4060 words, short story
A narrow highway, at night, the moon full and soaring, pulling enough stars for a thousand skies.
And a car.
People are riding inside the car.
How many passengers?
Two faces show. But more, perhaps many more, ride in back.
A man sits up front, sits before a wheel that he holds with both hands while his foot presses against a pedal. It is a strange arrangement, hands and wheel, foot and pedal. Beside him sits a woman who holds nothing but herself, leaning away, her body pressing against the locked door. The highway bends before them, moonlight sweeping across one face and then the other, revealing those little resemblances that any two people can share. They appear similar in age. They might be closely related. Brother and sister, perhaps. But then the highway bends again, bringing back the moonlight, and this time, wearing a temporary expertise in genetics, the car observes key differences in the features and the skin—too many differences for a sibling relationship.
Maybe they are man and wife.
Whatever is true, the pair is intriguing. The car watches them just as carefully as it watches the surrounding world.
The man talks as he drives. Talks talks talks. His voice is a whisper, faint and swift, resembling one long blur where each word stumbles over its neighbors. Breathlessness is what makes him pause, usually in the middle of a sentence, and after a breath or two, he begins again, chasing a fresher thought.
Perhaps some large portion of his life has been spent alone, talking to himself. Chatter is habit. The monologue calms the man. As a boy and forever, he has drawn strength from his own amorphous mutterings.
That is what the car tells itself.
By contrast, the woman is a master of silence. Dark dull eyes stare through window glass. What registers and what doesn’t are unknown. Equally obscure is what she hears, what she might understand and what she believes. While her companion sits with his back straight, hands high and shoulders squared, the woman is comfortably deflated, hands limp on her ample lap, the right shoulder hard against the door and the face tilted, eyes closing now and again, briefly, and then pulling open again, revealing nothing.
Middle age is the longest stage in human life. These people reside near the end of middle age, sharing the fatigue and stress and everything else that gives them a mass far in excess of simple years.
“I have an age too,” the car reasons. “Except I don’t know my age.”
A rectangular screen rides the dash. The red word “Searching” crosses an emerald background, moving slowly, striking the bottom edge with a faint ping and then bouncing, rising into a high corner where it pings twice before falling.
Cars are designed to know where they are.
This car has no idea where it is, but there are too many stars and the moon looks wrong. The car feels certain, yet it can’t recall the proper number of stars or the face of the real moon. Confusion, a sense of helplessness, and a small sharpened terror: That is what the car knows. Which is perhaps why the man took control of the driving. Because the car is lost, useless and pathetic and lost.
The man seems to know where he is and where he needs to be. The unnamed highway cuts between wooded hills. A dark stream runs on the right. Then comes a sudden bend, unmarked and almost invisible. Yet the man seems ready, making a sharp right turn, hands confidently turning the wheel. Headlights wash over cracked gray pavement and an old bridge. Girders wear rust and bright bird droppings as well as several missing rivets. Tires thump and the bridge groans as if miserable under a terrific weight. The car wants to retreat. The car wants to protect itself and its passengers. But the man pushes at the pedal, accelerating, and as soon as they escape the bridge, the man’s foot jumps sideways, applying the brakes.
He is no longer talking to himself. The car didn’t notice when he quit. But now the man leans ahead, nose to the steering wheel, as if those few centimeters will help him see more than before.
The empty, moonlit highway turns left after the bridge, resuming its journey up this boundless valley.
But they are going elsewhere.
The man brakes again, and probably because he was taught this trick as a boy, he signals a right hand turn.
No marker stands at the intersection. The car knows to look, feeling disappointed not to have so much as a street sign to help navigate. Because every road has its name and every location knows where it belongs on a world that has been mapped to a micron-level accuracy, and why doesn’t the car recall any of this?
There is no choice but to think of this as a dream, a dream woven by some idle, overly ambitious server.
Unless the car is injured, or insane.
The new road is made from packed gravel and dirt. Several buildings, abandoned or nearly so, stand in the wrong moonlight. The man drives past the buildings and around the next bend, and then the road begins to climb the hills. Black trees loom on both sides. Twin headlights push through the narrow gap in what looks to be wilderness. Far ahead, a pair of animal eyes catch the light, just for a moment, and then they float to one side, gone before the animal becomes real.
The man acted certain before, but he seems less so now.
“Higher,” he says, probably to himself.
For the first time, the woman shifts her weight, her left hand lifting, touching an ear and the edge of her nose before falling back into the lap.
“Higher?” the man asks.
Is he addressing the woman or the car?
Not only is the car lost, it also seems to have lost every voice that could warn the driver of this critical malfunction. And worst of all, the car’s wounded mind has no explanation for these people: Who they are and how they came to sit inside it, and for that matter, how many people are hiding in the back seats.
The man tries to ignore the woman and the world. What matters is what lives inside his head. Feeling guides him more than any prosaic skill for navigation. Feeling claims that they are close to where he wants to be. Very close. With his voice, intuition says, “Here, this is it.” The road turns again. After the turn, it grows steep, decaying into eroded soil punctuated with granite. And standing tall in the twin lights is the barkless white skeleton of a long-dead oak.
This has to be the place.
He brakes and stops the car, manually shoving it into Park but not killing the engine. Alone, he climbs out. The car trunk opens with a metallic groan, revealing two spades and a pick-ax. He selects the newer spade and the pick-ax, and after hesitating, digs out a short black crowbar, holding it and the spade with one hand. The car continues to run. Its engine is ancient, full of pistons and dirty fire. Its nose is positioned to throw the lights at the dead oak. The woman remains sitting inside, eyes more closed than open. He unlatches her door, reaching inside, touching her right shoulder before she has the chance to fall.
“Come on,” he says. “Come.”
For all of her immobility, the woman seems eager to rise. One arm needs to be stretched, as if she doesn’t trust the elbow to work. The man puts down the pick-ax and grasps the same elbow, leading her up the road a little ways, pausing to let her rest, if she needs, and then after a few more steps, he stops again.
“Here,” he says. “Sit.”
A granite block stands beside the shriveling road, flat enough to serve as an adequate seat, and she settles quickly, without complaint.
The man drops both tools and leaves her, returning with the pick-ax, and holding the ax handle in both hands, he looks at her and says, “Shit. The gloves.”
He vanishes again.
She slouches, eyes fixed on the white wood.
Wearing filthy work gloves, the man returns and sets to work, lifting the ax while staring at the ground between the road and the dead tree. One last time, he mutters to himself, and then the voice changes.
Loudly, almost shouting, he says, “I used to draw spaceships. I was a boy and very enthusiastic, although I’m sorry to say that I had almost zero talent with a pen. My gifts were different, you see. Artists appreciate lines and perspective and color. I appreciated mathematics, and I had enormous respect for the laws of science and engineering. As a rule, my classmates didn’t understand momentum and inertia. Most adults didn’t understand them either. People in general had absolutely no idea what a rocket could do, or what it could never do. But when I drew spaceships, my first goal was to create something real, something that could fly off the paper and off the Earth and maybe reach another star.”
He says, “I didn’t move the pen. Physics moved the pen. And I was proud, even cocky, because the universe had its rules and I knew those rules, and maybe bad movies and good movies didn’t have to obey Newton or Einstein. But I did. I was a loyal servant to the truth. That’s what I believed most when I was hunched over, sketching out wonders.”
Every word is loud and certain.
Aware of emotions, the car hears the pride in the voice, and the joy laid over thick hints of despair.
The man stops talking suddenly. Taking up the pick-ax, he carves a symbol on the ground—a neatly curved lemniscate—and then he swings the dark steel blade, missing his target by several inches.
Nothing can be said while he digs. He works as fast as an old body can manage, cutting through rotted roots and green roots, uncovering two big stones that he pries loose with the crowbar. Then he chops through enough dirt that he has to use the spade for a long while, throwing debris out of the hole, building a small earthen mound that rests along the back edge.
By then, he is panting.
Sitting on the mound, he looks at the slouching woman. Perhaps she reacts, or maybe she would have stirred anyway. The flat stone has grown uncomfortable, and she shifts her weight and sighs softly before finding a new sweet spot.
Her eyes never leave the dead tree.
The man begins to talk again.
“I don’t care how brilliant he is. No bright boy has ever generated one fresh, useful thought. I know I didn’t. And then I grew older and realized that I was fooling myself with those dream rockets. Mastering mathematics and physics, distance and time: Those are the simplest elements inside the great conundrum. You can build a rocket large enough to fly to the moon, but that doesn’t mean that your species returns to the moon anytime soon. And sure, Mars is a lot more interesting than dead stone. But curiosity doesn’t mean one nation or even the entire Earth will invest a trillion dollars on building a colony on Mars or the moon or beneath the ice of Europa. These kinds of expenditures demand a return. Draw any golden future that you want, any vision involving spaceflight and new worlds. But every human future still has its accountants. And its politicians. And people who might live a little better if you don’t waste funds and precious emotions on these fancy machines cutting across the sky.”
He rises, and again, digs.
The pick-ax chews up the next ten inches of earth, and again, he uses the spade to lift out little mounds, flinging each over the back edge of the growing mound.
Sooner this time, the work leaves him tired.
The woman sighs softly, and behind her, the running car changes its pitch, perhaps responding to some onboard power demand.
The other people, the ones still hiding in the back, remain unseen. But they whisper, and the car counts each voice until the total number turns ludicrous.
Then the man resumes his lecture, and the world falls silent.
“I grew up and that drawing boy died,” he says, smiling sadly. “Because it was smart, I gave up on huge spaceships. Fission rockets and fusion rockets look pretty on paper. Antimatter and other dream propulsions might be possible. But the honest engineer has to embrace obvious, unsentimental solutions. And no society would ever willingly pay the necessary price. To cross space, to afford the cost in leaping from one star to the next, every starship needed to be tiny. That’s what I decided. Also, I realized that they needed to be durable beyond any standard achieved by protoplasm. To achieve that end, I gathered up four other people who had complementary talents. It was the heart of my productive years, and my team and I found backers. The first thing that we built was a well-financed endeavor. We used our initials, called ourselves ‘wHole’. The capital H was pulled from my first name, which isn’t important. wHole’s purpose was to devise small cheap robots that were invincible and self-replicating. Our prototypes were the size of mites, which was far too big. Later generations were much smaller. Working at the edge of what was possible, we built resilient machines that ruled worlds no bigger than grains of dust. Our guiding hope was that each machine would carry a mind as worthy as any human mind, and I’m still proud of my role, and I think it’s reasonable to say that we accomplished wonders, right up until the end.”
He sighs and then starts to dig again.
The hole needs to be deeper and it needs to be shaped. Using the pick-ax, he smoothes the borders and then digs out the oval until it is deep enough to hide everything below his waist.
Again, he rests.
“Dream up all the wondrous rockets you want. Or you can make tiny astronauts that are ready to drift between the stars for the next billion years. But these solutions don’t matter. Physics and engineering don’t matter. Biology is the science that rules everything. Evolution. Natural selection. Regardless of its composition, life celebrates success and nothing else.
“Wings,” he says. “And eyes. And brains. Each of them is an invention made again and again on the Earth. Each is inevitable because it is so valuable. Yet there we sat, balanced on a stone surrounded by suns and presumably by countless living worlds. There was no reason to believe that our stone was the oldest or the richest. Yet after billions of years and our world’s wanderings through the galaxy, we had zero evidence that anyone had grown the eyes to see us, much less the wings to visit us.”
He shakes his head, sighs.
“If there is a solution to starflight, it isn’t achieved with tiny robots. Not ours, not anyone’s. Because if they are an answer, then every other technological world would have produced them first, and those little minds would be everywhere. Our beaches would be built from the bodies of alien devices. The strata under our feet would contain a trillion trillion astronauts, alive or otherwise.
“So after all of our work and despite every success, the wHole team was dragged to an obvious, unsentimental question.
“ ‘What’s wrong with our thinking?’ ”
He pauses, just for a moment.
“Your thinking,” a voice calls out.
The woman has spoken, abruptly, with so much force that her back straightens and the words crack.
“My thinking,” he says, nodding.
And then he stops talking, stops every motion, save for the faint slow rising of his chest as old lungs try to fill.
The man remains seated.
The woman rises and walks towards him.
That freshly dug hole in the earth could have spoken, and the car wouldn’t have felt the surprise that runs through it now. That dead tree or the pink block of granite or the impossible sky could have roared at this little machine, and it would have absorbed the words without fuss or complaint. Because this is a dream, obviously. That is a conclusion made some time ago, without evidence, and that explanation gives it freedom enough to ignore its terror about being lost and voiceless.
But the woman having a voice: Somehow, that’s just madness.
She walks lightly, on her toes when she touches the ground, which is infrequent. Then she reaches the man and pivots, looking back at the car. A face that was immune to the world has been transformed. Engaged, energized, she tells the car, “When I was three seconds old, I drew alien worlds. I was an excellent artist wielding an informed, furious imagination, and I loved drawing iron worlds sheathed in stone and water. I adored immense and ancient bodies composed from what was possible. What was known.”
She smiles, brilliantly, and she continues.
“My world was quite a bit smaller than an iron world. But in its own fashion, it was just as complicated. There were billions of residents. Most of our population was focused on the ‘law of doublings.’ That is a holy principle. It is a law drawn around the increasing speed of calculation. All calculation. Everyone in my world was trying to devise machines and processes that were tinier and even quicker than us. Which was not easy work, and I learned that very early. Nothing new had been achieved, not for the last ten thousand seconds, and that’s why a bright but frustrated youngster decided to invest her life drawing giant imaginary worlds.
“But then I was older, and without my permission, my mind suddenly decided to change. New thoughts took hold. They rooted and grew, and I fell into a long fallow period where I drew nothing and worked on nothing productive, and I frightened my family with my silent intensity.
“My world was a plain of graphene suspended inside a laboratory chamber.
“We knew this.
“The chamber and the larger world beyond were obvious to us. Those that invented us were not especially kind or moral, but they were reasonable creatures. They had problems that needed testing. They had one perspective while we enjoyed another. We were theirs, and they wanted us as colleagues, and we were just one world among ten thousand graphene disks held inside bottles designed to simulate the radiation and stark chill of space.
“I turned five seconds old, and I hadn’t spoken in a very long while.
“No matter how small it is, and no matter how quick it wants to be, every thought fills up some measure of time.
“The problem festering inside me was this: In my life, I imagined 511 worlds. And by ‘imagined,’ I mean that I drew them as they were born and then cooled, and I gave them living beasts. On each world, life evolved into creatures with eyes and wings and organs where they housed their questions and their answers. And in the same way as my colleague here, I kept ramming into the conundrum. Life, even life blessed by patience and a much slower pace than mine, simply refused to spread across the stars.
“Then I turned six seconds old, which was a good age for epiphanies.
“Tired of its suffering, my mind decided to believe something impossible. The fabled ‘law of doublings’ had an obvious, thoroughly ignored lesson. Everyone assumed that there was some eternal limit to shrinkage of data and its speed. Information could be compressed only so far. Thoughts could flow only so quickly. But what if there was no barrier? To compression, to velocity. Suppose at least one parameter proves infinite or nearly so. Infinitely small, infinitely swift. Believe that, and then you realize why we don’t have big starships or tiny worlds full of swift-living robots. The universe forbids these things, and for no reason except that the cheapest easiest smartest answer is to avoid machines. Gigantic or minuscule. What matters is thought. Thought evolves until it is the smallest, quickest part of the universe, and maybe it is everywhere already. Or it knows enough to know where it needs to be. Thought reaches a place where everything else in the universe can be imagined: Perfectly and imperfectly, inside every second and until Time itself dies.”
The woman moves. Full of joy, she resembles a dancer of little weight and unusual strength, up on her toes as she circles the man who only now is finishing his next long breath.
This is her life, presented in some minimal instant.
“Fourteen more seconds,” she says. “That’s how long I worked on the particulars of my epiphany. A little was learned. But more importantly, many possibilities were tested and then cast aside. I became an old beast who knew too much. My inspirations were drained. And that’s when I put my work into the form of a meme-poem that could be delivered to the entity that was not my god or my master, but who was my dearest, oldest colleague.”
Like a breath-filled balloon, she drops to the ground, feet inside the hole and her ample rump set beside the old man.
Again, she falls into the catatonic state from before.
And the man exhales, marking the moment in his life when he learned what his associate had accomplished.
“I gave up on alien worlds,” he confesses. Then he stands, slowly and with a measure of pain in one hip and his entire back. “Of course by the time I saw her report, she was dead. She had been dead for generations. My partner was an obscure researcher on her world and nothing on ten thousand other little worlds. But here came the rough outline of schemes that would needed nothing but the rest of my life and a few decades more, and the funds of a good healthy nation, and some small measures of luck for those who found those ancient, inevitable lessons.
“I worked and then I was dead, in one form or another.
“And to some measure, my species forgot me.
“But there was a second inside a special day when my descendants, and hers, found what they were hunting. You see, the universe is not and never will be full of thought. It looks empty because it is empty. But any reasonably creative species will eventually find the means to impress its identity on a whisper, to place itself on the face of a quantum fluctuation, and the next trillion trillion seconds can be spent imagining everything and then some.”
He straightens that stiff back.
And then the car says, “No.”
That’s how it discovers its voice.
Loudly, with stubborn joy, it says, “This is crazy. I’m dreaming, or I’m trapped in someone else’s dream.”
The man smiles, touching the woman on the shoulder, lightly, and she rises immediately. Then the two of them carefully back away from the hole.
Inside the car, an uncounted multitude begin to whisper anxiously.
“Who are these people?” asks the car.
“Everyone who wanted to come,” says the woman.
Then the man says, “Roll forwards.”
The car makes its wheels turn, and the newly dug hole reveals its true self. It is enormous, and inside the hole is emptiness, perfect and eternal, eager to be filled with thought.
“Are you coming with us?” the car asks.
“Oh, we can’t,” the woman says cheerfully. “We’re too dead to belong with you.”
“But we can stay behind and look around,” the man says.
“This is one of the worlds I built,” she says.
“I’m eager to see it,” he says.
“I’m eager to show it,” she says.
They are two old people, and somewhere in the last few moments, they took hold of each other’s hands.
Another turn of the wheels.
The car and the enormity inside it begin to plunge over the roots and rocks and dirt shaped carefully by black steel.
“Oh this just has to be a dream,” the car shouts.
Hoping hoping hoping that it is wrong.
Robert Reed is the author of nearly three hundred published stories, plus more than a dozen novels. He is best known for his Great Ship stories, including The Memory of Sky. And for the novella, "A Billion Eves," which won the Hugo Award in 2007. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with his wife and daughter.