THE CLOCK ON THE desk in Marcus’s home office read 12:30. Half past midnight. I should be in bed. But bed would not come for at least another hour. He was a night owl, a habit developed during countless hours stargazing as a teenager. While other young people his age attended parties, went to movies, or hung out at the pool parlor, Marcus spent his evenings alone building telescopes and using them to bring the universe closer to home. Now, at the age of thirty-two, he still stayed up late and stared at the stars. Things had change of course. While he still spent time outside peering through the eyepiece of one of his telescopes, he now did most of his work inside his warm, well-appointed home office. Whiz and Terri would be surprised, maybe even angry, to learn that he had another telescope mounted in its own domed observatory. The observatory, which stood on a foundation at the side of the house, was just large enough for his sixteen-inch Starfinder Dobsonian telescope. Motor-driven, computer-controlled, and camera-equipped, Marcus could operate the whole system from the comfort of his office. Images would appear directly on his computer monitor.
As good as it was, it still was no match for the adventure of standing in the cold night air peering at the sky. Terri and Whiz needed that experience, and Marcus had wanted to give it to them.
Now, with only the light of the computer monitor to illuminate the room, he studied the video captures made by his two favorite students. Once presented with the task, they had set aside their quibbling to focus on the assignment. They had done well, working together like meshing gears. The result was a series of exceptional digital photos of the northern hemisphere of the Moon. The resolution was sharp, the detail easily discernible. It was all familiar territory to him. He had logged hundreds of hours studying the one side of the Moon that perpetually faced Earth. His knowledge of the gray orb was encyclopedic. Others studied distant stars, some searched for answers to questions of cosmology, while yet others pursued the sexier planets of the solar system, but it was the Moon that enthralled Marcus. Unlike the other objects in the Solar System, the Moon was close and easy to observe.
He allowed his eyes to trace the familiar form, to analyze the geological structures and to—
“What?” Marcus muttered aloud. He leaned closer to the image on the monitor. Something wasn’t right. Something was there that didn’t belong. He pursed his lips in frustration. A smudge. On his pictures, a smudge! That meant that something was on the mirror of his telescope. But how could that be? He was compulsive enough to the point of neurosis about his equipment. It was inconceivable that dirt or grease or something had marred his expensive eye to the heavens. Unless Whiz or Terri. . . He dismissed the idea. They had worked at the computer, not with the telescope itself.
Still, there it was.
With a click of the mouse, he enlarged the picture to better study the smear. Perhaps he could tell where the smudge was. Marcus’s mind ground to a halt. The image was wrong in almost every way. It didn’t match the Moon’s terrain, the color was wrong, and he had never seen the likes of it before, despite his thousands of hours staring at its surface.
Red. A light crimson blotch marred the area just beneath the Crater of Plato and at the extreme north end of Mare Imbrium. There appeared to be no depth to it as he would expect with a ridge or a cliff. It would be easy to miss without a trained eye. No wonder Whiz and Terri hadn’t noticed it.
“A light anomaly,” he told himself. Perhaps lens flare, the reflection of a light from an unknown but otherwise earthly source. Marcus shook his head; the answer didn’t satisfy. Everything he was seeing argued against the conclusion. The aberration seemed a natural formation or discoloration. But that seemed wrong, too. The Moon was a static place. There were the occasional moonquakes and even minor meteorite impacts, but the surface never changed color. It never had and couldn’t now. In the 350 years people had been turning telescopes toward the Moon, no one had seen a new crater, not to mention something like this.
Swiftly switching between the other pictures, Marcus discovered that the blotch appeared on two other images that showed the narrow band of high ground just south of Plato. More disturbing than the number of appearances was the consistency of the discoloration. It was an uneven shape, roughly that of a malformed butterfly, and its orientation and size was consistent in each of the three photos. That implied that it was truly on the Moon’s surface and that something, a shadow or lens flare, had not caused the image. And if something on the telescope’s mirror, or some electronic gremlin in the CCD had caused the aberration, then it would have appeared in different locations on different photos. At the very least, it should be on every picture.
Marcus wanted verification.
It took only moments for Marcus to activate the Starfinder, enter the computer commands that would direct its unblinking eye to the Moon, and locate the crater named Plato. The telescope, which Marcus had bought, made improvements to, and used daily, had cut into his income deeply. With the addition of a high-end CCD camera, the tiny custom-made observatory enclosure, photo-enhancing software, precision drive, and a host of other enhancements, Marcus was out the cost of a luxury car. Without Lucy’s income from the hospital he would never have been able to afford it.
The image from the telescope played across his monitor, it took less than three minutes for Marcus to find the Moon and focus on the mystery spot. He found what he was looking for and it made his stomach turn.