June 3, 2072
She woke. In the flow of seconds, she suppressed a cry of dismay, of terror, of loneliness. Elisabeth was three years old. She was in her bed, in the dark, alone. A shudder racked her body. Her breath hitched as she took a sharp intake of air, and the nightlight came on.
It was a small, inviting, white-blue light on the floor, a few inches long. It pulsed with life, sensing her wakefulness, a pencil-thin ray that promised guidance. Elisabeth turned onto her tummy and slid from the bed. The light danced away from her, and then back, directing her with gentle encouragement. She decided to leave her stuffed monkey in the bed. He wasn’t afraid of sleeping alone.
Elisabeth followed the thin light as it pulsed along the dark hallway of the house, until she could see the light of her father’s desk lamp peeking under his office door. The nightlight, playful, encouraging, familiar, danced along to the door and back to her again. She giggled.
“Elisabeth?” called her father.
The door creaked open.
Elisabeth sidled into the doorframe, rubbing her eyes. Mateo Herrera regarded his little daughter standing in the beam of his modest desk light and drafting tablet computer. Elongated spider webs of schematics crisscrossed in front of him. Mateo leaned forward in his chair.
“No tears tonight,” he said.
Elisabeth shook her head.
“That’s good. You’re a big girl. Instead of crying, you came and found me.”
“Come here, baby,” he said. Elisabeth stumbled forward and giggled when her father swept her up in his arms. He held her close, nuzzled her hair, and gave her a dozen little pecks on the forehead.
“I woke up and I was alone,” she said.
“Yes. You will have to get used to sleeping by yourself in your big girl bed.”
“I was scared,” she confessed, resting her head on her father’s chest. He leaned back in his office chair and held Elisabeth in both arms. She smelled like green apple shampoo.
“That’s okay. Everyone gets scared. Did the nightlight help?” he asked.
“Yes. It told me where to find you,” she said.
“Good. I am always nearby. Well, someone who loves you is always nearby,” he corrected himself. Though his voice was strong, a quaver still rattled his throat, his heart.
“Don’t go,” she said.
“I have to go. They need me at work,” he said.
Elisabeth shook her head. Mateo felt warm tears on his arms. His own eyes began to tear up as well.
“You work in here,” she said.
“Usually, yes. But now that they’re ready for construction on the last little bit, they need me there. In person, in case something happens.”
“You can call them,” she insisted.
Mateo shook his head, and lifted his hand to wipe tears from his eyes.
“It’s not the same. I have to go,” he said.
Elisabeth cried in earnest, and Mateo let his own tears flow freely. How could he go two years without holding her? How could he go two years without holding his wife? Deep, body-racking sobs threatened to seize him, and he fought them down.
“Elisabeth, listen. You remember your nightlight?” he said.
She sniffed, nodded.
“Whenever you are missing your papa, you look at what we are building. There are lights on the elevator just like your nightlight. They will show you where I am.”
Elisabeth was quiet for a moment.
“Show me again?” she asked.
Mateo tapped his screen, waving away the electric schematic of the space elevator, and pulling up the smart home app. He tapped a few icons, and leaned back in his chair. His office melted away. The ceiling and walls turned black, and as his eyes adjusted, it was as if his desk, his chair, he, and his little girl were outside. They could hear the tree frogs outside their house singing as if they were standing next to the little creatures. The stars of the night sky winked and twinkled above them, and the majestic river of the Milky Way flowed above.
“Look,” he said, pointing with one hand.
The space elevator soared from its anchor island many miles away. The structure, huge and intimidating up close, was no more than a thick black line stretching from the horizon and into the stars. Strings of safety lights blinked in sequence from the island to the sky.
“Whenever you miss me, look at the elevator. You will see the lights, and they will lead you to me, just like your nightlight. In two years, when it is done, you will ride the elevator. You and your mama, and the families of the other people working on the project, will be the very first to ever get to go up. And I will be waiting there for you.”
“What if the light turns off?”
“The magic of light, sweet girl, is that whenever a light shines, a little bit goes on forever. Just like my love for you and your mama.”
“Promise?” she whispered.
He rocked his daughter gently in his office chair as they watched the lights blink from the bottom of the elevator to the sky, over and over, the lights shimmering and then disappearing when they were too far away to be seen, even in the South Pacific, far away from the noisy lights of big cities.
December 12, 2076
Elisabeth Herrera, seven years old, was standing in line. They had been standing in line for hours. When were they going to go up?
“Mom,” she said. She was greeted with silence.
“Mom,” she hissed.
“What, Beth?” said her mother. Her mom was fanning herself with the program they’d all been given. It was more like a small paperback than a pamphlet. The project had thousands of engineers, construction workers, scientists, and who knows who else? Too many unfamiliar names. Elisabeth had to search it three times before she found her father’s.
“When are we going up?”
“I don’t know. Try to be patient.”
“We’ve been waiting forever,” said Elisabeth.
“I know that. I’m waiting here, too.”
“Can you ask someone?”
Her mother sighed.
“Who would I ask? There’s no one out here to talk to. We’re all waiting, Beth, and even if I did find someone to ask, they wouldn’t have any more information than we do. And if they did, they wouldn’t share it.”
“Can we call Papa?”
“No, honey, we can’t. He’s waiting, just like we are, and I’m sure someone is up there talking about this great project and what it means to humanity and how proud they are, though whoever is talking never touched any tools in the last ten years, I’ll tell you.”
Elisabeth sighed. She took her copy of the program and leafed through it again, until she found the senior electrical engineers, and looked at her dad’s name.
Senior Electrical Design Engineer, Telecommunications Division
- Electrical Engineering – MIT
Chief Warrant Officer – US Navy
Mateo Herrara developed an early interest in communications and electrical systems while traveling the world with his father, Lt. Colonel Manuel Herrara, who served in the Army Corps of Engineers. Mateo applied to and was accepted at MIT, where he graduated with a Master’s Degree in electrical engineering. Mr. Herrara went on to serve in the United States Navy on a variety of nuclear vessels, and attained the rank of Chief Warrant Officer on the fast attack carrier Cortes. While serving on the Cortes, he met his future wife Esperanza.
Their contracts served, the new couple moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where they greeted their daughter Elizabeth in 2069.
Mr. Herrara is excited to be working on behalf of the United Nations Joint Space Project, where he helps oversee the installation, design, and maintenance of many of the communications systems used within the space elevator. He eagerly awaits his wife and daughter at the completion of the project. He enjoys reading science fiction and playing racquetball in his free time.
“They spelled my name wrong,” said Elisabeth.
“Why did they spell it that way?”
“That’s how it’s spelled in a lot of places.”
“Then why isn’t my name spelled that way?”
“That’s not how we chose to spell it.”
“Enough, Beth, please? It’s too hot for this.”
Elisabeth was quiet for a moment, and just when she thought of something else to say, there was a murmur at the front of the crowd. A woman stepped up to the podium that had been empty for the last few hours, other than a brief welcome offered by someone Elisabeth couldn’t even remember.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to apologize for your long wait on behalf of the United Nations Joint Space Project. As the families of the people who worked hard to make this project a reality, you know that a few years and a couple of hours past the deadline is par for the course.”
There were a few appreciative chuckles.
“I am pleased to say that the final system checks came back all clear, and in just a few moments, you’ll be the very first guests to ride the space elevator. Please make sure you have your seating assignments ready to scan so we can all get off our feet and enjoy the ride as quickly as possible. And, again, thank you so much for your patience.”
The crowd murmured and shifted. The shuffle and crinkle of slips of smart paper rippled under hushed voices as everyone got out their tickets. When the woman stepped back off the podium, the doors to the space elevator’s passenger line opened, and the crowd moved forward.
Now that they were moving again, Elisabeth felt a surge of fear, hope, and longing pulse through her. She looked at the towering structure again, as if for the first time.
The base of the space elevator was a massive man-made island of concrete, plasteel, and other materials she didn’t know the names of. The anchor for the space elevator was a gargantuan, dome-shaped base, which also served as the Earth-side terminal. On the far side of the square island was an international airport, able to service large passenger and cargo jets. On this side of the island, where the families had ridden over on boats, was the port: a veritable forest of cranes, docks, and rows of warehouses.
The terminal was one of the tallest buildings she’d ever seen, an off-white dome that soared into the sky, curving gently, until the black carbon of the elevator shaft jutted out and upwards. The elevator shaft was formed by a network of braided spider-carbon cables, some big around as a skyscraper, that gave the elevator enough strength to resist the rotational pull of the Earth, but enough flexibility to allow the station, hidden by the sunlight, to trail behind it by many miles, like a black ribbon fluttering in a constant breeze.
They shuffled forward, taking small steps, the crowd murmuring. Elisabeth sighed with relief when they entered the terminal and cool air washed over her. Her mother turned to her and smiled.
“That’s much better, isn’t it?” said Esperanza. Elisabeth nodded her approval. The passenger section of the elevator serviced a thousand guests, and resembled a sort of amphitheater, with circular rows of plush seats around the outer edge. The inner circle of the seating area was lined with amenities – snack bars, bathrooms, information terminals, shops, and sleeping cubicles stacked like cargo containers where there was enough space to lie down, and not much else.
Elisabeth and her mother’s tickets were scanned, and they were directed towards their seats, which were also located near where their luggage would be delivered to their assigned sleeping cubicles.
The passenger area was a ring, and Elisabeth knew from her father’s schematics that the ring was one of several that moved people up and down the elevator, and the inner circles were where cargo would be moved day and night. Now that the elevator was open, mining would begin in earnest around the solar system.
A pleasant, musical tone dinged over the speakers.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please find your seats. They will adjust to hold you firmly as the elevator gets underway. You will find controls to adjust the firmness of the hold, but please keep in mind that there’s a minimum safety requirement. If you find that your seat’s grip is uncomfortable and the controls do not help, please notify an attendant. Once we’re well under way and on our journey to the stars, the seats will be released, and you will be free to enjoy the shops and move around the passenger area. Thank you.”
Elisabeth giggled when her seat’s cushions shifted, gripping her limbs and around her waist. She didn’t find the pressure at all uncomfortable. It reminded her of when her dad held her.
“Not too bad, huh, Beth?” said her mom.
“No. It doesn’t hurt.”
“Are you ready?”
“Yes. I can’t wait to see Papa!” said Elisabeth.
“Me either,” said her mom.
There was a jump that pressed everyone into their seats, briefly but firmly, and then it felt as if nothing was happening.
“We have begun our ascent! The transit time from Earth’s surface to Elevator Station will take about five days. We hope you enjoy the ride. Screens showing the view outside are on from oh-eight-hundred hours to eighteen hundred hours local time. Make sure to enjoy the view!”
The first half-hour of the trip was exciting, but as the length of their journey began to sink in, Elisabeth grew bored, and her boredom brought guilt. She got to be on the first trip, and her dad had been in space for four years now. But…why couldn’t they just be there?
The seats released the passengers, but Elisabeth didn’t feel like exploring yet. She leaned her head over towards her mother’s seat, and Esperanza, who was reading, reached a hand up and stroked her daughter’s long, black hair.
Elisabeth watched the screens that lit the perimeter. The view was nothing but the ocean stretching into the far distance, and clouds here and there. The interior lights of the elevator pulsed a friendly blue light, moving up strips along the floors, up the edges of the screens, and overhead, converging at the center of the elevator before starting over.
The nightlight is here, too, she thought.
Waiting in the heat outside and then the cool indoors, her emotional turmoil, the subtle hum and thrum of the elevator, the familiar lights, and the gentle touch of her mother’s hand lured her to sleep.
December 15, 2076
On the third day, the power went out. It went out without warning, and while Elisabeth stood outside the little arcade room with game cabinets. At one moment, everything was normal, and the next, the entirety of the interior of the elevator was black. The sudden lack of motion from the elevator made the silence that followed painfully loud. Elisabeth’s heart leaped into her throat, and the icy specter of panic clawed its way out of her stomach.
She closed her eyes against the darkness. The needling cold tendrils of fear slid up her body and threatened to come out of her mouth in a scream, to come out of her eyes as tears. She took a deep breath, and just as the grip of panic tightened on her throat, she heard her father’s voice in her head.
Whenever a light shines, a little bit goes on forever.
In her mind, the nightlight came on. It was tiny and pulsed weakly, as if it were unsure of itself. But as she took another deep breath, as panic lost its grip on her, the light pulsed brighter. She opened her eyes, and as if waiting for her cue, the emergency lights came on. They were red, ugly, but they cast a little light here and there, enough to navigate by.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic. We’ve had a power source decouple, which will take just a second for our techs to fix. We’re in absolutely no danger. Please return to your seats until full power is restored.”
But Elisabeth heard none of the announcement. Her father’s voice guided her. She imagined the friendly white-blue light dancing along the floor, and she found that the darkness was not as scary as it once had been. She giggled, and followed the light of her imagination until she was sitting next to her mother again.
“Elisabeth!” her mother said, throwing her arms around Elisabeth in a giant hug. “I’m so sorry, honey! You must have been scared.”
“Only a little, Mama,” said Elisabeth. “The nightlight was with me.”
“The one your father made you?” said her mother, puzzled.
“But in my imagination.”
Esperanza hugged her daughter again, and they sat together in the semi-darkness. The windows, which had been steadily darkening to simulate nightfall, turned transparent. They gazed up at the stars, brighter and bigger than they’d ever seen them on the surface.
The moment may have lasted an hour, or it may have been only a few minutes. But they didn’t speak again in that little interval, hanging at the end of a rope, just above the world, and admiring the stars.
The power came back on. The lights returned, the windows darkened, and many people cheered. The elevator hummed as it rose.
“Why did Papa go up to the stars?”
Esperanza was quiet for a long time.
“When your papa was just a little boy, he traveled all over the world with your abuelo. They were in Spain, and on one of the days that abuelo didn’t have to work, he took your father to see famous cave paintings at a place called Altamira.”
“Paintings in a cave?”
“Yes. A very long time ago, some people, we’re not sure who, made some beautiful paintings in caves. Because the caves were deep, the paintings were protected, and they’re still with us today. Isn’t that cool?”
“Some of the paintings were of animals. Bulls and deer and other people and big tigers and mighty mammoths. Others were hand prints and pictures of people. Some very smart scientists looked at these paintings and discovered that the paintings weren’t just animals, but also paintings of the constellations. And your father, even though he was just a little boy, knew that those paintings of the stars were important. He knew that he wanted to go to space one day.”
“But why did he go now?”
“Keep listening, Beth. When we were dating, he told me that standing there in that cave, he felt a strong connection to the people that came before him. He looked at the same stars they did, you see? They saw animals where he saw animals. They looked at the sky in wonder, as he did. He became an engineer so he could learn to build machines and great projects that would help people reach the stars.”
Esperanza squeezed her daughter.
Elisabeth was asleep, a tiny smile on her face, and her hands curled into fists. Esperanza looked out the windows for a moment longer, thinking of what Mateo had told her all those years ago:
“My love,” he said, “no matter how dark the world becomes, we’ll always have the stars.”
Then, she too slipped into sleep.
December 17, 2076
They were waiting in line again, but this time, it was short. Elisabeth shuffled from foot to foot. She was wearing a special dress her grandmother had made. The skirt was sky blue with hand-embroidered silver stars, and the blouse was white. Elisabeth and her mother’s name were called, and they approached the official who stood at a turnstile.
He scanned their tickets.
“Follow the light to your area,” he said, and gestured. A white-blue light illuminated on the floor, and trailed ahead of them in lazy loops, coming back when they were too far behind, leading them through crowds of happy, smiling, hugging people.
Neither Elisabeth nor Esperanza said anything. Their eyes were glued to the dancing light.
The terminal screens were full of Earth, a majestic swirl of blue water, white clouds, and land, but they had not looked up since the light came on.
The light raced ahead in a straight line, and stopped.
Elisabeth and Esperanza ran after it.
Mateo stood in his designated spot, his hands trembling, tears threatening to come and go and come again, as they had since he got out of bed that morning.
He heard a little girl’s voice. “Papa!” called Elisabeth. Jesus, she’s big. He would never forgive the four years the project took. He would never forgive the time lost. He hoped, instead, that his family would forgive him. Perhaps he would one day forgive himself.
He fell to his knees, his arms open, and Elisabeth crashed into him. They wept with joy. His arms clenched around his little girl, his face contorted, red, and crying joyously. His wife stood a foot or two away, her own face wet with tears. Mateo stood, sweeping up Elisabeth in his strong arms, shifted her onto one, and grabbed Esperanza with the other.
He buried his face in their hair. Esperanza smelled of coconuts and flowers, Elisabeth, of green apple shampoo.
“I’ve missed you so much,” he managed through shuddering breaths.
“We missed you,” said Esperanza.
The three of them held each other for a very long time, until Mateo could no longer hold up his daughter, and he had to set her on her feet.
“You sent the nightlight, didn’t you?” said Elisabeth.
“It helped me find you,” said Elisabeth.
“And it brought the stars back to me,” said Mateo.
He hugged his family, the Earth all around them on the screens, and it seemed that they were all alone at the top of the world.