Kat hadn’t been back to MIT since she’d graduated. The campus looked similar to what she remembered, on a stunningly perfect evening. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and stars as far as the eye could see. It was warm, with a slight breeze, as a few students trickled out of the auditorium. Hung above the door was a large banner that read:
‘MIT Welcomes back Dr. Stephen Hawking.’
Inside, the theater was filled to capacity with students and faculty listening attentively to the famed physicist. Kat had never actually met Dr. Hawking, and was both flattered and humbled to be in the presence of such a renowned genius.
Dr. Hawking’s computer generated voice spoke in the robotic monotone that all had come to know, but with the wit and style that everyone enjoyed.
“I’m hopeful,” spoke his voice box, “That one day mankind will understand more about black holes, and the role they play in our universe. My theories are just that; theories. As logical or illogical as they may seem, ultimately they are pointless without evidence to solidify them. All we can do as humans is continue to challenge ourselves. To look to the stars, and strive to understand what forces in this universe we control, and which forces control us. Thank you for attending.”
The crowd applauded and cheered, prompting a huge grin from Professor Hawking. Stricken with ALS from a young age, even something as simple as a smile was difficult for the witty and charming guest. But he managed, amidst the roaring approval from the student body.
The students began to funnel out of the auditorium, chattering and taking selfies with the famed professor in the background. Kat and Jack made their way to the stage, where Dr. Hawking was conversing with one of the instructors from the faculty. As she and Jack got closer, the teacher turned around, immediately recognizing her.
“Kat!,” he yelled, in a German accent, “I don’t believe it!” “Hi, Mattie,” she replied, as she hugged him warmly and smiled. After the embrace, the instructor made introductions. “Stephen, I’d like you to meet Katherine Westmorland. She was valedictorian here six years ago, and one of the most brilliant students I ever had. Her thesis on quantum temporal mechanics was incredible. Very advanced and forward thinking.”
The timid beauty leaned over Dr. Hawking’s chair, and spoke quietly as she kissed him on the cheek. “It’s such an honor to meet you. I’ve read all your research.” The charming genius blushed a bit, smiling even bigger after a smooch from such a hot tamale. “The honor is mine,” he replied. “It’s always nice to meet a fellow nerd. Especially one so beautiful.” Kat was flattered, and overcome with excitement.
Jack, lost in the background, cleared his throat loudly. “I’m sorry,” Kat responded, “Where are my manners? Mattie, this is Colonel Jack Briggs. Jack, this is Dr. Mattais Lutz, my old mentor.” Jack extended his hand to the German professor, shook it courteously, then turned to professor Hawking and addressed him. “It’s a privilege to meet you, professor. I heard you speak at the White House once.”
“Thank you for your service, Colonel,” replied Dr. Hawking. Jack was flattered as well, not expecting such a reply. He smiled, and gave a thankful nod.
“So what brings you out this way, Kat?,” inquired Dr. Lutz. “Last I heard you were working in New Mexico.”
Kat shifted the conversation a bit. “I am, Mattie, but I’ve run into a roadblock in my research, and need some advice from the good doctor here. If Dr. Hawking is willing, I’d like to talk privately outside with him for a few minutes.”
Mattie looked to Hawking, who answered for himself. “Certainly,” replied the monotone physicist, “It’s a lovely evening. Clear enough to see a billion miles. Will your friend be joining us?” Kat looked to Jack. “Not tonight, professor,” replied the Colonel. “I have some calls to make. You two enjoy yourselves.”
Kat hugged Mattie goodbye, and exchanged farewells, then she and Dr. Hawking made their way up the aisle out of the auditorium. His chair buzzed quietly behind her, then crackled a little on the gravel outside as the two made their way to a bench in the corner of the promenade. It was quiet, isolated, and the evening air was warm. Kat sat on the bench and looked up at the stars, as professor Hawking settled in next to her.
“Amazing, isn’t it?,” she asked. “How small we seem in comparison.” Dr. Hawking glared outward. “Size is irrelevant in the grand scheme,” he answered.
“Consider a black hole the size of a grapefruit, and the power it has to shape an entire corner of the galaxy. But surely you didn’t come out here to talk about gravitational physics.”
Kat immediately knew how Jack had felt sitting across from General Irons earlier in the day. Her stomach balled up as she began to talk, as the time had come again to tell someone else the most closely guarded secret in the world.
“What if I told you that your theories were right, and that I had tangible proof about time, space, and reality that could take you in new directions. Things that would reshape your ideas on the cosmic balance. Would that interest you, professor?”
Dr. Hawking’s chair spun. His facial expression didn’t change, but she could tell he was curious. “Are you joking?,” he implied. “No, I’m not,” Kat answered. “What I’m about to tell you is classified. For your ears only.”
“I understand,” he confirmed.
Kat took a deep breath, and laid out the whole story. “About sixty years ago, an alien craft crashed in the New Mexico desert. The long and short of it: we’ve been working on it for a long time. We’ve come to a point in our research where we need some serious help to think outside the box. You’re the most brilliant man of this generation, and your theories are light years ahead of mainstream thinkers. And quite a few are right on the money.”
“Which ones?,” he asked. “I have hundreds.”
“Specifically,” Kat replied, “The ones that relate to time, space, and black holes.” Dr. Hawking still wasn’t clear. “You’ll have to be more specific,” he asked. Kat had so much to say she didn’t know where to start. “I know you have a lot of questions, doctor. And they’ll all be answered in time. What I need to know tonight is this: will you join our team? We really need your help. It’s, quite literally, a matter of life and death.”
Dr. Hawking sat silent for a moment. “Are you for real?,” he finally asked. “I’ve heard things like this before. It always turns out to be someone trying to exploit me or disprove my ideas. I’m a simple man. A man of science. All I really seek is truth. If you have something evidential to offer, I’m more than willing to listen.”
Kat smiled, flabbergasted that she’d just recruited the smartest man in the world to help her try and save it. She quickly took the bag off her shoulder and laid it in professor Hawking’s lap. “There’s a laptop computer in here. All the information on what we’re doing is on the hard drive. It’s coded, so you’ll need the encryption sequence to access it. I’ll send it to you when you signal that you’re ready, and in a secure location. Once you do, this information is for your eyes only. There’s also travel itinerary. I’ll see you in a few days.”
Kat stood up, leaned over the esteemed scientist, and hugged him. “It’s an honor to meet you. Welcome to the team, professor.” She walked away and rendezvoused with Jack, who was waiting outside the entrance to the theater with his hands in his pockets.
Later that night, en route to the airport, Jack and Kat talked about how things had transpired throughout the day, and what the next move was. Both were tired, but enthusiastic about how things were lining up. The plan was starting to take shape, and the players were falling into place. Optimism presented itself for the first time in a while, which was a refreshing change.
Kat changed the conversation up a little to something that had been pulling at her. “How have you felt since we got here?,” she inquired to Jack. “Is everything okay?” Briggs, driving, paid attention to the road, but answered. “I feel alright,” he replied. “A little leery sometimes at the scope of what we’re actually doing, but okay. Why do you ask?”
“I feel okay physically,” Kat replied, “But I’ve been having some weird dreams at night. More like flashbacks really. And sometimes I feel a little...I don’t know...foggy?” Jack brushed it off as superstition, attributing it to exhaustion and fatigue.
“I wouldn’t sweat it,” he replied. “We’ve come a long way in a short time, and still have a lot to do. Your mind’s been going a thousand miles an hour for five days straight. You’re just worn out Kat, that’s all.”
“I know,” replied his cohort, “But if there’s something we need to know about jumping through that reflector, don’t you think we should explore that before putting other people through it? Especially ones that are so historically prevalent.”
Jack considered a moment. “Are you forgetting what’s at stake?,” he asked. “We can’t start second guessing ourselves now.” Kat knew he was right, but couldn’t shake the feeling that something was different about her. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but her gut told her to stay frosty and track anything out of the ordinary, which she fully intended to do.