Though this is a work of fiction, some of the events described here might happen in the nearest future. There really is no limit to human inquisitiveness…and stupidity.
University of Ibadan
The sudden rush of cold air on his skin woke him up. He opened his eyes with a start and was welcomed by pitch blackness. Almost pitch blackness really; he could still see the brightly lit Ivory Tower in the distance and the familiar sight soothed him. But why was he still feeling like something was wrong?
The room was suddenly awash with a bright orange light and he could hear a strange sound that was getting louder and louder every second. Still groggy, he moved towards the source of the sound and that was when fear set in.
The entire right side of the building had been ripped clean off by a big ball of fire that was still smoldering on the lawn, surrounded by crisp human bodies that had been unfortunate enough to be in the path of the projectile. He stood at the very precipice and he could see tiny dark bodies running out of the gate in a chaotic pile. He saw a familiar face, his girlfriend’s roommate, a Special Education student taking pictures with her phone. His sleep befuddled brain still couldn’t grasp what was going on. Is the university being attacked? Are the students rioting again? Is the world ending?
He looked up and saw what he assumed were shooting stars streaking across the sky with mind shattering speed. Another bright light lit up the night sky and he looked up just in time to see the alien ball of fire that would level the building and kill him.
Almost a year ago
The Grand Kremlin Palace
The sparseness of the once elegant Palace dining hall was a glaring reminder of the hard times that had befallen Russia. Most of the furniture and decorations that had cost more than a billion dollars to renovate had been auctioned off to anybody willing to own a piece of Russian history. The news networks daily broadcast the rapidly dropping value of the Ruble and numerous border skirmishes.
The most powerful Russian political figures were gathered in the candle lit room. The country’s number one man, the Premier,,Evgeny ‘Pasha’ Andronikov was at the head of the table. He was flanked by his first deputy Prime Minister, Mikhail Ivanov and the Minister of the Interior. Further down the table, the lens of the Minister of Energy, Anatoly Glukhov’s glasses reflected the candlelight. The only female in the company, Ekaterina Yeltsin, the Minister of Economic Development sat at the far end of the table.
The remaining members of the group were intently reading the briefings stamped ‘Top Secret’ that were placed in front of every chair save for one. The occupant of that seat looked ill-suited to the environment. He didn’t have a briefing simply because he had researched and developed every fact contained in the file.
The bespectacled man was a professor, Nobel Prize winner in astrophysics and the Director General at the Russian Federal Space Agency at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The Premier clapped for order “Comrades, the Professor is speaking?”
The Ministers straightened up and the Professor, Oleg Khrunichev, scratched his toupee, adjusted his glasses and shuffled to the projector board.
“I think we should skip formalities here, Comrades” He started “Two months ago, a discovery was made that could turn the fortunes of the rodina around. A comet was spotted and after analysis of the pictures taken and telescopic spectroscopy, we know its mineral content is immense.”
The projector hummed into life and the board lit up in front of him. The picture of a night sky with five conjoined dots in the bottom left corner sprang into life on the board.
“This is Baikonur” he said, pointing to the smallest of the dots “And it is half the size of Moscow.”
The slide changed.
“The average comet is composed of methane, rock, carbon, oxygen and… don’t let me bore you with the details. All you need to know is that Baikonur is a very rare comet. Most comets only last for about a few weeks before degeneration but Baikonur here has been around for a while. Probably thousands of years due to it missing out on its solar orbit and a number of geological changes”.
“And where are we going with all these Comrade Professor”. The Minister of the Interior asked. “Nyet. What is the relevance of a large comet to us? How does it affect the lyudi?”
“This discovery is a noteworthy achievement on its own, Comrade and this ‘large comet’ as you so erroneously call it happens to contain more than 30 billion tons of platinum and gold and it will complete its solar cycle in a year’s time and when that happens, all these valuable minerals will outgas and then dissolve”. He balled his right hand into a fist and hit his palm “Just…” he punctuated every word with a punch and a higher pitch “Like…that”.
The room assumed a kind of calm that not even the Premier’s voice could have achieved. The hum of the projector and the heartbeats of all the Ministers were the only sounds that could be heard.
“So lady and gentlemen, Comrades” the Premier said “This is the situation”.
Oleg cleared his throat and said “Comrade Premier, I’m afraid I didn’t tell you everything”. His face assumed a more serious expression “We’ve done a little asteroid mining in the past but this…” he paused “we cannot embark on this kind of deep space mining operation without reaching full readiness and frankly sir, we need at least six months for that.
“And there’s something else sir…”
Silence. Expectant and anxious looks
“If this is unsuccessful, Comrades” Oleg went on “The rodina will be bankrupt but if we manage to pull it off, we will be the mightiest nation ever and The G7 will be at our feet like they were meant to be. So, as the Americans will say, this is a Catch-22 situation
“Also, when the earth passes through a comet’s debris trail, there is a high probability of meteor showers”.
The slide changed and Aryshenkiv pointed at the display:
“This is the Perseid meteor shower”. He drew a pattern with his pen from the ion tail to the head of the comet. “It occurs every year when the earth passes through the orbit of Comet Swift-Tuttle”.
The Minister of Interior looked up impatiently and when he spoke, his voice was guttural. “We all appreciate the little Science lesson but please Professor, can this, uh, comet be successfully mined?”
The table rumbled at this and some of the Ministers grunted their approval of the question.
“Well, there is no hundred percent certainty in science and we are talking about space here minister. That is uncharted terri…”
“Professor…” The Minister’s annoyance was obvious this time
“Da. It can work but there’s a catch”. He looked round the table at his country’s decision makers who were looking as lost and helpless as toddlers. They waited patiently for him to finish his sentence.
“Comets are highly unstable and they veer off course often and the instability is further heightened with a comet of this size. We might only have one shot at this and if we aim to get it right, we must launch from a specific location and at a time”.
The Five-Star General Defense Minister, Borya Arkydin spoke up for the first time that night and the fire in his eyes was scary. “If we need to launch from the White House, the army has been on standby for a while now. We will invade the United States.”
Oleg chuckled “I don’t think that would be necessary, Comrade General. We need money and brains for this, not guns and rockets.” He paused for effect “The coordinates are 7o23o47″N 3”55’0”E.”
“And where is that?”
“Nigeria, One University of Ibadan to be precise. And we have to launch in 6 months”. He changed the slide “This is the schematics for the vessel we’d be using. We’re calling it New Sputnik”.
Ekaterina, the Minister of Economic Development whistled. “That is one big ship”.
“That is one big comet.” Oleg replied.
“Uh, as much as I hate being the odd one out, Comrades” The balding Minister of Justice, Sergei Nikiforov said uncomfortably “I have to be the voice of reason here. Don’t we need the approval of the Federal Assembly for all these?”
The look on the Premier’s face was murderous.
“The whole country’s falling apart and you think now’s the time for protocol and messing around?” The minister cringed at every word spat out by the Premier. The Premier looked challengingly round the room and his face softened a little when his eyes settled on the Professor. “Professor, we will provide everything you need and when” he stressed the ‘when’ emphatically, “When you mine that comet in six months’ time, your dacha’s pools will be filled with rubles and Victoria’s Secret’s finest models”.
He stood up to the fullest of his height, adjusted his cuffs and cleared his throat loudly.
“Professor, the future of the motherland rests on your shoulders. Africa is all that’s standing between us and a return to the glory days.”
He moved across the room to the huge map of the world hung on the wall.
“This” he said, tapping Nigeria and then waving around the whole map “is the key to these”.
The diminutive professor adjusted his glasses.
“We will do everything it takes sir” he nodded vigorously, knocking his glasses from the bridge of his nose “Anything for the motherland”.
SIX MONTHS LATER
The University of Ibadan
If the sky comes falling down for you
“There’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do… then the instrumental comes in and you’re alright” He turned his bulk around in the worn swivel chair to face his client. He wasn’t bad looking really. He was sporting the ‘afro’ hair cut that youths nowadays just couldn’t get enough of. He had on a jacket that had Dolce and Gabbana inscribed over the top right zipper and his face was handsome in that ‘teeny’, cute boy way.
“And you’re doing all these for an open mic event?”
The client, he’d said his name was Jide, just muttered a barely audible ‘yes’ and went on looking uncomfortable.
“Okay…” He said, turning back to his laptop. He made some minor tweaks to the sound quality of the audio mix, burned the finished work to a CD-ROM and hit eject.
Without standing from his chair, he stretched for a CD jacket and inserted the disc in it. Turning round again for yet the second time that evening since his sulky musician client had stepped in, he handed the disc over.
Jide stood up to leave but then the expectant look on the slightly plus-sized DJ’s face and the outstretched hand stopped him. He muttered an embarrassed ‘oh’, brought out his wallet and counted out three one thousand Naira notes. He gave these to the DJ and made for the door.
“Good luck in your performance man”. The DJ said behind him as he reached under the worktable for his monster headset’s case. He dropped the headset into it and shouted after the retreating shape of his client.
“It was nice doing business with you, Scowlface”.
He sighed, flipped his laptop open and opened his iTunes. The sticker at the back boldly screamed ‘DJ Blazes’ over an oversized guitar.
‘In your performance?’ Did I really just say that?”
He hit play and David Guetta’s heavy instrumentals were blasted out by his powerful Cookie Monster twin speakers.
Let’s light it up. Let’s light it up until our hearts catch fire
He heaved his mass from the chair, farted, moved towards the French windows and pulled back the curtains.
Then show the world a burning light that never shined so bright
Dull orange light from the setting sun streamed into the room. Everything looked so small from his fifteenth floor room but that was a small price to pay for the convenience and luxury it provided.
…to keep the cold night from breaking in over the walls
And then there was the absence of snotty roommates. Work on the high rise hostel had been rushed and it had been completed in a record four months. Try and beat that, Dubai. It was a male-female hostel and the first ten floors were allocated to the female occupants. Three elevators rendered the long flight of stairs practically useless. It was a beautywith more than two thousand rooms, a spa, beauty shop, standard gym and an adjoining pool and bar.
Onto the wild side the hunger satisfied
He’d paid the surprisingly cheap fee that was charged by the university eagerly. The hostel had been built as a CSR project by a new Russian company with its African administrative office in Lagos. The company was relatively new, not even a year old. But who cares really? Definitely not the University administration since their accommodation headaches had been miraculously solved and they still got to keep the accommodation fees. They must have felt like Aladdin when he found the magic lamp.
…we’re burning up
We might as well be lovers on the sun…
He could see the University’s Ivory Tower from his room and the Faculty of Technology, his Faculty, was just ten minutes away from the hostel. Further down the road was the cordoned off construction site.
We might as well be lovers on the sun…
They’d been at it for almost six months now and yet the only thing that could be seen was an uncompleted four-storey building and men with yellow helmets scurrying around like ants. A lot of big moving trucks had been making the rounds over the past few weeks so he knew that whatever was being done there was almost nearing its deadline. And then the huge machinery…
We might as well be lovers on the sun…
He had been to the entrance once but a white man who spoke English with a strange accent had told him it was ‘off limits’.
He sighed again and moved away from the window. He had papers to submit and stargazing just wouldn’t cut it. He farted again
He moved, waddled really, over to the laptop and hit ‘next’. Aloe Blacc’s voice sprang into life, cutting Sam Martin off mid-sentence.
The whole world’s sitting on a ticking bomb…
The whole world’s sitting on a ticking bomb…
* * *
“Everything still on course, Artyom?”
“Yes Comrade Professor” the technician looked up into the eyes of a man he adored. The only man he knew who actually placed the welfare of the rodina above personal gains.
He tapped at his computer screen and the satellite feed of slowly moving rocky shapes in a black background filled the screen
“Baikonur will cross the Oort cloud by 02:00 hours tomorrow morning and the only delay might be in the form of gravitational perturbations and even this might only draw us back a few minutes. A quarter of an hour tops”.
Oleg moved his hand from the young man’s shoulder and said
“And what is the probability of Perseid or any of his relatives coming out to play tonight?”
“We are still unsure of this, sir. The chances of a meteor shower this time of the year are pretty slim but” He drummed nervously on the table “We are talking about space here sir. It’s uncharted terr…”
“Territory. I know son. I keep saying that myself.” Oleg smiled encouragingly at his protégé. He gave him a friendly pat on the back and moved toward the door. Once at the entrance he turned back and faced the whole control room.
“I’ll be hitting the bunk now but if there’s any development, no matter how small” He stressed “No matter how inconsequential it seems, please don’t hesitate to wake me”.
He waved at their ‘yes sirs’ and stepped into the waiting elevator.
He turned a few corridors, nodded at some ‘dobriy vyechers’ and, in a few minutes was in his allotted habitat.
It was a far cry from his lodgings at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. It was sparsely decorated and was painted a drab white but he didn’t mind. He spent most of his time in the control room anyways and the only facility that concerned him in the room had not been used in two days.
He hit the bed with a drawn out ‘aaaaaah’ and closed his eyes.
But he couldn’t sleep. His mind kept going over the events of the past six months and how fast things were moving. Getting the land had been easy. The right pockets were filled, egos were stroked and of course, the hostel had been constructed.
The official reason was that they were doing top secret geological research, something on environmental control and global warming. The construction of the hostel made it easy for the transportation of equipment and no questions were asked since it was assumed all the heavy machinery were to help in the construction.
The hostel and the underground command center cum bunker had been built at the same breakneck pace. The university authorities had left them alone since they must have learnt that you don’t look a gift Russian in the mouth.
Now six months later, he could hear the countdown to the greatest moment in the history of Mother Russia. No, the greatest moment in the history of mankind. The history books would speak of him and the other great men back in Moscow. His name would be called in the same vein as Lenin and Stalin and his statue would be erected in the Kuybyshev Square.
Even when the space shuttle is launched, the Nigerians would be powerless to stop anything and when the mining is done, the brave cosmonauts would land safely in Russia with the loot that would turn the world around.
The Alpha and Zenith Spetsnaz assault groups would keep them safe for a while.
But tonight first.
…all these after tonight.
The University of Ibadan
The engineers, astronautics and technicians had gone over the space shuttle, New Sputnik, more than twenty times that day and all was cleared for take-off. The propellant load had escaped attention during the assembling and routine checkups. It wouldn’t run with the monopropellant hydrazine at first but the combined efforts of the engineering team had corrected that. The uplink and downlink lines were triple checked.
The hatch slid open and NewSputnik, with the Russian flag it proudly displayed at its tail, popped into the moonlight. Anybody looking out their window at the hostel would have seen the jaw dropping process of space flight. But most of them were still asleep.
A technician started the countdown and Oleg watched with his heart in his mouth and Murphy’s Law in his mind.
The thunderous roar of the ship’s propulsion system filled the underground compound but the highly soundproofed environment kept it from filtering out.
* * *
DJ Blazes, real name Albert, tossed around on his bed and after tethering on the edge for a while, fell off.
He opened an eye and was surprised to see the silhouette of a weirdly enormous bird with its tail on fire flying into the night. He was too tired to pull back his curtain and have a proper look. Chalking it up to a bad dream, he jumped back on his bed and slept off immediately, snoring slightly.
* * *
Trouble popped up immediately after takeoff.
Oleg looked at the blonde communications girl waving a printout wildly at his face.
“This just came in from LEGRI, sir. They are advising us to delay takeoff for at least an hour”.
“What?” The Professor screamed at the girl “Give me that” he said, grabbing at the paper.
He studied the two paragraphs on the page over and over for almost five minutes. Then his face dropped.
Arytom, sensing the change in his mentor’s visage moved behind him and read the printout. Then he too, slumped to the floor, fear, rage and disappointment fighting for a place on his face.
The control room became silent after this.
Oleg pulled himself together and said in the most controlled tone he could muster.
“It appears our forecast was wrong. Perseid will be out today”.
“And worse still, communications is broken with New Sputnik for the first two phases of their flight” He paused “And after communications is established our brave Comrades on that ship would be dead”.
“What?” A shocked scientist shouted.
“Well, it appears the New Sputnik is on a collision course with the meteors. The only thing we can do is to pray and prepare to leave this godforsaken country by morning”.
“But what about astral detour?”
“What about it?”
“The course of the asteroids will be changed by the collision and they could well be headed here”
“Well, that is possible” Oleg replied, looking clearly fatigued “But only the small ones will be diverted”.
“And better yet” he continued “the probability of one of them landing here is very slim”.
* * *
The first asteroid was the size of a football and it hit the University’s General Studies Program’s building at more than 7,000km per hour. The building became a crater.
Then the sky fell.
* * *
When the first asteroid hit the building, Albert was still under. The second hit however, rocked the building and the bed spat Albert to the ground again.
He was disoriented but the lights showing beyond his window this time were more convincing. He drew the curtains aside and what he saw scared 40 pounds out of his body and 5 years off his age.
He grabbed his laptop and switched to full survival mode. The building was rocked one more time and he didn’t need to be a structural engineer to know that the building wouldn’t survive another hit.
He knew better than to go for the elevators so he drew his pajamas round himself tighter, sucked in air and made for the stairs. He skipped past hordes of screaming, faceless people, his big belly acting as an energy reserve.
He ran past a girl in an Adult Education departmental shirt calling her boyfriend to come pick her up. He knew her from volleyball club but there was no time for chitchat.
He ran for more than ten minutes but he didn’t know that. His adrenaline was on overdrive and in a flash; he was out the door of the hostel and made straight for the gate, jumping over newly formed craters and mangled bodies.
Then his body started protesting. He paused to catch his breath and turned around just in time to see another ball slam into the building. He wasn’t sure if he’d seen a person’s frame in the disemboweled building’s window but if he had, the guy was dead for sure. The last flaming ball seemed to do the trick and the building, with an inhuman screech, started to fall apart.
He picked himself up and ran out the gate. He ran down the road and past the cordoned off construction site that was now burning furiously. Guess nobody would be building there anytime soon.
Then the balls stopped falling.
His breath was coming out in gasps now and he assumed he must be sounding like a worn speaker to any of the running shapes. He smiled at himself in the darkness and slowed to a jog.
Here he was, at three in the morning running out of his hall without shoes and in pajamas.
He farted loudly but nobody even bothered to reproach the fat guy destroying the ozone layer.
His smile later changed to hysterical laughter and then metamorphosed into wracking coughs.
He looked at the burning ruins to his right and could barely make out the board welcoming visitors to the ‘Faculty of Education’ at the front.
* * *
When the University’s security team picked him up at the school’s gate, he was disoriented and clutching a dirty laptop desperately. He just kept on singing ‘Set fire to the rain’ over and over.
Six Months Later
High Energy Transcient Explorer 1 (PEGASUS-XL)
Earth’s Orbit (590-650km)
“Sir, can you come down to the observatory. Now?”
The panic in the analyst’s voice got to him faster than the words themselves. He slammed the phone down on the stars and stripes painted table and hurried out of the lodge without buttoning his shirt though this was not much of a strange event. Every worker had seen his hairy and bulbous belly at least once and it’s not always a pretty sight.
Five years in space and he still hadn’t figured out if the fluid mechanics pedestal was taking him upwards, downwards or even sideways.
His mind also wandered to events back home on earth. The Nigeria incident had earned the Russians more international backlash and the country had disintegrated. Thousands of people were running out of the country daily into nearby Ukraine and Afghanistan.
The damn Ruskies had it coming though.
There was no time for musing however because what he saw in the observatory’s monster control screen aptly called ‘eye in the sky’ stopped him cold.
An analyst rushed to his side.
“That is Ceres, sir and the other asteroid at its heels has been identified as Interamnia, a Class-F asteroid”.
“Oh my God!”
“There’s more, sir”. The screen shifted a few degrees to the right and nine more asteroids came into view.
“These PHOs will hit earth in approximately three hours sir”.
The commander of the NASA space station slumped into a nearby chair and drew his unbuttoned shirt tightly round him like a protective cocoon. How had they managed to miss something of this magnitude? How had all the other hundreds of observatories and space stations managed to miss it?
His Harvard education still couldn’t take the Southern edge from his voice. But he was no ordinary redneck, this one. He was recognized worldwide and had won many interdisciplinary awards. His work in Astronomy and Quantum Physics was exceptional.
“Remember Shoemaker-Levy 9? The asteroid that slammed into Jupiter in ’94, son?” The analyst and every other person in the room listened with rapt attention “Ceres is 50 times bigger. There’s no running away from something this huge”.
“So what do we do now, Sir?” He couldn’t keep the fear from his voice anymore.
“You believe in God, son?”
“Well…you better start praying to him”.