Asteroid
By: Doug Hawley

I'm Bill Bane. I wasn't there at the beginning of this story, but the participants have filled me in to the best of their ability. I had full access to all records of the event. I take responsibility for any errors in the narrative. Because I had done some writing during brief intervals of sobriety before the earth was hit, I was asked by Duke and Sally to tell the tale.

Ray detection

The outer space probe Arrow detected an increase in cosmic rays traveling towards earth beyond the orbit of Pluto. The intensity of the rays increased by a factor of ten and then Arrow became silent. NASA made the report to the White House with the rather panic-inducing possibility that the rays could wipe out all life on earth. One sardonic joker in the inner circle said "At least we don't have to worry about asteroids anymore." NASA hedged its bets by saying that the best case was an interruption in all electronics. After all, the incident was unprecedented, so no one could say with certainty what the results would be. Not that it helped, but they narrowed the cause down to two or three supernovae observed in historic times. Some true believers at the highest levels of government wondered if their death would be from the star of Bethlehem.

The leading edge of the rays was discovered at ten times the distance from Pluto. President Burton had no idea what to do. His skill set was campaigning, raising cash and pushing expensive bills without any way to pay for them. One thing that he did do well was pick men who were knowledgeable and skilled. As a result, he put Chief Of Staff Duke Hanley in charge of liaison with NASA chief Sally Olsen. They got adjacent rooms in a DC hotel to keep people in government from wondering what was happening. Each took open leaves of absence.

Preparation

At their first meeting, Duke asked "Level with me, how bad do you really think it is?"

"I think that it could be comparable to one of the great asteroid collisions with earth that caused mass extinctions like the one that killed the dinosaurs. Unlike an asteroid collision, the deaths won't happen immediately, plants and animals will die slowly. What cosmic rays do is mess with the DNA. Not only will there be a massive die off, there will be mutations, mostly fatal, some neutral, or even improvements. We've got eighty days to prepare."

"So what can we do about it?"

"The greatest effects will be on exposed life and that at the higher elevations. It wouldn't be practical to get lead suits for everyone or move them all into caves. Even if everyone stayed indoors, it wouldn't save the plants and animals we live on. Being indoors wouldn't be perfectly safe for people either."

"So far you have told me what we can't do about it."

"Are you religious?"

"No."

"Me neither, so praying is out. We can probably save some people from death by moving them into caves or fortified structures. Long term, after the rays have passed, the problem may be with finding suitable food for those that survive the initial barrage without getting cancer."

"It sounds like we may end up with some healthy people, a lot of ill people and not much future. How do we choose the people to save, what do we do about the ill people and how do we get to long term survival?"

"I can't answer the first part. As for the second part, it depends in part on how many we save. If most of the people die, there may be enough resources to go around, particularly if you like eating cockroaches. Seriously, if there are a lot fewer people, it may be easier to feed them with surviving plants and animals."

"OK, Sally, you've given me enough very scary information to try to build a plan around. I'm going to need to call a lot of people tonight, so let's call it a wrap. Do you want to meet in your room tomorrow or back in my room?"

"Your room is fine."

At the next meeting, Duke summarized his plan. "We hold a worldwide asteroid preparedness drill. The leaders that we can trust will be apprised of the game, others will get the cover story. We will explain that buildings and caves will be used to protect people from the effects of a possible asteroid impact. We'll make a survey of buildings which offer the best protection and find the best routes for getting to those buildings. The caves will be reserved for personnel deemed necessary for humanity's survival. Under the cover of the ‘drill', we'll provision those caves as best we can. My idea is to accept that millions, if not billions will die, but I can't see anything better. Informing the world that we're going to be hit by massive cosmic rays is folly in my mind. Clearly, this is the Cliff Notes version. What do you think? I'd love for you to tell me it's a crackpot idea and you've got something much better."

"Could you get me a drink while I think about it? How about some scotch?"

"Coming up."

Sally drank about half of her drink and said "I think that what you are trying to do is to get prepared while keeping the real reason secret to avoid panic. Is that right?"

"Yes."

"I agree that your goal is sensible and your approach reasonable. I'm afraid that I don't have a better idea. My guess is that you need to work on the details and I need to talk to my people at NASA."

The next day while Sally was talking to NASA, Duke ran his plan past the President. Burton said "Fine work. First rate. You go ahead and handle all of the details." Burton's response was just what Duke expected, since the President always had others do the heavy lifting.

Duke then made calls to three cabinet secretaries to prepare them for the job ahead – Jackson at Defense, Williams at State and Gomez at Interior. Jackson would organize the logistics of moving people into safer areas and obtaining food and whatever would be needed for a lengthy stay in shelters, Williams would contact the leaders of other countries with either the true story or the cover story and Gomez would inventory shelters and caves around the country.

At that point Duke noticed he had never asked how long it would take the cosmic rays to pass. It seems that somehow he had been distracted, probably by Sally. He immediately called Sally to get the answer. When he asked, she was equally dumbfounded that he had never asked and she hadn't volunteered the information. Maybe she was distracted too. "Crap, Duke we have to get our heads straight. The rays will pass in a month after they start."

Over the next month they jointly kept up with the preparations. As expected, a lot of people doubted the cover story, but oddly no one guessed at the truth. Both the left and the right wings kept coming up with conspiracy theories claiming that the real reason for the exercises was to enslave the public.

The thoroughly ignorant wondered why the government wasn't doing something to destroy errant asteroids as was done in the movies "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon". Exasperated, but patient government official had to keep repeating why the methods portrayed in those movies wouldn't work in real life.

While the physical work was being done stockpiling medicine and food, and preparing hardened sites for protecting important people, the VIP committee consisting of Duke, Sally and the cabinet secretaries Jackson, Williams and Gomez concentrated on the list of the necessary survivors. Farmers, engineers from all disciplines, physicists, chemists, medical personnel and mathematicians were at the top of the list.

The first draft was disproportionately Asian and Jewish given their prominence in the sciences and medicines. Everybody, including the female members Olsen and Williams, insisted on more females. If the cosmic catastrophe was bad enough to kill all of those that weren't completely protected against the rays, women would be more important to repopulate the world than males. Jackson complained about blacks being shortchanged and Gomez argued for more Latinos. After much haranguing and consulting data bases, the essential list was completed along with alternates for those on the list that wouldn't go to the shelters or were otherwise unavailable. The rest of the available safe spaces were filled by a random selection of those deemed young, healthy and multi-talented.

Aftermath

In most cities there was enough capacity in fairly well shielded buildings to shelter the urban population, but many people were not convinced to go to them. Many stayed home and many were outdoors when the cosmic rays hit earth. Previously appointed wardens moved as many as possible into some kind of shelter. When nothing else worked, the cosmic ray warning was used. There were so many skeptics, that the second class shelters weren't filled.

In most developed countries the majority of the population had some kind of shelter for the month of cosmic ray bombardment. Less developed countries were less lucky.

Assessment

For several months after the rays passed through there were no obvious health problems. Electronics recovered nicely. The major reaction was relief, but George Hughes, a celebrity trial lawyer, filed a class action suit against just about everyone involved in the planning. All of those involved in the planning had been indemnified against damages by executive order, so the suit was filed against the Federal Government. After both sides had their say, the Supreme Court threw out the suit, claiming that it did not have jurisdiction. Over a hundred websites were developed to claim that there was no increase in cosmic rays despite every reliable scientist acknowledging the major increase in rays.

After consulting with Hanley and Olsen, Burton gave a speech starting with "Yes we may have over-prepared, but would you have wanted us to under-prepare?" and went on to praise the work of the cosmic ray team.

Sally told Duke "Better than I predicted, worse than I hoped."

Julie Lanson, the secretary of Health and Human Services, decreed that a sample of those who had the most exposure to the rays should be medically examined. Of the three thousand that were examined, 20% were found to have cancer and all had changes to their DNA. From those statistics, she projected an extra 2.6 million would have cancer in the US alone. The increase in cancer shut up most of those that claimed there had never been excess cosmic rays, but created a health crisis around the world. For countries without much health care, the richer nations sent tons of pain killers because the richer nations had their hands full with their own health care.

Lanson instituted a triage approach to the cancer crisis. Those that had a good chance of a cure would get normal treatment. People with a possibility of recovery were put on a waiting list and those who were terminal were placed in hospice treatment. Given the huge influx of those to hospice treatment, a crash program to train hospice staff was initiated.

Not only humans had health problems. 17% of mammals that lived above ground died within three months of the bombardment, according to Under Secretary of Agriculture Jay Simmons. Other forms of animals either were underground or underwater, protected by scales or feathers or simply more resilient like the infamous cockroaches.

The effect on plant life was, in a word, ‘bizarre'. Some plants such as squash and cauliflower died out completely. The ‘supertasters' that could not stand the smell and taste of certain healthy foods were pleased, until they heard that seeds for all of the dead species were held in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and had not been harmed at all by the cosmic rays. Some tomatoes grew so large that their stems could not support them. An apple variety grew as large as cantaloupes. A few poisonous plants were no longer poisonous, and some that had not been were now. All animals and humans had to adjust to a moving target as to what was edible and what wasn't.

The initial media reaction was to proclaim that this was the worst disaster ever to hit the planet. The reputable fact checkers "Reality Inc" immediately started to research the claim and ended up classifying what came to be known as "The Bombardment" as only number seven on the all time worst list after some plagues, wars and influenza epidemics.

Bad Politics 1

The size of the catastrophe was enough to get the owner of the huge Lucky Penney casino in Las Vegas, Jason Atkins, to start another political party, Revolution. Atkins claimed that he would have handled the crisis much better than Burton, not knowing that Burton adhered to his hands off policy during the crisis. Atkins said he would have built underground caverns large enough to hold the whole US population. Despite the impossibility of his idea, he got a large following from the ignorant and the paranoid and he threatened to run against Burton in the next election.

As Atkins' following grew, President Burton called in Hanley and Olsen. "Let's be honest. I'm not too bright, but I've got a way with people. People love me from the time that I played "The Benevolent Billionaire" on TV ten years ago. As long as things are going well, I have my staff and cabinet officers handle things, and I get the credit. Everybody wins. I was fortunate to come into office when we were at peace and the economy was cruising along. The bombardment made it clear how useless I am and I don't want to sink to the level of that Atkins moron just to stay in office. My one great talent is evaluating people. Both of you are qualified to be president. If one of you is willing, I'll appoint you Vice President and then resign. Don't worry about Jenkins, he's tired of his do nothing job and wants to return to his family and start the Jenkins Foundation. Feel free to consult with him, but nobody else. Why don't you two talk it over and get back to me tomorrow."

Later, Sally started off with "I just want to go back to NASA. You'd be great as president and please don't think that I'm doing this for you. A scientist has never been a president for good reason. The people want someone who is a leader, not a thinker. Oops, I didn't mean that as insult. I mean someone who is not JUST a thinker."

"If I do this, I could appoint you to some office befitting you talents."

"Nope, when our relationship becomes public, you'd be charged with nepotism." They had become engaged during The Bombardment when they realized that they wanted to spend their lives together following their many previous romantic misadventures. Duke had made the mistake of marrying a woman that turned out to be a lesbian and Sally's success had led to her intimidating almost all men.

"I guess that some military men have made good presidents and some haven't. Nobody has done it since Eisenhower."

"Plus, it's too late to be the first woman president."

The call to the vice president affirmed that Jenkins was fully behind Burton's plan.

See The New Boss Different Than The Old Boss

The shuffle went smoothly. With Hanley as president, Atkins' appeal was blunted without having Burton as a target. Atkins was not smart enough to find out that Hanley was a major force behind the preparation for The Bombardment.

Bad Politics 2

With the myriad problems with the health of people, animals and plants, the Federal and State welfare bills increased by 50%. The discontent from the poor led to the "Eat The Rich" movement, which everyone assumed was metaphorical. Sandy Bernard's plan was to expropriate any business making more than a million dollars annually and run it by the government. As the new movement gained millions of followers, Duke became frightened about the total collapse of the country if Bernard prevailed. In desperation, he convened the titans of industry and the idle rich. He gave them an alternative: "You stick with me and we double your taxes and you donate half your liquid assets to charity, and you get to keep the rest. Try to block me on this and you get Bernard. Which is it?" Enough of them stuck with Duke to mitigate Bernard's appeal.

After thirteen months with no new threats and with the recovery going well, Duke got a call from Gomez saying "Super humans have taken over Eastern New Mexico."

Your storyteller Bill Bane enters the picture. I witnessed the rest of the story and I'll tell it as I witnessed most of it and was told the rest. My perspective changed a lot from pre to post impact.

For me it started with the announcement that there would be a worldwide drill to prepare for a possible asteroid impact in the next year. At the time, I assumed that it was more government lies. I didn't trust anything that I heard coming out of politicians or the lamestream press.

To be continued…

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