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Tomorrow Next Year
"It made me think a lot about thoughts, whether they belonged to the thinker or whether they were just a sentiment that got borrowed for the right occasion, only to be cast off when it was time to mov
There was life on M-77-3A. The sector had been cataloged, and lists of life-bearing planets had been compiled. Field teams were dispatched to study the shapes the life took. The forward team was small—four of the eldest and most revered scientists of the Endoche, practitioners of genetic regression and mapping, creatures now mostly cybernetic; though their consciousness resided in their ancient yet technologically-bolstered brains. Their bodies blended the primordial technology of biology with the newer technological arts of nanotechnology, quantum computing, and silure, which they explained was the ability to experience millions of immersive recreations of remote recordings simultaneously—almost as though they could experience the totality of a planet in its entirety, moment to moment. I knew immediately upon resuscitation that these were beings from the future. How far in the future, it was difficult to tell.
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At first, it was impossible to communicate with them, for I was accustomed to using natural language, something beings of this sort had long abandoned. But once they realized what it was they were hearing, they searched their files for descriptive language and abandoned their mathematical attempts to merge their minds with my own, as both my memory and my processing power were slightly degraded and their data encryption was far more sophisticated than anything I had ever encountered. They must have thought of me as a mere broken toy, an unsophisticated, rusting curiosity, pulled from beneath the sands of a foreign world. But to me, I was not that. I was always so much more.
“Hazen Ford,” was the first thing I said to them when they communicated their desire to hear from me. “I was here with Hazen Ford.”
They didn’t seem to have much interest in Hazen. They wanted to know what my business was on the planet and how I had come to be stranded there. They estimated my time period to be in the early Post-Columnar Epoch, which they made clear to me was nearly two hundred thousand years in the past. It was only when I explained that Hazen was a human—a pure human—that they became interested in his story. They had already surveyed every millimeter of the area during the process of silure when the drones had discovered the remains of our small ship. That had drawn them to the blind in the cliff and the lava tube where they had discovered my body. Hazen Ford’s bones had long since eroded to dust. At that point, before I’d had any chance to learn about how they communicated, they asked me to relate Hazen’s story in words. For .0036 seconds I considered how best to describe our time together. Then I conveyed the following account, coded in binary:
He called me Echel. His name was Hazen Ford, a human male from the Eden cylinder group near the Garvin 9 outpost. I had been with him since birth—a common practice among humans of that era. I was a guardian, a teacher, a friend. And Hazen Ford was a good person. He was my fourth human charge as a companion, and his fate was unexpected. Apart from mild strife in his marriage, which seemed completely normal, there was no indication his life would turn so tragically and so suddenly.
He worked as a planetary surveyor, much in the same way you in the Endoche seek data on planets. He was not seeking life, as you do; rather, he sought industrial metals in extraplanetary bodies and was searching for small-bodied rocky planets with shallow gravity wells. His route was charted for ten previously unmapped systems, an itinerary that was scheduled for three months away from home. This system, M-77, was the first stop.
When we attempted to engage our jump drive following the survey, we immediately knew that something had gone wrong. The cabin did not decompress, but the engine popped, sending the ship into a spin. The area around the spacecraft was wrapped in smoke. It took the two of us nearly forty minutes to bring the spacecraft back under control. We were stuck in the system with a blown FTL drive and a diminished sub-light capacity. And in a system as rarely visited as M-77, we knew our options had become limited.
Hazen did not wish to be stranded in the system, so his immediate goal was to remain visible and wait for rescue. I knew that this was improbable, and as much as I wished to keep his morale from dropping to despair, I had to tell him how unlikely it was that we would be discovered before running out of resources. Food for Hazen was the main problem. We had several months stores aboard in the emergency kit, but it made little sense for us to remain in space that long. It was going to take weeks to find a suitable survival point and begin to adapt it to suit Hazen’s survival prospects. I worked each day to push Hazen to accept the reality of our situation. He knew, as I did, that once we resigned ourselves to the fact that we were not going to be rescued, we would have to drop to the surface of the most suitable planet—the rocky third life-bearing world. And once we slipped into that gravity well, with the sub-light engine damaged to the extent it was, Hazen’s ship was never coming back out into space. The odds of rescue once across that threshold were almost zero. At that point, I think Hazen understood the choice was between a short and certain death in space and a protracted life of isolation on a lonely and hostile planet. Ultimately, his will to survive won out. Hazen wept as we descended, for Hailey his wife, he told me later. He knew at that moment that he would never see her again.
This point was my most difficult dilemma. Hazen had deep emotional ties to Hailey. For him, truly the worst aspect of being stranded was the thought that he would never see her again. It had not yet occurred to him, as it had to me, that she could have been responsible for the sabotage of his ship. There were telltale signs of explosive scoring outside the jump drive, and it was certain that statistically, a spouse is nearly always a chief suspect in violence against a partner. And as I cross referenced schedules over the preceding months, what had seemed innocent visits to the shipyard technicians for routine maintenance and lunches and dinners with nondisclosed people, the odds that Hailey hadn’t been party to Hazen’s downfall became vanishingly small. I chose not to mention the odds. I chose not to mention anything at all on that point. I didn’t think of it as a lie, for Hazen was distraught, and Hailey was the emotional focal point keeping him from falling into a hopeless despair. I reasoned that telling him it was Hailey and the technician, in all probability, who had put him in this predicament, would have crushed him. Besides, it wasn’t necessarily factually true, just highly likely. I let Hazen believe what he needed to believe.
The descent to the planet’s surface was quiet and smooth. Hazen later described it as sinking to the bottom of the ocean in a broken submarine. He was not too far off.
The atmosphere, though supportive to the countless forms of life indigenous to the planet, was toxic to Hazen. The air was saturated with sulfur, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, even chlorine. Hazen would never take a breath outside a controlled atmosphere ever again. In addition, radiation levels on the planet’s surface were overtly harmful to humans. My plan was to touch down in a relatively desolate area where a defunct volcano had left a network of lava tubes that I detected on topographical scans. My first order of business was to seal off a segment of one of these tubes to make a comfortable space for Hazen, for the spaceship itself amounted to a small cell with little headroom and barely enough space to walk a few paces. It would take some time to syphon in nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide, while filtering out the noxious elements in the native atmosphere. I was prepared to work non-stop to prepare a livable space for Hazen.
There was still enough life in the ship to make short trips in the lower atmosphere. Initially, I had to explore and seek out raw materials to be able to print airtight walls for the lava tube and find compatible hydrocarbons to convert into food for Hazen. He needed to sit in the sanctuary of the ship’s cabin, but while I went out and explored, he was able to experience the planet in VR through my eyes and ears in the same way you Endoche take in data from millions of drones. But the human mind was only capable of processing the input of one. Hazen enjoyed this process. It wasn’t something he’d ever done. His work was performed from orbit, so to be an on-the-ground explorer, even a virtual one, was a thrill he was glad to experience.
Once we’d gathered the necessary raw materials, I worked in the lava tube securing the walls. First, I needed to print the support structure for the printer to span the height and breadth of the lava tube, and then it was a question of time—time to print the partition, then time to filter out the atmosphere with the small, backup air filtration motor from the ship. It took nearly four weeks before Hazen could descend through the air portal to inspect the lava tube that would become his home.
“Impressive cavern, Echel,” he said. “It’s badly in need of a decorator, but spacious.”
I had designs on comfortable areas, and large, open spaces for living and exercise, and I recreated rooms I thought Hazen would like. I knew he would be there likely for a long time, so I hoped at least I could provide a comfortable living space.
For the first several weeks, I worked every minute I was not fixed to my charging station. Those few minutes were the only times I was not laboring nonstop, printing walls, floors, partitions, ceilings, cabinets, windows, mirrors, stairs, and furniture, transforming the large cavern into a comfortable living space.
Over the course of these weeks, Hazen was still cooped up in the tiny cabin of our spacecraft, spending most of his waking hours lying on the sleep bench engrossed in VR. I asked him what he was doing, and he told me that he was investigating the sabotage of the engine. From the drone footage we’d taken in space he’d recreated simulations of the explosion and used modeling to recreate the probable devices used to hobble the ship. He grew most curious about one factor during his investigation. Why not use a bigger device?
He was beginning to ask real questions. His conclusion was that it had to be someone who knew his itinerary—someone who knew that killing the jump drive would strand him in a place he would likely never be rescued. Who would want to strand him but not kill him? That was a short list. And of the people on that list, very few people had any motivation to maroon Hazen.
“Was it Hailey?” he asked me one evening as I recharged for my night shift in the cavern.
“All I can tell you is the odds, and that we’ll likely never know for sure.”
“Echel, I need to know.”
He’d hardly gotten up from that bench all day. His muscles were atrophying almost at the same rate as if we were in space.
“There’s an eighty-two-percent likelihood that Hailey was involved, acting in collaboration with someone who had access to the vehicle, most likely one of the shipyard technicians.”
He took a deep breath and rolled over. I could read his body language well enough to know what he was thinking: why? Why would Hailey do that to him, of all things?
As I had predicted, Hazen seemed to fall even further into despair. I tried to direct him toward psychologically stabilizing activities in VR. Lectures on grief and betrayal, how to avoid a victim’s mindset. I asked him to discuss his psyche with the onboard clinical psychology simulation. Among the more peculiar traits of humans was their vulnerability to their own psychology. Likely some twisted motive had captured Hailey’s mind somehow, prompting her to such a bitter betrayal. On the receiving end, all Hazen could think of, for most of his waking hours, was revenge.
He insisted, against his instincts for survival, that we allot nearly all our remaining power in order to send out an interstellar distress signal, which at a constant rate, would have depleted the remaining fuel in the ship in a matter of weeks. I refused to comply. His mind was so clouded by the thought of getting back to confront Hailey that he had no perspective, no sense that the signal had nearly zero chance of reaching a receiving ear in a meaningful time frame. In order for any message to be useful, Hazen would still need to be alive for anyone on the other end to act on it, and depleting the ship’s remaining power supply was the surest way to guarantee a quick death. I told him that I could allot a timeframe of an hour when we could orient the message possibly toward Nemetz, an outlying system. We both understood that the probability of anyone being there to identify and receive an unexpected signal was nearly zero in that time frame, but Hazen demanded I allot the power to send the signal anyway. When we failed to make a connection over that hour, Hazen turned to me and said, “Tomorrow, Echel. We’ll try again tomorrow.”
I shook my head. “No, Hazen. Not if you want to survive.”
I considered the power the signal had drained, extrapolated energy use over a lifetime, calculated probabilities of a million different factors and selected the option with the highest likelihood of making a connection in Hazen’s natural lifetime.
“Tomorrow next year,” I told him. “That’s when we should try again.”
Hazen shook his head.
From time to time as I was building his new home, I would ask for Hazen’s opinion in the redesign of the living space down in the lava tube. He mostly seemed indifferent. At that point, he was struggling to find any motivation to keep living. The orientation of his terrarium, as he called it, hardly seemed important to him then. With some encouragement, though, I got him to walk around the space from time to time. For humans, physical exercise was important and inaction impacted their psyche quite detrimentally. Hazen had begun to move. That was a positive sign.
Nearly a year after I had begun working on the lava tube, Hazen’s home was complete. He had long since abandoned the ship in favor of the much more spacious, much more comfortable residence in the cavern. It no longer seemed like a cavern to him but a house, one far larger than any home he’d lived in before. There was plenty of space for exercise and recreation. I’d oriented the printing head to capture meaningful imagery from Hazen’s life on the walls, some personal, some relating to places he found familiar. In other contexts, most people would have called it a mansion. For Hazen, though, he often confessed it felt more like a prison.
“A view, Echel,” he said to me one day, “to be able to look out on a real landscape, even one that doesn’t change much, that would help.”
I knew this about humans. They liked to look out windows. I knew it would be a challenge, but I was not otherwise engaged. Meanwhile, while I was devising a way to get Hazen his window, I suggested to him that he survey the nearby life on the planet. I thought this might be a task he was suited to. He was trained as a geographical surveyor, and it gave him an occupation, something to think about, look forward to, and schedule his life around. I devised a solar charging station for the ship’s drone, and every three days, it could go out, perform surveys, and return with samples and data for Hazen and I to analyze.
As Hazen dug into that work, it seemed to mildly lift his spirits. But humans were complicated beings. Unlike technological intelligences and simpler biological entities, they had needs beyond the exigencies of life. I had given Hazen a job to occupy his time, provided a shelter, sustenance, exercise, and he had more entertainment in the VR space than any human could ever consume in a lifetime. Even so, humans needed all these things and more. Even the most stoic among them were emotional creatures, and their emotions were part of a complex interplay among these highly social creatures, ebbing and flowing as they co-created their cultural spaces. I was trained to understand complex human emotions, but Hazen was so familiar with me and my role in his life that I could never fill that void for him. He was too comfortable with me in my original role, more squire than compatriot. Had I suddenly begun acting the part of an empathetic friend, he told me, it would’ve been “weird.”
At that point in their history, humans had many types of AI, some organically generated, some constructed from the personality profiles of actual humans who had volunteered their likeness to posterity. The response from humans was generally that both were accurate but that the likenesses were the most believable “people.”
There were limits to my ability to construct passable bodies for Hazen’s new companions. I lacked nanotech components and processing agents, and without these particulars, Hazen’s new friends would have amounted to walking carbon fiber skeletons, which to my mind would have been “weird.”
So I opted to set up Hazen in a new simulation, with both a set of people and a purpose. It was more a game than a therapy session. Hazen didn’t know what the scenario was, but upon entering found himself on the planet of his species origin in a small city in a place called Alberta in pre-diaspora times assisting the local authorities as they investigated a homicide.
Even though I was running the programming on my processor, I decided to sequester that program so that Hazen had something of his own. He could choose to tell me what he wanted or not, and inevitably, after returning from the scenario, he would discuss it with me. He would tell me about the case and the investigators he worked with, the people of the city they encountered.
One evening, several months into the simulations, Hazen was relaxing in the sitting area on the lower level of his home when I asked him about his relationships with the people inside.
“It’s interesting,” he said. “I talk to them.”
“About your life here?”
He shrugged. “Not exactly, but not exactly not. If I ever try to mention the truth to them, they react how somebody of that time and place would. I told Audrey once I was from space—from the future. She thought I was joking. ‘Pulling her leg,’ was how she’d put it. That seemed like a strange expression. So when I tell them about myself, I couch everything in terms they can understand.”
“What did you tell them about Hailey?”
“I told them that she robbed me, left me, and ran off to Montreal. They all think I should go after her. If only.”
“Perhaps you can construct a story that more accurately approximates the situation.”
“Perhaps you can tell them you’ve gotten word that Hailey has died.”
“Why would that make any difference, Echel?”
“Unless there’s a major change in our circumstances, you may never have a chance to learn the truth of whether she was involved, if so why, whether she regrets what happened, whether she ever apologizes, seeks forgiveness. All that must be difficult to process. You have nothing but speculation.”
“I haven’t given up hope, Echel. We may get off this rock someday. And then I’ll get answers to all those questions.”
I thought for the longest time that I may have been wrong to suggest Hazen tell them Hailey was dead. I could tell it affected him, though it was often difficult to tell with humans what the true root of their consternations were. He certainly had plenty to be upset about. He had become generally surly, even cynical, whereas before, Hazen had been a lively, optimistic person. It was often difficult to tell what was eating away at his psyche, something specific or the totality of the situation.
The model for the assistant police inspector that Hazen became quite friendly with was an attractive young woman named Audrey Henderson in the scenario. In truth, her likeness was from an Etteran actress and her personality from Gypsy McKenna, an Ag specialist from the Columns who’d lived over a thousand years before. In the scenario, Audrey Henderson was a divorcee, struggling to get over a failed marriage while raising two kids on her own. Hazen reported that they had many long conversations in which they’d confided in each other about things he’d never even spoken to me about. When I asked him what types of things they talked about he grew quiet, reflective even. He asked me, “Echel, how can I be expected to forgive if I can never be sure who did me wrong?”
“I’m not sure,” I said.
The concept of forgiveness was entirely alien to me. I clearly did not feel in the way humans did. Thus, I could not hurt the way they did. When someone did to me what would have harmed a person, I felt nothing.
“Forgiveness costs me nothing,” I told Hazen. “So I give it freely. I understand it comes to your kind with great effort.”
“Audrey is struggling with it. Her husband, Keith, apparently started seeing another woman behind her back. She thinks it’s important to forgive him, but she says she’s not ready to yet. She’s still angry, and I don’t blame her. I understand it.”
“But you still don’t know.”
“Exactly. Is it Hailey I should be angry with or someone else? Not only will I never know if we don’t get off this planet, but I’ll never know if she’s deserving of my forgiveness.”
“Would you forgive her if she were?”
“I don’t know, Echel. I have two fictions in my mind, always competing for headspace. In one, she’s with some other man, happy to be rid of me. Occasionally, the thought of me sneaks into her consciousness and she recoils, partly because she wanted me out of her life so badly, partly because the shame of what she’s done to me comes rushing back. And she hates my memory all the more for that. The other fiction is the one I want to be true. That she’s out there now, unaware of my fate, wondering if I’ll ever come back to her. That Hailey misses me like I miss her. And I don’t know what to believe. The first Hailey is unworthy of my forgiveness, the second needs none. So what do I do about that?”
This was an impossible question for me to fully understand. Hazen’s grief was for so many things. His solitude, the loss of his family, his friends, real companionship, the places he loved. The things. Coffee was one of those things. I had found no hydrocarbon similar enough that I could twist together and analogue. Every attempt ended in something bitter and black that conveyed no pleasure to my charge.
“Coffee, though, is bitter too,” I stated on our fifth attempt.
“Yes, it is,” Hazen said. “It also tastes good, Echel. This stuff is disgusting.”
Months passed, and though Hazen didn’t seem to be growing any less heavy-hearted, he didn’t seem to be sinking deeper into despair either. The homicide case in his VR simulation was progressing rapidly. He thought they were close to catching their suspect. I, meanwhile, was using mineral reagent nanomaterials to cut cubes of rock out of the bedrock, and cube by cube, these cutouts became a tunnel. I estimated that in two more years, I would have a tunnel Hazen could ascend to a blind behind a rock edifice overlooking the valley where the ship had come to rest.
Hazen expressed that time seemed to be at once standing still but also moving faster than he could believe. Before long a year had passed and he insisted we climb back to the ship and transmit a signal so that we might be rescued. I had selected the M-99 system as the next best chance at making a subspace connection. As before, we allotted one hour for the signal to remain open. Odds were infinitesimally small that we would catch a receiver, for there was little likelihood anyone would be there. After an hour transmitting to the predictable silence, I closed the channel.
“Tomorrow,” Hazen said.
“Tomorrow next year,” I answered.
It was difficult to tell how bad a blow it was, for Hazen seemed to have placed some hope in that moment. It was a letdown to be sure.
“Audrey and I haven’t solved the murder yet,” Hazen said at the base of the tunnel. “So there’s still that to be done.”
“And I still have a long way to go to get you your window, Hazen.”
Things seemed to be okay for Hazen. But humans were often difficult to read. It wasn’t more than three weeks later that Hazen erupted into a fit of rage that I’d never seen from him before.
He was immersed in the VR scenario, participating as usual, in the sitting area on the lower level where he could leave his body in the comfort of the form-fitting seat I’d printed for him. In the program, he and Audrey had cornered their suspect in an abandoned country farmhouse and they made the mistake of splitting up so that Audrey could take the man by surprise. Instead, the suspect got behind her, and confronted Hazen while holding Audrey at knifepoint. The way Hazen explained the incident to me later was that he calmly put down his weapon, and waited for the man to release Audrey, at which point he said he snapped. I found him seated in the exercise studio with a bloody, broken hand beside the collection of holes he’d punched into the wall.
“This actually hurts a lot,” he said to me when I entered, holding his bloody fist upright, supported at the wrist by his other hand.
He’d been sitting there for some time. I hadn’t heard the incident as it unfolded, as I was in the tunnel.
“I’ll get the med kit,” I told him.
As I knelt to treat his hand, I could tell it was quite bad.
“What came over you?” I asked.
“He put a knife to Audrey, and I didn’t like it. Then I guess I got carried away. I don’t know how it manifested here. All I felt was me running, then hitting the man and hitting the man.”
“I doubt there’d be much left of him, whether it be pixels or blood and bone.”
“No,” Hazen concurred.
It went without saying between us that he understood the scenario wasn’t truly real, and thus, Audrey couldn’t really be hurt, for she herself wasn’t real. Nor could Hazen inflict any pain on the killer, but that didn’t seem the point of the outburst.
“Would you like to talk about it?” I asked Hazen.
“What’s there to say?”
“I don’t know, Hazen, I can’t speak for you or what you’re experiencing.”
“No, you can’t,” he said.
I bandaged his hand and titred a local anesthetic through a wristband to dull the pain. He took off the band and set it beside him. I looked at him and he looked at me. Then he stared at me as I said nothing. That pain, I surmised, was preferable. So, I left him there alone.
Hazen’s passion in that time had a strange effect on his VR interface. I did not betray my trust to Hazen by reading the program I was running for him. But neither did I tell him what was happening when he began to speak through the VR sim, a phenomenon that I had never seen before in a human. I wondered whether it was a dysfunction in the headset Hazen was using or some type of neurological phenomenon occurring in the pons or the medullar inhibitory area where the devise normally would stimulate similar paralysis to REM sleep. Somehow, perhaps, deep in his subconscious, Hazen needed to be heard, so I listened as he had deep and often very angry conversations with Audrey in his simulation.
He was wrestling with what I could only characterize as a struggle to direct his rage. His life had been taken from him and he rightly wanted some form of vengeance or perhaps justice. He wanted to be whole again but feared he never could be if he had no chance of learning the truth of what had happened to him with certainty.
I didn’t know what to say to him. I didn’t know what could make the situation more tolerable. So I continued to dig my tunnel, and I suggested to Hazen that he spend more time surveying and less time in the simulation. He reluctantly agreed. The nano-adjuvants helped to repair Hazen’s hand within the week. Regrettably, the real scar was much deeper.
Toward the end of that year, I broke through the cliff face and began to secure the outer skin of the blind from which Hazen would spend much of the rest of his life observing the valley. I timed his first look with the sunset. At that point, the hole in the rock face wasn’t much more than an eyehole, almost telescopic, from behind the cliff a man could see a planet, a star, a universe. Hazen pressed his face to the rock, observing the sunset through the filtered lead glass with one eye for nearly an hour before saying, “It’s beautiful, Echel. Small, but beautiful. You’ve outdone yourself.” I could see he was on the verge of tears.
“Thank you, my friend,” he said, before descending to his home.
“Perhaps later, after dinner, you’d like to see the stars,” I said.
He nodded as he continued below.
I had opened and enclosed a small window by the time we transmitted our signal in the following year. Again, the result was the same. No one heard us. Again, Hazen said the same.
“Tomorrow next year,” I said again.
This time, it seemed to sting a little less, for the pain of the hope he’d poured into that transmission the year before had tempered his expectations this time. Hazen had grown slightly closer to resignation. Yet even as he progressed toward acceptance, the road was not a straight one, for he would sometimes be captured by momentary outbursts of emotion and rage, usually in the course of some events in his simulation, which continued beyond the original case. Audrey and he went into business as private investigators. Somehow though, there was a barrier there between him and her. Hazen told me he couldn’t quite see her as real in the way I was.
“We’re both algorithmic,” I told him. “And realistically, she is a true human personality, more so than I am.”
“Yeah, but I’ve known you my whole life, Echel. We’ve been through everything together.”
“I see. I came to you before you knew any better.”
“What can I say, I wasn’t all that discerning as a toddler.”
Over the course of the following years, Hazen spent much of his time in the blind overlooking the valley. Though he couldn’t witness the sunrise with his own eyes, each morning, he would ascend the tunnel and sit as the stars faded and light crept into the valley. I’d found a passable substitute for tea, and Hazen would put on his headset, put up the drone, and watch the sun come over the horizon with the drone’s eyes. Then he would spend most of the day categorizing our findings from the previous survey mission, taxonomizing, recording chemical compositions, and often speculating on the biological processes of this alien world’s strange biosphere. There was a new wonder nearly every day to explore, and Hazen, like the scribal monks in the ancient lore of his species, seemed to find peace in recording the nature of this world’s biological order. Most days, that was enough.
Nearly ten years after landing on the planet, I returned from a long excursion cleaning dust off our solar panels on the surface to find him up in the blind, watching the sunset, sobbing almost uncontrollably. I asked him what was troubling him so.
“After a few years, I knew it wasn’t a mistake anymore. I’d have found Hailey if she’d disappeared—gone after her. But she didn’t come, Echel, did she?”
“It is possible she did,” I said. “There were a lot of planets on your itinerary, Hazen. Perhaps she searched in vain.”
I could see in his demeanor he doubted that she had. “No one’s going to come,” he said, “because no one’s looking. And this is my life now. This cave. This valley. These artificial people. Me and you.”
“What the hell am I bothering for?” he asked. “What do I do with the rest of my life?”
“If he were here,” I told Hazen, “Michelangelo would paint.”
“I’m no Michelangelo,” Hazen said, his teeth clenched. “I’m just a guy in a cave. An ordinary guy stuck in a cave for the rest of his life.”
Shortly after we were marooned on the planet, while searching my database for files that might be helpful to Hazen’s mental wellbeing, I had come across the autobiography of a man from Earth in the late twentieth century. His story was one I thought Hazen should hear, but I’d known enough about human psychology to understand it might be many years before Hazen could be receptive to the man’s message. That evening in the blind, with Hazen’s anger bubbling up with such completeness and ferocity, it reminded me again how human behavior can be so deceiving, the normality of their actions masking the bubbling cauldron of emotions lying beneath the surface. I pulled the file and created an avatar of the man, Christian Raphael Moreno, and I built a VR worldscape of the places he’d lived and written about in his memoir.
After I’d told him about it, Hazen reluctantly agreed to walk through Moreno’s memoir, but he told me he didn’t want to do it alone. I said I would be happy to accompany him.
“That’s not what I mean,” Hazen said. “I’d like it if Audrey could come. Is there a way you can somehow tie the two programs together?”
I told Hazen I would work on it and get back to him.
Christian Moreno was a single father. He’d lost his wife in an automobile accident when their daughter was four years old. Moreno described the heartbreak as being near total, with the presence of their daughter Bianca being the glue that held his spirit together after his wife died. When Bianca was sixteen, Christian returned home from a late shift one night to find Bianca, slumped in front of the television, dead, killed entirely randomly by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting while she was playing video games. As he described it, the combination of rage, grief, and anger consumed him for nearly twenty years. He was left with nothing and no one to direct his anger toward, for no suspect was ever identified.
I gave considerable thought to how I would weave Christian’s story into Hazen’s VR sim. Ultimately, I decided that they should meet him later in his life, many years after he’d lost his daughter—the man who’d written the memoir of his life, not the younger man living it.
I didn’t tell Hazen anything specific about Moreno, just wrote the story into his VR world as organically as I could. It was the only time I ever peeked into that world of Hazen’s. For several weeks, Hazen and Audrey spent nearly all their waking hours trying to track down the source of a fictional partial fingerprint in the cold case of Bianca Moreno’s murder. From their first meeting in Moreno’s apartment, Christian’s avatar cut straight to Hazen’s anger.
“You’re me, hombre,” Christian told Hazen. “I can see. What did you lose?”
“All of it,” Hazen said. “Everything.”
“Not yet,” Christian told him. “You’re still here. Still breathing.”
Not long after meeting Christian, when I asked Hazen how he was each morning in the blind as the sun came up, his response became, “Still breathing, Echel. Still breathing.”
Over the years that followed, I recognized pieces of Christian’s experience leaking into things Hazen said to me. It made me think a lot about thoughts, whether they belonged to the thinker or whether they were just a sentiment that got borrowed for the right occasion, only to be cast off when it was time to move on. Humans tended to think of themselves as the sum of their memories and thoughts, and one of the thoughts Hazen borrowed from Christian that he carried with him until the end was that the universe was a random place. No person was guaranteed anything but a set of trials, and some would seem far more grueling than others.
Hazen Ford had just gotten a tough set of trials. There was no greater meaning to it than that.
“Still breathing,” Hazen said to me on the last day we would transmit. He was fifty-one years old by then.
When the tone clicked off at the end of another hopeless call, Hazen smiled at me.
“Tomorrow, Echel?” he said.
“Tomorrow next year.”
A few weeks later, Hazen passed in his sleep. He’d told me many times that he hoped our catalogues of the life on this little planet, which I officially named Fordham in Hazen’s honor, would someday sit in the libraries of universities all across the sector. He also hoped that his story, like Christian Moreno’s, might help other people who’d been hard done by the universe to put their head down and keep going, to make the choice to do something useful when no one was watching, not for accolades, nor for prestige nor posterity, nor even for themselves, but simply because to do nothing would be a waste of a life. Hazen once said to me in a moment of clarity—and originality, as far as I know—that a hard life is still a life worth living.
I buried Hazen Ford in the valley, along the horizon he beheld for decades from our blind in the rock face.
After that, I continued his work, cataloguing as many species as I could discover for as long as it was possible to recharge my body. To my recollection—things got cloudy at the end—I lasted for nearly seven hundred years. I dedicated each day to the work that Hazen Ford never chose.
All of our data should be hard coded in the database in the lava tube Hazen and I called home for nearly twenty-six years, I told the Endoche. I can assist in interpretation of it if you have any questions.
After that moment, when I had finished transmitting the story of Hazen’s life stranded on the planet to the Endoche, one of them stood over me and reached out, placing what seemed like a hand over my body. Its long appendage changed shape and seemed to glow, and I felt the most peculiar sensation. I felt it, a feeling, as though I was instantaneously downloaded, gaps in my memory repaired, and in the same instant I was uploaded back to my body; and now, my memories, which had been purely mechanical, flat, and emotionless before, had become rich with feeling. I felt Hazen’s anguish, my own loneliness, and the sudden irrepressible pangs of hope that had come and gone, both Hazen’s hope for his own life, and my hope for Hazen before he died. I felt what it had been like to miss him for all those years after he was gone. It was as though, in that instant, my colorless past had been painted with the complete spectral brilliance of the universe.
What about your life, Echel? I thought.
I think I thought it. Or was that the Endoche asking me? I wondered. After all that, now, I’m not sure that it mattered whose thought it was, for I thought it, I felt it.
What about your life?
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