LAUNCH

By: JJ Timmins

Chapter One

In the year 2112, the court of His Excellency Caliph Mu'alla Sabir was held in the main hall of the Royal Palace of the Caliphate, in the world capital, Salem (Peace).

Situated in the highlands of Central Africa, Salem was only fifty years old, and already home to twenty million citizens, all either employed in the business of governing the world, or working for or with those who did.

Legally, the supreme governing body of the planet was the United Earth Caliphate. The UEC was an Islamic Republic, its Parliament a two-house system composed of representatives from the one-hundred nations that remained in the world.

But, as Chief Spiritual Leader of the World, as the head of the Islamic Council of Experts, and Supreme Defender of the Faith, Mu'alla Sabir alone was history's first unrivaled global dictator. And in form and function, the UEC was his personal theocracy.

Sabir never though that it was due to his efforts that he attained such a position; it was the will of God. And in the name of God, Mu'alla Sabir, age 125, born the third son of a Lebanese scrap dealer, ruled the world.

The African summer day in Salem was hot. But daylight and heat never reached His Excellency's secure briefing room, ten stories below the ground floor of His palace. There, nine men waited - five of them viziers to His Majesty, and three of them were assistants to Professor Michael Holloway, 53.

His many titles included Chief Astronomical Vizier to His Majesty. He was also in charge of the Space Observation and Warning Department at the UEC's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in California. That day, he was there in both capacities.

The men were both nervous and bored - the Caliph was late. Despite his court title, the only time Holloway had met the Caliph was at a brief ceremony when he'd been appointed as his adviser. Though the Caliph's keen interest in technology was well known, he was only concerned with applications that further secured his control over the world.

Holloway thought: And now, I'm going to tell him that his world is ending. From a threat he has no control over.

The men stirred as the door opened. It revealed a tall young man with an aqualine face, dressed in a blue uniform. Silver stars adorned his collars. Everyone in the room stood up - it was Air Admiral Aadir Sabir, commander of the Royal Air and Space Forces.

"At ease," he said, waving for them to sit. "I greet you all in the name of Allah. You shall be in the presence of my father, the Caliph, in a few moments."

Holloway smiled at the familiar face. He had taught Aadir when he'd been an undergraduate, at MIT.

Aadir gestured to him. "Professor, may I have a word with you?"

"Yes, your highness." Hollow grabbed his tablet computer, and followed Aadir out of the room, into an adjoining office.

The office was empty, between occupants. Aadir used his wrist computer to perform a circuit sweep of the room. It came up green. His friendliness had been replaced by concern. But he still made pleasantries.

"Did you enjoy your flight?"

"I did, your highness." The Caliph flew his viziers in style.

"You can cut with the titles when we're together." His blue eyes were so intense that Holloway felt like he was staring at a pair of burning propane torches. "Tell me - how bad is it?"

Holloway reached to turn on his tablet, to show him, but Aadir waved his head. "You'll show your proofs in my father's presence. Just tell me."

"Well," Holloway said. "All I can say is that, it's over. The asteroid strike will be so hard… It'll be like the hit that tore the Moon from the Earth."

"How far out?"

"One year."

"Odds?"

"Fifty to one."

"That it misses?"

"No. That it strikes."

Aadir's breath caught. "Odds of a strike increasing, or decreasing?"

"Increasing. Weekly."

Aadir's gaze softened, and he hung his head. "Allah, grant us mercy."

Holloway allowed him his moment of prayer, and then said: "So, you think having our planet destroyed by an erratic, billion-year-old asteroid is the will of your Bronze Age, desert god?"

Aadir sighed. "The Royal Palace is no place for your atheist condescension, Professor. We're not back in your office, debating theism and atheism after class."

"It's not illegal to be an atheist," he said. "As long as I pay the jizzrah."

"So," Aadir said, looking him in the eye. "You're still married to atheism?"

Without reverting to Islam, it was illegal to take a wife. And casual dating was a convention of the past.

Holloway felt his face redden. "I have my principles, based on logic, science, and mathematics. They are as solid as the laws of physics."

"You are a principled man. And that's why I respect you," Aadir said. "But if I jump in during your presentation to the Caliph, don't intervene. My father's rancor seems to increase every year. His tolerance for non-Muslims seems to shrink daily." He looked up, to God, or to space, and back at the professor. "And, now, you and I have bigger problems than disagreements over religion."

"It seems that we all do."

The Caliph entered, all his subjects stood, until he was seated in the middle of his advisers, with his son at his right hand. Holloway did not feel the magnanimity of the royal Presence - Sabir was just a man, even if he was the only man on Earth born in the 1990s, his life extended by custom telomere therapy so that he still looked like he was in his mid-70s.

More interesting than the vizier, who wore a normal business suit, were his twin bodyguards - fully automated androids, who looked like steel-faced killers, their eyes hidden behind sunglasses, their polite business attire barely hiding bodies of armored death. Every schoolchild knew the vizier, but those, you never saw on camera, only in person. They flanked the door, and stood like statues.

Holloway stood at the screen in front of the room, and gave his presentation on Asteroid B8721, and its trajectory to intercept Earth. The Caliph spoke English, along with Arabic, Russian, and Spanish. The old man's gaze was intense. And the more Holloway talked, the more he realized that the Caliph, even aged, did project an air of authority that he found himself responding to.

When he had a question, he whispered it to Aadir, who relayed it to Holloway. Holloway finished, and he and his assistants then showed confirmation of their observations with data from Royal Astronomers in Moscow, Hamburg, Hawaii, and Tokyo.

When the last of the Caliph's questions were answered, only the hiss of air in the room's ducts was audible.

Holloway stood patiently. Finally, the Caliph asked, "What, professor, do you think God's will is, in this?"

It took Holloway a moment to realize that the Caliph had addressed him. "Your Excellency, with respect, I am an atheist."

"An atheist?" the Caliph asked, raising an eyebrow, and sitting up. The men stirred. Aadir did not. "I believe I recall that detail from your appointment as my vizier. But, it has been… decades, since I've met your like."

"I do confess, we're very rare these days, your Excellency."

"And tell me, professor, how that occurred, that the world turned from the desert of secularism to the oasis of Godliness."

Aadir sat up.

Holloway could not tell him, how the religious fervor took over the United States after the Second Depression, and the wars abroad and at home that had bankrupted the nation. How the youth picked up and adopted and recycled as their own, all things Arabic, how the secular freedoms of the past had reverted to patriarchal conservatism. He didn't know how it happened. He only lived with the consequences. The machinations of the religious revolution had occurred before he was even born.

After the long pause, he said, "Your Excellency, I study the stars, not the happenings of this world. I only live here."

"Then, We shall tell you how it occurred," the Caliph said. "Atheists like you tried to make a world without God. You only succeeded in blinding men to their own needs, and making men, politics, and sex, into gods. You idolized the tool that is science as a God. And the children of those atheists grew up starved for the food of the spirit. We delivered that to them, and they delivered the world to us."

"And now," the Caliph said, "The world is unified, under me, in praise of Allah. What this killer asteroid - this Shaytan is, is nothing but the arrival of al-Qiyamah. Judgment Day, professor. God will destroy this world, and in the wake of his fire, only the righteous shall remain."

The Caliph relaxed in his chair. "The Glory of God should be clear to you now, my young non-believer."

"I am hardly young, your Excellency. I'm 53."

The Caliph smiled. "I sired Aadir when I was 85. To me, you're barely more than a boy. Now, don't change the subject. How can you not believe, in light of such a prophecy fulfilled?"

"Well," Holloway said, skipping the honorifics. "What I see is a massive rock accidentally erasing the one spot in the universe where human life is known to exist. I see only gravity and physics at work. No God. Or gods. What I see is the light of the universe - the human mind - about to be extinguished. Forever."

The Caliph made no movements. He stared at him, and said, "Then, you see no solution to this problem?"

"I believe your son is in the best position to answer those questions, Excellency."

Aadir stood. "If we are stuck, and it is not a direct blow, we might be able to protect some survivors in deep shelters built into the bedrock." He glanced at Holloway. "But given the size of the hit… The planet will be shattered. Even bedrock will break up, and fly into space, or be swamped by the expansion of the molten core. And, the atmosphere will broil off into space. Immediately." He looked to Holloway. "Is that about right, professor?"

"It is."

"What about interception?" the Caliph asked.

"Father, the sum of our nuclear arsenal still falls far short of possessing the power to deflect this Shaytan. However, we might be able to break it up…" His voice trailed off.

"I see," the Caliph said. "Then, it is al-Qiyamah." He said, "We shall pray." They all bowed their heads as the Caliph stood, and held his hands upward. "God be praised that we might live to see your Holy judgment, and deliver to you this world of souls. God is Mighty! Allah au-Ackbar!"

The voices of the room boomed; "Allah au-Ackbar!"

Holloway stood, watching them. When they fell silent, he said, "Honored Caliph, might I suggest one more alternative?"

"Please do so, professor."

Holloway looked at Aadir as he said, "Thirty years ago, during the dissolution of the United States, a military space project was put on hold. It was called 'Orion Two.' It was a project to send human beings to orbit Alpha Centauri, and return them to earth, with the trip taking one decade.

"I believe this project is still viable, though I recognize it is a state secret."

"It is," Aadir said. "And, Orion Two has remained largely untouched. Mothballed in South Dakota."

Holloway said, "Your Excellency is no doubt aware that of the twenty thousand exoplanets discovered in the last century, only the one called Eden is a possible target for colonization."

"Yes. The Earth analogue," the Caliph said. "I see where this is going. But Eden is thirty-nine light years from Earth. That's ten times the distance to Alpha Centauri."

"Yes, your Majesty. But, we have what might be viable plans for preserving our species, by using Orion Two to colonize Eden."

"What you are suggesting," the Caliph said, "Is that some people should escape God's judgment."

"That's not what I'm saying," Holloway said.

"No," the Caliph said. "This is not an option. Our options are deflection, and preparedness for impact. If neither of these work, then it is undeniably the will of Allah that we must face al-Qiyamah, with our souls prepared. We shall all be judged. Even non-Muslims like you, professor."

"Your - "

"Silence," the Caliph said, standing. The room stood, too. "This meeting is adjourned. And its subject is now a state secret, shared between only us, divulged only on pain of capital punishment, until I decide how, and when, to inform the world of al-Qiyamah."

He departed. The room emptied, leaving only Aadir and Holloway.

"My father is not interested in this plan of yours," Aadir said.

Holloway crumpled notes, and slammed his things into his briefcase, "Yeah, that's obvious."

"But, Professor, I am." He fell silent, and did another circuit scan with his wrist computer. The room was clean.

He had Holloway's attention. "And, as Air Admiral, I own Orion Two."