“You all don’t understand!” the man cackled, rocking gently back and forth. “You don’t know them, don’t realize just how they are. Ohh, they hunger, but for so much more than you ever can know!”
He didn’t seem to see me, I noted, even though he sat directly across the metal table from me. His hands were attached to a ring on the table via metal cuffs, but he ignored how the bracelets tugged at his hands when he rocked back in his chair.
“Doctor Angell,” I repeated, waiting for the man to return back to a more lucid state. “George, it’s me, Francis. Please, try and stay calm.”
Dr. Angell’s eyes briefly focused on me, but then they darted off again as he kept on rocking back and forth, now muttering indistinctly to himself. He always did eventually come around, but as of late it seemed to take longer and longer. His mind’s grip on reality, the doctors at the sanitarium said, was slowly slipping away.
I needed to try something else to get through. “George, please,” I begged, reaching forward and placing my hands lightly over the man’s own on the table. “Try and focus.”
Finally, Dr. Angell seemed to come back to himself. His rocking slowed, and his eyes finally focused on me. “Francis?” he repeated, his voice quavering.
I nodded, trying to keep the tears out of the corners of my eyes. “Yes, George, it’s me. Are you okay?”
Slowly, unsteadily, Dr. Angell nodded his head. “How long has it been?” he asked, his voice barely above a broken whisper.
“Six months,” I told him gently. I didn’t lie. Even as little more than a broken shell, Dr. Angell deserved the truth.
“Six months,” he repeated, shaking his head. “Oh Francis, I don’t know how much more of this I can take. I can feel them hungering. They lurk, they wait, but not for much longer. They’ll break through when I give in, and I’m so tired!” He sagged back on the chair, dropping his eyes down to stare at his lap. “So very tired,” he murmured to himself.
I felt sympathy welling up in my chest until I was certain that my heart would burst. “George, do you remember what happened on that last night?” I asked gently. “Maybe if you can remember, you can find a way to beat this thing-“
“Beat it!?” Dr. Angell shouted back at me, suddenly bursting up to his feet. Only the metal handcuffs binding his wrists to the table kept him from rising up fully, and the whole metal table shook. Even after six months of wasting away in this sanitarium, Doctor George Angell still possessed his broad shoulders and powerful frame.
I did my best to not show any hint of panic at the outburst. “Talk to me, George,” I repeated.
Slowly, bit by bit, he dropped back down into the chair. “Beat it,” he snorted to himself, as if this was some sort of joke. “Francis, we can’t beat them. We can’t even comprehend what they are.”
“That night, George. Please.”
He sighed, but the light in his eyes faded slightly as his memory gazed back. “I was at the observatory, on the main telescope,” he recounted. “The previous night, one of my assistants reported spotting a change in one of the red stars we were monitoring. I tuned in to that sector of the sky, hoping to make the observations that would validate my theory on gas giant eruptions.”
I nodded, not interrupting. Before his sudden commitment to the sanitarium, Dr. Angell had been one of the best known and most respected astronomers. His work on documenting the slow burnout of the stars around us had been featured many times in the tabloids.
“I tuned into the sector of the sky with the red star,” Dr. Angell repeated, his voice quavering slightly. “And there it was, glowing so balefully, red and diseased. The nebula behind it made it easy to spot, an orb that hung in front of a great gas backdrop.”
“And then… then they came for it.”
At these last words, Dr. Angell gasped, and I could sense that he was on the brink of losing all control. “They? They who?” I repeated, trying to keep him in the realm of lucidity.
He shook his head violently, his long, scraggly hair whipping back and forth. “The nebulas,” he whispered, maddened red eyes staring back at me. “Oh, Francis, they’re alive! They hide in the backdrop, slow as glaciers, but so hungry, waiting to devour it all!”
“Focus, George! Don’t lose it now!”
“And then- the eye!” the doctor screamed, throwing his head back. I could see his every muscle standing out, taut and stretched to its very limit. “Oh, that red eye! It turned on me- Francis, it saw me! From a billion miles away, it saw me, sensed me, hungered for me! It reached out – oh, it reached for me-“
The doctor collapsed, his words choking into gibbering babble. “I felt it,” he gasped out. “So hungry. Forever hungry. It will consume it all, mindless- it won’t be enough-“
I waited, even tried again, but Dr. Angell didn’t speak again for the rest of the visiting hour. No amount of prodding or cajoling from me could bring him back from his half-paralyzed muttering.
Finally, after the orderlies had taken him away to his room, I stood outside, my hands shoved deep into the pockets of my overcoat to protect against the chill. The sun had dropped below the horizon, now, and stars lit up the sky.
“He is getting worse at a faster rate, now,” the head nurse told me after Dr. Angell had been escorted off to his room. “He used to come and go from wakefulness, but now he’s almost always catatonic. He likely won’t last much longer.”
I nodded, told them to do whatever they could. I tried to keep a note of hope in my voice, although I knew as well as the head nurse that there was nothing they could do. Dr. Angell stood no chance.
Now, outside, I stared up at the stars. Even without the powerful telescope of the observatory, I could see their different colors, could make out the glow of the Milky Way in a band across the sky. My eyes scrolled across the black dome above me, automatically noting the familiar landmarks of Polaris, Mars, the Seven Sisters, Orion’s belt, and others.
Suddenly, I paused, frowning. There, just between Orion and Gemini, a reddish blotch glowed faintly against the darkness. There was a nebula there, I knew, but it was usually too faint to see with the naked eye.
Staring up into the sky, for just an instant, my mind’s eye filled with a long finger, stretching out across millions of miles, stabbing out with unthinking hatred towards that puny mind that dared to touch it. I saw a huge creature, a gaseous body stretching across a galaxy, a mind so ancient and cold as to be frozen over. I imagined that I felt hatred, cold and reptilian, seeking to consume all light and warmth, an ocean swallowing the light of a candle.
“It will consume it all,” George had babbled, before he collapsed into senselessness.
As I walked home, most of my mind focused on composing my report to the Royal Guild of Astronomers on the unfortunate fate of the man who was once one of their most prominent members. It would be a difficult report for me to deliver, but as Dr. Angell’s protege, I knew the duty was mine and mine alone.
Still, a tiny little part of me wondered about his last, mad rantings. Surely, they were nothing but madness.
But I resolved to spend some time on the main telescope, turning it towards that reddish nebula that now glowed faintly but unmistakably in the night sky.