The Astronomer

Open your eyes.

Her words always came back in moments like this.

The voice always the same, from the same starry night that I’d sat on her knees looking skyward. “But they’re already open, Mum,” I remember saying back to her. “See, look!” I’d said, turning my head.

She smiled and squeezed me tight, and whispered, “Look again.”

I returned up my gaze and opened my eyes as widely as I could. Her hand reached beside me, her finger pointed at a cluster I wasn’t familiar with. She’d given me the Modern Encyclopaedia of Astronomy for Christmas that year and we’d been spending Sunday evenings like that ever since. I had a good memory, she told me. I’d memorised nearly all the constellations in the southern hemisphere by then. But I learned most from her, and all the wonderful things about science she knew.

I didn’t quite understand the work she did, but she explained it as looking inwards, at the tiny galaxies inside everything. She said there wasn’t much difference between her microscopes and the telescopes of the famous astronomers I was reading about. “The universe expands in every direction,” she’d told me. I could tell she was right, and I trusted her with everything.

I looked where her finger was pointed towards, trying to find something I’d missed. “Open your eyes from the inside, Robbie,” she said. “Now tell me, what do you see?”

More than thirty years had gone by since then, and those nights were still like yesterdays. Her words came back most often in the twilight between dreams and wakefulness, but now it was through the haze of a hangover.

I opened my eyes. The world spun as I sat upright, and I suppressed the urge to throw up. Slow, deep breaths. I gathered myself, and took stock of my surroundings. Clothes, shoes and all shapes of bags poured from an open wardrobe, strewn everywhere in a mess worse than anything I’d seen since college. Yellow streetlight shone through an open window with its curtains drawn, and I could see that it was night outside.

“Oh hey, you’re up,” said a timid voice. It was Tammy, my assistant, curled in several blankets beside me, looking sheepish. I gave her a smile. Shit, I thought. The world was still spinning.

“It’s still dark outside?” I said, looking back at the window.

“You don’t remember? We didn’t get back till daylight. You’ve been sleeping all day,” she said with a giggle.

“What – what time is it?” I grabbed my phone. It was 8pm. “Shit, shit. I need to go. Dominique asked me to come in. We’ll… talk about this later, okay?”

I was still buttoning my shirt on the street when the Uber arrived. Where the hell was my car? Eventful evening that must have been, if I could remember half of it. Jason and his damn drinking games. I looked back at Tammy’s apartment block as I got in. Things were going to be awkward on Monday.

It was a long drive, and the driver didn’t say much, which suited my nausea fine. The car wound its way through the bushland and over the hill, and the city disappeared in the rear view. In spite of how shithouse I felt, I was looking forward to getting some work done. Judging by the cloudless sky the conditions were optimal, and through gut-pain my anticipation was starting to build.

The observatory came into view at the crest. Lens position set southbound, towards Osidious, from what I could tell. That’s strange, I thought. What’s the old bugger up to?

The fare deducted $77, and the driver left with a tip of a hat he wasn’t wearing. Good for you buddy. I unlocked the door and walked down the hall into the foyer, which was dark. The taps and rattles of busyness were coming from the observation room above. I walked up the stairs and through the archway, and, there she was, as magnificent as ever. The largest and most advanced telescope in the country. I’d been working there ten years and the sight of it was still as arresting as the first day.

“You’re here,” Dominique shouted across the open space. His grey hair was wilder than usual, and he looked like he hadn’t slept in a week. The most affable of mad scientists, spectacles and bowtie and all. I felt better about my appearance immediately.

“Rob, you aren’t going to believe it,” he said. “But we’ve found something. Take a look.” He motioned towards the viewing chair as he walked over, evidently more excited than I’d seen him before. He was practically skipping. This had to be good.

“What am I looking for, Dom?” noting that he’d indeed set the orientation towards Osidious, but, strangely, the collection of astral bodies I saw were unexpected. There shone the familiar binary star Sirius, exactly where Kragar should have been. “That’s odd,” I said. “Is there something wrong with the lens?”

“Not at all, m’boy!”

I pulled back and regarded him a moment. He was visibly overwhelmed by elation, barely containing himself. He smiled broadly and rushed to the computer and adjusted the orientation setting; the hydraulics compressed, and the floor hummed as the telescope angled a half metre downwards. “Look again,” he said. From the monitor I saw he’d set us towards Nembus, our most recent study. My eyes went back to the viewer, and what I saw sent up a shudder. There, in place of Nembus, was Helaio.

Helaio, which was famous for its adjacency to two black holes, was only visible from the northern hemisphere. Until then the discrepancy could be explained by some sort of mechanical fault, but now…

“That’s impossible,” I said.

I was struggling to reconcile. Thoughts rolled in clashes and it had nothing to do with the hangover. My mind grasped for something rational: that Dominique, or someone, had pulled off one hell of a hoax. The how didn’t matter. What other explanation could there be?

“But it’s entirely possible,” he said with a spark.

I sat there dumbfounded. There wasn’t the remotest deception in his voice. In all the years we’d worked together, if I’d learnt one thing about Dominique, it was how trustworthy he was.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean we’ve found the truth, Robbie,” he said. “And what better thing in the world is there than the truth?”

“Sure, but… I’m not following,” my disbelief was turning to impatience. “Why is Helaio visible from our telescope?”

“Think a moment. Where are you right now?”

The sleepless nights had made the old man go mad. With a sigh I replied: “I’m at the Copernicus Observatory with the great Dominique Macintyre, my longtime mentor, and friend in spite of how nutty he’s beginning to sound, sitting in a chair that needed replacing five years ago.” He smiled. “Are you sure about that?”

“Couldn’t be surer. The cushion’s gone to hell.”

“But, are you sure of where you’re actually sitting?”

“Okay, enough with the cryptics,” I said in frustration. “Just tell me what you’re getting at.”

Open your eyes, Robbie.

Echoes of her voice in my head, all of a sudden, and a wave of nausea swept over me. I looked up at Dominique’s earnest countenance, and felt the pinch of recognition inside. Something strange and wordless was happening.

“Take another look.”

In all the years since she died, it wasn’t until that moment that I started to connect with what she had meant. Maybe I was too literal for the quick uptake of certain things, when they’re abstract. But, better late than never, I suppose.

Looking again, I had missed something impossible.

And how much, in my time, had I failed to see?

Ever so slowly, the stars were moving.

It was too otherworldly for the mystical, too inconceivable for a dream. They drifted in ensembles and duets, northward and southbound, some with the subtle rotations of sparkling astrolabes. I realised, in amazement, that they were coalescing into some kind of form. The vision was mesmerising.

“Dom, would you mind adjusting the zoom back a fraction?”

He didn’t answer. I raised my head, and saw that he was gone. “Dominique,” I said louder. “Are you there?”

I was too fixated to look for him, or to consider that I hadn’t heard him leave. I adjusted the settings myself and went back to the chair. Vaguely but clear enough to discern, letters had begun taking shape. Frozen with awe, I watched without blinking.

“Do you remember the accident, Robbie?” came Dominique’s voice. Glancing around, I still couldn’t see him. Of course I remembered the accident.

“Dom, are you there?”

“I’m here,” he said, deep and clear, his earlier tones replaced with a certain gravitas. Wherever he was, it no longer mattered. Not anymore.

How could I forget?

Mum was killed in a car accident when I was ten. It would’ve been all of us, if it weren’t for my fever that night. But she was the only one that left. I remember the red of the brake lights flashing as she went down the drive through the rain, and the double-honk of the horn as she drove away. I could see that she’d wanted to stay, but her presentation couldn’t be postponed again. I’ve never blamed her for leaving.

She told me once that the world is so unbelievably complex it’s possible to see anything if we want to, that two people can look in the same direction and see two entirely different things. This was how astrology worked, she said. An infinite number of shapes to be seen, but it’s only the ones we’re taught that we notice. The truth of people was in the stars, she would say. Our world is simply what we interpret to be the case. She told me that when she was gone, all I had to do was look up, and I’d be able to see her smiling back at me.

“Not the accident your mother was in, Robbie,” Dominique said.

“The accident you were in.”

Reality started to fold, the cascades of a dozen realisations overlapped in my mind. But of course. The accident… How could I forget? And yet, all I could manage was the memory of forgetting.

What accident, Dom?

“You were rock climbing, and you fell. You fell quite a distance, in fact.”

I started to remember. Jason and Tammy were over the top when the rope snapped. The shock on their faces as I fell, before it all went black. I must’ve been ten to fifteen metres up when it happened.

Where am I?

“I’m not sure, m’boy. Guessing the General Hospital, rucked-up in ICU no doubt.”

He was guessing? And finally, I realised: I’d met Dominique Macintyre once at a forum in Sydney. We’d kept a correspondence via email for a few years, until his retirement, and I really did consider him a mentor of sorts, but we never worked together; in fact, he was based in the UK. Which could only mean one thing.

That, as real as he seemed, the Dominique I was talking with was merely an expression of my subconscious – a means of communicating with my deeper awareness, through the interface of someone I trusted, as to the predicament I was in.

“What about these stars?” I asked, speaking out loud again.

“Well, that’s where things get interesting,” he said. “They aren’t being manipulated internally, should be regular old Nembus you’re looking at. Something else is going on. Might also be worth pondering that, without the anomaly you’re seeing up there, I’d never have noticed anything was amiss to begin with.”

Could it be?

I peered back into the viewer. There, in capital bold, inked by the pulse of ten thousand stars, bright as anything to ever grace the night sky, were two words written in a hand that was all too familiar…

WAKE UP

***

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8 responses to “The Astronomer”

  1. I’ve heard writers become better with practice and by reading other writers with talent. You, Sir, have a talent for grabbing your audience and pulling them into the story. Your words flow like a song. I will be reading more!

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is what drew me to finishing your post the other day (after which, I found you on Amazon!). Happily surprised to see you here, with one of the nicest comments I’ll likely get, no less. Means a lot, thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

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