Hey, Rob here. For a long time now, there’s been the awareness that what happened to the dinosaurs – an extinction-level event caused by an asteroid impact – could happen again. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be a matter of if, but of when. A hundred years? A thousand years? A hundred thousand years? In the movies Armageddon and Deep Impact (both strangely released in the same year, 1998), we triumph over the threat by nuking a huge asteroid into pieces. In reality, a nuclear explosion as a planetary defense is potentially unpredictable. What if the asteroid doesn’t break into the pieces we’d like it to? So… fast forward to yesterday, November 23, 2021, and NASA launched a different kind of test: slamming a spacecraft into an asteroid to deflect its path, just a fraction of a percent, but enough to make a difference. The asteroid they’ve chosen is, unsurprisingly, not on a collision-course with Earth, so it poses no threat. I repeat: it poses no threat.
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Read the Story (1,850 words / 8-minute read):
“This Is Only A Test”
Written and narrated by Rob Dircks
Arnie and Will sat by the lake, throwing rocks in for no reason. It was still seventh period, but whatever. They were seniors. They could do whatever the hell they wanted.
“Okay. Worst old-school science fiction movie.”
“Oh man, that one’s too easy. Logan’s Run.”
“Wow, you’re digging deep there, but yes, I’d have to agree. That one totally sucked. I hereby establish that as Objective Truth. Okay, second-worst.”
Arnie picked up another rock, a big one this time, big enough where he had to stand up to heave it into the water. “Hmm. I think I’d have to go with Armageddon.”
“Dude. Armageddon? The classic with Bruce Willis?”
“Yeah. Sucked. Second worst. Come on. Asteroid heading on a collision course with Earth, and they send a bunch of misfit oil drillers up there to blow it up with nukes? And it splits into two perfect halves that barely clear the planet? And Bruce Willis? Really? The whole thing was stupid.”
“Wow. I’m hurt. You know that’s in my top three.”
“Whatever. It sucked.”
“Hey by the way, strangely enough, one of these days, right around now actually, NASA is doing that exact thing.” He looked up at the sky.
“What? Sending up a bunch of oil drill guys to nuke an asteroid?”
“Dude. Have you ever paid attention in Mister Abram’s class? We did that thing on the DART mission? NASA sent up a rocket last year that would slam into an asteroid, to test whether we could alter its path. You know, for when the real thing happens and we have to save Earth from an extinction-level impact.”
“…I don’t know… I vaguely remember…”
Will looked at his watch. “Anyway the strike was supposed to happen mid-October, I think. Shit, it could even be today.”
It was, in fact, today.
At that exact moment, two thousand miles east, in NASA’s Washington D.C. Headquarters, twelve people sat around a large conference table, staring intently at a wall of monitors.
“…Impact in sixty-three seconds…”
Director Lowell stood. “All right, folks. While we still have a few moments, I’d like to thank you all for making this historic mission a reality. We’re about to witness an engineering feat unimaginable even a decade ago. Asteroid Didymos will be pushed off its course – the first time ever man has altered the path of a heavenly body. Now, this is only a test, but nevertheless it’s a giant stride in progress toward protecting humanity from potential asteroid strikes or-“
A gasp from five of the engineers interrupted the director’s heartfelt speech.
“What? What just happened?”
“The asteroid, Director. Its trajectory has changed.”
Lowell searched the monitors for anything gasp-worthy. Just a bunch of graphs and lines of code, and a blurry video feed. He wasn’t that deep in the weeds on the technical stuff. “Well… that’s good news, right? That’s what it was supposed to do!” He smiled broadly. “Congratulations!” But the eleven others just stared, frozen.
“I don’t get it. Carter – what could possibly be the bad news?”
“We didn’t change it. The trajectory.”
“The kinetic impactor missed the target. It appears the asteroid…”
“… It swerved.”
Lowell searched his face for signs of a joke. Carter was known to prank colleagues here and there, though nothing this outrageous. That he’d heard about anyway. He grinned. “Okay, ha ha, you got me, fun time’s over.” But Carter just shook his head, frowning.
Lowell grabbed the back of a chair for support. “But… that’s impossible.”
“It would seem.”
At that exact moment, on the asteroid Didymous…
“What the hell just happened, Sorkesh?”
Sorkesh, a small – by human standards – being, about the size and shape of gummy bear, scuttled into the admiral’s warren. “Sir, yes sir, I’m just receiving reports, sir. The good news, it appears, is that we were able to swerve out of the way of an incoming anomaly.”
“Excellent. Just as we’ve planned for eons.” The admiral breathed a sigh of gratitude – well, not actually breathed, he released some toxins from his bowels – and reflected on the wisdom of all the past generations of Krishneks. They were perfectly evolved for life on Didymous, the perfect size and shape and respiratory functions and nutrition requirements, but Didymous itself was a tragedy waiting to happen. It wasn’t an if, but a when. It was only a matter of time before another small asteroid or space rock would threaten their very existence. And yet, thousands of years of wise choices and technological development had saved them. He patted Sorkesh on the head. “Ah, yes, excellent, the elders have foretold this day, and our systems worked perfectl- wait. Why do I feel like there’s a bad news in there?”
“Because there is.”
“Yes. The incoming anomaly was not the naturally occurring object we assumed might strike our home. It was… manufactured. By an intelligent species.”
“Oh dear! That means…”
“Unfortunately, sir, yes. It appears we’re under attack. By aliens.”
“Aliens? We’re not alone after all? Oh dear.” The admiral mustered his courage… “Well then, we must assume further attacks. It’s time to enact Directive Nine.”
“You mean eight, sir.”
“Ah, yes, yes, sorry. That’s what I meant. Eight. Is there a Directive Nine?”
“None that I’m aware of, sir.”
“Of course. I knew that. All right, Sorkesh, enact Directive Eight.”
And so the klaxons blared, and the gummy-bear-sized citizens of Didymous began to unearth the great, ancient gears of Directive Eight. It was time.
At that exact moment, back on Earth…
Director Lowell fled the frantic conference room, reporters trailing him, peppering him with questions, phones ringing, more phones than Lowell thought existed, and he turned at his office door, to face them all, and shouted, “No comment! And you’re not even supposed to be in this area! Security!” He bolted into his office and slammed the door.
Stumbling, shocked, to his window, he leaned his chin against the glass and looked up at the sky. What the fuck? Is there some law of physics we totally missed? Some force in the universe we’re unaware of, like anti-magnetism or something?
And, as happened with Lowell’s panic attacks, the thoughts kept coming, now wilder and wilder: Are we not alone after all? I mean, they told me all the alien stuff was bullshit, but was it? Asteroids don’t just swerve, right? Or did some higher power do this?
Is there a God?
The red phone on his desk bleeped.
Lowell took a deep breath. I know it’s the red phone, but red phone doesn’t automatically mean bad news. Everything’s going to be okay. It’s something stupid, I’m sure of it. He tapped the speaker. “Okay, Carter. Tell me you have good news, like it’s an error in our sensors. Something that makes sense.”
“Damn. Okay, just tell me.”
“We can’t explain the swerve yet, we’re working on it. But there’s something else.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake.”
“The asteroid, Director… it’s now heading directly toward Earth.”
Lowell fell into his chair. “And?”
“Um. There is no ‘and.’”
“Okay. Listen. We can get unit two up there in four months. Three months if we push like crazy. That’s plenty of time.”
“Carter, I’m not the most technical guy, but even I know that three months is plenty of time.”
“Director Lowell – Tom – it’s accelerating. It’ll be here in five weeks.”
Lowell tapped the speaker off. And a strange calm settled over him. He was puzzled at first, he should be flipping out to the power of a zillion right now, off the charts, but then he realized: there was suddenly nothing to worry about anymore. His future was sealed.
But just in case, he took out a pad and wrote a note:
You know how I feel about you, but if you’re actually listening, it would be great if you could intervene and somehow make this all go away.
At that exact moment, unknown to the people of Earth, who were busy gasping in despair, facing certain annihilation, and unknown to the gummy-bear-like Krishneks, who had pointed their home suicide-mission style toward their attackers and were now scrambling for their escape ark, a much, much larger being – and by much, much larger I mean larger than you’re probably imagining – was in distress. Enough distress to make an urgent appointment with his doctor. The pain was excruciating. He was certain he was going to die.
“Well, I have good news.”
“Give me the bad news first, Doc.”
“Why would you think there’s bad news?”
“There’s always bad news.”
“I’m sorry. No bad news. It’s just some microorganisms fighting with each other in your gut. The larger ones attack the smaller ones, then the smaller ones turn around and suicide mission back into the larger ones. The technical name for it is asteroidism: all those little microorganism explosions create an accumulation of gas in the G.I. tract. From your perspective, it can feel like you’re going to die. But I can assure you, Bob, you’re not going anywhere. You’ll be fine. It was gas.”
“Gas? Ugh. Really? God, I’m embarrassed.”
“No need to be embarrassed. Happens to everyone. All the millions of little life and death battles going on daily in our bodies can knock us off our feet.” He hands Bob a small bottle. “Just take this pill for three days and that’ll be the end of it all.”
I hope you enjoyed that short story. And thank you again for tuning in to Listen To The Signal. I’m Rob Dircks, author of the Where the Hell is Tesla? science fiction series, The Wrong Unit, and the #1 Audible Bestselling novel, You’re Going to Mars!
Copyright ©2021 Rob Dircks