The young man buys a ticket and wanders around the exhibit on the history of the spacesuit before disappearing. It takes more than forty minutes before the observatory volunteers find him locked in the Clark Telescope Dome. He refuses to come out.
The man demands to know why he can’t see Saturn through the telescope’s eyepiece. He doesn’t believe them when they explain through the closed door that the rotation of the Earth has shifted the planet out of the telescope’s field of view. They offer to come inside and reposition the telescope for him. He tells them that he is not a fool. That he will wait.
“I want to see her fly through Saturn’s rings on her way out.” He says this three times in quick succession. They assure him that they understand, but exchange worried glances.
The volunteers fetch the astronomer who is about to leave for Happy Jack to watch an alien world transit in front of its star five hundred light years away.
“This planet is in a highly elliptical orbit,” he tells them, dropping a bottle of bourbon into the passenger seat of his hatchback. “It may not cross the plane of the star again in my lifetime.”
But they explain that the telescope is historic and they fear the man might try to hurt it in some way. The astronomer caves, grabs his bottle and agrees to talk to the intruder.
“Really, this one isn’t all that interesting,” the astronomer says through the locked door. He shivers under the whispering pine trees. “The one you really want to see is the one behind the rotunda. That’s the one that discovered Pluto.”
“I have no interest in dwarf planets,” the man says calmly. “I want to swim in the canals on Mars.”
“There are no canals on Mars,” the astronomer sighs, shaking his head.
“Lowell sat right where I’m sitting now and he saw them.”
The astronomer goes on to explain that the canals were an illusion; liquid water has long since frozen under the surface and the planet is currently lifeless.
“Like this one,” the man murmurs.
The astronomer instructs the volunteers, a retired middle school biology teacher and a painfully awkward college freshman girl who reads manga on her breaks, to go back to the visitor center and call the police.
“It’s just you and me now,” the astronomer says, leaning into the door. “No one’s going to hurt you.”
“How long does it take for a human body to break down into its constituent atoms?”
“Hell if I know,” the astronomer says. “A long time.”
“And then, those atoms could recombine in the heart of a star, could become alive again on a distant world?”
“Yeah, I guess that could happen. It’s a big universe.”
“I want to press myself through the lens,” the man whispers. His voice echoes through the cavernous interior of the white dome. “I want to fire myself out of this telescope like it were a cannon.”
“Where would you go?” the astronomer asks. He slides down the wall to sit on the sidewalk.
“All the places I used to go before,” the man says, as if this were obvious. The astronomer can tell from the hushed tone of the man’s voice that he is looking out of the slit in the roof, at the stars that burn in the moonless night. It makes everyone speak more softly.
Somewhere in the firmament of stars, a distant sun is rising over a distant planet and the astronomer will not be there to see it. He decides to drink the whole bottle of bourbon tonight.
They sit in silence, watching the galaxy turn, for another ten minutes before the police officers come up the path with the volunteers. The five of them huddle out of earshot of the man, beside the mausoleum where the observatory’s founder is buried.
The man’s car is in the parking lot. Its plates match those of a vehicle involved in a hit and run accident on Route 66 a couple of hours ago. A teenage girl is dead. The officers saw blood on the front bumper.
“He’s having a mental breakdown in there,” the college student says.
“I think he’s high on bath salts,” the teacher chimes in.
The two officers approach the dome. They have their guns drawn. One of them is shaking, either from the cold or fear of what kind of man waits in the dark for them.
“Police! Open up,” the shaky one demands.
“Life on Earth only exists for a fraction of a second of cosmic time, you know,” the man replies. “So small. So fragile.”
The officers whisper to each other. They’re going to break down the door. There is an outburst from the volunteers. The door is part of the original structure, built in 1896. The astronomer tells them to go ahead and break it down, but not to shoot the telescope.
The door is sturdier than anyone expects. It takes three tries for them to crack the frame around the deadbolt. All the while, the man inside is silent. The officers enter the dome, shouting for the man to put his hands on his head and come out where they can see him. The astronomer peeks his head inside — the man is not there. The officers are circling around the small dome, searching high and low.
“Is there another way out?” the shaking one asks the volunteers. There isn’t. The second officer radios that the man has somehow escaped. They don’t report that he vanished into the thin night air.
The astronomer follows the telescope’s sleek silver body with his eyes and thinks how much it does look like a cannon. He wonders if the man will go swim in the canals of Mars or if he will first watch the girl fly from the bumper of his car up through the rings of Saturn.
*** Jonny Eberle is a Southwest transplant living in Tacoma. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Political Science from Northern Arizona University and was the opinion editor of his campus newspaper, where a disgruntled reader once threatened to throw him off a roof. He blogs at www.jweberle.com.