CHAPTER 1 - PAN-STARRS
THE OUTER OORT CLOUD - TWO MILLION YEARS BEFORE PRESENT
The comet drifted silently in its long, lonely orbit about the tiny, intensely bright pinprick of light that lay close to six trillion miles away. Here, in the very outermost reaches of the solar system, at the very limit of the gravitational attraction of an unremarkable yellow dwarf star that would someday be simply known as the Sun, the comet, and trillions of others like it, moved almost imperceptibly in an interstellar deep freeze.
The comet had been born much closer to the star that it now circled. Baptized by fire, it spent its tumultuous infancy being pummeled about by its siblings. Slowly growing with every impact, for thousands of years it continued to accrete dust, then rock, and, as it slowly moved further away from its parent star, more exotic chemicals and compounds. These growing pains went on for close to four hundred million years.
If it had eyes and a brain, it would have noticed some of its siblings growing massively huge...so big, in fact, that their own gravity finally crushed them into spherical shapes as they continued to pull in and consume their smaller neighbors. If it could feel emotion, it may have felt alarm, then fear, as the largest of these new monsters fell into a celestial dance as they orbited the parent star, causing gravitational tsunamis to surge through the solar system over and over again, until the very largest of these massive, gas-covered spheres actually began migrating inward, flinging smaller bodies in every direction with its brutal gravity.
The comet was an early victim - seized by the monsters steely grip and hurled away, along with millions of its siblings. Along the way it encountered a smaller body that had also been caught by the gaseous gravitational bully and tossed aside - but this one wasn't a sibling of the comet, but rather, a cousin - smaller, but made of much denser material. Even as they sped away from the warmth of their parent star, they fell into their own gravitational dance, circling each other around a common center.
For millions of years the pair - the larger comet and its smaller asteroid companion - sailed outward, away from the chaos that was taking place below them in what would later be named the Late Heavy Bombardment. Finally, the tenuous grip of the stars gravity was finally able to slow their outward progress, and the pair settled into a leisurely orbit, having traveled so far from their parent that its light took almost a year to reach them.
The light was an intensely bright pinprick, but offered no heat. Together the pair drifted, two among trillions in a cosmic icebox that would someday be named after the human astronomer, Jan Oort, that first suggested that such a place could exist. Taking millions of years to complete one circuit, the pair remained undisturbed for over four billion years. The asteroid became a frozen lump of rock and metal, coated with a thin sheen of impossibly cold chemical compounds - but the comet continued to grow. Even out here, in an interstellar no-mans land, the comet was able to attract elements, one atom at a time. Hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen - for four billion years it grew. Its home, the Oort Cloud, was a lonely place. Aside from its companion, the comets nearest neighbors were almost eight hundred million miles away. And so, for billions of years, it continued to add elements and compounds, undisturbed - until a celestial intruder paid a visit.
The brown dwarf - too big to be a planet, but too small to be a star - had drifted in its orbit around the Galactic Core, along with trillions of other objects - stars, other brown dwarfs, and rogue planets. Its journey finally caused it to brush against the Oort Cloud, but in the vastness of interstellar space, it only came close to one insignificant object.
To be fair, it wasn't exactly a "close encounter." The brown dwarf never came closer to the comet than the Earth does to the planet Venus. Still, the comet was nudged by the gravity of the brown dwarf, and the internal heat generated by the brown dwarfs' continual attempts to ignite itself into a proper star was just enough to warm one side of the comet, causing some of its surface to flash into gas and sublimate into space.
The comet wobbled in its orbit as the brown dwarf upset the delicate balance between comet and sun. Then, like a spinning top that slows down, the comet wobbled once more, then tipped over and began to fall, ever so slowly, towards the only other object exerting any type of gravitational attraction on it - its parent star.
It would take hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years for the comet and its companion to complete their journey - but they were both going back to the star that gave them birth - they were both going home.
12:27 A.M. - WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 1ST, 2070
Melody Temple rubbed her eyes, debating to herself on whether or not to have another cup of coffee. Sighing in frustration, she tapped a set of new commands into the Image Differencing program, watching the computer screen in front of her accept the data.
New Years Eve. She had made plans to attend the formal New Years celebration at the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Officer's Club with the young Naval officer that she had met recently, Lieutenant Charles Smith. Charles ("Please don't call me Charlie, Chuck or Chas - it's Charles") was assigned to Base Operations, and was the polar opposite of what she had thought a dashing young naval officer would look like. Short and squat, with an unruly shock of reddish-blonde hair, his appearance seemed to be better suited to one of the gravel-voiced Bosun's Mates than an "officer and a gentleman."
Melody herself was no stranger to the old adage of "appearances can be deceiving." Looking at her, no one would guess that she was an Astronomy graduate student. Blessed with beauty from the day she was born, if one was to base their opinion on looks alone they may guess that she competed in beauty pageants (which she had done), or was possibly even an actress (never in a million years). Tall and slender, with raven black hair, she turned heads wherever she went. But astronomy was her passion, and had been since she was eight years old.
And so, when she had been offered the opportunity to spend her winter break on the island of Maui working at the PAN-STARRS observatory, she jumped at the chance. Working at the most sophisticated facility of its kind in the world, assisting in its never-ending search for potentially hazardous Near Earth Objects (or NEO's) such as asteroids and comets. It all seemed very glamorous...until she realized that entering data for the computer to analyze for hours on end was neither exciting nor glamorous.
In fact, nothing much had really happened since she arrived in Maui. Her original excitement at spending winter break on this beautiful Hawaiian island faded with the realization that she would be spending an enormous amount of time doing exactly what she was doing right now. Her vision of soaking up the winter sun on a beautiful Maui beach had been replaced by squinting at a computer screen night after night. The one bright spot had been the holiday mixer - where she met Charles.
Selected members of the PAN-STARRS staff traveled to Oahu to attend the Joint Base holiday mixer. As PAN-STARRS was partially funded by the U.S. Defense Department, due to its military applications, these mixers were seen as a necessary evil. That being said, Melody was quite impressed with the nature of the mixer at the Admirals residence. Growing up in San Francisco and spending the bulk of her higher education at U.C. Berkeley, she had almost no contact with anyone in the military - until now. And there was certainly no lack of handsome young officers paying attention to her. But the one that intrigued her the most was the one young officer that was ignoring her - Charles Smith.
Lieutenant Smith certainly stood out from the crowd - literally because he stood out...apart from everyone else. Everyone at the mixer seemed to gravitate into groups, with the military brass and PAN-STARRS officials making a great effort to have their groups mingle with one another as much as possible. Melody certainly didn't have much problem in attracting attention from many of the young officers present; but, as usual, none of them could see past her looks. But this short, squat, average looking officer was virtually ignoring her - and that was intriguing.
Melody, in the course of making small talk, found out some very interesting things about Lieutenant Charles Smith. He had graduated from the Naval Academy second in his class. He had been the first officer from his graduating class to be promoted to full Lieutenant. And, during his first posting as a junior watch officer on board the frigate U.S.S. Scott, he had been awarded the Navy Cross and Purple Heart for gallantry in action while the frigate was engaging Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa in 2066.
These revelations inspired Melody to learn more about this enigmatic man, so, at her first opportunity, she excused herself from her growing crowd of admirers and went in search of Lieutenant Smith. After a quick visit to the ladies room (her original excuse for breaking away from the group), she made a quick survey of the Admiral's residence and found him standing on the back patio, drink in hand, looking up at the night sky.
Tentatively, she approached Lieutenant Smith. He didn't seem to notice her as she shyly walked out onto the patio.
"Good evening," he said in a smooth, well modulated voice.
"Uhh...hello," Melody, surprised, managed to stammer out.
"Won't they get lonely?" He asked as he took a sip from his drink.
"Who?" Melody asked, confused.
Lieutenant Smith finally turned to her, looking at her for the first time. He gave her a crooked grin as he answered her.
"Your admirers, of course," he says, nodding back towards the residence.
"Oh. Uhh, well...they were nice and all, but..." Melody found herself blushing and wondered why this man was affecting her this way.
"I'm Charles," he says suddenly, offering his hand. Melody took his hand in hers and noticed that he, too, was blushing slightly.
"Melody. Nice to meet you, Charles," she says softly.
"My pleasure, Melody," Charles says. "Have we ever spoken before?"
Melody frowned, puzzled. "No, I don't believe so," she says.
"You work for PAN-STARRS?" he asks.
"Yes," Melody nods, "But only until the end of next month."
"I see," Charles says thoughtfully. "And what happens then?"
"I go back to school," Melody says. "Berkeley. I'm in the Astronomy Graduate Program there."
At this news Melody saw Charles redden and he turned away slightly. "My apologies," he stammered out. "When you said you worked for PAN-STARRS I assumed you worked in the office - you know - clerical."
"You mean like a receptionist, or secretary?" Melody asked. Rather than taking offense at his assumption, she was instead amused - and a little touched that he would so freely offer up his apology.
"Yes," Charles says. "I assumed - well, I mean, because you - what I'm trying to say is -"
"Is that someone that looks like me couldn't possibly be an astronomer?" Melody finished for him gently.
"Pretty sexist of me, huh?" Charles asks quietly, not looking Melody in the eye.
"Very," Melody says with a smile. His honesty and bluntness is so refreshing! She says to herself.
"I'm sorry," he says in a rush. "I didn't mean to offend -"
"No offense taken, Charles," Melody quickly says. "So what were you examining so intently?"
Charles lets out a sigh of relief, then turns and points to a constellation hanging low in the night sky.
"Orion," he says. "It's always been my favorite."
"Mine, too," Melody says, standing next to him. She points up to the constellation. "Betelgeuse, Meissa, Bellatrix..."
Charles takes up the litany. "Alnitak, Alnilam, Mintaka..."
"The Great Nebula," Melody says softly.
"Saiph...and Rigel," Charles finishes. For the next half hour or so they stand outside, pointing out various stars, and discussing their shared passion. By the time they rejoined the others inside, they had made dinner plans for the following Friday.
Melody had found their budding relationship to be enormously satisfying. Although she knew he was enormously attracted to her he was the consummate gentleman - a trait that she found refreshing, but was determined to change come New Years Eve. Until that fateful phone call earlier in the day. The girl that was supposed to monitor the Image Differencing system had eaten some bad sushi and was now paying the price for it.
Charles had, of course, been very understanding, but she could tell that he was disappointed. As they had gotten to know each other better, he confessed to her that she was the most beautiful girl he had ever dated, and it was pretty apparent that he wanted to show her off a little bit at the Officer's Club that evening. That simply fueled her determination to make up for this evening at the first opportunity. She had already started planning a weekend getaway at the Hale Koa Hotel. This coming weekend she would -
The sound of the alarm jolted her out of her reverie. Sitting bolt upright, her heart pounding, she waited, holding her breath, until -
With trembling fingers she quickly tapped a few commands into the computer. The Image Differencing system was digitally comparing thousands of high resolution images taken several days apart, looking for the telltale movement that would mark the discovery of a new celestial body. The orbits of all known objects had already been programmed into the computer, so the alarm would only be triggered by something whose orbit was not known.
In other words, an unknown asteroid - or a new comet.
Melody waited impatiently for the images to load up on her screen. Once they finished loading, she quickly consulted the discovery protocol procedures, then sent a message requesting confirmation, complete with celestial coordinates, to the Mauna Kea Observatory. Once that was completed she sat back and regarded the images on her computer screen.
The split image showed a diffuse, fuzzy object. She could see the distinct jump when she toggled back and forth between the two images. Using a Blink Comparator, it was in this way that Clyde Tombaugh had discovered the first Kuiper Belt Object, the dwarf planet Pluto, almost 140 years earlier. But this was no Kuiper Belt Object and most likely it wasn't an asteroid. She double checked the inclination of the object relative to the Solar System's own ecliptic plane, then sat back, feeling the warm glow of discovery.
Melody Temple had just discovered a new comet - and from the look of things, it was a damn big one.
"Where did you come from?" she whispered.
11:42 A.M. - WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 1ST, 2070
Dr. Jack Hawthorne thoughtfully examined the data displayed on the computer screen for a few seconds, then double checked the message that had come in earlier from Mauna Kea Observatory. He chuckled slightly, remembering the greeting he had received when he had arrived at the observatory that morning.
He had only intended to pop in for a few minutes, go over last nights data, then head home for a day of parades and football - but Melody Temples discovery had changed all that. The girl was positively giddy over her comet. Breathlessly, she showed him her data and also informed him that, per protocol, she had already requested confirmation from Mauna Kea. It was obvious that the girl was excited - it's not every day that someone discovers a new comet, especially one that looks to be as spectacular as this one looks to be - but it was also obvious that the girl was running on fumes. He sent her off to the small apartment she was sharing with some other astronomy grad students during her stay here with the promise that he would call her if anything new was discovered before she started her shift tonight.
Mauna Kea had, in fact, confirmed the discovery. Jack quickly checked the data base for the International Astronomical Union - the IAU - to see if anyone else had reported the discovery, and found to his satisfaction that no one else had. Quickly logging in to the IAU server, he uploaded the data both from PAN-STARRS and Mauna Kea, and finally gave the comet an official designation:
C/2070-01/MT-PAN-STARRS ("Melody's Comet")
Looks like you're in for your fifteen minutes of fame, Melody, he says to himself as the computer confirms that the upload and send was successful. He felt a brief pang of envy at her discovery - everything so far was pointing to Melody's Comet being the Great Comet of 2070, and would most likely surpass the display put on by Halley's Comet just nine years before.
A few minutes later a return message from the IAU confirmed the discovery. The message was also sent to the Mauna Kea Observatory, with the request that both facilities begin analysis of the orbit of the new object. Jack immediately sent a confirmation of receipt of the message, then picked up the phone to call his wife. It didn't look like he would be home for a while, after all.
4:48 P.M. - WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 1ST, 2070
Jack sat back in his chair and, grim faced, examined the orbital data that he had been working on. He glanced at the nervous looking grad student sitting across from him. Elise Orr chewed nervously at her thumbnail as Jack examined her data, but said nothing.
Jack reached over and punched the keypad on his Vid-Phone. The screen came to life and filled with the image of a smiling young man.
"Hello, PAN-STARRS, and Happy New Year. Mauna Kea here," the face on the screen says cheerily.
"Is Dr. Roshenko available?" Jack gruffly asks. The young man on the screen immediately loses his smile and says, "One moment, Dr. Hawthorne, while I connect you." The image on the screen goes dark and music begins to play briefly, but then a new image of a tired looking woman flashes up on the Vid-Phone. Unsmiling, she runs her fingers absently through the short strawberry blonde curls on her head, then speaks.
"Jack. I've been expecting your call."
"Hello, Elena. Happy New Year." Jack flashes a brief, wan smile at the woman on the screen.
Elena Roshenko barks out a brief, bitter laugh. "Happy New Year, indeed, Jack. Is this our last one?"
"Secure your line," Jack orders and taps a control on the screen. The image flickers, then steadies. He sees Elena do the same. A computer generated voice states "Line secured."
"You've reached the same conclusion that we have, I take it?" Jack asks.
Elena nods grimly. "We have. I'm sure we'll get confirmation for that from the IAU at any time now."
"And you've had someone there run an independent analysis?" Jack asks.
"If you mean, has someone else her checked my work - the answer, of course, is yes," Elena says sharply. Jack nods thoughtfully.
"Same here," he says. "And for the most part, the same answer. When do you put perigee?"
Elena laughs again. "Sorry, Jack. I know there's nothing funny about this. But perigee - that implies a miss!"
"Elena, come on," Jack says, exasperation in his voice.
"July 4th" Elena answers somberly. Jack nods in agreement. "Same here."
"When do we notify Jackson?" Elena asks.
"I want IAU confirmation first. Plus, we need to take a closer look at this thing - and that will take the Tyson Orbital Observatory. It'll take an IAU directive to shift Tyson on such short notice - its work is usually booked months in advance."
"Good idea," Elena says, nodding in agreement. "I have a contact or two in the IAU - I think I can get them to spare some time off the cuff." At that moment Jack heard his computer chime with the incoming message notification. He see Elena's eyes dart to her left as her computer sends the same notification.
"IAU message," Jack says tersely. "Hang on for a moment." He quickly scans the message and returns to the Vid-Phone screen, his face a grim mask. Elena glances up from her own computer a moment later.
"Confirmed," Jack reads. "Perigee distance is calculated to be 9,000 kilometers or less."
"Less than one Earth diameter," Elena whispers. "Jack, there's still a chance -"
"Yeah," Jack says unconvincingly. "Slim to none. Who else there knows about this?"
"Just myself and one of my grad students," Elena asks.
"Same here," Jacks says, "And did you see the IAU admonishment? 'Not for Public Release?' I'm gonna have to tell one other person, anyway."
"Your student that made the discovery?" Elena asks. Jack nods.
"I'll wait until she comes in tonight. I'll be damned if I'm gonna tell her any way other than in person that she's the one to find the end of the world."
6:43 P.M. - WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 1ST, 2070
Melody Temple numbly pulled the battered car out of the parking space and headed slowly down the mountain. She had arrived at the observatory promptly at 6 P.M. and was prepared to admonish Dr. Hawthorne for not calling her as he had promised once her discovery was confirmed. When she walked into the building, the first person she encountered was Elise Orr.
"Dr. Hawthorne wants to see you - right away," Elise says tightly. See looks positively grim! Melody says to herself.
"Feeling better, Elise? Gotta watch out for that bad sushi!" Melody's attempt at a joke falls completely flat. As Melody walks past her she see tears forming in Elise's eyes. It was just a little joke, Melody wanted to say, but then she was in Dr. Hawthorne's office.
Five minutes later, she understood completely why Elise was so upset. For the next twenty minutes or so she poured over the data that Dr. Hawthorne was showing her. Although she didn't run the figures herself, she had confidence that what she was being shown was correct.
She discovered the end of the world.
Dr. Hawthorne had suggested that she take the night off, and she was in no condition to argue. As she sat in the car she had a sudden, ridiculous thought - PAN-STARRS was designed to find potentially hazardous celestial objects, and she found a doozy - so why bother staffing it at all? Tonight or any other night for that matter? In six months it wouldn't matter anymore, anyway.
Dr. Hawthorne had admonished her not to discuss this with anyone - at least until the knowledge became public. He also told her that he would be talking to Thomas Jackson, the Presidential Science Advisor, later on in the evening to appraise him of the situation.
Mechanically, Melody drove down the mountain. In spite of its battered appearance, the cars hydrogen engine purred smoothly. She suddenly realized that she had nowhere to go - nowhere she could go at a time like this. She certainly couldn't talk to Charles about it, and didn't want to go back to the small apartment. She found herself pulling into the parking lot of a small bar.
"Perfect," she muttered to herself as she slowly walked into the bar. It was almost completely empty. She walked up to the bar and fumbled at her purse.
"Can I help you, miss?" The voice of the bartender, a Hawaiian about her age, cut through her thoughts.
"Oh...uhh...double Jack Daniels on the rocks," she stammered out. The bartender wordlessly poured her the drink. After paying she walked to a small, empty table, sat down, and raised her glass to the sky.
"To Melody's Comet," she says bitterly, taking a large swallow of the potent bourbon.
7:16 P.M. - WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 1ST, 2070
The bleary, sleep-creased face of Dr. Thomas Jackson, Presidential Science Advisor to President Janice York, stared in disbelief at Jack Hawthorne as he digested the information that he had just been given.
"This, of course, has been confirmed, Dr. Hawthorne?" Jackson snapped out.
"By five independent set of calculations, based on the orbital data received thus far," Jack replies, trying valiantly to control his temper.
"But this is, after all, a comet," Jackson says. "Comets outgas and form all sorts of eruptive plumes - any one of which can affect the orbit of a body of this nature."
"Yes, sir, all that's true - but our observations have shown an incredibly close perigee. At this juncture, a miss is the more unlikely of the two scenarios," Jack explained patiently.
"Dr. Hawthorne, I think any announcement now would be premature. This object should be kept under observation for a while until a more thorough calculation of its orbit can be made. Otherwise, we'll do nothing but incite a panic."
"Dr. Jackson - we can watch it for days, a week, even a month - and all that will tell us is where it will probably strike when it does. The very unpredictability of comets is exactly why I'm calling you now. This isn't Apophis, which, you recall, missed us in both 2029 and 2036. Apophis is an asteroid with a very easily calculated orbit. This is an Oort Cloud comet - a damn big one - that will be traveling at fifty-one kilometers per second as it approaches Earth. And further observation has revealed an anomalous feature that we haven't quite been able to identify. God knows, I hope - I wish - I'm wrong. But from where I sit, there will be a major impact event on Planet Earth on July 4th of this year. But for now, I simply suggest that you brief the President on what we know so far."
Jackson sighs heavily. He rubs his chin thoughtfully for a moment. Finally - "Alright. Send me all your data. The President has her 7 AM "coffee brief" tomorrow morning. I'm always invited to attend, although more often than not, I usually have nothing to contribute. I will appraise her of the discovery and of the potential - I say again, potential risk of an impact. When will you have more concrete data?"
Jack looks thoughtful for a moment. "If we get time with Tyson, that, along with maintaining observation from here and Mauna Kea - forty-eight hours and we'll be able to tell you what hemisphere this thing will come down in."
Thomas Jackson nods. "Dr. Hawthorne, I'll appreciate your continued - discretion - regarding this issue. And I'll keep you appraised of my meeting with the President tomorrow. Goodnight." The connection is suddenly terminated. Jack reaches over and taps the "End Call" button. He then types in a few commands to send Thomas Jackson all the data collected thus far on Melody's Comet
Tiredly, Jack stands up and gathers up his coat. My wife is not too happy about my being here today, he thinks. I'll make it up to her, tonight.
If he's right, humanity has about one hundred eighty three more nights to ever make anything right again.