Avinash probably would have slept through the day, but the phone woke him up around noon. He couldn't recognize the number on his cellphone and when he heard his father's voice, his heart skipped a beat. Babuji only called if there was an emergency -- the last time he had called, Avinash had found out that his mother was no more. His father did not trust technology, and so, he never used a cellphone, although Avinash had gifted him one some time ago. So, when he had to make a call, he would drive for a couple of miles to the nearest public phone.
"I just got a notice from the bank that they are going to foreclose on the farm at the end of the month. I am sorry to let you know so late, but things would have been different if the last crop did not fail."
They had the farm for a few generations in the family, and Avinash was deeply attached to it. His dad explained to him all the things that they had not discussed before. His mother's illness, his father's reluctance to ask him for money, the mortgage, and three failed crops -- one after the other.
While still on the phone, Avinash was mentally running through his savings in the bank, his credit card limits and everything else that he thought was worth anything. They still did not add up to what they needed to rescue the farm. And suddenly, he remembered something else.
"Babuji, let me try one more thing before we give up. Can you please call me at the same time tomorrow?"
He got dressed quickly, and literally, ran out the door. As he put the car key in the ignition, he looked at an old key in the bunch and sighed. The key opened a locker in his bank, which housed the prized possessions of his dead mother, that she had retained for her daughter-in-law. If Avinash ever found a wife for himself. Avinash had hoped that he would never need to touch his mother's jewelry, that even his father did not know about.
It was a metal box, wrapped in red cloth. This was the first time he was opening the box. He was a little surprised at the number of gold ornaments that were inside -- in the old days, that was all that the women got as family heirlooms. Given the number of crop failures they had to deal with, he was surprised that his mother could hold on to them. Perhaps, their time had finally come, to rescue their family, one last time.
A jewelry store was on the other side of the street from the bank, and they had a big sign in the front announcing that they bought old jewelry. The last year had been pretty tough on the global financial system. Most economies were heavily in debt. Countries were printing their currencies like there was no tomorrow. Unemployment and inflation had gone through the roof, and people thought that a financial Armageddon was close. And, that the only way they could preserve their wealth, was by buying gold. Gold prices had skyrocketed, and the only people who sold gold, were people like him. People, who had something much bigger at stake, something, that was worth much more than its weight in gold.
Avinash walked right in, and put the box on the counter. An old man, who was the assessor, joined him in a few minutes. He went through the entire box, piece by piece. And he kept repeating at the end of each piece that the gold was of very high quality, typical of old jewelry.
Finally, he scribbled some numbers on a piece of paper, and walked off to his manager. The manager walked back to the counter and gave Avinash a price that they were willing to buy it for. It was a number beyond his expectations -- a number that would not only pay off the mortgage on the family farm, but also allow him to buy a lot of farm supplies.
He took a couple of bangles off the box and asked, "How much less, without these?" He knew that those were very dear to his mother, and he wanted to hold on to those. The new number was very close to the original one, and he was ready to close the deal. He had to sign a bunch of papers, and the shop wired the money to his bank, after he gave them his account information.
And then, Avinash walked back to the bank across the street -- one more time. To pay off his father's mortgage and save his family's farm from foreclosure.
This was the last time the committee was meeting. And, if they were successful, they would probably never meet each other again. And since they were only a few hours away from the actual event, they were not so concerned about secrecy any more. They had dropped the code, so they could communicate effectively with hundreds of new people who would be working with them over the next few hours. The chairman was confirming the final steps with the joint military command, that was in charge of the missiles.
"Step One may be all that we need, but please maintain high alert to move to Step Two, if necessary. In Step One, the missile will attempt to knock the asteroid off its course by exploding a nuclear weapon close to it. If things go all right, the asteroid will be given a little nudge and it should move close enough to the moon to be captured by its gravitational field. And it should crash on to the lunar surface."
"Remember though that there is a large probability that since the asteroid is wobbly, Step One may not work and we may have to resort to Step Two," interjected another member of the committee.
The chairman continued, "In which case, as the asteroid gets closer to the earth, we will fire a series of nuclear missiles at it, at close intervals. The military command will be in charge of this operation. If this step succeeds, we expect the asteroid to crumble into fine dust, which will be attracted by the earth's gravity. We have calculated a very high probability of success for this step, and we have to succeed, for the sake of our planet."
As the countdown started, Avinash knew very well that the first step would not succeed, and, that they would have to resort to heavy firepower in Step Two. After about six hours from the launch of the first missile, and its unsuccessful attempt at knocking the asteroid off its trajectory, Avinash calculated its new path, and the military command took over. Now, things were beyond their control -- he hoped that the missiles did their job.
As there wasn't anything else for him to do, keeping his cellphone on, Avinash got into his car and started driving towards his farm, which was a few hours away. If the world was going to end, he wanted to see his father one last time. In case his colleagues succeeded in the second step, he still wanted to make sure that his father was safe.
About an hour away from his farm, Avinash's cellphone came alive with the sounds of the final countdown.
"Sixty seconds to impact. Fifty nine. Fifty Eight..."
He pulled his car over to the side of the highway and looked in the direction where he expected the fireworks. The evening sky looked clear and peaceful, and the stars were bright.
"Seven. Six. Five.."
As the countdown came to an end, his heart raced. And then, he saw a brilliant flash in the night sky. Quickly followed by a few more.
"Central command. We have impact. Repeat, we have impact," said the military controller. "Radar confirms complete fragmentation as planned. Mission successful. The earth is safe."
Avinash heard a cheer go up in the background. And then, he got back in his car and started driving. He switched off his cellphone and tuned into the radio. He guessed that there would be some sort of an announcement.
"We are stopping this program to bring you an important announcement. We are being patched in to a broadcast coming from Washington. All Indian stations have been asked by our government to patch in."
It was the president of the United States.
"A few months ago, we became aware of an asteroid, that was on a dangerous collision course with the earth. We put together an international team of scientists to monitor its path and develop counter-measures, in collaboration with the military. This operation was conducted in extreme secrecy, to prevent public disorder. A few minutes ago, the operation was successfully completed. The asteroid was obliterated with nuclear weapons outside the earth's atmosphere."
"Over the next few days, the remnants of the asteroid will enter our atmosphere as fine dust, which I am told, will settle in a week's time. We expect the dust to be harmless, and further tests will be conducted when samples are obtained. We request everyone to maintain calm and remain indoors while the dust settles. There is no Armageddon, and the world is not going to end. We express our gratitude to the people around the world, who worked night and day to save the planet. Good night."
As the radio went back to its regular programming, Avinash turned it off. He could see their old farmhouse at the end of the dirt road. He was home. And, he badly needed some sleep.
When he woke up, he did not know how long he was asleep. And, he had no idea what time of day it was. The only light in the house was coming from a candle in the living room. His father was sitting in his easy-chair, taking a nap. He woke up as he heard Avinash's steps.
While Avinash was asleep, his father had tuned into the news. As the dust from the asteroid became denser, the electricity supply had been turned off to prevent arching on power lines. Television and cellphone towers had gone offline too. No one had a clue about what was going on in the world. And, it was pitch dark outside, although it should have been about four in the afternoon. The dust cloud was settling, but things were expected to be dark for another day or so.
It was about six in the morning when the electricity came back. And shortly afterwards, the television was back. And, as the sun slowly rose, news started pouring in. In general, everyone agreed that the world was safe, and the dust needed to settle.
Avinash wondered if they had found out yet -- about what the elephant was made up of.
"We have another emergency broadcast from Washington, that we are being patched into," announced the newsreader. And again, the familiar face of the American president filled the TV screen. He looked very grave.
"I am happy to see that the world over, we have not heard any reports of instability. I am happy to see that there was no mass scale destruction. And it gives me great satisfaction to report that the dust from the asteroid is not noxious, after our scientists made a complete analysis of its composition."
"However, the analysis of this dust, has put all of us in an unprecedented situation. We have found that the dust is made up of gold, which is about ninety nine percent pure in composition. At this moment, the entire planet is covered in a layer of gold dust, which is a few inches thick."
"This event has suddenly made gold one of the most abundant metals on the planet, and its current calculated value is less than that of scrap iron. As a result, much of the wealth of nations, corporations, and individuals, that was stored in gold, has vanished overnight. Since our financial system is based on a currency, that is not pegged to gold, we do not expect a chaotic situation around the world. However, the modern financial system still has a huge dependency on gold, and this event is expected to have grave consequences. It is with this in mind, and in consultation with several world leaders, that a simultaneous financial emergency is being declared in twenty nations around the world."
"These are difficult times, but we will survive them, together. I will be counting on your support. Thank you."
The news commentators went into a frenzy. "This is the end. All the precious metals will be repriced. Commodity prices will crash. The stocks and bonds are worth nothing. This is really the end. This is the financial Armageddon," one of them went on and on.
Another was slightly more restrained, "Have you wondered what is worth anything in the world from now on? We still have to eat, don't we? Potatoes and cabbages are worth more than anything else today. We are back to the old times of barter!"
Outside, they could see the sun slowly rising. Most of the golden dust had settled, and they were longing to get out. With a twinkle in his eyes, Babuji said, "Come, let me show you my newly founded empire of potatoes and cabbages."
In the light of the morning sun, the entire landscape looked outlandish. The land gave off a golden glow as far as the eye could see. It was as if, they were on a different planet. As they walked through the cabbage patch, Avinash bent and plucked a cabbage. They still needed to eat lunch!
They heard a set of loud squawks, as if, a bird was complaining. Then, they saw a mynah bird on a large heap of cow-dung, that they used as fertilizer in the farm. The heap was covered in the dust and it looked like a miniature mountain of gold. The bird was trying to scrape the gold dust with its feet, so it could expose the cow-dung hidden underneath. It didn't care much about the gold, but the dung beetles it was looking for, were way more important for it.
As they started walking back towards their old house, with a smile on his face, Avinash asked his father, "I have always wondered what is the proper way to cook a cabbage covered in gold dust?"
Babuji, with a smile on his face, said, "It is very simple, son. First, you chop the cabbage up into fine pieces. And, then, you cook it. With potatoes, ginger and ghee. And before you start cooking, make sure that you wash the gold off. With lots of water."