You think the cosmos is too big to be personal?
The astronomers began to arrive at dusk. First came the ones with computerized telescopes; they needed the last vestige of daylight to assemble their mounts and to find all the plugs and sockets before they could power up and run their alignment programs. Next—just as the pole star popped out of the twilight—came the people with equatorial mounts. They set up their tripods, peering through the right-ascension axes toward celestial north, then attached long Newtonians or stubby Schmidt-Cassegrains or the occasional slim refractor to the dovetail brackets on top. Then came the people with Dobsonians and trackballs, large-aperture reflectors on simple rotating bases that could be set up in just a few seconds.
There were maybe two dozen telescopes, and no more than twice that many astronomers, in a meadow twelve miles from the city. If they had set up in town, as they sometimes did for public star parties, there would be hundreds of people milling around, looking through each scope in turn at the various wonders in the night sky—but tonight was different. Tonight, the telescope owners wanted to be at the eyepieces of their own scopes. This was a private occasion, in more ways than one. And town was not a place anyone connected with the sky wanted to be on this of all nights.
The meadow hummed with quiet conversation and the soft whir of fans blowing the cool night air over the telescopes’ primary mirrors. The mirrors had to be at ambient temperature to give crisp images, and tonight people wanted the best views they could get.
The sky sparkled with the brighter stars, and more twinkled into view every minute. Vega stood a little to the west of straight up, with Deneb to the east and Altair to the south. The summer triangle. It was dropping steadily into the west, four minutes earlier every night, but it was still there to provide proof that autumn didn’t yet dominate the sky.
To the east of Altair shone a brilliant white point at least ten times as bright, trailing a long stripe of white mist that stretched up and to the left. The comet’s tail covered half the sky, even though most of its hundred-million-mile length was pointing almost directly away from the Earth. The astronomers could see the nucleus move by naked eye, slowly, like the minute hand of a clock. Moving eastward to meet the Moon, which was still an hour or so below the horizon.
Shawn was one of the Dobsonian people. Her telescope didn’t track the sky by itself; she had to nudge it along by hand, looking sideways into the eyepiece that stuck out near the front of the tube and correcting for Earth’s rotation every thirty seconds or so at low power, more often at high. Her practiced hand at that would be a distinct advantage tonight, since the comet wasn’t moving at the sidereal rate that most of the more expensive telescopes tracked at. Everyone else would be manually correcting a scope that they didn’t normally have to correct, while she would be doing what she did every night—just in the opposite direction. And faster.
She swept her telescope along the comet’s tail, using low power so she could see the entire width of it in the field of view. It looked like a waterfall, with knots and gaps scattered at random throughout its length. They became more pronounced nearest the nucleus, where the Sun’s heat boiled off new material and the solar wind shoved it out behind the comet. There were even a few solid chunks of ice—probably as big as mountains—that made tiny sparkles of brightness in the milky fog.
Comet tails didn’t always sweep out behind the nucleus. They pointed away from the Sun no matter which way the comet was actually moving. This one was moving sideways, like a pencil point. Like the pencil point of God, some said, writing “Mene Mene Tekel” across the cosmos.
Most comets would loop around the Sun, their tails sweeping out a giant arc and preceding the nucleus back into the depths of space where they came from, but Comet Davis wouldn’t have that opportunity. Even if it missed the Moon, as many people thought it would, the Moon’s gravity would tear it to pieces. That same gravity would also deflect its orbit, flinging those pieces back outward into the outer solar system without a turn around the Sun. In dozens to hundreds of years, those pieces might each return as smaller comets, but nothing like the original.
If it struck—which Shawn believed it would—that would be another matter. The comet’s nucleus was still in one piece, a piece nearly twenty kilometer across, and it would hit hard, even if it was just a glancing blow. The explosion would dig a huge crater in the Moon and throw lunar rock everywhere. Most of that would fall back to the Moon, creating secondary craters for days to come, but some of it would be blasted free, and some of that would cross paths with Earth. If a big enough chunk made the crossing, humanity could easily join the dinosaurs.
Nobody knew which it would be. A person could find data enough to support any belief, and people who stood to gain in one scenario or another had been quick to supply their own spin on what data there was. And of course millions of scientifically illiterate people believed that the comet would strike Earth directly—tonight—or that it was hiding a fleet of alien spaceships poised to attack when it drew close, or who knew what other nonsense.
Shawn felt guilty for believing that it would strike. She was supposed to have hope. Her father had told her that hope and faith could actually make a difference, and that her lack of either could affect whether God diverted the comet or not. He wouldn’t even come out with her tonight to watch; he was going to stay home and pray. She wondered if he thought he could offset her negative effect with his own positive one. She wondered if she thought so, too, deep down.
She wondered if her father would be all right in town. If town would exist in the morning, even if the comet missed the Moon. He had been happy to let her go out with the astronomy club tonight, if only to get her away from the people who thought this would be their last night to live.
The knot in her stomach tightened, and she looked into the eyepiece again. All over the world, people were drinking, praying, rioting, fornicating—all the things people did when they thought their time was up. Shawn had run through a million scenarios of her own, but ultimately this was what she wanted most. To watch the greatest astronomical event of her life, to actually witness it first hand, through her own telescope. She had hitched a ride with her high school physics teacher, who had promised her dad she would be safe. She wished she could believe that, too. She knew intellectually that she was, that the odds of danger were tiny, that even if a mountain of rock were blasted toward Earth it could be days before it hit; but when an entire world was freaking out, it was hard to remain calm just because you knew the odds.
She heard footsteps in the grass behind her and turned to see who it was. There was enough skyglow behind them that all she could make out was a silhouette. It was someone about her age, by the way they walked. Someone male. Someone shy, with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders hunched.
“Hi, Arthur,” she said.
“Hey, Shawn.” He stopped beside her, about three feet away, and scuffed a shoe in the grass.
“Want to look?”
She stood aside and he bent down to the eyepiece. She didn’t have to explain to him how to move the scope. He didn’t have one of his own, but he came to star parties all the time. He watched for a while, then without looking up, said, “You’re beautiful, isn’t it?”
“It,” he said hastily. “The comet. It’s beautiful. Even if it could kill us all.”
“Yeah.” She felt the heat in her cheeks, and was glad it was dark. Arthur probably was, too. She said, “Do you think it’s going to hit?”
He looked up at her. At that angle, with the light from the comet above him, she could actually see his face pretty well. He looked older than she remembered him. If he tried to buy beer tonight, he might get away with it. He said, “I . . . yeah. Probably. The best estimate of the nucleus diameter puts at least a kilometer of it below the surface. And there are mountains at least a couple kilometers high in its path, too.”
Shawn almost laughed. That was so Arthur. But she knew the measurements, too. She had helped refine them, carefully observing background stars as they blinked out and back when the comet passed in front of them. Astronomy was one of the few hobbies where an amateur could still collect valuable data. Trouble was, the comet had so much gas and dust around it, stars didn’t disappear and reappear instantly the way they did when an asteroid passed in front of them. It didn’t reflect radar well, either. There were easily a couple of kilometers of error in the measurements.
Someone called out, “There it is!” and she looked to the east. A tiny triangle of yellow poked up above the horizon, visibly growing as she watched. The Moon was rising. Rushing to meet its attacker—but no, that was the wrong image. The Moon moved eastward in its orbit. It was actually fleeing the comet, if you wanted to get technical. Just not fast enough. Not nearly fast enough. It would only take another two hours for the comet to catch up. Two hours until she knew whether she would live or die. . . .
Be sure to read the exciting conclusion
in this month's issue,
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Copyright © 2012 Jerry Oltion