The Watchers of the Western Observatory

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sf_wk14“It is a cold and vast realm to which I cast my distant eye,” the professor said, as he entered the western observatory, still dressed in his night-clothes. “And it was a warm and welcoming realm from which you pulled that eye.” He turned to face his apprentice.

“This had better be good, Geoffrey. I was enjoying a scrumptious dream.” He took a wistful breath through his nose. “I was about to bite into the most wondrous pastry. I could smell its crispness. I could feel the chocolate icing melting beneath my fingertips. And though I couldn’t see it, I could tell, in that way you can tell in dreams, that the custard within was literally made in the heavens.”

“Professor, please. Just take a look. I think you’ll see it was worth my interrupting your…sweet dream.”

The professor murmured and bent over the eyepiece of the scope, the length of his nimbus-like beard touching the floor. He immediately straightened again. “You shouldn’t be looking in this direction.”

He must not have noted when he first walked in that the immense scope was directed upward, but it wasn’t quite directed to the sky.

“Don’t worry, Professor. We are within the bounds of our current permissions.”

“I’m not so certain.”

“Please, just look.”

“How fares the wall?”

“The wall is sound.”

“Are you certain? How long since you haven’t been watching?”

“Not long.”

The professor was silent for several minutes, during which time Geoffrey returned to the drawing and marking of trajectories. Though they still awaited permission to point their scope up to the skies, they needed none to look upon those skies with their own eyes. They could discern much from one of the highest towers in the land. After some time, the professor, still bent over the eyepiece, spoke.

“This can’t be,” he whispered.

*****

Ismal, a professor of the Optical and Vibrational Sciences, honored member of the Court of Scholars, and holder of many accolades and awards, was the Master Watcher of the Western Observatory. Geoffrey, as his apprentice, also bore the honor of being a Watcher. There were a few trained scholars who spent shifts cleaning, maintaining, and gazing through the western telescope. But the only ones who had the authority to direct the scope were Professor Ismal and his apprentice. The professor had had several apprentices over the years, but none had chosen to stay. Geoffrey had once hoped only to be among those who rotated through wall-watching duties, and perhaps saw the venerable professor in passing. He had hoped, but never dreamed that when the professor’s last apprentice left, he would be among those considered to replace her. He had certainly never dared to hope that he would actually win the post. At least two among the other western watchers had worked at the scope longer and were more knowledgeable.

Ismal had chosen Geoffrey. The professor who had once been a distant object of admiration and a subject of rumor and lore was to become a colleague. Geoffrey had heard that Ismal was searching for something particular in the western skies. The professor had been a young man, not much older than Geoffrey, when he won the post of Master Watcher. His beard was black then, thick and lustrous. He swore not to cut off that beard until he found the thing he sought. When asked what that might be, he would only reply that he sought the truth. Some joked that the beard was merely meant to keep him warm in the chilly climes of the western province.

Other rumors insisted that Ismal was descended from a line of spell-casters from ancient times when the mystical energies of the world were keener. This particular line was purported to have an extra sensitivity to otherworldly vibrations as sensed through their hair. That’s why most were either bald, or kept short hair, if they wished to be “blind” to that sensitivity, or had very long hair, if they wished to become more attuned to it. There were ripples in the heavenly sphere. Perhaps Professor Ismal had chosen his profession as he had because he was indeed sensitive to those ripples.

But if that were so, he had chosen his position poorly. For if he had chosen to be stationed at a different scope, he might have attained his dream of watching and studying the skies.

Instead, he and his apprentices and his scholars were tasked with watching the nameless boundary wall. This was the grand wall built generations ago to keep out the night phantoms that haunted the grand forest bordering their lands and the kingdom beyond. That kingdom was once an enemy, but had by that time become an ally. The wall was a joint effort between the two realms, each building their own side of it.

After the wall was completed, guards were arrayed along its length. But after several generations, sightings of the night phantoms grew fewer and fewer. They faded into rumor, then myth. Some came to believe such phantoms never existed, that the boundary wall was built to control the border crossings from the easily passable forest, since much of the un-walled regions already made for difficult crossing—steep, unforgiving mountains and war-haunted marshland. Soon, the wall was merely watched from afar, so alarm could be rung if any intruders—unnatural or otherwise—were spotted.

At long last, it came to be that only a handful of wall-watchers remained, watching the crumbling boundary wall from an array of towers in line with the capitol. In those towers were scopes so powerful that they could see the wall from the opposite side of the realm.

It was said that when the great scopes were first built, the scholars were freely allowed to use them to study the skies. But in the changing of rulers, came changes in the rules of law. The scopes were anchored with constraints, and only those with special permissions were allowed to use them to gaze upon the skies.

Of the night phantoms who had moved two realms to built the boundary wall, Geoffrey knew little outside of the night-tales that were told to children to make them behave. Some said that the night phantoms haunting that forest came from below, that they were the risen dead, or creatures who lived deep under the earth until the people of the neighboring realm went digging too deep for jewels and treasure, and found horror where they hoped for wonder.

But others believed that the night phantoms came from above. That there was a scar upon the earth, where once it was scorched and pitted by the falling of a great and wicked star.

The night phantoms rode upon that star and somehow survived its falling. Little else survived. The ancient world perished, choked by the poisoned air that burst from the star. In time, the world sparked back to life, and as that life spread, it crowded out the night phantoms. They were left to abide in that forest, emerging only at night, where they could not be purged by the healthful rays of the sun.

Geoffrey asked the professor once if such a thing could truly happen.

“If we keep our eyes always to the ground, we will never know,” the professor answered. “We must look up at the sky, study the stars, measure the moon.”

“But we are doing that,” Geoffrey had insisted, prompting the professor to tell him a tale that he had not heard before.

“When I was a boy,” the professor said, “one of the watchers cast his scope upon the sky and saw something. He reporting his findings. Rather than be allowed to study further, he was assigned to an altogether different profession, a higher position in fact, as ‘reward’ for his discovery. The scope, more powerful than any we have today, was quietly dismantled.”

“But why? What did he see?”

“Perhaps something dangerous. I cannot image that he would be prevented from seeing something wondrous. But then…to some the wondrous and the dangerous are one and the same. A reasonable reason would be that he saw a danger coming, from so far that it would take generations to reach us. Perhaps a star would fall upon us, as in your story, but what good would it do for us to know it was coming? We do not have the power to divert it, block it, reason with it, or stop it. Knowing would only cast a pallor of despair upon our lives, perhaps encourage those who wanted to build and settle, to instead cower and wait.”

“But if we had enough time, perhaps we could think of a way. Perhaps we know the trajectory of the star, and—.”

Professor Ismal raised a finger to halt him. “Everyone who has ever dared to point a scope toward the sky without the express permission of our land’s highest authority has disappeared and never been heard from again. I do not think our rulers would put any to death for such an act, but I do think that in times past, there were some who languished in dungeons. And perhaps in this day, the quiet punishment might be banishment. Many might choose it over being scrutinized in a public trial.”

***

Yet Ismal had done just that. He had risked banishment to look upon the stars with the western scope. It was believed that their rulers indulged a bit of curiosity-driven rebellion among the scholars in all disciplines. For those who were tasked with watching the boundary wall, this meant the occasional tipping upward of the great scopes.

It explained the mystery of why the professor would remain in the tower instead of advancing to a position in the capitol court, or even settling in another kingdom, where scholars did not suffer such restrictions. The western tower was far from the eyes of the capitol. No western watcher ever claimed to have seen the scope pointing toward the heavens. It was an unspoken rule. If any did see it, they would not report it. There was no harm in it. The restrictions were meant to keep the scholars from hoarding all of the scopes’ time, time that was needed to watch a wall that could no longer be manned along its entire length. For no land’s coffers were unending, and there were always other causes that hungered for gold.

Geoffrey broke the rule of the western tower. When he thought he had gained enough respect from his mentor and master, he watched not just the wall but the professor. He came into the observatory one night, when the western scope was pointed toward the heavens.

Professor Ismal had none of the reactions he expected. Not embarrassment or anger. Not admonitions to keep the secret, or begging not to reveal or report him. He merely pointed to the drafted table upon which he had fastened a sheaf of paper. He asked Geoffrey to begin marking what he was seeing.

“Are we searching for doom, or for wonder?” Geoffrey had asked.

“We are searching for truth, in whatever form it takes.”

“What will we do with that truth?”

“We will share it, and we will return to our watching.”

Geoffrey had started. “Share it?”

Professor Ismal straightened and turned to wink at his apprentice. “Once we have gathered sufficient amounts of truth to amaze and astonish, and earn forgiveness for our having looked. Of course.”

*****

Now, the professor straightened again. He turned to his apprentice, but there was no wink in his eye. Only a troubled curiosity.

“It can’t be,” he said again. “For how long…?”

“Is it the one?” Geoffrey asked. “The one they took away from us? Do you think they took it after we discarded the pieces?”

Suddenly, the professor was before Geoffrey. “What made you look in this direction?”

The professor had warned him against using the scope to spy. It was, in his mind and heart, the greatest sin that the watchers could commit with the power of the great scopes that were given to their care. He did not approve of the watch-lenses (spyglasses, he called them) that were arrayed around the capitol and many of the other cities and even towns in the land, meant to keep watch over the people.

The professor’s wizened face was so close that his spectacles fogged from the heat of Geoffrey’s breath as he answered.

“Rumor,” Geoffrey said. “Nothing more than rumor.”

The professor did not ask where Geoffrey might have heard such tremendous rumors. The scope was pointed at the western mountain range in the neighboring kingdom. Cradled in the side of the mountain was a scope that was built to see farther and clearer than any in the capitol array. The scope that was purportedly dismantled because its watcher had dared to look upon the skies, and had seen something that he was never allowed to speak of before being whisked away by the capitol authorities.

It had to be that scope. Geoffrey showed the professor his calculations of how big it must be based on its size through their own scope and the mountain’s distance. Even more intriguing and maddening was that the scope was pointed up to the sky.

They spent the next few hours watching the wall according to their duty, but all the while pondering what they had spied. They wondered how the scope had come to be on the mountain, what had become of the watcher, whether or not their rulers knew the scope was there, if that was the reason that they had their own scopes trained only on the wall. They wondered why their kingdom would waste their scopes watching a crumbling and obsolete wall when their neighbors were watching the skies, and likely advancing in their knowledge of the greater world by leaps and bounds, while they continued to spin tales of arboreal specters that never were.

But most of all, they wondered why that scope was pointed where it was. They wondered if the scope were merely conducting a general survey, or if there were something to see in the western skies, beyond the majestic flight of the blue-feathered herons that lived upon the coast and were treasured by both lands. They did not stop at wondering.

***

“We are being reckless, my dear boy. Most reckless. But I must see what the mountain scope is seeing.” Professor Ismal chuckled nervously.

Geoffrey had never seen his teacher nervous. He did not think the calm and steady old man was capable of restless emotions.

It was the dead of night. They had dismissed the scholar who was scheduled for a shift, and who was all too glad to return home and enjoy a night of warm sleep next to his wife instead of a night alone in the chill observatory, staring at the wall a few times an hour.

Geoffrey and the professor moved the scope, shifting and adjusting, until they were certain that it was trained in the same direction as the mountain scope. Just before moving it, they swept its gaze along a great length of the boundary wall, finding and noting a crack, which they added to their next report. Professor Ismal did most of the focusing and fine adjusting. He marveled, then let Geoffrey see. They gawked at the beauty of the spiked stars and the softly glowing cosmic clouds. They drew diagrams and noted positions and angles. They wondered if this was all that the mountain scope was meant to see. They dared to keep the scope on the sky as long as they could before returning its gaze to the wall.

“We’ll try again,” Geoffrey said, when dawn broke. “Maybe the mountain scope will change position, and when we look where it’s looking, we’ll have more information. We may be able to tell what it’s doing.”

Professor Ismal made no other reply than to pat his apprentice on the shoulder, stretch his face into a tired smile, and manage a single, but solid, nod.

***

Geoffrey trudged toward his lodging in the merchants’ district, dreading the climb to the fifth level, but dreaming of his soft bed. The best piece of advice he had received about becoming a scholar was to spend his first meager wages on the best bed he could manage, for it would serve him well after long stretches of study, and in other ways, if he so chose, being young and full of vigor. Geoffrey’s vigor was all spent for the night. The only mistress he sought was sleep.

But when he reached the fifth level and made for his room, he found unexpected, and soon unwanted guests. Guardsmen, from the capitol by the patches on their purple coats, barred him from his room.

A blue-coated man of middle age stepped forth, introduced himself only by the designation of “director,” and showed Geoffrey a parchment on which were written travel orders. The director commanded him to gather all the possessions he could fit in two trunks that were suddenly produced.

Geoffrey’s stomach lurched.

Though he was battling sleep and panic at the same time, he understood what was happening and why. He was being taken away. He wondered how they could have found out so soon. They had orders from the capitol. But it would have taken them a day’s travel to reach the western tower, even by rail.

The director repeated his order, more sternly this time, but he also placed a firm hand on Geoffrey’s shoulder, and met Geoffrey’s gaze, as if to steady him.

“My parents, my brother…will I see them?” Geoffrey dared to ask.

“Gather your things, quickly. Do as I say now and I will answer all your questions when I am given leave to do so.”

Geoffrey moved to follow the instructions. He gave no more resistance other than to insist that he must see his family, tell them he was going. But soon he was grateful that the guardsmen did not answer him. For so long as they did not, he might still dream that he would see his family. He thought of the professor and feared for him. He dared not ask. He didn’t want to reveal or betray the professor.

But he was not surprised when he spotted Professor Ismal waiting impatiently beside a carriage by the time Geoffrey was packed. Geoffrey took heart. He was not alone.

“We’re being banished aren’t we?” he asked the director, who said nothing in return.

Geoffrey and the professor entered the carriage, sitting across from each other. The director sat beside Geoffrey. He knocked on the carriage wall to signal the driver, and they lurched into motion.

“The boy was acting under my instructions,” the professor said, in a calm and deep voice, as he trained his calm and deep gaze upon the director. “He saw nothing and is guilty of nothing but foolishly following the word of a defiant old man. Why bother with him? The circle of scholars will be done with him now. He’ll have to find work as a peddler or a spell-caster.”

The director gave no answer. They all remained silent until hours later, when the carriage made a stop. The director warned the professor and Geoffrey not to try escape, for there were guardsmen all about. Then he stepped outside for a few moments. At once, the professor’s calm expression crumbled, and with shining eyes, he gazed at Geoffrey.

“Take heart, my dear boy,” the professor said. “I will find a way to get you out of this or die trying. You cannot imagine how sorry I am that I brought you into this.”

Geoffrey was still too stunned to feel anger at his teacher or regret at his own actions. But as the carriage continued on and brought them to the train platform, where an ether engine waited to speed them away from the western tower, and as he was gently rocked by the movement of the car over the rails, the chill realization began to seep into his mind.

Professor Ismal had been right. For all that they had risked, they hadn’t even seen anything.

***

Geoffrey gawked as he leaned out the carriage window. This carriage was by necessity cramped, for they were traveling up the northern face of the mountain, on narrow roads that led to the observatory.

After a fortnight of swift and breathless travel, Professor Ismal and his apprentice had been brought to the borders of their land, much farther than either of them had ever been. They traveled to and up the western mountains until they reached a landing that was large enough to host a village. The villagers welcomed them warmly. Geoffrey and the professor had been expected. There were huts, small, but bigger than Geoffrey’s last lodgings, and they were cozy. Though he was still sick with worry about what his mother must be suffering at his absence, Geoffrey could not help but appreciate the softness of the beds. And the professor admitted to having some delightful dreams around his favorite subject, aside from scholarship, desserts.

All the while, their constant companion, the director had said nothing of where he was taking them and why. He would only repeat that he would answer their questions when given leave to do so.

When they reached the mountain observatory, he finally had leave. For it was then, as they stood outside the observatory doors, that he began to speak.

“Knowing a piece of the truth can be deceiving, and far more dangerous than knowing the whole truth. Knowing the whole truth will change your lives. But you have come too far down that path to turn back now.” He waved a hand behind himself.

“No doubt you have heard that a star fell from the sky and into our realm long ago, scorching the land, killing all that lived for leagues around it. It gave to ‘night phantoms’ that came to haunt the forest that grew around and over the wound that the falling star made where it struck. True stars are made of flame and spirit. What fell upon our land was rock, as our land is rock. It was a broken shard of a broken world that came hurtling through the empty distance straight toward us.

“Many of the mystical objects that our two realms possess—including the wall around the forest—were built from remnants of that broken shard, for it contained both wonders and horrors. We were beset with awful creatures because of that shard. But we were also given great gifts that allowed us to leap and bound in our knowledge of the world and of magic. Otherwise, who knows how many more eons we might have struggled to understand what we cannot perceive with our natural senses. How many eons before we would have learned magic?

“The lenses of the scopes that watch the wall are made from glass that was formed when the shard crashed. For some reason that no scholar has yet discovered, this makes it possible for those scopes and those scopes alone to see breaks in the wall, not in the stone, but in the mystical energy that binds the wall together and makes it effective. It was not built to contain the night phantoms—daylight sufficed for that—but to contain and focus the mystical energies in the forest, to keep them as strong as they were generations ago, when our lands were host to many mystical beings and witness to great magical deeds.

“The rulers of both kingdoms knew those energies were dissipating. As they did, terrible beings like the night phantoms, and wondrous beings like the sprites and fairies of old, died out in the world. Magic has faded. The wall, try as we might to repair it, will fail altogether someday soon. All magic will vanish from our two realms. There was nothing particularly mystical about that falling shard. It was some confluence of events that resulted in a burst of mystical energy that flowed through our world for an age.”

“Don’t joke about those night phantoms,” the professor said. “For a while, I thought you were going to feed us to them.”

Geoffrey was curious about the observatory. All the knowledge that the director was sharing with them, much of it must have been gathered or gleaned from whatever scholars observed through the scope. He hoped that the director would let them see what the scope within could see. It would not make the banishment worth bearing, but at least he would have something to show for it.

He was surprised when the director led them away from the observatory, walking around its perimeter until they were facing south. He gestured to a plains. It was many leagues away, but from their vantage, they saw it clearly, and they saw what was being constructed upon it. Geoffrey gaped at the massive silvery giant. It had two long arms, held straight against its barrel-shaped body. Its head was shaped like stylus, and instead of feet, it had sleek fins.

“Is that…is that a vessel?” Professor Ismal asked.

Geoffrey frowned and turned to the professor, wondering how he could have come to such an unlikely conclusion. But the director was smiling at the professor.

Geoffrey frowned again and looked at the giant edifice.

“Do you mean to send it up?” the professor asked. “To the stars? It’s a star-vessel.”

“Someday, perhaps, we will send the vessel beyond the grasp of the vibrations that hold us to the orb and to the stars beyond. But we are not ready for such an endeavor.”

“Then…what do you mean to do with it?”

The director explained then what the alliance of both kingdoms had been planning for generations. The scopes of both lands were forbidden to watch the skies. Permissions were only ever granted to those scholars who knew of the plan and had taken oaths not to reveal it. The rulers had decided not to tell their people that the mystical energies upon which they had come to rely would soon be spent. They hoped the people never need know. For they planned to restore those energies by recreating that “confluence of events” that changed whatever was changed in the world so that mystical energies came pouring into it, energies that people harnessed and wielded in a practice they came to call “magic.” They recruited scholars to study the skies and study the forest where the shard had landed, to conduct tests, to propose solutions. In time, they decided upon one solution. Their plan was to launch that vessel up into the air, and once it reached a precise height, to bring it crashing back down again, just as the falling star had crashed down in an age long past. With certain other conditions being met, the confluence would trigger a burst of mystical energies that would last another age.

Professor Ismal gazed at the metal giant, the star-vessel, with wonder and dismay.

The director was not without sympathy. He placed a hand upon the professor’s shoulder. “Everything that rises must fall.”

Professor Ismal sighed. “But must it fall back onto our lands?”

“This seems a dangerous plan,” Geoffrey said. “Even if it succeeds, wouldn’t it destroy the forest and everything around it for leagues, as the first star—shard—did?”

The director nodded. “Of course there is danger, as there is in all great endeavors. We have been fortifying the wall around the forest so that it can contain the destruction.”

Professor Ismal sniffed. “The risk is too great for a reward that is not likely to manifest. This is a foolish plan. Why not let the mystical energies fade, and spend our time and our genius finding ways to live without it.”

The director laughed out loud. “Shall we use fire to cook again? Sleep on beds of straw? Weave our clothes with our bare hands, and ride upon the backs of beasts instead of on the swift and invisible ether? We do all of these things now, to be sure, but we do so by choice and when we are at leisure. If we had to do so by necessity, our society as it is, our culture, would crumble as surely as that wall.”

“Did you truly find no better ways to restore the mystical energies? Or to do what magic does?” Geoffrey asked.

The director crossed his arms, a strained smile upon his face. Certainly, he was at the end of his patience with the professor and his apprentice.

“I did not bring you here to consult you on matters that were decided long before any of us were born.” He gave the professor a pointed look. “I brought you here to tell you why you must not look upon the skies, and why you must watch the wall, and help us to keep it sound. I brought you here because you proved that you would not be satisfied until you pointed your scope where it shouldn’t be pointed.”

The professor kept his gaze fixed on the star-vessel.

“You will be sworn to secrecy,” the director said. “It will be many years before the vessel is ready.  You must never reveal what you’ve seen here, or what you’ve seen through your scope.”

“On pain of death?” the professor said.

“Some might say the penalty is worse than death.”

“Madness,” Geoffrey said quietly, and the two older men turned to him.

Among the rumors and tales of what happened to those who cast their scopes upon the sky was that there was something up there that when seen with a clarity that was not naturally granted to human eyes drove the seer mad. Perhaps some of the rumors of madness were real. But perhaps the cause was not something in the skies, but something upon the earth. The director, who had started to seem almost pleasant to Geoffrey, seemed suddenly sinister again.

“What is the scope’s purpose in all this?” Geoffrey asked, casting his gaze toward the mountain observatory.

“It was brought here in more hopeful times, when we believed that we might study the vibrations in the skies and find clues that would help us harness the mystical energies. The position atop this mountain is higher than any tower in your land. From it, we hoped the scope could see farther and clearer. We found nothing of use up there. But we did find wonders. The scope does not use any mystical energies. We’ve seen no harm in letting the scholars continue their observations.” He raised a brow at Geoffrey. “We are not unreasonable.”

“Then may I stay and join them?” the professor asked.

Geoffrey’s eyes widened. The director’s eyes narrowed.

“My apprentice is ready to take over as Master of the Western Watch. And if you’re going to blast us all into oblivion when that vessel is ready, I’d like to have looked through that scope at least once.”

The director seemed intrigued and suspicious, as he should have. Geoffrey thought he knew what the professor was up to. Ismal intended to stay where he could watch that vessel being built, and whisper into the ears of any who would listen about the foolishness of the plan.

Perhaps the plan was foolish. Perhaps not. Perhaps it would fail, and they would only try again. Geoffrey could not imagine a life without magic. In times past, stories were told of great magic that could do great things, like launching a vessel toward the stars. But in his time, magic was small, almost invisible, but it was everywhere. It was a necessity. The director was right. How would people keep their food from spoiling without cold boxes that were charged by mystical energies? What good what it do lovers devoted in fidelity to swear oaths upon rings that were not bound by magic? People depended upon magic. And their rulers were working in secret to assure their people would not have to lose that magic.

***

After dinner that evening, Geoffrey sat upon the edge of the mountain, gazing upon a night sky that was dark and clear, and scattered with stars. He thought again of the director’s warning. He had been eager for the whole truth, but the whole truth had indeed changed his life. But he did not know if that was for the better or the worse. He tried to express his confusion to the professor.

“When I saw that he was bringing us to the mountain observatory, I hoped we would see wonders. And we have, but…”

“But the wonders will be made to bring about horrors, is that it? Is that your fear?”

Geoffrey tried but found no response to give.

“Perhaps it’s time to move to another land, one on the other side of the orb.”

Geoffrey sighed. He did not mean to lose patience with the professor, but it was unseemly for Ismal to jest at such a time.

“Either that, or I can steal that star-vessel when it’s ready.” Professor Ismal glanced at Geoffrey and winked. “If you’re not settled down and tending to more important matters by then, perhaps you can join me.”

“I suppose we’ll go searching for magic,” Geoffrey said, grinning.

His smile faded as he glanced at the professor, who was stroking his nimbus-like beard, as he often did when planning a bit of rebellion.

 

Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel.  Artwork: “Watchers of the Western Observatory” by Sanjay Patel.

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