Vast, Cool, and Unsympathetic

When the history of this world is written, it may be said that the world changed forever on that day in 1996, when the comet fell, shattered into a million million shards raining down on every inch of the Earth. But the truth is that the world had already changed, long ago, and the Impact was merely the old world's first fitful attempt to reassert itself.

The damage from the Impact was minimal, all things considered. A few died; though, it must said, far less than would be expected. There was no great cloud of dust blanketing the Earth, chilling it and ending civilization as we know it. Each impact was small, no crater exceeding the size of a modest house. No airbusts created deadly shockwaves tearing at the world beneath them. It was a great mystery to science and public alike, until the shards themselves were excavated.

Not a one of them was of natural origin. On the whole, they seemed to be of five metallic substances, none of them on the periodic table. Many of them were simply inert hunks of metal, albeit metal with properties science could barely fathom, let alone describe. Some of these shards, though, might more aptly be called seeds, for they took root and grew. Some simply created great deposits of the same sort of metal; others created strange spires and monuments; and a rare few created entire buildings, odd temples and acropoli and fora with unearthly elemental displays. Again, though, very little damage was done in the process. Only a rare few of these structures took root in extant cities.

The world, predictably, was terrified, afraid that it was under attack from the stars, and the governments of the world were hardly in a position to hush up something as widespread as the Impact and its aftermath. Military budgets soared, and the long-neglected NASA and other space agencies saw a significant budget boost in the years following the Impact.

But nothing happened. No great alien fleet arrived in the wake of the comet, and no little green men declared war on humanity. Really, the entire thing was sort of a bust, and as people do, they eventually stopped caring and even forgot about the apocalypse-that-wasn't. Besides, a scant five years later, the world's largest media market, the United States, had a great deal more to be concerned about. The Impact simply slid to the back of people's minds. It had no great effect on technology, as the transperiodic elements defied all but the most general classification. The world went on (much, indeed, as our world did).

History will think of a name, someday, for the years between 1996 and 2012. Those years, not happy for many, but free from the dread of knowing what was to come. The Impact was not an apocalypse-that-wasn't; it was an apocalypse-that-hadn't-yet.

Timeline Bullshit

For the most part, the world of Vast, Cool, and Unsympathetic is identical to our own. The advent of the Impact in 1996, however, has changed a few things. If something is not listed here, you should assume that it the situation is identical to our world.

Aerospace

Thanks to the terror of extraterrestrial threats (intelligent or otherwise) in the wake of the Impact, NASA and similar government space agencies have enjoyed a funding boom in the past decade and a half. As a result, while the shuttle program has indeed finished winding down, a successor program in the form of the Ares rockets was completed and in place well before the handoff occured.

In addition, technological advances resulting from this second space boom has resulted in costs being reduced to the point where private industry has gotten involved. As governmental agencies became increasingly militarized, more and more civilian applications were taken up by these startups.

Boeing is currently the leader in this field, with the B-2000 HHL (Hypersonic Heavy Lifter) serving as a scramjat/rocket-powered first stage for the B-7007-A, a shuttle-alike spaceplane.

Mir was not abandoned, but was bought out by corporate interests and expanded upon. The new Mir rivals the International Space Station for size, impressive considering the ISS is nearly twice as large as in our timeline, staffing 20 personnel at all times and including a revolutionary (and extremely finicky) centrifuge section to generate artificial gravity.

Metallurgy

Commonly referred to as Impact Metals, the strange substances that fell to Earth were at first referred to as nonperiodic elements, for they corresponded to no known element on the table. Subsequent investigation made it possible for science to determine the basic atomic properties of the impact metals, but as they lie well beyond the explored bounds of the periodic table, they are now typically referred to by science as transperiodic metals. Science has yet to agree on naming conventions for these elements, but they're commonly referred to by the following names.

  • Neogold
    • Hardest of the Impact metals. Neogold proved nearly impossible to work for nearly ten years, as the hottest forges would barely heat it. Eventually, it was discovered that the only thing that respectably heats neogold is highly focused sunlight. No other kind of light, no matter how powerful, will do the trick; it must be sunlight. Science has yet to explain just how this is even possible, but in the meantime the cost of working neogold is such that the possibility of using it in materials science is essentially zero.
  • Quicksilver
    • Quicksilver has puzzled and occasionally terrified the scientific community, who thought at first that they were dealing with an active colony of nanomachines instead of an alternately fluid and solid metallic element. Quicksilver seems to have a mind of its own, holding a shape when force is exerted to try and alter it, but loose and flowing when left to its own devices. Eventually, it was discovered that the only way to work quicksilver was in total darkness; regrettably, it cannot be worked by machinery, only by hand. As a result, anything made of quicksilver is hand-made and therefore unique, and therefore incredibly expensive and impossible to mass produce.
  • Iridisteel
    • Originally mistaken for common iridium, an element commonly found in asteroids but rare on Earth, subsequent experimentation proved that this impact metal is far from mundane. While not particularly difficult to work, it retains shape extremely well. Despite the ease of working it, Iridisteel has not found consumer applications for two reasons. First, it is by far the most rare of all the impact metals. Second, its presence has been proven to scramble probability curves in its immediate presence; such effects on the quantum level play hell with any kind of modern computer chip, so incorporating it into any such design is likely impossible.
  • Jade
    • Named for its resemblance to a naturally occurring ornamental stone. While it has five varieties, they are all isotopes of each other - that is, they are all the same element, but with different properties roughly corresponding to ancient conceptions of elements: Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and apparently Wood. The five isotopes of Jade are, collectively, the most common of the impact metals. They are also the only ones that modern metallurgy has found a use for; Apple was the first to use a Jade alloy for consumer applications in their handheld computing hardware.
  • Nethersteel
    • By far the most disturbing of the Impact metals, Nethersteel exerts an extremely disquieting effect on observers, including high levels of pareidolia. Nethersteel is almost as hard as neogold, and even more difficult to work, as no method has yet been found. Of course, that may be a result of nobody wanting to work with it for very long.

Impact Artifacts

At first, it was believed that the Impact was composed only of lumps of Impact metal or Impact seeds. Further exploration and exploration, however, revealed artifacts of extraterrestrial construction. Strangely, many were in the form of archaic weapons, such as swords or warhammers, but of a size and weight that made it quite impossible for a human to wield them. This led to the conclusion that whatever species created the so-called Impact artifacts must have been much larger than humans, until far more complex, though much rarer Impact artifacts were discovered. These technological artifacts, operating based on principles that did not follow from the standard model of physics, were of a size that approximated that of humanity.

In many countries, private possession of an Impact artifact is even more illegal than possession of Impact metal. This has done little but drive up the price of such wonders even more than their rarity already had.

Society

The day after the Impact, a thirty-year old burnout named Walton Hitchcock, whose meth habit had driven him into bankruptcy and nearly out of his mind, began approaching everyone who would listen (not a lot of people, at this point) and trying to convince them that he had had a vision of the Impact, and that during the Impact itself he had heard the voice of the universe itself tell him of the coming apocalypse, for you see, the world was about to end, and those who gave themselves to the universe would receive salvation from the glowing star angels, whose seeds had rained to Earth as heralds of their coming.

Hitchcock's Church of the Star Seed was, like most start-up eschatological cults, populated by the fringes of society for much of the first year of its life. This all changed when, for some strange reason, a washed-up public defender named Jerimiah Kane shared a bench with the would-be Prophet. The story is told differently, depending on who you ask, but what is factual is that Jerimiah Kane joined the Church of the Star Seed on that day, and quickly rose to become Brother Walton's right-hand man, even his partner in spreading the word, though they argued fiercely at times over means and nuances of the faith. His knowledge of psychology and rhetoric had done him little good in the world of criminal law, but applied to a religious leader with untrained but passionate charisma, it took a fringe cult out of obscurity and (almost) into the mainstream.

With a cleaner image and a slightly improved sales pitch (for all his talk of universal love and unity, Walton never managed to completely shed his incredibly filthy tongue), the Prophet's church grew and grew, with marches and sit-ins hearkening back to the 60s that Kane dimly remembered, too young to be part of it himself. But Walton Hitchcock's dream was cut short, as he was felled by an assassin's bullet at a prayer rally outside an Alabama megachurch in 1999. Kane immediately took over the leadership of the church and began altering the scripture wholesale, bringing it in line with his own interpretation of Walton's vision. This resulted in the Church fragmenting, though the copyright for the name remained with Kane, and in the last decade has turned it into a sort of latter-day Scientology, with himself at its head and as sole Prophet, sinking much of the Church's cash flow into legal action against splinter sects.

Various conspiracy theories exist regarding the Walton Hitchcock assassination, but the killer was never found.

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