The storm rolled over the mountain.
Mike Teter gritted his teeth as he watched clouds billow across the observatory's all-sky camera, obscuring the stars. His heart pounded as he considered the benefit of maximizing telescope data against the risk of snow damaging precision instruments. "We better close up. That storm's coming in faster than the weather service predicted."
"That's a shame," said Ron Wallerstein, the red-haired, bespectacled astronomer, sitting across the room. "Can't we stay open just a few more minutes so I can finish this exposure?" He controlled an infrared camera mounted to the 2.5-meter telescope Teter operated.
"No can do." Mike's angular, bearded face hardened in resolve. "You know the rules. It's my call." As operator, Teter's job was to keep the telescope safe. If rain fell on the electronics and optics, literally millions of dollars of precision scientific instrumentation would be destroyed, costing many astronomers their opportunity to gather data, fulfill grants, and finish graduate theses.
Wallerstein sighed and gave a brief nod. "Shutting down the camera. You can close up."
Mike set to work at the computer, stowing the telescope in a safe position and closing the covers protecting the huge mirrors that captured light from stars and galaxies, billions of light years distant. As he did, he anxiously watched the humidity gauge climb. The moisture from ground-level clouds rolling across a mountaintop was just as dangerous as rain falling out of the sky. He breathed a sigh of relief when the first stowage operations completed and he could press the button that closed the shutter, shielding all the electronics inside the dome.
As the dome closed, Mike looked up at the view of the all-sky camera and saw nothing but clouds. Even if he had allowed Wallerstein to finish his exposure, it would have been for naught. No starlight would have reached the instrument, and he wouldn't have been able to observe anything anyway. Once he was sure the telescope was safe, Mike turned off the motors, stood, and stretched his tall, lanky frame. His easy smile returned. "I'm going to go outside and take a look."
"Sounds good," said Wallerstein. "I'll come with you."
The two men grabbed their coats, strode along a hallway lit by dim red bulbs, then down a flight of stairs. Mike struggled against the strong wind to push the door open. Finally he succeeded, only to be hit by numerous pinpricks from the icy rain and snow.
So much for getting up early and hiking down to see some of the caves below the summit during my off time.
Still, it meant he could get an early start on his weekend and spend more time with his fiancée Bethany, an astronomer he'd met at New Mexico State University while they were both studying there. Eager to get started on their plans for the future, Mike got a job straight out of school, while Bethany had continued her studies and was now working on her PhD. He grinned like an idiot as he thought about her. She was the furthest thing from a stereotypical astronomer. She was more Deanna Troi than Dr. Crusher with her long, dark hair, hazel eyes, and killer curves. He was gobsmacked from the first moment he laid eyes on her in their first-year physics class. Not to mention she was brilliant and probably had the biggest heart of anyone he'd ever met. He still couldn't believe she'd fallen in love with him, a quiet introvert with Buddy Holly glasses and a life-long devotion to Star Trek and Spiderman. She'd told him early on that she couldn't resist his smile. Many times he'd thanked the genetic gods and his mother for gifting him with dimples.
Carson Peak Observatory stood on a remote mountain in the Sacramento range of Southern New Mexico, so different from the urban landscape of Mike's youth. He'd fallen in love with the peace and quiet on his first visit. The area was ideal for an observatory. Except for the occasional mountain storm, the site was high and dry. Because it was near the tribal lands of the Mescalero Apache, there were no large cities nearby. In fact, the closest settlement was a virtual ghost town called Toledo that used to be a mining camp in the 1800s. Mike would have loved to live in the funky little town with its cute shops and cafes, where some of his fellow observatory staff members were based, as it was closer to work. The stories of the haunted mine tempted him even more, but Bethany's studies made it easier for them to live near the university in the larger city of Las Cruces.
Wallerstein harrumphed at the cloudy skies and the heavy snow. With no way to clean his glasses properly in the blizzard, he removed them, quickly gave them a shake, and tossed them in his jacket pocket. "Well, I guess we're not getting any more work done tonight." He shouted to be heard over the wind.
Mike envied Wallerstein his stronger eyesight. He'd be blind without his own glasses. He'd have to live with the water spots till he went back in. "No chance now that it's snowing. Besides, it's about an hour until twilight." No matter what, the brightening sky would bring an end to Mike's work night. He just wanted to curl up in the warm blankets of his dorm room.
A strong gust of wind whipped at their faces, chasing both Mike and Wallerstein back inside the building. In the dim light of the ground floor, they brushed snow from their jackets. Mike rubbed his hand through his short brown hair. Reaching into his pants pocket, he grabbed a rumpled cloth and cleaned the spots from his glasses. His vision cleared, Mike and Wallerstein hiked back to the telescope's control room. Wallerstein installed a flash drive in the computer he was using to copy the data he had managed to get for the night. Once finished, he set about packing up his laptop.
Mike turned on the lights in the dome, so he could inspect to make sure no snow had fallen on the telescope and take care of his last chores before he called it a night.
"Thanks for your help," said Wallerstein. He looked up and brightened slightly. "Actually, it wasn't a bad night, but I sure could have used an image of that last cluster." Mike knew Wallerstein referred to one of many balls of stars that orbited the Milky Way Galaxy. As a student, Mike had learned that globular clusters contained only older stars, but astronomers had recently discovered they encompassed a mix of old and young. What's more, they were evolving in unexpected ways. The more clusters they photographed, the more likely Wallerstein could understand the nature of these formations.
"I know. Better luck next time." With that, Mike and Wallerstein shook hands, and Mike opened a heavy door into the telescope dome. The sight of the telescope never ceased to give his stomach a slight flutter. The "2.5-meter" in the telescope's name referred to the diameter of the large mirror that collected light. In the early twenty-first century, there were much bigger telescopes, but few were more advanced. The 2.5-meter included a series of motors that pushed and pulled the wide, thin mirror into the best shape possible so it produced remarkable images no matter where it was pointed. A computer orchestrated the delicate dance of sixty motors adjusting the shape of a thin sheet of glass all night long. Mike harbored just a tinge of fear that one night the computer might drive a motor just a little too far. With luck that would never happen.
He turned his attention to the telescope itself—a large, boxy skeleton of pipes. At the bottom of the frame rested the primary mirror, perfectly safe. Suspended above the primary, a smaller mirror focused light to a third mirror and out to the side of the telescope where the cameras were mounted.
The 2.5-meter at Carson Peak employed advanced internal optics that attempted to correct for atmospheric distortion from wind and heat waves that plagued all telescopes. Mike was both thrilled and a little nervous to be responsible for helping astronomers get the best science they could from such a marvel of a telescope. Keeping it safe, so as many astronomers as possible could use it, was an enormous responsibility. One he took very seriously.
The wind wailed as it passed by the telescope's dome, a half-sphere a little like a cathedral—or more like a factory, thought Mike, with large cranes overhead and tools for servicing the motors and instruments. Observatories were a fascinating blend of bulky, industrial equipment, needed to move the huge mirrors around, and delicate precision instrumentation to view objects invisible to the naked eye.
Mike whistled to distract himself from the wind's howling while he circled the enclosure. Pleased to see no water drops on the equipment, he gathered heavy, insulated gloves to prevent frostbite and a fifteen-gallon container of liquid nitrogen. The nitrogen cooled the advanced digital camera mounted to the telescope.
Mike hooked the liquid nitrogen fill line from the bottle to the camera and spun the valve next to the safety vents. Too much pressure and the liquid nitrogen could explode. His thoughts drifted to the caves he'd hoped to explore. Mike's co-worker, Stan Jones, had told him about several caves with many ancient Apache artifacts. There were arrowheads, pots, and tools that could easily be sold to collectors for a little extra money. Mike wasn't interested in selling things to collectors, but he'd still enjoy seeing the ancient sites—and if he found something cool, he didn't think it would be a big deal if he snatched it for himself.
Just as that thought crossed his mind, a tremendous bang echoed through the cavernous dome. Whipping his head around, he wondered if something had hit the enclosure—perhaps a chunk of ice or maybe something as benign as a pinecone from a nearby tree.
He turned back again and his mouth fell open in shock.
On the dome floor, next to the telescope, stood a grotesque figure resembling an unholy merging of a predatory dinosaur and some kind of alien creature from a sci-fi movie. Its body crouched atop long talons that looked as though they could easily rip the tiles from the floor. The creature's nose consisted of two slits above a sharp, beak-like mouth. But it was the eyes that froze Mike in terror. Dark. Mesmerizing. They were like black holes in space. Mike had no idea where the creature had come from or how it managed to get into the dome. But he did know one thing for certain. It wanted to kill him.
The creature hunched low, its obsidian eyes probing into Mike, leaving him weak and nauseous. It seemed to swallow not only light and heat, but joy as well.
In a sudden flash of movement, it sprinted forward.
Mike stumbled backwards and fell hard, the wind knocked out of him. Wheezing and shaking with fear, he thrust his arms in front of his face in a feeble attempt to protect himself. The clacking of claws on the tile floor pounded in his ears as the creature launched itself at him.
Mike thought of Bethany, and closed his eyes, praying his death would be over fast…
And, then. Nothing.
Everything was quiet once more, except for the howling wind.
Mike slowly lowered his hands and opened his eyes. All he saw was the nitrogen tank connected to the camera, spewing liquid onto the floor. The camera was full.
"Jesus! What the fuck was that?" Mike burst into bewildered laughter. He'd really thought he was a goner—that some freaky creature had somehow found its way into the dome and was hell bent on devouring him for breakfast.
He must be over-tired, working too many long, winter nights. The unrelenting wind sparked his imagination to run wild, that's all. He scrambled to his feet, and brushed off his pants. That's when he realized that he had fallen over something.
The corpse of a mangy coyote lay on the floor at his feet. "How the hell did that get here?" The smell from the carcass was strong enough that Mike had to suppress his gag reflex. He eased around to the nitrogen tank and shut it off. As he disconnected it from the camera he thought the coyote must have sought shelter from the cold and somehow found its way into the telescope's enclosure. As he wheeled the nitrogen bottle to its storage place by the wall, he wondered how he was going to get rid of the carcass.
He turned back to the dead coyote and got his second shock of the morning.
The animal stood up and shook its shaggy coat, sending up a spray of rain and blood. Mike couldn't believe what he was seeing nor what happened next.
The coyote's mouth fell open, as though the tendons no longer held it shut. "Beware the caves," the coyote said in a deep, raspy voice. "They are the portals of mankind's doom…"
With that, the coyote turned and ran straight for the wall … and vanished.
Mike blinked and looked around. No water or blood anywhere. It was as though the coyote had never been there at all. He rubbed his bloodshot eyes and considered whether he was too sleep deprived to drive home right away. On the other hand, he wasn't sure he could get to sleep after the double dose he'd just experienced.
He left the dome and returned to the control room. Wallerstein had already left. Still feeling a bit shaky, Mike collected his laptop and the Stephen King book he'd been reading on his shift, and stuffed them into his backpack. The Shining. His favorite King book. He shook his head and chuckled. Maybe next time he'd grab one of Bethany's sci-fi romances instead.
He slung his pack over his shoulder and turned out the lights.
As he left the dome, snow was falling harder than before and the emerging twilight barely illuminated the landscape. Mike knew that if he went back to his dorm room to get some sleep, he would most likely be trapped at the observatory until the snowplow came through—possibly for days, if the storm lasted long enough.
Pursing his lips in resignation, Mike locked up, tossed his backpack in the back seat of his car, and drove down to the office and dorm building. Fresh tracks in the snow told him that Wallerstein had left ahead of him. Mike collected his dirty laundry from his room and returned to the car.
Turning on the radio, he caught the weather forecast as he left the observatory grounds. The snow was expected to continue on through the rest of the day and well into the night. Tired as he was, Mike felt he'd made the right decision to leave immediately. Within half an hour, he would reach the desert floor. After that, it'd be a straight shot home. If he needed to, he could pull off to the side of the road and get a short nap.
As he drove down the mountain road, a set of red taillights appeared before him. Mike slowed down, not wanting to push the car ahead too much. The snow fell hard enough that he didn't feel he could pass safely. They progressed slowly and steadily about two miles until they came to a bridge over a place called Nana's Ravine. Although it sounded like it was named for someone's grandmother, it was actually named for Geronimo's brother-in-law. Whenever moisture fell and the temperatures dropped near freezing, winds from the deep gorge froze the water into a thin sheet of treacherous ice.
Mike willed the car ahead to slow down. Instead, it sped up and hit a patch of ice, spinning out of control. He gasped as the car slammed into the guardrail just beyond the bridge and toppled over the side.
As he reached the bridge, the wheels of his own car started to skid. He geared the engine down low and eased his foot onto the brakes. The car fishtailed across, but he maintained control. Once on the other side, he pulled up to the broken guardrail. It was just beyond the ravine and the ground sloped away gently. The other car had rolled over onto a boulder, which kept it from sliding into the depths of the ravine itself.
He knew who it was.
Mike sprang from his car and scrambled down the hillside. Reaching the vehicle, he found the window on the passenger side smashed from the impact of the crash. Carefully reaching in, he unlocked the door and forced it open. As he worked, he didn't hold out much hope. The car's roof and driver's side had caved in. Looking inside, he saw Wallerstein's crushed body engulfed by a deployed airbag. His head hung by tendons as blood seeped out of the stump of his neck.
Despite oozing blood and ravaged flesh, Mike leaned in closer and saw the flash drive containing the night's data clutched in Wallerstein's hand—the one thing he couldn't bear to lose.
Mike scrambled away from the car, heart pounding in sheer panic. He threw up into a bush, lightly dusted with new fallen snow. He slumped onto his butt, heedless of the icy ground, and tried to calm his breathing.
A rush of questions tumbled through his brain: Why didn't he let him take just one more image? Why didn't he make him stay at the observatory and wait out the storm? Why couldn't they have stayed and waited? Waited?
Mike started shaking from head to toe as he thought what could have happened if he'd left before Wallerstein. Would he be dead now? Would Wallerstein be sitting here staring at his severed head?
A flash of brown fur brought him to his senses. Mountain lion? Coyote? That last made him shudder as he remembered the weird vision in the dome. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket. He tapped it, not surprised by the lack of signal. He climbed back up to the road, knowing he would have to drive a ways so he could call 911.
When he reached his car, he turned back and gazed at the wreck. A brilliant scientist had just died before his very eyes. Could he have prevented Wallerstein's death? He didn't know the answer to that. But what he did know was that the difference between life and death could be measured by just a few seconds…
Find out what happens to Mike in The Astronomer's Crypt
David Lee Summers © 2013