The universe doesn’t care about you. Plain and simple. We live in a place with no thought for human comfort. The cosmos is one mind-bogglingly ginormous place and most of this is unsympathetically empty and frigid. It’s chock full of violence — galaxies smash into each out, ripping solar systems apart like ravenous dogs shredding hamburger meat; or stars detonate, flinging gamma ray bursts with ten billion years of solar energy packed into one atomic punch. Happy times.
Now, the universe isn’t after you personally, like some mobster with a vendetta. But it’s also not going to be your chum, buying you an ice cream when you skin your knee. It simply doesn’t give a fig.
Harold Beechum, however, adores figs. At least when they’re baked into those yummy cookies named after the famous seventeenth-century physicist. He understands the boundless ambivalence of the cosmos, at least as it pertains to his duties with NASA. Harold is a solitary man, working alone from a one bedroom apartment with no air conditioning and a blighted bonsai tree.
Well, not totally alone. There’s also the cat — a Russian blue named Tycho. But let’s be honest, the two exist more as co-tenants than owner and pet (or even man and furry friend). Tycho, like the universe at large, remains entirely indifferent.
Harold often considers his existence a paradox on par with Schrodinger and his famous “cat in a box” experiment (though he never mentions this to Tycho, for obvious reasons). Sometimes, Harold feels both alive and dead, a state of quantum superposition — his life both meaningful, with tiny nibbles of joy, and at the same time utterly without value or consequence.
Each time Harold waters his anemic bonsai, the liquid dribbles out, tinted a draub chartreuse like a moldering pear. “Maybe it’ll get better,” he mumbles as he rubs his balding head.
Life goes on.
Until one day, it doesn’t.
You see, Harold’s assignment with NASA is to scan computer images of the vast expanse surrounding our planet — noting, assessing, and cataloguing Near Earth Objects. Not a single time, in his twelve year career goggling million-dollar Poleroids of the heavens, has he ever found a single specimen to warrant the dreaded label of PHO (Potentially Hazardous Object).
He completes these quotidian tasks from the comfort of his living room, such are the wonders of the modern internet. And one evening, while snacking on a particularly scrumptious fig cookie — Harold loves to dunk them in over-milked tea until the flaky coating goes all soft and mushy — he sees it.
The mother of all Near Earth Objects.
This asteroid blasts right past PHO, descending into DHO territory (Definitely Hazardous Object), and perhaps even touching upon EEPBTMDEILLPTO (Everyone on Earth will Perish Because This Makes the Dinosaur-Ending Impact Look Like a Pebble Tossed in the Ocean).
And the asteroid homes in on our lovely blue planet like a toddler charging toward a cupcake, ready to dig its fingers into our atmospheric frosting and tectonic sponge cake.
Not years away, but weeks.
Of course Harold notified his supervisor at NASA, Chris Castor, who at first doubts the asteroid’s existence. How could such a massive object escape detection for so long?
It’s true that the asteroid in question, dubbed The Castor after the one who discovered it (or at least filed the paperwork), is composed of a substance so dark and dense it emits only scant amounts of infrared radiation. Also true, the asteroid’s surface reflects so little visible light, it’s rendered nearly invisible against the night sky. However, the real reason no other tracking station had noticed the soon-to-be-slamming-into-Earth killer asteroid had more to do with a certain television series streaming for the past six months. Simply everybody glued their rear ends to couches to watch. And when the show wasn’t on, the digital watercooler buzzed with theories and conjectures. So much collective brain power encircled this subject, it cocooned humanity against any outside thought or dilemma. In short, for half a year, the human race was vicariously satisfied.
Harold does not own a television set. He contents himself with Jazz records and the odd book on poetry.
Why didn’t he see it sooner? you ask.
Well, he’s only one man and the universe, as we’ve pointed out earlier, is a mighty large place.
Thus, instead of the decades notice NASA expected for such a catastrophe, they are now presented with a few meager months before impact. Their taxpayer-funded, meticulously-annotated contingency plans are left to collect dust on a shelf.
In the fleeting weeks remaining for humanity, bureaucrats squabble for a solution. (How could they possibly be reelected when their constituents will soon be vaporized?) The stock market roller-coasters, at one point plummeting lower than the 1929 drop, although the capitalists continue to rake it in with anti-asteroid kits while bunker installations skyrocket. The pious blame everything on the wicked sins of the godless. Sermons of “I told you so” reverberate for any ear willing to listen. The skeptics deny the whole kit and kaboodle — churning out evidence that Castor simply manufactured the threat to install a nefarious new world order. Crowds stampede Area 51 in hopes that some sequestered alien doodad might stop the hurling death rock in its tracks.
Also, there is much fornication.
China takes action early, launching nuclear warheads at the asteroid with the intent of knocking the behemoth from its apocalyptic trajectory. The Castor swallows up their thermonuclear efforts without so much as a hiccup. The United States attempts a targeted strike at structural weak points with satellite-mounted laser arrays (because Americans excel at destroying things). However, the composition of the celestial world-ender is such that it absorbs and redistributes energy. Thus, what is intended as a planetoid-shattering beam of destruction, only fizzles against the inert surface of The Castor — still very much earthward bound.
Scientists plead for help from every quarter. Everyone and anyone with an idea. Even our lowly Harold Beechum.
He ponders the oncoming doomsday while watering his feeble bonsai. Tycho gives him a condescending glare from a high bookshelf. Perhaps the cat rebukes Harold for not finding a solution faster. On the other hand, it might resent him for buying the bargain brand rather than Fancy Feast. Such are the mysteries of the cat mind.
Now, this is the point in the story where the protagonist comes up with a thrilling, last-minute solution. But what if he doesn’t? What if Harold Beechum has hero-block and simply can’t muster up a saving-the-day Hail Mary?
As it turns out, he is stuck. Every postulation and imagined scheme scuttles before it leaves the shore. If the world’s great minds can’t solve this quandary, what can he hope to accomplish?
And Harold is tired. His tea has simmered to tepid temperatures. The world will end and he can’t do a darned thing about it. So he sets down his watering can (the tray beneath the bonsai filled to the brim with murky yellow liquid). Then, reaching for his plate of fig cookies, he suddenly sees it.
The cookie is the solution.
Harold immediately phones his superior, Chris Castor. But the phone goes straight to voicemail, which the computer system states is full. A great many people have called Mr. Castor in the past few weeks, issuing diatribes on his incompetence and general loathsomeness.
He finally reaches an intern (a young go-getter by the name of Rosalinda), who not only understands Harold’s proposition but has the wherewithal to make it happen.
In short, the plan to save humanity, has less to do with figs and everything to do with the cookie coating. Our Earth-killing asteroid, The Castor, simply slurps up every bit of energy directed at it. So what Harold realized, as he reached for his favorite nibbling confectionary, is the asteroid could be laminated in a substance that would be reactive — a sort of “cookie-coating” around the space projectile.
And NASA (after it realizes the world might not be smashed to bits quite so soon) gets right on it. Harold works alongside Rosalinda and a third-act romance buds between the two. She loves his balding pate (or at least she tells him so in sotto voce whispers, nestled in the shadowy confines of a broom closet).
They oversee the polymer coating for The Castor. The Chinese team up with the United States, launching a coordinated effort of thermonuclear detonations and targeted laser strikes (a landmark in Sino-American diplomacy). Together, the effort succeeds in nudging the asteroid off course (now barreling straight for Mars, but hey, the Solar System has plenty of planets, what’s one more?).
Bottom line, Earth is saved.
Harold Beechum’s name flashes across television screens and the internet. For one whole week. After all, the end of the world is yesterday’s news. That certain television series will start its second season in a month. And much of the laudation for the saving of Earth veers toward Rosalinda (who brokers a book deal and launches a world-wide media tour).
Harold retires to his one bedroom apartment. The superintendent of the building promises to install air conditioning, but his well-meaning gestures get lost in the shuffle of day-to-day tenant management.
Still, Harold has his tea. And Tycho snuggles up to him (as cats are wont to do). Every once in a while their desires overlap, so that cat and man are able to make each other content.
The phone rings.
A flotilla of alien vessels has been spotted, hidden by the silhouette of The Castor. These interlopers have already vaporized the International space station and batted away our weaponized satellites.
This news is so hot-out-of-the-oven fresh that not even the media have sniffed the delicious scent of the story.
“Mr. Beeker,” Chris Castor implores (he never could keep Harold’s name in his mental filing cabinet). “There’s so little time to stop it. What can we do?”
After a three minute plea, in which Mr. Castor does all the talking, Harold Beechum hangs up the phone. Tycho is curled up on his lap, tail wrapped around head, purring. Plucking up the watering can, Harold pours a little on the sickly bonsai tree and the liquid dribbles out the bottom, collecting in the tray.
“Maybe it’ll get better.”
Tim Kane enjoys traveling to the dark places of his mind and bringing back souvenirs. You can reach him at timkanebooks.com