The World That Ends In Fire – Chapter 11


The power of science lies in its ability to predict events which will occur in relation to each other. If the cause is known and understood, science can often be very precise in predicting what the effect will be. Since the reputable scientist of the world hadn’t been able to predict what would happen to the world next though, many groups believed the Phantom Quakes and the existence of the Lightning Planet were things that stood outside the bounds of science.

“It’s Divine Judgement”, the zealously faithful proclaimed. “It’s the Will of Nature” , the zealously mystical proclaimed. Both groups had any number of prescriptions for exactly what “the Divine” or “Nature” wanted of humanity, though the explanation for how the mouthpieces of these cosmic forces knew what was required boiled down to little more than “because I say so”.

People flocked into the cults of these personalities because they were offering answers that in turn offered safety, either in this life or the next. Perversely, the more terrible the answers were, either in self-flagellation or in the persecution of scapegoat groups, the more fervently their followers believed in them

Terrible things had happened to two cities. Millions of people were dead. Somewhere in far too many human brains that linked to a pattern which proclaimed that pain and suffering were the only avenues that could be trusted as true.

At the Mauna Kea observatory, Hanna felt like their successful prediction of the Lightning Planets reappearance cast a spear into the heart of those superstitions. The team there was working around the clock, observing and analyzing the celestial visitor, advancing step-by-step on understanding what kind of catastrophe the Earth was faced with, in the hope of discovering how to avert or at least ameliorate the worst of its effects.

“So we know for sure that it’s not a parallel Earth then?” Kalia asked, toweling her short hair dry as she emerged from the shower in the four bedroom bungalow the three women had been given for the duration of their stay.

“We can’t rule that out completely,” Hanna said, mixing a bowl full of eggs before pouring them onto a skillet to begin the scrambling process. “Not yet anyways. The data we have is suggesting that’s not the case though.”

“Apart from the whole ‘it’s formed from an exotic type of matter which we’ve never observed before’, which is not very Earth-like, there’s also the formation of the surface features being radically different from Earth’s at any point in its history that suggests we’re not looking at an evil twin or something like that,” Kimberly said. She was at work on the fruit and toast portion of breakfast.

The trio had tried working off of coffee and donuts for the first few days they were in Hawaii, but had quickly determined that lack of decent nutrition was not doing their cognitive processes any good. Spending a brief time in the morning reviewing the previous day, planning for the one to come and slowing down long enough to eat a real (if simple) meal yielded results that none of them could argue against.

“So what about the idea that it’s the mysterious tenth planet in the solar system?” Kalia asked, moving to the sink and beginning to wash the dishes which breakfast would require.

“That one we can be sure of,” Hanna said. “The Lightning Planet absolutely cannot be a native of this solar system.”

“Because it’s made of exotic matter?” Kalia asked.

“Strangely no,” Hanna said, dishing the scrambled eggs out onto a warmed serving tray. “The exotic matter would make it an oddball for this area of space. As far as we can see there’s no other Lightning Planets orbiting the sun with us. That doesn’t rule the Lightning Planet out as a potential neighbor though. No, the problem is the orbit it’s attained.”

“It’s too close to ours?” Kalia asked, laying the last of the dishes on the table in the shared dining room.

“Much too close,” Kimberly said. “We’re still working out the orbital mechanics that are at work but the Lightning Planet seems to be so strongly drawn to the Earth that if it was a native of the solar system it would have collided with us billions of years ago.”

“We’re still looking for what wiped out the dinosaurs though right?” Kalia asked.

“It wasn’t this,” Hanna said. “Or probably not anyways.”

“That’s awfully reassuring,” Kalia said. “As a tip, if a reporter asks you that question, have a better answer ready for them ok?”

“What she means is that if this Lightning Planet had visited Earth before, it’s unlikely that it would have been able to leave, based on what we’re seeing about its current orbital dynamics,” Kimberly said as she placed bowls of mixed fruit slices before Hanna and Kalia’s plates.

“So the Earth might have been hit by one of these things before, but not this particular one?” Kalia asked.

“That’s one of the more hopeful scenarios believe it or not,” Hanna said, passing the tray of scrambled eggs to Kalia. There was something primal about sharing food with others that clicked for Hanna. Despite the unusual and apocalyptic topic of their conversation, Hanna felt a “rightness” to what they were doing that was difficult for her to define. It was mundane and human and simple, and somehow all of those things added up to something a part of her was desperately craving.

“And a previous Lightning Planet collision would be good why exactly?” Kalia asked, spooning scrambled eggs onto her plate.

“Because it would mean that the Earth will be left standing if there’s a final collision with this Lightning Earth,” Kimberly said, taking the tray as Kalia passed it to her.

“Left standing?” Kalia asked.

“Yeah, some of the models for what happens in the long term aren’t so pretty,” Hanna said.

“Not so pretty as in ‘wipe out all the dinosaurs’ levels of not so pretty, or are we talking about something even worse?” Kalia asked.

“Worst case, we’re looking at ‘the solar system gains a new asteroid belt and loses it’s third planet’,” Hanna said.

“Oh, actually they revised that model,” Kimberly said in between bites of scrambled egg.

“What’s the new one say?” Hanna asked.

“No asteroid belt, just a shower of highly energetic particles and Mars and Venus left with dents in them the size of Jupiter,” Kimberly said.

“Isn’t Jupiter bigger than Mars and Venus put together?” Kalia asked.

“Yeah, you can see how that will be a problem for them,” Kimberly said.

“Well, I always wanted to tour the cosmos,” Hanna said. “Not a fan of the idea that I’ll be doing it as discorporated particles of hard radiation though.”

“Wait, we’re going to blow up?” Kalia asked.

“That’s literally the worst case scenario,” Kimberly said. “There are lots of other models and theories that people are working on.”

“But if the ‘everything explodes’ model is correct there’s not going to be a whole lot we can do about it is there?” Kalia asked.

“Of course there is,” Hanna said. “We’ll just reverse the polarity of the Earth’s magnetic field and channel power to a deflector array that’s secretly been built on the equator for just such an emergency.”

Kalia frowned at Hanna in between bites of fruit.

“If you’re going to lie, at least crib from a better source than Star Trek, ok?” Kalia said.

“If it turns out we’re going to explode, I plan to crib from anything people will listen to,” Hanna said.

“For what it’s worth, the exploding theory doesn’t have any more evidence in favor of it than a lot of the other theories,” Kimberly said.

“True, and while there’s a lot of other ‘Extinction Event’ level outcomes, there’s also some pretty mild ones that we’re looking into still,” Hanna said.

“Give me one of the ones where life goes on all happy and rosy then,” Kalia said.

“Ok, well, the orbital dynamics that we’ve worked out so far for the Lightning Planet are weird. Like inexplicably complex even for an orbital calculation and those start at ‘non-trivial’ and can wind up at ‘my brain is leaking out my nose’ levels of difficult to work with,” Hanna said.

“And this is good?” Kalia asked.

“Maybe,” Hanna said. “One theory we’re working on nailing down is a wild one but it posits that the forces which are governing the motion of the Earth and the Lightning Planet are not primarily governed by gravity. That’s supported by the tidal effects we’re not seeing when the two planets collide. Oh, and the fact that they can pass through each other with no more than minor effects.”

“Minor effects?” Kalia asked.

“The Phantom Quakes,” Kimberly said.

“Those are minor?” Kalia asked.

“On a planetary scale?” Hanna said. “Yeah, they’re more or less insignificant as far as the Earth as a whole is concerned.”

“Tell that to the people who were there,” Kalia said.

“That’s on a human scale,” Hanna said. “From our perspective, the devastation and loss of life is almost beyond comprehension, but in terms of structural damage to the planet it’s barely noticeable. Natural disasters, the big ones at least, can cause that level of destruction easily.”

“I’m waiting for the good news part of this story,” Kalia said.

“The good news is that the Earth hasn’t been damaged too fundamentally yet, and the damage we saw in the second Phantom Quake was less than the first,” Hanna said. “If there are forces that we’re not measuring that are interacting here, then it could be that there’s a dampening effect that’s building up which will naturally mitigate the effect of the collisions on the Earth.”

“Or to put it in simpler terms,” Kimberly said. “We might have seen the worst already and everything from here on out will be milder and milder versions of what we’ve already experienced.”

“But we’re still looking at more Phantom Quakes?” Kalia asked.

“Probably,” Hanna said. “But not necessarily in populated areas. Tokyo was hit dead center, sort of, but the Buenos Aires quake covered part of the city and part of the ocean it bordered on.”

“So maybe next time it hits the ocean completely?” Kalia said.

“If the placement is random, then that’s pretty likely given the ocean coverage of the Earth,” Hanna said. “The downside to that is the question of whether and how big of a tsunami we see created by the quake.”

“And if it hits a city again?” Kalia asked.

“Then we’ll have to answer some very important questions very quickly,” Hanna said. “Like how is something at our scale affecting something the size of an entire planet.”