Author: Robb White
“God, not Apophis again,” Eddie said. He set the tray in the middle of the table.
“‘fraid so,” Kathy sighed. “They started up as soon as you left. All the bars in town and we choose the space nerds hangout.”
“I beg your pardon,” Bill said, “but as a card-carrying member in good standing in that prestigious society, you’re being unfair, Kath.”
Bill and Jason, new-hires at the Center for Near Earth Object Studies, were grad students at Cal Poly and enjoyed one-upping each other with data on asteroids, their masses, speed, and projected impact megatonnage. Eddie’s return interrupted an argument over Apophis’s LD—its lunar distance in missing Earth.
A high-pitched voice behind them said, “Doesn’t it make you think?”
“All these recent near misses,” the tall stranger said. “Two within one LD.”
The person belonging to the shrill voice leaned casually closer to their booth, smiling as if he were angling for an invitation to join, which invitation didn’t come.
“Think . . . what?” Eddie asked the stranger.
“The videos of UFOs taken by Navy pilots. People all over the world live-streaming lights, discs, and cigar-shaped objects in the sky. Dozens on Facebook.”
“Shades of Plan Nine,” Bill said, referring to the 1959 Ed Wood sci-fi film. “It’s the Nineteen-Fifties come round again.”
Kathy looked around. “Are you talking about that sci-fi film?”
“He means Planet Nine,” Jason said. “The gravitational effects of the eTNOs—”
“No more shoptalk, pul-lease,” Kathy pleaded. Her ovoid face, furrowed by brow lines, thrilled her boyfriend.
The stranger looked directly at her: “It’s a hypothetical planet in the outer regions of the solar system, ten times more massive than Earth, and we think its gravitational effects are the reason for the improbable alignments of some planets and the orbits of objects.”
“Oh, I see,” Kathy said. She twirled her drink to keep from breaking into a laugh.
An awkward silence, the stranger taking the cue to move on. He received a few muttered “goodbyes,” “see you’s.”
Bill popped up like a prairie dog to watch the stranger exit.
“What a jerk!”
“Who is that weirdo anyway?”
“Did you catch that ‘we’ business? Like he’s some JPL big shot at NASA.”
“I’ve never seen him around CNEOS.”
Kathy laughed; it proved infectious, each critiquing the stranger for his voice, appearance, words.
“That bowl haircut, man,” Eddie said. “It went out with the last state asylum for the insane.”
“Moe Howard has a better-looking cut,” Bill said.
“Yeah, did you clock that squeaky voice?” Jason laughed and thumped the table with his open palm. “He could be the Mothman up from Point Pleasant.”
“He’s right about a couple of things,” Bill said.
“Bill the Buzzkill,” Eddie moaned.
“I mean, Earth has no defense—zero—for asteroid impact. All these close shaves from the last two ‘city killers,’ Twenty-Twelve TC Four and FT-Three. Jetliners fly higher. They’ll do some damage if they were to hit.”
“C’mon, Bill,” Jason said. “Next you’ll be buying his garbage about Planet Nine tilting orbits.”
“But what if there is another Mount Everest-sized rock lurking behind the sun? Twenty-Nineteen snuck past and we didn’t locate it until it was right on top of us!”
As they left, Pasadena’s lights smeared a bubble of haze overhead to block all the stars. Eddie wrapped an arm around Kathy’s hips as they headed off in one direction. Jason said goodnight and crossed the street.
Bill pondered the stranger’s words: They’ve come to see you get obliterated . . . it’s front-row seating at the best show in the universe . . .