It was early evening and the desert heat was dissipating at last. A sea of spectators, the largest gathering in human history, was assembled at the foot of a mountain that was not a mountain at all. To the crowd it appeared as a massive cliff face that stretched to the horizon in both directions and disappeared into the clouds. An ordinary road led up to the wall, then turned and ran along it; it cut directly into the rock and rose steadily upward until it was out of sight.

Now that the sun was setting, the crowd began to stir for the first time in hours. Head coverings were removed; children regained their shoulder perches; umbrella drones retracted their canopies and flew home to their charging stations. The air was electric with anticipation. Fights born of nervous energy flared up, and safety bots were called to defuse them. Around the world, billions of people tuned in to the live stream as the moment for the ribbon cutting ceremony approached.

A stage had been erected over the road for the event, and behind it a steel scaffold several stories high that would’ve been impressive in any other situation. LED banners flashed advertisements along with public safety messages. Text 01110 to report suspicious activity of any kind to the nearest safety bot. Replenish with WaterPlus! Text 10001 to have a public health drone dispatched to your location.

At the top of the scaffold the largest, brightest banner read simply:

THE ROAD TO SPACE.

The letters faded at regular intervals and reemerged in another language:

EL CAMINO AL ESPACIO

дорога в космос

宇宙への道

Neil Torres sat in a folding chair on a far corner of the stage and counted the intervals to calm himself. Twenty major languages represented, fifteen seconds for each one, five minutes exactly for a full cycle from English to Turkish. Neil appreciated the round number. He appreciated the itinerary for the ribbon cutting ceremony that carved his anxiety into manageable bites: four minutes for opening remarks; thirty seconds for applause; all told, he had twelve minutes and thirty seconds until he ascended the podium to deliver his speech.

He pulled his notes from his pocket along with a small glass vial that contained a single raspberry preserved in dark rum. Neil smiled softly, opened the vial and brought it to his nose. He had carried it with him like a talisman every day since Helen had given it to him long ago in a dingy laboratory in New York.

“You know the dust cloud at the center of the Milky Way?” she had said, her eyes smiling.

“Sagittarius B2.”

“Yes! It’s composed of ethyl formate. Do you know what ethyl formate smells like?”

“No.” But I’ll go and bring it back for you, Neil thought.

“It smells like this,” she said, and handed him the vial.

Helen was the first person who really, truly believed in him, long before he had proven himself. She was the first person who hadn’t laughed in his face. How he wished she was here now. Not that he would know what to do. He had never known what to do. He replaced the cap and ran his thumb along the scrawling cursive of the label. It read, Until you get to Sagittarius B2.

Neil sat and whispered his speech to no one for the hundredth time. The next time he would be delivering it to the entire world. Billions of people hanging on his every word.

“When I was a child, I dreamed of this road,” he began.

And he had.

“Neil, come in and take your shower!” Maria called out to her son through a crack in the kitchen window. “The dry period starts in an hour. And your dinner is cold.”

Neil was lying flat on his back in the postage stamp of coarse grass outside their cape cod in Astoria. He glanced at his watch and tapped his toes in time with the second hand. He was ten years old. “Three minutes and forty-two seconds until blackout.”

“Oh right,” Maria sighed. “The blackout.” No one knew what to expect from the scheduled blackouts, one of several draconian measures cities across the U.S. had taken to conserve what remained of the world’s rapidly diminishing resources. The dry periods had run fairly smoothly for the last six months: city water cut off for eight hours of every twenty-four. In the beginning, riots broke out in the streets. Public service announcements had prepared people for weeks, but no one really paid attention until their hands were dirty and they couldn’t get them clean. And now the blackouts: an overnight power outage in the city that never sleeps. What could go wrong?

“Lukewarm,” Neil corrected.

“What?”

“My dinner is lukewarm. It’s not cold.”

“Oh my god, Neil, with the attitude.” Maria slapped a wet dishrag against the doorjamb and pointed at her son. “Careful or we’ll have problems.”

“Two minutes sixteen seconds until blackout.”

Maria stood in the doorway and watched her son lying in the grass. She was not a worrier, but she worried over Neil. They had an ASD diagnosis, which she clung to like an unsolved equation, hoping for an elegant proof. She worried about his fixations, though for now they seemed innocent enough—math, astronomy, physics. He could disappear into his own mind as surely as if he had launched himself into deep space.

“Come on, Mom,” Neil said, patting the grass next to him. “Come watch the show.”

Maria treasured these small gestures, indications that her son was still her son, that he loved her in his way. They lay side by side in the grass, staring up at the stars, until Neil jerked a

scrawny arm up, swept aside a curtain of tangled hair and held his watch just beyond his nose.

“Blackout in ten, nine, eight, seven—”

“It probably won’t be right on the dot, Neil—”

“Three, two, one…blackout!”

They stared blankly into the streetlight and beyond to the gray matter of the sky, hazy with light pollution.

There was a scattered popping, a subtle woosh, the honking of distant horns. To Neil and

Maria, staring up from the grass on their suburban street, the blackout was an almost

imperceptible darkening of the sky, a cosmic dimmer switch lowering until the streetlights above finally sizzled and flickered and died. To someone with a better vantage point—on the pier in Queens, say, where Neil and his brother ate ice cream sandwiches and watched grandpas play bocce ball—the blackout did not seem a blackout at all; it was an exodus of light from ground to sky. The moment that darkness enveloped the city, the sky exploded with stars.

“I have to go there,” Neil said aloud.

Maria’s heart swelled and broke. “Oh, honey,” she said, “I hope so…”

But Neil wasn’t listening. He was seeing the future.