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.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Backup (Asteroid Story #2)

Helen Jones was still utterly puzzled. She had been puzzled ever since she had been told she was part of the crew of the first manned mission to Mars. Lots of ‘M’s there, and after the decision had been made public, she started to enjoy the way those three words were rolling inside her mouth or her mind, like seldom indulged delicious morsels of chocolate.

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.

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