Black sand squeezed between Leilani’s toes as she waded along the western shoreline. Stardust glazed light shimmered on lapping Pacific waves. As sea foam washed her bare ankles, a white smoke on the horizon captured her attention. The smoke widened until it became a billowing mountain consuming the horizon. Her vision shifted, and the approaching smoke was not a continuous flowing mass anymore. It obscured the surf, and she fell, clutching sand to crawl away. The mass loomed and transformed into a colossal school of translucent starfish flowing from the sea to the stars above.
At least, that’s how I imagine the dream she told me thirty-six years ago, when I was five. She woke me up that morning, crying. I don’t remember what I said, but I remember being scared for my older cousin.
Back then we lived with Tutu. White-haired, stoop-backed, smiling Tutu. She was a gift. The only gift Lani and I ever got, and all we had left of family. We stayed with her until we were teenagers when the heart attack took her. I don’t think of her now as often as I used to, except for whenever we pass through Hilo or at the passing scent of warm malasada. Nowadays, I’m more upset my memories of her are slipping away than at the thought of not having her anymore. Lani is strong, but we wouldn’t have made it anywhere without Tutu. When she died and the state stepped in, Leilani became my only constant. She kept me grounded and busy enough on surviving that I had no time to disappoint us both. She knew what path to take and made sure I was right behind her the whole time. I mean, I followed her right into astrophysics of all things. Me, a poor kid with a cousin caretaker, became an astrophysicist. All credit to her, it was her drive which led us to this moment at the Mauna Kea observatory.
Footsteps follow the click of a door latch. Still at my workstation, I call over my shoulder, “Morning, Cuz! You get food?”
“Everything you asked for. How much did you get done so far?” Eyeing my screens, she hands over breakfast: a hot dog, nachos, and sixteen ounces of canned, carbonated stimulant.
I crack open my drink to the sound and scent of blueberry fizz. “So, yeah, the software self-checks are satisfactory. I reverified HAF module communications and recalculated Earth’s relative velocity against both solar and galactic orbitals. We only need to point, grab, and analyze. I mean, if we miss it, we’ll just have to do this all over again tomorrow, right? Not a huge deal.”
“How about we just try to get it done tonight,” she replies. Leilani rolls a chair to her workstation to cross-check my preparations. I watch for several seconds before taking my hotdog outside to stargaze.
When our family became just us, death and the departed were forbidden topics. I had no idea why until about a year after Tutu passed away. We were outside the E-Z Wash looking for jobs when she brought up her dream for the second time. I wanted a cherry slush and was counting pocket change to make sure I could afford it. I was about to ask if she wanted one too when she elbowed me and pointed to this towering cumulonimbus hovering over the water.
She said like, “There, K. Right there, that was my vision!” Leilani had me by the shoulder, finger shaking at the sky, and her grip was so tight, I froze. Before I could say anything, she continued, eyes unflinching in the sky’s brightness, “Your parents, my parents, Tutu? They’re gone. They can’t hear us. They can’t see us. They went to the sky and will never come back. We are alone. Alone!” With that, she walked off into the parking lot, and I was speechless, stunned. We didn’t speak of it again.
What I didn’t know was how much Leilani obsessed over her dream. She built a research reputation only so no one would question the development of the Heavens Apparent Filter system. It was a feat keeping her fixation secret. Even after encouraging me to follow her and getting me accepted to her department, she never discussed any of this with me. That is, not until I also earned my PhD.
A cool gust skims across the rocks. I hear Lani say, “Hey. Everything looks good to start. Are you ready for this trial run?”
“Heaven can’t wait, right?” She shuts the door without answering.
Back inside, I roll to my desk and hover my finger over the mouse button, ready to execute the start script. “So, if we find your dream out there, will you be happy?”
Leilani’s eyes don’t leave her screen. “I don’t know. I really, truly don’t know. If my vision is true, we’re cultural apostates. If it’s false…”
“Then we market the HAF to recover cost and not get fired?” I glance over to catch a faint smile. “If this does work, is this knowledge you want to have? I mean, thinking about our parents, Tutu, Kaekane and the girls? Is this something we want?” Not the slightest move at having heard me. “We don’t have to do this. Heaven can continue being heaven.”
Finally, motion. She shrugs, typing away. “What is heaven? A celestial plane in the stars? Some cloudy landscape separate from the world? Do you know?”
“Obviously not, I-,” I start, getting cut off.
“For that matter, what is hell, but to be separated from all you love?” She leans back in her chair and places an index finger on the “enter” key, finally looking away from the screen. “What if it is only a matter of opinion?”
With that, the ethereal wake of Earth’s solar orbit is on eight computer screens. The black expanse of space dotted, no, filled with-
“There!” I yell. “There it is!” A pixelated white trail of thousands of disparate white objects concentrated in the bottom of the screen, closest to Earth, thinning into a singular, curved line into space. “No way,” I whisper.
“Look! The larger ones in the bottom corner! Each entering the capture area is… oh, Kea!” Wonderment lifts her voice. “Look at them! Th-they’re just drifting away from us, all of them!” As realization sets in, her tone sinks with every word, and her hands shoot up to cover her mouth.
“No, Cuz, look at them! They’re touching each other! They’re connected, like, like a bridge! See? Here? These? They are connected! I bet they connect all the way back, all the way to the beginning! You see it? Do you see the same thing I’m seeing? You know what this is right? You, me, Tutu, all our ancestors, to the beginning! This is our connection!”
“Do you really think…” Wet trails on her cheeks, she reaches for the mouse to snapshot an image, then says with trembling composure, “Look at the shapes, you can see… you can see them. There are so many, K.”
“Earth only tethers the living,” I whisper. “Right? That was the theory?” I squeeze with numb hands and watch the screen as she returns to the video. White starry bodies float and reset in a continuous thirty-second loop.
She makes a sound like a sob and chuckle in one breath, murmuring, “I can’t tell you if I’m happy or sad, but I’m, I’m here. I am here.”
“And I’m right here with you, Cuz. This moment, it’s all you.”
“Maybe Tutu is here on this screen.” She draws in a breath. “I need some time to digest this. Let’s take a break. The thirty second trial was a success.” She swallows. “We need to analyze this. Verify trial data coherency. When we’re satisfied, we start actual data runs.”
I nod. Leilani, seated now, is staring at her hands. I want to flush out the silence and fill the room with justified celebration about what this recording means to her, me, everyone! I want to pull her from her inner thoughts and soul-searching to be in this present!
But I know better. This is her moment.
I replay the video, staring, repeating whatever it is I’m really seeing. Over and over, thousands of pixelated people drifting toward heaven. Or hell? Is this tragedy or blessing to see the cherished dead sail away? Maybe Tutu is beyond the Kuiper. Maybe she’s scared, maybe excited for a new adventure, chatting up her neighbor like she used to in life. Maybe her neighbor’s holding hands with another stranger who’s passing along the prayers and wishes of us back home. Or, it’s as lonely out there as it is here, and they keep the same constant companion during the eternal drift until the universe finally hits the big freeze. I make one last key stroke and rise to hug Leilani. One thing I am certain of, loneliness doesn’t mean we are alone.