“Will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?”
You’d think being President of the United States would get you a response to that question, but he’s not sure anyone’s heard him over the hubbub in the Situation Room. Nancy McNally spares him a glance, but continues to listen to whoever she has on the phone. Leo just shrugs.
Nancy sets down her phone. “Someone bring up the Nevada news channel - “
“I’m sorry - our best intelligence is relying on local news? You’re telling me we don’t -”
“We have people on the ground, Sir, but they don’t have - they don’t have cameras. And.” She actually looks nervous, which is in and of itself unsettling. “You’re going to have to see this to - well.”
“No, the other channel - yes.”
The footage is grainy, but -
He thinks, absurdly, of the tiny rock-em-sock-em robot toys, which had become popular slightly too late for him to enjoy them, but soon enough to have seen them in the hands of younger cousins.
“- and that was the last footage captured by our reporter, Ms. Lane, before being escorted from the site.”
“Where are the pilots?” Leo asks. No one answers.
“These things are piloted? Someone’s controlling them?” No answer. “They aren’t ours? I mean, I’d know if we had giant robots in our back pocket, there would have been a briefing.”
“They’re not ours, sir. And no one else is claiming credit, so far.” McNally says.
“We’d know if something of this - scale - had been in development,” says one of the intelligence aides, someone whose name he had already forgotten. He squints at the blurry footage, frozen on the screen, it’s hard to tell scale at that distance, but it seems like one of these things would dwarf a house. “We’re reviewing satellite footage to see if there was anything we missed, but -”
“But where did they come from? Giant robots don’t just - fall out of the sky!”
Silence around the table.
“It seems - that is what happened.” McNally says.
“The early warning missile defense system - that responded to this?”
“The fact that there was no launch detected seemed to suggest that these - objects - originated from orbit, if not higher.”
“What does NASA have to say about this?”
“Working on it, Sir.” says a different aide.
“But someone - could these have been deployed from a satellite, or -”
“If someone else has the capacity to put something that large in orbit, we don’t know about it. A launch that size would have been noticed.”
“Well, that’s reassuring,” he says, “So the alternative is that two robots just dropped in from space and started - punching each other?”
While he’s been asking questions, Leo has wandered closer to the screen. “Why are they fighting each other?” he asks, staring at the frozen frame. “They’re not attacking the town, or anything else in the area - we don’t have anything out there, correct?”
“No, sir,” Fitz says. “There used to be a base several miles out on the other side of the town, but it’s been abandoned for over a decade. Nothing that would be a military target. The base wasn’t even particularly valuable when it was functioning.”
“So someone is attacking us from space, with - with robots that shouldn’t be possible to build without us knowing, and from a launch that shouldn’t have been possible to happen without us knowing, based on decades-old intelligence. And they’re punching each other.” he says, “You know, none of you are making the best case for the intelligence budget.”
McNally covers the speaker on the phone she has held to her ear, “None of our contacts anywhere has any idea that there’s anything going on in Nevada, or anywhere near it. Russia doesn’t know anything, not China, not India -
“North Korea? Pakistan?”
“No. Some of ours picked up the atmospheric entry but -”
“No one’s claiming credit, got it.”
“Sir,” Fitz says, “The men on the ground are looking for orders. We have two A-10s that can be there in 5 minutes.”
He pauses. “Is anyone in immediate danger?”
“No, Sir. The news crew was cleared from the area and the men are at a safe distance,”
“Okay.” He looks at Leo.
No one wants to say the ‘a’ word first.
“Have the A-10s ready to move, but let’s hold until we have a better idea of what’s going on. If these turn out to be - someone we haven’t met yet, I don’t want to be the guy who dropped missiles on them without talking.” He says. “How easy will it be to evacuate the town if necessary?”
“It’s small, only a couple of thousand, but there are few main roads out of town. It would take several hours.”
“Is there - God, is there anything nearby that would make for a believable cover story for an urgent evacuation? And what the hell happened to this news report?”
“We’re not seeing significant wider play,” says one of the aides at the far end of the room, “where it’s showing up people are assuming it’s a hoax.”
“Alright, well, we’re - we’re not looking to spread panic, so let’s keep it that way.”
“We should keep CJ out of the briefing room,” Leo says, “just in -”
“Sir? Sir, they’re reporting an inbound bogey,”
“ID?” Leo asks,
“Negative, it’s - not recognizable.”
“Damn,” he mutters under his breath. “Is it -”
“Sir!” An aide shouts from down the table. “Bogey has opened fire, sir!”
“Sir, I can have the planes in the air -” Fitz starts,
“Do it. What do I have to do to order an evacuation?”
Fitz holds up a hand, listening to the person at the other end of his phone. “Bogey’s in retreat with one of the - unknown agents, sir. No one on the ground was harmed. Can I get these guys on speakers -?” He adds to the room at large.
Static comes in. “Sir, this is Commander Fowler reporting,”
“Commander Fowler, this is the President. Are all of your guys alright?”
“Can you tell us what’s going on there?”
“Sir - one of the robots - shielded us from the bogey’s incoming fire, sir, before the bogey took off with the other robot,”
He looks at Leo, who looks just as baffled as he is.
“Commander,” Fitz says, “Have you -”
And then there’s noise, loud enough to come through the Commander’s mic to be heard through the room, beeping and shrieking machine sounds -
This would be a really good time for the machine sounds to turn into the sound of his phone going off with a wakeup call.
“Commander Fowler -”
“Yes sir -” Fowler shouts over a sudden burst of static and the sounds of radio broadcasts, “I think it’s - I think it’s trying to communicate.”
Everyone in the room freezes at the sound of the new voice on the comm.
“I come in peace,”
nolite arbitrari quia venerim mittere pacem in terram - Matthew, 10:34, he thinks, and then: that was an idiom. Whoever’s piloting this thing speaks English well, native or close to it.
“Who am I speaking to?” Commander Fowler asks,
“My name is -” And there’s the beeping and shrieking, and overlaid, “Optimus Prime,”
Really? He thinks, his name is best first?
Maybe there is a translation issue.
“Commander Fowler, are we speaking to the pilot, or is he -” the President guesses, the voice seems masculine, “giving us the name of the machine?”
“Am I speaking to the pilot of this vehicle?” Commander Fowler asks.
“Pilot?” There’s silence - a pause for communication? Processing? “No, I have no - pilot.”
He and Leo both turn to stare at each other. The line is silent for a moment, Commander Fowler clearly taking a moment to process as well. Then he asks. “Am I - am I correct in understanding that you - you are the machine that I’m speaking to?”
The machine - Optimus Prime - takes another pause. Then - “Yes. If I understand your question correctly, yes.”
“Are you an - artificial intelligence?”
Leo’s looking at him like he wants to say ten different things at once, and at least half of them are profanity.
Fowler is silent.
Finally, President Bartlet leans forward to the center of the table. “Ask him where he’s from, Commander,”
“Ah,” Optimus Prime says, before Fowler has had a chance to speak. “I did not realize you were speaking to someone else. Hello,” he says, now directly through the speaker, rather than being picked up by Fowler’s mic.
“Sir?” Fowler says, evidently speaking to the President, not Optimus Prime.
“Hello,” President Bartlet says, resisting the absurd urge to call the robot ‘Mr. Prime’, “Optimus Prime, this is Jed Bartlet, the President of the United States. Thank you for looking after our men out there.”
“President,” Optimus Prime rumbles, “Are you - the leader of this planet?”
Leo mouths ‘this planet?’
No one says the a-word, though ‘take me to your leader’ must be going through everyone else’s heads as well.
“No - the United States are only one country on this planet, we just - happened to be the country you landed in.” He says, thinking frantically that he can’t screw up first contact, and wondering what his theology professor who had so avidly denied the existence of life beyond Earth would say now.
“Ah. I apologize. I have been running your - radio broadcasts through my universal translation program, but not all terms are immediately clear.”
“I understand,” President Bartlet says, despite the fact that this statement raises about a dozen more questions than it answers, “Optimus Prime,” (Really, it does feel awkward using both names - how do the naming conventions work? Is one a family name, or a title? Are there even analogues for that?) “Can I ask - where you came from?”
Beeps on the other end of the line, then - “was where I came from most directly, but if you are asking for my planet of origin, it is” more beeps, “hmm. Perhaps the best translation is - Cybertron.”
And how that comes out of a translation algorithm, he has no idea, and seemingly no one else at the table does either.
Optimus Prime continues, “It is a planet 365 light years away from this one.”
He hopes no one else notices him reaching over and pinching the skin on the back of his own hand.
Leo, who’s looking slightly pale, mouths ‘the other one?’
“I’m sorry, Optimus Prime, but we’re just trying to understand what happened over here. The - individual you were - fighting, was he also from - your planet, Cybertron?”
Optimus Prime - sighs, which is somehow a surprising sound. “Yes.” More beeping. “Megatron and Soundwave - the aerial bot - are both Cybertronian. They are Decepticons -” And he continues to be astonished that these names are supposed to be coming out of a translation algorithm. “And we Autobots have been at war with them for several millennia.”
‘Millenia?’ He mouths at Leo, who shrugs. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” He says to the speaker.
“To a first order approximation, we have been at war for four times ten to the sixth power of the planetary rotation periods of this planet. That is, if my orbital calculations for this planet are correct.”
Nancy McNally is staring at the table blankly, somewhere beyond shock.
“I apologize if we sound surprised,” President Bartlet says, and hopes he sounds more composed than he feels, “Most humans - our species - live for - somewhat less than one hundred of - of our planetary rotation periods, and it is unfortunate if wars on this planet last more than ten.”
“Ah. I have been alive since before this war began. I see we exist on quite different timeframes, Jed Bartlet.”
Leo leans back slightly and raises his eyebrows, as if to say you can say that again. On the other side of the table, Fitz has turned away from the speaker to face the wall - a more obvious show of discomfort than any he’s seen from the man.
“Am I to understand,” Optimus continues, “That your species has never left this planet?”
“Well,” President Bartlet says, aware of the frank absurdity of explaining the accomplishments of NASA to a four million year old alien hundreds of light years away from home. “We have put people on this planet’s moon, and sent -” Oh hell, what if sending robots came across as some sort of insult? What did - Cybertronians even call themselves? “Probes to other planets, and into deep space.”
“In our defense, I think you were born before our species first evolved.” He says, hoping humor translates. (And oh, he’s going to have to take a long time to think about the concept of a war older than humanity, but if he thinks about it right now he thinks he’ll stop being able to handle - first contact with anything approaching Presidential dignity.)
“I understand,” And he cannot for the life of him tell if there’s any amusement in that voice. “I apologize, Jed Bartlet. We do not wish to interfere with the proceedings of other species, especially those who are just beginning their journey. We’d prefer to remain - under the radar, as it were.” He pictures CJ taking questions about alien life in the briefing room, and considers himself grateful that this is their position, “However,” Optimus Prime continues, as Nancy McNally frantically mouths ‘We??’ across the table, “Megatron and his Decepticons consider mechanical life to be superior to organic life, and may put - humans in danger in the interests of accessing this planet’s resources.”
“I’m sorry,” President Bartlet says, “But, can I ask - are there more of you here? Are there more of these - Decepticons?”
Optimus Prime is silent, considering. “Our vessel went down somewhere near here -” And around him he sees five people getting back on phones, “If it is still intact, there are three more Autobots on board, Bumblebee and Bulkhead, and our medic, Ratchet, As for Megatron, apart from Soundwave, I believe he is likely to bring his own ship into orbit soon.” Every face at the table, including his own, suddenly drops and goes pale. “I will do everything in my power to prevent him from bringing harm to this planet. However, in order to do so, I must first find my ship and my crew.”
Nancy McNally is waving at him frantically. “Of course. Please excuse me a moment.” He waves his hand, and an aide mutes the phone.
“We have a possible landing site for the - Autobot ship.” She says, once the line is on mute. “It’s far away from any civilian populations.” An aide pulls up a map on the screen, comparing the town, the location of the fight, and the potential crash site.
“Do we have anything on this other ship?”
“Not yet, sir,”
He waves a hand, at a loss. “Options?”
To their credit, no one in the room has visibly broken down at the fact that they’re talking to a four million year old - alien. Alien robot.
“We have enough people in the area that we could try and get to the site first, but it would be tricky.”
Leo cuts in, “Is there anything on where this - Megatron went? Are there civilians still in danger?”
“Not that we know of. The plane seems to have - disappeared from radar.”
“Well that’s reassuring.” Leo says.
“Do we trust that this - Optimus Prime,” Fitz starts, “is telling the truth about ‘coming in peace’?” The ship may have additional weapons, or -”
“If his intentions were malicious, wouldn’t it have been more efficient to let - the other one, the plane - take out the men on the ground?”
“Might be taking an opportunity to learn the terrain, preparing before -”
“If we believe that he’s really at least 4 million years old and came here from hundreds of light years away - is there anything we can do to stop him if he’s trying to find his ship?”
All around the table people look at each other nervously.
“It sounded like he took heavy fire from the - plane. But without seeing what it was -” Fitz starts. “Rest assured, sir, we could slow him down.”
“I don’t want to drop nukes into the middle of Nevada,” he says, which was not a sentence he expected to utter today.
“If we wanted to avoid triggering a pre-emptive diplomatic incident with - Cybertronians,” Fitz says, “We can give the coordinates to Commander Fowler, let the team on the ground assess the situation at the crash site. If there are only three others, that’s part of that story verified. And if they are telling the truth, it sounds like we could use their help.”
“Agreed,” Bartlet says, and signals the aide to turn the audio back on. “Optimus Prime? We’ve established some likely coordinates for your ship’s crash site. We’re transmitting them to Commander Fowler now. Commander, stay in contact and assess on the scene.”
“Yes sir,” Commander Fowler says.
“Thank you,” Optimus Prime says solemnly.
“We hope your crew landed safely,” President Bartlet says. What else can he say? ‘You’re welcome?’
The line closes from Commander Fowler’s end, and the room exhales as one.
“Well,” he starts, “We just made first contact. Congratulations everyone. Now: what are our options?”
“He said they wanted to stay ‘under the radar’. Is there a way we can keep this contained?”
“Robot - extraterrestrials, fighting their own war on Earth? People would panic, if they didn’t think we were crazy.”
“Every nation in the world is going to be after them, or their ship technology.”
“Let’s just be clear about what we’re discussing,” President Bartlet says, “We’re talking about concealing evidence of alien life on Earth. We’re basically validating the fears of every conspiracy theorist at once.”
“Yes, sir.” Fitz says, deadpan.
“Alright, keep debating. Get me more information on where these other - others are.”
With that, he exits the sit-room and sits down on the stairs outside. After a few moments, Leo follows him.
“Wasn’t exactly what you planned on when you took the oath of office?”
“Our first encounter with life beyond Earth, and they’ve been at war longer than we’ve been on two legs? Not exactly.” He pauses. “He did say - other species. There are others.” He puts his head in his hands. “We really aren’t alone in the universe.”
He thinks for a moment. “You’re sure this isn’t a - really, bizarre, well coordinated prank.”
“Sir,” Leo says, “I think if someone was going to prank you, they’d at least have chosen something believable.”