The Kuiper Belt Deception
The characters are not mine, which, as far as Raj is concerned, is a blooming shame. Thanks to Finlay and Volker for beta reading.
There are only so many times an hour a man can update his facebook status and check his e-mail (no new messages) before he feels obliged to face a few existential questions. Traditionally, the chosen questions are "Why am I here?" or "What am I doing?" or, occasionally, "Where has my life gone, Penny?" but in this case Dr Rajesh Koothrappali settled for, "Why is the Kuiper belt so blooming far away?" He felt in two minds about it. The distance meant that any space probe he and Howard might launch – and they had often discussed the project of such a "baby" - would take nearly ten years to get there and that was a little late for a number of purposes including the babe magnet factor. On the other hand, it was the very distance that made the Kuiper belt a prestigious research object in the first place. There wasn't much glory left in exploring the moon. Either way he lost. At least it was one o'clock.
"I guess I will just take my lithe brown body to the canteen and let myself be humiliated by Sheldon," he mumbled and logged off.
"Excuse me? Are you an astrophysicist?"
The sound of a female voice rendered Raj instantly mute and indeed caused a futile reflex to try and retrieve his muttered sentence. With barely controlled panic, he looked at the open door. As far as girls went, this one didn't seem too scary. She was small and somewhat chubby with a cute face under messy brown hair and she wore jeans and a plain black sweater. He looked at the keyboard.
"It's only," she continued, "because someone told me this was the astrophysics department, but there isn't anyone around."
Because it's lunchtime, said Raj's brain while his mouth remained stubbornly shut.
"So, are you an astrophysicist?"
He managed a nod and a smile.
"Great. Can I ask you a few questions?"
She was through the door now, halfway to his desk and it was going to be difficult to get rid of her. Actually, considering her smile he wasn't even sure he wanted to be rid of her. He raised a hand to his mouth and forced his vocal chords to produce a tortured noise.
"Oh dear," she said, "do you have a sore throat?"
Raj hurried to nod, grateful for the excuse, however temporary.
"Could I ask you my questions anyway?" She took another couple of steps towards him, cutting off his retreat for good. He was trapped behind the desk. Perspiration began to accumulate under his sweater vest. "Maybe you could type the answers on your computer?"
Another hasty nod. Raj logged back on and she pulled up a chair. He opened a text document.
"This is so kind of you. Okay, first question. In elementary school we did the solar system and I learned that there were nine planets. But now I've heard that Pluto isn't a planet any more. What happened to it?"
Raj's fingers began to type while his brain was still wondering who she was and why she asked this. Shut up, he told his brain, here's a girl talking to me and she seems kinda nice. To hell with the big why!
Pluto, he typed, and that was easy because he didn't have to look at her, has been reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006 when it became clear that a large number of further trans-Neptunian objects were likely to be found in the region known as the Kuiper belt. A sidelong glance showed him that she followed his words with eager concentration. I specialise, he added, in that field.
"I've come to the right person then," she said. His eyes securely on the screen, Raj took off his jacket.
So far, another three TNOs of roughly Pluto-size have been officially recognised: Eris, Haumea and Makemake.
"Makemake? Are you making this up?"
No. And it's not Mayk-mayk, it's Mah-kee-mah-kee. After the Easter Island god of fertility. Anyway, it is possible that many more will be discovered and that would lead to a confusing increase in the number of planets, which is why the new class of dwarf planets was introduced. I myself have discovered 2008 NQ17, also known as Planet Bollywood. It was in People magazine last month.
"Wow! Then you're famous?"
Raj considered taking off his sweater vest, but he was almost sure his shirt was missing a button. He turned his head and gave her a smile that he hoped was the right mixture of pride and modesty. It probably wasn't, but she smiled back. Trying hard not to hyperventilate, he returned his attention to the screen.
These TNOs, together with the asteroid Ceres, are now classed as dwarf planets, as will any others that fit the definition.
"But what if you find a bigger object out there? A Snow White among the dwarfs?"
Then, thanks to you, we already have a beautiful name for it.
She chuckled. He grinned, pleased with himself.
"Is it possible that there is anything in this Kuiper belt that supports intelligent life?"
Unlikely, at least not life as we know it. So far from the sun, the temperatures are very low.
"And if it's a planet that's heated from the inside? Isn't the interior of the Earth very hot and -"
Raj's phone rang. It was Howard, curse him. Actually, he also cursed himself for even answering.
"Raj, where the hell are you?"
My friends are waiting for me, I'm afraid I need to go.
"Aren't you going to answer him?"
I'll text him.
"But he's -"
"Raj? Raj, are you okay?"
Sore throat, remember.
"Oh, of course, how stupid of me."
"Raj? Where are you? Who's that talking? Shall we come over to your office?"
Absolutely not. He pocketed his phone and ushered her to the door, all the while emanating silent curses.
"Can I friend you on facebook?"
He gave her the thumbs-up sign and fled down the corridor.
"Thanks! I'm Lena Steinmetz," she called after him. My name is on the door, he tried to tell her telepathically. Then he made his way to the canteen like the Flash. He was so not gay.
"Why don't you ask her out? You've known her, what, three weeks now?" Howard thrust his fork into his chicken chow mein as if he were impaling an alien species of carnivorous plant.
"I will. Eventually. But I'm still trying to figure out how much to drink. I don't want to be so obnoxious that she'll never want to see me again."
"You don't ever see her now, so what have you got to lose? You're only chatting to her on facebook."
"Dude, at least I've not been unfriended by all my female facebook friends."
"I have not-"
"Hi, guys, what's up." Leonard and Sheldon joined the table. "Are we all set for Halo night tonight?"
"Only if Raj can tear himself away from his online flirt with the mystery German woman."
"Is that still going on? You should ask her out, Raj."
"That's what I said," replied Howard while Raj frowned down on his plate. "If he won't, I will."
"You don't even know her, dude, you'll not ask her out."
"Howard, let Raj have his toy," said Leonard.
"Nice boys share their toys," said Howard sulkily.
Raj sighed. "You know what worries me? She is asking me some very weird questions."
"What do you mean, weird?" asked Leonard.
"He means like how much thrust his little rocket has," replied Howard with a grin.
"No, I don't. Take your dirty mind off her! I mean she's asking me things about astrophysics, but it's so weird, I wonder why she wants to know that. It's not the usual stuff girls ask, about what came before the big bang and that, it's just weird."
"Like up to what distances from the sun a spacecraft can be powered with solar energy, or whether NASA is planning any manned missions to the Kuiper belt within the next ten years."
"Amateurish nonsense," said Sheldon.
"Yes, yes, but why does she want to know this?"
"Why don't you ask her?" said Leonard.
"I did. She said she's just a geek."
"If she were a true geek, she'd know that this is amateurish nonsense."
"Maybe she's some sort of spy," said Howard.
"What, like a Bond-girl?"
"If she is a spy, she is clearly a very sub-standard one," said Sheldon.
"Because if she were a spy worth her salt, as the conventional phrase goes, she would have come to me. What could Koothrappali possibly have worth spying on - another orbiting rock? One could understand it if it were pure diamond, then it would be of interest to the jewellery industry. But a rock?"
"Maybe I've found a way to open up a wormhole in your apartment and have you sucked into another dimension." He stuck out his tongue at Sheldon.
"Maybe the sun sets in the North," Sheldon replied.
"It does if you're at the South Pole."
"Aha, but my apartment is in Pasadena. Bazinga!"
"Somebody shoot him," said Raj.
"I still say spy," continued Howard. "It's all very suspicious. Allegedly she's a philosophy student. Now I've followed that up; she's not enrolled at any of the colleges in the city."
"What do you mean you've followed it up, did you hack into their computers?"
"Obviously. And then she claims she's German, which is patently untrue, so you have to ask yourself, what could she possibly have to hide that's worse than being German?"
"Why do you think that's untrue?"
"Oh, come on, where's the blonde hair, the tall, athletic stature..."
"She says most Germans are brown-haired."
"Well, she would, wouldn't she?"
"Be serious," said Leonard, "I can't imagine she's a spy. She came to Raj with all her weird questions straight and open, that's not exactly spying, is it?"
"It's a particularly clever way of spying," said Howard. "Lull the victim into a false sense of security and - WHAM! - steal his wormhole formula."
"But Raj doesn't have a wormhole formula. Now my research on the -"
"Shut up, Sheldon." Raj grabbed the smouldering ruins of his lunch and took them to the tray rack.
"Don't speak to Lena again until we've given her security clearance!" Howard yelled.
"You shut up, too."
Raj turned into his corridor and immediately drew back again behind the corner. In front of his office door stood Lena, unannounced, and he was in no way prepared to meet her face to face. What now? He could hear her knocking. Any second now, she would turn and walk away, walk straight towards him and discover him in all his speechless misery. He looked around, but there was nothing that offered any cover and the drinking fountain only dispensed clear water. He decided to apply to the institute's administration later to have it supplemented with a rum fountain, but for now this was no use to him. Lena's footsteps were rapidly approaching. Of course, he couldn't be entirely sure that these were Lena's footsteps and not, say, the footsteps of a spontaneously materialised alien, they were Schroedinger's footsteps, so to speak. Still, not worth taking the risk. He opened the first best door and slipped into the room behind. It was a broom cupboard and he was nearly knocked out by a falling mop. The footsteps went past and as he peeked out through a crack in the door to make sure that it was indeed Lena, he saw her reach the next corner and collide with Barry Kripke.
"Oh-la-la, and what have we got here?" he heard Barry's voice.
"A member of the species homo sapiens, in case you need glasses," came Lena's reply.
"And we're feisty, too. What's your name?"
"Just pick one from the phone book," said Lena and stormed off.
Raj stepped out of the cupboard and nonchalantly walked up to Barry, who was staring after Lena and therefore didn't notice the little notebook that had dropped out of her bag.
"Did you see that, Koothrappali? What's that woman doing here?"
"Why do you ask me?" said Raj and picked up the book. "You know I don't even talk to women."
He hurried off before Barry could ask anything about the notebook and returned to his office by a roundabout route.
"Now we shall see," he said as he sat down at his desk and opened the book.
Ten minutes later, he called for Howard.
"I'm shocked, dude. Lena bumped into Kripke in the corridor and lost this book. So I picked it up and had a look at it. You'll never believe it."
"So she really is a spy?" Howard's eager face could have powered the Christmas lights of a medium sized town.
"Worse. Much worse, dude. She's a lousy sci fi writer. A really lousy one. Read this."
Raj thrust the page under Howard's nose.
And so the fleet set forth on its glorious mission, racing through space at a gazillion miles per hour. Its aerodynamically shaped solar panels glittered against the backdrop of the Milky way. On the bridge of the mother ship, Commander Lucille Stanford ran her hand through her copper-coloured ringlets and leaned her perfectly shaped body back in the commander's seat.
"You seem to forget, Lieutenant Striker," she said and her voice was like poured honey, "that I have full authority to disclose or withhold information about the mission as I see fit."
"And you seem to forget," replied the lieutenant, meaningfully laying a hand on her thigh, "that I might withhold certain, shall we say, favours that you would sorely miss. I suggest you share your secret or I will no longer share your leisure hours. What will you do then? Will you turn to the drones for your...fulfilment?"
Lucille sighed and let her eyes rest on the lieutenant's virile figure. She thought of the previous night and had to agree.
"All right then," she said. "Mind you, this is only between you and me, the drones are not to know. The government kept this top secret. We are a scouting party chosen to lay down the foundations for our first extraterrestrial settlement. Five years ago, astronomers discovered a habitable planet in the Kuiper belt. They called it Pata-Pata after the South African goddess of music and political activism. It is three times the size of Jupiter and has vast oceans and fertile lands just waiting to be colonised. Our space probes found hints that there might be oil deposits. This planet is the answer to all our problems."
At that moment, a power cut wiped out the artificial gravity field of the ship and Lucille was thrust into the lieutenant's arms.
"Oh, crap," said Howard. "Where do you even start? Aerodynamically shaped solar panels? Last night? Pata-Pata? Is she brain dead? And she came up with this balderdash after speaking to you?"
"I know, I know," wailed Raj. "She can't have listened to a word I said to her."
"You said words to her?"
"Face it, Raj, this chick of yours is astronomically dumb."
"She didn't seem dumb before."
"Well, she does now. Three times the size of Jupiter? With liquid water on its surface in the Kuiper belt? Woah, why stop there? Why not propose a thriving aquatic civilisation in the Oort cloud?"
"Maybe she misunderstood me. Maybe she's dyslexic."
"Raj, do you realise how serious this is? Imagine she publishes this and credits you as her scientific advisor."
"No! She can't do that! Anyway, we have her book."
"Nothing's stopping her from writing much the same again. Raj, you're in such trouble. She'll pull your good name into the dirt with this pulp fiction rubbish."
"We have to stop her! What can we do?"
There was a knock on the door.
"That'll be Leonard," said Howard. "Come in!"
The door opened and in came Lena.
"Hello, Dr Koothrappali."
Raj stared at her, helplessly. The book felt like a spent uranium fuel rod in his hands.
"Guten Tag, mein kleine Fraulein," said Howard and gave Raj a conspirational wink.
"Nice accent," replied Lena, "but don't try this on the feistier type of feminist. The title Fräulein has been abolished in the seventies. Also, you used the wrong adjective ending."
Rebuffed, Howard shut up. Well, that settles that question anyway, thought Raj.
"I was here earlier, looking for you," said Lena to Raj. "And I wonder whether I lost my notebook...?"
Howard grabbed the book and held it out to her with a dramatic gesture.
"What, may I ask, is the meaning of this, young lady?"
"Oh, you found it, thanks, that's great."
Howard tried again. "What is the meaning of this, this, this abomination?"
Lena looked at the page his accusing finger was poking.
"Oh, that." She laughed. "That's just a little something I tried for my writers' group. I do creative writing as a hobby, you know, and we have this challenge going of doing a parody of a well-known genre, so I chose science fiction. It didn't work, though, it's pretty rubbish, don't you think? I tried to make it as stupid as I could, but it didn't turn funny, it just stayed stupid."
"So...you're not a professional writer?"
"Good lord, no. Don't give up the day job, eh?"
"And your day job is...?"
Raj bit his lip. Howard stood way too close to Lena and was giving her a look that was only using menace as an alibi. Lena sighed.
"I'm a librarian," she said.
"So why," said Howard, still clutching the book like a murder weapon, "did you tell Raj you were a philosophy student? Is it because you are really neither a writer nor a librarian but indeed a – spy?"
"A spy? Whatever makes you think that? Dr Koothrappali, what's going on?"
Raj shrugged and nudged Howard with his elbow.
"What?" said Howard. "Let me handle this, Raj. Miss Steiner or whatever your assumed name may be, Dr Koothrappali is by no means unprotected against the wiles of a cunning Mata Hari like yourself. He has friends who -"
"Okay, okay, I'll tell you the truth."
So there was a Truth to tell. Raj's heart shrank by a statistically significant percentage. Lena took the book off Howard and dropped it into her bag. She looked straight at Raj.
"I saw the article about you in People magazine and I thought you were very sweet. So I wanted to get to know you and I couldn't think of any other way. And I said I studied philosophy because I didn't want to sound too boring. Everybody thinks librarians are dead dull. There, that's it. Are you mad at me?"
Raj shook his head very quickly. Howard stared at her open-mouthed.
"I really am interested in astrophysics, that's why I read the article in the first place. And I knew all this stuff about Pluto and Eris and that. That piece of writing is just some silly nonsense I made up yesterday in the cafeteria. Please, don't be mad, I'm really sorry I lied to you."
"Well, if it's any consolation, he's lied to you too."
"What do you mean?"
"Raj, tell her about your sore throat."
Fifteen seconds passed during which Raj didn't manage to explode Howard's head with his mind, but he was that close. Lena's quizzical look slowly congealed into a mask of perplexity. He opened a text document and began to type.
I didn't have a sore throat. I suffer from selective mutism in the presence of women.
"Oh, Dr Koothrappali, you should have said..."
And you can call me Raj.
He waved a hand at Howard to get out. It took a little more than this gesture, though, but after a pointed glare, Howard shrugged and closed the door behind him.
"Okay, Raj." She smiled. "So...where do we go from here?"
How about the cafeteria? And when it gets dark, I can show you some of the telescopes and we can talk some more about astrophysics, if you like. I'll tell you about the Oort cloud. We just have to bring along a laptop.
"Sounds like a good offer," said Lena. "And you're sure you're not mad at me?"
As long as you're sure you weren't serious about a planet three times the size of Jupiter.
"Would four times be better then?"
How could it be -
"Just kidding! I know about gravity."
Okay, so we can gravitate towards each other like two delicious little celestial bodies.
"Don't be silly."
But I -
She caught his hand to stop him from typing. Her fingers felt warm and kind. Raj grinned. Perhaps the Kuiper belt held some promise after all.