2.3 One Frame
Conradville, Lussac-Copernicus North Colony: 29 May 2107
Melissa was too young to understand the significance of what the screen was depicting and lay asleep in Janet's arms.
But Janet and Bahira were only too aware of the cost. They stared unbelieving as the ring of destruction consumed the lower part of the South American continent and spread into Antarctica. Neither the Atlantic nor the Pacific oceans escaped it. How could it have caused such carnage? And why was it extending far further than expected? Surely, it wouldn't cross the equator.
But, unrelenting, it continued to devour the Earth. Bahira bit her nails down as it reached Africa and Spain before devastating the rest of western Europe.
Stop, Janet silently begged, please stop. But she was ignored. She tried to locate newscasts still broadcasting from Earth but could find none, in any language.
Janet cried openly as Scotland fell to the onslaught, thankful that both her parents and grandparents were no longer alive to suffer, but her friends there... all gone. She clung to Bahira and let out a whimper when Sweden disappeared; Keifer had only managed to phone his parents three days ago, they had been worried but, like the rest of Scandinavia, felt they would be able to survive the predicted oncoming decade of winter.
This was worse than any winter.
Further south neither the Arabian deserts nor the Indian ocean could halt the line of fire. Soon it was Bahira's turn to watch the destruction of her birthplace as Pakistan succumbed.
Melissa, awake again and caught up in her mother's emotion, also started to cry. Janet tried to explain but the words wouldn't come out.
The phone rang. Janet's hands shook as she pressed the answer button.
Keifer's face looked out – eyes as red as hers. He nodded to Bahira, recognising her presence.
"Daddy," Melissa shouted.
"Sverige är borta," he cried – Sweden is gone. His image faded in and out – the connection to Tycho was mostly radio and was experiencing abnormal levels of interference.
"Allt är borta," Janet whispered through her sobbing. "It's all gone. Scotland, Sweden." She reached an arm around Bahira's shoulders. "Pakistan, too."
None of them could say anything for a while. Melissa, cradled in Janet's arms, reached to touch her father's virtual face.
Janet looked back at the screen. Russia, Indonesia and Australia were being consumed.
"Want to come home," he said. "We all do... But, but arbete – work..."
She nodded, unable to speak.
"Soon, älskad," he promised as his face faded, leaving Janet staring at a blank phone screen until the inevitable 'Connection lost' message replaced it. She tried to dial back, unsuccessfully.
Across the room, the holographic screen showed nothing apart from the rage of the lightning-filled cloud that shrouded the whole Earth.
With Melissa cocooned between them, Janet and Bahira hugged each other and sobbed.
Several hours later, Bahira left, exhausted and Janet tucked Melissa back into bed before dropping back onto the sofa. She felt empty, drained of all emotion; numb to the fact that Earth was gone and they were on their own. Billions had just been wiped out, they were barely a million. Could they make this work? Any alternative was unimaginable.
Her head ached. Her jaws ached. Her hands quivered.
She switched off the screen, stared at the blankness the holographic projection normally occupied. She decided to go to bed but knew she wouldn't be able to sleep, and switched it back on again. Something nagged at her. There had been something early on, before Bahira had arrived that, in all the horror, had surprised her. And now, she couldn't remember what. She reset her recording back to the point just before the asteroid first entered the atmosphere. Her finger hovered over the play button hanging in front of her hand.
"Do I really want to see this again?" she asked herself.
Then she swallowed and waved her finger across the button.
After a few seconds – there! A flash. What was it?
She slowed the playback down, stopping moments before the impact occurred. Stepping frame by frame she discovered that, in one, the asteroid could plainly be seen outside the atmosphere, hanging above a normal Earth. However, the next frame was completely different – though not as far as the asteroid was concerned; it had merely travelled closer, appearing otherwise identical to the previous frame. No, it was Earth's atmosphere that had altered; something like a mesh of linked lightning arced around the planet. White tendrils concentrating near Argentina's southern tip, close to where the rock was about to connect. Had some sort of electrical charge transferred to the planet just before impact? But nothing had touched the asteroid itself.
After a half-dozen or so frames, approximately an eighth of a second's worth, the glow returned to invisibility and, in the following frame, the asteroid entered the atmosphere. She played it through several times but couldn't come to any conclusion as to the cause, though she realised it coincided with the loss of the news report that she had also been viewing.
After making a note of the exact frame she let the playback continue at slow speed. The destruction erupting in the next few frames made Janet's eyes water again but her tears halted when, half a minute after the asteroid hit, she discovered the anomaly. A single frame in which the Earth was normal. On the frames either side, the southern tip of Argentina had been replaced by boiling seas and flaming atmosphere, with the red glow of magma erupting through the devastation. But, on that one frame, the continent was still intact, unblemished.
How could that possibly be? A glitch in the recording? Had an earlier frame been placed out of sequence? How could she find out? She pulled up MoonNet and searched. She read that each frame had a timestamp as part of its meta-data. She separated out the frame, as well the ones immediately before and after, into single files and pored over the associated meta-data in each. No, the timing was correct, the frame data wasn't out of sequence.
Staring at that single aberrant, impossible frame she wondered what it could possibly mean.
Then she sighed, flopping back on the sofa. What was the point? The live pictures coming in of the Earth showed that no one could have survived the disaster. It was possible that not even bacteria remained alive in that inferno.
Earth was finished. Dead.
Thank you for reading Splinters. Do please vote and/or leave a comment to tell me what you think.
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The Moon colonists watch in fear as an asteroid, far larger than the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, plummets towards the Earth. The collision leaves the planet blackened and lifeless. Can the colonists survive their sudden en...