The World That Ends in Fire – Chapter 1


The months leading up to the end of the world saw advances in science and engineering that were unrivaled in human history. Science wasn’t to blame for the world’s demise, but neither was it sufficient to prevent a calamity beyond the scale of all human endeavor. Even if the signs had been visible sooner, there were few who could have recognized them for what they were and fewer still who could have devised the proper experiments to learn from them.

That was the chief limitation that reason faced. It could learn from events that transpired and harness that knowledge to predict the future (to a limited extent) but when faced with a calamity that was outside of anyone’s experience it’s tools were limited.

Data more often fell outside of the accepted spectrum of results due to poor measurement techniques than because the basic laws of physics were being twisted into new patterns after all, and so extraneous information was more likely to be ignored than investigated, at least until it became undeniably obvious that something was amiss.

Hanna Adams was one of many overworked and underappreciated grad students who could claim responsibility for failing to notice the first detectable signs of what was to come. Like all the rest her response to the blip in her measurements wasn’t “Eureka” but a more common human reaction; aggravation.

“David did you kick the wall again?”

“I don’t know, maybe? Give me a break, this program still isn’t compiling.”

Hanna weighed her options. The sheetrock wall that separated their rooms was fragile enough that she could beat it down with a chair. The chair would be in poor shape afterwards but would probably still be functional enough for the purpose of beating David and his computer into paste.

Or she could use the door and ask him for the ten thousandth time to please, kindly, not disturb the structure of the house they shared with their six other housemates. At least not while Hanna was taking a long exposure picture with her telescope.

The chair option, unrealistic though it might be, was an appealing one given how David was the only one of the eight people who shared their far-off-campus housing who was incapable of respecting the needs of others. No one else tromped around, or kicked the walls, or was anything but reasonable when Hanna asked for a few minutes to snap a couple of pictures for her research project.

Part of her aggravation was directed at herself too, if she was feeling charitable and honest. She’d worked hard for the chance to do her graduate work in astrophysics under Dr. Jean Tishone, leaving an assignment, especially a simple one like a basic physical observation, til the last minute was inexcusable. Dr. Tishone was a brilliant woman, but not one possessed of a large reserve of patience. Hanna wasn’t so much afraid of the tongue lashing she would receive if she failed to present her project on time, that would be justly deserved. The real danger of a late project lay in the chance that Dr. Tishone would lose faith in her and recommend Hanna be transferred to work with another member of the faculty. One who didn’t move as quickly, or deal with as interesting a set of research subjects.

And, if Hanna was being honest, one who didn’t have the same clout in the astrophysics community as Dr. Tishone did.

Jobs in astrophysics were limited, and the resume one presented could make a big difference in the career one was able to pursue. And, to a lesser extent, the grants one was able to apply for and win.

Hanna loved working with the stars, but after years of college and post graduate work, she had few illusions as to the hard work and salesmanship that were part of being successful in her chosen field.

“Is now a bad time to interrupt?” Kimberly asked from the door to Hanna’s room. Kimberly was another one of Dr. Tishone’s students, though she was working on an analysis project rather than the data collection one Hanna had been assigned to.

“No,” Hanna said, her anger deflating as the reality of the ruined picture sank in. “I’ll need to setup the telescope and the tracking software again before I can shoot.”

“I still don’t believe you’re doing that here,” Kimberly said.

“Not exactly the best skies I amdit, but I’ve already got my principal images from Weber, these were just basic reference images to cross check those with,” Hanna said. The Weber Observatory was graced with enough distance from the city, as well as enough altitude and, most importantly, a large enough primary telescope to do serious sky surveying. The only problem with it was that it was so well setup that time on the “Big Telescope” was rationed out to scientists across the country. As a local, Hanna had no extra pull in getting a timeslot but as a student of Dr. Tishone’s she’d been able to bump up in line to the particular viewing window she needed.


That had been enough to get the main data collection work she’d been assigned done, and done by professionals. Observations from her room weren’t quite in the same league as that but backyard astronomy had been a tradition for centuries and it was still alive and well despite the growing number of high end telescopes both on and off the world.

“So what did you need?” Hanna asked, turning back to her telescope to verify the effect her unruly housemate had on its positioning.

“I just got a text from Dr. Tishone,” Kimberly said. “We were supposed to go with her to the symposium in Tokyo next week right?”

“I hope so, I’ve got my passport all set up and my bags are already packed,” Hanna said.

“Well it looks like they might be calling it off,” Kimberly said.

“Are you kidding? Why?” Hanna had been looking forward to the Tokyo trip all year. It was one of the extremely rare outings they were able to go on, and it was a chance to network with the global astrophysics community.

“There’s been an earthquake,” Kimberly said.

“How bad?” Hanna asked. “I mean Tokyo has earthquakes all the time doesn’t it?”

“I don’t know, the news is saying magnitude 9.0 but I guess it was farther off the coast this time than in 2011,” Kimberly said. “There are conflicting reports too.”

“People are saying it was weaker than that?” Hanna asked.

“People are saying it didn’t happen at all,” Kimberely said. “The ‘man on the street interviews’ are saying they didn’t feel or notice anything.”

“That’s not physically possible, is it?” Hanna asked.

“I don’t think so,” Kimberly said. “I guess the worry now is another tsunami. And the aftershocks.”

“And the mass delusions,” Hanna said. “I think if you’ve got people failing to notice a magnitude 9 earthquake you need to send in some serious psychological counseling.”

Kimberly laughed.

“Yeah evacuate the people to high ground, and then build a bunch of cots so they can talk about their feelings.”

“Which is scarier?” Hanna asked. “A flood of water that you can predict, or a million delusional people that you can’t?”

“Point taken,” Kimberly said. “Sadly, either option means no Tokyo trip for us.”

“That sucks. Are they talking about rescheduling it yet?”

“I’ve received all of one text from our dear professor,” Kimberly said. “As of this moment, you know as much about this as I do.”

“Well, earthquakes and tsunamis won’t excuse me from getting the last bits of my project done I’m afraid,” Hanna said.

“Yeah, life goes on,” Kimberly said. “I’ll keep an eye on the news and let you know how the story goes ok?”

“Let me just get this shot setup again and I can join you,” Hanna said. “Well, after I strangle David that is.”

“Did he screw up another one of your exposures? That boy!” Kimberly said, shaking her head in mock despair.

“Hey guys, did you hear about Tokyo?” David called from the other room. “They had another big quake.”

“I thought you were working on your latest coding nightmare?” Hanna yelled back.

“I am, but it’s called Twitter notifications right?” David said, coming into Hanna’s room behind Kimberly. “You can get those on your phone these days.”

“We already know about the earthquake, smartass,” Kimberly said.

“Yeah, but you were saying that people didn’t feel it in Tokyo,” David said. “I think they felt this one.”

“Wait, they felt the aftershock but not the quake itself?” Hanna said. “That makes no sense at all.”

“I don’t think it was an aftershock,” David said. “I’m seeing tweets that the epicenter for this one was in Tokyo itself and that it was a magnitude 9.2 quake.”

“That can’t be right,” Hanna said. “Aftershocks are weaker than the primary quake, aren’t they?”

“They are, but that could mean that the 9.0 was a foreshock,” Kimberly said. “If the Twitter reports are right. That’s not exactly the best source for accurate scientific broadcasting.”

“Some of the Twitter accounts I follow are based in Tokyo,” David said. “And I’m not seeing anything out of them.”

“That’s weird,” Hanna said. “Or really disturbing.”

“I know,” David said. “I’m going to try to get in touch with my friend Brian. He’s in Okinawa.”

“That’s not exactly close to Tokyo is it?” Hanna asked.

“It’s closer than we are.” David said.

“What does Brian do?” Kimberly asked.

“He’s in the Army,” David said. “We’ve been friends since we were kids though so we stay in touch.”

“Maybe he’ll be able to listen to the local reporting,” Hanna said. “Does he speak Japanese.”

“Enough to get by from what he’s told me,” David said. “Of course that probably just means enough to order beers.”

“Beer unites the world I guess,” Kimberly said.

“Guys, when was the first quake?” Hanna asked.

“About a half hour ago,” Kimberly said.

“Hmm, that was right during my exposure,” Hanna said. “I wonder if I would have caught any effects of it?”

“Well it would be good news if I was off the hook for that,” David said, his words slowing as he read a message on his cell phone.

“You ok there?” Kimberly asked.

“Brian got back to me,” David said and turned the screen so that Hanna and Kimberly could read it.

“Weird things happening here bro. We didn’t feel any earthquake, but they’re saying that Tokyo is gone. Like completely missing.”