“A Rogue Planet” by Thomas Pierce

Are you watching this too? Do you see the face? How come we’ve never even heard of this planet until now? Can you believe this is really happening? When you first heard the news of a planet that’s come creeping into our solar system, a planet with a face, did you assume they meant that figuratively? Does it scare you that they most definitely do not mean that figuratively? Are you still in bed? Are you under the covers with the phone to your ear? Is your husband at work right now? If he was home would he be holding you in his arms or in the kitchen preparing himself a breakfast burrito?

Which channel are you on now? Why must video feeds from space always be so grainy? Did I ever tell you that my Uncle Roscoe—whom you met once at my father’s house after his back surgery—is among those internet-message-board commenters who believe the moon landing was filmed on a studio lot and that it was him who inspired the idea for my lecture on the impossibilities of romantic love post-JFK-assassination? Didn’t you take that class?

How much do you understand about adaptive optics, about super-mirrors, about space and time, the origins of the universe? The observatory that discovered the planet—is it even reputable? Are we right to trust them? From where do they receive the bulk of their funding? If the government—which government? Ours? The Venezuelan? The Iranian? Mightn’t that be useful information? To what degree is solving this mystery an international effort? What do the French think? Are the Chinese mobilizing? How long have the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and the FBI known about this, and if they’ve known for long, why would they have kept it a secret? Has the president been briefed? What does he think about a planet with an actual face? Does it scare him? Shouldn’t it? Has he paced a path into the Oval Office rug? Could this explain why he went gray so fast? What does the First Lady think, and what is she telling their kids? What will you tell Lucy? Are they letting schools out early today?

Have you been staring at a screen all morning too? Do your eyes ache? Does your heart? Have you paused the DVR and traced the image of the face with your finger? Are you looking at it now? Are you seriously freaking out right now? Do you still keep a few clonazepams in your sock drawer just in case? What’s this planet made of? Like ours, does it have a crust and mantle and core? Is there an atmosphere? Blue skies, red skies, purple skies? Milky seas or frozen seas or no seas at all? Endless deserts?

How long since you went to church? Are you still Unitarian? What would Buddha or Jesus or Gandhi have to say about this? Have you studied the enhanced image? Have you watched them digitally outline its nose, mouth, and eyes, bringing each feature into such stark relief? How much do these on-screen scratch marks remind you of football commentary? What does all this mean? How did the face get there? Could it be a naturally occurring geologic feature? Could it somehow be superimposed upon the surface? Or maybe it’s a physical structure—like the pyramids or Stonehenge but much more massive?

What are the chances the planet is in fact a massive ship constructed by aliens who no longer exist, a civilization that got so ahead of itself technologically, that it nuked itself into oblivion or, even worse, got so far up its own ass—philosophically, I mean—that every single alien simply stopped breathing at a mutually agreed upon time? You don’t really find that idea cynical, do you? Isn’t that scenario preferable to one in which the aliens still exist and are on their way here at this very moment to destroy us? To inject their alien babies inside of us? Shouldn’t that appear on our list of concerns? On a scale of one to ten, how much more advanced than us do you think they are? Don’t you miss these little debates of ours?

On a scale of one to ten, how much faith do you have in the idea that our leaders will protect us? On a scale of one to ten, how much faith do you have in anything right now? In me? On a scale of one to ten, depressed to maniacally happy, how would you describe your overall emotional state? Scale of one to ten—how hungry are you? How weak-kneed? How’s your blood sugar? Are you still struggling with that? On a scale of one to ten, what are the chances I’m dreaming? That we’re all dreaming? That this is a collective dream?

Might this be an elaborate joke? A hoax? Will you come over and pinch me? Will you come over to my apartment and touch me like you used to? Isn’t it odd that the face has human features? Is that significant? What are the odds? Who does it remind you of most? Marlon Brando—after he got fat? Charles Kuralt?

When they say that the planet might be comprised entirely of organic matter, that it might have a cutaneous geography, that it might have a pulse—what the hell does that mean? That it’s alive? That it’s sentient? Behind those lips, so thin and wide, are there teeth? Even if it could chew, what would it eat? Asteroids? Space dust? Deep within the belly of the planet is there a digestive system? At the south pole, an anus? What would it shit? Have you noticed that one nostril is slightly bigger than the other? Does the presence of a nose, generally, confuse you to the point of exhaustion? Because what good is a nose in space? Because isn’t space empty? As in, no oxygen? As in, nothing at all? What are the chances it has a brain? If it does, is it a wrinkled and pink-gray, like ours? Could it have Einstein’s brain? Hitler’s? Would it have neurons and synapses?

And why are its eyes closed? Is it sleeping—or dead? Is it playing possum? Like a small child, does it think it can render itself invisible by keeping its eyes closed?

Should you come over? Is this the end? Should we go to bed? Do you still think about me that way? Remember the stars over Lake Sutton? The moon reflected in the water? Do you ever think about that weekend—the little cabin with the cedar plank walls, the toaster that burned every English muffin, those blue moth-eaten blankets, the sound of the mice behind the wall as I draped my arm over your side? If this is really the end, wouldn’t that be a nice place to go? Is your car gassed?

Are you familiar with that old silent movie, A Trip to the Moon? Do you remember how the moon in that movie had a face? Do you recall the scene in which the rocket ship crashes into the moon’s eye and pus pours out of it? Am I remembering this right? Was there pus? Did I make up the pus? Anyway, doesn’t this remind you of that movie? Should we panic? Why can’t I look away?

Are horses, spooked, stampeding somewhere? Are birds flinging their poor bird bodies into windowpanes? On a scale of one to ten, how?

Did you see that, Fatimah? Fatimah, are you watching this? Is the face moving? Actually moving? Which channel are you on now? Should I switch over? Is the image clearer? Fatimah, what am I looking at? Fatimah, do you know what a pleasure it is say your name again, Fatimah? To wear those syllables on my tongue? Fatimah?

Do you understand a word of what this idiot news anchor is saying? Is this happening in real time or was it pre-recorded? Did you know we had telescopes this powerful out there in space?

Are you freaking out? Are its eyes really fluttering? Are they opening?  Did we wake it up somehow?  What is it looking at? Have we upset it? What are the chances it can see us from this distance? Will you come over now? Did it just blink? Did it seriously just blink? Doesn’t this violate all we know about space and physics—and just about everything else too? Did we ever know anything? Is there such a thing as an immutable fact? What’s left to believe in? Love? Were we—in it, love? Do you know how much I regret telling you that time—we were in Tallahassee, I think, bailing your sister out of jail—that all love comes with an expiration date? Do you know how much that haunts me?

This face—could this be the face of God? Has God disguised himself as a planet and drifted into our solar system? Is he angry with us? Were we not supposed to find him out there? Did we catch him by surprise? Would we be wrong to get down on our knees and pray? Do you even remember how to pray? Is this Judgment Day? Do you fear Hell as much as me? Do you fear being alone? Do you think this planet wants us to repent? To confess? Can I tell you every single bad thing I’ve ever done? Would you forgive me if I once referred to you as a “human turntable,” whatever that means, in a conversation with two—or possibly as much as four—of my friends not long after we broke up? Would you forgive me if I admitted to kissing your sister that weekend you were in Miami to present your paper? What if I confessed to you now that I sometimes wish your husband dead? That I imagine his car careening off the road? His head bashed in with a hammer? Would you think any less of me? Am I a monster? On some level is a bad thought or impulse just as reprehensible as the deed itself? On a scale of one to ten, how terrible a person am I?

Are you still on the line?

Is that Lucy coming in the door downstairs? Do you need to go? What did her teachers tell her about what’s happening? Does Lucy even realize how much of what’s in her science textbook will have to be ripped out after today? Is that Lucy stomping around or—? How will you explain this to her? Does she seem flustered or panicked? Is she too young for what you once called, in an email to me, “a moment of brutal but necessary honesty?” Do you think I would have made a good father?

Are its lips moving? Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Is the planet talking? Could you tell Lucy to please shut the hell up? Will we get sound? How long would it take the sound to reach us from this distance? Sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum, right? Isn’t that why the explosions you see in space movies should actually be silent? Does it seem to you that the planet is screaming at us—or am I imagining that? Do you think it’s a message of love? Of peace? Of mercy? A curse? A condemnation?

Do we have the capability to reply or send a return message? Who would we enlist to craft such a message? Don’t you think we should take a vote? Put together a committee—of scientists, ministers, Brahman priests and Buddhist monks? Maybe we should just ask the Dalai Lama to reply on all our behalf? Wouldn’t you trust him with this undertaking? Fatimah, honey bear, booboo, my heart of hearts, are you still there? Do we have a bad connection, or are the towers overloaded with calls?

Can you read lips? Why aren’t they interviewing any lip-readers? Did you know that reading lips is all about context? That, for instance, minus context, it’s easy to mistake ‘olive juice’ for ‘I love you’? At this very moment, how many people, do you think, are discussing olive juice?

But oh—have its lips gone still? Could it have already finished saying what it has to say? How long did it talk? All of five minutes? Would you say its speech was longer, shorter, or equal in time to the Gettysburg Address? Is it possible the planet was speaking an indecipherable language, full of clicks and tritonal yelps? On a scale of one to ten, how likely is it we’ll ever be able to translate what it was saying? Isn’t that depressing? Do you feel like we’re on the cusp of finishing a gigantic puzzle but two or three of the pieces are lost forever, eaten by a fat, ugly dog?

Lake Sutton—what do you think? Is now the time to go? What if we’d never left? What if we’d bought the cabin and quit our jobs and what if were still living there today? The creak of the floorboards as we ran to the bathroom in the morning, the ice-cold toilet lid, the moon over the lake through the window, no television—what if that was our life? Without the TV, would we even know this was happening? Is ignorance bliss? If we’d stayed together, would we be bored of each other by now? Would you find me as insufferable as your husband? Don’t you find him insufferable? Is that the nature of things, to long for that which almost was at the expense of that which almost wasn’t? Did you follow that or was I being unnecessarily confusing?

Are you losing hope we’ll ever understand this planet? Its inscrutable face? Since we have now confirmed that the planet is in fact an organism—a living organism with a humanoid face; capable, it seems, of speech-making; capable of traveling through outer space—shouldn’t we maybe stop referring to it as a planet? Technically speaking, does a giant conscious sphere with a face a planet make? Isn’t this more like a massive disembodied head? Do you think it’s lonely? Do you think it wonders what’s the point? Do you think it knows it’s talking to no one but itself? Lacking arms, legs, tendrils, tail, how does it effect movement? Do you think it somehow lassoed itself, gravitationally, into our solar system? Can I come over? Just for a little bit?

But Fatimah, Fatimah—where is it going now? What’s happening? Is the planet turning? Doesn’t it seem to be turning ever so slowly? Could it really be rotating away from us? What’s with the cold shoulder? Is it tired of us? Fed up? Exasperated? Did we do something wrong? Does it want nothing to do with us? Are we really that bad? Are we not interesting enough? Steadfast? Dependable? Worthy? Is our morning breath too noxious, our feet too stinky, our ice caps too melted? Why didn’t it give us a chance to prove ourselves? Are we not worthy? Does it have somewhere better to be? Another civilization to throw into disarray? What are we supposed to think about this? How are we supposed to feel? Are we alone again? Already?

Thomas Pierce author photoThomas Pierce is the author of the short story collection, Hall of Small Mammals. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Oxford AmericanVirginia Quarterly ReviewThe Best American Non-Required ReadingO. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. Born and raised in South Carolina, he received his M.F.A. from the University of Virginia as a Poe/Faulkner Fellow and currently lives in Charlottesville, VA with his wife and daughters.


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