Hell, it feels very ‘writery’ to be writing a preface. I’m not a 100% sure I know what one is, but I’m going to go with ‘pretentious introduction’ and stick with that.
Anyhoo, this short story came about because I saw the picture above on my friend Bridget’s Facebook feed, with the plea, “What do you reckon the cloud behind the girl in the picture is formed by?”
It was for a writing competition using the pic as nothing more than context-less inspiration. Her friends suggested ‘smoke’ and ‘sandstorms’, and my contrary brain immediately started reaching for something in the polar opposite direction to the obvious.
I smugly posted my suggestion in Bridget’s thread, and she called my bluff. The cow. She suggested I write the story, and enter the competition. It was like calling Marty McFly ‘chicken’.
This is the result…
The object was first detected as it emerged from behind the former planet of Pluto. The Jodrell Bank telescope array picked up the shape bulging out from the planetoid’s shadow on 14th June 1963.
At first, it was assumed to be just another asteroid meandering through our solar system. A hunk of cosmic debris on its way to the Not-our-problem nebula in the Who-cares galaxy. But it was neither ‘asteroid’, nor ‘leaving’.
Whatever it was, it was big. Very big. At around 1,700 km across it was about half the size of our own moon, and moving quite quickly. At over 8000 kilometres per hour, or Mach 7 in old money, it was moving three-times faster than the proverbial speeding bullet. It was spinning too, but not like a bullet. It rolled through space, tumbling forward end over end every hour. The animations and models made it look like a definitely-not-pink beach ball being blown in slow motion across a vast black sandscape.
But as balletic as the object’s progress was, that wasn’t what had the scientific community in a flap. Its composition was what had the boffins excited. Their instruments all seemed to indicate it was made entirely of a substance they’d not seen in a celestial object before. Not a rare metal or an alien element new to the periodic table like “Madeuptanium” or something. No, it was something closer to home. Closer to everyone’s home, in fact. It was made of sugar.
The professors preferred the term “Glucose-like substrate”, but it was basically the same sticky, sweet stuff people had been dumping into hot drinks or pumping into fizzy ones for years. So ‘sugar’ (ahem) stuck.
They did their best to discount the ‘space sweet’ theory. Scientists pointed every sensor they had at the object to confirm its make-up. Infra-red, ultraviolet, lasers, sonar, radio waves, geiger counters, spectrometers, everything. They looked at it with the naked eye, the partially-dressed eye, and the ‘wrapped-up for winter’ eye. Each time, the answer came back the same – it was made of nothing but sugar. More accurately, it was made of sugar and nothing, as it was far from solid.
The initial bounce back from the boffins’ machines indicated the object was hollow. Then another reading would suggest some kind of lattice-like construction, perhaps like honeycomb? But as the data built up, it became increasingly clear that it was more delicate and fibrous than that. Its mass was mostly air – or rather, ‘space’ – with a sugar ‘web’ spun randomly in all directions. The scientists came to a consensus, and not one of them liked it. It felt frivolous and juvenile, and not at all something that would look good in a scientific journal. But to quote Sherlock Holmes “once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth”. Even Candy Floss.
Candy floss, cotton candy to the Yanks and fairy floss to the Aussies. This appeared exactly what it was made of. Sure it was space floss; it had likely never been near a sugar cane plant, a honeybee or a perfectly ripe orange. But however this sucrose-like, fibroid mass had come into being, its closest earth analogy was indeed the fairground treat. Reports that it was also resonating into the red spectrum of light – turning it a subtle shade of pink – were quickly rubbished by the scientific community.
The object would have been laughable, were it not for one tiny fact – it was coming our way.
This realisation detonated in 1980, nearly 20 years after the object was first spotted. Scientists had already predicted it would come close, but two decades of trajectory studies, and close observation of a truly unique object – an object that mostly wasn’t there – brought them all to the same conclusion; it was heading for Earth. It would arrive in the early 21st century and without the protection of our atmosphere, would engulf most of southern Europe.
Up until the revelation that it was Earthbound, the press and public had mostly stopped talking about the object. It had had its 15 minutes of fame in its first year of discovery, while it was still sightseeing around Pluto. During those first headline-hogging months, the world’s press had a field day trying to name the thing.
The first, faltering attempts to christen the object were clumsy and lazily descriptive. The Candy Floss Comet was popular in the British Press for a while, but fell out of fashion due to length and sounding like a 1930s steam locomotive. America struggled with wordplay around ‘cotton candy’, initially favouring Candyroid, despite its anal overtones.
The New York Times did win the humour stakes drawing parallels with Superman’s origin story. In the winter of 1963, with Clark Kent a household name thanks to high comic sales and the 1950s TV serials still fresh in everyone’s memories, NYT commentator Joey Siegel stepped forward. Siegel remarked that sugary object could be an escape rocket from a doomed world, not too dissimilar to DC’s fictional Krypton. It’s headline ran “Look! Up in the sky! Is it a curd? Is a cane? No, it’s SUCREMAN!”.
The British tabloid press, with its history of terrible and terrific puns, came up with a lexicon as long as your arm. Casteroid rolled off the tongue, but the link to caster sugar often needed explaining. Sweet-iorite remained popular for years, but sounded a bit too friendly for something threatening to smash into our planet at several times the speed of sound.
Two names stuck. The first, reflected the object’s size and lumbering velocity. This was no comet with a tail of fiery space plasma, that was for sure. So when a local newspaper in Surrey started using Sugar Lump or The Lump as a descriptor, the world agreed this was a fitting label and adopted it as their own.
The second nickname, was less menacing and more playful. This was the name that was dragged from the archive and graced the front pages in 1980. With the laughable space debris now a tangible threat to our planet, the world was once again talking about the “Flossteroid”.
There were heated discussions about whether the world should worry; the thing was mostly hollow after all. The UN convened a unique summit, drawing together mathematicians, engineers and chefs. This bizarre assembly ruminated on the weight of the object, and likely impact that a fluffy confection the size of France travelling at eye-watering speed would make.
A ball of fairground candy floss only weighed a few grams. Surely, even a ball as big as a country couldn’t make much of an impact… could it?
Calculations were made, theories were tested and even scale models – candy floss balls the size of buses – were constructed. After weeks of research, it was agreed that the Flossteroid weighed around 200 tonnes, similar to that of The Statue of Liberty. That was a weight worth worrying about.
But the public held a common misconception that the Flossteroid was moving slowly. People had been conceived, born and grown to adulthood in the time since it was first spotted, so how fast could it really be going? Every animation created to illustrate the behaviour of the Lump depicted it drifting through space, spinning slowly through the black molasses of the cosmos on its mysterious journey. In Joe Public’s mind, “quick” was never a word associated with the Flossteroid.
But in the intervening 20 years, the object had travelled past Pluto, through the orbit of Neptune and was currently dodging Uranus. It had travelled millions of millions of miles through our solar system, and would travel millions more before we met it in person. 200 tonnes, travelling at Mach 7. It was a blue whale, a thousands miles across, fired from a rail gun. And people were beginning to worry.
As the 1980s waned and the nineties began, discussion focussed on the impact – both literal and figurative – of its arrival. Where would it hit and what would it do?
Experts tried to reassure the world that it was big, but also fragile and not nearly as heavy as it looked. They insisted it would most likely burn up when it hit the upper atmosphere, and just give us all an amazing spectacle. But still the fear persisted.
If it didn’t burn up, what country would bear the brunt? What damage would it do? How much dust would it kick up? Would the sugar-shrapnel be dangerous? What would the ecological impact be introducing that much sugar into land and sea? Would it create giant, crazed space ants, or alien sharks on a permanent sugar high? What would 200 tonnes of free sugar do to the retail cost of demerara around the world? Which country would have salvage rights over the space sucrose? Could they mine it and sell it? Would it be dangerous?
The world’s collective worries helped usher in something of a religious renaissance. Faiths saw the Lump’s approach as a recruitment opportunity, decreeing the object to be the bringer of armageddon. Others saw an opportunity to sew a little god-fearing into their flocks. Passages from the various holy texts we’re poured over, dissected and reinterpreted to fit the dogma of ‘the Lump as evil’. One Christian quote frequently appeared in the media:
“What use to me is… sweet cane from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices pleasing to me.”Jeremiah 6:20
Evangelists the world over happily took this to mean “you need to pay the church more cash” and donations skyrocketed.
On the other side of the theological fence, the idea that interstellar candy floss could be the fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse generated much hilarity amongst the secular. The world’s commentators sniggered and pelted the religious community with missiles of parody and derision. ‘Carbogeddon’ and ‘The Day of Fudgement’ were thrown around most often.
As the years rolled by, and the Flossteroid rolled ever closer, the picture of its expected landing grew ever clearer. The extended duration of the analysis, revealed greater and greater insights, but so too did the inevitable march of technological progress.
Telescopes gave way to bigger and better telescopes and orbiting viewing platforms, punch cards and reel-to-reel data tapes gave way to solid state supercomputers and decentralised cloud-based AI. Put simply, our cleverest people got even smarter through gadgets.
By the early 2000s, 3D computer models and detailed simulations gave the world even more to ponder. The scientists began to worry that because of all the holes in the Flossteroid, it would present a greater surface area. This would mean it would have more ‘sides’ exposed to friction and therefore heat up quicker than a regular asteroid. However, those same holes would mean less drag through the air, so our celestial sucrose wouldn’t slow down as much as it passes into our atmosphere. More speed sounded scary, but more heat would mean it would burn up quicker, right?
But it’s unique composition – the sugar – meant it would quickly change from a solid crystalline structure into a liquid mass of red-hot molten molasses. So if it got through in any way intact, a giant ball of extra-terrestrial nectarous napalm would be crashing into Terra Firma in a few years’ time. Suddenly the ‘Day of Fudgement’ didn’t seem quite so mirth-some. Italy certainly wasn’t laughing.
When Southern Italy was pinpointed as the likely impact site, should the Flossteroid make it to the ground, three panics set in. The first, was a panicked Italian government, facing an unprecedented unnatural disaster armed only with a flacid economy and the world’s sharpest suits.
The second, was a panicked populace, particularly in the regions of Campania, Apulia, Basilicata and Calabria (the ‘foot’ of Italy’s boot shape) where the Flossteroid would probably hit. Their panic wasn’t fear for their lives – they could evacuate before its arrival, but fear for their property and their livelihoods. They couldn’t sell up and run; who would buy homes and businesses facing such a caramelised catastrophe?
The third panic, was the rest of the world. They wanted to see the regions many suspected would soon be encased in a toffee apple tomb. Tourists flocked from the four corners of the Earth to take pictures of the small village of Trivigno, widely expected to be this era’s Pompeii once the Flossteroid arrived.
As the noughties ticked over into the…er, decade after the noughties, professional and amatuer cinematographers vyed to get the perfect view of the Flossteroid’s dramatic entrance. Rooms were rented, houses bought and land acquired, not for people to set up residence, but for cameras to lay in wait. Remotely activated GoPros, 4Ks, still-cameras, video cameras, time-lapse cameras, 3D virtual reality recording devices sat dormant in dwellings and fields across Trivigno and the surrounding region. The money rolled in, as the people moved out. It appeared, the first two panics had been offset by the third.
By now, as the Flossteroid entered the last twelve months of its incredible journey from who-knows-where, it was visible with the naked eye. A dot in the night sky to begin with, but as the months ticked by, it became a feature in the daytime too. With just a month to go until it reached our exosphere – the upper reaches of our atmosphere – a grey circle was clearly visible. Larger now than the moon, the Flossteroid occasionally flared with light as its candy crystals bounced sunlight directly back to Earth. A deadly disco-ball dancing its way towards Italy with enough heat, mass and velocity to change the mediterranean forever.
As the months-to-wait turned to weeks, the EU helped evacuate much of southern Italy. The closest countries across the Adriatic such as Albania and Montenegro, emptied much of their coastlines in case of Tsunamis. Curfews encouraged people to stay indoors when the impact drew near, it was like the bad-old-days of the 1980s Cold War. A ‘duck and cover’ mantra for a new generation.
With days to go, scientists shared incredible high resolution images of the Flossteroid, now closer to Earth than Mars. The staggering live pictures clearly showed a cloud-like ball slowly rotating through the stillness of space. Looking closer, the fluffy spheroid became spikier and more angular, like a soft snowflake turning into a frozen shuriken under the gaze of a microscope. The fear of such a ‘sharp’ object hurtling into our planet, soon silenced even the most strident voice of derision.
Under 72 hours until touchdown, the world’s media had something else to talk about. Testing the equipment dotted across Italy revealed some hilarious, high resolution, ‘caught-in-the-act’ footage of people stealing the cameras. Unnerved more by the thought of missing ‘the perfect shot’ than by the loss of thousands of pounds worth of equipment, people raced back to Trivigno to replace the stolen devices. It was a risky plan, as commercial flights worldwide were to be grounded on F-day, and private planes wouldn’t readily risk themselves either.
Hastily hired tourist powerboats blasted into the closest ports and beaches. Fast cars, bikes and local guides waited to help the overreacting reporters to replace their electronic observers. On the return journey, many of them were watching the sky. The Flossteroid was nearly here.
It arrived on a Wednesday. In the early morning. Just before sunrise. The Italian skies were still dark. When the Flossteroid hit the upper atmosphere the light show it gave did not disappoint. The world stared up at the sweetest thing anyone had ever seen.
Thanks to my wife Vanessa for the encouragement and proof-reading. And thanks to Bridget for cattle-prodding me into writing again.
This is my submission for the Writing Prompts competition from Creative Writing Ink for 23rd May
You can read Bridget’s fab entry here (hers even has actual characters and dialogue and everything!).
Picture credit: Morgan Sessions on Unsplash
Let me know what you thought in the comments below. Thanks for reading.