December 3, 2026 2356 HST
“I’d really appreciate it if you could take a look at this. I need a sanity check. The only other guys I have here are techs.”
“Give me 30 minutes.” Gregoi pawed at his watch to check the time: not quite midnight.
“The drive is over an hour…you can’t do it that fast.”
“I meant I’d be able to leave here in 30…”
“You don’t have that kind of time. You’re going to want to see this.”
“What is it again?”
The voice on the other end of the phone was clearly getting annoyed, “I am not going to discuss it over a phone line, but I’ve already engaged Mount John via SecLynk.”
He blinked. Twice. “Are you serious.”
“Have I ever come across as a practical joker? I’ll be at Keck II when you get here.”
“Okay…I need two minutes to get Asok to man this station, but I’m leaving as soon as he answers. I…the phone shows an hour and five. I’ll try to shave a few minutes off that if I can.”
He didn’t bother hanging up, but just clicked the hook and dialed the extension. “Hey, Asok…yeah I know…I know. I don’t care. I don’t need you to run anything, I just can’t leave the station unmanned. No, Joanna just called and she’s got something that was important enough to engage Mount Johns, so I have to get over to Kea, like now. Bring ‘em up, if you want…just try not to break anything. I’m not going to wait for you, can you handle that? Awesome. See you in the morning, and again, sorry for getting you up.”
Greg dropped the phone in it’s cradle, locked the screen on the terminal he was on, grabbed his bag and was out the door in a trot.
He climbed into the Jeep parked on the pad next door and was off.
Grégoire Kalawai’a, Greg or Gregoi to some, wasn’t a regular at Mauna Loa, but had volunteered to help out a friend by manning that station for the night. His “day” job was at Mauna Kea, about 25 miles away, as the crow flies. Unfortunately for Greg, he wasn’t a crow. The 25 miles became 45 via road, and it was all mountainous terrain. Promising an hour, at night, wasn’t a particularly safe bet. Add to that mix the clouds that often stuck to the top third of the mountain, the below freezing temperatures, winding roads … and driving was not fun.
Gregoi was a fellow at Berkeley, working on a study of Oort cloud objects. His team was solely responsible for discovering a new comet, asteroid, or dwarf planet about 10 times a week, all in the farthest reaches of the Solar system. It had gotten to the point where discovery was almost boring…even a chore. He loved the work though, and this winter meant he got to spend a minimum of six months in Hawaii.
Greg’s grandfather was Hawaiian, but his Kapunakane had moved to the mainland with Greg’s great grandparents after the second World War. Greg himself had only been to the islands a handful of times as a child, usually for a wedding or a funeral or some other family event. He had never been to the Big Island, either- his family was on Oahu.
This assignment had been a very welcome respite after three years in Chicago at the Alder Planetarium. Something they never really tell you when you’re studying astrophysics is just how few jobs there are that actually have (and can maintain)funding. Working at Adler, manning the aging Doane telescope, dealing with tourists and locals who wish they were amateur astronomers was not what he envisioned as a student, but … well… it almost paid the bills. But this…this felt like he was actually doing science. “Real-life science-ing,” he would say to people outside of the university.
The Keck observatory is a dual-scope lab, one of a several different telescope platforms on top of Mauna Kea, each with different functions and owners. Most were optical scopes, with a couple of sub-millimeter and radio hardware kits. The newest was the TMT, or the Thirty Meter Telescope. It had been online just over three years, after having long delays during the build. There were native activists that were heavily protesting the building, on sacrilegious grounds, who had mounted vigorous legal challenges. He was actually mistaken for a protestor the first time he arrived on site, and having a distinctly Islander look, with the name Kalawai’a on his drivers license didn’t help. Truth be told, he was the only native scientist on the whole of the summit. There were several computer and maintenance techs that were native, and at least one board member, but none of the actual science was being done by Hawaiians on this peak that was supposed to be holy to them. His sister had once derided the protesters and quipped, “what better way to be close to the Heavens than by understanding the Heavens. What better way to understand the gods than to be close to them?”
Granted she was talking out her ass, Greg thought to himself as he pulled past ‘the 30’, she was really just saying that for my benefit. He hadn’t really needed the benefit, as he thought the protesters were protesting out of vanity more-so than really protesting for religious reasons. He rounded the corner to the summit at 1:20, and parked, and walked down the hall to the control room for II.
“Alright…what’s the…” but he trailed off. There were 8 people in that little room, 6 of which were crowded around the largest monitor. There should have only been a couple people in the whole building tonight. Johanna was at the terminal to the right of the monitor, looking intensely at the smaller screen. That in and of itself wasn’t unusual, of course. She was not the most humorous soul, but this was different. There was a fire about her. He walked through the group to her, and saw a split screen on the main display, showing a comparison of two shots that were clearly of the same sliver of the sky. It looks like another discovery was underway.
He stood there for a few seconds, but she didn’t notice until he spoke. “So…you’ve found another one? Why the crowd?”
It looks a good 3 seconds for her to blink and realize someone had spoken to her. “Oh, hey, that was faster than I expected…this,” and she trailed off as her phone rang.
She immediately grabbed it and excitedly asked the person on the other side, “did you get it?” … “Let me know when you have images. Thanks.” Click.
As she cradled the phone, she said, “That was Terry at the 30. He’s gotten permission to turn his scope.”
“Jesus… what did you find?” Turning the scope away from the mission that’s it been paid for was a Big Fucking Deal.
She minimized the window she was on and brought up the images that were on the main screen. He watched as she did so, and recognized the area she was looking from the coordinates listed on the screen. She zoomed in.
“So…isn’t that Sedna?”
“Uh…no.” She leaned back a bit and shook her chin to reinforce his incredulousness.
“Okay, so there’s another DP in that area?”
“I don’t think so.” She cringed a little bit of a twitch, as she said it. He was referring to a Dwarf Planet, but the term “DP” had another meaning, that she had recently learned. As a sheltered Catholic girl, she was still a little squeamish about the double entendre, and the other people in the building knew it. It was, however, not an intentional jibe from Greg.
“I’m looking at the coordinates….that’s Sedna,” he maintained.
“No.” she clicked a different window, and added, “THIS is Sedna.” She pointed to the fuzzy circle on the screen with the point of her pencil, and there was a faint echo of the dot just to the left of where she pointed.”
“So, where is the second image?”
Johanna clicked a few buttons and put the images side by side.
“Same sector. That echo isn’t an echo. It’s a new object.”
“Okay, so, what…. are you saying they collided? That looks awfully weak for an explosion. You think Sedna’s trajectory has changed? What, orbital projections show it threatening?” He didn’t sound impressed. He didn’t want to come off as dismissing what she’d found, but he wasn’t seeing the importance.
“No…you’re not seeing what I’m showing you. Sedna is still in it’s orbit…this object is simply larger in the scope. It’s grown 20% in the last couple hours, with no lateral movement. No Z movement. Sedna is simply in it’s path.”
He eyes opened wide. After a few seconds, he realized his jaw had gone slack, and recovered his composure.
Another voice piped up, one he didn’t recognize. He hadn’t realized it but the group around them were intently paying attention- and they had grown by another six people. The voice was part of the original group, and a guest of one of the techs. “Wha….what does that mean?”
That caught Greg off guard…anyone who would ordinarily be in the room would understand. This object was moving directly towards them, and it was moving fast.
December 4, 2026 0925 HST
The phone rang again. Johanna answered and passed the phone to Greg.
“ ‘Oi.” Greg cracked a slight smile. Terrence Crousore’s Australian accent was coming from the other end of the connection. Terry had been a classmate (and technically a student) of Greg’s at U-Illinois. At the time, Terry was an undergrad, but Greg was working on his Master’s degree. They ended up sharing a graduate level Physics class, and Greg was teaching his 300 level Cosmology class. They had become fast friends for the remained of Terry’s time as U of I. Terry found out Greg had gotten his gig at the Keck observatory, and had left a bottle of Laphroig for him his first day- partly as a welcome gift, and partly to make up for Terry’s selection over Greg for the position at the TMT.
“ What have you got?”
“ Imaging got there a little late, so by time we got it turned and focused, we were already approaching twilight. But, uh… we got some images. You’re going to want to come over to see what we found. You’re also going to need to be careful who you talk to before you get here.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“My superiors are here in the room, and they simply asked me to tell you to be careful who you spoke to before you got here. Make it quick, mate.”
“It’ll take me 15 minutes.”
“Only if you walk. You…uh…should probably take the Jeep.”
“I’ll be right there.” Oh, this could not be anything good. Shit shit shit shit shit. His pulse must have been at 500, and the butterflies in his stomach felt more like fighter jets than insects.
The drive was literally two minutes, of which a good 90 seconds had simply been walking to the car, and getting the keys in the ignition. Terry was waiting at the door to badge him in.
“Oi. This is big. I mean, yeah, the observatory board was made aware this morning, and shit started to hit the fan. By 9 the NSA was here. Not NASA, but the NSA. The Chinese and,” but he was cut off by a man in a sweater vest, who did not look like he belonged in a lab, nor did he look happy to be there.
As he stepped out from around a corner, he said, “I need you to stop talking. Let’s find the room.”
Terry looked a little miffed about being talked over, but let it go. “This way.”
They walked down a curved corridor ringing the outer walls of the telescope bay and up a flight of stairs. A pang of jealousy washed over Greg- The 30 was only about 5 years old, and first light had only been 3 years ago . It was very much bright, shiny, and new compared to the now 30 year old Keck II. The pang quickly dissipated as he remembered why he was here.
When they got to a glass walled conference room, Terry badged in the door, and the stiff looking man kept outside, and took a seat across the hall. He looked like a man that was actively trying not to be bored with where he was, but somehow made that look deadly serious.
As soon as they entered the room, Greg started, “Terry..what the f-…”, but quickly realized he was not alone. On the far end of the conference table sat three people, two of who were loudly discussing people not in the room, and one who was now in the room. The woman at the table was short, and a little rounder than most, and wearing sweats and tennis shoes. She was clearly a native Islander, and vigorously defending Terry’s right to be in the room. The two men at the table were unknown to Greg, but Terry knew one of them- an Asian man in a shirt and tie. The third was a man in a suit that was clearly trying to take charge.
The woman was going on, “he’s an American citizen, and a proper employee of this facility, you can’t remove him from these premises, and FURTHERMORE,” she raised he voice ominously, “you DON’T get to decide who get’s to be in a board meeting for a public company!” The TMT International Observatory Company was the official owner of the telescope, and since the conglomerate that ran it was made of US, Canadian, Chinese and Japanese members, multinationals ran the board of directors. India had originally been party to the project, but pulled out during the building delays over the protesters and the costs. The woman speaking was Maggie Palakiko. She was a board member (emeritus) of the TMT corporation and also the sitting Representative of the 2nd Congressional District of Hawaii. She was a lifelong Hilo resident, and a vocal proponent of the observatories. She was reading the Suit the riot act.”I don’t care that he was born in a foreign country; he has since been naturalized, which means even if or when you do get permission to remove foreign nationals, you can’t touch him, so let this go!”
The Suit couldn’t get much in without the Honorable Dr. Palakiko absolutely shutting him down. “I am on the SST committee, I am FULLY aware of what’s being discussed here, and I know you are NOT. I am the REASON you are here, so stop thinking you’re in charge, and listen! You are going to have a lot to take upstairs when we’re done.”
The Shirt and Tie was Yoshitake Inada, a Japanese member of the board. He was slim, straight and stiff, and gave a distinct impression of quiet nobility. He nodded along with everything Maggie was saying, or shouting. After a few tense seconds, there seemed to be a lull in the conversation, and Terry broke in.
“Yoshi-san….Maggie…This is Gregoi Kalawai’a. He’s the Team Lead over at the Keck Observatory. His team is the one that made the discovery.”
Maggie looked up at him and cracked an ever so slight smile, and said, “Local boy makes good, huh?”
“Not exactly, “ Greg allowed, but nodded, “I grew up in Chicago….but my family is from Oahu. I’m sorry, but I really don’t know much yet. What exactly do you hope to get from me?”
Terry spoke up, “Actually, my intention was to fill you in on what we know so far.” Yoshitake and Maggie nodded, but the Suit just scowled. Maggie looked at the Suit and raised her eyebrows while waving her hand in a “See?” gesture.
As Greg grabbed a seat and pulled out his notebook from his bag, Terry picked up a remote keyboard, and hit a few buttons. A pair of doors slip out to reveal a large flatscreen display, and Terry logged in.
“So…we were able to get some decent images before sunrise, but not our best quality. The New Moon isn’t for a couple more days, so by then we’ll have this dialed in. Mt. John is doing some spectro now, but they only got a couple more hours than we did. Based on what we’ve found, we’re hesitant to share this with any Eastern sites until we know what we’re dealing with.”
“So…, ” Terry stood up and grabbed a remote to flip between screens. “These are the best images we have thus far. And while the pictures don’t really tell much, here’s the object over two hours…” he clicked his remote an flipped about 30 pictures of a fuzzy white circle against a black background. When he got to the end, he began flipping between the first and last. In just over two hours, the circle had grown slightly, and visibly appeared brighter from on image to the next.
“This is still very early in the math department, but it looks like we have a rogue planet hurtling through our Oort cloud. Hell, it may not even be in our Oort cloud yet. Keep in mind, telemetry is only based on a single day’s observation, and only a couple hours at that. Johanna is pulling up archival references from that area to see if we have older images.”
Greg asked, “Do you have specs yet?”
“We do have some early guesses. The size and velocity are at 85% confidence. The trajectory is lower, we’ve only got 20% from the sim…but it’s still early.
“…It’s massive. 10-14 Jupiters. And here’s the scary part: it’s fast. We’ve got it at 0.02c.”
“Are you serious?” Greg had seen the growth in apparent size at the Keck, but a measurement in terms of light speed was unexpected.
“85% confidence. Yeah. It’s massive enough, and more importantly, moving fast enough to measure blueshift against the spectro. Granted, we aren’t using top of the line tools for that- ”
“No kidding, mate.”
“Okay…clearly that’s not why we have the Suit here, what aren’t you telling me?”
Terry looked around the room. Yoshitake nodded severely.
“It’s on a collision course with Neptune.”
Greg sat back in his seat and puffed out both cheeks as he exhaled.
“Next question,” Greg said, as he closed his eyes. “How far?”
“We’ve got it at between 62 and 90 light-weeks.”
“Well…fuuuck.” Eyes turned to Yoshi. “…we’ve got … like 60, 80 years?” Greg was impressed both by the SoCal beach-body accent, and Yoshi’s ability to calculate that math in his head. He expected neither.
“Yeah,” Terry said, “it’s pretty easy math with round numbers like that.”
Maggie rolled her eyes, “…that easy for you to say.”
Greg absent-mindedly leaned towards her, “No, he’s right…at 1/50th the speed of light, light weeks translate into years, since there’s roughly 50 weeks in a year.”
“Sorry,” Terry gave, “wasn’t trying to play the whole genius card, just … it lines up fairly well for estimation.”
Gred added, “and it is just an estimation. It will speed up considerably as it approaches, since the sun will be pulling it in, too.”
Everyone just let those words hang in the air for a few seconds and stared at the screen.
“So, I won’t be around to see this most likely, but this is going to make ShoemakerLevy a footnote in history, isn’t it.” Yoshitake almost squealed. He could not contain the excitement in his voice.
The Suit spoke up with that, and seemed a little angry. “Maggie…you said ‘extreme national security risk’. This looks like a great light show, decades from now. The Army-Navy game is tomorrow, I have tickets, and I’ve missed my flight now. Why the fuck am I here?”
Dr. Palakiko glared. If looks could kill, this man’s grandchildren would have just had myocardial infarctions.
She deadpanned, “Terry…show him.”
Terry stood back up. At this point, Greg noticed for the first time, Terry was shaking. He almost looked as if he was developing Parkinson’s, but no… this was pure fear. A chill ran up Greg’s spine.
Terry fumbled with the remote a second and slid back over to the keyboard.
“Like I said. Trajectory confidence is only 20%. There’s just too many variables.” He left out that they hadn’t been able to lock down trajectory mainly because of a calibration issue- the picture was a little erratic, and the tech said it felt like a gyroscope was shaking the collector, but at least some of the pictures were turning out okay.
“The computer lab told me they won’t be done with the first full analysis until after 5 this afternoon, and that’s with the limited data we, uh, this morning, uh… we got this morning.” Terry stumbled with the words. He pulled up a screen running an animation on a quad-split screen. It showed the object in different scenarios.
“One and four are the upper and lower bounds of our projection, 99th percentiles. The Rogue is coming in almost exactly on the ecliptic. The Neptunian scenario is the most likely, but still a low probability. And it’s our best case scenario.”
“Define best case for me, and pretend I’m not an astronomer, ” the Suit said, with as much disinterest a he could feign.
“Best case. Um, ok…close passing, Neptune’s orbit is destabilized, and it moves a bit closer or farther to the Sun. And … uh…everyone lives…for the time being? Maybe an obique impact? Two suns in the sky for a few days, and a much shorter night. We lose a planet’s current orbit. Long run, that’s still very bad news.”
“You have my attention…what’s the less-than-optimal cases.”
“Ok, so … two here,” as he pointed to the screen, “ shows the the top likelihood, at a little under 20 percent chance that it passes within the satellites of Neptune. If it gets close enough, boom, and there’s an oblique impact, Neptune gets knocked into a much lower orbit, and coalesces back into a planet for the next million years or so. The Rogue also gets deflected and keeps on trucking out of the system. Again, this is best case. Worst impact case? A dead center impact destroys Neptune, and slows the Rogue, and it falls directly into the Sun with what’s left of Neptune.”
“Okay,” the Suit admitted, “That sounds interesting, but like you said, big bang, flash, everything is excessively bright for a few nights, right?”
“No. Anything of that much mass impacting the sun anywhere near the ecliptic, is… uh…, is a bad day for us.”
“Define ‘Bad Day’.”
“Global Sterilization. The absolute end of the world.”
“And what are the chances of something like that happening?”, the Suit asked, with his question dripping with snark.
“As it stands now? About one in fifty? One in a hundred?”
The suit sat back, still not seeing the urgency.
“One in a hundred that this is a problem? Really? One percent?”
Terry glanced sidelong at Suit Jack. The look spoke volumes. Are you kidding?
Maggie shared his dismay. “Sir. I don’t think you grasp the gravity of this. This is not like betting on a ‘sportsball’ game. A one in fifty is a shockingly high probablility of the end of the world. Can you imagine the public reaction to this?”
The moment that dawned on him was clear. “I’m understanding my role here, now. Sweet Jesus.” The color had drained from his face, and the angry man was instantly more placid. Greg thought he looked like he was going to throw up.
Suit stood up an walked around to the screen. He had barely bent down to pick up the trashcan when he puked.
He set the trashcan back down and looked around the room, found some tissues and flopped back into his seat, clearly sweating.
“I…I got to …I need to make some phone calls.”
“I’m…not done yet. Look at the trajectory of this. If it misses…” Terry clicked a few more keys, and zoomed in on the inner planets. “If it misses, it’s going to swing inside the orbit of Mars. There’s a good chance of it crossing Earth’s orbit, and even running along side us, depending on when it get’s here. However, there’s almost no outcome here that doesn’t cause significant problems. If it does get too close to the Sun, it’ll throw CME’s all along the ecliptic, and we get burned. There’s also a distinct non-zero case for a Solar impact, and we haven’t even started those calculations yet. Because it’s coming in along these orbits, and is so massive, there’s almost no chance that it doesn’t affect our orbit, or the orbits of Venus or Mars. If it misses, it’s going to fly through the asteroid belt, and eject several rocks that we can’t possibly predict yet.”
“What’s a C & E?” The obvious frustration from Dr. Palakiko and Dr. Inada was visible.
“CME. Coronal Mass Ejection. Massive solar flares the fling hot blobs of plasma at us super high speed. Bottom line is there’s a better than 50/50 chance that something bad is going to happen from this- either orbit destablization, or multi asteroid impacts within a few years of this thing passing. Those are the most likely scenarios. But orbit destabilization…you thought Climate Change was bad before? That would permanently change our environment for the worse. Impacts? The one that killed the dinosaurs wasn’t all that big, you know, only a few miles across.
“I have to add…there’s a distinct non-zero chance of an Earth impact. It’s definitely coming in nearly exactly on the eccliptic… an impact of any kind, and Earth simply ceases to exist. Hell, if it just gets too close, we ceast to exist. This thing is 10 times the size of Jupiter, 3,000 times our mass. We wouldn’t be hit by this thing, we’d be hitting it. With the force of a BB gun against a Grizzly. It wouldn’t end well for us.”
“Not to make this sound better…but these are preliminary readings. We’ll know much more by Wednesday, and should be able to have pin pointed the specs on this. ”
“This is why you’re here, Jack. You need to get to DC, and get some input on this while we’re figuring out what’s going on here. We need to keep this close to the vest until we know more.”
Deep breaths. “I think we’re on the same page here,” Suit Jack offered.
Maggie added, Im on a flight to Ottawa in about two hours. The Canadian and Chinese governments will know about this in the next few hours. Minister Xulan is in Toronto now, and going to meet me and the Canadian Science Minister in Ottawa. ”
Suit Jack snapped to his senses, “Whoa, you can’t just go around telling foreign governments … I need to have this information classified, like now.”
“I can’t not tell them. This Telescope is joint owned, and keeping those owners out of the loop could cause just as big a problem as letting them know. I know we’ll keep discretion a priority, but you need to let your superiors know this is not as dark as you’d like, capisce? Consider yourself lucky that you get a head start, just because they aren’t actually here today. Yoshi-san here is about to fly to Japan to tell the government there, but that’s where this stops.”
Greg cleared his throat. “Ma’am…can I ask a favor?”
“What do you need, sir?”
“Since you’re on the Space-Science-Tech committee…could you ask some friends about possibly retraining one of the orbital platforms on this?” He was referring to the space telescopes that were orbiting earth. NASA still had three high quality scopes in the sky – The James Webb, the Chandra, and Hubble. The Webb telescope would be his first choice, as Chandra was an Xray scope, and Hubble was almost 40 years old. Sure, it was still kicking, but the optics weren’t much better than the TMT. Even so, he’d have been happy with it, since the orbital platform gave 24 hour tracking, something they could’t do on Earth.
“Wikiwiki.” I’ll get right on that. “I can do that, but I need a couple things from you, as well. “
“First, I need you to point Keck at something else. Anything else.” Greg started to object, but Maggie continued, sensing his reply “…I know…but, Keck is public. UC’s records are public. People will notice.”
Greg nodded, understanding where she was going.
“I’d like your team to move into TMT and direct traffic here. We don’t have enough board members here to officially put you in charge here, but I’m unofficially placing you in command, here for now. Dr. Pollack might throw a fit, but…”
Terry interjected, “Dr. Pollack will be on board, don’t worry.”
“Good. Anyways, Two….I need you to make sure the boys in New Zealand are aware of the need for discretion. Mount Johns is not in our jurisdiction.”
“I believe you know Dr. Kaku?”
“Of course! Terry does, too.”
“Good. He’s currently advising the team on the Webb Telescope. Get him on SecLynk, and set up a meeting – Jack- find me a secure room and comm for him near wherever he is right now. Don’t tell him what’s going on just yet, but get him in that room, then explain it. It’ll be tomorrow at the earliest that I can get approvals to re-appropriate time on the Webb, but he’ll be able to get them started before the official approvals come in, right?”
“I … think so. I’ll see what we can do.” Terry stammered.
“Godspeed gentlemen. Let’s move.”