Not politics. Science and a bit of science fiction, combined with a sad commentary on … a commentary.
A satellite is preparing to re-enter the atmosphere. It is of some interest; it’s fairly big and some thousand pounds or so are expected to make it back to Earth. (Not in one piece.)
Here’s an article describing the satellite and situation. But note how sad, how pessimistic, how uninspired are so many of the commenters.
Now for the fictional part. Some years ago, I wrote a short story that involves a similar event (this time, the International Space Station). I tried to get it right, and just a couple of weeks ago a retired NASA engineer (and one of the designers of the ISS) put his stamp of approval on it.
It might help you visualize what will be happening to that satellite.
But there’s another aspect to this story, written almost a decade ago. In it, I predicted that the sorts of religious fervors associated with the right would transfer to the left, focused on the environment. (In fact, this was already well along, but not so obvious as it is now.) So one of the characters in this story (part of a novel) is making that switch; he’s not exactly a “villain” per se, but in this short piece he seems a bit like one.
The Return from Space
August, 2018: Very quietly—for many reasons—the deal had been struck. One side must act first…
Whispers of death were not heard over the background noise, at first.
One problem that had plagued the International Space Station over its nearly two decades of existence was noise. Simply put, living and working there was loud. This had been noticed on the ground, and noticed more as the first pieces were placed in operation. It became a long-running joke: “In space, nobody can hear you talk.”
NASA had spent millions of dollars and had subcontracted out far more looking for solutions. Specifications for noise levels of new equipment were mandated, and much clever work was done to reduce the sound levels from equipment already there.
Nevertheless, it was similar to working in a noisy factory on Earth, which was a stark contrast to the silent, pristine blackness just outside the Station’s thin walls.
The decades-long struggle for noise reduction was now officially over. A very slight creaking noise from tiny stresses transmitted from the Station’s solar wings marked the beginning of the end.
The far reaching solar panels that had provided electrical power for years were now venturing into a new area: Sail power. These widespread lightweight surfaces were now feeling the first traces of the Earth’s death-dealing atmosphere. The Station had needed an occasional re-boost over the course of its life to deal with the tiny amount of air friction at more than 200 miles up, but things were beginning to happen quickly now.
Ghost-like, a haunted, three-masted ship coming about, the Station slowly twisted. A little more “sail” area on one side was enough to impart this moment of false life.
Cameras mounted at various places on the exterior transmitted images to observers below. To some supporters, this was a bit like watching the execution of an innocent prisoner. The more pragmatic engineers simply expected to treat the demise of the Station as data, and learn what they could from it. And it was watched by others, for very different reasons.
No one remained on duty here, of course, even though all of the noises of life continued inside. One camera could see what no one remained to observe in person—the wide Pacific below moving past at some seven miles per second. There was more sensation of speed here, at less than half of the Station’s usual altitude.
Off to the left of the path, the Hawaiian island chain was visible as a pattern of lights in the darkness. Moonlight bouncing off the highly reflective Earth made the speed of passing visible, but the volcanic clouds over Hawaii’s recently-erupted new island could not be picked out.
Ahead in the South Pacific lay other, smaller islands. These lights were modest compared to the Island State, but they were brighter than usual now. The planned stationfall had brought tourists swarming to destinations near the path—and some who did not exactly qualify as tourists.
The Station continued its gentle swing. Presently the camera view pointed back along the path. Daylight had been abandoned not far behind; the day’s dragging fenceline of shadow edge was still visible in the middle distance. Further behind, the Asian nations—among them giants, warriors, schemers and peasants—had paid little attention to the last trip of the once-proud International Space Station. Few there had any inkling of its significance.
It had been called “Freedom” once; that name had ultimately been determined to be politically incorrect and even a bit offensive as more partners of more stripes became involved. The name “Freedom” had long ago been sacrificed to satisfy the gods of politics; now the Station itself sailed over the horizon to the same certain fate.
Inside the Station, an accelerometer flickered into life, and included its message in the still transmitting telemetry. The Station was perceptibly slowing down.
Below was the Challenger Fracture Zone, a great collection of rifts and trenches demonstrating the turmoil in the Earth just below the seabed. The name was a coincidence, more or less, although this Challenger and the ill-fated Shuttle could trace their names back to the same parentage.
Had the Station continued in its current arc without interference, it would have created a considerable impression in lower South America. Air friction was about to make certain that it did not get that far—and that there would not be much left when it hit. But it would put on quite a show…
Lucas MacKenzie surveyed the crowd around him. He was satisfied, for now.
The private villa rented on the shore of Fiji had worked out well. It was far enough away from the village to give good sky visibility–and privacy. The muted hum of conversation was almost reverent, and in the near-darkness Lucas could see his upscale-casual-dressed “acolytes” glance frequently at the sky. From the open door of one of the bedrooms facing this large courtyard a TNN science announcer could be heard giving details of the descent of the Station.
Lucas had spent the past two days exhorting his flock on the significance of this event. His combination of environmental activism and Christian fundamental beliefs had struck a responsive chord in a well-heeled audience; it was an audience that he had only recently learned to tap. Lucas’s intense, wild-eyed delivery was mellowed by his very deep melodious Southern voice, and for most he was a genuine pleasure to listen to.
One of his converts had stumbled across an old recording of Everett Dirksen, a United States Senator who had recorded a hit “song” before most of those present were born. The businessman was surprised at the similarity of voice, but realized in a rare moment of cynicism that the Senator was a man of reason—and MacKenzie was man of passion. Mostly hate, he thought.
MacKenzie would not have been surprised at this characterization of him; he had gotten quite adept over the years at projecting exactly that image. But he knew that blind passion was likely to fail; he was a natural-born political animal, even more than the fabled Senator whose voice and delivery he had carefully studied.
The local natives had surprised him. He had forced himself to become a bit more cosmopolitan in recent times, but his upbringing still clung to him and made him uncomfortable dealing with blacks. For similar reasons, he had been trying to get past his youthful suspicions of “furriners” as well. He even called them “foreigners” now, although “foreign devils” had appeared in his more private speeches.
In times past, Lucas MacKenzie had focused his attention on education. His goal was to unseat the teaching of un-Godly science as the only way in which the world could be seen, and bring God back into the process. That work was not done, but he had made enough progress over the past decade that he could be justifiably proud of the results. There were few states left that did not now give equal time to the teachings of Creation, and good people, his people, continued this pursuit.
He remembered the day it dawned on him that his interests and the Greenpeace movement had much in common. He had attempted to place himself in their midst, but was rebuked by their comparatively moderate leadership. But Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the other environmental activist groups had access to lots of people, lots of hearts, and lots of wallets—and Lucas felt that these should be supporting his cause.
Surprisingly quickly, from an outsider’s point of view, his cause evolved. He wouldn’t have used that term, of course; evolution was the basis of much of what was wrong, in his mind. But quite quickly concepts and philosophies that would have seemed solid suddenly transformed into a new shape. He was now the Christian Environmentalist—and he was being heard.
The destruction of the Station—in about six more minutes—marked a major rallying point for Lucas and his rapidly growing flock. Mankind’s last major transgression into God’s heaven was coming to an end, and he’d get to the minor ones.
The fact that this destruction came at the price of further pollution to Earth’s fragile atmosphere and ocean would also suit his purposes.
His attention was caught by two dark faces to one side of the courtyard, two natives who had been intrigued to hear what Lucas’s group was about. His team had invited them to this evening’s gathering.
As nearly as he could tell, the Fiji folks he’d dealt with were black—and Chinese. These people looked just like what he might see in Union, Alabama, but they sounded to his ear like actors in martial arts movies. He didn’t know much about Fiji’s cultural history, and what he knew had been supplied by a few minutes looking at travel brochures. His people took care of those details.
MacKenzie knew that the prejudices that he had grown up with, that had been such a key part of him, now had to be discarded. He had a New Truth.
But he still had old habits.
Finally, visible movement. At a little over sixty miles up, a camera on a solar panel wing caught a perceptible flutter on one of the small panels, which projected from what had now settled out as the “front end” of the Station. That panel twisted rhythmically, gently at first and then with more urgent movements.
In the camera view, something more interesting was happening. The stars visible behind the fluttering panel faded out, to be replaced by a soft reddish glow. This shock wave of ionized air molecules formed a little shield a few feet in front of the Station, and increased in size and intensity in a matter of seconds.
But then that view slid sideways out of sight, then back, then was gone again. The strut that the viewing camera was mounted on was beginning to twist, itself the victim of the growing attack on the Station. A camera mounted on a central module, more protected, saw this storm-lashed mast moving in wind that had never touched it in its entire service life.
A clang reverberated through the once-inhabited compartments as the front-most panel was torn from its mounting, slamming into a pressurized hull section before it disappeared in the trail of sparks now marking the Station’s transit. In its collision it had sliced though that hull, and precious life-sustaining air boiled into the heated near-vacuum surrounding. No matter; the International Space Station had breathed its last.
The view of the Earth below was now partially obscured by the red glow cocooning the Station. That view shifted abruptly from side to side as the solar panels succumbed to the insulting pressures. Twenty more seconds, and the masts were bare. The Station had ended its brief career as a sailing vessel.
Another minute passed, and with wrenching metallic screams through the hulls the masts themselves gave way in rapid succession. The outside skin had reached seven hundred degrees centigrade, and nothing now protruded beyond the central hulls but glowing stubs.
“There it is!” came from the far side of the courtyard. It was almost too dark to see the silhouetted arm pointing at the sky halfway up from the horizon to the northwest. The crowd of people moved en masse in the direction of the voice and arm, as if the object could be seen more clearly from twenty feet closer. But as the faint moving pinpoint grew in brightness and was picked out by individuals, they stopped where they were and stared in wonder.
More seconds passed; the friction-fired blast furnace continued to eat at the Station, now twelve hundred degrees Centigrade. The joints between the hulls at right angles to the blast gave way, and the Station was now a limbless, wingless angel being cast down in a trail of fire.
“Behold!” intoned the commanding voice of their host. “See how the mighty fall from Grace!”
All other conversation had stopped abruptly, and the open door to the bedroom video had been closed. They didn’t need that now, and the light from the room became only a distraction.
The pinpoint moved across the sky. Its pace was leisurely compared to a meteor, and its brightness grew each second. No one could miss it now.
The wings and limbs themselves—the departed masts and pressure hulls—were mostly aluminum, plastic, glass. These were all but dissolved in the forge of re-entry; only the fifteen percent or so of heavier metals would survive to revisit the body of their birth.
Sections of walls of the narrow torso—all that was left of the once-proud outpost—burned through in the hellish fires that pressed so urgently. These breaches changed the shape of the charred corpse just enough to start a last violent convulsion to the side, and broadside to the blast the remaining ragged body gave up its tortured existence at last.
The slack-jawed spectators now saw a fireball, not a pinpoint. The glowing trail stretched behind it across a hand-span of sky, and each second made it more distinct.
Now individual pinpoints within the trail could be seen, brief messengers of the violence going on above the spectators’ heads.
“The fall of Man,” came the voice behind them, “of technological Man, of uncaring Man, of unGodly Man, is preordained. We witness it this night—God shows us now that He has lessons for us to learn. Pay close attention, my friends! For you are part of these lessons, and part of God’s plan for mankind! Man has sooted the cities, sullied the skies, soured the seas—and the Earth and the Heavens now turn their hand against…”
And even Lucas MacKenzie trailed off, distracted by the spectacle in the skies to the west. His followers gasped as one, and the sound was exactly appropriate for the world’s most expensive fireworks display.
The brilliantly burning segments, now on separate paths, arced down as the glowing shards had been doing for the last thousand miles, flaring brightly before ultimately winking out.
The heavier pieces ultimately made impressive but unseen splashes in the dark Pacific, quenching the fires that had mercilessly ended their lives together. In the next minutes, over an area thousands of miles long and hundreds wide, the smaller charred scraps fluttered down to join the earlier fragments in this common oceanic tomb. On the dark, undulating surface, almost nothing remained.
The Station was home at last.
From deep underground the United State’s Homeland Defense Forces headquarters, a message went out on a very unusual frequency, in a surprising direction:
“We have met our obligations. Everything of ours is gone, and we won’t replace it. You are to leave us in peace. Will you comply?”
From a very large object in powered station-keeping a few thousand miles past the Moon, came nothing for a while. Then, simply, “NO.”
Lucas MacKenzie’s prediction was coming true, in a way…
===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle