A piercing alarm went off in Harold Chapman’s room. “Good morning, Harold!” sounded a robotic voice.
“It’s Harry,” he grumbled, his voice croaky from just five hours of sleep, as he crawled out of the cot.
It was Wednesday, Dec. 15—the 478th day of Harry’s work on Neo Cleveland. He still couldn’t call himself a morning person.
In space, though, there was no real way to know the time of day. His dimly lit, 10 x 7 foot room was filled with simulated sunlight pouring in through the panes of a fake window.
Before floating out the door, he grabbed the coffee held out to him by a robotic arm. “Have a nice day, Harold!” the room said enthusiastically.
“You too,” he said with a sarcastic laugh. Outside, he bounced up to a ladder and worked his way up past other rows of rooms, towards the watch tower.
Harry, the lead watchman of Neo Cleveland, had an important but boring job. His two shifts (9 a.m. – 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. – 2 a.m.) allowed for very little personal time. The station’s AI helped notice things, but even in the year 3000 C.E., computer detection was no substitute for the human eye.
Before Chapman came aboard, the colony was in full operation, nestled in a captive asteroid orbiting around Earth. Construction had taken decades, but the decision to secede had been long in the making.
For centuries, taunting of the Cleveland Browns had worn away at the city’s sports scene, until the football stadium stood empty at every Sunday game. Despite continued earnest reconstruction efforts, lasting socioeconomic stigmas kept outside investors away. When the 23rd “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video” reached one trillion views on YouTube with no noticeable boost to the local economy, the town had had enough of Earth.
Developments in orbital colonization provided the escape. In a famous pre-secession speech, Cleveland Governor Gregory Tope said, “If you can’t join ‘em, leave ‘em.”
Since departing from the surface, Cleveland has seen continuous economic growth. The city has profited greatly from sales of vacation travel packages to “Earthers” eager to see the once humble Cleveland skyline set against the breathtaking backdrop of space. The Cleveland sports scene has similarly been revitalized as orbital training under variable artificial gravity has given the Cleveland Browns the upper hand against their planet-bound competitors. All in all, Cleveland was doing pretty well.
Perched high above the colony in the bubble watch station, Harry Chapman wasn’t seeing much of the point.
He sipped a blob of coffee, checking a few screens for anything unusual. “Nothing. What a surprise,” Harry said, leaning back.
Chapman stared at the passing stars twirling around him like an infant’s mobile, and slowly drifted off to sleep…
beep beep…. beep beep… The almost quiet but persistent proximity beacon in the otherwise silent room woke Harry from his slumber. He’d never heard a single peep at work before.
This beeping couldn’t be a good sign.
He scanned the glass pane, and saw a small pale dot. It could be nothing, but just in case… Harry called the captain. “I think I’m picking up on something. I’ll send you the coordinates,” he said, keying numbers into his console.
As he continued to calibrate his sensors to determine the object’s nature and velocity, the captain returned, “Uh, Harry… look again.”
He did. Over the still chirping “beep beep…,” Harry could see the object had doubled in size on his visual feed.
When Harry zoomed in, he saw a large, glowing asteroid. It was larger than Neo Cleveland.
He ran some quick calculations, hoping to be wrong, but the results confirmed his fears. “A direct hit,” he muttered to himself.
The captain also heard. “At the rate that thing is moving, it’ll be here in a few hours. Move out of the area immediately,” he said. “If we push away, Neo Cleveland will be safe. Good eye, Harold.”
Harry paused, eyes fixed on the projection of the rock and its path. “Sir, if we move, the asteroid hits Earth.”
The silence on the intercom was deafening. “What do we do?”
The calls came streaming in from planetside. Neo Cleveland was not Earth’s only orbital colony, but it was by far the largest controlled object between Earth and the danger.
The governments of Earth knew what needed to be done, and Harry did too.
It could cost them their lives, but if Neo Cleveland was used as a shield between Earth and the asteroid, Harry explained, the planet could be spared. With enough momentum, Neo Cleveland could collide with the asteroid, break it apart, and direct the wreckage away from Earth. They would have to start accelerating the colony soon which meant they were quickly running out of time to evacuate the colony.
The captain uttered only one word: “Go.”
Sirens, klaxons, and evacuation alerts swept through the colony, but Harry continued to simulate the collision – they were only going to get one shot at this. He sent directions to the captain, and the demise of the satellite was set.
He joined hordes of passengers rushing to the emergency shuttles. Havoc ensued as the panicked, floating citizens pushed and shoved trying to reach the shuttles to safety.
As the vessels started to break away from the colony, it became apparent there wasn’t going to be enough ships to hold everyone. The once-deafening alarm could no longer be heard over the screams of the terrified colonists.
Harry contacted the captain as ushers did their best to direct women and children to board the remaining escape pods first. “Sir, there are not enough escape pods for everyone,” said Harry.
On the other end, the captain’s sobs were soft before the com line clicked off.
Stuck in space on a colony speeding toward certain annihilation, the people of Neo Cleveland were trapped. For a moment, Harry stared down at his hands, helpless in the chaos. A small girl floated by him, looking for her mother. She rubbed her teary eyes, her cries barely audible over the screams and alarms.
We’ll make everyone fit, Harry thought. Joining the ushers, Harry pulled the small girl by her hand to an open escape pod. He urged passengers to cram together, heedless of the crafts’ recommended safe operating capacities. The craft would lose maneuverability, but as long as they left the colony, they’d be safe. Harry hoped the rescue crews from Earth would arrive soon: the life support systems on these shuttles couldn’t support this level of overcrowding for very long.
“Stay calm,” he told the passengers.
He pushed through the crowds, throwing stragglers into the remaining shuttles. Even the captain, whimpering in a corner, found a spot. As the final emergency shuttle launched from Neo Cleveland, Harry and the other colonists watched from rows of portholes as the colony shot off into space, headed directly for the asteroid.
The asteroid grew larger, approaching. The colony grew smaller, departing.
Come on… urged Harry, clutching his fists.
In 42 escape shuttles, the entire population of Neo Cleveland held its breath.
There was no sound from the explosion, thousands of miles away in space, as it spread into the surrounding area sprinkling bits of debris like a burst piñata.
Indistinct wreckage of Neo Cleveland drifted by the shuttles, and Harry saw a block of wires with a robotic arm attached, twitching back and forth as if to wave goodbye.
Cleveland’s greatest accomplishment had been destroyed.
Over the shuttle’s com line, a fuzzy voice announced, “Cleveland, you’ve just saved the world. Over.”