Science Fiction first contact astronomy family relations

The Small Astral Object Genius

By James Van Pelt
Mar 19, 2020 · 5,744 words · 21 minutes

flame and horsehead nebular in Orians belt

Photo by Alexander Andrews via Unsplash.

From the author: Dustin spends most of his time in his room, sending his Peek-a-boo into space, hoping to catch a good picture of a distant star or planet. At school he'll trade with his friends for the best shots. Is the technology behind the Peek-a-boos real or a scam on credulous children? Will his parents ever be happy? And what if the Peek-a-boo captures something really strange?


Dustin set the Peek-a-boo on his desk next to the computer.  The softball-sized metal sphere rolled an inch before clicking against the keyboard, the only sound in the silent house.  The house was almost always quiet now, noiseless as an empty kitchen with its cabinets neatly shut, the plates and dishes gradually collecting dust.  Where to send it?  Maybe this time something incredible would happen, if he just kept trying. 

His computer listed options, starting with large objects or small ones.  After he’d first bought the Peek-a-boo, he spent weeks sending it to the large ones: galaxies, nebulas, the gaseous remains of supernovas, star clusters.  He’d double check the batteries, make sure the lens was clean, then choose one of the pre-programmed destinations.  Sometimes he’d balance the device on his palm, hoping to feel the microsecond it vanished in its dash across the light years before returning to his hand, but he never did.  Not even a tingle.  It sat against his skin, cool and hard and heavy, its absence too brief to sense. 

An instant later, his computer pinged and the “picture taken” icon blinked red and green.  Immediately would follow a confirmation from the Peek-a-boo Project website.  “Thank you for participating,” the message would say, or, if he was really lucky, “New object!  You have contributed to man’s knowledge of the universe,” and his face would tingle with joy. 

He’d heard rumors among his friends that there were other messages, but he’d never seen them himself.

Lots of times, of course, the monitor showed nothing, just a black screen with maybe a wink of a star here or there, but every once in a while, the Peek-a-boo appeared in the distant space oriented perfectly and captured a spectacular image.  He used to like nebulas best.  Several DVDs full of pictures rested on the shelf above the computer.  He’d devoted an entire disk to the Rosette Nebula, taking pictures from all the angles over the course of two weeks, its vermillion gasses thrown out in parsecs wide petals, but lately he’d turned his attention to small objects: individual stars, planets, and moons.

On the monitor, the computer gave him hundreds of preprogrammed selections.  He carefully entered instead the coordinates for a planet circling Bellatrix, a giant star about 240 light years away on Orion’s right shoulder, then sent the Peek-a-boo.  “Picture taken,” winked the message.  The image began forming on the screen.  Dustin leaned back in his chair, his hands resting one on the other on his chest.

Behind him, the door to his bedroom opened.  He knew by the click of the doorknob, the distance the door swung into the room, a hint of lavender in the air, that it was his mother.  She stood behind him without speaking for a moment, then sighed.

“Yes?” Dustin said.

She sighed again.

He turned his chair.  Her hand cupped the doorknob with fingers so delicate that he wondered how she could pick up anything heavier than a pen or a book.

“Are you coming to dinner?” Her lips were colorless and thin, like her voice, but dark circles marked her eyes.  He couldn’t remember when Mom looked like she’d had a good night’s sleep.

“Now?”

She blinked, as if his question was cruel.

“Unless you want to eat later.  Your father is eating later.”

“I’m not hungry.”  Almost half the image had appeared on the screen.  Already he could see the planet’s curve.  This could be a good one, he thought.  He forced his eyes away from the picture.  If he phrased the question just right, he could make a difference.  “I don’t think I’ll have anything.  Could we wait?”

She shook her head, and then slowly backed away, pulling the door with her.  “I’ll put a plate in the refrigerator for you in case,” she said as the door closed.

Dustin shivered for a second in the room’s silence.  She was like a ghost in her own house, drifting from room to room.  He couldn’t remember the last time she’d touched him.  Maybe she wasn’t even capable of it anymore.  If he tried to hug her, would his arms pass through?

The planet on the monitor finished forming, a violet sphere with darker bands, like Jupiter, the arc of the terminator hiding a third of the surface.  “Thank you for participating” popped over the image.  He shook his head as he cleared the message.  He hadn’t “contributed to man’s knowledge of the universe.”  Other people had taken this picture and added it to the database.  No rings on the planet that he could see.  No moons.  Still, how rare, he thought.  Perfect trade material.  The smaller the object, the less chance his friends would have it.  Space wasn’t just mostly empty; it was depressingly, hugely empty.  If all space was the size of his bedroom, the total mass of every galaxy and star and planet wouldn’t fill a thimble.  Getting a picture of an object as small as a planet 240 light years away boggled the mind.  He tweaked the coordinates and sent the Peek-a-boo again for a closer look, but the image came back black.  The unit might have appeared closer to the planet but with its lens pointed the wrong way, or a number in the coordinates so far down the decimal line that he couldn’t imagine it ticked up or down one time too many, and the Peak-a-boo wasn’t in the planet’s range.

He sent it again.  Black screen.

Again.  Black screen.

Again.

His door opened.  Dad said, “Dustin, I’m eating dinner in forty minutes.  The dining room should be free then.”

“I’m not hungry, Dad.  I’m working on something.”

Dustin could almost hear his Dad grimace.  “You didn’t eat already, did you?”  He stepped next to Dustin’s chair.  Dustin looked at Dad’s feet, which were bare.  The toenails were trimmed neatly, although they’d grown longer than he was used to seeing.  “You didn’t eat with her, did you?”  Dad said.

“No, really, I’m working on my computer . . .” Dustin drew in a shaky breath, “. . . but I’ll go down now, if you want.”  Dustin tapped in an adjustment before sending the Peek-a-boo again.

Dad leaned in toward the screen, his hand on the chair’s back behind Dustin’s shoulder.  “It’s a hoax, you know.  That toy doesn’t go anywhere.  It generates random images.  Everyone knows you can’t travel faster than light, and certainly not with a half pound of plastic and a couple double-A batteries.”

The computer indicated that the coordinates were ready.  Dustin pressed the send command.  “It’s aluminum, not plastic, and it’s not a hoax.  Didn’t you read that stuff I gave you about Peek-a-boo theory?  Interstellar distance is a mathematical conception or something like that.  Wrinkly space, they call it.  Just a little push the right way, and the Peek-a-boo bounces across the wrinkle and back.”

“It’s Crackerjack physics, son.  Nobody believes it.”

“Scientists do.  Every time I take a photograph, it downloads into NASA’s database.  We’re expanding the knowledge of the universe!  People all over the world are part of it!  Amateurs have always been a big part of astronomy.”

Dad humphed.  “You know what the scam is?  Sporadic reinforcement.  Every once in a while you get a pat on the back, and you keep trying.  It’s why fishermen fish.  You wouldn’t believe how many Pokemon packs I bought when I was a kid, just hoping for a first edition holographic rare.  Hundreds of dollars lost, I’ll bet.”

“The pictures are real, Dad” he said as a new image formed on the screen.  At the very bottom a hint of violet curve filled in.  “See, it’s the same planet.  I’ve been peppering these coordinates for a couple days.”  The image looked so authentic.  Dustin thought, no way this is fake.  No way!

Dad shrugged his shoulders.  “I’m heating a pizza later.  Come down if you want any.”

“Not tonight.  Sorry.”  Dustin punched the send button again.  Maybe he could get a full globe shot for trade tomorrow.

Through Dustin’s open shades, the stars above the western horizon flickered behind the maple’s waving branches.  Slowly, the nearly full moon slid through the last of the November leaves, then past each branch, lower and lower.  Before it touched the top of his neighbor’s house, Mars joined the gradual descent.  The planet and the moon appeared close in the sky, but he knew it was an illusion.  Even if their edges touched, they were really millions of miles apart.  Still, he liked seeing them so close.  If only he could send the Peek-a-boo there!  What wonders he might see, but wrinkly space didn’t wrinkle at that distance.  The closest he could send the Peek-a-boo was about one hundred light years.

One by one, Pisces’s last stars disappeared, and Aries, its twinkling lights wrapped around the war god, followed the creeping parade. 

            The clock next to the bed flicked to 4:00 a.m.  Dustin listened intently.  Not a living sound in the house.  His parents’ bedroom was directly below his.  A year ago, he could hear them talking.  No words, but a comforting, conversational rise and fall.  Sometimes, even, laughter.  Then, six months ago, it had been arguments.  Shouting, to weeping, to nothing.  Mother slept there still.  If her shades were open like his, the moonlight would flood her space, but Dustin hadn’t seen her windows open for months.  In the middle of the day, she’d be in bed in the darkened room, or she’d vacuum by the tiny vacuum cleaner’s light, like a dim-eyed Cyclops rolling along the carpet.

            Dad slept in his study by the garage. 

            Dustin pushed his covers aside, crept down to the kitchen, and ate a piece of cold pizza.  The milk tasted sour, and the label said it had passed its expiration by six days, so he washed it down with orange juice.

“I’ll trade you a shot from the interior of the Horse Head Nebula looking toward Earth for that planetgraph you have there,” said Slade.  He’d dyed his Mohawk blue the week before but hadn’t touched it up since, so it had turned a coppery green.  A spread of pictures covered the desk before him, and his CD carrier, filled with thousands of other images he’d either taken himself or traded for sat in the black case next to the prints.  “Come on, it’s a good deal.  All the UV bands are expressed.  You could hang it in a museum.”  In the hallway beyond the classroom door, voices rose and fell, the busy traffic of the middle school at lunch.

Dustin handled the print, a really lovely image marked by delicate curtains of pink and vermillion.   A series of numbers printed at the bottom told him how many pictures Slade had taken, and how rare the current image was.  The higher the number at the bottom combined with the rarity of the image and the prestige of the photographer determined its tradability.  Peek-a-boo Monthly printed profiles of individuals who captured the most spectacular and rare shots.  Both Slade and Dustin had been listed in the “honorable mentions” in past issues, which made all their prints more valuable.  He put it down.  “Nice picture, but it’s common.  Peek-a-boo defaults to the nebulas.  My grandmother could get it.”

“Yeah, but not this quality.”

Three other boys had gathered at their table in the empty classroom, their lunches in their laps.  Each had a folder with their own pictures and their own CDs filled with images.  “I’ll trade for it,” said one.  He wore a t-shirt that read, IF I WERE AN ALIEN, I WOULDN’T TALK TO US EITHER.

Slade hardly looked at him.  Dustin knew that Slade had already taken every image of interest from the boy already.  The only other person in the school with anything that might appeal to Slade was Dustin.

“I’ve never taken a close up of an object smaller than a star.  You’re like a small astral object genius.  How are you finding them?”

Dustin thought about the hours of punching the send command, the boxes of batteries, the long stretches of useless images that made him wonder if his monitor still worked, the quiet creak of the door behind him that told him either Mom or Dad was checking up.  He would hunch closer to the screen and pretend he hadn’t heard.  Dad had told him once, when he was much younger, “Accept the things you can’t change and change the things you can.”  He couldn’t get them to talk, but he could take pictures of the stars, so he pressed the send button again and again.

“I keep trying,” he said.

“Where’s this one from?”  Slade put his finger on the violet planet from last night.

“Bellatrix.  I like the named objects.  Tonight I thought I’d go for stars in Pisces.  Maybe Torcularis Septentrionali.”

“Too small.  Too far away.”

Dustin put the planet’s image back into his stack.  “I got this one, didn’t I?  Persistence pays.”

A dark-haired girl with hair hanging over her eyes opened the door into the classroom, filling it with hallway sound.  Another girl stood behind her, her eyes just as hidden.  “Oh,” dark-haired said, “I thought this room was empty at lunch.”  Dustin turned in his chair so he could see her better, his images in hand.  She said, “Ewww, it’s the star geeks.  Weren’t you guys doing role-playing games last year?” 

The two girls laughed as the door shut.

After school Dustin reluctantly put aside the romantically named stars he’d concentrated on for the last months: Dubhe, Alphard, Shedir and others (Their names made him think of an old Sunday school tale about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.  The idea of their names and stars and fiery furnaces had mixed in his head ever since.), and instead turned to G, F and K class stars, all which possibly could support life if they had planets the proper distance away.  Numbers and letters labeled them.  Sunlight through the window warmed his desktop, and he thought about drawing the curtain, but the heat felt good on his hands and arms.

The Peek-a-boo data base contained over two-million celestial objects.  He picked a G-class star randomly, set the coordinates and punched the send button.  The Peek-a-boo rested on its display base by his keyboard, a bit of dust marking its smooth curve.  It didn’t twitch, but within seconds a few pinpricks of light showed on the monitor.  “Thank you for participating,” said the popup message.  He sent the Peek-a-boo again.  A completely empty image this time.  He rested his chin on his forearm, pressed the send button over and over.  Eventually the sun slipped below the horizon, and for a while the maple tree stood as a shadow against the sunset sky.  But the tree faded away, and only the early evening stars were visible.  Vega and Altair shone brightly high on the window.

He thought about the Earth’s orbit.  If an Earth-like planet circled this star (which he hadn’t even seen yet—it was possible the Peek-a-boo was missing it by dozens of light years), then it was like trying to find a dime on a high school track in the dark.  He pressed the send again.

Downstairs, the front door opened.  Dustin didn’t stir.  It would be his mother.  She came home first.  Her keys clattered into the bowl on the table by the coat closet.  Her steps creaked on the squeaky third and seventh stair.  Without looking, he knew when she stopped in the hallway behind him.

“Hi, Mom.  You’re home late.”

“Did you father call to check on you?”

“No.”

“It was his turn.”

Dustin turned in his chair.  Mom’s hand rested on the door’s frame.  Everything about her, her hair, her make up, the tidy lines of her blue pantsuit, was realtor neat.  Her matching blue purse dangled from the crook of her elbow. 

“Did you sell a house?”

“He’s supposed to check up on you today.  That’s the agreement.”

“It’s no big deal.”  Dustin squeezed the back of his chair.  His knuckles ached.  “Maybe he did call, and I missed it.  I’ve been on the computer.”

The rumble of Dad’s engine filled the driveway.  Then, the click of his car opening and closing.  Mom looked panicked for a moment, before coming into the room.  She sat on the edge of Dustin’s bed, her purse in her lap.

“What are you working on?”  She glanced at the door.

“It’s a new star,” said Dustin.  “I haven’t tried to find it before.”  On the screen, the popup said, “New object!  You have contributed to man’s knowledge of the universe.”  Heart thumping, he cleared the message, and behind it, dead center, glowed a white disk the size of a silver dollar.  “I got it,” he said.

“That’s a star?”  She sounded doubtful.

“A new one, or at least I’ve taken a picture that no one else has.  That’s what the message meant.  Look, I can manipulate it.”  He clicked on the “effects” choice in the toolbar and chose “eclipse.”  The disk blinked out, but the star’s corona remained, a bright ring of light marked by a small flare on the lower right side.  “This star is a lot like the sun.”

“It probably is the sun,” said Dad.

Mom flinched.

“I hope your grades aren’t suffering because of this game.”  He walked past Mom without looking at her, then said to Dustin, “I brought Chinese if you’re hungry.”

Dustin saved the image, nudged the coordinates and sent the Peek-a-boo out again.

Dad picked up the Peek-a-boo, and flipped it from one hand to the other.  “There’s a guy in my office who brought one of these to work.”  Dustin rose partway from the chair, then forced himself back.

“They’re a little fragile.”

“They caught the guy playing with it during work hours.”  Dad tossed the sphere to Dustin.  He caught it with both hands, cushioning it, before putting it back on its stand.  Dad said, “They fired him.  Good career shot because of a kid’s toy, but I figured he wouldn’t last anyways.  Talked about Star Trek episodes like they were Shakespeare. Idiot.”

Mom said, “I’ll fix something for myself later, if you want to eat, Dustin.”  Dad closed his eyes for a second.  She stood, then walked stiffly out of the room.  Dustin wanted to ask her to stay, but he didn’t speak.  The two of them together were like split-screen videos: both animate and responding, although not to each other.

 “You’re not sending these Peek-a-boo people any money, are you?”

“Dad, there’s just the connect charge, and I pay for that.”

“With allowance money I give you.  No one can prove the images you are taking are of anything, son.  There’s an article in today’s Newsweek that shows it’s a fake.  Why don’t you just get involved in online games like a normal kid?”

Dustin watched his computer’s monitor.  Three stars appeared in the upper left corner, but the screen was otherwise dark.  He rested his fingertips on the keyboard.  “Can I ask Mom to eat with us?”

“You can’t take a picture of what’s not there.”  Dad stepped toward the door, loosening his tie.  He paused, one finger caught in the silk, the knot half undone.  “She hates Chinese.”

For the rest of the night, Dustin sent the Peek-a-boo out, over and over.  He changed batteries at 2:00, when he realized twenty black screens in a row and no, “Thank you for participating,” messages meant the device hadn’t moved.  The challenge was that not only did Dustin not know if the star had planets circling it, but he didn’t know what their orbital plane was.  He could send the Peek-a-boo the right distance from the star and miss because the planet could be anywhere in the sphere of distance that far away.  Plus, the Peek-a-boo could appear pointing in the wrong direction.  All he could do was to keep trying. 

He did get several more good shots of the star, though.  He spent an hour running the best ones through the effects: corona analysis, blue-light shift, red-light shift, x-ray rendered, radio rendered, various luminosity lines emphasized, all the filters.  In every way, it came out within a few percentage points of the sun.  Twice more he received, “New object!  You have contributed to man’s knowledge of the universe.”

Slade looked glum.  “Have you ever lost a Peek-a-boo?”  He hadn’t opened his portfolio or his lunch.  It didn’t look like a trading day.

“No,” said Dustin.  His eyes felt heavy, like they were filled with syrup.  When he’d finally fallen asleep, the sun had risen.  “Did you leave it somewhere?”

“Not misplaced.  I mean lost the whole fricking thing?  I sent it out, and it didn’t come back.  One second it’s there, and the next it’s gone.”

Dustin sat up.  “Gone?  Like gone, gone?”

“Yeah, bang, loud noise-hurt-my-ears gone, and get this: a message from the Peek-a-boo Project pops up and says, ‘An unexpected anomaly occurred during transmission.  You must replace your unit.  Thank you for participating.’  It gave me a 10% off coupon for my next purchase.  What a ripoff!”

“So, what did you do?”

“I called Peek-a-boo, of course!  Twenty-four hour service, my ass.  It’s a recorded message and a gazillion choices.  So, I work my way down the menu, and you know what they said?  ‘Although very rare, an unexpected anomaly could include your Peek-a-boo unit occupying simultaneous space with a solid object, such as a star.’  My aunt told me the whole thing is a con to get kids to buy more Peek-a-boos.  That they really aren’t taking pictures at all.”

Dustin looked at Slade’s folder.  He did have beautiful images.  “Are you going to quit?”

Slade pushed away from his table.  He touched his hand to the side of his Mohawk to make sure it was still straight.  “Even if they’re fake, I like the pictures.  I’ll talk my step mom out of the money when she’s in a good mood.”  He smirked, “Besides, my grades in science have never been better.”

None of the other kids who traded at lunch were in the room.  Dustin’s own folder, with the new star pictures, unshown inside, rested under his hand.  A thought occurred to him.  “Did you pick up the pieces?”

“What?”  Slade pushed his portfolio under his arm so he could open his lunch bag. 

“The pieces from your Peek-a-boo, when it exploded?”

Slade laughed.  “There weren’t any pieces!  There wasn’t even any smoke.  It exploded into nothing.  Total whack job.”

When Dustin was alone, and the only sounds were kids yelling to each other in the hallways, he smiled.

Mom sat on the edge of the bed, just as she had the night before, except this pantsuit matched her beige purse.  “We may need to make some changes soon, Dustin.”

Warily, Dustin watched her.  “Like what?”

She toyed with her purse’s clasp.  “School, maybe.  Probably a different house.  A condo, perhaps.  I know of some nice ones below market price nearer my office.”  She glanced up, dry eyed, just for an instant.  “At least for part of the time.”

Dustin felt his lungs constricting.  It took effort for him to say, “This is temporary, right?  It’s just till things patch together?”

She slumped.  “If it makes you feel better to believe that, sure.”

In the empty time after she left, Dustin pushed the send button repeatedly, not really looking at the monitor, even when he got a good shot of the new star.  He saved the image mechanically.  No planet.  Send.  Send.  Send.

A half hour later, Dad delivered almost the same speech, except it was an apartment with a great view of the mountains.

Dustin had lined the double-a batteries on his desk like bullets.  Every couple hours he popped two used one out of the Peek-a-boo.  Spent casings, he thought.  They dropped to the carpet.

His hands trembled on the keyboard.  He swallowed dryly.  Somewhere around this star, maybe, circled a planet the same distance as Earth.  He’d found the system’s Jupiter about 11:00.  So many systems had a Jupiter, an oversized lump of a planet, always about the same distance from the center.  Star system evolution turned out to be remarkably similar, time after time.  Many stars formed planets, and they formed them in about the same way, and it was because of their Jupiters that the inner planets were shielded.  Jupiters inhaled planet-busting comets and shepherded the loose debris into tidy orbits that would otherwise careen about unchecked.  But the inner planets were so much smaller.  The giant planets protected, but they also overwhelmed with their size and strength.  They distracted. 

Where was the tiny glimmer of the inner planets?  Dustin fine tuned the coordinates, kicking the Peek-a-boo from one side of the star to the other, always taking a half-dozen pictures from one coordinate before shifting again.  Even at the same coordinates, though, the unit might appear millions of miles from the last spot.  A three-dimensional graph of the appearances would eventually surround a location, but there was no fine control.  He could only keep trying.

At 3:00 in the morning, the Peek-a-boo felt slick and cool under his fingers.  A twitch on the keyboard sent it out again.  Stars appeared on the monitor.  “Thank you for participating.”  He sent it out again.  The Peek-a-boo never failed him.  It always came back (but Slade’s hadn’t!).  Graveyard silence filled the house.  Out the window, clouds covered the night sky, so all he saw was his own shimmery image, like he was someone else: a small boy’s spirit, his elbows planted on his ghost desk in a ghost world looking at his ghost computer.  Dustin almost waved, but something stirred behind him in the reflection.  He was too tired to be startled.  Standing at the door, illuminated by the monitor’s faint light, his Dad in pajamas looked in.  His face had no color, no life, and two shadowed pits marked where his eyes should have been.  Dad leaned against the doorjamb, watching Dustin, or he might have been looking beyond him, or his eyes could have been closed.  The pose held for a marble moment.

Dustin blinked, and the apparition was gone.  Had he really seen him?  A few seconds later, the stairs creaked; Dad going down.

For a hundred heartbeats, Dustin stared at his reflection, and then through the ghost boy to the maple tree he couldn’t see, and beyond that to the clouds that covered the stars, and through them to the stars themselves, trying to understand.  Dad had appeared and disappeared without a sound except the squeak on the stair.  Everything done in silence.  No noise that Dustin didn’t make himself in the perpetually quiet house.  He pressed the send button again, and the key’s cricket click seemed big in the muffling stillness.

The image of himself in the glass and the wavery memory of his dad behind him defined Dustin’s universe.  Nothing else existed.  Then a new image began forming on his monitor from the top down.  Not black.  Yellow from side to side, like candle flame.  Not a starscape.  Not even a distant planet hovering in the velvet abyss.  On the screen’s left side, a corner of something red appeared.  A straight line built toward the screen’s bottom, and then an orange sphere formed on the screen’s right side.  The computer pinged three times.  A new popup message flashed across the image: “DO NOT TOUCH YOUR PEEK-A-BOO OR TURN OFF YOUR COMPUTER!”  At the same time, his phone rang.  A second later, his cell phone, recharging on the nightstand chimed for attention.

Dustin jerked back.  Who could be calling at 3:00 in the morning?  They’d wake his parents!  He picked up the phone.  A recorded announcement said, “This is a Peek-a-boo priority communication.  Information from your Peek-a-boo unit indicates a unique contact.  Please do not attempt to send your Peek-a-boo device out again or switch programs on your computer.  Representatives from Peek-a-boo will communicate you with immediately. . . . This is a Peek-a-boo priority communication. . . .”

Dad’s voice interrupted.  “What have you done, Dustin?  Do you know what time it is?”

Mom said sleepily over the phone, “What is going on?  What is going on?”

The image finished forming on the monitor behind the popup message.  Dustin hesitated, the phone still to his ear.  “Please do not attempt to send your Peek-a-boo device out again or switch programs on your computer,” repeated the voice.  Dustin closed the popup window; the screen glowed yellow, orange and red in crisp lines and shapes.

“I didn’t do anything,” he said.  “I don’t know.”

“I’m coming up,” said Dad. 

The stairs creaked beneath his mom’s slippered feet.

Mom arrived first, then Dad.  They gathered behind his chair.

Dad said, “Why are they calling you in the middle of the night?”

“I don’t know, Dad.  Something about this.”  He gestured toward the monitor.

Mom said, “Is that a screensaver?”

In the distance, a police car siren sounded, coming closer.

Dustin’s face flushed, the phone still in his hand, repeating the message over and over.  “No, my Peek-a-boo took it.”

“What is it?”  Dad leaned over Dustin’s shoulder.  The upper half of the monitor showed colored shapes in sharp geometry.  A mottled grey and yellow texture filled the bottom half, but all the angles were skewed so the image seemed to be sliding off the screen’s left side.

The siren turned onto Dustin’s street, its flashing blue and red lights reflecting off the neighborhood trees until the car parked in his driveway.  The siren wailed to silence, and a few seconds later, a heavy knocking came from the front door.

His parents looked at Dustin first, and then toward the pounding downstairs.  “Don’t touch your computer, son,” said Dad.

Another car without a siren or flashing lights pulled into the driveway.  Doors opened.  Voices jumbled together outside.

Minutes later, his room full of strangers, Dustin sat on his bed’s edge and said, “I just kept sending it out.”  An earnest older man whose shirt was tucked in on only one side wrote Dustin’s comment in a notebook.

“Had you seen a planet on that coordinate earlier?” he asked.  Dustin shook his head.  At Dustin’s desk, two women, one in a bathrobe, and the other in a nice pantsuit, whispered vehemently back and forth about the image.  “We’ll need his hard drive.  It could be a fake,” Pantsuit said.  “I don’t see how,” replied Bathrobe.

A man in uniform, but definitely not a policeman, carefully rolled Dustin’s Peek-a-boo into a plastic bag that zipped closed when the unit plopped to the bottom.

From the hallway, Mom’s voice said, “He’s always been a determined boy.”

Dad said, “So, you think he really found something, do you?”  His tone was skeptical.

Someone in the hallway said, “He’ll be famous.”

“Look at this,” said Bathrobe.  She moved the cursor to the menu bar at the top of the screen.  A few clicks later, the image reoriented itself.  Now the grey and yellow texture moved to the top and became sky.  Dustin blinked, then blinked again.  What had seemed abstract before suddenly made sense.  “Is that . . .” he said, and swallowed.  “Is that a building?”

Pantsuit pointed to what had been a red blob before, “Yes, and that looks like a tree to me. . .” she bent close to the screen, “. . . with a park bench under it.  A yellow one with brown arm rests.”

“I don’t believe it,” said Bathrobe, in a voice that was clear she did.

The older man sitting on the bed with Dustin said to himself, “It’s such a big universe.  What are the odds a Peek-a-boo would appear close enough to a planet’s surface, oriented just the right way, to take a picture of a park bench?”

Bathrobe said, “A park bench 380 million light years from Earth.”

Dustin lay in his bed.  The clouds had cleared, and early dawn lightened the sky enough through his window to dissolve the stars and show the blank area on his desk where his computer had sat earlier that night.  Now, though, only a clean square outlined by a fine dust film showed that anything had been there at all. 

“We’ll replace this computer,” Bathrobe had said as she left with the CPU.  Pantsuit added, “And a new Peek-a-boo, even better than your old one.  Later today, there will be a news conference.”

The older man patted Dustin on the head as he left.  “There will be a lot of news conferences, I’d say, now that you showed us where to look.”

After all the bustle, after the doors slammed below and the cars departed, Dustin finally climbed into bed, but he couldn’t sleep.  For the longest time he stared out the window, his sheets pulled to his chin, hands locked behind his head.  A few days ago, the moon had preceded Mars to the horizon, but now the red planet set first, while the moon followed, dragging Pleiades like star babies close behind.  He thought about the stars passing by his window as if they were friends: Hamal, of course, and Menkar, and the sprinkling of tau stars, omi Tau, xi Tau and f Tau, then Aldebaran and Algol, and Betelgeuse, who faded last in the lightening sky.  They all seemed so comforting that he didn’t notice at first that the house had changed.  For the longest time he tried to place the difference.  Not just the missing computer.  Not just the strangeness of the night’s events.  Something else.

He gasped in surprise, then silenced his breathing so he could hear.  Below him, in his parent’s room, he heard voices: his mom and dad, talking.  The conversation rose and fell.  It had been going on since they’d left his room.  Once, he could swear, he heard laughter.  Long after the morning sky had brightened to blue and the maple tree cast its shadow on the fence and their neighbor’s house, Dustin listened, and not once, that morning, did his parents quit talking.  Not even when they moved into to the kitchen.  Not even when they began fixing breakfast.  Their voices broke the long silence, and Dustin knew he wasn’t alone in the house. 

He wasn’t alone, and it was time to eat.

This story originally appeared in Asimov's.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."