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The BeaconHard Science Fiction

Brandon Q. Morris


The Beacon

Author's Note


Also by Brandon Q. Morris

A Guided Tour of Multi-Messenger Astronomy

Glossary of Acronyms

Metric to English Conversions

Excerpt: Helium-3 – Fight for the Future

The Beacon

February 20, 2026 – Passau

Saturn floated before his eyes in the blackness of space. The rings cast distinct shadows. The image trembled slightly. Peter held his breath, as if it were that simple to calm the planet’s shimmer. But it was already almost perfect—the image’s disturbance caused by the air movement in the atmosphere was amazingly low today. Or was it because of the new ADC? The device he’d screwed onto the telescope’s eyepiece seemed to work wonders. Why hadn’t he listen to Mark sooner? Because he’d already guessed how Franziska would react to the 200 euros missing from their joint account.

He pushed one of the ADC’s two levers half a millimeter forward. The device’s two prisms changed their relative positions a tiny bit, and Saturn trembled a little bit less. Later, when he superimposed the many individual images he was now taking, they would combine into a fantastic snapshot.

“Peter, will you come here?” his wife Franziska called out, using her ‘don’t leave me alone so long’ voice. She probably wanted him to switch the TV channel for her, or to fetch a spoon from the kitchen. Alexa, the household robot, supposedly didn’t listen to her.

He looked at his watch and realized it was already close to 11 p.m. Saturn was sinking toward the horizon, and he wanted to get Neptune in the eyepiece as well! The two planets had their closest apparent approach tonight, a conjunction that would not repeat itself for many years.

Peter sighed, which didn’t solve anything. If he didn’t go inside now, he’d have to listen to her lecture him for the rest of the evening. He rubbed his hands together. It was too cold to stay in the garden all night, and that would be the only way to escape the sermon.

Peter covered the lens, walked around the telescope, and tripped over the third leg of the tripod, which was extended forward. “Shit!” he shouted.

The telescope wobbled, and he was just barely able to grab hold and stabilize it. He hated to imagine if it had fallen over and landed on the hard slabs of the garden path! But even so, it was a big bummer. Getting it back in proper alignment would take him some time, time that was very precious right now. He made sure that the tripod was still stable and ran into the house.

It took him three seconds to switch the TV to her preferred channel. All he had to do was press the button twice, which he’d shown Franziska so many times but which she always forgot. She thanked him along with a grateful look, and he couldn’t blame her for asking his help. His wife was at war with technology.

He quickly put his shoes back on, wrapped his scarf around his neck, and ran back outside. As he left the front door, the light automatically switched on. He used the brightness to check that the telescope was standing securely. The outdoor light turned off after two minutes. He removed the lens cap, rubbed his hands, and stomped his feet so he wouldn’t feel the cold so quickly. Looking through the eyepiece was pointless until his eyes readapted.

In the meantime, Peter looked into the sky, trying to identify a few constellations with his naked eye. Saturn and Neptune met in the constellation Aries. The famous curved line formed by Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Arietis was easy to find. They represented the head of Aries with the horns. He found the ringed planet in it as a bright star. There was no trace of Neptune, and finding that planet now would be a miracle.

Three minutes passed. Peter imagined the light-sensitive rods in his retina busily accumulating rhodopsin, the visual pigment they needed to trigger light stimuli. Unfortunately, the adaptation to darkness took much longer than the adjustment to light. Wasn’t that somehow typical of this world? Franziska would undoubtedly disagree with him. She was a merciless optimist. “It’s great that you can enjoy the light, the good, right away,” she would say.

But he liked the darkness better, even if it made him wait. He had always been that way. As a child, he would sometimes hide under a blanket during the day and read with the help of a flashlight because he found it so cozy. His mother would then scold him for ruining his eyes. He still didn’t need glasses, even though he was over 50!

It was time for a try. He put his eye to the eyepiece. Maybe he’d be lucky and the telescope would have hardly moved. No such luck—he couldn’t identify the stars he was seeing, which was more to be expected. Fortunately, Saturn was so easy to spot that he could align the telescope manually.

He worked his way up slowly. Ha! There you are again, he thought. The viewing conditions had grown worse. He readjusted the ADC, but he couldn’t get the image as stable as he’d had it just a few minutes ago. No matter. It wasn’t about Saturn alone now. He very slowly adjusted the scope until the ringed planet moved to the edge of the field of view. His new target was north by 55 arc minutes, or just under 1 degree.

Where was Neptune? The eighth and outermost planet of the solar system must be close by. Peter systematically scanned through the field of view, and with each pass, another new faint star caught his eye. Thank you, rhodopsin. His eye had been adapting for 20 minutes now, but his vision was still not optimal. Fortunately, he possessed what Franziska lacked—patience. Without patience, astronomy would probably never have become his hobby.

He had been awaiting these optimal conditions! Saturn and Neptune had already had

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