White House, the Oval Office
Monday, 28 January 2019, 3:45 p.m.
J. Louis Lazar, the head of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, escorted a young, sharply-dressed man into the office of the President.
“Mr. President, I’d like you to meet Deon Combs.”
“Mr. Combs, welcome to the White House.”
“Thank you, sir.” Deon Combs stood ramrod straight, his past Air Force service reminding him that he was in the office of the Commander in Chief.
“Deon….can I call you Deon?”
“Of course, Mr. President.” Deon relaxed slightly inside, but still maintained a perfect posture.
President Robert Arden gestured to an empty chair placed in front of the Resolute Desk, with its back to the desk and the front of the chair facing the array of chairs and couches. “Have a seat, Deon.”
“Thank you, Sir.” Deon moved to his assigned chair and slowly lowered himself; taking a moment to settle in. He nodded at the assembled group already seated on the plush furniture: Vice President Deborah Webb, Joint Chiefs Chairman Rutherford Bathgate, Commerce Secretary Fen Marshall, Defense Secretary Rostam Sherazi, and Energy Secretary Fallon Dunne. Director Lazar took his place on a chair on the far side of the right couch.
The president remained standing, by the fireplace at the north end of the office, the portrait of George Washington looking over his shoulder.
“Deon, Mr. Lazar tells me you can explain this forecast of yours.”
“I hope so, sir. I have been able to use the motion of the planets, and their magnetic fields, to help predict what the Sun is going to do.”
“And apparently, from the briefings I have, you think it’s going to be a big problem in the near future?”
“That’s right, Mr. President. My forecast model says the Sun is due for a large Coronal Mass Ejection in just under a year’s time.”
“And, Deon, what do you propose we do about that?”
“There’s nothing we can do to prevent it, Sir. All we can do is prepare for it.”
“That’s why I have all these fine people joining us today, Deon.” The President gestured in a sweeping motion. “We wanted to meet you, size you up, and see if you’re the real thing. We have to make some serious decisions–all based on how much faith we can place in you, and in your forecast model. Louis says you’re brilliant.”
“Mr. Lazar is very kind.” Deon shifted in his straight-basked chair. “I am quite certain there will be a massive flare. The only thing we cannot be sure of the exact timing.”
“And timing is important because…?”
“Even though I…we…know the Sun is going to throw off the flare, the CME, we still need to know where the Earth is in relation to that flare. If it misses us then the effects will be more manageable, or maybe nothing at all.”
“And if it hits us?”
“We will be thrown back 150 years in technology, Mr. President.” Deon looked at the round rug–the edge of which met the tips of his impeccably shined shoes. The motto, “E PLURIBUS UNUM” looked back at him, inverted, cradled on the wings of the eagle. “It would be a catastrophe, Sir.”
The President stood, thoughtful, his arms crossed, his brow furrowed.
“Could everyone except Deon leave the room, please. Wait for me in the Cabinet room? We’ll not be long.”
The President and Deon watched as the assembled members of Cabinet rose and shuffled out of the Oval Office, through the secretary’s office. When the door closed behind the last of them, the President turned to Deon.
“Son, how old are you?”
“I’m 33, sir.”
“Holy Moses. I’m about to decide the fate of the United States–maybe the world–and I sure hope you’re smarter at 33 than I was. Deon, swing that chair around and we can talk over here at the desk.”
Deon did as directed, carefully turned his chair 180 degrees, sat, and took in his new surroundings. The door to the outside concourse was off to his left. A Marine Corps guard stood at attention, his back to the glass-paned office door, facing the Rose Garden. The windows straight ahead, behind the President’s chair, showed the gray-brown frosted grass and tree branches of a late afternoon January day in Washington.
The President moved to his chair and Deon met his gaze.
The President smiled. “Son, in the next few days I have to decide whether to commit money, troops, and whether to use the power of government to take over the country’s entire economy. I don’t expect you to grab the significance of all that, but I may have to exercise the power of this office to an extent never before used-even by Franklin Roosevelt in the Great Depression and the Second World War.”
Deon swallowed, and the President continued.
“I’m getting estimates from my Cabinet of millions of lives at stake if this thing happens. I need to know how solid the chances are. I know what I’m being told in these briefing notes, but I want to get it from the source, from you, Deon. How certain are you that this flare is going to happen? Give me percentages.”
“I’m as sure as one can be, Mr. President, that the flare will happen. The real issue is the exact timing of the flare in relation to the Earth’s orbit. In my mind, with my calculations, I think the chances of a direct hit are 65%, a damaging glancing blow 20% and a miss is 15%.”
“So it’s going to happen for sure?”
“Yes sir. It’s not really ‘if’ but ‘exactly when.’ My forecast model has it narrowed down to a 36-hour period between noon Eastern Time on January 7th and midnight on the night of January 8th. I also have the Earth moving into the path of a direct hit at that same time. The closer the flare is to the middle of that 36-hour window, the higher the chances of a direct hit. That’s the best I can do.”
“And there’s a 15% chance this thing might miss us?”
“Yes, Mr. President, and even if it does miss us, it could have severe consequences. It could destroy most or all of our geostationary satellites, and could also ruin our GPS network and other satellite-based systems.”
“Alright, Deon.” The President leaned back in his chair. “I have one more question for you.”
“What are the chances anyone else, anywhere else, with the same intelligence and education as you, might have also figured out this planetary motion theory the way you did?”
“I’m not sure, Sir. I think it’s highly doubtful. They tell me I have an ability to ‘see’ things that others can’t. My theory dawned on me after reading a science article over a hundred years old. Until that point, I had only a hint of a pattern, but it was not a predictable pattern. That article gave me the clue of what to look for, and it was there.”
“How did you validate your theory?”
“My boss asked for, and Director Lazar approved, some supercomputer time that allowed me to run regression tests. Those tests matched past solar activity with planetary orbits, specifically the orbit of Jupiter. Jupiter was most important, but it turned out that all the planets’ orbits are needed for the formula to be accurate beyond about 30 days. Without that I would have not been able to verify the theory so fast. It would have taken years–maybe decades.”
“How many countries have such supercomputers?”
“Japan, some European countries, maybe Russia and China. They are available to practically anyone, for a price.”
“OK, Deon. You’re ex-Air Force–is that right?”
“Yes sir. I did five years.”
“I respect that a great deal, and although you are no longer in the armed services, this conversation has military implications, national security implications, and I’m asking you to keep it just between us.”
“Of course, sir.”
“And by ‘between us” I mean just you and me, and not including members of the Cabinet, including those who were just in this office a few minutes ago, and also Director Lazar. Understood?”
“Yes sir, Mr. President.”
The President stood, followed immediately by Deon. “Son, I want to thank you for your help. I’ll need your understanding in these coming months. You will see things in the news that might not make sense, and there may be things you expect to see but have not made it into the news. Understand…everything I do from this point on is to protect public safety and the national interests and security of the United States.”
“Of course, sir.” Deon suppressed the urge to salute.
The president pushed a button on his desk, and the his secretary’s door opened immediately. “Mrs. Lewis will help you find your way back out. Thanks again, son.”
“Thank you, Mr. President.” Deon was escorted from the room by the President’s secretary and handed off to a West Wing intern. Eight minutes later he was clearing the security station at the Southwest Gate, and shortly after that he was through the checkpoint and onto 17th Street.