The Dark Mystery

The fast and furious.

The first hypervelocity meteor tore through the sky on December 14th, 2069. Briefly, it illuminated the entire hemisphere before detonating over central Michigan and flattening everything from Grand Rapids to Saginaw.

No one had seen it coming.

The astronomers could be forgiven. The object itself had been the size of a basketball, and had apparently been going a fraction of the speed of light so significant that the physicists’ doubt and scorn was all but caustic when speculation on the matter gridlocked Monday’s emergency IAU meeting.

The next week, the moon was hit by a much larger projectile. The word “hit” is perhaps an understatement. It was a clear evening when Central European residents saw a tremendous luminescence emerge from the near side of the moon, and the ejecta of that impaled body traveled, hour by hour, to culminate in a shower of debris, falling mostly over the Atlantic. The remnants encircled the globe, and for a full, glorious month, the Earth had a ring.

The first telescope to see any projectile coming was that of an amateur astronomer, Charlie Bent. Bent’s telescope was not powerful in the slightest. In fact, the great Keck 4 telescope had scanned that area of sky not ten hours earlier. The object simply had, during that time, approached close enough to be visible.

Scarcely an atom remained intact . . .

In the next five seconds the object was visible to the naked eye, and then five seconds later it slammed into the atmosphere and obliterated Polk County, Florida, and Bent with it.

The most prominent theory to explain this pattern of bombardment was the destruction of some distant extrasolar planet or planetoid, although none could suggest a mechanism by which the fragments could be accelerated to such terrific velocity. In fact, the most basic calculations showed that the planet would have to be impossibly large to generate enough fragments to bombard the solar system so thoroughly (for the outposts on Mars had been hit hard too, and impacts had been observed as distant as Uranus—to say nothing of the untold billions of objects that must surely be hurtling past, unseen).

Eventually, someone suggested the obvious: the whole planet must have been moving toward us in the first place. How any intelligence could have accelerated such a mass so prodigiously, no one could tell—and what had gone wrong was, of course, even more mysterious. Certainly, investigation of the fragments themselves was impossible. Scarcely an atom remained intact beyond the initial collision with atmosphere.

As it happened, both mysteries were presently, and neatly, resolved. Tracing back the trajectories, as they had done fruitlessly so many times before, astronomers finally noticed a slight distortion in the nearby pinprick image of a remote and rather uninteresting spiral galaxy—a distortion that grew, month by month into a crescent, then a ring.

The IAU conclusion was incontrovertible: supermassive black hole. Long ago, when humans still hunted mammoths with sharpened stones, a burning star fell into the clutches of a dead one, dragging its planets into the murderous gravity. But, as the star fell to its doom, one of its planets must have been at just the right spot—dragged behind, then whipped forward in orbit around the black hole, flung with the potential energy liberated by the dying sun’s final plummet. Through the Roche limit, the planet was hurled, splintering into a trillion pieces of rock, and ejected into the interstellar void, to fly for centuries to promulgate its death.