AFTERSHOCK

We’re happy to welcome Brian Trent back to our pages. He has also appeared in Analog, F&SF, COSMOS, Nature, Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction. His acclaimed hard sci-fi novel, Ten Thousand Thunders, was recently published by Flame Tree Press. His web site is www.briantrent.com.

***

If we wanted to save the world, then we needed to utterly destroy a city or two. That was the grim calculus of the matter. A few million people needed to die in order to save billions more.

Do the math:

Asteroids exist.

They will hit the Earth.

They did cause previous extinction cycles.

Public and politician alike continually shrug off this threat through a combination of willful ignorance and blind faith. Even when Ammon Station was obliterated by an asteroid three years ago, apathy set in like mental concrete. People cared, and then they didn’t, and then the matter was pushed to some dusty corner of the collective memory to free up time for pondering the latest political scandal or nude celebrity holo.

Why?

Because only three people were on the Ammon when it was destroyed. Apparently our capacity for empathy is directly proportional to the quantity of lives lost, like some Chandrasekhar threshold of our limbic system. Would four deaths have made a difference? After all, Ammon Station had a resident shuttle pilot, too; the only reason he didn’t die was that he had been away on a survey mission when the rock came hurtling out of the void, destroying the station and all aboard.

We live in a debris field, a minefield, a map of inevitable collisions.

So what do you do when your world requires an asteroid defense program, yet there’s no political will to build one?

You throw an asteroid at the Earth and let it vaporize a city or two. Human beings pay attention to threats only when one gives us a black eye.

We call ourselves Project Aftershock, and three people in total comprise our noble, clandestine assembly: myself as shuttle pilot and financier, engineer Meredith O’Byrne, and the disgraced inventor Keith Durbin. Our noble, clandestine purpose is to locate an asteroid of sufficient mass to damage—but not destroy—the Earth.

Forgive me Ligia.

This has to be done.

***

We have located a likely candidate in the belt: MelHein-44591, S-Type asteroid with a diameter of 1,016 meters.

We’re still debating what country to hit, though the general consensus is that it should be a first-world western nation to produce rapid response and unrelenting news coverage. Which is to say, more news coverage than was given to the death of my Ecuadorian wife and coworkers aboard the Ammon.

More pressing is the problem of moving an asteroid that size into a collision course.

That’s where Durbin comes in.

Dr. Keith Durbin’s experiments with zero-point energy destroyed what was shaping up to be a promising young career. Despite the international prohibitions on such research, he plowed ahead until word leaked and he was arrested, shut down, and exiled from the scientific community. When I found him, he had been reduced to teaching introductory physics at an obscure college in Glasgow. He was only too happy to accept my offer. I spirited him off Earth with his notes and whatever equipment he could steal from the university labs.

Durbin claims that before his arrest, he had successfully tested a method of negating mass through creating “a gravity-canceling net of Diracisan energy.” Working off-world aboard my shuttle, he believes he can take the next experimental step.

We fly out tomorrow. Should rendezvous with MelHein-44591 in three weeks.

***

I’m trying to gather my thoughts enough to explain what has transpired. I still can’t believe it.

I was in the cockpit when the energy surge hit and blew me into unconsciousness, and therefore know little of what went down in engineering. What I can report is that our rendezvous with the asteroid was smooth, and our deployment of the zero-point nodes around the rock was likewise efficient and without incident. The last thing I remember was giving the order to Durbin to initiate the experiment, and then the next thing I knew, I was hanging limply off my pilot seat, drooling like an idiot, and MelHein was nowhere in sight.

Meredith O’Byrne wasn’t able to provide much more in the way of explanation. She was in engineering with Durbin when he activated the zero-point array. She saw Durbin start the machine, and then she too was knocked unconsciousness by a wave of “purple energy.”

It was Durbin who was able to shed a bit more light, so to speak, on what had occurred. When I went to see him, he was still picking himself off the floor, but he immediately consulted his instruments and said there had been an unexpected energy backlash, possibly induced from interactions with the metallic components of the asteroid itself.

Where MelHein had vanished to, no one could say. The rock was utterly gone from sensors. And since our ship was on an illegal mission, we couldn’t risk contacting anyone for a “have you seen our asteroid” query. All we could do was locate another candidate, and trust that our next attempt would see Durbin adjusting his infernal machine to account for localized interference.

It took five days to locate another asteroid.

And here’s where the universe delivered the first of its surprise uppercuts to Project Aftershock:

This newest asteroid was already on a collision course with Earth.

More stunning was what we concluded from our telemetry:

We couldn’t allow the impact to occur.

Instead of being a small rock that could level a city, this asteroid was an outright planet-killer, some eight miles across.

Project Aftershock had to become Project Savior.

As before, our rendezvous was achieved without problems. As before, the nodes were deployed around the vast width of the rock.

As before, I gave the activation order from the cockpit.

This time the experiment was a dazzling success. The energy net reduced the asteroid’s mass by several orders of magnitude, and our little shuttle was able to effortlessly shove it off course, sending it careening out into the void without incident.

Our celebration was short-lived, however. I announced that Project Aftershock was no longer necessary, that Durbin’s experiments now proved that an efficient means of asteroid-deflection was possible, and that our findings should be announced to all of Earth. It was on our approach to Earth that we realized something was wrong.

There were no radio signals coming from the planet. No glimmer of cities, no glint of satellites. South America looked odd…far too near Africa’s western coast. Numerous volcanoes festered like red sores. The atmosphere wasn’t right…

As we swung into orbit, Meredith went to the sensors and stared.

Dinosaurs.

The world’s surface was dominated by dinosaurs. The position of the continents further underscored the inevitable conclusion:

We were sixty-five million years in the past.

***

We traced the problem to the power surge from Durbin’s experimental machine. His response was that the surge had “created an Ellis drain Moebius Tunnel in space-time.” Whatever he called it, he nonetheless believed that the accident could be replicated by following the overload pattern. More importantly, he insisted that he could invert the pattern with precision, resulting in what we all fervently hoped would mean a return to our present era and not an additional sixty-five-million year back-step.

Turns out, Durbin was correct.

He was able to induce another overload, and brought us back to the present era. We were even able to spot MelHein-44591, caroming far away.

But here comes another one of the universe’s devastating uppercuts.

This isn’t the same timeline as the one we left.

The asteroid we deflected sixty-five million years ago must have been the one that triggered the K-T extinction event.

In deflecting it, the dinos never died off.

Their evolutionary descendants have pretty villages, though. Ligia was always fascinated by architecture. She would have found the bone-like curvatures of their nesting halls quite exquisite.

***

We’re running low on food, and this morning Durbin committed suicide by airlock, apparently driven mad by the knowledge that we had just erased the human race.

Fortunately his notes and experimental log are intact, and Meredith believes that we can follow in his footsteps and replicate the time-jump. The problem is that this is hardly like setting coordinates to a specific calendar date. Durbin said that much before his helmetless space-walk: There is inherent unpredictability in the pattern’s outcome. We could arrive back in the Cretaceous weeks, months, or years on either side of the target date. It’s a risk we have to take. Ideally, we’ll locate the K-T asteroid, lasso it, and hurl it back toward Earth. The dinos die. We return home, get drunk, and consign Durbin’s machine to the scrap heap.

Project Aftershock’s original mission will be realized after all, in a way.

***

We have arrived sixty-five million years in the past.

Again.

At least that much has been successful. The problem is that our survey-class shuttle isn’t handling the stresses of time travel very well. The engine core is cracking up, literally. Meredith and I applied diamond spackle to patch the fractures for now, but it’s obvious that our days of being chrononauts toggling back and forth through Ellis drains have an expiration date. Another trip, maybe two, before the engine core shatters like bone china. And it’s not like we can purchase a replacement at the nearest hardware depot.

Of course, there’s another damn problem too. Sure, every indication is that we have arrived in the Cretaceous, and Meredith’s surveillance of Earth confirms that the continents and planetary species match what she observed on our previous trip. Thing is, the Cretaceous lasted eighty million years, so we don’t know when in the Cretaceous we’ve arrived. The K-T asteroid is absolutely nowhere on our sensors, and we have neither the food nor fuel to comb the solar system for it.

So we have an alternate plan.

We’ve captured a seven-mile rock out in trans-Neptunion orbit and are towing it Earthward. Meredith and I have been running the calculations day and night, checking and rechecking. We need to replicate the K-T impact as closely as possible. The mass of our newest capture isn’t the same, but we’re confident that we can compensate with greater velocity. We’re going to hurl it at the Earth, at a trajectory as near as possible to what killed off the dinos.

Maybe it’s the stress we’ve been under, or the long hours of poring through research notes we barely understand, but Meredith is coming apart at the seams. She shakes all the time, won’t eat, doesn’t sleep. She keeps muttering to herself, but won’t tell me what’s on her mind.

Maybe time travel cracks more than just engine cores.

***

Success.

We edged the rock into proper trajectory, gave it a velocity boost, and slammed it into the Earth.

The impact was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen. The mushroom cloud, the aftershocks, the relentless firestorms, the molten half-light that makes me think of Ligia’s smile by the dying light of our fireplace.

We waited three days, subsisting on the last of our rations. Earth continues to cook beneath us. The Cretaceous forests—what’s left of them—resemble the glowing embers in a hearth. They make me think of Ligia’s smile by the dying light of our fireplace. Did I already say that? It doesn’t matter.

What matters is that there is no way the dinosaurs can survive this. We’ve set history back on track, and then we’re heading home.

One final trip through time.

***

Final trip is right. The engine core crumbled to chalk-dust in its rigging as we snapped back to the present era.

Meredith was the first one on her feet, and she leapt to the sensor array before I could budge. As I finally stood, weary and trembling, I watched her peer into the viewer. Watched her conduct a scan of the blue world.

I waited, holding my breath.

And waited.

After two or three agonizing minutes, Meredith turned to me and gave a smile. But it was the wrong kind of smile. A sick, waxen, pale expression, and the laugh that followed was hideous.

I shouted, “Don’t tell me the world still belongs to lizards! The impact we caused had to have killed them off. It had to have!”

“It did!” she screamed, and before I could react, she drew her pistol and blew her brains out.

Heart pounding, I rushed to the sensor array.

And looked.

And looked.

And I’m still looking.

***

We did kill off the dinosaurs again. The sensors revealed not a single scaly behemoth lumbering around down there. And apparently our handiwork did result in mammals getting out of the underbrush, because when we focused on Africa we saw elephants and giraffes and zebras in well-maintained enclosures, and when we focused on North America we saw buffalo in well-maintained enclosures. Large, warm-blooded game, being raised and farmed for the vast amounts of protein their meat can provide.

But I guess that roughly the same asteroid at roughly the same point of impact wasn’t enough to perfectly replicate historical events. We had hoped the fall of reptiles would lead to the dominance of mammals and of man.

We forgot there were other players in this mad game of evolution.

They have vast hive cities.

Buzzing, buzzing, always buzzing.

Buzz, buzz, buzz.

Copyright © 2019 by Brian Trent