Read Chapter 20. Reconstruction of The Year When Stardust Fell, free online book, by Raymond F. Jones, on ReadCentral.com.

On the twentieth of January the comet reached its closest approach to Earth. It was then less than three million miles away. In the realm of the stars, this was virtually a collision, and if the head of the comet had been composed of anything more than highly rarefied gases it would have caused tremendous upheavals and tidal waves.

There were none of these. Only the dust.

Ken arose at dawn that day and went into the yard to watch the rising of the golden enemy a little before the sun came over the eastern hills. He doubted whether anyone else was aware it was closer today than it had been before, or ever would be again. He doubted there would be much scientific interest in the event, anywhere in the world.

In the observatory, he opened the dome and adjusted the telescope to take a few pictures and spectrograms. He remembered when he had done this, a long time ago, with high excitement and curiosity, and he remembered later times when he had looked up with a bitter hate in his heart for the impersonal object in the sky.

Now, he felt nothing. He was aware only of a kind of deadness in his emotions with respect to the comet.

There was no excitement he could find in today’s event of close approach, which was probably the only one of its kind that would be recorded in the history of mankind. He wondered if he had lost all his scientific spirit that so momentous an occurrence could inspire him so little now.

Yet, he no longer hated the comet, either. It was not a thing that could be hated, any more than the wind when it leveled a city, or the waters when they drowned the land and the people on it.

These things were beyond hate. You could fight them, but you never had the privilege of hating them. That was reserved only for other human beings. It was because of the great, impersonal nature of their common enemy, he thought, that people had finally turned to fighting each other. It was for this reason that the people of Mayfield had turned their hate upon the scientists. The questions of food and privileges were only superficial excuses.

After an hour’s work, Ken left the observatory. The gassy tail of the comet was a full halo of lighter yellow hue, as seen directly along its central axis. The darker yellow of the core seemed to Ken like a living heart.

The light spread to the dust motes in the air and curtained the whole sky with shimmering haze. It bathed the snow cover of the Earth, and reflected its golden image against the trees and the walls of the buildings, and penetrated the windows. It gilded the stark, charcoal skeletons of the ruins it had created. It spread over the whole Earth and penetrated every pore. Ken had a momentary illusion that there was not a particle of substance in the world not permeated and illumined by the comet’s light. He felt as if it were inside his own being, through his vitals, and shining in the corridors of his brain.

For a moment the old hate returned. He wanted to shut his eyes against that omnipresent light and to run with all his strength to some secret place where it could never penetrate.

He recalled the words of Dr. Larsen that seemed to have been uttered so long ago that they were scarcely within memory: “The universe is a terrible place that barely tolerates living organisms. It is a great miracle that here in this corner of the universe living things have found a foothold. It does not pay ever to forget the fierceness of the home in which we live.”

There was no closing the eyes against this. He looked again at the comet, the representative to Earthmen of all the fierceness and terror that lay in outer space, beyond the thin tissue of atmosphere that protected man and his fragile life. He would remember all the days of his life that the universe might be beautiful and exciting and terrible, but whatever it was, it held no friendliness toward man. It could destroy him with a mere whim of chance occurrence. Man had gained a foothold, but there was a long way to go to an enduring security.

On the day of the official beginning of operation of the giant projector in Jenkin’s pasture, there was a little ceremony. Sheriff Johnson stood on an improvised platform and with an impressive gesture threw the switch that officially turned the power into the great instrument. It had been successfully tested previously, but now it was launched in an operation that would not cease until the last trace of comet dust had fallen from the sky and was mingled with the dust of the Earth.

Most of the townspeople who were well enough to do so turned out for the ceremony. During the construction, a guard had been kept to prevent sabotage of the projector, but there had been no attempts made on it. Now the people stood in the trampled snow and ice of the pasture, staring up at the giant structure, with a quality of near-friendliness in their eyes and in the expressions of their faces.

The Sheriff made a little speech after throwing the switch. He thanked them for their co-operation and thousands of man-hours of labor, not mentioning that it had been obtained, initially, at the point of his guns. He praised the scientists and noted that conquest of the comet might never have been achieved without the genius of their men of College Hill. He did not mention the attempts to destroy that genius.

“I think we should all like to hear,” he said, “from the man who has led this vast and noble effort from its inception. He will speak for all those who have worked so steadfastly to bring this effort to a successful conclusion. Professor Maddox!”

There was a flurry of applause. Then it grew, and a shout went up. They called his name and cheered as he stood, a figure dwarfed against the background of the great projector bowl.

Ken knew what he must be thinking as he waited for the cheers to subside. He must be thinking: they have forgotten already, forgotten the angers and the jealousies and the fears, their attempts to destroy the small kernel of scientific hope in their midst. They had forgotten everything but the warming belief that perhaps the worst of the terror was over and they had lived through it.

“I’m grateful,” Professor Maddox was saying, “for the assistance you have given this project, although you had no personal knowledge of what it was meant to do. We asked for your faith and we asked for your confidence that we knew what we were about, at a time when we did not know it even for ourselves. We were nourished and cared for at your expense in order that our work might go on. It would not have succeeded without you.”

Ken realized his father was not speaking ironically but meant just what he said. And it was true.

The vengeful Meggs and the psychotic Granny Wicks had fought them and incited others who were frightened beyond reason. Yet there had been Hilliard and Johnson, the Council, and many others who had supported them. There were those who had built the projector, even though at the point of a gun, and at the threat of starvation. All of them together had made the project possible.

It was a miniature of the rise of the whole human race, Ken supposed. More like a single individual with a multitude of psychoses, hopes, and geniuses, than a group of separate entities, they had come to this point. In the same way, they would go on, trying to destroy the weaknesses and multiply their strength.

By the middle of February the flu epidemic was over. Its toll had leveled the population to a reasonable balance with the food supply. Whether Mayor Hilliard’s ironic suggestion reflected any real principle or not, the situation had worked out in accord with his macabre prediction.

Ken had explained the comet’s daily infinitesimal retreat and there was a kind of steady excitement in estimating how much it diminished each day. Actually, a week’s decrease was too small for the naked eye to detect, but this did not matter.

Radio reports continued to tell of increased construction of projectors throughout the world. Tests were showing they were effective beyond all previous hopes.

The populace of Mayfield was enthusiastic about the construction of additional units. Two more had been built, and three others were planned. Serious attention had to be given now to the coming planting season. Every square foot of available ground would have to be cultivated to try to build up stores for all possible emergencies of the following winter.

When the time came for making the first work assignments on the farms, Professor Maddox and Professor Larsen appeared to receive theirs. Sheriff Johnson was in the office at the time. “What are you two doing here? You can get back to your regular business,” he stormed. “We aren’t that hard up for farmers!”

“We have no regular business,” said Professor Maddox. “The projector work is being taken care of. Mayfield will probably not be the site of a university again during our lifetimes. We want to be assigned some acres to plow. By the way, did you hear Art Matthews has got three more tractors in operation this week? If we can find enough gasoline we may be able to do the whole season’s plowing by machine.”

“You’re sure you want to do this?” said Sheriff Johnson.

“Quite sure. Just put our names down as plain dirt farmers.”

Ken clung to the radio for reports of the outside world. The batteries were all but exhausted, but a motor generator could be allotted to the station as soon as other work was out of the way.

In Pasadena, they told him a diesel railway engine had been successfully decontaminated and put into operation. Airtight packing boxes had been designed for the wheels to keep them from being freshly affected by the dust remaining in the air. It was planned to operate a train from the metropolitan area to the great farming sections to the east and north. A few essential manufactures had also been revived, mostly in the form of machine shops to decontaminate engine parts.

Negotiations were under way to try to move the great wheat and other grain stocks of the Midwest down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Coast cities. Oldtime sailing vessels, rotting from years of disuse, were being rebuilt for this purpose.

Ken found it hard to envision the Earth stirring with this much life after the destruction that had passed over it. In the civilized areas, it was estimated that fully two-thirds of the population had perished. Only in the most primitive areas had the comet’s effect been lightly felt. Yet, around the world, the cities were stirring again. Food for the surviving was being found. The hates and the terrors were being put away and men were pulling together again to restore their civilization.

Maria came to the radio shack to tell him dinner was ready. He invited her to join him for a moment. “It may be possible for you and your father to return to Sweden much sooner that we thought,” he said.

Maria shook her head. “We aren’t going back, now. We’ve talked about it and decided to stay. It’s as Papa always said: Where so much happens to you, that’s the place you always call home. More has happened to us in a year here than in a lifetime back there.”

Ken laughed. “That’s a funny way to look at it, especially after the kind of things that have happened to you here. Maybe your father is right, at that.”

“All our friends are here now,” she said.

“All I can say is that it’s wonderful,” Ken said with a rising surge of happiness in him. “I mean,” he added in sudden confusion, “I’m glad you’ve decided this is the best place to live.”

He changed the subject quickly. “Dad’s even talking of trying to start up a kind of college here again. We wouldn’t have the buildings, of course, but it could be done in houses or somewhere else. He says he’s been thinking a lot about it and considers it would be our greatest mistake to neglect the continuance of our education. So I guess you can finish school right here.

“Personally, I think all the professors out there trying to be dirt farmers just got tired after a couple of days of plowing and decided something would have to be done about that situation!”

Maria laughed. “Don’t be too hard on them. Papa told me about the plan, too. He says Sheriff Johnson has agreed to guarantee their pay in food and other necessities. He’s stepping down now, so there can be an election, but he’s demanding approval of that program before he leaves office. I don’t think they ought to let him go.”

“He’ll be re-elected,” said Ken. “He’s on top of the heap now. I even heard old Hank Moss chewing out some guys in town for criticizing Johnson!”

Ken closed down the transmitter and receiver for the night. Together, he and Maria walked to the house. They stopped on the back porch and glanced toward the distant projector bowls reflecting the light of the comet and of the sun.

Soon there would be only the sun to shine in the sky. The Earth was alive. Man was on his way up again.