Saturday, July 21, 2012

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

by George Alec Effinger

[Continued from Part 2]

"I have strange thoughts, Jessica," he admitted to her, one day during their ninth year of exploration. "They just come into my head now and then. At first I didn't pay any attention at all. Then, after a while, I noticed that I was paying attention, even though when I stopped to analyze them I could see the ideas were still foolish."

"What kind of thoughts?" she asked. They prepared the landing craft to take them down to a large, ruddy world.

Gillette checked both pressure suits and stowed them aboard the lander. "Sometimes I get the feeling that there aren't any other people anywhere, that they were all the invention of my imagination. As if we never came from Earth, that home and everything I recall are just delusions and false memories. As if we've always been on this ship, forever and ever, and we're absolutely alone in the whole universe." As he spoke, he gripped the heavy door of the lander's airlock until his knuckles turned white. He felt his heart speeding up, he felt his mouth going dry, and he knew that he was about to have another anxiety attack.

"It's all right, Leslie," said Jessica soothingly. "Think back to the time we had together at home. That couldn't be a lie."

Gillette's eyes opened wider. For a moment he had difficulty breathing. "Yes," he whispered, "it could be a lie. You could be a hallucination, too." He began to weep, seeing exactly where his ailing mind was leading him.

Jessica held him while the attack worsened and then passed away. In a few moments he had regained his usual sensible outlook. "This mission is much tougher than I thought it would be," he whispered.

Jessica kissed his cheek. "We have to expect some kind of problems after all these years," she said. "We never planned on it taking this long."

The system they were in consisted of another class-M star and twelve planets. "A lot of work, Jessica," he said, brightening a little at the prospect. "It ought to keep us busy for a couple of weeks. That's better than falling through null space."

"Yes, dear," she said. "Have you started thinking of names yet?" That was becoming the most tedious part of the mission—coming up with enough new names for all the stars and their satellites. After eight thousand systems, they had exhausted all the mythological and historical and geographical names they could remember. They now took turns, naming planets after baseball players and authors and film stars.

They were going down to examine a desert world they had named Rick, after the character in Casablanca. Even though it was unlikely that it would be suitable for life, they still needed to examine it firsthand, just on the off chance, just in case, just for ducks, as Gillette's mother used to say.

That made him pause, a quiet smile on his lips. He hadn't thought of that expression in years. That was a critical point in Gillette's voyage; never again, while Jessica was with him, did he come so close to losing his mental faculties. He clung to her and to his memories as a shield against the cold and destructive forces of the vast emptiness of space.

Once more the years slipped by. The past blurred into an indecipherable haze, and the future did not exist. Living in the present was at once the Gillettes' salvation and curse. They spent their time among routines and changeless duties that were no more tedious than what they had known on Earth, but no more exciting either.

As their shared venture neared its twentieth year, the great disaster befell Gillette: on an unnamed world hundreds of light-years from Earth, on a rocky hill overlooking a barren sandstone valley, Jessica Gillette died. She bent over to collect a sample of soil; a worn seam in her pressure suit parted; there was a sibilant warning of gases passing through the lining, into the suit. She fell to the stony ground, dead. Her husband watched her die, unable to give her any help, so quickly did the poison kill her. He sat beside her as the planet's day turned to night, and through the long, cold hours until dawn.

He buried her on that world, which he named Jessica, and left her there forever. He set out a transmission gate in orbit around the world, finished his survey of the rest of the system, and went on to the next star. He was consumed with grief, and for many days he did not leave his bed.

One morning Benny, the kitten, scrabbled up beside Gillette. The kitten had not been fed in almost a week. "Benny," murmured the lonely man, "I want you to realize something. We can't get home. If I turned this ship around right this very minute and powered home all the way through null space, it would take twenty years. I'd be in my seventies if I lived long enough to see Earth. I never expected to live that long." From then on, Gillette performed his duties in a mechanical way, with none of the enthusiasm he had shared with Jessica. There was nothing else to do but go on, and so he did, but the loneliness clung to him like a shadow of death.

He examined his results, and decided to try to make a tentative hypothesis. "It's unusual data, Benny," he said. "There has to be some simple explanation. Jessica always argued that there didn't have to be any explanation at all, but now I'm sure there must be. There has to be some meaning behind all of this, somewhere. Now tell me, why haven't we found Indication Number One of life on any of these twenty-odd thousand worlds we've visited?"

Benny didn't have much to suggest at this point. He followed Gillette with his big yellow eyes as the man walked around the room. "I've gone over this before," said Gillette, "and the only theories I come up with are extremely hard to live with. Jessica would have thought I was crazy for sure. My friends on Earth would have a really difficult time even listening to them, Benny, let alone seriously considering them. But in an investigation like this, there comes a point when you have to throw out all the predicted results and look deep and long at what has actually occurred. This isn't what I wanted, you know. It sure isn't what Jessica and I expected. But it is what happened."

Gillette sat down at his desk. He thought for a moment about Jessica, and he was brought to the verge of tears. But he thought about how he had dedicated the remainder of his life to her, and to her dream of finding an answer at one of the stellar systems yet to come.

He devoted himself to getting that answer for her. The one blessing in all the years of disappointment was that the statistical data were so easy to comprehend. He didn't need a computer to help in arranging the information: there was just one long, long string of zeros. "Science is built on theories," thought Gillette. "Some theories may be untestable in actual practice, but are accepted because of an overwhelming preponderance of empirical data. For instance, there may not actually exist any such thing as gravity; it may be that things have been falling down consistently because of some outrageous statistical quirk. Any moment now things may start to fall up and down at random, like pennies landing heads or tails. And then the Law of Gravity will have to be amended."

That was the first, and safest, part of his reasoning. Next came the feeling that there was one overriding possibility that would adequately account for the numbing succession of lifeless planets. "I don't really want to think about that yet," he murmured, speaking to Jessica's spirit. "Next week, maybe. I think we'll visit a couple more systems first."

And he did. There were seven planets around an M-class star, and then a G star with eleven, and a K star with fourteen; all the worlds were impact-cratered and pitted and smoothed with lava flow. Gillette held Benny in his lap after inspecting the three systems. "Thirty-two more planets," he said. "What's the grand total now?" Benny didn't know.

Gillette didn't have anyone with whom to debate the matter. He could not consult scientists on Earth; even Jessica was lost to him. All he had was his patient gray cat, who couldn't be looked to for many subtle contributions. "Have you noticed," asked the man, "that the farther we get from Earth, the more homogeneous the universe looks?" If Benny didn't understand the word homogeneous, he didn't show it. "The only really unnatural thing we've seen in all these years has been Earth itself. Life on Earth is the only truly anomalous factor we've witnessed in twenty years of exploration. What does that mean to you?"

At that point, it didn't mean anything to Benny, but it began to mean something to Gillette. He shrugged. "None of my friends were willing to consider even the possibility that Earth might be alone in the universe, that there might not be anything else alive anywhere in all the infinite reaches of space. Of course, we haven't looked at much of those infinite reaches, but going zero for twenty-three thousand means that something unusual is happening." When the Gillettes had left Earth two decades before, prevailing scientific opinion insisted that life had to be out there somewhere, even though there was no proof, either directly or indirectly. There had to be life; it was only a matter of stumbling on it. Gillette looked at the old formula, still hanging where it had been throughout the whole voyage. "If one of those factors is zero," he thought, "then the whole product is zero. Which factor could it be?" There was no hint of an answer, but that particular question was becoming less important to Gillette all the time.

* * *

And so it had come down to this: Year 30 and still outward bound. The end of Gillette's life was somewhere out there in the black stillness. Earth was a pale memory, less real now than last night's dreams. Benny was an old cat, and soon he would die as Jessica had died, and Gillette would be absolutely alone. He didn't like to think about that, but the notion intruded on his consciousness again and again.

Another thought arose just as often. It was an irrational thought, he knew, something he had scoffed at thirty years before. His scientific training led him to examine ideas by the steady, cold light of reason, but this new concept would not hold still for such a mechanical inspection.

He began to think that perhaps Earth was alone in the universe, the only planet among billions to be blessed with life. "I have to admit again that I haven't searched through a significant fraction of all the worlds in the galaxy," he said, as if he were defending his feelings to Jessica. "But I'd be a fool if I ignored thirty years of experience. What does it mean, if I say that Earth is the only planet with life? It isn't a scientific or mathematical notion. Statistics alone demand other worlds with some form of life. But what can overrule such a biological imperative?" He waited for a guess from Benny; none seemed to be forthcoming. "Only an act of faith," murmured Gillette. He paused, thinking that he might hear a trill of dubious laughter from Jessica's spirit, but there was only the humming, ticking silence of the spacecraft.

"A single act of creation, on Earth," said Gillette. "Can you imagine what any of the people at the university would have said to that? I wouldn't have been able to show my face around there again. They would have revoked every credential I had. My subscription to Science would have been canceled. The local PBS channel would have refused my membership.

"But what else can I think? If any of those people had spent the last thirty years the way we have, they'd have arrived at the same conclusion. I didn't come to this answer easily, Jessica, you know that. You know how I was. I never had any faith in anything I hadn't witnessed myself. I didn't even believe in the existence of George Washington, let alone first principles. But there comes a time when a scientist must accept the most unappealing explanation, if it is the only one left that fits the facts."

It made no difference to Gillette whether or not he was correct, whether he had investigated a significant number of worlds to substantiate his conclusion. He had had to abandon, one by one, all of his prejudices, and made at last a leap of faith. He knew what seemed to him to be the truth, not through laboratory experiments but by an impulse he had never felt before.

For a few days he felt comfortable with the idea. Life had been created on Earth for whatever reasons, and nowhere else. Each planet devoid of life that Gillette discovered became from then on a confirming instance of this hypothesis. But then, one night, it occurred to him how horribly he had cursed himself. If Earth were the only home of life, why was Gillette hurtling farther and farther from that place, farther from where he too had been made, farther from where he was supposed to be?

What had he done to himself—and to Jessica?

"My impartiality failed me, sweetheart," he said to her disconsolately. "If I could have stayed cold and objective, at least I would have had peace of mind. I would never have known how I damned both of us. But I couldn't; the impartiality was a lie, from the very beginning. As soon as we went to measure something, our humanity got in the way. We couldn't be passive observers of the universe, because we're alive and we're people and we think and feel. And so we were doomed to learn the truth eventually, and we were doomed to suffer because of it." He wished Jessica were still alive, to comfort him as she had so many other times. He had felt isolated before, but it had never been so bad. Now he understood the ultimate meaning of alienation—a separation from his world and the force that had created it. He wasn't supposed to be here, wherever it was. He belonged on Earth, in the midst of life. He stared out through the port, and the infinite blackness seemed to enter into him, merging with his mind and spirit. He felt the awful coldness in his soul.

For a while Gillette was incapacitated by his emotions. When Jessica died, he had bottled up his grief; he had never really permitted himself the luxury of mourning her. Now, with the added weight of his new convictions, her loss struck him again, harder than ever before. He allowed the machines around him to take complete control of the mission in addition to his well-being. He watched the stars shine in the darkness as the ship fell on through real space. He stroked Benny's thick gray fur and remembered everything he had so foolishly abandoned.

In the end it was Benny that pulled Gillette through. Between strokes the man's hand stopped in midair; Gillette experienced a flash of insight, what the oriental philosophers call satori, a moment of diamond-like clarity. He knew intuitively that he had made a mistake that had led him into self-pity. If life had been created on Earth, then all living things were a part of that creation, wherever they might be. Benny, the gray-haired cat, was a part of it, even locked into this tin can between the stars. Gillette himself was a part, wherever he traveled. That creation was just as present in the spacecraft as on Earth itself: it had been foolish for Gillette to think that he ever could separate himself from it—which was just what Jessica had always told him.

"Benny!" said Gillette, a tear streaking his wrinkled cheek. The cat observed him benevolently. Gillette felt a pleasant warmth overwhelm him as he was released at last from his loneliness. "It was all just a fear of death," he whispered. "I was just afraid to die. I wouldn't have believed it! I thought I was beyond all that. It feels good to be free of it."

And when he looked out again at the wheeling stars, the galaxy no longer seemed empty and black, but vibrant and thrilling with a creative energy. He knew that what he felt could not be shaken, even if the next world he visited was a lush garden of life—that would not change a thing, because his belief was no longer based on numbers and facts, but on a stronger sense within him.

* * *

It made no difference at all where Gillette was headed, what stars he would visit: wherever he went, he understood at last, he was going home.


"One" is copyright © 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).

George Alec Effinger completed the Clarion class of 1970, and had three stories in the first Clarion anthology, edited by Robin Scott Wilson (1971). Though his first novel, science fiction/fantasy pastiche What Entropy Means to Me (1972), was a Nebula Award nominee, his finest novels are the noir, hardboiled, near-future cyberpunk "Budayeen" series: Hugo and Nebula finalist When Gravity Fails (1987), Hugo finalist A Fire in the Sun (1989), and The Exile Kiss (1991). Following the example of his first mentors, Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm, Effinger helped other New Orleans writers through sf/fantasy writing courses at UNO's Metropolitan College from the late 1980s to 1996, and a monthly writing workshop he founded in 1988, which continues to meet regularly. After a lifetime filled with chronic pain and chronic illness, he died peacefully in his sleep in New Orleans on April 27, 2002.

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