If you could hear in the vacuum, it would have sounded like God’s own thunder. In the span of sixty seconds the majority of Earth’s nuclear warheads detonated, creating the largest shaped charge explosion our corner of the universe is every likely to see. I was very glad to be at a comfortable distance observing. After all, that is what I was here to do, observe - they don’t let minor UN representatives get flirty with detonation buttons. Not even when we ask nicely.
And no matter how nicely I asked, Captain Garcia had been very firm - “No, Mr. Lewis, you cannot. None of us will, it will be left for al to do, and it is better that way since we only get one shot at this.” The captain wasn’t wrong, al was the best shot we had at this going right, so eventually I stopped asking. The detonations had to be timed within a split second of each other to ensure that the quickly expanding cloud of very hot suddenly-gaseous material hit the asteroid at the right angles with the right force to slow it and bring it into the sweet spot. I was alright at math (thank you Mrs. Knight in the 8th grade), but al was a pro. No matter how much work had gone into giving machines true intelligence we hadn’t cracked that nut yet, but the computer intelligences we did have still remained very good at math, with a nice shellack of natural language models on top to make the interactions more smooth. So we just called them al, since they weren’t quite AI. And the ship’s al had done a fantastic job - all the indicators were where they needed to be, and we could already tell the asteroid’s speed relative to Earth was changing. It was the biggest rock the closest in to Earth’s orbit we’d seen since the dinosaurs, and that hadn’t turned out great for them. It did make room for us, so I guess we should be more grateful to giant space rocks, but at the moment we had other concerns.
The job at hand was the product of two years of very urgent meetings in diplomatic halls and very very urgent meetings in university basements and factories. The diplomats had to agree that something should be done, a hard sell in normal circumstances. The scientists and line-workers had to be ready to put together the pieces if the diplomats did their jobs. This was the opportunity of a lifetime, but also the length of that lifetime was worth considering, as was the cost. That was the first sticking point - when scientists say that something is important and worth investing in, the ones holding all the mammon tend to get very philosophical. After all, what even are “existential risks” and “immediate need for action”? Fortunately a huge rock that an eight year old in her backyard with a dollar store telescope can see presents a compelling treatise rivaling Plato or Confucius. So the next challenge was also one an eight year old would recognize - who gets to be the boss. The normal squabbles were ameliorated by the fact that there was no money to be made on this project, but it would cost more than currency. The scientists had figured out a plan that neatly solved the problem and in fact did open opportunities for later, but it would require the aforementioned majority of nukes the Earth had, which was a very large number, but unequally distributed. The US and Russia bravely offered several of their oldest missiles, while Israel and India clung to theirs like Heston’s rifle. But none of this would be enough, and in the end it was agreed that since we could make the Earth its own nightlight with just a handful each, our destruction would stay mutually assured and we could get on with the business of assuring we were not in fact destroyed.
So the scientist’s grand plans were handed over to the blue collars or their local equivalents around the world to make their forms into substance. Around the world factories burned into the night, here making the living quarters, there the drive frame. The ship would be assembled largely in orbit, and the cadence of launches from factory launchpads became something almost musical. The Herald would carry our “message” to this visitor, along with the al and crew that would make sure things went off without a hitch. Herald was a perfect name because this plan would either result in an age of possibility humanity had never seen, or else there would be no more ages for humanity at all. When the horn blew we would begin to know more - and the it had just sounded.
“Velocity relative to Earth is at delta -2 and falling.” al calmly reported. “That is…faster than we expected…” Dr. Musa said with a squint. “Yes, but not outside the green zone,” replied Dr. Burns, “and the secondary wave front hasn’t hit Tea just yet. It should alter course and stabilize after that.” Tea was the big rock - named after the one word that almost all languages share to make news coverage easier. “Scatterback scans indicate bulk material gasification at 98%, above required threshold.” al chimed in once more. “Ah, there you go, more gases means more acceleration, but that will dissipate soon enough.” Dr. Musa mused. “In my world more gas is generally not good.” I quipped. I had decided I was comic relief on this mission to save the world. Not all parties were in agreement. “Jim, the gas from all that extra material we carted up here, it helps turn the energy of the nukes into a very broad pressure wave,” said Burns, who was undecided on my comedic stylings as well as the results of my middle school science grades. “If the explosions are too close, or the energy too direct when it hits the surface of Tea, it would just break off a few chunks or worse, shatter the rock, and then instead of one large problem we might have thousands of still-big-enough problems. We need to cushion the blow. Al, what is Tea’s rotation doing?” “Tea’s rotation has maintained yaw on the primary axis, pitch is slowing by 1 degree per second per second, and roll has :CONCERN:” al cut off sharply.
“Al, concern what? What do you see?” Captain Garcia sat up straighter than she normally did, which was pretty straight. “Verifying readings Captain - concern registered, reading one undetonated warhead out of formation.” al responded in slightly faster tempo than it normally used. “Warhead US407 failed to detonate and has drifted into the path of the secondary pressure wave.” I turned to Burns, the nuclear expert on board, and saw the calculations running behind their eyes. So I turned to Musa and asked “What does that mean? Will it damage Tea? Or us? We’re too far away right?” Musa was orbital sciences, so she was also waiting for Burns wheels to stop turning, but she at least understood the problem. “We are pretty far away, but we had to stay within a reasonable distance to each warhead that signal travel time didn’t become an issue, and remember we are in front of Tea - that whole soup of gas and fallout are headed straight toward us. We have time to get out of the way of what has already blown, but if the pressure wave carries the warhead toward us and it finally goes off we may not have time to get out of range.”
I stopped quipping. We used the nukes to affect Tea’s trajectory because the safe, sane method of building rocket engines the size of downtown Chicago just hadn’t been an option, but nuclear explosions are never safe, and never sane. We were praying to Loki, Cthulhu, Sheogorath, and every other mad god that their brand of divinity might bless this expedition, because all the good gods weren’t likely to get near enough to touch it with a ten foot pole. Now we might reap what we had sown, and the next few minutes were spent in tense quiet while al provided specs and calculation for Burn’s to turn into a plan.
“Okay, we can clear to port by burning hard for the next few hours, but the burn is going to cost us - maybe more than we can spare. We can burn, but we need to figure out what mass we can drop for the trip home, unless you like the neighborhood. The offset will have to be significant, a pair at least. Captain?” Burns turned to Garcia - they were asking her to lose a piece of her ship, which was no small thing. The ship was an intrastellar q-tip, all shield up front and engine in the back. Around the center whirled the habitation columns, rotating fast enough to make it feel like we still had some gravity. The hab columns were paired up to provide counter weight, and where all of the losable mass was. Someone was about to get a roommate, or lose their lab. I was already in the spaceship equivalent of a broom closet so at least I wouldn’t have move. I was allowed onboard so that the UN, who had finally wrangled all the diplomats and scientists and factory workers into a coherent whole, could say they had skin in the game. It was an honor, and I wondered who I had angered to get it.
The captain grimaced. “Well if we don’t move and that warhead goes off we’ll lose a lot more than a pair. Do you or al have a probability on that?” Al said “According to the parameters Dr. Burns specified, this model is somewhat tempermental, historical field results show a response to barometric changes combined with-“ “Al, give me a number!” Garcia interjected - sometimes al’s roots in generative language models made it seem like it loved the sound of its own voice. “62% Captain.” al responded, almost curtly. Garcia’s eyebrow arched a fraction, and then “Alright, that is cutting it too close. Al, turn the good doctor’s detonation calculations into a burn plan and notify me as soon as you’re ready. Lewis, clear out your bunk, you’re moving in with Burns.” The look on my face must have said more than I realized as the captain sighed and continued “Your module’s pair is the bulk materials bay we just emptied, and your module is the maintenance and physical plant supplies hab, we’ll just have to ration the TP.” So I was staying in a broom closet.
A few hours later, my few belongings transferred to Burns’ unit and my new bed made out of emptied shelves in their lab, we finished our acceleration and watched as Tea floated by at a distance. A small, very angry bright spot flared on its southern side and told us we made the right call on evicting me. The hard part was done, Newton and his giants had to do the heavy lifting now.
The world had first learned of Tea one sleepy night in South Africa. The South African Astronomical Observatory was running the latest grad student’s search for something worth writing a paper about, this time running a spectrographic search in the sweep of Sagittarius for any fun new novae. After the first few radians had run, a pixel on the screen went black and stayed that way. The student, Mayeso, leaned forward and flicked the monitor, trying to unstick the stuck pixel, but only succeeded in making it larger. It was only about 5 pixels at this point, not quite a round dot, but it was enough to elicit a sigh - funding was hard enough without the simple gear failing. He decided he’d adapt and overcome, and just moved the window so that he could ignore the spot a little longer. But the spot moved too. The late hour and burgeoning desire for a midnight snack dropped like scales and Mayeso saw something that might be worth writing about. Shifting the ranges being fed to the monitor around he was able to start to get an outline, and a distance. And over the next few nights, a trajectory. And then things got very much worth writing about.
Tea was not only the largest long period asteroid to approach Earth in a long time, its particular path would take it very close to one of Earth’s Lagrange points. I cannot emphasize enough just how much I am a minor UN representative who struggled in middle school science class (if only Mrs. Knight had taught that instead), but the way they explained it to me like I was five is that when multiple large bodies (moons, planets, that sort of thing) orbit each other, little spots of balance crop up at certain distances between them. The pull of those big two bodies kind of evens out and makes it easy for something else to just hang out there, a difficult feat in a space-time warped and wobbled by all the mass floating around. That same closeness meant that the scientists who know about these things couldn’t know whether it would fall into the Lagrange point L4, sail on by the Earth, or end its long orbit explosively and ruin a lot of picnics. Something about a three body problem and more math than even’s Mrs. Knight’s expert tutelage had prepared me for. So the plan was planned, the mission was made, and bombs blown up, all with the idea that worst case scenario we push Tea to the far side of L4 and hope humanity has figured out a better plan in the next 7000 years when she comes back to visit. But the best case scenario, the one that meant new opportunity and big business for the nations that bankrolled this, was that Tea would settle in to L4, a nice stable giant mining station free of the pull of gravity. A New New World for exploitation, and we wouldn’t even commit multiple genocides to make money.
And maybe, just maybe, the natural materials and bones to build the first generation ship to leave the solar system.