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A Cast of Characters

New – 20 August 2005

A Glancing Blow


A Cast of Characters


Senator Lloyd Murphy was fed up. The one thing he disliked about being the host at a Washington party was that there were always a half-dozen people who simply did not know when to leave. It was the one unfortunate aspect of a marvelous political tool. Normally, at a carefully designed party, one could pick up a lot of useful information, make some advantageous contacts, and accomplish a great deal of good old horse trading. But by 12:30 a.m., the Senator was tired and there were still eight people in his living room, all involved in a highly animated conversation.

The thing that particularly galled Murphy was that the present rejuvenation of the conversation had been caused by the Senator himself. Murphy had thought to end the evening by cutting off the serious discussions with a little comedy relief. Whereupon Murphy gave a humorous version of what her temed the latest scam: Talk of an impending collision between the Earth and a stray comet.

Unfortunately for the Senator, the idea had caught on. Joe Bratten, a strategy planner who worked for the Department of Defense in some obscure capacity which Senator Murphy neither fully understood nor cared about, was playing the devil's advocate. Or at least that's what Murphy assumed. Bratten was getting to Fred Post. The only thing clear was that Post was a relatively high level staff officer in HEW and had been invited to tonight's party to assist (unwittingly) the Senator in making one of Murphy's celebrated deals.

The Senator did not like Fred Post and wanted only to use him. Now he was having to listen to him, and there was nothing the Senator enjoyed less than listening to a humorless fanatic with a cause. Tonight the cause was the whole world's health and well-being, and the Senator began to contemplate going to bed, whether or not the guests left.

The Senator's eyes were beginning to close and he was only vaguely aware of Bratten's latest subtle taunt. "Actually, I find it rather comforting that the world's civilization might be going-by-the­boards due to a natural catastrophe. It's a bit of a relief to realize that man may not be the means by which our great societies all go down the drain. The disaster, instead of being perpetuated by man, is due entirely to Mother Nature; all within the natural order of things."

“You mean it lets man off the hook?”

“Well, there's that. But more importantly, I rather suspect that following a world wide catastrophe of the kind where a comet slams into the earth, one would have a vastly better society than we have now. That's a very comforting thought, as far as I'm concerned.”

Fred Post looked disgusted as he retorted, "Billions of people will die and you're going to enjoy it."

“I don't enjoy the deaths. I enjoy the excitement of surviving. The challenge to survive. It's important. Our lives before, the things of importance when seen in the larger context, aren't really important. Survival is life and death. Surviving is important."

"But what of the others?"

“Most will die, some will live."

"And you could care less?"

"Should I care more? Should I mourn? Should I beat my breast about the universe's injustice and its ingratitude to what our race has provided?"

"But it's so callous!"

"Of course. But it's always been so. You would never worry about a few deaths. It's a statistical fact. People die every moment. For example, years ago there was a big immunization program against a new flu strain; aided and abetted by HEW, I might add. Right off the bat a bunch of old people died -- and everyone thought it might be the vaccine. But the health officials were totally nonplussed. They had already predicted on the basis of statistics that so many old people would die. Not from the vaccine. But just die of old age or heart failure or some such, at just about that moment, after receiving the vaccine. The number of deaths was predicted. It was a statistical law of nature. Nothing could change that basic fact. And even if the vaccine was the culprit, the cost-benefit analysis was still fully supporting the program.

"But these doctors weren't cruel or callous. They simply expected and reported reality. Out of millions of subjects, X number will die after taking the vaccine.

"Think of it this way: We're like atoms -- uranium atoms that radioactively decay. Within a chunk of uranium there are billions of atoms. With incredible precision we can show that half of the uranium will decay in a specific period of time. In the case of uranium, millions of years. In the case of, say, carbon 14, a much shorter time. Any one atom may go on for a very long time, but half will be gone in the half-life time period.

"Now, when humans number in the billions, it's the same. Statistically we're predictable. So many will die, so many will get pregnant, so many will have measles, and so many will have sex. It's actually quite degrading.

“In an election you only need to hear from a few thousand and, with careful sampling, you can predict the collective action of millions. The fact that in recent years the lack of a paper trail on some electronic voting machines has led to wide scale fraud does not discount the fact that one can statistically predict how the public voted – even if the vote count was fraudulent. Any one human becomes just a statistical data point, whose individual actions are irrelevant but, when combined with millions of others, can be anticipated. No one listens to an individual but a representative of a block of people will be heard.

“But! If the numbers of humans are in the thousands, widely separated and acting without knowledge of or communication with others, suddenly they're unpredictable. Not only individually, but collectively. All at once they're exposed to different environments, different stimuli, different cause and effect. They've become individuals, they have individual worth, and there are now too few to provide for generalizations. There's no longer a Jewish clique or a black vote or a farm lobby. There's a Jew who will act like a particular human and you'll seldom be able to outguess him. You might not even know he's Jewish. The black will not react as the advertisers and pollsters might decree, and the farmer's actions will be based on his own concepts of life.

“With the reins of the world in the hands of isolated groups and all numbers in the hundreds, there will be diversity. Unpredictable, random, infinitely interesting, diverse, and varied -- whole new ideas of living as a society.

“As a statistical basis for predicting the future, that will be in a shambles. And for this I'm not sad. I can go my own way, living or dying on my own merits and my own decisions. No one will be able to say what's best for me, for they won't know what's best. More importantly, they won't have the numbers to analyze and evaluate and thus obtain the best path for the average.

“Too long we've built a society on the average person, on what's best for eight guys out of ten. We've got a mediocracy, where the average counts more than the data points from whence the average is obtained.”

Post had been listening to Bratten's preaching without really hearing it. As Bratten paused, Post felt that he had to say something. “So to get your 'data points' down to a non-useful statistical sampling, billions die. Individuals with individual and diverse dreams. All of these people die.”

Bratten was unmoved. “But some would die anyway. Statistically predictable. Eventually everyone dies. Instead of a slow radioactive decay process where so many uranium atoms decay each year, think of the case where we've gone critical. Suddenly we have a fission process where we destroy most of the uranium atoms in a vastly decreased time space. Just not all of the uranium atoms. In other words, instead of having people die by the thousands each day, the human race has gone critical and billions will die within a few weeks, while a few -- possibly a very few -- will statistically survive.”

“Brilliant exposition, but I still care. I care that billions die.”

“And what will you do about it?”

“That's hardly fair.”

“Do you know what 'care' means? Do you plan to heed or give attention to or do you plan only to grieve? And to who's benefit? Who will be the better for your grief?"

"Maybe no one. But I would grieve and I would know that I did so."

"So your care would be for yourself. It would ease your sense of guilt, the idea that there but for the grace of God, go you. You can't explain why you should live while others die."

"I don't think that's it. I don't have to feel justified. Call it luck. Maybe I was in the right place at the right time."

"Exactly. And luck is just a way of the world. Which uranium goes critical and which doesn't. Which gets hit by a stray neutron, and which doesn't. No one up there looks out for you. No one out there even cares. Total apathy, total disinterest. Because you're nothing but a statistical fluctuation that's not really important. But perhaps when you're one of a kind, a particular breed with unique qualities and values, maybe then you'll be of interest. At least of interest to someone."

"I would hope that those who survive will carry something more noble -- to perhaps make the human race better."

"Ah, but that would imply justice, that would imply a plan whereby the good survive and the evil perish. But life doesn't care. Neither the good nor the evil will ever partake of the free lunch. It's all random, like the throw of dice. The good news is that if only the lucky survive, then luck may become a measure of a human's fitness to survive. We may be about to create a race of lucky beings."

Post smiled as he realized the perfect retort.

"As Albert Einstein once said, 'God does not play dice'."

Bratten frowned slightly. "A quotation somewhat out of context, I'm afraid."

But Post's debate training knew that he had the offensive now. "And there's no reason that we should play dice, either. It's our responsibility to insure that the world is warned of any such impending disaster, so that we can make adequate preparations, and plan ahead. As leaders of the free world, that's our responsibility.”

Bratten frowned, having grown bored of the mental exercise. Picking up his drink, he started to walk away, throwing in one last caveat, "Unfortunately for most Grand Designs, the world is usually making their own plans."


Martin Corin sat in his easy chair, the evening paper folded in his lap. He appeared to be looking out the large east windows of his very comfortable home overlooking the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Hudson River. But his mind was not on the myriad lights crossing the bridge, the lights on the far shore, nor on the occasional running lights of a tug making its way up the river. He was thinking instead of the newspaper's page one story of a comet and a near collision with the Earth. And Martin was not happy. In fact he was angry. Angry at the 'others' who had cooked up this sham.

Martin not only did not believe the story, he was personally insulted that it had even been printed in his newspaper. His first reaction had been 'What do you take me for, a fool?' From there he briefly wondered what someone was trying to sell. Someone was always trying to sell something. Then he dismissed the idea; it was time to get back to work.

He glanced at his watch, and felt a momentary sense of urgency. Martin had only collected from eight of the twelve tenants in his apartment house. It was time to get his money from the others; they were already overdue. He might have to yell and shout a bit, perhaps threaten one or two, but that was no problem. In fact, Martin did not consciously admit to it, but he rather enjoyed the small confrontations each month. Of course, Martin always won, one way or another. The law was on his side.


Jeb Henderson bent over and squinted as he tried to see through the scratched plastic to the newspaper inside. He had just finished reading down to the fold in the paper when he was interrupted.

"Hey, Jeb. Why don't you jus' buy the damn paper?"

Jeb looked up at his heckler, an old friend of perhaps twenty years. "What for? All they talk about is some damn comet wingin' past the Earth and scarin' folks. Don't need to pay for that kind of stuff.”

"Yeah, I seen the same thing. Those boys in Washington must think we're prize fools."

"They sure ain't done nuthin' for me lately."

“Me neither. And one thing's for sure -- I ain't gonna fool with it."

"Well I ain't never seen the government play it straight yet. No need to expect any difference now."

“You got that right!”

"Be seein' ya," Jeb answered. It was time to get back to work.

As he got back into his old Ford pickup, he began to think slowly on the idea. Then things cleared in his mind and he told himself: 'Course, it wouldn't do no harm to stock up a bit on food and maybe some gasoline for the truck.' That seemed sensible to Jeb. 'Matter of fact,' he thought, 'might be a good idea to bring the horses up close to the house. Could always put them in the old barn. Just in case things got nasty.'


Hilda Brandt finished the last of her chores in the kitchen, looked around with satisfaction, and then neatly put her apron away. She felt a slight pain in her back but ignored it. She was old -- pain was to be expected. Then, as it passed, she went into the small living room where her husband, stretched out in his chair in front of the TV, had fallen asleep. She smiled slightly as she placed the small blanket she had knitted and given him (three Christmases ago, she thought) across his lap.

Another of her duties done, she sat down herself and began to watch the Television. The Chancellor was addressing the nation and she quietly listened -- only slightly surprised to see him at all. The present Chancellor was not known for making a lot of public speeches on television.

Listening carefully, she realized that he was reassuring the nation concerning the possible ill effects of something called Ketuohok. And Hilda felt more comfortable for it. If the government was not worried, then why should she be? They lived in a solid, well-built masonry house -- one that Max himself built. Their only son and his small family were upstairs in their apartment. They had plenty of fuel oil in the basement and every year her garden was bountiful (if only from her Herculean efforts each year). Consequently Hilda knew they could carry on through anything.

Hilda was perhaps right. Between her husband and herself they had lost ten out of twelve uncles during World War II. Obviously God had taken enough members of the Brandt family for several generations. It was unlikely that He'd require more of them.

No, there was no cause to worry. They could handle most anything that came their way. They always had. It was just a matter of discipline -- and discipline was German's ace in the hole.

Looking over at her sleeping husband, she smiled as the thoughts of a comet faded. Her mind drifting, she remembered when she had first married Max Adolph Brandt. She also recalled when he had begun signing his name Max A. Brandt. That was a pity, she thought. Adolph used to be such a nice name.


Ahmed accepted the gratuity tendered by the young tourist couple without the slightest hesitation. He had done his job well and he deserved any and every recognition of that fact. Then he turned to walk home.

It had been a long and busy day. In fact, all the days for the last month had been long and busy. There had, in fact, been scant time in recent months for Ahmed to find any time at all in which to practice his chosen profession.

In reality, of course, Ahmed was a tour guide. But in his mind he was an archeologist and an Egyptologist. He had university degrees in both but he had never managed to land one of the highly sought after and relatively lucrative positions at the University of Cairo.

But he had dreams, the primary one being to make a significant discovery in the field, and then being raised -- with all appropriate bestowing of glory and honor -- to a university faculty position. There was very little chance of anything like that happening as long as Ahmed was unable to spend enough time at his diggings and research. But Ahmed tended to ignore this fact and waited for the day when he could use his full name (all eight names) instead of just 'Ahmed', the name that all the tourists could easily pronounce.

As he walked, he remembered briefly the young tourist and the brief comments about the comet. Ahmed had not really taken seriously anything that was said. Rather, he took the long view of history. The pyramids, Karnak, and Luxor had survived for five thousand years. That constituted virtual permanence.

Ahmed had been moved by only one comment by the young tourist. Ahmed had had an unconscious tremor in his mind when the man had casually mentioned the Aswan dam, holding back a massive amount of Nile water from where he was in lower, northern Egypt.


John Philips came in the door with a quick gait. The screen door slammed behind him as he walked across the kitchen floor. He announced in a clear but only moderately loud voice that he was home and went directly to the bedroom.

In the living room Katherine Philips put down her knitting and started for the kitchen. She did not bother to answer her husband, their routine was too well established. While he cleaned up, she prepared supper.

Their adaptive routine had been established because she could never be sure just when John would get in from the fields. In fact, her only real clue was that it would inevitably be after sunset. Thus it was impractical to plan a meal for some specific hour. Their compromise was that he would clean up, take a shower and shave, while she prepared supper. This also had the advantage that she did not have to greet him when he was tired (and therefore potentially quick tempered) and/or when he was hot, sweaty and scented with all the aromas of a man hard at his farming.

The only major requirements on Katherine were that she had to have meals planned which required less than a half-hour's preparation. She also had to ensure a vacant, clean and completely stocked bathroom, and she had to possess the ability to eat at random hours. In spite of any and all drawbacks, however, Katherine liked the arrangement. It gave them both the opportunity to enjoy each other's company and talk over the events of the day.

A secondary part of their arrangement was that John would give Katherine the authority to choose the first topics of the evening's conversations. Because she always asked after his work and because he could therefore always bring up anything that he felt was important or newsworthy, the granting of the authority was perhaps not important. But Katherine took her responsibility seriously. She inevitably planned for several topics in order to keep the conversation going at each meal. And tonight she had several options on what they might talk about.

One that disturbed her somewhat concerned the TV story on a comet having a near collision with the Earth. After thinking about the report, she decided it really was not very important. Certainly it would not particularly affect their lives. Therefore she would bring it up only if they ran out of other things to say.

More newsworthy was the bill just introduced in the state legislature to limit foreign investments in farm land in California. She knew that John would be very interested in the bill's chances for passage. Because they lived less than one hundred miles from Sacramento, John always took special interest in everything the legislature did. And this was certainly more important than a comet!


Ito Torishita was a factory worker employed by Tashki Industries. Ito's father had also worked for Tashki, and his father had worked for another company which had been acquired by Tashki Industries. In a way, the Torishitas were part of the Tashki family.

Ito's present job was in the coating of steel absorber plates to be utilized in solar collectors. The coating was a special black surface, designed to enhance the collector's efficiency at converting solar radiation into useful heat. Because the coating process was dependent upon many factors (temperature, chemical mixtures, etc.), Ito spent most of his time ensuring that the process conformed to the guidelines given to him by Tashki's solar engineers.

It was not an exciting job, but Ito took special pains to do the job well. He knew that the company's success was due in part to the care that Ito Torishita showed in the product. And, for Ito, Tashki Industries' success was Ito Torishita's success. The loyalty that the company had shown toward the Torishita family had bred a reverse loyalty by the family toward the company.

Ito also had a great deal of confidence in the management of Tashki Industries. He knew, with absolute certainty, that management was competent and caring, that they would make all decisions based on what was best for business and for the employees. It was in part this confidence that allowed Ito to so calmly accept the news of a possible near collision between the Earth and a comet. Ito did not bother to question the story about the comet: he knew that he was not competent to judge and that his superiors were. He also knew that they would decide on the merits of the story and, if necessary, give him instructions on what to do. In sum, Ito was not concerned.


Beli Singh took the lopsided stuffed ball and drop kicked it back toward the opponent's goal. The other players skirmished for it and his friend, Ali, managed to initially control it as Beli stepped back to guard his own goal. Briefly he wiped the sweat from his forehead. Despite the fact that their soccer game was played at night with only a full moon for lighting, it was still very warm. And the hot winds from the Dravidian plain promised that there would be no respite for many weeks. But Beli hardly noticed, he was enjoying the game.

Beli's village was over two hundred kilometers from New Delhi, the closest major city. Consequently there were minimal communications between his village and the rest of the world. Beli had never heard of Ketuohok. It was questionable whether or not he would have cared.


Erin Stokes counted his genuine silver coins, his excitement increasing. Then, chuckling to himself, he began to congratulate himself on his wisdom in buying silver and gold as a hedge against the next major depression. Pouring the coins back into the well-worn sacks, he made a quick mental calculation and decided that the three bags of silver would be completely adequate for the inevitable bargaining that would ensue after the collapse. He replaced the silver coins in his special hiding place in the basement and then went to an even more special home depository. Almost reverently he removed the small bag of gold coins. There were Krugerrands from South Africa, Canadian Maple Leafs, a few Chinese Pandas, and a far larger horde of American Eagles: all one ounce gold coins. Erin had no doubts about the coming depression and that when it did arrive his foresight would make him a wealthy man -- relatively speaking, of course.

There was only one problem. His wife laughed quietly at his insistance of an economic depression in the near future. Erin suspected she thoroughly enjoyed her husband's foibles. Plus which, his two teenage children had just reached the age where they were able to judge his actions and, while they tolerated his expectations of the coming depression, they always pleaded for him not to talk about it in front of their friends.

But Erin Stokes would not modify his stand; he knew that it was only a matter of time. Admittedly there had been delays – the economy did not appear to be following the rules. But Erin was not dismayed. He had a new portfolio of predictions that, amazingly enough, all basically agreed: The depression was less than five years away.

Satisfied with his cache, Erin went back upstairs to catch the news. In general the news was rather dull on this night, with practically no economic problems. Then Erin heard the latest on Ketuohok. He had heard some secondhand reports earlier but had not really thought about them. Now his mind was suddenly turned on. His imagination in full gear, he abruptly realized that a cosmic catastrophe would be more devastating than a depression. As his excitement grew at the prospect, his mind began to reflect on the additional preparations necessary. He quickly realized that the greater severity of a collision would require more thoughts of self protection -- law and order might go on the fritz. Then he remembered his cabin up on Storm Mountain.

He had built the cabin himself and it was his second favorite avocation. Admittedly he had had help on the concrete pillars which lifted the cabin above the rock outcropping, but all the hammering and sawing were his. He had built a perfect retreat with a magnificent view (the better to watch for approaching strangers) and had included all the conveniences: Insulation, wood fireplace, gas stove, electric generator for lights (and gas lanterns for a back-up), outdoor toilet (but with solar heating), and plenty of storage space. There were no bedrooms but he preferred to sleep on his balcony, which hung forty feet above the sloping mountainside.

The cabin would be the perfect retreat when the collision occurred. He'd have to stock it much better than it was now. And, of course, he wouldn't be able to do that until the snows had lessened. Fortunately the comet was not due until June. He'd have plenty of time to take everything up. Meanwhile he'd start filling the basement with everything from fish hooks to frozen beef. In May he could start hauling it up and making some additions to the cabin.

Erin continued his planning, his mind unleashed. Only briefly did he think about the unpleasant task of telling his family what he was up to.


                                               Chapter Seven -- Enclaves

Forward to:

Chapter Nine -- Preparations


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