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10 January 2054: 0130 MST
In the back yard of a large, rambling ranch house just north of highway 60 between Soccoro and Magdalena, New Mexico, Jeremy Stone, shivering in the sub-zero weather, presses his eye against the cup of the ocular, his pulse quickens and breathing becomes difficult. There can be no mistake, but what he is seeing is...is impossible. All his life, well, up until today, he has wanted to find one, but...but this sight is unreal, incredible, unbelievable. He steps back from the eyepiece and closes his eyes for a few minutes, then leans down to take another look. No, there is no mistake. It is no illusion. They are there. Tough to see, yes, but they are there.
I sure hope they're bright enough for my gear to track, he thinks.
Jeremy taps a series of numbers into the keypad he holds in his gloved hand and the system gives the signal that it has locked on the target and tracking has begun. Out in the computer shed, data recording and automated orbital reduction processing for later transmission to the International Astronomical Union also begins.
"Dad," he shouts at the intercom. "Dad, dad, come on out here...quick. Hurry."
Jeremy's father, Wendell Stone, pushes at the sliding glass door that opens onto the patio. He pulls his old woolen Navy watch cap, the ancient one his wife keeps tossing out and he retrieves repeatedly from the trash, down to cover his ears, and trots over to the small observatory he and Jeremy built during the summer to house Jeremy's new two meter telescope and attendant computer systems.
"What? What is it, Jerry?"
"You're not gonna believe this, dad. Take...take alook," Jeremy says and steps away from the scope to make room for his father who, like Jeremy, is puffed out to almost double his girth in a quilted, down-filled jacket.
"Well, what do you know about that?" his father says. "You found one. And it's a beauty, too. Have you checked the computer data to make sure it's not an existing-?"
"No, dad. Let your eyes adjust a little more and take another look-and yes, it's a new one-they're all new ones."
"They?" his father says, leaning back from the eyepiece with his eyes closed. "What do you mean, they ?"
"Just look again, dad. Tell me how many you can see."
After another minute of resting his eyes in total darkness, Jeremy's father opens them and returns to the eyepiece. Jeremy watches impatiently as his father concentrates on trying to see with his old man's eyes what is trapped faintly in the eyepiece. His father gasps and almost staggers back from the scope.
"Well, I'll be damned," he says under his breath. "I'll be damned." He looks again and Jeremy figures it's probably to convince himself he's not seeing things because of Jeremy's suggestion in the plural. He pulls away from the eyepiece and looks at Jeremy who is standing, barely visible, in the dim red glow of the service light.
"Well?" Jeremy asks. He is aware his voice is oozing anticipation and excitement but, considering the circumstances, he doesn't care.
"I...I counted five of them. Is that what you saw?"
"No, Old Eyes . I saw...seven. Let's go to the computer room where we can enhance them on the screen and suppress Sirius so they're a lot easier to see. Besides, it's a heck of a lot warmer in there."
The two of them leave the dome and make their way across the crust of snow and ice that crunches and crackles under their boots to the small building adjacent to the observatory. Once inside and the door is closed against the bitter cold, Jeremy turns on the automated system's visual monitors.
"There. See? There are seven of them in a group. Oops, sorry...eight of them. They're so faint they get washed out against the glare of Sirius."
"Another Shoemaker-Levy 9?"
"No, dad. They're too far out to have been broken up by anything and, according to the track the system's calculated for them, they're on a hyperbolic path. It's their first and last visit to the sun."
"Oh, my...God. Quick, Jerry, connect to the Union and start transmitting your data. Wait 'til your mom hears about this...she'll flip. You're going to be famous, my man-if you get in before anyone else does. Go, man...go, go, go."
"It's already running, dad. See? The receipt signal just came on."
They rush across the yard to the house for a cup of hot chocolate to toast Jeremy's discovery. In their hurry to celebrate, they don't notice the red warning light flashing news of a possible collision event.
Copyright © 2007 J. Richard Jacobs.