A short story by Todd Outcalt
Todd Outcalt is the author of more than thirty books that have been translated into six languages. He writes nonfiction as well as fiction and poetry, including books on cancer survival, relationships, and religion. He has written for such magazines as American Fitness, Leadership, Cure, and Rattle. Todd lives in Brownsburg, Indiana, and enjoys hiking, kayaking, and travel.
PHASES Phase 1
Phase 1 When the last bell sounded, Gordon collected his textbooks and headed for the observatory. Cheers were going up in other classrooms, their echoes parsing spring from summer, but it was not yet June and Gordon still had work to do. He could not yet fall under the spell of base-
ball, not when he still had the Heisenberg paper to write and the reports due on Max Planck and Oppenheimer. It would be a short summer, and he wanted to get a head start in the rocketry class. That, and there was the application to complete. He needed an endorsement. Flowing against the grain of the school exit, where hundreds of his classmates were now chucking the remnants of their knowledge into the garbage cans, Gordon made his way up the back stairs toward the observatory, hopeful that she would be waiting for him. She was, of course, going to help him get to the stars, having been there herself. Atop the stairs, near the entrance to the observatory, Gordon offered a hearty “hello” when their eyes met, and he rushed to help her along with her cane as she struggled with the latch key. “Professor Lee,” he said, “let me help you.” She was a stout woman, but frail in her mid-eighties, her voice weak but her blue-eyed vision keen. Intimidating she was not, but Professor Lee did command an unselfish attention to detail, if not an honest respect. Few students dared to enroll in her class — and she could be demanding. “Gordon,” she said, “are you the only one going the distance this summer? You still believe you can get into the program?”
“I’m writing my papers now,” Gordon said, opening the observatory door for her. “I’ve completed my application. All I need is your endorsement.” “You always have that,” she told him—her left hand trembling on the knob of her cane. “And I should know. I felt the same way when I applied over sixty years ago. It was a long shot for me then, but I was the first woman. To break free of gravity you have to build momentum, and momentum comes from hard work and sacrifice. Look at me now. I’ve come a long way.” “Do you have any regrets?” Gordon asked, helping to steady his
mentor as she made her way toward her seat near the control panel. “None,” she said as she eased into the chair. “But if you could go back…“ “…I can’t go back,” she said forcefully. “Not at my age. It would not be permitted. But a young buck like you…“
Phase 2 Gordon removed a paper from his backpack, cognizant of the fact that Professor Lee would appreciate the oldschool presentation instead of the digital-
tablet version. He placed the clipped research paper on the top of the panel, but didn’t force his ideas. He knew she would get to his work in due time. “I’ve just completed this paper on Schrodinger,” he said, “and I hope to finish another on Newton by the end of the week. That, and of course, I know I need to get my time behind the controls. You said you could get me an hour or two on one of the back-up modules this weekend... after the crews complete their training.” “I’ve spoken to the committee,” she told him, her voice trembling slightly as she reached for the stainless steel rim of the giant telescope. She pressed a button and, amid whirls and whirligigs and cogs, the dome of the observatory began to open and the scope moved closer to her
face. “I assume you’ve spoken to your parents about this.” Gordon placed his backpack on the terrazzo floor and sat down next to his mentor. “Well, I was born here,” he said. “And I talk to my parents when I can. They are in full compliance. Of course, I would love to see them again. I’ve got the proper documents... if that’s what you are asking.”
The scent of warming oil wafted through the observatory as the cogs turned and opened the dome like a giant eye toward the setting sun. Professor Lee faced Gordon for a moment before squinting. “Getting into the program, you will discover, is the easy part. Going the distance is the
difficult journey.” “Fifty-four and a half million kilometers,” he said. “On a good day,” the professor laughed, lowering her face toward the eyepiece. Gordon, nineteen and first in his class, ran his fingers through his thick curly hair and studied the various buttons and lights on the panel.
The observatory telescope, the largest of its kind, tilted slightly on its axis. He allowed his gaze to follow the sleek line of the scope to where it emptied into a clear, translucent bubble, red clouds scurrying beneath the giant lens, the first of the stars beginning to appear higher in the apex of the sky. “What was it like?” Gordon asked suddenly.
“What was what like?” asked the professor. “To be out there,” Gordon continued. “To be the first. To blaze the trail.” “Frightening,” she laughed — a lilting word, song-like, that seemed to stick in her throat. “And then exhilarating.”
Gordon swallowed hard, hoping that Professor Lee would remember more, especially important details, and be willing to share them. “I suppose it was frightening, in part, because of the infant technology?” “In part,” the professor admitted. “But the distance, the time, requires so much more of a person. Power of concentration. Precision. And of course, back then, it was also the isolation.” “That won’t be a problem for me,” Gordon said without thinking. “I tend to
be a loner. I have few friends.” Professor Lee wrested her attention from the eyepiece of the telescope and looked hard at Gordon. Her face was spotted with age, even with rugged perseverance, but she was soft in her approach. “You will need to have many friends if you are accepted. No one is an island. Not among the stars.” “I’m sorry,” he said... “I just meant that—“ “It will be necessary to test your limits,” she added. “But they are limits supplied and emboldened by many hands. No human achievement is solitary. There are always others, even if we are building new
knowledge upon the previous foundations of discovery. And that is why we write.” Gordon glanced down at his research paper again, wished that he had spent more time working on the law of thermodynamics. He blushed to think that he was still learning, ever the novice, just a kid with a dream. But the professor did not leave him there. “Gordon,” she said, “humility is our greatest ally. Pride is the real enemy. The moment we believe we have arrived, that we know enough, that we can solve all problems... that is the most frightening place. It is also a cold place. This is what I meant by isolation.”
“I understand,” Gordon said, hoping that it was so. Professor Lee, angling her face toward the telescope once again, asked Gordon to set the coordinates. “Let’s review,” she said. “Venus should be visible now. Take us there.”
Phase 3 Gordon adjusted controls and settings, entered numbers, checked the coordinates as the monstrous lenses shifted inside the cylinder and the cogs, polished with fine oil, stirred in their precise moorings and rotated the stainless steel tonnage inside the dome. The sun, having set be-
neath the clouds, gave up its light and the night sky emerged against the translucent screen, the white spray of the Milky Way appearing as bands of spilled stars against the dark canvas. “Very good,” Professor Lee said. “Venus, dead center and looking very friendly tonight.”
Shifting in her seat, she allowed Gordon to press his face against the eyepiece. In quick succession, she also gave Gordon other assignments — Mercury, the moons of Jupiter, double stars, distant galaxies. “Of course, charting your way is only part of the journey,” she said. “You still need the math, the trigonometry, the physics. And you will need more help with the unknown.” Gordon was beginning to relax as he settled into the rhythm of conversation, feeling at last the friendship of kindred spirits, of generations, even. “I appreciate you telling me these things,” he said at last as he punched in new coordinates.
“It is necessary,” she told him. “That, and my impact is diminishing. You might be the last student I will have the opportunity to endorse. My influence with the committee is not what it used to be. So much has changed. And you have to remember... I am now working at a great dis-
tance, which is also a disadvantage.” Gordon understood what Professor Lee was saying. He felt isolated, too. But at least she was in his corner. “Is there anything else I can do?” he asked. “Have I done all that I can?” “You’ve done very well, Gordon,” she affirmed, her gaze and attention stolid at the eyepiece. “Now patience will be a virtue. And perhaps a
bit of good luck.”
Phase 4 He smiled at the thought of being admitted to the program. But he also knew that few were selected. If chosen, he would be among an elite group — and a small group, at that. He also would be the youngest ever. Gordon punched in new coordinates and watched as Professor Lee an-
gled her face toward the stars. “You’ve come a long way already,” Professor Lee told him. “You’ve made amazing progress in your senior year.” It was true. But Gordon didn’t feel like celebrating with the other students. Rather, like certain distant stars he was studying, he sensed that
his light was just now reaching the places that mattered, his brilliance now at the point where he could be observed by others. Part of him was dying, or had already died in the graduation, and now he was gravity, pulling others into orbit around his nucleus. Professor Lee was correct — he would need the support, the new moons, the others offering their mass and gravity to his application. Looking up beyond the clarity of the dome, Gordon was grateful for the stars,
for the sun that would guide him on his way and pull him, eventually, home. “Why don’t we have a look,” Professor Lee said at last. “Let’s see what’s happening on that third rock.” Gordon dredged up the coordinates from his memory and entered them into the control panel. The telescope whirred and pivoted on its oiled axis, the last of the bronzed and sandy clouds scurrying past the dome, leaving a brilliant and clear sky in their wake. Beyond the translucent sheath, the lenses found their mark, and Professor Lee smiled at she wrested her gaze away from the eyepiece and handed her seat over to
Gordon. “It looks like a calm night back home,” she said. Gordon settled into the center seat and gently placed his face against the cheek rests. He peered into the eyepiece and discovered that his coordinates were spot on. The Earth, a brilliant blue marble, was centered in his vision and, pasted against the deep background of illimitable space, seemed to appear out of the void much like a painting on a black velvet canvas. “By the way,” Professor Lee said, “congratulations on your graduation. May it serve to remind you that every ending is a new beginning.”
Gordon smiled at the thought as he studied Earth, hoping that his application would be accepted and that he could, with the committee’s endorsement, be the youngest to return. He hoped to blaze that trail. “I know you will miss Mars,” Professor Lee whispered in his ear. “But you will have much to tell, and much to teach, when you arrive.” Gordon hoped for this graduation, too. He thanked his mentor. And then he settled his gaze against the eyepiece and studied Earth for a long, long time.