Location, velocity, end point

ByAUTHOR

Dec 7, 2022

Three more days of going over my calculations, of checking and rechecking, of trying to think and not think at the same time. It cannot work, and yet it has to work. There are too many variables, an infinity of possible outcomes. I need just one.

I input the final sequence and sit, my hands hovering over the controls. Heisenberg was more right than he knew. I know exactly where I am, God help me. It makes it almost impossible to go in the right direction, at the right velocity. Practically impossible to find the end point I am searching for. But if I can get it right this time, just one time, maybe I can fix the only thing that really matters.

I submit my calculations.

The light on the capsule door flickers from red to green and the lock disengages. The door swings open and this time, this time, it is not an alien, implacable sky, or the lush, tropical nightmare of the distant past. It is my kitchen — blue sky outside the window, white tiles on the floor. There is the soft hum of the refrigerator, and the smell of lemon detergent. My heart trips and stumbles over its own surging hope. I see him.

“Tommy!” I shout. My boy looks up from his trains. His curly locks fall into his big blue eyes, and he smiles, a pure, joyful smile. I feel my own rising to match it. But then he falters, and his eyelids flutter, and he slumps down into an untidy heap. My smile freezes, turns to a scream. Of all the times, of all the possibilities — I wish it had been another ancient ruin, a molten planet, foreign skies that twisted and churned, some unknown reality at the end of my untrustworthy calculations. Anything other than this.

I have lived this moment before. It is etched in too-bright colours in my mind, how I found him on the white tiles, six months after his own terminal trajectory could have been altered. Next will come the ambulance, the hospital, the prognosis. Heisenberg would be proud. I know exactly where I am. I am too late.

*****

The capsule is a tangle of wires and circuit boards and pieces of paper with scrawled calculations. At first, I thought it would be easy. A window of time, a toddler’s span of a target, a triplet of years in which to warn of the creeping illness within. But now all I see are my desperate attempts to limit infinity with indefinite integrals, my inability to catch such a minuscule span of history in a prison of Hessian matrices. Location, velocity. End point. There are too many variables.

I push aside a nest of copper wire and insulation and dig down with a shaking hand. He is there, just as he is not. A round-faced little boy, my little man, looking out solemnly from behind the glass frame. He stares across the gulf between unsolvable equations. I have succeeded. I have failed. I circle the point I need, a window of time and location that lies hidden like a treasured image buried under nonsense. I have got close. I have missed wildly. Certainty grows at the expense of hope. I turn back to the console, and fling myself backwards, outwards, onwards.

*****

“Play trains, Daddy?”

I had not realized he was awake. I sit by the bed, staring at nothing. I am so tired, but the notepad is filled despite my weariness, filled with numbers that mean nothing, numbers that I had wished meant everything. Tommy’s voice is low, almost a whisper. He holds a bright red train out to me, his hand trembling.

“Yes,” I say. My voice is also a whisper. I take the red train and finally look at him. He is so pale, and so drawn, his eyes too large, too bright. He smiles at me. He smiles for me.

“Sick,” he says.

“Yes,” I reply, my voice so low I’m sure he can’t hear me. “I’m sorry.”

He frowns. “Daddy. Smile, daddy.”

I try to smile. I try not to crush the toy train in my hand. I know where I am with a certainty no theoretical physicist ever postulated. I know where I am, and I know where this is going. I am sure now, and my hope is dead on the page in front of me.

I look at my boy. He is frail, and failing. I know what failure looks like, and what frailty feels like. My notepad is full of both. I cannot know where I am and where I am going. I would trade so much for a drop of uncertainty in those numbers. I would trade everything. Uncertainty would mean hope.

*****

It is a moment later, the moment before, and somewhere in between. I am in the capsule but I am also nowhere. Location, velocity. End point. I am unmoored between the lines of my own calculations. I input the reduced set of calculations, the smaller number of variables, the lack of my own point within infinity. There can be no return. This time, it must work, and yet I cannot be sure. I do not want to be sure. I wait once more, one final time, and after another lifetime compressed into a moment the light turns from red to green. The door opens, and I see blue sky beyond a window. I see white tiles. I step forward, full of uncertainty. And once more, full of hope.

The story behind the story

Table of Contents

Matt Tighe reveals the inspiration behind Location, velocity, end point.

Academia looks very different from the outside than from the inside. Those of us on the inside know a lot about work–life imbalance, the never-ending pursuit of the next research output or grant, the pressure to say ‘yes’. This story started with the idea of a workaholic father who loses time with his family, literally, because of his obsession with physics. The story morphed more than a little as I wrote it — it became something about family more than work, and the lengths to which we might go for them, even if it means risking your very existence on the smallest of chances. So I guess, in a way, it is still a story about work–life balance, and it can stand as my attempt (maybe one of many) at trying to put such in a better perspective.