21:3 My God, It’s Full of Stars

OUTER SPACE  |  2055

It took the unexpected grazing of the upper atmosphere in 1972 for astronomers to really pay attention to Comet Doherty-Humphrey. Astrophysicists agreed that the body had most likely come from a neighboring galaxy sixty-three light years away, having been knocked out of its orbit around a young star named Beta Pictoris by a collision with another exocomet.

Looking back at recorded sightings, Doh-Hum, as it began to be called, showed up out of nowhere in the late 19th century and had visited Earth eighty-three years later, getting startlingly close.

Officials attempted to soothe the world’s population after the last pass by postulating that the influence of Earth’s gravity during the Near Miss—as the world’s media soberly branded the event—would have had the effect of changing the trajectory of the giant ball of rock and ice. It did.

It was later projected—with enough degree of certainty to create Major’s mission out of whole cloth—that the next cycle would bring the visitor into direct contact with Earth somewhere near the independent Pacific Ocean nation of Hawai‘i.

Desperate cries from a frightened populace called for the reactivation of the world’s mothballed nuclear weapons in order to try to blow the massive frozen form out of the way of the planet. Cooler heads finally prevailed as the idea of the arrival of thousands of smaller—and probably now radioactive—pieces raining down through the atmosphere didn’t make anyone sleep any better at night; that is, if the aging bombs worked at all. That wasn’t to say that world powers were not holding that plan in reserve in case Major’s mission failed.

The captain himself had to admit that he had his doubts. The plan was to meet the world-killing frozen chunk of water, rock, and gas out beyond the orbit of Mars. Once there, the ship would get in step and basically unfurl a giant polyester bag around the comet and bombard it with gases in order to begin breaking it down into its elemental components. The hydrogen released by the comet would then be collected, stored, and used to get the crew back home once the mass was sufficiently mitigated.

If there was one thing that nagged at Major’s mind and kept him up at night, it was the uncertainty of what the crew would find once they started melting and processing the comet. It could simply be the frozen afterbirth of a young galaxy—but what if it was something else entirely?

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