Seven forty-two. I'd stopped here on my way to jump in front
of the eight-thirty seven train -- why? Stopping was just a waste
of time as nobody and nothing cared. I looked up at the sign and
it was a picture of... I laughed. A pig with a blindfold -- a
perfect analogy for the universe. Opening the door I stepped in.
As I'd known, it was a SCAB bar. But it wasn't the SCABs that caught my attention; it was its amazing atmosphere; not the feel of the place but, literally, the air. It was rich and full of scents and odours of hair, fur, alcohol, fear, laughter, and all kinds of unusual pollutants; and sensations of oxygen and of carbon-dioxide. A small part of me wished that I could experience more of the air, but that would mean... I couldn't. Instead I could only take a deep breath to enjoy the flavours.
But that wasn't why I was here. I was here to meet somebody I'd heard of who was hopefully here. That I'd arranged to be here; that I was afraid would be here. That was here sitting at the bar. A white rabbit.
I shuddered. Rabbits.
I turned and walked over to the bar and sat down beside him, the hem of my dress swirling against the lycra covering my legs. Somehow managing to keep from trembling at the scent of an eater so close, I watched the bartender bring him a drink in a custom glass and detected a disturbing odour coming from it...
The rabbit looked at me nervously for a second before speaking, "Hello." I could see his nose quivering before he continued, "I take it you're..."
Good heavens, he was drinking carrot juice! Part of me wanted to answer that I was the one who'd e-mailed, but I couldn't. And why should I -- I didn't want to be here? But...
Then the bartender turned to me and the rabbit stopped and waited. My researches had revealed that SCABS had cost the bartender his speech but that he'd learned American sign language and thus I'd spent half an hour memorizing it before I came. I signed for a rum and coke and then handed him a hundred and signed for them to keep coming. After a few seconds of strained silence between me and the rabbit the bartender placed my drink in front of me. I tapped in a little bit of potassium nitrate from the packet I kept with me and swallowed the entire drink. It was good. The coke was sweet, the rum was biting, and the potassium nitrate added a tart flavour. I might have relaxed except for the ambient light level; it was at just the right level so that my body couldn't decide whether to be an oxygen consumer, or an oxygen producer.
"Are you Susan?"
I couldn't put the meeting off anymore, but at least the drink had cleared my head enough so that I could think. "Carter, Susan Carter." I managed to force a smile. Isn't this what I'd wanted -- a last dance with danger?
"Susan Carter, I recognized that name from the e-mail you sent. Are you an astronaut by chance?"
I turned away -- his scent, the scent of his drink -- it all was too overpowering. Finally, turning back, I answered, "Once."
"What's it like?"
So that was his game: Keep me talking so I'd miss the train, an action which was within the primary probability cone I'd constructed. "It's quiet. So quiet it sounds loud." My voice faded to a whisper as I closed my eyes. "Quiet and deadly." In my mind I could see Angelo floating five metres away from me. His skin red and bloated, and a look of horror and pain on his face. Five god bedamned fucking metres. If only I'd...
I felt a paw on my hand and yanked it away, almost falling off my stool. Whipping my eyes open I stopped breathing oxygen and stared in horror at the shearing incisors that were so huge, so deadly, so exposed. Forty-seven seconds passed before I forced some kind of calmness through my body and started breathing again. Throughout my terror the rabbit's face had grown more and more panicked.
Once I started breathing again the rabbit asked, "Are you all right?"
Oh heavens, every time he talked I could see his incisors. Calm, stay calm. "Your touch just, well, frightened me."
I could tell that he was confused. "You looked terrified, and I could swear you weren't breathing for almost a minute."
"Forty-seven point six five seconds."
Thank God the bartender came by with a refill. With relief I turned to my drink and added the potassium nitrate to try and kill the stench of an eater radiating from the rabbit. Why the hell had I set this up?
"Do you mind if I call you Susan?"
I took a long sip, letting the tartness and the alcohol clear my sinuses. "Go ahead. It doesn't matter."
"Out of curiosity, what was that you added to your drink? I'm always willing to try new tastes."
"Potassium nitrate. I'd offer you some but it probably wouldn't agree with you."
"Pot... but... It's not too late -- suicide is never..."
Shaking my head I forced myself to grab his paw -- I think that even he was surprised when he didn't flinch. "Phil."
He just stared at me.
"Your name is Phil. And you're the counselor who specializes in SCABS."
He just nodded.
"Time for some background. First, potassium nitrate -- a fertilizer -- is a necessary part of my diet. Unlike you, not only did SCABS change my form, it also changed my sex and my kingdom. I'm either the weirdest inanimorph Dr. Stein has even seen, or the weirdest animorph; he never could decide. My body consists almost entirely of cellulose. My green colouration is the result of chlorophyll and it does function, although I do still need to breathe. My eyes are not human eyes, but instead botanic photo-receptors coloured to look like eyes. Dr. Stein theorized that the flu grabbed genetic bits from all over the place to create me which is why my ears look cervine. Although I was born male, and look like a green female elf, biologically I'm neuter. I am a plant, a vegetable, and thus fertilizer is quite important to me."
I could see his nose trying to catch scents as he checked my story.
"Yes, and that means that I'm the prey and you're the predator. Isn't it a heady feeling, being the one feared for a change?"
Reaching around my head I grabbed a handful of my long hair (I've never been able to call it vines) in my gloved hand and waved it under Phil's nose. I could see his nostrils quivering at the scent. "I know you're hungry. It must be hard to be here with all these carnivores. Doesn't it smell sweet and alive? Try a nibble, I know you'll like it. It's good for you, full of cosmic rays and star stuff." I let a small smile play across my lips as I watched Phil struggle with himself before gaining control, as expected. I'd estimated only a small probability of him actually taking a bite.
"So, ah, Susan." He pushed my hand away and I let my hair drop against my chest. "Ok..." Phil paused and closed his eyes for a moment and then continued, "Ok then, enough beating around the, ah..."
"Bush? Don't worry -- I've had lots of time to get used to it, to all of those sayings. In fact, I'm surprised the mule over there -- Jack -- hasn't started up with It isn't easy being green."
"You want to wallow in self-pity, then fine. You've never been here before but you seem to know at least some of the regulars. You set things up so that I'd be waiting for you. Why?"
Well, that didn't take him too long. Maybe I'll be able to use that first train after all. "Why do you ask?"
"Why? Here you are feeling sorry for yourself, just like a million other people in a million other bars tonight and..." He paused theatrically as I raised my eyebrows, "...you have a life that most SCABS, in fact most normals would kill to have."
I finished my drink and slammed the glass down onto the bar. "Normals? What, be an astronaut? Who the hell are you kidding?! Haven't you read any of the newspapers, seen the news for the last twenty years?!! Ever since the plague, science has been evil. Genetically engineered crops? Burned. Any kind of high end research? 'Can't afford it this year'. Space technology? The damned US government is still using the same shuttle they used in the '80s and maintaining the fungus-ridden ISS. Launches use --"
"The 'International Space Station' -- now, that's a joke. Even the Canadians have disowned it, because everybody just wants to forget that space exists. Launches used to be covered, but now they're done at night so people won't protest too much. The ISS would probably have been dumped in the Pacific if private concerns hadn't put Brin Station up -- even if it's publicly undesirable, the US refuses to not be in space if anyone else is." I continued, letting years of bitterness came spilling and tumbling out and laughing a bitter, wasted laugh. "If it wasn't for us buying the liquid fuel containers the shuttle carts up to orbit, NASA probably wouldn't even be in business any more."
"We had dreams, such dreams of what we could do. Now we duck sniper bullets -- want to see the scars? -- whilst hiding from the anti-tech fanatics. Meanwhile everybody else stumbles by on shrinking farmland with dying crops because nobody will even touch anything that's been genetically modified. From orbit I can look down and see the Amazon burning, the Sahara a little bigger each month because nobody cares enough to do anything about it, and the splotch of black from an oil spill in the Indian Ocean. I remember watching the tactical nukes exploding when China and India were at war."
"This was supposed to be the century of biotech. We were supposed to be on Mars by now, back on the moon, but instead we've done nothing but hide in our shells while we destroy the biosphere because we're too afraid to use our knowledge to save anything."
"Where did we go wrong? Where the god-damned fuck did we go wrong?! There are people out there whom the Martian Flu turned almost into gods. I watched a battle of some kind between two creatures that seemed to be beings of energy. The electrical disturbances almost fried Brin but they didn't care. When one was finally victorious it just left. No thank you, no apology, no aid offered, nothing!"
Phil took another drink from his odd little cup, but his eyes never left mine. "This isn't about us, it's about you."
I stood up, hearing my stool thud onto the ground and roll. "It's about every goddamned person. We've got polymorphs and inanimorphs that violate the physics we understand, but have any studies been done? Oh no. No instruments that can detect anything. No time. Don't want to interfere with their freedom. We can't measure it anyway. The bloody SCAB gods don't even think to offer their help on anything; even to help us understand! The fictional Dr. Manhattan changed his world completely, but we do nothing!"
At this point the entire bar was silent and Phil was looking awkwardly.
"Eco-terrorists are bombing anything they don't like regardless of the consequences; the oil companies make sure we keep using gasoline; and all we do is point and curse at the SCABS, or at the Normals, or at the evil scientists who brought doom upon us!"
I breathed deeply for a minute, trying to calm down, when I finally realized that the bar was completely silent. So silent you could hear the rattle of a ventilation fan as it started up; so silent that when a cheetah SCAB finally spoke, his voice sounded like broken thunder as he looked dead in my eyes with a sour smile on his face: "Welcome to my world, lady." And then he turned to the choir he was leading and continued, "Show's over. Back to work, folks." And, of course, the mule started to play It's not easy being green.
After that I could hear conversation beginning again; the sounds of life. Notes from the piano wove in and out through growls, howls, yips, whispers, and human voices; through tones of laughter, sorrow, and joy. All the sounds of those fools who believed it mattered.
If I'd still been a member of the animal kingdom, I would have been red, but I looked perfectly calm as I reached over and picked up my stool.
Phil had recovered. "If you want, we can continue this in one of the back rooms..."
How the hell could he detect my inner turmoil? I knew from experience that it didn't appear externally. Maybe he could scent...? I forced myself to be calm as I sat down. "No thanks, it's under control now." I decided to just ignore everything else and just concentrate on Phil. After all, he was why I'd come, to have a last little spice of danger with an eater before I jumped in front of a train. "Well then, my white furry predator, did my e-mail tell you why I'm here?"
"I didn't really tell you so I'll fill you in." The alcohol was loosening my throat, although it hadn't dulled my brain yet -- another of the advantages of being a vegetable. I finished my glass and placed it on the counter. "You know I've been in space, but then I've never made a secret of it. And let me guess, you're old enough to actually dream about it?" I could see it in his eyes so I didn't even wait for an answer. "It's quiet, oh so very quiet. You can float there, feeling the sun upon your flesh, and the solar wind pressing against the hairs on your body. Slowly you rotate around, away from the dead, away from the wreckage of your shuttle, and then you see a brilliant blue glow that would take away your breath if you had any.
"From orbit the Earth's not like those old Apollo pictures. Instead it fills your vision and overflows it, you can't encompass it all at once. All that you can see is a brilliant blue field, soft, velvety, streaked and covered with white filament. You blink and it seems that the filaments twist and divide into ever-finer threads, far beyond what you could possibly resolve. Then you notice an end to the velvety blue as a brown shore enters your vision, splashed with specks of green and puffs of faint grayish-yellow smog. Slowly it rotates into your view and you can see the brown give way to a deep, vibrant green that sings and calls to your soul promising life and companionship, but then, faintly, you can hear the screaming of its soul.
"Smothering it you can see clouds of dense gray smoke hugging the surface, and sparks of orange light as farmers burn the woods to make farms that will last only a couple of years. You can see the sun's light sparkling off the blue Amazon as it weaves between the green, but then a hill of smoke rolls over and hides it. All you can do is stare and watch, slowly rotating while you wait for your vector to allow you to touch your co-pilot. Next you can see the whiteness of the Andes cradling the black and torn crater where the terrorists nuked the Upper Amazon nuclear plant.
"Gradually you rotate back away from the earth to face into the blackness of the void. You can feel a dim blueness on your back, and the warm solar wind on your side. Slowly your eyes adjust and the empty blackness transforms itself, first with one star, then another, and then ten, a hundred, a thousand, and more." And then I could see a vision of my co-pilot, transparent but oh so real, and I began to remember why I'd been naked in space and my voice grew quieter, and grimmer. "Soon there are countless stars, all steady, silent, too uncaring of you to even be glaring. Cold, distant, and showing you how completely insignificant and alone you are.
"And then, finally, as you rotate back into the yellow glow of the solar furnace, you touch your destination and...," I paused and finished my next glass all at once, forcing by will my voice and hands to remain steady, "...and..." Unfortunately it wasn't working so my voice began to break as I swallowed, "...and stare into the face..." I could see his reddened face glaring at me. "You fumble around for the survival sack on his belt and you crawl into it and inflate it. Hoping in an uncaring universe that your emergency beacon is actually transmitting, and that you can survive long enough for a stick -- a long rod with engines that you can hold onto and let it pull you along while you're suited up -- from Brin Station to pick you up."
There was a long silence before Phil finally returned to earth and spoke. "You were actually naked in space?"
Thank god, a technical question. I let my voice change into lecture mode and answered, "Yes. It's not immediately dangerous, none of this spontaneous explosion crap. Oh, you should close your eyes so the water in them doesn't boil off, and you should open your mouth so you don't suffer an embolism in your lungs. You'll probably lose your eardrums though. A human can survive for around 10 minutes if he doesn't panic. Of course, since I'm not human I can survive for about half an hour. I can keep some air in my lungs for CO2 and let photosynthesis keep me going for a while. And since my eyes aren't like yours, I don't have to worry about their water boiling away."
"Did you scar? Is that why you're covered up?"
Scar? Was he...? He was serious. Shaking my head, I forced myself to carefully pull off my left glove and let it fall to the counter. It was safe; there was air. "Oh no, not scarred in the least. No blemishes, no blisters, no cuts, no god bedamned anything." I looked down and for eighteen seconds I stared at the naked greenness of my hand and felt the cool air caress the pores, brush the hairs, and be pulled into my body to refresh me. And then the panic started: My hand was naked, burning, feeling the cold uncaringness of the stars...
Closing my eyes to try and control my terror of the openness, the glare of a universe that couldn't care less about me, I searched frantically for the glove and then yanked it over my naked, unprotected flesh so hard that I almost tore it. There! My hand was safe, shielded, protected from the uncaring emptiness. No! I was on earth. Calm, calm.
"Yes," Phil said gently. "Oh, yes. You were terribly scarred."
I let out a sick little giggle. "Oh right, scarred. That's what they said too. I was scarred and had to talk about it. Well, I've had two months of nothing to do but talk. Two months in isolation because it was feared that I'd picked up something from space, a spore or something. Two months to talk and rest and dream..."
"Did you talk about it?"
"Talk about what? The accident? Oh sure I talked. I listened to their questions, remembered my readings of psychology, figured out the answers they were looking for, and quoted it back to them like a nice little human. Was I sad my co-pilot had died?" My mind brought up a ghastly vision of his tortured face. "Oh yes, I've cried and am working out the sorrow. I regret his passing and wished I could have stopped it. Is his loss painful? Of course it is, it hurts, and I wish it hadn't happened." Why had it? God dammit, how could I have failed?! "Sure, I didn't get all the questions right, but while they asked me, I studied them, re-worked the probabilities, and within a month I was spouting out the perfect textbook answers to the psychiatrists on the other side of the plexiglass." Calm, calm, I would stay calm.
"Why did you lie to them?"
My illusion of calmness vanished. "Why? Why?! Oh that's simple. Because the universe doesn't care! The shuttle exploded and we'd both gotten our helmets sealed before any damage occurred. We both activated the emergency beacons in our suits and then waited, waited until..." No -- I wouldn't go there, I refused to go there but I could see his red and blistered face... Instead I turned and concentrated on my refilled drink -- time for a topic change.
"Did you know that a lot of good things came from my SCABS? I'm more resilient; I can regenerate lost limbs; I can survive, barely, in an atmosphere of CO2. It even changed the way my mind works. Before I knew math, but afterwards my memory became perfect and photographic. And my math -- I became a mathematical prodigy and that made my life easy. I switched from physics into pure math and was soon in the rarified heights of academia. Sure there was some prejudice, but my peers and my teachers who looked up at my mathematical genius just discussed the nature of reality on a mathematical level with me. We were all too involved in the subject we all loved to really notice anything else." I smiled remembering. "After my final graduation and doctorate, it was further studies, theorems, and theoretical work on trying to figure out gravity. Through my experiments on Brin, I've managed to narrow it down to five theories: Two suggest theoretical mass changes that violate Einstein but would show how polymorphs operate, and one includes an information transmission system using gravity that might suggest how inanimorphs work. But, who the hell cares? I can't go any further until they finish that supercollider in Switzerland, and we both know that's never going to happen. Twenty years and they still haven't even started construction."
"You can't hide from the truth. It'll always be chasing you."
I stared into his eyes. "You want to know? You think that talking about it will help?" I threw up my arms. "Sure, why not? Truth is a three edged sword so I'll tell you the truth."
I closed my eyes and pictured the official report I'd managed to sneak a glimpse at. "At mission time 18:27 shuttle Agamemnon achieved orbit. Eight minutes later pilot Dr. Susan Carter detected a hiss from below the cockpit which gave both pilots time to seal their suits. At mission time 26:48 an explosion occurred from the intermix of fuel and oxygen from the cabin. Both pilots were thrown clear and survived without serious injury. Dr. Carter used some of her oxygen supply to modify her course to rendezvous with her co-pilot after an estimated 52 minutes confirmed by suit radar.
"Both pilots talked for twelve minutes before Dr. Carter noticed that the other pilot, Angelo Davidson, was starting to become incoherent. Dr. Carter's remote request for the status of Davidson's life support systems revealed that his internal suit temperature was at 44C and rising rapidly. She tried leading Davidson through a full system check and temperature adjustment, but the controls were not working correctly and Davidson soon became completely incoherent. At this point Dr. Carter made the correct choice in attempting to decrease the time before she could rendezvous with Davidson. At mission time 39:09 Dr. Carter began attempts to minimize the rendezvous time.
"Her first action was to remove the survival sack (an inflatable plastic bubble with air supply attached) from her suit and expel the stored oxygen from its tank to change her course. She then threw away the sack and the rest of the tools she had available to increase her velocity a bit more. According to her radar interception time was now estimated at mission time 54:01. Throughout these actions Dr. Carter continued trying to contact Davidson but did not receive any coherent response. Another remote status request showed that the temperature inside Davidson's suit was 62C.
"Dr. Carter decided to take further steps as Davidson was still alive. First she released all of the compressed oxygen in her life support system to further increase her speed planning to share Davidson's supply upon rendezvous. She then decided to expel the air from within her suit to further increase her velocity as her SCABS would allow her to survive for an estimated 30 minutes. In a final attempt to maximize her velocity, Dr. Carter turned off her beacon, removed her suit and threw it away, gaining additional velocity from the force of her throw. These final actions as of mission time 59:54 reduced the estimated rendezvous time to mission time 1:08:18."
The plain, clean vision of the report was torn away by visions of those last few minutes replaying over and over again in my mind. Clenching my fists and closing my eyes only allowed my SCABS-enhanced memory to replay the scene frame by frame. "The time passed as I slowly rotated around naked in the emptiness. Just over four minutes later I was finally able to grab Angelo's suit and pull myself around to his life support system where I discovered that a fragment from the exploded shuttle had punctured a line from the cooling system. Grabbing tape from his belt I sealed the line and then I opened an access panel in the back of the system to check Angelo's status. Internal suit temperature had fallen to 42C but the monitoring system revealed that Angelo had flat-lined two minutes earlier... when I was only five metres away from him."
I tried to open my eyes but the lids wouldn't move. All I could do was watch and narrate the conclusion: "I had to concern myself with my own survival as Angelo was now dead and he," I swallowed, "didn't matter any more. First I removed the survival sack from his belt and sealed myself inside it to recover from my exposure. I could have remained there, but I knew that there was a better way to maximize my chances of survival until rescue." The wonderful bartender had supplied another drink and I paused to down it. I could feel the alcohol in my brain, but it had no effect on the movie playing in my mind. "Since he, Angelo, didn't need his suit anymore, I decided to use it for my own protection. I let myself out of the bubble, pulled myself up along Angelo's corpse, and then released his helmet making sure to hold it tight. Once the oxygen had bled to space and his sweat had vapourized, while his blank red face just stared in accusation, I gradually and carefully removed his flaccid..." calm, calm, stay calm, "...body. I had to work fast before the vacuum could begin to freeze-dry him. Then it was simply a question of putting the suit on myself, sealing it, and restarting the lift support system whilst holding my lov... Angelo's body for later recovery." I pinched my eyes tighter shut to try and hide the tears. "It was another three hours before I was picked up. I stayed at Brin for two days and then returned to earth where I remained in quarantine for two months. Investigation of the telemetry and wreckage suggested that a two cent nut which had been logged as inspected before launch had likely been loose, had worked its way completely off during launch, and had then impacted and damaged one of the fuel lines during the last burn." I turned back to Phil and forced my eyes open, pleading. "A two cent nut."
And even with my eyes open, all I could see was Angelo's accusing body as I removed him from his suit.
Trying to distract myself with anything I could think of, I forced myself to concentrate on my watch. It was almost nine pm; too late to catch my planned train, but I still had time to catch the later train at eleven twelve.
"That was from the official report, wasn't it? But the end was your truth."
Calm, calm, change topic... "Your truth is simply that you're trying to help me because I asked you to and it's your job."
"It's horrible to lose somebody like that, but you have to face it. You did everything you --"
"Everything? Everything?! In the quarantine, alone, I thought about it. I couldn't do anything else. You see I don't really sleep -- another SCABS gift. I do rest, and when I do so I sort of lucidly dream, still somewhat aware of my surroundings. Thus every night I went through the events of the accident and came to some conclusions. I was the only person who even had a chance to save Angelo's life. I could have inspected the nut myself, but then I would have had to inspect everything which would have taken too long. I'd tried everything I knew, applied all my mathematical skills to minimize the rendezvous time. Except that I'd failed, and there were viable solutions that I could have implemented. Maybe I could have noticed Angelo's problem earlier, or maybe not. However, even within the time frame that was actually available, I could have been there in time by not throwing away the screwdriver, and instead puncturing my lung through the suit. Then --"
I never knew a white rabbit could turn pale. "Remember, I'm a vegetable. Puncturing one lung would cause momentary discomfort, but I'd heal naturally and could survive with the other. By proceeding that way I would have had better control of the vented oxygen, and hence would not have wasted anywhere near as much as I did correcting my course. All of this would have meant that I'd have arrived with up to two minutes to spare depending upon other variables. For sixty nights I played out scenarios in my head and found another five things I could have done differently, any of which would have resulted in my reaching Angelo in time. I fucked up."
"Everybody makes mistakes."
"But then why was I the one who was there? I don't think there is anybody else, other than some SCABS with more unusual powers, who would have had a measurable possibility of successfully saving Angelo. As I was the one there, I must have been placed there so that I could save him." Angelo's face appeared in my mind and all I could answer him in a whisper was, "I failed."
I turned and glared at him and watched him flinch. "You're just like those damned psychologists going on about fate and divine plans. Don't you dare quote me that shit! I was there. I had the opportunity, and I was the one who caused Angelo's death."
Oblivious, I continued. "There is nobody and nothing out there that gives a damn about us. Once I was foolish enough to believe. Once I thought that the Martian Flu had been a gift to help us grow and learn the secrets of the universe, to learn how the universe works and what its name is. To please the StarMaker or whatever you want to call the God that some people foolishly believe in. I've wasted my entire life doing my best to fulfill my potential. I had gifts, a mind, an analytic methodology, a need and desire to care and know. I've seen evidence of pollution, hidden tests, the secret burying of wastes, and I passed that evidence on to some of the less militant environmental activists."
"Oh yes, once I cared. Once I tried to make a difference, to do the best that I could to improve things, to work to figure out how gravity works because that would give us the key to the universe. For years I fought against those who wanted to turn away, who wanted to go back to the caves because all technology was evil -- even though they refused to give up their cell phones. During the worst of the plague riots and looting I was on Easter Island and could see only the horror, and I knew then that it had to have a meaning, a future good that would outweigh the evil."
"But it doesn't." I pointed up. "They don't care. Normals don't care. SCABS don't care. Nothing cares. So why should I even bother trying anymore? Until the supercollider is complete, there's nothing more I can do on the gravity problem. Until somebody cares enough to invest in space and technology in a big way, there'll be nothing more there except for some satellites. Brin is only up there because companies find it cheaper to pay us to go out and fix their satellites than to launch new ones."
I sighed. It was now quarter to ten, and I needed to leave soon in order to meet the later train. And since my probability models showed that Phil would almost certainly try to stop me, I'd better start leaving now. A small part of me still prayed that he would, but since nothing cared, why should I? "Sorry, but I have a train to meet," and a nice mathematically perfect arc to make as I leapt. "I'm sorry, but I need to..."
The rabbit slammed his paw on my hand and pinned it to the counter. "Yes. You need to go and throw yourself in front of a train, or off a bridge, or under a truck, or whatever. Oh yes, I've seen it before. A little trouble, a little failure, and then the coward washes her hands of it, chickens out, and quits."
"And why shouldn't I? The universe doesn't care."
"Because life is precious and others care. You've had problems? Look around at some of the people here. One SCAB was about two months from breaking and probably going on a mass killing spree that would have forced the police to kill him. Another was an actor who tried to scrub his face off and wasn't even consciously aware that he was doing it -- he thought it was just a costume. And then there's me. Look at me!" He gestured at himself. "I've become a fuzzy little herbivore that freaks out at almost everything. At least you've got thumbs! Hell, every day I fight for my mind in a world of terror. Every day I try my best to make a difference and, sometimes, mostly by luck, I maybe succeed --"
This wasn't in the probabilities. I could feel my emotions rumbling and boiling and I hadn't thought that they still could. Phil wasn't supposed to act like this!
"-- Too damn often, there's nothing I can do. I've had to tell families that a child, or a husband, or a mother, whom they all love, is nothing but an animal. Oh, I try to help people find new ways to apply themselves, a new hole to fit into now that they're a different shape of peg, but that won't help you. For over an hour I've listened to you whine and moan because you made one little mistake in a life that just about every SCAB I've ever heard of would kill to have."
"And now you've had the incredible arrogance to arrange for me to meet you here and listen to your last soliloquy so that I can be impressed by your terrible agony of soul before you kill yourself. Well, it won't work sister, because I won't let it work. I'm not impressed even just a little bit!"
"A man died!"
"And how many died in this city today? One, five? How many in this country, on this planet? Hell, how many others cried and hated themselves because they couldn't save them? And you're mad because one friend, a close friend, died, and even though you tried things almost anybody else would be afraid to, to save him, you didn't do it perfectly, and he died. So go ahead -- quit the game. Jump in front the train and end it all, because I don't care."
This wasn't supposed to happen. "But there's always a solution, a mathematical answer, a way to win..."
"That's how you see life isn't it? A game that always has an answer."
All I could do was look at him as all my mathematical models crumbled in my mind and the variables refused to balance.
"Well Susan, life isn't a game. Life is life. You can't go into the simulator and change the rules. You can't win, you can't tie, but you can quit."
"Life is not thermodynamics. Life can be..."
"Modelled? Do you actually believe in that old Asimov psychohistory garbage? Well, it's crap. I know. You play with what you're given and deal with what happens. There's no mathematical model of humanity, and there never will be. All you can do is roll with the punch, adapt, and go on."
Then the fear I'd been hiding, burying in math and probabilities, burst through me. Not the fear at Angelo's death, my real fear. My real fear that had sent me here as a last hope. "What if I fail again?" I whispered.
For a second Phil just looked, and then shook his head. "We all fail. The true measure of humanity is to stand up to fail again. If it's destroyed we rebuild it. If it's destroyed again and we value it, we rebuild it again. That's what makes us human."
"But my failure cost a life!"
"You just don't get it, do you? Hell, my failures have cost hundreds of souls, not lives. I fight to help those who can't help themselves keep their humanity. And too often, way, way too often, I fail. Every day I fear that that day may be the day that I fail with myself."
"Then why do you keep trying? If there is a finite chance of your failing, then eventually you will fail."
"That is humanity. To struggle, to fail, and to struggle again. To be able to pick yourself up after failing and keep struggling to do what you can."
"But failing hurts!"
"Yes, failing hurts. You asked me to help you, well, I've got news for you. I can't. You have to help yourself. Now you have a choice -- you can pick yourself up, curse the universe in defiance and keep fighting, or you can jump in front of a train and die. Failing is hard, but failing makes success even more worthwhile." Phil stood up and turned to go, leaving the oddly shaped mug on the counter. "It's up to you whether you live or die. Personally, I think you can amount to something someday."
"Sorry, can't help you. I do thank you, though, for giving me your vision of the stars. Good night." And then Phil awkwardly hopped away. I stared after him for a while as he went and sat down on a stool at the far end of the bar; I watched as the bartender picked up his mug and carried it over to him.
I didn't know what to say -- this wasn't in the plan! He was supposed to convince me to sorrow, and then I'd refuse, and that would be that. Then it was the train and then peace.
But he was right. No matter how much I denied it I had a choice, and he'd made me recognize it. Not through help, or nice words, or psychoanalyst crap, but by making me dig it out of myself.
I was afraid.
I'd never been afraid before. Not when I was sitting on top of a roaring rocket that shook my wooden bones. Not when I watched the battle in the heavens between the two SCAB gods on Brin Station and we all knew we were going to die. Not even when I was standing naked in the heavens with nothing between me and space.
Only when I'd felt the pain of failure and knew that I could fail again.
And that was the key. Being brave enough to risk failing, and being brave enough to pick myself up afterwards and continue on.
Slowly I spun around on my stool and looked down at the last drink before me, dark, cold, and uncaring -- just like the universe. I could picture Phil's words in my mind. Closing my eyes I burrowed through old, old memories from before SCABS. Memories of pain, of failing in games, of ridicule, of not understanding calculus.
Memories of failing. And I remembered not giving up, and trying again. Never give up, never surrender. Had I changed that much?
No, I hadn't. That was why I'd come here.
Yes, failing hurt. And yes, there was more that I could do. I could pick myself up and keep on going, and just do my best not to let it happen again. Smiling, I knew that I would. I'd have to make sure that the standard suit used within the shuttles included a reasonable amount of reaction mass -- it could be done.
Finishing my drink I told the bartender that I didn't need anymore, and I refused the change. Then I reached into my purse and pulled out my phone. It was time to take a cab back to my hotel and get ready for tomorrow.