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Steady State

Log Entry, Vitruvius, 2115-26.  FTL Propulsion, terminated.  Navigation Systems, normal.  Suspension and Life Support Systems, normal.  Crew Vital Signs, normal.  Speed:  276005.965 km/s.  ETA, LMC-2015 Singularity: 240h, 42m.  Suspension terminated.  Begin crew reanimation sequence:  T-Minus 36 hours, 12 minutes.  Packet prepared, 2115.06.24, 22:25.  Packet transmitted, 2115.06.24, 22:27.

*          *          *

In the sleep chamber Adam Steward dreamed.  He was at a party, a barbecue.  It was summer, hot, so hot that sweat streamed down his back, soaking his shirt.  He was standing over a grill, cooking, or trying to, cursing because the smoke was in his eyes and the hamburgers were burning.  Nikki behind him suddenly, the rush of cool air on his neck that gave him goose bumps.  She pressed a cold beer into his hand, cold enough that ice crystals tickled the inside of his mouth when he took a drink.  She laughed, and the sun shone in her hair.  Funny, how he’d never noticed that before, how the light glittered between the strands when she turned at just the right angle.  He’d had this dream a hundred times, and every time there was something new to see.  Some detail, however minor, that had escaped his attention on the day he’d actually lived it.

“You take everything so seriously,” she said the first night they met.  “You need to lighten up.  Smile once in a while.  Live a little.”  She took his hand, led him out onto the dance floor, the science nerd in the button-down shirt and tie at a bar on a Friday night.  He was nervous, scared shitless if the truth be told, holding all the anxiety in by white knuckle courage and endless mental repetitions of the periodic table.  Of course he was serious.  She was beautiful, and she’d asked him to dance.  He still couldn’t believe he’d allowed his friends to talk him into coming here.

“Do you go to school here?” She was shouting above the sounds of the music, a deep, rhythmic thumping that Adam couldn’t have identified with a gun to his head.

“Yes,” he yelled.  “I’m a graduate student.”

“Oh yeah?  In what field?”

“Astrophysics.”  He hesitated, waited to see if her eyes glazed, smiled a little bit inside when they didn’t.  “I’m doing research connecting supermassive black holes with the Steady State theory.”  He stopped before he lost her interest.  “And you?”

“I teach literature at the lab school.  Faulkner, mostly, but I’ve gone crazy the last couple of semesters and thrown in some Eudora Welty.  You wanna get out of here?”

He smiled.  “I would love to.”

 *          *          *

Log Entry, Vitruvius, 2115-27.  Propulsion and Navigation Systems, normal.  Life Support Systems, normal.  Crew Vital Signs, normal.  Speed:  275998.772 km/s.  ETA, LMC-2015 Singularity: 216h, 31m.  Crew reanimation, complete.  Radiation scan and survey complete. (Enclosure: images 55-76, visible light, x-ray, gamma radiation)  Packet prepared, 2115.25.06, 22:25.  Packet transmitted, 2115.25.06, 22:27.

 *          *          *

He was groggy, and cold.  The temperature of the saline solution had been a fraction of a degree too low, and he awoke chilled and violently shaking.  His first thought was ridiculous, inane:  Time to make the donuts.  As if the bedside alarm clock had just gone off, and he was rolling out of bed for a shower and another day of teaching.  As if Nikki were still alive, warm and peaceful beside him.  As if Mikey would come padding in on footed pajamas, corn silk hair tousled from sleep, and crawl in between them.

His muscles had atrophied despite the electro-muscular stimulation, and it had taken days to regain full bodily control.  After years of intravenous feedings his stomach was shrunken.  It was as if it no longer remembered how to digest food.  Even with great effort he could only keep down the tiniest bites, violently throwing up anything more than a couple of ounces of broth.

When he was strong enough, he reviewed the past year’s logs, manually checking each system for integrity and function.  When that was done he reviewed the mission objectives, experimental protocols, and the procedures for filing reports.  Everything seemed to be in order, though the deceleration from light speed had taken longer than they had anticipated, reducing his working time.  Given his plans, that would not pose an insurmountable problem.  Satisfied, he took a seat near the nose of the craft, opening the radiation shields that covered the cockpit windows.

Despite months of preparation and study, despite understanding on a scientific level what to expect, he was nonetheless awestruck.  The view was vaguely familiar to be sure; he’d been looking at stars his entire life.  But this…this was an entirely new neighborhood, a view even Edwin Hubble could never have imagined.

A 360° telescopic scan with infrared and visible overlays revealed clusters of white-hot Type Ia supergiants wrapped in a magnificent glowing reflection nebula, its bilateral structure a pair of wings that swept the skies. The Butterfly Nebula, Adam thought.  That’s what Mikey would have called it.

In the echoes of his heart the thing begins to flap its wings, spiraling upwards into the hot summer sky.  “Burr-fly, Daddy.”  The little boy smiles, proud of his identification skills, his entire universe contained in this tiny meadow.  From a distance, Nikki’s voice:  “Food’s ready!  Come on, you two, even scientists have to eat.”  Without looking Mikey reaches up with a tiny hand, wrapping it confidently around one of his father’s fingers.  Adam marvels over it, the meaning of his life encapsulated in this small space, this moment in time.

     *          *          *

Log Entry, Vitruvius, 2115-28.  Propulsion and Navigation Systems, normal.  Life Support Systems, normal.  Redshift scan and survey initialized.  Data Collection, 58% complete.  Speed:  275441.332 km/s.  ETA, LMC-2015 Singularity: 192h, 54m. Thermodynamic mapping complete.  (Enclosure: Local group spectroscopic analysis, LMC-2015 Radio/X-Ray recording)  Packet prepared, 2115.26.06, 22:25.  Packet transmitted, 2115.26.06, 22:27.

      *          *          *

The cockpit viewing panels were filled with a deep, red vaporous glow that drowned out the darkness of space.  He knew it for what it was – the end, or possibly the beginning, depending on how you looked at it.  It was getting closer, drawing him inexorably into its wide, endlessly voracious orbit.  Adam’s heart pounded as he watched it, ticking ever closer.  It was a strange feeling to see your destiny stretched out before you, like a fortune teller scrying in tea leaves.  In a thousand dreams, he’d imagined what it would have meant to see the future, to take a different path.  If he could have called her.  If he had stayed home that day.  If the weather had been different.  Eventually, though, he’d realized the truth of it all – that the future isn’t comprised of a million branching possibilities, infinitely changeable.  It’s a line, clean and simple and straight. There is no deviation.

 *          *          *

Log Entry, Vitruvius, 2115-29.  Propulsion and Navigation Systems, normal.  Life Support Systems, normal.  Data Collection, 65% complete.  Speed:  275975.031 km/s.  ETA, LMC-2015 Singularity: 168h, 41m. Hawking Radiation analysis 1 complete.   (Enclosure: Data Package, Images 77-125)  Packet prepared, 2115.27.06, 22:25.  Packet transmitted, 2115.27.06, 22:27.

       *          *          *

The ship was cold.  Climate control was struggling to warm the interior from the absolute zero of deep space.  The gravity field was stronger now, as if tidal forces were pulling and stretching him like toffee.  Physically, it was becoming harder to walk, harder to carry on normally.  Adam gripped the cup of coffee, wrapping his fingers around its warm circumference.  The only sound was the white noise of the humming engines, pushing him ever onward.  With no more responsibilities other than periodic systems checks, he drifted in a haze of jumbled thought and memory.  Back to the university.  Back to the time before.

“Black holes were originally known as “Frozen Stars.”   Can anyone venture a guess as to why?”  A few nervous glances, some shifting in their chairs.  “It’s a perception issue, really; since the light of objects near the event horizon will never actually reach the viewer, the black hole appears “frozen,” if you will.  Stuck in time.”  He stopped, surveying their faces, watching for the ones on the edges of their seats, playing the game with himself where he tried to pick out his future graduate assistants.  “Yes, it sounds strange.  It is strange to think of time as something that can be stopped.  Of course, don’t expect something like that to work when your term papers are due.”  The class laughed, more at ease now.

This was the moment, he realized.  This was where the idea was born; the idea that although time was linear, it didn’t have to move at a constant speed.  Hell, it didn’t have to move at all.  At the singularity, the fourth dimension took on the characteristics of the third; became a road that could be traversed, forward or backward.  It was only a kernel then, however; not yet born, not yet connected to his life.  Later, when grief and sorrow were his only companions, it would return, and set him on that path once more.

 *          *          *

Log Entry, Vitruvius, 2115-30.  Propulsion and Navigation Systems, normal.  Life Support Systems, normal.  Data Collection, 87% complete.  Speed:  273498.221 km/s.  ETA, LMC-2015 Singularity: 72h, 22m. Full spectrum scan, initiated.  Hawking radiation analysis 2 complete. (Enclosure: Data Package, Images 126-189)  Packet prepared, 2115.01.07, 22:25.  Packet transmitted, 2115.01.07, 22:27.

 *          *          *

 Another year gone by.  Adam drifted, awash on a sea of moments that sloshed over him, lapping at his feet like waves.  They pulled and pushed, learning him, committing him to memory.  Outside the red glow had deepened, wildfire in the distance, a burning door.

He closed his eyes and suddenly he was in the hallway of the new physical sciences building, dedicated just a week before.  Painters were still moving among the students.  Electric outlets still needed covers.

“Dr. Steward.”  The policeman was soaked from the pounding rain that smacked against the windows.  He had a look on his face that stopped Adam’s heart.

“Dr. Steward, I’m sorry, but there’s been an accident.”

“My wife?”  The words were thick; his tongue was swollen and heavy in his mouth.

“She’s in critical condition, at Mercy General Hospital.  I can take you there right away.”

“My son?  What about my little boy?”

“I’m sorry, Dr. Steward.  You should come with me.”

 *          *          *

 Log Entry, Vitruvius, 2115-31.  Propulsion, terminated; Free Fall initiated.  Navigation Systems, normal.  Life Support Systems, normal.  Data Collection, 92% complete.  Speed:  289621.555 km/s.  ETA, LMC-2015 Singularity: 48h, 04m. Event Horizon gravitational measurement complete.   (Enclosure: Data Package, Images 190-244)  Packet prepared, 2115.02.07, 22:25.  Packet transmitted, 2115.02.07, 22:27.

 *          *          *

 He still slept, though fitfully.  It was noticeably hotter in the cabin, so much so that he perspired heavily most of the time, even though the air conditioning was cooling at maximum capacity.  The heat gave an air of unreality to his dreams, mixing memory with madness, the type of thing one might experience during a fever.  Images blinked before his eyes like a film played at slow speed, flashes in the dark behind his eyelids.  Nikki, smiling, in the sunshine.  Mikey, playing with an oversized yellow shovel and pail at the beach.  The funeral; staring at the casket that held his life, waiting for it to be lowered into the cold, hard earth.  The night sky.  The singularity, out there, waiting for him, rushing up to meet him with arms open wide.

*          *          *

Log Entry, Vitruvius, 2115-32.  Navigation Systems, no reading.  Crew Vital Signs, no reading.  Speed:  1132.010 km/s.  ETA, LMC-2015 Singularity: 24h, 17m.  Packet prepared, 2115.03.07, 22:25.  Packet transmitted, 2115.03.07, 22:27.

 *          *          *

He hadn’t anticipated the frequent loss of consciousness, the blackouts and missing time.  It was the heat, mostly, though the intense gravity that felt like it was pushing and pulling apart every atom in his body.  His senses had suffered, coming and going in no particularly discernible pattern.  He made one last report, one last transmission sent out into the blackness.  Perhaps someone would find it, someday, and think of him, if even for a moment.

He took a deep breath, as much as his compressed lungs could manage, and slid the helmet over his head.  The eye shields would only provide protection for a moment or two before the super-intense burst of light would overwhelm his retinae.  The gloves and the suit he’d already put on earlier, despite the sickening heat; a flimsy, worthless barrier that would, at most, gain him time that couldn’t even be measured by a standard clock.  Still, he had done it, had made all the preparations.  Around him the ship shuddered, coming apart at the seams as it approached the event horizon.

In the distance he felt her calling to him; saw the sunlight glinting off the strands of her golden, burning hair.  Over the sounds of the ship tearing apart he could hear Mikey’s voice:  “Burr-fly, Daddy.”  They were here, he knew; here at the intersection of death and creation, and, as he had known, they were waiting for him.

With the last strength he could muster, he pressed the button on the console that opened the cabin radiation shields.  He smiled as the photons assaulted him, as light and time and space merged with elemental finality.  Dimensions opened, unfolding before his eyes like the petals of a flower.  Time became a road and Adam walked upon it, back to his wife and son, back home.

From a distance it was a barely discernible blip, a particle suspended in the event horizon, an infinitesimally small ripple in a tiny corner of the universe.

*          *          *

Final Log Entry, Vitruvius, 2115-33.  Contact with LMC-2015 Singularity:  T-Minus 2 hours, 29 minutes.  All systems normal. Packet prepared, 2115.04.07, 23:54.  Packet transmitted, 2115.04.07, 23:56.

 

The End

 

Lynette Mejía writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror prose and poetry. Her stories have appeared in “The Absent Willow Review”, “Everyday Weirdness”, as well as the anthologies “Children of the Moon” and “Penny Dread Tales, Volume 1″. She is currently working on a master’s degree in English at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette with a concentration on Pre-Raphaelite poetry and creative writing. She is also hard at work on her first novel. She lives in Lafayette, Louisiana with her husband, three children, four cats, and one fish.

5 comments

1 Redstone Science Fiction #22 March 2012 | Redstone Science Fiction { 03.01.12 at 12:28 am }

[...] Steady State by Lynette Mejía [...]

2 Editor’s Note – March 2012 | Redstone Science Fiction { 03.01.12 at 1:34 am }

[...] SF themes, including human-robot interaction and what planet colonization might be like, while Steady State by Lynette Mejía is heartbreaking take on the SF ideas of the solitary space traveler and a black [...]

3 Laura West { 03.09.12 at 1:59 pm }

Awesome read; kept me spell-bound!

4 The Great Geek Manual » Free Fiction Round-Up: March 6, 2012 { 03.21.12 at 7:33 am }

[...] “Steady State” by Lynette Mejía at Redstone Science [...]

5 prezzey.net * Bogi Takács » Short story reviews: Jennings, Mejía { 03.29.12 at 8:04 pm }

[...] Steady State by Lynette Mejía (an American woman) [...]