He comes to me in pieces as I watch the stillness of space, envisioning new constellations in the array of unrecognized stars. I trace the sparks of light with my finger, connecting the dots and smudging the glass as a result.
How many stars do you think there are in space? I imagine him asking. Can there really be other ones out there as big as or even bigger than the sun?
I always admired his genuine curiosity, how he viewed things with a particular interest, how he saw me. He was the one that organized our sleepovers, the one that nudged me to sign up for afterschool activities such as the chemistry club and the robotics team.
Can you build me a mechanical arm that'll change the channels on the TV's remote, so that way I don't have to? He once asked sarcastically. How about a drone that we can use to spy inside the girls' locker room, huh? Wouldn't that be neat?
When we were kids, he would give me piggyback rides and run with me through the sprinklers across watery arches with captured rainbows. We'd go back home, and my mother would scold us while our shivering bodies shared a single towel, and in the end, he'd shine me a blue-lipped smile with his crooked teeth.
That was fun, wasn't it?
Our childhood adventures involved trips to the public pool, wet t-shirts, and popsicles mucking up our fingers under the August sun. He'd take me to his baseball team's practices, and I'd watch him bat while I built rovers and complex constructs out of legos on the bleachers.
Booyah! He'd shout after a home run. I'd cheer or clap, and he would always gleam and say the same thing. It's going, it's going, gone. Kiss that puppy goodbye.
A few years later, our tastes matured, slipping our summers into memories and substituting them for leather jackets and motorcycle rides on the empty freeway. He and I would stop on the roadsides by green fields that looked blue under the night sky. We'd sit under the blanket of stars and watch the moon while dreaming up our futures after high school.
I'm going to apply for a sports scholarship and get the fuck out of this town, he'd always say. How about you?
I don't know. I shrugged. Maybe I'll go work with my dad as an apprentice at his accounting firm.
What? Come on, man, you got to apply for university too. You're a freakin brainiac. I'm sure you could get into any school.
Out the bay window, I see the lunar triplets: Euphrosyne, Aglia, and Thalia dancing around what the New Worlds Association likes to call Undine, the flooded, blue planet, equivalent in size to Jupiter, that I've been studying for what would be measured, on planet Earth, as eight months.
The journey to this specific star system took four years. The rest of the crew and I have enough resources to last another sixteen Earth months. By then, we'll have made a substantial dent in our research. Our food, water, fuel, along with our tolerance for the presence of one another, will have depleted, and we'll go into cryosleep for our return. A decade, that's how long we'll have been apart.
So you'll be asleep, frozen in a coffin for about eight years?
I assured him that it was completely safe, that I wouldn't die in transport.
But doesn't that mean that you'll come back looking almost the same as when you left? Won't you technically be younger than me?
I think about his current age. How it's already been more than four years, and how unfair it must have seemed to him; that he'd miss me in the entirety of all that elapsed time while I'd be sleeping almost all the years away, except for two.
Sometimes I wonder if he tells his other friends and customers about me. My buddy's up in space, I imagine him saying. What's he doing up there? He's researching a new planet, someplace better than this shit hole we're destroying.
Undine registers an oxygen signature similar to Europa and planet Earth. The oceanic surface covering the entire planet could host a form of phytoplankton or an entirely new plant species capable of producing oxygen as a byproduct of their natural photosynthetic process. In other words, Undine could, in theory, host life.
If I'm being honest with myself, sometimes I feel that my role on this ship isn't as relevant as the other crew members' works. That perhaps what I'm doing isn't as impacting, that it's less exciting. I'm not spacewalking or trying to merge chemical compounds under zero-gravity conditions. I barely passed the physical exam, and my score on the simulatory emergency program ranked me as the fifth in command if anything were to happen to our pilot or the others of my crew.
So what? He'd fire. You'll still be one of the few guys part of the human race to have ever gone up to space. You'll still have broken records, be mentioned in the history books. You'll have gone places no one has ever been to.
It was always like him to see the bright side in situations. When he didn't get his full-ride to college, he applied for the town's undergrad program at the local college. Don't worry, man, I'm still going to make it back and get myself out of this place.
When he couldn't juggle both his academic life and work to help his folks pay the bills, he still didn't crumble under all the pressure. I'll take a break this semester, and then on the next one, I'll go back.
He never returned to school to finish his undergrad. Maybe college just isn't for me. He opted to continue working, helping out his folks, and eventually went to, and finished, trade school. I'm thinking about opening a restaurant. He told me years ago. What about you, what are you thinking about doing with your life, huh, Mr. Big Shot Imma certified scientist?
I laughed at his remark. I don't know, I answered. I guess I could teach or go for my Ph.D.
What? But you just finished school, now you're thinking about going back? He commented while scratching his beard. He tugged on the bill of his baseball cap and shook his head in disapproval. You're nuts, man!
Yeah? And what do you think I should do?
If I were as wicked smart as you, I'd go to the moon!
Scientists are some of the professionals that, depending on their branch of specialization, are often courted by big-money tech companies and international organizations. He heard about a space program from one of his faithful customers, a man that worked as a research assistant for the state university who always ordered a bear claw with a large cup of coffee and a BLT for the road.
He told me how the New Worlds Association was looking for people to blast off, in his own words, into space. That the money I'd receive would leave me set for life.
He was the one that showed me the association's website. It says here you have to send them a paper or something explaining your qualifications, along with an idea for a project applicable in space, highlighting a specific area of research. Does that sound like something you could do?
Huh? I was distracted at first by the site's banner, a rocket blasting off into the moon, pointing like an arrowhead to the unknown. I think so, I answered, correcting myself. But —
But what if I get accepted? That's what I should have asked. But what if they don't think I'm qualified enough? What if I'm rejected?
Then they're crazy, he snapped back. You're the most intelligent person I know! No way, they'd reject you.
I pitched him my project several times, letting him serve as my judge and jury. The idea was simple, build a compact, remote-operated device that could probe the oceanic planet of Undine.
Do you mean like a robotic hand?
Exactly, think of it like a hand that's also like a drone, I said. A machine that could enter the planet and try to collect data on whether there are any living organisms present in the planet's aquatic terrain or not. If the scan is positive, it'll extract several samples for me and the crew. Some of these samples can undergo analysis and testing while in space, and others could be stored in a controlled environment on the spacecraft and transported back home with us.
He stared at me for a few seconds, his eyes wide and his mouth nearly dangling from his jaw like a bell.
So...what do you think?
I think you're going into space.
The admiration in his eyes was stunning and had me gleaming like a young boy. Who knows, maybe we'll even stop by the moon on our return?
The probe, Michaelangelo, named by myself, will enter Undine's domain in approximately two weeks. From our current distance, the device's descent will take anywhere from two to three days. That's when my mission will reach its zenith and when things could get dicey. I'll have to watch over Michaelangelo as if it's a newborn child learning to swim. I'll also have to frequently analyze Undine's tidal patterns and climate while observing the incoming data as soon as Michaelangelo departs from the spacecraft.
Do you think Michaelangelo will make it out of that place in one piece? he asked with a worried expression as if the probe was a living creature, a pet cat or dog.
I think so. I'm working with a pretty big budget, and it'll be made exclusively for the mission.
Knowing you'll be the one to build him, I'm sure he'll be great! No, I'm wrong. Michaelangelo will be better than great. He'll be fucking perfect.
I'm glad one of us is feeling confident, I returned, leaning back into his sofa. He plopped himself right beside me, threw his arm over my neck, and pulled me into his orbit with such savagery that we ended up rolling onto the floor. He flipped himself over, partially resting his chest over mine, don't be so hard on yourself. I believe in you.
I'll miss you, you know that, right? I gushed. We hadn't talked about the possibility of my leaving, camouflaging the void that would be left behind with excitement and speculation. My eyes at that moment reddened, burned much like they always do whenever I think of him.
Hey, it'll be a good opportunity for you, won't it? You'll be doing something you're good at, something that could help everyone back here on planet Earth.
Onboard the spaceship, there's a mechanic who's responsible for repairs and keeping the ship functioning, who sometimes also gets the chance to soar like an acrobat in the depths of space. We have a medic doing research on the proliferation of diseases under low gravity conditions.
They all sound like show-offs, that's what!
There's also a physicist and a botanist. Our pilot's one of the few men to have traveled multiple times to the moon and Mars, as well as a skilled photographer who captured high-definition photos of cosmic dust clouds, and then there's me, a certified scientist, as he'd like to say.
A certified scientist who won himself a round trip ticket to space.
Weeks before my leave, we were lying close to one another in a field of dark-blue grass. You're going to do big things up there, he said. He turned and shined me his crooked smile. And when you're back, everyone is going to know your name.
You know I don't care about any of that stuff. I'm much more interested in seeing the planet with the three moons.
I swear, man, only you.
Everyone here talks about their projects, comments on how much they miss their family. Our captain left his wife three months pregnant back home, our mechanic and our medic, two kids each. When they turn to me and ask if I've left anything important behind, the first person that comes to mind isn't my mother or father, a house or a car; it's him.
I'm the quiet one up here. Space is already deathly silent, but it and I enter into staring contests with each other through the bay window, my eyes versus Undine's three moons. I watch them, the triplets that grace the aquatic planet, drawing up conclusions as to what might occur if one of the lunar bodies were to simply explode. Obviously, there'd be no sound, but I'd watch the floating remnants, mesmerized by the rubble as if catching the sight of fallen snow.
In this particular star system, aside from all the planets and moons spread out across the field of space, there's also a bright celestial body similar to the sun back home. The lone star is distant from everything, the same way that I'm years away from my planet and from the only person more important to me than anything in the whole universe.
How do you think things will be like once I'm back? I asked him before I left for my physical and mental training.
What do you mean? He returned.
Will we still be —
You're kidding, right? Come on, I know you're smarter than that.
He hugged me, and for a moment, I wished he had begged me not to go. I considered the idea of staying, of resisting the money, and even the chance to see the moon.
Promise me you'll be here when I get back.
I wouldn't dream of leaving this place without you. I'll be here waiting for you. Me, and this planet with nothing but a single moon.
At times I question myself. What's so great about a planet that's essentially all water and almost no detectable land? And I'll hear him saying how we could build floating houses or architectural structures like the Maldives, or that we can bring out a boat from Earth just like Noah's Ark and spend our days searching the blue world for a paradisiac island. Who knows, maybe we could even live in underwater domes like The Atlanteans?
I'll nod and chuckle to myself and say sure as if it's all so simple. I'll picture us both on Undine drifting together in its never-ending pool. He and I, in our own private world, where we'll swim in our t-shirts and play with Michaelangelo.
Before I left, he gave me an envelope, open it only once you're far away from Earth. It's because of what he wrote that I know I'll return, that I'll tell him everything, from what I saw to what I dreamt. I'll say how much I remembered, how much I missed him, and I'll repeat the exact verse he wrote at the end of his letter; three words more significant to me than Undine and its three moons.