I recently made the decision that 2016 would be spent writing what I want and without deadlines. As such, it is possible and very likely that I will not have a novel to publish any time soon. However, that does not mean that I will not have stories to share. What I have noticed is that I don't write nearly enough short stories anymore. Back when I was writing for 'fun' or for a college class, I would push out a short story every couple of days. Most have been lost to time, but some were repurposed into what would later become novels. Looking through my scant notes, I saw a space that needed to be filled. And so I present to you, my baby steps into short story writing. After the jump is the first of a three part short story about what happens when the world's smartest super computer discovers an asteroid headed for Earth. Look for parts two and three in the next week or so.
A Better & Brighter Tomorrow (part 1)
by Christina McMullen
The end of the world never bothered me. At least, not back when it was still an abstraction meant to happen at some point in the impossibly far future. I was supposed to be long dead and turned to dust before that would happen. The end of the world didn’t even bother me last year when SELIA, the world’s most sophisticated and intelligent computer ever created, discovered that an asteroid was on a collision course with Earth. After all, how often had we heard the very same reports from scientists nearly every year since my childhood? Not a single one of those asteroids came anywhere close to our orbit.
Of course, I didn’t know then that there were many significant differences between the inaccurate and mostly speculative reports given by scientists and the nearly perfect calculation of an artificial being. A being so incomprehensibly perfect, whose mathematics were so impeccable that there really wasn’t a human on the entire planet who was qualified to check its work. No, the end of the world remained mythological and implausible until just last month, when unavoidable reality snuffed out the possibility of any future for me and the rest of the human race.
It wasn’t that I’d buried my head in the sand. Quite the opposite. SELIA maintained a website where it tracked and calculated the trajectory of the asteroid. Most of the data it reported consisted of complex formulas that were gibberish to me. But knowing that the vast majority of the general populace were not scientists and mathematicians, SELIA filed a daily report in plain English (as well as every other world language).
Every day, as I ate breakfast, I would log on and check the status report. It was like a game to me. Some days had very little new information. Some days had stuff that seemed super valuable. Too often there was something—like the day we found out just how big that thing was—that would cause my cereal to become an indigestible and frozen lump in my belly. But the panic would pass. I’d talk myself through the worst of it with reassurances that we live in a modern world where computers could out-think men.
After all, this was SELIA—the Self-Enabling Learning & Intelligence Aggregator. This was not some random speculating scientist. Like every other kid in my generation, I’d grown up alongside SELIA. I considered the computer to be a friend and mentor. SELIA, of course, surpassed our intelligence years and years ago, but all through grade school it was the same routine. The teacher led us in the swearing of The Patriotic Oath, followed by our daily motivational video from the president. Then we would boot up Tri-Con Tech’s website. Like clockwork, we would spend the first fifteen minutes of each school day learning about what new discoveries SELIA was making and how its continued quest for not just knowledge, but ultimate autonomy would propel humankind toward a better and brighter tomorrow.
And it was this promise of a better and brighter tomorrow that I would cling to as I read the otherwise futile reports of our impending demise. Certainly, the outlook seemed bleak at times, but there was no way this asteroid had a fighting chance of destroying the world as long as SEILA was a part of it. SELIA was more than just a computer. It was humanity’s greatest achievement. SELIA was our hope. Our salvation. One way or another, SELIA would deliver on its promise of a better and brighter tomorrow.
Or so I, and the vast majority of the jaded populace of the first world, thought. In our flawed logic, we assumed that because we could detect a potentially world-ending catastrophe, that we would have the resources and know-how to stop it. While we had launched deflector drones specifically set up to knock off course any flying space debris that came a little too close to our orbit, it would seem stop-a-space-boulder-the-size-of-Europe was not a variable world leaders had ever planned for. Already, this thing had ripped through and destroyed countless drones as if they were no bigger than space mosquitoes.
But as the months flew by, it became harder to quell the panic, both my own and that of the entire population. Every day that the impact date inched closer, my firm belief in our tenacity as a species—carefully culled from several centuries-worth of ambitious science fiction—faltered.
And then one day last month, SELIA reported on the very last thing any of us wanted to know.
It described in excruciating detail how Earth would be knocked from its orbit. How the initial impact would wipe out the vast majority of the population. And they would be the lucky ones. Those who were not crushed, vaporized, or otherwise instantaneously killed on impact would suffer asphyxiation, poisoning, radiation burns, and a whole host of other horrifying and painful death scenarios. Swift or prolonged, the end result was death. SELIA calculated the survivability of impact to be a firm zero percent.
Within mere hours of the announcement, all manner of death cults and doomsday religious zealots came out of the woodwork. Ancient superstitions were resurrected and mass pandemonium disrupted everyday life on a scale never before seen. Info-streams on both the television and internet became nothing more than a mirror in which our own panic was reflected.
Two days later, the network went dark.
For nearly a week, it was as if the asteroid had already hit. There was no internet. There was no television. The radio worked, but only the old AM frequencies. I found an old portable radio in the basement, but I wish I hadn’t bothered. Tuning to the emergency broadcast stations only brought more terror as gibbering stationmasters who spewed hellfire and damnation, insane theories, and all out distress signals to potential alien saviors.
I spent the rest of the blackout period barricaded in my room. The world was crumbling around me. But despite the rioters, looters, and crazy doomsday prophets who now stood shouting on my street corner, I still had hope. I still believed that SELIA would find a way to save us. It had to, because I was terrified. Not of my impending death, not of the impending destruction of all mankind, but of my own family.
We were never a particularly religious family, but my mother descended from a long line of what used to be known as fundamentalist Christians. On our bookshelf, mom had several old books written by her ancestors. Any time we asked about them, she would scowl and say they were full of “Fearmongering rubbish and political scare tactics.”
But the moment our collective deaths became inevitable, mom decided the rubbish was now law. Following the twisted logic of our ancestors, we were all sinners in need of salvation, lest our souls perish in the fiery inferno of Hell. I had no fear of planet destroying asteroids, but my own mother spewing hateful rhetoric was traumatic enough to push me into premature cardiac arrest.
According to brainwashed shell that had been my mother, simply being a teenage boy with normal hormonal urges was enough to buy me a one-way ticket to damnation. Unless, of course, I repent. And by repent she meant catching me in the no-win situation of spending hours on my knees crying to the skies that I am a sinner and not worthy of the forgiveness that I was begging for, which didn’t matter because apparently if I didn’t truly want to be forgiven then I was still damned.
Watching how quickly my family accepted what they would have previously questioned, I could definitely understand why the old world order had used the inarguable paradox of religion as their primary method for controlling the masses. Mom had convinced my dad, my little sister, and even my older brother, his wife, and their children that this was the only way to spend the final moments of our life. For five days, I lay huddled in my bed, earbuds jammed into my ears, blasting the loudest music I owned to drown out the sounds of my family’s shared paranoid delusions. My normal had been shattered. I was scared, but not of Hell. Hell couldn’t possibly be worse than this.
Copyright 2016 Christina McMullen