The morning of July 27th, 2018, was a cold one in Mora, Mew Mexico. No one thought much of it at the time, but it would later be considered quite ironic.
Theo Highland was driving up to Gill Mountain that day, toward the old observatory, now refitted as a satellite farm, where he worked as an astrophysicist. A quiet, yet passionate man, Theo was dedicated to his field.
But on this particular morning, nursing a massive hangover, that dedication was being tested. It was one of those “never again” type of feelings, of which Theo had had too many as of late. “Starting today,” he thought, “things are gonna be different.”
He considered calling Marissa, his ex-girlfriend, and just apologizing, coming clean about how wrapped up he had gotten in his work, how the fear of not being there when something happened had gripped him, kept him from her, and ruined his life. She was so sweet, all she had wanted were simple things, together, with him.
And he had blown it. Well today was about change. He resolved he would call her. Right after work.
In the lot outside the observatory, Theo fought back the urge to throw up. It would bring some relief, but the ground was dusty and dry, no rain would be back for months, and he didn’t want any kind of reminder about last night, he was starting over. He made it to the door, where the urge won.
Theo hurried inside, passing his usual check down of the office, and proceeded into the kitchen to grab some paper towels and a trash bag. He had to pause, the urge was making a victory lap in his stomach.
“Highland, that you?” came the eager voice of Manuel Rodriguez, one of the overnight technicians. He should have been gone, but Theo surmised Rodriguez was hoping to impress the scientist with his work ethic. Wrong day for it.
“Yeah, I’m here. Just give me a sec.”
Outside, Theo had barely gotten a first pass on the door when it opened, Rodriguez popping out, wincing as his eyes adjusted to the light. “What are you doing, man?”
“Cleaning up, not feeling so hot today.”
“Oh shit, dude… Damn, you got it everywhere.” He looked to Highland, hopeful that his color commentary was earning points. No luck. “…Well, I got some news might make you feel better. The Thalberg readings went off the charts, just like you predicted!”
“What? Why didn’t you call me?”
“It just happened!”
Inside, Theo raced to his computer, momentarily thwarted by it’s slow wake up. “What are the readings?” he asked.
“you mean 1,800. We talked about this, details.”
Finally, Theo’s monitor came alive, showing a cryptic myriad of wave forms and data streams. “That can’t be,” Theo said to no one. “Did you mess with this?” That he said, quite pointedly, to Manuel.
“No, man. I just pulled the backup drives and unpacked the new ones, I didn’t touch nothing.”
Theo remained skeptical. If the model was right, and unmolested by Rodriguez, then 18,000 Thalbergs meant that the sun was about to do something never witnessed before. And it meant he had to call someone he was hoping to avoid for a while longer, his colleague, Dr. Alicia Kendricks, from whose apartment he had stumbled out of just hours ago.
But this was too important. “Get Kendricks on the phone. Tell her what you told me, and tell her to get up here.”
A Thalberg unit, as presented here, was a measure of orbital surface movement on the face of the sun. Henry Thalberg, Highland's former professor, had presented the idea to his doctoral class - that patterns of movement of the plasma on the sun's surface could give away the presence of an imminent solar flare - an arc of plasma spewing out from the surface, with reliability and quicker speed than the current detections being used based on surface temperature alone.
Highland had taken this theory and run with it after his mentor’s death in 2012, spending the next six years developing and retooling data sets to give the concept a scientific framework to be tested in. It had come at quite a price. First, the aforementioned relationship difficulties, inherent when dealing with the massive workload of creating a new scientific model from scratch, especially, leading to the second cost, when you’re doing it virtually alone, with all of the astrophysics community waiting for you to fail.
Highland was nearing the end of the small grant he had been awarded to develop his theory, with no tangible evidence that he was on the right track. Six months ago, in a last-ditch effort to get something going, he had hired a spunky grad from Arizona State, Kendricks, to give the project a shot of energy. In a way it worked, but since then, they had also done a lot of other shots, culminating in last night’s tryst. They needed something big to steady the research, and themselves, and this could be it.
He sat down to review.
Two hours later, now with the equally hung over and somewhat sheepish Kendricks by his side, Highland’s concern grew even more. The data was accurate, something had occurred on the surface. But it was very large, and very slow, a massive sunspot had dissipated outside of normal prediction models. This left Highland and Kendricks with two possible conclusions. The first was that this meant something huge, a coronal mass ejection would be occurring shortly, the size of which had never been seen in recorded human history – a blast of plasma so large that it might be visible to the naked eye, like a bright hair at the edge of the sun.
The second conclusion was that this was the nail in the coffin of their theory, a massive reading, outside of the normal scale, could just mean that the data variables they were working with were too simplistic and ultimately useless.
They had a decision to make. Pack up their things and quietly look for other jobs in the field, or make a phone call that would put their scientific lives in the balance. Highland was ready to go, he had never been so sure that he wanted to run back to Marissa more than he did in that moment. But Kendricks was at odds, she treated her work like a high stakes poker player. “We either believe in ourselves, or we don’t. We’re right about this, you’re just afraid.”
“Then you make the call,” Highland retorted.
“You set up the grant, you know Garvey, and I hate to say this in 2018, but at least in our field, a man like him will believe another man before he’ll believe me. Do it.”
Highland did, blundering his way through a reminder of his connection to Roland Garvey, their NASA connected sponsor, while trying to accelerate the success of his and Kendricks’ work into a final statement that a once-in-a-millennia event was about to happen.
“And how long do we have until this occurs?”
“Not much of a forecast.”
“Well which do you want, the good news or the bad news?”
“The good news is that your prediction is correct, you’re definitely on to something with your work. Congratulations.”
Kendricks, listening in, turned to Theo and gave him a huge thumbs up.
“The bad news is that your positioning for the event is off. It’s pointed right at us.”
“You mean at the Earth?”
“That’s correct. We’re making what few preparations we can, I suggest you do the same. Good luck.” And with that, he hung up.
Highland sat back in his chair, ready to throw up again.
“Well, what did he say?” asked the eager Rodriguez.
“You did good work today,” Theo replied. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a call to make… while the phones still work.”