This blog will contain stories taking place in two universes. In one 'reality', Earth has been hit by a large asteroid that wiped out most of the population. Stories (with the exception of the intro) will follow those spared by the impact as they struggle to survive on the now hostile planet. The other story line involves an invasion by a large alien fleet intent on settling on Earth and ruling over mankind. All stories belong to Mihai Pruna, no republishing without permission.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
My comm. antenna, deployed during the brief battle, is gone and I can't raise anyone on the radio.We flew off the Orion first stage into seemingly random orbits, but each of the 20 ships would pass close enough to the enemy fleet to be able to launch our tactical nukes at the same time. The warheads coming from all quarters were theorized to be able to confuse their defense systems and allow us to score some hits. We were to do multiple passes, as our orbits had been designed to intercept theirs more than once. And even if the fleet were to take evasive action - and we thought they were so out of fuel after breaking into LEO that they wouldn't - our nimble interceptors could alter orbit inclination by many degrees and we could get them again and again.And it worked...the mass attack scored some hits. Not actual hits, mind you, but the warheads were proximity detonated. I saw one of their smaller armed ships - we call them destroyers - simply explode. Who knows what we'd hit, maybe their fuel tanks. And one of their transports started spinning crazily, venting gas from a huge gash in its side. I had leisure time as we were moving away to see it start to drop lower and lower, launching rescue pods. It made me feel kind of bad. We know there's innocent people there. Settlers with their families and such. And even though they come from a different star system, they look just like us. Wonder how'd that happen. Exobiology as a science has just started with a bang. I think it would have been easier not to feel bad about it if they'd been some freaky bug-eyed monsters. But, c'est la guerre...they want to rule our planet and settle over us...and we don't.
I got hit by a laser beam just as I thought I was safe. We were moving away on an orbit similar to theirs but at a slightly different inclination. First I saw some of the temperature gauges go into red...fast. Especially the left auxiliary tank. I looked to the left just as the tank blew up and with it my left winglet. The ejected mass changed my trajectory and that saved me from getting fried as the laser beam lost its lock on my tiny fighter. I decide to recap my situation and make an inventory of my resources. Nobody can come and save me. I am now rather far from the rest of my squadron, on a lower, faster orbit. I have 72 hours of oxygen left and - the on-board computer tells me - about a week till I re-enter the atmosphere unassisted. I can't survive re-entry with one wing missing and a big hole in my side. First of all a spacecraft has to maintain a certain attitude - heat shield first - in order to deflect the reentry heat from its vulnerable skin.
But, even if through some miracle the ship maintains that attitude as it plummets down towards the ground, air superheated by kinetic friction will enter through the rupture and melt the ship's innards and yours truly.The main fuel tank is intact and other than for the egress from the mother-ship, I haven't used any fuel. I can deorbit at any time. Although one of the six cold thrusters and its associated helium tank are gone, I can use the remaining five to change the ships attitude at will. I managed to stop the spinning, after all.If only I could drop enough speed - and fast enough - to reduce the reentry heat loading by a significant degree, I might survive this. I don't need to worry about landing with a missing control surface, as I can eject at low altitude if I first manage to slow down enough.But even if I fire the main engine at full power until all the fuel onboard is exhausted, it won't make that much of a difference in the delta V. We were only supposed to use it for relatively minor orbit changes and for the final deorbit burn. All these maneuvers were performed rather slowly. We'd know in advance, from satellites and ground based trackers, where the enemy fleet would go trying to escape us. We'd have plenty of time to adjust our orbit accordingly. We had been brought up to orbital speeds and altitude by a huge Orion launcher, detonating nuclear bombs in its wake to increase its speed in thunderous, bum rattling bursts. As such, our rocket engines are not required to be powerful. They were designed to be very efficient and make the best use of the limited amount of propellant available.By the time I'd finished all the fuel in my tank through a full-throttle burn, I would already be toasted crisp about 30,000ft above the ground. No use wishing for a more powerful rocket motor now.....wait a minute!
I only fired one of my missiles during the first encounter with the alien fleet. I have three missiles left in the bay just behind the cockpit. If I could somehow remove the warheads and fire the missiles while deployed, but still attached to the rail... It'd be a real kick, maybe ten or so Gs from each missile, with forty seconds of burn time, but subtract that and the main engine delta V from my current velocity and I would reduce the peak heating maybe in half. I use the ship's computer to make these calculations. Of course, I have no idea if the damaged ship can take even that. Most definitely we will start rolling as soon as we hit some air because of the missing wing. I'll have to patch that hole somehow. It's a chance of a snowball in hell that I make it down to an eject-safe altitude still alive, but it's a hundred percent chance I die if I don't do anything about it.
And what a shame that would be. Cause, Lieutenant James Reynolds, you dreamt about flying in combat and about flying in space ever since you watched Battle of Britain and seen your first and last Shuttle launch. You just never figured you'd get to do both things at the same time. Or buy the farm during your very first mission. Into your academy years you dreamed about being in tight spots on a dying spaceship or surrounded by hostile fighters, always saving the day, just like they do in movies. Time to see if there's any grain of truth in science fiction.First part is easy. I deactivate the warheads using the a text-based command line interface pulled from deep within the weapons computer. All that training and my nerdiness is paying off. I read everything I could get find about the F1000 interceptor and quizzed our instructors until I could see them cringe every time I raised my hand in class.Now there's absolutely no way the warheads will ever go off unless reset and reinitialized, which of course I don't plan on doing. I deploy all three missiles. The pylons pop out behind me and looking up through the hatch window I can see the conical warheads, almost two feet in diameter. These babies are big! I eject the toolkit from its compartment in the instrument panel- I bet they thought this was wasted payload mass. Then I put my helmet on and connect it to the portable air tanks strapped to my back. Too bad I can't hook up to the ship's life support. The engineers that built this thing didn't account for EVERY possible scenario. Bless them, they built a wonderful ship with plenty of redundancy and that redundancy might just save my life. I'll be using quite a lot of air, and I'll have to hold my breath for a while if I eject too high up. Oh well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. My suit is now pressurized and I vent the air out of the cabin, then pop the hatch open. I float out of the cockpit, attached by the ship with a safety line, almost banging my head on one of the missiles in the process.
And then I look around and it hits me...All blank space, all around me, no point of reference. No up, no down....just the planet suspended above me...or below me, looking much bigger than it did when seen through thick glass. I am just a speck of matter surrounded by a void stretching to infinity, I am so alone...there's no way I can make it out of this alive....and as I float to the end of the tether I get yanked back. The physical shock shatters my wakeful nightmare. I wedge my boots between the frame of the open hatch and the top of my seat and start working on the warheads. I cut the thin aluminum skin and then unscrew each of them from the mount that holds it attached to the body of the missile. After about ten minutes of unscrewing and pulling, I finally have the first warhead completely free. I pause to think about what will happen to it. I plan to throw it far ahead, such that there is no chance of it hitting me as I 'brake' the ship. Eventually it will reenter the atmosphere. There will be no radiation leak, because the shroud is designed to withstand the heat. The missiles were made to be used, if need be, from orbit against ground targets. Of course, now the warheads won't explode on impact, but they might shatter and thus radioactive material will be spilled on the ground. I hope it will fall in the ocean and remain intact, but you can never tell. Of course, after what we did to the environment by launching five Orions, and considering what would happen if the invaders decide to bomb us, the paltry amount of material I'm dropping is hardly cause for concern. Yet, I have this nagging vision of a child picking up a piece of glowing weapons grade uranium from the mud. I absolutely can't think about it if I want to live. I put my arm around a missile pylon and fling the warhead as far as I can, then, without pausing, I proceed to work on the next one. By now I have figured out the drill and for the remaining two it only takes five minutes to get rid of them. I disconnect the red wires that activate the mechanism that detaches the missiles from their rails and pushes them forward and away upon firing. I hope the clamps are strong enough to hold the missiles attached to the pylons later on.
For an added measure of safety, at least in my mind, I bend the front part of the rails over the missiles' body and intertwine them around the warhead mounts. Then I go investigate the damage. The gash looks almost sealed, the laser beam has melted components and framework into an almost uniform gray layer which now is solidified again. That's good news, as nothing I have aboard can cover the damage. Done with the outside work, I scurry back inside and pressurize the cockpit. Again I curse the lack of an oxygen line to attach to my helmet. I'm wasting air while waiting for the pressure to reach breathable level.But I'm not wasting time. I arm the missiles and start the ignition procedure for the main engine. It's going to take a few minutes to prep it for firing as it's been offline for a few hours now. I wrestle with the attitude thrusters and manage to bring the ship in a retrograde position, so that when I fire the engine and the missiles I will be shedding velocity. Finally I am able to put up the visor and stop precious air from flowing out of the portable tanks. I'm all strapped in and ready for the jolt. If a missile separates during firing, it's quite possible it will come into the cockpit and decapitate me. In that case, I hope it will happen too quickly for me to realize my impending demise.
The main engine is ready, and I push the ignition button, then steadily advance the throttle until it hits the stop. I feel a slight acceleration pushing me in my seat.Time to light the fires.I say a quick prayer I remember from childhood and push the firing button on one of the missiles. My right hand is firmly gripping on the stick to steady the rotation induced by the slightly asymmetric thrust of the rocket. 3...2...1.... I am suddenly pushed in my seat and everything rattles. Including the stick in my hand, making the attitude thrusters fire randomly. I grind my teeth and stare at the flight path predictor display, moving the stick around until the rotation is neutralized, then bringing the ship back to retrograde. After 40 seconds of sweating, praying and cussing, the missile is exhausted and the shaking stops. No time to rest, I have to do this as fast as possible, cause by now I must be falling towards the atmosphere. I fire the second missile, then the last one. My attitude thrusters are all but exhausted. The main engine is still firing at full throttle. I go outside again. By now the planet appears a little larger in my field of vision. Seems the continents parading below me are also moving slower. I unscrew the rails, all the while keeping a weary eye on the horizon, which is the best way to gauge my altitude. Fortunately the pylons appear undamaged and they should be able to retract. On second thought, maybe I should leave them out deployed. They might stabilize me a little bit and provide extra drag to slow me down faster. They have special coating to withstand hot exhaust gases in case a missile fires too soon. Maybe they won't melt during reentry. Removing the rails seems to take forever. Fortunately there's a modicum of gravity from the continuous thrust of the engine, and I am able to support myself against the open hatch. As soon as I'm done, I push the missiles away and rush back in the cockpit.
And not a moment too soon. The hazy layer that marks the atmosphere when seen from orbit has disappeared, which means I am about to enter the soup. I shut off the main engine and vent all the propellant out as a precaution. It's about to get hot. I bring the ship into an approximation of re-entry attitude - normally the computer would do that, but in my case it doesn't matter that much, I bet we won’t remain in that position for too long. I got so used to the missing thruster by now that I can maneuver without burning too much propellant, which I'm almost out of. We’re coming down hot and heavy!First, I feel a slight buffet and a rolling tendency, which I counteract with the thrusters until finally their fuel is completely exhausted.I switch to aerodynamic controls and set the right elevator and the right body flap full up, while the left body flap will be down. I hope this will slow the rolling motion due to the missing wing, or, rather, due to the asymmetric lifting force produced by the right wing. The buffeting increases and soon the horizon rolls around me so fast that sky and earth blur together. I tumble end over end and all I can do is hang on, try to hold the contents of my stomach in, and pray.
It starts getting warm, then hot. That's it, I've had it. I expect the ship to fall apart at any minute. But nothing happens and my altitude indicator winds down while my Mach meter has dropped below one....I made it. I deploy the drogue chute which is supposed to slow the ship down after landing.In this case, I will use it to stabilize my fall before bailing out.I feel a great yank and the sickening rolling stops. The nose is now pointing straight down and I see green under me. Before I started the engines for deorbit, I made sure I'd be over land when and if I made it into the lower atmosphere. I was moving southwest and I started my de-orbit burn over Siberia, by the arctic circle. By now I must be over Southern Europe. The air pressure in my tanks is almost zero. I pull the eject handle and, surely for the last time today, I feel the great kick in the butt only a rocket can deliver. I am out now, I clear the drogue chute and then my own chute opens and the seat falls off. I take one last look at my ship falling away from me and thank her for bringing me back alive.
I feel sadness as if I leave a dear friend behind, knowing I won’t ever see them again.I am gently floating under a beautiful clear sky, and am low enough to raise my helmet's visor and pull in a breath of fresh air. I am very lucky to do so and all I can do is be thankful that somebody's been watching out for me. What a story this will make! By now I'm low enough that I feel I have a chance with my rugged cell phone, which I carried with me in a breast pocket throughout the entire mission.I get a couple of bars and I am roaming. That makes me smile...the bill is going to be huge. I try to call my wife and let her know I'm OK. Says network is busy. I try to call my CO on his landline and I get no answer. I try to call various numbers in the states and cannot get through. What the hell is going on? Could it be... I tune in on a radio station, it's in Italian. I understand some..."Gli Extraterestri...Stati Uniti..invasione" all in a very urgent voice and that's all I need to hear. War has come home and I need to find a way to get there and defend my country and protect my family. The ground is coming up, I steer towards a pasture and I get ready to land.
The choices for the crew and their backups didn’t make any sense. Twelve men and twelve women, six of each sex making up the prime crew and the rest their backups. Out of the pool of two hundred candidates who had been training together, hoping and praying, until the last moment, the chosen were definitely not the most accomplished scientists, nor the most qualified engineers. If fact, Helen thought as she reviewed their faces, they were some of the youngest and in best physical shape. It was almost as if they intended to make the entire mission a reality show. Which, come to think of it, was not that far-fetched.
They were all assembled inside the spacious inflatable module docked to the spaceship which would take twelve lucky human beings to Mars. On the other side of the cylindrical airbag was a capsule, which would take the twelve not so lucky backups (unless something happened to one of the primes) back to Earth. However, even the backups had something to be proud of. At the moment, the twenty-four people floating around sipping drinks were the only human beings outside of the planet’s atmosphere.
Still, Helen thought it was kind of cruel to have the backups take part in the reception preceding the launch, only two days away. They were all to be addressed directly by the president, receive congratulations and best wishes, and yet, half of them would return to Earth, back to their ordinary lives, in 48 hours. What a disappointment for some ambitious young people, no doubt each and every one of them an overachiever.
At thirty, Helen was of average age among the astronauts. At twenty-one she had graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Throughout college she had been involved with the school’s fencing team, winning several regional competitions.
She wasn’t motivated enough to try for the Olympic team, although many said she was good enough for it. She also enjoyed mountain-climbing and hang gliding. It was the soaring on ascending currents over mountain slopes, or on thermals under a juicy cumulus cloud, that spurred her passion for weather phenomena. After graduation, instead of fighting for a position as an engineer in a weak job market, she decided to pursue a doctorate degree in meteorology. Within a year she had all the preliminary courses completed and had secured a teaching position, which would finance the rest of her education and all living costs. Her doctorate thesis, a new forecast model for tracking hurricanes, benefited from her experience with computer programming and fluid dynamics. Over the next few years it proved more accurate than the established models, and that brought her a modicum of prestige. When she decided to apply for the Mars mission, she was working for NOAA, dividing her time between tracking storms and improving her forecast model. She had remained faithful to her college hobbies, which kept her in top shape, and over the years she had earned her commercial pilot’s license.
Still, compared to Norm Dawsond, the forty year old British meteorologist, physicist and geologist, former RAF test pilot who had flown Lockheed Orions into some of the most dangerous storms on record, Helen felt like her entire career was a joke. And yet, he wasn’t even one of the backups. Comparing her background to those of the selected astronauts, Helen realized it was something they all shared, or rather lacked, that had played an important part in the selection process: a family. Helen had grown up in a foster house, and her foster parents, although they were nice people, had always been rather distant to her. They had their own children. Helen often wondered why they had taken her up in the first place. She never found out what had happened to her real parents.
After she left for college, she quickly lost touch with her foster family, spending her holidays at school or traveling.
A string of short relationships followed, short because most of the men she was dating, when they weren’t total creeps, ended up leaving her when the physical passion had subsided, claiming she was too cold, too distant. Helen knew her childhood had shaped her that way, but she couldn’t change the way she was and she ended up accepting the facts and making her job the focus of her life.
From what she had glimpsed from the published bios and the conversations with the other astronauts who had made it this far, they all were in situations equivalent to hers. A bunch of young, healthy geniuses with no emotional ties to the world spinning slowly under them. And now half of them were floating around sipping champagne from plastic bags grinning foolishly, while the other half, the losers, were acting a lot more restrained.
For the next nine months, six men and six women, all single, all crammed inside a spaceship. It was as if NASA and its partners had figured out that no matter what, there will be some hanky panky, and didn’t want to have anyone left out. After all, they will by themselves, with almost no privacy between them, for three years. Sex is, after all, a healthy way to take out frustrations.
Helen surveyed the males in the module. She knew all of them, of course, but she hadn’t made friends or lovers with any. Before they were selected, they had all kept their zippers shut. Nothing like a little ‘incident’ going on your record to get you washed out. But in two days…well, all bets were off. She smiled inwardly. Nobody here was looking for a life mate. Her inability to express her feelings except during passionate sex might prove to be an asset.
Finally Capcom initiates a to way link with the White House, and now all twenty four of them are stacked neatly on three rows in front of a big screen with a wide angle camera on top of it.
The president’s face appears on the screen. He looks…unkept. He has no make-up on, and you can see from the purple bags under his eyes and his sagging shoulders that he hasn’t slept in a while. He’s wearing a turtleneck. It’s all so strikingly unofficial that Helen feels the stir among the floating bodies around her.
The president looks straight at the camera and starts speaking:
“You will no doubt be in great shock after what I am about to tell you. Please try to remain calm and listen to me till the end. After that, I will take questions for ten minutes.
Half of you are expecting to depart for Mars in forty-eight hours and the other half to return to Earth. Neither of these events will occur. In twelve hours, an asteroid will hit Earth, with civilization-ending consequences.
It is the same asteroid that sixteen months ago caused a big scare when it seemed to be on a collision path with our planet. Then the people were told that refinements in the object’s trajectory computations showed that the rock would pass very close to Earth, but at a safe distance. That was a lie, perpetrated to avoid panic. We knew we couldn’t do anything to avoid a direct hit and all its consequences, which, as scientists, I’m sure most of you are aware of.
However, we have made preparations to ensure that our species will survive. We have built a shelter in the mountains of our country where a large number of people will survive the tsunamis, the earthquakes and the global winter caused by particles ejected into the atmosphere by the impact and the awakened volcanoes. Other countries have built similar arcs.
We hope these shelters will keep their occupants alive until Earth is habitable again, be that in one year, ten years or a hundred years. But we cannot be sure. An impact of this magnitude has never been witnessed, and all we have to go with are our simulations. So we decided to create a fail-safe system. We rushed the Manned Mission to Mars project and adapted it to the new situation. Your ship is in fact a space station. The engine and propellant modules are not operational. They are crammed with supplies and equipment designed to allow you to survive in space for ten years, and provide additional living accommodations for those of you selected as backups. Hidden hatches to those compartments are now activating and from now on you will all have access to them.
Information deemed necessary for your survival has already been stored in your central computer, and is now accessible to anyone onboard. The inflatable habitat you are now in and the Earth return capsule will remain part of your new home until you all decide to come back down, hopefully to a reborn planet.
I know that during your training, all of you, at one time or another, have expressed puzzlement over some of the decisions that were made, in the astronaut selection process or in the design of the mission and the ship. Well, I hope everything is clear now. We did what we had to do. I trust each and every one of you will acquit of his or her new tasks and will not let the others down…You will have an active part in relaying communications between groups of survivors, monitoring weather conditions on the surface and offering whatever assistance is possible to the people down here.
This news might be too much of a shock for some of you. This is why…I feel ashamed to have to tell you what comes next…we have decided to put the ship on automatic control during the next week. For your own safety, you will not be able to open airlocks, fire thrusters, or do anything even remotely hazardous.
I’m really sorry people. God has a plan for us all, it does not include me wishing you a good trip to Mars tonight. Instead, I see in you the future of our species. Possibly its only survivors. God bless you all, and…carry on the fire. I will take your questions now.”
For an entire minute everyone was silent. Helen felt she was chocking. She kept swallowing, but the sensation remained. Finally, Frank Torne, the mission commander, broke the silence:
“Mr. President, we will do our best. The responsibility you have placed on us is even greater than that we faced as explorers. We will not let you down, sir.”
A girl in front of Helen, one of the engineers, timidly raised her hand:
“Sir, won’t the tidal waves and earthquakes cause meltdown in nuclear power-plants across the world? Will the survivors be able to deal with that?”
“You are right. We initiated measures to shut off and secure out nuclear plants, but the operation started only a week ago. We decided to provide people with all the commodities of life up to the very last moment…
There will be meltdowns and radioactive fallout will affect extended areas, depending on the weather conditions after impact. Our shelter, and probably those of other countries as well, are equipped with closed circuit air circulation systems. If anybody survives the impact outside of such shelters, they will have to make their way to one as fast as possible. For a while, Earth will not be habitable, at least for most of the higher life-forms, with or without radioactive fallout. I’m not a scientist myself, so I will not go into much detail. You can read about this in the files.”
There were few other questions. The astronauts were still reeling from the news. When the ten minutes were almost up, Helen raised her hand:
“Mr. President, what will you do?”
The look she got back was that of the condemned: full of sadness and guilt for not being able to prevent such a catastrophe.
“Good bye, my child” he said, and then the comm link was cut.
After a few brief instructions from NASA, they were isolated. They were to attempt to communicate with the US shelter, called Hopeland, about eight hours after impact, when they would pass over the United States mainland.
Controlled completely by the onboard computers, maneuvering thrusters on the ship started to fired intermittently to change the station’s orbit.
The asteroid impact would liberate tremendous amounts of energy, and some of it would fly in all directions as an electromagnetic burst, destroying any electronic components in its path, including those in satellites. Originally the spaceship was in an equatorial orbit. Now its inclination was slightly increased to keep the region of impact beyond the horizon for the next twenty-four hours. Although the burst of electromagnetic energy was predicted to last only a few seconds, a healthy margin of safety had been dictated by Houston. Just in case things turn out differently…
As Helen browsed the introductory notes to the first chapter of what was in fact a survival manual for the men and women in orbit, she realized that the event of an object of such dimensions had never been investigated in detail. Most of the articles were less than sixteen months old. It was as if before the impact became a certainty, at least among the few let in on the truth, nobody had even bothered to consider a collision of this magnitude a possibility. Helen had seen this complacency in a lot of people who should have known better during her hurricane tracking days. They thought that if they ignored the storm bearing down on them it will not come their way.
The reports, probably hastily prepared by a small group or government researchers, were full of assumptions and estimates with ranges of several orders of magnitude. It was known that at least two large asteroids had hit Earth in the past. The first one, at the end of the Permian period, two hundred and forty five million years ago, killed 90% of all life forms. The latter, sixty-five million years ago, contributed to the demise of the dinosaurs. And both were a lot smaller than the one about to hit. All the known effects-tsunamis, earthquakes, massively intensified volcanism, ejected material filling the atmosphere and darkening the skies, all these were going to be present but with a much larger intensity. Not only will all life forms dwelling on the surface and in the oceans be eliminated, but for the few humans that might possibly survive the impact and ensuing dark winter, living on the surface might not be an option for maybe millions of years. The picture the president had painted had been rather optimistic. The reality was that some of the gases ejected from the impact and awakened volcanoes were aerosols which would react with the ozone layer that protected all life from harmful ultraviolet radiation. In spite of herself, Helen snickered inwardly. Humans had been doing a pretty good job at destroying the ozone layer through industrial activity for over a century. Now mother nature again shows she can do better.
Without plants to create oxygen, the levels of this gas will drop, possibly so much that the air will become unbreathable.
All this makes one wonder: what’s the point of even trying to survive? The cliché ‘Life will never be the same’ applies here. Never will you be able to rest in a shade of a tree with birds chirping, butterflies chasing each other and the sun shining in a blue sky amongst clouds of made of mainly water and not a bunch of corrosive chemicals. She thought about the people below, almost all of them about to die and not know about it until the very last moment. At this moment she wanted to be one of them.
Then she realized that this was the first time she actually thought about the fact that a lot of people were going to die in the next hours and days. The realization hit her like a punch in the stomach. She forced herself not to retch while she was slamming her laptop’s folding screen shut.
Her living quarters, which she had tried to make as homely as possible, with pictures taped to the walls and her teddy bears velcro’d over her bunk, felt like somebody else’s room. Someone who less than two hours ago was euphoric, exhilarated, eager to explore the unknown in the name of humankind. How things have changed for all of them with the president’s message…humankind reduced to a few scattered groups of people fighting for survival, while Earth will become as lifeless as Mars and maybe just as deadly for the unprotected human.
Helen floated back to the inflatable module. Some of the astronauts were still there, carrying hushed conversations. There was nothing to do until after the impact. They won’t even be able to see it. Or…wasn’t there something about all satellite codes being relinquished to the space station? She went back inside the ship, then on the ‘bridge’, where the controls and communication equipment was installed. Consoles and displays filled the cabin’s walls, except for small triangular windows in the nose of the spacecraft. It felt warmer than anywhere else on the ship, due to all the electronic components, and the fans which cooled them emitted a steady purr which she found oddly comforting. Oddly, the cockpit was empty. She set to work on one of the many computers there, trying to piece together a picture of the world below during its death. Maybe somebody will want to see this someday.
John Stavros got out of his SUV and surveyed the area. As Mike had promised, they were on top of a hill. It was rather flat, and the downward slope of the surroundings was barely perceptible. Nonetheless, the location offered a panoramic view unmatched in the Mojave Desert. Excellent seats for the grand finale.
Stavros looked up at the night sky. A sickle moon hung low, and myriads of stars dotted the heavens, so close together that they formed an almost uniform curtain of pale light.
His target had just appeared over the eastern horizon. Already it was the brightest star on the firmament.
The discovery of asteroid 1376127YH had caused quite a stir in the astronomic community. Its calculated trajectory appeared to pass alarmingly close to Earth. The media quickly picked up on the story, feeding the public’s fears. The roughly cylindrical object was twenty miles long and ten miles in diameter. It was big enough that, in the event that it hit the planet, it would wipe out every living being with the possible exception of bacteria deep in the soil.
Then official sources from most developed countries announced that Earth would be spared. Yes, the asteroid would come really close to hitting the planet. But its orbit had been precisely determined and they were happy to report that there was no danger. The masses breathed a collective sigh of relief and the media quickly returned to its usual stories about terrorism, the extremely dirty election campaign and the latest Hollywood marriage or divorce. After all, the smart boys and girls with the fancy gadgets, Doppler lasers and satellites could not be wrong.
The university where John Stavros was teaching astrophysics also had smart men and women on its payroll, and it possessed some good telescopes too. Not as good as those of NASA or Space Command, but good enough to tell the real story. The asteroid would not miss. They tried to contact the government agencies and let them know of their error. Their warnings fell on deaf ears. John knew scientists from other private institutions or academia who had also become aware of the apparent miscalculation and had tried to make their voices heard, but the government had refused to acknowledge them. The media, ashamed of the panic it had almost created, also dismissed their warnings.
And Cassandras quickly realized the grim truth. The world leaders knew the asteroid would hit Earth. They also knew there was nothing they could do to prevent it. Technology to detonate nuclear bombs close enough to the asteroid to deflect its trajectory did not yet exist. The most powerful intercontinental ballistic missiles could barely rise out of the atmosphere, and when the asteroid was that close to Earth there was no way to push it away. And even if all the nuclear bombs in the world were detonated on its surface, the rock would not break up. The most nukes could do was dig shallow craters in its surface.
The world leaders had decided to give humankind the gift of ignorance. During its last weeks, civilization was spared of mass panic, riots, or worldwide depression.
Knowing there was no hope for survival, John and his colleagues had decided to at least watch their demise in style, apart from the unsuspecting world. Most of the faculty in the astronomy department, and a good number of students too, had driven together deep into the desert. Those who were married had brought spouses and kids along.
They walked a few hundred feet away from their cars and set up camp. A very short-lived camp, John thought.
The children were merrily chasing each other, innocently believing they were on a field trip to watch the big star pass by. They were confused when parents would from time to time come in their midst, grab their offspring for a few moments and smother him or her at their breast, chocking back tears.
John Stavros didn’t have any family. Currently he thought of it as a blessing. He raised his gaze again. The star had risen in the sky, and it had also gotten brighter. His watch showed three hours left till impact.
Wanting to get a closer look at the asteroid, he approached Mike Chalmers. The older man, a bachelor like John, was peering through a huge pair of binoculars. Lighting a cigarette, John asked: “Studying your executioner? Can I borrow those?”
Mike turned with a grim smile: “That’s the most I can do.” He handed John the binoculars. “Knock yourself out.”
John peered at the asteroid. Through the binoculars, it looked about as big as the moon seen with the naked eye. He could easily make out the potato outline and the jagged edges. The surface was pockmarked with craters made by smaller objects that had hit the asteroid during its billion -year journey, which would soon end. Tonight 1376127YH will be the one making the crater.
He returned the binoculars to Mike: “Do you hear the animals? In all the nights I spent in the desert, I have never heard such ruckus.”
“They can feel it coming.” As if to underscore his words, a pack of coyotes nearby howled in unison. “They feel earthquakes before they happen too. I wonder if they know they won’t make it through this one. Can I have a cigarette? If there ever was a good time to restart smoking…”
They smoked together in silence, both deep in their thoughts. John tried to grasp the concept of his own death, which would occur in only a couple of hours, but failed. At the same time, he knew exactly how it would happen. The asteroid would strike somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. At the place of impact, immense quantities of water would vaporize instantaneously. Waves that made the tsunamis look like ripples in a pond would soon assault the shores of Asia and the Americas, wiping away everything for thousands of miles in their path. Earthquakes would resonate through the entire crust of the planet, and active and extinct volcanoes would spill their lava with fury. They would add their clouds of ash to the material ejected from the point of impact, covering the sun, poisoning the air and killing, within a year, every creature and plant that had survived the collision.
John knew that the western United States, from California to Washington, would be swept by a tidal wave thousands of feet tall. Within hours, similar waves will hit the Eastern shores of the continent. People high in the Rockies might survive for a while. Whatever kind of existence that would be, he will not know. He and most of his fellow astronomers had decided not to attempt to prolong their lives by engaging in a desperate fight for survival on a dying planet. This way, at least it will be quick and probably painless.
He checked his watch again, then the skies. Only an hour left. The asteroid was now directly overhead. It was so close its reflected light obscured the stars and bathed the landscape in a faint white glow not unlike that of the full moon.
He looked around. Mike had resumed his observations, muttering under his breath. Most of the children had fallen asleep in their sleeping bags. Their parents, holding hands, sat on blankets next to them, talking quietly, holding each other and sometimes caressing the children’s foreheads. In a few places, tents had been erected, where young couples were spending the last hours together as pleasantly as possible. Stavros felt a pang of envy. Loneliness overwhelmed him. Nobody to hold him in his last moments…he let himself fall on the ground and sobbed for what seemed like hours.
Ashamed, John sat up and cautiously looked around. Nobody had noticed him. Many were looking at the asteroid. He straightened and checked his watch again. Half an hour left. He started shaking, but through great effort he maintained his composure. He raised his gaze and turned it to the west. There it was, brighter than ever. Was he detecting an undulating wake, burning material peeling off as the asteroid entered the atmosphere?
No, it was still too early for that. He got on his feet. He noticed that a lot of people were standing now, all gazing west. Parents were holding their sleeping children in their arms. Nobody was moving. The white, unnaturally strong light coming from the west made their faces look ghostly pale. And, John thought, ghosts they were indeed, every single one of them. Still alive, but already dead.
Then he became aware of the eerie silence. Nobody was talking, not even the desert, which had a billion voices it could use. Every creature lay in waiting.
The asteroid was just now encountering the outer fringes of the Earth’s atmosphere. Its profile became wavy, as entry heat enveloped it in a mantle of plasma. Its brightness increased tenfold, and a trail of burning material marked the meteor’s path through the atmosphere. Lower and lower it got, until it disappeared behind the horizon. Less than a second later, a distant flash marked the encounter between 1376127YH and Terra.
After the momentary brightness, the night suddenly seemed much darker. John tensed. It won’t be long now. He started counting the seconds. When he heard the rumble, deeper than anything he had heard before, the scientist in him calculated the distance to the point of impact. Another part of him was laughing sardonically. Like it made any difference how far it was.
He braced himself, and soon enough the expected shakes came. Their amplitude was so great he was knocked down right away. The earthquake continued for what seemed like a long time. He lay on his stomach, looking around. Everything appeared to dance in front of his eyes. In places, long and wide cracks suddenly appeared in the dry ground.
When the earthquake subsided, he could hear a few cries. Wounded. It didn’t make any difference; they were all about to die anyway. He looked towards the west. He couldn’t see anything yet. But he knew it was coming, and excitement got hold of him, like he was in for a treat, something special.
First, John felt the wind. It smelled salty, just like a sea breeze. But this breeze got stronger and stronger, howling and raising curtains of sand in the distance. And, towering over the sandstorm, a wall darker than the night was advancing towards the east. Although he knew these were his last moments on Earth, John didn’t care anymore. The view was majestic. The wave came closer and closer, cascades of water falling from its foamy crest, then getting swept back under the mountain of liquid, mud and debris. The noise became deafening. Mouth wide open, feet firmly planted on the ground, John looked up at the giant, laughing, extending his hands to meet him. He felt a club hitting him in the stomach, the head, sweeping him off his feet.
In one 'reality', Earth has been hit by a large asteroid that wiped out most of the population.
Stories (with the exception of the intro) will follow those spared by the impact as they struggle to survive on the now hostile planet.
The other story line involves an invasion by a large alien fleet intent on settling and ruling over mankind. It is set in the very near future, that is, some of the technology used by humans to combat the aliens has not yet been developed, but it is assumed that the approaching fleet was years in advance, and, althought we failed to destroy it before it reached Earth, we have prepared to give invaders hell.
I will post new stories as I complete them. I can't vouch yet for the frequency of my posts, but you should keep an eye out. I have three completed stories that I will post right away.