Though it had rained all day, the skies were clear as the sun set behind the quad. On the edge of campus, in a tavern that had been there before they were students and would remain long after their tenure as professors had come to an end, the journalist was staring slack-jawed at the astronaut.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“I swear to God.”
The journalist laughed. “Who else would you swear to?”
They had known one another for a long time, from before the start of their professional lives, back to when they were wild undergrads, more concerned with next dates than next exams. They were older now. Wiser, they thought, though they doubted how much their younger selves would have agreed with that assessment. They could have been embarrassed, looking back at the fierceness of former convictions that now seemed laughably antiquated. They both found it charming. Belief was important; that hadn’t changed even if what they believed had. The years that had subdued their animalism had also broadened their views and what they once took for granted they now debated.
“On my first spacewalk,” the astronaut said, “I almost couldn’t bring myself to come back into the station. A bit of time for awe is built into the walk; you go out, see the unbelievable view, maneuver around the station for practice, then you come back in. I couldn’t get past the awe. They let me stay five extra minutes—that’s valuable oxygen I was using, by the way—and then I came back in without doing anything but floating there, staring at the pale blue dot, a few sheets of nylon and aluminum the only thing between me and the void.”
The journalist gently tipped his pint of extra bitter. He smiled at his old friend.
“I can’t believe my ears,” he said. “You were floating in space, in a suit made of plastic. Behind you was the pressurized tin can that we had launched into orbit so that you could live among the stars, and in that moment, surrounded by the greatest achievements that science can offer, you came to believe in God?”
It was the astronaut’s turn to smile. “You’re not seeing the whole picture,” she said. “Not that I blame you. I didn’t either until I was out there in the stars.”
“Don’t you mean the heavens?” They laughed and drank.
“It’s so empty,” said the astronaut, her voice thin and fading. “I thought I knew what it would be like before I went. I didn’t.”
Glasses clinked behind them and a cheer went up on the far side of the bar. There was always noise here, someone celebrating, someone burying sorrows, someone coming in, someone going out. The bar held everything and felt eternal. They knew it wasn’t but it pleased them both to believe it was.
“Doesn’t that emptiness—the vacuum, the distant sun, the endlessly expanding nothingness of space—doesn’t all of that only serve to prove the naivety of religion?”
“You’re conflating religion and faith,” said the astronaut. “You can believe in God without religion, have faith without adhering to dogma. God belongs to no church.”
“There are an awful lot of people who disagree with that wisdom.”
“You know better than anyone that popular conception does not equate to truth.”
“But what’s your evidence? What did you see in the stars that should make me trade in my heretic ways?”
The astronaut carefully drained her stout and set it, empty, on the table. “Nothing,” she said. “I looked out at the vast expanse of space and saw as far as my frail eyes could see and there was nothing. There were points of light, stars and planets, but the nothingness was astounding. The emptiness of space is not absolute, but for the first time it became real. I saw it for what it was and it was overwhelming. Away from the hum and bustle of the city, the honking, screeching, shouting, crashing madness of Earth, I saw what real emptiness is.”
“Jesus, that’s dark.”
“No, no, no,” she said, and there was a pained, eager earnestness in her voice. “You’re not listening. Looking out, I saw nothing. But looking down? The pale blue dot. Earth. Our one and only mother. In all the wide emptiness of space, she gave us life. Look at all we have here. All of this, in the midst of all that emptiness. If that’s not divine, what is? From that perspective, how could I not believe?”
Students passed through the door in endless breaking waves. Their conversations rose and fell, words or phrases lingering here and there, all eventually drifting away. Outside, streetlights glimmered on the wet street and the black sky arched above, cloudless and clear.
“I’ve kept you too long,” the astronaut said. “We should go.”
“No, no, no,” said the journalist. “Let’s have one more round.”