by Bruce Holland Rogers
My favorite place for setting up my telescope is in the foothills outside of town, on top of the covered reservoir. The ridge line screens out the city lights. The reservoir is a large, flat expanse, so trees don’t interfere as much with my view. I have a dark sky, a big sky, for my observations. I can get a lot of my work done.
Of course, I also have Cliff to contend with. He has figured out that on any cloudless night, he’ll find me and my telescope here. At some point, he’ll emerge from wherever it is that he keeps himself and stroll to the middle of the reservoir. He’ll ask me what I’m looking at, but he won’t listen to my answer with much interest. He never asks to have a look. He’s just being polite, warming up the conversation, getting ready to do all the talking.
I enter coordinates into the auto-tracking mount. The telescope finds the next object I want to look at and follows it across the sky. As I gaze into the eyepiece, Cliff will launch into his subject for the evening, such as, “What do you think about peak oil?” This isn’t really meant as a question. Without waiting for my opinion, Cliff will say, “It’s garbage. You do any thinking at all about petroleum, about geology, and you’ll start to see through the lies. You’ve got to use your noggin.”
I imagine that Cliff is tapping his head when he says this, but I’m not sure. I can’t see him. It’s dark. In fact, I’ve never seen Cliff at all, except in moonlight, so I have only a vague impression of his bearded face. “Oil isn’t dinosaurs and old bogs,” he goes on. “The earth makes the stuff. There’s as much oil underground as there is water in the oceans, but they want us to think it’s scarce. That way they can charge whatever they want for it, and we’ll pay.”
“Uh-huh,” I say. That’s as much encouragement as I offer. I think of Cliff as harmlessly paranoid, and I’m sure these ideas build up inside of him like pressurized steam. He needs an audience in order to vent them. I’m that audience. His captive audience.
Cliff is an equal-opportunity conspiracy theorist. I never know, on a given night, whether he will sound left-wing, right-wing, or pure loon. “If hemp were legal,” he tells me, “with that one easily grown crop, we could feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and make all the paper we need without ever cutting another tree. Hemp oil cures every kind of cancer, treats diabetes, makes scars fade away.” He offers a web site where I can verify these claims. Of course, he laments, we’ll never see these benefits in our lifetime, thanks to the greed of Big Pharma, Big Agra, and Big Timber, one of the unbreakable cabals.
On any given night, it will take Cliff about three hours to run out of steam. He doesn’t interfere with my observations. I only half listen to him. Even so, it’s a relief when he finally goes and I can get the rest of my work done in peace.
I don’t encourage Cliff, but I don’t argue with him, either. I don’t imagine he’s bothered by the internal contradictions, believing in global warming but not peak oil, or professing that AIDS was engineered but that the moon landing was beyond human abilities. The moon landing, I want to assure him, was very, very real.
Cliff simultaneously believes in domination by the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Jews, an axis of Martin Bormann and Sunnis, an axis of Israel and India, and the alliance of billionaires and communism. Moving behind the scenes, according to Cliff, are reptilians in human form, the Trilateral commission, the Skull & Bones society, and WalMart.
Then one night, Cliff says, “What do you think you’re looking at in that telescope of yours?”
“Hm?” I say. I’m surprised that he has asked a real question. “I’m looking at the Orion Nebula,” I say. “And when it rises in a little while, I’ll be looking at the Moon.”
“Because you realize,” Cliff says, “that there are only six stars.”
In the daylight, Cliff would have seen my jaw drop. I want to say a hundred things at once, launch dozens of simultaneous counter-arguments, but all I can manage in the face of his assertion is, “Huh!”
“Six stars,” Cliff says, “not counting the sun, which isn’t the same kind of object at all.”
I sweep my hand across the night sky, a gesture that I don’t suppose he can see. “What about all of this?” I say. “What about the evidence of your own two eyes?”
“Mirrors,” says Cliff. “Giant mirrors, far away.”
“Cliff,” I say, “If you look up, you’ll see more than six colors of stars!”
“The Doppler effect,” I say. “Red shift. What about nebulae? Comets?”
Cliff laughs a short, bitter laugh. “Mirrors,” he says again, “and glitter. Big mirrors, and millions of little tiny ones. All you have to do, really, is think about it.” I imagine him tapping his temple.
I am so stunned that I think I stop breathing for a moment. I feel my heart beating in my throat. “All right,” I say. “For just one second, let’s imagine you’re right, and all of astronomy is a hoax. What would be the point?”
Cliff says, “You tell me.” For the first time, there is an edge to his voice. For the first time, I’m uncomfortable being alone in the dark with him. “You’re looking at the sky all night. What are you really doing? What do you really know?”
I say, in all honesty, “This conversation is weirding me out.”
“No surprise,” says Cliff, and he laughs the short bark of a laugh again.
For once, he doesn’t hang around to hold forth of his theory for hours. He leaves. I have to sit down. I resolve that the next time I come up here, I’ll have to come armed. Cliff, who always seemed so harmless, worries me.
After the moon rises, I wait for it to get clear of the thickest atmosphere. Then I aim my telescope at a point on the northern lip of the crater Eratosthenes. When I have brought the crater into clear focus, I open the auto-tracker control and press a secret button inside. The telescope pivots one hundred and eighty degrees. I crouch and put my mouth in front of the wide, primary lens. I press the other secret button.
I say to the moon, “Someone is onto us.”
About The Author
Bruce Holland Rogers writes all over the literary map, from genre fiction to the literary kind (which is also a genre). He stories have been translated into over two dozen languages, including Pashto and Klingon. His stories have won two Nebula Awards, two Micro Awards, two World Fantasy awards, a Pushcart Prize. We’re not making that up!
His stories have won two Nebula Awards, two Micro Awards, two World Fantasy awards, a Pushcart Prize, and something called the Jonny-Cat Litter-ary Award from the Cat Writers Association. We’re not making that up, either! He teaches in the Master of Fine Arts creative writing program at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. You can find him at shortshortshort.com.
Fast-Paced Author Interview (At High Speeds! Risking Dire Consequences!)
The Squid: In a Russian accent, please explain why I can’t have another glass of milk.
Bruce Holland Rogers: Moose and sqvirrel drank all milk. Moose and sqvirrel must die.
The Squid: What’s your favorite city?
Bruce Holland Rogers: Budapest. Kyoto is second.
The Squid: Please describe fifty words or less.
Bruce Holland Rogers: “Less” is a lateral alveolar followed by a mid-front short vowel and an unvoiced alveolar fricative.
The Squid: If you could change one thing from your childhood, what would it be and why? (Please include the word “porpoises” in your answer.)
Bruce Holland Rogers: I’d convert my parents’ basement into an indoor saltwater swimming pool with bottle-nose dolphins, for entertainment porpoises.
The Squid: What’s your favorite imaginary color?
Bruce Holland Rogers: Lunia. I wrote a story about it once. Yes, really.
About The Artist
Rob Pettengill is an amateur astronomer from Austin, Texas. Most of what he’s written makes his head hurt now. More at robpettengill.org.