Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer
The caravan of return vehicles lifted off the comet in rapid succession. Allen Culbert looked out the porthole and watched silently as the comet shrank into the distance. For the last nine months, the 1288 men and women of the Comet Deflection Team had worked twenty four hours a day cutting one ton blocks of ice from the quarries, feeding them into the mass drivers, and launching one into space every five seconds. Their mission was to deflect the comet’s orbit by a mere 120 miles, so that it would miss the Earth. As the retrorockets fired, Culbert began to think of the 52 men that volunteered to stay the extra week to give the comet one last nudge. Could their sacrifice make a difference? No one knew for sure. It was going to be very, very close. Culbert closed his eyes and began to pray.
Jonathan Amsterdam stood on the wooden deck of his Florida home and watched the southwestern sky. Although the comet was still thousands of miles away, it appeared four times larger than a full moon, and it was getting bigger by the minute. The news reports had said that the comet would miss the surface of the Earth by five miles, but would plow a trough through the atmosphere. They also said that tidal forces would split the comet into many pieces. Some pieces would be deflected into new orbits, and some may be captured by Earth’s gravity. A few would inevitably impact the planet. Hopefully, these would be small pieces. As Amsterdam watched, countless white streaks flashed across the sky as the microscopic debris of the comet’s coma rammed through the mesosphere. The near surface of the comet began to glow as atmospheric friction turned the ice to incandescent vapor.
As mass driver Delta launched the 3,985,291st block of ice into space, the 52 exhausted men collapsed for a well deserved rest. It would be a short, yet eternal, rest. As they neared the closest approach, the Earth filled the entire sky. Less than a minute earlier, Miguel Martínez had watched Mexico City pass overhead. He wished he could have jumped the narrow gap, to hug his wife and son one last time. Then the ground began to quake as fissures formed. The comet was ripping itself apart. The temperature began to climb rapidly as the surface of the comet tore through Earth’s upper atmosphere. The thrashing wind whipped the melting ice into a horizontal hurricane. The men quickly lost their feeble holds, and were ripped from the surface of the comet and vaporized in a fiery flash.
Madoka Shotoko sat cradled in her mothers lap on a park bench beneath the transparent dome in the center of the Ptolemaeus Moon Colony. They were on the sun-side of the Earth, and were still unsure if their homeworld had avoided the catastrophic collision. Then the crowd erupted into a frenzied cheer as the onlookers saw the comet skirt past the Earth by the smallest of margins. The Comet Movers had performed a miracle. Madoka watched tears run down her mother’s smiling face. Over the next few hours, the onlookers watched the comet fracture into six large cometoids, and countless smaller ones. Some of the smaller ones plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean. Others arched out into new orbits. Considering the potential alternatives, the damage appeared to be minor. “Mommy,” asked the small girl, “how come that piece of the comet isn’t moving? It’s just getting bigger and bigger.”