“It’s a rock, Mr. President.”
Warren Lyon Fraser—father, philanthropist, scion of a wealthy Illinois merchant family and at present leader of the nominally Free World, glanced up absently from behind his desk. From behind the desk, Earle reminded himself. The Chief Executive was preoccupied, his thoughts on the Cabinet meeting scheduled for one o’clock and the state dinner being readied for the Spanish Premier.
Knowing this in advance it was incumbent upon Earle, as chief science advisor to the White House, to couch his report in terms sufficiently strong to penetrate the social and diplomatic fog that permanently enveloped the President. That meant being straightforward and to the point while keeping complex scientific terminology to a minimum. Words had to be chosen for immediate impact as opposed to accuracy. Something had to be done about the situation, and done soon.
While very much aware of the President’s busy schedule, Earle had insisted on the meeting. The news was too important, the need for a prompt and appropriate response too critical, for the relevant information to wend its way to the Chief Executive by means of the usual ruthlessly distilled and bowdlerized written report. Not that Earle was a particularly forceful speaker, but there was no way he was going to try to convey these particular details through emotionless print or stammering underlings.
No, not these details. They were too weighty. In every sense of the word.
So he’d used every ounce of pull he possessed to get five minutes of the President’s time, confident that when Fraser was made aware of the gravity of the situation, he would perk up and pay real attention. After all, what Earle had to say would instantly render irrelevant the most important state dinner or Cabinet meeting.
“I take it you’re referring to the ‘object?” Fraser peered up at his science advisor out of kindly, heavily lidded eyes that seemed never to blink. “Staff has been whispering about it since yesterday, but I didn’t see any point in wasting time on rumor and speculation. Thought I’d wait for the facts.” The fingers of his right hand idly rotated a formal memo in slow circles, as if he were absently polishing the desktop.
“I hope there aren’t too many. Facts, that is. I’ve a partial Cabinet meeting in one hour. Nothing major; just the usual assortment of crises and catastrophes.” Earle smiled politely as the President eyed the elegant brass clock on his desk. “It’s just that I’d like to grab a bite to eat first.”
“Yes, sir.” The Science Advisor wasn’t intimidated. His briefings were usually delivered elsewhere in the White House, but he’d spent more than a little time in the Oval Office and was comfortable in its surroundings.
“Well, come on, then, Willy. So it’s a rock. What kind of rock? Big, small, purple … what?” The President waited, expectant but impatient.
Despite the prompting, Earle hesitated. Surely no similar report had ever been delivered in such august surroundings, with the portraits of other presidents gazing down critically. That was why it was so important for him to get it right the first time, to leave no room for uncertainty or equivocation.
“It’s about a mile in diameter, Mr. President. My colleagues would chide me for not using metrics, but the details of the final report are going to be in all the papers tomorrow, and that’s a convenient size reference to use. Makes it easy to come to grips with it.”
“A mile-long rock,” the President murmured. “Or asteroid, rather.”
“That’s right, sir.” Warren Lyon Fraser was no scientific sophisticate. His background and upbringing had been in business and politics. But you didn’t get to be President of the United States without knowing a little something about everything. Or at least not without knowing how to fake it well.
“An asteroid, sir, that’s right. That’s the problem.”
“I take it a mile in diameter is substantial, as asteroids go?”
“Substantial enough, sir.”
“I’m beginning to get the feeling, both from what I’ve been hearing whispered around and now from your attitude, Willy, that this isn’t going to be something I’m going to be allowed to ignore.”
“I’m afraid not, Mr. President.” The Science Advisor’s expression was solemn.
Fraser sighed resignedly and leaned back in the thickly padded chair. It squeaked ever so slightly. “Why not?”
“There are two problems with this particular asteroid, sir. The first is that nobody saw it coming. It’s not big enough to announce itself boldly, but once it crossed the lunar orbit, it should have been picked up by half a dozen observatories, or at least a few of the hyperactive amateurs who do a lot of astronomy’s dirty work.”
“And it wasn’t?” the President inquired.
“No, sir. It just kind of showed up. Solar objects don’t play trick or treat. It’s against the rules. This thing has broken a lot of rules. One minute the immediate terrestrial vicinity is empty and the next it’s home to this rock. Somebody should have seen it coming long before it entered orbit.”
“So it’s in orbit?” The President’s interest was clearly piqued. “Don’t these comets and such just go flashing past and then disappear?”
“Normally that’s just what happens, sir. But not this thing. It came barreling in at God knows what velocity, skimmed the outer atmosphere, and slowed down. Slowed down astonishingly fast, as a matter of fact. We’re very interested in how that happened. Initial observations indicate that it’s not a pallasite or—”
“Excuse me, Willy?”
“Sorry, sir. An exotic type of metallic meteorite. Preliminary analysis suggests that this one’s composition is unremarkable, except for an occasional odd blip on isolated readouts.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” The President had a wicked sense of humor, which he chose to display only in private. Earle had been the recipient of it on more than one occasion.
“It’s that occasional blip that has so many of my colleagues intrigued, sir. They wonder if it might explain why no one saw this particular rock coming. It’s not just our people either. The Russians, the Japanese, the Europeans; they all missed it too.”
“Maybe it’s just that nobody was looking in the right place at the right time.”
Earle nodded. “That’s entirely possible, sir. In fact at the moment, that’s the most reasonable explanation. Especially when you consider that it came in over the Antarctic. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help us with the second problem.”
“It better be a big one.” Fraser glanced significantly at the clock.
Earle squirmed inwardly, wishing some of the big boys from Houston were there to back him up. None of them could spare the time, however. They were all working furiously on the Problem.
“It’s the orbit, sir. That’s the trouble. It’s a declining orbit. Rapidly declining, as a matter of fact. It really doesn’t make any sense. Considering the speed at which the object must have entered the solar system, it should have zipped on past instead of letting itself be captured. The calculations…” He fumbled clumsily with the inside pocket of his jacket. “Here, sir: I sketched it all out for you. I thought it might make the situation a little easier to understand.” He smiled hopefully. “You know: a picture’s worth…?”
Fraser straightened in his chair and took the drawing. With simple, straightforward lines it showed the Earth, the Moon, and a tight ellipse encircling the Earth. At the far point of the ellipse was a small dot.
The President glanced up at his advisor. “This isn’t the kind of orbit the shuttles use, is it? Or any of our communications satellites?”
“No, sir. Those would be near-perfect circles, each representing a stable orbit. See how extreme this one is?” Leaning forward, he touched the ellipse where it came nearest to Earth. “If something isn’t done very soon, this asteroid’s orbit will decay rapidly, and it will enter our atmosphere, at which point it will crash into the surface, either in one very large piece and many tiny ones or in a number of fairly large ones. Again, much depends on its composition.” He straightened. “I’m told we’ll have more accurate figures later this afternoon.”
Warren Fraser nodded slowly and rubbed his lower lip with the forefinger of his left hand. He no longer looked at the clock. The President of the United States, Earle noted absently, had hairy knuckles.
“What happens then? Worst-case scenario, Willy.”
Earle considered. “I can’t give you specifics, sir. No one can. Everything depends on the size of the pieces, their chemical makeup, and where they strike. If they come down in the vicinity of, say, Easter Island, we can expect possible tsunamis throughout the Pacific Basin. Middle of the Atlantic or Indian oceans, more of the same. If a lot of it burns up on entry, the effects could be minimal.”
“I see.” The President’s expression did not change. “What if these hypothetical pieces don’t land in the middle of the ocean? What if a big chunk were to come down somewhere near here?”