Aphelion Issue 228, Volume 22
May 2018
 
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Obscurity

by M. C. St. John




The observatory perched on the coastline overlooking the ocean. On certain nights, when the water was calm and the sky was clear, the stars above reflected in the sea below, and the telescope was not only observing the constellations but floating among them, another particle drifting in the greater tide.

Tonight was one of those nights, the very definition of beauty for some. But Professor Vernon Teasdale, Astronomy PhD and veteran star gazer, had another word altogether. Two, in fact, when counting the curse.

“Goddamn obscurity,” he grumbled. “It’s the fear of almost every scientist. Seventy-five years of personal research backs my claim, from the first time I spotted the Big Dipper with a Boy Scout star chart to now.”

Teasdale was hunched over the complicated eyepiece of the telescope, his bushy eyebrow scrunched around the lens. He looked more like a marksmen taking out an enemy target than a man enjoying his work. He chewed the invisible cud of sour old men, the ones who had seen it all and thought anyone who said otherwise was a fool.

“The quest for knowledge has given way to scientists racing for a discovery to make headlines. Most die before they find it. What does the next generation do? They pick up the work worth saving from cold dead hands and keep on running. We have become the grist for the wheels of modern progress, Collins. We hope that our work will shake the very foundations of this world and through those aftershocks everyone will know our names. But I can tell you what such vanity means in the end. Bubkis.”

Teasdale shoved himself away from the telescope. As the rolling chair carried him across the floor, he crossed his arms and glowered. “No confirmed sighting, for the thousandth time.” He looked about ready to kick the computer console but then thought better of it. He turned his gimlet eyes to better targets. “What have you got to say, Collins? Any statement to the contrary?”

Collins, the lab assistant, was used to Teasdale’s monologues, especially the gloomy, condescending ones. The young man was a graduate student form the nearby university where Teasdale was tenured. Collins thought chumming up with professor would garner some support for his own budding scientific career. But a year with the curmudgeon had been nearly insufferable. Collins realized, though far too late, why Teasdale was in need of an assistant: no one would work for him. Too much time had been sunk into the research to leave now. When he graduated, Collins needed Teasdale’s good word to secure a teaching position. Preferably at a university as far away from the old man as possible.

“Collins? Any rebuttal?”

Collins cleared his throat and pushed his glasses back up his nose. Both were tics he had acquired from debate team at the university. They did decent work in making him appear smarter and less weasel-like, though nothing could help him from speaking through a nose that was perpetually smudged with a shade of brown.

“Though I agree with your main premise in theory, sir,” he said, “I can’t help but consider how a given scientist in fact paves the way for others. In this way, scientists are noted whether we realize it or not. Thanks to Thomas Edison, we have something as simple and profound as the electricity to conduct our work. We owe it to Edison when someone somewhere makes a major discovery with the lights on.”

“While the rest of us are Tesla crammed into the footnotes,” Teasdale said. “The man had more brilliance in the glint of his eye than Edison had in every bulb on Broadway. But who gets the credit in the history books and the minds of the public? The American who electrocuted farm animals to discredit another man’s work, all in the name of science. If we ever find it up there, Collins, heaven help us.”

Collins was undeterred. “Then perhaps it is not just a scientist’s work that makes history but also the personality behind it. Promoting one’s work takes cunning.”

“Are you speaking from experience?”

“You know as well as I do, sir. All’s fair in love and tenure.”

The professor chuckled deep in his paunch. It took the edge off his gruffness. “It is a cutthroat business, this higher learning. Science would be far more pure if humans weren’t involved.”

Teasdale gazed up at the observation dome, to a slot of night sky where the telescope pointed. Collins mimicked the professor’s lofty expression and waited for Teasdale to continue, as Collins knew he would. The old man never wasted a moment for grandeur.

“All of us are children compared to what we still do not know,” he continued. “If we all could accept that fundamental shortcoming, we could move beyond achieving notoriety and start making genuine progress for our species. Anyone is capable of discovery, not just a select few.”

“Well put, sir.”

Collins and Teasdale continued watching the sky from the observation platform. A steel and concrete column elevated the platform to the center of the room. It was only accessible by way of a spiral staircase to and from the ground floor. It was down there that a door bumped open. A man came in sweeping the floor with a stiff-bristled broom. Both scientists peered over the edge and caught the the man’s attention.

“Hey ho, fellas. I thought you was done and gone for the night.”

Teasdale glared down. “Everett, we will be working for a little while longer. Haven’t you other rooms to clean? The bathrooms maybe?”

“Sparkling already, prof. The observatory is my last sweep spot before I start waxing.” Everett leaned on his broom and pointed up at the sky. “Ya’ll find aliens?”

“We’re not necessarily observing for concrete signs of intelligent life,” Teasdale said, and then under his breath he added, “It’s hard enough finding it on this planet.”

“What’s that? You mumbled off.”

Collins said, “The professor clarified that we are looking for places where intelligent life could be. Stars where there are planets or moons that may have the right conditions for life.”

“A goldilocks planet, you reckon.”

“Very good,” Teasdale said. “Have you been reading up on the subject?”

“I get around to reading this and that on my breaks,” Everett said. “There’s one site I like that’s got news updates on UFOs. Abductions, crop circles, you name it. They got other stuff too. Today there an interview with this sideshow act I seen in Illinois as a kid. Her name was the Yak Woman on account of the horns that grew…”

“I see, very interesting.” Teasdale made a grand gesture of checking the clock. “We must get back to our research, Everett. No one else knows about the coordinates we are observing, so it is very pressing work. This one uncharted section of a certain nebula may contain...it’s rather technical, in fact. Best not waste more of the night explaining, you understand.”

“Got it, prof. These floors ain’t going to wax themselves neither.”

“Good man.”

“Let me know if you find any flying saucers.”

“You’ll be the first to know,” Teasdale said.

Everett’s broom worked the floor for a few good measures, and then he walked out of the observatory. In the relative silence, the wind carried through the open slot the distant sound of the ocean, the water itself sweeping the beach in its own rhythm.

“Ignoramus,” Teasdale said. “Uninformed fools like our resident homo custodius are the ones science is trying to save, if only they’d stop reading hack stories in their echo chambers.” He pinched the bridge of his considerable nose. “Close out the observation log, Collins. Record any final notes. I have lab work to do at home, mainly with scotch and soda from my sideboard.”

“Certainly,” he said.

The professor was in a mood, that much was certain. Collins was too, except his came from relishing Teasdale’s disappointment. The current work was going nowhere, which was bad news for the old man. Collins had years ahead of him for more projects. He considered this fact a a perverse consolation. After dealing with Teasdale over these many long months, Collins would take his small victories wherever he could find them.

At the computer console, Collins clacked away on the keyboard, bringing up their records. Then he swiveled over the telescope, removed his glasses, and peered into the eyepiece. He stopped mid-breath. He sat back, shaking his head, before leaning in using his other eye. This time he let out a rather girlish squeal through his nose.

Teasdale had shrugged on his coat and was thinking about tumblers and ice when he heard his assistant. “Collins, what the devil are you doing?”

“It’s there. Right there.”

“What?”

But Collins was now talking to himself. “The computer may have moved the telescope a fraction. Or some transient phenomena, like a satellite or an asteroid, may have blocked the view before…”

“Blocked what? You’re babbling, Collins. Speak sense.”

Collins grabbed Teasdale by the shoulder and sat the old man down. “Look,” Collins said. The shake in his voice was genuine excitement. Without his glasses, Collins had reversed in age by a decade. Boyish wonder filled his hooded eyes. It piqued Teasdale’s interest.

Slowly, the old man squinted into the eyepiece as he had before, took a breath, and said, “No, that’s not what you think, it’s…” but then stopped, breathing heavier, and said, “It can’t be, but the calculations, the coordinates—” before interrupting himself by jumping to his feet, the chair spinning away on its wheels, and proclaiming, “My god, it is, it is!”

“I thought the same,” Collins said, stealing another glance through the eyepiece. “You confirmed it, sir. I wasn’t seeing things. We both made visual confirmation.”

Teasdale gave a hearty clap on his assistant’s shoulder. “All of the work, Collins, all of the research,” he said. “All these years I knew it would come to this—a great discovery!”

“Right,” Collins said, more out of reflex than honesty. He would have needed to forget all of the old man’s hand-wringing monologues to be that naive. Collins saw the old man’s hypocrisy and raised him a feigned smile. “I always believed in this project, sir. It has been an honor working with you.”

“This night will change everything. Not only for the field but also for me,” Teasdale said. “As my assistant, you can experience firsthand how a seasoned scientist handles such fanfare.”

“Wait.”

“We must call NASA and tell them immediately.”

“But, sir,” Collins said, “we will tell them what we both discovered.”

“...Both?”

“Yes, the two of us. Credit must go where credit is due.”

“Precisely, Collins. Which is why my name is on the research grants, the letterheads, and the university roster. It is my discovery. This is how these things go.”

“What about the grist? And the wheels?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“The struggle, the plight, all that. The truth being shared.” Collins was sputtering now, his cheeks flaring red.

“It will be shared, Collins. Everyone will know. They will know it is true because it will come from one of the most respected names in the field.”

“What about the prominent, up-and-coming names? Where do I get acknowledged?”

Teasdale’s voice hardened. “After many more years of research, you can make your own name just as honored. You have to earn your place.”

“But I saw it first,” Collins said. “I discovered it.”

“On my payroll and with my coordinates.”

At the computer console sat an old-fashioned phone with a curly cord, a remnant from when the observatory was first built. The phone was useful since it was a secured landline in case of emergencies or monumental discoveries. Teasdale reached for the receiver. “This is bigger than either of us,” he said. “So long as you are bigger than I am,” Collins shot back. He dropped his hand on the phone before Teasdale. “This is a joint discover, sir. We go public as peers.”

“You’re trying my patience, boy. Give me the phone.”

Smirking, Collins wrenched the receiver out of its cradle, along with the full length of curly cord attached to it. The phone jack popped out of the console with a spray of broken plastic and frayed wires. He offered the mess to Teasdale. “Be sure to dial one for outgoing,” he said.

“Damn your petulance,” Teasdale said, “and damn you. Prolonging the inevitable is a waste of both our time. There is a phone in the front office I will use. Unless you want to smash that one too? You’re fired, of course, so if you want to rack up a tab for damages, be my guest.” The professor shoved past Collins and marched to the head of the spiral stairs. Teasdale was thrumming with anger, every scrawny muscle tight with indignation. He knew Collins was a sycophantic whelp from the start, but he had no idea how reckless the boy would become. After he cemented his legacy with the first call, Teasdale would have the pleasure of using his second call for the police to cart Collins away. He wanted to say as much to his ex-assistant, but Collins interjected, his voice hitting a nasally note that stopped the old man cold.

“Dinosaurs only know their era, Teasdale. Look at you trundling to make a call.”

From his breast pocket Collins produced a slick cell phone. Its surface glowed a bright blue. He grinned wide enough to show his sharp little teeth and bar of pink gum. “We’ll play by your rules then,” Collins said. “History’s made by whoever gets there first. Second place is obscurity.”

“Give me that phone.” Teasdale attempted to dash across the platform. His shoe caught on a wheel from the rolling chair. He went sprawling. Bits of broken old phone dug into his hands. His heart banged inside his sunken chest. “If you make that call, so help me...”

But Collins already had the cell to his ear, waiting for someone very important to pick up. His smile faltered. Then he swore and held up the phone. “It rang once and went dead.” Despite his bruises, Teasdale laughed from the floor. “Did you think you’d get reception in here? The equipment is finely calibrated, Collins. We need clean signals for the work inside the observatory. This dinosaur knew as much.”

Frantic now, Collins waved the cell in the air as a semaphore for distress. He went in a circle searching for a strong signal. When he faced the telescope, particularly where it was pointing, he stopped and let out another girlish scream, this one laced with adrenaline.

“Then I’m taking this call outside,” he said.

From the far end of the observation platform a metal catwalk spanned the distance to the base of the dome that was under the telescope. Right outside was an open-air balcony.

Teasdale saw where Collins was running and tried scrambling to this feet. His bruised body denied him. He reached for the rolling chair to use as a crutch but realized it would be no use. As soon as he put weight on it, the chair would roll away on its well-oiled wheels and he would fall over again. Across the platform, the path was clear between him and Collins. Teasdale watched in agony. He couldn’t catch him. He held onto the chair in desperation. Then an idea came to him. In a flash of calculations and gut instinct, he shoved the chair with all of the might he could muster.

The chair went sailing along the floor, its vector of force a clean, speedy line straight at its intended target. The hard wooden seat hit Collins in the back of a knee. With a yelp, he went down. The cell phone clattered away from him. Its glowing screen stared at the open sky.

Teasdale hauled himself up and ran pell mell across the platform. He sidestepped Collins, who was crawling on his hands and knees, and nabbed the phone first. He climbed to the lip of the observatory, saw the cell phone had reception, and re-dialled the number. It began to ring.

Panting, he said, “This will all make for a colorful story, Collins. Not as morbid as electrocuting farm animals, but it will do. The greatest scientific discovery preceded by a brawl. I’ll be sure to tell my version when I accept my Nobel Peace—”

The wind was knocked out of him when Collins tackled him around the gut. Like most of his interactions with Teasdale, Collins had feigned his dizziness from the flying chair. He knew when to attack because he knew the old man from months of nodding and smiling at his idiotic grandstanding. The blowhard could not resist getting in the last word.

What Collins did not know, what he could not have anticipated, was the balcony. Like the ancient corded phone on the console, the balcony had not been updated since the observatory opened, back when Teasdale was a lab assistant at the university. Neither updated nor serviced.

Outside, the two men struggled for the cell phone, for the one glowing point of light among trillions in the sky. The held each other in a fierce embrace. Then the rusted railing they had been leaning against gave way, and the two men now chased a falling star, one that met its reflection in the vast ocean below, in the steady ebb and flow of its dark waters.

A little while later, the sweeping shush of the waves was replaced by the merry hum of a floor waxer. The door on the ground floor opened again.

“Fellas? Prof?”

No response.

Everett turned off the waxer and mounted the spiral stairs to investigate. He had taken these stairs many times before, but it always gave him a sense of awe to get closer to that vast dome. It was like church that way, he supposed.

The platform was in disarray. Some broken bits of something lay on the ground, though he couldn’t see from what. A chair had gone rolling near the catwalk, two of its wheels hanging over the edge. But no one was up there. Maybe they left the lights on for his own work.

“Along with the mess,” he said. Everett brought the rolling chair back from the brink. He wondered why smart men like Teasdale and that toady Collins couldn’t clean up after themselves. Neither of them had done it before, so they weren’t going to start now. In Everett’s opinion, you couldn’t teach common sense.

As put the chair back at the computer console, he stopped near the telescope. It was late, and only getting later, and he was behind on his cleaning rounds. But curiosity got the best of him. He looked around to make sure no one was coming, as he always did late at night up here, especially when Teasdale left some papers on his desk or Collins left the computer screen on an interesting tidbit. Everett read up on this and that whenever he could. It was his nature.

“Just one peek,” he said, and bent down to the eyepiece. He let loose a long steam whistle from between his teeth. What he saw there was something he had never seen before, something he never thought possible, not even from the stories he had read before.

“I’ll be damned,” he said. “Everyone’s going to to want to know about this.”

And as he ran to the front office, he thought of at least a dozen people he would call to break the news. It was going to be an exciting night.



THE END


2017 M. C. St. John

Bio: M.C. St. John is a Chicago writer. His stories have been published in Chicago Literati, Quail Bell Magazine, and the Word Branch Science Fiction Anthology. His short story collection Other Music was recently published; he is currently working on his next.

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