Why do we love apocalyptic fiction so much? I don’t know, but we do, and I love writing it. A probably unhealthy number of the stories in my idea file deal with the end of the world in one form or another. Perhaps its because the apocalypse offers so many possibilities for regular people to become unexpected heroes. My latest project is no exception. I say ‘latest’, but really this is an idea I’ve had in outline form for years now, I just recently wrote the opening chapter. That is sort of a pivotal point… once I’ve committed actual narrative to an idea, it becomes ‘real’ to me. It crosses over from an idea to a ‘project’… something I’m actually committed to finishing someday. As with my other apocalyptic stories (like The Bolachek Journals), the hero is an ‘average person’ who finds himself thrust into the role of being the world’s savior. In the Journals, I explored how an MIT engineering student might apply his unique skills toward saving humanity from a zombie apocalypse. In this new project, a middle aged project manager must use his organizational skills to save humanity from… well, how about you read on and find out what.
FORCEWALLS (working title) – CHAPTER 1
Jessica Pendleton tore the page from her notebook, crumpled it, and threw it in the general direction of the waste basket. It bounced off the side of the container and joined the growing pile of crumpled paper. The words would not come. The math was fine. The math was never the problem. But most people did not communicate with math, they used words, and Jessica was never very comfortable with words… or people.
The doorbell rang. Conflicting emotions tugged Jessica in opposite directions. To some extent it was a welcome distraction from a frustrating task, but it was also an unexpected intrusion on her solitude. Unplanned interaction with people was usually a source of stress. She stared briefly at her blank notebook before pushing herself to her feet and trudging to the door. Anticipating a stranger at the door, she breathed a sigh of relief when the door opened to one of her oldest and closest friends.
“Nathan. I wasn’t expecting you. Did we have something planned today?” She was nearly certain they did not, but it wasn’t like Nathan to just drop in.
“No… no, sorry… I should have called.” He looked genuinely apologetic but also very troubled. “I’ve been driving around for a couple of hours now, trying to sort some stuff out, and I just sort ended up here. Can I come in?”
“Oh yes… of course. I’ll make tea.”
Tea was a calming ritual. Nathan sat silently at her dining room table as she methodically prepared two cups of English Breakfast. Placing the tea bags into the cups, pouring the boiling water, setting the timer, setting out milk and sugar and a small plate of cookies… she followed the routine without thought.
“Something’s bothering you,” she observed. Reading emotions was not something she excelled at, but she and Nathan had a lot of history.
“Yeah… something happened earlier today. I’m just… I don’t…” He stared at the surface of the table. “I shouldn’t bother you with it. I know you’re busy. How is the book coming along?”
Typical Nathan. When faced with a difficult conversation, he would just change the subject. “The book is fine,” she replied. “It’s a slog, but then so were the first two. I’ve got it all outlined, now I just need to string together words that are readable by normal humans. A grant proposal, a research paper… I can write something like that in my sleep. But boiling things down into language that a non-scientist will understand and maybe even enjoy, that’s hard.”
“Just pretend you’re talking to me,” he suggested, “you don’t seem to have any trouble dumbing things down to my level.”
“Nathan, you are actually a lot smarter than the average person.”
“I know a little bit about a lot of things, but I’m no genius,” he objected. “I’m probably right in your target demographic, actually… curious geeks who like science but not enough to make a career out of it.”
“Sure, I’m basically writing coffee table books for pseudo-intellectuals, but you have an advantage over most readers. You’ve had years of hearing me prattle on about my research. You’ve constructed your own internal Jessica to Human translator.”
“I’ve read your other books. You’re writing is really great. Very approachable, actually.”
“You never saw the first drafts,” she countered. “But you didn’t come here to talk about my books.”
Nathan took a breath and let it out slowly. “I don’t know how to begin. Just thinking about it seems crazy. Saying it out loud… I don’t know how… I can’t make sense of it.”
He sat silently for another moment, then the tea timer sounded. Jessica removed the tea bags and poured milk into each cup. Nathan took a cautious sip and then continued.
“I saw a UFO today.” He stopped, as if waiting for a reaction. Jessica raised an eyebrow but said nothing. “I was hiking along Prairietop Trail when I caught it out of the corner of my eye, this big silver sphere just hanging there. It lowered itself into the ravine that runs east of the trail. It must have been at least thirty feet in diameter. I thought it must be a weather balloon, but I wasn’t sure, so I went off trail to get a better look. It was just floating there, just a few feet off the ground at the bottom of the ravine, not moving at all. Then it spit out another smaller sphere, just a couple feet in diameter at most. It sort of just grew out of the side of the bigger sphere and pinched off. That small sphere drifted around for a bit, zig-zagging around like some sort of drunkard’s walk… then it came right at me. I scrambled backward, fell, got up and ran. It was faster than me. It caught up and started circling me. I panicked and fell again. It just kept circling me while I just sat there looking at it. Eventually it stopped, then it came closer. I put up my hands up to stop it, and… we touched.”
He drew a shuddering breath. Jessica felt she should say something, but couldn’t think what.
“It talked to me,” he continued, “When we touched… it talked to me. Not in words. Oh god that sounds so cliche, like something out of a cheesy sci-fi novel, but it’s true. Images just appeared into my head. More than images… more like… memories that hadn’t been there just a moment before. They were confusing at first, but then they started to make sense, and then it became something like a conversation.
“And then it told me the world was ending. Not right that moment, but soon, and they were here to examine our planet before the end. They were like… scientists studying a dying species before it goes extinct. It put an image in my head, a wave of destruction crashing into the Earth and wiping it away. I went a bit crazy then I think. I screamed at them. I pleaded with them. I begged them to save us. It said they couldn’t. What was coming was too big. They couldn’t protect our world. All they could do was come study it before it died… to catalog as much as possible. The world is going to die, and they can’t stop it. Nobody can stop it.”
He fell silent and lowered his head into his hands. His body seemed to shake with silent sobs.
This isn’t Nathan, Jessica thought. He isn’t like this. He is steady and dependable, the rock I anchor myself to whenever the turbulent world of people threatens to sweep me away. This doesn’t make any sense. It’s an anomaly within an otherwise uniform data set.
She put a hand on his shoulder. “I… I could recommend someone. Someone I talk to sometimes when I’m really stressed out. A professional. Maybe she can…”
“I’m not crazy,” he insisted, “this happened. I wish to god it hadn’t. I know it sounds extraordinary, but you have to believe me. I can’t face this alone.”
“Nathan… I believe you believe it, but I’m a scientist, and you know what we say about extraordinary claims. They require extraordinary evidence. But no matter what, I’m your friend and I’m going to help you.”
Nathan took another, slow, unsteady breath. “Help… I asked for its help, but it said they couldn’t save the world. And then I pleaded for it to do something… anything… something so we wouldn’t all die.” He raised his right hand from where it had been resting in his lap and held it out toward his friend. “It gave me this.”
He opened his hand, revealing a small, reflective ball less than an inch in diameter. It reminded Jessica of a steel ball bearing.
“Whatever you think that is, Nathan, I’m sure It’s…”
“I don’t know what it is,” Nathan interrupted, “that’s why I need your help. The thing that touched me, it… extruded this. It gave it to me before rejoining the bigger sphere and flying away. I think it’s supposed to save us somehow. All I know for certain is that it’s… extraordinary.”
He pulled his hand away, and the sphere remained. It hung there, like a tiny, mirrored soap bubble, defying gravity. Defying rationality. Jessica reached for it, touching it with a finger. She half expected it to pop out of existence. She expected it to at least move easily at her touch, like a tiny balloon, but it resisted her efforts, moving slowly like something with much more mass. And yet it continued to hang in mid air, now drifting slowly toward Nathan.
Jessica stared at the impossible orb, her mind a buzzing hive of scientific questions, her hands unconsciously searching for a pencil and notebook to begin exploring the math of it… and then she stopped. Her thoughts moved from the sphere back to the story behind it, and she was struck with a terrifying thought.
Maybe Nathan wasn’t crazy.
Nathan reached up and gave the tiny sphere a gentle push. It drifted slowly back toward Jessica.
“That’s impossible,” she declared as she watched it approach her, “It obviously has mass, but it seems unaffected by gravity. It defies fundamental laws of physics.
“Yeah, I thought that might get your attention,” Nathan responded.
“We need to study this. We need to get it to my lab in Berkeley. I need to consult with some of my colleagues.”
“Yes, we need to study it,” Nathan agreed, “but I’m not sure about involving others, not just yet. I think we need to keep this under wraps for now.”
“Nathan, how can you say that? This might be the most important discovery since, well, special relativity, or quantum mechanics, or the Higgs boson. We can’t keep this secret.”
“Jessica, I’m having a hard time worrying about the scientific importance of this. Aliens just told me that Armageddon is coming.”
“All the more reason to involved other people. If the fate of the world is at stake, you can’t just keep this to yourself.”
“I didn’t keep it to myself. I brought it to you.”
“This is too much for just one person, or two for that matter. Listen, I’m not sure I’m ready to believe in aliens let alone the imminent end of the world, but whatever this thing means, its big… bigger than the two of us.”
Nathan sighed. He stared at the drifting orb for several seconds, his eyes filled with a uncharacteristic weariness. “Jessica, I agree, we need to bring in other people, but we need to be careful about how we do it. We can’t lose control of this. I don’t want it disappearing into the bowels of some government lab, being poked at by lab geeks with no idea what’s really at stake. I mean, you yourself just said you’re not ready to believe in aliens, and if I can’t convince you, why would anyone else believe it. If we turn this over to someone else, no matter how qualified they are to do it, they will probably spend all their time trying to figure out how it works rather than what it’s for.”
“Are the two questions really so different?” she asked.
“Maybe. I don’t know, but I think this thing was made with a very specific purpose, and figuring out how to use it might mean life or death for the human race. If we get too caught up in asking the wrong questions, the world might end while we’re not paying attention.”
The sphere drifted closer to Jessica. She reached up and stopped its motion, leaving it hanging nearly motionless in front of her. “I’m a scientist, Nathan. Asking questions is all I do, really, but I’m not sure I can control where the questions take me. I can study this thing for you, and maybe in finding out how it works, we can learn its purpose, but I can’t make any promises. I mean, it’s not like it came with an instruction manual.”
An odd expression crossed Nathan’s face. “I’m not so sure about that,” he said, “try holding it in your hand.”
Jessica cautiously reached for the floating object. She attempted to grip it between two fingers, but it slipped away. “Damn,” she exclaimed as it floated toward the kitchen.
“Sorry, I should have warned you about that. It’s really slippery.” Nathan chased it down and captured it with both hands, then released it in front of her. “Try again, but this time cup your entire hand around it.”
This time she succeeded in hanging on to it. “It feels very different from what I expected. Neither cold nor hot. Slippery. It doesn’t feel like metal at all.” She transferred it from one hand to the other, then examined her empty hand. “No residue. Whatever makes it so slick, it’s likely an inherent property, not a coating.”
“Just try holding it for a while. Let your mind go blank.”
She gave Nathan a curious look, but then did as he suggested. It was difficult at first. Her mind raced with a countless questions about the impossible object, but finally she managed to use a meditation technique to calm her thoughts. She imagined a quiet, empty place. A timeless grey void. She drew deep breaths.
Grey dimmed to black.
She drifted in the blackness of space. A bright light hung before her. Other, dimmer lights surrounded it. Awareness. The solar system. Planets, lit with reflected light, drifted in slow orbits around the yellow light of the Sun.
Her perspective drifted ‘upward’, above the plain of the ecliptic. The solar system shrunk. Despite their extreme distance, she could pick out the individual planets. The great rings of Saturn. The swirling colors of Jupiter. The red glint of Mars. Earth and the blue/green of home. She thrilled at the spectacle, soaring like a god. She stretched her senses, reaching beyond the outer planets to the Oort cloud, the icy home of comets.
And then she saw it.
It started at the very edge of the comet cloud, an indistinct haziness. It grew, encompassing more and more of the region. She stretched her senses further and realized what it was. Countless chunks of ice, suddenly blasted into vapor. The smaller pieces were completely vaporized. Larger comets remained mainly intact but became hazy as their outer layers melted away. Some began to exhibit classic comet tails, but pointing toward the sun instead of away from it.
As the phenomenon progressed, she saw the shape of it. A gigantic wave front was crashing into the solar system. Intense radiation. High energy particles. Everything in its path was superheated. She watched in awe and horror as it moved into the inner system. The surface of Neptune scorched. The atmosphere of Jupiter thrown into chaos. The wave approached Earth.
Jessica flung the sphere away.
Nathan scurried after it, grabbing it from the air as it rebounded from the dinning room wall. “What did it show you?” he asked as he sat back down.
“Destruction,” Jennifer gasped. “Armageddon, like you said. Some sort of radiation wavefront. Probably a gamma ray burst, if I had to guess. No, that’s not right. To much superheating of inert solids… not gamma rays, or not just that. A supernova? But it would have to be close for that.” She began to look around for her notebook, desperate to work the numbers.
“That sounds like what they showed me at the ravine, before they even gave me this thing. Weird… it’s never shown me that. All I get from it are a bunch of confusing images. Shapes mostly, spheres and rings. I can’t make sense of it. It feels like it should make sense, but I can’t quite get my head around it.”
“It was like this? When you talked to them?”
“Sort of, but not quite. That was more like a conversation. This feels more like playing a recording.”
“A user manual,” she murmured.
“Yeah, that’s what I’m hoping,” Nathan replied, “but I don’t think I have the vocabulary to understand it. That’s why I came to you.”
“And you really have no idea what it does? How to use it?”
“I have suspicions, but nothing I’ve been able to confirm. I keep trying to ask it questions, but like I said, it’s not like a conversation. It’s more like I’m trying to operate a machine when I don’t know what the controls do or even how to recognize them.”
“And these suspicions of yours?” she motioned for him to elaborate.
“Well… when I was became all panicked and desperate and was begging them for help, there was one particular thing I remember thinking of. I was remembering every science fiction story I’ve ever encountered in which a bunch of people survive the destruction of the planet by escaping on spaceships. I had this image in my head of giant spaceships descending, huge crowds of people prepared to board them… that is what I was thinking of just before they seemed to change their mind and decided they could help. That’s when they gave me this.” He released the sphere again to let it drift between them.
“So you think this thing has instructions for building a fleet of spaceships? Even if we can decode its secrets, I can’t begin to imagine how much time and resources that would take. Did they give you any idea how much time we have?”
“Not exactly. At first it was just an impression that translated as ‘real soon’, but when I pressed them on it, they showed me that image of the solar system being destroyed, and I remember the Earth swinging around the sun a few times before the big event, so that would mean multiple years at least. Does that make sense?”
“Maybe. It depends if they started the sequence from present day or some time in the past. Orbital positions would be a better indicator. Now I wish I’d been paying more attention to that when I was having my… vision. If we can compare the relative positions of the planets at the time the wave hits, we should be able to nail it down exactly.”
Nathan nodded toward the tiny floating sphere. “You could always give it another try.”
“I… I will,” Jessica assured him, “but I think I need some time first. I’m still a bit shook up.”
“But you’ll help me with this? You’ll try and figure this thing out?”
“Yes. Yes, I will. And I’ll keep this to myself for now, at least until we’ve had time to talk about it more.”
“Thank you.” Nathan took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Some of the tension seemed to drain from him. “I’m not sure what I would have done without your help. I feel… inadequate to this task. I’m just a freelance project manager, not the architect of humanity’s survival. They should have picked someone else.”
Jessica looked at her friend for a long moment. She considered the burden he must be feeling. “I think you sell yourself short, Nathan. You might be exactly the right person for this job.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence, but look at the types of projects I’ve worked on. Consumer products, medical equipment, web applications… nothing this big, and certainly nothing this important.”
“True, but then I don’t think anyone has ever worked on something this important. But tell me this, of all the projects you’ve worked, how often have you been the first project manager on the job?”
He thought about it for several seconds. “Very few of them, actually. I tend to get called in on projects that are… having challenges.”
“You rescue projects that are going off the rails. You have a unique talent in that capacity, and it’s why people in the business call you Mr. Fix-it.”
“They called me that on one job. ONE.”
“I hate to break it to you, Nathan, but they still call you that behind your back. They only stopped doing it to your face because you complained. You have a reputation as a miracle worker, and its a deserved one, in my opinion.”
“You’re humility is charming, but your track record says otherwise. You see an intractable problem and you can’t help yourself, you have to solve it. I get it. I’m the same way, the only difference is you do it with people and I do it with subatomic particles. It’s just how we’re wired. You’re already doing it with this problem. You were handed a resource you don’t know how to utilize, so you brought in someone with the appropriate skill set. Face it, you’ve got project management in your DNA.”
Nathan laughed. “And here I thought I was just visiting a friend. Regardless, I’m glad for the help. You’re right, though, we can’t do it alone. We need to start thinking about who else we might bring in on this.”
Jessica stared at the mirrored marble still hanging between them, her brow furrowed in thought. “What sort of skills do you think we need?”
“Well, we won’t know fully until we work out how this alien gadget works, but I’ve got some ideas. Regardless of the science details, we’ll need funding. A lot of it. I’ve got someone in mind for that, a finance guy I’ve worked with on a couple of projects. He’s got hooks into venture capital circles, wall street, even a crowd funding start-up. Most importantly, I trust him to keep a secret. Beyond that, I figured I would spend tonight doing a Google cram session learning all about deep space exploration and space stations and the sort of tech we might need to focus on. Maybe there’s some people we can poach from NASA, but I’ll need to know what questions to ask before we go down that road.”
“I think I know someone you should talk to. Barbara Templeton. She’s written some groundbreaking papers on sustainable ecosystems, including research in self sustaining space colonies. I’ll give you her email address.”
“Thanks, Jess. I’m going to get my laptop from the car. If you don’t mind, I’ll camp here for a while and mooch off your WiFi.”
“Mi WiFi es su WiFi.” Jessica looked down at her tea, mostly untouched and now cold. “I think I’m going to have a glass of wine or three. Care to join me?”
“No, I’ll stick with the caffeine for now. I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Jessica stared at the sphere, at her distorted face in its mirrored surface. “Yes, there’s a lot to do. The rains are coming, and we have to build an ark.”
OK, so that’s all I’ve got so far. What do you think? Is this a story you want to see more of? Anything in particular strike you about it? I look forward to your feedback in the comments.