Imagine heading home from work on Christmas Eve, back to your family, knowing that the world is about to end.
The Lixitus asteroid was first discovered in 2005, various planetary defence agencies since tracking the course of its orbit around the sun. Upon first monitoring the trajectory of Lixitus’ orbital path, using the Yarkovsky Effect, animations were created, estimating the most accurate determination of the potential threat posed to life on earth. The results showed just five possible impacts, or near-misses, the first of which not occurring until 2126, at a cumulative chance of one-in-two-thousand-and-four-hundred. Each year, those odds have fallen. Until chance itself fell.
This is our job at the agency, knowing of these things and feeding to the public only the palatable, minor notes of caution to our existence on Earth. For example, it is freely read that tens of tonnes of space rocks, dust and particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere each day, with most of those objects burning up in fireballs upon entry, fizzling into harmless pieces that scatter upon the planet. It has also been happily disclosed that there is a total of almost twenty thousand NEOs – Near Earth Objects – in the orbit of our little rock, with a further average of thirty added each week. Most of those, of course, were discovered by NASA. But it was our little agency, hidden in the countryside of the South Downs in Sussex, who first found Lixitus. As is usual, and in pride of the delight of our discovery, the news of Lixitus was made public back in 2005, with just a few updates on her statistics and characteristics since disclosed. With the odds falling, Lixitus’ collision course set, there has lately been no public information shared of the massive asteroid; of our impending apocalypse.
It is calculated that just five-thousand-eight-hundred-and-seventy-three people know with certainty of the impact to come: Two world leaders, The Pope, a handful of trusted scientists and aeronautic experts, select members of U.S Congress and other government agencies around the world, and those of us who work in Planetary Defence Coordination offices. Probability decrees that the figure is greater. Non-public disclosure is simply the way that the protocol has been agreed, recommended by NASA’s Planetary Defence Officer, Stanley Stauvastiz. It is not war; there is no one responsible for the disaster, holding others’ lives in their hands. There is nothing that can be done, except for to keep those we love close, to make peace, and to satisfy our souls.
Later this night, this Christmas Eve, it is inevitable that some will have shared with others the news of our catastrophe – if they have not done so already – and that it shall snowball. As is the wont of humans, as has been shown by those already predicting that life on Earth shall soon end – and they have been close, at times –, most will dismiss the existential news as hearsay and doom mongering. After all, in these modern times the hands of the Doomsday clock are always close to pointing at midnight.
The totality of the devastation cannot be known for sure; whether the result will be a total extinction of mankind and life on Earth, or whether life may survive on some scale. Selected souls have already been evacuated to the International Space Station; others leaving in shuttles, who will watch the impact from space, to assess the unlikelihood of whether they might be able to soon return. Their number is but few, people and animals, a galactic Noah’s Ark, and their cargo is light.
There was little said between us when we left work just now, only a few of the team remaining in the offices. Sad smiles, hugs, pats on the back, “Give my love to __”, and other hopeless sentiments . . .
“Have a Merry Christmas.”
As I drive homewards, just over the county border, the sun is slipping away behind me, off to my left, dragging with it the brighter patches of the cold sky. The feeling that I have is that I am seeing everything for the first time, discovering new colours in the trees and sounds through my open window, feeling the sting of the breeze, observing the people on the pavements as alien beings. A new world.
‘Phone home,’ I say, holding down the button on the steering wheel.
‘Hello?’ a little voice says after half a ring. I can hear his breaths, holding the mouthpiece too close.
‘How’s my little man?’
‘Is that the best that you can do for daddy? Just, “Good”?’
‘Have you got chocolate, daddy?’
‘I think that you should wait to see if Father Christmas brings you any.’
‘Daddy, I saw him today! Father Christmas. He was in the . . . the thing. Where mummy buys flowers. He gived me a . . . Mummy, what did Father Christmas give me?’ Ezra yells into the mouthpiece. ‘A yo-yo,’ he says, after I hear Sophie tell him. ‘It lights up and I’m really good on it already. I can show you, if you like.’
‘Can’t wait, buddy.’ The sad smile that I had shared with my colleagues replaces my easier grin. ‘I’ll be home soon, Ezzie. Can you pass the phone to mummy, please, bud?’ I hear his heavy breaths moving away from the phone. ‘No, wait. Ezzie? Ezra?’
‘She’s just coming. It’s daddy, mummy,’ he says.
‘I love you, Ez,’ I say. Ezra has already put the phone down.
‘Hi,’ Sophie says, sounding stressed, worn out.
‘Hey, darlin’. So you saw Father Christmas today, I hear.’
‘That place was hell. I mean, I had to get them out of the house. They’ve been doing my head in. Kiri has turned into a shit machine. Every time I change her, she just explodes. No, get away from the oven, Ezra. Don’t touch it, it’s hot: You know that. Read a book or get the iPad or something. I’ve got to go, Craig. I’ve got so much to do before tomorrow. Apparently mum and dad have both got colds that they’re bringing to us, too.’
‘I was just phoning to say that I’m on my way. Home in twenty, thereabouts; there’s not much traffic.’ There are surprisingly few cars on the roads; more people out walking this evening; making the most of our final sunset. We will see the sun rise again, but most of us will not finish our Christmas lunch. Nor have the time to catch a cold.
‘Don’t scream at him, honey.’
‘Well, you’re not here, are you. It’s easy for you to say, you’ve been at work all day, while I’ve endlessly been –’
‘I love you,’ I interrupt. ‘Go and tell Ezra that you love him, too. Hold him on your knee. Or just sit and read a magazine until I get back, or take the kids outside. Go to the park. But please don’t get worked up. Not today.’ Waiting to see if Sophie will respond, I can hear Ezra Goo-goo Gaa-gaaing to Kiri. There is even stress in Sophie’s silence. ‘I’ll help you when I get home, Soph. I promise.’
‘Urgh. Stop that, Ez. She’s too small. There’s so much to do, Craig. I’m so behind, there’s no way that I can sit down. I haven’t had a moment’s peace to even wrap anything yet, and I –’
‘I’ll help you,’ I almost whisper. ‘Sophie . . . I love you.’
‘Ez! I just told you. Craig, I’ve got to go. See you soon.’
In the sound replaced, I can hear a Christmas song piping from the outside speakers of the country pub as I drive by. A group are shuffling as a crowd back to their car, chatting, laughing. A slightly floppy reindeer is lit up on the lawn of a house garnished with bright and garish decorations.
The sun is fading further.
The decision that Stauvastiz recommended is the correct one. I wish that I was as incognizant of what awaits.
On the stereo, I put the Public Service Broadcasting track Go! on. The Race for Space album is an office favourite, a masterpiece of remarkable originality. As always, the energy of it lifts me. The voices from Mission Control, archive excerpts sampled from the Apollo 11 mission, have stark meaning on this journey:
“Everyone sit down.
Get prepared for events that are coming . . .
Good luck to all of you.”
I try to continue listening, to feel what I should, but it is making me tense, sad, frightened, no matter how much I try to erase the feeling. The greatness of mankind, the achievements, the kindness as well as the hatred. The Christmas presents that we have all bought. It doesn’t matter that we have explored space. I’m not sure that anything matters anymore, if it ever has.
But for the noise in my head, I complete the rest of the journey in silence.
Our road is busy with parked cars: Packed driveways and curbs. The external festive lights are aglow on some houses; nearly all are lit up inside, alive with cheerful white light. As soon as I am parked in front of our house, I brush a hand over my face and quickly leave the car.
My key is not even out of the lock on the front door before I hear, ‘Daddy!’
I scoop Ezra, dressed in his elf PJs, up into my arms. I cannot bear to take my eyes from his face, his perfect row of pearly teeth. The smooth, buttery skin. The wonky fringe. The scent of baby soft detergent.
‘I love you, bud. So much.’
‘This is my yo-yo.’
Ezra swings the yo-yo, unspun from the wheel, the length of string as long as he is tall, bashing it against the wall and hallway table, making the dotted lights inside the casing flash. As he swings it, he sways in my arms, bumping against my chest with each oscillation.
‘That is such a cool toy. Father Christmas must have thought that you’ve been a good boy, huh?’
‘He smelt a bit. Like flowers, but also like poo,’ Ezra chuckles.
‘Did he now?’ I say, bopping a finger against his tiny nose. ‘Let’s go and see mummy. See what we can do to help. Do you want to help?’
‘Have you got chocolate?’
‘Not just now, Ez. I’ll see if I can arrange something later.’
In the kitchen, Kiri is in her bouncer, eyes wide and manic, her face twitching with each movement as her chubby hands grab at the row of spinning shapes in front of her. She is not even distracted by my kiss, rewarded by just a milky gurgle, more dribble slipping down her chin. Sophie is on the phone, stirring some kind of concoction in a mixing bowl. She acknowledges me by rolling her eyes and a shake of the head.
She won’t shut up, she mouths. It could be one of a number of people on the other end.
I place a long, careful kiss on the side of her neck.
‘Come on,’ I say quietly to Ezra as he bounces Kiri’s seat across the kitchen floor. ‘Let’s go through to the other room.’
Carrying Kiri in her chair, we go through the double doors to the sitting room, partly open plan to the kitchen. The lights on the tree are flashing crazily, likely from Ezra playing with the junction box. I tap it until they become static. From the sofa, I grab Ezra’s Elf hat and squirm it onto his head. He goes straight to the presents piled beneath the tree, shaking them, messing Sophie’s arrangement – which she has probably reset at least three times today.
I look past the tree and the lights, up into the darkening Christmas skies.
The TV remote is balancing on a spruce branch – no doubt a decoration added by Ezra. I flick on the telly, find the festive one hundred, and whisk Kiri out of her bouncer. Cliff Richard is singing Saviour’s Day, arms out in worship, praising in front of the Durdle Door arch. I mute him: There is no way that I will allow for that to be one of the last songs that I will ever hear. Watching Cliff poncing about in his raincoat, Kiri’s expression is of confusion. Aimlessly, I wonder what Cliff would do if he knew that the world was drawing towards its final hours; whether he would watch himself on telly.
Would I have muted Cliff if I didn’t know of our annihilation?
‘Tell me what else you’ve been up to today, Ez? Are you excited about Christmas?’
Ezra has managed to tangle his yo-yo in the branches of the Christmas tree. Needles shred from it as he tugs, wobbling the tree. I go to help him. To save disaster.
The thought of what is to come is always flitting close to the edges of my thoughts, cruelly zapping at my senses, banging against them and lighting up like Ezra’s yo-yo. That feeling again of every object and thing seeming as foreign as new, like I have just landed here, something from outer space . . .
In the agency, we have been observing the path of Lixitus for months, watching in hopeless wonder and fear. Through all that time I have been able to keep my knowledge cool, in reserve, preparing for how I would deal with it when the time came. Now that it is almost here, bare hours away, I had not anticipated feeling such sadness and pain at every turn.
‘See? He’s been wild today. Out of control.’
We carefully peel the last of the string out of the tangle in the branches, pinging a couple more needles to the floor. Before I can wind it up for him, Ezra has ripped the yo-yo from my hands.
‘Just roll it along the floor, Ezzie. No more swinging. Soph, it doesn’t really matter. Here . . .’ She allows me to take her into my embrace, falling stiffly against my shoulder. How would she be behaving if she did know? ‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘Ez.’ He is now bouncing the yo-yo, through the fabric of the chair, against Kiri’s padded bottom. ‘I just want to go to bed,’ Sophie says. ‘I don’t think that I’m ever going to get everything done.’
‘We can do it tomorrow. Let’s give Ez one present now, to calm him down a bit. And then let’s go out. Walk around the town as a family. See the lights. Look at the clear skies. It’ll wear them out. I’ll do all the wrapping when we get back; you can sit with a glass of wine and watch some old rubbish on the box. I’ll help you with the food in the morning, whatever we can’t get done tonight. Promise.’
‘We can’t go out, Craig. How can we? There’s no way. I’ve got to finish the dessert. I just –’
‘We can do whatever we want.’ I kiss the side of her mouth. ‘I love you. So much.’
‘Are you alright?’ she asks, stepping back and giving me a quizzical look, her expression altering slightly as she ponders the possibilities. ‘Why are you so lovey-dovey tonight?’
‘Because . . .’ So many times, on so many different days, I have considered telling Sophie all that I know about Lixitus’ perilous advance, but decided that to do so would be selfish. Tomorrow is forecast to be cloudy, with a chance of snow. ‘Because it’s Christmas. I just want to be with you and the kids.’
‘Mel and Christopher asked if we want to go over for drinks later. I said that I’ll check with you first.’
Before we leave for the town, I tell Mel and Christopher that we won’t be able to make it; that we’ve got too much to do before the big day. For some reason I decided to take a spare cracker over for them as a gift, having just laid the table for tomorrow. We won’t need it.
After we park the car, I discreetly delete the series of texts that I received:
Oh. My. God!!! I just opened one of your presents! xxxx
You know how I can never resist 😉 xxxx
I promise that I’ll wear them for you when I next see you 👙 xoxoxo
Lemme know when we can meet over Xmas. LU ❤️
Where are you?! x
I have turned off my phone and won’t turn it back on again. Ever.
We walk through the pedestrian Georgian colonnade walk, our favourite part of the town, surrounded by the Christmas lights, wishing Merry Christmas to the passers-by. Ezra is holding my hand, his new Space Shuttle hanging from his other hand. Kiri is in her sling, against my chest, and my arm is around Sophie. Her shoulders are slightly more relaxed now.
I try not to tell her that I love her after every dozen steps, or so.
The feeling in my heart is stronger now than the thoughts pricking at my head.
Maybe there will be lucky ones tomorrow and maybe it will be us. I know how lucky I have been to have them at all, my little family, however I have taken them for granted. Has any of it ever mattered: Walking upon the Moon, colonization, the battles and the wars? Knowing that I have loved and been loved, I believe now that some things do. The things that are made to survive, simply for having existed.
‘Look, Ezzie! I think that might have been Father Christmas flying by. Did you see?’
‘Yeah!’ he says, his wide eyes shining into the clear, dark evening, scanning over the New Moon. He is buzzing with excited energy. I guess that I am, too. ‘I did, daddy. Is he going to our house? Will he be there when we get back?’
‘Not ‘til later, my little man. He’s got lots of work to do first.’
Slipping from my hand, Ezra jumps two-footed up the steps and back down, speeding his shuttle around. The bobble at the end of his elf hat bounces up and down. We stop to watch him. Sophie and I chuckling together.
I look again up into the Christmas skies. I see the stars.