Hell on Earth
It came out of the Oort Cloud almost 2 million years ago, and by the time it sped past Earth, its velocity was twenty-six miles a second. Then the Sun’s gravity took hold and its speed increased to nearly four hundred miles a second. As it swung around the far side of the Sun, the scorching heat broke it into a six-hundred-mile-long string of huge rocks, ice, and other cosmic debris. When it came out from behind the Sun, the string headed right back to Earth. It got there twenty-nine days later.
The string was finally spotted seventeen hours, nine minutes, and forty-two seconds before it began impacting, so there was no real warning time (as if it would have mattered). It was picked up almost simultaneously by an observatory in Australia and an incredulous and thoroughly terrified seventeen-year-old amateur in Japan.
Spaceguard, which was supposed to spot such intruders and give plenty of warning time, alerted NASA, which alerted the White House, which sent the warning to the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. The command’s mission was to protect the country from threats in space. But the threats were defined as man-made and consisted mainly of long-range ballistic missiles and weapons launched by enemies that wanted to knock out American spacecraft. It had been accepted during the Cold War that the Soviets would have “taken out” U.S. reconnaissance and ballistic-missile early-warning satellites as a prelude to all-out war because doing so would effectively have made the nation’s defense blind. That kind of threat could be dealt with by attacking the enemy in space or on the ground. After all, a weapon conceived by men could be defeated by them. But there was no possible defense against a string of giant rock and ice fragments as long as the width of France that now slowed back down to twenty-six miles a second and appeared with very short notice.
The military was put on Defense Condition 1, the highest level of alert, but of course that was a charade. Meanwhile, the National Security Council hurriedly met and debated whether to tell the people of the United States, and therefore the world, that the string was heading right for them at searing velocity. The council also discussed warning India, Pakistan, China, and Russia. It was decided not to tell the public for fear of starting a panic that would cause chaos and probably political and social disintegration. But the men and women who sat around the long table in the White House decided to quietly warn the Russians and the Chinese.
The men in the Kremlin and in the Forbidden City were of two minds about the news. Some thought it was a diabolical trick designed to destabilize their countries by causing mass hysteria. Others suggested that the dire warning masked an impending nuclear attack ordered by the archconservatives in the White House. So the Russian and Chinese militaries, including their strategic missile forces, were also put on hair-trigger alert. That information was quickly sent to Washington. A deterrent is useless, after all, unless the opposition knows about it.
Moscow University’s large telescope was down for repairs, but the one at Zlatoust, high in the Urals, was trained on the string as soon as the alert came from Moscow. The shaken astronomers at Zlatoust spotted it right away and reported what they saw to their leaders. But it wasn’t going to matter.
The string streaked past the Moon. Then, at a little before eight in the evening, it came in high over northeastern Australia, causing a clap of thunder that smashed windows. The rocks were now glowing crimson because of atmospheric friction. Then they began to break into fiery chunks, some as small as fifty meters, as they plowed deeper into the atmosphere over Southeast Asia.
One huge icy rock exploded like fireworks six miles over Peshawar in northern Pakistan. The place had become notorious in early May 1960 when it was revealed that Francis Gary Powers, the American U-2 pilot who was shot down over the Soviet Union, had taken off from the air base at Peshawar. The facility was still active when the first rocks in the string came in. There were sixty-seven military aircraft at Peshawar that day whose mission was to stop Indian bombers before they reached Pakistani targets. The exploding rock showered the base with hot fragments and disappeared in a blinding flash. Most of the planes, structures, and vehicles were destroyed, and there were scores of dead and wounded.
The United States knew what was going to happen at Peshawar even before the explosion. Technicians routinely monitored asteroids and comets with optical, X-ray, dosimeter, and other sensors carried on spacecraft and with ground-based telescopes and other equipment in a Nuclear Detonation Detection System that had been developed during the Cold War. The system was created to provide near-real-time information on the enemy’s nuclear weapons programs and to verify compliance with the Limited Test Ban and Non-Proliferation treaties.1 But Pakistan had no such system. Its early-warning radars, which were crude by U.S. and Russian standards, interpreted that first exploding rock as an attempted first nuclear strike on an important military airfield by the despised Indians. Most of the scientists, politicians, and military officers in Pakistan’s Nuclear Command and Control Authority conferred immediately on an emergency conference line and advised the president to retaliate before more targets were hit and the nation became too crippled to strike back. All sixteen of Pakistan’s long-range Taepodong nuclear ballistic missiles were therefore launched at preassigned targets in India, including New Delhi and Bombay, seven air bases, and what were thought to be missile installations. The Taepodongs were from North Korea and had been traded for Pakistani nuclear-weapons technology, which had in turn come from China.
Still another fragment the size of a small house struck Korolev, the site of the Russian space operations center, on the other side of the beltway eighteen miles northeast of central Moscow. The town was pulverized and the space operations complex, including the mostly gone-to-seed Yuri A. Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, effectively disappeared. So the Russian space program was now dysfunctional, its communication links broken and most of its best engineers and administrators dead. Several other towns in the area were severely shaken, and airplanes at two regional airports were knocked to their bellies. Most of Moscow itself was spared. But other large chunks impacted along the steppes, some turning whole towns into smoking craters, others crashing harmlessly into farmland and meadows.
Another of the string’s rocks, this one a quarter of a kilometer wide, streaked toward St. Petersburg. The shock wave it made as it split the thickening air immediately before impact knocked down every structure and living thing along a seventy-mile-wide swath of countryside as if they had been caught in a titanic earthquake. An instant before it impacted, it turned the evening sky brighter than the Sun. The noise was literally deafening.
The rock struck as the city’s symphony orchestra was starting to play the allegro molto of Rachmaninoff’s second symphony. Those in the Grand Hall in the Philharmonia on Mikhailovskaya Street, like most of the city’s 4 million souls, never knew what hit them. If they saw and heard the instrument that ended their existence, it was in the barest fraction of a second. They were lucky. Many thousands of others would suffer terrible burns or be severely crippled, some for the rest of their dreadful lives. Three centuries of culture was vaporized in as many seconds, first by the shock wave, and then by the impact itself. The venerable Peter and Paul Fortress, where czars were buried, the Hermitage, the baroque splendor of the Summer and Winter palaces, St. Isaac’s Cathedral with its famous golden dome, Aleksandr’s Column, the painstakingly restored thousand-room Konstantinovsky Palace and the glittering Amber Room in the Catherine Palace, the Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Pavlov museums and libraries, the university and the public library, the Repins and other exquisite paintings, all of the other cultural artifacts and symbols of baroque grandeur, the Neva canals, bustling Nevsky Prospekt, the houses, and the millions of men, women, and children who dwelled in them were instantly pulverized into dust particles that swirled and tumbled skyward in a vast, dark, roiling column of particulate debris. The cradle of Russian culture, the city Pushkin immortalized in verse, the “Venice of the North,” orphaned by the Communists who renamed it for their own saint, and then resurrected after their demise, literally no longer existed. That first rock punched a seven-mile-wide hole in the Earth’s hide and disintegrated there, along with every vestige of its target. As the rest of the string impacted along a lengthening line that moved westward as the planet rotated, across Northern Europe, the Atlantic, the United States, and Canada, the Earth repeatedly shuddered in convulsions.
Because St. Petersburg was on the Gulf of Finland, the impact also started a 130-foot-high tsunami that swept over the Finnish coast and inundated Helsinki. It kept moving in a colossal wave that struck Stockholm and much of the Swedish coast, battering everything in its path and drowning uncounted thousands.
Tons of earth and debris rose into the upper atmosphere and formed an immense dark cloud of thick dust that soon blanketed Eurasia and started moving eastward, carried by the wind. Torrential rains of caustic acid began to fall from the churning clouds, poisoning the land they soon covered. If sunrise marked morning, there would be no morning.
All five boroughs in New York were severely damaged by a salvo of speeding rocks, and so were its suburbs, as well as other cities in the area from Newark to New Haven. Roughly 3.5 million people were squashed, killed by overpressure, flying debris and glass that struck like shrapnel, or were instantly broiled alive by the heat. Thousands were lifted off streets, blown out of buildings, and were themselves turned into missiles by five-hundred-mile-an-hour winds that smashed them into vast mounds of rubble, either killing them instantly or leaving them all but dead with broken bones, fractured skulls, and torn, twisted, and hemorrhaging insides.
What happened to St. Petersburg happened to a greater or lesser extent all along the string’s impact path. Many of the best research universities in the world, untold millions of books and databases, manuscripts, irreplaceable works of art, exquisite architecture of every description, national monuments including the Statue of Liberty, the second World Trade Center, vaccines, medical supplies, and countless victims disappeared in tumultuous storm clouds that soon also darkened the sky.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command’s early-warning radar system, the most sophisticated in the world, saw the line of rocks coming like a cracking whip. But the men and women secreted behind a massive steel door deep in Iron Mountain in Colorado Springs had been taught to deal with bomber and ballistic-missile threats and not, as some of them would have put it, with acts of God. So the inhabitants of Iron Mountain and the missileers saw nothing to indicate that a full-scale ballistic missile attack was under way. They therefore stayed hidden behind the great door and in the underground silos and waited.
Not so in India. When the first of the Pakistani warheads struck their targets, turning them into the legendary mushroom clouds, the Indians responded in kind. All forty-two of their nuclear missiles were launched at predetermined targets, including Peshawar. Seeing that their old rival had been severely wounded by the Pakistanis and had then launched a reprisal attack against them, Beijing’s rulers decided to take the occasion to destroy India once and for all and launched their own limited, but immensely destructive, attack. By dawn---or what would have been dawn---large areas of India and Pakistan were burning and were in a death shroud of intense radioactive smog. And that lethal smog was already on the move. There were dead in the many millions; no one knew how many because those who ordinarily counted the dead and wounded after disasters were dead, too. India and Pakistan effectively ceased to exist as political entities. Kashmir, the catalyst of so much sectarian hatred and death on both sides for so long, no longer mattered and never would again.
The vast majority of those on both sides who survived the multiple impacts quickly panicked as chaos took hold. What had once been cohesive communities quickly disintegrated into dazed individuals and small groups that began scavenging and looting. Most civil servants abandoned their offices and blended with the others who wandered through the darkened streets. To their credit, most of the police and the military tried to stick to their jobs, at least in the beginning, and tried to prevent total anarchy. But they couldn’t. On the subcontinent, most surviving Indian and Pakistani physicians and nurses treated as many of the injured---hundreds of thousands of them critically---as best they could until medical supplies were gone. That didn’t take long. Nor did it take long for the food and water shortages to turn once law-abiding citizens into armed looters. Within twenty-four hours, as the enormity of the catastrophe began to take hold, the social fabric in and around the destroyed regions quickly unraveled. As healthy survivors began to grasp the fact that food and shelter were not only decimated, but poisoned, they became desperate to survive and keep their families alive. And so fighting started, some of it with guns, as competition for food, clothing, and shelter increased. And it wasn’t only about necessities. Everything was fair game, including computers, radios, televisions, and any furniture that could be carried. As gunfire broke out in cities and suburbs, the dark clouds blanketed the sky, shutting out most sunlight over much of the planet. The clouds drifted eastward on currents of air in the upper reaches of a poisoned atmosphere. The stench of millions of unburied dead was terrible, and so was the threat of disease they bequeathed to the living.
Except for the radiation, which was spreading, it was the same across a broad swath that extended from western Russia through Poland, northern Germany, Belgium, northern France (narrowly missing Paris), the Channel, the south of England, the North Atlantic, and across the northern United States and southern Canada. Scores of rocks punched harmlessly into the ocean and the Great Lakes and impacted in forests, farmlands, and other sparsely populated areas on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border. The carnage and destruction were far more severe in Europe, of course, since it was more densely populated. But Buffalo, Toronto, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee were not so lucky. They took some very bad hits.
The fate of the leaders of the countries under the barrage of rocks was not much better than that of ordinary citizens. Following accepted practice, the notables and their apparatchiks had taken long-standing measures to assure their own survival. Or so they thought. This was invariably justified in the cause of patriotism, since leaders were responsible for holding their countries together, and they obviously could not do that if they were gravely injured or dead. Besides, high office necessarily brought privileges, the most important of which was a head start on survival. So in Russia, the Council of Federation, its president, the entire Duma, and the heads of important ministries, including defense, communication and information, the economy, foreign affairs, and transportation, a few top generals and admirals, and whatever well-placed bureaucrats could be found and warned, were quickly evacuated to several fully stocked underground shelters that had been dug deep along the Moscow beltway early in the Cold War. Europeans, who had been given very short warning time, and who for the most part had no such shelters, hid in their basements.
The president of the United States, members of the National Security Council, and other senior civilian and military advisers, like their foreign counterparts, hurriedly fled Washington in helicopters to a safer place. It was a complex of relatively comfortable shelters that had been carved out of the West Virginia mountains during the Cold War for the same reason the Soviets had prepared to hide underground.
Most of the teachers and other civil servants, as well as doctors and nurses in or near the devastated American cities, kept their heads and behaved valiantly, at least during those first days. Marion Elbert, a bright and self-possessed twenty-six-year-old public-school teacher, tried to get her traumatized fourth graders to the basement of P.S. 139, an ancient, though renovated, brick building on sixty-third Drive in Rego Park, Queens. The school was half a mile from an impact where Woodhaven Boulevard and the Long Island Expressway had converged, and that was now a smoldering hole. The explosion was close enough to shatter the three large windows in her classroom and bring down part of a wall with watercolor pictures of the animals in the Central Park Zoo that had been made on a field trip. Seeing that other walls were badly cracked, and worrying about the ceiling collapsing, Miss Elbert decided to move her terrified and dazed ten-year-olds into the school yard to wait for whichever parents managed to pick their way through the wrecked neighborhood to find their children. Elbert was as steadfastly protective of the children as if they were her own sons and daughters. She had sense enough to tell them to bring their still-closed pint-size milk containers, but not the oatmeal cookies and apples, which were flecked with tiny fragments of glass and dusted with asbestos. She calmly sat them down on one of the basketball courts and told them to pretend they were in a hurricane movie. Norma Potter, Meg McNally, and the other teachers tried to protect their students, too. So did thousands of other teachers in the region and in other demolished areas.
Some survivors made their way to the houses of worship that were still standing to find whatever comfort they could there. And the few priests, pastors, rabbis, and other spiritual leaders who talked with congregations tried to calm them and ease their shock and anguish. There was the consolation, some of the holy men told their parishioners, that what had happened to them was the Lord’s will. It was some kind of a test, they said, reassuringly. Elsewhere in the country, out across the vast, flat, fertile plains of the Midwest and as far south as the Rio Grande, some shepherds told their flocks that what God had inflicted on their countrymen back East was punishment for their sins, just as the Reverend Jerry Falwell had done within hours of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. (Falwell had quickly apologized.) And the sheep believed it. It was a land where more than half of the people believed in creationism, not in evolution, which they dismissed as “junk science.” But most of the holy men concentrated on survival, not blame, and searched for constructive ways to survive the calamity.
Most hospitals and other health facilities in and around the devastated areas were effectively destroyed. The physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals were as calm and eager to help as the police and teachers, at least in the first hours. But medical supplies were quickly exhausted. Many of them had been stolen.
The National Command Authority, which now included a president who was hiding in a cave, decided that massive help should be sent to the stricken cities, but that some had to be held in reserve. Sending massive amounts of aid to the devastated areas quickly was not only humane, they agreed, but was the proper role of government. The closest the country had come to experiencing devastation on this scale within a century was when Hurricane Katrina had struck the Gulf Coast at the end of the summer of 2005. There was confusion then about how to help, so federal aid was late, and that contributed to more than a thousand deaths and untold suffering.
But there was a problem. The men and women in the commodious cave also knew that the danger to the United States extended well beyond the cities that had been impacted. They had been briefed on what had happened to St. Petersburg, as well as on the nuclear war that had flared between the Indians and the Pakistanis, and they therefore knew what the dark gray sky meant. The American astronomer Carl Sagan and four colleagues had predicted many years earlier that debris in the upper atmosphere following an all-out nuclear war between the superpowers would be so thick and tenacious, so persistently opaque, it would keep sunlight off the planet and bring on a long, bitter cold, nuclear winter. There had not been an all-out nuclear war, of course, but the net effect of the asteroid impact and the war on the subcontinent was nearly the same. That meant a time of great hardship, perhaps threatening the integrity of the nation itself, was almost undoubtedly at hand. And if that was the case, the reasoning went, government’s highest obligation was to fortify as best it could the large part of the nation---certainly including its heartland---that remained unscathed. Help for the stricken cities and other places therefore had to be parceled prudently.
Throughout the piles of smoking or burning debris that had been apartment buildings and offices, schools and libraries, shops and factories and private homes, wandered the walking dead. Those with third-degree burns had pain only on the edges of the wounds because the intensity of the heat had destroyed the nerve endings in the injured areas themselves so the pain could not be transmitted. Their skin looked scalded, charred, or melted, and it would be scarred for whatever remained of their wretched lives.
The inhabitants of what had been St. Petersburg and its surroundings as far as Novgorod, Chudovo, and Nyandoma roamed, injured and dazed, through the vast remains of their own hell. They would not have been consoled knowing that at least there was no radiation. (It was on the way.) The invisible poison and the sky that never cleared were going to blanket almost all the planet.
The destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, had brought out the best in human nature. People caught in an unprecedented calamity not only helped each other, but gave their lives to rescue others. Yet as horrible as that attack had been, it was local, not regional. Survivors could therefore be taken to safety and treated nearby, and help could be brought to the scene. But there was a profound difference between the destruction of the Twin Towers and the Rogue’s impact on the whole region. People near the towers could walk ten blocks and buy a sandwich or a pizza. That was definitely not the case when the impactors struck.
As happened in the New Orleans area in the aftermath of Katrina, the realization that virtually the entire region was devastated quickly led to chaos as competition for precious resources began. Faced with their own exposure and starvation and the deaths of their children and other loved ones, millions of survivors in the stricken regions went on rampages for food, water, clothing, and shelter. Looting broke out within hours of the impacts. Armed bands and individuals roamed through the debris scavenging for sustenance. And not just sustenance. The looters also carried off television sets, radios, DVD players, iPods, and other appliances, as well as computers, and high-end clothing, from jeans to furs and designer clothes and shoes. Many who were desperate to protect what was left of their families attacked each other with anything that could be used as a weapon, including rocks, bricks, baseball bats, and shovels. At the same time, gunfire broke out almost everywhere, by no means all of it because of the imperative to survive. Snipers behind open windows and on roofs randomly picked off fellow citizens because of some vague urge to protect their neighborhoods, or to settle old grudges, or simply to commit unrestrained murder. Others fired at police and national guardsmen, and the fire was returned. But that didn’t last long because increasing numbers of the police and soldiers began to desert with their own weapons and large stocks of munitions.
The crater that had been St. Petersburg was still smoldering---still sending up a thick column of particulate matter like some volcano of nightmarish proportion---two weeks after the Rogue impacted. The remains of the Russians and their city, now reduced to minuscule flotsam that floated upward, soon moved around Earth until the planet was overcast everywhere except in the far northern and southern reaches. Combined with the cesium, tritium, and other radioactive elements the Indians and Pakistanis had contributed to the environment, the remains of the city Peter the Great had built to celebrate the nobility of Russia became a toxic mantle of soot that enveloped Earth.
Now, thanks to the random explosion of a giant star 2 billion years earlier and two tribes of deadly enemies that were fixated on exterminating each other in the name of their gods, it was late autumn, if not winter, under an earthen sky.
The Russians, particularly those in Siberia, were the first to feel the effect of constant cloud cover. Like most of their countrymen, those who inhabited the swath of territory from just beyond the smoking scar that had been St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, on the rim of the Pacific, believed in their souls they were born to suffer. That made them notoriously stoical. After all, they and their forebears had lived in the heart of the large landmass that the British geographer Halford Mackinder called the world island, so they had endured centuries of attacks from every direction by potentates and panjandrums who coveted their land for its natural riches and strategic position. And they had been afflicted by their own tyrants for centuries: first the czars, then the Communists. But this new calamity was immeasurably worse. However horrible the wars had been, whatever suffering had had to be endured because of the cynicism and cruelty of one despot after another, there had been refuge somewhere. Not this time. This time there was no place to hide.
It quickly grew colder. As was beginning to happen elsewhere, the disappearance of the Sun started a succession of troubles, one bringing on the next, until they collectively changed the definition of what it meant to be alive. The shroud of soot not only brought the cold, it all but ended photosynthesis. Where food production was concerned, it was a double disaster, since agriculture needs both warm air and radiant energy. Two weeks into the darkness, crops were already turning pale and showing a slight brittleness that every farmer in the world knew was a sure sign of the onset of death. So the Russian farmers went out into the cold and harvested as much as they could on the assumption that whatever else lay in store for them, they would at least have sustenance and the means to bring in some rubles.
But what the Russians and their counterparts in much of Asia, Africa, South America, and elsewhere did not know, and what most of Europe and all of North America had good reason to know, was that the food was radioactive. The highest levels were in Southeast Asia, Japan, and Australia, which were immediately downwind from the fifty-seven huge mushroom clouds that had churned over the two belligerents on the subcontinent. But the deadly particles, riding on the jet stream, also swept through the Hawaiian Islands, the Pacific Northwest, and over the Rocky Mountains.
The Rogue and its disintegrated pieces, and then all of the nuclear explosions, also created a temporary electrical field over most of the planet that turned radio and satellite telephone and television transmission into pure static. The atomic and hydrogen explosions radiated electromagnetic pulses, or EMPs, as the physicists called them, that either temporarily shut down or completely fried the brains of digital computers and their power supplies, as well as radios, telephones, Teletypes, and television that used transistors. Since most communication antennae received as well as transmitted, they choked on the surge of electrons that hit them. EMP therefore shut down transportation and communication in many places, some of it permanently. A hundred and sixty-eight airliners lost communication and navigation capability when the Rogue hit and the warheads exploded. Fifty-one were landed safely by pilots and copilots who eyeballed their way to the nearest airports that could handle them and hand-flew their planes onto the runways. The other 117 went down with a loss of 16,554 people.
The communication blackout slowed or stopped altogether news of what had happened, at least during the first two days. But by the third day, word of the multiple catastrophes had spread throughout the United States, Europe, Russia, and elsewhere, some of it over the communication links that still worked, and the rest by word of mouth. Anyone who doubted what he or she had heard had only to look up and see the dark brown clouds that moved continuously from one horizon to the other. The disappearance of the Sun and the consequent drop in temperature was one of the compelling reasons for the farmers to start frantically harvesting their fruit, vegetables, and feed. The president, speaking in his cave and looking as earnest as ever, informed the people of the United States that his worst nightmare had finally come true. Looking hard into the camera, his voice trembling, he explained that large parts of America had been destroyed by the rocks from space, and that the equivalent of a “nuculer” winter was at hand. But America would prevail, he said gravely, because the Good Lord was on its side. Acting either out of bravado or trying to break an air of tension that was palpable in the cave, the president quipped that lower temperatures around the world would have one beneficial effect most people didn’t seem to recognize: the cold would reverse global warming. The others in the room smiled weakly or ignored him.
The looting started in Chicago within an hour of the initial impact, as individuals and small groups broke into supermarkets and other food stores in search of canned goods, which they knew were not contaminated. As shelves were emptied by frantic people, many of them cut by the broken window glass, there was more bloodshed as latecomers tried to grab the food from those carrying it. The police did not interfere, and as in the other cities, some either tore off their badges and joined the looters or simply disappeared. Meanwhile the pillaging spread elsewhere, including Detroit, Philadelphia, Denver, Houston, and Los Angeles, where individuals and gangs not only broke into stores, but into homes in Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades, and throughout the San Fernando Valley, smashing through doors and windows and attacking their frightened inhabitants with any weapon at hand. The Los Angeles Police Department and other law enforcement agencies that still functioned responded by cutting them down on the streets. Rodeo Drive was littered with broken glass, expensive foreign cars with bullet holes in them, and scores of bloody dead and wounded.
Anarchy broke out simultaneously across the Pacific and elsewhere. North Korean peasants and other civilians had endured poverty for decades. But the military, the large standing army from which the family of patriarchal tyrants that led the country drew their power, had traditionally been pampered with the decent food and modern weapons that sapped resources from the others and kept it a threat to the region. The food, decent and otherwise, was now disappearing, together with peasants, who were beginning to starve in rapidly growing numbers. But the guns remained, and so did a nascent nuclear weapons program at Yongbyon that had used highly enriched uranium and Pakistani expertise to produce four atomic warheads. Faced with his own impending end, the plump Great and Esteemed Father who ruled North Korea (and who had an appetite for Swedish blondes) decided to send 6 million men and boys---by far the largest army in Southeast Asia---across the thirty-eighth parallel and into South Korea to raid Seoul’s national larder. They were to occupy the country and confiscate everything that could be used to sustain the Father’s impoverished and dying domain. And to impress upon the South Koreans that resistance would be futile and destructive, he ordered that one of his four warheads be launched at the port of Inchon a few hours before the invasion.
He counted on the South Koreans and their American puppeteers not knowing that he had expended a quarter of his nuclear arsenal. The Great and Esteemed Father was a vicious sociopath but he was no fool. The idea was to intimidate the South into submission by demonstrating he had nuclear weapons, but not destroy Seoul, which was the prize he sought. Inchon was therefore immolated just before the Great and Esteemed Father’s army swarmed across the demilitarized zone that separated the two countries and advanced on the capital. There was little resistance by Republic of Korea forces. The 17,500 American soldiers fought valiantly until they were overrun. The Americans were stationed there to guarantee the nation’s sovereignty. Now there was no sovereignty on the Korean peninsula or anywhere else. The warhead that turned most of Inchon to dust further contributed to the darkening cloud that enveloped Earth.
So did the fires. Forest dwellers around the world reacted to the worsening cold by setting large fires in communal areas and elsewhere. Many of them quickly spread to surrounding brush and trees, which were already in the early stages of dying, and which were therefore more combustible than if there had been sun and a clear atmosphere. The forest fires quickly caught up with and consumed every living thing. That included Siberian tigers, snow leopards, many kinds of rare birds, and other creatures that went from endangered to extinct, almost literally in a flash. No one knew about it, of course, but had they known, they would not have cared. Concern over the fate of exotic animals, or any animals for that matter, was an indulgence for those who had the luxuries of being both safe and well-off. Not a soul on Earth was now safe and well-off, and certainly not the inhabitants of the forests themselves, many of whom were burned alive by flames they could not outrun. Uncounted species of insects, birds, animals, fish, flowers, and other flora simply vanished, unmourned, in the dense smoke and flames.
And so to the particulate residue that had been St. Petersburg and other places in Russia, and the deadly radioactive soup that moved with it in the high reaches of the atmosphere, was added thousands of tons of black carbon and soot that rose from the Amazon, Siberia, West Africa, Southeast Asia, what remained of India and Pakistan, Central America, Australia, New Zealand, and other places that were torched so those who set the fires could survive the bitter cold. But of course the fires only made the cold worse. It was a concatenation of terrors, as Sagan had described the effect of the asteroid impact on Yucatán 65 million years earlier.
Old hatreds between displaced Palestinians and Israelis boiled over on the West Bank and in Gaza. It was the same in Rwanda, Congo, and Nigeria, where the Hausa, Yoruba, and Fulani began settling age-old scores with machetes as well as with guns. Whites were reflexively butchered in Zimbabwe, Kenya, and South Africa. The cause of the massacres was not really religious or nationalistic. It was primal. If they were powerless to protect themselves from the wrath of God, as all those people now knew they were, then whatever power they did have rested in their own ability to exercise godly prerogatives. That meant the power to take life. Killing others, the primitives believed in the dark recesses of their minds, affirmed their own lives. Killing validated what remained of their precarious and terrifying existence. To kill was therefore to live.
Earth was now gravely wounded and becoming dysfunctional as one intractable disaster caused another. With oil refineries deserted, the flow of gasoline ended, and so, therefore, did the movement of the highway traffic that carried goods between cities and regions. Worse, with coal mines also abandoned, the combined lack of coal and oil and the desertion of nuclear power stations (many of them dangerously close to going supercritical because of a lack of coolant) brought the generation of electricity to a flickering halt. That ended telephone and telegraph communication and turned home radios, televisions, and computers into useless junk.
Not everyone or everything suffered radioactive contamination from the war on the subcontinent, at least initially. High levels of radioactivity had been anticipated after a nuclear war between the two superpowers. Between July 1945 and November 1962, the United States had set off 216 nuclear explosions to measure their effects in every conceivable situation. Atomic and hydrogen bombs had been set off at the Pacific Proving Grounds in the South Pacific and in the Nevada desert. Every test had had a code name---Hardtack, Fishbowl, Teak, Orange, Starfish Prime, Checkmate, Bluegill, Triple Prime, Kingfish, Argus, Baker, Wahoo, Milrow, Benham, and others---and was designed to measure the damage and other effects caused by the explosion. Some nuclear blasts had been at ground level. Others had been set off in the air. Still others had been underwater at Bikini Atoll and created spectacular eruptions that carried small out-of-commission ships into the air and rolled over and sank larger ones. Those tests, and a great deal of documentary evidence that had been taken from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, eventually went into a large database of information. It, in turn, was condensed by the Department of Defense and the Energy Research and Development Administration into a book, The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, which was occasionally updated. A sleeve on the inside back cover even had a handy round plastic “Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer,” which looked like a round slide rule and could be used to calculate overpressure, thermal radiation, crater dimensions, initial nuclear radiation, the early fallout dose rate, and other effects of bombs with explosive capacity from the equivalent of a thousand tons of TNT to 20 million tons. The Russians, of course, had conducted their own tests at Semipalatinsk, deep in the southern mountains that border Mongolia, and therefore also had a detailed understanding of the nature and effect of nuclear explosions. It is noteworthy that both sides studied only blast damage from the explosions, not the fires they caused. The actual level of death and destruction caused by the fires could be two to five times greater than that predicted by American planners who did not take them into consideration when they did their calculations.2
One of the important lessons learned from all the research was that surfaces contaminated by radioactivity could be washed with water under pressure and air could electronically be scrubbed to remove dangerous radioactive particles. Having long anticipated an interruption of electricity because of electromagnetic pulse or some other effect of nuclear war, both the presidential cave complex in West Virginia and the far larger concrete bomb shelters that ringed the beltway around Moscow had gasoline-powered electric generators that ran air scrubbers in the shelters. They also had stocks of food and beverages (including generous supplies of bourbon in West Virginia and vodka along the beltway) to last two months. But the elaborate facilities merely prolonged the lives of the men and women who hid in them. They could not save them. Into that second month, with no hope of emerging, alcohol consumption increased steadily, as did the use of sedatives administered by doctors.
During the eleventh week, the president of the United States, now always drunk, succumbed to the alcohol, the sedatives, chronically high blood pressure, and a sudden blood clot---deep-vein thrombosis, his personal physician called it---that formed in his right leg and worked its way up his bloodstream and into his lungs in a matter of a few minutes. He died of a pulmonary embolism, turning blue with bulging, bloodshot eyes, as he gasped desperately for air, while in a drunken stupor. The others---the moles, as they had jokingly called themselves almost three months earlier---fared no better. Neither did their Russian and Chinese counterparts. The generators that powered the scrubbers eventually ran out of fuel. And on top of everything else, the level of radioactivity in the privileged sanctuaries crept steadily higher. But it no longer mattered.
There were those on the surface, counted in the many thousands and spread around the planet---mostly near the poles---who somehow either adapted to the radioactivity and toxins or were not seriously affected by them. They found shelter where they could, kept bundled and near fires to stay relatively warm, and fished, hunted, and foraged for sustenance, often cooperatively. Many settled in the partial rubble of their cities and towns and built basic dwellings of brick and wood with their hands. Others did what their distant ancestors had done: they settled in caves. They therefore had some protection from the acid rain. And the stone cocoons held in the heat from the fires. The caves also provided the best environment for bringing children into the dark and poisoned world, and that was done, too.
Before the great catastrophe, before the Rogue came, those who thought about life elsewhere in the universe had considered the possibility that civilizations could become so technologically sophisticated they turned suicidal. If any of those inquisitive individuals had survived the impact and knew about its many consequences, they were left with the knowledge that the inhabitants of their own derelict planet had done precisely that. They had failed to master the means of spotting the Rogue in enough time to stop it, then had worsened the dreadful situation by turning on each other. A small fraction of humanity, most of it scattered and desolate, and some other species, would survive the chain of catastrophes. But the terrible cold, the darkness, and the consequent shortage of food now made the planet deeply inhospitable to the life it still harbored. It was now a derelict world that was partly inhabited by small bands of scavengers, many of them ill, or crazed, or both, who reverted back almost to their race’s beginning.
Long before the Rogue and the wars came, scientists had tried to calculate how often a catastrophic, civilization-threatening impact occurs. While the numbers are necessarily vague, the consensus is that such an event happens once every 2 billion years or so. That sounded reassuring enough. But there was an ominous catch. Once every 2 billion years could be tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, one knowledgeable and optimistic scientist had tried to rebut those who warned about an environmental doomsday by saying that Earth was an eminently seaworthy ship to sail on the vast ocean that was called space. And it had been. But it had also been a ship without adequate defenses, insurance, or a lifeboat. It and every creature on it paid dearly for the negligence.
Copyright © 2006 by William E. Burrows