When LCDP, one of the writing communities that I join, challenges me to make a short story with theme “new beginning”, I don’t know what to write. The theme is vague, yet broad, but one thing for sure is I want to make a sci-fi. A hard one, if I can. And then, what kind of sci-fi that I want? Looking up the starry sky always awes me and astronomy is intriguing. But, like the theme itself, universe is incredibly vast.
At first, I plan to write the story in a documentary style a la Ted Chiang’s Liking What You See: A Documentary. But, since it needs huge research, and I don’t have a lot of time, I decided to change it to just one simple short story about an interstellar journey and the internal conflict from doing such risky journey. You don’t know what will happen, you just keep wondering and wondering whether you’ll survive it all or not. But, that’s the beautiful of it. Doing interstellar journey means leaving your past, starting a new beginning.
People often misattribute the title of this story, God Divided by Zero, by a saying coined by Albert Einstein. While the saying is legit, it’s comedian Steven Wright that said it in 1970s. It may be a frivolous, but somehow it explains the complexity of black hole. Up until now, we still haven’t unveiled the mystery of black hole. Heck, we may not even be able to unveil it at all.
* * *
I remembered reading the creation of firmament in Bible to separate the waters above the earth and the waters below the earth. Sky was a solid dome, a concept that’s already obsolete centuries before Einstein decided to make it a little bit more complicated by saying that the shape of the universe depended on the density. I had to admit there were some unscientific concepts in Bible, yet I was still a devout Christian, something which had hitherto made my fellow astrophysicists mock me. They just didn’t understand that holding onto something—even an abstract thing like faith—made me calm and peaceful.
I remembered sitting in undergraduate General Relativity class twenty eight years ago when I was twelve years old, and Professor Papadopoulos explained the intricate equation involving black holes. I remembered seeing my classmates trying so hard to understand his words, as if he’d spoken in alien language. General Relativity was usually a boring class, I could pass it with flying colors so easily, but black holes were topic that always fascinated me. Forty years ago, Stephen Hawking once said that black holes could be the portal to the other universe. When I listened to the record of his speech and read his argument, I had an orgasm, a paroxysm of excitement that I had never felt before. There was inexplicable feeling in my guts that said black holes might hold the key answer to this universe, the quintessence of life. I somehow knew there was reason why God created black holes. It might be where throne of God dwelled. I liked when Wright said that black holes are basically God divided by zero. It sounded jocular, but there was some truth beneath it. It was no surprise when I chose black holes as the topic for my thesis and dissertation. When I was twenty years old, I had dedicated three-quarter of my life to black holes.
But, black holes were hard to observe from the earth since they didn’t reflect the light, thus observing their behavior was such a hard thing to do. For more than fifty years, people believed that V616 Mon was the closest black hole from our solar system. And when they said it was close, it was actually located more than 3,000 light years away from our solar system. Universe was incredibly vast. Even if NASA and ICARUS, the subsidiary of Tesla Motors for future space crafts, had successfully created the fastest vessel that’s able to travel at 0.8c using nanoprobe, exploring V616 Mon would take 3,750 years, and it was impossible mission, either because we were not sure there will be humanity left when we finally reached the black hole or because we hadn’t been able to cryosleep for that long duration. Unless we could find a wormhole—something that’s theoretically plausible, but there’s still no proof of its existence—journey to V616 Mon was improbable. However, I never let my wish to explore black hole flicker as I found something intriguing in Canis Major constellation, between the binary system of Sirius A & B. There was unusual spasmodic X-rays emission between the two stars. It was not conspicuous, but it fulfilled the conditions of black hole. When I was twenty two years old, I discovered X198 Sirius, the closest black hole, just 10 light years away from our solar system.
I remembered standing in front of NASA people along with CNSA, Roscosmos, and ESA to talk about X198 Sirius. It had become their priority, considering the fact how close the black hole was to our system. It was massive enough, and it still excited and scared them at the same time. They planned the immediate mission to explore X198 Sirius. I was not a fan of speaking in front of people, I was more like behind-the-curtain type of guy, but this conference was important. I convinced them to extend the mission. No one needed the exploration of a black hole, we needed someone who was brave enough to plunge into the hole and uncover the greatest mystery of the universe.
“And who will be the sane person that wants to do that?” asked Heather Lott, the director of NASA when I uttered my suggestion.
“You’re looking at him now.”
When I was thirty years old, I was bound on a spaceship to the journey that will change the humanity, along with other five brave people. The mission was called “Brave New World”, a reference to Huxley’s oeuvre, but mostly it referred to the original Shakespeare’s work from which Huxley took the title.
* * *
I remembered fighting with my then-boyfriend when I told him that I would join a mission to go to black hole. I remembered it was a nice and beautiful summer night when I said the thing. Alexei prepared for the dinner while I opened the window to let the summer breeze waft in, carrying the sweet redolence of his honey garlic pork chops out. He dropped the spatula, and the unbearable silence blanketed the room, the sound of sizzling pork was faintly heard.
“What?” he said.
“You heard what I said,” I replied calmly. He once said to me that my cool-headedness amid the chaos was the quality that he adored the most. He was much more panicky. I was like the opposite of him, and we just fit and clicked, like a matching jigsaw puzzle. But, I knew he hated my calmness that time.
“The fuck, James?” He turned off the stove and walked to me.
“You know I have dedicated twenty years of my life for black hole. I believe black hole holds the answer to universe. It’s just an opportunity that I will never pass.”
“Fuck,” Alexei swore, losing his ability to arrange a comprehensive sentence. He was a Russian-American, and when he swore, he sounded like saying “phuck”. It was cute and a music to my ear, and I couldn’t stop smiling when he said the ‘f’ word. He then pretended to get angry at me, but he would burst out a laughter as well. But, I knew that wouldn’t be the case here. “You can discuss with me first.”
“I know you won’t let me.”
“But, what the fuck does all these five years mean, James? Am I nothing for you?”
“You know you’re everything for me, but this mission will change the humanity forever. Who knows how long this earth will hold on? Searching for second home is important.”
“Assuming that black hole will lead you to the new world, just like what you’re assuming this whole time. But what if it’s not? What if it will crush you instead?”
“Then I will become singularity,” I tried to joke around, but it was wrong timing and he didn’t understand this unfunny scientific joke.
“It is suicide.” He walked back to the kitchen and brought the dinner in. During normal time, I would praise his dish just like usual, and he would bloom like roses in the balcony.
“You’re correct. It’s suicide.”
“You’re not planning to come back, are you?”
“I’m not,” I answered calmly.
I remembered that was the most awkward dinner that I ever had. I remembered sleeping on the couch that night. I remembered we broke up the next day.
* * *
I remembered meeting the rest of dauntless Brave New World crews in Johnson Space Center. They were the five smartest and bravest people on the earth. They were also fully aware that they would never see the earth again. But, if there was one common thing from them, it was there was nothing that held them to this world. Commander of the vessel was General Li Liang from CNSA. His wife and children had been killed in a deadly train accident in China and he had no reason to live in this world. He said that this mission was a fresh new start, though I felt he just wanted to escape from his life.
Josephine Dahlberg was the vice commander. She was forty-something woman, but she looked really tough. She always had sour expression, but she was actually really kind. She reminded me of my mother who had passed when I was fifteen years old.
Rachel Klein was the doctor and biologist of the crew. She was still young, a twenty-something woman, but she courageously decided to leave her life on the earth. She seemed to hide something since there was no way a pretty woman like her didn’t live a fulfilling life, but who was I to judge? I remembered her coming up to me and said, “So, you’re the guy who finds the black hole, huh?”
“You’re looking at him.”
“So, you’re astrophysicist, gay, handsome, and Christian at the same time? You don’t know how many clichés you have defied, do you?”
The question was actually kind of rude in normal circumstance, but I laughed and admired her boldness. “Yeah, you’re right.”
I remembered seeing her mischievous smile. It was unforgettable.
Javier Salas was the navigator, and he was from ESA. He also lost his family in Thailand when huge tsunami swept the beach where they resided. Since then, his spirit of life dimmed. Even so, I was sure that he would do his duty responsibly. He just seemed didn’t care anymore.
Yash Sodhi was our IT guy. He would handle the communication and all those technobabble nonsense. We didn’t talk a lot, but I knew he was excited for this mission. He said that his name would be written in the history book. His enthusiasm was contagious, and he was the cheerleader of the crews, the life of the party.
I remembered our last training, a few days before our launch. We were all gathered in this classroom with our loved ones. I saw my father, long in the tooth, looking at me. He was expressionless as he was never a master in showing-emotion department, but I knew the despondency that he tried so hard to hide. I hugged him and he hugged me back. It was long hug, and we didn’t say anything, but I could feel his fatherly love flowing through me, somehow strengthening me. It was really nice to see people who love you for the last time. I remembered not seeing Alexei.
I remembered seeing Rachel having the last kiss with a tall and handsome man whom I assumed as her boyfriend. Tears streamed down her eyes, and it was so painful to see her cry. But, the emotion was really thick in the room. I remembered seeing Yash crying in his parents’ embrace. I remembered seeing Josephine whispering something to his husband. I remembered Li Liang speaking fast in Chinese to an old woman. I remembered seeing Javier sitting alone in the corner of the room, talking to no one, looking like a dead man.
* * *
I remembered celebrating Javier’s 33rd birthday, eighteen months relative to the earth since we left. We were somewhere in Oort cloud. This was the second time that humans had reached outer solar system. The first mission was to prove that there was another gas giant beyond Pluto. The mission concluded five years ago. The second mission, Brave New World, would be probably the first mission in humanity to go beyond the Oort cloud. This lone fact itself should’ve become a breakthrough in humanity.
“Happy birthday, Javier!” Li Liang raised his glass of beer. “We still have another eight years together, so hopefully you have prosperous life ahead.”
We all laughed together. It was weird that everything seemed funny when you knew when you would die.
“Thanks, everyone.” Javier flashed his rare smile and blew the holographic candle and cut the chocolate cake that Josephine had baked.
Our spacecraft, Daedalus, father of Icarus, was made for our comfort. Imagine a luxurious spacecraft from your favorite sci-fi movies, it was much more than that. It was filled with twenty-year worth of supply and entertainment and a lot of seeds, sample tubes, and anything that we required in case we found a new habitable world. I didn’t know why they wanted to spend billions of dollar to make a vessel that was sure to be destroyed and crushed, but I understood later that this mission was also to observe the system beyond the solar system. We were monitored, and we sent terabytes of pictures to the earth in return. A while before we entered the gravity field of Sirius X198, we were supposed to release an unmanned probe, called Icarus I, which was able to last another fifty years to continue this journey. We were expendable.
I remembered sitting near the window, looking the vast universe outside. I remembered reading how ancient Greek described the color of the sky as bronze, as they associated the color with the qualities that it induced. For them, sky was probably glinty and sparkly because of the stars that scattered around. Looking at it right now, the sky looked dark green, with specks of starlight, million years away, dotted its surface like Alexei’s favorite polka dot shirt. It was beautiful, yet mesmerizing at the same time.
“What’s on your mind, Professor?” I looked up and Rachel handed me the chocolate cake. “You seem like you’re lost in thought.”
“It’s nothing actually,” I replied and bit the cake. From the corner of my eye, I could see Yash and Javier gulping steins of beer as fast as possible. “Just thinking about my ex-boyfriend.”
“Do you miss him?” I squirmed as she took a seat beside me.
“Sometimes, but he probably has found someone better than me. He’s a good cook, you know,” I said. “What about you? Do you miss yours?”
Rachel looked distantly before saying, almost like whispering, “Always, but I know we are not meant for each other.”
* * *
I remembered this mission had taken its toll, five years relative to the earth since we left. We were actually just three years older, but it seemed we had been on this vessel for centuries. It was a nice Sunday and I sat in my bed, reading the Bible, when I heard someone knocking the door.
When I opened the door, I saw Yash in a panic mode, and said, “It’s Javier.”
When we came out, the remaining crews had stood in front of Javier’s door. Li Liang banged his door, demanded him to open the door.
“It was useless,” he said, and pulled the master key card from his coat’s pocket and swiped it. Javier’s room was dark. The air smelled like combination of sweat stench and deodorant.
We all saw Javier lying in his bed, his eyes closed as if he’d been in a deep slumber. He looked so peaceful, but we knew that the body was lifeless. An empty bottle of sleeping pills was on the end table, witnessing the last moments of Javier’s life.
I remembered Josephine picking up a piece of paper from the floor, with Javier’s handwriting on it that only said, “Sorry”.
I remembered picking up Javier’s body and putting him on a body bag. We decided to take him to the storage downstairs, a failed effort to forget what we had seen.
* * *
I remembered Li Liang gathering us around in the command room, when we had entered the Canis Major constellation, a few weeks before our final destination. We just released the Icarus I to the sky. Unlike the real Icarus, Icarus I successfully flew away and it would continue our journey which would end soon.
“So, this is it, everyone, our last weeks. It has been great honor to meet courageous people like you all, and even if our life ends here, our names will always be remembered. We have rewritten the history, and I cannot be more proud of you all,” said Li Liang. He poured the last wine bottle that we had. “To humanity!”
“To humanity!” We all shouted in unison and sipped the last wine that we would ever taste.
“Hey, Professor.” Yash came up to me. “What do you think the odd of us surviving?”
“Less than 0.1 percent,” I responded, and to my surprise, Yash smiled.
“At least, it’s not zero percent.”
I smiled back. I always loved his optimism. He went back to pick up some cookies.
The math equation that black hole was actually portal to another universe actually matched. Theoretically, this mission was not based on wild idea. When people outside of the massive black hole saw you getting sucked into the hole, they would not see you getting crushed. Instead, they would see you in a slow motion and you would get dimmer and dimmer before finally disappearing into God-knows-where. But, what if you disappeared into another universe? The black hole contained infinite amount of information that required energy. According to Einstein, the dense energy and mass could curve and bend the time and space. Inside the black hole, the law of physics didn’t apply, and I suspected when the time and space were bent, theoretically it would lead you to another universe. But, there were many assumptions when I calculated this, and the first important assumption was Sirius X189 should be massive enough so we didn’t get crushed when it pulled us to its horizon.
“Is there anything you want to say?” asked Li Liang. “Any secret you guys want to say?”
“James is gay,” Yash pointed at me. His mouth was full of cookies.
“That’s not secret, Yash, all of the earth population are aware of that,” said Li Liang. “You want to say something, Rachel?”
“Well, I just want to say that these ten years—relative to the earth,” she squinted at me, “are the most incredible experience in my life. Listening to James’ boring lecture, no offense—“None taken,” I said calmly—about space and relativity and whatever. Laughing at Yash’s stupidity when he tried to drink cokes from his nose. Talking to the wise General Li Liang and getting advice from him. Cooking with Josephine and scolding Yash when he messed this space craft. And Javier, Javier, I remembered seeing his rare smile, but once he smiled, it could light up the whole town. This is not a mission for me, it is more like an exciting summer camp, if the summer lasts for ten years.”
She paused for a while, trying to pick the correct words.
“Though, I have to confess something. I am diagnosed with Huntington disease, and I don’t know when I will show the symptoms. It may be another ten years, or five years, or one year. But, it doesn’t matter anymore for me. I don’t want to be a useless person on the earth, so that’s why I decided to join this mission. I’m afraid of showing any symptom when we are en route to the destination, thus harming the mission. But, that’s not the case here. I’m still scared, but when I look at you all, I know I’m not alone and that’s enough for me. Thank you very much, everyone. Thank you.”
By the time she finished her speech, she bawled. And we all hugged each other.
I remembered seeing Rachel sitting in pantry with a glass of water in her hands twelve hours later.
“Feeling better?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she replied. “Can’t sleep?”
“No, I’m just thirsty.”
“James, are you afraid?”
“Of what? Dying? Getting crushed by black hole? Becoming singularity?” I joked, remembering the singularity joke that I had with Alexei ten years ago. To my surprise, Rachel smiled wryly.
“You, scientist people, are not funny.”
“To be honest, I am afraid. Then I realize, what scares me is actually that my existence will be erased, but then I realize how small we are in this universe. We probably pass one or two inhabited planets on our way here, we never know. We don’t know a lot about this universe, and we will never know everything. But, it proves something that there’s someone who controls this universe. You may say it God, Annunaki, or Flying Spaghetti Monster. Once again, we don’t know and we’ll never know. Thinking about that somehow makes me less afraid.”
I remembered Rachel kissing me. I remembered kissing her back.
* * *
I remembered seeing the Sirius X189 for the first time. It was majestic and beautiful.
I remembered putting the space suit on. It was heavy.
I remembered Daedalus being sucked into the black hole, we all held hands and closed our eyes.
I remembered seeing all reality blending into one, mixture of curving time and space.
I remembered seeing everything.
I remembered seeing nothing.
I remembered seeing black.
* * *
I remembered breathing in the air. I remembered seeing blinding bright light as I opened my eyes. I remembered smelling some earth-like substance. I remembered being awake under the canopy of green leaves. I remembered hearing bird-like chirps. I remembered holding Rachel’s and Yash’s hands. I remembered all of us making it.