Four days until Halcyon rose to the naked eye. Four days after that, the earth would be a greasy spot spread along the side of the galactic highway.
Ninety-four hours to be precise, give or take what used to be insignificant minutes and seconds. The very quibbling over Halcyon’s designation at the national observatory seemed trite. Who really cared if it couldn’t truly be classified as a comet? A wavering ion tail, methodical movements dictated by unseen forces, a precise dust tail littering its break-neck cosmic path with glittering, amorphous crystals - bus-sized bread crumbs strewn across the vast panoply. Bigger than our friggin’ moon and making a bee-line to earth at a pace the astronomical gurus couldn’t even begin to compute. “Ludicrous speed,” quipped a grad student, his Space Balls quote lost on the stoic faces surrounding him.
The greatest minds on the planet gazed slack-jawed at the approaching entity -deemed Halcyon by some sensationalizing, opportunistic White House journalist; quoting out of context our poetic President’s heartfelt plea as he learned the perilous truth. Dear God, please bring us once more upon halcyon days’ doorstep.
All NASA’s scientists said with tremulous certainty was, “It appears to have originated in NGC-4565,” followed by confident assertions of what they did know. “NGC-4565 is not unknown to us, a galaxy beyond our own, lying at a distance, in miles, of 117 followed by 18 zeros. Basically... one million years travel at the speed of light.” To further placate the laymen, he added, “If we sent a message to the edge of NGC-4565, we’d be on hold for two million years waiting for a response.”
“Then why didn’t we see it coming sooner,” shouted a reporter over the murmuring hubbub. The NASA spokesperson, a veteran of scrutiny stemming from various failures over decades as America clambered for the skies, visibly paled and reached for the podium to steady himself.
“We don’t know,” escaped from his quivering lips. “It’s as if Halcyon... (he’d already given up fighting the name given by the press.)... Logic and science tell us that Galileo, Newton and even Copernicus should have seen its approach, but its velocity alone defies our comprehension.”
An older Astronomer from the University of Wyoming, Professor Randall Vandenberg, the first to observe Halcyon, leaned forward to the microphone in front of him, his copious, wiry, salt-and-pepper beard bouncing slightly as he spoke. “A calm pond will remain calm until someone tosses in a rock. From that point of impact we can see the ripples spread across the surface. The ripples we measure across this galactic pond are measured by their luminescence, and Halcyon basically just splashed into our galaxy without giving us the simple courtesy of an advanced ripple.”
Within twenty minutes of the globally televised conference, a ripple that was very evident began to emerge with predictable magnitude. Disbelief remained hanging in a pregnant pause globally, quickly followed by only slightly subdued panic. Simple fear fueled futile and hasty preparations; desperate efforts at defiance. A field mouse flipping off the descending falcon.
A few radical religious groups committed the token mass suicide, others rejoiced that salvation was near at hand, depending on what flavor of faith you ascribed to. Aboriginal tribes in Australia’s Northern Territory converged on Mount Uluru, Ayers Rock to English speakers, supposedly to “greet the coming visitors.” A crazed and sleep-deprived Zambian student from Lusaka earned his fifteen minutes of fame claiming Halcyon was merely an envoy from afar, that he had been conversing with the galactic travelers via his home-made radio telescope. Others simply partied like it was 1999.
The wretched mobs were instigated to mayhem by the final words of the bespectacled Professor Vandenberg, “Four days until Halcyon is visible to the naked eye -even in daylight. Four days after that, she’ll roll right through us like a hot knife through butter. It’s been fun, people... Peace.” He’d flashed a hippie smile, a genuinely well-intentioned peace sign, then rose from the table and unhurriedly left the room, ignoring the reporter’s pleas.
“Where are you going, Doctor?” asked one of his grad students hovering near the exit.
“To get very drunk, Thomas,” came the chuckled reply. “Very drunk, indeed.”
It was within this quest for alcoholic stupefaction I met the esteemed Doctor. Five days had passed since that fateful morning. Five days and a lot of scotch, from the looks of the disheveled professor. He was cozily embracing the bar of the Shangri-La hotel in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Drunkenness slightly glazed his intelligent eyes, a lucid gleam tinted with the redness of excess. “Comfortably numb,” he assured me, offering up an unlit Cuban cigar from several boxes arrayed before him.
I hesitated -only briefly- then took the proffered stogie.
“Hello, old friend,” I muttered, spitting the butt end across the bar, “guess the embargo doesn’t mean a heck of a lot anymore, does it, Doc,”
“To all the vices, Skipper” he shouted, filling a tumbler of scotch, splashing a few ice cubes into the mix and sliding it in front of me with a grand and practiced flourish. Quite the accomplishment for a man confined to a restrictive pressure suit, this guy should have been a pilot.
“Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women, Doc,” I toasted, sipping on the fiery, smooth, single malt. “But I ain’t the Skipper, I sit in the right seat,” the liquor warmed soothingly and I took a long draw on the smooth tobacco, “I hope to God we’ve got a tobacco farmer in this ragtag group.”
The Professor laughed his approval, refilling his own tumbler.
“I suppose that makes you the luckiest co-pilot on the planet,” he said.
“I’ll withhold judgement on that until we’re well into orbit, Doc,” I replied.
A young scientist and his wife sat at the end of the bar, quiet and serene over a bottle of wine. Her face was the epitome of tranquility, and I thought how she reflected so much of how the general populous had faced the planet’s demise. Sure, people went a little crazy. Who could honestly blame them? Money meant nothing anymore. Nothing really mattered anymore. Enterprise and industry stopped in a flash. The maddened frenzy of anarchy didn’t reach the fevered pitch most anticipated, though. The people might have sown a few well-deserved wild oats, it was the supposed leaders of the world that went postal on a global scale.
Israel snapped first. Their nukes turned Lebanon and most of Syria into a parking lot. Before news stopped coming from the barren region, headlines screamed of how the Israelis would face extinction “knowing their enemies were first vanquished.” India and Pakistan followed suit, choosing to go fighting -at least amongst themselves. The latest satellite images showed the first explosive plumes dotting the Korean peninsula, and America waited with fierce temerity, itchy fingers poised over active switches.
But China balked. And so did Russia. A tension lingered that could snap at the faintest fart on the breeze, and Halcyon still careened earthward. The professor puffed thoughtfully on his contraband stogie, motioning stiffly towards the heavens with an arm constrained by the rigid, bright-orange suit. The surreal nature of this bizarre scene defied the most arrogant fiction.
“I’d watched the skies with interest initially like everyone,” he said, glancing to the gathered fortunate few scattered throughout the bar. I glimpsed one couple getting naked in a darkened corner booth. Why not, I mused, sipping the scotch.
“Hell, I found the blasted thing after all,” the professor continued. It was becoming obvious that the restraint he’d been holding onto was teetering atop a very fine edge, the alcohol slowly winning over resolve. The wooziness would hit me, too, if I didn’t slow the pace a bit.
“That why they gave you a seat?” I asked, not unkindly.
“I guess so,” he wheezed, “that and my delicate delivery of doomsday to the world!” He laughed drunkenly, raising his glass and I clinked my tumbler dutifully against his.
“Heck of a finder’s fee, Doc,” I said soberly, then casually motioned towards the piled Cubans. “Better enjoy those while you can, sir.”
A steady beep began to thrum at random locations throughout the bar, red LED lights on twenty different pagers going off, mine included. I looked at the display flashing “911” and I knew I’d consumed my last adult beverage on planet earth.
China must have spread its cheeks wide and let that malodorous waft hit the breeze. It was time to get the hell out of Dodge. The launch scheduled for tomorrow was leaving slightly ahead of schedule, it seemed. Time to fish or cut bait.
“You ready, Doc?” I asked, belting the last of the scotch and rising from the bar.
“Let’s do it,” he replied, swaying slightly to his feet, reaching for the bottle of scotch and snuffing out his stogie. When I knew he could walk under his own determined power, I headed toward the lobby with the rest of the revelers. The amorous couple in the corner booth remained entangled, obviously opting to face the music together naked. Worse ways to go...
The mission commander stood in the lobby, shooting me an appraising glance which I dismissed with a wave. The eight hours from bottle to throttle rule went out the window when that big chunk of the unknown from space arrived, although I knew this was one flight I didn’t want to be grounded from.
“Don’t worry, Commander,” I said as we went through the lobby doors to the waiting helicopters. “I flew for Northwest, remember? We always fly better with a couple cocktails.”
He shook his head and clapped me on the back, then looked all business, “The missiles are flying,” he said, “China changed its mind. I guess if you spent all that money on fireworks, you’d want to shoot them off, too. We go the moment everyone gets tied down.”
“Jesus,” I whispered, briefly regretting the scotch. At least if I screw this one up, there won’t be anyone around to gripe about it.
I climbed aboard the first Huey with the Commander, the drunken Astronomer clambering in with a gentle shove from the astrophysicist-turned-instant-crew-chief, desperately clutching his pilfered bottle of scotch close to his chest. Billions on the planet and we’re saving Otis the drunk. The helo lifted with a nod from the Commander, three more NASA choppers taking off in succession behind us.
The hotel that had hosted every generation of astronaut since Gemini faded quickly away, smoldering remains of the interstate carpet bombed yesterday to ward off the masses, pointing a charred and rubble strewn finger towards the cape. There was only one way off this rock and everyone knew it. The threat of global extinction pretty much redefined the food chain, giving a whole new meaning to ‘class distinction’.
As we increased altitude and sped for the cape, I tapped the Commander’s shoulder and pointed to the eastern horizon. Twelve plumes of steam and smoke streaked across the sky heading south and east. He leaned over and yelled loudly over the Huey’s pulsating thrum, “They’re from the Dallas, she’s been sitting right off the coast. We’ve got zero time to light this candle, Amigo.” The Dallas was a Los Angeles class submarine, obviously playing its role in the mutually assured destruction scenario, launching its devastating payload to global targets of opportunity. Check, please; I’ve got a thing...
Beyond the streaming missiles, the growing visage of Halcyon loomed menacingly, its swirling surface clearly visible through the amber twilight. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place.
The helicopters approached the shuttle Discovery, hauled out of moth-balls a week ago and primed for launch since early yesterday, awaiting some of the more precious “cargo,” namely the President and whatever cronies had cajoled one last chance at living, conning their way aboard the last train out of town. The lead chopper set down next to an armored hum-vee, unmanned but nevertheless lethal, no one would approach the shuttle without first tasting the lead from automated .50 cal machine guns and Mark-19 grenade launchers. You definitely need a ticket to ride this baby.
The chosen evacuees leapt from the helo’s, bending low beneath the dwindling rotor blast as the turbines wound down and moved towards the gantry that would transport them up to the shuttles crew door, then begin the long shuffle downward to the modified seating in the cargo bay.
Forty-seven souls, including the crew, made up the complement. Checklists normally adhered to with rigid discipline were hastily plowed through. If the shuttle had been equipped with a simple “go” button, I would have punched it once everyone was on board. Stow your tray tables, ladies and germs, it’s time to dance.
A team of twelve engineers made up the contingent of launch control. Brave men, one and all. They knew all was lost and figured a lifetime wearing pocket protectors and thick-rimmed glasses would mean so much more in the grand scheme of things if only they could guarantee the last vestiges of humanity made it off the planet. Their only request had been to jot down their names as the saviors of the species. No prob, if we get off of this soon-to-be-glowing rock.
The Commander and I finished up our hasty and highly modified checklist protocol, both mentally praying Alan Shepard’s infamous words over and over. “Dear God, don’t let me foul this up.” Although the esteemed naval man had used an expletive decidedly more severe, truer words were still never spoken.
The nerd saviors of mankind punched the correct buttons and Discovery thrummed to life, clambering upwards against gravity and slipping through the skies truly for the last time. A scant representation of a million years of evolution fleeing a sinking ship.
The shuttle boosters played their role and slipped off into the atmosphere, no somber words of farewell from launch control, and nobody sitting in Houston to guide us once we reached orbit. Just eery silence broken only by the Commander and I ticking off checklist items.
We hit the orbit that would put us in position to rendezvous with the International Space Station, rolled the shuttle on its back, the full measure of the devastation unfolding “above” us on the earth’s surface as we sped rearward in excess of 17,000 mph.
The President, his wife and the two young scientists from the bar were strapped in behind us on the flight deck, two more crew-members directly below us, all of us sealed separately from the shuttle’s vast cargo bay. “My God,” the President sighed, “What have we done?”
Europe rolled into view, at least what was visible through the maelstrom wreaking havoc on the earth’s atmosphere. The perpetual grayness that swept over the continent in roiling clouds thankfully blanketed the devastation below, ashen blinders for the folly of man. Even if Halcyon managed to drift by mockingly, sparing earth, life wouldn’t touch that bleak surface for a thousand years.
“Commander, I guess that now is as good a time as any,” the President said solemnly. “May God forgive me.”
The Commander let out an audible sigh over the intercom, an unwilling affirmation to a grim order. I eyed the Commander with keen puzzlement and watched in horror as he began the sequence to open the cargo bay doors. Normally one of the first things accomplished once we hit orbit - but not with a cargo of VIP’s stacked like cordwood in the back.
“I told them I’d get them to space,” the President said, “beyond that... no assurances.”
The rapid decompression echoed through the hatch separating the flight deck from the cargo space, and the Commander released the clamps holding the passenger seating to the shuttles deck. The platform slowly rose into the cold reaches of space, a hearse with thirty-nine figures given grim front-row seats to the earths demise. So long, Doc. If I’d seen this coming I’d have gotten you a better seat. I shuddered as the faces of many of my own friends and comrades within the group flashed through my mind - but I forced the image as far back as I could.
The ACES pressure suits worn by the passengers were only good below 50,000 feet, but maliciously withstood the elements- or lack thereof- just long enough for the inevitable to descend upon their conscious with abject horror. Their last moments redefined cruelty. I shivered, speechless, and ran through a whirlwind of emotions before callous practicality further steeled my resolve. Our crew and those already onboard the station would last a whole lot longer with thirty-nine less mouths to feed. Seems armageddon breeds a pretty cold bitch, no matter how you slice it.
The Commander stirred me from my philosophical reverie by calling for rendezvous procedures. I glanced to the external cameras and saw the gangly assemblage of the space station steadily approaching. About fifteen unmanned supply shuttles, each carrying more than 5,000 pounds of materiel, hovered in close, static, holding patterns around the station. They’d been launched around the clock since word of Halcyon broke.
Work crews looked like fat larvae clinging to the stations exterior performing the mother of all EVA’s. They were doggedly affixing the boosters that would supposedly push the station beyond Halcyon’s reach. Time truly was of the essence, and crews were affixing gossamer tethers to several of the supply shuttles, depressurization and docking procedures taking far too much time to execute now. Better to bring them along for the ride and unload them when safer space was reached.
Daylight faded once more to darkness below us, and the ominous visage of Halcyon loomed, close enough now to distinctly view its swirling surface, its impetus alone seeming to defy the very light of the sun. She was here. So much for your figures, Doc. This parties getting crashed a little early.
There was no escape. Lots and lots of space but zero time. We watched in stunned silence as the planet-sized object blotted out the stars, a death-star on steroids swallowing the vast horizon like some enormous, glowing iris exponentially expanding to infinity.
And then she stopped.
No massive blast of power, no tidal waves ripping across the planets surface. Just a swirling gargantuan mass that… simply halted.
I blinked - I think - forced myself to take a breath. No one spoke. No one could.
The Commander pointed to a magnificent beam of white light radiating from Halcyon towards the heart of Australia, only for the briefest moment, then winking out. A corona plume of sparkling blue and white then began to emanate from the surface of Halcyon, a tentacle-like stream slowly spitting outward towards earth like some giant, accusatory finger. A slithering sausage as wide as Texas and lying squarely in our - and the space station’s -direct orbital path.
The Commander gave me a quick look that spoke volumes. Fuel calculations were spinning through my brain and I gave him a quick nod, rapidly punching through the sequence to get the larger Orbital Maneuvering Systems (OMS) engine’s on-line. We had lots of gas - Discovery was supposed to help increase the station’s altitude once we were docked, but no matter how we sliced it, this was gonna be close.
I relayed our course corrections to the station and counted off precious seconds as they updated their systems - forcing myself to keep my breathing under control, not wanting to convey my anxiousness across the open mike. “Alpha base, Discovery - stand by for course correction in ... 3, 2, 1 - firing.”
The gray marble of earth above us shifted to the right as the Commander deftly coaxed Discovery on its new heading, well away from the quickly approaching finger. The station remained fixed off our starboard bow - a ballet of precision 300 miles above the earth at 17,000 mph.
Halcyon vanished from sight quicker than it came, sprinting off into space as we rolled into new morning above the rapidly flowing, gelatinous mass quickly spreading across the upper stratosphere - akin to some cosmic baker frosting a planetary cupcake. I stared incredulity directly in the eye and wondered with genuine concern if the Doctor’s bottle of scotch was still in the cargo bay.
Here’s to the luckiest friggin’ co-pilot in the world…