My friend Harold Appleby always knew he was meant for something special. But it wasn’t until he was in his early thirties, when the Mysterious Object suddenly appeared, that he believed he’d found exactly what that “something special” was.
Now, before you think I’m just another one of those reporters peddling a “day in the life” story about the most famous physicist of our time, or a disgruntled relative with a scandalous story — not that there aren’t some good stories to be told, mind you — let me just set the record straight. I’ve known Harold since we were both in first grade together, and even then it was pretty apparent that he couldn’t wait to grow up and be taken seriously. Not that he didn’t have a sense of humor; he could make fiendishly clever practical joke machines out of classroom bric-a-brac or toys abandoned on the playground. Like the time he made a cannon that sprayed melted bubble gum wads and hid it in the marching band’s tuba. But even when he was doing things like that, it was like he was carefully studying how everything worked. And none of his gags ever failed to work.
The thing about Harold was that he had this amazing brain, but everything else about him was perfectly ordinary. He came from a family that had no college; his dad worked in a shoe store and his mom stayed at home raising him and his five brothers and sisters. His mom always said Harold must have been born under a lucky star, and that he had been a surprise gift. He read comic books and traded baseball cards with the rest of us normal kids. But all of a sudden he would get this look in his eyes, go off and build an engine that could heat a house for a week using nothing but three drops of cooking oil, and then come back and play dodge ball with the rest of us. He was just that kind of a kid.
So when he would talk about how he had a destiny but he didn’t know what it was yet, nobody teased him about it, but nobody took him all that seriously, either. I mean, you just had to know Harold.
All through high school, Harold was the top of his classes in science, math, shop, anything technical or brainy. It was like he was made for it. Art? Forget it. Literature? When he recited Brutus’ speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in front of the English class, he sounded like a stuttering robot. But ask him to calculate the date and place that a comet would appear if it had a such-and-such elliptical orbit, and he could do it as easily as if he was reading a box score. After a while, people stopped trying to stump him; it just got boring.
So naturally he was courted by the best science universities. But if you’d think Harold would leave our small town behind in his rear-view mirror, you don’t know Harold. He wanted to stay near his mom and dad so he could take care of them, and he wanted to stick around with his lifelong friends. Most of us never went to college (heck, I probably wouldn’t have even finished high school if he hadn’t tutored me in math and science), but that didn’t bother him. He didn’t lord it over on us how smart he was; he would help Old Man Rooster patch his roof or carry Mrs. Bovasso’s groceries home from the Shop-n-Save just like always.
They had to build a satellite campus of MIT in Jeffersonville just so they could have Harold. That’s how much they wanted him. Put our town on the map, helped steer hundreds of kids toward careers in science who would have ended up pumping gas for a living. But that’s not why Harold did it. He just didn’t want to leave home.
I asked him once if he thought that maybe it was his destiny to get the MIT campus built for the town, and he looked at me like I was from another world.
And then the Mysterious Object appeared.
Astronomers looking for asteroids spotted it first: a large cube just sitting there exactly one light year away. Spectrographic analysis showed that it was clearly made from refined metals and plastics, and it was quite probably hollow considering its mass-to-size ratio. Well. You can imagine the questions. Was there life on board? Where did it come from all of a sudden? Naturally, they called Harold to lead the team charged with figuring it out.
No one expected the answer that Harold would give.
They say that when Harold had his first look at the Mysterious Object through a telescope, he started to laugh, then grabbed the nearest sheet of paper, took a pen out of his lab coat, and in about ten seconds came up with the most outlandish theory anyone had ever heard. The Mysterious Object, Harold explained to his bewildered colleagues, wasn’t from another planet.
It was from the future. From exactly 1,400 years to the day in the future, to be exact. And it was from Jeffersonville.
People thought Harold had finally gone nuts, until he showed them the math. Now, I’m no scientist, so Harold had to really dumb it down for me. But here’s what he told me. The location of the Mysterious Object was exactly where the planet Earth would be in 1,400 years. See, the sun actually moves through space, and all the planets that orbit the sun go along for the ride. I did not know that, and I bet you didn’t either. But anyway, if the Mysterious Object were to somehow stay perfectly still, not only would the Earth be swinging by that exact spot on Tuesday, February 3rd, 1,400 years from now, the piece of Earth that would be smacking into it would be the Jeffersonville campus of MIT.
Now we all know what happened after that. The drive to explore space. The international agreements to launch colonies on the Moon and the Lagrange points. The end of the energy crisis. Peace, harmony, and plenty for all of humankind. All because people wanted to get to Mysterious Object before the Earth did, and to find out what secrets Harold (no one had any doubt that it was his idea) had left there. He always did inspire people that way.
No one was surprised when Harold invited all his family and friends from Jeffersonville to attend the ceremony where he was awarded the Nobel Prizes for Physics and Peace simultaneously, and later when he was inaugurated the first President of Earth in the UN Building in New York. After the inauguration ceremony, at the party, I saw Harold alone in a corner quietly sipping his Champagne with a smile of satisfaction. So I went over and nudged him on the shoulder, and asked him if the thought he had finally found his destiny. He nodded. Then I teased him and said I bet he knew exactly what we’d find in the Mysterious Object when we eventually got there. He shrugged and said that’s not why he was smiling. He said he had just figured out the best practical joke of all time, and he was going to let me in on the secret. No one, not even his closest colleagues at MIT, knew about it yet, he said.
I’ll always remember his exact words, and the wicked grin of a six-year-old prankster that he wore when he said it.
“It wouldn’t be enough for them to just send the Mysterious Object back to our time,” he said. “Wouldn’t they also want to go back a little further, and make sure there’d be someone around who knew exactly what he was looking at?”
As Andre Malraux once said, “When man faces destiny, destiny ends and man comes into his own.” For one Harold Appleby of Jeffersonville, this statement certainly applies. Tonight’s tale is simply a reminder that some people have to look a little farther to find their destiny. Some look to the stars, others to the wisdom of their fellow man, or to the eyes of their loved ones. Fewer still feel the urge look the farthest of all, to the outer rim — of the Event Horizon.