I had an out-of-body experience at the age of thirty-one.
Every year between the ages of ten and eighteen, I sent a letter to NASA. I told them a little bit about myself, the same general description year after year, and always insisted that despite my medical condition, I would one day love to sail through the stars. My dream was to be out there in the universal abyss, exploring every unknown corner until we knew all that we could.
Art would taunt, “Sick kids don’t go to space” before Mom slapped the back of his shoulder with a spatula.
NASA was as nice as they could be, but the bottom line was that we all knew I couldn’t do it. The spaceship would need to have extra space just for the amount of medication and equipment I’d have to bring along, and that was if I could even survive the zero-gravity environment. Whoever wrote the responses encouraged me to keep dreaming, and boasted about donations the association made to various sickle cell charities.
I gave up shortly after I graduated high school. I went to school hoping for a degree in planetary science so I could remain connected to the heavens, though a small part of me would always long to be the body floating past the view of a telescope, waving down to the poor soul watching the stars go by from the top of a volcano.
I couldn’t get to the top of Mauna Kea. The high altitude wasn’t good for my lungs. I settled for a regular observatory job on the mainland, watching celestial bodies wave as they passed the other end of the telescope. I was still that sick ten-year-old down below, knowing he’d never make it to the stars.
Art visited me one night while I was charting Venus. The transit was coming soon, and I wanted to be prepared. The telescope needed to be pointed at the exact spot, so I could see the morning and evening star cross one another.
“I figured that you would be here,” he told me, wandering through the room and touching papers that he didn’t need to put his fingers on. Part of his character was to always have a hand on everything. “I went to your apartment first, but that neighbor of yours said you’d been gone since morning.”
“More like yesterday morning,” I sighed. “You know, you can always call if you need something.”
“This is something I wanted to share in person.” He ran a hand up and down the telescope, and I made a mental note to wipe it down before I had to go home for a shower and change of clothes. “I found someone who can help you.”
“I’ve heard this before,” I groaned. “What’s the strategy now? Is there a new compound floating around? Or does a new organ need to be removed?” I’d lost one of my kidneys five years earlier at my doctor’s insistence, though I believed that I would have been fine with it still a part of me.
“Something else,” he said, and reached into his breast pocket to retrieve a small piece of white paper. When it was in my hand, I discovered it was some sort of business card, with only a name and an address. “Forget about your illness for one day. Samira isn’t a doctor. Well, not that kind of doctor.”
“Don’t tell me that you hired me a hooker.”
He chuckled. “No, it’s not that. Go see her. You deserve it.”
“Yeah. You do.”
Samira’s address led me to a quiet corner of the industrial district, where warehouses were only framed by a few vehicles on the street, and there was no loud hum of machinery or blow of a whistle at noon. It had taken me three days to decide that it wouldn’t hurt to see what the woman could do, as I’d likely been through weirder procedures and processes in my life.
Her building was a greyed office, between the steel wool plant and an abandoned furniture factory. There was no parking lot, and no cars out front. Hell, I wouldn’t have guessed that it was open unless a sign in the front door said so. I parked on the street and let myself in.
The interior greeted me with the smell of bleach, before a bell above the front door rang to mark my arrival. The white lobby was empty, save for a few uncomfortable-looking chairs and a boulder of a desk. I spent a few awkward moments hoping that someone would attend to me, before becoming distracted by a noise down the narrow hallway to the back.
“Hello?” I called. “Is someone there?”
In the hall, a woman stuck her head through one of the doorways, surprised to see me. She pushed a strand of wiry blonde hair behind her ear, and lifted her glasses to her face from their place around her neck. Realizing that I was actually there, waiting in the lobby, she shuffled towards me, her long black skirt flowing underneath her white lab coat.
“You’ll have to excuse me,” she mumbled, “there was something that needed my attention. Can I help you?”
“I think you may know my brother, Art,” I replied. “He said that you could help me.”
Her face lit up at the mention of that twit. “Oh, Art! I have to say, I don’t see much of a family resemblance.” I took that as a compliment. “I met your brother at a gala last week. He couldn’t stop talking about you once he knew what I do.” Suddenly realizing she had yet to introduce herself, she thrust her hand towards me, and then grabbed mine before I could react. “Dr. Samira Ramsey.”
“Such a strong name.”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” I started, ignoring her remark, “what exactly do you do?”
“That depends,” she replied. “Do you want my help?”
“How can I answer that without knowing what you do?”
“Because I think you already know the answer to my question, Levi.”
She had me there, and I knew in the pits of my stomach that I wanted to know exactly why Art thought she could help me. I remember him saying that it wasn’t about medicine, which made me a little less tense. Being poked and prodded was always the last thing on my to-do list.
“Yes, Samira, I would like your help.”
“Wonderful!” she exclaimed. “Follow me, right away!”
She practically bounced down the hallway as I sheepishly trailed behind, going on about she’d been hoping I’d come by after her conversation with Art, and that she was more than excited to test her prototype out on me.
“Prototype?” I asked, as we turned into one of the rooms.
I answered my own question, seeing two chairs next to each other that were tangled with nodes, wires and clamps. Above each chair was what looked to be an upside-down bowl, something like what Mom would sit under when she got her hair done at the salon. The rest of the room was occupied by computers and electrical equipment, and plenty more wires.
“I have my doctorate in neuroscience, and a masters in neuropsychology, and I’ve nearly got my masters in computer science,” Samira told me, as she begun to flip a few switches. “My main area of study was dreaming.”
“Yes, dreaming. I studied why we dream, how we dream, and if it’s possible to scientifically control our dreams.”
The last bit of that sentence caught me by surprise. “Is that what this is all for?”
She sighed, looking around at her life’s work, and said, “I sure hope so.”
“Why does Art think that this will help me?”
“Well, we started talking about the space program because my uncle was an astronaut. He spent a year in orbit around the Earth. Your brother remarked that you have always wanted to do the same, though your...”
“Yes. It prevents you from being accepted into anything that NASA is offering. I offered an alternative.” Her eyes fell onto the two chairs. “The plan is that I can offer elderly people a chance to be a young again, without having to physically turn back time. The system needs to be tested, if you would like to be my first subject.”
“I’m only thirty-one. I’m not that old yet.”
“It can also be useful for terminal patients.”
“I don’t plan on being terminal for a long time.”
She nodded solemnly. “Art told me about how much you loved the stars. Since our conversation, I’ve been creating an environment of outer space, which I can show you.”
“With this?” I asked, gesturing to the chairs.
“Yes. You sit in one, and I sit in another. Eventually I’ll have another prototype with one chair, but I need to be able to guide you through the process while seeing what’s going on for myself.”
“Of course,” I replied, like I understood the science behind what she was saying. Really, I was just imagining what it would be like if Samira could really do what she said she could. Space wouldn’t have been such a far-fetched dream any longer. “How soon can we start?”
A wild smile broke across her face, and she enthusiastically said, “Right away!”
It took half an hour to get everything hooked up, but eventually we were sitting next to each other, wired to the machine in more ways than one. A tight pad taped around my fingers and wrists tracked my pulse, and several nodes were taped up my arms and on my face. I was used to it, but thankfully, Samira looked just as ridiculous as I did. She lowered my chair’s white head bowl over my skull as she made adjustments to the machinery.
I had to be fairly anxious, as it seemed to be forever until she was seated next to me, attaching wires to her fingers and plugging herself in. A small grey remote rested on her lap. “The most important thing is not to resist what will happen,” she explained. “It won’t work if you do.”
“I don’t plan on doing that,” I said. “I’ve been dreaming of going to space my entire life.”
“And a good dream that is.” She reached to lower her own head bowl, and then turned to look me in the eye. “Are you ready?”
“Yes, I am, but I’m not quite sure what to expect.”
“Then why wait any longer?” she smiled, clicking a button on the remote.
I really hadn’t anticipated what it would be like, to be a part of a controlled dream, but it happened before I realized what was going on. It somewhat felt like I was falling very quickly to the bottom of a very deep pit, far away from the sterile office room. The only thing I could see was complete darkness, though soon after, something began to glitter through the black backdrop.
They were dim at first, but soon began to brighten at varying rates. Some twinkled blue, and others flickered red and orange. I briefly thought of reaching towards them, and found my own hand appearing before me, though I could not get any closer.
One of the most startling things was the overwhelming silence that came with them. In the sea of outer space, it was only me and them.
“Not bad,” a voice echoed through the stars, and I realized that it was Samira. I couldn’t see her in the sea of glitter before me. “Do you see it, Levi?”
“I do,” I answered, not aware of how I could speak.
“Can you see yourself?”
“Yes. I see my hand.”
“Good. Everything seems to be working right.”
“Where are you?”
“Oh, don’t worry about me. My job is to be your guide through the process. One of us has to know what we’re doing.”
“What are we doing?”
Even though I couldn’t see her face, I knew that Samira was smiling. “We’re exploring space.”
A moment later, the stars turned from points of light to stretched-out beams. I was moving far faster than I should have been, and the sea of outer space turned into an electric vortex, transporting me from one far end to another. I instinctively raised my hands to shield myself, though by the time I did that, I’d stopped.
I wasn’t alone any longer. One star shone far brighter than the others, and far closer to me was a blue marble of a planet and its grey companion.
“Dear god,” was all I could mutter.
As far as I was from the Earth, it didn’t appear to be so big. It quietly turned through space, clouds swirling in every direction, and not far behind was the moon.
I’d been quite young when I first dreamed of a similar scene, and now, I was there. I was watching the Earth go on about its way below me, and I wasn’t on the surface with everyone else. I was right where I belonged.
“What do you see?” Samira’s voice asked me.
“Earth, and it’s beautiful.”
A hurricane was twisting towards the Gulf states, but didn’t look to be a terribly strong one. The dark side of the moon soon passed by, peppered with more craters than I could count.
I’m not sure how long I was there, just watching our planet spin away, but it soon began to grow farther away. It was a far more gradual change than my movement had been earlier. The earth and moon simply slipped back into the stars, looking to be two points of light that were unusually close to each other.
Mars went by relatively quickly. It was as red as it had been through the telescope. I couldn't see Phobos, let alone Deimos, both too small to register in my view. A dust storm swept through the northern hemisphere, blurring out the details of the land. I could still see the scar of Valles Marineris stretched across the equator, and the blemishes of the ancient shield volcanoes. The god of war became a point of red light before I danced through the asteroid belt.
Boulders, pebbles, shattered fragments and massive pieces of stone and ice the size of cities all took turns in the cosmic dance, sweeping through space and barely brushing close enough to cause concern. I drifted through the requiem, getting close enough to one boulder to wipe my hand across the gritty surface.
“Why does it feel like a real rock?” I asked out loud.
“Sometimes we feel in our dreams,” Samira started, “in more ways than one.”
Jupiter came and went, the god of sky and his gaggle of mistresses. Plumes of gas sprung from the volcanoes of Io, and poor crated Callisto displayed all of her scars with grace. Saturn was a peaceful place, with a serene face of clouds and its own personal asteroid belt. There seemed to be as many pieces in orbit as there were stars in the sky, all silently circling the great titan.
Speak of the devil, there it was. One great ball of orange haze overpowered all of the other moons, hiding great secrets behind its clouds.
“This was my favourite planet to create,” Samira said, and I understood why.
There was Uranus, some sort of alien clock face as all of those dark moons spun perpendicular to all of the others in the solar system. Neptune was majestic, under the close watch of Triton. I passed far enough from the planet to go right by the irregular Nereid, as it approached its apoapsis for the first time in almost a year.
Samira hadn’t forgotten the tiny Pluto. For nostalgia, she explained. It was a speck of dust compared to the gas giants, though its host of moons kept the icy god company so far from the sun’s light.
Beyond the solar system, there were wonders to see that I’d only experienced before in books and old photos. Our own galaxy rotated just enough for me to notice the movement. Andromeda was just as wondrous as she’d been on film. Every nebula had something different to marvel at.
“I don’t want this to end,” I said.
“You know that it must,” Samira replied. “My program is almost over. Even space has to end.”
I understood, as much as I didn’t want to. I couldn’t live my life inside of a computer. Wasting away in a seat was one thing I’d promised not to do in my life. “So it works?”
“It would seem that way. We haven’t experienced any issues since we began.”
“Do you realize what this will do?”
“Yes, though it comes with a catch. I hope you realize that I can’t let you use my machine again. A glimpse of what you’ve always wanted to see is one thing, but you can’t get attached to this. It isn’t the real thing, as hard as I tried to make it look that way.”
“I’m never going to forget this.”
“I’m glad. As long as you have no regrets.”
I was sad to see it end. One moment, I was there among the stars for one last time, and then I was back in my seat in Samira’s office. She ripping away all of the wires, and helping me to my feet. My legs were a little sore, but it was nothing too discomforting. I looked back to my seat, realizing I’d only been there the entire time. As lively as it had all seemed, it wasn't real.
“Thank you,” I said to Samira. “You’ve really got something here.”
“You’re welcome,” she nodded. “I’d appreciate if you kept it under wraps for a little while. I’m hoping to present it in Geneva later this year, after a few more tests. You’ll be credited where you deserve it.”
“Why credit me?”
She shrugged. “It was remarkable. You responded to the program extremely well, and I can tell that it really spoke to you. Do let me know if you have any side effects in the next few days, though. Headaches, nausea, nosebleeds...that kind of thing.”
“Welcome to my life,” I joked.
We said our final goodbyes, and I shook her hand before returning to my car. I didn’t want to leave so soon, but I drove home before I could change my mind. I went on with my night, crawled into bed after a few rounds of medication, and fell asleep dreaming about the stars, though the ones my mind tried to conjure weren't the same. Nothing would be the same again.
I didn’t see Art until two weeks later, when he came to the observatory to pick me up. I had a checkup for my kidney in the big city, and needed a driver for such a long distance to travel. He didn't touch any of the papers on my desk, thankfully, or he would have seen the job advertisements I'd circled during my first coffee break.
He launched right into the questions. “How was it? What did you see? Did it even work? Are you going to do it again?”
I had an eye on the telescope, squinting to make out the canyon on Mars that I’d seen so clearly in my mind. “No, I can’t do it again. She says it’s like a drug, and it’s easy to get hooked.”
“So it did work?”
For a split second, I thought that I saw myself float between Mars and the telescope lens, waving to me down below. It was just a piece of space junk. “Oh, it worked.”