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The Dragon’s Eye Black Hole

By Edward G Gauthier


Chapter 1                                                                                                                      Copyright 2023

It was the top of Mount Hamilton, California, early in the evening, the sky, star sprinkled black glass, spanned outward toward the sea with only the lightest whisps of cirrus clouds encumbering it. Below, the lumpy leather-brown hills dappled with dark mossy oaks and San Jose pines stretched out into the valley where the town of San Jose twinkled. The dark of night hid most of it, but there near the top of the mountain, like a great white spirit sat the Shane dome, the two-hundred-foot ball-shaped observatory housing the huge Shane three-meter reflector telescope that Dr. Patrice Howlyn, PhD Astrophysics, UC Santa Cruz, now aimed at the planetoid Pluto.

            The nine-ton base mirror of the telescope reflected starlight into its embedded high-tech digital camera. The image transferred electronically to the large wall monitor and it was there that Patrice Howlyn and her three PhD graduate students stood scowling at the two tiny orbs at the middle of the screen.

            Patrice thumped her fist softly against the computer desk. “Why the devil isn’t Pluto round? And why would Charon be so close to Pluto?” Twirling an end of jet-black hair around a forefinger, she squinted her green eyes and huffed. “Well, this screws my review on barycenters until we figure this out.” Dang it. Hours of preparation wasted. What’s happened to Pluto?

            Becca Lane, first year PhD grad student, always in her leopard leotards and button up blouse, shook her head. “I’ve never seen Pluto look oblong like that. Could that be heat in our atmosphere. You know, a mirage effect?”

            Tremaine Batiste, third semester PhD graduate student, tall with a well-trimmed beard and middle parted hair, wagged his finger. “No Bec. The CCD camera is programmed to adjust for atmospheric disturbances, starlight winking, stuff like that. That can’t be it.”

            Becca rubbed her hand across her inch long crew cut. “But we’ve been making a lot of adjustments to the scope lately. Might we have turned off that part of the program?”

            Patrice considered it. “Hmm. Not sure Becca. There’s an outside chance you could be correct.” Patrice looked heavenward at the one-hundred-foot domed ceiling. The long rectangular slit the telescope looked through showed the clear night sky.

“The weather’s right. Couldn’t ask for better. Quinton, check systems. Let’s see if Becca’s right.”

            Quinton Nell, second year PhD graduate student stepped his lanky form to the computer desk and began typing in commands. Being six feet four inches made him bend far over to operate the keyboard. His straight long brown drooped over but never stopped him from what he was doing.

“Let’s see, fine dome positioning is on, shutter control box is active with no faults, collimation stability is operational, cooling of the optical tube and primary mirror holding at default temperatures, current focal position is accurate so that is Pluto and Charon, and instrument rotator has a positional accuracy of 0.01 degrees. No. No, I don’t see anything amiss here. I think our system is good.”

            “Well, then maybe we just need eyes on the thing.” Patrice stepped to the base of the telescope and put her right eye to the focusing lens. She adjusted the focus, concentrated on the image she saw and then stepped back. What the hell was that? Stepping to the eyepiece again, she took a closer look. This wasn’t possible. She sucked in air, blinked, and tightened her grip on the tubular frame of the telescope.

            “ARE WE RECORDING? Oops, sorry. Are we recording?” she said calmly, her tightening grip on the scope beginning to hurt.

            Through her peripheral vision, she saw the three of them turn and look at her.

            “Well, no. You wanted this lesson recorded?” Quinton asked.

            She backed away from the scope. “Start recording right now. Use the highest quality image you can achieve.”

            “I got it,” Tremaine said, stepping to the computer terminal and typing.

            Becca’s eyes were on her. “What is it, Dr. Howlyn?”

            Patrice pointed at the focusing lens. “All three of you have to see this. It’s real. There’s nothing wrong with our equipment. The image on the monitor is correct.”

           “Ok. We’re recording on video mode ten eighty P,” Tremaine said.

           “Is the time and location stamp showing? Is it obvious?”

            “Yes ma’am. July 31, 2024. 8:49 pm, Pacific standard time. Lick Observatory, University of California, Santa Cruz. It clearly shows in the top right         corner.” Tremaine stepped away from the computer desk and toward the telescope’s eyepiece. “But Dr. Howlyn, do you mean Pluto has changed shape?”

             Patrice heard his question. Tremaine and Becca held looks of expectation. She raised a stop sign hand. She had to think, not talk. She began her usual slow walk around the circular observatory. She kept the wall to her right, passing slowly by the router racks, all five routers softly humming away and flashing tiny white flickers with each byte of data. What would Pluto changing shape mean? Her eyes swept the gray cement floor over to the telescope, went up the telescope’s yellow tubular bracing toward the domed ceiling.  Patrice’s mind was flying madly. Her eyes found the old circular steel track embedded in the cement floor that previous telescopes had turned on and then her gaze slid over the steel stairway that led to the catwalk which circled the entire observatory fifteen feet above the floor. Her thoughts were ricocheting off every object in the cavernous room. What did it all mean! She had to think it out. Pluto was changing, being distended. There was only one force in the universe that could actually do what they were seeing. She wheeled and watched Quinton watching the image of Pluto on the monitor. He was slowly nodding. Suddenly, it came to her.


              Becca backed away from the eyepiece. “Yes ma’am?”

              “You remember calling Jules Laudson for me just before last Christmas break?”

              “Ahh. Oh, yeah. To arrange for your PhD class reunion in Chicago, right? He’s the one that runs the Minor Planet Center?”

              “Yes. His personal number is in the data base. Get him on the phone right now.”

              “Dr. Howlyn, it’ll be late on the east coast and . . .”

              “Believe me, he would hate me for not calling. Wake him up. Use his personal number. Right now.”

                Patrice walked quickly back to the monitor, stood next to Quinton and watched Pluto becoming even more misshapen. The planet now looked as if giant fingers were pinching the right side of the planet and pulling it outward.

              “Charon’s too close, isn’t it?”

               Quinton nodded. “Took the words right out of my mouth. We have file pictures of Pluto Charon system. I could bring a few of them up so we can compare.”

              “No need, Quinton. If this proceeds like I think it might, it will soon become very obvious what’s going on.”

              “Dr. Howlyn,” Becca called. “Jules Laudson.”

               Patrice walked past the computer desk to the server desk and took the heavy landline phone from Becca.

               “Jules? I know its late but I’m officially reporting a new event.” She heard him cough and then clear his throat. She imagined him in pajamas.

               “Okay. I’m awake, mostly. What’s up?”

               “Pluto is being destroyed. I suspect, by a black hole.”

                Silence filled the phone.

                “A black hole? Destroying Pluto? Whoa whoa. You know, you and I got loaded together a few times back in Chicago and we saw all kinds of things.”

               The bar they used to frequent jumped into Patrice’s head but she pushed it away. She laughed.

               “Always the wise guy. Some things never change. But, I on the other hand have found something that is changing as we speak and I have three graduate students with me as my witness and we’re recording the event’s progress right now. I’m telling you; Pluto is being distended. Reshaped, right now as we speak. And I can prove it. Okay?”

            “Pluto? Wow. Okay. So, you’re reporting huh. Okay. Okay, my watch shows 11:55 pm, Eastern time. Well then, I reckon I’d better get dressed. Look, I’ll get over to the center in just a few minutes and report your sighting along with your reporting time. And I’ll check if we’re getting other reports on this. Marlene has the night shift. She’ll know about that. If what you say pans out, I can’t wait to get up to our scope on the roof and check it out. It’s only blocks away. I’ll call you right back. Okay?”

             “Oh yes, do call back. I think we’re here for the duration of this, so let me know.”

              Patrice hung up and joined Quinton, Becca and Tremaine eyeing the monitor. The sight froze her. Only the rhythmic clicking of the routers were heard. Otherwise, the observatory was stone silent.

              The entire eastern third of the one-inch dot representing Pluto was being yanked away, stretching off into space. The protruding eastern portion stuck out making the minor planet three times wider than it should be. The swollen area tapered outward to a sharp point which then transformed into a long thread resembling a tiny bullwhip that waved off into black space ending in a miniscule half-circle.

               To the left of Pluto hung Charon, a dot half the size of Pluto’s. Charon too had developed a great bulge bursting from its surface on its right side. Charon was usually half the size of Pluto. The two usually revolved around each other at a consistent and respectable distance, the only binary planetoid group in the solar system. But in this image, misshapen Charon hovered dangerously close to Pluto. Chills ran up Patrice’s spine.

              "Oh goodness. Charon is going to crash into the backside of Pluto.”

              She stepped closer to the shoulder high monitor, put her finger on the dot of Pluto and slid her finger along the tiny bullwhip thread until she came to the pin-point dot.

               “It’s right there. That’s got to be it.”

                Quinton was at her side. “You think that’s the black hole?”

                She nodded. “It has to be. This line is debris being ripped away from Pluto. And it stops here. This black hole is small. Really small. That’s why no one saw it coming.”

                Becca leaned in. “Awfully small for a black hole, isn’t it?”

                Patrice nodded. “The ones I’ve had you guys study are millions or billions of times larger than our sun. But of all the black holes science now knows about, the average is only twenty miles across. Believe me, black holes come in all sizes. And the vast majority are like this one, free roaming rogues, not connected to any galaxy or star planetary system.”

               “This could be a great thing, right?” Tremaine said. “Suddenly we have a black hole at the edge of our solar system, closer to us than any other black hole. Just think of the research projects that could spawn off of this thing, the new information that could be gathered. The entire field of astrophysics will be doing back flips.”

                “They’re colliding,” Becca whispered.

                 Patrice held her breath as Charon began to reshape itself as a cancerous growth onto the backside of Pluto. Over the next fifteen minutes, she barely breathed as Charon molded itself onto Pluto and then formed a horseshoe shape that nearly surrounded the planetoid. The two crumpled into one very malleable shape, compression waves working across their joining surfaces, until the individual planetoid and moon could not be distinguished. The tremendous gravity pulling away at the right side of the now singular orb turned the entire shape into a tear drop. The bullwhip line of debris thickened and suddenly, the tiny pin point at the end of that line began to glow. 

                “Oh damn. You’re right. It’s heating up.” Quinton pointed at the tiny spark.

                 Becca’s hand covered her neck. “So that would have to be debris crossing the event horizon.”

                 Tremaine nodded. “Yep. That’s right. There it is.”

                 Patrice glanced at her three students and smiled. “Very good. You guys are getting some good exposure with this. Heck, in all my years of study, I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s amazing. It may be tiny, but its gravity field is something to be reckoned with.”

                Quinton glanced at Patrice “Do you think there’ll be anything left?”

               “No. Maybe a bit of a dust cloud, but otherwise, nothing. The very nuclei of atoms are torn to shreds even before the debris reaches the accretion disk or the event horizon. I doubt there’ll be anything left.”

              “Yeah, I remember those lessons you taught us but somehow, seeing it happen right before our eyes, that’s . . . that’s . . . that’s a whole different thing.”

              Patrice jumped, startled by the loud ring of the land line phone. She broke away from the wall monitor and answered the phone.

             “Damn girl. This is fucking amazing! I’m on the roof looking at Pluto being eaten. Amazing! Man, Patrice, you have hit the jackpot tonight, babe.               Congratulations!”

             “Congratulations? For what, Jules?”

             “Yeah. I checked. We had ninety-six others that called in this Pluto event so far, but you were first. I checked all the times. You were ahead of all of them. You are being awarded discovery! Discovery! Congratulations!”

              Patrice screamed and covered her mouth. “Oh my gosh.” She wheeled toward the others. “We’ve be given discovery!”

             “YES! Oh yeah!” Quinton pumped his fist back and forth.

              Becca screamed and Tremaine jumped up with his fists above his head. They danced and hugged and slapped hands and went crazy celebrating. Quinton ran to Patrice and gave her a hug too. Patrice managed to keep the phone to her ear.

             “I gotta tell you Patrice, I’m looking through our scope right now and the sight of Pluto and Charon is just staggering. Who would have guessed. Thank goodness you called. I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

            “Yeah. I came here tonight to use Pluto and Charon as a review on barycenters. And now this. Discovery? I’m thrilled. Right place at the right time, I guess.”

             “You’d better get ready for this. This is big. A real feather in your cap. Now look. We’ll be sending out official notices to the administration, to NASA, and probably to the media, all by eight o’clock this morning. You’ll surely be getting lots of calls after that.”

             She glanced at the monitor. Pluto and Charon were now completely crushed together, the tear drop shape stretching out a bit further. The whip tale had grown even thicker and the orange pinpoint at the end of the tale had changed to white hot.

            “Yeah, I’m sure you’re right, Jules. But I’ll need better images than what our scope is getting. These little one-inch dot images aren’t too impressive. I might try Hubble or James Webb telescopes or FERMI telescopes. We’ll need something with much better resolution and we’ll need it quickly. This event is quickly passing us by.”

            “Well you know, Patrice. Guess who was only ten minutes behind you in reporting this Pluto thing. Dr. Wen Kuo Li of the Yunnan observatory. Remember, we ate supper with him in Paris?”

            The memory hit her like a hammer. Dr. Wen Kuo Li, the highly respected Chinese Astrophysicists and department head of the Yunnan Observatory. He was the scientist she and Jules had met in the summer of 2021, at the CERN Nuclear Physics in Astrophysics Conference. At CERN, Dr. Li had sought her and Jules Laudson out, introduced himself and asked their opinion on disturbances Chinese probes had detected in the Kuiper Belt outside the orbits of Neptune and Pluto. Being accustomed to studying black holes much further out in space than the Kuiper Belt, Patrice admitted she had only rudimentary knowledge of this region so much closer to Earth. She apologized, but curious about his research, she and Jules had attended the thirty-minute presentation Dr. Li gave before some rather illustrious Astrophysicists and Cosmologists. Dr. Li’s presentation hadn’t gone well. Yunnan observatory scientists could tell there was some kind of disturbance within the icy asteroids and rocky debris of the Kuiper belt but had been unable to attain visual images or gamma-ray, Hawking radiation, or X-ray readings from the disturbance. And because no one had ever been able to map the Kuiper Belt, Dr. Li had very little evidence of what was going on out there. He had suggested that other observatories join in the investigation. Though Patrice and a few attendees asked questions, and everyone was polite, no one had accepted. Those scientists each had their own research going and were unwilling to thin their resources further. Every few months, Dr. Li would send Patrice a polite email to see if she might have become interested in his Kuiper belt phenomena.

          “Oh yeah. Of course, I remember him. And the Chinese have put a space-based telescope around Saturn, right?”

          “Yep. Arrived there about six months ago. It studies Saturn, its rings and its eighty-three moons. You should contact him. He might have something.”

           “Oh, will I. Thank you Jules. Ahhh, look, I’m gonna get going. Lots to do. We’ll talk later.”

            “One other thing, Patrice,” Jules went on. “Since you have discovery, you get to submit a name or two for this event and for this black hole. Don’t forget to submit a name to me within a week, okay?”

           “A name. Yeah, I’d forgotten that goes with discovery. I’ll figure something out.”

           “Ok. Keep me posted. If things get too hairy, too much press or something, give me a call. I love giving advice. Take care.”

            She hung the phone up and joined in the ongoing fist bumping and hugs, a rare celebratory moment amongst scientists. Slowly, the mood began to settle. They again turned toward the monitor observing the dots on the screen. I’m gonna need better images and a lot more data on this event.

            “Quinton. Becca. Tremaine.”

            They turned facing her.

            Patrice held her hands out wide. “Since we’ve been awarded discovery on this Pluto event, we can use that to get scope time at other observatories. So, we’re going hunting for better images than we’re getting here. You’re familiar with scheduling observatory scope time for your projects. So, here’s your assignments. Tremaine, you’ll contact the Hubble telescope crew and the FERMI Gamma-ray crew. Becca, you’ll take the James Webb telescope and the Chandra X-ray telescope. Of course, demand Director’s Discretionary time. That should allow us to cut in line and get immediate use of their scope. You may have to explain the event happening currently with Pluto, since they may not know about it. But the destruction of Pluto is an unprecedented phenomenon and you must emphasize that we have discovery. That should sway them to decide in our favor. And it’s Discretionary time or nothing. We need the use of their scope right now. Seeing where Pluto used to be won’t do us any good. Do your best. The contact for each telescope crew is in our data base. Look it up and get started.”

          Quinton leaned toward Patrice; expectation written all over his face.

           Patrice smiled. “I’ll need you to set up a video conference right away with the Yunnan Observatory in Kunming, China. I’ll need to speak with Dr. Wen Kuo Li. Check the data base. I’m sure I have his contact info there.”

           Quinton nodded. “China, huh? Okay.” He replaced Tremaine at the keyboard, his fingers typing quickly. After three minutes, the monitor suddenly switched from following the destruction of Pluto to an elderly Chinese man in a lab coat. At first the Chinese man’s face was emotionless. But slowly a smile crept up. He put his hands together and bowed.

          “Ahh, yes. Happy to see you again, Dr. Patrice Howlyn.”

           He always had the sweetest smile. She smiled back. “And I’m very happy to see you, Dr. Li. It seems you were very correct about a disturbance in the Kuiper Belt. Jules Laudson told me he spoke to you tonight when you reported the sighting to the Minor Planet Center.”

           “Yes. But you Americans are, how you say, faster on the draw. Yes?” he chuckled. “You beat me by some minutes. Dr. Laudson tells me you are awarded discovery. I am happy for you. Congratulations.”

           “Thank you, sir. Dr. Li. I realize your observatory is on the side of Earth that can’t see Pluto right now. But I was hoping that somehow you might have images, pictures or video of the destruction of Pluto. Have you been able to watch it?”

            “Oh yes. Very clearly. Since January of 2023, China’s Longyan Mu’, aahhh, Dragon’s Eye space-based telescope is located just outside Saturn orbit. We study the composition of planet Saturn, its moons, its rings using high-resolution spectrographic imaging for identification of several planetary atmospheric constituents. However, Dragon’s Eye is also equipped with high resolution visual spectrum camera. At this time, Pluto is at close orbital position, with clear view from Saturn. So, we turn Dragon’s Eye around, away from Saturn, and get a very clear picture of Pluto. Yes, Yunnan observatory cannot see Pluto right now, but our associate observatory in South Africa is receiving signal from Dragon’s Eye telescope and relays it to us. We have been observing . . . aahhh ongoing destruction. I can show you pictures we have. You would like to see?”

          “Oh goodness. Yes sir. I would love to see them.” Will he share them?

          Dr. Li’s hand covered the screen as he re-aimed his computer’s camera toward a large wall sized screen. He pressed a few buttons and the image of Pluto and Charon exploded in clarity before her. Pluto seemed six feet wide. These images were as clear as NASA’s 2014 New Horizon satellite close fly-by of Pluto. The images were in vivid color and the various regions of the planet were unmistakable.

         Most obvious was that Pluto was still mostly spherical. A slight bulge had begun on the right side of the planet and in that moment, Patrice understood that Dr. Li had begun recording earlier than she had. The left half of the heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio remained in its usual place as did the dark red Cthulhu Macula region. However, the right side of the Tombaugh Regio and the Brass Knuckles region just above it was now elongated and involved in mountains bulging unnaturally. Portions of the Brass Knuckles were beginning to avalanche outward, becoming unrecognizable.

          In the background of the photo hung Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, a more neutral gray than Pluto’s red tinge. A slight bulge also emerged on the right side of Charon within the rolling plains near its equator, informally named Vulcan Planum. And small pieces of rocky debris burst from Charon’s surface hurling outward through space toward Pluto. The moon was already closing on Pluto.

          Dr. Li clicked quickly past more pictures. Suddenly stopping, the picture he chose did not disappoint. Though this one showed Charon smashing itself against Pluto misshaping both planetoids, it’s main focus was on the destroyed eastern teardrop section of Pluto and the whip debris line leading out into space.       

           Patrice took another step closer. The further away from the planet’s body the teardrop stretched, the more it crumbled and cracked apart. Mountains fractured and slid into long lumpy avalanches. The plains of Pluto’s Hayabusa Terra region strained to five times their usual size. Even the whip tail leading away seemed made of thick solid material.

            Before Patrice could comment on this image, Dr. Li filed past more files stopping on another amazing picture. The focus of this shot was zoomed very closely on the tiny hook tail at the end of the string clearly showing it wrapping around almost completing a tiny perfect circle. Patrice could not get her eyes off this section. This tiny speck of a circle was destroying both Pluto and Charon.

          “There is only one force in universe with power to do this,” Dr. Li went on. “That is your field of study, Dr. Howlyn.” Dr. Li walked to the third picture and placed a forefinger on the tiny hook at the end of the bullwhip tail. “I believe this is beginning of accretion disk, yes? And you know what that mean.”

            “Dr. Li, how long ago were these images taken?”

            “We have these pictures for forty-five minutes. Very recent.”

            “Dr. Li, I hope this is not inappropriate for me to ask, but would you be willing to share these images with us? In return, and since I have discovery, I would be willing to name the black hole The Dragon’s Eye, in honor of all the hard work you and your country put in creating this telescope.”

             Dr. Li’s face lit up with a huge smile. He chuckled and nodded. “Well, If this is only my decision, yes, I would have only one condition. That you and I must continue sharing what we know, what we learn, about this extraordinary event. Better for scientists worldwide to cooperate, to increase everyone’s knowledge at a similar pace. However, I work for Chinese government. There are constraints, but not too severe. Each image will be titled Yunnan observatory, Kunming, China, with Dragon Eye telescope listed as the source. If each time you refer to these images or show them to the public, if you are willing to keep these labels as they are, yes, and give credit to Chinese observatory, then I can share with you. Government restrictions, you know.”

            Oh. He will share. “Dr. Li, I’d be more than happy to agree to these conditions. We would want to site you as the source anyway. This is no problem. And we can call it the Dragon’s Eye black hole. I agree to this.”

           “Ah, very good. So far, we have fifty-eight images and two video files. And we are recording, of course. I will send all we collect soon to your observatory server. And again, congratulations on achieving discovery. Let us stay in touch, hey?”

            “You’ve been most kind sir. Most helpful. I thank you. And yes, I’d love to discuss with you what will come of all this. I’ll be in contact.”

            Dr. Li smiled, gave a slight bow and ended the video conference. The monitor flashed back to the Shane telescope view of Pluto. The ongoing destruction had progressed so that the Pluto Charon mass was not round at all but was now drawn into a long exclamation point lying on its side, the right end of the exclamation point became the whip that lashed out to the tiny black hole.

           Becca walked up smiling. “Good news. Hubble, FERMI gamma-ray, James Webb and Chandra x-ray telescopes had already set their aim on Pluto and were already recording when we reached them. Each of them had received multiple requests to focus on Pluto. They’ll send their reports and images out to everyone on the request list. When Tremaine and I told them you had discovery, they said they’d send us the data first.”

           “Great. So, we should have plenty of images to work with.” Patrice began slowly pacing in a large circle. “I think we have the visuals covered. But there’s so much left to determine about this black hole.”

            “Yeah. Like what’s the mass of this thing,” Tremaine said.

             Becca finally dropped her hands away from her neck. “I’m curious how fast its moving and how far it dragged Pluto and Charon from their original position. It ate up Pluto in just a few minutes.”

             “Dr. Howlyn,” Quinton said pointing at the monitor.

They all turned and watched. Only a slight cloud floated around the shrinking accretion disk. The flowing rings now pulsed less brightly because most of the long line of wreckage was disappearing across the event horizon, swallowed into the black hole itself.

For the next fifteen minutes, they stood in utter silence entranced as the debris field disk became narrower, and thinner, and finally disappeared entirely. The black hole’s glow dimmed and within a single minute went completely invisible, leaving only a ghostly dust finger pointing in the direction the black hole had gone. Pluto and all its moons were no more.

             Quinton broke the silence. “Well, let’s hope Dr. Li’s coordinates are specific enough. At least we might get a vague idea of where this thing is going.”

             Again, Patrice’s thoughts overtook her. She began the walk, the slow circle out onto the observatory’s expansive floor. Was she covering every aspect of this event? Everything? She checked her watch.”

            “It’s almost one forty a.m. Are you guys tired?”

            “You kiddin’, right?” Tremaine blinked his eyes and giggled. “I’m pumped. There is no way I could sleep.”

            “Sleep would be impossible,” Becca agreed. “My mind would never settle down.”

             Quinton flailed his hands. “Pluto Charon destroyed, a black hole found and you get discovery? Sleep’s out of the question.”

             She smiled. “Ok. Just checking. I certainly couldn’t sleep either. But, you know, Dr. Li said he’d send that data to my office here at the observatory. And I’m guessing he’ll do it right away. Did you guys come in one car?”

            “Yeah. I picked ‘em up,” Tremaine said.

             “Okay, this is not an assignment, but if you want . . .”

             Quinton flailed again. “We’ll meet you at your office. And I’m hungry. You guys hungry?”

             “Yo, yes. Starving,” Tremaine raised a hand.

              Becca nodded.

             “Pizza run,” Quinton said. “Pizza My Heart is just four miles away.”

             Patrice agreed. “I’ll lock up the observatory. You guys get the pizza. I’ll meet you at my office in a few minutes. Drive carefully on the mountain. Oh, and keep the receipt. I’ll split the pizza with you.”

            Quinton heaved his backpack onto his shoulder. “No way. You got discovery tonight. Our treat.”

            Becca grabbed her laptop and books. “That’s right. Pizza and drinks on us.”

           “Yeah,” Tremaine said walking toward the door. “Should be steak and wine with candlelight, black tie formal dress, but these college loans kinda knock it back to pizza. See you in a few.”

           Patrice watched them saunter out. Three people brought together by astrophysics. They’d probably stay friends for life. At this, she smiled.

She turned, set the telescope controls to sleep mode, closed the dome roof, put the server and computer terminal on standby, flicked the lights off, locked the door and headed for her office in the main building. As she crossed the parking lot, the brilliant Milky Way shown down from above. She stopped and took it in. Though it was beautiful as usual, her smile was fading. She had one thought. Trajectory. Is it coming at us?

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