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“Fie, ‘tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To Reason most absurd, whose common theme
Is death of fathers…” (Hamlet, 1.2.101-104)
Those first five hours on Earth brought Max Baldir’s world to an end. Those first five hours ravaged his beliefs, poisoned his curiosity, decimated his heart. For in those first five hours Max had to watch the last breaths of Dr. Alexander Boone. He had to watch the very spirit of science die before his eyes.
Xander, to which Boone was affectionately referred by everyone, had never intended to leave Mars. As Max was later told, he made this clear the day this all began, three weeks prior, the morning they all left Mars for Earth.
“I’m not going,” Xander said to the crowded lounge. “I appreciate that they find my world interesting, that it inspires people. But there is no sense in me travelling three-hundred-million kilometers to Earth just to give a speech about how wonderful science is.”
Ivanov, one of the senior researchers at Curiosity Lab, immediately spoke up, shaking off his exhaustion from the long hours of research and short hours of sleep from the previous night.
“You write books about that. What do you mean you don’t want to?”
“Books don’t prove anything; I write those just to make sure I have the ideas straight in my head.” Xander laughed aloud. “I wouldn’t publish them if we didn’t need the extra money.”
Everyone laughed. Curiosity Lab was Mars’s premier research institution, a place where money was no object, where a lone researcher could bring about revolutions in the way humanity perceived its world devoid of fiscal woes.
Xander continued. “Besides, you can’t tell someone about the wonders of our world. You all know this. You have to show people the great, beautiful mess of a Universe we live in before they see the pleasure in science, in finding out the rules that the Universe uses to work.”
Half turning to face the glass wall facing out over the crater on whose rim Curiosity Lab sat, Xander motioned vehemently.
“Ivan, you didn’t fall in love with the stars by listening to some lecturer drone on about constellations. You pulled out your telescope and looked for yourself.”
The familiar tall form of a Martian-born human caught Xander’s eye.
“Aurora, you didn’t inspire a revolution in quantum mechanics by sitting around reading. You were badgering me to let a child at the controls of a particle accelerator.”
She smiled at her teacher: “I was not a child. I was seventeen.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Xander said, turning to face the window. “Point is, people have to see this world to truly understand science. They have to feel it. ”
He leaned against the cold glass, hand outstretched.
“They need to savor it, to wonder. That is not something that I can give them. Not with words. I can give them an estimate, a close approximation. But science—“
“--NEEDS THE REAL THING.”
The combined voices of those assembled finished his sentence in one glorious chorus. Laughter roared throughout the lounge. They had all read Xander’s books, had listened to his lectures on this very subject. While exhausted and despondent at seeing Xander leave, his words were comforting, solid like the red stone beyond the window.
Xander, however, was less comforted.
“Look, they can just read the book and let me continue my research.”
Finally, Mikhail Fay stepped before Xander. The half-eaten bagel resting in his delicate hands and the dark circles under his eyes did nothing to diminish the raw power of Fay’s presence. The head of theoretical physics research at Curiosity, Fay had seen a great many stubborn researchers. He would have his way.
“Look, Xander, here is the idea. I have officially suspended research at your lab until you step on that shuttle. You must realize that this is easier on everyone if you simply go to Earth. Besides, you are being unreasonable. This is one speech amongst an entire lecture tour. That is five minutes added to several hundred hours you get to spend explaining the world to the brightest minds on Earth.”
Xander shook his head, a smile subverting his scowl.
“This is extortion,” he said, nearly laughing now. He started to scan the faces of tired astrophysicists and coffee-imbued theoretical physicists, trying to find someone to aid in his ploy. Immediately, his brow furrowed. “Where is Max?”
Aurora immediately responded, “He’s already at the space port.”
“To each his own,” muttered Xander. Then he straightened, lowering his voice into a stentorian growl. “As I have no allies among this treacherous bunch, I will flee the planet!”
He gave a small flourish as applause erupted. Finally, emerging from his moment of glory, Xander waded into the sea of hands full of bagels and mouths full of platitudes waiting to be offered to the dear departing professor. He never quite adjusted to this process, despite its regularity. Many a sabbatical leave had taken him to Olympus Mons or the Equatorial Institutes with these gatherings as a sendoff. Their purpose still eluded him. He was one man, one collection of ideas. Not all that important, when one simply looked out the window and saw the beautiful world outside, the mysteries to be solved, the ideas to be formed.
Xander shook his head. No point in dwelling on it. Focus on the coming months, the way he presented his views. He could hope only to inspire, to kindle someone else to see this world through science.
Again, he shook his head. Focus on the moment.
“Jake, don’t you dare let anyone touch that positronic array without contacting me first!” Xander shouted at a particularly beleaguered graduate student. “I refuse to let anyone discover the secret to dark matter while I’m giving some damned lecture in Boston!”
A fusillade of younger voices—mostly the biologists from the northern rim of the crater—called back.
“’Science is done whether or not you are awake for it!’” They chided him with a quote from his book, The Idle Mind.
Xander laughed, “’to let yourself use another man’s words to express an idea betrays the very nature of science and the individuality for which it stands.’”
After a few astrophysicists finally succumbed to their exhausting night of observation and fell asleep on the couch, the banter died down. Xander now stood at the door to the hall.
“Fay, I promise you that I shall return one year hence!”
“Just promise not to leave Earth in shambles, Xander,” came the sly reply.
Xander and his companions, now invigorated with high blood caffeine concentrations, piled into rovers and set out into the Martian atmosphere. The dark hulls and warm interiors of the vehicles stood in stark contrast to the vast and cold majesty of the red planet. They were like ants crawling across a particularly large and frigid table cloth—such small beings trying to find their way in such a large place.
Outside the crater confines, the little mechanical ants trundled up to a landing strip and let the tiny forms of some of the most brilliant minds in the solar system scuttle over to the sleek hulls of a pair of ultralight gliders. They promptly lifted off.
Soaring above the surface of Mars, the scientists sank into quiet reverie. The biologists mused on the profuse evidence of past life on Mars that was being discovered daily. The engineers contemplated the thin atmosphere playing over the wings of the gliders. The physicists thought everything. They saw the power of the sun. The energy of the planet, the air, the stars. In this sense, they were united, these thinkers. The sheer energy that fills one’s mind when contemplating the how of things flooded their perceptions, kindling their passions. Beyond the cold hulls of the gliders, their minds explored the rich redness, the deep blackness, and the vast plethora of color that was their Universe.
Max Baldir watched as the twin gliders settled next to the immense biodome of Zubrin Spaceport. He was angry with himself. He was angry that he had taken the midnight train to the Spaceport the night before, that we was not among the figures rushing to the heat of the Spaceport airlocks. He was angry that he cared.
Quietly, he clenched his fist. The cold hand of reason closed around his emotions. His anger’s fire flickered and died. His longing wilted and shattered. People aren’t important. Connect only with ideas, not people. Xander’s words echoed in his mind. Slowly, his resolve returned. Around the words formed the granite structure of his rationality. He was ready.
Walking out into the domed atrium of the port, Max approached his fellow researchers. Xander, once Aurora caught his attention and pointed to Max, called out.
“Max! Why didn’t you stay at Curiosity? You missed a hell of a party. They let me play the bongos!”
Max suppressed the laugh rising in his throat, instead saying, “I didn’t want to be late for the shuttle.”
Xander merely shouted a laugh and clapped Max on the shoulder.
“Max, just because I’m your research adviser doesn’t mean I can’t advise you on the finer points of life as well. Once we get aboard the Tyson, we’ll have a true party. Martian style!”
Max was about to reply that his thesis on antimatter-positron interactions wasn’t going to write itself when an amplified voice rang out through the glass cavern. Their shuttle was boarding.
Xander led the group to the terminal, while Max dropped to the rear of the group. His neutral expression did not betray the fury of his mind. Why did he want to comment on his thesis? Why try to remain objective while Xander gave him the opportunity to be himself, to let his emotions finally go unfettered?
Max shook his head, letting the weight of rationality crush these thoughts. Now was not the time. He let his mind fade from the moment, let it wander among the stars, the dark energies coursing in the cosmos, defining its structure, defining them all. Wonder blossomed in his mind. It always did when he thought on the Universe, on forces greater and more enduring than his own human abilities.
A hand on his shoulder tore him from his contemplation. He followed the arm attached to the head and looked up to see the smiling face of Aurora set against the Martian soil—a burning white star ringed with black fire in a red sky.
“Max, how are you?” the tall Martian asked. Aurora was the youngest and arguably the most talented of Xander’s graduate students. “You seem preoccupied.”
“If you had battled your way this far from the ranks of Borealis University, through the vast competitive scene of the Master’s program, to get into Alexander Boone’s research group and had to write the most important paper of your life, you would be troubled.” He couldn’t tell her the vast urge he had to speak his mind, to let himself simply speak of the weather, her hair, the excitement he felt for the coming journey, the utter despair into which he had sunk as a result of the stagnation of his research. He breathed. Only the academics mattered. That was why he was here. To learn, to wonder, to peer into the secrets of the Universe—these were his goals. His ambitions. His life. Breath. Calm. Observe.
Aurora seemed to ponder his words—she was a few years away from her thesis, though that particular specter yet loomed close. At the gate to the shuttle, she turned to him.
“Max, as an arbitrarily self-elected proxy for the collective will of our research group, you will attend at least one party every week over the course of this trip.” One of the researchers—an astrobiologist named Galan cheered his assent. He hadn’t really paid the exchange any concentrated thought, though heard talk of a collective will and simply had to express his agreement.
Before Max could respond with a detailed analysis how he could be examining the data streamed from Curiosity during the trip, Aurora had rushed onto the shuttle. Max was left as he was found: alone, watchful, in awe of the human spirit.
Max was caught away from a window, thus he couldn’t watch the surface of Mars retreat as the shuttle ascended. No matter. He pulled out his computer and read a few papers, creating a few simulations. The lines drifting across the screen and his hands scribbling a few calculations drowned out the ambient buzz of the shuttle. The dark confines of the craft erupted with the beautiful scatter signatures of particle collisions, with the debris of supernova. Awe flooded Max’s mind. This was his life. Seeing what few others would ever see. He was elevated by his passions, for in this moment he was connected to the Universe. His imagination was his bridge, his curiosity his passport into the realm of knowledge, of understanding. Patterns erupted from the apparent chaos of the numbers spewing onto his computer screen. A cold sweat began to coalesce on his brow as his mind flashed through an imagined particle interaction. He was one in this moment, pure and happy. This was existence.
Finally, the image began to fade. He scribbled a few notes down, and closed down his computer, his mind wandering away from the physics. This was joy, this state of mind. In wondering how the Universe works, one finds peace, a sanctuary.
This was what Xander had taught Max, at least indirectly. Xander’s books had long been the objects of Max’s desire since he had been a secondary schooler. More than his actual teachers, Xander’s words taught Max to wonder, to find beauty in science. But reading another’s words about the power of science and the fulfillment one can gain through it is…not all. It is akin to appreciating the beauty of the Milky Way by staring at photographs. It is only when one is there in person—one person gazing out into the immensity of the cosmos—that one truly feels, that one understands what it means to have true passion, to want to learn, to have curiosity, too long to be connected with this world.
That first meeting with Xander as a graduate student applicant was just that--an interview that culminated in Xander showing Max the current research being done on dark matter bonding. In that moment, more than in his years of college, of life, Max saw the beauty of the Universe.
A subtle tremor shook the shuttle, bringing Max out of his meditations. They had docked with the Tyson.
Max smiled. It would be a peaceful three weeks until they reached Earth.
Tyson was a Galaxy¬-class cruiser. A product of the mass-immigration era, it was a flying city capable of carrying forty-thousand travelers. That also meant there were plenty of places in which one can find solitude. While most travelers—including the research group—flocked to the hull lounges and massive glass-enclosed parks facing out into space, Max borrowed into the depths of the craft. There he claimed space in one of the small, cool lab units that shipboard scientists used during lengthy voyages. A small bank of terminals and a communications link back to Curiosity Lab’s data banks became his home. In the cold, permanent twilight of the lab, he lost himself in his work.
He was working with a projection of dark energy filaments between perceivable celestial objects. He reveled in the beauty of the model, the simplicity. Too, he fretted and succumbed to confusion. There were things he did not know, things beyond his understanding, things his model could not account for. But this was part of the pleasure. Ignorance is wronged by human perceptions. It is stigmatized and shunned as a malicious quality, a condition that must be cured. Max, however, subscribed to the scientific view. He reveled in his ignorance, let it draw him forth in into the Universe by the power of his curiosity. Science would yield the answers. Max knew this. He believed this. He lived this. Even if he failed to understand, if his model proved irremediably incorrect despite its elegance, someone would find inspiration in it. Someone would find the solution, therein furthering the species and its knowledge. That, Max knew, was true knowledge, true joy. Science always provided a means by which someone will make due of the mass of information the species has accumulated in its years of joyous inquiry into the way the Universe works.
Max was musing over this when the hatch to the lab hissed open. A cool, refreshing breeze percolated through the room. In stepped Xander.
A few of the scientists working in the next lab over—a glass pane separated the two—waved, then returned to their work. Xander was easily recognized, even in the faint light of Max’s lab. Perhaps it was less his darkened features than his characteristic stance. He stood like a lecturer, like someone who was perpetually excited and had something he desperately wanted to explain to someone. Every Martian professor had that stance when in a classroom. Xander was the only one who lived with that demeanor.
Max had been dreading this moment. He had been able to avoid the research group and their parties for the previous two weeks. While he hadn’t made significant strides with his work, the quiet of the lab coupled with the rather bland features of the inner halls of the Tyson gave him calm. The solution would come. Max knew this.
Xander seemed concerned. “Darwin’s beard, Max. What have you been doing down here?”
In response to Xander’s motion toward the small ziggurat of expended energy drink cans Max had constructed on the floor, Max merely shrugged.
“Just running a few figures.”
He couldn’t bear to reveal the truth. His research stood at standstill. He knew not where to go, though he needn’t address that with Xander. He would find a way. He always did.
“Great galaxies man, you should try the hull lounges. Zero gee, total darkness, only you and the cosmos. It touches the very heart of your curiosity, to float there, truly a speck in this immense and strange and beautiful cosmos.”
He might have been explaining electrodynamics or some other equally stimulating topic. His words were enchanting. They captured the imagination like photons in a detector. Colors and emotion bursting from every word, Xander’s ineffable passion burning behind each syllable.
Max tried to remain distant, to retain his objectivity. A part of him longed to go, to savor the new experience of zero gee. But Max’s rationality, fueled by Xander’s words, demanded that he remain, to give humanity a new, equally enlightening and invigorating perspective on the cosmos.
“Max, what’s wrong?”
Xander’s words broke in Max’s mind like a sunrise. Briefly, his reserve fall away, leaving Max’s honesty unhindered.
“I have no idea what I’m doing, Xander.”
Blood burning in his ears, Max clenched now-feverish fists. He shouldn’t have said that. How could he have said that? How could he lay that burden upon another person? Xander had taught him about the natural world, about how to interrogate it, to become one with it in inquiry and curiosity. Any reciprocation Max could offer these teachings would be in learning, in solving his problems scientifically.
Xander merely laughed a hearty bellowing laugh that shook the bulkheads and turned the heads of the researchers next door.
“You wouldn’t be a scientist if you did. We thrive on ignorance, Max, you know that.” Xander’s eyes twinkled mischievously as he said this.
“No, we usually know what we are trying to do. We just slip up in getting to where we need to go.”
Xander again shook his head, saying, “Max, science is about learning. We set goals so that we can justify what appears to be idle daydreaming to the rest of the world. In reality, we are wanderers, explorers. We blaze trails into the vast unknowns of the Universe without so much as a clue as to what we shall find. We have ideas, thought the truths rarely match the ideas. Therefore, when we go to investigate things, we shouldn’t predecide on any outcome other than one in which we come out a little more knowledgeable than we went in.”
Max was stunned. His mind briefly plunged into the cold, purifying waters of memory. He was returned to the dark, cold night he had spent in a park, watching Xander’s lecture on quantum mechanics for the first time. The cold streams of that first liquid spark of passion, the first time he felt a true understanding of science returned to him. Anxiety and fear were borne away in the swift flood of revelation.
Seeing that Max was not quite in the moment, Xander took him by the shoulder.
“Come on,” he said. “Let me show you something.”
They wandered into the meagerly lit corridor. Max watched as his restrictions and trepidations attached themselves to the passing walls. His fear fell away behind him. His preoccupations, too, were taken by the tide.
After consulting his handheld, Xander led Max to a particular hatch. A slow smile spread across his face as he keyed the door control. They stepped into a small airlock. The bonds of gravity slowly fell away, leaving them weightless.
Max’s mind had long gone blank. Though when the hatch opened and Xander pushed him into the lounge, sensation erupted behind his eyes. Raw emotion thundered in his mind, awe unbound flowered in his core. Before him lay a starfield, an ineffably huge tapestry of light and color.
As Max glided forward, he was steadied by a group of hands. He couldn’t distinguish faces in the twilight of the lounge, though he recognized the murmuring voices of the research group. They came as a torrent of words, a peaceful cadence of inflection and emphasis.
“We learn together Max. That is the nature of science.”
“Ideas are our charges, we their guardians. We bring the lights of reason and skepticism where there was none before.”
“Our mistakes are our strength, our ignorance our power, for with these things we are empowered to learn, to think, to explore.”
From this murmur rose the stentorian voice of Xander.
“You see, Max, you can’t appreciate science by staring at data and reading textbooks. You need to go out, to sacrifice time otherwise spent absorbing the ideas of others for these moments of pure emotion, of awe and wonder. We don’t need equations here, or numbers. They may be useful, though for our sake we have images, imagination.”
Max was silent. Or, he had no words. In his mind the passion he felt long ago burned strong, tearing away his lingering doubts. These were his friends, more than people, more than ideas. They made the science come alive, they gave it strength. In the communal spirit, they all found mutual support, a common passion that, when present together, as it was here and now, transcended the power of any one mind, of any one human’s ability to feel. That was what elevated science. The emotion. The power of minds across the spectra of time and personality united in one common passion, one common respect and reverence for the mysteries of the Universe.
Max could only gasp and sob. In the vast void he had found his passion, his strength, his friends.
They met at that rear lounge every night cycle for the rest of the trip. The resident astrophysicist—a postdoc named Ordul—would explain astrophysical phenomena, or the biologists would defend their studies, or Xander play the bongo drums…in zero gee. But Max was always with them in being and in spirit. Granted, he was drawn more by the stars than the stories—he was well familiar with theoretical astrophysics—though he had felt the power of the many, of the group. He had a purpose.
The voyage ended peacefully. The Tyson docked with the Armstrong Orbital Platform, spewing its thousands of passengers into the rich Earthen aromas and strange music of the space station. By then curious about what Earth’s gravity field felt like, Xander chartered the first shuttle he could find down to the surface. The Earthen government obliged them with a sleek yacht kept at Armstrong specifically for their travels.
After Xander spent a few hours haggling for something less ostentatious, he finally submitted and had everyone board the craft.
“I’m just a man trying to get down to the planet. I need a flying neon sign that reads ‘LOOK AT ME, I’M IMPORTANT’ following me wherever I go. It’s an unwanted honor.”
Max turned to Xander in the lounge of the yacht, saying, “Look at it this way. We will get everywhere we need to be faster, then we can go home.”
“And I thought this encounter with the greatest minds Earth has to offer meant so much to all of you,” Xander laughed.
“Wait, we need to stay! There are so many samples to be taken!” one of the biologists chirped. They had all been entranced by the fast patches of green and blue to be found on the Earthen surface. The entire descent to the planet was pervaded with the excited laughter and speech of graduate students approaching a treasure trove of samples.
No one seemed to notice the slow increase in their weight, or Xander’s increasingly labored breathing. Finally, they lighted on the earth, bright light streaming in from the windows.
The captain’s voice erupted from the intercom: “Welcome to Earth ladies and gentlemen. It is a brisk negative one degree centigrade in Geneva today. Dress warmly.”
“Negative one!” the scientists shouted in unison. Immediately, one of the biologists popped the airlock hatch and sprinted down the landing ramp. The rest of the group followed, reveling in such warm temperatures. Compared to the negative forty of a typical Martian day, this was summer. They frolicked in the crisp white snow and thin air of the Alps, hurling snowballs at one another.
It was only when Ordul shouted in dismay that they noticed the crumpled form of Xander at the base of the landing ramp. Immediately the biologists rushed to him.
“He doesn’t have a pulse…”
“He’s not breathing; get a doctor!”
While a medical team rushed over from the nearby spaceport building, Max watched the rest of the group huddling around Xander, shouting in dismay. His eyes hurt from the bright snow. He was confused. Xander was fine. He always emerged on top, triumphant and wise.
He wouldn’t have followed them. Not if Aurora hadn’t come and tugged him forward, back into the confines of the group. He could only feel his hand in hers, a dead, cold weight in her warm grasp. Why was he so cold? It was only negative one…
I can’t lose him. The though sprang unbidden from the depths of his mind. He tried to suppress it. Not now. Perhaps the gees hit him too hard. That is common. And temporary, easily recoverable.
Yet Max refused to leave Xander’s bedside. For four hours, he sat, mind blank. He was afraid to think. He refused to let the white, merciless walls of the ER unit draw forth his fear. Not again. Xander would prevail. Science would save him. It had too. It gave Max a new life; it would preserve Xander’s. The blank walls would not take away his passion.
Four hours. The doctors told him to leave. He was in the way. If he cared at all for Xander, he would leave. Max simply stared at them, afraid to feel. He sat in the waiting room, stroking his mustache, hoping to draw out his incipient grief as he tugged at his beard.
They told Aurora first. An hour later, they pulled her aside and told her. The doctors had seen Max’s dismay and refused to have to deal with hysteria. They went back to their white rooms and bright, artificial lights, leaving Aurora with her terrible burden.
Aurora came to Max, hesitant. He had his head in his hands.
“Max,” she took up his dead, granite mass of a hand. “Xander…died.”
Max didn’t hear the rest. He was being drawn into the wall, his anger latching itself onto the white expanse. His dismay uncurled his fists. There were no words. Only anger. Wordless, wordless anger.
He stormed out of the hospital, letting the white walls and bright lights of the CERN compound lead him back to his temporary apartment.
A week later, Max finally left his apartment. He hadn’t seen the research group since Xander’s death. Aurora had left him messages on his computer. Was he alright? Did he want to talk? She left more informative messages as well. Xander had apparently died of cardiac arrest induced by a rare form of gravitation acclimation sickness. Martians rarely fell to it, though they usually recovered. Xander’s death was a fluke of probability.
Yet however Max had tried to reconcile with Xander’s death, he could not banish the shadow that had descended over his mind. He couldn’t work. The data was nonsensical. His imagination failed to see what it had seen before. Its eye constantly returned to the image of Xander, to memories of his lectures, trying to stir from these data some pattern, some kernel around which Max could wrap his passion. Yet nothing came. He raged and threw his computer.
How was he supposed to work if he couldn’t accept a natural phenomenon? How could he be a scientist when he desperately wished to change the facts, to alter the truth of things? I’m going insane. How could he learn when he was more interested in the hole left in his perceptions by a single man, a single collection of atoms?
He cycled between despair and anger. Anger with himself for not being able to wonder anymore. Anger with Xander for dying, for depriving Max of a reassuring voice, an invigorating lecture. What is happening to me? WHY CAN’T I THINK?
The white walls of his apartment seemed to close in. He tried to turn off the lights, though there always seemed to be an oppressive heat that bled through the walls. He felt feverish always, furious, lost. He knew what was wrong. He needed Xander. No. He needed the idea of Xander, that voice that gave him thought, that had given him direction. Since college, since secondary school, since that first night he had seen Xander’s lecture.
In one bout of anger, he stormed out of his room and down the corridor. He vaguely remembered knocking aside one of the biologists, though that heated thought lingered with the white walls of the compound as Max stormed out into the night. He stumbled. Cold snow caught him, caressing his head and softening his fall. Yet his anger consumed him. Even the welcoming cold could not calm his mind. Legs moving in furious jerks, he turned over. And paused. A bitter wind slid across his face and through his hair. The snow on the ground glowed coolly. But Max’s eyes were focused on the sky. It was clear. The Milky Way carved a beautiful swath in the vast blackness of the night. But it was not the superficial beauty of the stars that captivated him. It was the image that arose in his mind, that of the thermonuclear explosions scattered throughout space and time that constituted those tiny points. It was the light they generated, the dark energy that stretched and contorted that light until it eventually to meet his wondering eye.
He knew. In that moment he knew. The model made sense now. The equations fell into a pattern. But Max had seen something greater than that. Something far, far greater.
He blinked and gasped. I only now noticed the head on his shoulder, the black hair against the white snow. Aurora.
Whispers were all he could manage, all that he could speak without shattering this delicate, beautiful revelation.
“You know, I never truly believed it when Xander said we were all connected. Not really.”
She merely turned to look at him, nodded for him to continue.
“Xander was the one who sought connection, who reflected on existence scientifically.”
“We all do, especially when you study the things we study.”
“Exactly,” he whispered. “But I always had trouble when I ran up against death. I had never known it, not directly. Never felt its sting. Or its bite.”
He looked up again.
“Thus I refused to think on it. Too many unknowns.”
He closed his eyes.
“But now…now I can feel Xander standing next to me.”
“A ghost?” she asked cautiously, doubt starting to edge into her voice.
“No,” he responded, eyes slowly opening again on the cosmos. “Something more profound than that--something that my emotions blinded me to. Something that reason was telling me all along.”
She shifted against him, resting her head on his shoulders and her eyes on the stars.
He continued, “Xander is in me, as he is in you. His…memory shapes us.”
“Our memories of him, his lectures, the knowledge he gave us?”
“No. Sorry. More than our memories of him: his presence, the times he spent with us. That infinity of instances we were in his presence, and he in ours. Subconsciously, they shape us. More than conscious recall of memory can. In that sense the idea of Xander yet walks with us, shaping our actions on minute and macroscopic scales. He is immortal.”
He could feel a smile spreading across her cheek.
“Then we cannot die,” she whispered, “so long as humans yet draw breath. So long as we continue to be with others and shape their perceptions.”
“Death cannot limit us,” he agreed. “We are collections of ideas, more than beings.”
“That is Xander talking,” she whispered.
“No,” he replied. “It is all of us, everyone I have met speaking together in this moment, in this idea.”
They were silent for a time, peering upward, both pondering their esoteric knowledge of the world.
Finally, Max hugged Aurora.
“I love science,” was her whispered response.
He laughed quietly.
“Me too,” he said. “Me too.”