Monday, June 24, 2019

Weekly Story #51: The Indigo Fender of Spectra Q

And now we come to the penultimate story, which in fact was the second story I ever wrote for this project, based on the very first improv prompt I took from can-I-get-a.com. It also has one of my favorite titles in this series. Normally, to be quite honest, I hate coming up with titles, but this one came together quite nicely, if I do say so myself.


THE INDIGO FENDER OF SPECTRA Q

After a two-and-a-half hour drive and two traffic jams, Lita and her mother arrived at Uncle Benny's mansion. Mom rolled the car up the driveway and the gate closed behind them. Lita had been looking forward to this visit for a month. They could go to the arts festival downtown, and not only have a place to stay, but a place to stay with guest rooms and a pool. 
But that wasn't the real reason Lita was excited.
As soon as Mom parked the car, Lita grabbed her suitcase and rushed to ring the doorbell. The door opened, and her uncle, Benedict Diego, swept her up in his arms. "Lita! Oh good Lord, you've gotten so tall! No way you're in high school already. Tell me it's not true."
Lita laughed as she squeezed Uncle Benny. "Started just a couple weeks ago."
"Good God." He grinned at Mom. "Better be careful, won't be long before she'll be driving herself here."
"She might never leave," Mom said and gave Uncle Benny a hug. "How are you, Ben?"
"Great as always, Wanda. I guess Harold couldn't make it?"
"Nope, you know him. Saturday night's game night with his dad. Couldn't possibly miss that."
"Of course not. Well, ladies, make yourselves at home, as always."
Lita picked her suitcase back up and carried it up the stairs. On the way, she glanced over at the door to the basement. Uncle Benny kept his most personal stuff down there, and she'd never been allowed in. "No kids allowed," he'd say, until she no longer needed him to tell her. Before this last summer, Lita had never realized what could be so important. She'd never questioned how he could afford a house like this.
But then a few months ago, she watched that movie, and heard that song, and looked up that band, and saw none other than Benedict Diego listed as the lead guitarist.
Lita tossed her suitcase onto the bed in the guest room and checked the messages on her phone. On the home screen was the cover for the self-titled debut album of Benny's band, Spectra Q. The sight of it still made her heart leap. The band members posed in front of a green VW Beetle, with Uncle Benny on the far right, holding an indigo Fender Stratocaster. The same Fender had appeared on their other album covers as well, and in their few music videos.
One of Uncle Benny's acoustic guitars rested on a stand next to the window in the guest room. Lita had strummed that guitar during previous visits, always furtively and softly, to avoid anyone noticing her. But that guitar wasn't enough this time. The indigo Fender had to be somewhere in that basement, along with God knows what other kind of mementos from her uncle's not-quite-grunge-not-quite-ska band. This weekend, she was going to find that indigo Fender and play it.
She sat through dinner with her mom and uncle, listening to them talk about friends, about family members Lita hardly knew, about Mom's job. Guitars did come up, but only in reference to Lita. "I heard you've been taking lessons lately," Uncle Benny said. 
"Not lessons, really," Lita said. "I got some self-teaching books a few months ago, learned some chords." Lita had yet to even speak about Spectra Q with her parents, so as far as Mom knew, this was just a new hobby.
"Hey, a few chords is all you need most of the time. What kind of guitar?"
"Just a plain acoustic one, like in the guest room." She hadn't even brought it with her.
"Oh yeah, I tuned that up just for you. You can get some practice in. "
Lita nearly dropped her fork. She'd always thought it was a prized antique, not something you'd just hand off to an amateur. Yet he wanted her to play with it? "Th-thank you."
"You'll have to play something for us this weekend," Mom said.
No. Absolutely not. All Lita could do was strum chords and play a few lullabies. Even when she found the Fender, she wasn't going to play it for anybody else, only herself. She couldn't bear to humiliate herself in front of a rock legend. "I'll think about it."
"And if you need any tips, just ask me," Uncle Benny said. 
And he and Mom went on talking about life as if one of them had never been a rock star. Lita had no idea how to bring it up. There was so much she wanted to know. How did Uncle Benny feel about his fame and fortune? Was he still friends with the drummer, Keith Pilking? What was Mom doing during all this? Did she like the band, or did she hate every aspect of it?
Fortunately, this house was big enough that you could wander around for a while without running into anybody, even when everyone was wide awake. So a few hours later, after texting some friends back home to catch up on everything, she headed downstairs to carry out her mission.
To reach the basement door, she first had to pass by the open archway into the kitchen without anyone seeing her. 
And there was Mom at the kitchen table, drinking some coffee, reading an issue of Time. "Oh. Evening, Sweetie."
"Hey, Mom." Lita stopped in mid-step, then changed course toward the kitchen. "Uh… Just came down for a Coke."
"We're out," Mom said. "Benny's out to get more. You're welcome to some of this." She wiggled her coffee mug.
"Sure, why not?" This was such a big house, Lita had never even heard Uncle Benny leave.
Lita poured herself a cup—she was the only one she knew who took it black. Mom seemed totally relaxed in her bathrobe and slippers. She must have just taken a bath. Lita wanted one bad—all that time in the car had left her stiff and sweaty. But all that could wait until the basement was explored. 
At a quiet moment like this, with Mom sitting nice and cozy, and Uncle Benny out of the house, it might have been a perfect time to ask about Spectra Q. Mom could tell her more about what it was and what it meant, and why no one told Lita. On the other hand, Mom might know too much—some of the trouble Uncle Benny might have gotten into. The kind that could destroy any appeal in the indigo Fender.
Lita went up to the table. "Watcha reading?"
"Oh, it's an article about one of the artists that's at the festival tomorrow. Audra Gaines. She takes photographs, puts them in the middle of the canvas, and then paints a new scene around them." Mom held up the magazine to show her.
"Cool. I'm still hyped about seeing Junya Shinkai."
"The anime artist?"
"Excuse me, he's a professional illustrator. He just happens to do the art for that one series I like."
"Of course. I saw you packed that Blu-Ray for him to sign."
"Gotta bring him something, right?"
Mom smirked.
"Anyway," Lita said, "I'm off to…" She checked toward the hall. "To the living room. I'm just gonna chill out in there for a little bit, message my friends." This was a pretty big kitchen in a pretty big house. Hopefully Mom wouldn't hear her open the basement door.
"All right. Maybe we can watch a movie when Benny gets home."
"Sure. Sounds like fun." Lita sipped a little bit of coffee on the way out. After leaving the kitchen, she peeked back in to make sure Mom's eyes were on the magazine and not the archway. 
Lita crept down the hall to the basement door. 
She turned the knob and opened the door just wide enough to fit through. It was totally dark. She switched the coffee to her other hand, flipped the switch, and drew the door closed.
She lowered her feet as slowly as possible, and managed to reach the bottom without a creak. There was a whole hallway down here, stretching from one end of the house to the other.
Lita took another sip of coffee. Now to find out what was worth hiding down here.
The first door she opened was only a supply closet. The next was a bathroom, then a laundry room. Slim pickings so far. 
On the other side of the hall, she began to hit paydirt. As soon as she opened the door and turned on the light, she found herself in the control room of a recording studio. She took a big gulp from her mug, set it on a table, and stepped in. All those buttons, all these monitors, and there, on the other side of the glass, a piano! A bass! An acoustic guitar! Drums! 
Uncle Benny was still recording! Was he starting up a solo career? Does he have his old buddies from the band over for jam sessions? Were there future hit singles lurking inside this computer at this very moment? Oh, Lita wanted to mash on that piano, bang those drums, thrash that guitar right this instant. If she were the only one in the house, she might do it, but just seeing all this was more than enough.
She shut off the lights and moved on down the hall in a daze. Maybe someday she could record something of her own in that studio.
If that studio was paydirt, the next room was the motherlode: guitar after guitar after guitar after guitar. Gibsons displayed with Les Pauls, Fenders hanging next to Rickenbackers, basses standing beside twelve-strings. Some of them were signed—Jon Bon Jovi, Eddie Van Halen, Carlos Santana, Joan Jett. There were black and red and green, oak finished and gunmetal, and one traveler's guitar that was basically a box with a neck. There was even a set of acoustic guitars along the far wall, just like the one in the guest room, except for the one guitarrĂ³n mexicano. 
The only thing Lita didn't see was the indigo Fender. She checked the room top to bottom several times, but the Fenders were the wrong colors, and the blue guitars were the wrong models.
As much as she wanted to strum every one of them, she couldn't stay. Uncle Benny might be back by now, and he and Mom might figure out she wasn't in the living room. Maybe the indigo Fender was hiding in another room.
She headed down the hall, opened the door, and turned on the lights.
It turned out to be a rather ordinary office. The desk took up most of the corner, and was surrounded by posters of classic paintings and bikini models. There was a bookcase next to the door, mostly full of crime novels. The only musical instrument in here was the lime green Les Paul leaning against the file cabinet.
Lita dropped herself into the desk chair. All this effort, all this anxiety, and no Fender to show for it. All those guitars in the other room… how was the Fender the one thing he got rid of?
Well, she came down to play something. She took up the Les Paul and strummed with her fingers the chords she knew best—the chords for "Red Heart Fire," the song that introduced her to Spectra Q. She tried to work that into a solo, but only managed to pluck a scattered set of notes with no progression. 
Lita set the guitar back into place and left the office.
No one was waiting at the top of the stairs. Lita could hear Mom chatting in the living room with Uncle Benny. Lita crossed to the next flight of stairs. Hopefully they wouldn't mind that she wasn't actually in the living room like she said she would be.
"Lita!" Mom called.
Lita doubled over halfway up the stairs. Had she been caught? 
"Lita, you still wanna watch a movie?"
A movie! Of course! Just like Mom had mentioned earlier. "In a little bit, Mom," Lita said. "I could kinda use a bath." She'd gotten so sweaty since going downstairs.
"All right. Well, don't take too long. We'll start as soon as you're ready."
Lita grabbed a towel and ran straight for the bathroom. It would be a hilarious irony if the movie turned out to be the one with the Spectra Q song. But knowing Mom and Uncle Benny, the way they were now, it was probably something like Mrs. Doubtfire
The sweat and fear washed off as soon as Lita dipped into the water. 

The sun shone bright through the window. Lita had slept snug and warm. The memories of what she had seen down in the basement flung each other around in her head. She smelled sausage and bacon, and bet herself that Mom was helping out with breakfast. She changed clothes and brushed her hair and went downstairs. And indeed, both Mom and Uncle Benny were in the kitchen, with Mom coaching him over the stove.
Today, when they were at the arts festival, Lita would ask Mom everything: about Spectra Q, and Benedict Diego, and the time when he was a celebrity. They could talk at their own pace before bringing it up with Uncle Benny.
A fresh pot of coffee waited on the counter. As she passed by the kitchen table, Lita spotted a half-empty mug.
The same mug she'd drunk from the night before. It was still half-full of cold, black coffee. But that wasn't where she'd left it. Where did she—
Oh crap. The recording studio. She never took it to the the guitar room or the office…
And now someone had brought it upstairs. Which means either Mom or Uncle Benny knew she'd gone down there.
She shuffled over to the cabinet for a mug, as casual as possible. Maybe it wasn't the big deal she thought it was. 
"Morning, Carmelita." Uncle Benny backed away from the stove. "Yo, Wanda, can you take over for a second? Gotta have a word with my niece."
Lita's spine felt like a steel rod.
"Certainly." Mom took over stirring the eggs.
Uncle Benny clapped his hand on Lita's shoulder and led her out of the kitchen, into the hall, into his sitting room.
"Uh, is there something wrong?" Lita said.
"That's up to you," Uncle Benny said. "I found your coffee downstairs. You take it black, right?"
Lita's stomach sank.
"You know that's my personal space down there," he said.
"Of course," Lita said.
"So you understand how it feels to have someone poke around in a place like that."
"Of course," Lita said. She wouldn't have wanted Uncle Benny going through her diary—him least of all. "And I'm so sorry. I just couldn't stop thinking about what might be down there. I'm never going anywhere near it again. I promise." And anyway, it wasn't as if she saw anything bad down there.
"Well, anyway, your mother says lately you've seemed interested in my old career."
"Really?" Lita said. So Mom noticed? "I guess if you mean this…" She woke up her phone and showed him her home screen. "That's you, with the Fender, right?"
A bright warmth burst out on his face. "Yup."
"So why didn't you ever tell me? Why'd you keep stuff like that studio secret? I mean, you were a rock star! That's so cool!"
"Well, yeah. Not denying that." Uncle Benny scratched the stubble on his chin. "I guess I mostly didn't want you to think of me as just a rock star. I wanted you to think of me as your uncle."
"I can do both."
"I know, and I guess you're old enough to get it. Probably been old enough for ages, really. It's just, that's an important part of my life, but it's not really my life anymore. I still play, and record, and all. But touring… Well, I didn't always get up to the most wholesome stuff back then. A lot of things I'm still working through. Not like other rock stars were doing prayer and Bible study, but still…"
"Well… whatever you did, you're still my Uncle Benny."
His head reeled, and he put his hand over his heart. "That means so much, you have no idea," he said. "You know, back when you were just a little baby, your mom and I used to talk about how we might let you in on all this. She figured you were gonna get curious eventually. Now that you have, I suppose I got nothing to hide."
"Okay, so answer me this." She showed him the home screen again. "That blue guitar there. I couldn't find it downstairs."
"Oh, of course not. I sold that in a charity auction years ago."
Lita slapped herself in the forehead. "I can't believe you! A sweet Stratocaster like that and you gave it up? I started teaching myself guitar just so I could find that guitar and play it!"
"Not like I was ever attached to that one. I've got plenty."
"Isn't this the one you did 'Red Heart Fire' with?"
"No, no no no. I did that one on a Les Paul. After you get back from that art thing, I'll take you down and show it to you."
"A… lime green Les Paul?"
"Yeah, it's in my office. You see it?"
Lita's whole body filled with red blazing fire. Her fingers crooked into chord positions. She'd touched it. She'd played on it. 
She'd found it.
"Yeah," she said. "I saw it."
"All right," Uncle Benny said. "How about, after you get back from that art thing, I take you down and show it to you?"
"Oh, Uncle Benny!" Lita threw her arms around him and kissed her uncle on the cheek.
"Easy, easy. Let's get back to the kitchen. Breakfast is almost ready. You know, your mom's got a lot of great stories from back then. You should ask her about them. She'll talk for days on end."
"No kidding?"
They crossed the front hall into the kitchen, and Lita poured herself a cup of coffee, wondering how she'd be able to stand waiting for another chance to play that Les Paul.

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 begun 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.