Nothing in the Dark

 

The Andes stretched from horizon to horizon and from sea to sky, rocky slopes pristine, skyline unbroken but for a tall silver dome perched atop the tallest peak. Just adjacent, the rising red sun spilled down into the foothills, lending a nascent glow to the slender road which snaked up to meet it.

Dust clung to Dr. Kiera Morrison’s sneakers as she trudged up the pavement, stopping every so often to set down her bags and rest. Lanzadera no va, Roberto had told her at the observatory office at the base of the mountain. Observing over Christmas meant bare-bones staff, and that meant no shuttle driver. But it was free telescope time, she mumbled to herself as she dabbed at her forehead with her shirt tail once more. An opportunity an ambitious, nearly-tenured young professor couldn’t afford to waste.

The sun was high overhead by the time she arrived at the wind-whipped sign that announced Observatorio Las Escaleras. The facility itself was a relic of the 1930’s and its concrete bulk and curving balconies jarred against the brush and boulders. Stale, warm air smelling of old wood and dusty books greeted her as she pushed open the glass-paned door.

(Illustration created by Marie Ginga with an image courtesy of Fotoworkshop4You at Pixabay.com)

Crossing the floor mosaiced in the twelve icons of the zodiac, she scribbled her name in a guestbook as old as the building and located a key with 1A etched into dull brass. Then she heaved her luggage up the sweeping, wrought-iron stairs, found her room, and promptly fell asleep.

✸✸✸

Kiera woke in absolute darkness. Her heart started to race until she remembered—she was on an observing run, staying in an astronomer’s lodge. There would be blackout curtains, of course. She rubbed her eyes and groped for the light switch. Where was it? The bed must be bigger than she thought. She turned on her phone, stumbled out of bed, and drew the curtains, letting the searing light of the desert wash over the faded blue-greens of the room.

16:23, shit. Later than she wanted to be calibrating a telescope she’d never used before.

The telescope seemed not to rise from the ground but to stretch down out of the brilliant blue sky as she jogged up the steep stone path. Several stories overhead, the catwalk encircling the white dome rattled in the wind. Inside, the decor was much the same as the lodge: soft aquamarines paired with light woods; snappy, parallel curves meeting straight lines; a svelte radio cabinet set against the far wall. She trailed her fingers along a long, squat bookcase as she walked through the lobby and found them satisfactorily free of dust. Black placards indicated the way to the kitchen, library, and restroom. But she had no time to explore.

A narrow spiral staircase twisted into darkness below and above. The muted sunlight of the lobby faded into red and shadow as she climbed. What was she going to find in the control room? She hoped for a comfortable space filled with servers and monitors, and a friendly operator. A fast internet connection. Maybe even a good espresso machine.

A single, fat computer monitor sat on a dilapidated wooden desk cluttered with books and star charts. There was no operator in sight, hardly even room for another person. She shook her head and clucked at the mess. There had better be a damned good instruction manual, she thought, if they let astronomers handle this thing untrained. Now, into the dome to check on the telescope.

Kiera yelped as she nearly collided with a rim of dark metal that stared like the eye of some great, dead beast. The telescope was a long, open cylinder of wrought steel, its far end containing the primary mirror in which she could see herself dimly reflected, its near end pressing heavily into the linoleum floor. It seemed terribly contorted–weren’t telescopes usually left upright? It looked as if someone was trying to observe an object that had drifted below the horizon. More likely, the operator had been fixing some component and simply forgot to right it. She located the interior control pad, hit the ‘dock’ button, and watched massive, fine-toothed gears hum into motion as the telescope transformed into an imposing steel tower, eye to the sky once more.

✸✸✸

Stomach growling, Keira stepped carefully down the stone path and tried to shake off the uneasy feeling the downed telescope had left. A chinchilla darted across the path, and a small flock of llamas grazed on a nearby slope. She focused on them while she collected her thoughts. The instructions, hand-lettered on yellowing paper, had been easy enough to follow–all telescopes were essentially the same, after all. Actually observing would be another task. Would the ancient telescope point? Would it track? Her target, a particularly bright quasar in the Triangulum constellation, required constant exposure with no interference from nearby stars. Poor tracking would waste the entire five-night run, and then what would she have to show for a Christmas spent on a remote mountain in Chile?

The smell of empanadas lured her to the cafeteria where a steaming pile of them lay on a counter. She felt herself relax at the sound of bits of Spanish filtering from the kitchen. Finally, other people. Even out of sight, the voices comforted her as she took a seat alone by the window. The light of the waning sun warmed and brightened the room into a cheerful atmosphere, and suddenly her fears were assuaged. There were bound to be issues with the telescope, but she could fix them. She had a PhD and a decade of experience. She was about to be tenured, damn it. Whatever this clanking old apparatus could come up with, she could handle.

DECEMBER 21:

Kiera cracked her knuckles before she sat down at the old console. From the catwalk, she had watched the sun set magnificently over the Pacific Ocean, watched the horizon’s glow fade from gold to crimson to blue and finally to the indigo that marked the giving over of day to night. The dome was open to the sky and the first stars were appearing in the sky in the bold, unfamiliar constellations of the southern hemisphere. High above, the Milky Way and the twin Magellanic Clouds brightened into view.

Inside, she opened the archaic software and entered the coordinates. The old dome shuddered and groaned as 200 tons of concrete rotated to accommodate.

Sure enough, the pinprick of light—her pinprick—appeared on the screen. It sat neatly framed by three local stars Kiera had taken to calling Alpha, Beta, and Gamma, and the autoguider had centered it perfectly. She breathed a sigh of relief. If all went well, she could just set the instrument to run all night while she wrote her next paper and answered a daunting backlog of emails.

The “instrument”, the instructions had warned, was a spectrograph—but not the compact variety that simply attached to the back of the telescope behind the primary. Instead, the light of the stars followed a complex, mirrored path down into the guts of the building. Somewhere below her feet lay a dark labyrinth of collimators and diffractors that stretched a trickle of white light into a rainbow of data.

Down the spiral staircase and through a maze of dim hallways, she found a door labeled Coudé Spectrograph. Inside, a slice of red light fell upon a cluster of metal tubes and glittering lenses. Everything else was pitch black, an unnatural darkness that seemed to gnaw at the intruding light. Kiera paused. She wasn’t afraid of the dark. Nevertheless…

She fumbled for a light switch and was dismayed to find the wall flat and smooth. Maybe it was on the other side of the door? She heaved it open such that a big rectangle of red now fell on the draconian machinery. Ah, there it was—on the far side of the room. She cursed under her breath for not bringing the heavy steel flashlight that sat next to the desktop. But the part was free of obstacles, she should be able to just walk straight across and turn it on. Feeling a little foolish, she toed off a shoe and propped it in the doorway before stepping inside and letting the door fall shut.

It was quiet down here, she noticed, silent, without the buzz of the servers or the grind of the dome. Her socked foot immediately told her that the floor wasn’t all there—her stomach dropped as she realized it was merely a metal grate suspended over—what? Storage? Empty space? How far was the drop, and what lay below?

Just keep going straight. Seven steps. Eight. Nine—and she felt the wall. She forced her fingers to search the surface slowly. She wasn’t scared. She was an astronomer, for God’s sake.

Click.

The yellow-white glow of a single incandescent bulb filled her with relief. She was in a low-ceilinged space with two massive concrete columns at each end. Every surface was black except for the metal and glass components of the optical path. Below her, the emptiness under the grate stretched far into incalculable darkness. An astronomer shouldn’t be afraid of the dark, she thought, but no one said anything about heights. She focused on the optics and tried not to look down.

Lens caps had to be removed, diffraction gratings uncovered, and mirrors opened; the camera unit had to be turned on, and its nitrogen cooling system had to be filled. She set herself about these tasks, letting the work absorb her and finding herself enjoying it. Few telescopes in this age allowed astronomers to handle equipment directly, and even fewer used archaic spectrographs like this one. She finished up, turned off the light, and returned to the control room.

The guider was on target. The night was young. Kiera typed in the command to acquire data, hit the enter key with a satisfying click, and opened her laptop.

DECEMBER 22:

Kiera woke up at 3 PM, exhausted. She was too old to be doing this anymore, to be flipping her sleep schedule to the night shift. Observing was a young woman’s game.

Her second set of calibrations found the scope nose-down on the floor once more. How curious, she thought as she peered down the tube. There was no trace of mechanical work being done, no tools or dust cloths or bottles of cleaning solution. Still, it meant that someone was looking after the old telescope, making sure it was in working order each night.

A brass handle in the center of the tube caught her attention. It should lead to the secondary mirror–but why did the secondary mirror need so much space? The smaller cylinder, the pupil of the eye which had frightened her yesterday, extended some six feet into the main cylinder. She frowned and gave the handle a twist.

It opened with a metallic shriek, revealing a small, person-sized compartment, complete with a cushioned seat and a space like a small desk. In the center was a pinhole to the primary mirror. A prime focus capsule! Kiera had never seen one in person, only in old photographs in textbooks. Before the invention of modern digital cameras, the astronomer could watch, and sketch, the object they were observing directly from the primary mirror, losing no photons in the glass plate exposure process of the old days.

She resisted the urge to climb in and have a closer look, noting the abundance of dusty spiderwebs stretching from side to side. Instead, she closed the hatch, then she walked back into the control room and set the telescope upright again.

Dinner was empanadas. Again? she thought. She piled a plate full and carried it up to the telescope with her for night lunch.

Once more she navigated the passageway to the spectrograph room—the dungeon, as she had taken to calling it, with its thick, low arches, horribly transparent floors, and morbid accoutrements.

She had forgotten her flashlight. Oh well. What was it, eight, nine steps straight across to the light switch? She pushed the door open as far as it would go before hurrying across the room. Eight. Nine. Ten, eleven, twelve. Twelve?

Click.

The optics seemed to blink in the light. Hadn’t she covered them last night? She searched her memory as she paced. The nitrogen dewar hissed in the background. Perhaps not. She had been pretty exhausted by the night’s end. The first night was always the worst.

Click. Nine steps.

Kiera set the autoguider, cracked open an energy drink,  and got to work.

At 00:30, she stood, stretched, and walked down the staircase to the restroom. The light at the end of the hall was burned out. Sure, the original red light bulbs were necessary back when astronomers walked in and out of the dome to work and couldn’t lose their night vision, but couldn’t they have updated them since then? She sighed and made a note to search the building for spare bulbs.

She opened the door and groped for the chain that controlled the light. Left. Right. Nothing. Up and down. Her hand only encountered empty space. Had the chain fallen down during the day? Frustrated, she pulled out her cell phone and let its flash illuminate the space. The chain hung, as it always had, right in front of her face. A chill passed through her as she pulled it. How could she have missed it like that?

Tired, she thought. I’m tired and I didn’t feel it.

Back at the control panel, the view was beginning to drift as the telescope pulled toward Alpha, the top star in the triangle.

Aha. There it is. Telescopes never simply behaved. All of them had quirks, and this one was no different. Something wasn’t balanced correctly, or the autoguider had failed for a moment, or perhaps she had made a typo in the coordinate entry. On the command line, she manually redefined the target and started a new exposure.

The rest of the night went smoothly. She finished her paper draft, answered some emails, and started on the curriculum for next semester’s Electrodynamics class.

The sun rose, and she closed the dome, shuttered the optics, and went to bed.

DECEMBER 23

The telescope was down again, aggressively nosing into the floor like it could punch through. Kiera ran her fingers around its cold steel rim and shivered. She decided to make a note of it in the observing log. “Please leave telescope upright for afternoon calibrations.” It’s freaking me out.

In the cafeteria waited the same pile of empanadas. Well, not the exact same, right? After all, the kitchen staff was here, she could hear someone rummaging around the cabinets right now.

“Hello?” she called.

No voice replied.

“Hello?” Kiera knew bits and pieces of Spanish, but she was too embarrassed to try it out. They just have earbuds in, she thought to herself. They can’t hear me.

She took a pair of noticeably cool empanadas off the pile for dinner, then wrapped another pair in foil for night lunch.

✸✸✸

The telescope was down again—but this time, the eternal eye wasn’t pressed into the floor, it was parallel to it—and its stare pierced her chest like cold iron.

Ok, she thought. It’s a software problem. That’s all it is.

She shut the door and walked back to the control room. The sun was setting, and she checked her inbox while the sky turned. An email from Marcia, the head of her tenure committee.

Is this your full publication record? she asked. Looks a little thin. Recommend waiting until regular cycle.

Kiera’s cheeks burned.

No, she typed back. Have some new data coming in.

Sure, she was two years early to be applying for tenure. But she deserved it. No one worked harder. No one organized more. No one had a better teaching record. Now all she needed was a fat CV and she’d be the youngest professor in the history of the university. She craved it. And after that? Well, she’d find some new record to break.

But for now, she was stuck on a mountain in the desert over Christmas.

She cracked the door to the catwalk. All clear, she admired. Not a cloud on the horizon.

She slewed the telescope to her quasar and—wait. The image was blurry. Kiera groaned. Something must have jiggled the optics, and now she was going to have to spend precious observing time figuring out what it was. Shouldn’t there be a technician for this? she thought, annoyed. I could easily break something.

She grabbed the heavy steel flashlight and thumped down the stairs. At the door to the dungeon, she stopped. It was either nine steps or twelve to the light switch. She shouldn’t have been bothered by it, but she was. “It’s within an order of magnitude!” her colleagues would have joked. But Kiera wasn’t just an astronomer. She was a spectroscopist. She was precise, damn it. She shoved the flashlight into her cargo shorts pocket and opened the door.

She let it fall closed behind her and set her heels against it.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. She stretched out her arm to empty air. So she had counted badly the first time! She kept going.

Ten. Eleven. Twelve.

Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen.

What the hell? Did she get turned around? No, she had set out straight and she was still walking straight.

Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen.

Eighteen?? This is crazy. She started walking again, faster this time. The optics dungeon was longer than it was wide, but surely, shouldn’t she have reached a wall by now? Any wall? Even run into some equipment?

Common sense told her to turn the flashlight on. Stubbornness told her the wall was just ahead.

Twenty-six steps.

Of course! she thought. There must be a second door besides the light switch, and someone has left it open and I’ve walked right through it.

She turned around, halfway relieved.

I’m not afraid of the dark.

Twenty six steps back.

Twenty seven.

Twenty eight.

She broke out in a nervous sweat as she passed the old count. So I’ve miscounted again. Big steps, now.

The steps seemed to take her nowhere. Dread filled her chest like wet cement as panic set in.

Jogging. Jogging. Now she was running. Sprinting. Where was the door? Where was she?

The toe of her sneaker caught the metal grate and sent her hurtling to the floor. The flashlight clattered out of her pocket and she snatched it up with shaking hands and clicked it on.

Inches from her fingertips lay the wall, and three feet up, the light switch.

There was no second door.

Kiera flung herself across the room and slammed the door behind her. She scrambled through the halls and up the stairs and collapsed, trembling, into the desk chair as her brain tried to make rational sense of what had just happened. It couldn’t.

The image was just going to have to stay blurry. No matter what, she wasn’t going back in that room.

✸✸✸

The drift returned. An hour later, after she had calmed down and made a weak cup of tea with some old teabags she’d found in the kitchen, the scope started to pull towards Alpha again. She sighed and typed in the command to drag it back.

But this time it didn’t stay. Twenty minutes later, it was pulling again. And again, ten minutes later. And again and again. Hours passed as Kiera alternated focusing on her upcoming paper and paranoidly watching the screen for signs of change, jaw unwittingly clenched, back sore, eyes exhausted.

Finally, the night ended. The optics in the dungeon were just going to have to stay uncovered, good practice be damned. “Telescope drifting frequently,” she wrote in the night report. “And please refill the nitrogen dewar?”

DECEMBER 24

Her dreams were full of impossible mirrors and behemoths moving silently in the dark. She woke up sweating. Had the air conditioning gone out overnight? The glow of her phone illuminated the space as she fumbled for the bedside lamp.

Dead.

The light was dead, the air conditioning was out, and in a moment, she discovered that the water was off, too.

No matter, she’d just put in a maintenance request and it’d be fixed by the time she was done calibrations. Or would it? Were the maintenance workers here?

***

She wasn’t surprised to find the eye staring at her once more as she entered the dome. It was just a bug in the code. Probably the same one that was causing the tracking issues last night.

At the control panel, the nitrogen levels were full. She breathed a sigh of relief—at least someone was looking out for her, even if she hadn’t met them yet. Maybe they had fixed the drift, too. Last night had been exhausting, and she hadn’t slept well, either.

She took the calibration images without issue and headed down to the lodge for dinner.

It was definitely the same pile of empanadas. Flies buzzed around them, and at a distance she could see white spots of mold. I should file a complaint, she thought to herself. The kitchen was dark and silent, although light streamed in through the bay windows in the cafeteria. She tried the light switch. Dead, just like in her room.

Great. So the power goes out and everyone leaves.

No matter. There was plenty of dry cereal in the telescope’s kitchen. She scoffed as she walked back up the hill. It was going to take a lot more than this for Dr. Kiera Morrison to quit on a run.

✸✸✸

You know what? Kiera thought to herself, face to face with the primary mirror once more. It’s almost like it’s trying to track something it can’t see.

Like yesterday, the scope’s lower edge was lifted off the floor and it was pointing straight at the horizon. But what was it? She walked out onto the catwalk. The sunset was stunning, as always, and the first stars were beginning to emerge from the veil of darkness. But what else was out there? She shook her head. The idea was ridiculous. At least its position meant that there was a generator around, something to keep it going while the power was out.

The control panel turned on too. So that was two things going right so far. She slewed to the quasar, feeling the familiar shake and rumble of the dome overhead as it rotated.

The image was blurrier than the day before, but she ignored it. She could live with blurry. She couldn’t live with… whatever that was down in the optics room. Shuddering at the memory, she watched the little pinpoint for a few minutes. It seemed so bright and cheerful as it sat all alone in the sky, like a little Christmas bauble, removed by billions of light years from its stellar companions.

The closest I’ll get to a Christmas tree, she thought glumly. In a few hours, it would be Christmas, and here she was, alone in the vast darkness of the Andes. Her friends and family would be celebrating, would be wondering where she was and why she had chosen an observing run over spending time with them. Ugh. One of the bad things about observing alone was the potential to be alone with one’s own thoughts for long periods of time. She put on some loud Rachmaninov and headed down to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.

When she returned, the drift was back–and the crosshairs of the telescope were already halfway to Alpha. “What the—” she exclaimed aloud. This was far worse than yesterday. She flopped back down into the desk chair for a long night and opened her phone only to realize with a groan that the wifi was gone too. Not a problem, she thought grimly, and opened a Word document.

When the telescope had been stable for twenty minutes she decided she had earned a bathroom break. Preoccupied, she stepped into the restroom, clicked the light switch, and–

Dead.

The door slammed shut behind her. She reached for the handle and her hand passed through emptiness.

“No,” she whispered in horror. “Oh no, no no no.” She took a step backwards, then another. The bathroom was gone. Only darkness remained.

“No!”

She broke into a run, feet pounding tile, but the void was absolute. Was she going anywhere? Was she moving at lightspeed? She couldn’t tell. Space ceased to hold meaning. And if space was lost to her, was time as well? Could she run forever without a second passing? The last time, she had pulled out a flashlight and the world had come back.

A flashlight! Kiera didn’t have a flashlight, but she did have a phone. Still sprinting, she shoved her hand into her pocket and–

WHAM! She slammed bodily into the sink, the impact of her head on the mirror shattering it. Glass fell around her as she sunk to the ground in a gleeful daze—reality was back! She spit blood onto the black and white tiles. Had she loosened a tooth? She didn’t care. There was the sink, and the toilet, and the door, and everything that belonged in a normal, real space. She crawled out the door and dragged herself onto the stairs, thankful beyond words for the control panel’s faint glow that came from above.

It was the dark! The fucking dark, she thought to herself, gasping for breath, heart racing. What was this horrible place where reality failed with the light? I’ve got to get out of here.

But there was no getting out. The shuttle would pick her up on the morning of the 26th, otherwise it was a seven-hour trek down the mountain into town. She was trapped here, alone with the telescope and the evil dark.

And where the hell, she asked herself, was everyone else? Evidence suggested that other people were here, they had to be—someone was making food, someone was maintaining the telescope—yet she had never seen them. She shuddered and shoved the thought aside. Tomorrow, that was when she would deal with that. She would find someone and ask them what was going on. Not that she expected a satisfying answer.

Step by step, Kiera pulled herself back up to the control room, collecting bits and pieces of her constitution along the way. She sunk into her chair and curled into a ball, afraid to even close her eyes for fear of disappearing.

The telescope had drifted again. Her hands shook as she performed the correction.

The drifts became faster and worse and the night wore on. It was no longer a gentle pulling-away from the quasar so much as a sudden jerk followed by tangible, real-time motion. And now the cross-hairs were heading toward the space between the stars Alpha and Beta. What was going on? It didn’t make sense. But then, maybe it wasn’t a software issue. She grimaced as she realized what she had to do.

To take the flashlight? It would introduce extra, unwanted light into her observation, and if she wasn’t careful, it could burn out the whole optical path. But it had to be done.

Cold steel in hand, and safe in a pool of dim, yellow light, she stepped into the dome and walked over to the massive gears which controlled the scope. Starlight shone in from above and she glimpsed the familiar band of the Milky Way overhead. It was comforting, somehow, to see it—the same sight shared by billions of people the world over.

As she approached, she noticed a strange, tinny sound, like the whine of a metal mosquito. It was coming from the gearshafts. They were struggling, their small, gleaming motors resisting some unseen force that pushed against the motion of the declination wheel. After minutes of the whining struggle, the wheel gave, and the gear slipped several teeth into shadow. Then the sound started up again.

So it was a hardware issue. To put it lightly, she thought. She wanted the telescope to point at her quasar and the telescope wanted to point somewhere else. Where else? She didn’t want to know.

Back into the control room. She rubbed her eyes, flexed her fingers, and prepared to fight the telescope until dawn.

DECEMBER 25

Merry Christmas, Kiera thought as she woke up to afternoon sunlight streaming in through the cracked blackout curtains. The room was unbearably hot–the power must still be out, she decided. Her phone was at 41% battery, she noticed with a frown. She’d just have to use it sparingly and it should hold a charge until tomorrow morning.

She planned as she dressed and made her way to the telescope, avoiding the dome. She already knew what she’d find there. Number one. Take the flashlight everywhere. Number two. Find someone to talk to.  Number Three: Get my data and get the hell out of here. Never come back.

She righted the scope and ran the calibrations. The nitrogen dewar had been filled once again, helpfully, saving her a trip to the accursed optics room.

Forty-five minutes later and it was time to confront the kitchen staff. Who were they? Why had they stopped making food, and if they weren’t making food, why were they still here?

Kiera stepped into the cafeteria to the sight and smell of moldering, black empanadas. Through the door, voices chatted softly.  She walked briskly over and pushed it open.

It was empty. The kitchen was empty, the lights were off, a layer of dust covered the counters. Silence fell heavily.

She slammed the door and backed away, ran out of the cafeteria and out into the open.

This is wrong, this is all wrong. She fought back tears. What is this hell place? What was going on? Why was all of this happening? She wanted to quit. She could just go back to her room right now, pack everything up, and hike down the mountain. If she started now, she could make it before–

No, she couldn’t. With a pit growing in her stomach, she realized that she couldn’t make it back into town until long after dark. She couldn’t do it. She could get lost, and wander and never be found.

She was going to have to spend one more night on the mountain.

And while she was on the mountain, she might as well be taking data.

She gritted her teeth and strode once more up the stone path to the telescope.

✸✸✸

Kiera slammed her fists on the desk and buried her head in her hands.

It was that goddamned drift again. Back and worse than ever, dragging the scope north every couple of seconds. What kind of a mechanical failure was even responsible for such a thing?

And where exactly was it going, anyways?

Kiera decided to find out.

The next time the cross-hairs slid up, she let them, and walked out into the dome to follow its path.

Her jaw fell slack at the sight. A telescope is not a thing which is built to move quickly—righting it every day had taken minutes for the ancient steel device to creak back into place. But now, it was moving faster than she’d ever seen one move, not so much slewing as swinging, like a great upside-down pendulum. In another moment it slowed and came to a halt.

Kiera finally understood—the telescope pressed to the floor each afternoon, higher each evening, drifting at night—it had been tracking. Tracking something across the sky, day and night.

Morbid curiosity burned inside her. What terrible, otherworldly object did the cursed telescope follow?

Where was it pointing now?

There was only one way to find out. Kiera felt herself drawn back to the control room. The computer would show her—from a safe distance.

But the screen was black, as if it had been shut off. She wiggled the mouse. Nothing. In fact, it was blacker than black, darker than dark, yawning, a void as empty as the space between the stars; dizzying, stretching, growing, falling,

Kiera snapped awake as her head began to drop. She clutched at the flashlight and spun away from the wretched darkness.

And there she sat, arms wrapped around her knees, fingers white-knuckled on the cold steel flashlight. For how long, she didn’t know. But eventually, her breathing returned to normal and her thoughts slowed to a manageable pace.

She was tired. Tired, and scared, and growing more paranoid by the night. This experience would have stopped any other astronomer, she told herself. But not her. She wasn’t going to quit no matter the circumstances. She had once spent eighty-four hours of time staring at clouds up at Kitt Peak, never sleeping, never obeying the forecast, only waiting for a break in the grey. And when a wildfire had broken out in Arizona, she had stayed then too, beyond the warning, beyond the creeping ring of flame, waiting, only waiting for the winds to change.

Whatever the hell was going on here, it wasn’t going to stop her.

She wasn’t afraid of the dark.

She was going to find out what the telescope was pointing at first hand. And then she was going to get back to her quasar if she had to steer the damn thing herself.

Flashlight in hand, she strode out into the dome. The telescope was still on its own mysterious target, and the dome obeyed. And winding upwards within like a mechanical serpent were the dome stairs.

Unused for decades, they groaned beneath her feet but did not give as she strode up them two by two. Ahead, the telescope’s aperture beckoned and its primary capsule hatch gleamed bright in the starlight. If she just climbed over the railing and leaned out…

She shouldn’t be doing this, she thought, even as she hefted a leg up over the wrought iron railing. The floor was thirty, forty feet below her with nothing to break a fall, and her hands sweat abominably. Nonetheless, she clamped onto the rail tightly as she swung her foot out over the void and caught the lip of the aperture. Then, she twisted open the hatch and flung herself inelegantly inside.

Kiera pointedly ignoring the creeping whispers of old spiderwebs that brushed at her face and hair and instead focused on orienting herself inside the tiny compartment. Careful not to shine the flashlight down into the instruments, lest she fry the camera, she located the seat and the prime focus.

How long had it been since someone else sat in this seat watching some star or galaxy all the night?

How did this work, anyways? In front of her was a small hole. The focus, where the image of the star came together, must be just a few inches above…

Nothing. There was nothing there, no star, no galaxy, not a smudge of light at all. Kiera rubbed her eyes. Shit. Her eyes had adjusted to the flashlight. To see the object, she was going to have to close the hatch above her… and turn off the light.

Kiera realized with creeping horror that she was going to have to let the darkness have her once more.

Or, she thought, I could just climb out. Go back to the control room. Restart the computer.

But she couldn’t. She had to know.

It’ll be fine. I have the light. And furthermore, I can’t go anywhere. She pressed her hands against the gritty steel walls.

She took a deep breath and swung closed the hatch overhead. Then she gripped the seat beneath her and clicked off the light.

Kiera counted the seconds as she waited for her eyes to adjust to the total darkness. The seat remained. She reached out for the walls. Still there.

58… 59… 60.

So she was being ridiculous. She had just had some kind of hallucination, some anxiety-induced waking nightmare.

The minutes ticked past. At fifteen, she resolved to take a look. No matter how faint it was, her eyes would see it. She grew curiouser as time passed. If I was a haunted telescope, she imagined, what would I want to look at? It eased her mind to think about. Probably one of the more interesting nebulae. The Ring, perhaps, or the Horsehead, or the Bridal Veil. Or maybe the Pleiades cluster.

At fifteen minutes, her heart rate had slowed and she eagerly peered into the focus.

Empty. Black. In fact, there wasn’t a single pinpoint of light in the whole field.

Impossible, she thought, as her eyes strained to see even a single photon. Space was space. There simply weren’t any empty parts. How could—

A scream tore through her throat as she realized she was falling. Her fingers scrabbled for a hold but met only empty space. And the walls–where were the walls? She flung her arms out in both directions to no avail.

Kiera continued to fall, faster and faster, through the void. No wind passed her, yet she was aware that she was falling at tremendous, terrible speeds though a space too vast to fathom. Was she still screaming? Did it matter?

The flashlight was gone.

Where am I? she thought, or perhaps said aloud. A chilling, invasive thought followed. Does “where” even mean anything? She shuddered as she fell.

Time passed. Eons, or maybe minutes, she couldn’t tell. Once more, time had stopped, or looped, or maybe gotten tangled up like a cassette tape.

Her vision twinkled with stars. No–those were real stars. Those were real stars! It hit her in the gut like a sledgehammer. I’m outside? was all she could manage. The stars fell down around her in a silver rain, passing at incredible speeds. Were they all stars? No, she realized. Some of the lights passing her by were shapes—galaxies! Clouds and spirals snapped in and out of sight in a moment. As she stared around her, a horrible knowledge overcame her, seized her by the spine: that this place, this immensity, had no beginning and no end.

For a terrible instant, Kiera Morrison beheld infinity.

Then she slammed into the floor.

✸✸✸

The shock of the impact had knocked her out cold. But it wasn’t long before the roots of fear curled around her mind and drove her to consciousness. Her whole body ached, her head most of all, but as she rolled over, nothing seemed broken—only badly bruised. Feet away, the flashlight lay shattered into pieces. She dragged herself out of the shadow of the telescope and into the rectangle of starlight.

Overhead, the great black telescope was moving, twisting, coming down to—

Kiera wasn’t about to find out. She wobbled to her knees and stood, and as soon as she could stand, she was running.

She stumbled into the control room, yanked the flash drive from the hardware stack, and scrambled down the stairs all the way to the lobby. Past the ornate bookshelves and beautiful mosaics she ran—past the zodiac carvings and out the heavy glass doors into the parking lot. Only then did she remember her phone. 22:23, it read. Ten hours until the shuttle came.

But only six hours down the mountain. And Kiera wasn’t about to stay on the fucking mountain in the evil dark.

She switched on her phone’s camera flash and hit the road at a jog.

The staring followed. She could feel the terrible mechanical gaze upon her back as she pounded the asphalt, every step putting more distance between her and the night’s steel eye.

Soon, she passed the wooden sign that announced Observatorio Las Escaleras—or what remained of it. It looked like a century had happened to the painted boards, which were now half-sunk into the sand. She stopped, incredulous. The dome-shaped gap in the stars watched menacingly as she ran a finger down the worn wood, feeling it chip and splinter at her touch.

But behind her, something else was off and she studied the starlit slope to figure out what it was. The buildings were there. The peak was the same. The road… hadn’t the road been asphalt?

No, it was definitely compacted sand. It had been like that on the way up, right? The asphalt stopped here, where she was standing, and the road continued in red dirt up to the telescope. She shook her head and started to jog again, the soles of her shoes slapping the smooth pavement with each step.

You know what? Keira thought to herself as she ran. I’ll bet I’m back in town in three hours. After all, I didn’t run up here. Why didn’t I think of that earlier? She cursed herself. I could have been there already. Sitting in a bar, enjoying a margarita, instead of… whatever the fuck this is.

She didn’t want to reflect on what had happened, but her mind circled it incessantly anyways. How could the dark be like that? Perhaps she had hallucinated the incident in the optics room, and then, so scared by the experience, hallucinated the never-ending dark of the bathroom as well? And what about the computer screen?

And what about the prime focus? She had seen the hatch as the cursed telescope had swung for her—it was still closed. But climbing into it—the visceral fear of falling from the railing—that had to have happened. Or did it? What if she had fallen, hit her head, and started seeing things? She felt nauseated at the idea.

And what the hell am I doing now? Running down a mountain in the dark. I could get lost out here.

No I couldn’t. I’m following the road, and the road—

She turned to look behind her and came to a dead stop.

The road behind her was dirt. The road before her, asphalt.

“No… no!” she cried, taking a step back. “What the fuck!”

No shadow broke the horizon—the dome was gone.

Panic took over and Kiera bolted down the road. It all became real—the eating darkness, the voices in the kitchen, the failing power, the telescope—it was all real, and it added up to something incomprehensible. She cried as she ran, hot tears blurring her the circle of light before her. All these insane things had happened, it wasn’t in her head, and she was running, and running, and the whole world was the pavement before her, and—

The light went out.

Her phone was dead.

Once more, it was dark.

Terror seized her, paralyzed her steps. Above, the starry blackness. Below, void. She hung precariously upside down on the thin crust of reality.

Then she was off again, running blind through the cold desert night, following only the slap of shoe on asphalt. She dared not to take a final look back.

Suddenly, her footfalls turned to the thud of loose soil. Where was the road? Had she lost it? Or had it lost her, vanished into sand and brush? She retraced her steps to no avail. The road, too, belonged to the darkness, now, and she knelt and wept; deep, racking sobs, and tears that sizzled into sand.

Pull yourself together, Kiera.

You’re heading West. You’ll hit the coast, or the highway soon.

Keep going.

Just keep going.

I’m NOT afraid of the dark.

DECEMBER 26

“Dr. Morrison?”

Kiera tries to open her eyes and finds them crusted shut with sand.

“Dr. Morrison?”

She grunts, pries her eyelashes apart, and raises a badly bruised arm against the bright overhead light.

“Can you confirm your date of birth for us?”

“One-eleven-nineteen-eighty-five,” she mumbles. Her left side feels like it was hit by a truck, and a front tooth wiggles freely. A burning on her forehead indicates the cuts there have been cleaned and bandaged.

“Very well. Do you know where you are?”

“N… no?”

“You’re at Urgencia Hospital La Serena. We found you wandering the desert a few kilometers from the highway with nothing but this flash drive.”

A flash drive? “My data!” She moans with relief. “Fuck. I… this telescope… The dark…” She bolts upright with a shudder. “The fucking dark.”

“Dr. Morrison, we’re going to need you to start from the beginning. You were supposed to report to Observatorio Las Esceleras six days ago, but you never showed up. Where did you go?”

The tale pours out of her like water. The hike, the building, the telescope. The spectrograph room, the bathroom, the computer monitor and the fall from the prime focus. She stares warily at the nurse. “You don’t believe me, do you?”

The nurse leaves the room without a word.

When he returns, it is with a manilla folder full of black and white photographs. “Is this what you’re describing?”

“Yes! That’s the observatory.”

“Ma’am… That building was torn down in 1968. They built a new one on the next mountaintop over. I don’t know what you’re talking about, but it can’t be this.”

“What?” The unreality sinks in and brings a familiar wave of nausea. “That’s where I was! That’s where I—” Her head spins and the room seems to tilt.

It doesn’t matter now. No one will believe her. “I… I think I need to rest,” she says wearily.

“Yes ma’am.” He stands to walk toward the door.

“Just one thing?” she calls out. “Please?”

She grips the sides of the bed with sweating hands. “Don’t turn the lights out.”

 

The story previously appeared in DECODED Issue #1
Edited by Marie Ginga

 

C. M. Fields is a queer, non-binary astrophysicist and writer of speculative fiction. They live in Seattle, Washington, with their beloved cats, Mostly Void Partially Stars and Toast, and spend their days looking for other Earths. They are also the co-editor of If There’s Anyone Left, an anthology series featuring the flash fiction of marginalized writers from across the globe. C. M. can be found on Twitter as @C_M_Fields and @toomanyspectra. Their fiction has appeared in Diabolical Plots, Metaphorosis, The Dread Machine, and more.