Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Death of the World

My plan had been to add stories, reviews, and even a list of science fiction conventions to this blog on a regular basis, but I didn't plan on a hard drive crash or AOL deciding that I owed them money. I've been fighting with them for the last six weeks and the latest was that there was nothing to do to resolve the problem they had created. I told them that I could switch my home page to whatever server pleased me but that made no dent in their last position. There was nothing they could do to resolve the problem they had created.
But enough of that. I'll try to add things more frequently, as I get them ready. This next story is one that I wrote in one short sitting, almost as fast as I could type it. I "dreamed" it up one night and got up the next morning and put it down. The dream didn't translate to the computer screen exactly but the modifications were few.
I have never had much luck with short fiction and have only sold a few stories to various publications. I might be the only writer to ever publish a science fiction story in a magazine called Combat Illustrated... but hey, you take the sale where you can get it.
One other point about this story. Since I wrote it, I had the chance to watch a documentary on the History Channel that dealt with meteoric impacts and one of the ways the world, as we humans know it, might end. Their scenario differs from this one, but the two run in parallel.
And as they used to say on HBO... "And now, TSFS presents the original story, Death of the World..."
So, what do you do when you know the day you’ll die and you can do nothing to alter it? No, I’m not talking about a condemned killer or a cancer patient with weeks to live hanging over his head. I’m talking about a much more wide ranging event that will be a disaster for the whole world. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

I have always had a fondness for the military and the moment I was old enough, I joined the Army. This was back when there was a draft and teenagers were being inducted into the military with great regularity. If you planned on college, then you could get a deferment, if you wanted. If you were female, you didn’t have to worry at all, gender being a deciding factor. But if you were young, in the middle class or poor, hadn’t really thought about college, didn’t know about the concept of a safety school, and found yourself graduated from high school, then you were prime cannon fodder.

No, not everyone in such a state would be drafted, but you certainly had none of the protections of those others. Friends had told me of warrant officer flight training which meant the Army would take high school graduates, even those who had just turned eighteen, and make them helicopter pilots. With the Vietnam War heating up and helicopters being one of the things the Army was promoting, it wasn’t difficult to get a slot for training. Staying in, because the Army needed pilots badly, wasn’t difficult, and activities that would have seen you tossed from the program six months earlier were now just another way to get demerits but not find yourself on the outside wondering what happened.

So I made it through flight school and like everyone else in my class, with a single exception, found myself with orders to Vietnam. I had hoped, through school, that the civilians would find a way to end the war before I was called, but, of course they failed. After all, they weren’t going and most of their families wouldn’t be going. Just people like me with no political clot and no real thoughts of self-preservation. I just sort of wandered into this and could think of no real way to get out.

The interesting thing here, see, was that I hadn’t really been thinking beyond the next few weeks, and like every other soldier, didn’t see myself as being one of the unlucky ones to get killed. That was something that happened to others. I’d just drift along, happy, doing what I had been trained to do, and then go home with a pocket full of war stories to impress my fellow students at the bar. I had realized my mistake and college was now clearly in my sights.

One night, sitting in the officer’s club, which was a run down building that had lights strung near the ceiling, walls that were mostly screen and an overhead fan that did nothing but rotate slower than an elephant trying to dance, there were several officers from another unit visiting. Men we didn’t really know, but for some reason found themselves in our club, drinking our cheap booze, and talking to us about their unique experiences.

One of the men, an older guy, maybe about thirty, maybe not that old, wearing faded jungle fatigues which meant he’d been in-country for a while, with the pistoleer moustache, shaggy hair, and attitude of a short-timer, meaning his tour was winding down, got drunk with us. Gripping a glass of bourbon like one of us would try to steal it, he leaned forward and said the most provocative thing.

He said, "I’m not from here."

And I said, "My neither. I’m from Colorado."

So he said, "No, I mean from this time."

Well, I wasn’t very experienced, just having turned 19, but I knew a line when I heard it. Science fiction was fun and I read as much as I could, but here was a guy claiming to be a time traveler. Well, I thought that was what he was claiming, and I didn’t believe him... then.

Martin Cadiz, who was only slightly older than me but who was losing his hair which was bleached almost white, whose attempt at a moustache failed because his hair was so light you could barely see his eyebrows, let alone the moustache, said, somewhat drunkenly, "I don’t understand that."

He said, "I come from the future."

At which point Cadiz leaned back, laughed out loud and said, sarcastically "And I come from the past."

The conversation was taking on a Dickensonian flavor, which was really odd for a bunch of drunken and horny soldiers because the topics usually ran to women and tales from the land of the big PX and the all night generator, which meant in soldier talk, the United States, and, of course women.

He said, slurring the words slightly, and then stopping to reform the thought and speaking precisely, "I can prove it."

"Of course you can," I said.

He leaned in, looked around as if he was worried about spies, and said, "President Kennedy will be assassinated on November 22, 1963 in Dallas. You wait and see." He leaned back, grinning.

"That happened six years ago," I said.

The look on his face changed and then he grinned again. "Oh, yes. I forgot. We jumped forward."

"Me too," said Cadiz.

"Okay. Okay," he said. "The space shuttle Challenger will blow up about seventy seconds after launch in January, 1986. There."

"I don’t know what a space shuttle is," said Cadiz.

"That’s what, seventeen years in the future," I said. "Tell me whose going to win the Rose Bowl this year."

"I don’t know what the Rose Bowl is," he said.

That, I believed then, was a ridiculous thing to say. How could you be an American and not know what the Rose Bowl is? It’s embedded in the culture, like TV dinners, Fords, and Albert Einstein. I mean, you might not care for football or understand anything about the game, but you would know about the Rose Bowl.

"So tell us something that will happen soon."

He leaned back, glanced up at the ceiling as if seeking divine inspiration and said, "Richard Nixon will resign after Watergate."

Well, I knew who Nixon was since he was president but I didn’t know what the Watergate was or that it would eventually become the standard for scandal with everything having "gate" hung on the end of it.

Now that he was talking, we couldn’t shut him up. He said, "You want to get rich, look for a company called Microsoft in the what, 1980s, and buy stock in it. Just a little will make you rich. Buy a lot and retire."

He said, "Ronald Reagan will be president and he’ll surprise people. Bill Clinton will be president and he’ll surprise people with an intern. George Bush will be president twice but we think there were two of them. We’re not sure."

"Well," I said, "if you come from the future, why wouldn’t you know if there were two of them?"

He leaned forward and said, "Fair question. Fair question. Our records are incomplete."

Back then, at nineteen, I didn’t realize how complete records in the future would become. I didn’t know about the Internet, or computers or electronic data storage, but I did know that in the Army I had filled out papers for what seemed like days. Everything we did was documented six ways from Sunday and those documents always seemed to return to haunt us.

"How can your records be incomplete?"

"Fair question," he said again. Then dropping it casually into the conversation, he added, "An asteroid, the size of Mount Everest will hit San Diego on June 12, 2016. The devastation will be worldwide and civilization will collapse in the weeks to follow."

My first reaction was to laugh. I mean, people had been predicting the end of the world for centuries. This was a new variation and it wouldn’t be until the 1970s that I would learn about the cataclysmic event 65 million years ago that created what scientists would call an extinction level event. Here this guy had just dropped into conversation the precise date of an extinction level event.

I thought I saw the logical flaw in this even though I had been drinking as much bourbon as he had, and said, "Well, if civilization collapses and everyone dies, where do you come from?"

"There will be survivors and eventually civilization reappears."

Cadiz took a deep breath and said, "This has been entertaining for a while but now it’s boring. I think I’ll go."

He stood up unsteadily, almost fell, and then staggered toward the door. He didn’t look back. Three weeks later he was killed when his aircraft was shot down near what we called the Parrot’s Beak on the Saigon River. So much for corroboration.

In Vietnam, it didn’t take much to entertain us, so I sat there, wondering how far he would take this charade of his. I asked, "What else do you know?"

"The United States will launch a war against Iraq at the beginning of the next century. Another space shuttle, Colombia will disintegrate on reentry. A mountain in Washington will blow up providing just a little clue about what is coming. Computers will be the big thing and everyone will have one or two. Europe will form an economic partnership and the Soviet Union will collapse in 1991."

I waved that away thinking of it as political events and asked, "So how do I become rich?"

"Computers are the key. Learn about them. Invest in them. But be careful of the dot coms. Lots of people will lose a lot of money in the dot com bust."

He rattled on like that for a while but I grew tired of it. I finally said, "It would be nice if you could prove it now."

He said, "Ho Chi Minh will die this summer and your president Nixon will announce troop withdrawals, but he’ll keep the war going until 1972. Then, just before the election, he’ll announce, or Henry Kissinger will announce a peace agreement."

"Fine. This summer I’ll learn if your prediction is right, though Ho is getting up there in years so saying that he’ll die soon isn’t much of a prediction." I smiled to myself thinking that I was pretty clever, thinking of that through the fog of alcohol.

He leaned back, twisted around slightly and dug into his pocket. He pulled out a handful of coins and dropped them on the table. This was odd because when we arrived in-country we had converted all our money into MPC which was Army money printed to help stabilize the local economies or some such nonsense. Anyway, we didn’t have any real American money. He sorted through the coins and pushed a quarter at me.

"Look at the back."

I turned it over and saw, not the eagle, but a scene of some kind. I flipped and saw Washington, but not the picture I was used to. This was a different Washington and the date was 1999.

"Nice piece of work," I said. "But this isn’t a real quarter."

"Sure it is. They’ll change the design to celebrate the new millennium. Each state will have it’s own."

"So I wait until then to see if you’re right about this."

"No. Look at the date man."

"Nice prop," I said finally. "Where’d you get it?"

I could see by the look on his face that he didn’t like the question and I knew that the answer was that it was counterfeit. He’d had it made so that he could convince people about his story. Here was a con-man, pure and simple, though I didn’t know who he was trying to con or for what purpose. Maybe he was just scamming drinks. Cadiz had bought a round and I had. I couldn’t remember if the guy had or not.

One of the guys at the bar, a man I didn’t recognize turned and said, "Jason, you about ready?"

The man scooped the money up and dropped it back into his pocket. He stood and said, "Sure."

I wished I had tried to snag that strange quarter. Then it would have been an interesting conversation piece. Today, it would have been one of a kind because it was the first of those quarters I ever saw. When the government announced the minting of those coins at the end of the 1990s, I felt little. There had already been so many confirmations of what that guy said that one more meant nothing to me.

He, with his two friends, walked to the door and disappeared into the night.

Davis, one of the commissioned officers, a captain who was nearing his DEROS, which was his date of estimated return from overseas, dropped into the chair vacated by the man. He asked, "What were you two talking about?"

"The future," I said.

"Yeah? That guy," he stopped and pointed at the door, "was asking about the war."

"You mean gathering intelligence?"

"Nope, just general questions. Strange, it was like he didn’t have the basic knowledge and was trying to gather it."

I laughed then. "Well, it takes all kinds. The conversation was interesting for a while."

Davis stood up and said, "I’m off to bed."

So I sat there and thought about writing down the predictions the man had made. I had once gathered, from the tabloid newspapers and magazines, the predictions made for the coming year to see how many times the psychics were right. This was just one more exercise in that "research." But the truth was, I was tired, slightly drunk, and didn’t really care.

And when Ho Chi Minh died that summer, I didn’t think much of it because he was an old man. And when Nixon announced troop reductions, my only reaction was that I would get to go home ten days earlier than I had thought. Nixon had lopped ten days off my countdown to DEROS.

But then Kissinger went to Paris and days before the 1972 election announced that he’d achieved peace with hononr with the North Vietnam. And then, there was a break-in at the Watergate in Washington that kept expanding until Nixon was forced to resign. And then Mount St. Helens in Washington blew up. So I began looking for a company called Microsoft so that I could put every dime I could scrape up into it. I invested heavily, worried that my money would float away on someone else’s dream, but then the Challenger exploded 70 seconds after lift off and I knew that my money was safe.

Everything the man had told me was coming true. It was as if he had read a history book written a hundred years in the future. He knew what was going to happen and he told me. And by 1990, I believed him. I didn’t need to see the quarter design change, or the war in Iraq to know that he knew the future.

Then I thought about something else. Why would that guy, a traveler from the future tell me, a nineteen-year-old kid about his time travels? Why would he give me the glimpses into the future he had? Why work so hard to convince me he was from the future when, if he really was a time traveler, it made more sense to keep that information to himself? But more importantly, why tell me to look for Microsoft and to hint about the future of computers?

By the 1990s, scientists had learned about the layer of iridium in what is known as the K-T boundary. Below that layer, you find fossils of dinosaurs. Above it, there are none. Iridium is an extremely rare element that is most common in meteorites. To produce a worldwide layer of iridium, something huge had to smash into the Earth, in this case about 65 million years ago. It created that extinction level event that the man had talked about.

In the 1990s, after a comet, Shoemaker-Levy Nine, broke up and smashed into Jupiter causing damage that was unbelievable, scientists began looking seriously for Earth crossing asteroids, mapping the skies and charting their orbits. Plans were drawn up with an eye to preventing one of these massive things from hitting the Earth and causing global destruction. Given the history of the planet, it seems to be something we should take seriously.

So now that I have hundreds of millions of dollars, based on my investments in Microsoft and computers, and my dodging the dot com bust because I finally knew what dot com meant, I can fund research. I can help those who are looking for the Earth crossing asteroids. I know that an asteroid, large enough to be detected before it slams into the Earth on June 12, 2016 can be spotted. I know that I can gently nudge some of those scientists into looking in the right place to spot this asteroid, and once it is spotted, things can be done.

I have about a decade to get this thing found and convince the president to do something about it. I have a decade to make sure research goes in the right direction so that when this asteroid is spotted, and because we are looking for it, we’ll be able to push it off its path or destroy it so that there won’t be global destruction.

Thinking about this all these years, I’ve decided that the man was there, in our officer’s club to give me this information. No, I don’t mean me specifically, but some of us, so that we would be able to prepare. I would bet that they flooded the Earth with these people, studying their past and giving some of us a glimpse of our future. Their mission, was not historical in nature, it was preventative. They were giving us fair warning. I just hope that I can get the right people to listen.

1 comment:

becki said...

do I know you?
I'm in Atkins