A taste of earth, p.1
A Taste of Earth
Avar Tech Event 1
by Justin Tyme
Story copyright 2011 Justin Tyme
Artwork copyright 2003 Carl Novotny and Justin Tyme
Visit the author on the web at
To my son Derek.
May the stories never end.
Table of Contents
JPL – Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Research Ship James Cook II
Santa Monica Beach
Lab 14, Edwards Air Force Base
JPL – Jet Propulsion Laboratory
The Sea of Tranquility
About the Author
A Taste of Earth
“When I first recorded the asteroid,
I named it Hachiman after the Shinto god of war
and patron god of the samurai.
I had no idea how prophetic it would be.
Hachiman may kill us all.”
~ Mr. Taksu Kobo, amateur astronomer
JPL – Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, California, USA
“Eight minutes to impact.” Astrophysicist Dipesh Patel, member of the Near Earth Object team, read aloud the data on the wall-mounted display – telemetry of three nuclear missiles headed for asteroid Hachiman. NEO team members, scientists, engineers, and technicians from other departments huddled around the display, all of them disheveled, haggard, and unshaven. Dipesh savored the electrifying excitement that still lingered even after thirty-six hours of sleepless anticipation. It had the feel of an all-night movie marathon. Their lab was dark and crowded and smelled of stale deep-dish pizza. Dipesh liked it that way. The darkness cut down on monitor glare, the closeness taught them to conserve space, and the pizza, well, it would have to do. If he focused on his data long enough, it gave him the feeling of being in a space capsule, which is what he had dreamed of doing since childhood. A fear of flying crushed any hopes of that so he contented himself with the next best thing. “Come on, Hachiman,” he said. “Stay real still.”
Dr. Irene Clemmons, the matriarch of the NEO team, patted him on the back. “The laws of physics won’t change if we don’t watch it.”
“Not if it’s quantum physics,” Dipesh said, turning and winking at her. With her frizzled gray hair, piercing blue-gray eyes, and intense features, Irene reminded him of Jane Goodall, the scientist famous for her pioneering study of wild chimpanzees. Irene had nurtured the NEO program since its infancy, and had inspired others to postpone their academic careers and join the ranks of asteroid hunters.
“Maybe letting it hit earth would wake us up,” John said.
The statement shocked Dipesh. “What?” Several other groans filled the small lab. John had had terrible timing. He and Dipesh were academically on the same level. They both held a doctorate in astrophysics and were experts on meteor composition, but during charged events like this, John adopted the annoying personality of a hyper-active eight-year old with attention deficit disorder. Dipesh wondered how John ever had enough focus to finish his dissertation. John was ten years his senior, but mentally he was younger than the interns. During this intense world-wide media event, when astrophysicists should be considered gods and saviors, John’s current contribution was popping a wad of bubble gum and playing with a yo-yo. “Helps me think,” he would say walking around the office. “Look -- walk the dog.” The man should have become a professor.
Yet, just when everyone thought he was mentally absent, John would interject the most profound insight into a conversation. Out of the mouth of babes...
“One hit, that’s all it would take,” John said between gum chomps. “One hit with a five hundred meter rock would terraform Mars.”
“Wrong planet, John,” Lupe the intern said distractedly.
“Nope,” John said, flipping the yo-yo. “Hits earth and Mars gets terraformed.”
Dipesh turned, ignoring the words on John’s tee shirt: I killed Schrödinger’s cat. “Mars is not in the trajectory, so what would force the change?” Dipesh asked, immediately wishing he hadn’t encouraged the boy.
“Ah,” John smiled. “It will scare the crap out of us. Transforming the Martian environment to be earth-like is the only way to insure we Homo sapiens won’t become fossil fuel for the next evolved species. That doesn’t include you, Lupe. Interns are another species.”
Irene huffed. “John, your paper isn’t important enough to risk lives.”
Dipesh raised an eyebrow. “What paper?”
“John’s writing a paper for the journal ... what are you calling it?”
“Using Asteroids to Promote the Terraforming of Mars,” John said, using the yo-yo to illustrate Mars. “The key is finding ones with the right composition and mass. You want hydrous ones to graze the atmosphere just enough to express water vapor, but not too fast...”
“Wait.” Lupe interrupted. “I'm confused. I thought you meant if 2027 UX25 hit Earth...”
“We don’t use the catalog name for this one,” John corrected her. “Use the common name: Hachiman.”
“Quiet,” Dipesh said. “Watch the screen. This is our moment.”
Lupe continued, “Whatever, John. You’re saying that if Hachiman hits the earth, it would motivate people to have a plan B planet, and the obvious choice is Mars. But now you’re talking about using asteroids to terraform Mars? Or do you mean both?”
“One little asteroid isn’t going to terraform an entire planet. It doesn't sound that efficient to me, although,” she rolled her eyes, “I am just an intern.”
“One asteroid at a time,” John explained. “Mars is conveniently parked next to the asteroid belt. There are probably hundreds of water-rich asteroids that will…”
“Wait,” Dipesh said. He pointed to an alarm on the display computer. He felt the rush of adrenaline flow anew in his veins when he read the data. “Hachiman’s changing course.”
John pocketed his yo-yo, and camera engineer David Rhodes leaned over to get a better look. “What?”
“See for yourself.” Dipesh pointed to the telemetry.
“A Hiccup?” John asked.
Dipesh nodded slowly. “This isn’t a comet ... but there must have been some form of out-gassing that changed its vector.”
They watched as two missiles missed Hachiman entirely. They could not be turned around for another try. The mood in the lab shifted from careful, watchful speculation to tense anticipation as the third missile neared its objective. There was total silence in the lab, words being strictly unnecessary. When the numbers showing distance reached zero, Dipesh breathed again for the first time in what seemed like an hour.
The lab erupted in a cheer of relief. Their elation lasted only a minute.
“Crap,” John said looking at his monitor. “Hachiman fragmented.” The numbers showed five fragments, several spinning off on a ballistic path but still bound to enter the earth’s atmosphere at another longitude.
“The missile should have deflected it, nothing more,” Dipesh said jumping up, defending himself before an audience of peers. “The numbers were perfect.” He felt a twinge of guilt because he helped NASA and U.S. Air Force engineers determine the missile’s explosive yield. How could I have been so wrong about the asteroid’s composition? It was carbonaceous -- containing organic matter, water soluble salts, magnetite, and clay -- or at least he thought so.
They all watched the monitors for projections of fragment impact sites. Except for the whir of the equipment fans, silence again ruled the lab. Dipesh pulled up his spreadsheets and double-checked some numbers. How could I have been so far off? They were based on NASA’s figures. Did they give me bad data?
“Thank God none of them is heavily populated,” Dipesh said. “There’s not much in the Gobi.”
Lupe asked, “Why would some fragments take a ballistic path and hit the other side of the Earth?”
“I’m not sure yet,” Irene said, “but it looks like their initial vector may have been away from the earth, but pulled back because of the earth’s gravity.”
“The explosion would have given it escape velocity,” Lupe said.
Irene squinted at the numbers. “John,” she said, “you may get your Mars terraforming project after all.”
Dipesh jumped up and grabbed his tool kit, which included an infrared thermometer and Geiger counter.
“Where are you going?” Irene asked.
“Santa Monica Beach. I want to get samples of these rocks before any of the locals do.” And find out if I was really wrong about its composition.
John reached for his tablet computer. “I’m coming with you.”
“Good,” Irene said. “Don’t forget your cell phones. I’ll contact the other impact sites and conference you in.”
Research Ship James Cook II
Atlantic Ocean, 240 km east of Cape Cod
Seven years ago, Oceanographer Juan Gonzales had adopted the thirty-seven meter long research vessel James Cook II as his home. He knew the quirks of all the lab equipment as if they were his own children. He loved the North Atlantic, the taste of salt in the air, the cold spray on his face, the gentle rocking of the ship … well, not always gentle. Most of all he loved the life teeming within the ocean. To most people the oceans were barriers, voids where land ceased, interruptions of life. Juan knew better. If anything it was the other way around, but the moment his sensors indicated the nature of the meteor impact, he knew his ocean had changed forever.
“As far as I can tell,” he reported his findings to JPL via a satellite phone, “we’re dealing with diseased plankton.”
“Diseased?” John asked. “What, like a virus or something?”
“It’s not like the plankton has an immune system, you know? They’re just not acting right.” Two of Juan’s curious college interns, who should have been busy taking samples if it had remained a normal day, stood listening behind him.
“Then how do you know it’s diseased?”
Juan glanced over his shoulder at the interns who shook their heads, dumbfounded. “They’re converting oxygen into carbon monoxide at an accelerated rate. Don’t ask me how. I won’t know until I look at them under a transmission electron microscope, but we don’t have much time to waste.”
“What do you mean?” Dipesh asked.
“We got a real problem here. The fish, they’re dying. We’re reading oxygen depletion down to 300 meters, and it’s spreading.”
“Any growth rate estimates?”
“Eh.” Juan rubbed his forehead. “Based upon the initial contamination size, I’d say fourteen square kilometers since impact. Madre de Dios, I haven’t seen anything like this before in my life.”
“Were you able to get close enough to ground zero to collect trace elements?”
“No, and I wouldn’t be able to now. I’ve called the Coast Guard and they said they’re going to widen the quarantine area.” He heard a sigh on the other end. “They’re sending helicopters to evacuate our ship.”
“Helicopters?” Irene asked.
“Yes, they say we might spread the organism. It might be on our hull.” He thought of all the memories he would be leaving behind and the possibility of never seeing her again. How could this happen so quickly? “Hey, what was on that rock, anyway?”
“We don’t know.”
74 km Northwest of Vologda
Ukrainian Astrophysicist Feodor Dubovik clung to his hood, fighting the wind. Two more helicopters were landing, bringing the latest United Nations Task Force technicians to the crash site. He headed for one of the Task Force tents set up for microscopic analysis. He took care walking down the new, narrow path though the forest. Someone had loaned him a flashlight, and the beam danced before him.
“It appears to be …” he searched for the English word “…explosion in atmosphere like in Tunguska in 1908,” he yelled into his cell phone, to overcome the background noise, but it had the effect of exaggerating his accent. “Livestock and human dead from it but not dead from just explosion. There is something else.”
“Can you get to ground zero?” He could barely make out what they were saying even though he pressed the cell phone to his ear.
“No. More dead downwind. Area is blocked off completely. There is some sort of microorganism riding on pollen. We see high levels of methane and nitrous oxide gases. We expect it come from this organisms. The local government proposes using fire bombs to destroy this organisms, but I think it will just make matters worse.”
“The organisms seem silicon-based. We never come across them before. They are just our theory till now, but our theory says they thrive on higher temperatures.” He made it to the tent and returned the flashlight. “What do you Americans think?”
Not even static.
He shook his head. “Cell phones,” he added in Ukrainian. “They will kill us all.”
Santa Monica Beach
Heavy traffic and barely controlled mayhem greeted Dipesh and John three miles from Santa Monica. The Los Angeles Police Department was redirecting traffic away from the beach and Pacific Coast Highway. With the help of several phone calls, they successfully negotiated a police escort to the Hot Zone, an evacuated gas station, where they donned hazardous materials protection gear, called hazmat suits, in case the fragment carried a biological agent. The officer in charge said that if they waited until they got to the beach to put them on, it would be too late, and he gave them terse instructions on how to operate them. It was Dipesh’s first time wearing the airtight apparatus, and he was sure someone had given him a size too large. The air tank felt heavy on his back until the officer in charge helped him adjust the straps.
When Dipesh tried to engage him in light conversation, the officer said, “You might want to hurry. We just got word that the meteor’s come ashore.”
Dipesh glared at the officer and felt his face flush. “What? You got to be kidding me.” His words slipped into a heavier Indian accent and rushed out. “Who gave them the authority to bring it ashore?”
“No one ...”
“Exactly. And now you are telling me that they tampered with material that can not only cause their death but has the potential of telling us what is going on with our environment? The agency ...”
The officer put his hand up. “No. It came ashore by itself.”
John asked, “How can a rock wash ashore?”
The officer shrugged. “Listen, I’m only relaying information.”
While Dipesh’s anger melted into curiosity mingled with shame for losing his temper so easily, the officer gave them final instructions on their hazmat suits. “You will be able to communicate with each other via voice activated microphones. Just talk, and those within range will pick you up. Also you can maintain contact with your people if you give the phone number to our dispatch operator.”
A transport truck that looked like a large ambulance took them to the beach with three other hazmat crew members. The large letters DHS were silkscreened on their backs. John asked them what that stood for, and one of them answered with a weary stare, “Department Homeland Security.” No one said anything for the rest
A tug on his arm from John showed him where the real action was. They walked with the DHS crew as fast as their suits would allow towards a spot on the shore. The DHS crew walked ahead of them towards the receding waves with sensing equipment extended. Through the suit’s thick lining, Dipesh heard the sand shifting beneath his feet. The respirator seal chafed against his cheeks and a bead of sweat trickled down the bridge of his nose, causing an itch that was screamed for relief. but he was powerless scratch it. He took a deep breath. He wished he could smell the salt air, but instead inhaled the pasty, sanitized air from the heavy tank strapped to his back. This is as close as I get to a walk on the moon. A circle of security tape on stakes, sensing gear, cameras on tripods, and over a dozen hazmat-suited workers surrounded a spot at the water’s edge. Enough letters in bold print were silkscreened on the back of each suit to almost complete the entire Latin alphabet: NTSB, DHS, LAFD, NMFS, NAVY, and others. Dipesh thought he recognized a few, but at this point he didn’t care who they were as long as they let him see his rock. The glare from the sun off the waves kept him from seeing the meteor fragment at first, but when he did, he called dispatch for JPL.
“Irene, we’re here. It’s on the shore. It appears to be a smooth, metallic object about a meter in diameter.”
Dipesh edged closer to it. The sun glinted off its surface and warmed the visor of his hazardous materials protection suit.
“It doesn’t look like a typical meteorite. It is entirely symmetric about a central axis. John, log in and post the video.”
John shook his head. “I have no service.”
“You should have four bars here. Interference?”
“No. Network overload. Too many people texting and crap.” John started taking video as the hazmat crew took water and soil samples near the object. “I’ll send it when I get service,” he said.
Dipesh relayed the message and edged closer to the object wondering if the designers of his suit considered insulation from alien microbes. He glanced up and noted the spectators who stared at him behind a thin police line, giving the scene a circus atmosphere.
“Go on,” Irene demanded. “What does it look like?”
“It almost looks like a large horseshoe crab with two tails coming out the sides. The bulk of the mass is shaped like a bloated disk ... an ellipsoid. The tails are like long cones jutting out from either side and pointing back out towards the ocean. The cones at the ends intersect spheres the size of softballs. The color is … it’s hard to tell. Appears to be a mottled copper and brass color.”
“That can’t be a meteorite fragment,” John said. “That’s something else, some junk, an old washed up boogie board or something. The real fragment has to be out at sea.”
Suddenly the object sprouted a tentacle on the edge closest to them. The hazmat crew jumped back and John almost tripped over Dipesh. The tentacle drilled into the ground.
“Alright,” John said. “Somebody’s playing games. Someone in that crowd has a remote.”
Dipesh watched the object with fascination. “No, John. The spot where that tentacle came out is flush with the rest of the body. See? Look. The base of the tentacle is smooth like it grew out of it.”
John took a cautious step forward, almost forgetting to record video.
“The base material liquefied and formed into that ... tentacle,” Dipesh continued. “We don’t have that technology. No one on earth does.”
Almost imperceptibly the tentacle’s surface changed from smooth and ridged to molten. It slid – not retracted – back into the main body. Was this first contact with an alien race? How did it get here? Did it piggyback on the meteor, or was it a victim of circumstance, stuck to the meteor by accident? Would it be grateful for being rescued, or was it the first step in an invasion? Dipesh edged closer to the object until his curiosity and fear reached equilibrium.
John gasped, “Irene, the object is Hachiman, and it’s not just a meteor. It’s a probe.”
Dipesh pointed his infrared thermometer gun at it, but froze when a thought seized him. The IR thermometer looks like a gun. What if the object can see and thinks the thermometer is a weapon? He brushed the thought aside as a childish fear, and took readings from several angles.
“The entire surface temperature reads five degrees C above ambient,” he reported to Irene. So there must be some ...”
John cut him off. “Some sort of internal exothermic reaction... or maybe a mechanism maintaining a constant temperature.”
“Like body temperature,” Dipesh said.
“More likely,” John said, “the material has a high thermal capacitance that hasn’t reached equilibrium with ambient. It’s a probe, like Spirit or Opportunity.” He glanced at one of the DHS crew who was listening to him and added, “You know, NASA’s probes to Mars?”
The man just stared back.
“What do you guys do,” John asked, “just watch football all day?”
Dipesh shook his head, a meaningless gesture in a hazmat suit. “We don’t know for sure that it even is a probe. It could be alive.”
“It’s a probe. Why else would it take a soil sample. You think it’s a tourist?”
“It could have been eating.”
A technician walked over and said, “Initial air and soil samples show that the object is not contaminating the environment.”
“I don’t know if you heard yet,” John told the firefighter, “but the other fragments have polluted the environment with what appears to be silicon microbes. No offense, but I don’t think your devices are rigged for that.”
“Do you think,” Dipesh asked, “that releasing the contamination is a programmed function of the probe, or a byproduct of its time in space?”
“You mean, it’s just something it caught on the drive over here?” John considered it. “No, I think it ...”
Shouts from the crowd cut him off.
They turned and saw a dog running towards them, its leash dangling. It headed for the object. A national guardsman in camouflaged hazmat gear lunged at it, but the dog dodged him and the guardsman landed in the sand, floundering to get up like a turtle turned on its back. The dog ran up to the object and circled it. It barked at it and capered around as if Hachiman were a large Frisbee. With its head cocked to one side, it sniffed at it. A bulge formed on Hachiman’s surface. John raised his phone, fumbling for the video button in his clumsy gloves. From the bulge on the object grew a stalk like a fast-growing sunflower, the head of the sunflower turning towards the dog. The dog yelped and darted back to the crowd. The sunflower receded back into Hachiman and it showed no further signs of movement.
Everyone had taken several steps back, except for two DHS specialists who ran after the dog. Need to take him in for questioning, Dipesh thought.
“Dipesh, this thing is acting like a probe,” John said. “Given what we’ve heard from the other impact sites, it is my educated analysis, that meteorite Hachiman intends to terraform earth.”
“You mean,” Dipesh said, “it intends to alien-form earth.”
A Taste of Earth by Justin Tyme / Science Fiction have rating 2.7 out of 5 / Based on32 votes