Victorian Observatory

by David Farmer

My Dear Brother Michael,

I think you make a mistake when you assume my incompetence caused my dismissal from the observatory in 1898. I agree the facts are black against me - Phillip Blake, student, left alone in the building for an hour. Found on the floor with a broken ankle, a bleeding nose and babbling like an idiot, having apparently fallen from halfway up the dome without a ladder or any other contrivance to indicate how I got up there.

You must keep this a secret. Certainly our parents must never know the story. Do NOT tell our sister, I beg of you.

The night of September 17th was unusually cold for southern England, and old Carruthers, the astronomer, was bent over the eyepiece in the side of the huge reflector telescope. Every so often he would make that grating, coughing wheeze that you yourself noticed when you were there one evening. I was hovering in the dark in the background, hoping he would let me actually do some of the work this time. I stamped and hopped from one foot to another to try to keep warm, and the dew fell into the room through the opening in the dome. The moon was a crescent, and you know how spectacular that looks through the instrument. I was just itching to swing the scope down a little, and look at it. I wouldn't even need to swivel the dome, for the moon was actually shining through the slit.

An hour slowly passed, and the wheeze came again and again, as did the scratching of Carruthers' pencil in his notebook as he wrote his observations. Then suddenly, he said, "Mr Blake!"

"Yes sir?" said I, and he stopped peering through the eyepiece and turned to look at me. "If you will excuse me, I have some business I need to attend to. I'm afraid I will have to leave you for an hour. Do you have any work to continue with?"

"Yes, indeed I do sir," I said, and inwardly jumped in the air with joy. To be left alone, and be able to swing the scope down 20 degrees, and see the moon again! Reassured, Carruthers got down off the stool, and with an excruciating slowness gathered his materials and made his way to the door and out.

I climbed up on the stool at the side of the telescope, and looked into the eyepiece. A single star, like a tiny jewel, stared back at me.

"And Mr Blake!" came Carruthers' voice, and I nearly poked myself in the eye with the eyepiece. I turned around, as calmly as I could. "Yes sir?" I said.

"Do not move the scope unnecessarily," he said with an admonishing finger, and then he turned and left again. I waited quite a while to make sure he had gone.

But then I adjusted the scope, moving it down to where the crescent of the moon was following the vanished sun into the west. I readjusted my position at the eyepiece, and looked in.

And there again were the craters and the mountains, so easily visible since the sunlight struck them from the side, so that their shadows were etched in the ground beside them. I remember breathing out in a long sigh at the beautiful picture it made. It was a picture, yes, but it was even better. It was a real place, a quarter of a million miles from us.

And then I saw something which made my heart stop, and I almost cried out in surprise.

I saw movement.

Very slowly a white speck appeared at the edge of the curve of the planet. It was tiny and bright and moved slowly away from the edge, and then it stopped. And I had the most unearthly feeling. I knew I was being watched, and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.

I suddenly felt myself constricted, as if my clothes were too tight, and I had a dizzying sensation of hurtling movement. Instantly everything changed. I was standing on a polished floor with a window open to the stars and I was staring out and down at the glaring bright of the craters and mountains of the moon.

I reached a hand, carefully, towards the window. It seemed to have no glass, and yet I could breathe next to that endless vacuum. At that I was convinced it was some ridiculous dream, and waited for myself to wake, but that relief never came.

I looked around the room. It was dark and strange and cold. I sat down on the floor with my back to that terrifying gulf and shivered.

Do you know that the picture of our maternal grandfather came into my mind just then? The thought of that gruff, stern man with the huge whiskers who seemed to disapprove of you as you walked past his portrait, somehow brought a bit of steel back into my spine. I got slowly to my feet and shivered some more.

It struck me that the temperature and moisture of the air were exactly the same as in the observatory. And as I looked some of the objects in the room started to resolve themselves into recognisable things. There was something like a brown bag with four sticks sticking out of it. It was actually like the stool I had been sitting on, though the most idiotic, twisted mess of a thing you every saw. Two other objects were desks, sloped and slumping but like the two desks we had in the observatory. I approached one of them, and reached out and touched it. It was smooth and cold and it was not made of wood, whatever it was. Next to it was something gray and folded and small, and I couldn't make out what it was meant to be.

I realised then that the room was roughly circular like the observatory, and the walls curved upwards and became the ceiling. The open window was part of a slit that went all the way to the top. It came to me that perhaps I was in a zoo, or an aquarium, with amusing little trinkets scattered around me that resembled my native environment.

But there was no telescope, and before long an idea occurred to me. Someone had seen me through the telescope, and seen various parts of the observatory, but couldn't see the telescope itself.

I looked again at the window and cried out. A grey sphere with many coloured twinkling lights was floating outside. I just stared at it, no courage left, and it slowly descended out of sight. I walked forward, more from a fear of letting it out of my field of vision than through any desire to study it further, and I watched it slowly descend towards the surface of the moon. It became lost to my sight, its brightness swallowed up in the greater brightness of the planet, but presently I saw others, all the same, all blinking different messages with their coloured lights, descending to the surface and ascending past my prison, on errands of which I knew nothing.

I turned again to the room, and walked closer to the centre, to where the telescope should have been. And slowly the grey, twisted mess next to the desk unfolded, and reared up, and one eye opened with multiple lids like a crocodile. It had five long grey limbs, that flowed and floated like an octopus in water. It was lop-sided and twisted, like the furniture in the room, and the eye near its top regarded me for a long moment, but with what emotion - malice, anger, amusement - I couldn't tell.

And suddenly, once again I felt constricted and squeezed and suddenly falling, and I found myself with my back to the wall high up in the dome of the observatory. I stared stupidly for an instant down at the eyepiece through which I had been sent, before I crashed ignominiously and painfully to the floor.

My one crime being the movement of the scope, I felt my subsequent dismissal rather keenly. But what could I tell them? That I had somehow been dragged through the lenses and reflected off the mirrors of a telescope? That I had ended my journey in space? And what could I say about what I found there, that would not see me put away as a madman? So I accepted their decision without much comment.

But on those nights when it bothers me most, I stare out of the window whether the moon is there or not, and imagine that strange place with the hurrying spheres, and wonder if they are still watching.

Your Affectionate Brother,

Phillip.

Copyright © 2008 David Farmer.
First published in our Infinitas Newsletter, March 2008 .

This page last updated 16th September 2008.