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"We had intended to keep just enough propellant reserve to leave Kali shortly before encounter and go into a safer orbit, where our sister ship Titan could rendezvous with us. But that option is now closed. While Goliath was pushing against Kali at maximum drive, we broke through a weak point in the crust. The ship wasn't damaged, but we're stuck! All attempts to break away have failed.
"We're not worried, and it may even be a blessing in disguise. Now we'll use the whole of our remaining propellant to give one final nudge. Perhaps that will be the last drop that's needed to do the job.
"So we'll ride Kali past Earth, and wave to you from a comfortable distance, in just 50 days."
It would be the longest 50 days in the history of the world.
NOW THE HUGE CRESCENT of the Moon spanned the sky, the jagged mountain peaks along the terminator burning with the fierce light of the lunar dawn. But the dusty plains still untouched by the sun were not completely dark; they were glowing faintly in the light reflected from Earth's clouds and continents. And scattered here and there across that once dead landscape were the glowing fireflies that marked the first permanent settlements humankind had built beyond the home planet. Captain Singh could easily locate Clavius Base, Port Armstrong, Plato City. He could even see the necklace of faint lights along the Translunar Railroad, bringing its precious cargo of water from the ice mines at the South Pole.
Earth was now only five hours away.
KALI ENTERED Earth's atmosphere soon after local midnight, 200 km above Hawaii. Instantly, the gigantic fireball brought a false dawn to the Pacific, awakening the wildlife on its myriad islands. But few humans had been asleep this night of nights, except those who had sought the oblivion of drugs.
Over New Zealand, the heat of the orbiting furnace ignited forests and melted the snow on mountaintops, triggering avalanches into the valleys beneath. But the human race had been very, very lucky: the main thermal impact as Kali passed the Earth was on the Antarctic, the continent that could best absorb it. Even Kali could not strip away all the kilometers of polar ice, but it set in motion the Great Thaw that would change coastlines all around the world.
No one who survived hearing it could ever describe the sound of Kali's passage; none of the recordings were more than feeble echoes. The video coverage, of course, was superb, and would be watched in awe for generations to come. But nothing could ever compare with the fearsome reality.
Two minutes after it had sliced into the atmosphere, Kali re-entered space. Its closest approach to Earth had been 60 km. In that two minutes, it took 100,000 lives and did $1 trillion worth of damage.
GOLIATH HAD BEEN protected from the fireball by the massive shield of Kali itself; the sheets of incandescent plasma streamed harmlessly overhead. But when the asteroid smashed into Earth's blanket of air at more than 100 times the speed of sound, the colossal drag forces mounted swiftly to five, 10, 20 gravities -- and peaked at a level far beyond anything that machines or flesh could withstand.