by Noel Carroll
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
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."
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
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
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
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?
© 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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