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When dark comet UD3 was spotted near Jupiter’s orbit, its existence was largely ignored. But to individuals who knew better — scientists like Benjamin Schwartz, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies — the threat this eight-kilometer comet posed to the survival of the human race was unthinkable. The 150-million-year reign of the dinosaurs ended when an asteroid impact generated more than a billiontimes the energy of an atomic bomb.
Ben and his indomitable girlfriend Amy Kowalski fly to South America to assemble an international counteraction team, whose notable recruits include Love Mwangi, a UN interpreter and nomad scholar, and Zhen Liu, an extraordinary engineer from China’s national space agency. At the same time, on board a polar icebreaker life continues under the looming shadow of comet UD3. Jack Campbell, a photographer for National Geographic, works to capture the beauty of the Arctic before it is gone forever. Gustavo Wayãpi, a Nobel Laureate poet from Brazil, struggles to accept the recent murder of his beloved twin brother. And Maya Gutiérrez, an impassioned marine biologist is — quite unexpectedly — falling in love for the first time.
Together, these men and women must fight to survive in an unknown future with no rules and nothing to be taken for granted. They have two choices: neutralize the greatest threat the world has ever seen (preferably before mass hysteria hits or world leaders declare World War III) or come to terms with the annihilation of humanity itself.
"Sooner or later there will be one with our name on it. It's just a matter of when, not if."
—Alan Duffy, lead scientist at the Royal Institution of Australia
Allyson Chiu, "'It Snuck Up on Us': Scientists Stunned by 'City-Killer' Asteroid That Just Missed Earth," Washington Post, July 26, 2019.
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Tohono O'odham Nation, Kitt Peak, Arizona
NONE OF THE SPACEWATCH personnel could later remember if it was Jeff or Jim who discovered it; they were such similar individuals, and neither wanted the credit. Both men were postdoctoral students in their late twenties at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. They each arrived early at the lab on the morning of July 30 dressed in cargo shorts and Birkenstock sandals. After rubbing sleep from their eyes, they settled at their computers to review results from the previous night.
Jim and Jeff were asteroid hunters, and like most hunters faced with a crowded field of vision, they used movement as a means to track. Automated software controlled the university's two telescopes at the summit of Kitt Peak for twenty-four nights each lunation. Images of the same slice of night sky were captured minutes apart in order to detect changes in position. These digital images looked like photographic negatives with the dark, light-flecked universe converted into something that looked like white static.
Reviewing fainter solar system objects from the larger 1.8-meter telescope took priority, as these were less likely to be observed by other asteroid hunters at stations around the globe. Jeff and Jim worked side by side, but one of them must have seen it first: a new object that wasn't visible the night before—a very large object recently emerged from the blinding edge of the sun's glare. Am I seeing this, or am I crazy? the one man probably called out to the other. Because I'd rather be crazy…
It must have been worse for the owner of the second set of eyes. Once he rolled over in his ergonomic chair and leaned in until his bearded face was several inches from the computer screen, he would have to confirm the faint black dot located out by Jupiter's orbit. Realizing what he was seeing, and what that meant, he must have jumped back and knocked over his chair.
Out from the Shadow
of the Sun
ONE WEEK BEFORE the discovery of dark comet UD3 went public, Dr. Ben Schwartz's phone rang in the middle of the night. No caller ID. Ben sent it to voicemail, but his phone rang again minutes later. Who's dead? he wondered. Aunt Rachel? Mom or Dad? Ben scrambled to put on his glasses and answer the call. A creaky, accented voice asked for him by name.
"From NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory," the man added.
No one from the lab bothered with a full pronunciation. They used "JPL" along with all the other acronyms for the verbally efficient. Was there an emergency at the lab? A security breach? An explosion?
Ben's girlfriend, Amy, groaned when he flipped on the punishing overhead lights. She shielded her face, flashing the peacock feather tattoo tickling the soft underside of her forearm. Amy's hair was now platinum blond, but it had been flame red and tucked behind elfin ear-tip prosthetics when they met at a CosCon sci-fi/fantasy convention. Eat your heart out, Tolkien! It had also been black during a steampunk phase but never brown. Brown was too normal, and Amy had no interest in normal.
"This is Ben," he confirmed. "And you are?"
The names of famous old masters are dropped all the time in scientific circles, so it took Ben a few groggy seconds to realize that he was actually speaking to one.
"Holy shit! Really?" he asked.
Amy cursed and hurled a pillow. If anything heavy or sharp was within reach—an alarm clock, a lamp, a mace on a chain—she would surely have knocked out his teeth. Ben shut off the bedroom lights and moved to the hallway, stepping barefoot across wall-to-wall carpet the color and texture of oatmeal. His 655-square-foot condo was suitable for the bachelor years of his twenties and early thirties but was now cramped with two people. Amy required space. Ben wished for a larger condo, but South Pasadena real estate was crazy, and he worked for the government, not Google.
"Sorry," Ben said, "but do you mean Tobias Ochsenfeld the astrophysicist? Like, the astrophysicist?"
"Yes," the man said. "I dabble in writing books as well, but no one seems to give a damn."
Actually, the old bugger had won a MacArthur with his collections of essays on symmetry. Born in Austria and tenured at Oxford, he was as brilliant in mathematics as one can be without losing too much ground on the autism spectrum. Rumor had him as both a lover of Proust and Fermat's Last Theorem.
"I can't believe this," Ben said with a flat laugh. "I studied your theories in school. I mean, when I picked up this phone, I'd never have guessed you were on the other end."
The famous octogenarian turned gravely serious. "That's unfortunate. I heard you're rather good at guessing."
Dread returned. It sat heavily in Ben's belly and restoked his imagination. He started asking questions but didn't get very far.
"I'm going to interrupt you, Ben—May I call you Ben?"
"And you may call me Professor, if you like. I've worked in academia most of my life, and I'm older than dirt. Now, Ben, you need to get to the airport in Los Angeles. Immediately."
Ben halted and spoke the only word that could pull sense from the situation.
"Because the UN is arranging your flight to French Guiana," the Professor replied. "You'll need a yellow fever vaccination before you clear security."
Ben took a tentative step into his combined kitchen and living room.
"I'm calling from Brussels," the Professor interjected, "but I'll be boarding my own flight before the day is over. I promise to brief you in person. Now, there is a car waiting outside your residence. It will drive you straight to the airport. All you need is your passport."
After a moment of shock, Ben lowered his phone and crept over to the sliding glass door leading to his second-level balcony. The property's front lawn looked just as it did when he bedded down for the night; Astroturf blanketed everything but a concrete walkway lit with spotlights.
When Ben first moved in, there were perennial gardens and grass lawns with automated sprinklers, but California's historic drought and water conservation measures made such decorations unpopular. Replacement pebble gardens and flowering cacti washed away afterward in flooding from El Niño. Astroturf was the best surrender to such erratic climate conditions, according to the homeowners' association. They couldn't help complaints that the property could double as a miniature golf course with the addition of a few holes and putters lying about.
Ben spotted a sedan parked at the curb. Under the streetlights, he saw shadow movements behind the driver's-side window. Goosebumps puckered his skin. Then everyone started shouting: Ben shouted questions; the Professor shouted that there wasn't time for questions; Amy shouted from the bedroom for Ben to shut the hell up so she could sleep.
"I'm not going anywhere," Ben insisted, "until I know what this is about."
"I can't have you losing your head," the Professor warned. "Because I need that head."
"Just try me."
Ben crossed to the center of his living room for a better thinking position. He stood in boxer shorts and a white undershirt, looking at his wall-mounted flat screen. Central air kicked in with a whirring sound as he regarded the narrow chest and bony appendages of his own five-foot-nine silhouetted reflection. Ben's extraordinary brain was housed in a less substantial vehicle.
"A dark comet was discovered yesterday," the Professor said. "It just rounded the sun on an eccentric orbit—"
"I knew it!" Ben shouted.
In autumn of 2014, the subject of comets earned Ben his fifteen minutes of fame. Comet Siding Spring had just whizzed past Mars at less than half the distance between Earth and its moon. Astronomers in Australia discovered the comet only twenty-two months beforehand. As manager of NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at JPL, Ben gave a press conference and used the opportunity to discuss the dangers of "dark," or unseeable, comets. For the first time in his life, Ben's warnings got picked up by mainstream media.
"Congratulations," the Professor said with a note of hostility.
Ben sobered and tried to keep his mouth shut so the old man could continue.
"The comet has no name, only its label, UD3. No one at Spacewatch wanted to put their mark on it."
"Hang on," Ben cut in. "You mean those guys in Arizona called you first?"
"No. They called the NASA administrator first. He called your executive office."
Ben waited only a couple beats.
"And your country's leadership wanted certainty," the Professor said. "They wanted proven trajectory, definite odds of impact…all things we don't have with an initial sighting. What they didn't want was any early estimations that might be wrong and only cause a nationwide panic."
He made a sound, a mix of a sigh and a harrumph.
"I suppose extinction is…inconceivable," the Professor added. "Not just to the creationists in the administration but to the others as well. I guess we're each the center of our own universe—"
"Extinction? How big is the comet?"
There was silence on the line.
"So," the Professor continued, "that's why the NASA administrator called me. I was able to connect with the United Nations and the European Union. We have their cooperation."
Ben gasped for breath, just realizing that he had been holding it.
"Did you say eight kilometers?" he asked.
"Yes. Most unfortunately."
Ben could hear his own panting. With less than twenty-four hours of tracking, not much could be determined outside of the comet's size and speed, which were terrifying enough.
"What's the plan?"
"That's why I called you," the Professor said, losing patience. "You manage NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies. You are the expert, are you not?"
"Well, yes," Ben stuttered, and stood up straighter. "Asteroids and comets have been my life's work."
Ben often ran out of breath talking about cosmic impacts. Even Amy, a Star Wars follower, fantasy gamer, manga reader, and arguably the hottest ticket on the sci-fi convention circuit, had to ask, Do you ever shut up about asteroids and comets? In a word, no. And Ben would argue, how could anyone?
His first love had been dinosaurs. At six years old, he collected their miniature plastic likenesses and orchestrated epic battles on his parents' shag rug. As Ben grew older, he learned of a much greater force of nature. The terrifying teeth of a Tyrannosaurus rex were no match for a ten-kilometer asteroid. The 150-million-year reign of dinosaurs ended after an impact generating more than a billion times the energy of an atomic bomb. Nothing posed a greater threat to complex life on Earth than cosmic impacts…aside from humans, anyway.
"And I'm chair of the IAA Planetary Defense Conference," Ben added. "We've played out one hundred twenty-two hypothetical cosmic impact scenarios—"
"Good. Because we need to plan for the worst-case scenario. Now, unless you'd like to waste more time, I suggest you get on that plane and draft up names for your core team."
The Professor cleared the moths and cobwebs from his throat and concluded, "I'll be seeing you at the equator."
The line went dead. Ben returned to his bedroom in a daze and flipped on the lights.
"Jesus," Amy hissed. "I'm trying to sleep. I have work in the morning."
Ben flipped off the lights and stood in the darkness. He wasn't sure how much time passed before he flipped the lights back on.
"What?" Amy yelled. "What's so damn important about space? It's not like it won't be there in the morning!"
Ben's lips and eyelids fluttered with mental-processing overload. Seeing him struggle, Amy threw off the down comforter and jumped to his side.
"Sorry, babe," she said. "Tell me what's wrong."
There was no way Amy could force her way into his head. She had to gently draw him out of it.
Amy took his small hand in her smaller hands. Ben had long, delicate fingers, which he hated and she loved.
"Do you remember some years back when comet Siding Spring did a flyby? You got pissed because I was sleeping at the office while we corralled all the Mars orbiters on the other side of the planet—"
"The duck-and-cover maneuver," Amy finished for him.
Ben's small smile disappeared, soon as it reached his lips.
"There's another dark comet," Ben said slowly.
Amy tried to interrupt and demand the estimated trajectory, probability, and date of impact, but Ben cut her off.
"They got a first glance yesterday—and it's fucking huge."
There was never a question of talking straight with Amy. Ben never assumed superiority with age, he being forty-two to her thirty-four, or with intelligence. Ben told Amy everything for the plain reason that he always wanted to. At his core, he was a lonely, nervous person. Amy added brass and steel to his intricate mettle.
"I have to go," he said. "There's…a car waiting outside."
They stared at one another in silence before Amy asked where he was going.
"Airport. South American equator. We have to plan for the worst. That's where they'll launch an intercept vehicle, if it comes to that. Or, should I say I? That's where I'll launch. I'm the one who has to make a plan."
He paused and let his imagination step into a room with seemingly endless rows of options, only to have it freeze with indecision. Bile crept up Ben's esophagus and soured his mouth. Blind spots grew in the corners of his peripheral vision. He neared that part of a dream when he fell and lost equilibrium, only to jolt awake.
"He warned me. I can't lose my head."
Ben sat down on the bed and closed his eyes, but it wasn't enough. Stumbling, he made it to their adjoining bathroom and vomited into the toilet bowl. Amy tiptoed in as he finished a round of dry heaving. She pulled a toiletry bag out from under the sink and dropped in her toothbrush, floss, deodorant, and tampons.
"Wait," Ben said. "What're you doing?"
He sank to the cool tile floor and wiped his mouth and jutting chin.
"Packing," Amy said, ducking into their shower. "I'm coming."
Ben shook his head and wobbled. When he tried to argue, Amy whipped around and glared with her gray eyes.
"You're not leaving without me."
Amy was a military brat raised on several bases until she got her GED and became a legal adult at eighteen. She worked several different jobs and lived with several boyfriends while taking night courses at several community colleges. Every time Ben mentioned that he wanted to move to a larger living space, Amy leveled her eyes at him and said, I'm done with moving. She wanted her idea of a settled home where Ben was a permanent fixture.
"Cap your razor," Ben said, pointing to the pink disposable in her hand. "Or you could cut yourself."
Amy towered above his crumpled form, wearing a ratty Mystery Science Theater 3000 T-shirt and a stolen pair of his boxers, which he hated for the sole reason that they fit better on her flat navel.
"C'mon," Amy said, not ungently. "You need to get over your shock and get dressed."
She left the bag of toiletries on the sink and grabbed Ben under the arms. Leveraging her weight, Amy leaned back and stood Ben up.
"Now, go find our passports," she prodded.
Ben usually knew where things were because he was the one who put them away in the first place. Using walls for support, he followed Amy back into their bedroom. Two empty suitcases were already on the bed with unzipped mouths gaping open. Amy grabbed armfuls of clothes from their closet and dumped them into the suitcases with their plastic hangers. Ben pulled on a pair of jeans and tucked his wallet and their passports in his back pockets. A car horn sounded briefly from the street.
"Cool your fuckin' jets!" Amy hollered.
Ben flinched at the loud noises. His hands were shaking, but hers were steady and determined. All those hours she spent alone in her tiny bedroom reading science fiction novels and comics had prepared her.
"Amy, you know this is for real, right?"
She nodded. Amy had been waiting to save Earth since the fifth grade.
"Everything we know and understand is at stake."
"Yeah, I got it," she said, and grabbed their suitcases by the handles.
Ben watched her struggle. A braver, simpler man would have rushed to help, but Ben was neither brave nor simple. His mind was still reeling.
"My God," Ben whispered. "What's gonna happen when the world knows what's coming?"
T-minus 178 days to launch
JACK CAMPBELL WAS on layover in Seattle on his way to Alaska when his eyes caught "dark comet" on an overhead monitor. The news ticker looped as Jack blew steam off the surface of his franchise coffee. His pursed mouth froze when the full headline came into view: SPACEWATCH DISCOVERS DARK COMET UD3. He didn't know why it sounded ominous, so he googled it.
Online articles described dark comets as those that are out of sight from Earth's perspective. UD3, according to a NASA report, was a long-period comet that approached from the other side of the sun and slingshotted around the massive star, hurtling into the view of telescopes. NASA stated that there wasn't enough information to estimate the comet's trajectory or provide comment on probability of impact. Jack looked up from his phone and studied the other travelers waiting at gate 36. Danger felt more real when shared with others, but everything appeared normal. Men, women, and children were either bent down toward phones, laptops, books, or magazines or cat-napping until a flight attendant flipped on her microphone and welcomed all passengers—especially American Airlines AAdvantage program members.
Jack boarded the plane and secured his camera bag in the overhead compartment. He was a photojournalist headed to an assignment aboard an Arctic expedition. It was an opportunity of a lifetime, and he should have been over the moon with excitement.
"What do you think about this comet?" Jack asked the silver-haired passenger in the window seat. "The one that was just on the news?"
He tried to show her the screen of his phone, but she waved it away.
"Oh, I don't follow news, honey. Too depressing. Are they giving us food on this thing, or do we have to pay for snacks?"
* * *
THE PLANE LANDED in Anchorage just after three p.m. Alaska daylight time. The faces of other passengers were set with a sense of urgency as they hurried on to jobs, family, or more travel. One boy studying his phone and likely hunting for Pokémon bumped into a wall, rebounded, and continued on his way. He was another reminder that life was mostly keeping your head down, only catching fleeting glimpses of the great wide open and all its implications.
Jack's editors at National Geographic had arranged for a driver to take him the remaining leg of the journey to Seward. Travel schedules for his profession were grueling, but at thirty-two and with no strings attached, it was a price Jack was willing to pay for a job he loved. He kicked off his sneakers and stretched his lanky six-foot-two body across the back seat of the town car, and he was on his way.
During the flight from Seattle, Jack had web surfed and discovered that cosmic impacts were nothing new. It was the larger bodies that were rarer. For the last 70 million years, Earth had had a lucky streak…but luck could run out. Probability said it would.
Jack pulled out his phone and ignored all the new emails and texts from friends, colleagues, and ex-lovers from all over the world. He didn't answer his mother's latest emails, so it was no surprise when she called at the end of his three-hour drive. She asked about the flight and other niceties, but Jack was only interested in discussing the comet.
"You shouldn't believe everything you read," his mother advised.
"Mom, it was on CNN."
He knew where this was headed.
"Why would this be fake news?" Jack asked. "There's no political gain in scaring people…" But he knew there was, so he switched tack. "There was an asteroid the size of a school bus that came closer than the moon back in March," he countered. "It was discovered five days before it zipped past. And back in 2014, there was another of these dark comets called Siding Spring. It came out of our blind spot from behind the sun and almost hit Mars."
"I never heard that."
"Me neither, until I read about it today. Just because we're not paying attention, it doesn't mean these things don't happen, Mom."
"I can hear you sighing. How would you like it if I sighed every time you gave an opinion?"
"These are facts. Facts are not opinions."
"I didn't call to argue."
Jack heard his own sigh too late to stop it.
"Are you still leaving?" she asked.
It was the question his mother always asked.
"Because if you change your mind, your father and I could come visit…"
Jack tapped the speakerphone button so he could listen while checking what was trending online:
- Red Sox vs. Yankees
- Taylor Swift concert
- Autism and antidepressants in utero
- FIFA World Cup
- Hair loss from shampoo
Comet UD3 came in at number 16, bumping Manchester City Football Club. It appeared that Jack's mother wasn't the only one who missed its headlines.
"We wouldn't take up all your time," she assured him. "We can do a matinee and then meet up for dinner. It's been so long since we took a trip up to the city…"
"I gotta go, Mom. With all the flights, I'm beat."
It was true. On some things, his mother didn't argue. Jack said he loved her, which was also true, and ended the call.
As his town car reached Seward, Jack made one more Google search. Some of the articles he read on the flight referenced an official document released several years ago by the outgoing executive administration. Jack typed a few of the words he could remember and clicked on the first auto-fill option: National Near-Earth Objects Preparedness Strategy
- "Page-turner of the year! In the grand tradition of Stephen King's The Stand, Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, and J.T. McIntosh's One in Three Hundred, this book is the story of a massive comet that threatens to end human existence and those who fight to prevent that catastrophe. Call it a techno-thriller, call it apocalyptic fiction -- I call it great writing. This is an important and provocative novel, one that should be read by all who care about the future of the planet and humanity's role in its preservation. Claire Holroyde is an exciting new voice in modern fiction, and we're lucky to have this stirring and fully imagined book."—David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Author of Winter Counts
- "Claire Holroyde's The Effort artfully mirrors an allegorical warning on the state of our planet's climate with a more imminent threat of complete and total annihilation of the human species. It speeds up the doomsday clock -- that's ticking relentlessly on every page -- but with a lingering and aching glimpse at everything that's about to be lost. Heart-pounding and heart wrenching all at once, it's ultimately, somehow, a story of immense hope. Just a stunning debut."—Jane Gilmartin, Author of The Mirror Man
- "The Effort, by Claire Holroyde, is a supreme demonstration of how to write a compelling and engrossing literary thriller. It is masterfully plotted, and a worthy addition to the pantheon of great doomsday stories: an astute, unflinching look at what 'civilization' means at the twilight of human perseverance."—David W. Brown, Author of The Mission
- "[Claire Holroyde's] prose is measured and clear, and the plot arcs nicely from the scientific issues to more personal stakes. An adept contribution to the realm of apocalypse fiction."—Kirkus Reviews
- "The best asteroid-as-climate-change metaphor of the year."—NBC News
- "Twisty . . . Holroyde displays a keen vision of societal and diplomatic breakdown amid imminent disaster. The deeper themes about human nature make this apocalyptic thriller more than escapist reading."—Publishers Weekly
- "The Effort offers a vision for how humanity could avoid an existential crisis with international collaboration, while also highlighting the environmental threats created by humans."—Electric Literature
- "The Effort is ultimately a novel about the desire to live. Struggle is everywhere, on the individual level and in the broader sense as a species. Working together is proven essential. In the end, Holroyde has faith in an intangible human condition: survival depends on our willingness to help each other, and that quality allows humanity to thrive through adversity."—Chicago Review of Books
- "The Effort, in the tradition of science fiction novels past, manages to sweep aside national, sectarian, and governmental boundaries to . . . offer a glimmer of hope. It serves as a small, miraculous contrast to a world which, for the most part, simply folds its wings like [an] eagle and sinks when threatened with space debris, or with its own consumption patterns . . . Do we die with a bang, with a whimper, or both? Or do we find some way to live? The Effort suggests maybe all three at once."—Observer
- "Holroyde simultaneously offers a pathway toward survival, codependence and redemption. Take notes.”—Hollywood Soapbox
- "A solid debut novel from Claire Holroyde, reminiscent of the movies Deep Impact and Armageddon . . . You won’t want to put the book down."—Red Carpet Crash
- On Sale
- Jan 11, 2022
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing