In a different location of the galaxy, Joram Anders studied his new surroundings that appeared perfectly earthlike. The sky was blue, the grass green, the collection of oak, maple, and willow trees rustled in the gentle breeze just as they did on Earth, and the strong golden Sun beamed its warmth in approval of the setting. Yet, for Joram, it felt as though he were on another planet. Motionless, he looked slowly to his left and then to his right. He saw a vast number of human-like figures traveling on brick-lined pathways in all different directions, each arrayed in a varying degree of fashion and quality of grooming. The sound of cars on nearby streets and an occasional bird singing high in the treetops confirmed that, indeed, Joram had not been mysteriously transported to another planet.
Yet it all seemed so dreamlike, so surreal. And perhaps it should! As far back as Joram could remember, he had dreamed of the day he would stand in front of the building he had seen in hypergraphic photos from the moment it was dedicated. That was eight years ago—just two weeks after his thirteenth birthday. For several minutes, Joram kept reading the words “Carlton H. Zimmer Planetarium” and each time he felt his heart race with excitement, anticipation, and anxiety. For a while now, he had stood in a statuesque manner, moving just enough to occasionally twist his arm for a glance at his watch. In just a few minutes now, the farm boy from Wichita, Kansas would begin his astronomy studies as a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology.
Naturally, he was intimidated to enter the planetarium for his first class of the term, where his boyhood idol and legendary astrophysicist, Carlton Zimmer, would instruct Astrophysics 21: Galaxies & Cosmology. Joram took a deep breath and approached the building slowly while other students passed by, paying no attention to this nervous newcomer. With one last glance of his watch, he grabbed the door handle. While he was seven minutes early to enter the building, this was by design. He wanted to take in the whole setting by stationing himself in the middle of the arena, partly so he could be lost in the crowd, but mostly, because he wanted the perspective of being at the nucleus of this great building.
With the door closing behind him, he paused to allow his eyes to adjust to the darkness. The room was dimly lit from recessed lighting that circled the room shining directly up onto the ceiling, which was as black as any midnight Joram had experienced back on the farm in Kansas. The front of the room was brightly arrayed from a string of track lighting lining the wall behind the lectern. Lights along the floor helped Joram find his way down the red carpeted stairs towards the center of the room. Making his way into an aisle marked with the letter “I”, Joram slid down to the middle seat. Surprisingly comfortable, he brushed his hand against the velvet upholstery, and reclined almost all the way to the floor. For the first time all day, his anxiety gave way to a deep soothing sigh.
Instantly, he was transported back to the family farm where he would spend hours at night every summer evening, laying on a blanket near the darkest side of the house. In the stillness of his Kansas farm and with a pair of well-worn Star Goggles, he could see the faintest of stars viewable under the thick atmosphere of the Earth.
“Joram,” his mother would call out from a window, “it’s nearly midnight, Son. Come on in outta this night air and get you some rest. You know that your Pa needs your help with the chores in the morning.”
“Just a few more minutes, Mom. Barnard's Star is about to set.”
“Barnyard Farm! What are you talking about, anyway?”
“Not Barnyard Farm, Mom,” Joram said with an exasperated tone. “It’s Barnard’s St—oh, never mind. Just five more minutes, Mom. I Promise.” Joram allowed his mind to depart Earth one last time to wander among the stars and particularly to Barnard’s Star. While Proxima Centauri is the closest star to our solar system, it is never visible from Kansas. He would love to see Proxima Centauri some day, although he knew that the difference between 4.2 light years and 6.0 light years didn’t really mean much. Both are invisible to the naked eye from Earth, so both would require the assistance of the Star Goggles. Yet Proxima Centauri was his star—the one he dreamt about, the one he longed to see with his own eyes.
His fascination with Proxima Centauri centered on his dream to visit the stars. While he eagerly attended to all of the news regarding the scientists who were racing to develop the first interstellar shuttle, nobody had produced anything that would approach the velocity required to travel to other star systems. Should interstellar travel ever be feasible, he would have to think that the Proxima Centauri star system would be among the first targets for exploration.
Hearing the window fly open again, Joram absently shouted out, “Just two more minutes, Mom.”
An audible huff and the shutting of the window left him to his perfect silence one last time, as he continued to gaze at Barnard’s Star, trying to imagine in his finite mind how far 6.0 light years really is.
A sudden burst of light brought Joram back to reality. Restoring his chair to its upright position, he looked behind him as students began to enter the planetarium. Embarrassed to be seen reclining in his first grad school classroom, he scrambled to raise the seat back up. Fumbling for the wooden desktop in the right armrest of his seat he began to empty the contents of his backpack, comprising just two small electronic items. The first was his brand new Digital Note Tablet, currently empty of any entries, but would soon be put through the paces of digital note-taking. The second item was his iText Reader. This device had already been slightly worn, evidence of his early perusal of the texts which his professors had assigned to him for his coursework this term. Most professors transmit books during class, since each classroom is equipped with its own private Wireless Services Access Point, so there was no need for Joram to have downloaded them over the Internet first. But, his love of science—and particularly astronomy— drove him to download all of his textbooks from the university intranet the moment they were announced to the students.
Joram, however, knew that it was more survival than ambition that generated this behavior. To come all the way from a dairy farm on the plains of the Midwest through Wichita State University to this prestigious institution in Southern California would require all of his abilities. He was now placed in an atmosphere where intellect and knowledge were practically innate. He had come from an insufficiently educated farm family, so he was not oblivious to the challenge that would face him in this highly competitive setting.
“I hear these seats are really comfortable,” interrupted a young lady as she took a seat next to Joram.
“Yeah, they are,” Joram blushed slightly as he looked up at his classmate. The blush wasn’t so much intended for the attractive brunette with emerald green eyes who had engaged him in conversation as it was for his state of relaxation that some must have noticed as they entered the room earlier. Joram had hoped that the lighting would have still been too dim to notice, and that the newcomers’ eyes would have not had enough time to adjust to the darkness yet.
“Have you taken a class in the planetarium before?” the brunette asked.
“No,” admitted Joram. “Seeing how I arrived a couple of minutes early, I thought I’d give it a try. Let’s just say that it’s more comfortable than anything in my apartment.”
“Tell me about it. What isn’t lumpy at my place is either broken down or completely missing its upholstery. I’m Kather Mirabelle, but my friends call me Kath.” Kath extended her hand, which Joram accepted graciously.
“I’m Joram. Joram Anders.” Joram was grateful for the hospitality and acquaintance. Since arriving at CalTech a few days earlier, Joram had had little opportunity to meet any of his new Southern California neighbors.
“Nice to meet you, Joram,” Kath said cheerfully. “What year are you?”
“First year grad student,” replied Joram. It still seemed amazing to hear himself say it. The first college graduate of his family, many back home found Joram’s penchant for education, and particularly science difficult to grasp.
“Really! So am I!” said Kath. “Are you in the astronomy department, then?”
“Yes,” answered Joram. “And you?”
“Naturally. My undergraduate degree was in meteorology,” Kath responded, “but I’ve always thought astronomy to be fascinating.”
“Have you heard anything about Professor Zimmer”, Joram inquired of his companion.
Kather cocked her head in surprise, and replied, “Well, yes. He’s the most famous astrophysicist in the world.”
“Well, yeah,” Anders smiled slightly at his poorly phrased question, “but what I meant was, do you know anything about him as a profess—”.
Joram’s words were cut short as he noticed an immediate quieting of the chatter throughout the room. A door had opened in the front of the room, which Joram had not previously noticed. Through the opening, a tall man in his sixties with graying hair strode through confidently and quickly. He was attired conservatively with dark gray slacks, white shirt, navy blue striped tie, and black leather shoes. Shutting the door behind him, he lunged for the rostrum in the center of the stage and tapped on the microphone a couple of times. Responding readily to the test, the man cleared his throat and introduced himself.
“Good afternoon. My name is Carlton Zimmer and it is my good fortune to have an opportunity to instruct you in this astronomy class this term.” His voice was raspy, yet confident. He articulated smoothly delivering his words with a pleasant tone that matched a warm smile. With a full head of hair, more white than gray, Zimmer showed signs of his age. Joram sensed that the dark rings around his eyes indicated both a lack of sleep and an abundance of stress. Joram wasn’t surprised to make this observation, as he had already presupposed that the successes of a world-renowned scientist would not come without significant workloads.
Joram’s heart started racing again. Standing just thirty feet before him was a man he instantly recognized. How many times had he seen his picture next to an article in the astronomy journals he kept up with on the Internet? How many times had he seen him interviewed on the Science Channel or other television programs honoring him for his prolific career? While he did appear taller in person, and his voice certainly deeper than it did on TV, he nevertheless recognized him almost as well as he would recognize his own father.
“Many of you have varying degrees of interest in this subject,” Zimmer continued as he pierced the room with an intense glare, as if he were determining a priori those who would succeed—or fail—in his class. “Some of you are undergraduates with a minor interest in astronomy. Others are first year grad students trying to make a life out of this. Others simply needed the elective, and the time slot just happened to fit your schedule. But whatever your motives are for being here, my job is to make sure that it is worth your time and effort.
“While these great facilities make it possible to obtain a varied degree of instruction,” the Professor gestured to the vast dome overhead with his right hand, “I hope that your expectations are such that you are not just here to enjoy a good light show. While we will certainly have opportunity to fire up the sky overhead, I find that the seats are too comfortable to allow for much real learning to occur when they are reclined.”
Professor Zimmer then proceeded to announce some important policies which each student must respect. He made clear that the doors would be locked by five minutes after the beginning of class each day, in order to avoid any “disturbances in the force” of the educational process. The attempt at humor was not a success, simply because he often forgot that his students, so far removed from his generation, usually didn’t recognize obscure references to the rather ancient pop culture with which he was at least familiar through his studies of all things science fact and fiction. He reiterated, just as the signs did outside each entrance that while the room may have the appearance of a movie theater, food and beverage were strictly prohibited. He allowed the students to then synchronize their Readers with the selected readings of the class. Everybody except Joram rifled through their backpacks and extracted their iText Readers.
As Kath began her download, she raised her brow slightly and whispered in Joram’s direction, “Aren’t you going to download the texts?”
Smiling, Joram responded, “I downloaded it—” Refusing to appear too zealous, Joram paused in order to replace the phrase ‘three months ago’ with “—before the semester started.”
Turning his head back towards the front of the room, he thought he noticed the professor staring at him with a slight frown on his face. Joram’s stomach sank. What a lousy first impression to make on the man he most admired. While the noise of backpack zippers would’ve certainly drowned out the exchange between the two new friends, he was sure that Zimmer had noticed the verbal exchange between the two classmates. While he had hoped that sitting in the center of the room would make him less noticeable, the opposite had actually occurred, because he was now sitting right in front of the professor at his eye level.
Once the room had been restored to its previous state of attentiveness, Professor Zimmer continued.
“By way of introduction to our study this semester, who can tell me why the study of astronomy is important in our society today?” This was a loaded and sensitive question to ask, for in this society, there was a decreasing public opinion of the field. Professor Zimmer knew as well as anybody that many murmurings were taking place in Washington D.C. regarding federal funding of astronomy programs. “We should keep our feet on the ground and worry about the problems that are right next door, instead of those that are thousands of light years away,” was a common call among some aspiring politicians.
As Zimmer had expected, there was no response from anybody in the class. “Now surely some of you are here, because you believe there is merit to the field of astronomy. Why should we study astronomy?”
Joram saw a rather tentative hand slowly rise down in the front, right side of the room. Professor Zimmer, clipping a lapel microphone to his tie, ventured towards the student.
“What is your name, young man?” asked Professor Zimmer.
“Farrem Tanner,” answered the young man.
“Well, Mr. Tanner,” continued the professor, with a smile, “I’m glad to see there is somebody in my class who is here for a good reason, someone who believes there is some value to this field of study. Tell me. Why should we study astronomy?”
“Well, sir,” Farrem began, “It gives us a better understanding of ourselves and our position in the universe when we study astronomy.”
“Well said, Mr. Tanner.” Zimmer nodded his approval and warmly congratulated his student for his answer and his courage to be the first to speak up on a controversial subject. “We can’t gain a comprehensive understanding of the physics which rules our world, if we limit our field of vision to the Earth. A study of geology can teach us much about the world we live in, but a study of astronomy can teach us much more about the universe we live in, can’t it?”
Zimmer returned to the center of the room, and leaned against the lectern in an attempt to provide a more casual feel and thereby encourage more participation. “Anybody else care to continue on this course of discussion?”
Another answer came from somebody sitting a couple of rows behind Joram. “Professor, there are tangible benefits as well. By understanding the forces in the universe, we are able to place satellites into orbit, which improve our quality of life.”
“Do you mean,” prodded Professor Zimmer, “that you are able to get thousands of TV stations from around the world in your dormitory lounge?”
A few laughs indicated that the class was relaxing.
“No, sir,” corrected the student. “I’m thinking about the safety of airlines that use the advanced Precision Global Positioning System and weather warning satellites to avoid collisions and hazards.”
“Very well,” nodded the professor. “Please accept my apologies for a premature judgment of your thoughts, Mr…”
“Johnson. Marrett Johnson.”
“Thank you, Mr. Johnson for your response.”
With yet another hand, Professor Zimmer acknowledged that he could see deep into the back of the arena, in spite of the track lighting which shined brightly onto the professor.
“Yes, the young lady in the back,” professor Zimmer craned and gestured to the back row.
“Professor, my name is Cintera Fernandez, and I have a relative who enjoys the benefit of occasional zero-gravity therapy sessions as a relief from severe rheumatoid arthritis.”
“That’s marvelous, isn’t it, Miss Fernandez?” began the professor. “I was thrilled to see the cost of low-orbit travel become reasonable enough in the last couple of decades to allow the passenger airline industry to venture above the atmosphere so readily. With the low-cost of extra-atmospheric travel, doctors are able to prescribe these therapy sessions that you mention. Thank you, Miss Fernandez.”
Zimmer was growing bored with all of the trite answers and decided to shift direction a little “But, class, I fail to see why any of these excuses gives us any reason to consider galaxies which reside many, many light years away from us. And yet, we’re going to be doing just that in this classroom this year. What benefits will you as a student receive by such a study?”
For the first time, Zimmer saw his students reaching deep into their intellect, straining for the answer. He was pleased with the effective result of a few moments of silence.
“Let me ask what I hope to be an easier question.” Zimmer spoke more quietly now. He had the attention of his students, but he wanted it to be more focused. “When you look at the night sky with the naked eye, you can see a few thousand stars.” He paused. “That is… when you are not standing in Pasadena, California,” Zimmer paused for the laughter to subside, “but rather on Palomar Mountain, where our university’s observatory is located just a few hours away from here, you can indeed see a few thousand stars with the naked eye. Which of these stars is closest to our own Sun?”
Joram’s heart gave a leap. Carlton Zimmer was now asking a question about his star! Joram looked around, but no hands went up to indicate knowledge of that. Come on! This was a bright group of people, and not one of them could answer that question? Maybe they were all still being too timid on the first day of class. Joram tried to keep his hand from shaking nervously as he projected it slowly into the air.
“Yes, sir,” acknowledged the professor without any apparent recollection of his earlier disapproval of the interlude between Joram and Kath. “Please tell us, if you will, the star which is closest in proximity to our own Sun.”
“That would be Proxima Centauri, Sir.” answered Joram confidently.
“That would be correct,” approved the professor. “What is your name, young man?”
“Joram Anders, sir.”
At this, the professor appeared to hesitate for just a moment, as if straining to remember why that name should sound so familiar to him. It came to him.
“Ah, yes,” interjected Professor Zimmer, “Joram Anders... from Kansas, is it?”
Joram gave a start. How on earth did one of the world’s most renowned astrophysicists know this obscure farm boy from Wichita? As if reading his mind, the professor proceeded. “Sorry, Mr. Anders, if I have concerned you by knowing more about you than you would have expected. I do assure you that I am just an astronomer, and not also a mind-reading astrologer.” Roars of laughter ensued.
“After returning from a summer in South America, I had been reviewing all of the first-year graduate applications just last week, and I happened to remember your name, because I don’t believe I’ve had the honor of instructing anyone from Kansas before, especially one with such amazing credentials with which you come to this institution.”
It was always the way Professor Zimmer treated others. He was naturally complimentary, and in spite of being one of the world’s greatest intellects was never condescending. Few ever doubted his intentions, for in the well-established career and character which he had developed, there was never any reason why he should ever have to ingratiate himself to anyone. And certainly not to a first-year graduate student from Kansas.
Before Joram had an opportunity to fumble for a response to this somewhat embarrassing recognition, the professor continued, “Mr. Anders, I suppose that you will be able to tell me the distance from our own Sun to Proxima Centauri.”
“4.2 light years, Sir.”
Zimmer whistled lowly through his lips. “So that means that if I could travel at the speed of light from Earth, I would arrive at the nearest of these thousands of stars in just 4.2 years?”
“Naturally,” responded Joram somewhat conversationally now.
The professor thought for a moment. “Are there any rest stops along the way?” More laughter.
“Mr. Anders,” implored the professor. “Why should I care about Proxima Centauri, if I could never practically travel there to see it?”
“Sir, there is much we can and have learned from the stars without having to travel to them,” responded Joram. “Besides, I thought the race was on to discover the means of interstellar travel.”
“Are you referring to all of the warp drive nonsense that the media is so colorfully pitching these days?” Professor Zimmer stared inquisitively at Joram.
Slowly responding to the professor’s question, Joram refused to commit an opinion on the matter, although he was certainly very opinionated and excited at the hopes for interstellar travel. “I’m not sure about the details or the validity of all of these projects, Professor. But it does seem like every scientist in the country is in hot pursuit of interstellar travel these days. Somebody must be thinking that it’s possible.” Joram paused to weigh his next words, but emboldened by the excitement of the discussion, he breached his better judgment anyway. “What do you think of interstellar travel, Professor?”
Before Zimmer could begin to formulate a response to that question, the door in the back of the room opened up, allowing a flood of sunlight to penetrate the room. Every student looked back to see a man enter the room. Joram squinted at the silhouette but didn’t recognize the man. He did suspect that he was another professor, judging by the whiteness of his hair—at least that little bit which remained on the sides of his rather bald pate—not to mention the fact that the conservative style of his attire was similar to that of Professor Zimmer. The man and Professor Zimmer exchanged nods and smiles knowingly while the man allowed the door to shut. He remained standing along the back wall, while the students returned to their previous postures.
“Let me answer that question in the following way, Mr. Anders,” began the professor. “During your course of investigation into the astronomy program here, you may have become aware of a little research project of mine involving the possibility of parallel star systems. Do you suspect that I am engaged in this activity, because of an overwhelming stack of evidence suggesting that parallel universes do indeed exist?”
The professor shook his head, and then appearing to address the man in the back of the room, he continued in a more animated manner of hand gestures and body language. “Contrary to popular opinion, living a life of science isn’t always about facts and evidence. Many very important discoveries have been made more from the hunch and imagination of the scientist than the data with which he is presented.”
His attention returned to Joram as he took two steps towards him. “Mr. Anders. Let me answer your question with a question. Do you think I would be engaged in such a research project, if I believed that interstellar travel would prove to be impossible? Do you think I would want to make a discovery of a so-called parallel solar system, and then not be able to travel there to study that star and its orbiting bodies?”
Joram’s question was answered.
At this, the professor paused for a few seconds, and the campus chime was heard ringing from some distant point. Joram looked at his watch. What? Could the entire 50-minute lecture be over already? Why, certainly no more than five or ten minutes had elapsed.
But he was wrong, and he knew it. Along with the rustle of items being haphazardly returned to backpacks and the hands of his analog wrist watch, Joram knew that his first lecture from Professor Carlton H. Zimmer had officially adjourned.
Professor Zimmer waited in the front of the room while all of his astronomy students left the planetarium. After the last one exited the room, he made his way up the stairs of the theater while the man in the back of the room met him half way down.
The man greeted Professor Zimmer warmly with a firm handshake. “Carlton, nice to see you. How was the trip?”
“Oh, it was fine, Ballard,” answered the professor. “But, it’s good to be back home.”
“I’ll be eager to see your official report, Carlton, but how about a preview. Any news from Chile?”
“Well, it was a busy summer down there for us, but we continued to narrow down our list of target stars in the South. We had about 800,000 stars when we started this summer, and have narrowed that list down to just under a half million. But that’s still too many to start targeting any data collection efforts using the Kepler3 telescope. I do believe, however that we have a darned good team assembled down there to continue their work and should whittle that list down by 50% before I return next summer.”
At this, Zimmer thought he’d detected a slight frown from his longtime friend and Dean of Astronomy at the University. “Ballard, you know that this is the proverbial needle in the haystack. These things don’t conclude overnight.”
“If there is a needle, Carlton,” countered Ballard with an apparent allusion to his disbelief in Zimmer’s research project.
Changing the subject, Professor Zimmer offered, “Hey, how is your son doing on the Star Transport team at the Jet Propulsion Lab?”
“I just had dinner with him over the weekend. He’s pretty stressed right now.” Ballard gladly accepted the change of direction. “He mentioned a pretty big design review coming up, and he believes that his team will get highly scrutinized this time. Although, I must say, if your research is the needle in the haystack, then I think this interstellar transportation stuff is the Holy Grail. Yes, I know… the theories abundantly support the concept of travel at the speed of light, and yet, I have a hard time swallowing the practicality of such a maneuver.”
“I believe you may have heard a similar doubt from one of the grad students just a few moments ago,” smiled Zimmer.
“Yes,” chuckled Ballard with a playful wink. “It seems you are having a harder time winning converts to your cause these days, Carlton. These kids these days come in here with their heads the size of Betelgeuse. In the old days, they used to come in respecting their professors. Now, they enter thinking they know more. But, just as will be the case of Betelgeuse, their education will explode like a supernova if they are not careful.”
“Do you know who that student was?” asked Zimmer impatiently.
Ballard looked back at the door, as if he might still be able to catch a glimpse of the student walking away from the room. “No, I only saw him from the back. Should I know him?”
“That was Anders.” Carlton lowered his voice as if worried that somebody, perhaps Joram himself, would overhear the conversation.
Ballard’s look turned serious. “You mean, Joram Anders?”
“The kid from Kansas?”
“The same kid who had the highest astronomy entrance exam of any entering grad student in the last decade?”
A final nod convinced Ballard that Joram Anders was indeed a real person, and not just a figment of his imagination. He’d always had a very hard time believing the results on Joram’s exam.
“Well then, I’ll be very interested in getting to know this young man better.”
“Me too!” exclaimed Professor Zimmer.
Looking at his watch, Ballard noted, “Gotta run. I have an appointment with the NASA folks in a little bit. Hey, I have a free hour this afternoon at four o’clock. Can you meet me at my office? There is a lot to catch up on, and I want to hear about the new telescope down at Cerro Tololo.”
Carlton looked at his watch. “Sure, I’ll stop by at four.”
Kath and Joram emerged from the planetarium squinting from the bright Sun that was just starting to lower in the sky. He shielded his eyes with his hands, while she fumbled around her backpack searching for her sunglasses.
“Well,” Kath said casually as she put on the dark sunglasses. “It looks like my study partner selection instincts have served me well yet once again.”
“What do you mean?” Joram asked while twisting his head to see her face. It was as much an attempt to look away from the blinding Sun as it was to interpret the expression on her face.
“Let’s see,” Kath said playfully, and then lowered her voice. “Such amazing credentials you have, Mr. Joram Anders, from Kansas.” Returning to her normal voice, she explained, “I seem to recall Zimmer saying something of that nature, didn’t he?”
Joram blushed. “I would hardly consider myself the teacher’s pet just yet. And just look at my note tablet. It’s still perfectly blank!” Joram was appalled and disappointed in his lack of note-taking on the first day of class. “By the way, did you see any look on his face while we were talking at the beginning of class?”
“No,” she said honestly. She was among the rest of the students focused on synchronizing the course textbooks to their Readers at the time that Joram had spotted Zimmer looking their way.
“So, you’re from Kansas,” Kath changed the subject conversationally. “I’ve never been there.”
“Not surprising,” Joram admitted. “There’s not a whole lot there, you know. Just miles and miles of farmland.”
“Did you grow up on a farm?” asked Kath.
“Yeah. My father is a dairy farmer.”
“He must be so proud of you, coming here to CalTech,” Kath boasted.
“Yes, but I’m not sure that I convinced him that CalTech is any better than Wichita State,” Joram smiled upon recollecting his conversations with his father about why Joram had to go so far away.
“He kept asking me, ‘Are there any more stars over Southern California than there are here over the farm?’”
Joram enjoyed sharing the laugh with Kath as they strolled along the winding paths and well-manicured landscape of the university. Conversation came naturally to the new friends, and Joram found out much about the Southern California native, who seemed to have many interests as well as the energy to keep up with them all. She was a regular at the gym early in the mornings, unless the conditions were just right to go surfing. As an avid tennis buff, she placed fifth in a state-wide tournament in high school. Her father was a chemical engineer who spent most of his career working on alternative energy sources. She was not ashamed to admit that she was proud of his accomplishments and was quick to mention how he had helped transition the world away from its addiction to non-renewable sources of energy.
In turn, Kath was amazed to discovery that Joram had a deep love for astronomy and had amassed quite a wealth of knowledge in the field. She began to understand that it was more than just the Kansas connection that compelled Professor Zimmer to quickly recall the name of Joram Anders. She was enamored at his description of life on the farm. It was so different from her own upbringing, and she could tell that some of Joram’s physical features stemmed from his time on the farm. His golden, almost leathered complexion spoke on the amount of time he spent in the blazing sun. His broad shoulders and barrel chest were certainly the result of real work, and not that of so many other weight-lifting, muscle-pumping goons she’d met time and again at the gym. If only she’d had a dollar for each nauseating pick-up line from some arrogant muscle-flexer who assumed that every woman owed them for their existence. Of course, even she wasn’t oblivious to how much she enjoyed being attended to at the gym, and it was a fun hobby of hers to record and review her little book of pick-up lines. Even so, it still irritated her to think that these guys really believed that they could “charm” a girl through such triviality. It was just so offensive to her intelligence.
At the end of their conversation, Joram was simply amazed that he had spent an hour and a half with her on the patio of the Red Door Café, where Joram nursed his lemonade and Kath finished off two iced coffees. Where had the day gone? His first astronomy lecture had flown by, and now his acquaintance with Kath had seemed but a flash.
“Wow, how the day has flown!” Joram commented as he looked at his watch. “I have to be going now, Kath, but I’ll see you in class on Wednesday.”
“Sounds great,” Kath acknowledged.
With that, the new acquaintances bid each other farewell, until Wednesday, when they would meet again in Professor Zimmer’s class.
Zimmer took a long stride as he walked into Dean Scoville’s office. As he sat down in the chair opposite of the dean’s desk, he wasted no time in getting to the point. “How was the meeting with NASA, Ballard?”
Scoville’s face turned austere. Just as Zimmer was settling into his seat, the dean stood up to look out of his window overlooking the campus.
“Things did use to be more simple around here, Carl,” Ballard admitted. Then turning back to look at Zimmer while gazing on the well-manicured grounds visible from his fourth floor office, he continued. “I didn’t know exactly how the meeting with NASA would turn out, but I was worried when they called yesterday to schedule an urgent discussion for this afternoon. NASA almost never works on a schedule like that, unless it’s pretty serious.”
Zimmer listened attentively, fearing the worst. Actually, he had already been fearing the worst for the last three years, precisely when he began the extended summer research at Cerro Tololo. He was starting to feel the pressure on his research budget, and knew that he had to step up his efforts. He needed to throw a bone to NASA to ensure that his funding would persist.
“The research funding committee flew out from Washington to visit us on our research programs. Darn it, Carl, you know how everything has to be so political these days. Politicians are riding the public appeal of interstellar travel, because their constituents want to travel all over the universe. But they don’t seem to care as much about the real science of astronomy.”
“But Ballard, they’ve promised us—in writing—at least two more years of funding,” Carlton announced.
“Yes, they mentioned that as a tactic to apply pressure. They’re threatening to pull the plug at the end of this year if they don’t start seeing results from your current research. It seems like every senator who’s aspiring for the Oval Office is flapping their jaws about limiting unessential research. Some are even so bold as to threaten NASA with extinction!”
Zimmer hung his head. “Ballard, they promised two more years.”
“Funny money, Carl. A bill that is signed into law today will have a counter-measure erasing its efficacy next year. You can’t trust anything that these guys put down on paper, because they can simply legislate it all away.”
“What are their demands?” Professor Zimmer immediately put himself into problem solving mode.
“They want evidence, Carlton. Hard, rock solid evidence that this parallel solar system concept is valid.”
“Ballard, I’ve provided them with the statistics. The universe is—well, it’s universal. With the vast number of class G2 stars out their, the mathematical models provide compelling evidence a copy of earth is out there.”
Dean Scoville sat back down in his black leather chair, leaned over his dark walnut desk, and looked Professor Zimmer straight into the eye. “Carl, when are you going to find that needle?”
Zimmer hung his head again. He had no answer, and was starting to see his lifelong dream slipping away from his reach.
Hanging and shaking his head slowly, Carlton responded. “I don’t know Ballard… I just don’t know.”