Billions of miles away, the Oort Cloud orbited the Sun in silence. The cloud, consisting of thousands upon thousands of chunks of ice and rock, formed the edge of the Solar System, millions of miles past Neptune. The cloud had remained relatively unchanged for billions of years, but now, for a small portion of the cloud, that was about to change. The orbit of an asteroid had been slowly decaying. And at last, it passed too close to a small, generic block of ice. The orbit of this block of ice changed almost undetectably. But it was enough. This block of ice, a comet, now had a date with destiny in the inner solar system, with one of the planets. This planet was a small spheroid of rock, the third such planet from the Sun.
On Earth, reptiles began to leave the sea for the first time, and to breathe the cool night air.
Had the comet possessed any sort of brain, it would have become indescribably bored. It had been millions and millions of years, since it had left the Oort Cloud and very little had changed. Had the comet possessed a brain, it would have been overwhelmingly relieved to notice a small blue dot nearby; the first solid object it had encountered during its journey. But this blue dot was soon far behind, and the comet was again hurtling through oblivion.
On Earth, NASA detected a small comet passing near Neptune. It was an interesting discovery, but nothing more, and any note of it was buried under stacks of paperwork.
The comet moved ever closer to Earth, but it was apparent to any observer that it would miss the blue planet. If there had been anyone on Venus, they would have a right to be worried, but certainly none of the silly, furless primates wandering Earth had any reason to worry.
But then, the comet came too close to one of the many rogue asteroids wandering the solar system.
On Earth, warning sirens began to sound at NASA.
To think that just a few hours ago, I had been sitting in school, doing my math, when the principal had rushed in. He had spoken urgently and quietly with our teacher. Halfway through the conversation, she gasped, and the principal shushed her. Soon our teacher walked to the front of the room. Her face was white.
“Class,” she had said, “school is being dismissed early today. The office has called your parents already. Please proceed outside as if this were a normal dismissal. All students will be required to leave the school.”
There was much confusion among the students, although none of us were sad to leave early. We left without complaint. But I knew something really serious was going on the moment I got into the car. My mother always, always listened to the radio while driving. But not today.
Luckily, my mother never tries to hide anything from me. She told me straight up what had happened, but with a more light-hearted view than what they likely were saying on NPR.
“Honey, they don’t want us to panic, but they think a comet could hit.” Those had been her very words. I sat in the backseat with my mouth open, dumbfounded.
“Now, they only think so. I heard a very encouraging statement on CNN before I came to pick you up. They say that the United Nations is required to issue a warning if there is a one percent chance a comet the size of Whitehead-Meyers will hit. But it’s best to be prepared. Your father and I are going to go shopping as soon as I drop you off at home.”
And now, my parents were off to a free-for-all at Costco. It was announced that all food and survival gear was free to members; half of the town was off to the store. My parents predicted chaos, so I was made to stay home. I sighed and glanced around. There was nothing else to do. I picked up my history textbook. That was the first time in my life I did my homework to calm myself down.
“You have got to be kidding me…,” I mumbled, as my parents walked in with their finds from Costco. An hour of shopping totaled: two flashlights, two packs of granola bars, and an empty water bottle. “Oh, honey, it’s alright. It probably won’t hit us anyway…and then what fools those other shoppers will look like! We’ll be fine...”
The government had advised everyone to seek shelter as far below ground as they could. If the comet struck, it would create a massive cloud of super-heated gas that would spread across the Earth at the speed of sound. The temperature would rise drastically, and debris would fly everywhere. The safest place to be was underground. But people who lived along the coast, like us, needed to be able to move at a moment’s notice in case the comet struck the ocean.
My dad worked at a large communications company downtown. They had a 35-story skyscraper with a 5-story basement. All company families were allowed to take shelter down there, and that is where we went. The company would also have several buses waiting outside in case they needed to bus us to high ground.
Once the last family had reached the basement, we bolted the door behind us. My father was very vague about why we had to do this, but I eventually figured it out. “You’re locking desperate people out!” I accused him.
“Calm down. There are going to be thousands and thousands of people trying to get in here when that thing hits. People who don’t believe anything the government says, people who just couldn’t believe that something like this would happen, and people who couldn’t find shelter. We are trying to survive, and if we let them all in, that will not happen. I’m sorry. But have you seen what some people are doing?”
I stormed off to my own little corner of the shelter, but I had to agree with him on some level. It had been amazing what some people were doing.
In Houston, a church group had blocked off the entry to a subway station, claiming that it was “God’s Will” that all sinners were to die under the wrath of the comet.
In London, a crazy bunch of animal rights activists had broken into the zoo, gone after the cages with sledgehammers, and set free some of the animals. Now the city was overrun with lions, tigers, bears, and a plethora of other deadly creatures. The activists claimed to be “saving” the animals from “sure death.”
And of course, in almost every city in the world, looters ran rampant.
Suddenly there was a loud crash down the hall. I raced down to find an old lady holding a lamp over the bleeding corpse of a young man. “I had to do it!” she shouted, her face crazed, “One less person means more survival gear for us all, and he doesn’t have a family at home or anything.” A couple of burly guys stepped forward to restrain her, but she screamed wildly and swung the lamp at the men, hitting them both on their heads. The men fell backwards, bleeding. Soon it became a free-for-all, with everybody swinging at everybody. I screamed and ran up the stairs to the lobby.
I banged on the glass doors of the lobby, but they were locked, and my father, still downstairs, had the only key. “Help! Oh, please help us!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. But nobody heard me. The noise was dying down in the basement, but I was too afraid to go see what had happened. I leaned up against a pillar and started to cry. Footsteps. I jerked up and looked to my left, where I had heard them.
“Hello?” I whispered. “Dad? Mom?”
Suddenly, searing pain. I’m on the ground. I can feel blood running down my face.
A man’s voice: How could I!? What’s happening to me?
The comet inched closer and closer. If it had possessed eyes, it could have glimpsed the bright lights of the cities. Explosions, too. Riots in Rio. Terrorism in London. Prayers at the Vatican, Jerusalem, and Mecca.
It edged ever closer. The comet entered the atmosphere, and began to glow. A steady trail of fire grew behind it, as it sped toward Earth at thousands and thousands of miles an hour.
Then the glow began to fade. The fire went out. And, to the disbelief of the seven billion inhabitants of Earth, the comet went on its way.
On Earth, the comet had done its share of harm, though it missed. Across the planet, thousands lie dead as the result of riots, terrorism, petty crime, selfishness and panic. It was the largest disaster in the history of civilization.
A century from now, humanity may have spread colonies across the solar system, preventing extinction in the event of a planet-wide catastrophe.
A century from now, humanity may have the technology to avert an asteroid impact.
A century from now, humanity may obtain the trust in government that would prevent panic in the event of an impending disaster. Of course, a century from now, humanity may have wiped itself off the face of the Earth. But one thing is certain. A century from now, the comet will return.
And this time, it will not miss.