The first concussion cut the rocket up the side with a giant can opener. The men were thrown into space like a dozen wriggling silverfish. They were scattered into a dark sea; and the ship, in a million pieces, went on, a meteor swarm seeking a lost sun.
"Barkley, Barkley, where are you?"
The sound of voices calling like lost children on a cold night.
"Hollis, Hollis, this is Stone."
"Stone, this is Hollis. Where are you?"
"I don’t know. How can I? Which way is up? I’m falling. Good God, I’m falling."
They fell. They fell as pebbles fall down wells. They were scattered as jackstones are scattered from a gigantic throw. And now instead of men there were only voices-all kinds of voices, disembodied and impassioned, in varying degrees of terror and resignation.
"We’re going away from each other."
This was true. Hollis, swinging head over heels, knew this was true. He knew it with a vague acceptance. They were parting to go their separate ways, and nothing could bring them back. They were wearing their sealed-tight space suits with the glass tubes over their pale faces, but they hadn’t had time to lock on their force units. With them they could be small lifeboats in space, saving themselves, saving others, collecting together, finding each other until they were an island of men with some plan. But without the force units snapped to their shoulders they were meteors, senseless, each going to a separate and irrevocable fate.
A period of perhaps ten minutes elapsed while the first terror died and a metallic calm took its place. Space began to weave its strange voices in and out, on a great dark loom, crossing, recrossing, making a final pattern.
"Stone to Hollis. How long can we talk by phone?"
"It depends on how fast you’re going your way and I’m going mine."
"An hour, I make it."
"That should do it," said Hollis, abstracted and quiet.
"What happened?" said Hollis a minute later.
"The rocket blew up, that’s all. Rockets do blow up."
"Which way are you going?"
"It looks like I’ll hit the moon."
"It’s Earth for me. Back to old Mother Earth at ten thousand miles per hour. I’ll burn like a match." Hollis thought of it with a queer abstraction of mind. He seemed to be removed from his body, watching it fall down and down through space, as objective as he had been in regard to the first falling snowflakes of a winter season long gone.
The others were silent, thinking of the destiny that had brought them to this, falling, falling, and nothing they could do to change it. Even the captain was quiet, for there was no command or plan he knew that could put things back together again.
"Oh, it’s a long way down. Oh, if s a long way down, a long, long, long way down," said a voice. "I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die, if s a long way down."
"I don’t know."
"Stimson, I think. Stimson, is that you?"
"It’s a long, long way and I don’t like it. Oh, God, I don’t like it."
"Stimson, this is Hollis. Stimson, you hear me?"
A pause while they fell separate from one another.
"Yes." He replied at last.
"Stimson, take it easy; we’re all in the same fix."
"I don’t want to be here. I want to be somewhere else."
"There’s a chance we’ll be found."
"I must be, I must be," said Stimson. "I don’t believe this; I don’t believe any of this is happening."
"It’ s a bad dream," said someone.
"Shut up!" said Hollis.
"Come and make me," said the voice. It was Applegate. He laughed easily, with a similar objectivity. "Come and shut me up."
Hollis for the first time felt the impossibility of his position. A great anger filled him, for he wanted more than anything at this moment to be able to do something to Applegate. He had wanted for many years to do something and now it was too late. Applegate was only a telephonic voice.
Falling, falling, falling…
Now, as if they had discovered the horror, two of the men began to scream. In a nightmare Hollis saw one of them float by, very near, screaming and screaming.
"Stop it!" The man was almost at his fingertips, screaming insanely. He would never stop. He would go on screaming for a million miles, as long as he was in radio range, disturbing all of them, making it impossible for them to talk to one another.
Hollis reached out. It was best this way. He made the extra effort and touched the man. He grasped the man’s ankle and pulled himself up along the body until he reached the head. The man screamed and clawed frantically, like a drowning swimmer. The screaming filled the universe.
One way or the other, thought Hollis. The moon or Earth or meteors will kill him, so why not now?
He smashed the man’s glass mask with his iron fist. The screaming stopped. He pushed off from the body and let it spin away on its own course, falling.
Falling, falling down space Hollis and the rest of them went in the long, endless dropping and whirling of silence.
"Hollis, you still there?"
Hollis did not speak, but felt the rush of heat in his face.
"This is Applegate again."
"All right, Applegate."
"Let’s talk. We haven’t anything else to do."
The captain cut in.
"That’s enough of that. We’ve got to figure a way out of this."
"Captain, why don’t you shut up?" said Applegate.
"You heard me, Captain. Don’t pull your rank on me, you’re ten thousand miles away by now, and let’s s not kid ourselves. As Stimson puts it, it’s a long way down."
"See here, Applegate!"
"Can it. This is a mutiny of one. I haven’t a damn thing to lose. Your ship was a bad ship and you were a bad captain and I hope you break when you hit the Moon."
"I’m ordering you to stop!"
"Go on, order me again." Applegate smiled across ten thousand miles. The captain was silent. Applegate continued, "Where were we, Hollis? Oh yes, I remember. I hate you too. But you know that. You’ve known it for a long time."
Hollis clenched his fists, helplessly.
"I want to tell you something," said Applegate. "Make you happy. I was the one who blackballed you with the Rocket Company five years ago."
A meteor flashed by. Hollis looked down and his left hand was gone. Blood spurted. Suddenly there was no air in his suit He had enough air in his lungs to move his right hand over and twist a knob at his left elbow, tightening the joint and sealing the leak. It had happened so quickly that he was not surprised. Nothing surprised him any more. The air in the suit came back to normal in an instant now that the leak was sealed. And the blood that had flowed so swiftly was pressured as he fastened the knob yet tighter, until it made a tourniquet.
All of this took place in a terrible silence on his part. And the other men chatted. That one man, Lespere, went on and on with his talk about his wife on Mars, his wife on Venus, his wife on Jupiter, his money, his wondrous times, his drunkenness, his gambling, his happiness. On and on, while they all fell. Lespere reminisced on the past, happy, while he fell to his death.
It was so very odd. Space, thousands of miles of space, and these voices vibrating in the center of it. No one visible at all, and only the radio waves quivering and trying to quicken other men into emotion.
"Are you angry, Hollis?"
"No." And he was not. The abstraction has returned and he was a thing of dull concrete, forever falling nowhere.
"You wanted to get to the top all your life, Hollis. You always wondered what happened. I put the black mark on you just before I was tossed out myself."
"That isn’t important," said Hollis. And it was not. It was gone. When life is over it is like a flicker of bright film, an instant on the screen, all of its prejudices and passions condensed and illumined for an instant on space, and before you could cry out, "There was a happy day, there a bad one, there an evil face, there a good one," the film burned to a cinder, the screen went dark.
From this outer edge of his life, looking back, there was only one remorse, and that was only that he wished to go on living. Did all dying people feel this way, as if they had never lived? Did life seem that short, indeed, over and done before you took a breath? Did it seem this abrupt and impossible to everyone, or only to himself, here, now, with a few hours left to him for thought and deliberation?
One of the other men, Lespere, was talking. "Well, I had me a good time: I had a wife on Mars, Venus, and Jupiter. Each of them had money and treated me swell. I got drunk and once I gambled away twenty thousand dollars."
But you’re here now, thought Hollis. I didn’t have any of those things. When I was living I was jealous of you, Lespere; when I had another day ahead of me I envied you your women and your good times. Women frightened me and I went into space, always wanting them and jealous of you for having them, and money, and as much happiness as you could have in your own wild way. But now, falling here, with everything over, I’m not jealous of you any more, because if s over for you as it is for me, and right now if s like it never was. Hollis craned his face forward and shouted into the telephone. "If s all over, Lespere!"
"If s just as if it never was, Lespere!"
"Who’s that?" Lespere’s faltering voice.
"This is Hollis."
He was being mean. He felt the meanness, the senseless meanness of dying. Applegate had hurt him; now he wanted to hurt another. Applegate and space had both wounded him.
"You’re out here, Lespere. If s all over. It’s just as if it had never happened, isn’t it?"
"When anything’s over, it’s just like it never happened. Where’s your life any better than mine, now? Now is what counts. Is it any better? Is it?"
"Yes, it’s better!"
"Because I got my thoughts, I remember!" cried Lespere, far away, indignant, holding his memories to his chest with both hands.
And he was right. With a feeling of cold water rushing through his head and body, Hollis knew he was right. There were differences between memories and dreams. He had only dreams of things he had wanted to do, while Lespere had memories of things done and accomplished. And this knowledge began to pull Hollis apart, with a slow, quivering precision.
"What good does it do you?" he cried to Lespere. "Now? When a thing’s over it’s not good any more. You’re no better off than I."
"I’m resting easy," said Lespere. "I’ve had my turn. I’m not getting mean at the end, like you."
"Mean?" Hollis turned the word on his tongue. He had never been mean, as long as he could remember, in his life. He had never dared to be mean. He must have saved it all of these years for such a time as this. "Mean." He rolled the word into the back of his mind. He felt tears start into his eyes and roll down his face. Someone must have heard his gasping voice.
‘Take it easy, Hollis."
It was, of course, ridiculous. Only a minute before he had been giving advice to others, to Stimson; he had felt a braveness which he had thought to be the genuine thing, and now he knew that it had been nothing but shock and the objectivity possible in shock. Now he was trying to pack a lifetime of suppressed emotion into an interval of minutes.
"I know how you feel, Hollis," said Lespere, now twenty thousand miles away, his voice fading. "I don’t take it personally."
But aren’t we equal? he wondered. Lespere and I? Here, now? If a thing’s over, if s done, and what good is it? You die anyway. But he knew he was rationalizing, for it was like trying to tell the difference between a live man and a corpse. There was a spark in one, and not in the other – an aura, a mysterious element.
So it was with Lespere and himself; Lespere had lived a good full life, and it made him a different man now, and he, Hollis, had been as good as dead for many years. They came to death by separate paths and, in all likelihood, if there were lands of death, their kinds would be as different as night from day. The quality of death, like that of life, must be of an infinite variety, and if one has already died once, then what was there to look for in dying for good and all, as he was now?
It was a second later that he discovered his right foot was cut sheer away. It almost made him laugh. The air was gone from his suit again. He bent quickly, and there was blood, and the meteor had taken flesh and suit away to the ankle. Oh, death in space was most humorous. It cut you away, piece by piece, like a black and invisible butcher. He tightened the valve at the knee, his head whirling into pain, fighting to remain aware, and with the valve tightened, the blood retained, the air kept, he straightened op and went on falling, falling, for that was all there was left to do.
Hollis nodded sleepily, tired of waiting for death.
"This is Applegate again," said the voice.
‘I’ve had time to think. I listened to you. This isn’t good. It makes us bad. This is a bad way to die. It brings all the bile out. You listening, Hollis?"
"I lied. A minute ago. I lied. I didn’t blackball you. I don’t know why I said that. Guess I wanted to hurt you. You seemed the one to hurt. We’ve always fought Guess I’m getting old fast and repenting fast I guess listening to you be mean made me ashamed. Whatever the reason, I want you to know I was an idiot too. There’s not an ounce of truth in what I said. To hell with you."
Hollis felt his heart begin to work again. It seemed as if it hadn’t worked for five minutes, but now all of his limbs began to take color and warmth. The shock was over, and the successive shocks of anger and terror and loneliness were passing. He felt like a man emerging from a cold shower in the morning, ready for breakfast and a new day.
"Don’t mention it. Up your nose, you bastard."
"Hey," said Stone.
"What?" Hollis called across space; for Stone, of all of them, was a good friend.
"I’ve got myself into a meteor swarm, some little asteroids."
"I think it’s the Myrmidone cluster that goes out past Mars and in toward Earth once every five years. I’m right in the middle. If s like a big kaleidoscope. You get all kinds of colors and shapes and sizes. God, if s beautiful, all that metal."
"I’m going with them," said Stone. "They’re taking me off with them. I’ll be damned." He laughed.
Hollis looked to see, but saw nothing. There were only the great diamonds and sapphires and emerald mists and velvet inks of space, with God’s voice mingling among the crystal fires. There was a kind of wonder and imagination in the thought of Stone going off in the meteor swarm, out past Mars for years and coming in toward Earth every five years, passing in and out of the planet’s ken for the next million centuries. Stone and the Myrmidone cluster eternal and unending, shifting and shaping like the kaleidoscope colors when you were a child and held the long tube to the sun and gave it a twirl.
"So long, Hollis." Stone’s voice, very faint now. "So long."
"Good luck," shouted Hollis across thirty thousand miles.
"Don’t be funny," said Stone, and was gone.
The stars closed in.
Now all the voices were fading, each on his own trajectory, some to Mars, others into farthest space. And Hollis himself… He looked down. He, of all the others, was going back to Earth alone.
"Take it easy."
"So long, Hollis." That was Applegate.
The many good-bys. The short farewells. And now the great loose brain was disintegrating. The components of the brain which had worked so beautifully and efficiently in the skull case of the rocket ship firing through space were dying one by one; the meaning of their life together was falling apart. And as a body dies when the brain ceases functioning, so the spirit of the ship and their long time together and what they meant to one another was dying. Applegate was now no more than a finger blown from the parent body, no longer to be despised and worked against. The brain was exploded, and the senseless, useless fragments of it were far scattered. The voices faded and now all of space was silent. Hollis was alone, falling.
They were all alone. Their voices had died like echoes of the words of God spoken and vibrating in the starred deep. There went the captain to the Moon; there Stone with the meteor swarm; there Stimson; there Applegate toward Pluto; there Smith and Turner and Underwood and all the rest, the shards of the kaleidoscope that had formed a thinking pattern for so long, hurled apart.
And I? thought Hollis. What can I do? Is there anything I can do now to make up for a terrible and empty life? If only I could do one good thing to make up for the meanness I collected all these years and didn’t even know was in me! But there’s no one here but myself, and how can you do good all alone? You can’t. Tomorrow night I’ll hit Earth s atmosphere.
I’ll burn, he thought, and be scattered in ashes all over the continental lands. I’ll be put to use. Just a little bit, but ashes are ashes and they’ll add to the land.
He fell swiftly, like a bullet, like a pebble, like an iron weight, objective, objective all of the time now, not sad or happy or anything, but only wishing he could do a good thing now that everything was gone, a good thing for just himself to know about.
When I hit the atmosphere, I’ll burn like a meteor.
"I wonder," he said, "if anyone’ll see me?"
The small boy on the country road looked up and screamed. "Look, Mom, look! A falling star!"
The blazing white star fell down the sky of dusk in Illinois.
"Make a wish," said his mother. "Make a wish."