“Alright, let’s turn her back around. X9, go ahead reset your controls for a reentry course.”
“Acknowledged, Ground Control. You can exhale now. I’m bringing her back in one piece.”
A small room of nervous men huddled over a bank of monitors and held their breaths. The last test flight was much more stressful than the first. Anything could happen the first go-around. By now, they were expected to have spent enough money to have this figured out. The X9 would be the first privately developed interstellar vehicle that hadn’t disintegrated as it approached near-luminal speed. Theoretically, it was a success. Theoretically, that didn’t matter. Not until they committed to a long-distance flight, one to break the boundaries of a solar system that had long since felt cumbersome as technology continued to advance.
“Ok, X9, you’re going to decelerate into an orbit with the moon and piggyback your way in. Once you’re lined up, cut the engines and we’ll take over from here.”
Thirty seconds passed, then sixty, then ninety. The experimental craft was not in position. “X9, you’re beginning to go off course. We need you to recalibrate and correct immediately. Please confirm.”
Ten more seconds, twenty, thirty.
“X9, come in. This Ground Control to X9, come in. Do you read me? We have you on screen, but you’re veering away from us. Captain Strands?”
Lights danced across their monitors, attempting to follow the craft, travelling faster than they would have thought possible mere moments ago. The X9 was not designed for this. The readings coming through should not have been possible. Something had gone wrong. The nervous men in the small room began yelling at one another, rifling through paperwork for the emergency protocols they hadn’t finished writing. The lights flickered across their screens once more before cutting to black. Captain Elizabeth Strands and the X9 were gone.
It would never make it into the official transcripts, but the X9 provided one last communication before they lost contact. It was no more than a garbled burst of static, but members from the project’s Ground Control would go the rest of their lives wondering its meaning.
“…this is it…”
The smell of anesthetic and cleaning product lingered no matter what wing of the hospital you were in. An aroma rivaled only by the bouquets lining the windowsills and cluttering the patient’s room. She had her fair share of well-wishes, thoughts, prayers, and deepest condolences since being admitted the month prior and was running out of space for it all. The cable news channels were already running packages on her life and career over the weekends. Like Christmas displays going up before Halloween had yet to pass, they all wanted a jump on the market. For them, she was a legacy of magazine covers, ribbon cuttings, collectible bobbleheads, commemorative plates, and trivia answers at local pub quizzes.
For Bonnie’s kids, she was simply Gamma Libby; an ornery matriarch that still brought presents every time she visited. For Bonnie, her mother had been an endless fount of strength and determination. She grew up in awe of the woman and her accomplishments, to say nothing of raising her as a single mother and never once allowing it to serve as a shortcoming.
It was hard to tell what remained any longer. Was this husk sinking into the hospital bed, thinner and grayer by the day, the woman they knew and loved, the one they owed their own lives to? What parts remained beyond the flesh that would soon fail? How long could only memories sustain them? Bonnie had been preparing for this eventuality for some time, but no preparation could steel a heart from true loss. Every day was harder than the last to see her in such a helpless state. She had been wasting away in their care, even the doctors admitted as much. They were past the point of treatment. At her advanced age, all they could offer was comfort, such as it was. And yet, still she remained, lingering between life and death, still exploring after all these years.
The machines surrounding her wheezed and beeped, working to keep her alive another moment longer. Without their functions she would slip away, but what part would be leaving and where would it go? Her youngest asked the same question the previous night. Bonnie tried explaining death to a four-year-old ahead of their visit, but could not find an answer that suited either of them.
The doctor stood at a practiced, respectful distance, waiting as she paid her last respects. He assured her, “It will be over quickly. She won’t feel a thing.”
Bonnie sighed and knew she was only stalling at this point. She leaned over and kissed her mother on the forehead one last time, whispering into her ear. “Go for the light, ma.”
Liz jerked from her sleep, sitting up in bed, catching her breath. It always took several seconds before her surroundings fell back into place around her and their context sank in. She learned to ignore the disorientation, to let the heart-flush wash over her. There was no fighting it, all she could do was lean into the chaos, exhale, and let it flow out of her until it drained away and she was back in her apartment.
Todd was stirring beside her. His head stayed on the pillow, but he managed to open one eye. “You okay? It’s not happening now, is it?”
“No. It’s not that. Sorry I woke you. Dream, I guess.”
He pulled himself up to sit beside her and wiped the sleep out of his face. “Same one?”
“Am I getting that predictable?”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
She did, but not with him. “I’m a little kid again, at my grandparents, my dad’s side, the ones that lived out in the country. I’m in that field they had, looking out at the stars. I’m pointing at something, but I can’t tell what it is. I mean, I know what it is in the dream as a child, but as the dreamer, I can’t make out what I’m pointing at. It’s getting brighter and brighter whatever it is. I can see the light shining off my face,” Liz ran her hand across her cheek as she recounted the nightly disturbance. “I always wake before I can see what I’m reacting to. I tried thinking back to my childhood, my visits to my grandparents. I can’t remember seeing anything.”
Todd was unimpressed with her line of thought. “You don’t really think it has some kind of tie to your real life, do you?”
“Maybe not directly, but it’s me as a child. I was there. In real life, too. I remember the place, those nights looking up at the stars. That all happened, maybe this, or something like this, happened, too. Maybe I forgot something over time.”
He soured. “I thought you were over this?”
“Don’t act like you don’t see what this is. We decided that you would retire from active missions with the firm once Bonnie is born.”
“You decided for the both of us,” she shot back.
“Because, you know I’m right. A child needs their mother. Here. On Earth.”
“Not as much as you seem to.” She had lost the patience afforded to trust his judgment.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means, I had a bad dream and you’re being an asshole.”
Todd rolled over, turning his back to her. Even he could tell when an argument was a lost cause. “You’re avoiding the conversation, just like you always do. This family has to come first if this is going to work, Liz.”
“Ground Control to X9, come in. Do you read me? We have you on screen, but you’re veering away from us. Captain Strands?”
Captain Elizabeth Strands fought against the very laws of physics with her muscles threatening to tear from their bones as she tried breaking free from the pressure pinning her to her seat. It hurt to even think about moving. There was too much force working against her. Everything was happening too fast. She was weightless, then she wasn’t. She was returning to base and then she saw it. Now, she was somewhere she couldn’t explain, somewhere she did not belong. She put her thoughts on what little she could control. If she could just reach the stick, if she could just keep the shuttle steady, there was a chance she could at least keep it from snapping in half. Knowing the only way out was through, she broke for the light.
It did not take long before she was no longer steering but careening towards the massive display of energy. She pushed the X9 beyond the point for any hope of return as the light grew bigger and brighter. She couldn’t pull away if she wanted any longer. It was everywhere, eating away the black void that once surrounded her.
She recognized it, that strange light flickering in the cold dead of space. It was the same light that haunted her as a child, the one that had laid dormant in her dreams, waiting to guide her through this final passage. Yes, she thought, letting go her grip of the controls.
“This is it.”
The shuttle howled like a wounded animal as bits began to break away. Faster and faster still she piloted. The temperature inside of the cabin was unbearable. The machines surrounding her wheezed and beeped as they worked to keep her alive another moment longer. She could feel her skin burning from within the suit, perhaps the heat, perhaps the radiation. It didn’t really make much difference any longer, she knew. There was no telling what she was racing headlong into, only what she left behind. Faster, it was her sole thought. She needed to make it, had to make it. There was nothing left but the destination and too much space between it. Something was holding her back. Something was still pinning her to the earth. Something needed to let go.
Bonnie folded her mother’s hands neatly in her lap and smoothed out the wrinkles from the blanket covering her as the doctor noted the time of death. He quietly went through the room turning off machines like an afterhours shopkeeper. Bonnie continued watching over her mother’s body, still unsure what she was saying goodbye to. She did not recognize the corpse in the bed. The familiarity had already drained. Her mother could never die. This was not her; not the way she remembered her. Where did that person exist? Just in memories? Is that all any of us are when spread out across enough time, she wondered?
Air passed through her mother’s lungs and diaphragm in a thin, reedy rattle. The doctor warned her there would be some natural reactions once she was taken from life support and events were allowed to play their course.
Bonnie leaned over the bed, taking her mother’s hand once more. “Mom? Can you hear me? Mom?”
Elizabeth Strands shut her eyes to the blinding light that had broken through her world. The room, the hospital, the illness that put her there, her daughter and grandchildren, even her own body was gone. Nothing survived scattered across enough time. Only light remained.
She muttered, leaving it, “This is it.”
Elizabeth sprang from her bunk and had to catch from toppling to the ground. She hadn’t expected to gain any real sleep while waiting for the all clear, let alone enough to dream, restless as she was. Now that she was awake, she wished she hadn’t. She was a child looking up at the stars all over again. Sitting up in her makeshift bed, she felt the same panic, that familiar inescapable, dangerous wonder as she had the night it happened. It was the same dream, but tonight something had was different. She finally saw what it was she first laid eyes on as a child. She had chased after those missing moments for years, ascribing the meaning she lacked in life to their discovery. She now understood why the incomplete vision stuck with her, heavy as it had, and why there was no hope in seeing it in full until this very moment. The sight, and its implications, left her cold. It was not something to be made sense of, nor was it one to be denied. It simply was.
“Captain?” An anxious technician poked her head into the locker room. “It’s showtime. They’re ready for you.”
Captain Strands tossed her legs over the side of the cot and waved the aid away. Today was the day. They had crunched the numbers and were prepared to close the book on the X9 prototype. If this last flight was a success they will have developed the world’s first interstellar spacecraft. The shuttle would not fail. Elizabeth trusted her. They had gone up and down safely for thirty-eight trials together so far. True, they had not given it the final run, the real test, the only one that mattered; breaking beyond that latest shrinking wall. The X9 was not the variable at play, she was.
Libby’s grandparents knew better than to try and match her surplus of energy as she raced ahead. She was called their ‘little firecracker’ for good reason. They planned the day in concerted effort to tucker out an overactive seven-year-old excited to have come up from the city for a weekend at her grandfolks, but already accepted it as a lost cause. There was no slowing down Libby when she had her mind made up. They had gone hiking, bird whistling, to look at the horses, and finished the day off with a two-scoop sundae; but Libby had been looking forward to something else.
A suburban child, born under a hazy blanket of light pollution, Libby was robbed of a night sky bespoiled with the full panoply of stars she had only otherwise ever seen in books and cartoons. She read stories about the heroes and villains that these stars made up. She could not make heads or tails of the city skyline, but when she was standing in the center of her grandparent’s soybean field, away from streetlights and traffic beams, she saw what she was looking for. One light after another, each brighter than the last.
She made it to the center of the field and looked up to a black sea spilling over with twinkling diamonds. Even better than the cartoons, she realized excitedly. She could hear her grandparents calling out as the fumbled with the gate. She opened her mouth to call out, but no noise emerged. That was when she saw it.
It was the biggest and brightest star she had even seen. Too big, too bright, she decided. Libby’s heart started to race. She was beginning to wish she had waited for her grandparents. She could tell something was wrong with this star. She felt sad for it. It was sick and going to die. Why did she know this?
Why did she feel so dizzy?
She tried to scream, but nothing came. The words were stuck in place; as were her grandparents and the wind in her hair. So was the cricket, hanging suspended in the air before her. Its wings frozen in mid-flight, illumined by a spreading flood of light, far too brilliant and old for a child to fathom. In that crystalline moment outside of time, young Libby Strands witnessed the impossible.
An ancient star on the other side of a black hole was going supernova. In one last annihilating wave, it scattered its own cosmic ashes across the dark expanse. Libby stood unimaginable distances apart, watching the celestial phantasmagoria seed fresh galaxies with eyes that would not yet witness this event for years to come.
As the light burned away everything that was left, how funny, Captain Strands thought, that we would spend so much time chasing down what, in the end, we could never escape. We were made for stars, she saw, and it was beautiful.