"GEE, GRAMPA, I always wanted for you to show me the stars. What's that one up there?"
"That's not a star, Kimu, that's the security balloon. Smile at it so it'll see who you are. Now give me a hand with this, would you?"
"Okay, what is this stuff?"
"My observatory. We'll just put it down here in the middle of the yard . . . unfold this part here . . . stand back. . . . Okay, you want to yank the rope?"
"Sure, here goes. Wow! Triple cherries!"
Up leaps a wide, black cylinder. It snaps taut -- a giant top hat swaying and settling on its brim.
"Now then, we just open the flap and step in. Pretty fine, isn't it? Every real amateur has a cocoon -- the old-fashioned outdoor guys like me. I mean, Ant-proof floor. Adjustable any way you want. It's everything but bullet-proof. I know the inventor, Steve Kufeld the Third. He's made a million bucks off these things; bought himself a car."
"It's dark in here."
"That's the idea. Can't see any of those big old lights any more, can you?"
"That's what I mean. Is this safe?"
"Darkness never hurt a soul, Kimu. Darkness is the astronomer's friend."
"Can we see real stars from in here?"
"Not yet, but we might. You have to give your eyes time to adapt to the dark. Let's close the top some more too. Now wait in here while I get the scope."
The man emerges from the flap, then disappears into the house with a screen-door slam that hasn't changed in 36 years. In a minute he returns carrying a nest of bars, fabric, and struts on a sturdy-looking equilateral triangle. Resting it on his hip, he ducks through the flap.
"Here's the telescope, Kimu, and it's a sweetie. A 15-incher with a mirror you wouldn't believe. Everything built right in. You can't buy 'em this good, you gotta put 'em together yourself."
He sets the device in the middle of the floor. It stands less than four feet high; a large disk of bright gray sky shows reflected in its center. Tiny red lights flare up momentarily on one side of the triangular base; they reveal the old man and child kneeling side by side. The lights dim to pinpoints; motors quietly whir.
"First thing, it's got to figure out where it is. That means it's got to look at a few stars to get oriented. I'll give it some more sky." He pulls cords on the fabric wall; the top of the cylinder irises wide. The machinery clicks, whines, and swings around, then beeps with satisfaction.
"Now, what would you like to see?"
"I want to see real stars to show my class."
"You bet. We'll see lots of them. Ready? M11."
More clicking and whirring. The girl unrolls her computer. Its screen glows dimly gray -- then resolves into a bright spangle of blue, white, and orange dots that lights up her face.
"Oh, it's just like the pictures! What is it?"
"That's Messier 11 in Scutum. They used to call it the Wild Duck Cluster, back when you could hunt ducks and eat them."
"Ewww, gross. Are you sure this isn't just a picture?"
"Well, Kimu, it's funny you asked. I've got another little surprise here. This gizmo" -- he detaches a long black tube stowed on the triangle's side -- "is something I made myself. It's got a relay-lens doohickey on this end, a stack of special filters, and up here is a real, old-fashioned eyepiece. The 13-millimeter Nagler my dad gave me. Just a minute now." He reaches into the struts and bars, grunting. The computer goes blank. He snaps the tube into the machinery; its end barely emerges at floor level.
"Now get down and have a look in there. Here's the focus button."
Silence from the girl. "They're . . . they're pretty neat. They're tiny. I've never seen that hi-res a screen."
"That's no screen, that's the real thing. You are looking directly at stars in space."
Long silence. "Wait till I tell everyone. Real stars. I kind of thought they'd be bigger."
"They're supposed to look small. Stars are so far away that they appear to be mathematical points, no matter how big they really are. If they look big on the screen, the screen's telling you a damn lie."
"This is what you do in here? Just look at stuff?"
"Some of the time, yeah. I put in my old eyepiece, stretch out, and get comfortable."
"What about those projects you told the school about?"
"Oh, those too. I'm doing one tonight. I've got an astronomy buddy in Poona; we're working on this star together. A 17th-magnitude eclipsing binary; sometimes fades right down to 19th, and the light curve looks a little asymmetric. No one's worked up a proper study of it yet. It must be morning where he is; let's call him. But, uh, let's not say anything about using an eyepiece, okay? That'll be our secret."
The man's weathered face shows for a moment in the light of the telephone's menu. "Petrov, you there? I'm just setting up here."
"Ya, I been running all night," comes a tiny voice. "Urrrgh. I just woke up. And been running the scope on Mindanao since yesterday afternoon, and Jerry let me turn on his rig in Cornwall. You go all night, we'll get 20 hours continuous. You in that stupid tent thing of yours?"
"You bet, and this is my granddaughter Kimu. Say hi, Kimu."
"How you expect to follow a star all night if you gotta sit there tilting a tent hole around? You'll fall asleep."
"Some of us are just weird, Pete. You'll never know."
"I gotta go. The wife's telling me to put my head under the pillow if I'm gonna talk on the phone."
The girl shifts on the fabric floor. "Does that mean we have to look at the same star all night? Can't we look at some other things too?"
"Sure we can, between flames."
"I think I like the eyepiece best. You're looking right at real stars. I've never seen that."
"Kimu, I remember when it was so dark in this yard you could see the Milky Way from one side of the sky to the other. There were woods, and peepers, and fireflies. . . .
"The Milky Way, that's the galaxy we live in, right? What did it look like?"
"It looked a lot like other galaxies, only you saw it real big and edge on because we're right inside of it. I can show you one that looks the same way. NGC 891."
The telescope whirrs and rearranges itself; the man fiddles with it, then moves to the wall and pulls ropes. The fabric cylinder bends to the northeast. The computer screen fills with starry cloudiness that resolves, more slowly than before, into a pale, mottled band of light split down the middle by a dark, knotted dust lane. The picture gradually continues to sharpen. The two figures press close to the screen.
"That's what the Milky Way looked like? Right up in the sky?"
"Yes, Margy and I could walk out the back door and see it. And it wasn't a little thing like this. It went all the way from behind the pine trees that used to be on the hill, way up overhead, and all the way down behind where the towers are. It was immense. And you didn't need anything to see it. You just stepped out and looked. And the stars were everywhere."
The girl gazes at the screen in silence. "The people back then . . .," she begins. "It must have been like they lived right in outer space, to see that. I want to go into space someday. I've always wanted to go into space. I want to look right out my port and see stars. Real stars everywhere."