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
“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
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.
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
“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,
“Got it, prof. These floors ain’t going to wax themselves neither.”
“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
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
“It’s there. Right there.”
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
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.”
“We must call NASA and tell them immediately.”
“But, sir,” Collins said, “we will tell them what we both discovered.”
“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
“What about the prominent, up-and-coming names? Where do I get
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
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
© 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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