The boy went through the motions, pointing the scope at Kepler-3b, at Kepler-43b, then setting back to zenith and angling to focus on Lutwidge-7, then Asimov-5a. Finally, satisfied, the old man left him alone with his broom.
The boy aimed the scope at Gallun-Z. He had only one hundred times more magnification to go before the scope failed him.
He used every bit of it.
He zoomed in on an area that covered about twenty-five city blocks. The buildings were bulbous and layered, like stacks of flattened pearls. Each had an iridescent sheen of pink on gray, or green on white, wafting in the dim light of the setting star. And…yes! Movement.
Winged creatures flitted or wheeled between the towers, their feathers glinting gold.
Some flew in groups, each clutching the edge of a great net full of metallic rocks, or of a purplish substance that looked like plant fibers. They carried these to the east side of the city, where they seemed to be building another one of the pearl towers.
Closer to the center of the city, there was an open space where more of the winged creatures flocked, swooping about. He noticed several of them collide with, or latch onto each other, and he thought at first it was some kind of battle. But others came and perched on the towers at the edge to watch, every now and then fluttering their wings in unison. Then he spotted a great black ring being passed back and forth between the creatures, and he concluded gleefully that it must be a game.
So the boy watched the city for hours, enthralled. He found them at times awesome, and at other times humorous, the way you or I would find a lion’s pride or an ant mound.
He came back the next night, and watched them until it was time for the rickety joints to make his inspection. And the next night, and the next night.
He watched the new tower built. He watched new windows (or doors?) cut into others. He saw a real fight break out, and saw as other creatures flew in to stop it. He saw a line of smaller creatures following their parent, in a V shape, to a pond, where they splashed and dove and showed off with astounding backwards free-falls.
The boy spent most of his summer nights studying them. And during the days at home, he sketched pictures and made copious notes, which he hid in a hole he’d sliced at the bottom of his mattress.
A month before school was to begin again, as he angled the scope toward the correct position in the sky, he noticed something. A streak of light.
Was it the same comet he’d tracked weeks ago? He saw no other in the system. It was the comet he’d seen just before finding the civilization. Like a herald announcing the marvel to come.
He smiled a little as he peered at that streak of blue ice, just for a moment before once again adjusting the scope to point to his city of winged creatures. He wondered for the hundredth time why this had not been reported, why it had been hidden. He entertained thoughts of claiming its discovery.
Epileptic Makes First Contact! Eugenics Exception Makes Greatest Discovery in Human History!
But these were only dreams. He continued to hide his notes. Someone had already made this discovery. Someone had covered it up. And the boy had no doubt that if he tried to uncover it, Someone could easily have his living license revoked.
The boy couldn’t sleep the next day. But it was not thoughts of conspiracy and government-sanctioned execution that kept him awake.
It was thoughts of the comet.
How near it seemed to his fantastical bird world.
How much nearer than before.
The next night, he looked for the comet again. He began the process of calculating velocity.
This process took him two days, and a great deal of research on the webs. He checked his numbers thrice and four times and ten times, but no amount of recalculating would change the results.
The comet was heading for Gallun-Z.
The comet was two hundred and fifty million cubic miles in size.
In approximately twenty-three Earth days, the comet would collide with Gallun.
And there destroy all life.
Tune in tomorrow for Part IV.