Looking Out to Sea
By Stuart Atkinson
Stuart Atkinson is a writer and Astronomy Outreach Educator, and author of 12 children's astronomy and spaceflight books. He has written for many magazines, newspapers and websites and also runs his town’s astronomical society, the Eddington Astronomical Society. Stuart broadcasts regularly on his local BBC and independent radio stations, having a regular monthly slot at BBC Radio Cumbria in which he talks about topical astronomical and spaceflight stories. He also supplies all his local and regional TV stations and news programmes – Border TV’s Lookaround, BBC’s Look North (Newcastle) and North West Tonight (Manchester) with information about astronomy – and spaceflight-related events and news stories. He regularly gives illustrated Outreach talks to schools and groups in the UK.
“Don’t you dare cloud over now I’m almost there…!” I growled at the sky, as I approached the ruins of the once-proud castle that stood guard over my town. After looking out of the window of my flat half an hour earlier and seeing the heavens blazing with stars - a beautiful sight after a day of filthy, almost-unbroken cloud – so I’d grabbed my observing gear and rushed across the street, over the footbridge and through the park and made it to the leaf-strewn base of Castle Hill in record time, thinking, happily, that maybe I would get to see some Geminid meteors after all…
But now, as I trudged up the steep, narrow path that led up from the heart of Kendal to the walls of its famous castle, my boots crunching on the frosty gravel, I could see a bank of cloud painted across the northern sky, threatening to ruin the night.
“Don’t you dare…”
Ten minutes later, in the midnight silence, the sound of my telescope’s tripod legs clicking and clacking together as I set it up on the summit of the hill sounded like rifle fire, and I was sure the people sleeping in the town far below me would be woken by the noise. In stark contrast to the icy blue and white light of the stars above me, the streetlights below the hill were bright orange balls of fire, so beautiful I could almost forgive them for the light pollution they caused. Almost. The sky was never truly dark above Kendal, not even from up on the top of the hill. My hill. My church. The private cathedral to nature where I went to escape the stresses and pain of everyday life, and silently worship the cosmos.
Finally, with everything set-up, and my telescope cooling down nicely, I pulled on my thermal gloves and, sat down on the nearest cold stone wall, and, clapping my hands together for warmth, looked up.
“Okay, come on then,” I told the night sky, my breath forming silvery clouds in the freezing midnight air, “show me some shooting stars… any time you like…”
An hour later I was still waiting for my first bright meteor.
There had been a dozen or so modest ones, very modest ones, but nothing special. The view was some compensation: Orion was high and bright above the castle’s crumbled towers, the Pleiades were a spill of tiny sapphires wrapped in silver thread, and Aldebaran was a perfectly cut garnet blazing over my head. But there was Nothing Going On up there. Nothing. And sitting there, on the frosty castle wall, with the cold seeping into me and up my body like rising, icy water, and with my already tired eyes growing heavy with weariness and, yes, boredom, my head started nodding.
“No, you have to stay awake,” I told myself as I felt my chin hit my chest, rubbing my gritty eyes and banging my hands together again, “there’ll be a bright one any time now, you’ll see…” But it was getting harder and harder to keep those eyes open, and I felt myself starting to fall asleep –
That was when I saw him.
Walking towards me, making his way up the long path to the castle, was a man.
He was walking slowly, hesitantly, stumbling a little even, as if unsure of where he was, and what he was doing. I wondered if maybe he was drunk, it was hard to tell from so far away. Every now and again he would stop and just look up at the sky, as if he’d never seen it before – or was searching for something, again it was impossible to tell from where I was. But whatever state he was in, and whatever he was doing, he was walking right towards me. I was about to have company.
Which wasn’t that rare, really. Even after midnight Kendal Castle can be a bit ‘busy’. People go up there to walk their dogs, or to take a shortcut from one side of town to the other, or just to get away from a nagging partner or try and wear themselves out enough to get some sleep when they returned home. There hadn’t been a single time, not one, when I’d had no company whatsoever during an observing session; someone always wandered up to see what I was looking at through my ‘scope.
But… this man seemed different. He seemed lost. Disoriented.
“Oh, please don’t let him be drunk, or a druggie…” I sighed at Orion, but Orion offered me no reassurances or support. I was on my own.
Closer now, and I could see he was dressed… strangely. It was bitterly cold, a real snap-dogs-off-lamp-posts Geminid night, and I looked like an Arctic explorer in my thick padded jacket, thermal gloves and woolly hat. Even then I was feeling the cold. But the man walking towards me was dressed in just a suit, and there was nothing on his head. He must have been freezing.
“Like one of those idiots who goes up Skiddaw on Boxing Day in just jeans and a t-shirt…” I laughed to myself, but then stopped. That was strange. The man walking towards me wasn’t hugging himself, or even shivering, not in the slightest. He looked – comfortable. No, not comfortable. Oblivious. Watching him advancing up the hill was like watching someone walking along a beach on a summer’s day –
Then, finally, he spotted me. For a moment he stopped dead in his tracks, then walked on. Right towards me.
I decided I had to take the initiative, check if I was in any danger. His first words would be a giveaway.
“Lovely night,” I called out – not too loudly - across the hilltop when the man was still a good twenty, thirty feet away.
“Indeed, indeed…” he replied, glancing up at the stars without breaking his stride.
That was odd, I thought to myself, how his breath hadn’t clouded in the cold..? Or had it? I pushed the thought away, putting it down to my own tiredness, eyes playing tricks on me and all that.
“What brings you up here at this time of night?” I asked, reassured for the moment that he hadn’t sounded slurred by alcohol, or, worse, fired-up on some pill or other.
“I might ask you the same thing..?” he replied, amusement in his voice, which was deep and had a rich, melodic tone to it, and something of a burr. It sounded familiar, naggingly so, but with my mind clouded and numbed by the cold I couldn’t place it.
Instead of answering him I just pointed a fat, gloved finger towards my telescope.
“Ah,” he said, nodding approvingly, “a stargazer… I am in good company on this darkest of dark nights…”
Not that dark, I thought to myself, not with all this light pollution glaring off town, but I let it go.
He was beside me now, my midnight visitor, and his appearance was even more puzzling. He was dressed in just a suit, with no coat or scarf on top for warmth or protection from the cold. But the suit looked – out of place. It was a strange beige colour, like something from an old 80s TV police show. The jacket had a too-large-for-its-own-good collar and…no…surely not… the trousers… they looked suspiciously like flares…?
Must be a Christmas fancy dress party, or a works do of some sort, going on in one of the hotels down there, I thought to myself, glancing down the hill at the sea of bright orange streetlights. This guy must have gone out for some air and just kept walking…
I saw him staring up at the stars and decided to try and find out what his story was. “Are you interested in astronomy?” I asked him, and I swear his eyes twinkled mischievously when he answered me.
“You might say that - ”
Just then a meteor dashed overhead, catching both our attention.
“Beautiful…!” he beamed, watching the Geminid fade close to Sirius. Then, more wistfully, “I never tired of watching those when I was here…”
Past tense. Interesting.
“So you’ve been to the castle before?” I wondered. I certainly hadn’t seen him up there on any of my observing nights.
“No… no…” he replied distantly. “This is my first time here…” he swept his gaze around the hilltop. “I like it… you can almost taste the history here… we’re walking in the footsteps of a princess…”
In the ensuing silence I took a moment to study my unexpected companion more closely. His hair, parted unfashionably to one side, was rich and thick. His face was lined and olive-skinned, with a wide nose, and dark, deep eyes. Looking at him I sensed I was looking at a man who was old in body, but young at heart and in mind. And those eyes… they never stopped flashing, sparkling, dancing.
“We’re holding a public observing night up here next Friday,” I told him, “the astronomical society, that is, if you’re free that night?”
He shook his head. “I’d love to, but I won’t be here,” he replied. “I’m only…” He paused then, choosing his words carefully, “visiting for this one night…” His voice trailed off then as he turned his attention back to the stars above us. “So beautiful,” he whispered, “so beautiful… “
A vibration thrummed in my pocket – the alarm on my phone giving me my usual five minutes warning. “Shame you’ll miss that,” I said, meaning it, “but if you can hang around another few minutes you’ll be able to see the space station go over – “
He seemed puzzled. “Space station? There’s a space station? Up there? Now?” His eyes darted around the sky, searching for it already.
“Of course there is,” I laughed, getting down off the wall to stand beside him. “Everyone knows about the space station; spotting it is almost a spectator sport now…” He looked genuinely puzzled by that idea. “Where have you been?” I joked, “living in a cave somewhere?”
“I’ve been away,” he responded, “far, far away…”
We waited in silence together then, content to just stand together beneath the stars, waiting.
“Ahh, there she is…” I said, noticing a modestly-bright ‘star’ climbing up from the western horizon. My companion, who had been staring in the other direction, up at the stars of Gemini, turned round to see what I was looking at. I got the impression he didn’t know what he was looking for. “The moving star,” I prompted him, “that’s it, that – “
“A space station…” he said, wonder in his voice. “They built it, they actually built it…”
Slowly, so slowly, the International Space Station climbed up from beyond the horizon, flashing in and out of view as it passed behind the bare branches of the skeletal trees that surrounded the castle ruins. With each passing second it grew brighter, until by the time it was arcing almost overhead it was breathtakingly bright, like a piece of burning magnesium flicked across the heavens…
“It looks like someone cut Venus free…” my mysterious companion observed quietly, almost reverently. Then asked, quite casually: “How many others are there?”
“Space stations,” he repeated. “How many other space stations are there in orbit now?”
“There aren’t any others,” I told him, “there’s just the one and that’s it,” I said, jerking my chin towards the ISS as it started to dip down gracefully towards the east, “that’s why it’s known as THE space station.”
“But…” he began, processing the information, distressed and confused by it, “Europe… Russia… what about them? Where are their platforms?”
“They haven’t got their own, they all built that,” I explained, “together. That’s why it’s called the International Space Station – “
“Not what I was expecting,” he said, “not at all, but I suppose working together is better than competing, or fighting…” As he spoke the ISS slid into Earth’s shadow and faded from our view. “Remarkable…” he whispered. Then, “How many people are there on the Moonbase?” he enquired absently. When I didn’t give him a figure right away he turned to me, slowly. “There is a Moonbase, yes?”
“No,” I said, regretfully, “there were plans, lots of plans… “ A wave of sadness washed over me as I remembered getting excited about the ambitious proposal to build a manned outpost on the Sun-drenched rim of Shackleton crater, down near the Moon’s south pole. I’d bought into it, totally; told hundreds, probably even thousands of people about it in my Outreach talks, in schools, community centres and village halls, shown them the beautiful NASA artists’ impressions and computer animations of shiny, Cylon-like astronauts skidding rovers on the Moon’s surface like the Dukes of Hazzard and joining power cables together like 21st century construction men… only to have the whole thing scrunched up and tossed into a bin like so much waste paper. “…but they never came to anything…”
“Stupid… stupid…” my companion said under his breath, genuine anger there. “It’s there, so close, so close…” He looked at me with sad eyes. “No-one standing on my beloved Mars yet then, I’m assuming?”
I shook my head, too depressed by that particular question to wonder why this strange man, this odd, midnight wanderer, seemed to have no idea what was going on ‘out there’. Ever since childhood my greatest desire had been to see people walking on Mars, to see, on my TV, astronauts bounding across the vast martian plain, opening up a new frontier on the New World. I had grown up convinced it would happen in my lifetime. Now, after countless reviews, budget cuts and “re-focussings”, I was convinced I’d be in my coffin before footprints were left on Mars.
“No, no-one on Mars,” I answered. “In twenty, thirty years, perhaps… but probably longer than that.”
“I thought that after Apollo, getting to Mars would be easier,” the man said, shoulders sagging, “I thought that the prospect of finding life there would draw us to it, like moths to a flame..” Then, accusingly, angrily: “Why haven’t you grabbed a chance to find out if we really are alone in all…” He gazed up at the sky, starlight bathing his eyes. “…this…?”
I had no idea who this strange, strange man was, but for some reason, standing there in the bitter cold, hours before dawn, with sapphire, garnet and diamond stars flashing and flickering above me, I felt guilty and ashamed by his condemnation and disappointment.
I felt I had to defend myself. Defend Us.
“We are on Mars, in a way,” I insisted, stomping my feet on the frosty grass. “Right now there are…” I tried to count up mentally, and failed. “..I forget how many space probes orbiting it, and rovers on the surface – “
That caught his attention. “Rovers? On Mars?” he repeated, excited again.
Yes, I thought, irritated, rovers on Mars… Where have you been?
“There are two of them,” I continued, my commitment to “Outreach” overpowering my irritation at the man’s ignorance. “Spirit and Oppy – sorry, Opportunity,” I corrected myself, automatically referring to the second MER by its affectionate nickname. “They were meant to last 90 days or so…” I paused for dramatic effect, as I always did when telling someone about the rovers’ epic adventure. “…and six years later they’re still working, still roving Mars…”
The man looked genuinely thrilled by that news, and his eyes were still gleaming when I corrected myself. “Well, one of them is still roving; Spirit got herself stuck in a dust trap, like a fly in amber, she just couldn’t get out. She’s still there, sleeping, in a low power hibernation, but they hope she’ll wake up and phone home soon.”
My companion smiled warmly at that. “They have touched you, these rovers,” he observed approvingly, eyes twinkling brighter than any of the stars shining above us on that bitter, frost-coated hilltop.
“Yes, they have,” I admitted readily. “I’ve followed their journey from the very start, from before they were even launched. I feel like I’ve walked beside them every inch of the way. I’m a self-confessed ‘rover hugger’ -” I laughed nervously then. Why was I opening up to this guy?
“I understand,” he reassured me, “I felt the same way about the Vikings. I watched them taking shape, from blueprints to metal frames. I watched them blast off, and I was there when they landed and when the first pictures came back… “
I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly. No, I couldn’t have. The Vikings? They landed in 1976 didn’t they? More than thirty years ago. Obviously he was confused. I let it go. “The pictures from the rovers are beautiful,” I said, tactfully changing the subject, “I never get tired of looking at them.”
“I would very much have liked to have seen some of those,” my companion sighed, “but before I… return… there will not be time for me to look in any books or magazines – ”
“You don’t have to buy a book or a magazine,” I laughed, “they’re all online.” Now, he looked very puzzled at that reference. “You know…? Online?” I repeated slowly, “On the web?” No. Still puzzled. “The I n t e r n e t…” I said even more slowly, as if talking to a slow child. I couldn’t help myself; there was no understanding in his eyes, not even a glimmer. I got the distinct impression that I might just as well have been talking Greek to him. Or Martian.
“Oh come on,” I said, a little impatiently, quite sure now he was either making fun of me or, worse, trying to annoy me. If that was the case, it was working. “You must know what the Internet is…” I persisted, unable to avoid having a scolding tone creep into my voice. “You have a computer, right?”
He nodded. “I did,” he confirmed. “But it didn’t come with a ‘web’ or a ‘net’…”
My instinct was to bite back at that comment, which would have been sarcastic if said by anyone else, but something stopped me. He’d said it innocently and sincerely. He clearly had no idea what I was talking about.
“The Internet is… well…” I paused. Ah. That was a point. What was the Internet like? I used it every day, couldn’t imagine life without it. But what was it, actually?
“It’s like an enormous library,” I began, “like the biggest library in the world…no, it’s like all the libraries in the world collected into one gigantic library,” I pressed on, “and inside you can find any information you need, find out anything you want to know. Not just words, but pictures, films, sounds. Everything.”
“Like the Library of Alexandria…” he whispered, “before they burned it to the ground…”
“Um, yeah, if you like,” I said, trying to steer the conversation back on track. Again. “But the internet is like having a library inside your computer.”
He looked intrigued, but there was still no light bulb shining above his head. I had to try it from a different angle. “Ok. Your computer is like the key to the library,” I continued, “it connects to the internet by a phone line, or some other way, and you use it to browse the library with special computer programs. They help you find out what you want to know, all through instructions and pictures on the screen – “
“And the pictures taken by the Mars rovers are in this… library?” my companion asked me, a hint of a trace of a glimmer of understanding dawning on his face.
“Yes, all of them, new ones each and every day,” I replied enthusiastically, getting into my Outreach stride, “along with images taken by other space probes, like Cassini, Mars Express… You can look at pictures taken by the Hubble telescope online, too. And they’re all,” I finished with a seasoned Outreacher’s flourish, “absolutely free.”
I had expected him to look excited by that, or at least impressed, but instead he looked even sadder than he had before.
“I wish I could see some of those pictures,” he said, “but there are no computers up here within these ruins, I am sure.”
I had to laugh at that. Was the cliché actually happening to me? Was I talking to someone who’d just come out of a coma, or something, and had somehow missed a huge chunk of his life, years, decades even, while the world moved on around him? I was seriously beginning to think so.
“There are no desktops or laptops up here, no, you’re right,” I replied, “bit far to run an extension lead really, but we don’t need one. I’ve got my phone!”Reaching into my pocket I pulled out my mobile. It was nothing fancy, just a Blackberry clone, but perfect for my limited needs, and I knew I could get online up at rom the castle because I often Tweeted from there whilst watching the night sky, or waiting for the space station to go over. Sensing my companion was amazed by what he was seeing I handed it over to him for closer examination.
“It is so… small!” he said, shaking his head in disbelief as he turned the Nokia over and over in his hands. “This is really a telephone?”
“Yes,” I said, “but I suppose it’s more like a pocket computer – “
“It’s more like a tricorder,” the man laughed, only to give a start, moments later, as my ’pocket computer’ vibrated without warning in his hand. He almost dropped it in surprise.
“Just a text message coming in,” I reassured him, reclaiming the phone and accessing my message with a few flicks of fingers and thumb. “Nothing urgent. Here, let me show you what the Mars rovers have been up to.” Casually, without even thinking of what I was doing, I opened up the browser and went straight to my own online gallery of my very favourite MER images. I handed him back the phone.
“Just keep pressing that button on the right,” I told him, ”and the picture will change.”
He did as he was told – and almost dropped the phone again.
“This is… real? A real picture?” he asked breathlessly, staring at the screen, his face glowing red in its .jpg light.
“Oh it’s real,” I replied, “That’s Victoria crater, Oppy – Opportunity – explored it a while ago. Drove into it, then back out again. Now she’s heading to a much bigger – “
“Those layers..!” he interrupted me excitedly, “those layers in the cliffs! They’re magnificent!”
I smiled knowingly. That was exactly how I’d felt when the first raw images of Victoria’s cliffs had appeared on my screen -
“What is that?” he exclaimed, his voice echoing across the hilltop. I looked over his shoulder to see. And smiled again.
“That’s a dust devil, photographed by Spirit from the top of a hill,” I explained. “They put together movies showing the dust devils whirling across the desert – “
He clicked again, impatient. Another image appeared on the phone screen. “I can’t see anything on this one,” he said, confused, “just… sky… I think?”
I peered over his shoulder again. “Yes, that’s the sky,” I confirmed, “a photograph of the dusk sky on Mars, another of Spirit’s images…”
“Why did it take an image of the sky?” he asked. “It’s very pretty, yes, but – “
“Look more closely,” I prompted him. “Zoom in, press that button there…” he did as I asked, and the image on the camera screen blurred for a moment before sharpening again. He frowned. Still nothing, I could tell. “Zoom in a bit more,” I urged, and he did so.
I stood back and waited. He’d get it any… moment…
“Is that..?” he asked, already sensing the answer to his question.
“Yes, yes, it is,” I confirmed. “That’s – “
“Earth,” he whispered, staring deep, deep into the phone’s screen, his flashing, Aslan-wise eyes burning holes through it.
“It looks so small, so fragile,” I said, “like – “
“A pale blue dot…” he sighed, laughing at some personal, private joke.
“Have they found life?” he asked after a few reflective moments, looking up from the phone. “The rovers, I mean. Have they found life yet?”
“They’re not designed to look for life,” I told him, “they’re geologists really – “
“Robot rock-hounds on Mars,” he grinned, “I love it… But surely there are other missions looking for life, after all this time?”
“Not… really…” I said, cursing as I caught a glimpse of a bright meteor out the corner of my eye. Damnit! I’d trekked up to the castle to get away from people, from the world, and see shooting stars, not talk to a strange old man about life on Mars.
“Any hints? Any traces?” he asked.
I was getting a bit bored with this midnight inquisition now. I decided I could either indulge him, and wear him out with facts and figures, or ignore him and hope he’d get bored and drift away, head back down the hill to whichever party he’d stumbled or tumbled out of. I wanted to do the latter, oh, I really did, but there was something about him that made me want to talk to him, and to listen to him, too. So I went with Plan A.
“Well, some science teams have, they say, detected traces of methane in the martian atmosphere which might suggest – “
“ – a biological origin,” he completed the sentence for me, nodding thoughtfully. “Perhaps… perhaps… but, equally, geology might be responsible, methane on its own doesn’t prove anything…”
Hmmm. Odder and odder. How did he know so much about this when he had no idea what the internet was? I decided to test just how much he knew. ]
“Then there’s The Meteorite…” I continued cryptically, staring up at the night sky sparkling above us. There were so many stars, so many stars, it was like looking up at a cathedral ceiling -
“ALH84001,” he said, nodding again. “I’m assuming the existence of fossilised microbes inside it has either been proved or disproved by now..?”
I shook my head. “Afraid not, the jury is still out on that one. Every now and again one of the rival sides makes a claim, the other side knocks it down… we’re really no nearer, I think, than when Clinton stood on that bloody lawn…”
He was quiet for a while then, mulling things over. Several Geminid meteors flashed and dashed across the sky before he spoke again.
“I’ve missed so much, so much,” he said, sadness and regret dripping from his words. “But I thought you… we… would have achieved more by now. All these years, wasted, in a way… Still trapped on Earth, still peering out at the universe from the mouth of our cave, frightened by the mysteries that lurk outside…” He turned to me then, and I saw anger flashing in his eyes. “One solitary space station circles the Earth, its airlocks marking the boundary of human presence in the cosmos. Armstrong’s footprints remain unseen by lunar explorers. Almost a dozen worlds to explore, hundreds of moons, thousands of asteroids and comets, but you all seem to be content to just stand here on Earth’s grass, and tour the universe through a screen a couple of inches wide. I can’t help but feel…” He considered his next words carefully, and when he spoke his words dripped bitterness. “…disappointed in you.”
That was it.
“Well, I’m sorry we’re not gallivanting across the universe in a real life Starship Enterprise, but dilithium crystals are a bugger to get hold of at this time of year!” I snapped back at him, the bitter cold and my own tiredness feeding the fire of my irritation. “But we’ve got rovers on Mars, half a dozen space telescopes Out There, countless space probes in orbit around, or en-route to, other planets, and the Sun, too, so I don’t think we’ve done so badly, not really!”
The awkward, fuming silence that followed was just missing a couple of tumbleweed blowing across the hilltop.
“I’m sorry,” he said wearily, his anger evaporating, “I just… I had expected more to have happened since I…left… that’s all. When I left it seemed so much was happening, so many things were on the horizon. There seemed to be a hunger for knowledge, for exploration. I thought you would have at least dipped your toes in the ocean once more, not stayed safely on the sand, away from the crashing waves.”
He sounded lost, and sad, and hurt, and I felt ashamed, for I understood what he was saying, and, truth be told, I shared his disappointment. I had grown up expecting that when I was an adult I’d live in a shiny, sci-fi world of space stations, Moonbases and manned missions to Mars. That was what I’d been told, from my earliest school days; that was what I’d been promised, by one bright-eyed science writer, one smiling TV science presenter, one typewriter-clacking author after another. But now I was an adult no-one had a Jetsons jet car, no-one was spending their holiday in orbit, and no-one was watching TV pictures of astronauts bounding across the ochre sands of Mars, kicking up clouds of cinnamon-hued dust.
They’d all lied to me, each and every one of them.
But the universe herself never had.
“You see it, don’t you..?” he asked me, as we both tilted back our heads to gaze up at the icy stars. “The beauty… you see it… you feel it, in your heart and in your soul, I can tell…”
I nodded. “I remember when I learned the truth about it,” I told him, “you know, about what I was actually seeing when I looked up on a clear night. I remember sitting in a library at school - junior school, I must only have been about 6, maybe 7 - and I should really have been outside, kicking a ball around or pulling some poor girl’s hair…” He chuckled at that. “Instead I was in the library, hidden away in a corner, out of sight, reading one of the handful of science books in there. And I read something…” I paused, recalling the thrill of the moment. “…amazing…”
“Tell me,” he purred, his voice deep and rich, and for some reason I wanted to.
“The book told me that every star in the night sky was a huge ball of very hot gas, many times bigger than Earth,” I continued, unable to stop that sense of a child’s wonder creeping into my voice, “and that the Sun in the daytime sky was a huge ball of very hot gas too, just closer. It made me feel dizzy, like I had fallen into a well, or something.”
“You had your eyes opened to the glory of the cosmos,” he said, nodding.
I looked up at Orion then, searching for the famous nebula in his sword. It was barely more than a tiny smudge, but I could see it clearly, the sky was so still, the night so cold. In there, stars are being born, right now, I told myself. Amazing…
“People talk about having a light bulb go on above their heads when they realise something profound,” I went on, “but for me, reading that book, discovering that simple, wonderful fact, it was like opening a box, looking inside, and having a blinding light blaze in my face, realising that they were exactly the same thing, the stars and the Sun, the only difference was the distance between me, and them.”
He walked over to me and stood beside me, closer than he had come so far. A few moments ago I had found him annoying. Now I found his presence comforting.
“That night,” I continued, “I went out after dark, into the garden, and looked up at the sky. It looked – different. It wasn’t a flat ceiling above my house or my town, above my life anymore, as I’d always thought of it. It was… a hole… a window… a window through which I could see suns stretching off to infinity. They were all around me, all around the Earth, and I could see that for the first time.”
My companion smiled knowingly. “You had an epiphany, my friend,” he said, “all astronomers have one, either as a child or later in life, a moment when the wonders of the cosmos are revealed to them for the first time, and they sense our place in the universe. Weren’t you frightened?”
I shook my head vigorously. “Frightened? No! I was – liberated! I felt… free…” I turned to him. “Does that make sense?”
He nodded sagely. “Oh, yes, believe me, it makes perfect sense,” he replied. “When faced with the scale and glory of the cosmos, many recoil in fear, terrified to learn how tiny we are compared to the vast sea of suns in which our humble planet drifts… but people like you and I, we embraced the knowledge of our place in the universe. We cherish it. We fell in love with it.”
I nodded in agreement, wondering what the odds were of me meeting such a kindred soul in such circumstances.
“All those stars,” I whispered, looking up, sweeping my gaze across the sky, over the Pleiades and Hyades, across Orion, down to Sirius, which was flashing and scintillating like a distant phosphorous flare, “and now we know many, maybe most, have planets spinning and waltzing around them - ”
The expression on his face changed in an instant. “You’ve found them?” he asked, slowly, carefully. “Other worlds, out there? You’ve actually found them?”
“Oh, hundreds of them,” I replied, almost dismissively. “Getting on for five hundred now, actually. And right now there’s a telescope up there called Kepler, which is looking for worlds the size of Earth. We’re pretty sure it’ll find the first one before too long, too.”
That news staggered him. Literally. He had to reach out and take my arm to prevent himself from falling over. “Hey, are you ok?” I asked, steadying him.
“I’m fine, yes, thank you,” he replied, patting the hand I had placed on his arm. “I just had no idea I’d missed so much…”
I stared at him, silhouetted against the starry sky. How could someone with his passion for astronomy not know that? How could he have missed that? The biggest astronomy news of the century? Nothing about the strange, hypnotic, mysterious man standing beside me, enthralled by the stars, made any sense.
His face was turned up to the sky now, bathed in light that had taken hundreds, thousands of years to reach it. “You do not know how blessed you are,” he said. “I used to dream of the day when we’d know there was even just one world circling another star. The children sleeping down there will grow up in a world where they can look up on a clear night and know that some of the stars above their heads are suns that shine on the oceans, mountains and shores of alien Earths…”
He paused, and I thought I saw tears in his eyes. “I said I was disappointed in you,” he said, “I’m sorry. I’m not. I’m proud of you.”
I knew he was speaking but I was having trouble making out his words now, I was so cold and tired. He seemed so familiar it was infuriating; yet he was so strange and alien I could hardly focus my eyes upon him; my gaze seemed to want to slide off him, deflected by some kind of oily sheen, or force field.
“Who are you..?” I finally asked him outright.
He looked at me with sorrow in his dark eyes. ”A traveller,” he replied, “who must soon leave you.”
I shivered as a gust of cold air blew up the hill and knifed through me. The stars seemed to shudder above me as I wondered how long had I been stood there talking to this strange man.
Suddenly, standing there, I remembered something I’d heard on a TV program, as a teenager, when my passion for astronomy was just taking hold. It had made such an impression on me I had memorised it.
“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean,” I quoted, “On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can – “
“ - because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff…” my companion said, sounding strangely distant, each word fainter than the last.
When I could hear him no longer I turned around to look for him, but he had gone.
There was no sign of him. I looked around the now hoarfrost-coated ruins, along the length of the path, between the trees, even down the steep bank in case he had fallen down there in the dark – nothing.
I was too cold and tired to look any longer, so made my way back to my telescope, yawning and shivering in equal measure. Its metal skin was now coated in frost, which twinkled and flashed with the light of the myriad stars shining above the castle, and a brush of my gloved fingers left deep rift valleys in the blanket of diamon dust draped over its tube –
Then I saw it. Sitting on the top of the tube was a tiny, feathery object. Milk white against the starry blue of the frost it rested on, it looked fragile and frail, like a sculpture of lace or cobweb. I reached out to brush it from the tube, but another, gentle gust of wind breathed over the hilltop and lifted it into the air before I could touch it.
As I watched, it rose silently into the air, and climbed up towards the heavens. For a brief moment the dandelion seed hung there, motionless, balanced perfectly on the silence of the night, silhouetted against and surrounded by the thousands of distant suns that burned in the sky, then, riding another gust of wind, it was carried away, away, eventually vanishing from my sight.
A ship of the imagination, and its traveller pilot, gone to roam amongst the stars.
© Stuart Atkinson 2010