BY: JIM HABERKORN
Rulon Hurt doesn’t believe the earth is going to end from an asteroid strike, but his Swiss wife, Yohaba, disagrees. So does her grandfather, former CERN director Leonard Steenberg.
One-eighty-two Elsa is shaped like a potato – a potato 27-miles wide and pock-mocked with numerous craters, the remnants of impacts from other, smaller asteroids. Elsa originated several billion years ago, at the dawn of the solar system, a non-descript member of the main asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. At about the time Alexander the Great was conquering Persia, Elsa was side-swiped by a larger asteroid, lost some of its mass, but continued hurtling through the emptiness of space – this time on a different orbital path that will have it colliding with the earth just south of Geneva, Switzerland on April 13, 2029.
Its 27-mile-wide mass moving at 30,000 mph will plunge through the earth’s 60-mile thick atmosphere in just over a second and destroy the earth. On impact it will release the energy-equivalent of 200 trillion tons of TNT. Even if it lands in the 6.86 mile-deep Mariana Trench it will still pierce the earth’s crust. The resulting earthquake will topple every structure on the planet. All the oceans will boil. The earth’s atmosphere will catch fire. Everything will die.
Shortly before his death, Albert Einstein predicted this would happen, even down to the exact date, but had time to confide his discovery and his proposed solution to only his three brilliant protégés. The youngest of them, Leonard Steenberg, still lives, and has dedicated his life to fulfilling Einstein’s last and greatest mission.
Trouble is, mankind doesn’t want to be saved.
Manufacturing vice president Andy Oderhardt sat in the lobby of IQ Technology’s corporate headquarters in Santa Clara, California, consoling himself that no matter what happened today, it wasn’t the end of the world. Just the end of a career. He tried to relax, to convince himself that it was just one more meeting in a career filled with meetings. Just one more time for him to go over the numbers in front of an audience thirsting for his blood. One more meeting where he didn’t have to be brilliant, but rather just glib enough and quick thinking enough to avoid humiliation, to deflect blame, to survive. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. The numbers weren’t good. Weren’t good at all. In fact, they were bad enough to make a man do desperate things.
Andy stared at the reflection in the glass door in front of him. A silver haired, fifty-year-old man in a gray Brooks Brother suit stared back at him. In a few minutes the door would open, and he’d walk through it like a gladiator entering the arena. Andy grimaced at the image and took a deep breath. Stay cool, he told himself. One way or another it will all be over in an hour.
Just then the door to the executive chamber opened. Laughter spilled from the room and a thirty-something woman in a blue pants suit came out. She spotted Andy. “Sorry, Andy. We ran a little late.”
“No problem, Gail,” said Andy. He slid past her into the conference room, paused, and looked around. At the far end of the room, IQ CEO Connie Pratt stood at the head of a long, burled wood table, surrounded by five men in dark corporate suits, white shirts, and subdued ties, all as attentive as drones around a queen. Half a dozen other men and women sat around the table typing on their laptops or talking furtively among themselves. No one noticed Andy. He might as well have been one of the potted plants, or another plank of oak paneling, or one of the two de Koonings that were hanging on opposite walls.
Connie was tall and icicle thin. Her blond bob and stiletto-sharp side part announced to the world “take me very serious.” Her face reflected an icy smoothness and her eyes glared off that frozen field as she made her points. She wore a light gray, two-piece Dolce and Gabbana business suit and a plain white Chanel blouse. Her only jewelry was a thin gold necklace and a gaudy diamond ring. Her shoes were dark gray Bruno Maglis. She had a closet full of them. So many, in fact, that her not always loyal staff referred to her as Imelda behind her back, or if she were really on a rampage, as Caligulette.
“Did you say something?” asked Gail. Andy shook his head. She touched his elbow and guided him to a chair at the opposite end of the table from Connie.
“I see you didn’t bring your laptop,” Gail said. “That’s good. Connie says she’s sick of being slide-whipped.” She winked. “She likes to be the one doing the whipping.” Andy completely understood.
He sat in one of the dark leather cushioned, high-back, wood chairs and passed the time observing Connie. After a few minutes, Connie nodded to her listeners, and everyone went back to their seats.
Once settled, Connie slowly brought the meeting to order while quietly chatting up the table, joking about lunch, fuming about the SEC, then telling a funny story about a meeting she once had with Schwarzenegger when he was governor, all the while twirling a pen in her hand and making piercing eye contact with everyone except Andy.
Andy watched the performance, mesmerized, and then, finally, the curtain opened on Act II, and there she sat twenty-five feet away, elbows on the table, chin in both hands, looking directly at him, judging him, taking his measure. She studied him for a full five seconds before she spoke.
“Welcome to the chamber, Andy or, as we like to call it, the quarterly chamber of horrors.”
Everyone around the table laughed. Andy joined in. He felt the urge to wipe the sweat from his forehead, felt the urge to crawl under the conference table and escape via a trapdoor, felt the urge to leave a briefcase with a bomb under the table near Connie.
“You know who I am, Andy?” Connie asked. A few people around the table chuckled at the joke that was coming.
“What?” Andy asked, his eyes darting from face to face, not understanding the joke.
“I’m your worst nightmare,” she said, and the twelve members of the Executive Committee all burst out laughing again. Things quieted down and she continued. “All kidding aside, nothing’s changed since your last visit. You know the ground rules. This is the no-spin zone in here, Andy. In here we tell it like it is. We tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Got it?”
“I do,” Andy said, resisting the urge to raise his right hand.
“All we care about in here is accountability,” said Connie. “Accountability is what made this company great. It’s what makes any company great. Do you ever play Risk, Andy? You know, the board game?”
“Good. Then you’ll understand this. It came to me the other day that Risk is the greatest game in the world. Do you know why?” Before Andy could open his mouth, Connie answered for him. “Because it’s all about using your resources to crush the competition and expand your empire. It’s about rolling the dice and dealing with whatever comes your way.”
“Born to be wild, eh?” Andy said.
“Born to be what?” Connie asked with an expression like he’d just burped in her face.
“Born to be wild,” said Andy. “You said, ‘whatever comes your way.’ That’s a line from the old Steppenwolf song Born to be Wild. You know, firing all your guns at once. That sort…of…thing.” His voice trailed off.
She glowered at him for a long second. “We were talking about a board game, not music and guns. Did you follow anything I said? Risk is about stacking the odds in your favor and wiping your competition off the board. It’s the perfect metaphor for business. It’s the furthest thing from being wild. Don’t you get it?”
“Yes, I do,” said Andy, now thoroughly on the back foot.
“I hope so. Now, let’s get down to business. In the last four quarters you’ve managed to lose market share to every one of your major competitors. Are you asleep at the wheel, Andy?” Before he could answer, Connie looked down at the spreadsheet in front of her and continued, “In fact, Andy, looking at your losses over the last few quarters, I’d say you were more like a drunk driver coming home from an all-night binge.” Everyone laughed, including Andy. “Well, what’s the story?”
The moment of truth. Andy cleared his throat and reeled off his memorized speech. “You have cut R&D spending to the bone for years and now we are reaping what you sowed. Our products are old, out-of-date, and boring. We’ve been milking the profits out of them for years so you can keep getting your bonuses. The whole company is like a ship slowly taking on water. When it sinks, as it surely will, you’re going to blame the debacle on the market forces beyond your control. But privately you’ll blame the masses of employees who simply couldn’t rise to the level of your magnificent vision. Then you and your cronies will jump off this ship like rats with your huge payouts, hopefully to get hired at another Fortune 100 company so you can pillage that one too.”
There, he said it. Andy hoped he hadn’t rushed it. He’d certainly practiced it enough back home in front of the mirror, but this was like kicking a thirty-yard field goal in the last seconds of the Super Bowl. The goal posts get mighty close together when the big game is on the line.
To say that the room was in numb, shocked, jaw-dropping, unblinking, time-stopping bewilderment would be an understatement. People who had been only half listening a few seconds ago were now staring at Andy as if he’d just spoken in tongues. Some actually didn’t understand his words. Others paused in mid-movement, one foot on the gas, one on the brake, going into sensory overload. Andy sat there casually adjusting his tie and slowly flicking some lint off the sleeve of his suit; he had practiced that, too.
After the initial shock wore off, the entire table turned as one and looked at Connie. But she was also revving her engine in neutral at Andy’s words and unable to speak.
Finally she stuttered, “What did you say?” Someone in the room laughed nervously.
Andy had been given explicit instructions to keep his mouth shut at that point until someone else spoke up. He’d been told he’d have an ally in the room, but he didn’t know who. He looked around at all the faces. Forty-five-year-old Winston Klendenin III with jet black hair, nattily dressed as usual, the board’s newest member and owner of the world’s eighth largest private yacht, caught his eye for a moment then looked at Connie. “I think what Andy’s trying to say is that this company has been mismanaged and needs a change of direction. Did I get that right, Andy?”
Ah, so Klendenin was the ally! Now Andy could deliver his next scripted line. “Yes, Connie has never been a straight shooter with her employees. The constant layoffs to cut expenses have shattered employee morale and now we’re all walking around like zombies waiting to be shot in the head.”
“Of all the impertinence,” said Connie, recovering somewhat. “It’s not your place to suggest anything. You’re here to get reamed good and proper for not making your targets. And you’re going to get reamed, and you’re going to stay reamed, and you’re going to like it.” She pointed a long finger at Andy at the other end of the table. “Don’t even think of deflecting blame away from yourself by attacking me.” She smacked the table once for emphasis.
Julia Finch, the committee’s longest serving member, chirped up, anxious to get her talons into Connie after years of being dismissed as a feather brain. “Maybe Andy’s got a few good points. Maybe we should hear him out. Without new products we’re doomed. Yes, there I said it. Doomed!”
“People are afraid to make major purchases because of all the controversy over the trade deals,” Connie said, doing a little deflecting herself. “If they can turn things around in Washington, then we’ll be back on track.”
“There is shrinking demand for our products,” said Winston. His eyes swept the table as he spoke. “That much is obvious. What have we got that’s special? And don’t recite for me the marketing nonsense. Let’s have some reality in this room for a change.” This time there were murmurs of agreement.
Connie continued on the offensive. “What we’re doing is called ‘returning value to the stockholders,’ my friend. It’s what great CEOs do. Wake up. Apple, Amazon, and Google are grabbing all the investment money these days. If we want to tear investors away from them, we need to have profits and revenues that are just as good. This is not rocket science. We can’t afford to take our foot off the gas. Not for one second. We’ve got to hang on for a few more years and then we can start investing in R&D again. I don’t need armchair quarterbacks second guessing my every move.” She flamed the room with a glare. “Why is this so hard for you people to understand? I’ve finally gotten this company’s expenses in line and now the guys in the division are screwing up my revenue numbers. If it’s not one thing it’s another. I can’t keep fixing problems for you people.”
“Yeah, you people!” said Andy, ad libbing as he got into the role. “You peons, you mean! In a couple of years this company won’t exist and you’ll be gone with a big payout. We’ve all seen how this story ends.” And now he went back to the script. “You should step down for the good of the company. Everyone knows it and is just too afraid to say it out loud. When the fellow from CERN, that Steenberg guy with his asteroid project, offered us advanced nanotechnology we should have leaped at it, not bandied over who got the profits. It was exactly what we needed.”
Connie stared at Andy, the pen twirling furiously. She scrutinized him with her trademark laser-beam glare and increased the strain by tapping her fingers loudly on the table. After an excruciating ten seconds she leaned back in her chair and made up her mind. “Gale, call security. Mr. Oderhardt is to be escorted from the premises. He is not to go back to his desk. We will have his personal effects delivered to his home.”
“So, it’s the death penalty,” said Andy somberly, thinking this was the strangest line of all he’d been paid to say. “That’s what I get for speaking my mind.”
“Yes, Andy,” said Connie. “The death penalty.”
Winston immediately jumped to his feet. “Okay, everyone. Let’s cool off. Let’s everyone clear out except for Andy here, and me, and Connie. Let’s see if we can’t work this out.”
“I’m not changing my mind,” said Connie coldly. “He’s toast. He’s history.”
Winston held up a hand to Connie as if to say don’t be hasty. No one in the room moved. “Please, just give us a half hour to work this out. C’mon, please. Everyone, if you can just wait in the lobby. Thanks.”
Once the room had emptied, Connie threw down her pen in disgust and walked over to the refreshment bar. While she was pouring herself a cup of coffee, Winston said nervously, “While you’re up can you lock the door?” Connie made a face but twisted the lock on the door on her way back to her chair.
After she sat down, she sipped her coffee and started to relax. She looked at Andy with an expression of sadness and a slow shake of her head. “Andy, what the hell’s gotten into you? I know it’s tough out there. But you’ve been around long enough to know how the game is played. If you don’t make your numbers, I chew you out. If I don’t, I get chewed out by the board. I would have chewed you out and you would’ve kept your job. Why did you have to turn this into something bigger than it needed to be?”
Andy had done it because he’d been paid to do it by a very serious man representing himself as an emissary from the “director,” who Andy assumed meant someone from the board of directors. He was told he was going to be fired at today’s meeting and his severance would be under half a million. The man had then offered Andy $4.4 million to say what he did today. Half of that was already in his account. The rest would be there after Connie was dethroned. Now, at her conciliatory words, Andy, sitting two chairs away from her, felt like the world’s biggest jerk. He didn’t know what to say but could only shift uneasily in his chair, unable to look her in the eye.
Winston asked, “Does anyone mind if I smoke?”
“You don’t smoke,” Connie said. “But go ahead, knock yourself out. I won’t report you. Hell, anybody got a bottle of scotch?” That got a small laugh out of Andy.
Winston took a small brown paper bag out of his computer bag but was shaking so badly he dropped the whole thing on the floor. He picked up the paper bag and shook out, onto the table, a pack of cigarettes and a cigarette lighter shaped like a pistol.
“Well, Andy?” asked a visibly tired Connie. “If you got any good reasons why I shouldn’t fire you, now’s the time.”
In the chair to Connie’s right, Winston began putting on two long, black rubber opera gloves, recently purchased from the House of Harlots online gift shop. He clumsily stretched the gloves over his hands and suit sleeves up to the elbow.
“Winston, what are you doing?” Connie asked. “Are you losing it?”
Winston took four deep breaths, fumbled to pick up the cigarette lighter then walked with it behind Connie. He said, “May I?” and grabbed her hand.
“What?” she laughed with a mixture of amusement and puzzlement.
“Please just bear with me,” he said. Carefully he opened her fingers and placed the cigarette lighter in her hand. “Hold steady,” he said as he pointed it towards Andy, who was paying more attention to his cup of coffee than to Winston and Connie a few feet away.
“Andy!” said Winston sharply. Andy turned to look, saw what looked like a gun, and started to laugh.
Winston pulled the trigger for Connie. Boom! Loud for such a small gun. A neat hole appeared in Andy’s forehead a couple of inches off-center, and he fell forward on the table.
Winston stepped back. Connie shook and stammered out sounds—no intelligible words, just sounds. She stood up, her coffee spilled, and her chair fell over. She backed up over it and fell down herself. Winston dropped the gun next to her then screamed red-faced, “What have you done! Why did you shoot Andy! He’s dead. You’ve killed him!” When he was finished, he looked into her eerily wide eyes and mouthed the words, “I’m sorry.”
Then he threw up.
The police arrived fifteen minutes later. Connie tried to pin the murder on Winston, but everyone had heard her threaten to kill Andy in the meeting. The police took her to the station, where tests revealed gunpowder residue on her hands and face. As a formality, they tested Winston too, but as expected, found nothing. They apologized for the inconvenience. He understood. Just doing their job. Such a tragedy. It happened so quickly. He wished he could have stopped it. Connie was put on suicide watch.
Winston left the Santa Clara police station just before midnight in a daze and walked ten blocks to a sandwich shop on Stevens Creek Boulevard. Sitting in a booth at the back was his contact, Simon, dressed in his usual dark, pin-striped Armani suit. Hair to his shoulders. Big ears. Roman nose. Glaring at Winston from the adjacent booth were two silent men in Oakland Raiders jackets. Muscle. Winston slid into the booth opposite Simon. Per the prearranged rules neither of them spoke. A waitress came by but Simon waved her off. After she walked away Simon pushed a lined writing pad and a pen across the table. On the top line were the hand printed words, Are we still cool?
Winston took the pen and wrote on the next line in a shaky scrawl, Yes. When will my family be released? and pushed the pad back to Simon.
Simon wrote, You do realize that Oderhardt is not dead? He pushed the pad back to Winston.
“What!?” said Winston loudly when he read the message. “That’s impossible.”
Simon frowned and pointed at the pad. Winston slid it over.
Simon wrote, Use the pad. Oderhardt’s in a coma. But don’t worry. The big boss said you’re good. Mission accomplished.
How long before I see my family?
As soon as I leave, I make the call. Simon looked at his watch then wrote, Sixteen hours. The rest of the money is already in your account.
I’m giving all the money to Andy Oderhardt’s wife.
Simon wrote something and pushed the pad across the table. Nice gesture. One more thing. Your daughter will continue to be an exchange student with a nice family until after the trial.
Winston read it and groaned in agony.
Simon pulled back the pad and wrote, Keep it down.
Winston snatched back the pad. Why is this happening to me?
It’s for a good cause.
Who’s doing this to me?
Goodbye, Mr. Klendenin. Thank you.
Winston grabbed the note pad out of Simon’s hand as he stood to leave, and scribbled, How do I know he’ll keep his promise? He threw the pen on the table and held the pad up for Simon to read.
The words prompted a glimmer of compassion in Simon for the desperate, confused man. Bending close to Winston’s ear, he whispered, “Don’t worry. With the Director a deal’s a deal.” He grabbed the notepad, straightened up to leave, hesitated, then bent low again. “For what it’s worth, he’s done this before. It always turns out fine. Just do the deal.”
It was two days after the shooting before all the details of the board meeting came out, including Andy’s statements to the Executive Committee right before he was shot. When the full story hit the press, IQ Technology’s stock price fell seventy percent in five hours. By the end of the trading day the company had a new majority stockholder, and Winston Klendenin had a good idea who “The Director” was. After a sleepless night arguing with his sobbing wife, he spent the next day locked in his study making phone calls to friends in the Pentagon he’d been hobnobbing with for years in his role as a defense contractor. What’s the point of having all this money, he asked himself, if you can’t even protect your family?