Beta Geminorum

by Brian Niemeier

Edwin Dawes swerved around a panel truck that was only doing sixty in a fifty-five zone and gunned the engine of his Charger, speeding past the lumbering vehicle and cutting it off without signaling. The risky maneuver deposited Ed mere feet from the off-ramp leading from the bridge onto the Boulevard of the Allies. The Charger took the exit at a sharp diagonal and decelerated to double the turn’s posted limit before merging onto the busy thoroughfare. One benefit of being late, Dawes reflected, was missing the worst of morning rush hour traffic.

Dawes was speeding southeast past the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette when something large struck the roof of his car hard enough to burst all the safety glass, turning the Charger’s cabin into a hailstorm of rock-candy fragments. Dawes emptied the coffee from the wax-coated paper cup in his right hand onto his corresponding leg. This sequence of events culminated in the car’s collision with a concrete embankment.

Einrich reviewed his incident notes a fourth time, concealing trepidation with thoroughness. In his career as a detective with the Bureau of Police, there had been few crime scenes he’d looked forward to examining less than this one. The detective considered asking the witness if he could remember anything else but thought better of it. The guy’s nerves seemed pretty frayed, and the traffic sergeant who’d been first on the scene had already cited him for reckless driving.

Closing his notebook, Einrich wished Dawes a pleasant day and forced himself to traverse the stretch of road between the United Steelworkers’ Union and the newspaper like a soldier crawling from the trenches. He ducked under the yellow warning tape enclosing a fifteen square foot area of the eastbound lane and stepped toward the car.

The forensic techs had already come and gone, having carefully preserved the mess for the detectives. A pair of uniformed officers stood nearby to keep the crowd of rubberneckers from contaminating the crime scene. If there even was a crime, Einrich mused.

The object that Dawes claimed had struck his vehicle wasn’t an object at all. It was a man. The prone figure still lay motionless inside a sizable depression in the car’s top. Einrich considered himself a seasoned veteran of the force, and those in the bureau who knew him would have agreed. He’d put in eighteen years and had seen his share of jumpers. This one was different, though, because it was somebody he recognized. So did many of the gawking bystanders, based on the name he heard them whisper again and again.

The corpse wore a blue, single-breasted suit with a cream-colored shirt and a red tie with wavy yellow horizontal stripes. The dead man’s face was the hardest part to look at; not because of any hideous injury, but because of its brazen familiarity. The head lying against the grey metal was turned to the side, clearly revealing the distinguished features of an elderly fellow with bushy eyebrows, a large rounded nose, and full lips under a greying mustache. The deceased hadn’t been carrying any identification, but Einrich instantly recalled his appearance from the TV news of his childhood. Identifying him should have been easy, considering his notoriety. The only problem was that he’d been dead for almost two years.

“What do you make of that?” Chet Collen from homicide asked as he stepped up beside Einrich.

“Guy fell, hit the car, and died.”

“Any idea where he jumped from?”

“Might’ve been from the Steelworkers’ building,” Einrich ventured. “But I doubt it.”

“What about the bridge?”

Both detectives turned and peered upward. A footbridge crossed overhead, standing perhaps thirty feet above the boulevard at its highest point.

“No way you’d see this much damage from a fall that short.”

“Well,” Collen sighed. “I’m about to wrap up here. Meatwagon’s on its way. The autopsy should tell us more.”

Einrich went home that night, doing his best to forget about the anomalous suicide. His selective amnesia was aided by the stack of unsolved cases cluttering his desk. If some police intuition hinted at the coming carnage, the detective dismissed the warning as frayed nerves.

It wasn’t until the upheaval had mostly subsided months later that the coroner’s report finally turned up. According to the chief forensic tech on the Dawes case, the deceased had been a Caucasian male in his early sixties. Einrich shivered at the pathologist’s description of what she’d seen inside the dead man—if man he’d been. The body had simply been a skeleton covered in a solid, fleshy mass. Test results had matched the corpse’s general chemical makeup to that of human tissue, but the homogenous substance had departed so completely from normal internal anatomy that the report had concluded against the subject ever having been alive.

Einrich couldn’t have known at the scene, but the elaborate meat sculpture’s collision with Edwin Dawes’ car had been just the first drop of a storm — terrifying in its absurdity — that would incite global panic and drive the world to the brink of anarchy.

It was one of those seminal events that the survivors remembered forever. Anyone who lived through the Fall could’ve told you where they were and exactly what they’d been doing the day that billions of men — or rather, one man copied billions of times — fell to earth in one terrible moment.

Detective Einrich had the good fortune to be one of those survivors. Four days after Dawes’ accident, he’d been summoned to his office window by a loud and unearthly sound. The detective looked upon a street covered in crumpled, prone bodies and immediately thought of some horrendous terrorist attack. He had only just noticed the identical blue suits worn by all of the dead when pandemonium erupted. Einrich and his fellow officers were forced back from the windows as an overturned city bus burst into flames across the street.

No one working that day had known the full extent of the disaster. Einrich figured — or hoped — that the bodies had only fallen city-wide. By noon on the day after, however, emergency radio and TV broadcasts resumed. Local newscasts initially speculated that the surreal catastrophe struck the entire eastern seaboard. Around five p.m., the national scope of the crisis was confirmed. After that, it seemed to Einrich as though reports of the destruction’s expansion came in every time he turned around. He’d gone numb to further sorrow by the time global decimation was announced.

Unprecedented hysteria and unrest followed in the catastrophe’s wake. Looters, rioters, frenzied doomsday cults, and armies of unstable people pushed over the edge stormed into the streets, turning the city into a powder keg that all too often exploded into violence. During one harrowing episode, staff from the sub-station up at Carnegie Mellon crowded into Einrich’s precinct house after their own offices were overrun by rioters.

The brave but ultimately futile efforts of local police were finally bolstered when the governor mobilized the National Guard. Einrich would be haunted for years by memories of reservists in full combat gear wading into the seething mob with paint guns, pneumatically-propelled nets, and quick-setting immobilizing foam. Troublemakers were tagged with indelible, high-visibility ink delivered via paintball. The troops were ordered to arrest anyone caught with more than three marks. Detainment usually involved application of the foam or the nets — sometimes both. Prisoners were then reeled in by motorized winches attached to modified dump trucks. The netted detainees would be read their rights en masse. Despite the deployment of these measures in every major city, order wasn’t restored to the continental United States for six months.

The chaotic aftermath rendered an accurate report of the initial death toll impossible to confirm, but the faux bodies had hit with sufficient force to seriously injure anyone in their path, and hundreds of thousands were killed on impact. If losses resulting from traffic and other accidents, plus heart attacks and stress-related causes were taken into account, casualty figures soared into the millions worldwide.

Disposal of the countless counterfeit corpses filling the streets became a hotly contested matter of public policy, and finally a startup industry. Most nations first sought to inter the bodies in mass graves, but available space was soon exhausted. Burning was tried, but the choking smoke clouds hanging over the chimney stacks of vast, hastily-constructed crematoria soon raised health concerns. Many of the fallen were simply left to the depredations of wild fauna and microbes. The resulting wave of disease accounted for many thousands of additional deaths.

Some countries, viewing the human facsimiles as a resource to be exploited, found rather creative means of disposal. Japan reclaimed large swaths of the seabed through the use of landfills. Brazil rendered their fallen cadavers into bio diesel. Persistent whispers leaking out of North Korea claimed that the nation’s hunger problems had been resolved in a rather sudden and sinister manner.

Others found additional windfalls to be had from the fallen. For years after the event, poor and homeless men could readily be identified by their common uniform of blue suits, white shirts, and red ties. Under close examination, the clothing’s composition was found to be as unusual as that of the corpses it had adorned — being woven not from cotton, wool, or silk, but from micro fibers of an unknown polymer compound.

Though Einrich felt obligated to remain on duty during the long, agonizing cleanup period, the detective was never again able to approach his work with bureaucratic indifference. He wandered through the next decade, haunted by the possibility that the damage could have been mitigated had he pursued the Dawes case more diligently. Upon retirement, Einrich rededicated himself to the case he’d once ignored.

Comparing notes with other Fall investigators, Einrich finally concluded that the pattern of dispersal had been remarkably uniform across earth’s surface. On average, there had been one impact every ten square feet. The final estimate of around thirty billion fallen omitted the countless others that must have landed in major bodies of water whose depths made dredging impractical. But reports from private and commercial vessels, many of which unfortunately capsized in the event, seemed to confirm that the dispersal ratio had been pretty much the same over the oceans.

The riddle’s answer ultimately eluded Einrich. He finally contented himself with the knowledge that human civilization had faced the greatest challenge to its collective sanity and endured.

The thirty-third anniversary of the Fall was nearly nine months gone when Lionel’s car pulled up to the corner of West 52nd and Sixth on an overcast New York afternoon. He stepped from the vehicle and straightened his tie before striding across the crowded sidewalk and into the lobby of Black Rock.

Lionel approached reception and showed his credentials. The twentysomething page manning the desk smiled and politely asked the visitor to wait while he called upstairs to confirm the appointment. Ten seconds later, Lionel was riding the elevator up to archives.

Telly had already completed the request submitted by the Times reporter the previous night. Lionel never ceased to be amazed by the unerring expediency of the CBS archivist. “You already narrowed it down?” the journalist asked, confident of the broadcast engineer’s abilities but compelled to question the speed of his research.

The thin, balding man seated at the console winked through gold-rimmed glasses and flipped a switch. “See for yourself.” The bank of monitors lit up. Lionel stared at the image they displayed. There was no doubt anymore. It was like coming face to face with a ghost — or thirty-billion ghosts. “CBS Evening News,” Telly proclaimed smugly. “December 5, 1978 — night that senator’s wife died in that plane crash.”

“Stevens,” Lionel supplied absently as he stepped closer to the screen. It wasn’t the senator’s picture he was studying with such singular intent, but the distinguished face of the newscaster positioned in front of it.

The naming of anomalies is one of the most enduring human habits. The mock bodies that had plummeted to earth better than thirty years before were no exception. Depending on who you asked, and in what part of the world, the cadaver facsimiles were referred to as jumpers, the fallen, uncle walts, or the flying cronkites. At last, the Times reporter thought he’d found their model. “The clothing’s the same?” Lionel asked.

Telly slid a sheaf of papers across the editing desk, and the reporter scooped them up. Neither man knew it, but the documents contained the same police report that Einrich had brooded over three decades before.

Lionel compared the blue suit worn by the corpse sprawled across the top of the antique Charger to the one that the real Cronkite had worn on the night of December 5, 1978, caught in freeze frame before him.

It was a perfect match, right down to the silver tie clip.

Lionel quickly returned to the Pittsburgh police report held tightly in his hands. His eyes scanned the document until the detail he sought was found. “August 13, 2012,” he recited from the report. “Thirty-three years, eight months, and one week from the date of the broadcast.”

“Plus a few hours, but yeah,” Telly affirmed.

“Mind if I borrow the original tape for a while?” Lionel asked.

The technician shrugged. “Whole archive’s backed up off-site, anyway.”

“Thanks,” the reporter mumbled as he took the large plastic rectangle and left the room.

Lionel promptly sent a message to his editor excusing himself from the office for the rest of the week. Telly had filled in a vital gap in his own research, and the reporter threw himself into his work with a vengeance.

The big event had occurred on August 17, 2012, but the first known incident happened four days prior. The missing puzzle piece supplied by Telly had been matching Cronkite’s wardrobe with that of his doppelgangers.

The Fall had been investigated for years, of course. Everyone from theoretical physicists to meteorologists; from cops to other reporters had put in their time on the great mystery, only to end in defeat. The Times man now stood on their shoulders, achieving a clearer view of the situation than any one of his predecessors had enjoyed.

Lionel did a bit of research before calling up Shelton at Columbia University. Though he was furtive with the facts, what the reporter did divulge prompted the astronomer to clear his schedule for the following afternoon.

The next day, Lionel arrived at Shelton’s office at one thirty, briefly pausing to exchange pleasantries before launching into his theory. By two o’clock, the professor’s eyes were bulging. Before the reporter finished speaking, Shelton had turned to his terminal, calling up images that looked like negatives from a kid’s connect the dots book. “Pollux,” the scientist said, his arms folded across his chest in a display of satisfaction.

Lionel’s brow furrowed. “The Greek god?”

“The star,” Shelton explained, gesturing toward the chart on his monitor. “Also known as Beta Geminorum — the brightest constituent of the constellation Gemini. An earth-like planet was discovered orbiting it in 2006.”

“That’s interesting,” Lionel said. “What’s it got to do with my story?”

“Pollux is thirty-three point seven light years from earth,” Shelton said. “Give or take.”

“What do you mean, ‘give or take’?”

“The movement of celestial bodies isn’t precisely consistent,” the astronomer said. “For example, there’s a wobble in earth’s rotation that’s minutely changing the length of the year.”

The math suddenly clicked in Lionel’s head. “If a beam of light left earth on December 5, 1978, it would reach Pollux in August of 2012?”

“More or less.”

The reporter took a deep breath, hesitant to ask an interview question for the first time in his career. “Do you think that someone on that planet orbiting Pollux received the TV signal from 1978 and sent the fallen as…what, a kind of reply?”

“Someone,” Shelton replied, “or some thing.”

“But the signal took over thirty-three years to reach them,” Lionel argued. “Shouldn’t the cronkites have appeared sixty-seven years after the original broadcast?”

“Considering what happened, is postulating some sort of faster than light information transfer really that incredible?”

“What about signal degradation?”

The astronomer smiled. “You have to figure that a culture smart enough to cause the Fall has the hardware to reconstruct scattered video information.”

Lionel frowned in thought. “If we’re attributing the uncle walts to extraterrestrials, why did they only respond to a news show from 1978? Why no incidents before or since?”

“The time index immediately prior would’ve been in 1955,” Shelton calculated. “We didn’t have satellites carrying TV signals back then. As for why no contact since 2012…”

The astronomer returned to his star charts, his hands flying over the terminal. The chart turned, pitched, and yawed at his command. “That’s it,” Shelton concluded. “Due to the relative motion of Pollux and the earth, observers at Beta Geminorum only have one fifteen minute window every thirty-three point seven years to receive radio signals from earth.”

“What about the Pittsburgh incident four days earlier?” Lionel asked.

Shelton pointed to a small, lonely sphere hanging against his model’s black background. “This is Pollux II,” he explained. “It’s slightly closer to us.”

“By four days as the photon flies?”

The astronomer did some quick mental math, then nodded. “Yeah, that’s about right.”

The reporter thanked the scientist for his time. The two men shook hands, and Lionel took his leave. His pace quickened to a brisk jog once he’d left Shelton’s office. He placed a call to Telly on his way to the car. “I need you to research something else for me,” Lionel told the archivist. “Find out what was showing on August 13, 2012 between eight forty-five and nine a.m.”

The reply came during the ride back to Lionel’s apartment. It was The Morning Show. The indicated time frame, gleaned from Einrich’s report, had been devoted to a segment filmed at an African nature preserve.

Lionel spent the cool April night passing in and out of restless dreams. He woke to find the morning news abuzz with reports that the roof of a Cleveland movie theater had been caved in by a falling elephant.

BRIAN NIEMEIER has spent the majority of his life in Peoria, IL, except for the two years he spent at grad school in Ohio. Brian is the author of two short stories and two novels—all unpublished, a fact which he is working to change, but only when he isn’t working. “Beta Geminorum” is his first short story.