It was beautiful…more beautiful than he could have imagined. Bright and warm, blue clusters of youth bobbing in arms of clean white, snaked with veins of deep red as though arteries, pumping life-giving hydrogen through the arms from a roiling golden heart. It spun like a whirlpool, ever so slowly, tearing through space like a hurricane, yet to his finite eyes it appeared motionless, hanging in space. Silent and still, it burned brighter than anything he had ever seen before. He had come so far, crossed millions of light years of empty space to bridge the gap. Now, at last, his goal was at hand.
He killed the drive, and as space returned to normal his capsule coasted gently toward its distant target, affording him a view never before enjoyed by any human. The Icarus began to accelerate once more, its segmented wings folding as though a pinwheel, channelling the effect of its compression drive until it resumed its ceaseless journey toward the distant galaxy. It was the first of its kind, and he was the first to make it to the distant stars of a galaxy not unlike our own. It had taken him so many years to reach this moment. Indeed, it had started long, long ago.
He closed his eyes and he was eleven years old again. His bedroom was a starfield; dark blue walls covered in posters, crinkled and curled at the edges after years of admiration affixed by scotch tape. His father had wanted to frame them, but that required taking them down. He could not bear to be without his glimpses into the cosmos, not for so much as an instant. With the lights out, in the dark of night, the stickers on his ceiling glowed to life; stars, planets, comets and rings. The universe in miniature, a false starfield for him to fall asleep under. Some nights he would sit at his window, in an old plastic chair he’d placed beside a very new refracting telescope. It was beautiful; white and black, gleaming, its segmented barrel pointed upward, peering out into the furthest reaches of the galaxy and beyond. For hours he would stare through the lens, his gaze thrown out into the infinite cosmic dark. A flashlight fitted with red cellophane lit the way, as he thumbed through pages of star charts and coordinates. A protractor and a pencil traced the path between stars and planets, nebulae and distant galaxies. Over time, he’d all but worn through the paper, leaving permanent scoring along the well-worn pathways to his favorite sights. One, perhaps more than others, had always captured his imagination.
It was a distant galaxy, smaller than his, yet far more interesting to his eyes. Grand design and deeply colorful, splotched with pinks and blues, gentle gold and blood red. With veins that snaked as though arteries, carrying life-giving hydrogen from its beating heart. Messier 51: the Whirlpool Galaxy.
He would spend hours staring through the lens on chilly winter nights, wrapped in a blanket as he kept his window open to afford a clearer view. He wondered what it would be like to go there. What would those distant stars look like up close? Would there be planets? Would they be inhabited? His mind would spin with questions, and in the summer months, when the movement of his Earth carried his lens out of view, pointing his gaze inward toward the roiling heart of his own galaxy, he had his posters. So many close-up images, detailed and engrossing, and he would fall asleep staring into the eye of the whirlpool, dreaming of what could be.
His father noted his curiosity, and had carefully fanned the flames. He’d all but buried him in books; first on stargazing and mapping the heavens, then on astronomy. Then, in time, there were hefty volumes on astrophysics, cosmology; galactic structure, star formation. There was so much to learn, so much to know, and he soaked up all he could as though a sponge. He read endlessly, until his eyes were raw and his nerves frayed, and even then he would often fall asleep at his desk, waking up to the harsh lamplight in his eyes and a crook in his neck, the current page stuck to his face. Often his father would wake him, walking in to find him asleep on his books. He’d just laugh, and ask what he wanted for breakfast.
And so passed the years. He flew through his life like a comet, greeting every day wide-eyed with amazement, taking joy in discovery, as all the while his father did all he could to hone that curiosity into a powerful tool; a divining rod that would guide him. As the internet dawned, placing all the world’s knowledge at his fingertips, the books had been supplemented with a computer screen, the pencil and protractor with a keyboard and mouse. The revelations in science came faster now; it was as though he’d been drinking a trickle and at last someone opened the spigot. In the summer, the days and nights would blur. Math and science would intertwine, weaving themselves into pet projects, with accidental explosions and careful launches of model rockets. All the while, the telescope had remained, and he peered through as always, escaping the trials of his teenage years by setting off each night in search of other worlds.
When at last the time had come to say goodbye to his home and his window, his beloved telescope and the father who’d shown him the stars, it hadn’t been easy, yet the choice of path had already been made. After a tearful farewell following pizza and root beer, he’d smiled as they’d parted ways, yet his father’s words as they’d parted had startled him.
“Good luck finding the Heart of God,” he’d said. Pressed for explanation, he’d replied that this was his term for M 51.
The years had continued to pass in a blur, faster now than ever. There had been more books, hours spent in front of the computer. There had been beer and girls and warm embraces in battered dorm room beds. Night and day had blurred once again, as he continued his pursuit of his distant goal. He’d done well, top of his class, course after course. Soon he caught the attention of NASA. There were more books, more subjects, training in simulators and heavy suits submerged in water…microgravity passes in planes that tore off into the sky and dove, defying the gravity that fought to hold them down. There were centrifuges and motion sickness bags, and, at last, launches. He wore his blue uniform with pride, spoke to his father often. His father, he was told, would brag to everyone he knew of his son the astronaut. He had become one of the brave few; those who shot off into space for the good of all mankind. He flew on mission after mission; the space station, the moon. He was among the first to set foot on Mars, spent a year eating food wrapped in foil or grown in a greenhouse, as he sat sealed in a can, sympathizing with his food. He spoke to his father when he could, though with the lag, it just wasn’t the same.
He met a girl. They were together on Mars. He tried to make it work. Nothing ever worked. They always wanted a home, a family. He wanted to keep going. He wanted to reach the Heart of God.
From Mars he’d returned to Earth to find his worst nightmare. A car had rushed him to the hospital in Bethesda. There were white walls and white coats, commotion and gurneys and stethoscopes and why did hospitals always have that awful smell? He’d been ushered, dizzy, into a room where his heart sank and his head spun. His father lay on a reclined bed, tubes and wires everywhere and that horrible maniacal beeping from the ECG. He looked so old, so tired, yet even in his state, pale and covered in tubes, when he saw him his father had smiled wide. He laughed and hugged him, albeit weakly. He’d called him a hero.
Over his protests and tears he’d been pulled from the room. His father needed to rest. He’d found his way to a waiting room; an awful, sterile place, with new carpet and old magazines, and the place was uncomfortably quiet. He’d listened to music, tried to steady his nerves. He’d called his friends. He’d spent hours on his phone, staring at the old pictures of M 51. As his father fought for his life down the hall, he sat staring into the Heart of God.
It was a fight his father was destined to lose. For days it had dragged on, until at last they faced the inevitable. It was dark and it had rained when the sheet was pulled. An old man in ancient robes held a cross over his father’s body as he muttered in Latin. It all seemed so insufficient. He’d lost his greatest hero, the one who’d lifted him to his shoulders so he could see the stars. The buyer of all his books, of his charts and telescope and computer. He’d lost the architect of a dream.
It was overcast the day he said goodbye. A copse of mourners dressed in black gathered beneath a stand of sheltering pines, as their family priest spoke kind words, standing over a long box of Pennsylvanian maple. Above the birds had sung, oblivious, yet their song seemed fitting somehow. They were still alive, still beautiful. The world would keep turning. Eventually, the last of the prayers had been said, a handful of soil scattered atop the casket, and that was that. The mourners had dispersed, the diggers set themselves to their grim task, and he was left alone, one last time, with the architect of a dream.
He ran his hands across the cover. It was textured, yet smooth to the touch. The fittings were wrought and dark…it seemed so natural, fitting for something that had always been meant to lay in the ground. Yet he still found it hard to accept. He shed tears, clenching his fist. Part of him wanted to hit the casket, as though it were the perfect scapegoat for all of this. Part of him wanted to scream until his lungs ached. Part of him wanted to wrap on the maple cover, plead with his father to get up, to cut it out already.
None of it would work. So he stood, silent, as the wind rustled the branches and the birds sung carelessly beneath a gray sky.
He’d considered not going back, yet he knew that, ultimately, he could not stay away. He’d gone back, redoubled his efforts. He’d worked his fingers to the bone, hardly sleeping, with a single, burning goal in mind. He couldn’t give up. He owed that much to the man who’d given him everything. It hadn’t been easy; he’d bent the laws of physics nearly to the point of breaking, pulled so many strings. There were inquiries, hefty grants, and sworn testimonies before panels where dusty bureaucrats in pallbearers’ suits condescended to him. He held three advanced degrees, and these silver-haired vultures grimaced and squawked as though he were a foolish child. There was no reason to go so far away, they told him. There was certainly no reason to send a man to do a robot’s job.
He’d worked hard, advocated. He’d taken to social media, gone on television where he’d pleaded with the public to shake off the cynicism of a jaded age, and believe as their grandparents had. He appealed to their curiosity, to their sense of pride, to all that made them human, and in time, they listened. There was an outpouring of support, and in time, he got his funding, got his antimatter, his massive spacecraft and his “go for launch”.
The journey had been long and far, it had taken him years, even with all of his trickery and warping of space and time. Yet now, at last, here he sat, his very presence standing as the fulfillment of a dream…and a treasured promise.
As the Icarus accelerated on its final approach, he smiled, tears held back by wonder. There was so much to see, so much to explore. There were millions of stars down there, millions…even billions…of worlds. There were nebulae, nurseries, clusters and stellar remnants. He wanted to see it all, to know all there was to know about this alien place and share it with all the world that lay far behind him. Of course, there would be time for that now. He had all the time in the world to explore.
At long last, he had reached the Heart of God.