The World That Ends in Fire – Chapter 10


Despite flying through six hours of the most tumultuous weather she’d ever experienced, Hanna found the trip from Japan to Hawaii to be delightful.

It helped that the crew onboard the C-5 were an incredibly good natured group, and that Kimberly and Kalia were strapped in alongside her, sharing and laughing at the misery along with everyone else.

“Coming up next, we’ll be performing a series of barrel rolls,” Terrence, the pilot, told them. “No one knows if a Galaxy can do a barrel roll, but with this weather we figure it can’t get any worse, so we thought we’d give it a try.”

“He’s joking,” Sam, the co-pilot, said. “We’ve flown through worse than this.”

“We do not speak of hurricane season,” Terrence said.

“You guys have chased hurricanes?” Kimberly asked.

“Not in a Galaxy, but yeah. It’s pretty exciting,” Sam said.

“Yeah, this is much gentler weather,” Terrence said. “Gentler weather but in a plane that handles like an oil tanker.”

“How many barf bags do you normally go through, per flight?” Kalia asked.

“I think we’re setting a new record today,” Terrence said. “But to really clinch the title, we need those barrel rolls.”

“Note to self,” Hanna said. “Make sure all future pilots are certified as non-suicidal before the wheels leave the runway.”

“I thought you needed to get those crates to Hawaii in a  hurry?” Terrence asked.

“I’m betting they need them there in one piece though,” Sam said. “Not spread across a few miles of ocean after our wings rip off.”

“Ah, we’ll get them there in one piece,” Terrence said. “Though it would be nice if the skies would clear up for more than five minutes at a time.”

“Are flights to Hawaii usually this bad?” Kimberly asked.

“Not so much,” Sam said. “Usually it’s smooth sailing, but the weather can be weird.”

“Especially these days,” Hanna said. “We’ve been seeing freak storms around the globe ever since the first Phantom Quake. They don’t make as much news, but the overall trend isn’t a good one.”

“So you guys have been to Tokyo right?” Sam asked. “Is it really the end of the world here like everyone’s saying?”

“I hope not,” Hanna said. “We’re taking some materiel to the NAOJ observatory to see if we can figure out how to predict the Phantom Quakes.”

“You can do that?” Terrence asked.

“We’ll see,” Hanna said. “We think we know what’s causing them.”

“The Lightning Planet right?” Sam asked.

The media had redubbed the Unidentified Celestial Event as “The Lightning Planet” because someone made the mistake of mentioning that it appeared to be as bright as a lightning bolt. That there were a contingent of scientists researching the material properties of the strange, disappearing object and one of them asked, not even speculated, just asked a question about whether the UCE might have properties that were similar to those of plasma gave rise to the belief that the entire object was a giant ball of lightning.

In the public imagination this was a perfect description. One moment the Lightning Planet was there, visible briefly, and then it was gone without a trace, except for the loud boom which followed in it’s wake. In the case of lightning, the boom manifested as thunder. In the case of a Lightning Planet the scientifically-illiterate “experts” brought in to fill the 24 hour news cycle, suggested that the Phantom Quakes were like the planetary equivalent of thunder.

The irritating part of that for Hanna is that while they were completely wrong about the relationship between the Lightning Planet and the Phantom Quakes, there was a thread of truth in the morass of confused ideas being presented to the people. The Lightning Planet and the Phantom Quakes and the increasingly energetic and turbulent weather were all connected but the mechanism of that connection was still so poorly understood that it was too early to try to say anything as definitive as people wanted to hear.

Hanna chewed on that thought through the rest of the trip. There was a delicate balance to achieve in trying to provide people with information in a timely fashion (aka before they went off and did something stupidly uninformed) and making sure that the information presented was accurate. People had sought to find that balance for centuries but the lessons of the past were difficult to apply when the situation facing Hanna and her colleagues was a unique in human history.

What if it is the end of the world? she asked herself. It was all too easy to imagine the obliterated cityscape she’d spent the last few weeks in placed on top of cities that she knew better like New York or her home town. She tried to reassure herself that the Effect Zones were diminishing in size, but her analytical mind couldn’t resist picking apart that argument.

With only two data points, they had no idea if the second Phantom Quake was the start of a trend or if the quakes simply varied in size due to parameters yet to be discovered.

The other problem was that even if the quakes did shrink in size, the results were devastating to the affected region and there was no telling how many Phantom Quakes might be produced before the Lightning Planet left the Earth’s orbit.

Assuming it did leave the Earth’s orbit. Hanna had spoke with Dr. Tishone about one of the nightmare scenarios, namely that there would be no end to the Phantom Quakes if the Lightning Planet entered a permanent orbit in its current state. Dr. Tishone had advised her not to worry about that eventuality. If it came to pass then the solar system would probably gain a new asteroid belt in the place of it’s third planet and no human issues would be a concern any longer.

The trip up to the top of Mauna Kea was less vomit inducing than the flight to Hawaii had been but Hanna’s stomach was still unsettled.

“I can’t wait to see what the telescope can resolve with the crystal sheets we brought, but I’m also guessing we’re not going to be too happy with whatever the results turn out to be,” Hanna said as they arrived at the observatory..

“As long as we see something, I’ll be happy,” Kimberly said, getting out of the car. “It feels like we’ve been chasing little scraps of information when there’s a whole encyclopedia of new science out there waiting to be discovered.”

“I see we’re of like minds,” Dr. Kimiko Yamato said. She’d met Hanna, Kimberly and Kalia at the airfield and helped supervise the loading of the gray crystal sheets onto the transport truck which followed them back to the observatory.

“Have you had any luck with imaging the UCE yet?” Kimberly asked.

“Only while it was visible to the unaided eye,” Dr. Yamato said. “We were incredibly lucky that night, the Subaru was pointed directly at where UCE appeared.”

“Nothing since then though?” Hanna asked.

“It’s vexing,” Dr. Yamato said. “Which is why we agreed to this experiment. We’ve tried all sorts of filters already but with no results.”

“What if the crystal we brought from Tokyo doesn’t work either?” Hanna said.

“Then we’ve at least received two trained and experienced new staff members,” Dr. Yamato said. “We’re going to want as many people here as possible for the next appearance of the UCE. We may have only a short window but we intend to collect a lot more data.”

“We’ll be glad to help in any way we can,” Hanna said.

“Yeah, need anything carried?” Kalia asked.

“Don’t buy that act, Kaila’s smart enough to trust with any of the workstations you want to put her at if you give her a little training on what you’re looking for,” Hanna said.

Kalia smiled but looked away bashfully.

“Thanks, but I know when to let the pros handle things,” she said.

“We’re all going to be handling a lot of things in the coming days, so why don’t we go in and I’ll show you around the observatory. If Private Keoloha sees any familiar items we can see about putting her to work as more than a liason with our friends in the Army.”

What followed was a week of hands on training in the operation of various systems at the observatory. While both Hanna and Kimberly were well along in their astrophysics degrees, neither had worked extensively at an observatory, so there was plenty of new techniques and procedures for them to absorb. Kalia didn’t have their background, but she proved adept nonetheless since she was able to absorb a great deal of “what” she needed to do even without fully understanding the “why” behind it.

It took five days to polish the crystal shard to the point where it was useable as a lens for the telescope and another full day to mount it in the hastily created brackets designed to accommodate it.

Many at the observatory doubted the exercise. Several filed complaints about it being a frivolous indulgence in pseudo-science. Similar experiments with smaller crystals placed in front of a 6 inch telescope yielded only odd visual distortions which were as easily attributable to imperfections in the crystal as to the elusive Lightning Planet.

Those voices, and all other voices at the observatory, went silent as the first pictures that were captured were displayed for all to see.

In clear, sharp focus, the Lightning Planet was visible. It covered a massive area of the sky, broader than it had when it was last visible. It was also on the other side of the Earth’s orbital path.

It took less than a minute for the math to confirm that the Lightning Planet’s path had led it past the Earth. An hour later the mathematicians who worked on the orbital path calculations were rechecking their numbers. The results they saw were impossible. Or at least that was the first take on them. Repeated calculations and observations refused to confirm that the original numbers were faulty though. Instead they only served to reinforce the conclusion that the simpler calculations suggested, namely that the Lightning Planet hadn’t simply bumped the Earth and rebounded off but that the two planets had in fact directly collided, occupied the same space at the same time and then plowed through each other and passed onwards, continuing along on their strange orbital dance.