Hurried Solutions to the End of the World
The position Christopher McGhee assumes to sleep at night is strange but always the same: it's on his balcony, slumped against his telescope, star maps and coffee pots akimbo, with an open eye still pressed into the machinery. He is also something of a sleep yeller, and so in the small hours of the morning, much to the dismay of neighbourhood dogs, he will scream things like, “You’re not fooling me, Jupiter!” at the very top of his lungs.
Christopher McGhee is a difficult man to love.
A space-nut with sleeping habits such as these cannot help but look permanently dishevelled. Shaggy, greying hair has been moulded by time into right angles, and his telescoping eye has a deep red ring around it from gross overuse. He does not own a shirt that isn’t stained or a pair of pants that stick to his gaunt waist properly. When required to leave the house for supplies or work, a pair of binoculars hangs about his neck. The man is a fanatic, right up there with the fiercest and weirdest and most haunting watchers of the stars that human kind has ever known.
Who can really say where this kind of debilitating obsession with the cosmos actually begins? Christopher’s mother had watched 2001: A Space Odyssey when her child was in the womb and blamed herself to the grave. Maybe it was his contorted spine that was only really appeased by looking straight up with a craned neck? Perhaps it was his preternatural night vision?
Whatever the cause, the stars had captured and stirred his heart by the time he started school; he fashioned telescopes out of toilet rolls and the watched Carl Sagan documentaries instead of cartoons. Christopher was sleeping exclusively on the balcony by his twenty-first birthday, but he was reading star maps on the toilet and verbally abusing the sun much, much earlier than that.
There was a kind of adoration to it in the beginning. There was a hypnotic, all-consumed amazement at the night sky and its far away balls of fire. Christopher would imagine himself flying through nebulas and asteroid fields, he would imagine meeting strange, highly perceptive aliens who saw beyond his surface dumbness to the genius below, he would imagine being rewarded for his committed watching and not scorned or hated or asked in no uncertain terms to "stop looking at me, freak". But that was in the beginning. These days he scrutinises the stars in an embittered, misguided search for revenge.
You see NASA was Christopher McGhee’s most unrequited love. He wrote the Agency letters every day through his trying teens, updating them on the whereabouts of Venus, which seemed in near-constant motion, and asking, if it wasn’t too much trouble, to tag along on the next lunar landing. Christopher sent résumés and astronaut fan fiction and doodles of horribly engineered rocket ships. He made increasingly transparent requests to just please, please, for god’s sake, have one little go on the International Space Station.
Of course, cosmonauts are rarely chosen because of their letter writing; Christopher was under no illusions there. What he resented was not even being given a go. NASA, through all his years of impassioned correspondence, did not write him back once. They offered him no jobs, no space ship joy rides, and no samples of lunar debris even though they probably had a heap of it just sitting around Houston gathering (Earth) dust.
And in time he grew bitter. And full of hate. And he came to haunt the night sky in a disillusioned search for NASA’s great mistake.
Like most fanatical young men hell-bent on unfeasible revenge missions, Christopher McGhee would have difficulty explaining to you his ‘plan’. There wasn’t one, really, just a ferocious watching. He wanted the Agency to suffer at all costs, and he would stare through his telescope every goddamn night until he found whatever it was that he was looking for.
Christopher McGhee was a very difficult man to love. He was too busy with weird, vengeful astronomy to sink much time into mingling at dinner parties or combing his hair. He would mumble things like, “Yes Saturn is looking very suspicious this evening,” on first dates without realising it, and he didn’t mumble anything on second dates because he was never invited back. He was a wacky-haired maniac, far from book smart, even further from street smart, desperate to out-do an internationally revered space agency full of handsome geniuses. The whole thing was very unappetising, and he had grown accustomed to scouring the night alone.
It was exactly because of this isolation that Christopher McGhee had no one to tell about the end of the world.
Mars was suspect, to say the least, on the night of the big discovery. It was zipping about without much consideration of its orbital path, and also it was getting bigger, and closer. You don’t need to be a cosmonaut to find that a little on the nose.
Christopher wasn’t the brightest star in the sky by any means, but he had brains and eyes enough to put two and two together. He deduced that he was probably looking at an asteroid. A big, fast one. He rushed inside to get his calculator and a protractor and another pot of coffee.
It was 3:15am when the astrophysics was complete. The many reams of sums and equations it consumed were far too dense and, frankly, too boring to detail here. They related to gravitational pulls and object masses and hard-to-spell theories that would sail, comfortably, over the layman’s head. Most of them flew well over Christopher’s head, too, but by the end of it the reality was this:
The Earth would be destroyed in five days by an unstoppable, world-ending asteroid.
Christopher was elated.
He shot a snarky email at NASA straight away, outlining the catastrophe with appropriate working out and telling them where to stick it. He fell asleep in the usual position quite smugly that evening.
It was not until the fourth last day of life on Earth that Christopher McGhee confronted his own mortality. And that was a difficult morning indeed.
After a brief and troubled dalliance with the nature of existence and what happens when we die, he decided that, obviously, death just wasn’t going to cut it. On a yellow legal pad, under the heading ‘Hurried Solutions to the End of the World’, Christopher listed three possible plans to avoid his final end. There wasn’t enough time to research or even think too deeply about any of these gambits, and he was encouraged by the impending asteroid to go fetch some propane post haste.
The first scheme he would try was perhaps the most obvious. It was one that may well have occurred to you before. He was going to build a rocket and fly away.
Christopher went to Bunnings and sought aisle guidance from storeperson Dave.
“Hi, nice weather we’re having, we're doing poorly in the cricket, I don't have any plans for Christmas,” he said, quickly disposing of the small talk. “Where abouts is your rocket fuel?”
Dave’s brow furrowed; he was taken aback. Bunning’s employees are not used to being taken aback. They’re used to straightforward, well-worn questions about mulch and patio furniture. What transpired was a lot of shrugging, some umming and ahhing, some nose scratching, and an eventual apprehensive direction to the barbecue gas bottles.
It was there, surveying the neat rows of tightly packed liquefied petroleum gas, that the gravity of the operation really dawned on Christopher. He gulped.
“I’ll also be needing a hammer and some nails,” he said. “And some wood and metal and I think some kind of electrical wiring.”
Storeperson Dave smiled. That he could do.
You would not believe the obstacles that can be overcome by the threat of a world-ending asteroid. With almost the right parts, YouTube tutorials and a little bit of gumption, Christopher McGhee gave life to a bootleg spaceship in a single day. Exhausted from the labour of D.I.Y. astrophysics, he fell asleep with an open eye pressed into the misshaped, wooden fuselage.
He awoke to a brave new dawn. It was launch day. His noble ship had survived the night, an obvious good sign, and it was time for a quick test flight. He would then make some sandwiches, buy some big bottles of Gatorade and take off for real.
The test flight did not go well. The raging gas-and-fire-ball, after a few seconds of wobbly rising that was not unlike a baby’s first steps, finally deposited itself in Christopher’s neighbour’s shed. He peered at the carnage over the fence.
“Fuck. Sorry about that, Carl,” he said. “Jeeesus, that did some damage. Don’t worry about a thing Carl, I’ll pay for it all. Yikes that’s a lot of fire! I’ll give you the money on Monday.”
It was Thursday. Christopher was being clever.
He realised that escaping the stratosphere was going to be trickier than it appeared, and so he went back to Bunnings and bought a shovel.
Since Christopher had achieved all he’d ever wanted to in the field of astronomy, digging a hole in the backyard became his new obsession. For hour upon hour he struck his blade into the dirt, tossing the refuse over his shoulder before going in for another bite. He dug and dug, his body became wholly committed to the art of endless digging, his mind became wholly consumed by blueprints of his would-be bunker. He pictured, as he dug, an underground palace, stocked to the rafters with boxes of Chicken Crimpys and amenities up the wazoo. All night he dug. Sleep found him eventually.
The next morning, Carl found his neighbour slumped at the bottom of a pit, sitting on an exposed sewage pipe and forcing an open eyeball into his shovel, screaming in his sleep about how Pluto was small, yes, but not above suspicion.
Christopher McGhee was a really, very difficult man to love.
Caked in wet dirt and exposed sewage, Christopher reflected over breakfast. He ate a very glum bowl of muesli and thought about his plans. It seemed the hole was as deep as it would go and, in any case, now that he thought about it, he would need to dig right through to the lithosphere to get any kind of peace from the asteroid impact. It was hot down there. It was a fool’s game to keep digging.
He thought back to his rocket ship. Maybe it was the glum bowl of muesli talking, but that now also seemed incredibly foolish. Carl’s shed was always doomed without NASA’s resources and engineering. Christopher sighed. Maybe his teachers and parents and first dates were right. Maybe he really was hopeless.
The only remaining item on the ‘Hurried Solutions to the End of the World’ was, even to a man as unbelievable as Christopher McGhee, speculative. But he really had no choice. The asteroid was just one day away and, even though he didn’t have much of an appetite for another radical gambit, he had to do something, didn’t he?
And so back he went to Bunnings, armed with blueprints, seeking again the guidance of storeperson Dave, prepared to make this latest scheme his final obsession.
And who could have guessed that a pair of golden wings would be Christopher McGhee’s saving grace? They were a wide, metal extension of his atrophied arms, attached to some MacGyvered hang gliding equipment. They were big and beautiful, functional and fun to use, and it was as simple as flapping, when appropriate, to fly.
The sun was setting on the last day of the world, which Christopher watched from the highest rooftop he could find. The asteroid would hit soon and everything would end. He dove off the edge and soared above the city.
As Christopher flapped, he thought. He gazed sadly at a world that had never understood him, never given him a go, and waited for it to explode. He did not feel vindicated or afraid. He flew towards the setting sun and readied himself for the bang.