The Distance to Andromeda by Gregorio C. Brillantes

The Boy Ben, thirteen years old, sits there and wide-eyed before the screen of the theater, in the town of Tarlac, his heart thumps in awe and excitement, and his hands are balled into unconscious fists, as the spaceship burns its blue-flamed journey through the night of the universe that is forever silent with a high metallic hum.

Enclosed in time within the rocket, the ship itself surrounded by timelessness, which is in turn framed by the boundaries of the cinema screen, the last men and women and children of Earth watch the asteroids, the stream of cosmic dust, the barren planets drift past the portholes like luminous flowers at once beautiful and monstrous, floating in the ocean of space. The traveler search the night for another world of air and greenness, remembering the end of the Earth, the Final War, the flickering radioactive fires upon the lifeless continents. Beyond the dead seas of Mars, and beyond the ice-bound tomb of Neptune, past the orbit of Pluto and out into the black immeasurable depths, the rocket flashes onward, through years of space and time: a moving speck among the twinkling stars, propelled by the flame of its engine and a certain destiny. A sun looms up from the blackness, more golden and more gentle than the star they have always known; and as a globe of shining water and green-shadowed land appears through the viewports; they break out into jubilant cries and dazed whispers of thanks to God. Cradled by a final blast of power, the spacecraft lands on the meadow: a quiet moment before the airlocks open, a sigh of wind in the nearby trees. The survivors of the Earth climb down onto the grass, and the filmed prophecy ends with them gathered as on a pilgrimage beneath the vertical cylinder of their rocket, looking out across the plain to the hills green in the light of the new sun.

The curtains close the window of the screen; an amplified phonograph scratches out a tired rhumba; there is a brief scramble for vacated seats, the usual reluctant shuffling towards the exit after the show. Ben thinks of staying for one more screening but his friend Pepe stood up to leave, waving to him from the aisle.

He and Pepe go up the aisle, stepping on brittle peanut shells and candy tinfoil; in the diffused light, the audience waits for the lovely and terrible dream.

The two boys linger before the moviehouse and look up at the photo stills tacked on the display board: the nuclear-bombed cities, New York and Paris and London, where no man would ever breath and walk again; tomorrow’s spaceship, flaming meteor-like in the night of space; the faces of the last people, brave before the unexplored night.

Ben looks up at the pictures, and he feels again, deep in a silence within him, like the vibration of invisible wires, the hum of the universe, the movement of the planets and stars. He turns to his friend in a kind impatience, his eyes bright, his chest tightening; he begins to speak, but the hum and movement cannot be uttered. “C’mon, Ben,” says Pepe, and they cross the street away from the sound and glare of the theater, through the small belling tinkle of the calesas and the warm gasoline dust, while the strangeness within him strains almost like a pain for utterance.

They saunter down the main street in the manner of boys who have no immediate reason for hurry, lazy-legged and curious-eyed. They come to the plaza; children are roller-skating around the kiosko, and the stars are clear in the sudden night over the town.

The two boys get up on the bench and sit on the back rest and watch the skating children. In the white light of the neon lamps, the continuous rumbling sound of the skaters rises and falls with the quality of the cemented rink: now hollow and receding, now full and ascending, going around, seemingly unending. Tito comes by and join them atop the bench; and they talk of a swim in San Miguel tomorrow morning; they agree to meet here, at the kiosko, after the last Mass. After a few random topics, from basketball to the new swept-winged jets that passed over the town during the day, the talk shifts to the movie Ben and Pepe have just seen. Tito does not go for that kind of picture, so fantastic he says, so untrue to life.

With every second the night deepens in the sky. As though in obedience to some secret signal, Ben looks up at the stars. The Southern Cross hangs in the meridian; the half-man and the half-horse in Centaurus rides over the acacias, and the Milky Way is a pale misted river dividing the sky. The stars are faraway suns… The strangeness stirs in silence within him: the unknowable words die stillborn in his mind, and the boy joins in the casual conversation, while the rumble of the skates rises and falls, around and around, as if forever, and the stars swing across the sky.

“I wonder if there are people on Mars – like in the comics.”

“If there are any,” says Tito, “they’d look like Mr. Cruz.”

“Just because he flunked you in algebra.”

“Do you think people will ever get to the moon?”

“Ahh, nobody’s going to land on the moon,” says Tito, “there’s no air up there.”

“They’ll bring their oxygen in the rocketship.”

“Moon, rocketship, Mars – what kind of crazy talk is that?”

With comic farewells, the three boys part ways, Ben walks home alone, back across the plaza, past the skaters and the lamp-posts of kiosko, the border of trees and the town hall. The empty house on Romulo Street stares at him through a vein of vines, like a sick old woman abandoned by her children. The electric plant by the river thunders compressedly as he goes by, the massive dynamos producing heat and light; it is as though he were discovering the power of the machines for the first time, quivering in the air, trembling underground. On the bridge, he stops to gaze at the sky; the far edge of the river, without trees or houses, planes into a horizon; the stars seem to rise from the dark land and the water.

He stands alone on the bridge, and he is suddenly lonely, the vast humming turning within him, waiting: for a streak of blue flame, a signal flare among the stars. Where and why … Thousands of years away by the speed of light, the other worlds… He recalls the view of the heavens through the port holes of the rocket, and the photographs of the galaxies, the whirlpooled suns in the book his father gave him one Christmas. The rocket, an atom wandering in the outer reaches of unknown space: to be lost and lovely forever in the starry night… He feels very tiny, only a boy, shrinking, helpless, standing between the dark river and the lights in the sky.

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