Catch a Falling Star by Edward M. Lerner

by


CatchAFallingStar-Cover

CATCH A FALLING STAR

Edward M. Lerner

2158

End over end, leisurely, the vaguely potato-shaped object rolled. Up close, the rock’s sunlit face shone brightly. As it tumbled, craters and rocky outcroppings materialized from and disappeared into pitch-black shadows. The apparent undulation of the surface was further complicated by the approaching ship’s own slow rotation, motion that afforded equal views through the windows on both sides of the passenger lounge.

With a gentle nudge from its maneuvering engines, the spaceship crept closer. A frail metal construct rose, glinting, from the shadows in a shallow, pockmarked concavity.

The lounge’s background music faded. A soft beeping replaced it. “You’re hearing the asteroid’s radio tracking beacon, emitted by the robot probe you now see on the surface. The rock measures roughly one and a half kilometers long by half a kilometer wide. Its official designation is (483188) 2007 FL. As you may know, this unremarkable object played an interesting role in our history.

“It is popularly known as Jason.”

2054
“You seem down, Doc.”

Jason Reed looked up. The tattered blueprints that covered his desk rustled, and he saw his hands were trembling. “I need more java,” he hedged.

“You need more than that,” Mike the Janitor said from the doorway. He claimed his last name was hard to pronounce, and that it pained him to hear it butchered. That made “the Janitor” his last name for most purposes.

Jason was good with languages but never pushed it. He had his own secrets, including his own real name. Nowadays, who didn’t have secrets?

Mike pantomimed a quick snort of a stronger beverage.

“Thanks. Maybe later.” Jason ran splayed fingers across his head. Strange: The reflex to comb fingers through one’s hair took no notice of that hair’s long-ago disappearance. Stranger: The trivial distractions his mind could invent.

Mike shuffled down the hall pushing the handle of his mop. A sticking wheel of the mop bucket chattered like teeth. “I’ll catch you later.”

Jason smoothed his stack of blueprints, only then noticing that the sheet currently folded to the top dealt with plumbing details. It contributed nothing to troubleshooting the too-warm office of the plant’s chief accountant.

How long had he been staring into space?

Jason folded over three sheets, bringing to the surface the connection diagram of the building management system. A faded red X obliterated the symbol for the computer that no longer optimized or monitored anything. That had long ago ceased to exist, except in scraps and shards in some unknown garbage dump. With the digital-control overlay gone, all that remained to “manage” the building was pneumatic logic. When it worked right, which wasn’t often, the modulated-compressed-air scheme could maybe keep the temp within two degrees of set point. Jason had looked it up once: The pneumatic controller’s design went back to 1933.

Damn Gateskeepers.

Coffee from a half-empty mug sloshed over the plans. Blotting frantically with a handful of tissues, Jason could not help but stare at the worsening tremor in his hands. They did not shake from disdain at the state of the building controls.

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He could have acted months ago. Why hadn’t he?

Because saving the world meant losing the one person in the world who mattered to him.

He didn’t want to go there.

The most likely causes for that office to overheat were a bad temperature sensor or a sticking damper. He would check out those first. Jason pitched the soggy wad into his wastebasket. With a sigh and angry twinges from his left knee, the two unrelated, he got onto his feet.

He needn’t have bothered.

Past a knot of staring employees, two goons in the uniform of the People’s Guardians searched the chief accountant’s office. The commissar assigned to oversee the plant hovered over them, radiating smug satisfaction. The factory’s routine production of light bulbs provided her no such opportunity to prove her zeal.

Damn Gateskeepers. Jason kept his expression neutral.

A gawker whispered to Jason. “They found contraband in the bean-counter’s desk. A Palm Pilot.” He enunciated the name with slow, portentous syllables. “A junior bean counter snitched. I heard something about files of cost data, and something about a spreadsheet, whatever that is. You missed the pinstriped perp walk.”

Lopez, the chief accountant, was a penny-pinching SOB and a bit of a pompous ass. Jason had never much liked him. Now, though, as he imagined Lopez in Gateskeeper interrogation …

He suppressed the urge to shudder. Being seen as sympathetic was the quickest way to join the accountant.

From points uncertain echoed the clatter of Mike’s mop bucket. Let the Gateskeepers sweat, Jason thought. He set out after the squeaky wheel and that stiff drink.

SciPhiSeperator
Jason waited his turn at the old telescope, his breath visible before him. Through the open dome the stars sparkled, brighter even than in his youth.

What a sorry excuse that was for a silver lining. Precious little oil remained, precious little energy of any kind, and here he was taking satisfaction in a bit of clearer air.

“Can I interest you, Doc?” Ben Miller waggled his Thermos. He stood next in line before Jason.

“I’m fine, thanks.” Jason had already had a cupful, and it was far more Irish than coffee. Maybe if he hadn’t been a bundle of nerves all day. Maybe if he hadn’t gone through so much of Mike the Janitor’s cheap schnapps. “It’s almost my turn. I’d rather not see double.”

“A tip from a pro.” Ben laughed. “I’ll consider remembering that, Doc.”

Doc: Most everyone called him that. They thought he was an astronomer with a PhD. Why shouldn’t they? He looked down-in-the-heels enough to be an ex-scientist.

Jason chose not to correct them. He knew enough to get by. Before the Recoil, he’d been a combination lab gofer and number cruncher for astronomers. He snorted: number cruncher. He dissembled even with himself. He remembered being proud of that work.

No, damn it, he was still proud of it. The times had changed, not him.

There was a second foil-thin silver lining for that cloud: Records were spotty about what people did back then. Absent real motivation, checking out someone’s supposed past was too much work.

Safety was found in not evoking such motivation.

Jason took a battered metal cup from his parka pocket. “On second thought, Ben, I’ll take another hit.”

Forty-four years after the Recoil, computer science—and computer scientists—remained anathema. And before the Recoil …

A Golden Age mutated at its end into an Era of Insanity. The housing bubble burst. The West was locked in a trade war with China, impoverishing both, and in a shooting war with the New Caliphate. The rising tide of baby-boomer retirements consumed ever-higher taxes from ever-fewer workers. And despite unemployment at twenty-plus percent, computers and robots, ever cheaper, did more and more of the work not already outsourced to India and Vietnam.

Insane didn’t do the era justice. That world was a powder keg, just waiting for a match.

A mechanical timer dinged softly. The huddled, hooded figure at the telescope straightened. He stepped aside, gathering his notes and sketches, while Ben dialed in coordinates. Motors hummed as the dome and telescope platform rotated. Jason eyeballed the control settings and the ephemeris open on the table. Ben would be viewing Saturn.

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The night kept getting colder; Jason sipped the laced coffee appreciatively. It wasn’t only him; all the club members were geezers. He’d bet most could recall the Cassini probe, the robot explorer that had, in the years before the Recoil, explored Saturn’s moons. Cassini must have continued exploring for a while even after—only no one heard its reports. Tracking dishes and data recovery required computers.

It was too depressing to think about, and impossible not to. That’s what we fossils do, Jason thought. We relive the past.

The observatory was old, its main instrument a mere fifteen-inch refractor. It had been relegated to pedagogical use long before the Recoil, which was probably what had saved it. Or maybe the old observatory’s ornate Victorian style let it go unrecognized. Astronomy is a science. Science uses computers. Quod Erat Destructandum.

If that wasn’t proper Latin, it should be.

He never knew what started the riots. Probably no one did. It hardly mattered. Jason had heard theories ranging from al Qaeda terrorists to homegrown skinheads, from Chinese agent provocateurs to spontaneous eruptions of righteous wrath. Whatever the cause, the Internet had survived just long enough to spread the paranoia worldwide.

After so many years’ battles against computer viruses, the incongruity was exquisite. Who could have foreseen that a malignant idea would purge the world of computers?

No upheaval short of planetary destruction could destroy every computer … but enough riots could change—had changed—the social dynamic. To own or use a computer was simply unacceptable. If you felt otherwise, well, the Gateskeepers were quick to enforce the new orthodoxy. And after the first few chaotic weeks, they did so with the force of law on their side …

Despite the thickness of his coat, a poke in the back got Jason’s attention. He turned.

“It’s your go, Doc,” Angela said. A dour expression suggested she had said it before. She was new to the astronomy club, and Jason had not yet caught her last name. “Ben’s done.”

“Sorry.” Jason stepped up onto the observation platform. A note retrieved from his jacket pocket listed right ascensions and declinations vs. time for tonight. Interpolating for the exact time, he dialed in coordinates. From habit, after the telescope settled into position, he peeked through the small finder scope. It showed nothing but uninteresting stars, of course, not at the finder’s feeble magnification.

Ben loitered a few feet away, trying to bring order to a sheaf of papers. “Ben,” Jason called. His friend turned. “Do me a favor?”

“If I can. What do you need?”

“Watch the clock for me.” The old observatory’s wall clock was tolerably accurate. Not atomic-clock accurate, of course. What was, anymore? “Take down the time.”

“Sure.”

The crosshairs faintly etched into the eyepiece provided a primitive coordinate system. Pinpoints of light twinkled but did not move, the clock drive of the telescope mount compensating for the Earth’s rotation. He ignored the stars. Wait, he told himself. Wait.

There! A faint dot entered, flickering but not like a star. He waited until the clock drive more-or-less centered it in the viewing area. “Mark.”

“Got it.” Ben said. “Asteroid or comet?”

“Asteroid.” Jason slued the telescope to follow his target. It brightened and dimmed as he watched. Tumbling. “Want a look?” He stepped aside.

“Nothing. Nothing. Okay, there.” Ben slued the scope to watch a bit longer. “I’m happy when I can find whole planets. Kudos.” He moved away to let Jason resume his viewing. “How big is it?”

“According to my most precise calculations … bigger than a breadbox.”

Ben chuckled. It had to be quite large to be visible with this heirloom instrument.

Or it had to be a lot closer than Ben was thinking.

SciPhiSeperator
Jason tiptoed up the stairs, wincing at every faint squeak. He needn’t have bothered—Anna was already up. She sat at the kitchen table, steam wafting from the mug in her hand. It would be English breakfast tea if tradition were any guide.

“You’re drunk,” she said. She looked closer. “And scared. And … exhilarated?”

“Drunk,” Jason admitted. She was correct on all counts. After almost thirty years together, how could she not be?

“You want to talk about it?” Anna rinsed yesterday’s dregs from the coffee pot. “Caf or decaf?”

Once upon a time, the question would have been: leaded or un? That was in the days when gas was plentiful, and everyone owned cars. Jason missed many things lost since the Recoil. The freedom of owning a car ranked high on the list. Few had wanted to wreck the economy, but the Law of Unintended Consequences had seen to it anyway.

“Caf or decaf?”

Quit woolgathering, he told himself. Her question meant: Are you going to work today? He wasn’t, but why admit it? She’d leave for her job before he needed to call in sick. “Caf.”

Her silent gaze got to him. “There’s nothing to talk about. I told you yesterday at breakfast. It was the monthly open night at the old observatory. The usual old farts were there for a peek at the sky. Some of us went out after for beer.”

“Till five in the morning? You didn’t do anything … inappropriate, did you?”

He’d been walking for hours, trying to clear his head. “It’s okay, Tiffany.” In the first, tempestuous months of their relationship, they’d argued a lot. Tiffany was her middle name; using it was once code that he’d rather be in Tiff than having a tiff.

“In your dreams, old man.” Still, she smiled. She set down her mug and stood. “You’ll tell me what’s going on after work.”

He tried to look innocent until she left for the bus to the subway to the bus to the elementary school where she taught.

His den was an ungodly mess, impossible by design for anyone else to straighten. Anna had long ago resigned herself to his clutter. He set aside two boxes of old model-train parts to uncover the window seat in the bay window. The three hairs across the crack between the tilt-up seat and the wall of the under-seat storage looked undisturbed.

The laptop computer was still inside.

Once, having dropped in to collect the month’s rent, the landlady had spotted Jason through his open den door using a slide rule. That had earned him a very hard stare. All her eventual assurances to the contrary, he wondered if Mrs. McMillan really believed him that the slipstick was seventeenth-century technology.

She had a key to their unit, of course. There could be no sweeter, kinder person, but her concept of higher math was addition with carries. She believed in Intelligent Design, apple pie, and the Big Blue Laws. Had she discovered the laptop, Jason didn’t doubt she would have snitched in an instant to the Gateskeepers.

As the PC booted up, Jason wondered if Bill Gates saw the irony. To see irony presumed the billionaire had escaped, of course. The vigilantes would not have treated him kindly.

Finally, the hard drive finished its grinding. Damn Windows always took too damn long to start. Crappy, buggy, insecure piece of code. He opened an app he had been coding and recoding, tweaking and refining, for more years than he cared to remember. Yawning, Jason retrieved from his pocket the folded notes from last night’s observations.

As the program chewed away, recalculating with the latest update to decades of data, he never noticed himself nodding off to sleep.

SciPhiSeperator
The panic began spreading on the second day of the disturbances. No one at MPC, certainly not Jason, understood the significance. Minor Planet Center was a low-budget corner of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, itself commingled with the astronomy and several other physical-science departments at Harvard. That mobs were suddenly sacking computer centers was weird enough; that rioters would ever take notice of MPC was inconceivable.

Campus security and townie police did not so much agree as have their hands full with the assaults on the biology and medical complexes. The Institute for Biological Informatics went up in flames first, and then the mob moved on to anyplace hinting at genomics, biophysics, or genetic engineering. Minding his work, that shift was installing the latest upgrade to software for forecasting asteroid orbits, was futile. The spreading chaos, glimpsed in video clips from camera phones, and even lower-res shots from webcams aimed out the windows of neighboring buildings, mesmerized him. About the time the cell-phone network crashed from overload, local TV news crews were converging on a besieged pharmaceuticals R&D lab.

The Internet slowed to a crawl. On-line news sites choked. Jason joined a dozen colleagues in the break room. The TV normally tuned to NASA Select, which at this time of night tended to air serene real-time views of Earth from the International Space Station, now showed local news.

He struggled to make out the reporter’s words over the crowd’s growl. There was something about Homeland Security’s database of genetic profiles. National archives of genetic information, of residents and visitors alike, were a sign of the times. All that data was “for national security,” the DNA records needed all too frequently to identify victims from scattered body parts.

Jason craned to read the screen crawl. Jesus! General InterData, the big outsourcing company that maintained the national genetics archive for HLS, was rumored to be selling personal genetic profiles to employers and insurers. Anyone who had ever been fired, or not offered a job, or had their medical coverage canceled was free to suspect …

Not until the window shattered did he realize how much of the “background” noise was from immediately outside. “Quick,” one of the scientists yelled. “Block the doors. Call 911.”

Things happened too fast to really register. Doors crashing open. More flying glass. Amid the angry shouting in the hallways, one word stood out: computers.

As others ran for an emergency exit, triggering the fire alarm, Jason pelted up the back stairs. That he couldn’t access on-line news almost surely meant the MPC servers couldn’t do their routine over-the-Internet backups to off-campus servers. His iPod would hold only a few gigabytes, but that was better than nothing.

He crouched behind his desk, hands shaking, as the pittance of data he could save trickled over the local area network to his PC, and from there to the audio player. The rule was: biggest rocks first. A poster popular at MPC hung on the wall behind him. It featured an orange fireball high in the sky, above a dinosaur with a “What, me worry?” grin on his face.

Boom. Boom. The metallic thuds—something large-sounding, like a trash can or fire extinguisher, hammering the server-room doors—echoed through the halls. There was a triumphant shout as the doors crashed open.

The download finally finished. Jason fled via a back stairwell and an emergency exit into the siren-filled night.

SciPhiSeperator
Jason sat up with a start. The laptop’s screen flashed, “Calculation complete.” With last night’s data factored in, the extrapolation had shifted from roughly one chance in 102 to a chance in 105. It was a small change, but it was in the wrong direction.

For the best of reasons, he had been stalling. It had to stop.

He was deep in thought when the apartment’s front door opened with a creak. “I’ll be right there.” He put everything inappropriate back inside the window seat and piled the camouflaging boxes back on top.

“You’re home early,” she called back. “Did you remember groceries on your way home?

The safest lie was the simplest—though telling her any lie ate at him. Especially now. He found her in the kitchen. “I wound up staying home. Maybe I caught a chill at the observatory. Anyway, I called in sick.” His supposed cold got no sympathy, but she winced at the mention of a phone call.

“Remember when phone calls were essentially free?” he asked. Because computers did all the call switching. “Remember when everyone carried a cell phone?”

She was hard to divert. “You don’t seem sick to me.”

Had he not dozed off, he would have run to the grocery. “Go relax. I’ll find something for us to eat.”

Jason foraged through pantry and refrigerator while Anna changed out of her teaching clothes. Magnet-pinned crayon drawings, gifts from her students, covered the fridge door. My kids, Anna called them. Sadly, they’d never been able to have children of their own. “Cheese omelet,” he announced, assuming she could hear him from the bedroom.

His choice was less the consequence of available ingredients than of his still churning thoughts. Thoughts like: You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Thoughts like something he vaguely remembered attributed to a pre-Recoil financier: If you put all your eggs in one basket, you’d best watch over that basket very carefully.

Jason had to laugh at himself. He should leave metaphors to the experts. What he did well, with and without computers, was math.

“You don’t laugh much any more.” Anna waited in the doorway, toweling hair, damp from a quick shower. “It’s good to hear.”

Breakfast for dinner was a change of pace, and the conversation was more natural than any they had had for a long time. Did that make circumstances better or worse? He couldn’t decide. “We can clean up later. Let’s take a walk.”

“I thought you were sick. Something about night chill.”

“Remember mental-health days?” Jason took both their jackets from the coat tree and held the apartment door open. “Are you coming?”

“Slacker.” She preceded him into the hall. “I guess tonight we’re playing, ‘Do you remember?’”

“I don’t remember,” he answered, savoring her dirty look. “So: Do you remember cell phones?”

“I was a teenager … before. Of course I remember cell phones. And they weren’t free, at least not to listen to my father.”

Old buildings lined the street down which they ambled. He remembered when they were single-family McMansions. Most, judging from the curbside mailboxes, had been subdivided into four- to six-family units. Construction material, like everything else, being in short supply, newer neighborhoods were much less well-built.

He slipped an arm around her waist. “As I recall, your father called me a cradle robber.”

“So he did, although by then I was thirty. Dad was a bit protective. Okay, my turn. Remember videogames? I had a stack of Nintendo games.”

“Ah, the finer things in life.” A man and a woman walked toward them, wraiths in the darkness. He remembered when city streets had bright lights every hundred feet or so. Now, a city block was fortunate to have a working bulb at both ends. He fell silent until the other couple passed. Nostalgia wasn’t illegal—but it led easily enough to dangerous topics.

Finding oil, running refineries and power plants, distributing electric power—those things still got done, but without computers, not like in the old days. “I miss owning a car,” Jason said. Cars weren’t forbidden, per se, just stripped of microprocessors, and unaffordable even before thinking about filling them with gas. He would miss GPS navigation and antilock brakes if he still had a car. “I don’t miss spam, but I miss email.”

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“Jason.” She shrugged off his arm and turned to face him. “Enough. You’ve been down, on and off, all evening. We all miss things, and maybe there have been excesses, but the old way was wrong.”

You were just a kid, he wanted to say. Fourteen. You lost Nintendo. He’d been twenty-five. That was old enough to know what they—what the world—had lost.

Lights burned down the street at the neighborhood postal substation. With the death of email and a rebirth of hand sorting, the postal service was, once more, a growing business. It was a postal system that Ben Franklin would have understood.

Knowing it was futile, he tried yet again to make her understand. “They were right about one thing.” They: the rioters. “Any computer can be repurposed. By the Recoil, the cheapest PC offered prodigious amounts of computing power and data storage. The fastest way to rebuild the data centers would have been with commandeered PCs. Yes, they might have been used with, and maybe abused, genetic profiles.

“Of course, the computers we lost could also sift massive amounts of seismic data to find oil. They could search the holdings of a thousand libraries in a fraction of a second, and optimize energy use in factories, and track thousands of planes at a time, not dozens, and ….” He ground to a halt, bitter about all that had been lost.

Squeezing his arm, Anna stared up at him. The mid-block shadows reduced her face to an indistinct oval. “I remember Kim. After what happened, how can you say these things?”

He’d never met Anna’s sister, but he knew the story. After two tours in Afghanistan, Kim’s National Guard battalion had been called up for duty in Iran. She had not returned from the third deployment.

Jason’s illegal laptop had an illicit spreadsheet, populated with the scant data he had found in public libraries about pre-Recoil Guard deployments. It proved nothing.

What could he do? Ask her to trust him that the rumors lacked statistical significance? Opine that Army and Guard were simply overstretched, and that, most likely, was why her sister had deployed that last time?

Or he could do nothing.

At some level, Anna’s beliefs comforted her. If conventional wisdom failed statistical validation, neither could he disprove the common conspiracy theory. Perhaps the Army did deploy Kim’s unit because of prior exposure to chemical and biological weapons. Perhaps the guardsmen’s medical records did show genetic damage that portended high medical expenses.

Perhaps someone at the Pentagon did think: Let’s send the future sickies first.

Enough of the Guard had believed such rumors that several units joined the riots—after emptying out their armories. Few data centers could withstand armored infantry and antitank missiles. Few police were foolish enough to try to stop them. Most of the regular military was overseas; without the Guard to keep order, order was lost.

The mobs were free to roam door to door, smashing every PC they found.

So much data had been destroyed that the truth would never be known. “I’m sorry,” Jason finally said. It settled nothing. It never did.

“Let’s head back,” she said.

The streetlight at the next corner showed the red, swollen eyes he had been imagining. “Let’s head back,” he agreed. “There’s something I’d like to share with you.”

SciPhiSeperator
Back in the apartment, Jason put up a pot of coffee. “You know what killed the dinosaurs,” he began.

Anna managed to sniffle and smile at the same time. “That’s an ancient memory, even for you.”

The reconnection relieved him. I love you, he thought.

She found a handkerchief and blew her nose. “Dinosaurs. I teach elementary school. Of course I know. A big meteor killed them. Chicxulub, right? In the Yucatan?”

“Right.” The oblivious dinosaur captured his mind’s eye. What, me worry? “You’ve never wanted to know what I did … before. You would never let me tell you. I respect that, but now we have to talk about it.”

He paused for any protest. She made none. “Before the Recoil, I worked at a place called the Minor Planet Center. Astronomers reported sightings to us, their observations of moons, comets, and asteroids. We maintained those records, ruled on when something new had been discovered, weighed in on official names for objects, and did orbit determinations.

“What with electronic cameras and computers to filter the data, there were lots of observations submitted. On a busy day, we handled a million.” He might be kidding himself, but she looked relieved. He was afraid to ask what she feared he had done.

“Orbit determinations,” she echoed. “Predictions, you mean.”

“Uh-huh.”

Her eyes widened. “Is there a dinosaur killer on its way?”

Jason took her hand. “That’s the thing. We don’t know. If we did, we could do nothing about it.

“Before MPC was destroyed in the Recoil, we had orbital data for more than a hundred thousand asteroids. We had preliminary data on at least half a million more.” He let her absorb those numbers. “People much smarter than me said it’s a mistake to think of those orbits as fixed. The gravitational tug of the planets is always perturbing asteroid orbits. There’s always a small chance a rock will be thrown our way.

“Then there was the more obvious risk. The best guess was that a thousand or so asteroids have orbits that cross Earth’s. We had found maybe half of those NEOs. Near Earth Objects.”

She nodded. “But the dinosaur killer was, what, sixty-five million years ago?”

“Right. It was supposedly about ten kilometers across. Rocks that big are rare. The thing is, one much smaller, say one kilometer across, can still do incredible damage. The math is fairly simple. Anna, math is what I did. The computer was only a tool.

“The math says to expect a collision with a one-kilometer object every hundred-thousand or so years.”

“A hundred-thousand to one that it won’t happen this year still seems like good odds.” The coffee had begun perking; Anna stood to turn it off.

“A one-kilometer asteroid strike would rock the planet. It would disrupt the climate for years. Depending where it hit, we’re talking about tsunamis, earthquakes, nuclear winter.” Nuclear winter drew a blank-enough expression he dispensed with the nuclear-weapon analogy: a hundred-thousand megaton bomb. Several million times Hiroshima. “It would drive countless species to extinction. Now, how do you feel about a chance in one-hundred thousand?”

What about a chance in, say, 105? You wouldn’t knowingly get on a bus with those odds of an accident.

Inexplicably, Anna leaned over and kissed his forehead.

“What’s that for?” he asked.

“It’s for, for the first time in a long time, talking to me.”

SciPhiSeperator
With his wispy hair windblown and the sleeves of his elbow-patched herringbone sport coat already speckled with chalk dust, the professor swept into the lecture hall. He dropped his briefcase onto the table beside the podium. Two dozen murmuring students fell silent.

Ohmigod, thought Jason. Is today the final? What course is this? Around him, students calmly opened spiral notebooks. End-of-semester review, he decided. Q&A. That wasn’t so bad.

“No, no, no.” The professor’s name was Chidambaramji, Jason remembered, and he had a thick accent. That made the course Mathematical Techniques in Astronomy. Chidambaramji smacked his podium in disgust. Jason had missed the question. “Two observations give you only an approximation to an orbit, and that approximation presumes conditions that don’t always apply. If you remember nothing else, remember: the more observations, the better.”

The professor turned his back to the class to scrawl illegibly on the blackboard. He ranted in singsong as chalk screeched, about iterative techniques and convergence theorems. “And remember, we don’t have points. We have approximate points—” followed by a torrent of words about measurement accuracy, and something else, maybe about correcting apparent observations for light-speed delays.

Everyone scribbled feverishly. How did they keep up? Maybe half the time Jason read or heard distinctly enough to follow, but by then Chidambaramji had veered off in some new direction. Jason’s open notebook was distressingly blank. His mind was distressingly blank, while Chidambaramji went on about statistical analysis of past observatory performance and combining measurements from different observatories. And how sure was anyone anyway whether faint glints of light sighted years apart were even the same rock?

“… With asteroids, the bigger complication is perturbations. One planet going around the sun—that we can calculate.” A big loop appeared on the blackboard, followed by frenetic peppering of the board with dots until the chalk snapped.

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Jason woke in a cold sweat. Astronomical Techniques had been a bear of a class, all right. It still wasn’t the overwhelming experience of that dream. And not even Chidambaramji was perverse enough to use chalk in 2006.

Wasn’t sixty-eight too old to be having the unprepared-for-finals nightmare? Besides, Jason had aced that final. For the last two years before the Recoil, he had been in charge of the orbit-determination software at MPC.

Who was he kidding? Final was as appropriate as it got.

He and Anna had fallen asleep nestled like spoons, Anna’s arm under his and hugging his chest. “Are you okay,” she asked sleepily.

“I’m fine, Tiff.” He gave her hand a squeeze. “Love you.”

Unexpectedly, her hand slipped free, gliding lightly down his stomach.

That was appropriate, too.

SciPhiSeperator
There was a bestselling novel once, then a movie, and finally a metaphor. Book and film were long forgotten, but the metaphor lived on – a perfect storm.

Computers had been everywhere, even if only nerds like him truly understood. Everything had come to depend on them. What made that ubiquity possible was that the components had become so small, cheap, and rugged, and that was possible, ironically enough, because the factories to make them became so big and expensive. Years and billions of dollars to build, and not cheap to operate either, churning out parts that sold for pennies to a few bucks each. The whole world could support only a few such factories. Most were in Taiwan.

All these years later, the mental image of vigilantes destroying such factories, and of police and military helping, overwhelmed Jason.

Paper whooshed softly from the laser printer, one more microprocessor-enabled proscribed miracle of another era. Every so often, he gathered a sheaf of pages, tapping them into a neat stack. He had not printed whole reams like this since the Recoil, but after forty-four years, his hands still remembered. It was like riding a bike, he supposed.

Four complete copies lie before him. Copy five was well underway. Ironically enough, after hoarding toner cartridges for so long, it appeared the printer itself was dying. With luck he’d get six or seven full sets.

“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,” he said to himself. Anna was at school, leaving no one else in the apartment.

What was with him and egg metaphors? Broken-egg metaphors?

A few sacked computer centers in Northern Virginia, and the Internet was hobbled. A few FAA computers centers destroyed, and air-traffic control reset to 1950. And so it went, and the factories gone that might have made the parts to repair things.

The perfect storm.

First, the immediate destruction. Power, communications, transportation, critical records of all kinds at best under siege and at worst nonfunctional.

Second, the ongoing, massive, civil unrest.

Third, social security and Medicare trust funds on the verge of bankruptcy, their records all computerized. How convenient it would be if those records could be lost.

Old men reminisce, Jason thought, but it was a vice he no longer had the time to indulge. As the printer spit pages, he hand-addressed envelopes from a frequently updated list. Network news anchors. Investigative reporters. What passed these days for public-interest lobbying groups.

Time for it or not, reminiscence was a vice he seemed powerless to control.

Fourth, the impossibility of recovery without expropriating the surviving equipment. Should this bank be shut down so that that pharmaceutical company could resume vaccine production? How about taking computers from a phone company to restore operations at the post office? How, and with whose computers, could anyone start the years-long replacement of a modern microchip plant?

Now multiply those conundrums by a million. Who could possibly know? Who could possibly decide? And how would they enforce their decisions, or protect the locations getting the recovered computers?

Because, fifth, the military was in shambles. Much of the National Guard had joined the riots. The overseas forces, their communications and re-supply lost, were loath to consider much else than extracting themselves safely and somehow getting home.

And every country that had joined the Information Age had plunged into the same abyss.

Hands shaking, Jason removed another stack of papers from the out tray. The most recent pages were badly streaked. This would be the last set.

It was just too big to fight. Too much. Too sudden. It was far more practical to embrace the change. The Prohibition of Computing Amendment in the US, and similar statutes and decrees around the world — The International Treaty on Human Dignity that subsumed them all. Extirpation of computers and computing as government policy — and looters and vigilantes became legally sanctioned People’s Guardians.

Damned Gateskeepers.

The printer seized up with a mournful groan and a red LED glowing balefully. In the out tray, copy seven was scarcely a third complete. And so it goes, Jason thought.

A glance at his wrist showed how late it was getting. In about four hours, Anna would be home. He must be gone first.

He picked up one of the complete stacks, its pages still warm. The cover sheet was brief and blunt:

My name is Jason Kershaw, formerly of the Minor Planet Center within the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. I prepared this report with an illegal computer. I collated and analyzed its underlying data on a computer. Be glad I broke the law, for this analysis could have been accomplished no other way.

If you value the continuation of life on Earth, you will continue reading.

Jason leafed though the report, taking strange comfort in neatly tabulated coordinates, nicely clustered scatter plots, and crisp columns of text. He stopped to stare at the main graphic: the forward projection of (483188) 2007 FL for six years, not quite another three orbits …

Resulting in one-in-105 odds of a collision with Earth.

SciPhiSeperator
Three hours until Anna returned home. She had shrugged resignedly at breakfast when Jason said he was taking another mental health day, and told him to stay out of trouble. As if, as they used to say. He told her to be safe.

Better to fixate on the task at hand. Reformat the hard drive. Run shredder software from a CD to erase the drive contents fully. Physically remove the hard drive, extract the platters, and re-erase them with a magnet salvaged from the motor of an old vacuum cleaner. Scratch the hell out of the recording surfaces with a nail file. Shatter the glass platters to which a maimed coating of magnetic recording material still clung.

If forensic programmers still plied their craft anywhere in the world, it would be in the employ of the Gateskeepers.

Chidambaramji thought he did hard problems. Hah! Try starting constrained by decades-old sightings, lest any pre-Recoil records survived. Now derive credible coordinates for sightings across the years since. Now extrapolate and allow for the independent observations sure to be made once the alarm is raised. Now tweak those measurements just enough to plausibly skew the orbit determination, just a tad, for years into the future. Expect the best mathematical minds in the world to pore over your work.

Then, be sure no one can tell that the data has been fudged.

The disk debris, the partially printed report, and six fat, stamped envelopes went into his backpack. He dumped the debris in the deep hollow of an old tree, in the woods of a nearby park.

Dead disk drives tell no tales, he told himself. Arrr.

The streets filled up as Jason walked. Soon enough he passed a mailbox. He dropped in two letters. Around the corner he went, and straight for another half mile. He deposited two more envelopes. He went straight for five blocks, deep into a major shopping district. It was almost four in the afternoon. By the standards of this energy-deprived era, the roads were filled. Coming to another mailbox, he took the last letters from his backpack.

A city bus pulled away from the corner stop, belching black smoke as it picked up speed. Jason dropped his last two envelopes into the mailbox. The pivoting door swung shut with a clang of finality. Almost done.

Be safe, Tiff.

When it was almost upon him, Jason stepped off the curb into the path of the onrushing bus.

Arrr.

2158

 

“… Never a certain hazard,” the tour spiel continued. The beacon’s soft beeping continued as a backdrop. “The problem was, a miss couldn’t be proven either, especially using the techniques of the era. A strike by a rock this size would have been globally catastrophic.

“The only alternative to waiting for disaster was to prepare to avert one—and that meant once again using computers. For a new NEO watch. For orbital projections, mission planning, and, most of all, for emergency reindustrialization to support a significant space-travel capability just in case. Heavily amended to target only the worst potential abuses, the computer-suppression laws morphed quickly into the enlightened regime we know today. Like the new NEO watch program, the launching and rendezvous here of that spindly spacecraft in the shadows was among the great early accomplishments of the Second Information Age.”

Half the passengers were yawning with boredom. The dark decades of the Recoil were nothing to them, merely another embarrassing lapse of their umpty-great grandparents. How much people take for granted, the pilot thought. “Sadly, Jason Kershaw, or Reed, did not live to see the response to his warning.”

Hardly anyone aboard deemed (483188) Jason worth a backward glance as the asteroid receded slowly behind them. Their interest was with Mars, only a few weeks ahead.

“Ironically,” concluded the pilot, “this NEO turned out not to be a threat. A few astronomers have quietly opposed naming this rock Jason, faulting apparent sloppy measurement techniques on his part.” And most computer types were vocal advocates for the honor.

Snug in its massively parallel photonic computer, the AI pilot counted itself one of Jason’s champions.

Food for Thought
What’s worth living for? What’s worth dying for? What do you do when both turn out to be the same thing?

Was “saving the Earth” Jason’s true motivation? His only motivation? Or did nostalgia for the past drive him to what he did? If his motives were mixed, does that diminish his self-sacrifice?

Does abandoning his wife—without explanation—diminish his sacrifice?

Was tricking humanity to turn onto a new path—even if, arguably, for its own protection—an ethical course of action?

About the author
A physicist and computer scientist, Edward M. Lerner toiled for thirty years in the vineyards of aerospace and high tech. Then, suitably intoxicated, he began writing science fiction full time. When not prospecting beneath his sofa cushions for small change for his first spaceflight, he writes technothrillers like Energized (powersats), the InterstellarNet adventures of First and Second Contact and, with Larry Niven, the Fleet of Worlds series of space operas. Ed’s website is http://edwardmlerner.com.

“Catch a Falling Star” originally appeared in Edward M. Lerner’s 2006 collection, Creative Destruction.

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