When I was a child, I wanted to go to space.
My ceiling had thousands of the tiniest glow in the dark stickers. Once laboriously applied, they represented all the stars and named constellations. The northern hemisphere laid above my pillow and the southern hemisphere was splayed out above the foot of my bed.
But on the long march to becoming 30, star stuff gave way to the stuff of life. Some awful, some awe-inspiring, but all did their part to blot out the sky.
And yet, a few weeks before my 30th birthday, there it was. (ding noise)
From: Jiten Dave
Wednesday May 21st, 3:07pm
Hey Cousin, Greetings from sunny Los Angeles. Just wanted to share some good news. Our son, Rohan, reached the national finals of a middle school patch design contest sponsored by NASA. The winner’s patch will be sewn into the suit of an astronaut traveling into space at the next launch. Voting ends on Saturday morning, so please try to vote if you can.
A link to a SurveyMonkey site followed.
I stared at the screen blankly for minutes.
Maybe I wouldn’t get to the stars, and maybe neither would my nephew, but this patch– this piece of cloth stitched with my dream–maybe it could get to space.
I was at work and dramatically explained to my coworkers why this mattered. This was a team that grew moustaches for Movember every year, so it was an easy sell. The idea caught fire and forty votes were docked within the hour.
That evening, I looked at the online scoreboard for the first time. The four patch finalists were laid out before me. Votes were 2, 11, 20, 52.
We were well in the lead with a girl or boy named Xie Wang in second. I felt confident about Rohan’s patch and even kind of bad for the one with two votes.
Dillon’s was a patch that, evidently, only a mother could love.
I got into bed and tried voting on my phone. It was the second time that day, but it worked.
I tried again and received the prompt informing me I had already voted.
My eyes grew heavy as I looked out of my window at the sky. “See you soon,” I eked out, half-dreaming.
Two more days till the stars.
The next day the whole family got involved. Mom and dad’s coworkers, my other cousin’s third graders, a few strangers from Metropark, anyone who would listen to our story were logging in votes.
When I got home from work, the scoreboard showed lots of movement, well mostly. Dillon only managed to get a third vote, probably just his dad, but the rest of us were off to the races: 3, 25, 67, 102.
We were still in front and, in fact, had increased our lead.
But something about the score of 67 felt unsettling, made me feel unsafe. Did Xie really triple his or her score in a day? I got out my phone and tried voting again.
On a hunch, I completely turned off my phone, turned it on again and tried voting.
I’ll spare you exact details of what followed, but when I called my cousin immediately thereafter, words like cached memory, IP addresses, hard resets, and a bunch of other jibberish led us to a simple conclusion:
This vote could be rigged.
We both voted in tandem for about 2 hours until we reached 401 (we didn’t want a round number) and called it a night.
Friday morning was the final full day of voting and I half-expected to see some kind of mercy rule applied; these were kids after all.
I checked the numbers to see if they had declared us the winner early, but I saw something else entirely.
3, 26, 401, 503.
Somehow Xie had overtaken us while we were sleeping. Well, not “somehow,” we all knew exactly how. Now, every time I refreshed the page, Xie’s votes kept jumping higher. 504, 506, 511.
My face went hot.
I frantically started voting but couldn’t keep pace—for each vote I made there were 2 or 3 more votes going to Xie. I gave up when I reached 500.
Xie was already at 750 and the votes climbed throughout the afternoon until reaching 1,000. There, it hovered at twice our score, taunting me.
I was shattered.
But then the phone rang.
Jiten, Rohan’s dad, had come up with a plan.
We played dead for the whole day and gathered online as a family at 10pm. Eight of us across 4 cities. We were dialed into Ramesh Uncle’s work conference line to communicate; but no one was speaking.
Nothing needed to be said.
9:58, 9:59; 10pm.
The clicking rumbled across the conference line.
With Firefox, Chrome, and Internet Explorer open on each of our computers; and iPhones, Samsung phones, Note Tablets, and iPads flanking, we were an interconnected Indian-American mission control seemingly with enough technology to send an actual rocket into space.
45 minutes is all it took to approach 1,000, but now Xie and many other Wangs were back on the site.
Both patch tallies were rising at a feverish pace.
This continued for hours and, around 1am, some of our east coast family–and a few Wangs–started to drop out.
At 3am, Jiten and Rohan said they were going to sleep.
That left just me and Xie.
I was out ahead by about 250 votes and Xie had slowed down to about 1-2 votes a minute, an easy clip to keep ahead of.
At 4:30am, Xie stopped entirely.
I was ready to go to infinity and beyond.
In the absolute dark of my room, the pale light of four screens made me feel like I was floating through complete deep space. Eventually, the sunrise broke me out of my spell and by the 8am closing time, the scores were locked in.
Dillon had 4–I’d felt a kinship with him during those lonely hours and ended up giving Dillon my final vote.
Then 32, 3,047, and 12,555.
Rohan, Xie Wang and their parents were called to the principal’s office later that day and an impassioned, quasi-legal argument ensued about whether this was cheating or not.
I haven’t given that question much shrift.
What I do know is we were trying to get to space, trying to claim something that has always been out of reach.
And maybe dreams don’t come true exactly as planned, but aim high, keep your loved ones close, and get there. Get there however you can.
Rohan’s patch returned to Earth this year.
Its voyage reminds me that we came from the stars and, maybe more importantly, that we are not alone.