Home > Learning to Swear in America

Learning to Swear in America
Author: Katie Kennedy



Because there’s no air in space, the asteroid hurtled toward Earth in absolute silence. Of the two objects headed toward North America—the BR1019 asteroid and Yuri Strelnikov’s flight from Moscow—only his plane made a sound. The thought made Yuri smile faintly as the American military plane descended, engines roaring.

The aircraft touched down and taxied, and a moment later the pilot opened the door for its lone passenger. Yuri stepped to the top of the airstair and surveyed the sun-drenched airport. Then he trotted down, carrying a single suitcase and a book bag looped over his shoulder, and headed to a waiting helicopter.

Yuri dragged his suitcase with one hand, felt the bite of the book bag’s strap and the heat of the sun on his shoulders. He rolled up the sleeves of his dress shirt with his free hand as he walked. He’d grown an inch in the past six months, and while the sleeves were long enough now, they might not be in a couple of weeks. How would he get a new shirt here? Better to roll the sleeves up from the start, so people were used to it.

An American officer stepped forward to open the helicopter door. He got in after Yuri and nodded to the pilot. Yuri took the headphones he offered, and a moment later the man’s voice crackled through. “NASA’s Near Earth Object Program is housed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. I’ll point it out as we get close.”

Then the pilot lifted off, and once again the ground fell away below Yuri. The pilot threw the throttle open and the craft shuddered and then responded. Yuri laid his cheek against the glass and gazed into the blue arcing over America. He wouldn’t see the asteroid. He knew that. By the time you could see it, it was too late. Because, although it was still in the dark reaches of space, the asteroid was traveling at 159,000 miles per hour.

Yuri sat in the back of the helicopter, his headphones muting the whomp of the rotors, and looked down at this dry city, lower and brighter than Moscow. He didn’t know what he thought of it yet. It was just … different. Yuri glanced at the officer and tried not to fidget. He could see people in white-and-glass buildings watching their descent as the pilot banked and landed. As they climbed out, the officer shouted at Yuri to keep his head down, and put a heavy hand on his neck to make sure he avoided the slowing rotor blades. He ushered Yuri inside one of the buildings and said, “Good luck.”

Yuri started to say, “You, too,” but realized it wasn’t appropriate, and was still searching for a response as the man left. Yuri stood for a moment, fingering the strap of his book bag, wishing he didn’t have the suitcase with him. Who brings a suitcase to an office building? An air-conditioning vent blasted ripples through his blond hair.

A security guard walked over to him and said, “Follow me,” then turned and led Yuri to a door off a large conference room. “You’re supposed to wait in here.” He jerked his head toward the door and walked off, and Yuri went in. The room was very small. It had two chairs on the right wall, two on the left, a tiny table with a pile of old magazines against the far wall. A boy of maybe five or six sat in a chair to the left. Yuri unslung his book bag and sat down opposite him.

The boy fingered the handle of a plastic tote bag as though Yuri might steal it. “Who are you?”

“Yuri Strelnikov. Who are you?”

“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”


They were quiet for a moment.

“I’m Tim.” The kid flopped across both chairs, with his head hanging off the end. He rolled to his side and pointed at Yuri’s bags.

“What’s in there?”

“Clothes mostly.”

“I’ve got blocks in mine.”

Tim opened his bag and dumped a pile of blocks on the floor. He began to build a tower, one block on top of another.

“Your base needs to be wider. See how it leans?” Yuri pointed. “It’s already maybe eight degrees off vertical.”

Yuri got on the floor beside him and snapped two long blocks onto the bottom of the tower. “See? This will increase your structural integrity.”

Tim grabbed more blocks and widened the base of his tower again, so that it was four blocks wide at the bottom.

The door opened. A tall man peered in at them. He was bald and had piercing blue eyes below a forehead that rose like a crown. “Dr. Strelnikov?”

Yuri rose. “Yes?”

The man flushed, then stepped forward and threw out his hand. “I’m Karl Fletcher, director of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program. Nice to have you aboard.”

He led Yuri out of the room. “Sorry about the confusion. The boy is the grandson of one of our support people. He’s waiting for her.”


Fletcher cleared his throat. “You’re seventeen, right?”


Fletcher shrugged apologetically, and then Yuri got it. Oh. The security guard thought Yuri was the grandson. And the director had walked in to see two kids on the floor playing with blocks. It could not be more humiliating. Yuri felt his face flame and knew that just made it worse. Fletcher pulled him into a large conference room, mostly open, with tables holding coffee decanters and doughnuts pushed against a far wall. The suitcase still embarrassed Yuri, and he pushed it under a table with his foot. The director introduced him to a half-dozen people—the local caffeine addicts, probably—and Yuri slowly relaxed. They wore name tags emblazoned with “NASA” and the agency’s symbol, an orbit and wing in mid-century style.

Fletcher handed him a name tag, and Yuri looked at it and smiled. He had seen his name spelled in English before, but it still looked funny, English requiring a y and a u to make one Russian letter. He pinned the name tag on his shirt.

“I don’t know what you’ve heard about this rock,” Fletcher said. “Since you’re gonna help us stop it, let me bring you up to speed. BR1019”—he said it like “Bee Are Ten Nineteen”—“isn’t from the asteroid belt—it came from way out. We don’t know if it’s swung close by Earth before—it could have an orbit in the thousands of years. Or it might have hit some piece of space junk that altered its orbit.”

Yuri nodded. Happened all the time.

“It’s dim, so we were late picking it up—and of course it’s coming out of the sun. Makes it harder.” Fletcher snagged a doughnut off the table. “It was an amateur who found it.”

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