This story is by Stephen Brown and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The fire roared in the hearth. Simon Montclair was one of many men seated at the round table. In their midst sat Sir Roland Warwick. The air in the room was warm and intimate. A pleasant buzz of voices hovered over the table. Simon happened to be sitting a few chairs down from his host, allowing him a good view of Sir Warwick’s face. The orange firelight revealed deep lines and hollow cheeks. Simon’s smile faded as it struck him just how gaunt Sir Warwick had become recently. The esteemed amateur astronomer held up a kerchief and coughed into it just before speaking.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen!” Sir Warwick called in a hushed, raspy voice.
The hubbub of conversation died away at once.
Sir Warwick raised his glass, “A toast, gentlemen. First, to our fraternity and mutual respect.”
Simon joined the others in raising their glasses of brandy. “Here, here!” they all cheered.
“Secondly,” continued Warwick in his halting voice, “to the stars! May we continue to uncover more of their secrets.”
“Now, gentlemen, I must share with you the most recent observation I have made. As you know, I have long argued for the existence of an as-yet undiscovered planet within our own solar system. For years I have been yearning for it, hunting for it. And though I have been mocked and ridiculed by the most prestigious academic institutions of this country, I have pressed on in my quest. Many of you have helped me, for which I am eternally in all of your debts.” Sir Warwick inclined his head to the men sitting around the table. Simon felt a small thrill as Sir Warwick glanced at him in particular and nodded right at him.
Sir Warwick continued, “I have at this point charted its orbit and seen with my own eyes its occultation of the stars. And… more I know. But I shall not bother you gentlemen with those details until I have more hard data to share.”
This last statement stirred the curiosity of the gathered men. They leaned forward in their chairs. Whispers ran round the table. Simon himself felt a flutter in his stomach. He felt that they were all sitting at the edge of a precipice leading down into some wondrous new country. As the men were distracted puzzling over what Warwick had said, the esteemed sir himself glanced just for a moment at Montclair and winked. Sir Warwick then took out his ivory pipe, the end of it carved in the shape of a chess rook, stuffed in some tobacco, lit the end, and sat back comfortably in his chair as he watched with amusement all the curious pandemonium he had created.
That was then. Simon Montclair stood alone in the same room. But there was no fire in the mantle nor were there boisterous conversations around the table. The lavish dining room stood desolate and full of gloom. Echoing through the empty house were the tramp of policemen’s boots.
A cough broke Simon’s solitude. He turned around. Chief Inspector Gerard stood in the open doorway.
“Have you found anything out of the ordinary, sir?” The inspector asked politely.
“No, no, everything is just as I remember it.”
“Shall I take you upstairs then?”
“Lead on,” Simon said with a wave of his hand.
As Simon exited the dining room and came into the hallway, Gerard asked, “You knew him well, sir?”
Simon joined the inspector as they examined, room by room, the house of Sir Roland Warwick, former fellow of the Royal Academy, who had now been missing for three weeks. There had been an interval where Simon and his mentor had communicated only by letters. Until one day, there came no word at all. Simon had been the first to bring his worries to the constabulary. Simon felt like he was violating the sacred slumber of a crypt by walking down those familiar halls. And though Simon feared for his friend’s safety, it seemed a vulgar thing to rifle through his belongings.
But they found nothing out of the ordinary. It was as if Sir Warwick had simply gotten up one day and left the house. Their investigation ended in the observatory. There was the telescope positioned just as Warwick had left it. Simon peered through it, but it being the middle of the day, saw nothing but blue sky. Moving aside some papers on the nearby desk, Simon found the chart that had so intrigued him at the first. It was a chart of Sir Warwick’s unnamed planet. There were the two hemispheres and sketched onto them were intricate canals and geometric designs that crisscrossed the whole world, as well as landmarks such as towering mountains and lakes the sizes of countries.
“What’s this?” Simon had asked when he first discovered the chart.
Warwick, with difficulty, straightened. He had been hunched in front of his telescope for some time. That instrument of observation had been aimed at a specific patch of sky for days now. Warwick allowed no one, not even Simon, to touch it.
“Why, it’s my world, dear boy. The white planet that glides so gracefully through our own planetary neighborhood,” Warwick had replied nonchalantly while puffing on his pipe. He leaned on a walking cane now and was taken to mopping his brow with his kerchief. His skin was pale as death. But still, there was life sparkling in those blue eyes.
Simon, thinking this was one of Warwick’s elaborations, scoffed, “But, sir, there is no telescope powerful enough to see another world in such close detail.”
Warwick looked sidelong at Simon. A smile played on his thin lips, “Not on this world, dear boy.”
Simon was stunned. He didn’t know what to make of that. He looked back at the chart, then back to Warwick. The older man was gazing up at the night sky through the glass ceiling. His face seemed younger, healthier as the white light of the stars fell on it.
He smiled wistfully, tapping the corner of his lips with his pipe, and said almost to himself, “They’re beautiful, you know…”
Sir Warwick did not answer. As Simon watched him, the older man’s eyes seemed to be peering into the very void of outer space.
Warwick spoke again, this time in a very different voice. It was hushed, weak, “I’m dying, boy.”
“What?” Simon started as if pricked. Only in his worst fears had he thought his friend and patron was that ill.
“I’m dying,” Warwick repeated. “And there is still so much I wish to learn! How many more secrets of the cosmos lay out there, waiting to be discovered?” Pain and longing crept into Warwick’s voice and it seemed that he was about to cry. But then he remembered himself. His face cleared and a faint smile crept back onto his face, “It is a beautiful world, my dear boy. I wish you could see it as I have seen it. Immortal wisdom lives there and beauty beyond the dream of mankind.”
Simon could say nothing. He stared sadly at his mentor, who closed his eyes and basked in the light of the stars.
In the present, Simon set down the chart of the alien planet. Looking up through the glass panes, he tried to imagine Warwick’s world out there, just beyond the veil of the sky. Sighing and shaking his head, Simon walked away.
In the end, Simon could determine that only two things were missing from the house: the house’s owner and that owner’s beloved ivory pipe. Other than that, no sign of where Sir Roland Warwick could be deduced.
That night, Simon fell asleep gazing out his open window at the stars. He dreamed an incredibly vivid dream. It began with him opening the door into the observatory. There was the telescope, just as it had been left. A star of incredible size and brightness hung in the night sky. Simon peered into the telescope. For a brief moment, he could see the entire planet which appeared like a huge, shimmering pearl in the sky. Then his view grew closer and closer. Dark lines of canals and precise geometric shapes were cut into the surface of the planet. Simon saw lakes of molten silver and mountains of crystal casting refracted shadows. Then his view became clearer still. He saw a man standing on a flat, circular plain of shimmering white stone. It was Sir Warwick. He was standing erect, without a cane. His cheeks were flushed. Sticking his pipe in his mouth, Warwick looked directly up at Simon. The old man winked. Then Warwick turned and began walking at an easy pace toward a huge edifice of black stone, appearing like the grandest cathedral Simon had ever seen. And about its base stood a host of shining beings in flowing white robes.
A smile spread on the face of sleeping Simon Montclair.