How Billy Hanson Destroyed the Planet Earth, and Everyone on It
He wouldn't say this later, because he'd be dead along with everyone else, blasted into a cloud of comparatively warm ash swirling around in what had been Earth's orbital plane, but it wasn't his fault. Really. Or, if there was any fault, it was that he was human in the first place, a species built specifically, it would seem, to push buttons clearly marked DON'T PUSH, a species that had only evolved in the first place because it kept reaching up to that next level of the beach instead of being satisfied with where it already was.
Given the chance, of course, Billy Hanson might have blamed the political situation of the lab he was with on a three-year grant, a political situation which was purely typical of any money-driven research setting, and beneath mentioning here except to say that there was the usual amount of pressure to collect some data, which could then be cribbed down into a prospectus for an article, dropped into whatever mailbox was marked for the latest pickup.
So, yes, had he had the luxury of time, Billy Hanson might have tried to shift the blame from himself, say it was the lab's fault, the same way he used to blame his older sister for grape juice he'd just spilled on the beige carpet, but, at the same time, had he not destroyed the Earth that fine June evening, then of course all the acclaim would have been his and his alone.
Because, almost on accident, he'd finally done it.
Not scheduled some prime observatory time—that had been scheduled for months, by some process Billy assumed involved darts—but decided, half on a whim, to let the computer cycle the telescope through one of its lighter diagnostic routines, which involved settling its crosshairs on some arbitrarily-chosen but rigorously-mapped set of coordinates, so it could fine tune itself, compensate for continental drift, smog, and all the rest of the usual variables, then hum and mutter to itself in binary for a while, finally give Billy the greenlight to redirect.
Which, to his credit, Billy Hanson almost did, thereby saving the Earth and everyone on it.
Except—and this is where the political situation of the lab he was working with comes into play—instead of automatically redirecting, Billy first did a manual check of the computer's date and time, as that was what was going to get stamped onto each image he was about to record. Last week, either as a joke or to maliciously corrupt everyone else's data (the latter, surely), some joker who'd pulled an early AM shift had set the date back enough years that the days and month-numbers still matched up, meaning nobody caught it for about thirty-six hours.
Luckily, nothing Billy had recorded that night was going into an article.
But that was just luck.
So, to be thorough—in a hostile environment, paranoia was just survival—Billy tabbed down to the clock, and, in doing so, happened to glance at the coordinates the telescope had already focused on.
It wasn't one of the naked-eye clusters.
Billy thought it was a joke, at first. Another joke.
It had to be.
But his face, it was so hot. And his heart, there in his chest. And he was even crying a little.
He had been right.
To back up a little: eight years ago, Billy Hanson had been halfway through his first post-doc gig, and, following the advice of his dissertation director, was already sketching out a series of questions which he could then narrow down into a legitimate research proposal. The key of it, his director said, was that he had to come up with something revolutionary, or at least revolutionary sounding. Because all those boards of directors, they wanted to be discovering the next big thing. Failing that, however, at least give them the promise of a valiant, newsworthy effort, with a data set that could possibly be recycled, even, so long as their foundation's name was still attached to it.
So Billy gave it to them.
His idea was that, if gravitational lensing was a real thing, allowing starlight to bend around bodies of significant-enough mass—and it was real, thank you—then shouldn't it also be possible to somehow focus through a ‘web' or ‘network' or ‘crystalline arrangement' of stellar bodies, such that you were looking down the ‘corridor' of their combined gravity, a sweet spot maybe just a few centimeters wide but infinitely deep, where the combined, equalized ‘pull' would essentially be opening up a hole in space, maybe even time? What could you see then?
That was how he'd ended his proposal: What could we see then?
The headlines would be along the lines of "Mankind Looks for God," and have Billy's picture under it somewhere, smiling just mischievously enough to usher in another age, where the scientists could again be celebrities.
His project didn't even make the first cut, though, and no new age dawned, or took him for its darling, its media child. As his director said, Billy'd made the cardinal mistake: proposed a project which required no labwork, allowed no empirical results. Instead, all he needed was a pencil, some paper, and a brain. The right brain, granted, but still—the board didn't think their money would be best spent on a thought-experiment, one that could only ever be proven over the course of a million years, so, the next season, Billy and a colleague had a new, only slightly revolutionary proposal to submit, and he filed his Spatial Tunneling Debacle (as his director called it) into the bottom drawer, waited for the math to come.
Instead of the math, though, what Billy got that balmy night in June was proof, the kind that can be written to a digital image file.
And, because he was still in diagnostic mode, what he was seeing was beyond question, was untampered with, and, even better, whatever magical conduit of stars had lined up around his coordinates, to focus his series of lenses some exponential amount farther away than humans had ever even dreamed, they were each being recorded as well. So this would be a repeatable thing. If not physically, then at least in simulation. Let other people do the math, now; Billy Hanson already had the pictures.
It was all so overpowering that he didn't even bother to wipe the tear from his right cheek. He wasn't aware of it, really. Like a child, he was just smiling with wonder, leaning in, as if to touch the screen.
On some as-yet unnamed planet an untold numbers of light-years away, a form of life wholly alien to him was sitting at what was probably a table, in what might be just another backyard.
As near as Billy could tell, this ‘alien' was just staring straight ahead. For all Billy knew, though, this—this whatever-it-was, it was telepathically communing with its species, or gestating a litter of young, or turning to stone like it did every third year when the solar flares came, or using some of its complicated neck apparatus to filter the methane from its air, or whatever it breathed, if it even breathed.
It wasn't quite bipedal either, Billy didn't think, but did seem to be bilateral. From where Billy was looking, anyway.
Which is the exact point, not counting that first fish flopping up into the dirty sunlight, when humanity started to wink out of existence.
Billy Hanson's fingers fell to the keyboard as they had a hundred other nights, to adjust the second lens, which needed regrinding, really, not just another gear pulling on it, and his gravity peephole focused down across the universe, tight enough that, for an instant, the skin or covering of his subject's forelimb blurred, then snapped back in fine detail.
Billy nodded, backed off a hair—had anybody ever done this, even? was he, in addition to testing the limits of physics, pioneering exobiology as well?—and when the image finally settled again he nodded to himself, content, and only stopped when the alien cocked its head over the slightest bit, in a way that made Billy feel suddenly hollow inside.
This was the way the deer on the golf course he'd grown up by would stop, when they became aware of him and his sister, trying to sneak up.
"No," he mouthed, as if even voicing the word would give his position away, but it was too late.
The alien was tilting his head around now, then focusing up, back along the gravity tunnel, using some sixth or forty-first sense that Billy Hanson couldn't even conceive . . . had it felt the pressure of his stare? Was this a species so hunted across both time and galaxies that it had developed a sensitivity to observation acute enough that it even kicked in across light years? Or—or could it even be knowledge-based, part of some maniacally epistemic religion, where knowing something about a fellow creature was tantamount to rape, or murder? It could even be that, sitting there, this alien was involved in the most dire offense known to its kind, so all its senses were already turned up, listening, feeling.
It didn't matter.
What did was that it had turned its head up to Billy Hanson in direct response to Billy leaning closer to his monitor. Never mind that Billy was holding his breath now, shaking his head no, insisting that this wasn't in his research, that this shouldn't even be possible, according to the laws of physics as he understood them.
But neither should looking across the universe.
"No," he said again, instead of all the famous and enduring things he could have said. By then the alien was standing, looking back down the tunnel of stars, into Billy Hanson's heart, and it was only when the alien smiled that Billy realized what he was thinking: that this was a bilateral species, yes.
The only reason he noticed this was that the smile spreading across the alien's main face, it was lopsided, not really meant to indicate pleasure. The kind of smile Billy Hanson associated with an older cousin standing perfectly still in an empty hall during a game of hide and seek. Standing perfectly still and listening to the linen closet.
In that closet, Billy closed his eyes, tried to pretend he wasn't really there, and so never saw the backlash of power boring now through the fabric of space for Earth, to implode it with such suddenness that the brief vacuum left by it would, for a few breaths, pull all the surface flame from the sun, allowing what had been his solar system a moment of darkness, followed by a cold millennium marked by a shroud of dust, that, because the implosion had been so thorough, no longer contained even the building blocks of life, much less any memory of man.
That was all still seconds away, though.
A lifetime, an eternity.
In it, Billy Hanson opened his eyes, smiled the way you smile when you're caught, and, in the last and perhaps purest gesture humankind would be afforded, pulled the phone up to his ear and dialed the first six digits not of his girlfriend's number—he had no girlfriend—but of a girl from his department who always touched her right eyebrow when she laughed, as if there were a button there to make her stop embarrassing herself.
What Billy was going to tell her, maybe, was not to worry about it, you're beautiful and perfect and everything good, and I love you I love you I love you, please.
What he did instead was wait to call her for what turned out to be too long, and then, along with everybody else, wink out of existence with the phone to his ear, as if that mattered, what he meant to do.
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