Tales of Astronomy

By Ed Ting 5/99, 2/00

(Note: This short story first appeared in Amateur Astronomy #24. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of Tom Clark and AA magazine)
"Ed, you gotta help me!" I stumbled, bleary-eyed, to the front door and looked the clock on the wall. 2:32 AM. "Ed, come on -- open up, please help!" Someone was pounding on the front door. Shaking off the cobwebs in my mind, I flipped on the porch light and peered outside. Behind me, Ewok the cat hid behind my legs, pacing curiously back and forth. I opened the door. "Oh, thank God!" He burst inside. It was Ron, a neighbor from a few blocks away and a member of our local astronomy club. He was un- shaven, his hair was standing straight up, and he was wearing a white bathrobe and slippers, both of which were grass-stained. "Ron, what's wrong?" I asked. "Ed, you gotta help me. You have to help me break back into my house." "OK, Ron, calm down." I could see he was in a near panic. "What's this, you have to break into your house?" "Yeah," he said, "I stepped outside on the back deck after arming the security system to the house and a gust of wind slammed the door shut behind me. My wife left earlier this evening to be with some friends, and she's due back any moment. If she trips the alarm and the police come over again, she's gonna kill me." He stopped for a moment and caught his breath. " I ran all the way over here, and I'm desperate." People sometimes thought he was a little eccentric, but I always liked Ron. At one time or another, he'd owned just about every model of telescope ever made. I don't think I'd ever seen him show up with the same scope at a star party twice. When he got tired of the scopes, or needed more space, he'd donate the old in- struments to local schools or churches. I remembered the first time I visited him. The house was piled high with model trains, ham radio equipment, audio equipment, photographic equipment, and, of course, telescopes. Lots of telescopes. I couldn't find a place to sit down because all of the chairs in the house had optical tubes draped across them. "What do you mean again, Ron. Has this happened before?" "Well..." he looked down at his feet, as if embarrassed. "I've been playing with the system for the past few months -- you know, enhancing it." He looked up at me. "The trouble is, during the test phase I kept tripping the alarm, and police kept showing up. It's a long way out to the house, and they're tired of wasting their time. Now they've told me that if they get another false alarm, they're going to consider arresting me. You have to help me break into my house and disable the alarm before Shelley gets home." "OK, I'll help," I said. Taking mental inventory, I began to wonder what I'd bring. Night-vision binoculars, perhaps? A crowbar? A flashlight? "Thanks, I really appreciate it," said Ron. "Here's what we'll need. Can you get me a large cardboard box, a stopwatch, two ski masks, and a can of cat food?" He looked down at Ewok, now sleeping peacefully in a corner. "Can your cat travel?" "Uh...No," I said. "He's an indoor cat." I started to gather the things Ron had listed. I didn't bother asking why, but I did begin to wonder: exactly what kind of alarm system were we dealing with, anyway?
"This is the world's first telescope-based home security system," said Ron, later. "I am going to patent it." We were in my truck, driving back to his house. I looked over at him. I had given him some of my old clothes, which didn't quite fit. My shirt was a little tight on him, and the jeans I'd given him rode up, revealing his legs. He looked like a character from a bad sitcom. To his credit, none of this seemed to bother him. In fact, I sensed an element of pride in his voice. "A few months ago, while installing a new alarm system in the house, I decided to put some of my old scopes to use." He checked his watch. "Shoot -- it's almost 3 AM already. Can you drive faster? "The telescopes are integrated into the security system and acts as its eyes. I modified the equatorial mounts on the scopes to slew back and forth across my property to search for intruders. In a way, they're like 'Goto' mounts except that they always 'Goto' the same places, over and over again. The telescopes operate in pairs, with each pair sweeping out a defined area of the yard. "The first telescope in each pair is an Orion Short Tube, a low power, wide- field scope. There's a CCD camera with a night-vision enhancing chip mounted at prime focus. As the scope slews across the yard, the CCD takes images at a number of predetermined positions on the property. The computer then compares the images with the ones stored in memory and notes any discrepancies. If it finds something suspicious, it automatically slews the second telescope -- a CCD-equipped Meade 7" refractor operating at a higher power and heavily modified for super-fast slewing -- to the same location and takes a close-up image of the suspected intruder. "Then what?" I asked. Ron sighed. "If the system discovers an intruder, it automatically turns on all of the lights in the house. Then, the 16" Dobsonian slews on its equatorial table and spotlights his location. I modified a high-intensity-discharge halogen lamp and attached it to the Dob's focuser. Once the light is energized, the big Dob acts like a giant searchlight. Then the outdoor PA system announces to the intruder that he is surrounded and that it's in his best interests to stay put. A computer-generated phone call is placed through the modem to the police, informing them of the time, location of the residence, and the position of the intruder. The same computer generates an e-mail with the same information and attaches a jpeg of the image taken by the scopes. "At this point all of the telescopes are aware of the location of the intruder. If he tries to run away, the scopes will simply track his direction of departure and continue feeding e-mails and jpegs to the police as long as they can." "Uh huh," I said, trying to comprehend. "Ron, can't you use simple door and window alarm switches, or motion sensors, like everyone else?" "Actually, I do. There different levels of sensitivity to the system -- you just dial in the level that suits you. At its most basic setting, only the door and window sensors are armed. As you turn up the sensitivity, first the Short Tubes, and then the big refractors come into play. "The problem is, just before I got locked out, I'd set the system to 'infinite' mode. It's just a test setting that I devised -- I never intended for anyone to actually use it. Everything is hypersensitive, on a hair-trigger response, at this setting. "So...tell me, how exactly are we going to past all of this?" Ron didn't respond for a while. Instead, he motioned for me pull off the road into a driveway. "Well...I have a plan. It just might work. But we don't have much time. Here, kill the ignition." I did, and the truck sputtered to a stop. "The Peterson's have a cat named Chester. He's usually out at night and visits me when I'm in the dome in my house. He's an outdoor cat, not like Ewok. Get the box and the cat food." I looked out of the side of the truck. We were at the head of a long driveway. A single floor ranch lay at the end of it. There were no lights on in the house. At the head of the driveway stood a mailbox. In the moonlight, I could read: "Peterson." "OK," said Ron, "open up the can of food." I did so and waited. I looked up. The night was still, and the stars were barely twinkling. I briefly thought to myself that this might have been a good night to go double star observing. Not long afterwards, I saw something small and gray darting in and out of the shadows. "Here, kitty-kitty-kitty," said Ron. "Get ready with the box, Ed." "Are we kidnapping this cat?" I asked. "Are you sure this is right?" "It's only for a while," he replied. "Besides, we'll return him when we're done." Chester approached us, tail wagging cautiously behind him. I held out the can and he sniffed at it. "Scoop out some food and put it in the box," said Ron. I did, and Chester purred happily and hopped inside. "OK," he said, closing up the box, "Let's go!" A few minutes later we pulled off the side of the road again. "I don't want to get too close to the house. We walk from here." We got out of the truck. I lifted the box and felt a weight shift inside. Chester meowed in protest. "Here, stay low," said Ron, crouching behind some bushes. "OK, now, let's move up to the hedges." I got down on all fours, pushing the box ahead of me. The dew on the grass soaked through my knees. Once up to the hedges, Ron motioned for me to come up alongside him. "Careful," he said, "Have a look. And whatever you do, don't stand up or make any sudden moves!" Carefully peeling away the top layer of the hedges, I held my breath and looked up at the lonely house in the distance.
Ron's house sat at the top of a small hill, about a hundred yards away. I could see why he had chosen this location for his house. It was the highest point in the area, and his observing horizons were excellent. There were no trees. The property looked like a bald, grassy hill with a house at the top of it. The house itself was a long and low custom ranch, which curved inwards like a crescent moon. At one end of the roof sat a shiny dome. Ron signaled me to follow, and we edged along the hedges to the front gate. There was a metal sign on it: "Trespassers, Take Note! You ARE BEING MONITORED AT THIS VERY MOMENT. DO NOT ENTER Without Permission! Police WILL Take Notice!!" "Ron, if this security system is so sophisticated, how did you get away from it?" "I almost didn't. You see, each pair of scopes is responsible for one of four zones -- the front, the back, or the two sides of the house. I laid out the zones so there aren't any seams between them, but it does take time - twenty seconds on the side zones and close to thirty on the front and back - for the Orion Short Tubes to slew across those zones. I knew this, and once I caught a glint of light through the rear bay window, I knew the scope was beginning its scan. I ran as fast as I could, and managed to get away. "It occurred to me while running over to your place that we can simply do the same thing in reverse. It's possible to sneak in behind a particular area of the yard just after it's been scanned. Hopefully, we can be inside the house before the scope returns to the area. "I have a key to the back door hidden under the back deck. At the time, I didn't even think about it. I was so worried about setting off the alarm, I just ran away as fast as I could. "We'll need more than thirty seconds to run across the back lawn, get the key, and open the door. The system is programmed to recognize small animals like dogs and cats. We'll get Chester to run across the lawn. He'll distract the scopes. It takes a moment for the system to process the fact that Chester is a cat and not an intruder, and that will buy us some time." "So...how much time are we talking about?" I asked. "In total?" Ron thought for a moment. "Maybe forty seconds or so." We began to work our way towards the back of the house, taking care to stay low and just below the line of sight of the scopes. "Ron, you've tested this animal- recognition system, right? I mean, it will know Chester's a cat and not set off the alarm?" Ron looked away. "Er...Look, I haven't got time for all your questions. Just follow me, Okay?" A few minutes later, we were looking at the back of the house, and the back yard. We worked our way slowly up the hill, until Ron signaled for us to stop. "We can't get any closer," he said. He pointed towards the bay window in the back of the house. "Watch the window. Every once in a while, you'll see a little flash of light. That's the reflection off of the Short Tube's lens. After one of those flashes, we make a break for it." I peered off into the window, perhaps a hundred yards or so away. Sure enough, within a few seconds, I saw the tiny flash. A short time later, I saw it again. The time in between didn't seem like nearly enough. "Where's the 7-inch Meade?" I asked. "I don't see it." "Right behind the Short Tube," said Ron. "Nominally, it's horizontal, and aimed out towards the yard. It's probably pointing straight at you right now." Ron put on his ski mask and advised me to do the same. Then he took out the stopwatch and reset the pointer. "All right -- here's the plan. We open the box, and let Chester sniff the cat food. Then you throw the can to one end of the zone. In this case, it's that corner of the yard," he pointed, "away from the door we'll be using to get into the house. The scopes will take over, we make a break for it, I get the key, unlock the door, and we duck inside before the scope can slew around again. Got it?" "Got it," I said. If this somehow failed, I wondered how I'd explain to the police why I had abducted a cat and was now wandering around someone else's back yard wearing a ski mask. "One other thing. It's important that you follow my footsteps exactly. Don't set foot anywhere I don't step. There are multiple motion sensors hooked up around the yard, and I know all of the dead spots. So you have to follow me exactly. Understood?" "Yeah," I said, wondering how I had allowed myself to get involved in this. "Are you ready?" asked Ron. I nodded. I opened the box. Chester meowed in greeting as I picked him up. Ron took the can of cat food out of his pocket and held it under the cat's nose. Chester began squirming and purring. Ducking low, Ron took the can and hurled it towards the corner of the yard. Chester broke free of my grasp and bounded after it. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the little flash in the window as the Short Tube slewed past. A split-second later, I saw a much larger flash somewhat higher in the window. Presumably, it was the 7" locking on target. Ron clicked the stopwatch. "Go!!" We jumped up and into the yard. Ron hopped forward like a frog, then side- stepped to the left. Then he sprang forward into a forward roll. Then he side-stepped again. I followed dutifully. We must have looked like two drunken potato-sack racers. It seemed as though we were moving in slow motion, as if in a dream, doing some sort of cosmic Jitterbug. After what seemed like an eternity, we both reached the deck, breathing hard. "The key's under here," said Ron. Too scared to move, I looked into the bay window. The Short Tube was pointed away from us. It was slewing back and forth in tiny, jerky increments as it tried to follow Chester's movements. Above it, like a big brother, the 7" refractor loomed, pointing in the same direction. Suddenly, the big scope reversed direction and came back to its rest position. Not long afterwards, the Short Tube had resumed tracking normally as well. "The scope gave up on Chester. It's coming back!" I said. Ron pulled his hand from under the deck. "Got the key!" he said. We scrambled onto the deck and almost collided together into the back door. The Short Tube had reached the end of its travel and was now slewing back towards us. Ron fumbled nervously with the key fob and somehow, despite his shaking hands, managed to insert the key correctly and turn the doorknob. We burst into the house and slammed the door behind us. I fell on the floor, panting. In the next room, I could hear the humming of the scope's motors as they resumed tracking. Ron flipped on the light switch and held up his hands. "That was close. Don't worry, we're safe now. The system is designed to protect people inside the house." He motioned towards the kitchen table. "Here, sit down," he said, and then corrected himself. "Oh yeah -- you can't sit down. There are scopes in the chairs. Sorry." "That's OK," I said. "I'm too wound-up to sit down anyway. I'll just stand. Say, are all your evenings this exciting?" Ron seemed to be in a far-away place when he answered, "Nope..." "What's wrong?" He sighed. "I just invented the most advanced home security-system known to man, and now I've defeated it twice in the same evening." "What are you saying, Ron? You should be thankful we got into the house!" I looked around at all of the optical equipment lying about, and shook my head. I couldn't believe the way this guy lived. Scopes and parts lay scattered about everywhere. Somehow, I knew that, by tomorrow morning, he would be tinkering with his parts again, making the system even better. "If I can figure out a way to manufacture darker multi-coatings, perhaps I can eliminate those tell-tale flashes off the lenses in the window," mused Ron, as if reading my mind. I heard a scratching at the front door. I tiptoed around the scopes and parts lying on the floor and looked out. It was Chester, on his hind legs. He flipped his tail when he saw me through the glass. "Hey, Ron -- we still have to get Chester back home," I shouted. "Gotcha," came the reply from the other room. "In just a minute. I'm going into the hallway to disable the alarm." "OK, I'll get him!" I said. "Chester," I teased, tapping at him through the window, "Good kitty." I opened the front door to let him in. "WOOOoooWWWooooWWWoooOOOO!!!" The lights in the house suddenly all came on at once. A siren began braying outside. "THIS IS YOUR FIRST AND LAST WARNING," blared a voice, which sounded suspiciously like Darth Vader's. It was so loud that I barely think. "DO NOT MOVE. YOU ARE BEING MONITORED!" "WWHHOOoooooOOOOOoOOOOOoooooWWWooooo!!" The telescopes next to me began slewing towards my location. In the light the scopes looked like some sort of erector-set monstrosities concocted by a mad scientist. Colored wires hung off the mounts, and hand-wired circuit boards were duct-taped to the optical tubes. The 16" Dob locked on to my position and almost blinded me when its high-intensity discharge lights switched on. Ron came bounding in from the other room. "What did you just do?!" "WWHHoooHHHWOoOOOOooooo!!" I had to shout to be heard above the blaring sirens. "I let the cat in!" "No! The door alarms are the most basic level of protection of all!" He said. "They're always armed at night! Always! Oh no!!!" All around me, computers came to life. Once-dormant monitors blinked on with little splashes of static. I heard dial tones and modem signals. Printers began whirring. Chester, frightened by the noise, jumped up into my arms and began clawing at my shirt. "WWWOOOoooOOWWWWOoooooooWWhhhOOOOO!!!" "Ron, is that..." "Yes!" he screamed, over the din. "It's James Earl Jones' voice! I recorded all of Jones' movie and TV appearances, as well as his CNN promos. Then I had the computer synthesize a digital bit stream of his voice!" "Oh NOOOOO!!!!!" The last thing I recall, after looking down the barrels of the scopes, was a CCD image of myself on one of the monitors, with a panicked, exasperated look on my face, and trying to peel a cat off my chest... "WHHOooooOOOoooOOO..." "OH N-"
"Ed, you gotta help me!" I sat bolt upright in bed, drenched in sweat, and looked around. There were no sirens, no computers, no telescopes slewing on their mounts. I was safely back home. All was quiet, except for the telephone receiver squawking away in my lap. A dream, I thought. A bad dream. "Ed, are you still there?" I picked up the phone. It was Ron. "Yeah, Ron...I'm here. I...uh...I guess I fell asleep." I had a cat digging its claws into my shirt. It was Ewok. He probably saw that I was having a dream and was now clinging to me out of fear. "How could you fall asleep? We were talking about what I should do with all of my spare telescopes, remember? Should I sell them, or donate them to the club?" "Ron, I...uh...well, I don't know. Can we talk tomorrow?" "Sure. I have to go anyway. I see my wife coming up the driveway." "Be sure and disable the alarm," I mused. "What? I don't have an alarm system. Say, think I need one?" he asked. "Uh -- No. No, you don't!" "OK -- Hey, good idea, though....Alarm system, eh? Hmmm..." said Ron, and hung up. I got up, knowing that sleep would not be possible for a while. In my living room a few minutes later, I watched the stars twinkling through the bay window with a warm cup of milk in hand. Ewok lay curled up and purring at my feet. I looked up at the clock. 2:32 AM. Looking out of the window, I couldn't help but expect a lonely, half-crazed figure to come running down the street towards my house. It was, of course, too crazy to happen. It couldn't happen. It just couldn't. Could it? -Ed, 5/99, 2/00
Note to reader: Many of you are curious about this piece. It was written in a hotel room while on a business trip in Maine back in May of 1999. I had an hour or so to kill before turning in, so I started diddling around on my laptop. As it turned out, I wound up writing for most of the next six hours. At 2 AM, I finally finished, but by then I was too wired to go to sleep. I never did get much sleep that night. The two plot devices in the story -- having to break into one's own house and having an improbable set of events turn out to be a dream -- are as old as the hills and I am almost embarrassed to have used them (notice, I said almost.) Also, I recall similar stories that appeared in either Ellery Queen's or Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery magazine in the mid 1970's back when I was an avid reader of pulp mystery. Around that time, electronic burglar alarms were still brand new. Anyone else remember them? Hope you enjoyed this. Yes, I have a cat named Ewok.
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