Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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The Elite

by Noel Carroll




The giant star Betelgeuse explodes into supernova, its close proximity to Earth making it both an attraction and a source of apprehension. Not to worry, the scientists say, but are they correct?



I'm a louse! I think I knew that all along, even as I tried to convince myself otherwise, pretending there was nobility attached to what I did. My name is Gilbert Carter, and I write this knowing I must hasten to get it done or my poor Nicole will never come to know how I felt as disaster closed in on us, but then, maybe that would be some kind of justice, the gods saying I don't deserve either understanding or relief.

God, how quickly things can change! As little as one year ago, I had everything going for me. I had just graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering and was ready to set the world on fire--not the best way to put that as you'll soon see. I had the woman of my dreams, soul mates she and I, a pretty, dark-haired thing about five inches below my six feet. Nicole and I lived together for all of our college years with the idea that we would marry as soon as I landed a job. We swore unending mutual fidelity, even imaging ourselves dying in each other's arms in some kind of elderly-lovers' suicide pact.

When the explosion happened, Nicole and I regarded it as spectacular, a cosmic event that we knew would occur some day, even as we expected it to be in someone else's lifetime. On a moonless night, the sky suddenly radiated a flash of light from horizon to horizon, leaving in its wake a brilliant star about a quarter the size of our moon. Surprised and just a little apprehensive, the two of us watched with fascination, the event a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Our apprehension soon faded as a panel of scientists appeared on TV and explained to the world that what we were seeing was the huge star Betelgeuse going supernova. The excitement they radiated was contagious, even as much of what they said went over our heads. Betelgeuse, they told us, was huge, reaching 100,000 times the size of our sun. Earth was but a pimple on its butt in normal times, but now, with the explosion pushing that giant star well out into the cosmos, we would be to it as an atom is to the moon. They said Betelgeuse had actually gone supernova some 640 light years ago, that it took all that time for the light of the explosion to reach us. 640 light years is considered by those in the know to be close to Earth, but not dangerously close, thus the citizens of the world could regard it as nothing worse than an unusually bright light in the heavens.

Nicole and I joined the rest of the world in fixating on the sky, even during daylight hours and even while crossing busy streets--accidents were common during this time. Betelgeuse was a magnet that drew everyone's attention no matter where on the planet they were. No one had ever seen a star so bright, so...close! TV screens became filled with romantic (and often exaggerated) descriptions and pictures, what it was, how long the effect would last, when it would go back to being just another star. Nicole and I ate it all up and asked for more.

It was Nicole who first noticed a shift in the way the "experts" were covering the phenomenon. The confident faces we viewed earlier began to fade toward the side of uncertainty. At first, we considered that these scientists were tiring of the subject, but when uncertainty turned to something bordering on fear, I joined Nicole in doubt. Looking back, I count that as the moment when we both awakened to the possibility that our future might not be entirely ours to decide. It was just a feeling, but I could see in her eyes that it was shared. It was as if we could no longer be sure of anything.

No explanation was given other than that the scientists at NASA and at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, were seeing anomalies and needed time to interpret them. Hardly reassuring, at least not to Nicole and me, and it did not help to see a mirroring of fear on the faces of TV anchors. Their words turned hesitant, cautious, and often ended in a question mark. Clearly, something had gone wrong. Contributing to our growing unease was the fact that no one was willing to say what that something was.

We divided our time between the TV and the sky, the latter only adding to Nicole's anxiety. To her Betelgeuse seemed still to be growing, and if true, it would mean it was coming our way, maybe heading for a collusion with Earth. I reminded her that the experts claimed that to be impossible, but there was a notable lack of conviction in my voice as I said it.

We continued this pattern of confusion laced with worry, each passing day seeing our imaginations outrace our eyes in a willingness to see an approaching apocalypse, an end of time slowly but inexorably working its way toward us. Events proved that many, if not most, of the world's 12 billion souls were as caught up in this as we. Already some had gone beyond fear to panic. Not knowing where to go or what to do, people were beginning to protest, sometimes allowing this to lead to riot. Few doubted that things would get worse unless somebody finally told us what the hell was going on!

It was another anxiety-filled day and a half before that earlier group of scientists again came together, this time to put out a brief opinion, one that came across as so hesitant and so ambiguous that it made matters worse! One after the other, they preached to the world that we were over-reacting to a natural phenomena, that we should calm down until more is known.

Their expressions and rhetoric, however, said they did not believe a word they were saying. Their red-lined eyes and poorly-shaved faces told us they had had little sleep since the event began, and throughout the conference no one offered anything even closely resembling a smile. Nicole and I nearly flipped when they added in their closing statement, an insincere expression on the speaker's face, "So you see, there is nothing to worry about--at the moment."

Nicole put our thinking to words, "At the moment"?!

The riots worsened, bringing with them injuries and an occasional death. We who were out of the loop, which included just about everyone on Earth, were frightened and we needed answers! Now!

Nailed down and intimidated enough to start spouting truth, the panel of scientists again reassembled, this time to admit what at first offered more confusion than relief. "When a star as large as Betelgeuse explodes," they said, "the resulting release of energy often includes a powerful gamma ray burst that would be fatal to anything in its path. All life on any planet in the way of this burst would be exterminated."

This was not news to Nicole and me, but since the axis of this giant sun was pointed away from Earth, we supposedly had nothing to fear from its gamma ray burst. "So what's the big deal?" we asked. "Why the gloomy faces? Why put us through all this anxiety?" "Well," they said, "Betelgeuse went into supernova, as expected, but its remnants were not acting as expected."

The damn thing was wobbling!

We shrugged our shoulders and again asked, "Okay, so what?" Maybe a disappointment to scientists but of little consequence to those of us who simply admire the night sky. It was not until one of the more astute reporters in the room asked what effect that "wobble" would have on the cosmic burst, that we got another of those answers offered without either a smile or a hint of sincerity. "Not to worry," they said. "There is almost no chance that it will affect us."

"Almost?"

The poignant stares and obvious hesitation of panel members told us more than their words, and when they again began to speak, not in one voice but many, they sought to assure everyone that, though the remnants of Betelgeuse could be considered close to Earth, its axis was still pointed away from us. The deadly gamma ray bursts, which admittedly were sure to follow, were not likely to come our way.

"Not "likely"?! What the hell did that mean? What would we do if "not likely" began inching toward "likely"? The panel of "experts" did not seem to realize that they were only making matters worse in their attempts to explain the Betelgeuse wobble.

The cries of "apocalypse" grew louder, with many claiming "the vengeance of God was soon to be upon us!"

Not sure where the "vengeance of God" people were coming from, other than to put words to what many had been fearing for some time. Our planet, as mentioned previously, now housed some 12 billion souls, which was getting to be more than Earth could handle. We all knew something had to change, though we were realistic enough (pessimistic is more honest) to accept that nothing would, that humanity being what it is, we were unlikely to agree on any solution that failed to take into account the highly divergent views of all 12 billion of us. Some, and that included Nicole and me, feared we were nearing the point where we had no choice, that if we did not in some way cull ourselves, nature would do it for us. Already our air was bordering on dangerous, our water was risky at best, and food, even synthetic food, was becoming more and more difficult to produce (not to mention its increasingly poor taste). Worse, the 12 billion showed no sign of being a final number. Few doubted it would soon be 13 billion, and so on.

Therefore, it was hard to argue down those who saw a message in Betelgeuse and its wobble. To them, God saw a problem and decided to maneuver that wobble into a tool to "cure" Earth's overpopulation. Only problem was they could not explain how this would do humanity any good.

As we feared, things got worse.

It took a while for scientists and those employed to reveal the best and worst of a cosmic event to admit that Betelgeuse's wobble was proving to be unstable, that it would continue to swing its deadly gamma ray emissions toward Earth, that Earth's population was not to be culled, but exterminated--not only we overpopulating humans, but every living thing on the planet. In a flash, we went from "don't worry" to "get your affairs in order!"

They added, somewhat sheepishly, that we had roughly one year left to live.

Suddenly nothing any longer made sense. One day a beautiful cosmic event, everyone walking around with big smiles and expressions of awe; a few days later we learn that we are all going to die? Everything in place and going my way, and now this. Yes, I know, a little lost in myself considering I was but one of 12 billion facing the same end, but somehow that does not enter into one's thinking at a time like this. The doubt Nicole and I felt earlier devolved to depression. Instead of a life together, we were nearing the end of days.

Then, quite unexpectedly, I wasn't.

A number of powerful men and women decided they were not going to roll over and play dead. Some of them had real money (and incredibly, money was still able to influence behavior). They had knowledge as well, some of it heavy in the development of space vehicles, some already tested and in production. Within days of getting the news about Betelgeuse, a few dove into developing a way of escaping our planet before the apocalypse hit. Ostensibly, their aim was to save the human race, but I have to believe a large part of that was to save themselves--I noticed each planned to be on board when his ship took off, even as some were too old to be of much use to "humanity."

To make it happen, however, they needed help, and fast.

My standing as first in my class got me an interview with one such group, and the rest followed from there. My rich guy was ahead of everyone else, having already produced space vehicles for the military and NASA, and he decided I not only had the skills but also was the right age and physical condition for what he had in mind--It appears he really did want to save humanity. He wanted a crew that went beyond appearance to a measure of perfection proven by all the tests modern medicine had available to them. My colleagues, limited to 40 for practical reasons--mainly size of whatever ship we could modify in time--were subject to the same tests. Had they not passed, they would have stayed behind--simple; end of story! We who passed were considered the elite, the future of humankind, and not one of us failed to be impressed by that tag. Needless to say, I felt the kind of relief that only a reprieve from a death sentence can give you.

Only problem was, Nicole was not one of the chosen.

That hit me like a rock, and I went to work with such intensity and devotion that I felt certain they would reward me by letting her join the crew when the time came. I worked even harder to keep from admitting to myself that this could never be. We had been told in no uncertain terms that humanity had to continue on, and that made it necessary to choose individuals who not only possessed the relevant skills but who were capable of producing superior offspring. I told myself this was wise, that ours was a noble goal and far more important than any one person's life, or any couple's lives. My mistake was thinking I could convince Nicole of that.

Not surprisingly, her reaction was more emotional than altruistic. She was terribly hurt that I could so easily dismiss what we meant to each other. Understanding and hurting in a different way--fear of dying was competing with conscience--I spent as much time with her as I could, even as the damage had already been done.

Nothing was the same after that. Nicole's disappointment quickly turned to anger as I was less and less available to her--my duties permitted little time for a personal life. When we did get together, I found it increasingly difficult to look her in the eye. We had arguments that became spirited as time went on and my resolve did not waver. When finally she could no longer deny that I had no intention of changing my mind, Nicole, in a mixture of hurt and anger, lashed out with stinging words and copious tears, eventually declaring that I was not the man she thought me to be. I continued to argue that what we were doing was insuring the continuity of humankind, that our lives on board that ship were not going to be easy, but that only brought on a laugh that had not a hint of humor in it. To her I was only interested in saving myself.

I know now how true that was. I had been given an offer of life that I was emotionally unable to turn down.

We were only a little way into the fatal year when Nicole decided that she'd had it. She left me, just took off, to where I never knew. I fought a sense of relief, telling myself that she was doing this for me, or at least for the good of humankind--by then this had become standard soapbox oratory for me. Inside, however, I knew better. Aware that her time was drawing to a close, she saw no reason to spend what remained of it with whatever I had become.

My reaction to the guilt flooding my system almost got me kicked off the team. The "elite" of humanity did not need doubters! Others stood drooling in the wings just waiting for one of us to prove less worthy. I adopted what I hoped was a positive face and dove back into my work, aware that we did not have much time to turn an existing heavy-lift spacecraft into something that would serve as a mini Earth for as long as it took to locate another home in the sky.


* * *

We all knew and accepted that our "preservation of humankind" was a low-probability shot, but at least it was a shot--what kind of a shot did the masses have? All 40 of us, including the rich guy, accepted that we would spend the rest of our lives crowded into a large but hardly spacious vessel. Even at the speed we hoped to reach, it was likely that our pseudo Earth would be lost in Space for centuries if not millennium--no one, not even the best minds of NASA or JPL could tell us which direction represented the best hope of finding another planet in a hospitable zone. Not all that reassuring, but better than being fried by wayward cosmic rays from a star that was not behaving as it should.

Looking back, I think it was desperation that enabled us to get our craft to where we had a decent chance of winning our race against an unkind fate. We still had doubts about enduring the mental agony of endless danger and creeping boredom for us and generations to follow, but that was negative thinking, and negative thinking, we knew, would only slow us down.

So we forced positive thoughts upon each other to the point where we began to believe our own propaganda, began to believe we could not fail, that we truly were elite. After all, the billions we were leaving behind had as much time to prepare as we. (We studiously avoided the obvious, that these others did not have the same access to escape that we did, primarily money and engineering talent.) Our smugness was kept in bounds only by the fear that growing discontent among the masses--those who were not invited along--could bring attempts to commandeer or destroy out of spite, our almost-finished spacecraft.

I admit to smugness, but I felt pity as well, genuine pity. We were to live. We were the future of humankind while billions were expected to sit still for a miserable end. Softening at least part of our guilt was the rioting that became worse by the day. The people we once knew were becoming unrecognizable.

Our ship was huge and had to be lifted into orbit in sections, each one offering a further easing of the life we were destined to share in our long voyage into the future. In retrospect, this sectional-launch approach gave us a tremendous edge. Not only were we able to keep adding modules, but we were able to get away more easily when chaos began to reign.

I won't go into the horror of launch day, only that it was a near thing for us and anything but pleasant. By then, we were the most hated people in the world, a self-proclaimed elite who would escape the death awaiting everyone else. Riotous masses showed their resentment in a way that to them made sense. They destroyed all the beautiful spacecraft constructed over the previous 12 months.

That is, all except one: ours.

Our wealthy leader proved wiser than his counterparts. Anticipating the turmoil of a public growing more lawless by the hour, he revealed a launch date deliberately later than the one he had in mind. (Some of us suspected this, knowing as we did that the ship was as good as it was likely to get.) It was a good thing he chose this path, since even sneaking away late one night, we came close to the same fate ultimately suffered by the others. Indeed, our premature departure might have been the straw that triggered the riots that doomed all other attempts to leave Earth. Angry at our having slipped away, the masses took out their vengeance on any escape craft within reach, overrunning them one by one--we saw this through our long-range telescope once we were safely beyond Earth's orbit.

We were pleased to have gotten away but far from elated. The Earth we once knew was not the Earth we were seeing through the scope. Earth now was billions of frightened people desperately trying to find a way to escape the inescapable. Nicole was one of them.

A sign of what we had become could be seen in our not being able to stay away from the telescope for long. Indeed, there were times when we formed a queue behind it, morbidly fascinated by the knowledge that Earth was creeping closer and closer to the end of its existence--it was much like watching a plane fall from the sky or a tsunami crash onto a crowded shore. It brought us to suffer a diversity of unpleasant feelings, which we combated by reminding ourselves that none of this was our doing, that our effort to save at least a part of humanity was commendable. What also helped was recognizing that our survival was by no means guaranteed, that in addition to remaining clear of those deadly cosmic rays, we were in for hard work and constant vigilance and that the remainder of our days would at best be traumatic.

I was impressed with the design that our highly talented crew had come up with, much of which represented extensions of space age products in the works before the troubles began. There was nothing fancy in the end product, but it was much larger than I thought it could be and still survive the hazards of space. It accommodated all 40 of us plus as much physical and psychological comforts that time permitted us to bring. There was an entire module dedicated to hydroponics, another to genetically grown meat, and another to water and waste purification. What it did not have was private compartments, this considered unnecessary and wasteful in terms of weight and space. We would have to be satisfied with sophisticated sleeping bags--it appeared we were to get to know one another rather well.

Our course took us south of the solar system's equatorial plane toward Alpha Centauri, more than four light years away. Heading in that direction would enable us to miss all the dangerous collections of rocks in our solar system--Asteroid and Kuiper belt items and the Oort cloud, the latter a light year thick and filled with restless comets. As we realized we were finally on our way, we felt a mixture of pride and sadness, the latter a recognition that we would never come to know how this voyage turned out, that we would spend the remainder of our lives entertaining each other as best our limited circumstances would allow while nurturing the next generation to do the same. We--and later they--would pass on as much knowledge of what we were and where we came from as they were capable of absorbing. We were realistic about this, aware that in time measured by centuries, few would regard the small blue planet of our origin as more than an exaggeration born of the nostalgia of those who have long since passed on. No matter, I suppose. The world--or should I say the universe--will belong to them by then.

So far, our chief form of entertainment was use of the telescope to look back at Earth as it approached its end. It was during one of these moments that someone, mostly to entertain himself, recalculated Betelgeuse's wobble and discovered a change, slight but unexpected. Further examination suggested the deadly cosmic rays might touch Earth in such a way that not all of it would be destroyed. It was still targeting our former planet, but not on as direct a path as before. It was possible that some creatures, including some humans, might survive.

As you might imagine, this got our attention. We had planned well, and did not appreciate a change in the rules.

In time, after noting that the variance was real and not a product of our imaginations, we got everyone together to discuss what this meant to us. If the wobble varied yet again, it might miss Earth completely, and that would mean we were running away for no reason. We thought about that long and hard, the question being whether we should turn the ship around and see if we could make it back. We had the ability to change direction, of course, deeming it necessary if we spotted what looked like a promising solar system. Problem was, with our nuclear-pulse engine and its constant but slow push, changing direction was not very easy.

More collective thinking led to the decision--prompted by the rich guy whom we had come to regard as our savior--to continue on, that we had no proof that enough of Earth would survive, and that even if it did, it would not be worth going back to. The rioting would likely have turned it into something we would no longer want to be part of, a planet filled with savages seeking survival at all cost.

Besides, there was a better than even chance that we would not be welcome.

This brought me to think again of Nicole, at one time the only life I wanted. I try not to think of her, but her image keeps invading my subconscious. She is down there somewhere awaiting death, perhaps even now looking up at the sky and wondering where I am and whether I have any regrets. Likely, she is crying tears that I will never get to see except in my dreams. What a horrible feeling that must be, aware of what is coming and knowing you can do nothing to evade it. Aware also that you had been abandoned by the one person you thought you could trust.

Damn, I hate thoughts like that! What is done is done, and I have a new life to consider, new obligations to our tiny spark of humanity. It will need all the help it can get just to survive. I have to accept this, force the past out of my mind and concentrate only on what is to follow!

But it is a hard sell. On board, I have been partnered with a women who passed much the same tests as I. We are expected to make progeny and otherwise co-exist for as long as it benefits our noble cause, but it is not the same, not to me it isn't. The two of us try, of course, but she can see that my heart is not in it--every time I touch her I think of Nicole. Not her fault, but she soon drifted to other encounters, which triggered similar behavior in other couples. Switching partners has now become routine, everyone sharing everyone else--the rules of the past were not to govern our future.

We have to be careful, though, not to overpopulate the ship.

As we neared the time when Earth was due to be hit by cosmic rays, there became great competition to gain access to the telescope, so much so that we had to rig the image so it could be projected onto a screen for all to see. We were sharing a macabre interest that all admitted but none could resist.

Feeding this interest was the previously detected change in Betelgeuse's wobble. Was it really possible that we had left the planet for no reason, that Earth would be at least partially spared? Or would even a glancing blow prove fatal, accomplishing the same result but more slowly, allowing some to linger on in misery?

Those left behind, what did they think about this? Did they imagine the shift in Betelgeuse's wobble was some kind of salvation, at least for some, that maybe they would be the ones not fated to die? I tried to imagine the agony flooding their minds and bodies, the giant uncertainty, the hammer that would drop on some but not others. Somewhat like a condemned man taken to the gallows only to wait there while the executioner decided how many more he could fit in before closing time.

I wish I could speak to Nicole one more time before the event, try to explain to her how sorry I am that things went so wrong so quickly, that I was controlled by fear, unable to face the death that was so ugly and relentless in its approach.

Am I any different now? Would I volunteer to go back and face this death?

Easy to claim I would, but honesty demands that I admit the contrary. I love Nicole, but I still cannot see myself volunteering to die just to prove this. I don't expect any of you to understand; certainly I do not expect sympathy or forgiveness.

Anyway, Betelgeuse decided it was not yet finished its exotic dance. The erratic wobble continued to confound the experts on board, those brought along for their knowledge of space and celestial bodies. They spent hours checking and double-checking, their faces deteriorating in direct proportion to the time they spent on this. Displaying a mixture of shock and confusion they finally came to a shared conclusion that the cosmic rays emanating from Betelgeuse would miss Earth altogether.

Not proud to admit it, but we were not happy to receive this news. It was as if Betelgeuse were toying with us, angry at our feeble attempts to escape its wrath.

The conversation this time was loud and unfriendly, the latter touching on who we could blame for this fiasco. This time we were not so willing to go along with our leader. He wanted to continue on, his thinking being, so we suspected, that he was too old to consider starting anew in an obviously damaged world. We were not too old, however, so we voted him down then struggled to work the ship into a wide arc toward home. It was not easy, but by then, we were passionate about returning to Earth regardless of what we might find there. Our feeling was that we would be better off helping to restore the planet to its former glory than continuing a race into the unknown. I confess that governing at least part of my vote was the thought of seeing Nicole again.

We estimate that the deadly riots have reduced (culled is perhaps a better word) Earth's 12 billion souls to a manageable level, and though our long-range telescope shows evidence of mass destruction, including nuclear explosions, humanity is sure to survive. Civilization will be slow to return, but it will return.

So unnecessary, all of it, the riots, the killing, the destruction, the deaths of millions perhaps billions, all of it based on a premise that was never to happen.


* * *

We are less arrogant now than when we abandoned the poor unfortunates on Earth to an agonizing death. Less arrogant not only because of conscience, a feeling of having abandoned our own, but in recognition of the irony in what we now face. Humility has been forced upon us by the knowledge, confirmed by our on-board experts, that the killer gamma ray burst that wobbled all over the heavens might have missed Earth but it will not miss us. The wide arc so necessary to our turnaround has put us directly in its crosshairs. It is heading toward our ship at an incredible speed, and we have neither the time nor the ability to get out of its way. We, the self-proclaimed elite of humanity, will be elite in a way we had not counted on. We will be the only members of humanity to be fried by the gamma ray outburst of Betelgeuse. We calculate that we have but minutes left to live, barely enough time for me to send off this report.

The awareness of impending death reduces my shipmates and me to something akin to zombies, each of us retreating into a private reverie, walking about aimlessly while seeing no one. My last thought as I await the inevitable is of Nicole, the woman I loved but abandoned in a most shameful way. I wonder what she is thinking at the moment. Is she staring up at the sky where she thinks me to be? Is she smiling?


THE END


2016 Noel Carroll

Bio: For years the husband-and-wife team, Noel Carroll*, has published novels and short stories in two genres: thrillers and science fiction. A third genre, humor/satire, permitted them moments of fun and mischief. Although unwilling to abandon fiction, they steadily gravitated toward political commentary, first in opinion editorials and then in the full-length non-fiction work, “If You Can Keep It.” All their novels, short stories and essays have received highly favorable reviews, many being awarded five-stars. They currently make their home in Ponce Inlet, Florida. "Noel Carroll's" most recent Aphelion appearance was Aliens Need Not Apply in our April 2012 issue.

E-mail: Noel Carroll

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