In the entire world, thirty-nine people had been told about Eros-3.
Twenty-two of them had committed suicide in the past four months, either on impulse or by elaborate rituals.
Eight of them had vanished mysteriousely.
Two of them, ardent Catholics, were currently clutching their rosaries and praying.
One of them was currently hanging by his neck from a rope in his pantry. Just as he kicked the chair over, he had remembered that suiciders went to Hell. So he was frantically trying to claw the rope off his neck as his face turned purple.
One was watching hardcore pornography, eating Doritos, masturbating, and crying. All at the same time.
Another one was standing in the Oval Office of the American White House, raping the Secretary of State while he watched the timer ticking down on his computer screen.
The last four, who had somehow managed to keep a tenuous hold on their sanity, were standing around an array of viewscreens on the top floor of the United Nations Headquarters in New York, drinking coffee and talking small talk.
It was a funny feeling knowing that the world was going to end in precisely 5 minutes and 24 seconds. That was the thought shared by each of the three members of Project "End" as they stood around the viewscreens, waiting for the 400-megaton asteroid to hit Earth.
Jennifer Ilyanov, the leader of Project "End," slowly turned away from the array of screens, which were currently showing satellite images of Asteroid Eros-3 from different angles. She walked away from her two subordinates, towards the big picture window at the top floor of the UN Headquarters building, and stared languidly down at the busy cityscape. How incredibly absurd that 20 million New Yorkers were going placidly about their lives— working and fucking and getting robbed— without knowing they were about to be turned into so much stardust.
When she had been picked as the leader of this project, she had been ordered to make a difficult decision. To either tell the whole world about Thanatos-3, and provide the whole world with top-secret satellite images showing the asteroid.....
Or, to keep it under wraps.
As a former KGB agent, she (of course) opted to keep it under wraps. The how was left up to her. She had considered a wide variety of methods; everything from having each person shadowed by an army of private detectives, to having pacemakers implanted in their bodies that would give them a fatal electric shock as soon as they mentioned the asteroid.
In the end, she had decided to just trust these people. Sure, there had been some leaks over the last three years of the project. But each one was artfully debunked as a hoax. And the person who leaked the information simply vanished.
As she watched vehicles, as small as junebugs, inchworming down the streets, she felt a odd sort of regret that Eros-3 had been kept a secret. On the upside, the world had gone about its petty wars, environmental destruction, and endless expansion in perfect peace and harmony.
Yet, Jennifer still felt an odd, perverted,sort of regret that she hadn't seized the opportunity to tell the world about the asteroid, thereby....... mixing things up a little bit. Just like a little kid pissing on an anthill to watch the bugs run around in circles.
She leaned her head up against the window and looked straight down. The designers of the UN headquarters, showing some strange flair for design, had set the window into the wall. And right underneath the window were a set of ridges thatlooked just like stairs. Stairs to nowhere. Since Jennifer had first seen this view, she had entertained an idea of painting it. Paintinghad been a passion of hers as a child. But she never had painted it. And, she thought with a pang of regret, she never would.
Presently, John Anderson turned away from the viewscreens and drawled, in his thick, syrupy Texas accent,
"Jennifer, y'all might wanna see this."
Jennifer detached herself from the window. Even as she briskly walked over to the viewscreens, whe asked,"What is it?"
John made a pitiful attempt at a smile. It collapsed. "It's the end, baby."
Jennifer moved towards the screen. Through the eye of the Hubble Telescope, she watched the blackish lump of rock, surrounded by its own aura of superheated gas, descending towards the Earth.
Harry looked up from the screen first. He tentatively asked,"Hey...do you....do you think we should....you know..... pray?"
Jennifer and John both shrugged at the same time. Harry took this as encouragement. As he rattled off a badly mangled version of the Lord's Prayer, all three bowed their heads. Jennifer listened to the steady one-second ticks of the timer. To her, they sounded like they were racing by.
Harry stuttered through a sentence, then abruptly stopped. "Guys, I ..... I can't remember any more."
Suddenly, one of the screens went blank. The asteroid had taken out the Hubble.
John scratched his head, "So what do we do with the last of our lives?"
They all shrugged and stared at each other. They were still thinking of what to do when the asteroid hit.
When the timer hit 0, all three of them stared at the ominous array of screens. With deft keyboard strokes, Jennifer called up the LAN-SAN satellite over Siberia, where the asteroid had hit. She watched the shockwave, slowly expanding like the ripples of a pebble dropped in a pond.
Harry said, referring to the shockwave, "So.... how long... before it hits us?"
John shrugged, "Dunno. Twenty minutes maybe. No more than an hour, who knows?"
Another screen started beeping. Another satellite was taking a reading of the megatonnage of the asteroid. The numbers climbed at an obscene rate. Then, they suddenly stopped.
Harry clicked the mouse button once. The screen flooded with tiny figures that only he could read. His big, watery eyes suddenly expanded. He started stammering desperately, and jabbing his index finger wildly in the direction of the computer screen.
His colleages looked at him with a mixture of disgust, confusion, and alarm.
He finally sputtered out a half-intleligble sentence, "It's....okay! It's okay! We're gonna live!"
Fifteen minutes later, the satellites stationed over Siberia had done a full damage assessment. The asteroid had powered through a tenth the surface area of Russia, almost two million square miles. It had flattened untold billions of trees, killing unknown millions of animals andhundreds of thousands of people.
The environmental impact would be devestating. The cleanup would take years, maybe decades.
And the world had permanently changed for the worst.
But each of the three members of Project End were on Cloud Nine.
Because Planet Earth was going to be okay.
And humanity had one last chance to redeem itself. As her eyes filled with grateful tears, Jennifer thought to herself, now I can paint the view from that window.
John finally came back into the penthouse with the bottle of champagne,
"Ya know.... I never thought I'd need to pop this, what with the world ending and all...."
The other two, already drunk on happiness, both tittered. John took this as encouragement and said,
"Bu there goes!"
He popped the cork and a jet of bubbles burst out the top like a giant cumshot.
All three of them drank. To good health. To humanity. To love and hate and war and peace and everything that makes humanity.... what it is.
Then, as Harry was blissfully sipping his champagne and John and Jennifer were necking, one of the screensstarted beeping. It was the only screen not currently dedicated to disaster coverage of the asteroid wreckage. Harry set down his still mostly full glass of champagne and walked towards the screen.
His pale face turned an impossible shade of brilliant white.
His voice trembled, "Guys.......?"
Jennifer, sensing her duties as the leader of the project, resentfully detatched herself from John and walked over from the screen, already wavering slightly from the booze.
"What?" she snapped.
He pointed wordlessly at the screen, his eyes filling with tears and his face wavering like a tarp stretched over a nest of worms.
She looked at the screen and gasped. With a mouse click, she brought up a world map, with the countries outlined in black. She watched in dazed horror as countries turned abruptly red.
John ambled lazily over tohis colleague, still wearing his trademark "I got the hot girl" smirk.
He squinted at the screen. "What does this mean?" he asked offhandedly.
Jennifer turned to him with tears in her own eyes. "Those are all the countries.... that are launching nuclear weapons."
Just then, the CNN readout on the closest screen switched to a shot of the Russian president, his snakelike glare on the screen, his cheeks red as he shouted at the camera.
A frazzled woman was struggling to provide a translation. "We shall not....... let..... this heinous.... nuclear attack.... go... er... unpunished....."
Suddenly, the United States lit up on the world map. Then France. And Britain. The old NATO and Warsaw countries, the SEATO countries, the British Commonwealth countries.....
Then, it sunk in. Insanity descended on John. He turned away from the screen, his face white and sweating, but curiousely free of emotion. He brought his big, granite-hard fists down on Jennifer. With a few quick punches, he doubled her up. A few more, and she was lying on the ground. Then he kicked her, his blank, zombie face sweating with the effort. He finally turned and walked away.
Harry, trembling, backed quickly out of his path like a beaten dog. Without any pause, John took a pistol out of some pocket hidden in his suit and blew his brains out.
Harry opened his mouth as though to scream. What came out was a thick, whiny sound. He scurried towards the big picture window. Picking up a metalstool sitting on the floor beside it, he smashed the window. A huge section of the safety class crumbled into tiny granules. Then, with the busy,subservient attitude of a businessman going to an appointment, he straddled the window, stood on the ledge, and walked down the stairs.
One step, and he dissappeared to his knees.
Two, and he dissappeared to his waist.
Three, and only his upper chest was visible.
Four, and he screamed. A piercing cry that quickly faded. Then he was gone.
Jennifer, lying in a heap of ruptured organs and broken bones, whimpered.
She didn't live to hear the bang.