Fantastic Universe/Volume 08/Number 3/Where Hesperus Falls
by . . . Jack Vance
- Revere had lived so long that his every waking hour was a nightmare. And nightmares encourage primitive behavior.
My ervants will not allow me to kill myself. I have sought self-extinction by every method, from throat-cutting to the intricate routines of Yoga, but so far they have thwarted my most ingenious efforts.
I grow ever more annoyed. What is more personal, more truly one's own, than a man's own life? It is his basic possession, to retain or relinquish as he sees fit. If they continue to frustrate me, someone other than myself will suffer. I guarantee this.
My name is Henry Revere. My appearance is not remarkable, my intelligence is hardly noteworthy, and my emotions run evenly. I live in a house of synthetic shell, decorated with wood and jade, and surrounded by a pleasant garden. The view to one side is the ocean, to the other, a valley sprinkled with houses similar to my own. I am by no means a prisoner, although my servants supervise me with the most minute care. Their first concern is to prevent my suicide, just as mine is to achieve it.
It is a game in which they have all the advantages—a detailed knowledge of my psychology, corridors behind the walls from which they can observe me, and a host of technical devices. They are men of my own race, in fact of my own blood. But they are immeasurably more subtle than I.
My latest attempt was clever enough—although I had tried it before without success. I bit deeply into my tongue and thought to infect the cut with a pinch of garden loam. The servants either noticed me placing the soil in my mouth or observed the tension of my jaw.
They acted without warning. I stood on the terrace, hoping the soreness in my mouth might go undetected. Then, without conscious hiatus, I found myself reclining on a pallet, the dirt removed, the wound healed. They had used a thought-damping ray to anaesthetize me, and their sure medical techniques, aided by my almost invulnerable constitution, defeated the scheme.
As usual, I concealed my annoyance and went to my study. This is a room I have designed to my own taste, as far as possible from the complex curvilinear style which expresses the spirit of the age.
Almost immediately the person in charge of the household entered the room. I call him Dr. Jones because I cannot pronounce his name. He is taller than I, slender and fine-boned. His features are small, beautifully shaped, except for his chin which to my mind is too sharp and long, although I understand that such a chin is a contemporary criterion of beauty. His eyes are very large, slightly protuberant; his skin is clean of hair, by reason both of the racial tendency toward hairlessness, and the depilation which every baby undergoes upon birth.
Dr. Jones' clothes are vastly fanciful. He wears a body mantle of green film and a dozen vari-colored disks which spin slowly around his body as an axis. The symbolism of these disks, with their various colors, patterns, and directions of spin, are discussed in a chapter of my History of Man—so I will not be discursive here. The disks serve also as gravity deflectors, and are used commonly in personal flight.
Dr. Jones made me a polite salute, and seated himself upon an invisible cushion of anti-gravity. He spoke in the contemporary speech, which I could understand well enough, but whose nasal trills, gutturals, sibilants and indescribable friceatives, I could never articulate.
"Well, Henry Revere, how goes it?" he asked.
In my pidgin-speech I made a non-committal reply.
"I understand," said Dr. Jones, "that once again you undertook to deprive us of your company."
I nodded. "As usual I failed," I said.
Dr. Jones smiled slightly. The race had evolved away from laughter, which, as I understand, originated in the cave-man's bellow of relief at the successful clubbing of an adversary.
"You are self-centered," Dr. Jones told me. "You consider only your own pleasure."
"My life is my own. If I want to end it, you do great wrong in stopping me."
Dr. Jones shook his head. "But you are not your own property. You are the ward of the race. How much better if you accepted this fact!"
"I can't agree," I told him.
"It is necessary that you so adjust yourself." He studied me ruminatively. "You are something over ninety-six thousand years old. In my tenure at this house you have attempted suicide no less than a hundred times. No method has been either too crude or too painstaking."
He paused to watch me but I said nothing. He spoke no more than the truth, and for this reason I was allowed no object sharp enough to cut, long enough to strangle, noxious enough to poison, heavy enough to crush—even if I could have escaped surveillance long enough to use any deadly weapon.
I was ninety-six thousand, two hundred and thirty- two years old, and life long ago had lost that freshness and anticipation which makes it enjoyable. I found existence not so much unpleasant, as a bore. Events . repeated themselves with a deadening familiarity. It was like watching a rather dull drama for the thousandth time: the- boredom becomes almost tangible and nothing seems more desirable than oblivion.
Ninety-six thousand, two hundred and two years ago, as a student of bio-chemistry, I had offered myself as a guinea pig for certain tests involving glands and connective tissue. An incalculable error had distorted the experiment, with my immortality as the perverse result. To this day I appear not an hour older than my age at the time of the experiment, when I was so terribly young.
Needless to say, I suffered tragedy as my parents, my friends, my wife, and finally my children grew old and died, while I remained a young man. So it has been. I have seen untold generations come and go; faces flit before me like snowflakes as I sit here. Nations have risen and fallen, empires extended, collapsed, forgotten. Heroes have lived and died; seas drained, deserts irrigated, glaciers melted, mountains levelled. Almost a hundred thousand years I have persisted, for the most part effacing myself, studying humanity. My great work has been the History of Man.
Although I have lived unchanging, across the years the race evolved. Men and women grew taller, and more slender. Every century saw features more refined, brains larger, more flexible. As a result, I, Henry Revere, homo sapiens of the twentieth century, today am a freakish survival, somewhat more advanced than the Neanderthal, but essentially a precursor to the true Man of today.
I am a living fossil, a curio among curios, a public ward, a creature denied the option of life or death. This was what Dr. Jones had come to explain to me, as if I were a retarded child. He was as kindly as he knew how, but unusually emphatic. Presently he departed and I was left to myself, in whatever privacy the scrutiny of half a dozen pairs of eyes allows.
It is harder to kill one's self than one might imagine. I have considered the matter carefully, examining every object within my control for lethal potentialities. But my servants are preternaturally careful. Nothing in this house could so much as bruise me. And when I leave the house, as I am privileged to do, gravity deflectors allow me no profit from high places, and in this exquisitely organized civilization there are no dangerous vehicles or heavy machinery in which I could mangle myself.
In the final analysis I am flung upon my own resources. I have an idea. Tonight I shall take a firm grasp on my head and try to break my neck . . .
Dr. Jones came as always, and inspected me with his usual reproach. "Henry Revere, you trouble us all with your discontent. Why can't you reconcile yourself to life as you have always known it?"
"Because I am bored! I have experienced everything. There is no more possibility of novelty or surprise! I feel so sure of events that I could predict the future!"
He was rather more serious than usual. "You are our guest. You must realize that our only concern is to ensure your safety."
"But I don't want safety! Quite the reverse!"
Dr. Jones ignored me. "You must make up your mind to cooperate. Otherwise—" he paused significantly "—we will be forced into a course of action that will detract from the dignity of us all."
"Nothing could detract any further from my dignity," I replied bitterly.- "I am hardly better than an animal in a zoo."
"That is neither your fault nor ours. We all must fulfill our existences to the optimum. Today your function is to serve as vinculum with the past."
He departed. I was left to my thoughts. The threats had been veiled but were all too clear. I was to desist from further attempts upon my life or suffer additional restraint.
I went out on the terrace, and stood looking across the ocean, where the sun was setting into a bed of golden clouds. I was beset by a dejection so vast that I felt stifled. Completely weary of a world to which I had become alien, I was yet denied freedom to take my leave. Everywhere I looked were avenues to death: the deep ocean, the heights of the palisade, the glitter of energy in the city. Death was a privilege, a bounty, a prize, and it was denied to me.
I returned to my study and leafed through some old maps. The house was silent—as if I were alone. I knew differently. Silent feet moved behind the walls, which were transparent to the eyes above these feet, but opaque to mine. Gauzy webs of artificial nerve tissue watched me from various parts of the room. I had only to make a sudden gesture to bring an anaesthetic beam snapping at me.
I sighed, slumped into my chair. I saw with the utmost clarity that never could I kill myself by my own instrumentality. Must I then submit to an intolerable existence? I sat looking bleakly at the nacreous wall behind which eyes noted my every act.
No, I would never submit. I must seek some means outside myself, a force of destruction to strike without warning: a lightning bolt, an avalanche, an earthquake.
Such natural cataclysms, however, were completely beyond my power to ordain or even predict. I considered radioactivity. If by some pretext I could expose myself to a sufficient number of roentgens . . .
I sat back in my chair, suddenly excited. In the early days atomic wastes were sometimes buried, sometimes blended with concrete and dropped into the ocean. If only I were able to—but no. Dr. Jones would hardly allow me to dig in the desert or dive in the ocean, even if the radio-activity were not yet vitiated.
Some other disaster must be found in which I could serve the role of a casualty. If, for instance, I had foreknowledge of some great meteor, and where it would strike . . .
The idea awoke an almost forgotten association. I sat up in my chair. Then, conscious that knowledgable minds speculated upon my every expression, I once again slumped forlornly.
Behind the passive mask of my mind was racing, recalling ancient events. The time was too far past, the circumstances obscured. But details could be found in my great History of Man.
I must by all means avoid suspicion. I yawned, feigned acute ennui. Then with an air of surly petulance, I secured the box of numbered rods which was my index. I dropped one of them into the viewer, focussed on the molecule-wide items of information.
Someone might be observing me. I rambled here and there, consulting articles and essays totally unrelated to my idea; The Origin and Greatest Development of the Dithyramb; The Kalmuk Tyrants; New Camelot, 18119 A.D.; Oestheotics; The Caves of Phrygia; The Exploration of Mars; The Launching of the Satellites. I undertook no more than a glance at this last; it would not be wise to show any more than a flicker of interest. But what I read corroborated the inkling which had tickled the back of my mind.
The date was during the twentieth century, during what would have been my normal lifetime.
The article read in part:
Today HESPERUS, last of the unmanned satellites was launched into orbit around Earth. This great machine will swing above the equator at a height of a thousand miles, where atmospheric resistance is so scant as to be negligible. Not quite negligible, of course; it is estimated that in something less than a hundred thousand years HESPERUS will lose enough momentum to return to Earth.
Let us hope that no citizen of that future age suffers injury when HESPERUS falls.
I grunted and muttered. A fatuous sentiment! Let us hope that one person, at the very least, suffers injury. Injury enough to erase him from life!
I continued to glance through the monumental work which had occupied so much of my time. I listened to aquaclave music from the old Poly-Pacific Empire; read a few pages from the Revolt of the Manitobans. Then, yawning and simulating hunger, I called for my evening meal.
Tomorrow I must locate more exact information, and brush up on orbital mathematics.
The Hesperus will drop into the Pacific Ocean at Latitude 0° 0′ 0.0″ ± 0.1″, Longitude 141° 12′ 63.9″ ± 0.2″, at 2 hours 22 minutes 18 seconds after standard noon on January 13 of next year. It will strike with a velocity of approximately one thousand miles an hour, and I hope to be on hand to absorb a certain percentage of its inertia.
I have been occupied seven months establishing these figures. Considering the necessary precautions, the dissimulation, the delicacy of the calculations, seven months is a short time to accomplish as much as I have. I see no reason why my calculations should not be accurate. The basic data were recorded to the necessary refinement and there have been no variables or fluctuations to cause error.
I have considered light pressure, hysteresis, meteoric dust; I have reckoned the calendar reforms which have occurred over the years; I have allowed for any possible Einsteinian, Gambade, or Kolbinski perturbation. What is there left to disturb the Hesperus? Its orbit lies in the equatorial plane, south of spaceship channels; to all intents and purposes it has been forgotten.
The last mention of the Hesperus occurs about eleven thousand years after it was launched. I find a note to the effect that its orbital position and velocity were in exact accordance with theoretical values. I believe I can be certain that the Hesperus will fall on schedule.
The most cheerful aspect to the entire affair is that no one is aware of the impending disaster but myself.
The date is January 9. To every side long blue swells are rolling, rippled with cat's-paws. Above are blue skies and dazzling white clouds. The yacht slides quietly south-west in the general direction of the Marquesas Islands.
Dr. Jones had no enthusiasm for this cruise. At first he tried to dissuade me from what he considered a whim but I insisted, reminding him that I was theoretically a free man and he made no further difficulty.
The yacht is graceful, swift, and seems as fragile as a moth. But when we cut through the long swells there is no shudder or vibration—only a gentle elastic heave. If I had hoped to lose myself overboard, I would have suffered disappointment. I am shepherded as carefully as in my own house. But for the first time in many years I am relaxed and happy. Dr. Jones notices and approves.
The weather is beautiful—the water so blue, the sun so bright, the air so fresh that I almost feel a qualm at leaving this life. Still, now is my chance and I must seize it. I regret that Dr. Jones and the crew must die with me. Still—what do they lose? Very little. A few short years. This is the risk they assume when they guard me. If I could allow them survival I would do so—but there is no such possibility.
I have requested and, have been granted nominal command of the yacht. That is to say, I plot the course, I set the speed. Dr. Jones looks on with indulgent amusement, pleased that I interest myself in matters outside myself.
January 12. Tomorrow is my last day of life. We passed through a series of rain-squalls this morning, but the horizon ahead is clear. I expect good weather tomorrow.
I have throttled down to Dead-Slow, as we are only a few hundred miles from our destination.
January 13. I am tense, active, charged with vitality and awareness. Every part of me tingles. On this day of my death it is good to be alive. And why? Because of anticipation, eagerness, hope.
I am trying to mask my euphoria. Dr. Jones is extremely sensitive; I would not care to start his mind working at this late date.
The time is noon. I keep my appointment with Hesperus in two hours and twenty-two minutes. The yacht is coasting easily over the water. Our position, as recorded by a pin-point of light on the chart, is only a few miles from our final position. At this present rate we will arrive in about two hours and fifteen minutes. Then I will halt the yacht and wait . . .
The yacht is motionless on the ocean. Our position is exactly at Latitude 0° 0′ 0.0″, Longitude 141° 12′ 63.9.″ The degree of error represents no more than a yard or two. This graceful yacht with the unpronounceable name sits directly on the bull's-eye. There is only five minutes to wait.
Dr. Jones comes into the cabin. He inspects me curiously. "You seem very keyed up, Henry Revere."
"Yes, I feel keyed up, stimulated. This cruise is affording me much pleasure."
"Excellent!" He walks to the chart, glances at it. "Why are we halted?"
"I took it into my mind to drift quietly. Are you impatient?"
Time passes—minutes, seconds. I watch the chronometer. Dr. Jones follows my glance. He frowns in sudden recollection, goes to the telescreen. "Excuse me; something I would like to watch. You might be interested."
The screen depicts an arid waste. "The Kalahari Desert," Dr. Jones tells me. "Watch."
I glance at the chronometer. Ten seconds—they thick off. Five—four—three—two—one. A great whistling sound, a roar, a crash, an explosion! It comes from the telescreen. The yacht rides on a calm sea.
"There went Hesperus," said Dr. Jones. "Right on schedule!" He looks at me, where I have sagged against a bulkhead. His eyes narrow, he looks at the chronometer, at the chart, at the telescreen, back to me. "Ah, I understand you now! All of us you would have killed!"
"Yes," I mutter, "all of us."
"Aha! You savage!"
I pay him no heed. "Where could I have miscalculated? I considered everything. Loss of entropic mass, lunar attractions—I know the orbit of Hesperus as I know my hand. How did it shift, and so far?"
Dr. Jones eyes shine with a baleful light. "You know the orbit of Hesperus then?"
"Yes. I considered every aspect."
"And you believe it shifted?"
"It must have. It was launched into an equatorial orbit; it falls into the Kalahari."
"There are two bodies to be considered."
"Hesperus and Earth."
"Earth is constant . . . Unchangeable." I say this last word slowly, as the terrible knowledge comes.
And Dr. Jones, for the first time in my memory, laughs, an unpleasant harsh sound. "Constant—unchangeable. Except for libration of the poles. Hesperus is the constant. Earth shifts below."
"Yes! What a fool I am!"
"An insensate murdering fool! I see you cannot be trusted!"
I charge him. I strike him once in the face before the anaesthetic beam hits me.