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5.

Black thoughts enveloped Clay Gilbert. For a long time, he lay in his capsule, his coffin in space: “Here am I floating in a tin can.” He could float in his tin can far, far, far above the world, eating recycled wafers, sipping recycled water, breathing O2 that had been CO2 after it had been O2 the time before, playing chess, practicing on the simulator to simulate something he might someday do again if Rachel or anyone else survived to pick him up, which became less and less likely the longer he sat. “Can you hear me, Major Tom?” Nope. No, I cannot. Sorry.

He would go on hurtling through the blackness, twenty-two light years from dead Earth, seventy light years from Bluehorse, for months or even years, playing chess, eating wafers, reading the entire collection of 22nd Century romances and the cavalier fantasies of Marisa Marten (2228–2326). He could watch some Shakespeare, some Aeschylus, some Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He could reread and rereread the Harry Potters, The Lord of the Rings, The Stand, The Divine Comedy. He could listen to every song ever digitized. And eventually it would all run out, the energy, the nutrition, the water. He would poison himself by default if not on purpose. He would starve or suffocate in the oblivion that lay just to the left of Gliese 667.

And why? Because of that stupid little trap. He thought of the massive artillery shell bullets he had dodged: mouthholes attacking him five on one, gigantic Primoid battlecruisers, the hemorrhagic virus that had destroyed every last H. sapiens on Earth. And here he was, led past a nest of missiles hidden in a patch of rock orbiting a star so minor no one had even bothered to call it Gliese 667D, and blown into uselessness by the very last one.

Which he had lost track of in space. Stupid. Stupid stupid.

He sighed. He took up his joy stick. He tried a few things again and had the same result. He sighed again, thinking of Albert Einstein, who was supposed to have described insanity as doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

He knew people who had posted on the Social various defenses of the book, which constantly needed defending even though it clearly was not going to die out until the human race died out. A certain strain of these defenses went like this: I don’t need anything in life other than a nice arm chair, a cup of coffee and a pile of good books. Well, Clay had a comfy armchair and almost infinite amounts of coffee and every book, good or bad, in existence. And time. Maybe he should start in on the Wheel of Time series. Or watch every episode of Doctor Who ever made; the 92nd Doctor had been saving the Earth when Clay launched in 2334.

He wished he could go post, just once, on the Social, a rebuttal to all of those people. Oh yeah? Tell you what, pal. I’ll trade places with you. Anytime. I don’t even care what you do: clean toilets, write ad copy, nothing could possibly be so demeaning or disgusting that he wouldn’t take it sight unseen.

Just for the chance to have a sight, a real sight, seen. Just for the chance of a sunset, a breath of strange air, a cat brushing against his hand.

Damn it, Clay. You’re getting maudlin. Snap out of it. Man up. He took a deep breath, then let it out in a sigh, then laughed, unhappily, at the sound of the sigh.

Here he was, floating in a tin can. He and all Humanity. He was a frickin’ metaphor for human existence: born in a welter of cries and colors, maturing only to find out that nothing meant anything, doomed to die stuck inside the dying vessel of his skin. Life was meaningless no matter what, but his life was meaningless in an unusually pure and perfect way. There was no meaninglessness that could possibly be more meaningless than his meaninglessness.

And yet, in meaninglessness there must be meaning. Clay thought, therefore he was. Deep inside, he could find the true measure of the boundless universe, the heavens and the hells and the sundering seas, the world bounded by the nutshell of his Ghost. Endless and everything. The Tao. The world and the void. Jesus and Buddha and Mary Baker Eddy and the girl in Hitchhiker’s Guide who figures it all out just before the Vogons destroy the Earth. In meditation on the impossibly finite, he would find the infinite inside him, the answer to the ultimate question, the question to the ultimate answer. Setting out not into the distance but into his inmost heart, he would seek no less a quest than to find the unbounded truth where it hid so deep inside he had never known to look for it.

What absolute twaddle. He was sitting in a dead spacecraft zooming through the night, imprisoned in solitary confinement for no crime he was aware of, doomed to die and not pleasantly.

He began to think through his life. Typically, he found himself considering the women he had been in love with, or at least infatuated with: his ancient girlfriend Wendy, his impossibly hot fling Vera Santos, and then Natasha, sad and conflicted. Bonnie Frickin’ Bain. Karen, for gosh sake.

But it was never them. It was never them. There were two women he loved more than anyone else, male or female, human or feline or Primoid or algae from Algaeville. One was his sister, gone these two and a half centuries. The other, the one who mattered, was out there flying in some direction, or blown up scattered in pieces, a cloud of bits of woman flying together in some direction. Rachel Andros. The love of his life.

He laughed a little. And then he stopped. He knew it was true. There was no hiding from it any longer. He knew she was the one. He had thought he knew it before, but he had not. He knew now. He knew what it meant. He knew. The way he had been seemed ridiculous to him now. Why, why had he not known? How had he been so selfish? How could he think for even a moment that there was any life for him without her?

For now he had it—what life would be like without Rachel. It would be Clay Gilbert, hurtling headlong into darkness alone.

It struck him that she might be in the same state he was in. It was immeasurably sad. She might be stuck in her own dead Ghost, zipping in a slightly but significantly different direction, two lines in space drawing steadily apart over the days, weeks, years, chased by no one, powerless, eventually to starve or suffocate, neither knowing the other was thinking of them.

And with that thought, and with no strength left to fight off that thought, Clay Gilbert fell into a darkness that was within him, a darkness more impenetrable than any nebula or black hole.

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