The Day The Stars Disappeared
We looked to the sky, but all the stars had gone away.
The first call was to NASA. All sleeping.
The second call was forbidden. We knew this. But we needed data, so we dialed. The ringing engaged. It felt like a 1982 landline with no answering machine. Forever ringing to a non-responsive room on the other end of time.
“They weren’t expecting a call,” the cosmonaut’s thick accent surprising our ears.
“We’re sorry to disturb the important work going on,” Commander Gerome replied, “We have a bit of an alarming situation down here on earth. I realize you work for Russia but do you have a moment to check on something for us?”
“Let me know what it is and I’ll see if there’s an American crew who can help you.” I marveled at the clarity of connection. I mean, we were talking to space! I suppose it isn’t that surprising. I mean it’s farther to call from Seattle to Portland than it is to call the International Space Station when directly overhead. But it’s space! That automatically makes it mysterious and beyond the coolest of cool.
Commander Gerome was torn between immediately needing to know and coming across like a complete buffoon, “It’s going to sound like a completely non-urgent request but we are having trouble locating a particular star down here and we were hoping someone up there could confirm or deny the existence of any … any … obvious interference.”
Yuri’s voice indicated he wasn’t buying it, “You realize we don’t have a full view of the universe unless we space walk, right?”
Immediacy won Commander Gerome’s internal battle, “Please, just tell us, are there any stars at all?”
Taken aback Yuri began to wonder if some American teenagers had somehow gotten ahold of the number and were making a prank phone call, “Hold on, I’ll have a look.” Either way, there was no reason not to take a moment to gaze out into space. His love of stars was, after all, exactly how he ended up with this sweet gig in the first place.
Time seemed an eternity waiting for his reply.
Yuri chose his words carefully. Pranksters seek specific answers to wind up their retort. “Our positioning and time of day make it difficult to see them at the moment,” Yuri replied, thwarting all expectations with his completely plausible non-answer.
“Oh,” Commander Gerome found himself at a loss for words.
I could tell he was stunned and chimed in to help out, “It’s going to sound impossible but we are actually having trouble locating any star in the night sky. We are trying to determine if this is a local problem, and global problem, or a cosmic problem. Thank you for checking. We should be able to get in touch with NASA or the Hubble team in a few hours.”
“Who is this?” Yuri questioned.
“Oh my goodness please forgive us for skipping introductions. We are smog researchers from America. I am Julia and the other voice you heard was Commander Gerome, retired naval officer who joined our team several years ago. We are the private atmosphere science firm Feverterm. Until 3 years ago I was a meteorologist.”
“Well,” Yuri searched for escape words, “I’m sorry I can’t help you. As far as I know, the stars are right where they’ve always been. Good luck to you,” and the connection went dead.
“I knew that was a bad idea,” Commander Gerome lamented.
“No, it was a good one,” I replied, “it just didn’t produce the data we needed. Either they’ll not see what we didn’t see and know they can trust their eyes, or the cosmonaut wing will have a good laugh over dinner.”
“I know you’re right. Just wish I could feel you’re right. Ok. What next? I guess we need to get some sleep. I’ve already left a message with Hubble’s contact team. If it’s not an earth problem, we’ll know soon enough.”
The sky on the drive home seemed surreal. Moonless. Dark, but bright as if near dawn. Glowing as a full moon’s night, except the glow was everywhere and the moon was nowhere to be seen.
A curious mind derailing every hope of a good night’s sleep I sung a few om’s. But om is so very uninteresting when curiosity is on the soar. The sleep experts advise us to avoid sleeping with our phones, but an engaging podcast always does the trick. I’m not actually sleeping ‘with’ my phone. It’s over there on the dresser telling me a bedtime story. My silly brain thinks it needs to justify my actions to the invisible judgers as if they were going to show up in my bedroom, jostle me awake, and haul me off to podcast jail for cell-phone abuse.
Soon I was deep in REM conjuring aliens, super novae, and giant vacuum’s sucking star dirt from its filthy sky. You can set a body sleeping, but curious creative minds do not cease their labors of imagination.
I woke to the international alert system sounding off like an air-raid. I keep forgetting to change the default sound! An engineering prank that accidentally shipped and was an instant hit with everyone except me. Sigh.
And then it stopped abruptly. I had made it as far as sitting upright in the bed and was debating whether to lie back down when I noticed the laptop charger on the second dresser. Dead battery. Sigh.
The safest way to connect to work was to never disconnect. And work was constantly connected to the international alert system for people who ogle space and sky.
Body begging for more sleep, brain already engaged, I was already committed. Time to get this day rolling. Sigh.
About an hour later the screen was blinking ‘Astronomy Alert: we need your help with Venus. We’re not sure what’s going on but it doesn’t look right at all.’ Gerome was already texting me for an offsite meet. He lived two blocks away and our office was an hours drive this time of morning.
Commander Gerome’s home was a custom build. The main house entered through one porch, the art studio entered through the other. The original owner regularly threw lavish art shows and Gerome was drawn to the generous open space as an working office. Separate bathroom, separate kitchen, hottub, the area was self contained and perfect for company meetings in the early days. We met there often when sensitive topics made the local tea shops untenable.
I climbed the wooden stairs, paused on the porch to breathe in a moment of the mountain view, and opened the glass door with the extravagant handle. Definitely designed by an artist.
“In here,” he called out, eye intently engaged through his telescope, “Venus is 3 times brighter than it should be.”
“Take a look.”
As I saw for myself, Gerome rigged up the telescope to the wall projector.
There it was. All the wrong levels of bright.
“Check out the ultraviolet,” Gerome segmented the screen and showed the feeds from Hubble, Chandra, and James Webb Space Telescope. Something was very wrong. “Keep in mind the time delay between the feeds.”
“Look!!” I shouted. He turned his gaze from the laptop to the big screen. We were watching Venus separate in two in real time through his telescope.
“It … can’t be,” Gerome said, clearly astonished. His voice regained scientific composure, “Planets don’t divide like amoeba.”
For several moments we couldn’t keep our eyes off the screen. Then suddenly Commander Gerome was darting around, scribbling on paper, checking calculations on the laptop, and muttering to himself. As was his way. I knew better than to interrupt him. He was on to something and if he needed me, he’d say so, if it was going to take hours he’d offer me to leave. I made some tea and stepped out onto the 3rd deck for some fresh air.
It was so bright I could see it happening with the naked eye.
He called out, “Is it unusually bright out there?”
“Um I …”
“Take a breath. Find your calm. Remember how your eyes blinked trying to clear themselves during the partial eclipse? How your body knew the light was off? Are you having that sensation in reverse?”
“I … don’t know.”
“Stay out there and let me know if — “
“Wait, yes, my eyes are confused. And that larger portion of Venus almost seems like it’s getting brighter.”
“I think I’ve got it. I think I know what’s happening. And we’re 10 hours behind schedule.”
He continued, “Light traveling from Pluto to earth takes 4.6 hours. That object didn’t split from Venus it was visually behind Venus. I don’t think it’s inside the terminal shock yet. If my calculations are correct, this is our Sun’s twin returning. Unless they’ve been hiding a rogue solar system passing through ours.”
“There are too many telescope hobbyists these days for rogue solar systems.”
“Exactly. I think, it’s traveling just below the speed of light. And it can’t be from Sag-A-Star’s black hole. It’s coming from the opposite side. Wait a second. I have a theory.”
Gerome’s ‘seconds’ were usually an hour or more. Asking was a waste of time. He revealed nothing until he had proof one way or the other. It’s so lovely working with someone so long you just know.
“I’ll pick up some sandwiches.”
“The usual”, he replied.
It was nowhere near lunchtime, but I need to go for a walk, and they’d stay good in the fridge til we got hungry.
The sky was slightly off. Just enough to notice if you were noticing. Just enough to ignore if you were going about your day. I am certain 99.9% of them don’t even know Venus is up there right now. Let alone noticing an out of place light in the daytime sky. That’s … 780,000 paying attention? Ok, maybe …
Normally I’d have hours of work completed by now. Our staff was between research projects. Most were winding down and didn’t much need me for that. The rest were consuming the data to gear up for the next. They didn’t need me for that either. Not yet. Soon my life would be full of questions and tutoring. It was already my area of expertise. I’d been studying it on the side my entire Meteorlogical career. Weather forecasting by day, Atmospheric Research by night. I asked NASA so many email questions for so many years they finally gave me a permanent visitor pass and low level clearance to their data. I was perfectly capable of answering most of my own questions. And they were still graciously answering the rest.
No one really knew this about me. No one asked. And I never revealed. “I need to be alone to think about it,” did the trick. Introverts could say things like that, head to parks, return bearing the wisdom of Merlin The Magician and totally get away with it. My ‘park’ was often the makeshift desk area set aside for me onsite. New people assumed I was a real employee. I never lied. I also never dissuade their assumptions. My badge clearly said ‘visitor’. But it was also the old design, which they allowed the long time staff to retain. In my situation it was more of an oversight than an intentional badge of honor.
The offness of the sky seemed incrementally greater. Twin Sun?! I dismissed the thought. That theory had long been debunked in favor of Jupiter’s reign as a failed second star. Suggesting as much was akin to conspiratorial subterrain predicting human demise at the hand of Planet X. Even if he could prove it, not a soul would take him seriously. I laughed aloud walking past a birch tree. Not a single scientific soul! He could certainly gain a full cult following complete with rampant internet meme’s. Little did I know at the time, the meme’s had already begun on a lark by a German kid bored in her basement.
Commander Gerome was munching away finishing up the last of his numbers, “Yes! I’ve got it!!”
I knew better than to interrupt with responses. It only derailed him and caused a longer delay in data relay.
“Look! Look here!” I moved toward him then realized he was switching display to the wall screen. All I could see were blurry white blobs. Astronomy pictures aren’t always worth a thousand words.
“They’ve been studying the internals of this nebulae so closely no one noticed what was going on here in the outer edges. This point of light has been moving in a specific trajectory. There are so many it’s hard to tell unless you’re specifically looking for it.”
“See here, “ he continued, “it was entering this location and slightly increasing in size as Venus was curving on its trajectory. For a few hours they were in sync but millions of miles apart.”
“I’m not sure I follow that last sentence,” I could see what he was seeing. I could also see how someone could easily dismiss it.
He gestured in the air with his hands, “As it came toward the solar system it was aimed toward the transition region between the Terminal Shock and the Heliopause. Along the same plane as our system’s spin. But on the opposite side of the sun from Earth. For a brief moment this object, Venus, and Earth were lined up. Venus was essentially eclipsing this object, but not its brightness. So Venus appeared oddly bright. But it was a visual anomaly. Like the ring around the moon at full eclipse of the sun.”
“There’s more. I’m still unraveling the data, and this will go faster once I put out the call. I’m sitting here with a pencil, and across the globe super computers exist for just this kind of thing. I never share my hunches, but I think I have to this time. If the data bears this out, this is a sun ejected from Andromeda, traveling between galaxies for millions of years and we’re just now moving through the Milky Way in a location to intercept it.”
“We’re not in immediate danger. It’s clearly not ‘headed straight for us’. But we’re going to need the best modeling minds working on how a rogue sun ripping by the edge of the Terminal Shock could affect our sun, the earth, and the entire fragile solar system. Our stability was a hard fought battle over billions of years. There’s no way to guess how a blast to our protective bubble could shake down the orbits. Orbits are really just trenches in space time. Like tire ruts in the freeway, planets can and do jump them given the right conditions.”
As soon as I heard ‘modeling minds’ I was firing up the laptop to look up my long time NASA contacts. “But how do we present this to — ”
“I’m already on it. Read this position paper and work your editing magic. We’ll blast it across the astronomical community.”
The formal star name, NXPR47590354S-A, was never uttered. We had intended it to be a place holder until we could determine if the object had already been named. Our time would have been better spent arguing out an actual backup name instead of the placeholder. Gerome tried to name it Spiderman. I was fairly certain we’d get sued. I tried to suggest the name Next Experience. He told me I was nuts. 475903 was the Hex for our logo’s green. 54 was May the 4th be with you. ‘Dash A’ made us laugh to think someone had already used our absurd naming schema.
By the time we had confirmed it was his to name, the position paper had gone viral and the sentence ‘… that the rogue sun, NXPR47590354S-A …’ pushed Rogue Sun across global headlines.
Much to his dismay, there would be no floating the name Spiderman past Marvel’s legal team. The placeholder had already been cataloged along with the unintended nickname.
Within a month the world was in chaos. People wanted to know more. People didn’t want to believe. Cults were retroactively claiming predictions. Newsfolk were carrying on about the political implications. Those watching could not see a single reason for this to be political. No one caused it. No one can do anything about it. People turned off their sets and cancelled their cable subscriptions in protest. Preferring to just ‘watch the sky’ for details.
Astronomy journals soared in subscription sales. Those who wanted to know, wanted to know as fast as now could happen.
Flat Earther’s joined Lizard-Believer’s and the seedy underbellies of the web were ripe with Lizard Aliens changing the Flat Earth projected sky maps to punish non-believers. Though … no one could quite explain how or why this was a suitable punishment for any type of anything.
Rogue Sun wasn’t simply passing by. It was pulling our entire system along with it. Our density slowed it down. It’s trajectory moving us closer to Sag-A-Star’s black hole.
Our sun’s gravity acted as a breaking mechanism, pulling Rogue Sun into a slingshot maneuver. The solar system zoomed backwards, then back outwards toward its orbital trench. Our density slowing it, our gravity pulling it, it’s speed relented and stabilized.
Rogue Sun stabilized into orbit around Sol. Though models showed it looking more like the co-orbit dance of Pluto and Charon.
With essentially two suns, seasons on earth were thrown into chaos. Day and night became random. Plants, animals, insects, humans adapted to the confusion. But other planets farther out were being tugged and swayed into elongated orbits when Rouge Sun passed them by. Pluto and regions of the Kuiper Belt were pulled into matching orbits with Rogue Sun.
Experts expected extra heat but all the frozen planets cooled the solar wind like ice cubes in a cup of boiling water in a freezer. Competing with Sol’s solar wind out around Neptune, sent her moons into landscape confusion. Earth was just close enough to Sol to remain protected by her power. Jupiter and Saturn saw only minor effects.
The Astronomical community was aflutter. Great concern about losing the natural protective shielding of the Kuiper Belt clashed with cheers of Rouge Sun being a more effective protective against … well … things like Rogue Suns headed straight for us.
Rogue Sun was as bright as our own. Though farther out, its orbit was incredibly fast.
In rare and brief moments on cloudless Sun-Sun-Earth Eclipse Nights could stars be faintly seen in the sky.
We survived but we lost.
We lost the night sky forever.