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Constellations (The Thirteenth Take Remix)

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The night sky is dark, an empty void except for the pinpricks of dancing starlight.

“Are stars supposed to dance?” asks Carlos. “I thought that was a, uh, metaphor.”

Cecil looks at the stars critically. They’re trying to jitterbug. “It’s romantic,” he says. “But they’re not very good at keeping time.”

Carlos is squinting up at the stars, covering and uncovering one eye like he thinks there’s something wrong with his vision. Cecil’s certain there’s nothing wrong with Carlos’ eyes. They’re perfect eyes. They’re a little creepy, yes – Cecil will never get used to the way Carlos’ dark, flat pupils obstinately refuse to reflect light in the way most people’s do – but that’s just an aspect of their perfection.

"It's so nice out," says Cecil. "I'm glad you invited me up here."

"I'm glad you're here." Carlos looks away from the sky, back down to Cecil. His eyes are still dark and ungleaming, but his teeth catch the light from the blinking neon signs around them as he smiles. Cecil reaches out and takes Carlos' hand. Their arms span the gap between their lawn chairs, and Carlos’ palm is warm and soft.

This is how it begins: lying together on the roof of Carlos' lab, watching the stars dance. Cecil can feel himself melting into the sky, becoming one with the emptiness. Except for that big annoying white ball thing. The moon, as it likes to be called. Why does it insist on the definite article? Cecil thinks it’s a little pretentious.

Carlos looks back up at the sky. The stars start up a waltz.

"What even is the moon?" asks Cecil, idly.

"Uh," says Carlos.

"Does anyone really know?" Cecil hums to himself. "One of life's great mysteries."

"Wow, no. No, it’s not." Carlos makes the face that he makes whenever Cecil says something… strange. Something that Carlos doesn’t quite understand. It involves unconsciously scrunching up his nose while trying simultaneously to look completely and utterly unfazed.

It’s adorable. Cecil is maybe letting his brain-to-mouth filter drop, just a little, in the hopes of seeing that face more often.

"Science,” says Carlos, in the reverent tone of voice he always uses for Science, “can tell us lots of things about the moon."

"Really?" Cecil turns to him, eyes wide and interested so that Carlos will keep talking. "So tell, Mister Scientist."

Carlos tells. He talks about what they can see of the moon, and what they can't see, and why and why not. He talks about moon probes and orbiters and landings. Carlos hesitates when he talks about men walking on the moon, as if he expects Cecil to argue with him. Which is absurd. Cecil would never argue with Carlos about his field of expertise – questioning Authority is something to be done carefully and tactfully, and only when absolutely necessary. Anyway, Cecil is sure that men and women and other things have all walked on the moon, in reality or in dreams.

“Go on,” says Cecil, when Carlos runs out of words.

“I don’t want to bore you.” Carlos smiles, a little shyly. “I know I tend to babble.”

“I love your babble,” says Cecil. “I love your passion.” Carlos blushes, but Cecil presses on. “In fact, I think everyone should hear you talk about the moon. You know so much!”

“Not really,” says Carlos. “I’m not an astronomer.”

“Yes, but you’re a scientist.” Cecil nudges Carlos in the ribs. “That’s at least twice as good as any old astronomer.”

“Cecil,” says Carlos, scrunching his nose again.

“Has anyone ever told you,” says Cecil, “that you have a face for radio?”

Carlos’ nose scrunches even more, like he’s not sure if he’s being complimented or teased. Cecil leans over to kiss him, and doesn’t clarify a single thing.


"-And now, it's time for our kid's science corner. Kids and non-kids alike, I have to say I am very excited about this segment today. We have a special guest, the most special guest: my Carlos! Carlos is going to tell us about the moon."


"I don't understand why we're pre-recording this," says Carlos. "Don't you usually broadcast live?"

Cecil records live because he has years of training, a mystical amulet bestowed by his dissertation committee, and a special dispensation from the Council. Carlos probably won’t appreciate that, so Cecil tries to be diplomatic. "There are lots of good reasons to tape a segment. For instance, I can use the segment whenever I like, so that breaking news isn't postponed. Or so that I can go get a drink without leaving my dear listeners all alone."

Carlos pulls the microphone down to his level – he’s a slight man, although Carlos generally argues that he’s normally sized and Cecil is freakishly tall. Freakish tallness, Cecil thinks, must be relative. The microphone tries to inch back up to its accustomed spot, but Cecil catches it, tutting as he pushes it toward Carlos again.

"Also," continues Cecil, "it's easier to deal with mistakes in a recorded segment. We can edit out anything with the click of a button."

"There won't be any mistakes," says Carlos, bluff and a little uneasy.

"And," Cecil smiles, shyly. "I wouldn't mind, you know, having a recording. Of your voice. That I can listen to, uh, privately."

Carlos shuffles his notes, looking down and blushing. Across the table, Cecil can feel his own cheeks warming as well.

"Ready?" asks Cecil, when he’s managed to recollect himself. "Recording in three, two, one-"


Take one

"Hello, Night Vale. And Desert Bluffs. Is Desert Bluffs receiving this? Sorry, uh, hello, everyone. I'm Dr. Gutierrez, but I guess most of you know me as Carlos. Carlos the Scientist. I'm here to talk to you, uh, today- tonight? I'm here to talk to you about the tomb. The moon! I meant the moon. Not, uh, the tomb or death or anything like that. Just, just astronomy. That was a Freudian slip. Do you guys know about Freud here? Not that he has anything to do with the moon. Well, he probably wrote about the moon at some point, but, um, jeez. Cecil, I'm so sorry.


"Another reason for pre-recording," says Cecil, kindly, "is that we can throw away the first take."

"I didn't think I would get so tongue-tied," mumbles Carlos. "I don't have trouble talking to you about science. It's just a microphone."

"Microphones are hard." Cecil strokes it, and the microphone purrs a little. "They soak up your words and give you nothing back. There's no sense of too fast, too slow, too much, too little. The microphone wants it all. That much hunger can be paralyzing, like looking into the maw of a tiger."

"Uh," says Carlos.

"Don't be nervous," says Cecil.

"I am way more nervous now than I was before," says Carlos.

Cecil bites his lip. Sometimes it can be difficult to know what will comfort Carlos. Cecil thinks for a moment, and then puts both of his hands on Carlos' face, framing his cheekbones and curling his fingers around his ears. "Let me tell you what my professors told me, when I was studying Journalism," he says. "Don't think about the microphone. Think about your audience."

"Thanks," says Carlos. "That's actually really helpful."

"Think about your audience," continues Cecil. "Think about them aging, slowly, moldering, crumbling into dust. Think about the enveloping void that consumes the ashes of their bones, think about-"

"Okay," says Carlos, hurriedly. "I'm ready for the next take."


Take two

"Hello, everyone. I'm Carlos the Scientist, and I'm going to tell you about the moon. The moon is a satellite, like the satellites that transmit radio waves or observe the Earth from space. The difference is that the moon is a natural satellite - essentially, the moon is a big orb of rock that orbits the Earth like the Earth orbits the Sun. Because of the way the moon orbits the Earth, we can only, only- What, Cecil?"


Cecil stops frantically waving, and tries to sound as apologetic as possible. The time has come to challenge Authority. "I don't think what you were saying is quite correct."

Carlos’ eyebrows draw together. "You- you have to know that the Earth goes around the Sun, Cecil. We dealt with that centuries ago."

"Not that," says Cecil, half-offended. "Everyone knows the Earth goes around the Sun in a slowly decaying orbit that will end in our death, next year or next millennium. But-"

"That's really not true," says Carlos.

"But," says Cecil. "Everyone also knows that there's no way to observe the Earth from space. Satellites? A myth!"

Carlos looks like he’s trying very hard to keep his face still. It’s not working. "Look," he says, nose scrunched. "Satellites are definitely real."

"Haha," says Cecil, and slaps the table, coincidentally right over where the Secret Police have installed their perfectly legal and non-invasive listening device. "Ha. What a joke, Carlos! Next you'll be telling me that the Sheriff's Secret Police has a network of spy satellites that observe our every move from high above the atmosphere! That nothing is sacred, and nothing is safe, because each satellite is equipped with an infrared telescope. Where have you been picking up these ludicrous conspiracy theories? Have you been talking to Steve Carlsberg?" Cecil leans a little closer to the bump on the table that conceals the listening device. "That jerk," he whispers to it. "Filling your mind with lies."

"Yeah," says Carlos, slowly. "That jerk."

Cecil beams. "Another good reason to pre-record segments is for fact-checking. Try again?"

Carlos picks up a pen (not a pen, a pen-like object), and starts rewriting his script.


Take three

"The moon orbits the Earth, just like the Earth orbits the Sun. While some of you apparently think that the moon is an artificial lightbulb or some other form of man-made device, it is actually completely natural and made of rock. The rock reflects light from the Sun, down onto the Earth. Because of the way the moon orbits the Earth, we can only- What, Cecil?"


Cecil bares his teeth. Even he isn’t sure if he’s smiling or grimacing. "The new management," he says. "Would like you to correct your terminology."

Carlos looks around. "Did someone come in? How did they tell you?"

Cecil's grimace/smile stretches, and words grit out from between his teeth. His tongue moves without his consent or control. "The moon does not reflect the Sun's light," he says. "The moon steals it, thieves the precious light from the solar factories that produced it with hard work and efficiency. The moon takes what it has no right to, that cold chunk of rock, dead white world, believe, I, believe in a smiling god, Carlos, believe."

The microphone whines, one long high-pitched note. Cecil is still speaking as his vision starts to white out, studio replaced by blankness, by peace and light and terror. He is falling. He is nothing. He is part of a grand machine, he is, he is-

Carlos slaps Cecil, and Cecil slumps back into his chair, eyes falling closed. After about ten minutes of blissful darkness, he sits up again.

"Sorry about that," says Cecil.

"I don't think I'm going to talk about the Sun at all," says Carlos. His face is creased with worry.

"Another good-" Cecil stops himself, corrects. "Another reason for pre-recording segments is censorship."


Carlos seems to be having trouble finding things to say about the moon that don’t conflict with the Secret Police’s regulations or Strex Corp’s dictates. It’s hard for Cecil to help – he’s so used to navigating the complexities of Nightvaleian discourse that it’s practically second nature, and second nature can’t be taught. A few times, Carlos even manages to say something that Cecil objects to himself.

Carlos’ voice is getting rougher, and his hands clench his script a little tighter every time Cecil stops him. Around the twelfth take, Carlos snaps.

"The moon- the moon is a parasite, slowly circling our world as it drains energy from the Sun and also all the spy satellites that are definitely not in space. The moon is watching us. The moon is hiding. Why do we only see one side of the moon? Because the other side is terrible. The moon is made of green cheese. There is a man in the moon, in the center of the moon, in the center of the fucking-"


"That was great!" coos Cecil. "We'll have to cut the last second for swearing, but-"

"No." Carlos drops his head into his hands. "You can't broadcast that. It was a lie."

Cecil stills. The Authorities do many things, but they never admit to a lie. Even when they lie - and they do lie, all the time, constantly - they never admit to it. It is the world that is wrong, not the Authorities. Cecil doesn’t know how to respond to Carlos' admission. Is it different when the Authority is your boyfriend? Maybe he’s been arguing with Carlos too much. Carlos looks tired. Maybe Cecil should just- Maybe this was a bad idea.

Carlos is looking at him, a little panicked. Cecil tries to force a smile, can't.

"It was a joke," says Carlos, like he's correcting himself. "A joke. I'm sorry, Cecil, I was just getting frustrated."

Slowly, haltingly, Cecil's face regains its mobility. He hopes his smile looks forgiving and not just desperate. "I understand. But jokes on the radio are very serious, Carlos. Don't forget the 'War of the Worlds' incident."

"I know," says Carlos, too loud. "People only heard the middle of the broadcast, and thought aliens really were invading."

"No." Cecil's brow furrows. "People heard the end of the broadcast, and thought they were safe."

Carlos looks at Cecil, and Cecil looks at Carlos. They are sitting just across the table, just across a chasm of understanding.

"I don't think I can do this," says Carlos.

For a moment, Cecil thinks - yes. They cannot do this. How can someone like Carlos speak to Night Vale? How can Night Vale understand someone like Carlos? It seems so impossible.

And then Cecil remembers the night on the roof, listening to Carlos spill out so many truths. How beautiful it was. How right.

Cecil reaches out, bridging the gap between them. He grabs Carlos' hand, twining his own mahogany-dark fingers together with Carlos' light brown ones. "You can absolutely do this," he says, as sincere as he can manage. "Just tell them what you told me."

Carlos squeezes Cecil's hand. He looks uncertain, but he reaches out to the microphone and pulls it closer. The microphone thrums in anticipation.

"Another good reason for pre-recording," says Cecil, gently, "is that you can try as many times as you need to."


Take thirteen

"We can see a lot of things in the moon. For instance, the dark spots are called maria. Maria is the Latin word for 'sea,' but there is no liquid water on the moon. Maria are actually plains of volcanic rock which don't reflect or, uh, steal light from the Sun as well as the rest of the moon. Each of the maria has its own name, like the Mare Tranquillitatis.

"You can also see a face or a man in the moon. In some cultures, people also see a rabbit. As far as we know, there is nothing alive up there. These shapes are actually just irregularities in the rock, which the human mind likes to turn into something that makes sense, like we do with stars and constellations. We like to see meaning everywhere, even in the blankness of space. Even in the thoughtless actions of another human being."


Carlos talks about the light and dark side of the moon, the way it affects the tides, and even touches upon eclipses for a few terrifying moments. Cecil holds his hand the whole time.

Finally Carlos sits back in his chair, and Cecil turns the microphone off.

"That's a lot of material," says Cecil. "We can make a series. 'Carlos explains the moon.'"

"Did I say anything wrong?" asks Carlos. "Is management going to make trouble? The Secret Police?"

Cecil smiles with all of his teeth, even the auxiliary molars. If he has to choose an Authority to defend, he knows which side he's on. "Don't worry about it. I'll deal with them."

This is how it ends: with Carlos leaning across the table and kissing Cecil lightly, their fingers still twined together.

"Although." Cecil pulls back, just a little, leans his forehead against Carlos'. Their glasses click together. "I might need to edit out some of that stuff about constellations. Children might be listening."

Carlos' nose scrunches up, and he draws breath to ask a question. Cecil kisses him before he can say a word, because Carlos is just too adorable. By the time they're done, Carlos has completely lost his train of thought.

"Thank you," says Cecil. "For recording, and for doing so many takes, and, uh." He stops, smooths the lapels of Carlos' coat while trying to figure out how to say this. "For- for putting up with me. Thank you."

Carlos' flat eyes may not shine green in the light like Cecil's do, and his smile doesn't have quite as many teeth, but Cecil has still never seen someone look as happy and as gorgeous as Carlos does right now. "Thank you," says Carlos, in turn. "For having me."

The microphone purrs, like a satiated tiger with a brand-new toy.