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The Thesis

The first one came as he was attempting to finish up his graduate thesis on near light-speed travel and the future of space exploration. Bernard Rothman went out to his front porch and, thinking it looked to rain, held his hand out to see if any drops were falling. Instead, a joint fell into his hand.

It was exquisitely rolled. Like—how to explain—exquisitely. Every joint he’d ever seen rolled, or partaken in the rolling of, had the mark of someone’s over-eager fingers, as he or she tried to cram an irregularly-shaped object into a cylinder of paper.  Also, it smelled wonderfully. After he’d done all of the things one would expect of a man into whose palm a joint mysteriously appeared—inspect his rain gutters and roof, inspect the tree over his house, inspect the sky, inspect his mind for the possibility he may have already had the joint in his hand before he went outside—he set it on his mantel where he could keep an eye on it.

No matter its origin, he did not have time to smoke it, strictly speaking. His thesis, already a year late, had a new due date three weeks hence. He had several approaches for describing the state of its finish to himself. The minimum job, the ‘I’m just looking for a faculty position in theoretical physics somewhere’ was in the high 80s percentile. It needed a final run-through of the calculations, some text clean-up, and a decently rousing conclusion.

The version that might go to an esteemed peer-reviewed journal, that might win him some acclaim, on the other hand, was closer to 60 percent. A whole other theorem around a new drive type was chunked out of the manuscript, covering many of the surfaces of his house, in a horrible state of mental disarray and incompletion. If it could be completed at all.

And worse: there was another version of the paper yet, the 30 percent-through version, the one that gave him nightmares. The one that took that new drive type beyond the broad strokes of theory into mathematical completeness. He pondered it for a moment, how it was as if a crevasse stood at his feet into which he could throw years more of his life. There did not seem a limit to the suffering (and surely, elation?) this version might induce. And yet, he could not deny, it was there in his brain, a kernel of something, a gargantuan ambition.

After he’d placed that first joint on the mantel, he circled the house four or five times, looking for some reasonable approach back to his computer and the work there and the thesis that was—here he checked: 78,447 words. He approached via the vanilla wafers, via the garden shed and the care of his herb garden, through the toilet that needed cleaned, via the phone call to his mother—

“Yes, three weeks. It’s coming along great. How’s Dad?”

“No really it is. Mother can we talk about—so the weather, is good there?”

“Yes, Yes just this morning I did. All day! In fact. And that’s my plan for the rest of the—”

—until finally he came upon the joint again and before he’d thought much about it, it was in his hand, one end of it on fire.

Oh, he thought.

Generally speaking, Bernard was an atheist. An atheist who, it should be said, on occasion took spiritual pause at the breathtaking glory of the universe. Did you know—he would write in the margins of an undergrad’s papers he corrected—that if you traveled faster than light, you would be traveling into a time that does not yet exist? Is time necessary to the state of being? Yes! If we undo time, do we undo the universe? Yes! However, this leaves aside the proposed methods for non-traditional FTL travel—warping, folding, worming, reflecting, swarming, etc.

Later, students sometimes found him, seeking explanations for these errata. “Mr. Rothman, on warping…?” they would start, and he would go into detail with enormous glee, even as the explanation caused perplexity and disbelief. Warping does not break the faster-than-light rule, as the universe itself warps around the ship, squishing in front and expanding in back, while the ship stays still.

The joint was perfect. It should have been obvious from the rolling, he thought, but the content inside was something else. He closed his eyes and smiled warmly into the weak sun and took in the smell of his garden. Spring time. This was no time to be working on theses.

 

Two days later, on the way to a potluck at Margaret’s, he pulled into Safeway. He hoped to find an organic enough looking pie that he might remove the Safeway branding from. A strategically dented pie, subtly mishandled, increased in value in the eyes of the crowd he would soon be among. In the rows of fluorescent marshmallow creations and chocolate goo, he found a classic apple pie that appeared as though it had been extruded from a machine. He leaned his elbow into it, gently cratering it.

But then he had problems at checkout. Rosary, her name tag read, was alarmed that he should pick such a pie, that a store as noble as theirs should produce such an appallingly ugly confection. “Hold on,” she said heroically and pushed the intercom button with stagey flair. “On line number four, we need a new apple pie!” she sung over the intercom, brushing red hair from her eyes like cobweb.

He looked back apologetically at the line he held up, hoping there was not a security guard who’d seen the violence he’d dealt his pie wending toward them now.  “Really, it’s no—it’s still edible,” he called after the bag boy who took his mess away.

“Oh!” Rosary said, and waved her hand at him. It was no trouble at all.

In the parking lot, he removed the Safeway packaging and then used his fist to gently re-crater it.  The pie looked right, but his hand had suffered for it. He sat the pie on the roof of his old Toyota. He turned his palm to lick away the apple goo when a joint plopped into it. It landed casually, as if thrown over someone’s shoulder or fallen from his own hair. He stared bewildered into the sky where a few seagulls flew in a blanket of blue. Around him were nothing but other cars.

“Wow,” he said.

He sat with it for a long time in the driver’s seat, vaguely aware that he’d been late to begin with.  Of no help at all, he thought, would this sort of trend be in the completing of his thesis. But perhaps this was happening to everyone. Perhaps parked off of Astoria at the ocean, a smuggler’s freighter, was full to the brim with perfectly rolled joints. Perhaps it’d been tossed in a storm, sweeping its entire payload into the air. And now, it rained joints across the city. He inspected the parking lot before him, shoppers entering and exiting cars, dutifully hauling bags of groceries, they all looked painfully sober. Perhaps in migratory routes, between a Hollywood dealer’s house and the Arctic, birds were finding the joints pleasant to hold onto, like whispery, portable perches. He had to tell Margaret.

The joint sat in his lap as he drove to her house. There were many cars at the party, and he parked some houses away and turned off the engine. But then, in a moment of social dread—for these were artists, whose work in him sometimes caused admiration and sometimes bafflement—he lit the joint and took a drag. He would probably remember a name or two, tops, or there would be someone’s husband who would single him out, another non-artist, and they’d hover about on the front porch, the husband wishing to talk about baseball or taxes. He was well-experienced with the effect his own subject had on listeners. He took another drag. It was really nice.

After a while he’d had enough and extinguished it and resolved to go in. He decided to test the quality of his pie offering. He pulled a few tastes delicately from the edges. It was fine. The first few bites were delicious actually, and as he chewed he hummed in a monotone of pleasure. He took a few more bites, with increasing boldness. Then he used his hand as a scoop.

At some point he became aware that half of the pie was now gone, that his front had a not insignificant amount of pie scatterings, as if a bear and not a man had partaken, and that he was pretty much stoned out of his mind. He leaned his seat back and closed his eyes. Bah, he said, in the general direction of the party. The joint had come from the sky! It was an imperative. It was a direct missive to him. They had sent it from the stars. Alien cruisers probably hovered just beyond the atmosphere, slinging tightly wound joints with high-tech precision.

What engine brought them here? Antimatter or fusion or ion? Warp? His own Pinch Drive? Were their lifespans so long that the tireless distance of space mattered little? If you lived ten thousand years, would you blink at a thirty-five year journey? He despaired at the size of space which, at the moment, seemed equal to the distance between his car and Margaret’s front door, an impossible journey of time and obstacles, the porch lights glowing on the houses between like distant moons.

Instead, he napped for a while. When he woke, a huge face was tapping at the side window of the car with a steady persistence. “Hello hello!” he said with jovial bravado at the terrifying apparition. It turned out to be Margaret, wielding a flashlight. She seemed less than jovial. He invited her to sit in the passenger seat.

She said, “Bernard.” It was a sound of disappointment that lingered in the car as she laboriously removed the pie crash site from the passenger seat.

“Hi Margaret,” he said, happy to see her and only just now remembering where he was, that there was a party, etc. “Oh.” He stared toward her house.

“It’s over, don’t bother,” she said.

“I brought a pie,” he said.

“You did, hey?” she said, and touched the remains tentatively.

“Was it nice? The party?”

“Pretty nice.”

He sighed and tried to think of any excuse that might be presented as reasonable, but none came.

“Maybe you should have called and said you didn’t want to come?” she said.

“I wanted to see you,” he said. “It’s just that there were all those other people in the way.”

She stared out her window.

“I got pretty close,” he said.

“You did.”

“Like, 99 percent of the way there.”

“Weird how it’s that last one percent that actually matters,” she said.

“I was in close orbit,” Bernard said, “and here you’ve shuttled up. It’s like I was the 99 percent perspiration, you were all inspiration!”

As his joke failed, they went silent for a while and he could feel that her irritation was passing.

“Hey so look.” He fished around in his ash tray and found the half-smoked joint. “This fell out of the sky.”

“Uh huh.”

“Actually no really. Like I was in the store parking lot and it just came into my hand.”

“How stoned are you, about now, on a scale of one to ten.”

Bernard cupped his chin with his hand, and realized that both his chin and his hand wished to stick to the other, the sticky force of them powerful. He felt it important to be as truthful as possible. “Maybe a nine?”

“Bernard,” she said.

“Here—” he lit the joint and handed it to her and she took it with a scowl, maneuvering around the state of his hands. In the porch-moonlight she looked lovely, her glasses glinting.

“It’s nice,” she said.

“There’s pie too, if, you know, if you get—”

He felt like he was sixteen again. Getting stoned in a car, a pie on the dashboard, his girlfriend next to him good-naturedly indulging his eccentricities. It was a wonderful feeling. One by one the porch lights of the block began to go out and they sat there in the dark and giggled occasionally.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“You dork.”

“It felt like divine intervention,” he said. “Or not God, maybe the universe. Or maybe it is from God, considering that I do not believe, and he would appreciate those who require scientific proof of his existence, who do not follow blind. And so voila! I do not vote for just any oddball candidate. A bit of a paradox, I suppose.”

There was a silence in the car and then Margaret said, “Is that like two docks? For if you have so many boats?”

For a long while neither were able to breathe well, as they sat in the car and giggled.

“Pretty much,” Margaret said, as the laughter exhausted itself, “pretty much I’m a ten.”

Rowwr!”

“I mean—” but he was kissing her then, vaguely aware that in turning to do so, he had caused a meteor shower of pie crumbs to rain down upon her.

As they began to undress each other she said: “I have a house, you know. It’s pretty close. With like, a bed?”

“No!” he said. “Our parents will catch us!”

“Mm…” she said

 

 

When they were finished, and he got out to walk her to her house, there were two more joints resting against the windshield wiper on the driver’s side. He held them one in each hand, in a startled awe. “See?” he said.

“Hm,” Margaret said. “I suspect foul play. I suspect the scientist’s friends may be playing a joke. Or perhaps, the scientist is involved in elaborate self-sabotage, in order to escape completion of his thesis, which would necessitate obtaining real work.”

“I suspect the artist is only jealous.”

“She has no doubt the scientist will share.”

 

His wandering thesis was concerned with not just how to get there, but the trip itself. How two couples, say, at twenty eight years each, well-tested for fertility, might launch into the perma-night of space toward Proxima Centauri, conceive along the voyage, grow old together watching the changing stars, raise a child who is no Earthling but of the ship itself, who, too, grows older en-route, mates with the offspring of the other couple, and so three generations finally arrive. Their reports coming back via light communication at increasingly long intervals, messages that take a year to travel, two years, ten years—A baby is born! Tell grandma I love her. But grandma has been in the grave for five years.

At home, the ground control team that sent them there dies and is replaced. Wars break out, governments change hands, their program is de-funded and years later, before the astronauts ever know, it is restarted.

And so an entire flock of Adam and Eves might arrive on the shore of some foreign planet. Is this even what we want? As a species? To begin ourselves again? A Johnny Appleseed program for the universe?

They would leave no trace of their passage through space—for all organic matter on the ship must be re-used and treasured. Even now, he thought, we should plan for the possibility of their voyage by sending pods of supplies into deep space for our un-born astronauts to harvest en-route. Their bones weak and their immune systems assailable. We need the foresight to have empathy for them.

And why send them at all? He felt it important to prod this question most of all. Why do this? Because it is our nature to explore?  Or a safety-box of remote DNA for: in case of apocalypse, break glass.

Not for Bernard. The human DNA was special to us, certainly, but not so special in all creation. Odds were strongly in favor that the universe’s lab was cooking up experiments in sentient life ad infinitum. If one experiment went missing, big deal.

The desire to reach across the galaxy was less arrogance and self-preservation and a song of our uniqueness, than the desire to meet the occupants of the next petri dish over. Another creation of the universe. For, he thought, all the biggest whys might be tackled there. Just as he might rely on Margaret to counsel him from thesis’s cliff-edge, and she on him to interpret the letter from her father. Humans, he thought: we will not understand ourselves until seen in the mirror of our future alien friends.

 

The dope was taking a bit of a toll on his work. Or who knows? Maybe he would be making no progress at all otherwise. He made himself sit down for long mornings and stare at the computer screen. Tapping out words here and there. Some of the sentences he took tremendous pleasure in, the musicality of them, even their shape as they coursed themselves bravely across the electron space of his computer screen. They were not so very different than the astronauts themselves, he thought. Each day they intrepidly pushed further into the emptiness.

But, bullshit. He was stoned and saw metaphor in everything now. He got up with disgust and paced about the house. Going outside held a bit of anxiety for him, as at any moment another joint might fall, and he had become superstitious of not smoking them immediately. If the universe went to the trouble of engineering their delivery, he could not risk delaying his engagement with it.

 

With only two weeks to go, he drove his old Toyota to the university to seek out conference with his advisor. In the parking lot, he slowly exited his car and stared at the sky. He had begun to recognize the feeling, a sense of anticipation that clutched him, tinglingly, in his groin, just before a joint fell. Slowly he turned one palm upward and on cue, a joint dived into it, bounced once and fell to the ground. He sighed and got back in his car, slamming the door, to smoke it before his appointment. “Just one sober meeting? You couldn’t have allowed that?”

Ronald ‘The Hubs’ Kracikz  sat in his large leather office chair and smiled happily when he came in. “Bernard!” he said. The books that lined the office walls soaked in his deep voice. “Bernard, Señor Rothman, sit! sit! It’s good to see you. Allergies?”

Bernard momentarily placed his hands over his eyes. They felt like hot desiccated orbs, red dwarves. “Yes, allergies.”

“Hmm,” the Hubs inspected him with concern. “Stress can increase susceptibility, you know. You might be surprised to hear me say this, but a little maryjane can help with the allergens.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Marijuana, my friend.”

Bernard nodded, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. “Thanks for the info.” The one he’d smoked in the car seemed particularly potent.

The Hubs thoughtfully stroked at his beard, which hung from his face in a great matted heap of yellow-gray. Then he got up from his chair and clumsily maneuvered his belly around the office, looking behind items that littered his shelves: pottery and NASA paraphernalia, meteorite remains, objects of foreign travel, framed awards, and many toy models of the Hubble telescope, some handcrafted by The Hubs himself. He hummed off-tune as he looked. “You look depleted, Bernard. Your thesis, you should be having fun with it. Sometimes we must allow ourselves to relax into the regions of our mind that we do not consciously know we have.”

Bernard leaned over in his chair and held his head in his hands and wondered if he were having a panic attack. His heart beat loud and arrhythmically.

“See?” The Hubs found what he was looking for. It was a small metal cast of the Starship Enterprise, with a hole in the top for smoking, the mouthpiece emerging from one of the rear engines. “Warp speed, captain!” The Hubs said with a mad twinkle in his eye.

I am going to smoke dope with The Hubs, Bernard thought. This should be joyous, this should be a story to tell. But instead he felt only dread, unsure of how much more he could take but not wishing to decline such an offer.

He decided to tell The Hubs about the joints.

“Hubs, every time I—”

‘Bup bup bup! Do not dwell, Bernard, let it go.’ He shook his finger at him.

“—from the sky—”

“Bup bup bup! Bernard! Son, you need calmness, inner calmness.” He handed Bernard the starship enterprise, smoke wisping up from the center of its observation deck.

Bernard held the tiny spacecraft and inspected the engines. What an enormous waste of room, he thought. His crew would need this room for food and supplies. “I have been thinking about the Pinch Drive,” he said.

“Bup bup bup!” The Hubs said. “As you should!” The Hubs reached out and fist-tapped his knee affectionately. “But this time let your mind not think about it, too. I’m trying to help you here, son.”

The space pipe did its work, and The Hubs stared at him and stroked his beard and chuckled in his flat, dry chuckle—huh huh huh —as if a big drum were being beat, his belly heaving merrily. “Space!” he said, huh huh. “Space travel!” He chuckled until it deteriorated into coughing. The marijuana itself was child’s play, a mere replica, Bernard thought, compared to the potency of what fell from the sky.

“Do you enjoy professional sports Bernard?”

“Mm.”

“Any hobbies?”

“Gardening?”

“Good!” The Hubs seemed truly happy to hear this. “Spend more time in your garden! You are working too much. That is, don’t let up. You are late enough as it is! But give your mind some rest. Syncopate! You will be more productive.”

Bernard felt sick with guilt at the Hubs’ analysis of him. He stood and idly thumbed through the bookshelves but was unable to focus on any of the titles. “Hubs?” he said. “Say you have something small, like say a cigarette, entering the Earth’s atmosphere—”

“Bup bup bup!” The Hubs’ eyes went wide in mock-alarm. “Bernard,” he said warmly and smiled. “Always thinking! Let it go.”

How he loved this man. He could be like him someday, he thought. He could have an office of his own, a nickname that defined him. Spreading a field of generous, wry warmth across classrooms, eyes sparkling with intelligence. How he feared disappointing him.

 

Bernard picked up the newest batch of papers to grade and wandered about the university feeling barely himself. It was anxious making. In the library he prowled for books on every long journey humans had ever made. Across the Sahara and Gobi deserts, across oceans, to the poles, on foot across continents, in the snow and ice, until he had a large and unwieldy bundle of books.

How do we cross distance? He wondered. What does it do to us when we are within its traversal? Distance was not only space to cross, but a state of being.

Back in his car the feeling that he was his own doppelgänger began to diminish, and the anxious feeling dissipated. He drove home, giggling occasionally.

 

Later that night he went and stood in the garden and stared up at the stars. His brain felt at rest. He was merely looking. Seeing what there was to see. The constellations, burning pyres across the galaxy, singing to him at their various magnitudes. He could feel the arcing saucer of the Milky Way turned on its side as he stared into it, feeling himself insubstantially there on one starfish arm.

He felt so small and mortal. What about that first generation of astronauts who will die mid-space, in the dark, so far from home, their lives nothing but the connective tissue between humanity’s plot points. Perhaps our desire for travel will grow as our lifespans grow, when we can imagine the end-game. Space will shrink as our bodies glimpse eternality.

A sadness took him, looking at all that space in between him and the universe. A long distance affair, the love so difficult to requite. A glow of lightning flashed on the horizon, and there was an answering boom of thunder. He heard the sound of rain, but all that fell on him were joints, and as they fell, he wept.

 

He gathered what he could of them and went inside and stood at the sink eating from a jumbo bag of potato chips. He lit a joint and casually balanced it on top of the faucet. It was having a toll, all this. Even beforehand, there was slightly more of him than he would have liked. But it wasn’t just extra fat, he felt uncertain he’d be able to recognize himself.

On the ship, the passengers would need routine, for to wander so endlessly in anonymous space would be terrifying without the crutch of regularity. Here on Earth, he was a terrible crew member.

It had just rained marijuana cigarettes on him, he reminded himself and laughed uneasily. What the fuck did they want from him?

In his mind, he pictured himself on a small, habitable planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. Throughout human history, practically everything humans have imagined, they have been able to manifest. Could this not also be true? That by the power of his own thought, somehow, he might bend the space between them?

Oh my god, he thought, I am so high.

And when they arrived? They would be so tentative and afraid in the open air, generations of them reared in the tight confines of their ship. That journey through the spaceship door onto real rock, a mass so unimaginably huge and gravitational, weighing their weak-boned bodies down, awestruck and terrified.

He stopped chewing for a moment and stood there in the dark, the glow of the joint like the ship’s beacon in the distance, and felt what they felt. There was a knock on the door and then Margaret was calling into the house, hello?

He lifted his feet to move himself, moored as they were to the terrible gravity, and despaired of ever reaching her. He called hello back but it felt lost in the foreign atmosphere. His only hope was to reach the ship, to huddle inside its familiar corridors, etched in his mind by a lifetime of use.

“There you are. Why are you in the dark? I feel like I’m inside an ashtray.” She flipped the light on and scanned him and his kitchen. “Oh Bernard,” she said.

Like sunrise on his new planet. This too would be a terror. The oldest generation might have warned them, of a light so bright that it heated the skin, a light that could not be extinguished.

She took the joint from him and had a drag and then extinguished it in the sink, and then paused there, looking at the large cache of them there.

“It rained,” he said.

She looked skeptical. “We have to get you cleaned up.”

He nodded, “I was thinking that too.”

“This has gone too far,” she said.

He nodded again.

“We need order here, and discipline.”

She would be a good captain, he thought. She would make sure we got there without killing each other, without devolving into weird psychological ruts. She would keep us from locking our doors and endlessly masturbating, hoarding the food or teasing other members to psychic exhaustion. She would keep the end goal in mind. He drew himself up straight and vigorously wiped down the front of his shirt, where potato chips had created a lunar landscape.

“You start on the kitchen,” she said, “And I’ll start—whew.” With one hand she covered an eye, “this is strong stuff.”

He saluted her.

When they finished and she was satisfied they sat at the kitchen table and drank tea.

“Do you need a pep talk, would that help?” she asked.

“Maybe I’m channeling the universe,” he said. “Maybe it is feeding me those so I do its work.”

She shrugged. “Well… at any rate, I’m sure it could give a damn about your deadline. Look, you’ve got what? Eleven days? Lay out a schedule for each day. Put goals on it. Do a little bit every day. Consider smoking a little less dope?”

“I know,” he said and slumped in his chair. In his mind, the thesis lay before him like a great stellar labyrinth, the other side a hopelessly tangled distance away.

“So those fell from the sky?”

“Yes! Yes!”

Her brow wrinkled and she scrunched her mouth and moved it to one side, evaluating in a way that indicated the odds were not high in his favor, regarding the truth. “Like rain?”

“Exactly.”

“Well in that case,” she said, “some smoking does seem fated, I suppose.”

“Right? I mean, it’s like, yes.” He felt tremendously relieved to hear her say so. The universe’s intentions were clear. There was no ambiguity.

“Just go easy there, I’d say,” she said. “It probably doesn’t have a good grasp of how much you can handle.”

 

In the morning, he felt wonderful. He woke early and came downstairs to a clean house. He made Margaret breakfast and delivered it to her in bed. Then he called the university and left a long, rambling message for The Hubs about how his grandmother had died, and he’d need to fly to Cleveland, and could he have just five more days? Afterward, he wished he’d rehearsed it. But it was certainly not the first time The Hubs had received such a message. Thesis due dates were hard on the hearts of all family members. Thesis due dates caused extraordinary events to intervene. Thesis due dates altered the space-time continuum.

Then he plastered the wall of his living room with sixteen blank pieces of paper, and wrote out the schedule for each one of them. The bits of scratch paper that contained his Pinch Drive theorems he taped up as well. To humans, Prometheus had given fire. A certainty was building in him, the drive could work. What was it that was being given him? He would go for the middle paper. He would get the sucker done.

On his front porch he looked into the sky and held his hand out and waited. After a moment the joint was delivered. From the far reaches of space, he thought. Or perhaps from God, for surely what else was God but the universe itself, ‘his infinite wisdom’ simply infinity, for only infinite space could contain an infinite amount of something else. It was still spooky, still gave his neck hairs a rise, but they had made a sort of peace, had they not? The joints-falling-from-the-sky phenomenon and himself, the light-speed space-travel theorist.  He waved a jaunty thanks and set to work, with it smoking in the ash tray.

*

“I like to think of this,” The Hubs said from his seat at the front of the auditorium, “as an empathetic journey, with future astronauts, as they soar to the furthest reaches of our galaxy, along with most of the math to get them there.”

“I don’t deny it was very moving. To be truly frank with you, I wept at two different sections—”

“—the dinner prep scene? When the mother tells the boy about Earth languages?”

“—and the other where they stand afraid and weak-kneed on the soil of another planet, easing themselves to the ground?”

“—because of the gravity.”

“Like hatchlings, emerging from their shell of a ship.”

“Wonderful stuff, Bern,” The Hubs said. “Just wonderful.”

His thesis defense was composed of two gray-bearded astronomers, an astrobiologist, a mathematician and a chemist. ‘It sounds like a joke,’ Margaret had said. ‘They walk into a bar, right?’

Behind the scientists were an army of fellow graduate students, cascading upward in the seats toward the heavens in the auditorium.

Bernard had made a conscious choice to appear at his thesis defense sober, despite the possible danger in defending what had been written in the absence of sobriety. Despite his best intentions, however, sky-born joints had made it quite clear he did not have this luxury.

The committee had chosen a tiny desk for him on the stage of the auditorium. A microscopic desk, like a child’s it seemed. On top of it his hands fidgeted over his immense work. He feared the mass of papers was totally incomprehensible, a writhing quagmire of nonsense.

Doctor Leslie Yoon, the astrobiologist, appeared to be staring at him expectantly.

“I’m sorry, could you repeat the question?” he said, hoping she had in fact asked one. His eyes felt red-shifted, giving off a dim receding light.

“I said I respect the work as ambitious, though fanciful, Bernard. However, I wanted to talk to you about the ‘Goldilock’ planets within the range of your Pinch Drive. Proxima Centauri is—”

It was difficult to pay attention, concerned partly as he was by how he sweated. Also, he’d several times looked up to find with some shock that everyone was staring at him, and each time he had to re-parse together why that was, which was that he was on stage, defending his thesis, like right, oh god, like a nightmare one continually wakes from, except that you wake back into the same nightmare.

Someone else wanted to know about real-life probability that a Pinch Drive could be built.

“No one here could argue that such an engine, were it possible to build, would revolutionize space travel. Your theory indicates it possible, but the math, though at times surprising, is lighter than it needs to be.”

“It is not light!” the Hubs roared. “It is as simple as it needs to be. The math works out.”

“I don’t think it does, Ron.”

“I’ve gone through it, Ed. It works.” The Hubs, Bernard could tell, was taking particular pleasure in this. He believed in him.

“Well Bernard, you’ve got Ron vouching for you. But while I will stamp an acceptance vote on this thesis, to be frank, you’re making too many claims here. I don’t feel I can personally let you leave this campus without validating one way or another. I would like to help you deepen certain aspects of the math to take the engine to a little more certainty, to take some of it to the point of mechanics. Funds could be acquired,” he said speculatively.

Bernard grinned stupidly at this, such obvious code word. Funds! The thesis was not bogus.

“Do you, in your heart-heart,” Dr. Brockmire said, “believe it could work?

“Hm,” he said, and it sounded like a groan. Wasn’t that, in so many ways, where it had originated? From his heart it had poured, sheer desire and sadness manifesting it. A little more opened up, perhaps, by the joints. His eyes were leaking, fuel leak! “The universe said—” he started, but the sentence had no completion. Somewhere out there in space was his counterpart. Five or ten or fifty light years away.  He allowed himself a moment of silence, leaving the audience quiet and awkward as they waited. Surely he misheard the soft plop-plopping of joints raining down on the auditorium’s roof? He paced back slowly through his ideas, the sketches, the deep math that had taken him into possibility. The auditorium’s dark ceiling dissipated into blackness. Above it, outside, something was trying to reach him still. Plop, plop. “Yes,” he whispered, grinning stupidly, his words fading into inaudibility. “In my heart-heart.”

 

 

 

Benjamin Parzybok is the author of the novels Couch and Sherwood Nation. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be found at www.levinofearth.com or @sparkwatson.

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