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Lolita Gallery

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Related article: Date: Mon, 04 Oct 2010 16:39:52 -0400 From: bigmohpost.com Subject: 13_April_203913 APRIL 2039 By Morris HendersonPREFACEIn 2004, astronomers found another asteroid. Nothing special about that; thousands had already been cataloged. This one, however, was unusual. As they observed it in order to project its trajectory they began to worry. It was huge. And it was on a course that would qualify as an NEO, a Near Earth Object. They checked, double-checked, and triple-checked their calculations. Their worst fears were realized. The planetoid's path would pass perilously close to Earth -- so close, in fact, that it would dip below the orbiting communications satellites.Tom Harriman was a teenager in 2005 when he read the news. He had been interested in astronomy since he was a little boy and was fascinated by the information on the NASA web site: ==========================================Asteroid to come scarily close to Earth Will occur on Friday the 13th in April, 2029 NASA Science News, May 13, 2005 --http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2005/13may_2004mn4/Friday the 13th is supposed to be an unlucky day but maybe it's not so bad. Consider this: On April 13th, -- Friday the 13th -- 2029, millions of people are going to go outside, look up and marvel at their good luck. A point of light will be gliding across the sky, faster than many satellites, brighter than most stars. What's so lucky about that? Asteroid 2004 MN4 is not hitting Earth.For a while astronomers thought it might. On Christmas Eve 2004, Paul Chodas, Steve Chesley, and Don Yeomans at NASA's Near Earth Object Program office calculated a 1-in-60 chance that 2004 MN4 would collide with Earth. Impact date: April 13, 2029.The asteroid is about 320 meters wide. "That's big enough to punch through Earth's atmosphere," devastating a region the size of, say, Texas if it hit land, or causing widespread tsunamis if it hit the ocean.Asteroid 2004 MN4 was discovered in June 2004, lost and then discovered again six months later. With such sparse tracking data it was difficult to say, precisely, where the asteroid would go. A collision with Earth was theoretically possible. The odds were disturbing."Astronomers knew 2004 MN4 would miss Earth when they found pictures of the asteroid taken, unwittingly, in March 2004, three months before its official discovery. The extra data ruled out a collision in 2029. Instead, what we're going to have is an eye-popping close encounter:Asteroid 2004 MN4 will fly past Earth only 18,600 miles (30,000 km) above the ground. That is below geosynchronous satellites that orbit at 22,300 miles (36,000 km). At closest approach, the asteroid will shine like a 3rd magnitude star, visible to the unaided eye from Africa, Europe, and Asia -- even through city lights. Close approaches by objects as large as 2004 MN4 are currently Lolita Gallery thought to occur at 1000-year intervals, on average.In January 2004, a team of astronomers led by Lance Benner of JPL pinged 2004 MN4 using the giant Arecibo radar in Puerto Rico. (Coincidentally, the Arecibo dish is about the same size as the asteroid.) Echoes revealed the asteroid's precise distance and velocity, allowing the calculation of details of the 2029 flyby. More data are needed to forecast 2004 MN4's motion beyond 2029. The next good opportunities are in 2013 and 2021 when the asteroid will be about 9 million miles (14 million km) from Earth, invisible to the naked eye, but close enough for radar studies. ==========================================Summer, 2013 ------------Nearly everyone now accepted the predicted encounter with the asteroid but there was no clear consensus about the danger. The more optimistic estimate, which was still gloomy, was that several communication satellites, including many used for GPS navigation, would be pulled out of orbit, disabled, or destroyed. The pessimists predicted, however, that gravitational forces could cause dire consequences--massive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions; huge tidal waves that would obliterate coastal cities; and, alarmingly, the orbits of the Earth and the Moon would be altered with unpredictable but surely disastrous effects on climate, seasons, and the very survival of all life except for micro-organisms.Tom Harriman, by now a graduate student studying astrophysics, shared the information with his partner, Rick Santori. Rick was alarmed but Tom adopted a moderately optimistic view. There was still time, he reasoned, to deflect the path of the asteroid and to alter its course enough to avoid any real threat to Earth. He was concerned, however, that eight years had passed with insufficient effort to avert a potential tragedy.The scientific community had sent urgent warnings to NASA, ESA, and the United Nations, urging immediate planning and funding for a program to divert the asteroid. The scientists warned that, at a minimum, the loss of communication satellites would cause world-wide economic and social disorder. If calculations were wrong and the asteroid hit Earth, millions of people would die and millions more would suffer. One alarmist predicted the extinction of nearly all life on Earth.Politicians and bureaucrats debated, argued, and bickered for years in spite of compelling evidence and increasingly strident urgings to take action before it was too late. The political and scientific debate was a repeat of the indecision and inaction that had been triggered by the climate warming data earlier in the century.Scientists could not agree on the safest and most effective means to disrupt the asteroid's path. There was no scarcity of competing plans that, unfortunately, prolonged the dithering debate. Even blasting the asteroid with a nuclear bomb still had advocates although the idea had been discredited long ago because it would result in many smaller asteroids that would spread the destruction over a much wider swath of the planet.After weighing their options, Tom and Rick made the decision to do whatever they could to force the adoption of a plan and to lobby for necessary funding. But what could they do? Tom was only a graduate student and had neither the credibility nor credentials of an established scientist. Nor was he politically active so he had no influence on decision-makers. Rick, with an MBA, was employed in a management- consulting firm and, like his lover, lacked both influence and credibility.They wrote letters to the editor. They joined blogs to advocate for prompt action before it was too late. They organized rallies to urge national leaders to act. Tom, because of his training, concentrated on disseminating information about the projected path of the asteroid and the certainty that it would barely miss the Earth. Rick, because of his familiarity with business, spread the word about the chaos that would result from the loss of instant communication upon which everyone's daily lives depended.They grew increasingly frustrated with the disappointing level of public support and angry at the inaction of those who could prevent the disaster. The inevitable calamity affected their lives in many ways. Tom could no longer concentrate on his dissertation and had to apply to the University for an extension of time. Rick was distracted at work, which displeased his employer and jeopardized his job. Even their personal lives suffered. Lovemaking was less frequent and less satisfying because of their obsession with the 2029 calamity and with constant worrying about what more they could do. Christmas, 2014 ---------------It had been ten years to the day since the discovery of 2004 MN4 with no substantial progress on evading the asteroid's destructive path. In order to relax, Tom and Rick took time off from their relentless campaigning. They had agreed to spend the holiday together without even speaking of the cause to which they had already given so much time and effort. Instead, they would dedicate themselves to each other for two whole days, letting nothing interfere. They exchanged gifts beside a blazing fire in the fireplace after a leisurely meal and retired early to passionately demonstrate their love for each other. They slept late, having succumbed to the "arms of Morphedous" in the early morning hours. They had breakfast in bed (each other) and didn't go to the kitchen until lunch time. After lunch and telephone calls to their families who lived hundreds of miles away, they returned to bed to cuddle the remainder of the afternoon away.By evening on Christmas day, relaxed and refreshed, they broke their promise to each other and began to reflect on what they had accomplished. In six months of blogging and holding rallies they had energized a large number of people. They were proud of that but there was so much more that had to be done. April, 2014 -----------Fifteen more years until 2004 MN4 would threaten.Tom and Rick's campaign to stir action was almost derailed when a blogger posted a plea on the Internet that read, in part: =========================================="...The asteroid's close fly-by was predicted in the Holy Bible `And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.' (Revelation 8:10-11) The star, my brothers and sisters, is coming as God predicted. But take heart; it is only Lolita Gallery a warning to REPENT or He will not be so merciful the next time. ... Sinners like Tom Harriman and Rick Santori, who openly violate God's Word with their homosexual relationship, are the cause of God's anger. Don't believe those instruments of Satan who lie to us and claim that the asteroid is nothing more than a natural phenomenon. It is not. Believe the Word of God as it is written in the Bible. All true believers must act NOW to convince deviant homosexuals to repent..." Lolita Gallery ========================================== Many people knew Tom and Rick shared an apartment but only very close friends knew they were gay and in a committed relationship. Where, then, did the blogger get his information? They puzzled over it for a short time but agreed that publication of their partnership was no big deal.What was a major concern, however, is that the blog posting precipitated a deluge of phone calls to Tom and Rick. Most callers were well-intentioned and polite in their urging to abandon the homosexual relationship but a few deranged extremists threatened to personally punish them for their sin, evidently thinking that by so doing they would pacify an angry god. Due to the venomous threats, the two young men had reason to fear for their safety--and, for that matter, their lives--but, after prolonged and intense discussion, they reaffirmed their resolve to continue their campaign.When reporters and newscasters began contacting them for a reaction, they wisely admitted, "Yes, we're gay. So what? Is that really important? No! What's important is that the world leaders must be courageous enough to act--NOW--to plan and carry out a mission to divert the rogue fragment of space-flotsam that will, unless something is done, create havoc in the world." By that kind of response, they refocused attention on what had become a dominant goal in their lives. More significantly, they were asked to appear on several local and national news programs to talk about the danger and what must be done. The blogger had unwittingly given them and their cause substantial media coverage. November, 2014 --------------The public responded to the awareness of the asteroid's arrival and the damage it might cause in a variety of ways. There was an uptick in the crime rate, particularly robberies. Pundits explained this by theorizing that, if the end of the world as we know it was imminent, why not grab what you could and enjoy your remaining days. There was also a growing tide of religious fervor as people sought, belatedly, to earn salvation in the afterlife.Tom and Rick bemoaned both reactions, feeling that the opportunistic criminals were immoral and the newly zealous religious were hypocritical. They maintained their confidence that the asteroid could be redirected enough to avoid disrupting the communication satellites that were essential to commerce, national security, and social order. If only the world powers would devote the resources to an effective plan.The midterm elections in the United States saw the ouster from Congress of several incumbents who had waffled on the need for world-wide collaboration to avert a global tragedy. Instead, most of the politicians who consistently and vigorously called for action were elected. But they wouldn't take office until January. That meant two more months of delay. It was less than 15 years before the asteroid's encounter with Earth. Although that seemed to be plenty of time, it would have to become an urgent priority no later than 2015.Rick and Tom were exhausted from their tireless campaigning and decided for their own mental health to take a week's vacation on the Caribbean island of Aruba. It was, as they say, just what the doctor ordered. They swam, surfed, and snorkeled. But when they tired of activities they lounged on the beach admiring the muscular, firm, nearly naked male bodies of both residents and tourists who seemed to display their bodies with pride. Had they not been totally committed to each other, they would surely have identified a few targets of their lust. Instead, they spent many satisfying and contended hours in bed renewing and reaffirming their love for each other. By mutual agreement, they rarely spoke of their efforts to spur political action. February, 2015 --------------It was becoming alarmingly clear that the new congress in the United States was falling into the trap that had polarized and virtually paralyzed government since early in the century. Members of congress with long tenure became, if anything, more strident. Newly elected members carried on the tradition of countless politicians before them by promising one thing before the election but ignoring their promises after being elected.Rick and Tom -- along with many others around the world -- were growing despondent over the failure of leadership. But then something remarkable happened.China, which had overtaken Japan as the #2 economic powerhouse in late 2010, announced a partnership with the European Union and ESA, the European Space Agency. In retrospect, it should not Lolita Gallery have been surprising. One reason was that astronomers had long predicted that the asteroid's passing would be visible from Europe, Asia, and Africa. It was those parts of the world, therefore, that were most at risk from any damage caused. Another reason, as Rick pointed out to Tom, was that China had been investing billions in the economic development of several African countries for decades. Diverting the asteroid was essential to protect those investments.China would provide the majority of the substantial funding necessary. ESA would provide the technical expertise. Its Ariane V rocket was the largest and, since 2002, one of the most reliable space vehicles. The Ariane V would be modified for its special mission. It would be launched from ESA's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana in 2028 and require six month to travel to the asteroid in time to deflect its orbit. A second Ariane V would be readied in case of unlikely problems with the first launch.Rick and Tom were elated by the news. The United Lolita Gallery States and its Western Hemisphere neighbors had been consumed with divisive bickering and, as most of the scientific community charged, negligent in their duty to protect citizens. But the new, international partnership between Europe and China seemed to be the last, best, and only hope.Rick poured all his effort into finishing his dissertation in time to receive his PhD the following June. He was frequently exhausted at bedtime and his love life was sporadic at best but Tom was very understanding because they had agreed on a long-term goal. With a Doctorate in Astrophysics, Rick would likely be successful in securing a job with the ESA Launchers Directorate, based in Paris. They would then relocate to France where Tom would seek employment in the Paris office of an American consulting firm. Christmas, 2024 ---------------Two decades had passed since the fateful discovery of 2004 MN4. The asteroid had been under constant surveillance and its exact trajectory calculated. It would pass by Earth Lolita Gallery at an altitude of from 18,490 to 18,505 miles above the Earth. The precise time of its passing was known. It would streak across the sky at 35,500 miles per hour making it visible from Earth only briefly. But, if nothing were done to deflect it, those few moments would surely cripple much of the world's communications and thereby wreck havoc on all kinds of economic, political, and social systems.Rick and Tom celebrated Christmas as they had since they first met -- with a special dinner, a bottle of fine wine (thankfully plentiful in Paris), exchanging gifts, and spending time together, much of it in bed.They had much to celebrate that year. Tom had been put in charge of the team of technicians that would travel to French Guiana to assist with the launch while Rick had been promoted to Branch Manager in the Paris office of an international consulting firm. Both men's careers were marked with success and the respect of their peers. They had recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of their first night together and were looking forward to another 25 years of companionship. But they faced a serious problem.Rick had been asked to become the Associate Director of European Operations for his firm, a promotion that would require his relocation to London. Tom was committed to stay in Paris except for a few months in French Guiana before and after the launch of Intercepteur, the name given to the modified Ariane V rocket that would carry a payload to the threatening asteroid.Tom encouraged Rick to accept the promotion, arguing that it would be foolish to turn it down. They could still visit each other in Paris or London frequently and, after the 2004 MN4 project was over in only five years, he could move to London to live with Tom. Tom, however, countered that his love for Rick was far more important than a job, however prestigious, and he would be happier to remain in Paris with the most important person in his life.The plan was to place a relatively small rocket engine (dubbed Remorqueur -- tugboat) on the asteroid, which, when fired with minimal thrust and only briefly, would push the huge chuck of rock away from its dangerous rendezvous with Earth. There were, of course, many things that could go wrong. The Intercepteur might fail at launching or its guidance system might not properly receive and execute navigational transmissions from Earth. That wasn't the scariest part. Suppose Remorqueur didn't land on the surface of the asteroid in the right orientation and therefore pushed the asteroid in the wrong direction. Suppose it didn't push the entire asteroid but, instead, broke it into pieces; that would change a serious catastrophe into a much more severe one by raining pieces unpredictably across a wide expanse of Earth.Many scientists had advocated "parking" Intercepteur near the asteroid so that the gravity of its mass would gradually pull the asteroid out of its near-collision course. They were appalled at the decision to use Remorqueur, protested vigorously, and predicted a failure of disastrous proportions. June, 2028 ----------Tom flew to French Guiana to work on the final preparation for launch. Intercepteur, was scheduled to blast off in early August for a rendezvous with 2004 MN4 in December -- allowing four months to track the asteroid's altered trajectory. Before leaving, however, he and Rick spent two days -- and two nights! -- together. They promised to stay in touch over Skype as often as they could. Tom would take a Virgin Atlantic suborbital flight to Atlanta and transfer to a NASA jet for the remainder of the trip. At the boarding gate of the spaceport near Paris, both men struggled to keep back their tears. It would be the first time they had been separated for more than a day or two since they first shared a bed so long ago.Tom's quarters in Kourou was within easy walking distance to the offices and labs at the spaceport. They were spartan but comfortable. The only difference from an economy motel room was that it had no private bathroom; showering and bodily functions took place in a communal bathroom.Before unpacking, Tom used the secure videoconferencing system (All quarters had private access to the system.) to call Rick who received the call on Skype and was relieved that the trip had been uneventful. They spoke for 20 minutes, mostly about the launching complex and what it was like in French Guiana. They concluded the call by expressing their love for one another and promising to stay in touch.Tom worked ten or more hours every day but managed, at least on most days, to call his lover when, adjusting for time differences, he knew Rick would be at home and not asleep. He explained the work he was doing but not all of it; some was classified and couldn't be discussed even on a secure connection.Two members of Tom's team Lolita Gallery had accompanied him to prepare for the launch. Both knew that he was gay but it had never been an issue when they worked together in Paris. A problem arose, however, three days after his arrival. Tom was showering when another resident, a technician from another department, came into the shower room, paused, and walked to a shower head as far away as possible from Tom. Tom greeted him but got no response so he resumed his shower.As the stranger was leaving the shower room, he spoke. He chastised Tom vigorously for claiming that the asteroid was a natural phenomenon and cursed him self-righteously for being a filthy, queer sinner.Tom ignored the epithets, having learned that it's futile to convince a religious bigot that homosexuality is not a sin. He did, however, try to reason with the technician about the workings of the cosmos. He pointed out the irony of the technician's position: "If it's an act of God, why are you here interfering with God's plan?"The technician flew into a rage and hissed, "It's disgusting fags like you that have caused the problem! May you burn in the eternal fires of Hell!"Later that day, Tom was summoned to the office of the Launch Director. Curious about the reason for the meeting, Tom put his work aside and walked to the headquarters building. "Tom Harriman to see Dr. Swartz," he said to the guard at the entrance.The unsmiling guard checked the log on his computer, looked up, pointed to the elevator, and almost growled, "Second floor. End of the hall."Tom knocked on the door of the Director's office, heard a muffled "Enter!" through the thick wooden door, and walked into a large, elegantly furnished office. The Director was seated behind a enormous desk yet his massive frame seemed to loom ominously above it. He was flipping through papers in a thick file folder and didn't acknowledge the presence of his visitor. After several minutes, Tom was irritated at being ignored but increasingly curious about the reason for the urgent summons. Finally, he asked, "You wanted to see me, sir?"The Director looked up over his half-rim reading glasses and said harshly, "Indeed I did. Don't just stand there. Sit down." His brusque tone worried Tom but he obeyed what was less of an invitation than a command and sat in a chair across the desk from the Director who continued scanning the documents in the file folder.Finally, the Director took off his glasses and looked (glared?) at Tom. "Tom Harriman," he said. "Excellent work record. Superior performance ratings. Rapid rise to Team Leader. Exemplary leadership of your team. Good prospects for future advancement. Shame to throw it away with a stupid mistake."Tom was stunned and perplexed at the last, terse comment. What the hell did it mean? "Sir?" he asked."You're gay. Right?""That's true, sir.""Been living with ... what's his name ... Ah ... Rick Santori?""Yes, sir.""Monogamous?""Absolutely. I never have nor never will cheat on my partner. Nor will he on me.""Been here how long?""Two weeks," Tom replied, becoming anxious about the Director's stern manner and the direction of his questions."Two weeks," the Director mused. "Miss your lover?""Of course. But we Lolita Gallery realize it's temporary and, I must add, we both agree that it's essential to the success of Intercepteur.There was an awkward pause before the Director said, "Two weeks. Long time to be without ... how shall I put this? ... companionship."What the hell was going on, Tom wondered. Was the Director coming on to him? Not likely. So what was it? Patience at an end, Tom asked, "With respect, sir, why are you inquiring about my personal life.""It's a mystery. You claim to be monogamous but it's been reported that you propositioned another worker in the shower this morning. What you do in you personal life is not my concern. What you do here with other employees is. I cannot allow anything to jeopardize the success of the program. You DO understand that, don't you?""I understand your concern about the mission, sir, and I share your concern. What I don't Lolita Gallery understand is the completely false report of my behavior. I would never jeopardize the program and I would most certainly not betray my partner. Whatever you heard is a total fabrication.""Am I supposed to believe you over your accuser? After all, why would someone make up such a bizarre story? And wouldn't you be motivated to deny your inexcusable behavior?""I do deny it. Because it never happened. I'm left to wonder about the motivation of the accuser. If you'll permit me, sir, I'd like to offer a theory as to why I'm being slandered.""I'm listening," the Director said impatiently.Tom related the incident in the shower and concluded by saying, "It's conceivable that the individual found out my sexual orientation. His religious fervor and belief in his church's asinine claim that the asteroid is a warning from God could be his motive to punish me. If he sincerely felt I had contributed to the reason for the impending disaster, he may very well concoct a story that would subject me to disciplinary action.""Hmmm," the Director said enigmatically and reached for another file folder. He scanned its contents while Tom waited, nervously wondering whether he had erred in suggesting his theory to the Director.After a few minutes, the Director said, "Based on the evidence I have," (tapping the second file folder) "and upon what you have told me, I must admit that your theory is plausible. Now ... I'm sure you have work to attend to. But let this conversation be a warning to keep your ... ah ... urges ... in check. That'll be all."Tom recognized the polite dismissal. He stood to leave but, on impulse, said, "Thank you, sir, for your understanding. And you'll never have a reason ... at least not a valid reason ... for doubting my dedication to my job or my fidelity to my partner.Tom was troubled for the rest of the day by the cruel rumor about him and by the Director's stern, unsmiling demeanor. Had the matter really been laid to rest? Whether it had or hadn't, he resolved to be constantly on guard. For the remainder of his assignment, he made it a point to avoid being alone with his accuser. Someone else would have to be present as a potential witness that no unacceptable behavior occurred.Tom returned home to Paris two weeks after the launch of Intercepteur. He convinced Rick to accept the promotion at the management consulting firm. They relocated to London where Tom took a job teaching at a University. January 2, 2029 ---------------The launch of Intercepteur had been flawless. It was "parked" five kilometers from the asteroid. Remorqueur had been deployed successfully and rested, according to telemetry, and confirmed by video image, in a perfect orientation.The command to fire Remorqueur's rocket engine was sent to Intercepteur that would relay the command to the small robotic lander on the asteroid's surface. The command was acknowledged but then all communication ceased. The large video monitor in mission control that had shown the perfectly positioned missile on the surface of the threatening planetoid was now filled with electrostatic snow. Computer screens that had displayed data and graphs of telemetry were now dark.The atmosphere in mission control turned to controlled panic.Within minutes after losing the communication link the Mission Commander evoked Emergency Protocol 8B. He ordered a lock down of the control room and issued an mandatory gag order. No one could leave the control room or contact anyone outside the room until the problem was identified. He rapidly barked orders to key personnel as specified in the Protocol but his commands were laced with profanities that didn't appear in the checklist he held in his hand.Television, radio, and Internet media reporters were waiting in an auditorium in another building for the announcement that Remorqueur's rocket engine had fired successfully. They were first puzzled and then worried when the audio and video feed to the auditorium abruptly ceased. Speculation among the reporters mounted to an ominous but inevitable conclusion: the multi-billion dollar effort was a failure. They knew there was no time to launch the backup Ariane V rocket. By the time it was prepared, launched, and traveled to intercept the menacing planetoid 2004 MN4, it would be too late to deflect its trajectory. Would the communication satellites so essential to every person on the planet be rendered useless? Was the Earth doomed to political, economic, and social chaos?January, 2029 -------------The Mission Commander dispatched the Media Liaison Officer to address the reporters assembled in the auditorium. The message to be given was dictated by the Emergency Protocol: "There's been a glitch in the communication channels. It may be a minor problem. We're working to identify and resolve the problem. We'll keep you informed." There was, of course, a barrage of questions and the reporters grew impatient with hearing variations of the same answer: "We don't know yet. We'll release information when we have it." The reporters became increasingly assertive and the assembly disintegrated into a loud chorus of confrontational questions. The Media Liaison Officer, however, kept his composure until he could no longer. He terminated the raucous session by saying, "Rest assured; we will give you more information as it becomes available." He walked out of the auditorium, leaving the reporters with very little to report to their world-wide audience. The reporters who were on live television and radio faced the perplexing challenge of filling the time with... With what?Frantic efforts to restore communication failed. Finally, a programmer discovered the problem. The coded signal sent by Intercepteur to initiate firing of Remorqueur's rocket engine was corrupted; two digits had been transposed. There would be no nudging of the huge, rocky asteroid out of its menacing transit toward Earth. Investigation revealed that the coded signal was correct during the final test just two days before launch, leading to one of two conclusions: a one-in-a-million chance that something, perhaps a leak of solar radiation, had affected the Ariane's computer memory or, even more unlikely, it had been sabotaged by someone after the Lolita Gallery final testing. Both possibilities had to be investigated.During a meticulous scrutiny of the testing records, a programmer discovered an astonishing anomaly. The final computer command--following the one that should have instructed Remorqueur's rocket to ignite-- initiated a shutdown of Intercepteur's computer. The unthinkable conclusion was now obvious: sabotage!Ground controllers tried tirelessly to correct the problem but every effort to reboot Ariane's computer fell short and intensified the frustration and anxiety throughout the spaceport complex.It required only a few hours to identify five people who had both the expertise and access to change the programming of the Ariane's computer. Four were immediately and extensively interrogated but cleared of suspicion. The fifth, Billy Westbrook, an American originally from rural Alabama, had suddenly left the launch facility less than a week ago, citing a family health emergency. Contacting his family yielded responses of "No, we haven't seen him" and "No, there's no family emergency."The FBI and Interpol were notified. A multi-nation search was initiated with an unprecedented number of law enforcement personnel assigned to the task of locating the missing technician.Meanwhile, the Mission Commander faced the unpleasant task of releasing the horrific news. He called a press conference for eight A.M. the following morning. By seven, the auditorium was packed and worried people around the world were gathered around their televisions or Lolita Gallery radios.At exactly eight o'clock, the Mission Commander strode to the podium and read a prepared statement. "Thank you for coming and thank you for your patience. I will let you know everything that we know. Therefore, there will be no need for questions following my statement. One. The launch and transit of the Ariane V was flawless. Two. Deployment of Remorqueur was also flawless and, as you saw on video previously released, it was in a perfect position to fire its rocket engine and push the asteroid away from its orbit toward Earth. Every member of the mission should be commended for their exceptional performance. Three. This you also know. There was an interruption of communication immediately following the command to fire the rocket parked on the asteroid's surface. Four. Through painstaking and exhaustive research, we have identified the cause of the error. The command relayed to Remorqueur was incorrect, meaning that its rocket did not ignite. The asteroid's trajectory is unchanged. It will NOT collide with Earth but will, instead, pass at an altitude of approximately 30,000 kilometers. Lolita Gallery It will require further radar and optical observation to more precisely determine its specific altitude and time of transit. We know the date--13 April in the late afternoon--but cannot be more specific than that. At this point, pending further measurements of the asteroid's path, we only know that it will appear above Europe and Africa as it passes overhead. Five. The operators of communication satellites have been notified to implement their contingency plans that they put in place some time ago. We cannot say at this point which satellitesIF ANYwill be affected. Six. And this is the most troubling news. We have convincing evidence that the communication failure was the result of sabotage. Someone deliberately corrupted the command and control programming of Intercepteur. With the help of law- enforcement agencies across the globe, we are currently seeking the whereabouts of one Billy Westbrook. Let me be clear. He is not now a suspect; he is a person of interest. But he unexpectedly left the launching complex a few days ago and cannot be found. Photos and biographical information on Mr. Westbrook will be distributed at the end of this press conference. You can be of immeasurable help in publicizing that information to help us locate and interview him. In conclusion. You now have all the information we have. We will continue to keep you informed. Good day."The Mission Director gathered his script and strode toward the exit door, ignoring a barrage of shouted questions from the reporters.Tom and Rick watched the live coverage of the press conference from their flat in London. They listened intently to the Mission Director's statement and were shocked by the revelation that the program had been sabotaged. Following the conclusion of the televised briefing, Billy Westbrook's photo appeared on the screen."Holy shit!" Tom exclaimed. "That's the religious nut that chewed me out for being gay and claimed that I propositioned him.""You should tell ESA about that," Rick suggested. "It may have a bearing on their hunt for him.""They already know, Rick. I told the Launch Director all about it. Moreover, he seemed to have quite a dossier on the idiot's background that included his religious activism.""Right. I forgot about your interrogation. Do you think this Billy guy planted the computer code?""I can't be sure," Tom said. "But it's likely. He's such a religious nut case that he may have felt he was doing God's work ... allowing the asteroid to warn the world about perverse homosexuality.""That's totally irrational," Rick said."It is," Tom agreed. He thought for a moment, and continued, "Do you suppose I made matters worse? I asked him why he was working on a program that would interfere with God's plan. Maybe I planted a seed in his deranged mind. Maybe he decided then to make sure the mission didn't succeed. SHIT! I'm partly to blame!""No, Tom. All you did was point out his twisted logic. You're not responsible for his screwed up mind.""Thanks, love, for the effort but I can't help wondering whether my question pushed him over the edge and lead him to do it." February-March, 2029 --------------------Frequent briefings from Mission Control were accurate and as complete as possible but precipitated pages of speculation on the Internet and in the few print publications that still existed. The television networks filled hour upon hour with more speculation. Not surprisingly, the alarmists dominated the public discussion because the media knew that would draw a bigger audience. Anxiety grew toward panic in all but the most isolated parts of the world. Banks faced a tsunami of withdrawals as confidence in the global financial system deteriorated. Shortages of food and clothing increased as hoarders stocked up in anticipation of a disruption of manufacturing, processing, and distribution of goods. There was insatiable demand for guns as people began to fear their possessions and even their food would be stolen if not defended by lethal force. Construction people who could build secure shelters reminiscent of the bomb shelters of the 1950's couldn't keep up with the demand. Concern quickly became debilitating anxiety and depression, especially throughout Europe and Asia. Mass hysteria was a possibility.Governments and the scientific community tried in vain to quell the panic. Rational commentators on television and radio as well as reasonable bloggers on the Internet were routinely ignored ... or worse, derided as blind Pollyannas.There was no lack of criticism for ESA, some of which was vicious in the extreme and included death threats for "the incompetents who put the world in peril." The mob psychology did not allow for the reality that a lone, deranged individual was to blame and not ESA officials.Gay people suffered a major setback in their efforts to gain equality. Homosexuality had become far more accepted than it had just two decades before. Same sex marriage had been recognized by many governments and was tolerated by most people. But not all. Religious zealots were a small but very loud minority who continued to claim that it was the cause of God's wrath and humanity would be punished for allowing it to exist.Tom and Rick, because of their early activism in raising awareness of the asteroid's threat, were singled out for persecution by what they called the lunatic fringe. They received frequent phone calls and email urging them to repent. They could ignore them but they couldn't disregard the periodic threats of violent punishment up to and including death. They had to be very watchful when out in public. They had to be very careful when they received suspicious mail. It was far from paranoia but their anxiety was constant. Except when they were in their flat. They felt safe there. That was a time to relax, to enjoy their ever-deepening love for each other, and to demonstrate that love in highly passionate and erotic ways.Meanwhile, the search for Billy Westbrook continued. Several men, suspected of being the villainous saboteur, were murdered by self- appointed vigilantes. But there was no progress in locating the suspected saboteur in spite of thousands of tips and alleged sightings. Lolita Gallery Until one afternoon.Tom was lecturing to his class at the university. At the end of the class period, his students left while he gathered up his notes. A bearded man wearing ill-fitting, wrinkled clothes and sunglasses entered the room. Tom looked up, wondering who the stranger was. "Tom Harriman?" the disheveled man asked."Yes," Tom replied. "Can I help you?""NO!" the man said emphatically. "I don't need and won't accept help from a queer fag who rejects the Word of the Almighty. I've come as a servant of God to deliver you to the eternal fires of Hell."Tom suddenly recognized the voice and the face that was half-hidden by a thick beard. "Billy?"Billy Westbrook drew a pistol out from under his jacket and aimed it at Tom. "But I'm a compassionate man," he said. "I'll give you one last chance to renounce your filthy past and repent of your sins."Tom's mind raced, frantically searching for a way to calm the psychotic young man. His instincts cried out to run. Where? That would be useless; there were less than ten meters between him and a lethal weapon in the hand of a deranged fanatic who stood in the only doorway of the classroom."Wait," Tom said as calmly as he could. "Kill me and you'll go to Hell also. Is that what you want?"Billy did not respond. He raised the gun to take aim at his target.Two shots rang out, echoing loudly throughout the room. Tom fell to the floor behind the podium.What seemed like an eternity passed before Tom realized his only pain was in his right arm but that was caused by having fallen on it. It was pinned in an awkward position against the hard floor. Then he heard a commotion in the room. What was it? He dared to peek around the base of the podium, hoping that the sounds he heard was Billy Westbrook running away. Instead, he saw two men with guns drawn crouching over a limp figure on the floor."He's still alive," said one. "Call an ambulance.""No," said the other. "Let the bastard die.""Four oh one to base," the first said into his radio. "We got him. He needs an ambulance. Second floor. Northwest corner."The radio crackled in reply, "And the target?"The first man called out to the front of the room, "You all right, Dr. Harriman?""I'm okay," Tom said as he stood for a better view of the scene in the doorway. "A little shaken but I'm fine."While waiting for the ambulance, Lolita Gallery Tom learned that both he and Rick he had been discretely watched from dawn to dusk by Scotland Yard for ten days following an anonymous tip.Billy Westin was whisked away in a screaming ambulance but not before Tom noticed Billy's bloody right hand and left knee. The first shot, he was told, passed through the assailant's hand, knocking the pistol several meters away. The second shot penetrated his knee, causing him to crumple to the floor. With such marksmanship, Tom would never tell anyone, not even Rick, about the second man's comment to "let him die."After recovering from his wounds, Billy Westin would be committed to a high security psychiatric hospital. April 13, 2029 --------------The dreaded day arrived with half the world's population waiting for 2004 MN4 to streak overhead. Virtually every store, every financial institution, every manufacturing plant, and most governmental agencies were closed. Most flights that were scheduled during the window of time the asteroid was due had been cancelled. Both vehicular and pedestrian traffic was light to absent in major cities. Only essential personnel in law enforcement, health care, and other vital services were required to be on duty. The military of most western hemisphere countries and many in Asia were on full alert in preparedness for civil unrest. All religious faiths and creeds were holding prayer vigils.The transit past Earth was brief but spectacular.It might have been called a non-event except that an undetermined number of military satellites in low orbit suddenly fell silent. The armed forces of every nation rigorously maintained a cloak of secrecy to conceal what they had and not reveal what they might have lost.The electronic media trumpeted the good fortune of averting disaster but, by innuendo, criticized those who had warned of a major calamity.The Earth's gravity had bent the trajectory of 2004 MN4, which left astronomers in a temporary quandary as to its new orbital path around the sun. It was no comfort to anyone that the scientists could not predict when or if the asteroid would return. Spring, 2033 ------------It had been four years since the close encounter with asteroid 2004 MN4. Memories of the close encounter were just beginning to fade when a German astronomer sighted it again. He made the discovery while using a space- based array of synchronized telescopes that, together, were far more powerful than any other. He knew, therefore, that no one else would be able to see the intruder for quite some time. Over a three week period, he gathered enough data to give a one in ten chance that on the next appearance of the asteroid it would very likely crash into the Earth. He remembered the chaos that met the news of the planetoid's first fly-by. He notified the Executive Committee of the International Astronomical Union that acted promptly to alert the Directors of NASA and ESA, the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of the United European Nations, and the recently elected President of China. In their top secret briefings (a written or emailed report was thought to be too vulnerable to leaks), they urged clandestine preparations should subsequent data narrow the odds of a collision. The utmost care should be taken, they emphasized, to plan how and when to inform the public lest there be a repeat of the panic and chaos of 2029. Furthermore, careful thought Lolita Gallery must be given to how best to destroy or divert the asteroid. Any preventative effort must not risk the failure of the Intercepteur program and it must restore the world's confidence in success.Tom was one of the Astrophysicists who was aware of the new prediction but had agreed to tell no one (not even Rick whom he had every reason to trust with the secret) until more precise information was available. Rick, however, knew that something serious was bothering his partner. The clues were obvious. Tom would excuse himself to take a phone call only to return nervous and morose. He was spending more and more time on campus. Many of his emails were encrypted.One night after prolonged lovemaking, Rick said, "Something is bothering you, love. And that worries me. The secretive phone calls. The encrypted email. Have you found somebody else?""Good god NO! I have all I want and more with you.""Then what is it, Tom? We've always been honest and open with each other. Why the secrecy now?"Tom spent a few moments weighing his loyalties. Should he keep his vow of secrecy or should he trust and honor the man he loved? Should he tell his life partner about the return of the asteroid or not? "I know I've been distracted," he began. "And rude with those phone calls. But the reason has nothing to do with my devotion to you or to our relationship. I can only ask that you trust me. When the time is right, I can explain. Until then, please be patient. And please believe that I love you."They cuddled affectionately and quietly for several minutes before Rick asked, "It's coming back, isn't it?""What?" Tom replied. "What are you talking about?""The asteroid. It's coming back, isn't it?" They gazed at each other only momentarily but Rick knew his partner well enough to read his expression. "When, Tom?""Early 2039," Tom said reluctantly. "But we don't know enough to say how close it will come to hitting us.""Six years from now," Rick mused and then added, "When will we know?"Tom, having divulged the secret, saw no point in holding anything back. "In a few months we'll have enough data to pin it down. Right now, all we know is that there's a ten percent probability of a direct hit.""Déj� vous all over again," Rick sighed. "Can it be stopped?""Probably. Billy Westbrock is locked up but there are still nut cases out there. The technology is much better; that's good. I think the political will is more certain. In short, I'm optimistic. But I've broken a promise to keep a secret. Now, I have to ask you to keep it a secret. Plans are already being made to inform the public ... and to mount a more fail-safe effort to divert the asteroid if that becomes necessary." September, 2033 ---------------The Select Committee of the International Astronomical Union (including Tom Harriman), delivered a confidential report to the heads of state of the United States, the United European Nations, and China. It was brief, frightening, but completely accurate: ==========================================CONFIDENTIAL 03.09.2033EARTH AT RISK What Must Be Done Report of the IAU1.0 AbstractAsteroid 2004 MN4 is potentially on a collision course with Earth. Exact measurements of the planetoid's orbit lead to the following conclusion. There is a better than 50/50 chance that it will collide with Earth on 13 April 2039. If it does, the consequences will be catastrophic.On impact: (1) An electromagnetic pulse will wipe out electronic devices across at least half the globe and most if not all satellites. (2) A cloud of dust, debris, and intensely hot ash will spread at supersonic speed. The debris will be more than 3,000 degrees Celsius as it falls to Earth within a radius of up to 1,000 kilometers, incinerating everything. (3) Obviously, evacuation will be impossible. (4) If the impact is in the ocean, it will create a tsunami 500 meters high at the impact point. It will spread across the planet rapidly and measure ten meters on shore lines across the ocean.Following impact: (1) Noxious clouds will cover the entire planet (from flaming forests and cities) and block out the sun for months, possibly years. (2) All necessities of life will be scarce or absent. Open water will be contaminated. Crops will be destroyed or in critically short supply. The atmosphere will contain gasses and particulate matter that will sicken and kill humanity. (3) Only those underground will survive and only for a short time. (4) The only life forms to survive will be subterranean and sub-oceanic organisms.None of this need happen.Technological advances have made possible the successful destruction or diversion of the asteroid.But planning must begin NOW.We stand ready to assist you in preventing the extinction of humanity. ==========================================The world leaders, with the aid of their most trusted advisors and staff, selected members of a secret Lolita Gallery global task force to develop strategies and tactics for informing the Earth's population of 8.3 billion people. Psychologists, sociologists, and media experts dominated the 15-member task force. Concurrently, a team of 20 scientists from relevant disciplines were recruited to create a plan for deflecting the threatening planetoid. Individuals had to be vetted for their expertise and availability. Each had to be given security clearance. All of this took time, almost three months. The most difficult challenge was to fabricate cover stories to explain why these eminent people would interrupt their illustrious careers and effectively disappear from public view as they worked full time on the urgent assignment.Tom was one of two Astrophysicists on the scientific team. Only Rick knew the real reason for his partner's leave of absence from the University but he wisely refrained from asking his lover any questions. Nor did Tom volunteer any information. The vacuum of information created a tension that affected their relationship. Rick was more than curious about what the team of scientists were discussing. Tom felt guilty about not being able to tell his partner what was going on. Three things sustained their relationship: periodic assurances from Tom that he could disclose details later, affirmation of mutual trust, and their lovemaking during which there were no concerns except pleasing one another. January, 2034 -------------The recommendations from both task forces were completed and delivered to the three world leaders by the demanding deadline.The scientific team suggested an enhanced version of the Intercepteur plan. First, not one but two spacecraft would be launched to rendezvous with the incoming planetoid; malfunction of either would be doubtful but if one were to fail, the other would be in position to succeed. The probability of both Lolita Gallery failing would be vanishingly small. Second, the screening of those working on the project would be rigorous to eliminate the possibility of another Billy Westbrook sabotaging the mission. Third, as a further guard against human error or mischief, the launch of one rocket would be managed by ESA and the other almost independently by NASA. The team expressed confidence that the asteroid could be redirected into an orbit that would not threaten Earth for several centuries.The public information team's report was surprisingly detailed and included nominations of key individuals to oversee the implementation. Prominent and respected authorities from government, scientists, and leaders of major religions would endorse the plan and continue to speak out to build the public's confidence and, when necessary, calm its fears.The heads of state of the United States, the United European Nations, and China personally met by secure videophone link with their counterparts in major countries around the Lolita Gallery world to explain the danger and the plans to avoid disaster.On January 20, citizens of most countries around the world watched a televised address from their nation's top leader, each broadcast timed to be as nearly simultaneous as possible. While there was no prescribed wording of the announcement, they all explained the danger, summarized the plans to divert the asteroid's path, and then concluded with an expression of confidence that no catastrophe would occur. The electronic and print media used information packets provided to them to disseminate details of the coming events. February, 2034 --------------News reports, analysis, editorials, and blogs paid little attention to anything but the planetoid's approach. Unfortunately, the information, as usual, was slanted toward the sensational and fueled more worry than hope. Rumors were accepted as fact. Optimistic news and opinion were discounted or discredited. Anxiety grew to near panic, buttressed by memories of the failed efforts to deflect the asteroid in 2029.The religious extremists, a tiny minority but unshakeable in their beliefs, were roused to action. One blogger, for example, wrote: ==========================================Can you not see God's wrath? He is DESTROYING HUMANITY because of its WICKED WAYS -- homosexuality and adultery in particular -- just as He did in the time of Noah. Just as He did with Sodom and Gomorrah. Only the righteous will attain salvation to dwell with the Almighty in heaven for eternity. REPENT! The weak efforts of humankind to change God's plan will fail just as surely as they failed before. Sinners be warned; put your trust only in the hubris of man and you will be DAMNED. Repent and you will be SAVED. ========================================== Meanwhile, NASA and ESA were scrambling to meet the challenge. Construction of the international outpost on the Moon was halted to allocate resources and assign personnel to the new priority. Governments tried tirelessly to reassure their citizens. Military forces were once more put on full alert to cope with possible civil unrest, rioting, and lawlessness. Commercial and financial activity throughout the world began a slow descent into chaos. Déj� vous all over again. November, 2038 --------------Both launches were successful. The ESA's Ariane VI rocket and NASA's Explorer were positioned two kilometers apart and 80 kilometers from the huge asteroid. Testing of hardware, software, and personnel had been extraordinarily thorough. Communications with the two spacecraft had been perfect. The first robotic lander with its small rocket engine to nudge the course of the planetoid was due to be deployed in two days. The second was ready on the remote chance that the first didn't work perfectly. Everything was going according to plan. Until...At both mission control sites, large plasma television screens displayed a view of the asteroid. Few paid attention to those screens; they had shown the same image for days. Suddenly, the screens went white. In the NASA control room in Houston, one technician exclaimed, "Oh my God!" which drew the attention of everyone else. A rumble of gasps and expletives arose in the large room. The scene at the ESA control room was similar.The Mission Director at both sites began calling for calm and barking orders but stopped when the brilliantly white screens returned to normal. Normal, that is, except the asteroid was not visible. Instead, there appeared to be a cloud of dark dust expanding rapidly outward. When the cloud dissipated, the star field in the background confirmed that the video cameras had not moved; it was the same picture except for the missing asteroid.The Mission Director yelled, "Navigation! Confirm location and orientation of the crafts!""All normal, sir. Well within nominal parameters," came the reply. The graphic plots of the data coming from space had not changed since before the anomalous blanking of the video screens. "Wait," the controller exclaimed. "I'm getting a text message on my display.""What the fuck do you mean?" the Mission Director yelled back."A text message!" the controller repeated."What's it say?" the Mission Director asked, his voice dripping with disbelief.The controller read the message as it scrolled across his display. Every one in the control room listened with incredulity."This is Commander Vosila of the cosmic research vessel, Denderi. Do not be alarmed. We have destroyed the planetoid. You need not know how. You deserve to know why. Your plan to disrupt the asteroid's path would have succeeded. But only until the next encounter in 150 of your years. We cannot allow that. We have been studying your planet for a very long time. Almost always in secret but there have been a few lapses in which you detected our observations. We have learned Lolita Gallery much about your civilization. And, obviously about your language. You are now very much like we were in our primitive era. We had wars like you have now. We were poisoning our home planet like you are now. We suffered from greed and ignorance like you are now. We are a compassionate race and we want to save you from annihilation. You have a chance to evolve into a peaceful, harmonious civilization. It will not be easy for you and it will take time but we want to give you the chance to do that."A display of navigational data returned to the controller's screen.The end
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