Our very existence, the tour guide tells us, is a quirk in the fabric of space-time. “In the history of our galaxy, there have been millions of astronomical events capable of exterminating human life on earth,” he says. “Asteroids. Solar flares. Gamma bursts. All of us could be gone in an instant and we’d never know what hit us.”
We are on the nine o’clock at the planetarium. Our tour guide directs our attentions to the digital simulation of our galaxy on a domed screen overhead. All the dots of light newly suspicious, every blip a potential assassin.
“Some are concerned about a nearby supernova doing us in,” our tour guide says. “But astronomers today estimate we’d have to be within 50 million light years for that to happen. Then again, we’ve been wrong before.”
There are about a dozen of us on the tour. Someone has brought a young child, who is reasonably upset.
“Does it make you feel better,” I whisper to Violet, “that if it were to happen right now, at least we would die together?”
She, like usual, suspects the world is committed to a prank at her expense. She won’t be scared, not easily.
“It doesn’t matter whether I were here with you or if I were replacing a toilet paper roll in Cleveland,” Violet says. “We would still technically die together.”
She must wonder why I brought her to the planetarium, where our tour guide wants to make a fool of her. Perhaps I was hoping for the impossible, to reconsider ourselves in a universal context. Violet spends her days checking parking meters for the city. She does not take kindly to being made a fool of.
Our tour guide directs us to a speck on the simulation overhead. Either the image zooms closer, or we fly through many millions of light years. In either case we arrive at a cloud of dust and stars.
“We have reason to believe,” our tour guide tells us, “that these are the remains of an earth-sized planet that collided with an asteroid exactly like the ones passing by earth on an annual basis. We might be looking at our future.”
“Imagine that,” I said to Violet.
“I’d rather not.”
And then our tour guide turns off the projection and we are lost in darkness and I think I hear the small child cry out. I grasp for Violet’s hand.
“Sorry about that, folks,” our tour guide says, clicking on a flashlight. “Why don’t you follow me down the hall to the auditorium so I can show you some awesome videos?”
And then we shuffle awkwardly after him, each of our little groups trying not to interrupt the big group, on down the hall to a musty room with burgundy upholstery. Our tour guide waits until we sort out the seating situation, the child insisting on his mother’s lap.
“I don’t want to say it’s all doom and gloom,” our tour guide says, “but even absent a catastrophic space event, we know that we are rapidly depleting the earth’s resources. It is inevitable that humankind will need to seek an extraterrestrial settlement. And that, folks, is why we should keep up hope.”
He turns on a video. We watch rockets launch. They are the first, we’re told, to return themselves to earth unharmed. The new rockets are cheap and easy. Space transportation is viable. It is a matter of incredible possibility.
I watch Violet watch the rockets.
“If we can become capable of intergalactic travel,” our tour guide says at the video’s end, “then humankind can ensure its survival forever. We are chasing our own immortality.”
Violet tells me the idea of human immortality gives her the jeebies.
“But,” I ask her, “wouldn’t you like to know, that even if you and I died, right now, that something we did would still matter, that someone would remember us? So that someone, someday, will know we were here?”
“Like, at the planetarium?”
Our tour guide looks at his watch. The tour will have to end on that note. We are thanked for our interest in the planetarium and are invited to browse the gift shop on our way out.
Violet picks out a bumper sticker with a Carl Sagan quote. We are a way for the universe to know itself. I get a coffee mug with a rocket on it.
I find Violet’s hand as we head for the parking lot. There are too many lights in the city to see the stars or the things out there that will kill us one day. Before we reach the car, I stop and gaze at the sky, anyway.
Violet pauses beside me. I believe she’s looking up, too. But I don’t dare look.
Alex Luft’s fiction has appeared in Yemassee, Midwestern Gothic, The Coachella Review, and other literary magazines. He is a staff reader for Quarterly West and lives in Chicago. Find him at alexanderluft.com.