Good evening. I trust you have recovered from your ordeal. I hope the food and drink were to your liking; we do not get many guests here.
It was once posited, half jokingly, that given the broad scope of possible choices and experience we are subjected to, the chances of any instance in one's life occurring exactly the way it did were exceedingly low. The precise order of events drawn from any given day was, by extension, highly unlikely. The logical conclusion, of course, is that the odds of chance and intent congregating into the specific pattern that defines each of our lives was implausible to the extreme. All the anecdotes of our personal histories, the incalculable moments and decisions, the tangled braids of causal events that trail behind us to the present, are statistically impossible.
And yet, here we are at the pinnacle of the world, outside the realms of man, beyond the struggling kingdoms, above even the shimmering aurorae, past the metered top borders of any map.
Airship journeys this far north late in the year are dangerous ventures. Storms like the one which drove you off course are common, and rise suddenly. The magnetic flux lines of the planet converge near here, rendering instruments useless. It was timely happenstance that we spotted you. No doubt you saw the wrecks of the less fortunate vessels that lay broken across the bleached and desolate ice fields on your approach. Fear not, the techs are mending your ship, and will soon have your batteries charged and ballast tanks equalized, and you'll be back on your way.
As I said, visitors are rare, but always welcome. We gladly share the warmth of the thermal field generators around our complex, and our growhouses provide more than enough food. And it is not often I get to show off our finest achievement. If you would please follow me through this door.

Do not be afraid. You may step closer to it if you wish. We were preparing it for our night's observing when your ship was spotted. Superb, isn't it? The primary oculus consists of crystal hewn from caves where some of our ancestors dwelled for a time after the Catastrophe. The main mirror is composed of glass melted from the sands that cover our once most-fertile plains. The light passes through a complex array of lenses and prisms where wavelengths are isolated. Chambers of pressurized ultracold gas slow the light and trap it in refractive loops to be amplified.
This fabulous construction was built by generations before us. They braved this inhospitable waste so they could observe undisturbed. We that follow have improved upon it when we can.
Once the world had many such observatories. Perhaps in your travels you have seen their ruins: La Palma; San Augustin; Jodrell Bank; Mauna Kea; Arecibo; Palomar. They were the eyes and ears of the world, turned up to know the heavens. We've scoured those sites for relics of the past, astronomical tools and methods to increase our accuracy, and returned them here.
We remember those places and the people who toiled there on this of all nights, the longest and most celebrated night. And here on the cusp of winter in the deep arctic, the night is long indeed. We perform our rituals of focus and calibration, put out our finest astrolabes and armillaries, and sing songs of observation and discovery. We also craft the smaller telescopes you see around the chamber, tripod-mounted units that easily collapse into portability.
But we are but the custodians of this device. As the lights dim and the dome opens, let me introduce you to your host for the evening: the vast and abiding sky.
I'll give a moment to get acquainted.

Consider this firmament, this gaudy vault pirouetting around the fixed pole star. A scaffold of gravity and dark matter embossed upon spacetime. The stars blaze bright enough to leave afterimages when you close your eyes, yet so faint that each dawn erases them. Cogs and pinions of implacable forces compel their motion. The brutish hand of thermodynamics reigns unquestioned in the vacuum. Lingering echoes of background radiation hum in the void, harmonizing with x-ray choirs to the rhythm of frantic pulsar syncopations. Through history we've bestowed names upon the stars, measured their distance, codified their magnitude and inflicted rigid parameters to their intricate dance.
We see but one vantage point, and it can deceive. Take two stars, differing greatly in size and brightness, separated by light-decades, but from our perspective they hang intimately close, almost identical. Now imagine the roiling traceries etched by the position and velocity of every particle in existence, and you realize what a paltry fraction of the universe we can perceive.
It is with a singular conceit that we as a species contrive significance onto this sprawl of night. We embroider stellar patterns into constellations; conjure arcane entities from the vaguest of shapes. Our imaginations weave potent cosmologies where the stars guide our destinies or answer our desires. Stars have been charged with appearing unbidden at both sorrowful and joyous moments to influence fortunes. Celestial events billions of years in the making become malevolent omens. Conjunctions long-ordained by orbital mechanics become proof of prophecy. This is the baggage that the light above you carries with it across the light-years.

Look, here, at the face of destruction coming into focus. This solemn, expanding glow was once a red giant star one hundred light-years distant. It hung in our sky with its brethren, no doubt accumulating legends of its own, until it exploded in a flare so bright it momentarily outshone the Sun. With the light came a torrential wash of radiation. Gamma rays scorched the atmosphere and burned away much of the ozone. A fierce electromagnetic pulse played havoc with technology. Neutrinos penetrated our world and all the people it held.
The world did not react well. That one star, reaching the end of its life as so many countless others had before, became of symbol of despair, and a justification for all manner of cruelty and inhumanity. Doctrines and unyielding ideologies clashed. The details are lost to us, but we know the wars were savage.
As the world ended, there was at least enough preparation and action to ensure that a sizable population was able to relocate underground. Even we who live in this isolation cannot imagine what it was like to dwell in the depths of the earth, without a sky.

Now, look upon this nebulous expanse. The merged tidelines of dozens of ancient novae compile and overlap to give it shape. This is a womb of stellar genesis, a thousand light-years wide. Titanic dust clouds are sculpted by time into these intricate shapes. Energetic winds tear through the matter, stripping electrons from atoms and producing that sublime glow. Iron-rich gases are precipitated and condense under their own faint gravity to ignite into suns. Our ancestors may have cast the stars as the ascended spirits of the departed, or the leering eyes of a judgmental pantheon, but the stars you see tonight were birthed amidst the churning chaos of such an unceasing mother. Our creation myths pale in scope and intensity.
These vistas, and the passions they once inflamed, were unknown to people who eventually emerged onto the surface. They were several generations descended from those who witnessed the Catastrophe. In that time much of the world had repaired itself. Slowly they spread across the strange new landscape. Most avoided the crumbling skylines of great cities, thinking them cursed places. In a reenactment of our most distant past they tamed the land, established cultures, and slowly the world lived again.
Many customs and beliefs were born in these times, but others had survived those long years underground. One of the strongest was a warning: fear the sky. In the realms of man, dread new legends and zodiacs arose. Those who harbored inquisitiveness in the mysteries of the heavens were often shunned, or worse, persecuted. Decrees and proclamations were issued, and with a horrible severity the great observatories were sought out and razed.

As we pan the telescope slowly around we see what was feared, the histories conveyed in the whispers of proton decay. Here are stellar fossils, glowing remnants of a galaxy long-unraveled. Here, much closer, is the violent iridescence of a star consumed by a black hole. Here sits a sun that has honed its photosphere to a perfect blue, surrounded by a disk of circumstellar matter, the stuff of planets yet unborn. Here burns a protracted jet of superheated plasma piercing shoals of heavy elemental dust. Here an unruly quasar shows off its illustrious amplitudes.
Wondrous, are they not? This is what was abandoned, condemned as a worthless and unholy pursuit. By ignoring and forbidding the sky, the cultures thought they were safe from it. Some intrepid souls thought otherwise. They left their varied lands and, in time, encountered each other. They sought out even more. They built this place and many others like it, bastions of science and study in a dark, unthinking world. The fires of curiosity and inspiration were rekindled, stoked, and tended until they burned like the stars above us. Centuries later we continue the work, moving purposely towards the future. We acquire understanding, discarding what cannot be proven, and rigorously testing what can be. Only through this method can we learn and progress. The result is all around you: our methods of growing food; our thermal fields; our optics. All this is nothing more than the disciplined application of human will. You make think us vain for this, but I assure you we are not.
Let me show you what keeps us humble.

We focus our instrument to the deep distance, high in the galactic latitudes, to a minute patch of seemingly empty sky the size of a coin as seen from across the room. As the aperture gathers light, this insignificant point of darkness yields a multitude of galaxies. There are thousands of them in this view, emerging from the dark like raindrops from a storm. See the glut of spirals, rings, and globules, the scattered miasmal foliage almost obscuring the perfect black. Look deep enough into any direction in the sky and such a tableau unfolds, great swaths of existence that we will never truly know. This is light from epochs past, a procession of incandescent ghosts. We are haunted by dead stars. These myriad galaxies themselves form superclusters, running in packs through an expanding universe. And this is just what our device can detect. How much more exists beyond our resolution limits, past our ability to see?
And what of the dark? Does it travel as the light does? When we peer deep between the galaxies are we seeing the emptiness from a time before stars?
There are processes at work that we cannot fathom. On the planetary level we can understand the ministrations of light and gravity, but at macroscopic scale the natural mechanisms become oblique and impenetrable.
For generations we have observed, devoting ourselves to this sky that we know we are such a small part of. This is our calling, to nurture this once-lost art, to sit in the darkness in order to know the light. We are unwelcome in most cultures, but we do not care. For us there is no greater vocation than the accumulation and preservation of knowledge. We are acutely cognizant of the fact that there is no end to our task. This ever-shifting universe does not surrender its secrets easily. The nations and kingdoms of the world stagnate and fester, but we continue. Each night we glean what treasures of the light we can, joyous in our undertaking.
Why, you ask?
The cosmos is absolute. It ignores our beliefs and feelings equally. But these inconceivable distances and near-infinite timescales by themselves signify nothing. They are but volumes of matter and void. The universe does not laugh. It feels no elation at the first light of a new star, nor weeps at the death of one. The awe, the majesty, the remorseless terror of this immeasurable abyss, comes from us. It is our eyes that see the light, our minds that marvel, our hearts that quicken. I take comfort in the indifference of this cosmos, knowing with a tangible, undeniable certainty that by ascribing it such rich and glorious meaning we become, quite literally, part of something bigger. On this longest night we remember that we, all our thoughts and emotions and impossible, braided histories, are no less consequential than light or gravity. The positions and velocities of our lives matter powerfully in the greater scheme of things. In the simple act of turning our faces upward we stand illuminated by radiance from every age of creation converging upon us. The eons collapse down to right here, right now.
To ignore this eminent starscape, to dismiss it as something outside ourselves and our experience, is the most grievous of crimes. It shuts the door on so many possible futures. Unless we keep moving forward, evolving not just as a species but as a culture, we are fated to suffer more catastrophes. Dedication to a greater understanding of existence must be a tenet of any doctrine. It must be reflected in our philosophy, science, art, and, most importantly, our traditions. If not, we are all diminished, and a sentence of ruin is passed upon our world.

The technicians tell me your ship is ready for departure, its damage repaired.
On such a clear night you should have no difficulty getting your bearings. As a token of your visit, we invite you each to take one of the smaller telescopes we have built. We have plenty. As you return to your homes, you families, and all that you hold precious, I hope you will take a moment once in a while to look at the panorama above us.
And if in your travels you feel the desire to seek others of us out, search the high and open places, where the sky is large and clear. We will be there.
These stars, all the courses we navigate by them, and all the wishes we make upon them, endure. Just as we do.

Jeff's Notes:

Here's a sobering thought: this is the 15th annual Bad Day Studio Holiday Card. It is my 10th solo one.

Inspiration came from many directions this year.

The main driving force came from the good folks at the Greater Hartford Astronomical Society, a fine organization that I joined this year, and where I met several people who had built their own telescopes. Astronomy occupied a lot of my brainspace as the year progressed. Starconn, the astronomy gathering at Wesleyan University, and the occasional Star Party, where many homemade scopes were put to use, illustrated to me the sheer magnitude of the subject matter. I recalled someone, I forget who, mentioning that no Western religion had ever dealt with the self-evident reality of the size of the universe. As much as I agree with that statement, it should also be added that very few things that are important and central to our lives deal with that fact either. Being in an Astronomy Society is unique and enjoyable as it is a place where the universe and methods of observing it are the sole subject. Upon considering this, the idea for the story took root very quickly.

2009 was also International Year of Astronomy, a fact that was utterly lost on most people.

I need to mention the multitude of sources that helped shape this story.
My original notes were peppered with quotes from discussions at Readercon, Anticipation (the Montreal Worldcon), and The Singularity Summit about Deep Field, traditions and rituals, future cosmology, and star death.
Futures from Nature is a collection of short-shorts that ran in Nature magazine. It spurred me to focus on brevity and impact.
Catherynne M. Valente's excellent story Golubash Or Wine-War-Blood-Elegy (featured in the collection Federations), which recalls an epic space conflict told in the first person via the wines created during the war, really got me thinking about unusual narrative forms and was the impetus for the format.
The brilliant remixed Carl Sagan song Glorious Dawn sent me revisiting the deep cosmology sections of his books. A couple distinctly Sagan-esque ideas made their way into the story, tinged with some Alan Moore and Harlan Ellison.
A re-reading of The Tempest over the summer (and a lengthy argument on a chatroom about Prospero's ethics) as well as Michael Hanlon's marvelous book Eternity: Our Next Billion Years nailed the final few points in place.

Which leads to the rather dismal tone of this tale. After three whimsical stories in a row I needed some darkness. I have been in full curmudgeon mode for a while, now. The apathy towards IYA, and science in general this year, really angered me. The continuing veneration of celebrity, shrieking of pundits, and redefinition of what is considered "being informed" was enough to make me want to fictionally wipe out humanity.
But while the continuing large-scale ramp up of ignorance in this culture made this year unbearable, It also made the bright parts so much more attractive and enticing. I don't think I've ever been happier to be with Jennifer. Plus I got to go to some interesting places this year, and was able to focus on the things I really enjoy doing. In the end, I decided there was a practical limit as to how grim a holiday card could be.

Art wise, the telescope was inspired by a similar one by Ryan Bodenheim in the Red Mass for Mars comic, while Joe Prado's art on the new Warlord comic got me playing around with airship design. The work of Justiniano, Chris Sprouse, Claudio Castenelli, and Stephan Martinere influenced other elements of the pictures.

That being said, the front piece was a beast to deal with. I actually started during the Summer with a tiny ink thumbnail sketch. I drew most of the major elements seperately, and experiemented a few different pens and inking styles. In the end I scanned in four different clean ink line drawings. The dome and the starchart on the control display were the only photographic elements used. Everything else was done from scratch with my new Bamboo palette, which really changed the whole dynamic. I am especially proud of the pedestal holding up the telescope, though it's partially obscured by the black control stalk the astronomer is using. I'm also happy with the weathered canvas look on the airship's balloons.

It became clear about halfway through the process that all the circles in the front picture form a "constellation" of their own. The rest of the elements were tweaked and moved to maximize this. This became troublesome as I had to keep adjusting the lighting, shadows, and reflections to keep eveything consistent.

Working on the piece for that long really let me fine-tune it, and I must have gone through about ten different "final" versions. It also gave me time to get input from others. The art was fielded off Carolyn Faille (whose work on the earlier cards I found myself going back to and studying for composition), Brian Wood, and Randall Ensley, as well as a few art discussion boards. Massive thanks to everyone for advice and encouragement.
2009 Bad Day Studio

Happy Holidays