The Man Who Counted Stars

Who was sending the SOS? It seemed to come from hyperspace. Only, as far as they knew, no man had ever traveled there.

The Man Who Counted Stars

“Officer Lansberg, re-e-port to the control room. It’s urgent!”

The sharp command, coming over the intercom, drew me from my scriptures. Turning on the microphone, I said, “Lansberg acknowledging. I’ll be right up.”

Leaving my quarters immediately, I started down the hall to the transit port. As I passed an external viewscreen, I couldn’t help but pause and look at it. There, on the screen, was the Milky Way spread out before me.

The words that I’d read from the book of Moses, just moments before, ran through my mind:

“And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten. … For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them” (Moses 1:33, 35).

Those words, unlike some things, seemed to have grown more impressive with the continuing conquest of space.

“They’re waiting for you, Mike!”

Bishop Gentry’s jolly voice pulled me out of my reverie. He was a transport skid operator and had been dispatched to pick me up.

I hurried to the port and boarded the skid. It shot out of its port like a bullet, humming moderately as it clung gondola-like to the track that would carry it across the ceiling of the agricultural dome to the control room at the top.

I was the youngest officer in Delta Colony, but being a teenage prodigy with a flair for history and physics had made me a natural for my position.

Since I was the investigator of extragalactic phenomena I rarely had to respond to an emergency call. Most problems that arose did not involve me, and a majority of those that did could wait until my regular shift.

“You have any idea what’s up, Bishop?” I asked.

“None at all.”

Bishop Gentry, leader of our small ward, always gave direct and concise answers. After a short pause he picked up the conversation.

“I received a bulletin from Church headquarters today.”

Earth seemed almost nonexistent when one lived on a giant metal cylinder, four light-months outside the “edge” of the galaxy. I sometimes marveled that anything from Church headquarters could ever reach us.

“Anything new?” I said, adding, “Did the millennium begin yet?”

He chuckled heartily, “No, nothing like that. It was a statement from the First Presidency, reemphasizing the importance of serving a mission—which reminds me of something. You’ll be 19 in one more week and you haven’t begun to work on your papers yet. I know that you’ve been preparing, I know that you’re worthy, and up until now you’ve been eager. What’s the matter?”

Well, imagine how it feels. You’re in a swiftly sliding aluminum box, 200 feet above the floor, only your bishop with you, and he’s just asked you a question that jabs to the center of your conscience.

“Bishop,” I said, “I’ve seen more of the galaxy than anyone my age ever has, and more than most people ever see in their entire life. A mission would be somewhat anticlimactic.”

I was prepared for him to ask me how I could know that, but instead he asked, “How do you intend to spend the time that you would otherwise spend on a mission?”

“Bishop,” I answered in mock complacency, “with two more years at Antares Academy I could be appointed governor of this colony, or one like it.”

As we pulled into the port, Bishop Gentry responded, “Mike, I agree that to be a governor at 21 would be an unmatched achievement, and I’m confident that you can do it, but would it be that much worse to be a 23-year-old governor?”

I figured that if I made a hasty exit then I could get in the last word, but the door was jammed.

“It’s not just the time, Bishop,” I answered, poking the open button harder than before. “It’s the money, too. I only have so much, and mission and education costs have both become quite astronomical.”

By then I’d resorted to tugging on the door, to no avail. Disgusted, I turned away from the door and saw the cause of my minor dilemma. The bishop was holding his finger on the override lock.

“I just wanted to make sure that I clearly understood every word you had to say,” he commented, wearing one of those smiles that you just can’t get angry at.

As I stepped out of the skid he continued, “Pray about it. Some things, like what God expects of men, are absolute, and endure much longer than the stars.”

Then, much to my surprise, he added, “Remember, the Lord didn’t just tell Moses that he’d made everything. He also said, ‘They are mine,’ and that includes you and me.”

Flashing one last smile, he closed the door.

I stood speechless on the deck as the skid darted away. Did he know that I’d been reading Moses just five minutes before? Could he?

I didn’t have time to ponder those questions. I’d been summoned on an emergency call, and it would require my total attention.

The door to the control room slid open as I entered. Commander Jackson was waiting for me.

“Glad you could make it,” he said, in his stern, deep voice.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“We’re picking up an SOS.”

I stopped where I was. The gentle tapping of fingers against keyboards, and the rhythmic clicking and buzzing of 30 computer consoles bridged the momentary silence. I was puzzled.

“Commander,” I asked, “How am I supposed to help with that? What does that have to do with extragalactic phenomena?”

“The signal didn’t come from out there,” he said, indicating a screen that displayed the Milky Way. “It came from out there,” and he gestured to a screen showing a few clusters of stars, some scattered patches of light, and farthest away, little dots resembling stars.

Every object visible on the screen was a separate galaxy. The signal had come from deep space, much farther out than any official manned mission had ever been sent. No independently funded missions had been undertaken since the Space Bureau had instituted laws against them, one and a half centuries before.

“Who could it be?” I murmured.

“Well,” the commander answered, “it’s obviously not an alien. The transmission is in English. Besides that, there are no spacecraft at the signal’s point of origin.”

“An SOS signal that comes from nothing,” I remarked, “is definitely in my department.”

I thought a moment. There were just a few possible solutions, even including the most improbable ones.

Interrogating the control room staff, I asked, “Are there any malfunctions in the communications system?”

“Negative, sir,” a crewman responded. “We’ve already checked that out.”

“How about a mirage?” I continued. “Is there an ion cloud out there, or anything that the signal could be bouncing off of?”

“Negative, sir,” another crewman answered. “Sensors indicate no ion clouds, and no stray matter for at least a 50-mile radius of the signal’s origin.”

“Thank you,” I said, and I turned back to the commander. I could see just one possibility remaining, though it seemed unbelievable.

“Commander,” I said, “whether it’s a renegade independent from Earth or something more bizarre, I can’t say, but there’s only one place that the signal can be coming from. I’ll need three star scouts, one outfitted with a boarding mechanism, and I’ll need a salvage shuttle as well, with full crews in each craft. I don’t know if the broadcaster can receive a message, but transmit it anyway: ‘Received, awaiting arrival.’ I’ll be in the boarding star scout.”

As I turned to leave, the commander asked, “Where is it coming from, Lansberg?”

Well, when your commanding officer asks you a question, you can’t very well avoid it, however controversial you know the answer will be.

I looked right into Commander Jackson’s steely eyes and said confidently, “Hyperspace,” and quickly departed, certain that the commander thought me to be “space happy.”

Hyperspace was an old theory based more on conjecture than on fact. It had begun with the idea that the three dimensions—length, breadth, and depth—representing space, were not alone; everything had a fourth dimension—duration—representing time. From that a concept of a fifth dimension developed: hyperspace, a bridge or tunnel traversing space and time. If a person wanted to move from one place to another, in much less time than it would take to travel in space, he could travel in hyperspace. It was the long sought “northwest passage” of space travel. I had neither accepted the idea nor rejected it. Theory is theory; fact is fact.

As we waited in space, near the origin of the signals but as far away as caution dictated, I talked on the radio with Commander Jackson.

“Lansberg,” he said, “if you didn’t have such a good track record you’d be under psychiatric observation right now.”

I responded with respect, “Commander, I admit myself that it sounds insane, but frankly, it’s all I can think of. Do you have any other suggestions?”

“No way. This is your territory. Besides, if you’re right, it could revolutionize space travel. Your competence in the past gives me every reason to trust you now, incredible as your idea is.”

“Thank you, sir,” I answered.

An hour passed, and another as well, before anything happened. In the middle of the third hour the SOS signal stopped. Simultaneously, a bright light appeared at the exact point that had been the signal’s origin. It immediately widened and opened until it became the border of a great circle through which a delta-winged spacecraft was passing.

The craft, three times the size of a star scout, was dwarfed by the ring of light, as it came smoothly through the center of the circle. Twenty vessels just like it could have passed through side by side.

What a picture! A tiny spacecraft coming through a giant ring of light, the end of what seemed to be a conduit to another galaxy, for behind it stars blazed in glory! A closely knit cluster of at least 5,000 stars, seen through the ring, paraded before us in majesty, beckoning us to charge through after them.

When the mysterious craft had swiftly passed beyond the ring of light, the passage through hyperspace shut up tightly, just as it had opened.

As the vessel drifted in space near us, I unsuccessfully attempted to restore radio contact. I then instructed my pilot to maneuver our star scout to search for damage and identifying marks.

As we circled the craft, it seemed to be undamaged. If any of us still harbored any secret desires that we’d made contact with an extraterrestrial, they were quickly dissolved when we discovered an identifying mark on the nose of the craft. What appeared to be its name was written in neat bold letters: SPACE BEAGLE.

After a short search we located a hatch on the Space Beagle’s underside. A dull thud reverberated throughout our vessel as I sealed the boarding tube to the strange craft’s hull. When the gravity-free tube had been pressurized, a section of our star scout’s floor slid open, disclosing the entrance to the tube. When I looked in, I was surprised to see some colored light emanating from the opposite end. The hatch on the other craft had already been opened.

I was to board the Space Beagle solo for the initial investigation. I grasped some handles inside the boarding tube and pulled myself through the hole.

I floated effortlessly towards the opposite hatch. It was strangely different than floating in open space. In space I would have heard no sound, but there I heard the sounds of movement from my craft as they blended with the mystical, musical whisperings that ebbed and flowed from the curious vehicle that I was approaching.

As I entered the Space Beagle I twisted my body so that I wound up landing in a gentle squat on the floor next to the hatchway. While I sat there a strange rhapsody filled the air around me.

Standing up, I looked around the chamber that I was in. Lights on various consoles, reds, greens, and blues, flashed incessantly, creating a hypnotic strobe effect throughout the room.

The eerie music continued as my senses were subjected to a deluge of visual images. Video units lined each wall, alternately showing pictures of planets, stars, and galaxies. Flashing shots of ancient stone structures mingled with shots of desolate landscapes, as well as open meadows and green hills, not unlike those of Earth.

Some screens flashed pictures of chartreuse skies, and others of crimson snow.

Most fascinating of all, in the center of the room was a highly advanced holographic display that intermittently presented many of the images on the screens as three-dimensional moving objects, synchronized with the shifting musical tones that filled the air.

Indigo lions stalked on a lavender veldt. Dragons soared across distant horizons. Living cells seemed to grow larger and larger, until I saw DNA, the double helix, spinning before my eyes.

Elements mixed and changed. Continents slipped beneath seas. Planets broke up to dust, stars exploded in fury, and entire galaxies pulsated with light in front of me.

In no other place that came to my mind could such a comprehensive treasury of knowledge of the universe be found.

Then the words I’d read that morning once again occurred to me, “And worlds without number have I created … for mine own purpose … numbered unto me … they are mine and I know them.” As if that wasn’t enough, the phrase “they are mine” became stuck in my brain on a constant replay.

As I stood, awestruck at the scope of what I was experiencing, the music suddenly stopped, and I heard a deep and tired sounding voice, gentle to my ear, say, “Does my collection please you?”

Looking around I saw no one. I answered the question, “Yes,” adding, “Who are you?”

“I’m just a man like you,” the voice replied. “I’m in an adjacent chamber. When I lived on Earth I was called Desmond Jeffress.”

“Desmond Jeffress?”

“My, but that is sweet. That’s the first time I’ve heard my name spoken in more than 300 years.”

“You’ve been in space that long?” I asked, gasping at so profound a claim. Only the reality of hyperspace would allow such a thing.

The voice simply answered, “Yes.”

“You sent an SOS. What kind of help can I give you?”

A door at the other end of the room opened, revealing a brighter, more substantial light behind it.

“Come here, please,” the voice said.

Still somewhat mesmerized, I complied with the request.

The chamber that I entered was apparently a combination control room and observation deck. The Milky Way, Delta Colony, the salvage shuttle, and the other two star scouts were clearly visible on a wall-size screen that could easily have been mistaken for a window.

A circular console in the center of the room held dials and gauges that I was unfamiliar with, and seated in its center, in a large, well-cushioned chair, was the oldest looking man I’ve ever seen. Long silver hair flowed over his shoulders to the middle of his back, and a beard of the same color reached to his knees.

Looking directly at me with soft, brown eyes, he said, “I’m dying. I’ve lived more than 300 years, and I’ve barely an hour left.”

I almost felt hurt. I’d just met a man with a broader range of experience than anyone else I’d ever met, and he had less than an hour to share his knowledge with me.

“How can you be sure?” I asked.

“I’m sure,” he responded. “That’s why I sent the SOS. I didn’t want to die alone, and, more important, I didn’t want to have lived in vain.”

“Three centuries before you were born I began my chronicle of the universe. Though there are countless planets, stars, and galaxies that I have never approached, I have nevertheless chronicled a total of 237 galaxies with 100 trillion stars and 600 trillion planets. I was able to visit exactly 200,000 of those planets, if only for a moment. If it sounds like I’ve been busy, I have. Never for an instant have I been idle. My last wish was to see all that I have learned safely delivered into another human’s hands. Since that is now assured, I should be able to die knowing that my life was not in vain. Still … still, something is not right.” He paused a moment, wheezing slightly. “I should feel at peace, but instead I’m more anxious than before.”

“Do you know why?” I asked.

“I believe,” he said, “that my mind is still troubled on one matter, on one foolish little matter.”

“What is that?”

“I had,” the old man recalled, “before I went into space, been somewhat of an atheist. I’ve always been analytic and cannot accept anything as true until it has been proven by experimentation. Not long after my voyages began, I found myself believing in God. I had become aware of a pattern, of a design in the universe, and observing mankind’s potential to control it, I felt a relationship, a descendency if you will, with some remarkably infinite power, maybe even a living, tangible being.

“From then on all of my experiments and voyages, of which my journals and chronicles became but by-products, were whole-hearted efforts to prove the existence and nature of God. All my knowledge was continually applied to this single purpose. I was determined to prove God, so that I could know, and not just feel, that he lives.

“However, despite all of my efforts, the most powerful evidence was nothing more than a strong indication of what I believed. It always left room for doubt.

“I’ve been almost everywhere and seen almost everything, and still have no proof that God exists. I’m a scientist believing something with no definite proof of its validity. That is my anxiety.”

I thought his method of research had been like someone trying to learn about a sculptor by studying his statues. He had been experimenting through the wrong medium.

“Have you ever asked God?” I inquired.

“How is that done?” he replied.

I then proceeded to bear my testimony to him. My testimony of God, that he is the Creator, that he is everyone’s Father in Heaven, of the premortal existence, of the plan of salvation, and of the atonement of Christ, and that Jesus is the Only Begotten Son of God; my testimony of all these things fell from my lips with more power than it ever had before.

We talked. In the short time available, our conversation must have touched upon nearly every principle of the gospel.

I told him that I did not just believe the things I’d said. I explained that I knew them by the power of the Holy Ghost, through prayer, that being the only way that anyone could know.

He then prayed one of the most fervent prayers that I’ve ever heard. He ignored my presence in the room as the words of supplication rolled smoothly off from his tongue, and when he ended his prayer, he knew! One quick glance at his tear-washed eyes and it was clear: he knew!

He looked up, right at me, and he said, “Young man, contained in this spacecraft is knowledge accumulated from more than three centuries of constant research, as I traveled from one galaxy to another, and never has it meant more to me than it does now.”

His eyes held mine in a firm stare as he continued, “The knowledge that you have shared with me for the last hour is more important than all the rest of the knowledge I’ve gathered put together. Thank you,” he said.

The moment that he finished uttering those words his final breath wheezed from his lungs. Silence permeated the air.

“You’re welcome,” I mumbled, hoping that someplace his spirit could hear, and added, “Thank you, Desmond Jeffress.”

The entire procedure of impounding the Space Beagle seemed almost melancholy after that. Those who had wondered what had consumed so much of my time while I had been in the vessel were satisfied when they had seen the tremendous storehouse of knowledge within the craft.

The immense value of the Space Beagle to science was obvious. It would prove to open a new renaissance in space travel. No longer would it take years to cross the galaxy. The doors to other galaxies were wide open, and, with the charts provided by one who had been there before, no one would have to travel blindly.

As far as I’m concerned, the greatest results could not have been filed in a library. After I had received credit for the safe recovery of the Space Beagle and its priceless cargo, the League of Interstellar Earth Colonies granted me a full scholarship to Antares Academy.

I was very honored, but I politely and cheerfully declined. I already had a message to share that was more important than anything that the academy could teach me. Besides, the Lord expected me to serve a mission.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Richard Hull