The unnamed narrator, a Jesuit priest, is the astrophysicist on an exploratory scientific spacecraft. He is constantly reminded of this duality by his shipmates and by the very decorations and features of his room. The Jesuit speaks throughout the story to an unnamed “you” who is often unknown, sometimes himself, at times St. Ignatius Loyola (founder of the Jesuits), and finally, God. The narrator’s several brief asides show his distress over something the ship has discovered.
The ship has come to the Phoenix Nebula, the remains of a star that became a supernova, to try to reconstruct the events that led up to the catastrophe and, if possible, to learn its cause. Expecting to find only the burned star, the ship makes a much more exciting, and ultimately poignant, discovery. The last planet of the star’s system survived the burning, and an artifact is sending out a beacon from its surface. Although untrained for this unexpected archaeological work, the crew enthusiastically sets out to discover what secrets and treasures have been waiting through the centuries for discovery and rescue.
A monolithic marker leads the men to the hopes of the race doomed by the supernova, a civilization that knew it was about to die and had made a last bid for immortality. The artifact contains artwork, recordings, and written works, including keys for their translation. It also contains photographs of beautiful cities and happy children playing on beaches under the then-quiet sun. Although the vanished people most likely left only their best, as the narrator acknowledges they had a right to do, their remains show the men from Earth a civilization that could reach neighboring planets, that possessed beauty and culture, but that ran out of time and was destroyed on the brink of interstellar travel, which might have allowed some of its people to survive. To add to the sorrow the men feel, the race looks humanlike, inviting even more empathy.
The men, who teased their astrophysicist on the journey to the nebula about his religious beliefs, ask him how such destruction can be reconciled with God’s mercy. The Jesuit tries to accept this questioning and answer it, but cannot. He wonders if even St. Ignatius could have reconciled this situation, although he recognizes that God has no need to justify his actions to humankind. When, as the ship’s astrophysicist, he makes his calculations, he finds something that severely tests his own deep faith. He calculates the date of the supernova and when its light reached the Earth.
The reason for the narrator’s doubt and seeming despair becomes clear in the final line of the story. Every day stars go nova and every day races die, but this tragedy has a horrific irony for the theologian: “What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?”