copyright (c) 2006, Don Sakers

Hunt for the Dymalon Cygnet

By Don Sakers

Part 2

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…but 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 Earth’s curve below. It wasn’t 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 meteorites—reports ranged from eight to eleven—had 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 Senator’s 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 whisper.

“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. “He’s designated Denver the interim Capital, and wants surviving members of Congress to assemble there.” She pointed to the flat. “I’ve 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 who’s 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 do that.”

“Good girl. We’re 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. “I’m Sergeant O’Casey,” she said over her shoulder. “We have rooms for you at the Hilton downtown; I’ll take you there and then I am at your disposal.”

“Thank you,” Ramierez said. She regarded the sky. “Cloudy already?”

O’Casey nodded. “Storms coming from the east. They say we’re 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. O’Casey, 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 Channel’s 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. Today’s 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 wasn’t 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 and rain….


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 fifty—a grand total of eighty-seven were left out of the 822 who had made up the Congress of the United States.

Bart Nuñez snagged two folding chairs from a stack and set them up at Senator Ramierez’s station. He nodded to Rita. “Sit down. She’s 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 sympathy.

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 doesn’t look good. On paper, we Populists have a plurality. But Dobson’s been busy these past two years crafting his Universalist coalition. He’s 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, he’s 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 don’t forget that six Supreme Court Justices are missing…including the Chief Justice. If Dobson gets to appoint replacements, you can bet his nominees are going to be faithful Universalists.”

“That’s not good.” Dobson’s 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 Ramierez’s opinion—which Rita shared—Universalism 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 Rita’s 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 need.”

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.”

Dobson’s 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 couldn’t resist turning into a pig’s 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.” Dobson’s voice, with its buzzsaw Midwestern accent, had always grated on Rita’s 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 nation’s capital.”

He lowered his eyes. “The full human cost of this disaster will not be known for months—if 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 voice—but now, despite herself, she knew that she was falling, if only a little, under the man’s spell.

Of course, she told herself, he’s 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 rare treat.

“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 President’s words.

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 get?

“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 confirmed—and I trust the Senate will be quick about confirmation—this individual’s 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 will—with 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 all.”

The image faded, and Ramierez sank back into her chair with a heavy sigh. “Well, that’s it. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the theocracy. Please check your civil liberties at the door.”

Rita, in spite of herself, blurted, “Aren’t 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 that’s 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 they’re 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 comet’s path, giving rise to the T-A Stream.

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 isn’t 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 years.

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 or centuries.

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 Egypt’s Old Kingdom, and may have inspired legends of Ut-Napishtim’s 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 Sea’s 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 Earth’s orbit…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.



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