Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Stardust Wendy Nikel
The Elevator dock is packed. It was designed for launching satellites and cleaning up space junk, not for funerals.
Sandy gives me a sisterly hand-squeeze as if to say that she knows how strange it must be for me to be here, like this. This isn’t how it was supposed to happen, our first trip to the skies.
“Name and date of death?” the official at the base station asks in the bored, bureaucratic monotone of someone who deals in death every day, who’s so mired in it that it no longer touches them. He wears a gas mask–a heavy-duty military type that’s a fortress compared with the bit of paper feebly protecting my own face.
Sandy recites Aunt Georgette’s information, and I watch the official for any sign that he knows who she was, any hint that he’s heard of the woman who made this elevator possible. I try not to be upset when there is none.
A second officer retrieves the shatterproof urn from a vault and hands it over with a mutter of half-hearted sympathy that makes me long for the somberness of rainy cemeteries and the attentive, down-turned eyes of funeral directors.
The spherical urn is too cold a thing for me to associate with Georgette. Georgette, who was campfires by the lake and hot chocolate in winter and endless notebooks filled with diagrams. Georgette, who was bear hugs and sweaters knit with wool and love, staring in awe at the stars. Georgette, who was so vibrant and healthy until the day she stopped to offer a coughing woman a tissue and breathed in something so aggressive that even in death, it continues to spread. Something that, even after its host is consumed, it searches for more to infect. Georgette, whose final words urged me to find the cure. As if a promise could overcome the impossible.
When the officer asks if we’ll be going up to personally launch the remains, Sandy answers yes and pulls out her credit card. I look away.
“Nothing like dad’s funeral, is it?” Sandy asks after she signs the paperwork and we make our way toward the Climbers.
I snort my agreement. It certainly isn’t. Already, life before the virus seems distant and hazy, barely there, like the distant shoreline. We couldn’t even buy Georgette flowers now; the shops have all closed, and shipping companies are booked solid, delivering food and medicine to the homes of those too terrified to venture out.
The elevator’s Climbers remind me of vintage roller-coaster carts, complete with safety harnesses and “keep your arms and legs inside” signs. Pairs of seats swing on a fixed axle, so that when we speed out of earth’s atmosphere and gravity gives way to centrifugal force, we’ll flip around so as not to be falling headfirst.
The officials strap us in and we’re off.
We surge up from the ocean on a ribbon of diamond–Georgette’s diamond, which she dreamed up and plotted out and solved for x and constructed, whose final trials she studied from a laptop screen in quarantine. Even then, she’d promised to show us someday, once she was well.
“If humanity can build an elevator to the heavens,” she’d told me, her voice muffled by the panel of glass between us, “you can find a way to beat this little cough.”
She could do anything; I believed that much. But me? Without her, all seems lost, my months of epidemiological research futile. Failed. I fix my eyes on her thread of silver and watch the world beyond it fall away.
Beside me, Sandy’s listening to a funeral message piped through a speaker in her seat. I can hear the minister’s voice as if from a great distance: “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.“
Gravity shifts. My body floats away from the seat, and then everything’s upside-down. It’s displaced, all except for that steady line of diamond in the ever-deepening sky.
We’re falling now instead of rising, and the orb in my lap feels heavier and heavier until finally, we slow to a stop on what feels like the universe’s edge. When we step out into the Counterweight, the earth shines above us, and below our feet and all around, the stars stretch out to eternity.
We stand in line at the launch tube behind other mourners and pilgrims and wait as one by one, they say goodbye. When the officer orders, “Next,” and we step up to the tube, I place the urn inside and press the button.
The flap releases and the orb shoots away, until it’s nothing but a speck in the sky. Until the wonderful, brilliant woman is nothing, nothing at all.
“Do you think they’ll remember her?” I ask Sandy as we wander back toward the Climbers.
“Humanity. Those in the future.”
She glances upward, toward that shimmering silver thread that tethers us to Earth. “Do you think humanity has a future?”
I blink away angry tears. Georgette deserves better.
We all do.
I grab an officer passing by. “Do you know who designed that elevator cord?” I demand. “Do you know how long it took her to complete it? How many people told her it was impossible?”
“No, I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t.”
Sandy nudges me and raises her brows at the others around us who’ve noticed me and have stopped to gaze up at Georgette’s masterpiece. Men and women who, moments before, had been too consumed by their grief to stop and marvel at what humanity has accomplished. Too consumed to dream about what we still might overcome.
I take a deep breath, thinking of the orb with her remains speeding out to join the stars, thinking of her smile, her overflowing notebooks, her bear hugs. Her optimism. Her hopes. And then I speak.
“Let me tell you about her. About all her impossible dreams.”
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