Roland Allnach, 2010
It was late, and freezing rain fell through the darkness, glistening before a pair of headlights. The world seemed like a crystalline dream, an ice coated fantasy that rolled past William’s car. He drove up a narrow mountain road, hands clenched on the steering wheel as he prayed his balding tires would hold traction. The sky was an impenetrable black, so deceiving for the veil of clouds that hid so much above. He began to tremble, his eyes darting to the folder on the seat next to him. Despite his better judgment, he pushed a little harder on the gas pedal, the anxiety to reach his destination overwhelming him.
He turned onto a dirt drive and aimed his old car between the bowed, silvery arches of evergreen trees, their branches slumping beneath the weight of the thickening ice. Soon enough the trees parted, retreating into the darkness to reveal a spacious log cabin beside a large, gravel-laden driveway. He parked the car, the motor bucking and gasping before going quiet as his eyes rested on the aquiline lines of a Euro-luxury sedan parked before the house. In the distance, poking above the trees, he could make out the shadowed dome of a private observatory, its telescope shutters closed against the elements.
He grabbed the folder, pulled up his hood, and hurried to the door of the cabin, the frozen gravel crunching like broken glass beneath his boots. His breath misted before him as he stood before the door, his hand halting the moment before he knocked. Should he disturb the professor so late at night, on this particular night? But then, it was such momentous news he carried in the folder, data they had waited so very long to collect, that held a revelation dwarfing all expectations. Nevertheless he looked over his shoulder to the lone sedan, knowing a second sedan was covered and stored in the cabin’s garage. It was not the eye of materialism that drew his gaze, but rather the eye of perspective. The absence of the other sedan, it seemed a matter of little consequence in relation to the wonder burning within the folder.
He drew in a breath and knocked on the door. It opened after a short wait. “Professor—”
Oleg Ilyanko narrowed his eyes for a moment. “William,” he greeted. “What is it that you are doing here on such a night?”
William opened his mouth, but held up the folder instead. “I’m sorry, but I had to.”
The professor debated with himself for a moment, his wide mouth sinking in a frown as his gaze sank behind his glasses. He took a breath, but then bobbed his head and opened the door for William. He watched his graduate student pass before him to stomp his boots clean in the foyer, the folder clutched under his arm. Oleg noticed that William’s usual nervous energy possessed something of a different nature, something other than the jitters of the horrid energy drinks he consumed while laboring so many nights in the university’s astrophysics lab. Oleg took his coat, an awkward exercise as William tried to maintain his protective grasp of the folder, before Oleg opened his hand to the living room, with its crackling fireplace and large, comfortable chairs.
William nodded, his gaze rolling over the room. It was such a quiet, peaceful place; serene was the word his girlfriend used, after Oleg had invited them to the cabin for his fortieth wedding anniversary. It was the last anniversary the Ilyankos would celebrate, for cancer devoured Oleg’s wife in the weeks that followed. William felt somewhat awkward intruding so soon after her passing, but he took it in stride, finding a lyrical—if somewhat callous—observation in the way events had juxtaposed.
Oleg sat in his chair, waiting with his usual patience, and perhaps with a little more, distracted by the grief secluded in the Siberian solitude of his emotions. He scratched at his close cropped beard, the silvery hair more than anything left upon the bare dome of his head. His glasses shone with the warm glow of the fireplace. “So, William,” he said, his voice coarse but low, “you bring me some data from our Odysseus probe, yes?”
William’s lips parted, but then he remembered the color-coded folder and nodded. His hands began to shake.
Oleg’s face fell. “Have we lost the probe?”
William’s eyes widened. “What? Oh, no; God, no, not at all. Odysseus is fine.”
Oleg tipped his head as William sat there, silent. “I am waiting, I should tell you,” Oleg said, trying to jar William.
William jerked upright in his seat, his hands opening from the folder, only to tremble once more as they hovered over its contents. “It . . . I, I—” William started, but then clenched his teeth. He closed his eyes, drew a breath to calm himself, and settled his hands on the folder before looking to Oleg. “Forgive me, it’s just that it’s hard to get my head around this. And before I tell you, I want to say a few things.”
Oleg opened a hand. “I grew up on Tolstoy, you should remember. Take your time.”
William licked his lips. “You have supervised the Odysseus program since before I was born. The probe was passing Jupiter before I could walk, and its destination in the Kuiper belt was something I didn’t even understand until I was in high school. All that time—all this time—Odysseus has been out there, in the dark and cold, sending us images and data, flying faster than anything humanity has ever put in space. Your program, your research papers, they led me to pursue astrophysics. You always tell me how imaginative I am, how creative I can be when it comes to thinking outside of the box, but I want you to understand something, and even though this is going to sound impossibly conceited, I say it with the utmost respect and humility. When I was little, I read some of the simple summaries about your papers. They opened such a depth of possibilities to me, this wonder of the universe and all its mysteries, that I felt there was something, somethingfinally big enough to match the size of my imagination, something to check and dispel the petty notions of self-centeredness that seem to plague so many people, including me.
“I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve laid in bed, staring at the ceiling, almost nauseous with the grandeur of it all, the sheer size of it, the endlessness of it. There’s a question in me, a question that unravels all my very human inclinations to delineate existence, and that is to ponder infinity, to wonder what the universe is expanding into, what it means to expand endlessly, to be there when the known spills into the unknown.” William shook his head, his eyes glazing before he blinked to regain his focus. “And for some reason I always thought of the Odysseus probe, reaching so far out from us to the Kuiper belt, that distant haven of comets and orbiting debris on the very edge of the tiny locale we call our solar system. Maybe it could answer some of that question, maybe witness a moment of the known breaching the unknown—a moment, a rapture of discovery, a birth of some new facet of knowledge that might change everything.”
Oleg folded his hands in his lap. “I think that perhaps you have had too many of your energy drinks, eh? Tell me, when is it that you last slept?”
William shook his head. “I can’t sleep,” he said at once. “I don’t think I’ll ever sleep again.” He took the folder and handed it to Oleg. “We thought the triumph of Odysseus was landing a sensor package on an asteroid in the Kuiper belt, the most distant navigated rendezvous of a man-made and a natural object. That is nothing compared to this.”
Oleg took the folder, but rather than opening it, he held his gaze on William. “And what, might I ask, is this?”
“It’s the first spectral analysis from the sensor package.”
Oleg drummed his fingers on the folder. “William,” he said softly, “what did you find?”
William leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees as he opened his hands. “If it wasn’t so impossibly preposterous, I might be inclined to doubt it.” He grinned. “I know how that sounds, but the known has spilled into the unknown, and I was there. Right now, I’m the only one, the only person on this planet, who knows, and I’ve brought it to you. I haven’t even showed Hannah yet. I drove here, instead of doubling back to our dorm, so I could tell you.” He drew in a deep breath. “The analysis, the analysis data I worked on, it says the object we landed on was covered by a thin layer of dust. That dust is among the oldest carbon material yet found in the solar system.”
Oleg opened the folder and pulled out the papers within. “And beneath the dust?”
To read the conclusion of "Apogee", view http://www.roseandthornjournal.com/Fall_2010_Prose1.html