Author’s note: I wrote this exploratory chapter a very long time ago, when it seemed folks had taken a break from stories of annihilation by comets and asteroids. Now that I’m picking up the frayed threads of years-old writing, the aim is to consolidate the material, edit, rewrite, replot, recaffeinate and carry on.
No one paid much attention. Not the first time anyway. Not even the second time.
Who could blame them? After all, the ‘Oh, my God, everyone is going to die’ routine had been done to death ever since the invention of sentences, and had since become the philosophical raison d’être of every survival nut, metal band, and loon with a camera and an internet connection out there. Ooh, pick us! We have have a brand of armageddon tailored just for you!
In fact, so saturated had the general public become with warnings of their collective death that they were all feeling rather bored with the prospect of extinction, or, at the very worst, a tad ill-tempered.
So when Professor Guillermo Torres-Hernandez, a hermit astronomer who worked from a hut in the Andes, posted a video on the internet featuring blurry pictures of a scratchy, blue dot moving shakily between some other, smaller scratchy dots, with the advice that the blue one was a rather largish comet that was headed Earth’s way, the fifteen people who accidentally clicked on the link treated it as just another spook prank: something to either ignore or lampoon with a flaming comment before clicking on the first related video, which featured a cormorant named ‘Dot’ climbing a ladder. In fact, it was thanks to Guillermo’s doomsday video, which was entitled ‘CATASTROPHIC HEAT DEATH COMING FOR EVERY LIVING THING ON THE PLANET!!!’, that the cute, ladder-climbing bird video broke that month’s record for the highest views of any video anywhere on the internet.
But as the confirmations rolled in, first from amateur stargazers, and afterwards by government scientists around the globe, the major news networks had no choice but to run with it, and soon every sweaty, shiny-toothed presenter across the planet was delivering the words that had previously only been uttered in Hollywood films, but under far less flattering lighting: ‘Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is it,’ they more or less said, ‘the world as we know it is over.’ And they went on to stare blankly into their respective teleprompters as they read verbatim the news that everything that had ever existed, along with your nightly news broadcast, ladies and gentlemen, was soon going to be cancelled by a vicious, flaming and (paradoxically) icy ball of death.
Not just cancelled mind you, but violently and mercilessly obliterated. Reduced to atoms. Terminated by a shiny, blue comet which, speaking in relative proportions, was to the Earth what a bee is to a bowling ball. Only that this bee was currently sailing through Jupiter’s orbital plane at speeds unexplainable to Joe Public and, much to the disappointment of governments worldwide but to the delight of anyone with set of camping binoculars, not very concealable.
‘Our worst fears have materialised,’ the news readers continued gravely. ‘The US State Department, who released the information early this morning, has just confirmed that there is no possible military response. Repeat, there will be no possible response.’ The repetition just made things worse.
The first in line to receive the blame for the state of the universe were, of course, world governments, though poor people and immigrants helped shoulder much of the load. A man in upper state Texas, according to a post that went viral on social media, sued the Almighty God. And won. Images circulated, imaginations ran wild. One of the more popular artists’ impressions depicted a surly, cobalt orb, wreathed in coiling white ribbons with an elegant tail that traced a long, bright arch across space.
By all indications it was simultaneously the most beautiful and most lethal cosmic spectacle that humans had or would ever witness. If it weren’t heading straight for the planet but merely blowing past, someone would have put a million commemorative table cloths up for sale and made a fortune.
But there was no point. Death was coming, and in its most frighteningly exquisite form. For hours after the Big Announcement, every town, village and city fell silent, heads lolled into trembling hands. If only we’d had more time, they said, if only we’d concentrated on things like the advancement of space technology, cutting out saturated fats, and capitalised properly, and we mean properly, on the colossal improbability and evolutionary good fortune that we existed at all. Or even just tried to get along in general, we might have stood a chance.
Regrets were voiced, lamentations exchanged; upon realising that money, jobs, not to mention mortgages, diets, children’s birthday parties, and cancerous tumours had in the course of a day been made officially unimportant, humanity took one long, hard look at itself, and proceeded to deteriorate at light speed. Demure, middle-class workers morphed into smeary-faced screechers squabbling over plastic water bottles and bicycles; underpaid, misanthropic bus drivers became opportunistic saviours of the carless underclass, convenience store owners in backwater estates turned into instant billionaires as people threw together every piece of worthless jewellery item and bank note they could find in return for a six-pack of canned pears and a map of Snowdonia.
Men in suits were seen huddled together in a existential circles outside pubs, swivelling their heads and asking each other why they’d wasted their lives working in software sales when they could have been hunting elephants in Sri Lanka and painting themselves in red ochre like men were supposed to do.
In central London, every crackpot religion ever to have waved a banner and banged on a tinpot had rallied themselves, and were trumpeting out suspiciously well-arranged ‘I Told You So’ anthems at Tube Station entrances. And before anyone had even had time to look at their clocks, a school-boy hacker had hijacked the billboards overlooking Piccadilly Circus, replacing the gaudy adverts with a with a ‘Comet Countdown Clock’: a to-the-second estimate of the time remaining until irreversible lights out.
Just over a month to go apparently.
Across the world, cities began clearing — people had learned from previous world events that it was a bad idea to hang around tall buildings in a crisis — and the prospect of experiencing Earth’s last sigh released every suppressed animal instinct on the list: straight out panic, braindead and suicidal capitulation, celebratory rampages through the smouldering ruins of capitol buildings, and in some cases, calm acceptance.
Some took to the seas, where they believed that they could escape the inevitable firestorm by just keeping wet, others to the mountains for the clean air and improved astronomical photography conditions. Theft became a survival tactic. Others elected to express their dissatisfaction with society and its impending wipeout through more traditional crimes of violence and wanton destruction of public property; behaviour which were collectively described by pundits whose internet connections had yet to be severed as going ‘full zombie’.
Parliament house had survived a ull week before the mobs, who had never voted once in their lives, arrived with candles and cricket bats to remodel the House of Commons, and exercise their right to democratic vandalism. One such member of the new order had hacked off the head of Winston Churchill’s statue and replaced it with a park bench on which to sit and survey the twenty-four-seven implosion of homo sapien. Never was so much trashed by so many.
Deep underneath Westminster however, a more sober atmosphere reigned. The Prime Minister, who was usually upbeat and sported an uncharacteristically normal smile for a politician, one that didn’t frighten small children and livestock, sat at the head of a long, mahogany table in the emergency bunker office. Around him sat several cabinet ministers: the Commissioner of Police, General Allen, Chief of Defence Staff, and some parliamentary kitchen staff who had been lucky enough to be on the right shift when the evacuation call was made.
For a bunker, it was tastefully decorated, with pastel striped wallpaper, thick red carpets, bone china tea sets, the finest silverware, and the most expensive leather chairs the taxpayer could buy. The Prime Minister knew, as did those who came before him, that it was almost always better to face total annihilation in luxurious comfort, preferably with your shoes off.
They sat in silence, brooding, tapping on phones, doodling on napkins, and pouring themselves indulgent libations drawn from the Exchequer’s whisky reserves. Several screens were set up around the room, each broadcasting scenes of total panic and destruction from Brazil, Shanghai, Nairobi, New York, and in London. At the far end hung a portrait of the Queen in a pose of utter disappointment.
The Prime Minister shuffled some papers, bit into his pen as he stared at the telephone next to him, on which every light was madly flashing. Presidents of this country, dictators of that, all demanding to know if there was a slight chance that they might save their tenures, or at the very least, that the comet’s trajectory had been miscalculated and their continents and Swiss bank accounts might be spared a smidgen of the expected eco-misery. The silence in the room was heavy, breathing like weight-lifting.
Finally the General cleared his throat. “Prime Minister, has there been any news from the Crown?”
The Prime Minister, startled, sat up and blinked. “The what?”
“The royal family, sir. The Queen? Our head of state, sir.”
“Ah, yes. I mean no. The last we heard they were heading north in a helicopter. To Balmoral I expect. Or elsewhere. I don’t know. No one tells us these things anymore.”
“Have we tried calling the banks again?” the Police Commissioner said. “Maybe—”
The General raised his glass to one of the monitors. “It’s simply frightful how quickly a society can degenerate these days. I mean, God forbid if you hand them some good news, like we’ve given the Krauts a jolly good beating, or that their chocolate just got a few pence cheaper, and they look at you as if you’ve soiled your trousers. But tell them the world is going end, and, my word, they go positively topsy!”
The Prime Minister laughed nervously. “Anyone would have thought we’d raised taxes.”
No one else laughed.
“Most sane of all are the birds,” the Minister for the Environment piped up. “Flocks of them, heading north. Probably all relieved if you ask me. You know, end of the human experiment all—“
“No one asked you, Jeremy,” grunted the General.
“And what of the Indian president?” the Foreign Secretary asked.
The Prime Minister peered at the phone, counted the rows of buttons. “Still on hold.”
“Someone has to break it to him that the emergency spaceship he so eagerly wishes to board doesn’t exist.”
“Why doesn’t it exist, I ask?” the Health Secretary said, stabbing a finger at the Defence Minister, who was busy staring at the bunker ceiling. “You should have been prepared for this. What good are all those planes and tanks and bombs if they don’t protect the citizens of this country? I mean, can’t we shoot a missile in the air to break it up, or knock it off course or something of that nature?”
“Leslie, this is not like hitting a golf ball.”
“How fortunate. I’ve seen you play golf!”
“Please,” the Prime Minister said, hitting the table with his fist. “Let’s all calm down, and try to think this through. General, what is the response for these types of situations?”
“Response, Prime Minister? Well,” and he shrugged and indicated at the people around him, “the response is this — Phase one, call a national state of emergency—”
“Emergency seems a little understated,” the Prime Minister said under his breath.
“Phase two, head to the bunker to wait it out. Phase three, bring plenty of refreshments.”
“Oh yes. How forward thinking,” the Minister for the Environment drawled. “The sad fact is that only this time there’ll be no out. What we lare ooking at is an impact ten times the one that took out the dinosaurs. Humankind? Forget it. Even the future of the cockroach isn’t looking too rosy.”
The General shuffled through some papers. “Uh, yes, sir… now you mention it, I seem to recall talk in Washington of a moon shot. But by all estimations, the size of this thing will not only disintegrate the Earth’s surface, but the Moon’s as well. Cockroaches included, I’m afraid.”
“And are they doing it?”
“No. I don’t believe so, Prime Minister. It would take months of preparation just to get four or five people off the planet let alone to the moon.”
“Mars is out too then?”
The General shook his head, and attempted to throw a peanut into his mouth. It bounced off his nose and landed on the table.
“What a pity.” The Prime Minister flopped back into his chair. “I always did want to go to the Moon, bounce along its dusty surface. Get a selfie next to the American flag. In fact, just orbiting around it would have been fine. Ever since my mother bought me space bricks when I was a child, I always wondered what it would be like to fly to the stars, to look down on our Earth and marvel at its beauty. I imagine if we’d all had the opportunity to do such a thing… well, that would have given us something to think about, no? What do you think, chaps? Ladies?”
No one replied.
He peered down at the folder in front of him. It contained the country’s most secret documents — launch codes to the nuclear warheads, the names, numbers and locations of every government spy, the true genealogical records of every monarch since King Egbert of Wessex, and the cheatsheet for the office microwave — every word printed on those pages were now irrelevant, every concern that used to warrant important meetings with important people and first-class catering, were now a collective non-event. How could they not have seen this coming? Something this big, surely someone should have known, come up with a plan.
Pulling out the latest satellite images, he studied the fuzzy, blue lump that was now careening its way through the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. Somehow, the news that the world was coming to an end seemed less stressful when printed on A4. At least climate change and its associated ecological devastation had taken its time about things; it had gnawed on his conscience, sure, but at least it had had the decency to give everyone sometime think about it, provided a surplus of tomorrows and news cycles. Now that impending doom was a definite invite to the party, all that he could look forward to were more hours listening to dour technicians rattle off reports on solar blackouts and the comet’s eventual blast impact in quantities of Hiroshima bombs. He closed the folder and retied the pink ribbon. “I suppose that’s that then,” he said. “Unless anyone has any bright ideas.”
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had been asleep in his chair, suddenly jerked awake, put his glasses on and exclaimed: “Anyone for table tennis?” As though they’d been waiting for just such an invitation to break the sullen mood, everyone unbuttoned their collars and cleared the table for the game.
The bunker though small, and despite having only one unisex toilet, was of the sort that could withstand floods, earthquakes, and, of course, nuclear explosions. Along with such luxuries as pure-wool rugs, and generator-powered floor heating, it boasted steel walls, four-feet thick, magnetically sealed doors which could only be opened via retina scan or a direct, one hundred megaton blast. So it was great surprise when, just after the General has won his third set in a row with a smashing volley, the entire structure vibrated around them. An echoing whine emanated from every direction. Paddles and balls fell to the ground. Glasses rattled. The General’s peanuts scattered to the floor and rolled into the corners.
“It’s happening. Oh my God, we’re all doomed!” said the Health Minister as she stumbled to her knees and crawled under the desk.
“Calm down, Leslie,” said the General, and went to a control panel. “Doom is still a month away. The one from outer space I mean.” He put his ear to the wall. “This however. What is that? That’s not the Jubilee line. Feels more like… an earthquake.”
The whine grew louder, and morphed into high-pitched grinding. The Queen fell to the floor and smashed. The tremors grew stronger, clearer, pounding one after the other — boom, boom, boom — as if a set of colossal, subterranean hammers were knocking at the bunker’s outer walls.
Then it stopped.
A sizzling noise erupted, like a hundred steaks had been thrown onto a hot grill. Sparks flared from a point in the rear wall, and an incandescent line began tracing a circle in the expensive wallpaper.
No, not a circle. An oblong shape. A door.
Everyone rushed to the opposite side of the room.
“What’s the meaning of this?” the Prime Minister shouted.
The General had already unholstered his gun. “All of you, behind me.”
When the line in the wall had finally joined up with its starting position, the room fell quiet. The assembly cowered behind fallen chairs, gaping and clutching at their collars. The Foreign Secretary reached for a bottle of whisky which was bleeding its contents onto the carpet.
As if on invisible hinges, the newly-cut frame swung open, and a brilliant light shone from the cavity, from which a shadow emerged, bulbous, swaggering, and waving two plump arms above its head.
“It’s an alien!” someone shouted.
“They’ve come to save us!”
“Be quiet,” the General said and levelled his gun at the newcomer. “Aliens look nothing like… wait, never mind.” He sucked in his stomach. “Whoever you are, I’m order you to remain still. Take a step forward and—”
A muted report, like a single kernel of corn popping, interrupted the General mid-threat, and where his gun had once been was now empty space. He groped at the air in front of him, blustered and stepped backwards as the intruder took a heavy step into the room.
The person was a person. Human by all accounts, and one who appeared to be wearing a suit made of transparent spheres of various sizes, three larger ones surrounding her pelvis, torso and head, its exterior covered in a film of soot and grime, its inner surface dripping with condensation. Inside the suit, a young woman with matted hair, sparkling, clear eyes and skin whiter than a blank page. She was thin, petite, and wore a loose-fitting suit that looked rather, no, exactly, like a tiger pyjama onesie, but she moved with grim confidence inside her suit, and her gritted teeth and lowered brow were sufficient to nail what was left of the government to their current positions. She twisted her body suit to inspect the room, its walls and ceilings, held her wrist up to the fluorescent lights, then knelt down to run her gloves through the carpet, muttering to herself for at least five minutes before turning her attention to the Prime Minister and his entourage, most of whom were huddled under the table.
The Prime Minister smiled through clenched teeth and offered the kind of half-hearted wave he normally reserved for parting dignitaries of brutal, but very rich autocratic states.
“What is this place?” the girl demanded.
“Depends on what you mean by place,” the Prime Minister said, trying to maintain her gaze.
“I’m searching for…” she consulted a small holographic image that hovered about her wrist, “London, Engel-lond.”
“That would be Eng-land, but yes, you’re in London.”
“Last time we checked. I say, Brian,” the Prime Minster called over to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, “2022. Can you check the calendar?”
“Yes. That’s right,” came a peep from the floor.
“Good. That’s settled. You’ve got the time and the place about right, give or take. May we inquire as to who you are?”
“And more importantly,” piped up the General, “how the Dickens did you manage to get in here?”
She threw a thumb over her shoulder to indicate the newly created hole. “I came through there. The chute malfunctioned and ceased operation just below the surface. I had to blast my way out.” After scanning the room once more, she moved to the desk. Those cowering under the table scrambling over each other as the girl in the bubble suit and tiger onesie stomped towards them. The Health Secretary squealed and lost a shoe trying to hide behind the Arch Bishop. The girl stooped and picked up a laptop, gazed into it, bent its keyboard back a few times before placing it carefully down, then went to the far end of the table and picked up a pen. She studied it, held it up proudly. “Pen,” she said. Behind the misty visor her face was bright with wonder.
“Correct,” the Prime Minister said, and offered the half-smile half-grimace he usually reserved for journalists.
The girl’s stern expression returned, the fluffy tiger ears on the hood of her onesie twitching as she approached the General. Not many people could claim to have ever intimidated the General, who, for most of his life had not required the assistance of step ladders, but whether it was the suit or the fact that the General’s slouch had become just a little more pronounced the moment he’d been relieved of his firearm, he now found himself gazing down at the girl’s face with utter petrification.
“I say,” the General huffed. “Just what the devil are you doing down here?”
“I am on a mission,” the girl replied.
“Which one of you is Pandora?”
Heads turned in pantomime inquiry.
“I seek Pandora Lume Puck,” the girl repeated.
“Never heard of her,” the General said. “Do you know where you are, young lady?”
“Yes, you have just informed me that I am in,” she checked her arm again, “London, England.”
The General’s face turned so red it could have provided camouflage for a strawberry. “I mean this room, by jove! You’ve just illegally entered a secure government compound!”
The girl turned to the place from where she’d walked in, then back to the General. “Your lack of security is not the issue at hand. I am looking for Custodian Pandora Lume Puck. It is a matter of planetary consequence.”
A brief standoff between two facial expressions occurred: between a stern, iron-like stare belonging to the woman in the bubble suit, and the General’s flabbergasted conglomeration of cheeks and jowl.
“You barge in here and speak of… planetary consequence?” the General said huffing. “The world’s about to be smashed to rocky shards by a tremendously large meteor—“
“Comet,” the women interrupted him.
“It could be a swinging mozzarella ball for all I care. Just where do you come from?”
“Where I am from is no concern. I received a transmission that contained Pandora Lume Puck’s unique signature, entreating me to ascend to these coordinates, which I have done so at great personal peril.”
“What gibberish are you speaking, girl? Now you listen up well — when you broke through that wall, you committed a capital offence. That’s invasion of a sovereign entity. And what did you do with my pistol? Do you intend to harm us?”
“I’m sorry,” said the Prime Minister, holding his hands in the air in surrender, “Our dear General is a touch excited. As are we all. You must forgive us, we’re rather tense at the moment. I suppose you must be too, seeing as we’re all in the same boat and everything.”
“Boat?” asked the woman. She consulted her arm. “No, this is not a boat. We are presently in an iron composite structure approximately eighty-three of your metres beneath the surface.”
“Yes, that’s right. Listen, I don’t know who you are, or where you came from, but I don’t think there’s anyone of that name here. Captain did you say?”
“Custodian. The highest rank in our order.”
“Order, eh. Military I take it? Tabitha, do we have a Pandora on the payroll?”
“No, Prime Minister,” said a voice from underneath the table.
“Well, I’m afraid that’s that then. By the way, this Pandora, a friend of yours?”
The woman’s eyes widened, and she mulled over the question. “Friend? No.”
Around the room, heads nodded in desperate tempo, all heads that is except the General’s, which was trained on the Prime Minster as its owner paced around the room with a bottle of whisky in his hand, one that he did not, this time, intend to drink. The General winked at the Prime Minister, and flapped his hand to indicate that he should keep the newcomer engaged.
“London is big place, my dear,” continued the Prime Minister. “You’re only in a very small, and what I used to think, secure, part of it. Houses of Parliament. Heard of it?”
The woman’s gave the type of blank stare a cow gives a passing tour bus.
“Well it’s a very important building. Home to the government of this nation.” The Prime Minister shrugged and pointed to the ceiling, “Perhaps not for much longer, you know, given the situation with the comet and all that.”
After much blinking, and consulting of the blue hologram screen on her arm, the woman’s shoulder’s hunched and she let out an long exhale which fogged up her entire helmet.
“Is there perhaps anyone we might call to help you find this ‘Custodian Puck’?” the Prime Minister asked as he tracked the General’s progress along the side wall from the corner of his eye. “The city’s emptied out, but our databases are still online, the electoral roll and what not. If she ever used a credit card, too a pension or saw the doctor, you can be sure—”
“What it is, Henry?”
“Security, sir. We must think of—”
“I think it’s a bit late in the day for all that secrecy hoo-ha now, isn’t it?”
“As I was saying,” he addressed the woman again, “we can try—”
“I have it,” the woman said.
“What do you mean?”
“I have synced with your databases, and have mirrored your…” she squinted at her wrist, “internet. A cross reference with the Archives has resulted in a possible location match. I must continue to the surface.”
“Yes, yes, by all means. Just one teensy thing before you leave, you’re not going to tell us who you are? I’m Douglas, by the way. Prime Minister.” The Prime Minister held out his hand, which the woman regarded, eyes narrowed, as if the man were offering her a not-recently killed, and extremely malodorous trout. “Or Doug’s fine as well.”
She tapped him lightly on the thumb. “I am Custodian Phoebe Jaz Jordan of Astrillon, Alpha Archivist of the First Gaian Chamber.”
“Oh, that sounds lovely,” he replied with a grin that expertly concealed his amazement, fear and befuddlement all at once.
By now the General had worked his way around the room and positioned himself between the girl and the hole in the wall, and was slowly raising the bottle over his head.
“I have taken great lengths to reach Pandora,” the girl continued. “and it is imperative that I find her.”
“May I also ask why the person you’re looking for is so important?”
“She holds the key to our and your survival. She is in danger.”
“Yes, quite.” The Prime clasped his hands. “And this Pandora, this Custodian of yours… you think she can help us then.”
“Pandora…” the girl started to reply. Her face softened. “I do not know. That is why I have come.”
“Well then, I wish you the best of luck. It’s awfully difficult to avoid a comet these days. We don’t know of anyone that has pulled it off, but there’s always a first for everything.”
“I will do my best to find her. You have my word as a Custodian.”
“Thank you, I think,” the Prime Minister said, performing a pre-emptive wince as the General brought the bottle down on the woman’s domed hood with such force, splinters of glass sprayed across the room and embedded themselves into the wallpaper. The General, still trapped in the follow-through of his mighty swing, and holding the butt end of the bottle, tumbled forwards under the steady gaze of the girl, who was more unsettled by the brown liquid cascading down her bauble uniformed than the effect of any impact the blow might have caused.
She shook off the whisky and frowned. “I shall keep this… ‘pen’,” she declared, then, after offering the Prime Minister a curt nod, stepped over the General, his still-wobbling girth splayed on the floor in a puddle of glass and scotch, and disappeared through the hole. The door closed behind her and sealed itself with a bright flash, and all signs that there had once been a great hole in the wall disappeared.
The Prime Minster turned to his colleagues under the desk. “With the Americans, was she?”
After some conferring, the Defence Secretary shook his head. “Not that we’ve been informed, Prime Minister. What gave you that impression?”
“Oh, you know, the whole,” he waved his arms about, “bubble-tiger suit thing, and the holo-whatchamacallit. Though I’m not terribly encouraged by her, how do you put it these days, mental situation. But…” he turned to the members of his staff, who were still shoulder to shoulder on the floor beneath the table. “I don’t know. What did you make of it her story? Sounded all a little strange, what?”
The others responded by looking at each other and shrugging.
The Prime Minister went to the desk and push a button. On all the screens an image of London appeared: the Thames, swollen with wrecked cars and boats and rubbish, the London Eye, bent over it like a crooked bicycle wheel. Smoke was rising from the park up into the mustardy swill of the evening sky. Headlines scrolled along the bottom: MAYOR FOUND DEAD IN PUBLIC TOILETS — WATER REACHES £500 A BOTTLE — TUBE WORKERS STRIKE INDEFINITELY. If he hadn’t already been informed, he would have thought the world was going to end, which would have all been rather frightening, and probably stir him to inform whichever authorities were interested in such things that something terrible was about it happen. But seeing as he and the people around him, most of whom were presently either shoulder-to-shoulder under the conference desk or passed out on the floor in a pool of glass and scotch, were in fact the authorities, things were looking fairly grim. “Looks like we’re on our own,” he muttered to himself, loosening his tie. “Table tennis, anyone?”