
The group closed the rest of the distance to what might be charitably called a control room. The message list was up on the wall, in a large print out. It started with "TEST and some numbers indicating what was presumably the date it was sent. Then there were two sets of 3 or 4 digit numbers followed by a group of letters that appeared to be a name.
Dr. Clitherow could see the visitors staring at the numbers and name. "The Michigan-Ohio state game," he explained to a set of blank looks. "We sent back the score and the name of the second player to score, not counting a PAT, in the game. We wanted to have something that verified we were getting information from the future. So, I picked that. It accurately predicted two consecutive final scores and the players who scored second. That's enough confirmation for me.
"Go blue," dropped Clayton, a proud Michigan grad.
Clitherow stared incredulously at him before he started to say "I don't give a damn about the whole state of Michigan ..."
"Well," Jenkins started to ask, stopping the Ohio State fan from fully getting his song going, "did you send the same message back after the game score came out," Jenkins asked.
"Of course. Now the last one you see here, 'ISERENITY.' It makes no sense. Did I send this from the future? What could I be trying to convey? I'm not exactly a serenity-oriented guy," he explained as he finished his oversized cup of coffee.
"So what does it mean?"
"No flippin' clue. We spent more than two years trying to figure that out. Absolutely no clue. But what we have been trying to figure out is the when and the how. We'd been expecting to answer philosophy questions about whether you can change the future, or the past, or both. And instead, we spent years trying to figure out how our system breaks. What goes wrong that stops us from sending any future message. We have to assume the project fails. The equipment fails in some unforeseen and permanent way. Even if a terrorist were to blow our building up tomorrow, this could be rebuilt in the same spot and a message could be sent back. But it never was. From as far as I know, it wasn't sent back from now to the end of time. Just ISERENITY and no more. Something must happen to the process."
"Maybe the laws of physics change on you," Silverfleur added.
"How could that be?" Clitherow shot back.
"I don't know. Maybe they change because they change. Maybe there's some natural process coming in that we can't understand. Like how the dinosaurs didn't understand what that asteroid they saw in the sky was. Or maybe aliens show up and use their demonic powers to change the rules."
"Or time-traveling aliens," Clayton jumped in.
Silverfleur leaned over to Jenkins and commented, "I like him." Clitherow looked back not understanding. "Anyways," Silverfleur pressed on, "you absolutely cannot rule out the end of the world or something like that as being why you couldn't send any more messages. You also can't rule out that your messing with time and sending messages isn't the cause of the end of the world. But hey, how do you know when the last message was sent -- will be sent."
Dr. Clitherow smiled, clearly proud of himself. "That's what we've spent the years working out. We've got three data points because I know the precise second when I sent these three messages. We also know that two of them are exactly one year apart. We've been able to narrow the last message down to a 72-hour window later next week by ..."
Clayton missed the rest. His phone was ringing. This was notable to him since most people didn't call, they texted or emailed. Clayton only received calls on his cell when it was very important, or his car warranty was expiring. It was his secretary calling to say he had a meeting with Tom and his boss now scheduled for later today that he needed to come back for. Clayton excused himself, expecting the rest of the task force to enjoy a full day listening to Clitherow and Silverfleur go back and forth. Clayton had the only actual information that seemed could be gleaned here: they were pretty sure on the timing of the last message. It was coming next week. It made no sense. And the mere finality of it was ominous.
* * *
Per the calendar entry he had received, Clayton's meeting was scheduled to run from 1:25 to 1:30. This was short and squeezed in. His boss being present suggested it didn't have anything to do with the UFOs, which was a good break. Hopefully, this might be some actual legal work. Clayton had found himself unable to sleep as he pondered life on other planets and time travel, working his mind through every time travel or time heist movie he'd seen and speculating about whether time travelers could come back and if that would influence events or create an endless series of parallel universes. Not his normal mental routine.
At the appointed time, they were ushered into Tom's office. The whiskey glass was on his desk and half full. The smell of whiskey on his breath made clear that this wasn't the first glass.
"Listen," he said. "Shit's going on in the South China Sea. You know how China has been building all those man-made islands. And putting air fields and radar stations and missiles on them?" Clayton nodded. "And we don't recognize that these are Chinese property or that it extends their territorial waters or airspace and all that?"
"Right," Clayton agreed. He had worked that very issue up from nn international law perspective.
"Well," Tom explained, "your UFOs," he said gesturing at Clayton, "are starting to show more activity in that area, and the pattern of activity is moving towards it. The Pentagon can see that the activity is trending towards there, and I'm told the NSA's program has within the last hour or so confirmed the upcoming epicenter of UFO activity to be in this zone."
"Whoa," Clayton gasped, leaning forward and ignoring his boss. The algorithm hadn't been quite that specific as of yesterday, but Clayton knew it was constantly updating.
"Yeah. We have a carrier battle group near the spot. The president has ordered it into place. The Chinese have seen at least some of the pattern we're seeing; they're moving forces into place now too. The president is not going to allow us to be bullied. He's ordered six more carrier groups to steam there, and ... Listen, this will all be over the news shortly. But we've never had a show of force like this before with the Chinese. We need to be prepared for anything. I've got to go, but I want you two to dust off all your memos on the War Powers Act, what we have to tell Congress, when, all that stuff. Be ready. Have that shit on the tip of your tongue. When you get asked, we want an immediate answer. I want both of you 100% up to speed on it so that the president or I can ask you and have the answer we need. I've got to go."
* * *
Clayton wasn't particularly worried about war with China. U.S. naval firepower was superior, and the president seemed willing to put enough firepower there to dissuade the Chinese from trying anything. It would take more than the Chinese navy to really threaten U.S. naval firepower. But this was fantastic legal work. Racing to get up to speed on everything, and to consider all possible questions he could get, so that his client -- the President of the United States of America -- could have any question he asked answered instantly and competently. It was also somewhat easy as it really was a matter of dusting off the file memos on war powers and Congress and "all that stuff." Clayton had long held a belief that the War Powers Act itself was unconstitutional, and he might get to explain that to the president or other top leaders.
He refreshed himself on the issues and wrote out potential questions and scenarios to be ready to answer whatever the president might ask. Clayton had another task force meeting on Saturday, honored his dinner commitment to his girlfriend, and followed through on the reservations he had made some weeks ago before rushing back to the office for more reading. Sunday's task force meeting had been moved to the White House. This was not a good thing. Sheila was taking direct control and running the meeting, exercising her implied authority as Deputy National Security Advisor. And now that the meetings were moved to the White House -- her house, as she clearly thought -- the White House was running them.
The UFO situation was getting more intense. The frequency of sightings was increasing significantly, confirming the algorithm. They were sighted almost hourly now. And most of the sightings were in the contested part of the South China Sea. The political and military situation was getting more interesting too. The president had turned this into a question of whether the whole world had a right to know what was going on with the UFOs. Like the rest of the country, he didn't know if what we were dealing with was aliens or something else, but the world wanted to know. The odd and increasing tie to the new Chinese military sites was increasing speculation that the UFOs weren't aliens but some new Chinese technology, which further fueled the drive to get to the bottom of it. The U.S. had re-deployed additional air assets in the region, successfully pressing NATO allies to move forces into the Middle East and North Atlantic to allow the U.S. to then move more forces to bases in the Pacific region. China was spinning this as the ultimate act of Western Imperialism, parking western forces in territorial waters just because they wanted to. China was scoring some points around the world by insisting that they would make the area open to scientists and journalists but not to imperialist military forces. As of yet, though, only Chinese state media had a presence. And that presence was being used to report on the odd images being seen in the night and even daytime sky.
By Monday, the task force had been moved into a conference room near the White House situation room. The situation room was in full use. The president was often there. All those people invited to the big show were constantly in need of assistance from their underlings, and so key groups of them were stashed in conference rooms near the situation room. The task force was in one of these rooms. They were nearby in case the president or the national security advisor needed some insight on UFOs. Clayton was there also in case they needed briefing on what to do about Congress and the War Powers Act. Nobody came for them. They had the TV on in the background as they scrolled their news feeds. Occasionally, somebody would blurt out some new insights they had from their own sources, for the benefit of the group. Silverfleur was plugged into a read out of his algorithm. The algorithm was also going live to the situation room, so no one was coming in to ask his views. He had done his work. It was updating constantly, projecting with more purported accuracy than ever when the activity would peak and a closer point of where. It was still predicting the event to occur within this claimed Chinese space, and it was coming soon.
The most exciting highlights to these days was when Sheila would pop in. She was on the national security council, but she was also on this task force. She'd drop whatever key tidbits she could to keep them engaged but also show her level of access and influence. Things like, "The president won't officially raise the DEFCON threat level but he's pulling people in like he already did." Or "France is surprisingly helpful." Other things they learned on TV and Twitter. A Chinese jet and an American jet had both crashed. They got tangled up while buzzing too close to each other. Nobody had fired a weapon, but the Chinese pilot was dead and the American was taken captive. The situation was growing more and more tense.
On Tuesday, Sheila came in and dropped a big piece of news. Most of Russia's pacific fleet was either in the South China Sea or on its way. Almost four dozen capital ships and half as many submarines, presumably. When the movements had started building up 48 hours ago, the U.S. welcomed the idea of more international pressure on China, but Russia's president had come out very loudly in favor of China's right to sovereignty and welcoming the "openness" to which China was addressing the aerial phenomenon. In between updates on the military situation, and the odd aerial footage being released by the Chinese media showing the UFOs, the talking heads were debating what the UFOs were. Aliens had been the top suggestion but was decreasing because no one had stepped out and said take me to your leader. Demons did come up from a few religious types, but the speculation was all over the place. These objects really were just flying around unexplained and unexplainable.
Clayton started getting pulled out to advise on briefing Congressional leaders on military options to deal with the Chinese being considered. The consensus was pretty clear that Congress should be consulted or get notified if the president made good on his threat to "sink the entire damned China navy in 15 minutes." If the U.S. chose to use proportionate force to bump back some of the Chinese presence and ensure the U.S. had a front row seat for anything that happened, this wouldn't need Congressional input. Clayton's new-found friends on the task force were clearly upset that he wouldn't leak any tidbits to them about his discussions. They might have top secret clearance, but he had to preserve the attorney-client privilege. And he knew how to be a good lawyer.
* * *
On Wednesday things got out of hand. The UFO presence was nearly constant now. Everyone had picked up on there being a pattern in terms of speed. The Chinese and the world media seemed to have pegged the epicenter as 15 miles away from what Silverfleur's algorithm had predicted. This had reduced tensions slightly as America concentrated its power slightly off from China's presence, though the harassment and counter-harassment between the rival powers was as constant as the UFO sightings. Silverfleur had started to get pulled out and grilled about his algorithm. Were the Chinese right? Ultimately, the president decided to trust our algorithm but was ready to take immediate and full military action against the Chinese and even Russian navies if necessary to ensure we were in the right spot.
Jenkins arranged a follow-up call with Dr. Clitherow. He had no new insights. But he was getting the equipment fired up to transmit another message. All the arrangements had been made. Additional monitoring equipment was brought in to try and analyze the machine after they sent the next message in the hopes of fixing it and being able to send more. Dr. Clitherow was uncertain as to what message he should send -- or at least should intend to send. He and Silverfleur got into a lengthy discussion about whether he even could send a message different from the one that had already been sent from the future -- while everyone else scrolled on their phones. They considered whether a different message being sent would alter their own timelines and prevent them from ever even having this discussion. No one else seemed to care. The world was on the edge of something more significant than a debate about altering the timeline. Clayton did pick up his attention, though, when it turned to discuss Marty McFly.
As the UFO sightings moved closer to whatever they were moving towards, it became increasingly clear that Silverfleur's projection was right and the Chinese were wrong. Data collection and information gathering on the UFOs was going full tilt; as it was against the Chinese fleet that had recently determined it was in the wrong spot. Consideration was given to flying Silverfleur out to the deck of a carrier, but the national security council wanted him nearby and accessible. Whatever was coming, they needed to be able to assess.
The feeds about the UFOs stopped. Chinese media wasn't broadcasting it. Sheila popped in briefly telling everyone to get caffeinated, the USS Gerald Ford was burning. The shit was going to hit the fan. UFO activity was making it almost impossible for aircraft to do the normal buzz-and-harass opposing parties. It wasn't clear what had happened to the Ford, but it might be the start of a shooting war. She popped back out so quickly that she didn't shut the door. Nobody knew what to do.
Four minutes later, a cluster of secret service agents came skittering down the hall towards the situation room. A minute later they were coming out with the president. The rest of the situation room came next. Clayton jumped to his feet and went to the door. "Sheila," he called, "what's happening?" She popped over to the side.
"They're moving the president to the bunker. It's a full on firefight. The Chinese made a play for our spot. The sky is glowing with UFO shit. The Chinese underestimated our sub capabilities, and we sunk most of their fleet while our fleet splashed their land-based aircraft. We underestimated the Russians it seems; all carriers are hit. We're assessing damage. The president is ..." she stopped, wondering whether she could share this with Clayton and the task force members who had all moved towards the door to hear, "seriously considering a pre-emptive nuclear strike on all Chinese nuclear assets. The belief is that if we can take out all of China's nuclear capability, we can stop this from turning into World War III. Nip this in the bud. Go big or go home. Hey, I've got to go," she said as one of her staffers grabbed her by the elbow to make sure she kept up with the crowd.
"Wait," Captain Jenkins said, grabbing her arm."Stop. Listen. We can do something about it. The time-travel texting machine!"
Sheila stopped. Starting to remember Jenkins' discussion of the time device at their first meeting.
"You didn't come to the facility," Jenkins explained, "but we all went there. This thing is real. It can text a short message back to us in the past. Listen," he pleaded, "this is a big deal. Tens of thousands of Americans just died. If the president's right, this war will only cost millions of lives and we'll win. If he's wrong, this is going to be a disaster. If we can send a message back to stop this, or to help us in this, we have to. The machine's been fired up. It's literally going to send a message any minute. And it might be it's last message before the machine breaks. If we don't do something, it's going to send gibberish. Or maybe a football score to prove some gibberish was just gibberish. But here's our chance."
Sheila stood silently, taking it in, and nodded, pulling her staffer into the room with her. "How do we do this?"
Jenkins ran to his laptop and fired up a secure video conference meeting with Clitherow, who answered, to their collective relief.
"Coming down to the wire here, any new idea on what to send? I was leaning towards 'ITBREAKS' or 'ITBREAKSY' but I'm wondering if I would understand that it means, 'It breaks, why?' instead of thinking it means, it breaksy or it's breaksy or, I dunno."
"Hello," Sheila said, taking control. "I'm the Deputy National Security Advisor. We have a situation and you're going to need to send the exact message we instruct you."
"Okay," Clitherow said, a little relieved that he didn't have to be the one to make a decision about how to confront a temporal paradox. "Just type it in the chat box. 9 characters top. Numbers and letters is all I got, think like standard Morse code, but not. It's about to get really noisy in here, so just put it in the chat box and hit send. You've got 120 seconds to figure this out. 110." He put himself on mute as the machine whirred.
Everyone in the conference room started yelling about what to type.
China. Too vague. Most of the detailed suggestions didn't work in the character limit and weren't going to work in this time crunch.
What about the name of the island where the battle had taken place, someone suggested. Yes, Sheila decided. This might not be the best answer, but it was the best they were going to come up with in this short time frame. Maybe it would put the US on notice to be more sensitive about it.
Her assistant had the name: Níngjìng. Someone said that might be too vague. The naval officer suggested we had one character left and should indicate that it was an island. Somehow he had gotten himself to be at Jenkins' side as he typed the message and waited to send. They had room for one more character. The naval officer said the standard abbreviation for island on a map was just "I." Run it as ININGJING or NINGJINGI.
"That might not work," Clayton blurted out before being cut off by the sound of a warning klaxon. He barely skipped a beat though in raising his voice over it, "it's like breaksy or break's y, and who knows of ningjing is an entirely different word that means something else in Chinese. We're not going to know that right now. Clayton hadn't panicked, but then he noticed the look on the face of the air force liaison officer as he gathered his things to move in response to the klaxon and started to wonder if this was a bit worse than a fire drill.
Jenkins, ever calm under fire, had changed it from NINGJINGI to ININGJING as everyone talked, his finger hovering over the send button and waiting for final confirmation.
"Fine," Sheila bellowed, moving towards the door and getting ready to bolt. "Just put it in under I and then the English name of the island -- what is it?" Jenkins deleted NINGJING and stood ready to type.
Her assistant quickly found the answer on his phone and belted it out as he chased after this boss. "Serenity."
Clayton watched Jenkins robotically and quickly type ISERENITY and hit send. As he watched the message go, his attention focused on his surroundings. People were running and screaming -- fear on the face of serious, disciplined people. Over the sound of the alarms, he thought he heard something about the Russians.
"Damn," Clayton said. He realized he would never get to explain to the president why the War Powers Act was unconstitutional.