BY CHRISTOPHER RONALD GAILER
James parked his car in his usual spot at the observatory. He liked to park in the farthest corner so that he would have to walk the last hundred metres to the door. This meant at least a little exercise in his otherwise sedentary day.
A black snake slithered gently through the grass just outside the compound. It hissed at James, its forked tongue protruding as a warning not to come near. However, it could not enter the compound through the electrified fence. It hissed again and this time James thought the hiss almost sounded human, like a word spoken softly.
He noticed his associate's car parked close to the door. He had arrived early and had opened up the observatory. Peter had been an exemplary assistant and a good friend. They shared a passion for astronomy. His wife, Margaret, was Peter's sister so they met up at family functions as well.
Now, however, James was more focused on his work. He had found a new comet in the southern sky and had been tracking it over the past few days. This was an unusually large comet. James had estimated the nucleus to be approximately 3000 km in diameter making it almost the size of the moon. James had calculated that it would pass closest to the earth in about 20 days. It should make for some spectacular night viewing, James surmised, its tail arcing across the sky.
He logged onto the internet and looked at the news headlines: 'Iran Joins Forces with Lebanon, Troops Massed on Lebanese-Israeli Border'; 'UN Condemns Actions of Iran and Lebanon'; 'US President Warns That They Will Intervene'.
“Looks like another war brewing in the Middle East,” James told Peter. He shook his head. “Will there ever be peace in that region?”
“There is always strife over there. No one seems to like the Jews.” Peter replied. “As long as the war is over there it doesn't really affect us.”
James then checked his emails: There was a reminder from Margaret that it was their oldest son's birthday on Saturday and that he had promised to be home in time; an invitation from the Australian Astronomical Society for him to speak at their next function and an email from NASA. He opened this email and read:
‘Discovery of new comet confirmed. As you discovered the comet, it will be named after you.’
James gave a wry smile and turned to Peter. “They are naming the comet after me.”
Peter replied with a laugh. “Does this mean you will be flying by every few decades, or every few millennium? What will Margaret think of your prolonged absences?”
James ignored Peter's jibes but dwelt on the name of his new-found comet: Wormwood
James calculated what should be the present coordinates of the comet using the speed and trajectory they had measured the previous night. He aimed the radio telescope into the night sky and found nothing. He recalculated the coordinates and came up with the same figures. Allowing for a 0.5% degree of error he shifted the telescope to track either side of these coordinates: Again Nothing.
He called Peter over. “Can you check these coordinates with me?”
Peter looked them over, did a quick calculation and confirmed that the coordinates were correct.
“Then why can't I find the comet?” James was becoming frustrated. “I should be able to see it, but instead there is nothing.”
Peter checked the screen and could not find the comet either. “Perhaps it has burned up.”
“A comet that of that magnitude? Not overnight, particularly given its distance from the sun.”
“Let me see if I can find it” said Peter, “but if I do perhaps NASA should rename it after me. After all, you lost it.” Peter gave James a wry smile.
“I don't think NASA will change the name so Wormwood it stays.” said James. “Besides, who is in charge around here, and who originally found it.”
“Alright, you don't have to pull rank on me.” Peter started searching the night skies, moving the position of the telescope by 0.1° each time. He finally found it 9.4° from where it should have been.
“It seems that Wormwood has changed trajectory.” said Peter
“How could that be?” replied James. “Comet's don't just change trajectory. There would have to be some sort of gravitational pull.”
“Maybe it came close to a planet and was pulled into its gravitational force.”
“I don't think so; the trajectory I calculated yesterday took it no where near any planet in our solar system.”
“Then I have only one explanation.” Peter paused. “It was the hand of God.”
“There is no such thing as God.” James scoffed. “God is only for the superstitious. Now let’s stop this nonsense and work out where Wormwood's new trajectory will take it.”
James compared Wormwood's present coordinates with the previous coordinates to calculate its new trajectory and speed. He then extrapolated the figures and fed them into his computer.
“Oh my God!” James screamed.
“You just said that you don’t believe in God.” Peter turned to see James’s whole body shaking.
“What's wrong?” Peter inquired
“Wormwood will collide with Earth in nine days.”
Peter checked James' calculations, and then rechecked them. They were horrifyingly correct. If only they could be wrong. Just this once. But each time they checked the trajectory and fed it into the computer it came to the same undeniable conclusion. In just nine days this huge mass of ice and rock would collide with the Earth. There was no escape. The comet would begin to burn as it passed through the atmosphere but it would still be a mass at least the size of the continent of Africa when it struck the earth.
James reflected on what such a collision would mean. No life within a 5000km radius of the epicentre of the collision would survive. A mass that size could push Earth's orbit closer to the sun. The Polar Caps would melt causing world-wide flooding of coastal plains. Much of humanity lived in coastal cities so the death toll would be massive. Many islands would disappear.
The Earth's fault lines would become unstable. Earth quakes would devastate many of our cities; Tsunamis would cause further destruction to coastal areas and even extend inland. Previously inactive volcanoes would become active. Towns and villages previously thought to be safe would be buried in lava and ash.
The ozone layer would become depleted leaving no protection from the sun's radiation. This would cause spontaneous fires to erupt around the world and take out much of the plant and animal life that had survived the initial impact. Any people that had survived the initial impact, the consequent flooding, fires and seismic activity would quickly run out of food sources. The water would become too rancid to drink. Chances of survival beyond a few months would be small. Even then, chances are that they will die from multiple skin cancers. In short, humanity, indeed all life on this planet would only have a few months at best.
James phoned NASA and asked for the Director, Andrew Johnson. The receptionist asked his name and the nature of his business.
“James Wormwood, Astronomer from the Tidbinbilla Tracking Station, Australia. I need to speak to Andrew immediately; it is a matter of utmost urgency.”
The receptionist put him through and Andrew's voice came on the line. “James, I know what you're ringing about. Your comet has changed trajectory and is on a collision course with Earth. I've been in touch with the Secretary of State and the White House is in a panic.”
“What can we do about it?” James was frantic.
“We are looking at the option of launching nuclear warheads at it.”
James considered this. “You know that there is no guarantee of a nuclear strike being effective on a mass this size.” James hesitated as he collected his thoughts, “and even if it did cause the comet to explode, it would only break up into a number of large pieces which will probably still collide with Earth, but more widespread. You must also consider that each piece would contaminate the area on which it fell with nuclear fallout. We would still see destruction on a global scale.”
“I know that and I have told the heads of defence of the risks involved. They still want to give it a go.”
“Is there nothing else we can do?” asked James
“Apart from praying for mercy or some kind of a miracle, there is nothing else we can do.” Andrew replied soberly. “The comet has changed course once, perhaps it will do so again, but I doubt it. It’s too close now and the earth’s gravitational forces won’t let it go. I must go now; I have to meet with the Secretary of State in half an hour.” Andrew hung up the phone leaving James to contemplate the only option that had been put forward.
James put the phone down and buried his head in his hands He felt there was no hope left. The chances of a nuclear strike destroying this comet were next to nothing. He contemplated what this would mean, the end of humanity and possibly the destruction of Earth. His heart felt heavy, it was as though the weight of the world was upon it. He looked up as Peter offered him a cup of coffee.
“No thanks Peter, we may as well pack up and go home to our families. We may only have a few days left to enjoy them. There seems to be no hope left for us.”
As James approached his car he once more saw the black snake slithering toward him. It had somehow got inside the compound and James wondered if the electrified fence was working. The snake once more hissed a sound like a human word. This time James heard it clearly: “GOTCHA.”
'The third angel sounded his trumpet and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water – the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.'
Rev 8: 10-11 NIV
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