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The Moose Jaw Event
“The celebrated auto-science-fiction writer Justin Smith-Ruiu is on fire. Literally, we fear.” —Gleb Bezrukov, The Kuiper Belt Quarterly
Oh man, I am fucked. Look, I mean, I know we’ve all got problems, or, more precisely, we’ve all got one big problem, but I’ve got that exact same problem, plus another one, just as big, right on top of it. I don’t really understand why so many people are treating this all as a big joke, running around with their “Apocalypse 2024” t-shirts, holding their giddy “Out With A Bang” rave-rallies in stadiums they’ve rebranded as “craters”, and generally being just as short-sighted, almost right up to the very last day of the history of life on earth, as human beings always have been. But what really gets me are the slogans they’ve been chanting at the rallies: “1-3-585! Why is Justin Smith alive?!” and so on. Never mind about them not even respecting my name change. I’d be fine with them calling me whatever they want, if they’d just respect my right to live, or at least to live as long as they do. I mean, I know we’re all going to die, but somehow that grim fact would be easier to swallow if the whole world did not want to kill me first.
It all started about three months ago, when a previously undetected long-period comet in retrograde orbit struck a good-sized asteroid while passing through the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. The body in question, 5.5 kilometers wide, broke roughly in half, and the impact was powerful enough to launch the slightly larger portion of it, just under three kilometers in diameter, out of its own orbit, barreling directly towards Earth. Traveling at 25 km/second from a distance of roughly 200,000,000 kilometers, scientists quickly calculated that within around ninety-two days the errant object would either pass harrowingly close to our planet, or slam directly into it. With each new day, those same scientists revised their calculations, and the probability of a direct impact just kept growing and growing. By the end of the first two weeks it was surging up past 33%.
The truth is I still wasn’t giving it much thought. Like so much else that had gone through the news cycle before it, like the bedbugs, like the viruses, like all the damned wars our craven ape species prosecutes to no end, this was yet another “current thing” to keep the chattering classes and their peon armies on social media busy for a while. I suppose I was in denial, and surely part of my perception of unreality had something to do with the fact that not long before the comet struck the asteroid and sent it careening towards Earth, I had myself been messing around with this precise scenario as the premise for a little fiction I wanted to write — and may just have ended up writing, if the world weren’t about to come to an end in the very same way I failed to write about. Crazy!
I was pretty serious about the idea, it’s just that I couldn’t find my “hook”. I even struck up a correspondence with Dr. Jim Gimlin at the NASA-JPL Center for Near-Earth Object Studies, and sought to learn from him the broad outlines of how such a cataclysm might occur. As this was for the purposes of fiction, I explained, it was enough for the imagined scenario to be physically possible, and by no means did it have to be even remotely probable.
My own initial scenario had envisioned two colliding main-belt asteroids, but Dr. Gimlin explained that because all the asteroids are following a similar orbit, it is unlikely that any collision between two of them could provide the relative velocity necessary to send one of them in an Earth-bound direction. A comet could in principle do that, as it follows a very different orbit, but the main-belt asteroids are so widely spaced as to make any such impact extremely unlikely. If it were to happen nonetheless, the chances of a post-collision trajectory causing a second collision with Earth are even smaller, and, Jim concluded, “[m]ultiplying two tiny probabilities yields such a small number that a collision scenario like this is simply ridiculously implausible, even if physically possible.” In a follow-up message, he clarified that this is not in itself a reason to shy away from writing about an asteroid collision, but only that to do so, as he put it, “takes balls”.
It is perhaps an indication that I am a writer who “lacks balls” that I did indeed put this particular story into mental deep-storage. Which is where it would have stayed, certainly, were it not for the peculiar development I’ve already explained: that a comet in fact collided with a main-belt asteroid and broke off a significant chunk of it, which after one month the experts believed to have a 47% chance of impact with our beloved planet Earth. Damn!
But things really took a turn for the worse just a little under a month ago when, scrolling through my shit-streaked newsfeed of inane and useless comments on our plight from helpless mortals around the world —“ok so basically we’re all gonna Die fml”, etc.—, one new bit of information popped up amidst the shit that completely floored me. There are about 1.5 million asteroids in the main belt, but, according to the breaking news, NASA had just released the precise information as to which of those 1.5 million was heading towards Earth, and —just my luck!— it was none other than 13585 Justinsmith.
Within minutes I started seeing my own name everywhere in the feed. It took the media no time at all to locate the relevant entry in the NASA-JPL Small-Body Database that spelled it all out for them: 13585 Justinsmith is a main-belt asteroid, 5.553 kilometers in diameter, with a 0.120 geometric albedo value. Under the heading of “Discovery Circumstances”, the entry informs us of this astronomical body’s unlikely christening: “Justin Erik Halldór Smith (1972) is an American-Canadian philosopher, at present a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Sciences [sic] at Diderot University, Paris. His recent book Nature, Human Nature and Human Difference (2015) is a collection of philosophical essays [sic].” Again, damn! Why me? Why my asteroid? What did I do to deserve this?
Within another few minutes my phone began buzzing off the hook, or whatever it does now. E-mail, WhatsApp, iMessage, every possible inlet into the hard-won quiet of my day was surging with media queries, rows of question marks from friends and acquaintances, hate mail. It was more than I could absorb. My eyes happened to land on a message from the English-language branch of France 24. They were asking me to Zoom into that evening’s news show hosted by my old friend François Picard, who used to have me on all the time to talk about Trump or whatever, back when I still cared about that sort of thing. Back when anything at all mattered other than the fact that there was a three-kilometer-wide rock, bearing my name, headed for Earth.
I don’t know what I was thinking, or what I intended to say, but I decided to accept this invitation. I knew the host personally, and it seemed safe. So I Zoomed in at the appointed time, went through the usual pleasantries, though now somewhat adjusted in view of the unusual circumstances —“How about those Rangers? Well, I guess they’re not playing right now are they, haha?—, and then within exactly eight seconds of our interview, François got right to the point: “So, it looks like it’s your asteroid that’s on its way, is that correct?”
“Yes,” I replied, “to the best of my knowledge. That’s what they’re reporting.”
“Don’t you think maybe you owe the world an apology?”
What? An apology! I told him there’s a long-period comet that owes the world an apology, maybe, but it’s out past Saturn by now, and never seemed particularly interested in terrestrial affairs.
François and I exchanged a few awkward parting pleasantries and I went back to scanning my e-mails. The requests were pouring in from all over the world. I knew from my experience on France 24 that if even my old acquaintance was asking for an apology, all the others were likely to be downright hostile. Still, I felt I had to compose myself and get out the message, which should have been obvious really, to the world: this was not my fault. There were so many requests that I didn’t know where to start. Radio New Zealand? Deutsche Welle? There was one there from Red Scare beseeching me to “come on the pod”. No way, I thought. Those ladies would eat me alive.
I settled, finally, on All In with Chris Hayes. My mom back in Arizona has MSNBC on all day, and whenever I go to visit she never fails to make some unintentionally hurtful remark about how handsome and clever that Hayes boy is. What with an asteroid heading towards Earth with my name on it, I was all the more certain she’d be watching him. For several days now her cellphone had been delivering me to her voice-message box. All In now seemed, under the circumstances, the best shot I had at getting to her, letting her know, along with the rest of the world, again, that this was not my fault.
Naturally, that Hayes boy moved right to the heart of the matter: a real pro, he got there in just three seconds. “We have Justin Smith-Ruiu joining us from his home in Paris. If I understand correctly, Mr. Smith-Ruiu, the asteroid currently headed towards Earth, with a, what is it now, with a 68% chance of impact, that this asteroid was named after you in 2015 by the Belgian astronomer E. W. Elst, who initially discovered it in 1993 and thereby retained exclusive naming rights, according to the rules established by the International Astronomical Union?”
“Yes, that’s correct, Chris.”
“And it’s reported that Dr. Elst named it after you because he is an admirer of the French atheist philosopher d’Holbach, about whom you had previously published some articles?”
“Well, German philosopher technically, but yes, that’s correct.”
“Now, is it true that after this asteroid had been given your name, you attempted to profit from it by arguing that it was now legally your personal property, and announcing that shares of it could be purchased in anticipation of future extraction of precious metals?”
“What I’m sorry Chris?”
“Let me just quote from a Substack post you made, dated September 14, 2020. In it, you write: ‘I have come quite fortuitously into possession of an asteroid’, and you proceed to argue: ‘It is only proper that if a thing bears my proper name then it is within my rights to appropriate it as my property’.”
“Wait Chris hold on this is out of context I wasn’t actually trying to make money off of my ast, the asteroid.”
“But Mr. Smith-Ruiu, you go on to develop an elaborate case, even citing John Locke’s theory of private property in the Second Treatise of Government. Did you pen this work or didn’t you?”
“Well I typed it, but look I mean it’s satire! I was trying to be funny! I’m always just trying to be funny I don’t want to hurt anyone!”
“You’re telling me you’re a satirist?”
“I like to call it ‘satirical metafiction’. You know kind of experimental like. I try to create works so intricate, with so much layered detail, that the reader is just like: Why would anyone bother to do this?! That’s my whole praxis, as a creative.”
“Aren’t you a philosophy professor?” that Hayes boy continued.
“Yes but I mean I’m also, or I was hoping to become some kind of, but I guess it’s probably too late now. Whatever. Doesn’t matter.”
“So you don’t see any need to apologize then?”
“No! Why should I apologize?”
“Thank you for your time sir, that’s Mr. Justin Smith-Ruiu joining us from Paris, we’ll be right back.”
Well, that did not go as planned. My mom is definitely on that Hayes boy’s side for good now, I thought. I tried to call my psychiatrist for a prescription refill. At least I could use a couple Xannies to get me through all this. He wasn’t answering either. And just as I was on the point of throwing my damned phone at the wall —I’d picked up a “construction worker” case for it at Best Buy the last time I was in Tempe, which enabled me to throw it liberally— there was a knock at the door. Two gendarmes flanked a man in a suit who looked to me all too much like Peter Sellers in the role of Inspector Clouseau. I asked him whether I was now under arrest, and he assured me that I was not, but that nonetheless I was being taken into custody “for my own safety”.
As our black Peugeot sedan passed the Place de la République, I looked out through the tinted windows and I saw all the protesters who had gathered there, as they often do, all the black blocs and yellow vests, some still wearing keffiyehs, some with motifs of sky-blue above wheat-gold, some dressed up like Chewbacca, some in incomprehensible anime attire, some dressed as giant covid needles, some in enormous diapers being pushed around by their friends in shopping carts as if these were strollers, many holding placards, and all of them, in unison, calling for my head.
As if it had taken an asteroid to break this world! I thought. Even in the face of nature’s sublime annihilating power, all these poor creatures can conjure is more anger, always more anger. Even when they’re reveling they’re angry! There were incels and volcels and femcels and all their conceivable hybrids. There were gamers and LARPers and all sorts of NPCs doing nothing but adding to the head-count; they were anger-maxxing and catastrophe-mongering; they’d been redpilled and blackpilled and clearpilled and otherwise sedated, all as errant and “random” as the shit-streaked feeds that had spit them back up and out into the world. There was a Pride flag with a new stripe added specifically to indicate the absence of any identification with or attraction to asteroids and their “owners”, as if to say: yes, yes, anyone, and everyone, but you.
Police vans were lined up and traffic was slow. I sat admiring the cleverness of the placards’ demands. One of them took me to task for having failed to purchase an insurance policy on the asteroid to indemnify me against collisions. It gave the toll-free phone number of Matmut, a well-known French insurance agency, and encouraged me, explicitly, to call it. O, the delirious esotericism of their all-too-human anger, channeled into such improbable thoughts!
My handlers delivered me to some sort of generic Appart’hôtel in a southern suburb of Paris, within view of the Eiffel Tower, that banlieue whose name I always forget where all the French media outlets are clustered. Two gendarmes were posted at the door, which had been locked from the outside, and bars were on the windows. This is where I remain still.
Early in my quasi-capivity I often went online and searched my name. This experience drove me to the brink of insanity. I developed a terrible OCD reflex of refreshing arewegoingtodie.com every few seconds (at some point it started crashing from too much traffic, but there were plenty of mirror sites). I reached my very most desperate point about a week in, when I found a video on YouTube of some guy around my age, with a long greying beard and a Bass Pro Shop cap, sitting in a gaming chair with a menagerie of Star Wars junk displayed on shelves behind him. He was clearly stoned. “This is gonna be, like, Tunguska in overdrive,” he said. “It’s gonna be like, fuckin’, Yucatán on speed.”
I closed that window and I went back to X. I saw the latest probability projection was now at 94%. I went to the New York Times homepage and saw Joe Biden had just given an address to the nation, or to the world, what’s the difference now, really. I clicked “play” and found him with that frozen face of his, squinting at the teleprompter, mid-sentence, clearly fed up with my malarkey: “Is Smith [sic] trying to tell the American people this 13585 asteroid just happened to be the one that got knocked out of orbit? Who’s this guy trying to fool?”
I closed my laptop. I couldn’t stand it anymore. The gendarmes finally brought my Xanax, and I asked them to turn off my wifi signal.
I’m just going to sit back, listen to some monotonous chillwave loop, and wait for the end of the world. I might come back on here with some further reflections and updates, but really, what’s the point of writing now? No one needs me to live-‘stack the end of the world.
—JSR, undisclosed location (Issy-les-Moulineaux?), April 17, 2024
It happened. Well, it didn’t happen the way they said it was going to happen, obviously, but it happened… and it was something else.
I felt as if I’d spent an eternity in that Appart’hôtel, though to be honest after they took my wifi away I fell into some kind of semi-normal daily rhythm that I almost started to enjoy. I still had a dumb-phone, I had a well-stocked bookshelf including a copy of Lucian of Samosata’s True Story, Delany’s Dhalgren, a bunch of other stuff I’d been meaning to get around to, and I had a well-stocked fridge. The man in the suit came every day, and delivered a paper copy of Le Monde, whatever foods I had requested the day before, and as many refills on my Xanax as I needed (my psychiatrist, like my mom, was still sending me straight to the voice-message box).
And every day, without fail, this Inspector Clouseau asked me, “on behalf of the entire world,” whether I was “ready to apologize”. Naturally, I told him no: I will not be apologizing, for this is not my fault. The asteroid does not belong to me and I had nothing to do with knocking it out of its orbit. And anyhow even if I had sent the comet to hit it the first time it’s not like I can just call it back now from beyond Uranus or wherever to do the same thing again. What are all you people thinking!
Over the course of the three weeks I spent in this quasi-imprisonment, Le Monde’s probability projection continued to rise each day. One week ago, with the likelihood of an impact six days from now projected at 99.9998%, the newspaper announced it would immediately cease publishing. And that same day the man in the suit arrived with an announcement of his own:
“Nous allons à Moose Jaw,” he said.
“Quoi?” I replied. “Moose jaw? Comme la mâchoire d’orignal?”
“Nous allons en Saskatchewan. Préparez vos affaires.”
I was taken in what I believe was the same Peugeot sedan to Le Bourget airport, and placed on a French government plane that flew me directly to Regina. I was surrounded by new and unfamiliar faces, men who moved like secret service agents, and the whole affair had the feeling of some high-level extradition. In Regina I was placed in the back of an SUV, and driven 80 kilometers west to the small and handsome city of Moose Jaw. I’d always wondered about this place, as well as Medicine Hat, next door in Alberta, but it was Moose Jaw, the experts were now calculating, that happened to be the precise spot on the Earth’s surface where the asteroid was expected to make its landing. As nearly as they could determine, it was to strike roughly 13 meters west of the office of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Highways, in an open field in Kingsway Park.
There they had built a makeshift stadium with aluminum bleachers arranged in the round. The bleachers were surrounding a giant trapeze net, as if that was going to make any difference. There was a press-box that had been set up in some sort of modular construction-site building on poles. The whole scene reminded me of something I saw on TV at an airport Chili’s while visiting my mom in Phoenix years ago, when some German guy covered in Red Bull logos jumped out of the stratosphere and landed in the desert of New Mexico in front of a giddy and cheering crowd. The set-up here was much the same, but the hundred or so folks milling around were not giddy. They were gloomy in the extreme, so frightened at this late stage that none even seemed capable of anger at me anymore. The agents protecting me by now were a mere formality.
They took me to an enormous pillar near the press box, like a telephone pole, and made me climb up its metal rungs to sit and wait in a basket at the top, like some Stylite of old. There were, the loudspeakers announced, ten minutes left to impact. The asteroid had by now accelerated to around 45 km/second.
I thought about my plight, naturally, and marveled at this new unlikely twist. I could not help but wonder whether I was not still back in my Appart’hôtel in the banlieue of Paris, under the influence of Xanax and God knows what else they’d given me. But no, I reflected, there is no drug in the world that can make you hallucinate the precise light and contours of the North American prairie, which, just as surely as René Descartes sat before his own fireplace and watched a ball of wax as it melted, is where I now was.
Whoever installed the bleachers had also put in one of those giant applause-meters you see at sports events, but it had been converted into a “terror-meter”, and, I was told before climbing up my stylus, its inputs were processed by sophisticated AI tools that took the total measure of the planetary “vibes” and turned it into a single numerical value. The red bulb at the very top indicated “sheer terror”, the nec-plus-ultra of bad vibes. It was now seven minutes to impact, and the meter was hovering around half-way.
I felt so bad for the world. Here it was, at its very end, and all it could think to do was to retrofit its equipment designed for athletic competitions, to just keep on gauging the vibe until there was no vibe left to gauge. That vibe, now manifesting itself as terror, moved up to around two-thirds of the way to the top, as the asteroid was reported to be four minutes away.
I noticed there were several little camera-holes surrounding me inside my basket, and a single small screen behind my head that showed I was being live-streamed the whole time on the X account of the Canadian Space Agency. I began to think of Canada, one of the many places I had called home in my long nomadic life, and of Justin Trudeau, that goofball, three months older than I, who had been everywhere in the papers, scion of the Canadian Kennedys, when my own American parents were in search of a name for their newborn. It was Trudeau, and not St. Justin Martyr —who went to the lions wearing the purple robes of the Pythagorean sect, displaying to the end the compatibility of faith and reason— who had been the true proximate cause of my naming. I felt bad for my namesake, too, infinitely bad. We had always led parallel lives, it seemed to me, and now we were meeting our common end in a streak of shared bad luck — mine, with the naming of the asteroid, his, with the sovereign territory of its impact. The terror-meter was now around 90% of the way to the top, and the asteroid was two minutes out.
I thought about myself, too, and how I’d always been going around with such a profound sense of guilt. In my nightmares it’s always me who has just murdered someone, never someone else who is trying to murder me. I don’t know why I’m like that. In a strange way, it now seemed, these recent developments made good natural sense. I was no longer surprised by any of it. Whether it had been my asteroid or not, it would have been my fault. Everything is always my fault. I suppose I am sorry, in fact. Maybe I should apologize. What have I got to lose?
And so, when the asteroid was just forty-five seconds away, and the bulb at the top of the terror-meter was blazing red, I swallowed whatever lingering pride I had, and I looked into one of the cameras, and I said to the followers of the CSA on X, simply and plainly: “I’m sorry”.
And then the most remarkable thing happened.
Gimlin had explained to me, back when I was still entertaining the absurd idea of writing a fictional account of an asteroid collision, that as a “general rule of thumb”, any impact by an object larger than about one kilometer would result in “a global catastrophe”. Most of the material in an impacting three-kilometer-wide object, he explained, “whether comet or asteroid, would likely reach the ground without much disintegration and breakup”. The shock waves and thermal effects would be “devastating on a continental scale”, and the dust suspended in the atmosphere would produce something resembling a “nuclear winter”, suspending plant growth and creating massive food shortages for years to come.
But Gimlin had not known, nor had anyone known, of the extreme friability of 13585 Justinsmith, which as it entered the atmosphere began to break up into what the CSA’s X account was now describing as “dirt clods”. Each clod in turn held together for no more than an instant, before breaking up into smaller dirt clods, and so on, again and again, until there was nothing but an infinity of pellets scattered across the sky, which, when they finally hit the ground produced no bangs, but at most a rapid-fire sequence of gentle piffs. The largest clod to strike, just under .5 meters in diameter, landed on the roof of Bob and Pierrette Mohl of nearby Coteau Street, with a force just strong enough to rattle the cabinets inside, and to knock from the wall a vintage 1961 Hamm’s Beer Scene-O-Rama lighted sign (beloved of Bob, now busted), and a commemorative plate, with the names of five ladies inscribed at the five points of a pentagram, from the 1988 Regina session of the Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star (precious to Pierrette, now cracked). The overall damage was thus estimated to be: “incalculable”.
To all but the Mohls, however, it was universally agreed that the benefit infinitely outweighed the cost. For the reason 13585 Justinsmith turned out against all expectations to be so remarkably friable, which in retrospect indeed does help to explain its highly unusual albedo value, is that it had been composed not of precious metals, nor even of common stone, but entirely of clay. It has yet to be determined whether other bodies in the main belt have these same properties, but either way, as those familiar with the theory of abiogenesis will know, and as the authors of the Sumerian myth of Enki seem already to have anticipated, clay has long been considered the ideal material for the prebiotic synthesis of complex organic molecules into polymers, and, eventually, protocells.
As anyone reading this will certainly already know, what happened next is surely the most improbable twist yet in this already deliriously improbable sequence of events. After the scientists had collected a few of the clods and taken them back to a lab in Regina, they found the clay to be teeming with bacteria-like microorganisms. The ancient theory of panspermia had just received a strong bit of vindication: perhaps, indeed, this was not the first time, over the past 4.5 billion years, that a new life-form arrived on Earth from outer space, not in the comic-book form of some lizard-like alien, but in the form of a humble microbe.
But the surprise did not stop there, as the scientists soon observed that these bacterioid creatures were particularly hungry for non-biodegradable polyethylene. This was first noticed in the laboratory, but they were in any case already out there in the world, spreading rapidly across the continents, and, it seemed, most eager to devour the microplastics with which we had so short-sightedly, and until now irreversibly, begun to clog up our soils, oceans, rivers, and sky. “Plastic Problem: Solved!” read the next day’s headline in the New York Post. From her headquarters somewhere near the North Pole, a well-known youth climate activist allowed herself a tiny grin.
My phone had been buzzing off the hook, or whatever it does now, from the moment I began my climb back down the stylus. When I finally picked up, it was that Hayes boy again. This time he was calling to tell me, live on MSNBC: “On behalf of the entire world, and from the bottom of my heart, I just want to say, ‘thank you’.”
I hung up without saying a word. That apology of mine was long in coming, and it took an awful lot to get me there. How could I possibly accept thanks, now, for something that only moments before had been the gravest crime in the world? I had owned it — it was my asteroid. Perhaps I had wanted to blow up the world, now that I think about it. No point in thanking me for failing.
And anyhow who knows what tomorrow will bring? The mood of humanity now undulates as a single wave, from euphoria to terror and back again, day after day, year after year. For now no one is asking themselves what the space-bacteria will eat when they run out of plastic. As for me, I am fully expecting a whole new fucking freak-out soon enough.
They say an asteroid is really just a small planet, while the big planets cross over at some point into the class of the brown-dwarf stars, and from there we move onward to the supergiants. Whatever happens next, I will remain the one whose star fell to Earth.
I am so glad I took Gimlin’s advice and held back from writing about any old falling star. My technical advisor had warned against multiplying an improbability by an improbability. Improbability squared, he said, would take us well beyond the bounds of good fiction. And yet reality itself was meanwhile aligning to deliver that rarest of things: an improbability cubed. It was worth the wait.
—JSR, Best Western, Regina International Airport, April 25, 2024.
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Recommended Supplementary Reading:
Lucian of Samosata, A True Story, 2nd century CE (especially the first four paragraphs).
“2019 PDC Hypothetical Asteroid Impact Scenario,” Planetary Defense Conference of the International Academy of Astronautics, Washington DC, April-May, 2019.