"I don't have time for pleasantries, Sam. Earth is going to be wiped out in eighty-five minutes."
Hearing this on the phone one morning at work is surprising for two reasons. Firstly, last time I checked, we still had well over four years until the Eridanian energy virus shockwave reached us.
Secondly, I haven't spoken to Ed in a very long time. We were in our final year of college when he found the energy virus. I carried on with my course, finished it, got a degree, got an office job in the city. But Ed just dropped right out. He moved to America, and started working for NASA on Chrononet, which is the (in my opinion, ridiculous) name that was eventually given to the proposed satellite network that will ultimately be used to drag the entire Earth ten years backwards in time. I kept in contact with him for a while but eventually communication just slid to a halt. I personally haven't been involved in a potentially Earth-destroying hijink since I left college. Which I guess means I'm due.
"Ed, what did you do?" I ask wearily, wondering why he needs me of all people. Judging by the many voices I can hear rumbling in the background, he is in a room filled with smart NASA technicians.
"It wasn't me this time. It's an asteroid. It's a fifteen on the Palermo scale."
"Ed, the Palermo scale only goes up to ten."
"No. You're thinking of the Torino scale. The Palermo scale is logarithmic and goes up to infinity."
I boggle. "You're saying this thing ranks at level fifteen on a logarithmic scale?"
"It's moving at a tenth of light speed. It came almost directly out of the Sun which is why we didn't see it until about five minutes ago. We're still taking readings on its size..."
"Nothing in the universe moves that fast naturally!"
"Yes, yes, I know, we'll ponder that question after we stop it hitting Earth. And you're about to ask me how we do that. And the answer is I don't know. Any ideas?"
"What defences do we have already in place?"
"The asteroid was picked up about two minutes ago by a ground-based long-range warning system which was set up after we insisted it was going to be necessary to protect the Chrononet satellites. But that thing is designed to spot small chunks of matter, and certainly not deflect them - standard practice was going to be to move any endangered satellites out of the way via retro rockets. We can't very well move the whole Earth."
"Can't we?" I ask in all seriousness.
There's a brief pause while Ed rapidly turns the concept over in his head. "No," he replies. "Absolutely impossible. Keep thinking."
"Then what do we have?"
"Can we build a rocket, fire it into space? Can we convert an ICBM in time?"
"No. And ICBMs are too slow. By the time it hit, the asteroid would be less than a second from impact. Our fate would be sealed by that point."
"What about your projects?" I ask. "Have you built anything new in the last four years?"
"I've been pretty busy with this accursed satellite project," says Ed bitterly, confirming the increasingly unsettling rumours that work on the Chrononet satellite design has been proceeding with almost glacial slowness, "so, no. But we do still have the back catalogue. I just need to know what to do with them. I know you wrote this stuff down, dig out your list and go through it, there must be something we can use."
I don't have access to my list - it's own my home computer, and I'm at work - so I resort to my own, fallible memory. "Giant robots? Are they spaceworthy?"
"Yes, but we could smash all two hundred of them at maximum acceleration into this rock and not deflect it an arcsecond. We could divert it given an extended push, but there is absolutely no way of rendezvousing with something moving at that speed. They could still be used as a delivery system, but a delivery system for what?"
"The fusion inhibitor. The computer virus which controls people's brains through monitor static."
"Layer theory. No useful applications of layer theory we could use?"
"Nothing that would take less than a week to put together."
Ed is silent.
Then I can hear him shouting to other people in the room, "Okay everybody, listen! A plan is being formulated! I need Tyro woken up and active at my terminal, and I don't care how many federal laws you have to break to do it! Get SDC Response in the loop, get every pilot woken up and every mech they have in the air! I also need somebody to go-"
"Wait, that wormhole was three feet wide! How big is this asteroid?"
"It's a seventeen hundred metre sphere," says another, unidentified voice. It's at this point that I slowly begin to realise that while Ed has been the only person talking so far, I am in fact on the phone with something like a hundred and forty people. As best I can tell in the ensuing noise, several of them are already raising objections about waking up whoever this Tyro person is.
"We can deal with that," says Ed. "I've got a plan. Don't hang up." There's a short pause while he apparently gets the attention of everybody in the control room he's in, and then, over the following five minutes, he explains his plan. His ridiculous, insane plan.
It involves me to a rather distressing extent.
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