Odd Creatures

The clear night sky was freckled with a few hundred dots of light. It was a new July moon in the Midwest, and the air hung still and dry. On a night like this, an odd creature crawls out from hiding. Do not judge these creatures, for they are drawn to these nights.

“Hey Greg, is that you?” a creature called out in a whisper. Red light tore across Piper Hill. The locals had named the hill after a plane crash.

“Yeah Randy, who else would it be?” Greg’s voice returned from behind the red light.

Randy flipped his red light on to help Greg see. These creatures chose red lights to help keep their pupils dilated. “Hey that’s not your usual,” Randy said with a point of his finger. “Did you go and get another Schmidt?”

“No, this is my new Maksutov,” Greg said as he hoisted its 150mm housing up into an equatorial mount.

“What the hell is a Muskatov? Do I got to keep chasing you? I just bought this Schmidt-Cassegrain so I don’t have to lug around that stupid light bucket anymore.”

“It is a Maksutov,” Greg answered. “And, no, you never had to chase me, this isn’t a competition. Your twelve-inch Dobsonian was a fine scope. You’re going to miss that ‘light bucket’ soon enough.”

Randy sat quiet as he searched for his fourth point of light. He wanted a more precise tracking calibration.

“Okay so what’s a Maksutov?” Randy asked, breaking the silence.

“It is a lot like a Schmidt-Cassegrain, except the corrector plate has a more aggressive curve to it, which helps correct some off-axis and color aberrations. It doesn’t cool nearly as fast as a Schmidt though. The corrector plate is bigger and thicker, so I probably won’t be using it come winter.”

Together they looked at the stars, plotting out their own targets. They both observed Saturn for a while trying to pick out several of its moons. All together, they could make out five, including Titan, but Greg swore that he could see Mimas too, making it six. He popped in his astrophotography camera to take a forty-second exposure. He would wait to look at it. He did not want the light of the screen ruining his night vision.

“I was out here a few days ago and do you know what I saw?” Randy asked with an audible smile in his voice. He waited a moment for Greg to inquire, but he was being careful not to bump anything as he dropped the camera into his focuser. Randy eventually answered himself, “I saw a UFO.”

Greg began to set a very long thirty-minute exposure on NGC-6543, the Cat’s Eye nebula. “No you didn’t,” he said simply as he began the exposure.

“Yes I did,” Randy pointed to the Northeast, “It was right there in that sky.”

Greg thought reflexively that he must have pointed up at about twenty-five degrees of inclination. “What did it look like?” he asked with little care in his voice.

“It was a point of light that would appear and race across about a half a degree of sky, then it would disappear and reappear at its origin and race across again.”

“Maybe there is something wrong with your scope, sounds like your secondary mirror might be wobbling.”

“I didn’t see it with my scope. I saw it with my own naked eyes. We were too startled at first, and by the time we thought to look through our scopes it was gone.”

“We?” Greg asked.

“Yeah, me and Chucky.”

“Chucky? Were you guys drinking?”

“No. Well maybe a few beers, but what does that have to do with anything?”

“It was probably just a plane. Maybe the wings were teetering or something, or it was just the alternating lights.”

“It wasn’t a plane. It hung still in the sky.”

“It was just a plane, and between the beer and Chucky your mind got all wound up tight, and you guys saw what you wanted to see.”

“Why is it so hard to believe that it was an alien craft?”

“Oh so it WAS an alien craft? Well I guess we no longer have an unidentified flying object, because you’ve solved the case.”

“You don’t have to talk down to me. You know what I meant.” Randy went back to his scope. He punched M-104 into his tracking computer, the Sombrero galaxy, which produced a horizon error. He punched in IC-434, the Horsehead nebula, which produced the same error. Finally, he punched in M-16, the Eagle nebula, and the Schmidt moved into place.

Greg let the silence stand and very carefully checked his small finder scope to make sure that it was tracking properly. Eventually Greg’s camera beeped, indicating it was finished. He decided to temporarily ruin his night vision and take a peek, to see what he had captured. He looked at the short exposure of Saturn first. Long exposures were easy to screw up, and he always dreaded looking at them.  “Look,” he said pointing, “there’s Mimas, and I think I got Hyperion way down there too.”

Randy looked over, “Wow, I don’t think we’ve ever seen that one.”

“Please don’t go around telling people that UFO story,” Greg said seriously.

“Why not?” Randy asked, startled.

“Because a lot of people already think we are odd creatures.”

“But if people knew what I saw, then they would want to come out here, they would want to look with us, isn’t that what you…” Randy stopped short and gasped at the orange and blue explosion that had blossomed on Greg’s screen. The static image seemed to ripple. It was a brilliantly colored pond unfolding in the vague shape of a feline eye. “It’s beautiful,” Randy finished.

“Yes it is,” Greg said staring at the screen. “That is why I want them coming out. This should be enough.”

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