“What is that thing?” the President asked.
“We call them Centaurs, sir.” The scientist who answered kept his gaze fixed on the tablet cradled in his left arm, hoping to hide a scowl.
“It looks like a spider, and a caterpillar, sort of. But bent in the middle. Four arms and four legs. What’s that about? And the head? So ugly. It could be one of those creatures. You know, with the body of a man sticking out the front of a horse. What are those called?”
The President was silent for a moment, as if trying to remember where he had heard that word recently. “It is so ugly. So ugly. This was the alien in charge, wasn’t it?”
“No. Sir. This was just a soldier. This one was killed….” The scientist checked the tablet. “On the grounds of Andrews Air Force base, in an explosion as it tried to breach the nuclear hangars along with a force of others.”
“If it’s not the leader then why are we cutting it up?”
“To find out more about it. If we can understand the biology of all the different creatures that were in the attacking force, perhaps we can find the common attributes that led to them working together. Perhaps we can learn how their technologies worked, as well. How their armour and weapons….”
The President had stopped listening a sentence into the explanation, and had turned to look through the smoked glass partition to the side of the large screen displaying the alien’s corpse. “What are they doing?” He gestured at the four figures in the room beyond the partition. The three women and one man stood around a rectangular table, staring intently down at its empty surface. Dressed in matching light grey slacks and T-shirts, they each had an X shaped harness across their chest and boxy virtual reality goggles over their eyes. Wires curled from the boxes on the backs of the harnesses down to the padded black gloves on their hands.
“This is the team that will be doing the autopsy. They’re in a VR environment that reproduces the operating theatre, and can operate the arms you see above the body. It’s safer to keep them out of the theatre, to avoid any contamination or infection.
“When are you going to cut up the leader? I don’t have time to watch the unimportant ones being chopped up.”
“We don’t know that we have the leader.”
“We do not even know whether they had a leader, as such.” an Air Force officer chipped in from behind the President. “We went over this in the briefing this morning, sir. About how their decision making seemed to be decentralised, based upon how they reacted to localised threats and acted as a whole.”
“I know that. I know that. When are you going to find their leader and cut it up?”
The scientist’s mouth opened, but he stopped himself explaining, again, the invaders’ organisational structure. The President had moved on anyhow, he wanted to find someone else to misunderstand.
Kyle Reeves trailed along at the back of the President’s entourage, and had the time to watch the emotions play across the scientist’s face. It was a familiar mix of anger, disbelief and confusion, and he had seen it regularly since being appointed to the White House staff. People were astounded to find that the Commander-in-Chief truly was as uncouth and dumb as all the late night talk shows had told them before the invasion. Then they became upset that he was still in position at such an important moment in human history, and wondered how true the rumours about him cowering in a bunker during the invasion were.
It was tempting, sometimes, to tell them the tales were almost correct. The President had been rushed down to the situation room as soon as the Platonics- as the scientists had taken to calling the larger ships- had appeared in orbit. At first he had demanded he be taken out of Washington, because it was clearly a prime target. Then, as the situation rapidly escalated, he had disappeared for long, vital hours, upset that his Space Force had been obliterated in a matter of seconds.
This was for the best, everyone agreed behind his back, as it allowed the career military in the room to operate without his interference. It was an unprecedented situation, that hadn’t even been war-gamed by any of them, but at least they had an understanding of how their forces were deployed and what they were capable of.
When the President returned, uninformed, unhinged and angry, the war was clearly being lost. Film buffs on the staff described what followed as a Downfall moment, as the Commander-in-Chief ranted about the failures of everyone but himself, and outlined plans that would have seen the aliens victorious hours earlier if they had been followed.
It was as members of the Secret Service were unclipping their holsters and considering how they would explain the death of the President that everything changed. That was when reports started to come in of alien ships losing control and crashing, whilst their infantry broke ranks and fled, surrendered, or started fighting amongst themselves. The President had been left in his corner, spluttering madly, whilst the generals and admirals went back to assessing the situation and giving orders.
The tragic accident a few days later, which saw so many of those military leaders lost as they headed to meet with top brass from other nations, had forestalled the President’s removal from office. It had also allowed for the promotion of a number of officials believed to be loyal to him. The spin began immediately. There was no denying he had been in the situation room when the invasion had been turned back. But the story now was that his leadership had been the decisive factor in this. His impassioned railing against the military orthodoxy that had seen, at best, a slower defeat, had been the inspiration for whatever secret weapon or tactic had broken the alien armada.
Some people even believed the fairytale. But none of them had ever met the man in person.
Reeves was part of the new intake of staff, personal assistant to a career politician whose chief qualification was his willingness to defend the President, no matter what, all over the news channels. The congressman was happy enough for the attention, and the feel of power. Reeves was after more.
The President was easily manipulated. Keep him away from criticism, and feed him praise and carefully tended propaganda, and he would think he had made the decisions he had been guided to. Reeves was learning all the tricks. He was going to use them soon enough. He had plans.