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Driving toward her apartment, Val thought about April Ellis again. Of course she’d thought of April often enough in the past two years, but never as a potential friend or confidant. A slender woman with long red hair, April had been a gracious host, taking Val on a two hour tour of the Large Binocular Telescope atop Mt. Graham to the east of Tucson. But while standing beneath two massive mirrors, each over twenty-seven feet across and mounted on a tilting hydraulic platform that weighed over five hundred tons, April had also described her own career path as though explaining the workings of a high tech laser. Ever since high school—ironically graduating the same year as Val—April had successfully climbed a ladder of calculated professional achievement, first majoring in math and science before earning a doctorate in astrophysics. In a male dominated field, her focus had centered on the development of galaxies, on black hole formation, and on the theoretical influence of dark matter on the birth of large scale structure. She’d even authored papers on her research for Astrophysical Journal, and had been awarded a Magellan prize for outstanding contribution to astronomy. There’d been no designation “By a Female Under 40,” and no mention in Entertainment Weekly, either. She’d done it on her own, without the aid of luck, and all because she’d followed her bliss, oblivious to the vain machinations of back seat drivers.
    Jealousy, Val thought. That was the reason she hadn’t called April. Faye, instead. Now if only she knew what to say. Or to ask.
    Passing Tucson Mall, Val did another impulsive U-turn back into its parking lot, partly out of frustration. The lot was already nearly full of cars for an evening of ritual window shopping. Inside, and walking past the entrance to Sears, she noted nothing unusual. Whatever had happened here was over, now, and life had returned to what people habitually referred to as “normal.”
    She ordered an iced mocha latte at a coffee kiosk, and strolled with it along the lower level, looking at all the patrons who dawdled past salespeople hawking chic jewelry, designer shoes, glazed sticky buns, framed art. As she considered whether to call April or not, she picked out a few people at random, and deliberately focused her attention on them. A gangly kid in a white uniform meticulously swept small fragments of crumbs and dust at the front of a pretzel shop. An elderly woman clutched a maple cane in one bony arm as she squinted at the jar of face cream she’d just purchased. Three bored teenage boys huddled around their taco franchise register while waiting for customers, one of them twirling a gold chain. And an old geezer in a unbefitting cardigan stared out from his perch on the central fountain’s retaining wall like a bone frozen iguana from a sculptured rock.
    Reciting a line from an old Beatles song, the voice in Val’s head returned to offer up a comment, almost casually:   
    Look at all the lonely people. . .where do they all come from?
    Somehow, she realized, it didn’t matter where they came from, or where they were going, on any celestial scale. And it wouldn’t really matter to anyone on Earth but them, either, until they became famous or rich or criminal. Because average working class folks who went to the mall were mostly invisible, even to each other. After someone took their money, they were told to have a nice day, whatever that meant. No one really cared what they thought, except as it influenced what they bought. It wouldn’t be much, in any case. Just enough to survive, or to imagine themselves as stylish, or at least in possession of a choice. If choice it truly was.  
    They’re dots of light on an astrophotograph, suggested the voice in her head. Like grains of sand on a boundless beach.    
    “Me, I wanna be something colorful, like a nebula,” she told the voice, aloud. Although not loud enough that anyone else heard.
    She paused next to admire a pair of purebred Collie puppies in the triangular window of a pet shop. One of the lively brown pups chomped playfully on the other’s ear, and for a moment Val wondered if Melissa Melendez had been found here, her little hands splayed out on the glass, entranced by the canine antics. Then she aimlessly strolled through clothing stores, gift shops, and finally Neiman Marcus, unimpressed by its elaborate displays of perfume endorsed by glamorous ‘It’ people, who were always young and rich and famous, which was what everyone imagined ‘It’ to be all about. Finally circling back to the atrium, she paused instinctively outside the mom-and-pop shop called View Finders. It was the mall’s camera outlet, but featured half a dozen refractor and reflector telescopes in the front window, alongside various plexiglass-mounted cameras: Pentax, Minolta, Leica, Nikon. And again, like the last time she’d visited, she decided that the cameras and the photo-processing equipment were probably only to help pay the rent for the owner’s true obsession: astronomy.  
    I could have been April, she realized, with sudden clarity.  
    She stood frozen by the notion for an instant, her head bowed, forehead furrowed in memory. Then she shook her head, as though struck by the thought like a blow.
    I could have been April.
    She’d flashed on the idea before, of course, but this time the revelation seemed beyond mere whimsy. Vividly, she now recalled how her parents had discouraged her interest in science. It was an inappropriate career choice for a girl, hadn’t they said? Yes. Too distant and too impersonal, the exploration of wispy blue veils of hydrogen gas illuminated by some double star cluster like NGC 1850. Besides, the physics involved. . . women just didn’t have the unique capacity for such abstract conception. No, she would do better in business or communications. Pursue that, dear. Nevermind if one day she might end up sitting on a park bench, wondering why she’d never felt truly alive or engaged with anything or anyone around her. Why she didn’t even have her own family as compensation.
    Val fished out her cell, her hand shaking, now, in deciding at last to conduct her own research experiment. Even if it was over a decade too late.
    “Hello, April?”
    “It’s Valerie Lott, remember me? I did a piece on you back when you won that honor. For KTAT?”
    “Oh, hi Valerie. What can I do for you?”
    “Well, I. . . I’m not sure. I just wanted to touch base. I mean, it’s been a while, and so I was wondering if there’s been any new developments. What are you working on now?”
    A pause before a detectable flatness invaded the astronomer’s tone. “We’re mapping the density of dark matter perturbing the light from a distant quasar in Cygnus.”
    “A gravitational lens?” Val asked.
    “That’s. . . right.” A touch of surprise.
    “Is anything else there to measure it? Besides the degree that the quasar’s light is being bent into multiple images?”
    “Yes, actually. There’s an elliptical galaxy whose velocity we can track in relation to the other galaxies in a nearby supercluster.” A pause. “You seem to know something about astronomy. But then, I seem to remember that about you.”
    “What I know isn’t much. Just the basics. What fascinates me is that we still don’t know much about the true nature of the universe. Dark matter, dark energy. . . supposed to be over seventy percent of everything, and yet we don’t really know what it is, do we? I mean you, of course.”
    “That’s what we’re trying to determine, yes. . . by calculating the effects of gravity from these anomalies on the velocities of what we can see. It’s one way to measure the missing mass. Doesn’t tell us what it is, yet, but these incremental mapping studies add to the research database, and. . .” April paused again, with suspicion this time. “Where we going with this? You want another interview? Because this isn’t exactly news. Not yet, at least. Although, if you’re fishing for a lead, I could refer you to–“
    “No, no, thanks,” Val interrupted. “I was just thinking about space. About emptiness, I mean. Like is space really empty, or are there unseen forces, maybe coming from higher dimensions.”
    “I see.”
    “Like gravity, for instance. What is it? Even Einstein wasn’t sure, was he? A warp in spacetime, sure, but does it leak between these other dimensions? If it does, could we use it to communicate instantly across vast distances somehow?”
    “I’m not sure,” April replied, her voice already starting to resemble Val’s own in talking to Trish Slater.
    “Sorry, I mean you. Then there’s the Big Bang, which could have been a kind of white hole instead of a black hole. And what was before the Big Bang, do you think?”
    “As far as we know, there was no before.”
    “Empty space?”
    “No space at all.”
    “How could there be no space at all?”
    “Listen, Valerie, I. . .” Really should go now.
    “I understand.” A long pause without response. “Sorry to bother you like this. Just one more question?”
    “What’s it about?”
    “It’s about time. Is time an illusion? What’s your opinion?”
    A sigh. “I’m not sure I have time. It’s a big question. I would say, if time depends on the relative velocity of the observer, and according to Einstein gravity acts on matter the same as acceleration does, it makes sense that infinite gravity would equal infinite velocity, and time would stop completely, too. So in that sense it is an illusion. Space and time are not absolutes. They can be bent by gravity, just as light is bent.”
    “Bent into another dimension, another reality? The one true reality, where all the elemental forces combine into a unified whole? The emptiness from which we came?”
    April laughed. “You surprise me, once again. Call back, when I have more time?”
    “I will,” Valerie promised. Count on it.


© 2012 by Jonathan Lowe, excerpted from The Miraculous Plot of Leiter & Lott.