There are questions where the answers people believe they would give are radically different from the ones they actually provide when faced with the circumstances that are posed.
“Would you like to observe a planet collide with the Earth from atop a mountain in Hawaii” was that sort of question for Hanna. Prior to the Lightning Planet’s appearance, Hanna couldn’t have imagined a scenario where “colliding planets” was something she’d be waiting for with excitement and eagerness.
“This is so incredibly messed up,” Kimberly said, stargazing through a set of specially modified binoculars.
In studying how the gray crystal interacted with light from the Lightning Planet, the researchers at Mauna Kea had discovered that inducing a tiny current to flow through the crystals caused them to scatter light in an unprecedented manner. They built on that discovery and found that the electrified crystals allowed even small optics to show the Lightning Planet in all its glory.
Hanna and the other scientists ground their teeth at the seeming “confirmation” of the Lightning Planet’s title given the tenuous connection of requiring electricity to “see” it, but simple stories sold commercials better and allowed a far wider range of crackpots to spout of their own idiosyncratic theories, so the media was delighted to run with that tidbit of information.
“I feel like we should be anywhere else but here,” Kalia said. “I mean it feels like it’s dropping right on us.”
Looking through the binoculars, the Lightning Planet filled the sky, growing towards the horizons with each passing second.
“It pretty much is,” Hanna said. “But since it’s going to hit Earth in the ‘everywhere’ it’s not like there’s a better place to be necessarily.”
“We know for sure it’s going to pass through us again right?” Kalia asked.
“Nope,” Kimberly said.
“We hope it’s going to pass through us again. With only two data points though we can’t be sure of anything,” Hanna said.
“Well, if this is where we get squished like bugs, let me say it’s been nice knowing you both,” Kalia said.
“Kind of weak for last words,” Kimberly said.
“We’re probably going to live,” Kalia said. “So I’d rather not say anything that would make me wish I’d died of embarrassment.”
Hanna laughed and looked away from the oncoming planet. Again not something she could say she ever expected to do. In the crowd of researchers who were standing outside the observatory, Kimberly was off to Hanna’s right, but Kalia was standing just a short distance in front of her, as though their military liaison was in position to block the Lightning Planet before it crushed the rest of them.
“Ok, everyone power off your binoculars,” Dr. Tishone said. “We’re shutting down the crystal filter on the main telescope…now.”
Hanna flipped the switch on the kitbashed power supply that fed the crystal on her binoculars.
“This is kind of eerie,” Kalia said. “Like we’re closing our eyes at the last minute and hoping the Lightning Planet just misses us or something.
“Yeah, I thought I was going to feel better not watching a giant celestial body crash into the planet I was on, but now that we’re here I gotta say it kind of feels worse to not see it coming,” Kimberly said.
“I’ll take the sudden urge to vomit I’m feeling over the chance of blowing my eyes out of my head if the crystals on the binoculars decide to explode,” Hanna said.
“And why are we worried about the crystals exploding?” Kalia asked.
“They got kind of agitated by the second Phantom Quake, remember?” Hanna said.
“I thought they just started growing a bit,” Kalia said.
“Yes, well, that’s when they were dormant,” Hanna said. “Since they seem to behave differently when current is being passed through them, it doesn’t seem like a great idea to take risks with either our eyeballs or the multi-million dollar optical equipment in the observatory.”
“So no one is watching this thing then?” Kalia asked. “How are we going to know what happens when it hits the planet?”
“We don’t want to risk the big telescope. We’ve got plenty of little ones setup around the world that have been retrofitted with the crystal lens,” Kimberly said.
“It’ll take longer to collect the data, but we should get a very exact picture of what happens during the positional overlap,” Hanna said.
“Positional overlap?” Kalia asked.
“It’s not technically accurate to call it a collision, since the two bodies don’t seem to be interacting with each other much,” Hanna said.
“How much longer do we have?” Kimberly asked.
“Ninety seconds,” Kalia said, checking her watch.
“I’m worried about what happens next,” Hanna said.
“I think the whole world is with you on that one,” Kimberly said.
“No, I mean, assuming we’re all still here in a minute,” Hanna said. “If we get pancaked then that sucks but also kind of solves all of our problems on a personal scale at least.”
“I could swear I hear you rooting for us to be squished,” Kalia said, “But that can’t be right.”
“Oh I don’t want to be squished,” Hanna said and repeated it again, yelling it to the sky, “I don’t want to be squished!”
“George, stop hugging the grad students!” one of the researchers yelled back which drew a general wave of nervous laughter from the people assembled at the observatory.
Around the world, prayer services were in full swing in every corner of every continent (barring Antarctica). Riots and martial law struggled against one another, but having survived two previous encounters with the Lightning Planet people weren’t at quite the level of despair over a third encounter that they were willing to forgo the notion of their actions having consequences altogether.
“What I mean,” Hanna said, speaking more softly, “is that if we survive this there’s still a good chance someone else won’t, and depending on which direction the data points, we might be facing the end of world even if the Lightning Planet won’t kill us.”
“Hold on then, because we’re about to find out in ten…nine…eight…”, Kimberly said.
Hanna reached out and took Kimberly’s left hand in her right and Kalia’s right hand in her left. It was a small and ultimately pointless gesture but there was something about basic human contact in a moment of crisis that soothed a part of her mind which nothing else could comfort.
It wasn’t until an automated clock chimed that Hanna noticed she’d been holding her breath and had closed her eyes.
“And we’re clear!” Dr. Tishone said. “Inspection teams to your posts, communication teams tell us where the Phantom Quake hit this time.”
Hanna, Kimberly, Kalia and three other workers at the observatory were part of the inspection team for the modified binoculars so they were immediately busy verifying the effect the “positional overlap” had on their new tools and wound up in the command center as news started to roll in.
“Mine are clean, no sign of…wait, yaaagh!” Kimberly screamed as she threw the binoculars she was holding away.
Hanna had the sense to hold hers out at arm’s length so when the crystals began to evaporate in a hissing steam of gray gas she was able to capture an image of it with her cell phone.
“The crystals are sublimating,” Kalia said, placing her own binoculars on the ground.
“The same’s happening with the lens on the portable telescopes,” one of the researchers said.
“What kind of images did we get from them?” Dr. Tishone asked. “And someone get a message back to the Tokyo team. See what the crystals there are doing.”
There was a blur of activity around Hanna and she felt like any minute it was all going to stop.
They would receive a message, as soon as the bandwidth allowed it, which gave the location of the third Phantom Quake site. Then everyone would go quiet and they would wait for the most important news to arrive; which predictions were true?
Would the quake be less devastating than the last two? Did humanity have a chance to survive? Or would the Effect Zone be larger this time? In which case the question became, did the Earth have a chance to survive?
“The Ghost Walker Expedition is reporting in,” one of the communication techs reported. “The crystals there are growing at a fantastic rate this time.”
“Find out how fast and how they’re reacting to the explosive gates,” Dr. Tishone said.
The combined military forces at the Tokyo Effect Zone had installed special explosive packages around sections of the crystal trees that dotted the effect zone. Their concern had been the crystal’s apparent tendency to grow toward forming a dome over the area. Since no one was quite sure what that might lead to, Explosive Ordnance specialists from various countries were called on to set limits to how far the crystals could grow. If the crystals grew past the established boundaries, successive charges would blast them back and ensure that the research teams had a series of exits available to them for quick extraction.
“I’ve lost contact with the Expedition,” the communications tech reported. “I’m getting confirmation from external observers that the explosive gates have been deployed though.”
That was much too fast in Hanna’s mind. Even at their maximum growth rate, the Tokyo crystals had never grown at a rate where they could have set off the bombs that quickly.
“I have reports coming in from Heidelberg,” another comm tech said. “The tissue samples they’ve been studying have crystallized.”
“They’ve what?” Dr. Tishone said.
“I’m getting the pictures in now,” the comm tech said. “They’re claiming that the regenerating tissues from the Aoyama dead were converted to a gray, crystal-like substance similar to the crystal towers in Tokyo.”
“The other bodies sublimated away as energy though,” Kimberly said.
“Like crystals just sublimated too,” Hanna said. “Except they’re not the same.”
“We never found the dead of Tokyo,” Kalia said. “Could they have been transformed into those crystals?”
“God, I hope not,” Hanna said. “And I don’t think that fits. Buenos Aires lost a lot of people too but there’s been were no crystal development there.”
“We’re getting seismology reports in from North America,” another comm tech said. “No Phantom Quake detected in North America.”
“We’re hearing the same reports from South America and Northern and Southern Africa,” the first comm tech said.
“East Asia and Australia are reporting no Phantom Quakes detected either,” the second comm said.
Hanna cringed, knowing there was some kind of bad news to come, and when a new tech spoke up, her nightmare came to life in a new and wholly unexpected manner.
“Somebody else needs to look at this,” Laura, the last comm tech, said. “Because I can’t be seeing this.”
Hanna, and half of the rest of the researchers, crowded around Laura’s station.
On the screen, Laura had blown up one of her windows. It was showing something marked as a live video from Berlin, Germany.
The city hadn’t been flattened. Yet.
Unlike Tokyo and Buenos Aires, Berlin had weathered the initial destruction wrought on it by the passing of the Lightning Planet. The condition didn’t seem like it was going to last though.
On the screen, being filmed by someone who had clearly lost their mind, a creature stood, towering over the ruins of central Berlin. It stood on four legs and it’s body was over a thousand feet tall at the shoulders. When it moved buildings shattered and strange flashes of light surged through the air.
Hanna looked at the screen and had no idea what she was seeing, or how it could even be alive. The creature was death. It was the end of the world. It was every fear she had, come to life and, as far as she could see, there was no force on Earth that could stop it.