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Part IV

“Tell COMM I said goodbye.”

“It was nice meeting you, Landon,” COMM’s voice came in loud and clear through the intercom.

Rick blared: “Captain Cochner, I detect an interference with communication.”

“Let it go, Rick. COMM, it was nice meeting you, too. Nicest robot I ever met.”

“He prefers companion,” Peter said under his breath.

Cochner laughed. “I’m sorry, COMM. Nicest companion I ever met.”

“Now it’s all for nothing,” COMM retorted jokingly.

They both chuckled. “Is your wife going to be okay?”

Peter waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t worry about her. She’s the most understanding woman I’ve ever met.”

“She’s beautiful.”

“Damn right she is. Besides, I have an eternity to help her understand.”

“Right.” A heavy silence fell between them. “Well, thank you, Peter.”

Peter shook his hand one last time. “Good luck, Landon. Remember, I’ll still be here.”

He climbed out of the Perseverance and jogged back to the jetsor. Cochner closed the door, buckled in, and prepared for take off. Peter stayed outside to watch the show. It was the most spectacular thing he had ever seen in his entire existence. The ground rumbled beneath his feet, sending powerful vibrations into his heart. As the ship became smaller and smaller in the sky, until it disappeared altogether, a tear traced Peter’s cheek. It was the first tear he had shed since his childhood. At a certain age, immortals were less and less able to cry. It was an anomaly not yet explained. Gazing upward, trying to imaging his grandfather navigating through the black and starry universe, he waved goodbye.

***

The two months travel to the Red Sea was like solitary confinement. Cochner pined for at least a “companion” like COMM to converse with, even if one person was always right.

In the seemingly endless time, he tested his calculations to see where he went wrong the first time. It was a tortuous struggles always ending with him crumpling up the paper and starting over. Part of it (the prideful part of it) was that he didn’t want to find out where he went wrong. At the end of those two months, he hoped they weren’t two months wasted.

Moses parted the Red Sea before him. Three planets bordered him on his left and three on the other side. Straight ahead was either his second chance or his ruination.

Where a bright star once burned, a black, insidious stain interrupted all peace. It took everything in him to hold onto some shred of optimism. Unfortunately, black was not the color of hope. It was the color of death, of the unknown, of nothing. Cochner looked into that back space and witnessed oblivion. It was a void in space. It was a natural yet terrifying chaos. Cochner kept a straight course toward it, accelerating.

He fished something out of the breath pocket of his suit. It was a picture of Leigh and Parker. It was the year before Leigh died in a malfunctioned space simulation. Parker was thirteen when the picture was taken. They were still a family. Landon could still burry his face in Leigh’s coiled almond hair and breathe in her mint shampoo. It took some effort, but Landon could still pick Parker up in the pool and catapult him through the air. It was their last year as a family. In 2102, when Cochner left earth, he hugged his son goodbye and thought of Leigh. He prayed that she and God would look down on his son while he was gone. The picture bore tranquility in spite of the havoc before him. He looked out the window. The ship began to whine and pop as the gravity of the hole pulled it in.

“See you soon, son,” he said to the picture before putting it back in his pocket (as far as he knew, he may be on his way to see Leigh, instead). He put his helmet on, locked it, and accelerated.

There it was, the obscure mass of chaos pulling Cochner closer and closer into its hungry, cavernous mouth. If he changed his mind now, it was too late. It had him in its snare. All he could do now was wait and see where it took him.

Wait and see.

The hardest part was always waiting, but he didn’t have to wait much longer. In one blink, Cochner was in the eye of the black storm. The ship rocked and tottered like a falling top. He gripped the sides of his chair and shut his eyes.

Within seconds that meant years on earth, the Perseverance disappeared like a light.

The only way he could explain any of it to himself was that he was outside of time. It must have been the fifth or the sixth or the seventh dimension. A hunk of metal floated by the ship. S-21016 was visible on the side. Who knows how long it had been in here or if those inside were still alive. It might have arrived minutes or decades ago. Cochner had to fend for himself.

The ship stopped shaking and quieted down after what felt like a millennium. It helped Cochner catch his breath and gain the courage to unbuckle himself. Gravity didn’t exist here. His body floated away from the chair. He pulled himself toward a window and looked out. It was black and only black, like a box or an empty room, though he knew space did not exist here. Except, when he loooked down (but, of course, it wasn’t down, because there was no left or right or up; no direction at all), there was a phosphorescent line. Colors travelled from end to end (of course, he couldn’t see where it ended or began), blending together and separating. He realized it was the physical representation of time. Linear time.

Time was too long to see an end or begin, but Cochner knew that there was a start and there was a finish. Right now he was outside of time, in a dimension that might not be literally how he was seeing it right now, but it was how his mind processed it. There was no other way to see it but as a black space where time nor gravity nor things existed. Looking at that line, he realized that he had the opportunity to choose where to go (or when, for that matter).

Knowing which was the exact spot on that line, where he chose couldn’t be left up to his best guess. Then again, he didn’t trust his calculations to do the job, nor did he have the time to attempt them. In fact, the choice went beyond calculations. No matter what the choice, he had to decide now, or else he wold be too afraid.

It never occurred to him how much he was afraid of the dark. It never occurred to him how much stars calmed him. That line––time––was the only illuminating subject here, save for the lights inside the ship. Without any of them, he would be in utter darkness, with nothing to guide him. If it wasn’t for that line, the word “guide” would hold no meaning here.

Cochner strapped himself back into his chair and moved the ship closer to the line. The brightness of it should have blinded him, but he could look directly into it and not feel like his eyes were being cooked well-done in his skull.

“Where to go…where to go…” he murmured to himself.

As it turned out, he didn’t have all of the time in the world. He spotted one end of the bright line as he got closer to it. It didn’t take long for him to realize that that end was moving. Although this dimension was outside of time, the line wasn’t. Cochner also quickly figured out that if time moved forward, that was exactly what it would be doing, not ebbing away like a burning wick that lead to a bomb. The clock was ticking for Cochner, and he wasn’t good under pressure.

God was giving him with the test of his life. The reason why S-21016 was still here was probably because they ran out of time; the line retracted too fast and they couldn’t keep up with it. That was just one theory. Cochner noticed that the line was, indeed, moving fast, as if the longer he took to speculate, the quicker it disappeared. (Who knew when it would appear again, if ever?) There was no time to calculate, to formulate an equation then execute it. All he had was right now.

As if the Perseverance knew this, it began to shake again. In spite of being in a dimension beyond time, Cochner was not, and neither was the dying star outside of this black hole. As soon as the star finished collapsing––possibly taking the Red Sea with it first––Cochner would be gone, too. That line would be so far gone and then no light would illuminate his cold death.

A white light flashed strongly, snapping him out of his own trapping thoughts. It flashed agin. Cochner saw that the white light remained in the same spot on the line, like a lighthouse in the dead of night.

That was it. That was the point in time that Cochner needed to go. The light beckoned him, assured him. He used all of the Perseverance’s remaining energy, power, and fuel. The end of the line didn’t slow for a second, erasing the past and Cochner’s opportunity for a second chance.

“Captain Cochner,” Rick called, “I advise against using all of the fuel so quickly. You need to conserve––”

“Shut up, damnit.” Sweat floated away from his face and froze into crystalized sodium tears.

The white light flashed brighter and faster as he sped toward it. Panic tried to freeze Cochner’s navigating hands but he persisted. Suddenly, the light blinded him. Tiles on the ship’s shell peeled off as the intensity increased. To Cochner’s right, the end of the line––the end linear time––raced to beat him. He opened his mouth to let out a scream and then––

***

“Dad?”

“What is it?”

“How come you’re not going with them?”

The projector-tel was broadcasting one of the most important space expeditions in all of human history. His son had asked him this same question before, but he never managed to give a good enough answer.

“Didn’t you organize the mission?” his son asked. He had his old man’s dark green eyes. “Wasn’t it you who discovered the galaxy they’re going to?”

“The planet, too.”

“The how come you’re not going?”

“Parker,” Landon let out, “you’re just like your mother. You ask so many questions.”

“I just want to know.”

Landon gazed out the sliding screen door. He cherished his rich green lawn. It was due for a fresh mow. He’d get to it tomorrow, or make Parker do it if he didn’t stop asking questions.

He placed a hand on his son’s dark head. “I named it after mom.”

“The planet?”

He nodded, grinning slightly. “It’s supposed to be beautiful.”

“Don’t you wish you were going there?”

He intertwined his fingers behind his head. “Not really,” he answered honestly.

“Why not?”

The Perseverance––the greatest spacecraft model to date that he helped design––lifted off without an explosion of fire. It ascended gracefully out of the atmosphere.

“Something told me that I shouldn’t go. That this mission was going to take me away for a lot longer than I anticipated.”

“What do you mean, dad?”

“I’m not meant to go.” It was more than that. He left Galactic as soon as he finsished his part in designing the Perseverance. “If I left you, who would take care of you?”

“I can take care of myself.”

Landon choked on laughter. “That’s coming from the teenager who burns toast better than anyone else I know.”

He didn’t leave so much as he was fired after he tried to cancel the entire mission. It started with the dreams he had about the other planet. Dreams that seemed a lot more like memories than anything. Dreams he believed were prophecies of what would happen on this mission if he went…if anyone went. Dreams about his crew dying. Dreams about his son letting him go because he had no choice but to. Yes, overpopulation was a problem, just not one that concerned Landon very much. He knew there was a solution more natural than risking four people’s lives to find a new home. He gazed out at the lawn again, studying the fort in the corner of the backyard that resembled the Perseverance exactly. He didn’t remember where he found it. The ship had been back there for as long as he could remember. So many unfamiliar things were familiar to him as time went on, like he lived in a reality of perpetual déjà vu.

One week ago he received an anonymous message from a software named Retrorsum. The message read: “Hello, Landon.” He replied: “Hi.” The message he received was dated from over one-hundred-and-fifty years in the future. That couldn’t be possible, because time travel was scarcely becoming a reality in 2102. However, he conversed with this future-being who called himself Peter. From this future-being, Landon learned enough to know that this mission was more than unnecessary––it was nonsensical.

He turned to Parker, whose attention poured into the projector-tel. The disappointment that his father wasn’t aboard the Perseverance was palpable. His decision was outside of time. Most of the time he believed he had made the decision outside of time.

“I can’t explain why,” Landon told him, “but I know I made the right decision, Parker. I need you to accept that. This might be the last expedition in space for a long time, and I can’t risk being separated from you.”

“How do you know that it might be the last expedition for along time?”

“I don’t know.”

The answer wasn’t satisfactory to Parker, but Landon knew his son would come around eventually. He was disapointed today but a leading physicist tomorrow. After Landon helped raise his grandson and died, Parker following him awhile after, Peter Cochner revived space travel. Grandson and grandfather always had an inexplainable mutual understanding. Landon always told him, “If you love something, do it for as long as you can.”

Peter had eternity.


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