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The Cloud

08 August 201503:02PMlife

"I work inside a machine whose explicit purpose is to simulate a perfect night sky, and this is the most beautiful sky I have ever seen."

"I think I'm going to wet myself."

The galaxy arced overhead as we crunched across the gravel away from the house. An hour ago it had been raining- and overcast- and only a chance trip outside to avoid a somewhat overfed fire had let us know the stars were out at all.

We chose damp backs over strained necks and lay down in the dirt.

"So what are we looking at."

"Well, okay. That's the Milky Way. And you see - there's this kind of fish-hook shape?"

"Yeah?"

"It goes right down into the middle of the galaxy, that bulgy bit."

"Wait, no."

"Never mind. I wish I had my laser pointer right now."

Attempting to use a torch to do the same thing was spectacularly unsuccessful, and ended in shouts of wrecked night vision all around.

"Hey guys, have you seen this app?"

Groans.

"No, really. It's pretty great."

"Mine is better."

This cued several minutes of fidgeting with apps, and at least one begrudging trip back to a homestead which - relatively - was as bright and hot as the surface of the sun to grab an app which sucked a little less off a phone that sucked a little more. Was it worth it?

"Oh! That fishhook."

Maybe.

"Right. So you see off the end of that shape, there are some sticky-outy bits? That's Scorpius, the scorpion. And the sticky outy bits are his pincers."

"I see it!"

"But that's not the cool bit. Just off the end there, there's a yellowish star that's not twinkling. See it?"

"Yeah?"

"Saturn."

"Whoa."

People arrived and departed, each shaft of torchlight bringing shouts of irritation from the array on the ground. Someone dug up a particularly thorny question about why the sky was dark at all if there were stars in every direction, and nobody seemed able to give an entirely satisfactory answer - though the square-cube law was mentioned at least once. In retrospect that lack of answer seems poignant and imbued with mystery and wonder, but at the time it was mostly just annoying.

"Where's the Southern Cross?"

"Behind that gum tree. You can see the pointers though."

This jogged an archived memory.

"You know, it's probably dark enough to see the Magellanic Clouds."

"What?"

"Dwarf galaxies, orbiting the Milky Way. It should be dark enough out here to actually see them with the naked eye, but... I think they're over behind those trees."

"Okay."

A little more interest would've been nice. Oh well.

I crunched down the hill, and got my bearings. Down from the Milky Way, up from the horizon, right near the top of that massive triangle - if that was even the right triangle.

And I saw it. Not spectacular. Not beautiful. Really just a smudge, to the left of an unremarkable star, with a habit of vanishing when looked at directly.

But that smudge on my retina was happening because of light that was 200,000 years old. Light from another galaxy - albeit a galaxy gravitationally bound to our own. An island universe of hundreds of millions of stars shining together.

And that light was hitting my eyes. Somehow, buried at the bottom of a thick blanket of 78% nitrogen in the middle of a well-lit corner of the galactic neighbourhood, that light was hitting my eyes.

I wish I could say something poetic about how those eyes filled with tears of wonder, but they didn't. I gawked for a bit longer, and then headed back to a house that now seemed even more impossibly bright and hot than it had before, filled with a vague sense of satisfaction.

And, okay, yes: Just the tiniest bit of cosmic awe.

the sky

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