If the Chicxulub asteroid hadn’t killed the dinosaurs then intelligent reptiles would be building rocket ships.
—-Bill Chance, Dog Bone
Mural, covered by “For Rent” sign
I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.
I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.
Here’s another one for today (#19). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.
Thanks for reading.
“After all this time, it is really going to happen.” John Random kept repeating this to himself over and over again. Ever since that layer of Iridium-enriched stuff was discovered on Earth back in the nineteen eighties; scientists, then artists, philosophers, and finally politicians talked about cosmic collisions. Now it was real.
Random kept reading about it. There on the ship, clunker though it was, he had access to all the information he needed. They were far from earth, so there was an irritating delay in conversation, (not that anyone wanted to talk anymore) but there was a constant flow of data. Before sleep period he would request books, journal articles, anything that struck his fancy and by the time he woke up, the information would be in the ship’s computer.
His partner, Zane Miller, didn’t read anything anymore. Two years ago, before the flight, Zane was selected as mission commander. He was the glamour-puss, in Random’s mind. The face of the mission. The first year, when they were still doing weekly news conferences, Zane did all the talking, John stayed in the background smiling and wearing his coveralls. Everyone knew Random was along to do the grunt work.
Well, it didn’t work out that way. As they looped back and forth through he solar system that first year, examining and mapping various objects detected from earth, the big lunar radar picked up the giant comet, the frozen, deadly snowball screaming in from beyond Neptune. It looked like it would be coming close so earth followed it and as that year went by the news became worse and worse.
Miller and Random’s mission was forgotten. First the news conferences stopped, then the mission support went away as earth’s entire focus shifted to the killer comet. It didn’t really affect them, their route was preprogrammed, too far from earth for any assistance, they were on their own. Still it started to get lonely. Random didn’t care so much, it was no mistake that someone of his temperament was selected on a multi-year space mission, but it drove Zane up the wall.
“Why complete the mission? it’s all going to be gone anyway!” Zane would rant on.
“Well, I don’t know,” Random would reply. “I guess mostly ’cause I can’t think of anything else to do.”
“Don’t you understand? It’s the end… we’re out here and earth is doomed. All dead! Gone!”
“I understand. But I don’t know what I’m going to do about it.”
They had the same simple argument a hundred times during that awful month. Then Random discovered Zane had pulled out the emergency medical kit and broken all the seals. All the drug packs were gone. After that time Zane was a lot calmer, though he completely stopped his share of the checklists, never helped with the observations. He spent all the time in his sleep chamber. Sometimes Random could hear him moaning.
Not that it mattered. Random could handle the duties of the mission alone with no problem. It kept him a little busier but still left him with enough time for his reading. Between the last object and the one they were looking at next they had to loop clear out around Jupiter and back in, It was the longest hiatus of the mission. He had done a lot of reading by then, about the comet and other cosmic impacts.
He read of the schools of thought that held that evolution was largely a function of vast swaths of time and avoiding extinction events. The random nature of these collisions meant that it was a crapshoot for any species to survive long enough to migrate into space. If the Chicxulub asteroid hadn’t killed the dinosaurs then intelligent reptiles would be building rocket ships.
That was the reason for their mission. To examine the large objects floating through the solar system, to help learn their compositions and then design ways to intercept and destroy them. If man could determine a way to protect that fragile blue ball from the ravages of space, then they could gain the time needed to reach for the stars.
It was too late, obviously. Not that the mission had revealed much, anyway. Hunks of rock, chunks of ice, nothing that the spectrographs and lunar radar hadn’t predicted.
Well, nothing surprising until this object, anyway.
They had decelerated down into this vicinity and when the fusion engines had cooled enough to allow them to see out, Random had pulled the telescope into position and started visual observations. Zane had been in his chamber for days, lost in the world of the medical kit drugs.
“Umm, you’d better come out and take a look at this,” Random barked into the intercom.
“Who gives a shit!” came the expected answer.
“Really, Zane, this is something different, really different.”
“You wake me up again and I’ll come out there, kick your ass, and knock you out into space, You Hear!”
Random didn’t have any answer for that so he shut down the intercom and looked back into the telescope.
The object wasn’t an ordinary hunk of space rock, that was for sure. It was much larger than they expected, maybe two miles in length. Jet-black and smooth. He glanced at the radio spectroscope and confirmed that it absorbed almost all the radiation that fell on it. That is why the radar underestimated its size. It was very regular in shape, elongated, with a double lobed swelling at each end. It looked like a giant dog-bone. Like a colossal stylized chew-toy.
Random knew it wasn’t natural. He also knew it hadn’t been made on earth.
For weeks, Random held position near the object, studying it. He tried to get the attention of mission control back on earth, but they weren’t even monitoring his broadcasts. Every ounce of effort, every minute of time was being spent back there preparing the interceptor rockets that would attempt to destroy the comet before it reached earth. They were working around the clock, even though they knew it was hopeless.
Random carefully recorded his observations. “This is the greatest discovery of all time”, he reminded himself. He tried not to think about the fact that there wouldn’t be an earth to return to and nobody to see his work.
On the day the earth was going to send its missiles toward the comet, Zane Miller emerged from his chamber. He looked awful, trembling, trying to shake off his months of drug induced haze.
“Today’s the day,” he said to Random, like nothing had happened.
“Yup,” was all he could think in reply.
“What the hell is that!” Zane screamed, pointing out the view-port.
“It’s the object… other than that, I have no idea.”
The dog-bone wasn’t jet-black any more. It was glowing red now.
“It’s heating up,” said Random. “It’s been gaining hundreds of degrees every day for a week now. It moving too. For weeks it held the same orientation but three days ago I came out here and it had rotated almost ninety degrees.”
Visibly shaken, Zane sat down across from Random and they tuned in the Earth broadcast. Every ear on the planet or off would be watching as the rockets streaked toward the comet, all life on earth hanging in the balance.
The rockets flew, the enormous bombs exploded on cue. But it was like throwing a pebble at a bullet. Everybody knew that it was hopeless, but watched breathlessly as the lunar radar tracked the comet. Slowly the announcer conveyed the inevitable, that the missiles hadn’t worked, that the comet had pierced the explosions unharmed, that the earth was doomed.
“Well, that’s it, Zane said,” glancing back to his chamber, thinking about the medication, thinking about what might be put together to form a fatal dose.
Random was suddenly startled by a bright light from the view-port.
The object was white hot. Glowing as bright as a small oblong sun. Suddenly, it visibly shuddered and threw off a bolt of incredible energy. For a split second the beam was visible and even though the view-port darkened automatically the light was so intense both men were blinded for minutes.
When their eyesight returned they peered out the view-port, then trained the telescope on the object to confirm what they saw. The dog-bone was dark and black again. Cold. Inert.
They looked at each other. Even before the announcement came in from earth they knew where the beam had gone.
“It is a miracle!” said the announcer. “The missiles must have weakened the comet to the point that once it neared the earth’s gravity, it fell apart. It has been completely destroyed, blown into a million pieces.”
For another week they continued to watch the object as earth reported amazing meteor showers and millions killed as the remains of the comet continued to pound the planet. Man, life itself, would survive, though.
Then they received a message from mission control, the first that had come through in months.
“Hello, how are you?”
“Fine,” replied Random.
“I guess you have heard the great news. What are you looking at now?”
The two men had known this question was coming and they had decided on an answer.
“Only another chunk of ice and rock.”
On the long trip back, Zane helped Random carefully erase all the records of the observations of the object. They spliced together bits of data from other observations and blurred the records, nobody would suspect the location of the dog-bone.
Then Zane retreated to his chamber and his medical kit. He knew he wouldn’t be able to survive without the drugs. It would be a decade before he found that fatal dose.
Random was in charge now. He monitored the mission, fixed the little things that came up, did the grunt work. He read some more, read about how man could protect itself, could continue on, could someday reach for the stars. He chuckled to himself when he thought about that. He thought about the time far in the future when people were able to venture out beyond.
He thought about the blinding light, about the dog-bone; and about what, and who, they would find on that day.