I see it through the viewscreen. It is there. It is real. And I know that soon I will be able to touch it. We will all be able to touch it.
We’re gathered here, at the viewscreens. Every one of us is here. Our faces are disfigured by cancers. Our bodies are wracked by disease. We are ruins of people. But we are here. All of us. After 66 generations of travel we are finally here.
I grasp the hand of Samuel, the man I have chosen to marry. He squeezes mine. I turn to him and see a face filled with a beatific sense of peace. I know what he is feeling. I know my expression is a reflection of his.
We have our legends of how it all began. We have our legends and we have our records. The records tell us of a great astrophysical controversy. They record papers and arguments and decisions. They record the process of intellectual ostracism and of exclusion. And they record the details of the ultimate experiment. And then are the legends. The legends of hotheaded leadership; of those committed to a dream which many feared was a fantasy. And then there were the legends of those majestic, or monstrous, souls – the souls which condemned countless generations of their own children to suffering in the pursuit of madness.
We are the crew and the passengers of the Negen. And as I look at the viewscreen, I know our story is finally coming to its conclusion.
Sixty-six generations ago, the world of physics was flummoxed by a glitch in the universe. The behavior of galaxies, and of the universe itself, defied the laws of gravity. There was too much gravity for the mass that could be observed. Planets and stars and galaxies moved in ways that suggested gravitational masses that could not be seen. And the problem wasn’t a rounding error. The ‘corrections’ necessary to bring the universe into gravitational balance, according to the models of the day, required more than doubling the mass of the universe itself. This correction, the massive mathematical fudging required to overcome shortcomings in astrophysical models, was called ‘Dark Matter.’
It could not be seen, but it had to be there. And so this area of physics was an area rife with the opportunity for near-religious speculation among deeply scientific thinkers.
And then an astrophysicist named Cyrus McMillian claimed to be visited by G-d and proposed a solution to the riddle. He pointed a massive telescope at a region of space. And he observed something there. It was something that seemed to defy the rules of physics. What was there could be seen in the visible spectrum, but it seemed to have no mass of its own. It defied exact placement, with constantly shifting observable attributes. And it had been missed in previous mapping efforts. Cyrus declared it was the solution to the riddle.
Cyrus claimed, with only a supposed Divine conversation as his evidence, that the universe contributed energy to this thing. He claimed there was no missing mass and that the observed behavior of the rest of the universe was due to the removal of energy from the universe through the system of black holes. The energy was then deposited in this singular location through some mystical means. He called it Negen as a shorthand of Negentropy, the opposite of Entropy – the continual process of disorder. This place, he believed, underwent an opposite reality. It was a planet or a star, or something that was a mixture of both. And it experienced a constant growth of order and structure.
But Cyrus’ revelation didn’t unleash a global discussion among the community of physicists. Instead, others pointed their own telescopes at the same patch of the sky. And they saw nothing. Cyrus was dismissed as a crank. His experiments and observations were not repeatable, and so they were not scientific.
Except, some people did see something. Twelve other observers saw what Cyrus saw. For them, the experiments and observations disproving the existence of the Negen System (as it had come to be called) were not repeatable. For them, there was scientific validity to the Negen postulation.
In this way, the very idea of the Negen System created a tear in the scientific process itself. It raised questions of the power of observable truth. Meanwhile, those who could see it found themselves meandering along ever stranger intellectual paths. They came to believe the system itself, and by extension the universe, had some special connection to their souls. They believed it was their paradise. And one of them, the hundred-billionaire James Vikram, decided to act on it. He funded the Negen expedition.
Over one hundred years later, after three generations of work, the starship Negen was finally launched. There was no magic technology on board the ship. There were no cryogenics or faster-than-light drives. There was no magic. The only major scientific advancement was the development of a fusion reactor, a little sun, to provide power and energy in the darkness of space.
The Negen was constructed at a Lagrangian Point between the Earth and the Moon. It was constructed piece by piece and grew to enormous size. The space-based factories that enabled its construction kicked off a tremendously profitable exploitation of the solar system itself. As the Negen grew, some began to call it a little moon. Others, believing humans were destroying the earth and their own solar system, called it the Ark. The name was both a testament to Noah and a reflection the near-biblical dedication of the Messianic fatalism that seemed to be behind this starship to nowhere.
After 100 years, it was built, and it was launched. It left Earth with a DNA bank and 70 passengers, the descendants of Cyrus and his original followers.
The travelers in the Negen did not know how far the Negen System was. It was not possible to measure its distance, even for those who could see it. They might reach it in a generation, or after many generations. They could not calculate the length of their voyage. And, as the generations passed, the travelers in the Negen could not disembark or abandon the course their ancestors had chosen for them. They were locked on a course for a system only some of them could see.
They were raised on the legends of the Negen system, they grew up and then taught the stories to their own children. And then they died. The mission passed from generation to generation.
The generations were not simply generations of tedium. No, they were generations of pain. The travelers were exposed, despite the creation of a magnetosphere by the original builders of the ship, to tremendous interstellar radiation. Their diets lacked variety, and the health facilities onboard the ship were limited by their own population and the skills they had. The lives of the travelers were short and brutal and unrewarding. It took all of their effort to survive and keep the ship operating in a universe without supplies or replacement parts.
All they had was the act of generational transmission to carry them forward.
But even the process of transmission was imperfect. As the generations passed, their language changed. The tiny population developed new words and syntax and grammar; they lived in a world nobody else had ever lived in before. Some delved into the ancient records, roughly translating the original documents and the early recordings of their ancestors to try to understand what their own lives were about. But as time passed, that effort grew ever more difficult. The concepts that had engendered them became ever more alien. And the Negen System, for those who could see it, seemed to grow no closer.
Sickness, confinement and isolation. That was life. That was my life. I was born on the Negen starship, 66 generations removed from Cyrus himself. We know there have been 66 generations. But we cannot count the years. There is no sun and the calendars in our computers have no meaning for us. Our lives are counted against the fuel consumed by our reactor. Today is the 15th fueling of my life. I am in the prime of my physical life, such as it is.
Until now, I have walked in the path of so many of my ancestors. I heard prophecies of Negen, but I knew better than to believe them. I believed only, in the deepness of my heart, that I hated Cyrus, James and the builders. I knew I hated them for condemning their own descendants to this reality. I had become the ship’s doctor, and I know more of suffering than most. Of course, I have never known another reality. Only our records speak of an Earth. I do not know whether it too is but a legend.
I have lived a life of doubt. For 15 fuelings, I have known Negen is a dream that might be realized by my own descendants. But now I have awoken. And I am standing, with all the others, at the viewport. And Negen is there. It is there, it is real. And I know that soon I will be able to touch it. We will all be able to touch it.
It sits there, before our viewscreen. It is glowing with light and warmth, but not heat. It is both planet and a cool star – shimming with energy and life. It is before us, glowing with unreality. Our ship continues toward it. We have built up fantastical speed over the generations. We have incredible inertia. We seem destined to crash into this place; not just physically, but emotionally. How can we internalize such change?
Thousands of cycles of sleep and awareness pass. Samuel and I have a child. A child who grows up in our new reality, knowing Negen is there, knowing it is real. The old pass away, their faces lit by the awesome light of the Negen System. They die knowing that Negen is there.
And, slowly, slowly, the Negen System catches us and slows us down. It never quite seems real, but it never quite seems unreal either. We live constantly on the edge of the believable.
But then, one day, we are here.
The doors of our craft open and we, the 66th generations of self-made refugees, stumble onto the surface of this place. Negen is green and lush and full of life and light. As I look around, I see those I know, my tiny community, literally healing. Their scars are vanishing. Their bodies seem full of hope and life and vitality. We are here. We are finally here. We are united in our joy.
Our sons and daughters can grow up and grow old in this new reality, aware that the dreams of their ancestors were not simply illusions.
Samuel is one of the first to discover the true power of the place. He imagines a home, an image taken from the ancient records, and then – moments later – it is there. His mind can harness the power of this place. Within a cycle, our people have a city. Within ten cycles, we realize that in this place, there is no need for death or loss or destruction. We can live forever, forever healing ourselves. We can live beyond the constraints that control the rest of the vastness of reality. Our ancestors were right. Our souls can speak to this fragment of the universe.
We have arrived in our paradise.
But our paradise lasts only three more cycles of sleep and awareness.
We feel it that day we discover we do not to die. There is an agitation. An energy. A desire for something more. I can feel it. We all can feel it. It just grows within us. It is a demand, completely foreign to us. A demand we cannot understand. As the cycles pass, we realize we are missing a pleasure, a fundamental pleasure, that peace cannot provide.
I can hardly believe it myself, but then it is inescapable.
We are missing adversity.
Samuel’s house is the first to go. It is destroyed by the simple wish of a neighbor. There is some context, a desire for a view. But that excuse is paper thin, a motivation that reflects a lack of more fundamental motivation. It is a motivation that speaks to the absence of any greater purpose. Within hours, our city is gone. And then the dead begin to pile up. Samuel is killed, poisoned by a lifelong friend.
After 66 generations of hardship, of a universe set against us, we have turned on ourselves. And the results are more destructive than anything else we have suffered.
I board the ship again with my daughter. I board the ship with its DNA bank and its fusion reactor. I flee the violence, knowing it will lead to total destruction.
I lift off the surface of Negen, myself and my child. I set the coordinates for Earth. And I know I will suffer the pain of travel. And I know my children will suffer the same. But I will sacrifice myself, and they will sacrifice themselves, for the realization of something better.
They will sacrifice because it seems that paradise must always remain on the edge of belief.
In Parshat Be’halotcha, the people journey with the Mishkan. It travels ahead of them, seeking a place of comfort. It appears the people have realized the end of a long journey and have finally come to place of peace. It is a messianic vision.
But their peace is short-lived. Within a day they are struck by an emotion: Ta’avah. The word is rarely used. It is used to refer to the desire by Chava (Eve) for the forbidden fruit. It is used in the national Ten Commandments to refer to the desire for a neighbor’s possessions. It is used to refers to a desire for meat. The common thread I see in these uses is a desire to destroy for short-term pleasure.
We kill animals for the pleasure of meat. We go to war against national neighbors for the pleasure of their possessions. We shatter our relationships with G-d for the pleasure of the forbidden. And, in our place of rest, we cry out for meat – death – rather than using our blessings to walk in the creative path of G-d.
Faced with unmitigated blessing, we choose to banish ourselves from paradise. And, like Chava, we are condemned to suffer pain and suffering in order to create life.
I see this concept not only in ancient history, but in the present as well. All too often, we respond to blessing with destruction. Instead of realizing that even those blessed with everything can walk in the path of G-d – creating in His image and committing that creation to the relationship with the timeless – we turn to destruction. Neighbors go to war over the presence of unwanted trees or the sound of birthday parties. We forget to create in search of fulfillment. Instead, we destroy in search of adversity.
But this does not need to be our reality. Another path is open to us.
After 66 generations of exile, after 66 generations of suffering, our people have finally returned to our land. We do not live in paradise. But we can. Here, we can create in search of fulfillment. Instead of seeking adversity, we can embrace the path of G-d and a better reality can finally be ours. The rules of the world can be bent to create a new reality.
In Behalotcha, Moshe (Moses) condemns the people as children. Children destroy when they are bored.
It is our mission to overcome this. It is our mission to teach our children to create in the absence of adversity. We must teach them to act in the image of G-d, who creates when He lacks nothing. Our children may or may not be blessed. But we much teach them to embrace blessing; so that if blessing comes to them, they will be prepared to embrace and realize the fullness of G-d’s promises.
Joseph Cox lives in Modiin, Israel and is the author of City on the Heights, a thriller about finding hope in war.
A teenage refugee flees for her life
and finds hope in the City on the Heights.
Before long, the future of the Middle
East rests on her shoulders.
Check it out at: www.CityontheHeights.com