Monday, June 17, 2019

Weekly Story #50: On the Phone With the Danger Zone

Sometimes I'll say something is the stupidest thing I've ever written, but this one I think really is the stupidest thing I've ever written, and I love it for that. It was originally written last summer, when I'd first resumed writing weekly stories again. I wound up liking it enough to start shopping it around to actual editors. Then recently I took another look and decided it was better off here.

For best results, imagine H. Jon Benjamin as the voice of the asteroid.


ON THE PHONE WITH THE DANGER ZONE

"Hey."

Dr. Keith Mailer looked up from the decades-old Bausch & Lomb microscope on the antique store table and turned to the younger man beside him. The man looked back and said, "Did you say something?"

"I thought you did," Dr. Mailer said.

"Nope, not me," the man said.

"Hey." That voice again! It sounded so close, yet there was no one else in this section of the antique store. If this other fellow hadn't heard anything, Dr. Mailer would have thought he was starting to lose it. Too many late nights at the observatory, probably.

"Hey you. Can you hear me?" the voice said.

"Is that your phone?" the man next to Dr. Mailer said.

Dr. Mailer slipped his smartphone out of his pocket. It wasn't a terribly good phone, so it took a moment just to load the home screen. But when it did, all it showed was the time and wallpaper—a nebula photographed by the Hubble Telescope. No messages, no missed calls, no voicemails.

But the voice came back.

"Is anybody there?" The voice made the phone hum in Dr. Mailer's hand.

Dr. Mailer put the phone to his ear. "Hello?"

"Oh hey, can you hear me?" It was a dry, almost bored voice. "Finally."

"Can I help you?"

"Yeah," the voice said, "I don't suppose you could get out of the way, could you?"

Dr. Mailer walked to a more isolated corner of the store. "Okay. Does that help?"

"You moved?"

"Of course I did. Where are you? Who is this?"

"Okay, right. Sorry about that. I'm an asteroid."

Dr. Mailer checked the screen again. It had gone to sleep, and when he woke it up, it still only showed the time and wallpaper. If he could have, he would have hung up right there. "What kind of prank call is this?"

"What's a prank call?"

"You can't be… why am I wasting my time with this? Goodbye." He put the phone back in his pocket and resumed browsing the shelves and display tables. That was a nice Underwood typewriter they had here. He'd always wanted to try his hand at writing, and he knew from a friend of his that he could still get ink ribbons for these things.

"Hey!" The voice rang out louder, breaking the quiet of the antique store. Other customers turned their heads. "I need you to listen to me!"

Dr. Mailer took his phone back out and switched it to airplane mode.

"Come on," the voice said.

Dr. Mailer powered the phone off.

"Look, I'm trying to help you here."

Dr. Mailer hissed into the inactive phone, "How are you doing this? Are you a hacker?"

"What's a hacker? I told you, I'm an asteroid. That's the word for things like me, right? I'm a solid mass of rock and metal in space."

"Asteroids can't talk."

"But that's what I'm doing. I'm talking to you, aren't I?"

Dr. Mailer figured he might as well humor whoever this was. "How?"

"Beats me," the voice said. "All I know is, I've been hurtling through space for billions of years, I've been orbiting the inner part of the solar system for the last million, and right now there's a blue planet in my path, covered with little autonomous bits of carbon. So can you please get out of my way?"

"Out of—" A devastating, fiery image entered Dr. Mailer's mind. "You're saying you're going to crash?"

"Yeah, that sounds right."

"How far away are you?"

"I'd say about ten times the distance from your satellite. Give or take."

"So about 4 million kilometers. How big are you?"

"I don't really know how to answer that. I've never compared myself to anything before."

"Well, how are you contacting me? You're just a piece of iron."

"Just a piece of iron? Sure, and you're just a lump of carbon. Your planet just has water on it. Look, I tried asking your planet, and she said I was better off calling one of her inhabitants, so here I am."

"So then… are… are you asking us as a species to move out of your way?"

"Maybe. She didn't seem concerned about getting hit, but she wasn't sure about you."

Just the idea of Planet Earth having a point of view made Dr. Mailer dizzy. "All right. Except, depending on how big you are, that might not really help."

"How so?"

"If you're small, you'll probably burn up in our atmosphere. If you're larger, depending on your composition, you might explode, but still not harm anyone. If you're big enough and make it to the surface, millions of people could still die just from the aftereffects. We could even go extinct."

"Is extinction bad?"

"From our perspective."

"Okay. Huh. I was mostly just trying to be polite. Didn't realize it was a life or death situation."

Dr. Mailer's heart began to pick up speed. If this was serious, then the fate of humanity really was at stake. "The best we could potentially do is try to move you out of the way."

"You could do that?"

"I said potentially. We'd have to fire a missile, and maybe detonate something. These missions usually take months of planning. But that's going to be hard on such short notice." Dr. Mailer calculated in his head. If the asteroid is 4 million km away, then depending on its speed, it could collide in about one to three days. That wouldn't give them much time. "Can you tell where on Earth you're about to collide?"

"Is that what you call it? Nice name." The meteor murmured to itself. "I can't really make out any landmasses from here, but I know we're both coming toward each other. Your planet is turning to the right. And the entire left side is totally dark."

"The entire left side?"

"That's what I said. It's like half and half."

"Are you coming from above or below?"

"Neither."

That actually did help. The asteroid—assuming this was actually an asteroid—was flying toward the nightline, and roughly level with the tropics. It was about 2 PM now, Eastern Standard Time, in late summer. That meant the sun would be rising in Asia right about now.

Dr. Mailer knew some people at NASA, and a colleague in Beijing. He could put in some calls, have people point their telescopes and see if they could find this asteroid. Then they could verify whether anything really was on a collision course with Earth.

"Can you give me a minute?" Dr. Mailer said. "I need to make some phonecalls."

"What's a phonecall?" the asteroid said.

"It's sort of like how you're speaking to me now."

"Gotcha."

* * *

Dr. Kate Jeffries had just poured her morning coffee in her apartment in Hawaii when Dr. Mailer called her on Skype. "You heard from the asteroid too, huh?" she said.

Dr. Mailer didn't know how to respond. He had thought it was just him. "Um—"

"Sounded awfully casual for something trying to warn us about our impending deaths, didn't it?"

"I… that is, I'm not really sure it understands the concept of urgency. It spoke to you, too?" Dr. Mailer cleared aside some of the scattered papers on his desk. He'd headed straight to his office at the observatory after he left the antique store.

"About an hour ago. I nearly threw my phone out the window." Dr. Jeffries took a long gulp from her coffee. "I wonder how many people have done that today. I wonder how many it spoke to."

"I was wondering why it would only talk to me," Dr. Mailer said. "Yet it spoke as if it was."

"Same with me. We're already dealing with a profoundly alien intelligence, from something that shouldn't have intelligence. Maybe holding simultaneous one-on-one conversations is one attribute it has."

"It told me it even spoke with planet Earth."

"Me too. I tried asking what Earth is really like, but it had trouble answering." Dr. Jeffries hunched over her desk. "Assuming we survive, this could be the most profound scientific discovery in history. Who else have you spoken to?"

"I've called Dr. Igleed at NASA," Dr. Mailer said. "They're training satellites in what we're hoping is the asteroid's direction."

"How did you explain it?"

"I just said I found an irregularity last night, took a while to review my notes, wanted them to look at it."

"Right. I can help process data. Contacted anybody in Asia? Seems if anyone's in the best position to check with a ground telescope, they'll be there."

"Just Dr. Guan in Beijing. He and Igleed both said they'd reach whoever they can on that hemisphere. Beyond that, I think I've done what the asteroid asked."

"Same here. It's a pain with the limited resources we have, but…" She took another sip of her coffee. "This still doesn't feel real. We could be going the way of the dinosaurs in only a few days, yet here I am with my coffee as usual."

"I'm ready to knock back a cold one, myself." Dr. Mailer's pit stains had spread down to his sleeves.

"Just beer? Right, you never were much for liquor, were you?"

"Too rich for my blood." Dr. Mailer took out his phone and laid it on his desk. "You think it's still listening?"

"I'm afraid to find out," Dr. Jeffries said. "I left my phone in the next room."

Dr. Mailer leaned over his phone. "Excuse me, asteroid. Are you there?" He was so glad he wasn't on video right now.

"Huh? Yeah? What?"

"I'm not disturbing you, am I?"

"No, no, not at all. I've been busy talking with this guy named Chadha. He's trying to see if he can find me from where he is."

"Chadha." Dr. Jeffries said. "I went to grad school with a Chadha."

"Oh hey, Kate," the asteroid said. "How's it going? You sound a little far away."

"You can hear me? All right then. Basically, we're trying to verify your location and trajectory to make sure whether you're really on a collision course with Earth."

"I'm pretty sure I am, though."

"We still want to make sure."

"This is sort of unusual for us," Dr. Mailer said, "so we want to try and check for ourselves."

"Have you not been hit by an asteroid before?" the asteroid said.

"Well, we haven't. But the creatures that were here before us have. It's the reason they're not around anymore."

"Oh. Well."

"Right now," Dr. Jeffries said, "all we can do is wait for the data to come in. Then we can decide what to do about it."

"What about you?" Dr. Mailer said into his phone. "Aren't you worried?"

"About what?" the asteroid said.

"About crashing into us. You'll almost certainly be destroyed."

"Hm. I guess I hadn't thought about that. Honestly, I haven't really thought about anything until now. I've always just noticed. Like, hey, the sun's over there now. Hey, there's that stripey gassy planet. I've never really considered who I am or where I'm going."

"So how do you feel about that coming to a stop?"

"I dunno. All this thinking is actually kind of annoying." The asteroid paused for a moment. "I don't have to keep this up if I miss you, do I?"

"I can't answer that. But once you've started, I doubt you'll stop."

"Then if crashing into you will stop this thinking, maybe it won't be so bad."

Dr. Mailer and Dr. Jeffries looked at each other through their screens in horror.

"You can't be serious," Dr. Mailer said.

"I don't even know what 'serious' is. All I know is, I've gone billions of years without having to think a thing, and now it won't stop. Maybe I shouldn't have tried calling you. I kinda wanna crash now."

"What about us?"

"Figure something out."

The phone went silent.

"Asteroid?" Dr. Mailer didn't get a response. "Asteroid!"

Dr. Jeffries lifted her coffee and took a big chug.

* * *

The next eight hours were a frenzy of international phonecalls, data processing, and analysis. Telescopes in China and India, and later in Austria and Italy, confirmed the existence of the asteroid, now provisionally designated as 2019 QH, and which Dr. Mailer had privately nicknamed "Jon." An orbital telescope managed to take a photograph.

After further observations and calculations, the astronomers of the world knew Jon's trajectory.

Alone in his office, Dr. Mailer spoke into his phone. "Asteroid?"

No answer.

"Asteroid!"

"What? I'm trying to enjoy some peace and quiet here."

"We have answers now. Do you want to hear them?"

"Might as well."

Dr. Mailer clenched his fist. By now the news had leaked to the press and caused a panic on the Internet. Jon could at least try not to act like a spoiled teenager. But no, Dr. Mailer could hold in his frustration. "You're not going to crash into the Earth."

The asteroid made what sounded like a sigh. "Dammit."

"Not yet, anyway. You're going to enter our orbit, and if we don't do anything, you'll definitely crash into us in about fifteen years."

"Only fifteen years? That's awesome! I can take another fifteen years."

Remarkable, Dr. Mailer thought, considering it took only an hour for Jon to get sick of thinking. "You realize that gives us plenty of time to try to divert you? Or destroy you?"

"The second one."

"We may go with the first one. Less chance of us having to deal with your debris." And either way, with all that time, there were more chances of budget cuts, red tape, and general bull-headedness that could scuttle the mission, giving Jon exactly what it wanted. Dr. Mailer almost wished this were still an immediate emergency.

"If you're not going to destroy me," Jon said, "couldn't you at least, like, send me somewhere that can?"

"Hm."

"What? Can you?"

"I don't know. We don't usually send something to another planet specifically to be destroyed. Not to mention, you're about five kilometers across. That's a pretty big payload."

"What about your moon? I've checked. Nobody's there. Same for that red place."

"Not sure that's a good idea. We were kind of hoping to visit them at some point."

"Man, you are no fun. How about that cloudy one? You know, the one a little closer to the sun?"

"We don't plan on visiting, but I'm still not sure about crashing anything there. Hm. How about Jupiter?"

"What's Jupiter?"

"The big one."

"With the stripes and the red spot? I like that place. Haven't seen it in eons."

Dr. Mailer could run it by Igleed. They'd both been teenagers on opposite sides of the country when Shoemaker-Levy 9 crumbled and crashed into Jupiter, leaving pockmarks all over its atmosphere that cleared up in hardly any time at all, cosmically speaking. The spectacle had inspired both Mailer and Igleed to become astronomers, a fact that made them fast friends when they worked together at Houston. Surely that planet could handle a five kilometer asteroid. "It would take you a long time to get there."

"Fine, I guess I'll manage. As long as it happens eventually. Think you can steer me away soon?"

"If by 'soon' you mean some years, then possibly." Mailer and Igleed would have to answer a lot of questions, such as the scientific purpose or the ethical ramifications, even if this was a planet that would suffer no long-term effects. The rocket would have to be designed, the launch planned. Politics would have to be navigated around. But all that was so far ahead. "We'll do what we can. In the meantime, there's so much I still want to know."

"Dunno what I can tell you."

"Well, you're an asteroid. We've never encountered a talking asteroid before."

"And I've never encountered little carbon things like you before."

"Do you have any idea how you're able to communicate with us?"

"I dunno. I'm kinda just looking at your planet, and expressing myself. That's about all there is to it, right? Your planet told me you'd have a lot of questions. And you're about the chattiest one, ever since Chadha went off to… what'd he call it? Sleep?"

"But I still don't understand. Are you really alive? Is Earth alive?"

"I'm not really sure what you mean by 'alive.' And honestly, I don't really care. I could use some rest, and I'm gonna do my best to get it until you get me to Jupiter. That sound fair?"

"But—" It knew the meaning of "fairness" and "fun" but not "alive"? "But—"

"Look, I'm gonna go. You have a lovely planet. Too bad I can't come visit."

"Can I please just ask a few more questions?"

"Good day, sir."

"Just one more!"

"I said good day!"

Dr. Mailer spent the next day yelling into his idle phone to try and reach the asteroid he called Jon. He never got any answer. Neither did Dr. Jeffries, nor Dr. Chadha. Jon passed by the Earth, still refusing to respond.

On some nights, Dr. Mailer would lie awake with more questions he wished he could have asked Jon. To know that piece of interplanetary rock was alive… to communicate with it… There was so much Jon could have taught him, and the rest of humanity.

But Jon never spoke again.