The end of the world began on a clear, cool evening in late October. Dusk arrived on the east coast of the United States, just as it always did, and the world spun as normal, filled with individuals going about their average lives, participating in their average, mundane activities.
David Howser was going through his normal evening routine. He adjusted the Adirondack chair on the wooden deck, sliding it up next to his large telescope. He carefully lined up the back of the chair under the viewfinder. Proper placement was vital to keep his neck from getting sore as he gazed skyward. He had already aimed the telescope in the general direction of tonight’s target, and his hope was he wouldn’t have to shift the chair once he dialed in his view. On a typical night, he may have to make four or five adjustments before he got the view he wanted, with the level of comfort his back and neck could handle.
I’m no spring chicken anymore, he thought to himself. He still had reasonable strength in his modest body, for which he was thankful when it came to things like moving this wooden deck chair. His hair, however, had turned mostly white years ago. A few streaks of brown remained, but the bulk had lightened; he was thankful, though, that he still had a full head of it. It took some effort to keep his weight from ballooning out of control, but his half-hour daily walk and work around the yard was enough to keep him in reasonable shape. His doctor had seemed pleased with his progress a couple months back during his last checkup.
Behind him, through the screen door outside the open glass slider into the kitchen, he heard the bell on the microwave sound, notifying him that his dinner was ready. It was a Hungry-Man again tonight, as it was most nights. The past three years had been rough, since his Emily had passed away. Oh, what a cook she had been! For a while David tried to keep up with the types of meals Emily would have made, but it just wasn’t the same. He couldn’t cook, and each failure only further proved how lost he was without his beloved. Ultimately, he conceded to convenience; less time spent cooking meant more time to pursue his passion.
As always, the meal was less than spectacular. The brownie was hard and overcooked, the corn was too watery, and the chicken was rubbery. But sustenance was sustenance. He gulped his food quickly and chased it with his evening dose of blood pressure and blood thinner medications. Modestly satisfied, he then dimmed the lights and stepped back onto the patio.
He looked at his watch. It would be another ten minutes or so before Jupiter would come into his viewing window. He had been excited about this for months: the gas giant was approaching perihelion, and Earth’s proximity to it would be its closest in nearly three decades. Using his telescope, he could get some absolutely spectacular views of the planet and its natural satellites.
Emily would have given him a lot of grief for spending over ten thousand dollars on his stargazing setup, had she been around. For as long as he could remember, he had loved to gaze at the stars, especially on clear fall and winter evenings. For years he had made a modest living as an engineer in North Carolina’s technology corridor. His true passion was always the cosmos, and he had talked often about getting a telescope. It would have been nothing extravagant, certainly something far more subtle than the colossus now bolted securely to the wooden slats of the patio decking. He had never pulled the trigger on the purchase, though. As much as he loved gazing toward the heavens, he loved his family more, and there was always something more important they needed.
He was extremely proud when his son attained as much of a love for all things cosmically inclined as he himself possessed. He and Emily only had one child, and he was difficult to conceive; after his birth, Emily had been rendered infertile, so Lucas became their one and only. If David had one chance to pass his passion along, he could not have asked for a better pupil. Lucas was like a sponge, absorbing all of David’s knowledge and more. He loved the science so much that he dedicated his life to it, and ultimately gained admittance to the highly exclusive astrophysics department at MIT. It was a long way from home, but David knew that it was the place for his son to be.
When the time came to retire, he and Emily decided to move to the coast. It had always been their dream. Lucas had graduated and was working for NASA somewhere in Florida. With nothing left to tie them down, they found a nice place along the Crystal Coast, away from the city lights and ground clutter. On a nice evening such as this, the low glow of the Milky Way galaxy was faintly visible streaming across the star-filled sky. It was the perfect place from which to gaze upon the heavens.
Emily became sick not long after. She made it nearly a year before the illness overcame her. David cherished every last day he had with her. He only wished he had been granted more time -- but at the end he prayed for her suffering to end. The worst of it only lasted two weeks, but in David’s mind, those were two weeks too many. That she had suffered at all was the crime.
In the years following, his yearning towards the heavens only grew. In a way, David felt that his obsession with the stars provided him a connection with the departed floating towards the heavens. The beauty he could see out there must have been a message sent to earth from all his beloved, who painted a wonderful mosaic of hope that our own afterlife will be a joyous release from the pains of earthly existence.
With that in mind, he finally convinced himself that a telescope was worth the investment, and he therefore spared no expense. To view deep into space, you needed a big lens, which also meant a big scope. This one stood nearly a foot taller than David himself, and took up a large bit of patio space. Once assembled, it was impossible to relocate without first completely disassembling it. It sat on a stiff motorized turret, which was mounted on the top of the low-resting, thick-legged stainless-steel tripod. The tripod he bolted to the decking, to protect the entire structure from the occasional tropical storm that would attack the coast. The entire mechanism was kept shielded under a strapped-down protective tarp when not in use. It was his baby now, and he was determined to take excellent care of it.
Slowly and deliberately, David slid into the Adirondack chair and positioned his head under the viewfinder. He looked up into it and saw... the reflection of his brown eyes. Whoops, he thought, as he turned and plugged his tablet PC into the telescope’s electronics. He chuckled as he thought about the advances in technology: there was a time where all of this was optical, and astronomers needed to manually zoom and focus their stargazing equipment. Today it was as simple as initiating an app on a smart device.
With the app running, the viewfinder opened to a glorious view of the night sky, with a myriad of pin-point stars filling the window. He liked this modern take on the technology, which allowed a much wider-angle view of the sky, versus the traditional lenses which required viewing the sky with just a single eye. This particular model boasted a 15-inch 4k viewing screen. It had cost extra, but David felt it was completely worth it. He turned to the tablet and toggled a mode switch in the app which redirected the viewfinder to receive its input from the smaller lens on the scope. This lens was used for coarse tuning, with a much lower magnification than the big lens.
There he spotted it -- the brightly lit sphere just down and to the right of the crosshairs in the viewfinder. On the app, he brought up the fine-tuning controls for the turret. The base unit was equipped with a control joystick, which could be used for fast-moving coarse positional adjustments, useful for when you want to view a different part of the sky, but the fine tuning could only be done through the application. Taking care, David brought the crosshairs over and down and centered them right on the little bright disk.
A quick tap on the tablet switched back to the larger lens, and the great gas giant appeared before David’s eyes, in all its brilliance. At first the image was blurry, but the autofocus feature quickly cleared up the image, and he had a close-up view of Jupiter’s iconic swirls, with the great red spot taking its place in the lower right-hand corner of the picture. The view was so close-on that the edges of the planet were clear off the display. One of the Galilean satellites appeared in the foreground, visible by its silhouette cast upon the “surface” of the great planet’s clouds.
He reached over and tapped the record button to start his nightly recording. Each evening, he took a video of his observations, which allowed him to go back over them at his leisure. Sometimes he would notice details he missed the first time around. Other times it would simply give him a chance to enjoy the view a second time. This was often the case when he would observe celestial events that did not happen frequently, such as planets’ orbits placing them near to each other in the night sky, or even occulting with the moon.
He slowly panned his view to the left, and the great red spot slowly moved off the screen to the right. He kept panning until the planet’s edge appeared, then continued to the left until another small bright circle moved into his view.
“Good evening, Europa,” he muttered to himself, centering the picture on the small light source. It seemed to give off a soft bluish hue in the intense sunlight, but David knew that was probably just his mind playing with him. He knew its surface to be solid ice, and incredibly volatile, with a likely liquid ocean underneath. That probably affected his perception, because he doubted at this distance, he’d make out much detail of the moon at all.
In fact, didn’t I hear that this evening, the Juno probe was to be making a close flyby of Europa tonight? He thought about that for a few moments. Wouldn’t it be something if I could see it glancing by the ice world, cameras running wide open?
He zoomed in on the satellite to the max power possible for the scope. The little world spanned barely half an inch across on his screen. What secrets do you hold, my friend? What lies beneath your surface?
At that moment a flash occurred near the moon, and before he knew it, a brilliant light flared up and grew tremendously in intensity, filling his entire viewfinder with a blindingly bluish-white light. David was forced to avert his gaze and shield his eyes before the light filters kicked in to reduce the glare. When he looked back at the screen, he saw the brilliant light fade quickly to a point of light, then disappear entirely. The filters toggled off and he was left with his static view of the icy moon.
What did I just see? He sat perplexed for a few moments, until he came to his senses and remembered his recording. He switched the recorder off and drummed his fingers on the sides of the tablet. A thousand thoughts filled his mind, but first and foremost was whether he had truly seen what he thought he saw. He pulled up the video on the tablet, cycled it forward, and watched the event again. Surely enough, the video had captured the brilliant explosion in space near Europa.
David knew he would need to notify someone, but he wasn’t sure exactly what he had seen. Could this be something classified? He had seen enough movies to know he must cover his own backside. He quickly sent the copy of the video to his encrypted cloud storage for safe keeping. He then composed an e-mail to his son, detailing exactly what he had seen, and linked in the videographic proof. He was sure Lucas knew how to access it, should anything happen to him.
The last step of the evening, before buttoning up his equipment for the night, was to make the dreaded phone call. His heart pounding, he thumbed through the address book on his phone and punched the little phone icon next to his contact at NASA -- the number Lucas had told him to call, if he ever had anything to report.