The Pageant

Avis Lang and Neil deGrasse Tyson

“Esteemed colleagues of The Hundred,” Lunn pleaded, struggling to keep the rage out of his voice, “why are so many of you insisting we discuss the deficit? There’s a titanosaur in the room. Should we just wait for it to trample us?”

Venting a long, puffy sigh as he sank back down in the Speaker’s chair, Lunn briefly cast his eyes toward the chamber’s neo-Baroque dome, with its pink-tinged fantasia of maidens and cherubs frolicking amid the clouds. Painterly fluff inspired by a long-ago century. Nothing could be more unlike the present.

An archaeologist fond of working patiently with other careful, patient folk, Lunn had never sought the speakership, never imagined he’d be begged to spend most of his eleventh decade heading up Terra’s ruling coterie of oligarchs. But here he was—chance inheritor of all the rights to all the Northern Territories’ waterways—now in the middle of an eight-year term of governing the ungovernable, trying to maneuver his fellow one-percenters into carrying out their assigned task of protecting Terra and its eleven billion citizens. No more drawn-out dinners with his relentlessly brilliant daughter, arguing about the possibility of a better world. No more two-month excavations in ancient Mexico or old Manhattan.

Seething and sweating as he tried to keep himself from shouting at his colleagues, Lunn said to his inner self, Breathe, breathe, just breathe. These people are terror-stricken. None of this is your fault. You didn’t launch a giant UFO from Kepler-62 and personally usher it into our solar system.

The spacecraft was now within targeting range of Terra. The Hundred needed a plan. Maybe Thenna would help him dream one up at dinnertime if he broke the rules and told her what was happening.

He hoisted himself to his feet. “People. Friends. Colleagues. I repeat: this object is not a rogue rock. If it were, we would deflect it. Members, this is a potential near-term threat. A colossal, unimaginably advanced spacecraft will arrive in our neighborhood within weeks. Possibly this vessel is programmed to destroy every person on our planet. Who can say? We have to confront this now. Not months from now, when some commission presents an interim report. Now.”

Normally, meetings of The Hundred were virtual, held every Thursday via top-security QuantumTable from ten in the morning until one in the afternoon. Not this time. Not with this at stake. This time Lunn had demanded that every last oligarch be in Berlin, seated at their inherited desks in the chamber, before he would tell them what was happening.

“Members, I’m trying to focus on reality. Please help me do so. If you noticed, I mentioned only the possibility, not the probability, of destruction. We don’t know and can’t know what’s coming at us.”

Lunn closed his eyes and bit at his lower lip to steady it. Dampness surged in his underarms and the many folds of his midsection.

“But here’s what we do know. This object is hundreds of times larger than anything we’ve ever constructed ourselves. Solar Space Surveillance picked up its presence two months ago—just minutes before our satellites and communications links were put into safe mode because of the impending supernova in Virgo. I doubt the timing was coincidental. I think these entities, these…whatever the hell they are…may be able to monitor the temperature and pressure of star interiors, and that they knew long ago when Virgo’s brightest star, Spica, would go supernova—and how many centuries later its blast of energy would reach us. I also think they knew we wouldn’t register any signs of the supernova until just a few months beforehand, giving us very little time to mount our defenses.”

Lunn paused for a few more sighs of desperation. “Last week, our space scientists used our old ground-based telescopes to calculate its speed, size, trajectory, time of arrival, a few other things—not that the trajectory can’t change, since we’re assuming this thing is highly maneuverable. We’d be idiots to presume otherwise. But we can’t give up all hope of meaningful action as if we were living in the fourteenth century, sitting around praying while the Black Death kills us off by the millions.”

A bearded sixty-something member from the Rocky Mountain region of the Union of Northern Territories, a rancher with as much give as a concrete wall, banged on his desk bell and rose to have his say. The swirling pattern of deep-green photosynthetic bio-cells that decorated his golden forehead bunched themselves up in a frown.

“Colleagues. Friends and adversaries.” He ostentatiously laid his oversized right hand on his overstuffed right pocket, as if to remind the other oligarchs of his insistence on carrying barely hidden weapons. “We’ve always known that someday there would be a real crisis. Now the ultimate confrontation is a few billion kilometers and a few days away. We need to get all the children, sick, and elderly into our bunkers, and all the weapons and fighters ready to deploy. I move we issue an immediate Orange Alert and then adjourn this meeting. The fate of our species rests in our hands.”

A crowd of members jumped to their feet as the man sat down, but Speaker Lunn overrode them all.

“Thank you, Mubb. We couldn’t have asked for a clearer articulation of the Defenders’ point of view. Issuing an Orange Alert may be necessary at some point, but I’m not sure we should declare danger before we’ve developed a solid response to it. Corrh?”

A thin, stooped, copper-skinned man with a few vintage pencils protruding from his vest pocket made a slight nod accompanied by a fleeting smile. “What I want to say is simple: it’s irrational to talk about weapons and war when we’re on the verge of encountering organisms—or their surrogates—that have mastered so much more of the universe than we have. Our best weapons would probably have as much impact on them as throwing cherry pits at a stone wall.”

“Hear, hear!” yelled half the assembly, stamping their heels on the diamond-tiled floor as the other half sat immobile and silent.

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