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Stars

Spiraling stars, and no sense of direction.

He is in a tight escape pod, built for one. It is cylindrical in shape, with a large cockpit window above his head. The seat in which he rests is adjustable to two positions: "sitting," and "lying prone." Because of the tiny nature of the pod, there are of necessity controls and switches all around him. The pod is designed after one of those sleek and fancy ramjets which scoop up hydrogen from the interstellar medium and convert it into fuel, thus powering the pod indefinitely; however, the pod's guidance system was improperly booted up as the pod made emergency breakaway. As a result, it is headed nowhere in particular.

He is not supposed to be awake. The pod was designed to put its lone passenger into deep sleep upon breakaway, but somehow the hibernation system was damaged during the catastrophe aboard the Tower. He is not supposed to be conscious, and it is his misfortune that he must remain conscious. The nanoengine within his stomach will continue generating nanoswarms indefinitely, and these swarms will engage in constant cellular maintenance and repair, simulating the intake of proteins and nutrients and pure, clean oxygen. The human body -- his human body -- will thus be able to survive indefinitely, without need of food or water, without need of sleep, and with no signs of aging. It is a form of technical immortality, given only to those intrepid voyagers who will someday discover what lies beyond the galaxy, who will someday know directly what the rest of the human race will never see.

It is, perhaps, his misfortune that he will live to see these things.

* * * * *

"Get in there!" she is screaming. "Get in there! Go!"

He won't leave her. Another explosion rocks the ship. The last time he dared look out one of the portals, he saw debris -- human debris -- being sucked out of a large tear in the hull of the ship, out into deep space. Not necessarily a fate worse than death -- but he will never forget the sight nonetheless. Fountains of steam fill the air at seemingly random intervals. And she -- she is trapped underneath a panel fallen from the ceiling of an engine-level corridor.

"Go!" she is screaming.

They had almost made it to the escape pod. They had moved fast after the first asteroid struck. He is not strong enough to shift the panel off of her torso. Her legs are undoubtedly crushed. She wants him to go. She never wanted him to go before.

"Go!" she is screaming.

* * * * *

The onboard navigation system is intelligent enough to make full use of the escape pod's maneuverability. As such, he has flown safely past dangerous and beautiful formations of deadly and dying stars. Chunks of ice and interstellar minerals pose no threat to the pod -- not the way they so unexpectedly managed to threaten the Tower's hull. He has seen some astounding sights, catalogued them in his seemingly infinite memory (neural nets enhanced by nanonets which improve themselves with every successive
generation, a process which takes only a matter of weeks). Early in this voyage, he watched, along with the nav-system, for any sign of a planet where he might land, but he has passed precious few worlds out here on the fringes of the galaxy, and none hospitable to his kind. Early in this voyage, he frantically changed directions, hoping the nav-system would eventually recognize some familiar landmark along the Tower's former course, but eventually abandoned this tactic, swirling in futility. Early in this voyage, he realized he was trapped. And he has no way to move -- the pod does not allow for walking, or running, or leaping. He does not expect to feel that kind of motion ever again. The nanoswarms will keep him from feeling sore in his seat, but they will not be able to make him feel comfortable.

* * * * *

After the first explosion, the engine level is sealed off from the rest of the vessel.

"We've been hit," she says, an unfamiliar note of terror in her voice. Even as she says it, an environmental-control door is slamming shut on the far end of the hallway. He drops his wrench to the floor, wondering if the closing of the doors is a safety precaution, or if some portion of the ship has already been compromised. As the door closes, the lighting on the engine level, normally subdued and unobtrusive, turns a bright red.

He takes her hand, and slowly they begin running toward the ladder at the other end of the hallway, picking up enormous momentum as they go.

* * * * *

The pod's homing beacon fires off pings every second, transmitting its single message -- "I exist, I exist, I exist, I exist" -- out into the void. Inside the pod, a small blue light on a control panel signals to him the same message. On a purely academic level, he is aware that it is entirely possible that his compatriots back on Earth may someday receive the faint signal from the pod. Other deep space vessels may someday receive the faint signal from the pod. They will note the signal. They will send him coordinates. They will see where he is, and they will guide him home. It could take thousands and thousands of years for his signal to be received by another deep space vessel, thousands more for him to make his way to safety. To other human beings. You don't become a deep space traveler without some measure of patience. He can wait.

At first, he stares constantly out the cockpit window, aware that these are sights no human being has ever seen before. It is not the case that if you've seen one star or distant nebula, you've seen them all. It is not that way -- they are as unique as individual people. He believes these bodies to have -- not personality, as it were, but spirit. Spirit of some kind. He believes them to be aware of his lonely passage. He watches them go by for years at a time. He catalogues their passage in his memory, on behalf of the entire human race.

Later -- much later -- his attention to these details wanes.

* * * * *

"I don't want to talk right now," he says, pushing past her, heading for the engine level.

"When will you want to talk?" she replies, the anger in her voice like a tightly coiled serpent, or so he thinks. "You can't avoid me forever," she says, following him to the grav-ramp. There is a slight pull in his stomach as he steps onto the ramp, his body now perpendicular to the level from which he came. "Let's get something straight, you fucking jerk," she says, stepping onto the ramp with a cool stride behind him. "I didn't ask for this transfer because of you. I didn't want to spend the next several thousand years on the same ship as you, believe me. But you -- the least you could do is acknowledge my existence. As a colleague, for Christ's sake, if not as somebody you used to love."

He is ignoring her willfully. As if to admit, "Used to?" He knows it is certainly not her fault. The Tower needed a new nanosurgeon, badly -- she was the only available one on a vessel within acceptable transfer distance.

"I would have expected," she says, "that after all this time -- after all this fucking time, and distance, and wasted energy -- you could have the common decency to look me in the eye when I talk to you. What the hell is the point of holding a grudge out here? We could die tomorrow, or we could live forever. The only thing that matters is how you spend your time. And you are wasting yours on bitterness and bullshit."

"Spare me," he says, finally. "I've got work to do."

As they step off the ramp onto the engine level, a stiff, loud voice comes over the ship's public address system. It says, quite simply,

"Proximity alert!"

* * * * *

After a time, he realizes his mind has begun to wander. The sensation is not unpleasant.

Over time, the nanoswarms have come to occupy more and more of his body. As the water in his body was slowly lost over hundreds of years, the swarms generated other swarms to simulate the water's effects. The muscles in his body, especially those which might have atrophied from lack of use within the pod, have been amplified by swarms which keep him taut, in shape, perpetually ready for activity which will never occur. His eyesight is constantly improving, each generation of swarms managing to increase by an order of magnitude the distance and clarity with which he can stare into deep black space. Those who first introduced the primitive nanoengine into the first humans to leave Earth's solar system never expected such miraculous evolutionary strategies from the brilliant nanomachines. They did not expect the interaction of the swarms, each swarm designed for a separate task, to generate a kind of awareness among the swarm population, a hive mind within the body and mind of the human host. Single-minded intelligence, to be sure: the task at hand is to keep the deep space traveler alive.

And he is still alive, of that much he is almost certain.

He finds, after a time, he can remember things in what seems to be picture perfect detail. He notices other things, too, things which are harder to quantify, about the ways in which his thinking has changed over time. There is, he believes, the sensation of experiencing thought throughout his entire body. Present within him, he believes, is the notion that thought, intelligence, awareness, are somehow evenly distributed throughout his entirety. It is no use chalking that up to the presence of the swarms. Though that might give him a technical explanation for the origin of these sensations, this notion would in no way satisfy his desire to know why this change had taken place, was taking place continually. Why is he being continually adapted, evolved?

He is not coolly detached from his situation. Periodically enormous waves of despair seem to wash over him. He claws frantically at the arms of the seat, at his own clothing. Once he finds himself pounding uselessly against the unbreakable cockpit window. The escape pod's exit hatch was designed to open only under the strictest of circumstances, to prevent accidental depressurization in space; thus, his attempts to open it inevitably fail. He can not damage the sturdy control panels, which are, at any rate, mostly redundant, since the nav-system does most of the piloting work automatically for him. He can not damage himself. His skin is likely the toughest and sturdiest substance on board the pod, second only to his bones.

Periodically he envisions the grand panoply of the universe, allows his imagination to wander such that he believes he can see it all in a single glance. Incredibly vast expanses of distance, previously beyond the realm of human imagination, now seem to be his province; the distance from one star to the next is no greater than the distance from one synapse to the next, and his little pod, sailing between the stars, is a universal impulse, fired within the cosmic neural net. And then, occasionally, his perspective changes, and he and his little pod become no more than a dust speck in a random storm of something resembling existence. He chooses, on these occasions, to find beauty in the arbitrary formation of the universe, dares to be attracted and compelled by the awesome lack of presence indicated by his solitary journey. And then, too, there are times when he can see no farther than the control panel in front of him, created by humans to use in their relentless search for novelty. He is seeing things no other human will ever see, and also, he is experiencing things no other human will ever experience. He is an experience that no other human will have.

* * * * *

The docking together of two deep space vessels is an incredibly unusual affair. In this case, the Tower's nanosurgeon had found a way to build and introduce suicidal swarms into his nervous system, swarms which aggressively and destructively attacked the other swarms within his body. He had grown tired of living, and was a practitioner of the one science that could outwit itself. His death left an enormous gap in the ship's complement. His death was entirely unexpected; he left no assistants, as the Tower is a small ship.

The Captains of the Tower and the Pyongyang trade messages over a period of five hundred years, after which it is decided that the two ships will meet, and the Pyongyang, a luxury liner by comparison to the Tower, will trade one of its four nanosurgeons for a corporate fund transfer to be arranged by the suits back home. Anticipation runs high among the crews of both vessels.

He is well aware of the Pyongang's crew roster, knows exactly which nanosurgeon had agreed to come aboard the Tower. It seems to him a complete stroke of blind, ridiculous, arbitrary misfortune that, after enlisting on a deep space vessel with the sole hidden intent of escaping her, she would now be joining him here. As the two ships dock, he stands among the crowd in the cargo hold, against the far wall, watching the Pyongang's crew emerge in their stark blue uniforms, a contrast to the Tower's dull gray. He stands motionless as the Captain introduces her to the crew, sees her forced smile, sees her searching the crowd for him.

He loses himself in the festivities then, as does she. For five years the ships remain docked, and the two crews mingle in an enormous pool of debauchery the likes of which would astound anyone planetside with its sheer ingenuity and intensity. Occasionally, he sees her in the hallways, on the floor of some cabin somewhere, floating through the air on the zero-gee deck, and he must be increasingly clever to avoid her.

He lets down his guard as the day comes when the Pyongyang finally departs. Back in uniform for the first time in years, he watches from a portal on the recreation deck as the luxury liner departs, wondering if he will miss any of those individuals in the long run, or if those names and faces and bodies and sounds will vanish from his mind's eye, deprioritized by a memory which seems to be adjusted to cosmic time, not human time.

And then, she is behind him. She says, "Finally I've got you to myself."

"Welcome aboard," he says.

"Thanks. Listen..." Her nervousness is palpable, matched only by his seeming disinterest. "I want you to know, I didn't come here to spite you. I just... wanted a change of scenery. I actually agreed to the transfer before I ever saw the Tower's crew roster."

"I believe you," he replies.

"Good. Anyway... well, it's nice to see a familiar face out here, you know? Someone from the planet." Pause. "Don't you think? It's nice for me, anyway. I was... looking forward to seeing you."

He does not respond.

"I just, uh..." Pause. "You don't want to make this easy on me, do you." Nervous smile, then, "Can we go somewhere and talk?"

* * * * *

He begins to spend most of his time, after a certain point, thinking about her. He supposes it was inevitable, that in the cold dark light of outer space, on a journey toward some infinite, unknowable destination, he should eventually consider this relationship. After all, was she not the last human being who meant a thing to him? Was she not -- this question implied -- the end of all meaning as far as he was concerned?

She was Jessica Alison Mitchell, to whom he was married, long before they ever thought of leaving the planet. He remembers meeting her at the university, remembers her brilliance, her impetuous and reckless streak, her unexpected belief in a higher power that almost managed to infect him back in those days. He remembers their first date and their subsequent dates, remembers the exact process by which they first became close. He remembers, in fact, the entire vast arc of their relationship in almost a single moment. He remembers, as vividly as though she were here in this capsule with him. He remembers her features, her face and her hair and her hands and her body, he remembers her voice and her laugh and her curiosity. He remembers her the way he remembers everything else: perfectly. No detail has escaped his memory.

As he replays the very beginning of his relationship with Jessica Alison Mitchell, watches it unfold before him, he is once again astounded by the capacity of the nanoswarms within him to so enhance his faculties. And then, ever so slowly, as Jessica Alison Mitchell first says the words "I love you" to him, a strange and wandering thought occurs to him.

He was not given the nanoengine until he joined the deep space corps. These early memories of Jessica, memories of a time before the nanoswarms, should have suffered some normal degradation before the presence of the swarms. Are the swarms somehow reconstructing the memories on the basis of information which his brain still contains? Or are they, perhaps, manufacturing portions of these memories, substituting clarity for authenticity?

And, on a purely subjective level, does it matter?

* * * * *

A week later, he agrees to meet her for dinner. One last time.

She tries to apologize, her face set with a kind of guilt that doesn't expect to go away. She was weak; she hadn't seen him in two years; he seemed to be so happy, so satisfied with his lunar assignment, while she was languishing in some biolab, doing menial work for more important scientists than she, spending her nights alone. She needed companionship. It had no meaning. She wasn't trying to replace him. Please you must understand.

He neither accepts or denies her apology. He is learning in these moments the precise depths to which he is capable of handling loneliness. Trust was not an issue -- of course he still trusted her, of course he forgave her. Humans make mistakes, he tells himself. Jessica makes mistakes. I made a mistake in accepting a two year assignment offworld. The damage, however, is irreparable. Forgiveness now can't ease the passage of two years alone, two years spent patiently waiting for their reunion.

"I'm going deep space," he tells her simply. "I've taken assignment aboard an Ecocorps ship going deep. They need engineers. I leave in ten days."

The look in her eyes is one of stunned surprise, followed by questions in her eyes, and finally, tears. This precise moment is bittersweet and precious, he realizes. This is the moment I say goodbye to Jessica. This is the moment I move on into an unexpected future without her.

There are no such moments, he realizes later.

* * * * *

After a while, the memories come to him as though they are visions, and he realizes, finally, the intentions of the nanoswarms. The memories are becoming almost tangible to him. When remembering the first time he ever kissed Jessica Alison Mitchell, the nanoswarms manage to produce a sensation upon his lips; had his eyes been closed, he might have sworn she was there in the capsule with him. Eventually he has the idea to turn off the lights in the capsule, and close the cockpit window. He is now traveling through space at somewhere very near the speed of light without any incoming stimuli: no sight, no sound, no sensation other than those provided by the nanoswarms, other than those provided by his memories.

He finds himself able to access various memories with absolute precision. He can choose exactly where and when on his personal timeline he wants to visit, and the nanoswarms call up the corresponding memories, with crystal clear detail. The future -- his future -- no longer holds any interest. The relentless mapping of unknown sectors of deep space, the witnessing of the physical laws of the universe in their most primordial guises, the urge to truly see what might lie beyond the edge of the galaxy -- these things no longer compel him. Instead -- he finds himself analyzing in minute detail the origin of his attraction to Jessica Alison Mitchell. He finds himself with her once again, night after night, as they finish their university studies together. He finds himself enjoying her touch, her conversation, finds himself enjoying her companionship all over again, yet enjoying it so much more this second time around. Enjoying it from such a bittersweet vantage point, to be sure -- for is it not true that someday she will die aboard the wreckage of the Tower, while he will survive alone? Yet he can feel her now, can feel her hand upon his shoulder, her breath upon his neck. He can feel the wind blowing through the trees, can feel the food in his mouth as he chews what must be one of his last meals before the nanoengine makes such activity unnecessary.

There is not enough time with Jessica, he realizes. The arc of their relationship ends too quickly. He wants more time, and better time. He wants to say more things to her, wants to be more things to her. He finds himself resenting the presence of the crystal clear memories, finds himself wanting to escape. The harder he resists, the more vivid and intense his memories become.

And then, quite suddenly, he is no longer in control.

* * * * *

"Are you taking it?" she asked him. She asked as though she believed he had already made up his mind, which was true.

"No," he replied. "How could I spend two years on the moon without you?"

The joy in her eyes was subdued but clearly present.

"I'll make it up to you," she said. "I promise."

* * * * *

Years later, he and Jessica followed with great interest the ongoing deep space explorations being led by NASA, and Ecocorps, and a half dozen other agencies and conglomerates. He never lost the trace of a desire to travel into outer space. Yet, to his surprise, he also never found himself unsatisfied with a life on Earth, with Jessica. She became one of the leading nanosurgeons in her field, while he contributed to the design and manufacture of many deep space vessels. After rising through the ranks, he became lead foreman on the construction of a vessel called the Tower, supervised the pieces being built on Earth and then hauled into orbit for assembly, while he remained behind. The ship was launched from space, and he watched the launch on a television monitor, feeling a slight twinge of unexplainable sadness. After the Tower, he retired from the business entirely.

Their life together had an idyllic quality which he had never previously thought to be possible. They raised two children, watched them grow and attain prominence in their fields, one a mathematician, one an actor. Neither he nor Jessica seemed to notice that the two of them were not growing older, that their needs were always attended to, that the stability of the planet's politics was remarkable for its history. They only noticed each other, their relationship deepening with each passing moment, an intertwining of individuals such that there were times when they wondered if anyone else could ever tell them apart. He was amazed by this life, humbled by it. It was a miracle that he had ever met Jessica to begin with, and a further miracle that they could survive together so long.

Only periodically was his happiness punctured, by an occasional nightmare, a recurring nightmare in which he found himself trapped in an escape pod, hurtling alone through the void, without Jessica, with no chance of human contact. He would awake from this dream screaming, and Jessica would calm him down, soothe him, gently lull him back to sleep in her arms. He would awake the next day with no memory of this episode. It was not important to remember such moments.

late 1996



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