copyright (c) 2006, Don Sakers
Hunt for the Dymalon Cygnet
By Don Sakers
The next few hours were a blur to Rita. The shuttle achieved
orbit, and for the first time in her life Rita was in zero-gee
she could not enjoy the sensation. She moved, with Senator Ramierez,
to the passenger compartment, there to huddle in her seat and
try to process what was happening.
The Captain threw Network News up on the holoscreen wall,
a window floating against naked stars and the Earths curve
below. It wasnt long before the story broke, complete with
views from several different satellite cameras, images endlessly
played and replayed while professionally-calm voices repeated
the little that was known.
A handful of meteoritesreports ranged from eight to
elevenhad peppered the North Atlantic and eastern North
America over a period of eighteen minutes, all strung out like
pearls just below the thirty-ninth parallel. Impacts of varying
severity were reported offshore of Rehoboth Beach, in Easton,
Alexandria, Haymarket, and in the Chesapeake Bay. But by far
the worst strike was a few kilometers west of Lorton, Virginia.
This Tunguska-level blast had incinerated much of Washington,
DC, leveled buildings across a forty-kilometer radius, and diverted
the Potomac. The shock wave was felt from New Haven to Raleigh,
and bathers on the shores of Lake Michigan heard the bang. A
succession of impact-spawned tsunamis were even yet battering
both the Atlantic coast and the Bay shoreline.
Rita rocked back and forth in her couch and watched the images,
listened to ever-rising estimates of the dead and dying, and
tried not to think of Dad and Genrette in their comfortable Georgetown
house. Even if the house had not been smashed apart, flattened,
and buried under fifty meters of Potomac mud, it could not have
escaped the city-wide conflagration whose billowing ebon clouds
were visible from orbit
Rita? The Senators hand on her shoulder
brought Rita out of her trance. I need your help, if you
feel up to it. Ramierez voice was soft, a tightly-controlled
Of course. What can I do?
Ramierez handed her a flatscreen. The President and
Vice President are unaccounted for. They were both in DC. Speaker
Dobson is now President; he took the oath in Duluth and is aboard
an Air Force jet heading for parts unknown. She took a
breath. Hes designated Denver the interim Capital,
and wants surviving members of Congress to assemble there.
She pointed to the flat. Ive ticked off the members
Bart and I have been able to contact so far, and crossed out
the ones who are confirmed dead. We need to find out the status
of the rest, and get contact information for them. I have to
know whos left, of what parties, and where they are. Can
you work on that for me?
There were hundreds of names on the list; four were checked
and several dozen crossed off. Rita swallowed. Yes. I can
Good girl. Were going to be landing in Denver
in a few hours. Do your best before then. A squeeze of
the hand, then Ramierez retreated to an alcove and started talking
on her phone.
Rita pulled out her own phone, looked at the next name on
the list, and got to work.
When they landed in Denver a little past local noon, the sky
was overcast and the air was distinctly chilly. A gravel-faced
Marine escorted the Senator, Bart, and Rita to a waiting car,
then took the controls. Im Sergeant OCasey,
she said over her shoulder. We have rooms for you at the
Hilton downtown; Ill take you there and then I am at your
Thank you, Ramierez said. She regarded the sky.
OCasey nodded. Storms coming from the east. They
say were going to get rain. Maybe snow.
Ramierez frowned. In June. She pulled out a datapad
of her own, and remained focussed on it during the rest of the
ride into town.
Once they were settled in their four-room hotel suite, the
Senator and Bart turned the sitting room into a command post,
and in no time they were deep in conference calls with various
surviving members of Congress. OCasey, determining that
they had no immediate need of her or the car, took up guard duty
outside the door.
Rita kicked off her shoes and retired to one of the bedrooms,
switching from newschannel to newschannel in a vain quest to
find out more about the disaster. It quickly became obvious that
while each commentator had options, no one had any factual answers.
The Conservative Channels Buckleybot blamed China for
the impact; Timeweek claimed to have evidence linking
Chrislamic Indonesians with the event; a spokesman for the Continental
Baptist Convention called it the act of a wrathful God; and the
Weekly World News had already uncovered a satellite picture
showing the face of Elvis in the descending fireball.
A lone astronomer on the Science/Discovery Channel calmly
pointed out that the impacting objects came along a trajectory
consistent with known meteor showers, as well as the Tunguska
impact of 1908, another Siberian strike in 1947, the South Pacific
event of 2039, and the Bering Sea impact of 2051. Todays
impacts were all in the same latitude, a pattern was consistent
with a disintegrated comet like the ill-fated Shoemnaker-Levy
9, whose fragments had peppered Jupiter half a century ago. However
unlikely the Washington impact appeared, she stressed, it was
certainly only a horrible coincidence.
Rita wasnt sure she believed the scientist; on the other
hand, who had the power and ability to divert chunks of rock
the size of mountains with such accuracy? And who would dare
take the chance that their calculations were not in error?
To the muffled droning of a dozen self-proclaimed experts,
Rita drifted into a disturbed sleep in which she dreamed of fire
Congress convened in joint session on the morning of July
4, in the Hilton ballroom in downtown Denver. With reporters
mobbed thirty deep outside, the room seemed an oasis of tranquility.
American flags and patriotic bunting were much in evidence, giving
the room the look of a political party convention and partially
concealing the thick security shutters that covered every window,
as well as the armed guards who stood with weapons ready. Outside,
light snow fell steadily, as it had for the last two days.
An ornate podium stood in the center of one wall, and a few
dozen oak-veneer desks and padded chairs were ranged around it
in sweeping semicircles. Several large display screens hung behind
the podium, and each desk was complete with all the flatscreens,
compads, and phones that any busy executive could ever need.
Silently, Rita counted desks, ticking them off against her
list. Seven Senators, thirty-two Representatives (not counting
the Speaker of the House, who was now President Dobson), and
Ministers just two shy of fiftya grand total of eighty-seven
were left out of the 822 who had made up the Congress of the
Bart Nuñez snagged two folding chairs from a stack
and set them up at Senator Ramierezs station. He nodded
to Rita. Sit down. Shes going to be a while.
As other members of Congress drifted in with their staffs
in tow, Ramierez circulated among them, here shaking a hand,
there pressing a shoulder, now and again bowing her head in shared
Rita kept her eyes on the Senator, savoring the easy, natural
way Ramierez canvassed the room. Bart, where do we stand?
Nuñez shook his head. It doesnt look good.
On paper, we Populists have a plurality. But Dobsons been
busy these past two years crafting his Universalist coalition.
Hes got support from Christians, Greens, Labor, and Conservatives.
He shrugs. If we can keep Dobson from making any major
changes until after the elections, we can count that as victory.
What sort of changes?
For one thing, hes going to want martial law,
and want it extended indefinitely. He might try postponing elections.
Can he do that?
He can do whatever Congress says he can. And dont
forget that six Supreme Court Justices are missing
the Chief Justice. If Dobson gets to appoint replacements, you
can bet his nominees are going to be faithful Universalists.
Thats not good. Dobsons Universalist
philosophy, like his coalition, was an uneasy mixture of disparate
beliefs, an attempt to reconcile different faiths under a set
of rational-sounding principles called the Universal Worship
Paradigm. In Senator Ramierezs opinionwhich
Rita sharedUniversalism was a farce which promised each
group power over the others, while remaining sufficiently vague
about details to satisfy them all.
A tall, mustachioed man stepped to the front and gave a nod.
His solemn attire and demeanor reminded Rita of a funeral director.
A bell tolled, so deep and forceful that it made the room shake,
so compelling that it instantly stopped all in their tracks.
Another nod, another toll of the bell, and without a word members
and staffers moved to their seats. As Senator Ramierez passed,
she squeezed Ritas shoulder.
The funereal man swept his eyes over the crowd, then raised
his hands. He boomed, We are gathered here, in the presence
of the Universal Principle, to guide our nation in her hour of
Bart leaned his head toward Rita and muttered, A Universalist
prayer. You can already see which way the wind blows.
The preacher bowed his head, and the others followed him.
We ask the Universal Principle to grant us peace of heart,
strength of purpose, and wisdom to make the right decisions for
those who depend upon us. Amen.
Whispered amens echoed through the room.
The preacher stepped aside, the lights dimmed, and a wallscreen
behind the podium lit up with the Presidential Seal. A strong,
cronkitean voice intoned, Ladies and gentlemen, the President
of the United States.
Dobsons head and shoulders appeared, filling the wall
and the room. The man was balding and chubby-cheeked, with a
short, upturned nose that editorial cartoonists couldnt
resist turning into a pigs snout, and tiny eyes to match.
His supporters frequently said that he reminded the nation of
a favorite grandfather; to Rita, he had always recalled the illiterate,
uncouth janitor at her elementary school.
Members of Congress; national leaders; my fellow Americans;
people of the world: I come before you during one of the greatest
tragedies to befell this nation, or any other. Dobsons
voice, with its buzzsaw Midwestern accent, had always grated
on Ritas nerves; but today, hearing the stress in that
voice and seeing the lines of tension on that face, she almost
felt sorry for the man.
Let me confirm the awful truth that you have already
heard. Four days ago, several large meteor fragments struck our
world. The largest, a Tunguska-size object, exploded near Washington,
DC. The explosion, along with the firestorms it ignited, effectively
destroyed our nations capital.
He lowered his eyes. The full human cost of this disaster
will not be known for monthsif it will ever be known.
We know that President Lockhart and Vice-President Clary both
perished, as well as most of the Cabinet. We know that seven
hundred thirty-four members of Congress were lost. We know that
the Chief Justice, along with five other Justices, passed away.
We know that thousands, and here his voice caught, are
gone. And we mourn each and every one.
Now he raised his eyes, looking straight into the camera so
that to Rita it seemed his unblinking gaze met hers. But
make no mistake, America will prevail. Though this may be our
darkest hour, let the world bear witness that it shall also be
our proudest. With courage, and with the help of the Universal
Principle, we will prevail.
At his words, something stirred within Rita, and she found
herself straightening her shoulders, sitting a little taller
in her folding chair. She had never liked Dobson, had never trusted
his warthog face and rusty voicebut now, despite herself,
she knew that she was falling, if only a little, under the mans
Of course, she told herself, hes telling us what we
need to hear. What we want to hear. Only an insensitive
cabbage could avoid being moved by this speech.
My friends, he continued, The challenges
before us are great. Doctor Khria and the rest of the Science
Advisory Council, in consultation with the AIs, tell me that
this impact is a grievous blow to continental weather patterns.
You may remember the cold spells produced by the Bering Sea impact
two years ago. He took a deliberate breath. My advisors
tell me that the effects of this impact may be worse by a factor
of ten or more.
Rita frowned. The Bering Sea impact had brought a cool summer
and a wet, nasty winter, and had upset the growing season far
south into the fields of southern California and beyond. Lettuce
and other fresh vegetables had been dear that year, salads a
After consulting the best minds in the country, human
and AI alike, I come before you with a three-step plan for recovery
from this unprecedented calamity. He glanced down, as if
reading from notes, then raised his eyes again. First,
I am immediately declaring martial law within the boundaries
of the United States. All off-duty military personnel have already
been recalled to their bases, and National Guard units will be
mobilized shortly. The armed forces stand ready to assist regional
and local governments in disaster relief and to keep civil order.
For the time being, authorities may find it necessary
to impose temporary restrictions on travel, communications, or
business. I ask each and every one of you to please co-operate
with authorities and emergency personnel.
Rita glanced at the Senator, whose brow was furrowed and lips
tightly drawn. Ramierez was gently shaking her head, just a millimeter
back and forth, in private disagreement with the Presidents
Rita had seen such grim head-shaking before, on those few
occasions when Ramierez found herself maneuvered into voting
for bad legislation against her will.
Second, Dobson continued, I will ask Congress
to authorize funding to greatly accelerate construction of additional
agricultural settlements at the Lagrange points and in high earth
orbit. These next few years will be lean ones, and we must
have food. I challenge the Space Force and the nation to double
our orbital growing capacity within the next year, and to double
it again and again each year to follow.
Ramierez frowned. Rita knew that the Senator had always favored
increasing the budget for orbital settlement, and could quote
figures in her sleep. Four large agricultural settlements were
now in operation, providing roughly 150 square kilometers of
arable land. Two more settlements were in the early phases of
construction; the most ambitious plans Rita had heard called
for a total of eight finished orbital farms in the next five
years. If Dobson thought the nation could achieve the same result
in twelve short months, he was insane.
Or very desperate. How bad would the food shortages
Third, we cannot go this course alone. I have been in
contact with President Canales of Mexamerica, President Stansbury
of Canada, and Presidents Reed and Phelps of the Confederacy
of Christian States. We are all agreed that our nations must
stand together. Within 24 hours I will nominate a new Secretary
of State. Once confirmedand I trust the Senate will be
quick about confirmationthis individuals first order
of business will be talks on forming a strong political and economic
union, a United Nations of North America.
One government, one people, one willwith the grace
of the Universal Principle, we will face this disaster together.
And together, we will prevail.
He lowered his eyes. Good night, and God be with you
The image faded, and Ramierez sank back into her chair with
a heavy sigh. Well, thats it. Ladies and gentlemen,
welcome to the theocracy. Please check your civil liberties at
Rita, in spite of herself, blurted, Arent you
going to try to stop him?
Nuñez answered with a decisive shake of his head, Not
after that speech. Nobody can vote against him right now.
Senator Ramierez took a breath. The best we can hope
for is to slow him down. And maybe get some power in this new
government. Although thats unlikely, with the Christian
States so heavily involved. She glanced around the room.
One thing is certain. You know the old proverb about living
in interesting times? I think theyre here.
The Cosmic River
by The Asimov Group, © 2049
In the sky, a river flows in a flat, broad ellipse around
the sun a river of ice, dust, and rocks that stretches
from the neighborhood of Jupiter to just inside the orbit of
Mercury. Twice a year, Earth passes through the outskirts of
this stream of debris, resulting in two of the most spectacular
meteor showers known: the nighttime Taurids in November/ December,
and the daytime Arietids in May/June. In honor of these two showers,
this celestial river is known as the Taurid-Arietid Steam, or
the T-A Stream for short.
Where did all this cosmic debris come from? About 9500 BCE,
a very large cometary body fragmented during its passage around
the sun. We know two of the larger surviving pieces as Comets
Encke and Oljato. Several chunks, each as large as a hundred
thousand tons, collided with the Earth; the resulting climate
change brought an end to the last Ice Age. The rest of the debris
dispersed along the comets path, giving rise to the T-A
The T-A Stream is much larger than other meteor streams --
tens of millions of kilometers across, with millions more pieces
of debris ranging in size from dust motes and gravel to flying
mountains. And the material isnt distributed evenly --
the core is more densely populated with larger objects, and there
are clumps and clusters along the length of the Stream.
Occasionally, a large object from the Stream hits Earth: the
Tunguska Event of 1908 was one such. Another object struck the
Moon in the year 1178; the explosion, which was witnessed and
recorded by two Canterbury monks, formed the Lunar crater Giordano
Bruno. Astronomers have grown accustomed to near-misses in November/December
and May/June -- rocks that flash by a few hundred thousand kilometers
away, or fireballs that skim the atmosphere and then recede.
Unfortunately Earth is not always so lucky. The Stream itself
is unstable: perturbed by Jupiter and other planets, it oscillates
slightly in its path around the sun. Now and again, the Stream
swings into a position such that Earth, rather of grazing the
outskirts, travels through the denser core.
When this happens, our world is pummeled with cosmic debris.
Rather than one Tunguska-size impact every fifty years, we suffer
through an average of one every eighteen months. Each year here
are dozens of lesser impacts (say, just enough to destroy a small
village). And this celestial barrage can last thirty to ninety
These episodes of cosmic bombardment lead to chaos on Earth.
Quakes, fires, tsunamis, and massive floods are only the beginning.
Repeated impact events, especially water strikes, can trigger
global climate changes. Coastal regions are destroyed, crops
decimated. Civilizations perish, and Dark Ages descend for decades
Our history, mythology, and legends are rife with examples.
Multiple impacts about 3100 BCE led to the unification of Egypt
and a Dark Age that lasted more than a century. Around 2350 BCE,
impact events ended the climatic period known as the Neolithic
Wet Phase, brought down Egypts Old Kingdom, and may have
inspired legends of Ut-Napishtims Flood (the same story
which appears in the Bible as the Flood of Noah).
A series of impacts in 2194-93 BCE caused the Dead Seas
level to drop about 100 meters, led to the fall of Akkadian Sumer,
and seems to have incinerated the villages of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The resulting Dark Age persisted until about 1900 BCE.
Between 1250 and 1150 BCE, the European Bronze Age ended in
fire, the Trojan Wars were fought, the Mycenean civilization
fell, and the Ancient Greek Dark Ages began. The story of Phaeton
may date from this round of impacts.
A series of impact events in the fifth and sixth centuries
CE contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe and
the Moche culture in South America. Western Europe tumbled into
a Dark Ages that lasted nearly a thousand years.
There is growing evidence for multiple impact events in the
century 1350 - 1450, impacts which brought further suffering
to a Europe devastated by the Plague, and ushered in the climatic
period known as the Little Ice Age.
3100 BCE, 2350 BCE, 2194 BCE, 1250-1150 BCE, 450-550, 1350-1450.
If there is a pattern to these dates, it eludes our best analysis.
Fluctuations in the T-A Stream are chaotic and unpredictable.
Right now, the outer regions of the Stream skim Earths
at any time that could change, and the dense core
could move in our direction.
The last Tunguska-size impact on Earth was in 2039 in the
South Pacific. We are overdue for another. Will the next be an
isolated event, or will it herald a century of cosmic bombardment
that could spell the end of our civilization?
No one knows.