Stories

The comet – pt. 4

The world really is a crap place. Going to hell. Fast. And getting worse by the microsecond. And then the comet comes along.

 

It just gets worse. Ever hear of the Purge? Something like that. People become the worst versions of themselves. Every vice, every weakness suddenly comes to the surface, with the end of the world imminent. It’s like the whole damned world has lost its mind.

 

I’ve seen people killed, right in front of me, and nobody tried to stop them. I didn’t fight back. I just stood there, idiotic. Like it was happening on TV, not right in front of my face.

 

“How did it make you feel?”

 

F— you. That’s how it made me feel. F— you. What kind of a question is that?

 

“This isn’t about the whole world, Tommy. This is about you.”

 

How can it be about me? I’m not the one crashing into the Earth and killing everyone. I’m just along for the ride, like the whole lot of us. There’s nothing I can do about it. We’re all f—ed. That’s what we are. F—ed. And I can’t stop anybody from hurting themselves, or hurting somebody else, because we’re all gonna die, anyway.

 

“We were always all going to die, anyway, Tommy. Is that why you started using heroin? To run away and not take responsibility for anything?”

 

How can I take responsibility for anything? I didn’t make this mess! I can’t fix it. Nobody can fix it!

 

“So you stood there. You watched it happen.”

 

Yeah. I stood there.

 

“You didn’t do anything.”

 

What could I do?

 

“How did it make you feel?”

 

Helpless. I felt helpless, ok? Damn you and your stupid questions!

 

“Now we’re getting somewhere.”

 

 

“Yesterday over two dozen reports of mass lynchings, and that’s just in America.

 

“It appears local vigilantes all over the country are having the same idea, and ‘cleaning up’ their neighborhoods. There doesn’t seem to be anything the police can do to quell this new violent trend.”

 

“That’s an unfortunate, but understandable, sociologic response to the cataclysmic societal events occurring around the globe, and manifesting in people’s every day lives, Martha.”

 

“Dr. Fitzpatrick, can you finally admit this lawlessness, this anarchy, is simply a foreshadowing of the complete societal breakdown to come?” Martha O’Neill knew she had the sociologist cornered this time. The smugness shown through the tone of her questions.

 

“Not at all, Martha. A readjustment in societal norms, perhaps. But a social breakdown? No, I do not see that.” Dr. Neil Fitzpatrick was resolute that society was not being destroyed in the face of the comet’s certain wrath, and likely unavoidable extinction of the human race.

 

“The justice system doesn’t appear to be working. Vigilantes all over the country are taking the law into their own hands. Are you not alarmed by these developments, Doctor?”

 

“I do not agree with their methods, Martha. I would prefer a more organized social structure. But, there is not mass hysteria. These appear to be well organized attempts by well meaning people to keep peace where they live. I do not condone this vigilantism. But so far as what it says about our ability as a species to retain a distinguishable social order in the face of insurmountable odds? I do remain hopeful.”

 

“Thank you, Dr. Fitzpatrick. I would expect nothing less from you. ‘Hopeful.'” Martha was shaking her head.

 

“Thanks for having me.” The doctor smiled.

 

Fade to black, “And we’re out!”

 

“You know, you really are something, Neil.”

 

“Yes, Martha. I have a lot of practice.”

 

“One of these days I’m going to make you admit there’s no hope, Doctor.”

 

“You know, Martha, one of these days, you just might.”

 

 

The preacher sat in his cell. He was awaiting trial, on charges of raping and killing those two angels. He was thankful for the guards. The mob was demanding blood. There had been two attempts to breach the walls of the county jail this past week. The other prisoners were all aware of who he was, and what he had been accused of doing. Thankfully, most of the prisoners had been released, as the County Judge didn’t have much stomach for keeping drug addicts and petty criminals behind bars with the end of the world looming.

 

So the jail was mostly empty, which made it easier to keep the preacher isolated and away from all other inmates. So the threat from inside the walls was minimal — limited primarily to the guards themselves.

 

Gil Hadley, the Sheriff, understood this. Sheriff Hadley was a good man. He had personally overseen the dragging of the Des Moines River last summer. He knew the toll this case had taken on the community. He had spoken to the members and elders of First Community Parish, where they had uniformly defended the preacher’s honor. He had looked into the pleading eyes of the parents of the two missing girls, and tried to understand their pain. And the preacher had confessed.

 

Well, not confessed to harming the young girls. But he had confessed to being the last person with them. He says he baptised them in the river, and then taken them to the barn to pray. And that’s where it had happened.

 

When asked why he had acted alone, why there were no other witnesses to the baptism, the preacher had said God told him to do it this way. When asked if he had ever baptized and prayed with other young children, alone, he said, no, this was the first time.

 

Witnesses seemed to back this up. No other reports had surfaced of the preacher engaging in this type of behavior in the past. Of course, nobody believed the girls had just disappeared. But there was no evidence to contradict this theory, as outlandish as it was.

 

And so the sheriff was uncertain. And even if he knew for sure the preacher had killed those two little girls, he wouldn’t give him up to the mob outside. And so he had taken special precautions, even with his own men, especially with his own men, to be certain no harm came to the preacher before he could be properly tried.

 

That was his sworn duty, as sheriff of this county. And he would see to it that his solemn oath was upheld, to the very best of his ability.

 

And tonight that meant standing guard, as a mob of at least 200 men stood outside and threatened to burn down his jailhouse.

 

 

 

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Stories

The comet – pt. 3

“REPENT! Repent, I say, in the name of the Lord!”

I finally wander out onto the street after a week, and the first thing I encounter is this fool? He looks a bit wild eyed, a little disheveled, like he hasn’t slept in days, certainly not in a bed.

I’m one to talk. My clothes are filthy. I’m sure I’ve been wearing them for a month. I think I pissed myself, but I’m not sure. Maybe when I was nodded in a dark corner, someone pissed on me? But that must have been a few days ago by now. And I stink. Really bad.

Though I’ve been in a dark hole, literally, it’s not like I haven’t seen the news. Yeah it’s a dope house. But this is the twenty-first century, and even dope houses have flat screen TVs. Plus I’ve got my iPhone. It’s a little dated, but it still works. I’ve got a constant news feed. And Candy Crush. A real modern man.

“You there! Have you given your life to Christ?” I’ve seen guys like him before, on city street corners, standing on a soap box, preaching to the birds. But today something’s different. People are standing around, listening to him, like he has something to say. At least a dozen or so, maybe fifteen.

“I said, have you given your life to Christ?” He had gotten off his soap box, and was standing in front of me, speaking directly to me. I was a bit startled, and didn’t know how to respond. Everyone was looking at me.

“I’m not sure what you want from me,” I croaked. My throat was dry, and I realized I hadn’t spoken in days. I really had no idea what he meant. I’d spent my whole life avoiding questions like this one. And now, when confronted face to face, with witnesses no less, I didn’t know how to respond.

“What’s your name, Son?” He spoke calmly. He looked me directly in my eyes. His eyes were deep, like saucers. There was a peace there that I hadn’t noticed before.

“Tommy. Tommy Paterson.”

“Well, Tommy, the end is nigh. You know that. It’s time to make a choice. Are you going to die with the devil, or are you ready to live again, with Jesus Christ?” His voice was soothing, even hypnotic.

I was about to give in. A dog barked nearby, and it broke the spell. Suddenly I looked at my phone, and with a bit more confidence, I said, “Look, I’ve got to go now. And anyways, I’ve got 734 days to decide.” With that, I walked away. Quickly.

“Well don’t wait forever, Tommy!” he called after me, “You could still get hit by a bus, and you don’t want to burn in hell for eternity because you waited too long to make a decision!”

Darlene loved Hawaii. Almost as much as she loved her job. She was spending her afternoons on the beach, working on her tan. And nights were even better. As a Planetary Scientist, on loan to NASA, from MIT, she was working on a study, comparing gas giants, their density, composition, size, and age. She had a theory, but more than anything, she loved looking at the sky. And the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, at an elevation of 4,145 meters, provided one of the premier looks at the night sky of anywhere on the Earth.

Dr. Darlene Benjamin. She had completed her doctoral studies last fall. And now she was a full fledged scientist, working for NASA. Well, on temporary assignment, anyways. Not bad for a girl from Omaha.

Dr. Benjamin spent a good amount of time looking at the sky. She had a list of over two hundred known gas giants she wanted to observe. There was no way she would complete her study in the three weeks she’d been allotted on the telescope. Which was fine with her. That just meant she’d have to come back. She still couldn’t believe her good fortune, to get three weeks of telescope time. But it was June, and the primary scientist was leaving on vacation, so she’d gotten the call. Where did someone go on vacation from Hawaii? Apparently Greece was as good an answer as any.

She always arrived by 10pm. But the real work never started until about midnight. She would program the coordinates of the planets she wished to observe that night. And the telescope would automatically turn and follow the planets, taking in and recording all the required data. Darlene didn’t spend too much time analyzing. That would take months. No, she spent her time alternating between looking at the sky, and checking to make sure all the data was being recorded accurately.

A little after one a.m. a small patch of sky caught her eye. She wasn’t sure why. Darlene had spent her whole life looking at the sky. And she knew that if something was attracting her attention, she’d better look twice.

At 1:23 she saw it. A slight blur. It wasn’t there moments before, and now it was. She was recording everything, ever the scientist. She felt that excitement of discovery in her belly. She had no idea how it was about to change her life.

“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake. I pray the Lord my soul to take. God, please bless Mommy, and Daddy, and baby Susie. Please bless the comet, that it decides not to destroy the Earth, and it goes somewhere else instead. Amen.”

“Amen. That was a beautiful prayer, Samuel.”

“Daddy, why did the comet decide to destroy the Earth? Were we bad?”

“Sammy, the comet doesn’t decide anything. It is just an object. Given enough time, it becomes a certainty that an object, maybe something big, like the comet, would hit the Earth. We just happen to be the unlucky ones who are alive at this time, and get to feel the effects.”

“That doesn’t make any sense to me, Daddy. For something so terrible to happen, and for it to be by chance. No, I think the comet is sent here for a reason. I think it must be destroying the Earth on purpose.”

“Did you hear someone say that? Wherever did you come up with such an idea?”

“I thought of it in my own head, Daddy. I think the comet knows what it’s doing.”

“No, Son. The comet does not think. It does not feel. It is a mindless thing. It has no idea it’s going to hit us, and materially alter both our realities. Now go to sleep.”

“Good night, Daddy. I love you.”

“Good night Sam. You really are something. Love you, too.”

As he left his son’s room, almost closing the door, but not quite, Dr. Neil Fitzpatrick wondered about what Samuel has said. And why would the little boy think such things?

He was still wondering that same thing when he appeared on CNN at ten p.m. later that night in a round-table discussion on the state of the comet.

One thought kept coming back to him: “Out of the mouths of babes.”

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Stories

The comet – pt. 2

“You know, human nature is a remarkable thing.

“During the days when the world first learned of the comet, there was, understandably, chaos, Martha,” Dr. Neil Fitzpatrick addressed the anchor from CNN. “But what’s truly amazing, is how quickly society has returned to a recognizable order.”

“One-third of essential service workers still have not reported back to work.” Martha O’Neill was citing statistics widely touted by the Network. “Almost half of the US workforce have elected to stay home, rather than go to work, giving reasons such as ‘need to protect my home from looters’ and ‘want to spend more time with family.’ How do you respond to this, Doctor?”

“Well, Martha, more people are returning to work every day. In the first few days, those numbers were far more dismal. Frankly, I’m encouraged.”

“There you have it. Leading sociologist, Dr. Neil Fitzpatrick, is encouraged. Thank you Doctor. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of you here on CNN.”

“Thank you for having me.”

The screen fades briefly to black before the Network is on to its next story — certainly another angle on the comet — really the only story these days.

“And we’re out!” a producer yells from off camera.

“Neil, you don’t really believe society is returning to normal. Marshall Law still is in effect in every country. Looting is a nightly occurrence. Daily even. There are abuses and brutalities being reported almost nonstop. Yes, maybe there are some slight pockets of ‘normalcy,’ but come on, as we near the end, there will be increasing lawlessness. Some say anarchy.” Martha O’Neill was the top rated news anchor with the top rated news show on the top rated news network. She was pleading with Dr. Fitzpatrick to see the reality of the situation.

“Martha, you have dozens of ‘experts’ willing to come on air and cite doom and gloom statistics for your Network. I’m your ray of sunshine. That’s why you call me. Just accept it!”

“But Neil, you don’t really believe what you’re saying…”

“Martha, I believe what I believe, and I say what I say. Shall never the twain meet,” mangling Sam Clemens. “I’ll see you tonight, Martha.”

“Yes, my producers can’t get enough of you. They keep yelling at me not to be too hard on you. On air.”

“We’re fine, Martha,” the doctor smiled, “be as hard on me as you like.”

“Bye, Neil.” Martha shook her head. No matter how deluded he seemed, she just couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe he knew something he wasn’t saying.

“Well, look what the cat dragged in.” Sgt. Jackson sneered.

“Officer Barnes reporting for duty, Sir.”

“After twenty-six days? I believe you told me, when I called you, and I quote, ‘Go f—yourself.’ Now, is that any way to talk to your superior?”

Officer Kenneth Barnes stood at attention, willingly accepting the verbal punishment. “Sir, I was under a lot of stress. I apologize. It won’t happen again.”

“Damned right it won’t happen again. I’ll kick your a–.”

“Yes, Sir!”

“Tell me why I should take you back on my police force?”

“Because I love my job, Sir. I was born to protect and serve. And if our City ever needed police, we are needed now, more than ever.”

“We’re working doubles. That doesn’t mean the same thing it used to mean. It means don’t expect to be going home anytime soon. I haven’t been home. And I mean since the news. We’re sleeping here, Officer. My wife brings me my meals, and that’s the only time I see her. You figure it out. Any questions?”

“No, Sir.”

“Welcome home. Damned glad to have you, Officer Barnes.” The corners of his mouth upturned slightly, making the sneer look somehow even meaner.

A calm had descended over the City of Sacramento. Downtown looked like a ghost town. Windows broken. Debris strewn on the streets. Stores emptied of their valuables. It wasn’t rioting, so much as lawlessness. The police had stood down. The National Guard were holding the major intersections, as checkpoints. There was no law in the City, but in order to pass from one part of the City to the next, you were expected to pass through a checkpoint. Of course, all the locals used surface streets to go around the barriers. The only real borders in the City were formed by its two rivers. Between them, gangs had free reign.

But it didn’t take long for the people to organize. Small bands. Vigilantes. It was largely these vigilantes who restored order, first in their own neighborhoods.

“You can go down the street and do that. Down the street and around the corner,” Jack said. “But not here.” Jack Dwyer had organized ten armed men in his neighborhood to keep watch.

He addressed the leader of a dozen or so young Hispanic men, a nascent gang. “If I can see you do it, I will stop you. I’m not telling you to be good. I’m telling you, ‘Not here.'”

The young men groused. They were stirring for a fight. But their leader had already seen men with rifles hiding behind fences and curtained windows. Jack had promised him he was willing to die today, and the young leader would be the second one dead.

Jack didn’t blink. He was calm and resolved. He didn’t want to fight these boys. But he was unwilling to give up his home to them. If he had to kill, or be killed, if that was the price, then that’s what he was willing to pay. For peace.

“We will go.” The young chieftain was defiant. But also wise. He turned and led his troop away.

Jack stood silently and watched them go, thankful to have avoided a fight.

Food was a major issue. Water. Then electricity. In that order.

Peace and order were hard enough. And hospitals and healthcare. And firefighting. All things Americans, and much of the world, take for granted everyday. In some parts of the world, these were always daily struggles. And now, in America, they were, too.

As a basic human needs, water comes well before food. Humans can live for weeks without food. But after only a few days without water, vital bodily systems begin to shut down. After a week without water, most people will die.

As a practical matter, water is more easily maintained, or restored, via the infrastructure in place. It only takes a few workers to keep the water system running, at least to above a survival level. Same with electricity. The electric grid works. And so long as there are enough workers to keep it running, electricity can be maintained in people’s homes and businesses. Major manufacturing plants may have some difficulties, but basic survival level electricity was not too difficult to maintain.

Food was a different question. In the grocery store shelves is only about a three day supply of food. The food supply depends upon a huge network, from farmers, to truck drivers, to storehouses, to supermarkets. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The food supply chain is complex, and easily broken. For more than a week there was no food in America. You can’t depend on the Red Cross, when everyone is in need. There simply was no food chain. Until there was.

About two weeks in, the trucks started moving again. Shipments were received by local markets. Food was purchased. At first, food couldn’t even be placed on shelves. Customers bought the goods right off the pallet, or out of the back of the truck.

It was spontaneous, and nothing short of a miracle, that the food supply suddenly started working again. Nobody really knew the story of how it had happened. It should have been the subject of much speculation and wonder. In a calmer time, with room for theorization, economists would no doubt be debating exactly the process by which the supply train was restarted, like a stopped heart, and restored. But, for now, most people didn’t think twice about it, or even remember to be thankful.

Though their very lives depended on it.

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