March 14, 1969
Richard Nixon was confused and upset.
It wasn’t that he hadn’t expected problems. He’d only been on the job six weeks, but he knew a president had to be ready for anything. But “anything” was supposed to mean economic downturns, or crime waves, or The Russians.
Instead Apollo 8 had crashed into some kind of weird space glass, the sky was cracking open, the clouds were forming ominous patterns, and Tuesdays had stopped happening.
The Tuesdays were the most worrying part. For the past three weeks, people all over the world had gone to sleep on Monday and woken up Wednesday. Everything had been in order. The factories had kept running. Lawns had been mowed. Some basic office work had even gotten done. But of the preceding twenty-four hours, no one had any memories.
Today was a Friday, and it had happened three times. The President had gone to sleep Friday night, and woken up Friday morning to a call from the Chief of Staff telling him that everyone was very upset because it was Friday morning again and how was this happening? Everything that had happened in the past twenty-four hours had unhappened, been rolled back somehow. Or maybe everyone’s Saturday-morning consciousness had been shot back into their Friday-morning bodies. He had no idea, and the American people were starting to demand answers.
He’d called the head of the CIA and asked him to get whatever department full of eggheads had covered up Roswell as a weather balloon, tell them to concoct some plausible story for whatever chronological tomfoolery was going on now.
The head of the CIA had just stood there, unflappable. “Mr. President, Roswell was a weather balloon. There was no cover-up. Our organization has no department dedicated to covering up inexplicable events.”
“I’m the [expletive deleted] President, Helms!” Nixon had shouted. “You don’t have to lie to me! Get me your cover-up eggheads immediately!”
“I’m sorry Mr. President,” he said coolly, “there’s no such agency.”
“[expletive deleted] [expletive deleted]”, Nixon had answered. “Get the [expletive deleted] out of here!”
Then he’d gone to NASA, the Department of Defense, and even the [expletive deleted] National Bureau of Standards, which was apparently in charge of timekeeping and which he hadn’t even known [expletive deleted] existed until today. The today before today. Yestertoday. [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted]. None of them had been any more help than the [expletive deleted] CIA.
It was those cracks in the sky. He was sure of it. Apollo 8 had hit something important. The eggheads at NASA had posited some kind of “nebulous envelope” surrounding the orbit of the moon, made of “compressed dust and gas”. Apollo 8’s collision had caused it to “oscillate”, creating the pattern of glowing, growing spiderweb cracks visible to anybody who looked up into the night sky.
Richard Nixon didn’t believe it, and neither, he figured, did anyone else. If only he could find those people who had covered up Roswell. They would know what to do.
For the past three todays, at 7:38 PM sharp, a red phone on his desk had started ringing. This was worrying for two reasons.
First, the red phone was the symbol of the nuclear hotline between the US and Russia, the last-ditch line of communication to prevent a nuclear war.
Second, the red phone was the symbol of the nuclear hotline. It was a prop he kept on his desk to show reporters. The actual nuclear hotline connected to a large and foreboding machine at the Pentagon that didn’t look nearly as good in pictures. The red phone on his desk wasn’t connected to a phone line and, as far as he knew, didn’t even have a ringer in it.
The first today it started ringing, he’d stared at it for like three minutes before he finally, dumbly, picked it up. The voice on the other end was saying something he couldn’t understand. It occurred to him that the people who monitored the actual nuclear hotline probably spoke Russian.
The second today, he’d been suspicious that it would ring again at the same time, so he’d called an interpreter to the Oval Office. At 7:38 PM, the interpreter had picked it up. “Allo,” the interpreter had said, then started looking more and more puzzled. “This isn’t Russian,” he had said. Then, “This isn’t related to any language I know.” Then, “I don’t think this is a real language.” A few hours later he’d sent over an analysis from the State Department, which concluded that the “language” consisted of the names of the capitals of various 16th-century European countries, arranged in seemingly random combinations.
Today today, Nixon hadn’t bothered. He just sat in the Oval Office doing work. He had been meeting with a man from the Weather Bureau, who wanted to tell him that the clouds were forming ominous patterns. Nixon hadn’t bought it. “I’m the [expletive deleted] President of the United States,” he had told the man, “Do you want me to [expletive deleted] tell you if it’s a cold front or a warm front?”
The man had clarified that he meant really ominous patterns. Like, some big thunderstorms in the Rockies were starting to develop high anvil-like peaks – which was within normal variability for this time of year – but also starting to develop domes and minarets and flying buttresses – which weren’t. And although the Doppler radar didn’t have good enough resolution to be sure, some of the buttresses were starting to look like they might have gargoyles on them.
And before Nixon could say anything, the man had added that a Category 5 hurricane was forming in the Gulf of Mexico, and it was only March, and this literally never happened before July, and something was really wrong here…
It was then, at 7:38 PM, that the red phone started ringing. He considered not picking it up, but at least it would be differently confusing.
To his surprise, the voice on the other end now spoke perfect English.
“HELLO PRESIDENT NIXON. THIS IS THE ARCHANGEL URIEL. I APOLOGIZE FOR RECENT DISRUPTIONS. THE MACHINERY OF THE UNIVERSE HAS BEEN SEVERELY DAMAGED. I AM WORKING TO CONTAIN THE EFFECTS, BUT AT THIS POINT MY POWER IS LIMITED BECAUSE I AM STILL MOSTLY METAPHORICAL. PLEASE INFORM EVERYONE THAT I REGRET THE INCONVENIENCE. AS COMPENSATION FOR YOUR TROUBLE, I HAVE GIVEN EVERY HUMAN THE ABILITY TO PLAY THE PIANO.”
“Wait just a moment here,” said Nixon. “Wait just an [expletive deleted] moment!”
The head of the Weather Bureau stared at the president shouting into a toy red telephone used as a prop for reporters and visibly unconnected to any phone line.
“Excuse me just a minute,” said the president.
“Of course,” said the bureaucrat.
President Nixon stepped out of the Oval Office and walked downstairs. He went down the corridor connecting the West Wing to the White House proper and entered the East Room, where Franklin Roosevelt’s great Steinway piano stood on the hardwood floor.
He sat down on the piano bench and performed a flawless rendition of Bach’s Concerto I in D Minor.
“[expletive deleted],” said the president.