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There was no way of telling what the weather was like up above. It was warm and stuffy, so Juan Martín Estrada could only surmise it must have been a sunny day. Either that or the congregation of bodies was letting off so much heat that it was becoming trapped in the cavernous underground lair.
Three days ago, he and a whole host of other celebrities had been ushered into the hastily prepared bunker that the United States government had tried their hardest to conceal from the public. Their efforts had failed. When Juan entered there was a mob of angry people outside the perimeter demanding they too were allowed entry to give them a chance of surviving the imminent impact of the gargantuan asteroid, Peklenc.
Armed forces did all they could to hold them back via non-violent means. It only worked for so long. Eventually, they were left with no alternative but to open fire. They used rubber bullets initially; their impact wasn’t as great as the soldiers had hoped. With regret, they switched to standard ammunition and innocent citizens were made an example of. Many lost their lives; however, it had the desired effect and the large majority of the mob dispersed.
Juan sat in tense silence. He felt like a charlatan. Not only was he sat in this place for no other reason than he was a bigshot Hollywood actor, but he wasn’t even called Juan. He’d changed his name to make himself more profitable. Sure, he could pass as a sexy Latino because he’d inherited the look from his Mexican grandfather, though that completely belied his majority Irish descent. He’d been born fifty-six years ago as John Martin McNair.
Having fallen into acting by complete accident in his early teens, Juan quickly found himself acting in stage plays in crummy theatres around New York. He was never anything special; it was his look that won people over.
At age seventeen, he was cast in a Mexican soap opera. The pay, while better than what he’d scuppered acting on stage, was rather mediocre. That didn’t matter; his face was on TV.
After five years on the show, Juan, who had by this point changed his name to its present guise, quit the show and made a beeline for California. His barely passable CV was ignored by most because of his dazzling good looks and he quickly found himself playing parts in B movies. That soon progressed to him playing the lead in B movies.
Juan was still only twenty-eight years old when he was offered a supporting role in a major production at Warner Brothers Studios. He’d made it. After this there was no looking back. The movie was a roaring success and Juan was critically acclaimed.
Another couple of movies came and went before he landed the starring role in a big budget romantic comedy. He was carried throughout by the acting capabilities of his female co-star and the movie hit number one in the box office. Everyone raved about the chemistry of the pair. Juan had gone beyond making it; he was now a legitimate star.
The years passed and he tucked movie after movie under his belt. He came into more money than he could ever have dreamed of—all for a career he didn’t even feel himself he was particularly good in. It was all because he was considered a heartthrob. Demographics showed that over seventy percent of his viewers were female.
After he turned forty he became somewhat weary of the movie business. He accepted smaller roles in cinema and instead began work on the new hot genre of boxset series’. It didn’t take him long to land a role in one. It was different to his usual acting ventures and finally gave him the chance to show how good an actor he really was. It was the best decision he ever made as the series became a huge hit. Eight seasons of it saw him become one of the highest grossing actors of all time.
Juan really had no need to throw himself at roles anymore. After the series concluded he stuck to smaller parts in movies and the occasional appearance in miniseries’. He was happy to take a break from it all and enjoy his bachelorhood now he was in his fifties.
All in all, Juan could reflect on what had been a very lucrative career and it was all because he was attractive. If that wasn’t a sign of how aesthetic humankind had become then he wasn’t sure what was. Underneath it all he felt insurmountable guilt. He’d never felt worthy of the fame and money he’d accrued. Even now, surrounded by the upper echelons of society, he didn’t believe he belonged.
The thing that astounded him was how quiet the lair had been. All of those big egos in one place; if only their personalities were as big. Not that Juan could judge. He knew he was a very boring person underneath. Outside his acting career there was very little in terms of enjoyment for him. He wondered if it was the same for everyone else.
Nearby was a clock. The top part of the clock read the date and the time: 18th June, 20:14. The bottom part was a countdown timer. It presently read 00:04:48; four minutes forty-eight seconds to impact.
The celebrities had been assured by the US government that they’d be safe, especially since Peklenc would strike way over in Eastern Europe. Scientists, on the other hand, had warned them this wouldn’t be the case. Hiding underground would only create its own problems. Juan didn’t know what to believe. All he knew was that he felt uncomfortable and stifled.
He stood and bustled his way through the throng towards the entrance of the lair where three burly soldiers stood. “Excuse me gents.”
“What can we do for you, Mr Estrada?” one of the soldiers asked.
“I need some fresh air. I’d like to step outside for a minute.”
The soldier cocked his head with an ironic grin. “Sir, you know that isn’t possible.”
“No, I know that I’ve been told I can’t; however, I didn’t recall saying I agreed to having my freedom of choice taken from me. Is this a prison?”
“Of course not, although you do know that Peklenc is minutes away from hitting, don’t you? Heading out there could result in your death.”
“That’s a chance I’m prepared to take.”
“Mr Estrada, this isn’t—”
“Open this door or shoot me. At this stage, I don’t care which! I will gladly fight all three of you. I have nothing to lose.”
The three soldiers looked at one another. Their immediate thought was to contact the person in charge of the operation. That would take too long.
The soldier who’d been speaking to Juan shrugged his shoulders. “As you wish, Mr Estrada, sir.”
One of the other soldiers went to the vault door and opened it as quickly as he could. There was less than a minute until impact.
As the door opened, a cool evening breeze flooded in and Juan felt immediately better for breathing it in. He nodded his thanks to the soldier and stepped outside. It was a summer evening just like any other in the southwestern United States, except without the shimmering lights of the city around him. The lair had been excavated in the desert, allegedly far enough away from the San Andreas Faultline for it to be of any impact.
Before the door slammed shut, another few people joined Juan aboveground. Apparently, they too had had enough of the cramped conditions and would rather have faced their mortality than hid from it.
One of the celebrities, a co-star from a movie Juan had appeared in years ago, approached and stood next to him. He had an awkward smile on his moustachioed face. “Juan, I just wanted to tell you…” He trailed off.
“What did you want to tell me, Dirk?”
“I wanted to tell you… I never liked you. At all! In fact, I hate your guts!”
Juan chuckled quietly and put a reassuring hand on Dirk’s shoulder. “The feeling is mutual, buddy. You’re a dreadful actor!”
The pair said nothing else to one another. They gave each other one more respectful glance apiece before Dirk walked away to be on his own.
Juan felt uplifted. For forty years he’d been surrounded mainly by sycophantic people who told him what he thought he wanted to hear. Dirk, aside from the odd snide critic, was the first person to give him some barefaced honesty. It was good to hear. He knew Dirk appreciated his honesty too.
He checked his watch. They were at least a couple of minutes beyond the time to impact.
Then he felt it: a tremor underfoot. It came and went in a flash. Seconds later it returned with ten times the ferocity. Juan lost his footing and fell to one knee. He could hear the faint sound of screaming from the door behind him. The ground, softened by the excavation, had started to give way and cave in, hitting and crushing many inside the lair. Juan felt fortunate not to be one of them, not that he thought he’d gotten away lightly.
The door opened and people poured out. Those who fell were mercilessly trampled on as everyone stampeded away from the vault of death.
Juan stood back and observed it all, feeling completely apathetic. They’d all asked for this, too conceited to think they could ever perish in an extinction level event. Their fame and celebrity would protect them. Except it wouldn’t. Peklenc hadn’t cared who was a celebrity and who wasn’t; it hit the earth to destroy everyone irrespective of who they were.
The ground shook again even more violently than ever. Anyone still on their feet were taken immediately off them. There was no stopping it this time. The earthquake persisted and the earth beneath them began to break up. Gaping holes into a black abyss opened up and swallowed people whole.
Sat calmly on the shaking ground was Juan. The tremors made him feel dizzy and disorientated, but he wasn’t scared. This was the most alive he’d ever felt. The chaos around him was the total antithesis of the humdrum existence he’d endured up to this point. In the face of death, Juan felt excitement and he was ready for the adventure that awaited him.
Then the ground came apart beneath him and he fell. The work of Peklenc had been done.