Cramming

by Leo David Orionis

When you open your eyes, at first you see nothing.  The blackness appears absolute; then, as your eyes adjust, you begin to see faint specks of light here and there.  Are these the stars, you wonder?  But they seem too faint, and too diffuse.

It occurs to you that you're floating.  It seems that you should feel like you're falling, but apparently your body doesn't think so, or has long ago adjusted.  Long ago?  You have no idea how long.  Suddenly you notice a reflection on the glass before you and realize two things: you're wearing a helmet, and there's something bright behind you.

You wish you could turn to look, and as you wish, the faint dots swim past your eyes.  You are turning.  Somehow, though you've forgotten the mechanism, you need only wish it and your body turns around.

There swims into view before you a bright object, round and flat to your eyes, with bright spirals winding into a central round brightness.  It hurts your eyes for a moment, after staring into the black.

You wish you were closer, and the object begins to grow.  It stops when it is right in front of you.  You reach out, and your hand passes through it.  There is no sensation in your hand, and the object is undisturbed.  It makes you feel like a ghost, and you withdraw your hand quickly.

Still you want to see better.  You lean forward, and the thing is magnified again.  You see that what seemed solid is actually made up of uncountable blobs, many of them bright, some of them dark.  The disk is solid with objects, but the ones in the spirals are brighter than the others, which makes them stand out.  In the center the bright dots are so closely packed that they seem a solid thing.

There is a three-dimensional structure to the object; it isn't flat, as you first thought.  The disk has a definite thickness, though it's very slight compared to its diameter.  The central luminosity is a definite bulge.  And as you look more carefully, you see many lights, too thinly scattered to be immediately noticed, in a sphere all round the disk, and about the same diameter.  There are also larger dots, perhaps 200 of them, floating in a sphere around the bulge; each of these seem to be made of many, many lights.

You have no name for what you're seeing, but it's so beautiful you feel tears in your eyes.  You wish you could see one of the bright spots more closely.  And again, the thought brings action; before you realize it, you are shrinking down towards a dot two-thirds of the way out from the center.  The glowing lights swarm up around you and then disappear into the distance; soon you are in the plane of the disk, with bright dots and dark blobs all around you, and approaching the object of your curiosity.

It is bright, and hurts your eyes.  You watch it a while, and become aware that it, too, has structure.  A halo of matter surrounds it, reflecting its light occasionally.  Inside the halo, a flat disk of dust lies.  And in the disk are lanes cleared of dust, with little spheres within the lanes.

One is double; a blue sphere closely paired with a white one a third its size.  You draw nearer and feel total astonishment.  On this scale you realize that you are staring at the Earth and Moon!  You see the clouds swirl over the ant-sized continents, and you reach out.  Nothing happens.  You cannot get smaller or closer, once the Earth grows to baseball size and hangs before you.

And now, without your wishing it, everything goes into reverse.  You grow and fall backwards through the plane of the Solar System, the ringed planets receding before you.  Out through the Kuiper Belt, out through the Oort Cloud, until you lose the Sun in the other stars of the Galaxy's disk.  The central bulge of the Milky Way passes your eyes, hurting them with the dragon-glare of the monster black hole in its center.  Back through the halo of globular star clusters, out through the disk of dark matter.  The galaxy tilts and once again you see it face on, in all its beauty.

You close your eyes for a moment.  When you open them, at first you see nothing.  The blackness appears absolute; then, as your eyes adjust, you begin to see faint specks of light here and there.  Are these the stars, you wonder?  You realize they are distant galaxies, and clusters of galaxies.  You realize it's starting all over again.

Your screams shake the heavens.

"Professor Chandrasekhar?"

The neatly-dressed Hindu standing in front of the hospital room turned, already smiling for the attractive female voice, yet somewhat surprised that an American was pronouncing his name correctly.  A moment later he was glad he had that reason to look surprised.

Two U.N. police officers stood there.  The man was an ordinary cop in ordinary white ceramcrete body armor over the city's police uniform; dark blue pants with bell bottoms, dark blue shirt with flared sleeves, holding his helmet under his left arm, and his omnicom in his right hand.  The white helmet had "Mackie" printed on it in red letters, captain's bars shone on his shoulders, and a U. N. Orbital Law Enforcement patch on each arm. His boots were black.

The woman was a sight he never expected to see again in his lifetime.  She was a Childe, with the slender build of her kind.  The eyes that regarded him were set in a head slightly larger than a baseline human, and she had only a fringe of blonde hair, as if someone had tonsured her as a medieval monk. Her human ancestors had been oriental, judging by her eyes; Chinese, in fact, unless he missed his guess.

He covered his confusion at seeing a Childe in Circum-Terra space, and employed by the police, by concentrating on why he was here.  "Yes, I'm Chandrasekhar," he said.

The Childe held out her hand.  "I'm Lieutenant Mackie, Professor.  This is Captain Mackie, my husband.  We understand that David Clarke is a student of yours?"

"Pleased to meet you," he said automatically, shaking both their hands.  "Yes, Mr. Clarke is my student.  I was just in his room."  He shook his head doubtfully.  "A terrible, terrible thing."

"Let's go in, shall we?" the older cop said.  His voice was as deep as his wife's was high; almost a basso profundo, the professor thought.  A doctor in whites turned as they entered the room.  He was a tall, thin man with the long hands seen in surgeons and pianists, and the weariness of the dedicated doctor.  His eyes lit when he saw who the police officers were.

"Martin, Sang Hi, good to see you.  How's married life treating you?"

A Childe could blush, Dr. Chandrasekhar noted, and so could a normal human who married one.  Fascinating!

The man—Martin—moved over to the desperate creature strapped to the bed.  The professor's student twitched all over, continuously, while mumbling just below conversational level.

"100-400 billion stars… mass between 750 billion and one trillion suns… diameter between 100,000 and 180,000 light years…"

"Have you determined what happened to this boy, Paul?" the woman asked.

"Ah," said the doctor.  "He was found Monday morning in a kind of homemade casket.  He was wearing a VR study helmet and a wetsuit.  He was floating in water kept at body temperature by a thermostat, kept from drowning by a floatation collar around his neck.  The casket shut out all light and noise, but wasn't air tight.  Paramedics were summoned by campus police, who suspected attempted murder.  This proved false, but the patient has not recovered normal consciousness.  He was brought here and strapped in for his own safety."

"A casket," said the Captain, "with no light, no noise, nothing touching the body but water heated to body temp.  That reminds me of something, but…"

"An isolation chamber," his wife said flatly.

"Yes, of course," said the doctor.  "I should have made that connection, only no one has played with those since the Seventies."  He smiled.  "The Nineteen-Seventies, I guess I should say."

"But that is extremely dangerous!" Chandrasekhar exclaimed.

"… belongs to Local Group… 3 large and dozens of small galaxies… second largest but perhaps most massive…" said the patient conversationally.

They all jumped.  "Dangerous indeed," the Lieutenant said.  "The sleep chambers on the Sperosus were carefully designed to stimulate the senses of their occupants throughout the trip for that very reason, even though all indications are that they'll be unaware of it."

"We examined the VR helmet," the Captain told the doctor and the professor.  "An alarm had been set to awaken Mr. Clarke after half an hour, but had failed.  Maybe water got into the circuitry, or maybe it just glitched."  He looked at his omnicom, and touched a virtual button on its screen.  "His room mate was supposed to check in with him and make sure everything was all right, but apparently he met a girl and spent the weekend with her."

"… Solar System within disk… only about 20 light years above equatorial plane… about 26,000 light years from Galactic Center," Clarke mumbled.

"So this young man was left in an isolation chamber all weekend?" demanded the doctor.  "While a VR disk on… on…"

"Galactic structure," said the professor and the student together.  Everyone turned and stared, but the student mumbled on without a break.

"While a VR disk on galactic structure played over and over?" the doctor finished.

"It matches," the professor said.

That got their attention.  "What do you mean, Dr. Chandrasekhar?" asked the Captain.  He did not pronounce the Hindu name nearly as well as his wife.  Well, his IQ was probably only a fraction of hers, too.

"This student," Chandrasekhar answered, "does well on tests, when he has prepared himself.  But he has told me that he has difficulty studying.  He has complained that there is too much noise, too many interruptions on campus.  Apparently," he said bleakly, "this was his way of studying for my mid-term."

"Solar System moves… 250 km/sec… 240 million years per orbit… 20 to 21 orbits… about 4.6 billion years ago," said Clarke.

After a long moment, the Captain closed his omnicom with careful restraint and placed it in its holster on his belt.  "I guess there's no mystery about what happened here," he said.  "You could call it a classic case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing.  Mr. Clarke heard about isolation chambers, probably in a psych class, and decided one would solve his study problem.  Then the alarm failed and his roommate flaked out on him, leading to…" he gestured at the twitching, mumbling wreck strapped into the hospital bed.

As the officers closed the door behind them, the last thing they heard from the patient was "Galactic Bulge… radius 6,000 light years… Galactic Disk… 60,000 light years… Galactic Halo… 65,000 light years…"

"A shame," said Sang Hi.

"I'd call it rather more than that," said Martin.

"No," she said, "I meant… he has all his facts right.  Too bad he can't take that mid-term, he'd be sure to get an A."

Her husband stared at her.  "Honey," he said, "I never know when you're pulling my leg, and when you're just exercising that weird Childe sense of humor."

She smiled.  "It's all in your viewpoint," she said.

"I guess so," said Martin.  He thought of a student trapped in darkness for what must have seemed like eternity, touring the galaxy over and over, until memory and sense had fled beyond recall.  What viewpoint did that give?  That of an ant, or a god?  He shivered.  "Mrs. Mackie," he said, "What say we have dinner somewhere, and then go home?  I think we've done enough for one day."

The smile she gave him was warm.  How many men would have partnered a failed Childe, a cull from the program?  How many would have looked beyond the intimidating intelligence and strength, and seen beauty, and loneliness, and need?  Three years they'd been partners, and six months married.  "I'd love that," she said.

They got into the next elevator.  Behind them, in the hospital, the mumbling went on and on.

Copyright © 2001 by Green Sky Press. All rights reserved.