Ivoriania Phillips


The Galaxy in Her Hand

They turned their lips away so I couldn’t learn of what they were speaking, but I heard them as clearly as if the world wasn’t mute to me. Hands covering mouths, eyes darting towards me and away, fidgeting and clearing their throats.

How will she be able to do the work required if she can’t hear?

Can we really afford to do special accommodations for someone with her condition and special prayer schedule?

She’s not fit to join our crew…

I know that when the chief turned towards me again to share with me, “Miss Budur, we are quite impressed with your outstanding studies in the astronomy field and space travel training, but we feel…” he spoke from ignorance. 

Right then, through the cemented wall of confidence and willfulness I’ve built in my mind, regret and doubt seeped through the cracks I didn’t know were there.

I should’ve gotten that hearing aid surgery, I thought. I should’ve submitted my extensive research on quantum leaps for faster travels instead of giving it to my superior to butcher it before handing it in. I should’ve poured more time in my work instead of praying—

I cleared my throat, sat up taller, and fixed the fissures before they grew big enough to send my wall crumbling. I spoke with as much clarity as my voice would allow. “Sir, with all due respect, this will be a mistake on your part. I know that there are very few station workers willing to go through the perilous experiment of Flash Travel, and of the dangers the other universe may present upon our arrival.

“SUPARCO could use as many volunteers for this as they can get.”

The chief’s lips pursed, and again, he exchanged looks with the other members of the conference sitting on either side of him, looking for sound rebuttals to drive me away.

That was an entire month ago, and since then, SUPARCO has worked diligently with NASA to prepare my seating in the traveling craft. It is quite a beautiful ship, pristine and durable, promising a magical travel if not a completely safe one. It was all I could watch from the window of the conference room, where all who’ve passed the process celebrate our coming departure with our leaders and team members, as well as our family and friends who wanted to see us off.

I know I should be with my father and sisters who, despite the wishes of my traditionalist mother to avoid the “stain on true Muslimahs’ name,” came to see me and wish me well, but I can’t tear myself away from the glass to join in conventional small talk, not when I’m already in the stars, watching frozen rocks shoot across, entire planets consumed by fires or breathtaking clouds, all of it zooming past quicker than the speed of light itself.

And it’s not like I’m completely broken away from my colleagues, despite my fascination with our new home for the few years’ time and my complete deafness making it seem so. There was a reason that I refused that surgery, and that reason is that I found it totally unnecessary compared to this odd skill I have been developing since my youth: skin reading.

I couldn’t recall how old I was, but long ago, I discovered that when I pressed my hands to the speakers of any electronic, the sounds come to me as easily as Braille. Because of my inquisitive nature, I had to use this ability, had to see how far I can stretch my capabilities. So, I tuned my body to the air around me, so that the sounds may come to me. To some, it may seem such a foolish decision to pass up a surgery to bring a vital sense back, but I must say that what came next was worth it, for it was something that those who can hear could never understand. Words danced on my skin, conversations enveloping me like I’m submerged in water but safe from drowning; cars honking on the street, children laughing in parks, glass clinking together after a heartfelt toast, as easy to access as simply listening.

And the stars! Oh, I would not have ever imagined in all my years that I could use this ability to connect to the stars. Whenever I sat out on my family’s balcony while everyone slept, I’d feel them, all the ones closest to us. Explosions, gushing gases, howls of pain as stars died, and gentler, yet still mighty screams of stars being born, like the cries of newborn babies. It was good that they were so far away from me, because my younger self would have been even more overwhelmed by it all if the sounds of collisions and destruction were closer. But I am now ready to be among them, to live the collisions, the destruction, the devastation and birth in other universes.

As my breath hitched from the magnificence of the worlds I have yet to visit, I started to calm myself by pressing my free palm against the window, feeling the work of humans and machines as they added finishing touches and thorough inspections on my Saint Elizabeth. Even though nothing could take my attention away, my skin did pick up on the vibrations of approaching footsteps through my uniform sleeves, steps that were bold and loud, heavy from the person who commanded respect and who is a little on the chubby side. Baba.

His face appeared on the glass’s reflection, a smile buried beneath the grey and black forest of his beard. I watched him lay his hand on my shoulder and say to me, “So, Budur, it looks like you’ll be meeting Allah. Are you ready?”

“Baba,” I said, “you make it sound like I’m going to die.” And if the calculated risks are correct, then he isn’t entirely wrong. 

It is something that he knew, too, the probability of my team and I dying, yet instead of letting the gloom of it poison our conversation, he said, “I can’t believe that one of my own will fly off into the heavens beyond ours, going to new worlds, meeting new species! Oh, Budur, you may be able to share the love of Allah and the wisdom of the Quran—!”

“Baba! Baba, please!” I spun around, careful to not spill a drop of clean champagne from my glass. “We must take this slowly, remember? And, sadly, we cannot involve religion in our journey and research. I’m already pushing it with my daily prayers.”

Baba scoffed and stared into his drink. “‘Pushing it,' how despicable; I heard that there will be a small chamber dedicated to Christian prayer, and it can be rearranged to serve as a synagogue for the Jewish passengers.” His eyes then travelled to the people gathered across the room, picking out the ones he’s seen bearing their cross necklaces or traveler’s Bible.

Admittedly, I, too, was sour about having to fight for my right to prayer when it’s treated like a luxury to some of them, but I refused to lose sight of the purpose of this mission for something that is meant to be private to begin with. So, to soothe my father’s burning fury, I reach to hold his hand and direct his attention to my sisters, whom seem to be at ease conversing with the other astronauts without the condemning glower of our mother.

“It looks like Ameenah and Farha are handling my trip well, too.”

“Yes, they are. Bragged about their big sister space cadet to every nosy old lady at the market. Oh! That reminds me…” 

Baba dug into his pocket and instructed me to hold my hand out. I did so, and for some reason, he thought that my hand was big enough for his gift, for he dumped possibly a dozen tiny rolled parcels into my waiting grasp, and so many fluttered to the floor.

“Baba!” I yelped. We both knelt to pick up the scattered pieces and decided it was best to set them on the nearby table. I picked one up and unrolled it. “What are these?”

“Prayers for a safe travel, well wishes, requests should you meet Allah or His angels.” Baba raised his glass. “The old ladies were very busy once they’ve learned of your mission—“

I missed the rest of what he said as I read the scrolls one by one, my heart swelling with each message, every fine character, written with as much intricacies as embroidery on silk. I pressed a scroll to my lips, and sniffed the old oak scent and light perfume. “Baba, tell them thank you. Thank you so much…”

Baba leaned in and planted a gentle kiss on my forehead, felt even through my hijab.

I had to sacrifice my last bit of sleep to do my Salat al-Fajr, but sleep was the last thing on my mind once I hopped out of bed. I bowed and whispered my prayer to the mat lying beneath me, all while bathed in the light of the moon and the murmurs of the stars. Such music to my skin made it difficult to focus, because apart from my private session with God was a small part of me bouncing, giggling, and ecstatic for the mere fact that soon, I was going to be close enough to them. Death, though terrifying, felt worth it.

When I finished my prayer, I sat in bed, reading through the small scripts of paper until the soft whispers of the moon gave way to the lively, uncontainable screams of the sun. Then came the drilling sound of the alarm to rouse awake the others. We all went through our daily prep routine, made sure our suits fitted perfectly and had no deformities, our health was optimum, and that we all understood the mission ahead of us, that any of us feel doubt about this have one more chance to forfeit their position. No one did.

We existed out to the launch field, my hand over my breast pocket to feel the bulk of those scrolls, and thousands of people seated around us to witness our flight to heaven, thankfully from a safe distance. I couldn’t tell from the cheers running up and down my spine like blissful static, or the indistinguishable faces, but I knew that my father and sisters were here with me once more. Into the spacecraft and taking our seats, we started activating the systems and communicating with the station workers. At least, my cohorts did; although my telecommunication screen worked perfectly, they didn’t trust my lip-reading capabilities nor the captioning to translate their works well, so I was left with following the instructions of my team members and tapping into memories of my training.

The ship came to life, and I never would have imagined how stimulating it would all be. My chest felt tight, my skin rolled from all the noise and activity like waves of the ocean. I laid my head against my seat’s headrest and felt a hand drape across mine. I looked over to my left, into the sweet, brown eyes of Captain LaQuisha Howard, whose dark skin seemed to glow warm from the lights of the screens. The countdown began, and it felt like it was a countdown to my heart imploding instead of its intended purpose.

The blast of jet fuel shot us up, and up, and up. The air became syrupy, too thick for me to swallow easily. I squeezed LaQuisha’s hand.

I can’t breathe!

LaQuisha squeezed back.

Deep breaths, honey!

We broke through the atmosphere and I inhaled, exhaled, regulated my breaths throughout the turbulence. There was one final rough shake as the boosters fell away. And when the flight stabilized, we all heaved a sigh and looked out the window. 

Will the planets we’re traveling to be as beautiful as this?

We were going to find out. Once in a safe distance from Earth, our three techs ran off to prepare Omni-1, the smaller of two energy-conversion and propelling cylinders built within the ship to accelerate our exit from out of the solar system before activating Omni-2. I am prepared. We all are. We didn’t go through months of quantum leaps training and physical conditioning to not be. But it was harder to convince my quivering body and jolting nerves of that. Even in my deafness, I can hear my heart pump blood to my head and back downstream. 

LaQuisha and the others started to put on their radiation-protection suits, and after being prodded by our Captain, I did so, too, embarrassed and a little frightened that I had forgotten such a vital step. The scrolls in my breast pocket crinkled as I attached my oxygen mask and helmet. 

“May Allah bless this traveler’s journey with His love and grace.”

Because my nerves were still recovering from this overwhelming launch, I may have missed something passed between our technicians and our flighters, because soon, the Captain began entering codes and flipping switches, meaning Omni-1 was ready to take us off. Our suits’ interior began to collectively cool. Through all the wonderful chaos, through this thick suit that gave me assurance as well as fear, I felt the thrum of Omni-1 like the ship’s heart racing. The techs returned and buckled in, slipping on their added safety gear as well, and with one slow pull of the lever, Omni-1 rocked our very foundations. I only had time to inhale for a scream before we were swallowed into light, light that broke into fractures of pinks, violets, sky blue, red, maroon, blasting in swirls around us.

And when it was over, I screamed, then choked when I tried to stop myself from screaming. Fighting down the bile that threatened to pollute my mask was too difficult to achieve in my—our, as I now saw—disoriented state. Everyone laid their heads back on their headrests or bent down as far as the control panel would allow, trying our best to gather our senses and recover our health. Tyler, one of the techs with an apparent body of steel, was the first to get back to work. 

“Tyler…” Captain LaQuisha panted, “Our, er, our unit readings…”

Tyler coughed and replied, “Readings from Beagle 2 says… Christ, my head—um…wait…” he tapped in some quick keys, scrolling through his reading slower and slower, until he continued, “It’s a little weak, but it says ‘10,000 units’. We’re freaking 10,000 units away from our solar system!”

We all shot up from our various recuperating positions to share confused and credulous glances at each other, until someone started laughing, and her laughter had spread to everyone else, until the pit was ringing with laughter that tingled my hands and soothed the last bit of my nausea. I hiccupped and sniffed, thanking all the written prayers that shielded me from danger—

“Prepare Omni-2 then.”

All attention turned to LaQuisha. She ignored us all to simply reboot the system for another, bigger jump. 

“Captain, you can’t be serious…” Tyler said. 

“When have I joked about our missions, Tyler?” LaQuisha retorted. 

“But, ma’am, we can’t. I don’t recommend it at all, at least not so soon!” He searched for support of his claims in the information glowing in the screens before him. “The ship needs time to cool, and our bodies barely reacted well to our smaller jump! If we try again so soon, we could die!”

“And we all knew of that risk when we took on this task.” I couldn’t believe the sureness of her words when her voice felt so weak and ill. Even the way she reached for her controls were weak and unsteady, like she was on the brink of collapse. “We’re in the middle of nowhere, and the first part was a success. It’s at this point that most would lose nerve and get too comfortable. So, give us coordinates of the nearest black hole, get O-1 and 2 going, and let’s go like the heroes that we’re meant to be!”

However long it took for Tyler to get the coordinates like LaQuisha ordered, the rest of us used the time to prepare for more great leaps. Whatever power these scrolls held I tried to glean in these moments, to call on Allah’s power. I wasn’t alone; looking left and right, I saw that some of the others were pressing their fingers to their chest, likely where their crosses hung, or bowed their heads to ask their deities to make this work. The nearest black hole was only 2,000 Astronomy Units away, and held enough power to cross us over to another universe. Tyler, another technician, and a randomly assigned assistant left to work on the Omnis, returning with blanched and sweating faces.

A black hole was that close to us. So, it wasn’t my mind so out of whack that it was a messy stream of senseless thoughts; I was taking in the screams of stars swallowed whole. Stars were being consumed of their very existence, and she wanted us to share in that doom. How could she even think of going headfirst into this so soon after our previous, perilous leap that we barely survived?

Once the questions rang in my head, I saw the truth in LaQuisha’s statement. It became too easy to want to rest, and after rest, it’ll be easier to convince ourselves that all along, the danger wasn’t worth it, and whatever power we had in our cylinders we should use to go back home. This sudden compliance with her direction may have something to do with the high of our breakthrough, but I’m going with it.

LaQuisha steered Saint Elizabeth towards the location of the black hole, then put as much power into the fuel burners to speed us along in a “running start.” Everyone checked their suits’ conditions and the tightness of the seatbelts. Stars rushed past our views in the window, and Liza rocked with the same turbulence as before. At first, we broke beyond the speed of light, but the river of glow and colors faded away so quickly, I wondered—feared—that O-1 burned out, or we’ve consumed all the energy close by, but it made sense when spotted just ahead was our next stop: a dark force that engulfed stars with a ferocious hunger, yet was eerily calm and delicate, like a dancer spinning their ribbon in the air.
If my teeth weren’t chattering from the stars’ screaming burning my insides, I would’ve thought—no, it is beautiful. 

Despite the black hole devouring all atoms, Omni-1 still fought to push us through, until Omni-2 took over. The mass of fire and gas swirling the black hole started to split, a fork of the debris swarming towards us, breaking into invisible particles for O-2 to decimate, remake, and burn into the powerful, possibly lethal, fuel to get us going. Next, with the stars taken, O-2 went after the black hole. O-2 couldn’t get all of it, not from something so big as a planet, but if we could get enough, just enough to temporarily make a way…

I bowed my head and inhaled as O-2 fought to keep us together, while the black hole, like all the stars that had the misfortune to cross its path, tried to rip us apart. A chorus of screams, my own included, eased away into soundlessness that even my flesh and bones couldn’t feel. We’d breach the event horizon; because of Omni-2’s powerful acceleration, the pull wasn’t as slow, as intense as previous research had stated, but it was still enough agony to make me regret for those few minutes that I joined in this project. 

And so, I bowed my head once more and whispered voiceless, “Allah, be our shield!”

I opened my eyes. It seemed I was the last to awake, since everyone around me were wide-eyed and gaping mouths, gawking into the window. I waited for my vision to stop swimming, only for my eyes to sting from the sweat pouring down my face. I didn’t think of the risks when I removed my helmet to wipe my face dry, but I knew that something warped in our oxygen supply. My sight blurred so badly that I blinked multiple times, but no matter how many times I did so, it continued to swim, and all that I saw became brighter, more saturated and harsh.

I yanked off my glove to rub at my eyes. “Good gracious, what… what happened? What’s going on?”

“We overshot.”

I stopped, staring at the blurred face of Tyler. “We, we what? What do you mean?”
“Omni-2,” LaQuisha spoke up, “it… it may have taken us too far.” She shook her head. “We don’t know what that is…”

I had a moment of frozen fear, of cold liquid filling my every vein. I had faint sensations of murmurs and crying filling the pit, too indistinguishable for my damaged senses to make into words, but I could sense the source of terror. I kept my eyes down even though I can now clearly see even the small print on the panel’s keys in front of me.

Did I want to see my death, if it means my last sight will be my dream come true, and that my last breath will be taken away from me in the most beautiful and damning way? 

My answer came in another gentle touch from LaQuisha, and a soft, “You have to see this, Burdu.”

I didn’t die. None of us did. In just a short, harrowing hour, we’ve survived atomic leaps that should’ve killed us, yet we’ve mostly suffered banged up heads, extreme nausea, and inconsequential amounts of radiation poisoning. And what reward are we given? A globe of ice melting into sparkling, crystal waters; dry lands growing in lush of greens and pinks and white; smoke from angry volcanoes dissipating into mineral-rich clouds to feed the life below. We were still within the event horizon of the other side, so the evolution we as humanity never got to witness played through in rapid sequence.

And just beyond the bent horizon, this planet’s source of light and life was swirling, morphing, squeezing into a tight orb of fire and wrath and hope. I rose in my seat. I thought of the many journal entries and notes I’ve written when I was younger, all the prayers I’ve said, all the dreams I’ve had, to someday live this. I reached my bare hand to the glass and jumped at the electric zap that struck my fingers, then pushed harder.

Never have I ever felt the beginning of life, of births, deaths, growth, destruction, renewal, in such a massive scale. Never have I felt like I’m going to explode from the song of a new Sun filling me. And for all of it to rush into me, barely slowing even as Liza pushed through the black hole’s barrier, I wasn’t sure that I was going to last much longer. And I believe the others thought the same way, because the next thing I knew, I was yanked back by my waist and settled down on the floor with caution. LaQuisha took my face in her gloved hands to examine my complexion while Tyler checked my oxygen intake.

“Burdu!” LaQuisha gasped. “Burdu, honey, can you read my lips?”

My arms lied limp at my sides, I clung desperately to consciousness, but I clenched and unclenched my hand. “I…I had the Sun in my hands.”

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return to issue 4: May 2017