He had to do it.
Aadi Rama had been working his whole life towards this. He had not only desired it for so long and with such intensity but had also sacrificed too much to let the opportunity slip his grasp now. When it came to fulfilling one’s dreams, no cost was too steep.
Not even the cost of abandoning one’s deepest values. Not if it meant getting a dream fulfilled in return.
Aadi signed the project papers with his name and shipped it to his superiors.
It was as if Aadi’s destiny had been written in the fabric of the night sky on the very eve he’d been born. For as long as his memory spanned, Aadi remembered dreaming of space. There was something profound, something fundamentally majestic about those tiny dots, blinking faintly on the canvas of the purest black in existence.
A lure so powerful that his innocent baby eyes could not resist.
His parents often said in amusement that space was the second thing Aadi looked at when he opened his eyes; first was his mother, cradling him in her arms, and then the night sky through the window behind her.
And to Aadi, that felt like the truth. He harbored a connection with the all-consuming sea of infinity that was unlike anything else in the world. And so, from an early age, Aadi knew exactly what he wanted to do, and who he wanted to be.
His father called him out of bed one night, just as Aadi dreamt of aliens and rockets. He blinked up at his father with sleepy eyes and yawned.
“Come, little spaceman,” his father whispered with a smile. “It’s time.”
Aadi cocked his head, unsure if he’d enter reality or still dreaming. Then, as the realization hit him, he jumped out of bed, forgetting all about sleep.
“Meteor shower!” he exclaimed, at 2:27 A.M.
His father chuckled, shushing him. “You’ll wake your mother, Aadi! And then she won’t let us go!”
“We will convince her to come with us,” Aadi said. “She can wear a warm coat and we can tell her all about the constellations!”
“That’ll be the day. Come on, spaceman, get dressed! We don’t want to miss it!”
Aadi pulled on warm clothes over his pajamas and hopped in his sneakers. Father watched him as he got ready in record time, unlike the mornings before school.
“Take a blanket in case it’s windy,” his father said. “Oh, and a bucket if a star falls down!”
Aadi looked up, in the middle of tying his shoes. “Do you think one will fall down?”
“You never know,” father said, smiling. “It’s a special night.”
Indeed it was. Father drove Aadi on top of a hill with no trees on the summit. There they huddled in a nook in the grass, covered with a blanket against the wind - which Aadi barely noticed. His eyes were transfixed on the magical show above his head; bright streaks of white and yellow, sometimes pink or orange, racing this way or that, leaving lines of light in his vision after he closed his eyes.
Aadi counted the shooting stars with his father and together they managed to catch 67 in one hour. More than one every minute.
“Wow,” Aadi exclaimed, pointing, but not seeing his finger in the dark. “Did you see that one? I can swear I heard it! Swoosh!”
Father sighed to the right. “I was just looking the other way! Was it a big one?”
“It was huge! It flew from one side of the sky to the other, like this!” Aadi demonstrated the shooting star’s flight path by tracing a line through the air.
“Wow, that is huge,” father said. “Must have been a record one.”
“Why are there so many?”
“This is the Perseid, Aadi. It comes every year, like clockwork. It’s a dust stream left by a comet that once flew past. Each streak of light we see is a tiny pebble, burning up in the atmosphere.”
Aadi gazed up, imagining. “A tiny pebble… Can you imagine flying up there and emptying a bucket-full of pebbles? It would rain shooting stars!”
“Now that would be something. Better than fireworks for new year!”
Aadi smiled. It was so beautiful, so close he could almost touch it.
He had to learn more of this. He wanted to know more, to understand. If only he could fly up there and catch one in the palm of his hands… wearing gloves, of course!
Eventually, the two of them headed back, as father was getting sleepy. Dawn was coming and it was best they’d be back before mother realized they’d disappeared without telling.
But the night stayed with Aadi for years to come.
For the most part, school was boring for Aadi. He knew most of the stuff the teachers spoke about even before they finished the sentence - and sometimes, they were even wrong. Aadi had to correct them on certain facts and outdated information. They didn’t like that but Aadi didn’t care. He just wanted to learn and understand as much as he could.
His passion and enthusiasm for space rubbed off him like an invisible perfume, attracting friends easily. The right friends, other kids with whom Aadi could relate to and enjoy their company, sharing interests. He found that he was not alone in his fascination for the cosmos; joining him were others, especially at the after-school optional subjects, such as astronomy.
It was there that Aadi learned there was a whole university for what he wanted to do. He learned that his dreams of one day flying up there and exploring space weren’t a fantasy, but more and more they were becoming a reality.
“So, there is a school where you can go, and all they teach there is the stuff that you teach us?” Aadi asked his astronomy teacher, a man who gazed at the stars in his free time.
“Sure,” the teacher smiled. “Though I barely cover the basics. There are plenty of options today. If there were at the time I went to school, I’d probably be working on a space program or a rocket project. I’d choose aerospace engineering if I could. You can design your own space rocket!”
Aadi’s eyes nearly popped out of his skull, when he heard that.
He just needed to study hard, to know and understand. Then, he’d be accepted to the right schools that would teach him about space so he could one day fly there.
What to some was a hobby or merely a pastime interest, became a desire and a plan for Aadi.
It was all Aadi had expected, but not quite what he had hoped for. Yes, the subjects were hard, some of them quite a challenge, but they weren’t hard enough. Aadi didn’t want to just pass the exams so he’d get his degree. To him, the degree was a side product of his studies. First and foremost, he wanted to understand. To know.
“Hey man,” his roommate Daksh greeted him as he entered. Daksh was one of the friends from elementary astronomy class that also applied for aerospace engineering - in fact, he and Aadi arranged it so that they were roommates.
“Wanna go out? A little premature celebration for all our exams that we know we’d passed?”
Aadi sat behind his desk, books and papers scattered all over, studying under the light of a single lamp. He had finished his last exam for the semester earlier that day, as did the rest of his friends.
“No, I’m cool,” Aadi said, tapping his pencil over a jet-engine design. “Got something I want to work on.”
“You sure?” Daksh said. “You’ve been cooped up in this room for the whole semester already. Relax, man. Let’s go out, have a few beers, meet some girls…”
Aadi was barely listening. He wanted to go, but he wanted to get over this engine design first. If he could just make the fuel efficiency higher, and the weight a little lower, then he could reduce the overall cost-
“I said the guys miss you. It’s been ages since we just hung out, had fun. You know, friends’ stuff. People, instead of rockets.”
Aadi snorted. “Doesn’t sound like fun to me. I mean, this is why we’re here for, right? To make something of ourselves, achieve our dreams and advance humanity. Daksh, what could be more fun and rewarding than that?”
Daksh walked over and inspected Aadi's engine. “Oh, I don’t know. Those things sound pretty good. But they won’t go anywhere, Aadi. Space will still be there, whether you study today or tomorrow or in a week. I’m not so sure about those girls, though… Indali will be there today, you know, the one with that blue braid? Yeah, she asked me if you’d come.”
Aadi turned to regard his friend. “Indali?”
“She asked for me?”
“What did you say?”
“Well,” Daksh said, shrugging. “I could tell her that you’d be happy to come, but as it seems that would be a lie. She looked eager to see you, as far as I can tell.”
Aadi considered. He glanced at the pile of books, then at the hopeful look in his friend’s eyes.
“Do you have her number?”
“Dude!” Daksh groaned. “She’ll be there tonight! You can see her in person! Get the number yourself!”
“I really want to finish this, Daksh. I’ll text her tomorrow, or maybe the day after. I’d love to come with you guys, but I have work.”
“Yeah, that’s all you seem to have.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Daksh turned, shaking his head. “Enjoy your engines, man. I hope they get you where you want to go.”
The door closed. Silence filled the room, distant sounds of party music coming from the neighboring dorm. Aadi sat there, feeling an emptiness creep up inside. He leaned on the chair, wanting to stand up and go after his friend, but an idea crossed his mind.
A solution for engine efficiency. He had to try it. He had to know.
Aadi sat down and went back to work.
It was the hardest thing he had done so far, but getting accepted to NASA took Aadi one step closer to his dreams. Each step he took brought him a little higher towards the sky. And a little farther from everything else, it seemed.
Finishing his degree wasn’t as hard as being left out by his friends; they stopped inviting him to hang out, stopped calling. Daksh would still text from time to time, but the conversations grew shorter and shorter until they eventually stopped.
Still, Aadi could accept that. His friendships were a necessary sacrifice in the way of achieving his dreams and he’d make them again if needed.
Indali, the beautiful girl whom he finally took out and with whom he spent three years after college was another hard sacrifice. Aadi felt that one deep. He would use the sorrow of their breakup to fuel his work, collecting all the aspects of his broken life and channeling them into the pursuit of his dreams.
He felt miserable, yet so fulfilled at the same time. Lonely but contributing to the world, working towards that which would help not only him but all of humankind. When his other friends had settled in the first job they found after college, Aadi aimed for NASA - and he got it, though it was a difficult challenge.
One that required sacrifices.
“Aadi, please,” his mother spoke over the phone. “It’s just for a week. Father and I would like you to come to visit for the holidays. For God’s sake, it’s been years since we saw each other! You’re our son!”
Aadi sighed. The glass felt cold, his forehead pressed against it. It was snowing outside, big blobs of cotton falling silently from the sky, illuminated by the yellow hue of a street lamp.
Colorful lights blinked in a pattern on the balcony of the apartment next door and laughter came through the walls.
“I can’t, mother,” Aadi said. “I’m busy. There’s so much to be done, especially now that I’ve got a foothold at NASA. They’re considering giving me charge of my own team!”
“That’s great honey and we’re both proud of you,” his mother said. “But don’t you think you’re working a bit too hard? Shouldn’t you rest, spend a few days with us? Or do you already have plans with your friends?”
Those words felt like a knife stabbing his heart. “No. I have no plans.” It sounded like somebody was celebrating a birthday next door. Aadi didn’t even know who his neighbors were, as he was rarely ever home. Working all day.
“Then you can come home. Please. We miss you, Aadi.”
Aadi wanted to go. His heart screamed for it, to return home and spill out all his burdens. But he couldn’t say it. Like there was a steel hand clenching to his throat, Aadi could only listen to the celebration next door and his mother’s pained sigh over the phone.
“Honey,” mother asked. “Are you still there?”
Aadi swallowed. “I’ve got to go. Work to do. I’ll call you for new years, okay?”
“Okay. Love you, Aadi. Sleep well.”
“Love you too.”
He hung up. His throat hurt too much, the words barely crawling out. It was hard, so hard, pushing away the people he loved. But he had to. He loved his dreams more, and that was the only thing that got him through the pain.
On Christmas eve, with snow softly covering the world and families and friends gathered together, Aadi went back to work, alone.
The moment he sent the plans for a new type of spacecraft engine to his superiors, Aadi punched a hole straight through his heart. With that plan, he severed the last relationship he had left - the one with himself.
He had been working on this for so long that he had forgotten what was the point of it. He had lost sight of his dreams, instead becoming a laborer for the dreams of someone else. Sure, he told himself that it was just another step to achieving his own dream, but what was that dream again?
To go to space?
Or to perfect the fuel consumption of a rocket engine by 0,67%, reducing the costs of flight?
Oh, he led a team of his own alright. But the tasks he relayed to them were not of his own making - they were not the grand dreams of people flying to other planets and colonizing the cosmos. No, the work he was doing was a futile attempt to perfect a system that was unsuited for the task from the start.
He did it anyway. He figured that if he could do this, then his superiors would give him a green light for one of his projects, finally. It was just another sacrifice on the road to his dreams. But Aadi didn’t realize, not until he signed and sent those plans, that he had done the one thing he swore to himself he’d never do.
He sacrificed his dreams. In order to fulfill them.
It was so insane that he couldn’t believe it when he realized it.
He had been working so hard, sacrificing his relationships, his happiness, his own health and well being, his own values, all for what? A slightly more economic rocket engine?
He was a fool. A fool who didn’t see what he already had and went chasing after castles in the sky, climbing on ladders of empty promises, set up by people who cared only about seeing green numbers in their budgets.
He sold his dreams for 0,67% greater fuel efficiency.
Aadi returned to the hill where he watched the Perseid meteor shower all those years ago. It felt good to be back there, feeling the cold air and watching the clear skies above. He hadn’t realized how much he longed for a getaway until he took one.
After quitting NASA, Aadi had contacted all the old friends he could find, to apologize. He begged their forgiveness, admitting to the idiot he’d been. He called Indali. He visited his parents.
The people who supported him were always there, he just didn’t realize it. He always looked away, dismissing them as distractions from his dreams, wherein truth, he himself was the biggest distraction. His obsession with the need to know, to understand, to learn. To work. To achieve.
What did that bring him? Hands full of nothing to show for and a head full of unrealized dreams. He worked so blindly that the work itself became his dream - to drown his sorrow in it.
“I’m sorry,” he said to the wind. “Sorry to everyone for not seeing their support and their love. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for them as they were for me until my selfishness pushed them away. And most of all, I’m sorry that I betrayed my own dreams, making all those sacrifices mean nothing. I was, no, I am a fool!”
His pocket buzzed. Aadi sniffed, wiping the tears from his eyes, and fished out the phone. The screen blinded him in the pristine darkness.
He got replies from his friends, saying they wanted to see him. Indali asked how he was doing. His parents were inviting him to stay with them for a while. Also, there was an email, from SpaceX.
They wanted to meet with him. Apparently, they’ve heard of his ideas. Someone had put a good word for him.
Aadi smiled, choosing to respond to the people that loved him first.