At the computer terminal in a classroom on the third floor of the science building, The Dr. Fritz Zwicky Endowed Chair of Astronomy cycled through Hubble images and she addressed the room.
“You probably recognize this one from the quiz. Stars are seen birthing throughout the cloud. Can anyone name this nebula? Remember: they’re often named for what they look like.”
No one took it in. None of them were interested. Someone coughed, which seemed to the Dr. Fritz Zwicky Endowed Chair of Astronomy like protest.
“This is the Rosette Nebula,” she said. “See the rosette here?”
Her experience was that two or three students would get excited about astronomy, and she would teach as if those two or three were out there, though this semester she hadn’t found them yet. Mostly everyone needed a science credit, and astronomy was considered easier than physics, chemistry, or geology, and not as boring as ecology, if slightly more useless.
“Can someone tell me what this one is?”
“That’s a nebula,” a student said. “The Cloud Nebula?”
The Dr. Fritz Zwicky Endowed Chair of Astronomy didn’t want to discourage the students from speaking up, even when they were wrong.
“A nebula is a cloud,” she said. “So there’s no Cloud Nebula. This is a galaxy, actually. One difficulty when looking at images from space is that we don’t have perspective. This galaxy is smaller than ours, but the average nebula would be quite small compared to this galaxy.”
None of them wrote down the image reference numbers from the Hubble website. No one took notes. There were laptops open, but the students either worked on other homework or they watched videos on mute and occasionally glanced up to see another Rorschach blot from space.
“Can anyone tell me what this is?”
“Horsehead Nebula!” someone shouted from the back.
The Dr. Fritz Zwicky Endowed Chair of Astronomy felt like the butt of a joke. Horsehead Nebula was funny to them.
“There is a dark area here,” she said, “like in the Horsehead cloud, so I can see a similarity, but this is a black hole. This is a supermassive black hole.”
Another student in the back raised his hand.
“It’s a black hole.”
“I just said that.”
He lowered his hand slowly, like he still wanted credit for participating, though he’d demonstrated that he hadn’t been paying attention.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s shift gears. I want to talk about my work.”
She opened a folder from the desktop and clicked on an image she’d gotten from the radio telescope she’d made by repurposing a DirecTV satellite dish and putting it on the roof of her house. It was a screen capture of a very small pixelated blob labeled “2016 HZ36.”
“This object is a couple of miles across and it’s going to kill us all.”
“How is it going to kill us?”
“It’s speeding toward the Earth on an impact trajectory.”
“Where’s it going to hit?”
“It doesn’t matter. With an object of this size, it would burn up everything. Even if you lived, you wouldn’t want to have lived.”
“Why hasn’t it been on the news?”
“They don’t know.”
“How come you know?”
“I spotted it.”
“With that microscope in the dome?”
“The thing in the dome is a telescope. No, this is too small. It’s quite far away and not reflective. You’d need a much stronger telescope, or a better placement of the telescope—they put our telescope on campus where there’s too many lights.”
“So how did you see it?” one said.“With my radio telescope.”
“With that thing you made from your TV?”
“She’s like MacGyver.”
“I didn’t make anything from the TV. I took an old satellite dish and made it into a radio telescope.”
“That’s what I meant. You made it from the TV.”
“Which is exactly what MacGyver did. I think I seen him do that.”
“MacGyver never made a telescope,” she said.
“That’s the point of the show. MacGyver makes stuff you don’t expect.”
“I’m telling you that human life is fragile. We’re a drop in the bucket and the bucket’s about to spill.”
“Aren’t you cheerful?” someone in the back said.
“Why are you telling us?” one of the better students said.
“NASA very likely knows,” she said, “but they don’t know how to proceed.”
“That’s a UFO,” one of the gamers said. “That’s a known UFO shape.”
“Listen,” the Dr. Fritz Zwicky Endowed Chair of Astronomy said, “this is stupid. I’m going to postpone class until further notice. Go live your lives.”
“You can’t just cancel class. We’re paying for this.”
“Shut up…” someone whispered.
“She has tenure,” another spat. “She can do whatever she wants. Tenure is ruining education.”
“Will all our classes be canceled? This is really serious. They should cancel school.”
“Do we get a refund?”
“I’ve got a 4.0 on the line. I’m not going to just stop coming.”
The Dr. Fritz Zwicky Endowed Chair of Astronomy closed her laptop, disconnected it, tucked it under her arm, and she walked out.
Later that day, as she paced back-and-forth and chewed a peanut butter sandwich in her office, there was a knock at the door.
A student introduced himself and let himself in. He was a reporter for the school paper and he’d heard about what had happened in her class.
“Oh shit,” she said, and she slumped down at her desk. So she’d already started something, and while there wasn’t likely to be news outlets following the stories coming out of The Talon, word would eventually get out, and she was going to become the face of this thing as it unfolded.
She was a scientist, she reminded herself. Her allegiance was to the truth. The fact of this object was something she knew to be true. She apologized for the clutter of her office, and for eating in front of the student. Then she gave the student the interview he wanted and she emailed him the image of the pixelated destroyer. The student took it all in, giddy over finally getting a good scoop. There were student reporters at some schools who won awards, and he suspected that he might finally be in the running. This was a big story, if what she said was true. If not, it was still pretty big.
Kate imagined that she was the student’s oncologist, that she was telling him he had six months to live, and that he didn’t get it. He had faith in prayer and miracles. He couldn’t imagine everything going up in a flash and so he refused to see things that way, even as he jotted down the outline of a story that he would draft in plain paragraphs.
He thanked her, and he got up to leave. And so the Dr. Fritz Zwicky Endowed Chair of Astronomy had begun her crusade of honesty. Her husband might be disappointed she didn’t sit on her findings a while longer, but what could she do about it now? It couldn’t be helped.
The student said the story would likely run in the morning, and she should expect a crowd of students showing up to her classes. But she’d canceled all future classes, so they’d show up for no one, and she was glad. That had worked out at least.
The next day on campus, she knew she couldn’t stay in her office, and she couldn’t go to her class. She walked quickly across the quad, in sunglasses and an Orioles cap, when she heard someone shout for her. It was Dr. Rajneesh Gupta, the Vice President of Research.
“Dr. Philips,” he said as he rushed over to her, “I’ve been looking for you. We need to find ways to monetize your discovery.” He raised a finger in a way where it might look like he was upbraiding her. “I want you to propose grants and corporate partnerships before you get too busy. I’ll get you an assistant. I have a list of contacts I can put you in touch with.”
“Dr. Gupta,” she said, “I’m very sorry, but I have an appointment.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “This is important.”
“Nothing is that important,” she said. “Don’t you get it?”
“NORAD has a plan for this,” he said. “That’s why they monitor Near-Earth Objects. They’re going to blow it up or something. Maybe we could get in on that money. Do you know anyone over there?”
“I’ve been disappointed by what you’ve brought in so far, but I think this can make up for it. This is gold.”
“I’ve got to run.”
“My office will be contacting you. You cannot ignore my calls.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“You owe me. We got you that telescope.”
“The telescope was here before I was hired. I would have recommended that money be better spent.”
“Better spent? That’s a beautiful telescope. We spared no expense. It has a copper dome.”
“It has a beautiful dome. You should have known to place it outside the city limits.”
“Where no donors would see it? I want you on this immediately. And don’t worry about your classes. We’ll get an adjunct to teach them.”
“I’m not okay with that.”
“They love it. Who wouldn’t want to teach astrology?”
“We’ll get someone who can teach both.”
“Dr. Gupta, I’m not going to write any grants and I’m not going to talk to any of your corporate contacts. I have work to do.”
“We’ll write the grants. We just need your name attached to the projects.”
“I’m not okay with that.”
“You can be replaced,” he said finally, as she walked away from him. “Just because you’ve got tenure doesn’t mean you can’t be fired. Your research stance is insubordinate and punishable by termination. You’re working against the mission of the university. You have an obligation to me.”
“I can’t be fired for refusing to write grants. I have academic freedom. You can’t tell me what to do. And even if you could fire me, so what? This is the last year for our basketball team to try to make it into March Madness. We’ve got one more batch of freshmen. One more homecoming game. One more rush week. One more student body president.”
“You’ll come around!” he shouted at her, but she was gone.
Later that night, as the Dr. Fritz Zwicky Endowed Chair of Astronomy watched a stupid movie on the couch with her husband, there was a knock at the door.
“The press?” her husband said.
“Maybe. I’ll get it.”
When she opened the door, she saw a silver Mercedes parked in the drive and there was a tan man with gray hair in a tailored suit with his son standing behind him, a kid The Dr. Fritz Zwicky Endowed Chair of Astronomy recognized as being from her 11:00 AM class.
“I’m Harry Allten,” the man said and he gave the Dr. Fritz Zwicky Endowed Chair of Astronomy a firm handshake. “My son Harrison Jr. is in your class and he says you cancelled for the rest of the semester because of some comet? I don’t know what kind of business you’re trying to pull, but you’re paid to teach. I’ve seen enough of this in the state legislature. I’m a representative. So pretty much, you work for me.”
Harrison Jr. was embarrassed and staring down at the sidewalk. The Dr. Fritz Zwicky Endowed Chair of Astronomy had gotten phone calls in the past from parents, usually about grades, but no parent had ever turned up at her door.
“As a member of the state legislature,” she said, “maybe you can do something about this. NASA knows about the inevitable catastrophic collision of a Near-Earth Object with our planet and they are keeping quiet about it. They’re hoping we won’t notice. But I noticed.”
Harrison Sr. wagged a finger at the Dr. Fritz Zwicky Endowed Chair of Astronomy, and he said, “I’ve always thought they were up to something. NASA is a cover for black projects. I see it all the time in the state legislature. They call it one thing in the budget when really it’s for their friends.”
“Mr. Allten, I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.”
“Ever since we lost the senate, I knew they was up to no good. There ain’t no probe on Mars.”
“There is a probe on Mars.”
“It looks like pictures from a gravel pit.”
“It does look like pictures from a gravel pit,” she agreed. “But those pictures are from Mars.”
“You cancel class,” Harrison Sr. said, “and you’re as bad as them.”
“Look,” she said, “do you want to come in and see it on the telescope? It’s the best way to explain.”
And so the Dr. Fritz Zwicky Endowed Chair of Astronomy, Harrison Sr, Harrison Jr, and her husband, after introductions, all went up to look at the computer monitors in her home office. And there it was, the deadly blip on the monitor. She realized the object, as a blip, really didn’t look like much, and she would have to convince him to believe her before he left.
“You know about the meteor that killed the dinosaurs?” she said.
“Evolution isn’t in the Bible,” Harrison Sr. said, and Harrison Jr. and Charlie both shook their heads with their eyes closed.
“The dinosaurs all died off,” she said, “because a giant rock from space crashed into the Earth. That’s the prevailing theory.”
“Let me ask you something,” Harrison Sr. said. “I’ve got a pastor says the Star of Bethlehem was a supernova, and God timed it so the shepherds would see it. Is that feasible? Because I believe these are the End Times and I think God would make another supernova to herald in Jesus’s coming.”
“I have no way of knowing about The Star of Bethlehem. It’s a story. There’s no way to confirm it.”
“But you’re an astrologer?”
“Astronomer. A supernova is an exploding sun. It’s possible a supernova would be visible with the naked eye like a star. Especially to shepherds. There wasn’t light pollution and they knew the constellations. They would have noticed.”
“So my pastor’s right?”
“I like you,” Harrison Sr. said. “Harrison said some of the kids didn’t like you. But I like you.”
“This thing is going to hit the Earth,” the Dr. Fritz Zwicky Endowed Chair of Astronomy said as she pointed at the monitor. “You don’t have to like me.”
Harrison Sr. stood there and stroked his chin. When a thought came to him, he brightened. “There was a movie like that. Now what did they do in that movie?”