Impact, by Michael C. Keith
There is no armour against fate.
–– James Shirley
Gus Harrington was reading the newspaper at his kitchen table and sipping his first coffee of the morning when a statement on CNN caught his attention.
“The asteroid is now said to be on a collision course with Earth. It was expected to come within 50 thousand miles of the planet, but last night the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory has recalculated its path and discovered it is now headed directly toward us…”
Gus stood up and moved closer to the wall-mounted flat screen. “What the . . .?”
“The asteroid is calculated to be three-quarters of a mile wide. Experts say that any direct hit on Earth would possess the equivalent of a 750-kiloton bomb, enough to create massive destruction to the planet.”
“Oh my God!” muttered Gus.
“Called Balave-1453MV135, the asteroid is expected to reach the planet in another 14 months and three days. Astrophysicists are attempting to determine just where the asteroid will touch down and the extent of damage the impact will cause.”
Gus was not aware that his wife had been standing behind him and watching the report.
“Is it going to destroy everything? Are we all going to die?”
Her voice made him jump.
“Jesus, Cheryl! Don’t do that!”
“Sneak up on me. You scared . . . ”
The expression of apprehension on his wife’s face brought him back to the reality of the moment.
“Sorry, honey, they don’t know where it’s going to hit. They’re trying to figure that out now.”
“I’m going to get Clare from school,” said Cheryl, abruptly.
“Why? Nothing’s going to happen. Not for 14 months anyway.”
“I just want to hold her. We’re probably all going to die,” sniffled Cheryl, throwing her jacket on.
“Not necessarily. Maybe they’ll shoot it out of the sky with a missile. They can do that, I’ve heard. Remember that movie?”
“And if they can’t?”
Cheryl grabbed her car keys from the counter and dashed from the house before Gus could say anything further.
Yeah, what if they can’t? he thought, watching his wife pull out of the driveway and knocking over the recycling container in the process. This can’t be happening. It has to be a nightmare. Wake up, Gus . . . wake up.
Gus had always wondered if the day would come when something from space would come tumbling down on Earth, threatening to abolish life on the planet. It had always seemed possible, if not probable, to him. Astronomers had claimed they had discovered more than 10,000 Near-Earth objects, as they called them, and that 1455 of them were classified as “potentially hazardous.” Jesus, that’s a 14 percent chance of being hit, calculated Gus.
“’This is not a Flyby,” said a voice on the television.
A CNN reporter was now interviewing an expert on asteroids.
Flyby? Not a Flyby? Shit!
“From what we know now, it appears that this object will hit Earth and cause extreme damage. Will it end life on Earth, as we know it? Probably not, but its likely impact is currently being assessed. We’ve recalculated its arrival and now project it to strike us on August 18th.”
August 18th? That’s only seven months away. They said 14 months. Now it’s half that? Why can’t they pin it down? Next, they’re going to tell us it’s hitting in three months . . .
“It is our estimate the asteroid strike will possess energy seven million times greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.”
We’re all dead! One big flash of light: obliterated! Seven million times bigger? Fuck! How could anything survive?
“This doesn’t necessarily mean that human and animal life will end, but . . .”
But? No but! We’re all screwed! thought Gus.
The reporter suddenly interrupted the scientist, deferring to an incoming feed from the White House, where a press conference was about to start.
Gus sat at the kitchen table attempting to wrap his mind around what was happening. He looked out the window at the baby blue sky. Incoming, he thought. Duck and cover. Shit! In the end, not a whimper but a bang, right? A big frigging bang! He turned back to the television to find the president about to speak.“My fellow Americans, as I speak to you, the leaders of nations around the globe are informing their citizens about the potential calamity that we all face from space. We are now panning a joint effort to strike the asteroid with several missiles carrying massive nuclear payloads. There is reasonable hope in the scientific community that this will divert the asteroid’s current trajectory away from Earth. It is important not to panic in the face of this situation. Life must continue as normal while the efforts are undertaken to remove this threat…”
No freaking way we’re going to blow that huge bastard off its current path, Gus thought, suddenly feeling an overwhelming urge to heed the call of nature. As Gus sat on the porcelain throne, his thoughts were racing. Once we know when it’s going to hit, we’ll head in the opposite direction. Maybe find a cave. We’ll need supplies. Load up on food right away before the store shelves are empty. Canned goods . . . water. Don’t forget a can opener. Should I get a gun? Yeah, it’ll get crazy out there. Oh, Jesus!
Gus went to the garage to figure out what else might be useful for their survival. He gathered a box of items that included an ax and various tools, as well as battery powered hurricane lanterns and first aid kit. He then unloaded junk from the hatchback section of his SUV to make room for other necessary supplies for his family’s escape. As he was checking his car’s fluids and tires, the phone rang. It was the police.
“We have your wife in custody.”
“The principal of your daughter’s elementary school reported she was ranting something about the end of the world. She got everyone spooked. They thought she was having some kind of psychotic episode and feared she might be a danger to students and staff.”
”Yes, she was terribly upset when she heard the news of the asteroid. I’ll be right there?”
“Oh, that . . .”
Before the voice at the other end of the receiver could continue, Gus hung up. He climbed into his car and drove to the police headquarters. A desk sergeant greeted him.
“I’m Gus Harrington. My wife is being held for causing a scene about the asteroid at my daughter’s school?”
“Yeah, we had a number of incidents related to the CNN hacking.”
“Some anarchist group cut into the regular broadcast with their own video that looked exactly like CNN’s. They gave the false report about the asteroid hitting the planet. Had everyone totally convinced the end was coming.”
“They knew what they were doing . . . that’s for damn sure. Looked authentic.”
“But the President was speaking . . .”
“Some impersonator had dubbed voice over the footage of the President that was taken at a previous news conference. Sounded exactly like him, though if you were paying close attention you could see he was saying other words. Still, these guys were good. That’s what’s so scary. Not easy to pull off something like they did.”
“Man, were we duped. Never doubted the report for a second. Can I get my wife? Does she know the whole thing was a hoax?”
“Yeah, we told her. Took some convincing. Now she feels embarrassed about what happened at the school.”
“Are there any charges?”
“No, it was all a misunderstanding. We had other people going goofy, too. Had to haul in about ten other folks who were going over the edge after seeing the bogus report on CNN.”
The desk sergeant fetched Gus’s wife, and they left the station.
“We’ll pick up Clare at school, okay?” said Gus.
“I’m not going in. I feel so stupid and humiliated,” replied Cheryl, with a hangdog expression.
When their daughter climbed into the car, she immediately asked her mother a question that compounded her dark mood.
“Are you crazy, mommy? They said you were at school.”
“No, honey. Mommy was just upset because she thought something bad was going to happen to us,” explained Cheryl.
“Is something bad going to happen to us?”
“No, nothing bad is going . . .”
When Gus turned to give his daughter a reassuring smile, he missed the red light and drove into the intersection as a truck was speeding through it. Upon impact, the Harrington’s car exploded in a flash of light.
Michael C. Keith teaches college and writes fiction. www.michaelckeith.com
Posted on October 9, 2014, in Issue 15: Elves & Spacerockets and tagged apocalypse, apocalyptic, catastrophe, dark, irony, science fiction, short stories, The Were-Traveler. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.