Free Fall

The first thing Jack ever gave me was a bolt from Budbot’s head. He created the remote-controlled dog to protect everyone at the foster home. When Budbot mistook one of the foster boys for an intruder it tazed him with 50,000 volts.  Jack told his counselor he would add new safety protocols, but the counselor insisted the dog be euthanized. Jack gave me the bolt on my seventh birthday. He promised to use it to build Budbot II, a guardian to protect me, and keep me company when Jack could not be with me.

            At nine, Jack built a drone large enough to carry me. My mom saw me flying off the carport roof, jumped in her car, and frantically chased me to the foster home. The landing was perfect. I drifted slowly down onto the front lawn, and Jack helped me out of the harness.

            We stood holding hands while Mom screamed about our reckless behavior. We tried to keep straight faces and look contrite. We watched in silence as she put the drone in the road, took an Atlanta Brave’s baseball bat out of the SUV, and proceeded to give the drone a good beating.  Finally, to ensure it could not be resurrected, she backed up the SUV and drove over the crumpled remains. I was grounded for two months.

            Mom taught us an important lesson: we needed a secret lab. Jack found a place for us to hide out in an abandoned battery factory. He said we were safe from prying eyes as the ground was contaminated with lead. We called it the Bat Cave, and Jack said that one day there would be a plaque to mark his first research lab. He would be more famous than the Apollo astronauts.

            I made secret mission patches. The Apollo XIII patch had three golden horses transporting the sun god, Apollo, across the surface of the moon. The motto was Ex Luna, Scientia. Jack sought knowledge, I loved music. Two bats flew across the moon on our patches, and the motto was ex caverna, scientia et musica. I sewed the patches to the lining on the left sleeves of our jackets, hidden like our lab. We had a simple code: A flash of the patch meant we were to meet up at the lab after school. While Jack conducted his experiments, I practiced my violin.

            My mom never forgave Jack for building the drone. When she found Budbot II in my bedroom closet, he growled at her. She took special delight in wielding the baseball bat and renewed her efforts to keep us apart. We stayed one step ahead, and the Bat Cave served its purpose for three years.

...

            Jack made a rare appearance at my house. He stood on my doorstep and waved a letter triumphantly in my face. “I’ve been accepted! Full scholarship.”

            Tears rolled down my cheeks. “It’s so far away. You’re twelve and a half. Can’t you wait another year?”

            He hugged me tightly. “You need to make me a new patch.”

            “With their motto, the truth shall make you free?”

            “No, I want Ex Caltech, scientia sewn in my sleeve”

            “Et cor meum.”

            He looked me in the eye. “There will be no broken hearts. For me there is only you, always.”

...

            Jack was thousands of miles away and I filled the empty space with Bach’s canons.

...

            Six years later I followed him to Pasadena. My mom made a weak protest when I declined an offer from Juilliard and accepted a scholarship at the Colburn Conservatory of Music. Jack had already earned his Ph.D. and was working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. We had a small wedding at the city hall. Two of Jack’s co-workers served as witnesses.

...

            Jack’s hours were long, and some nights he slept on a sofa at the lab. On rare occasions he came home, and today was one of those glorious days.

            “What are you playing?”

            “Just warming up, it’s a piece from the Musical Offering. Unlike most of his works, this was actually published during Bach’s lifetime.”

            “It’s cute. Some physicists think there is an arrow of time. It marches forward like your music.”

            “Not this piece. To play it properly one person plays it forward while another plays it backward.”

            Jack walked over to the music stand. “Bach was a genius.”

            “Yes, I love two geniuses, one dead, one alive.”

            Peering over my shoulder, Jack pointed to a mirrored clef at the right end of the staff.

            “Very good, genius.”

            He ripped a small strip of paper from my music book.

            “Jack!”

            He grinned. He wrote I love you on both sides of the paper. “Tape?”

            “In the drawer.”

            He twisted the end of the strip and stuck the two ends together. “You can trace both sides with your finger without having to cross over the paper.” He handed it to me.

            “Weird. But not perfect: the writing on the back is backwards and upside down.”

            “A minor flaw.” He plucked one of my violin strings. “I’m getting closer to understanding spacetime.

Collapsing two dimensions into one like that Möbius strip is just the beginning.”

            “Black holes?”

            “Not just black holes. My propulsion system will fold spacetime, create ripples, and man will surf the cosmos.”

            “Woman too.”

            He smiled. “Not this woman. You will compose beautiful, earthly music, and I will broadcast it to the stars.”

            I put my violin in its case. “Well this woman needs a break from composing. Pizza and a movie?”

            “Pizza and bed!”

...

            Jack stood in front of the fridge holding the door open, staring at its contents. “Orion will never fly. It takes too long to ratify every decision.” He grabbed a carton of orange juice and took a big gulp. “We inch forward. That’s a good day. I made more progress working in the Bat Cave.”

            I laughed. “I’m amazed you were never discovered.”

            He turned to me grinning. “Of course, I was discovered. How do you think I got all that expensive equipment?”

            “The settlement from the car crash.”

            “Bradley Carpenter was fifteen when he killed my parents, and he didn’t have any insurance. I had a secret backer.” He ran his fingers through his hair. Can we move to Jiaquan?”

            “Where?”

            “The Gobi Desert.”

            My hand shook as I sipped my coffee. “I’ve only just started at Colburn.”

            “Yo-Yo Ma is Chinese.”

            “Yes, and he lives here in L.A., not the Gobi Desert.” 

            “My backer says it’s time.”

            “I have the chance to work with an orchestra.” I stared into his eyes, searching for understanding and approval. “I want to compose and hear my music played. I want you and my mom in the front row at Disney Concert Hall.”

            “Your mom hates me, so that’s not going to happen. I’ll sit in the balcony.” Taking my cup he drank my coffee. “They will launch in ten years.” He handed me back the empty cup and kissed me on the cheek. “Less if I take over as propulsion lead.”

...

            I think Jack was relieved I wanted to stay and pursue music and let him pursue knowledge. We agreed that after graduation I would join him in China, and we would start a family.

            Once again, he was thousands of miles away. When I played my violin the ache in my chest was lifted and suspended; I heard only music.

...

            Jack flew alone on Shòu before I had time to pack boxes. Shòu, a spacecraft named after the Chinese star god, the god of longevity. Jack joked that he would return a younger man, time would march forward at a different rate on board his spacecraft.

            He was far away. We sent messages wrapped in bottles of light. He said it is just like the frontier days, when brave citizens moved out West.

...

            Darling Jack, I’m the one living out West. I found a tarantula in the bathtub and you are not here to escort it outside, and Budbot III is not programed to deal with such small intruders. You are safe in your nice shiny spacecraft: no snakes, no coyotes, no mountain lions, and no spiders! I’m wide awake and practicing my piece. Rehearsal is going well. I love hearing my piece played. I have to say that again: my piece. I am officially a composer. I will imagine you sitting in the balcony on Friday. I will be playing to you my darling.

...

            Today I’m re-reading an old message for the hundredth time: My love I have not forgotten our dream. I made a cryogenic deposit with Cauldron Fertility Inc. before I left. I want you to start our family! I’ll be home in time for Junior’s first day of kindergarten. 

...

            Jack discovered a rogue black hole. He altered course. He was so excited to have the chance to be the first human to orbit a black hole. The first to see the shimmering orb that marked the crossing point between the laws of physics, as we know and love them - his words not mine - and the tangling of space and time. He altered course knowing that I would understand. My brain understood but my heart felt the heavy weight of the intervening years. The void without messages.

...

            I re-read a letter from the fertility clinic. Jack’s frozen sperm were viable and in safe storage, but I might wish to proceed soon or consider donor eggs.

...

            I’ve arrived at the crossing point. It’s amazing. Make me a patch!

...

            I miss you darling. I play your concert piece every day. It is fabulous.  The safest place for knowledge is quantum storage in a black hole. I don’t know how to do that yet, but I can broadcast your music. A probe is playing your piece in the form of laser pulses. Your music, my love, in orbit around the black hole, is a beacon not just for humankind, but to all of cosmos-kind.

...

            One line buried in a long message: My love, I’ve put the patch inside my sleeve. Our code: homecoming was no longer an option.

...

            I wanted Jack here in our house.

            Mom kept calling. She said that I should do the interviews; it would take my career to new heights. She did not understand, would never understand, why I loved Jack.

            The live feed, Man Hovering On The Edge Of The Abyss, was the most popular site in the history of the Internet. You crossed a new frontier Jack, and they paraded you like a sideshow freak. My music played as a soundtrack to accompany the video. The composition had taken on a new meaning and it haunted me.

            From earth, it appeared that Jack was inching his way towards the event horizon, so, so slowly. The world saw him, grinning wildly holding a placard declaring his love for me: Ex nigrum foramen, amare.

            Jack died instantaneously. Free-falling into the black hole, the tidal forces ripped him apart before his brain had time to register pain. I placed my hand on the screen. “I love you too, Jack.”  I needed to stop saying goodbye. I switched off my computer and reached for my violin.

Sarah Unger is an astronomer by day and a writer by night, though the two are interchangeable. Her first short story For The Love of Green was published in the November 2019 issue of Scribble, and this piece was short-listed in Scribble's 2019 Short Fiction Contest.