Thursday, July 19, 2012

"One" by George Alec Effinger (Part 2 of 3)

by George Alec Effinger

[Continued from Part 1]

He remembered how excited they had been about the mission, some thirty years before. He and Jessica had put in their application, and they had been chosen for reasons Gillette had not fully understood. "My father thinks that anyone who wants to go chasing across the galaxy for the rest of his life must be a little crazy," said Jessica.

Gillette smiled. "A little unbalanced, maybe, but not crazy."

They were lying in the grass behind their house, looking up into the night sky, wondering which of the bright diamond stars they would soon visit. The project seemed like a wonderful vacation from their grief, an opportunity to examine their lives and their relationship without the million remembrances that tied them to the past. "I told my father that it was a marvelous opportunity for us," she said. "I told him that from a scientific point of view, it was the most exciting possibility we could ever hope for."

"Did he believe you?"

"Look, Leslie, a shooting star. Make a wish. No, I don't think he believed me. He said the project's board of governors agreed with him and the only reason we've been selected is that we're crazy or unbalanced or whatever in just the right ways."

Gillette tickled his wife's ear with a long blade of grass. "Because we might spend the rest of our lives staring down at stars and worlds."

"I told him five years at the most, Leslie. Five years. I told him that as soon as we found anything we could definitely identify as living matter, we'd turn around and come home. And if we have any kind of luck, we might see it in one of our first stops. We may be gone only a few months or a year."

"I hope so," said Gillette. They looked into the sky, feeling it press down on them with a kind of awesome gravity, as if the infinite distances had been converted to mass and weight. Gillette closed his eyes. "I love you," he whispered.

"I love you, too, Leslie," murmured Jessica. "Are you afraid?"


"Good," she said. "I might have been afraid to go with you if you weren't worried, too. But there's nothing to be afraid of. We'll have each other, and it'll be exciting. It will be more fun than spending the next couple of years here, doing the same thing, giving lectures to grad students and drinking sherry with the Nobel crowd."

Gillette laughed. "I just hope that when we get back, someone remembers who we are. I can just see us spending two years going out and coming back, and nobody even knows what the project was all about."

Their good-bye to her father was more difficult. Mr. Reid was still not sure why they wanted to leave Earth. "A lot of young people suffer a loss, the way you have," he said. "But they go on somehow. They don't just throw their lives away."

"We're not throwing anything away," said Jessica. "Dad, I guess you'd have to be a biologist to understand. There's more excitement in the chance of discovering life somewhere out there than in anything we might do if we stayed here. And we won't be gone long. It's field work, the most challenging kind. Both of us have always preferred that to careers at the chalkboards in some university."

Reid shrugged and kissed his daughter. "If you're sure," was all he had to say. He shook hands with Gillette.

Jessica looked up at the massive spacecraft. "I guess we are," she said. There was nothing more to do or say. They left Earth not many hours later, and they watched the planet dwindle in the ports and on the screens.

The experience of living on the craft was strange at first, but they quickly settled into routines. They learned that while the idea of interstellar flight was exciting, the reality was duller than either could have imagined. The two kittens had no trouble adjusting, and the Gillettes were glad for their company. When the craft was half a million miles from Earth, the computer slipped it into null space, and they were truly isolated for the first time.

It was terrifying. There was no way to communicate with Earth while in null space. The craft became a self-contained little world, and in dangerous moments when Gillette allowed his imagination too much freedom, the silent emptiness around him seemed like a new kind of insanity or death. Jessica's presence calmed him, but he was still grateful when the ship came back into normal space, at the first of their unexplored stellar systems.

Their first subject was a small, dim, class-M star, the most common type in the galaxy, with only two planetary bodies and a lot of asteroidal debris circling around it. "What are we going to name the star, dear?" asked Jessica. They both looked at it through the port, feeling a kind of parental affection.

Gillette shrugged. "I thought it would be easier if we stuck to the mythological system they've been using at home."

"That's a good idea, I guess. We've got one star with two little planets wobbling around it."

"Didn't Apollo have... No, I'm wrong. I thought—"

Jessica turned away from the port. "It reminds me of Odin and his two ravens."

"He had two ravens?"

"Sure," said Jessica, "Thought and Memory. Hugin and Munin."

"Fine. We'll name the star Odin, and the planets whatever you just said. I'm sure glad I have you. You're a lot better at this than I am."

Jessica laughed. She looked forward to exploring the planets. It would be the first break they had in the monotony of the journey. Neither Leslie nor Jessica anticipated finding life on the two desolate worlds, but they were glad to give them a thorough examination. They wandered awe-struck over the bleak, lonely landscapes of Hugin and Munin, completing their tests, and at last returned to their orbiting craft. They sent their findings back to Earth, set out the first of the transmission gates, and, not yet feeling very disappointed, left the Odin system. They both felt that they were in contact with their home, regardless of the fact that their message would take a long time to reach Earth, and they were moving away too quickly ever to receive any. But they both knew that if they wanted, they could still turn around and head back to Earth.

Their need to know drove them on. The loneliness had not yet become unbearable. The awful fear had not yet begun.

The gates were for the use of the people who followed the Gillettes into the unsettled reaches of the galaxy; they could be used in succession to travel outward, but the travelers couldn't return through them. They were like ostrich eggs filled with water and left by natives in the African desert; they were there to make the journey safer and more comfortable for others, to enable the others to travel even farther.

Each time the Gillettes left one star system for another, through null space, they put a greater gulf of space and time between themselves and the world of their birth. "Sometimes I feel very strange," admitted Gillette, after they had been outbound for more than two years. "I feel as if any contact we still have with Earth is an illusion, something we've invented just to maintain our sanity. I feel like we're donating a large part of our lives to something that might never benefit anyone."

Jessica listened somberly. She had had the same feelings, but she hadn't wanted to let her husband know. "Sometimes I think that the life in the university classroom is the most desirable thing in the world. Sometimes I damn myself for not seeing that before. But it doesn't last long. Every time we go down to a new world, I still feel the same hope. It's only the weeks in null space that get to me. The alienation is so intense."

Gillette looked at her mournfully. "What does it really matter if we do discover life?" he asked.

She looked at him in shocked silence for a moment. "You don't really mean that," she said at last.

Gillette's scientific curiosity rescued him, as it had more than once in the past. "No," he said softly, "I don't. It does matter." He picked up the three kittens from Ethyl's litter. "Just let me find something like these waiting on one of these endless planets, and it will all be worthwhile."

Months passed, and the Gillettes visited more stars and more planets, always with the same result. After three years they were still rocketing away from Earth. The fourth year passed, and the fifth. Their hope began to dwindle.

"It bothers me just a little," said Gillette as they sat beside a great gray ocean, on a world they had named Carraway. There was a broad beach of pure white sand backed by high dunes. Waves broke endlessly and came to a frothy end at their feet. "I mean, that we never see anybody behind us, or hear anything. I know it's impossible, but I used to have this crazy dream that somebody was following us through the gates and then jumped ahead of us through null space. Whoever it was waited for us at some star we hadn't got to yet."

Jessica made a flat mound of wet sand. "This is just like Earth, Leslie," she said. "If you don't notice the chartreuse sky. And if you don't think about how there isn't any grass in the dunes and no shells on the beach. Why would somebody follow us like that?"

Gillette lay back on the clean, white sand and listened to the pleasant sound of the surf. "I don't know," he said. "Maybe there had been some absurd kind of life on one of those planets we checked out years ago. Maybe we made a mistake and overlooked something, or misread a meter or something. Or maybe all the nations on Earth had wiped themselves out in a war and I was the only living human male and the lonely women of the world were throwing a party for me."

"You're crazy, honey," said Jessica. She flipped some damp sand onto the legs of his pressure suit.

"Maybe Christ had come back and felt the situation just wasn't complete without us, too. For a while there, every time we bounced back into normal space around a star, I kind of half-hoped to see another ship, waiting." Gillette sat up again. "It never happened, though."

"I wish I had a stick," said Jessica. She piled more wet sand on her mound, looked at it for a few seconds, and then looked up at her husband. "Could there be something happening at home?" she asked.

"Who knows what's happened in these five years? Think of all we've missed, sweetheart. Think of the books and the films, Jessie. Think of the scientific discoveries we haven't heard about. Maybe there's peace in the Mideast and a revolutionary new source of power and a black woman in the White House. Maybe the Cubs have won a pennant, Jessie. Who knows?"

"Don't go overboard, dear," she said. They stood and brushed off the sand that clung to their suits. Then they started back toward the landing craft.

Onboard the orbiting ship an hour later, Gillette watched the cats. They didn't care anything about the Mideast; maybe they had the right idea. "I'll tell you one thing," he said to his wife. "I'll tell you who does know what's been happening. The people back home know. They know all about everything. The only thing they don't know is what's going on with us, right now. And somehow I have the feeling that they're living easier with their ignorance than I am with mine." The kitten that would grow up to be Benny's mother tucked herself up into a neat little bundle and fell asleep.

"You're feeling cut off," said Jessica.

"Of course I am," said Gillette. "Remember what you used to say to me? Before we were married, when I told you I only wanted to go on with my work, and you told me that one human being was no human being? Remember? You were always saying things like that, just so I'd have to ask you what the hell you were talking about. And then you'd smile and deliver some little story you had all planned out. I guess it made you happy. So you said, 'One human being is no human being,' and I said, 'What does that mean?' and you went on about how if I were going to live my life all alone, I might as well not live it at all. I can't remember exactly the way you put it. You have this crazy way of saying things that don't have the least little bit of logic to them but always make sense. You said I figured I could sit in my ivory tower and look at things under a microscope and jot down my findings and send out little announcements now and then about what I'm doing and how I'm feeling and I shouldn't be surprised if nobody gives a damn. You said that I had to live among people, that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get away from it. And that I couldn't climb a tree and decide I was going to start my own new species. But you were wrong, Jessica. You can get away from people. Look at us."

The sound of his voice was bitter and heavy in the air. "Look at me," he murmured. He looked at his reflection and it frightened him. He looked old; worse than that, he looked just a little demented. He turned away quickly, his eyes filling with tears.

"We're not truly cut off," she said softly. "Not as long as we're together."

"Yes," he said, but he still felt set apart, his humanity diminishing with the passing months. He performed no function that he considered notably human. He read meters and dials and punched buttons; machines could do that, animals could be trained to do the same. He felt discarded, like a bad spot on a potato, cut out and thrown away.

Jessica prevented his depression from deepening into madness. He was far more susceptible to the effects of isolation than she. Their work sustained Jessica, but it only underscored their futility for her husband.

* * *

[Continue to Part 3]

"One" is © 1995 by the Estate of George Alec Effinger and is reprinted here by permission of Barbara Hambly and the GAE Estate. The story was originally published in New Legends, edited by Greg Bear (Legend Press UK, 1995) and is currently available in the short story collection George Alec Effinger Live! from Planet Earth (Golden Gryphon Press, 2005).

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