to the Elysian plain...where life is easiest for men. No snow is there, nor heavy storm, nor ever rain, but ever does Ocean send up blasts of the shrill-blowing West Wind that they may give cooling to men.
— Homer, Odyssey
I once had a friend--a self proclaimed enlightened, whatever that meant--who told me the most fantastic stories. Unbelievable, all of them. Then he told me one that stuck; one that I believe its truth, without the embellishment of course, as he was quite drunk when he told it.
He turned to me over his Bandenburgh 6 and asked me a question, non sequitur, “Styles, you ever want to run away and never come back?”
“They call this place Tombstone for a reason: born, live, and die here. Simple Rustshit.”
“What? With a one way ticket?” I shook my head. “Only murderers do that.”
“I bought a one way ticket once, best choice I ever made.”
I could only roll my eyes and lean on the bar as he grinned with infuriatingly crooked teeth, launching into poetic.
The last ship fled the Morning Star; it was bright in the rear viewport, burning brightly in Sol’s light. Still filling the viewport, the planet was afire with swirling clouds and a snarling maw of pressure and temperature.
It had been a pointless death. Random, one of those things you heard talking heads reference as tragic. Gwyn’s brother was dead, murdered. And so Gwyn abandoned the Morning Star, bound elsewhere on a one way ticket with rage burning in his belly. He would find the murderous bastard, hunt him to the edge of space, and end the menace once and for all. Gwyn knew the bastard by a tales: pale man with cybernetic horns and a segmented metallic forktail. His eyes were said to glow in the darkness like embers and his cologne supposedly smelled of sulfur. The menace was the only name Gwyn knew him by.
It was a small ship, greasy and unkempt, but heading towards the menace nonetheless. Gwyn bought his way on with his life’s savings. The dreaded one way ticket, but he didn’t care. Gwyn was alone now because of the menace; his brother would be the last victim.
The captain of the boat was an old woman, hard of hearing, thinking, and drinking if the flask was any indication.
Gwyn asked, “You’re sure the menace is this way?”
“How do you know?”
“Saw him. Headin out to Jupiter he was, in a great big ship, belching flame and smoke.”
“I see.” Gwyn didn’t see. The captain was mostly blind, nearly as so as she was drunk.
“The menace lives there, you know. Out there on one of those big moons, where he comes up with all his evil plans. Half the sector picked up on his neurowaves, mutterin about how he just killed a schmuck.”
“I see.” And Gwyn went to his bunk brooding, not liking how the captain knew so much about the matter.
“You’ll need my help to kill him, boy.” The captain called from the bridge.
“But you’re old, and drunk, and useless. I’ll kill the menace myself, with my own two hands.”
“No you won’t.” The captain said.
Gwyn ignored the captain, falling asleep and dreaming of strangling the menace.
“Wake up, Gwyn.”
The captain stood over him and led him to the window half asleep.
Below lay the cradle of humanity; a glorious blue marble with clouds, and fish, and life, and people with everything they’d ever wanted. Lights from the dark side glittered like the sea on the terminator--the great cities of Earth sprawled in their billions.
“Look,” said the captain. “Earth.”
Gwyn looked for the menace but didn’t see him. “What about the menace, is he here?”
“No,” said the captain. “Will you be happy when you kill him?”
The captain took a swig from her flask; Gwyn was angry, at her for asking stupid questions, at the menace for killing his brother, at everything for being so messed up.
“We outgrew her, but I suppose all children outgrow their toys eventually,” the captain said, reflected blue light on her face.
The ship rocked as debris peppered the hull--trash from early spaceflight undoubtedly--and the captain sighed an alcohol laden breath, “Take this. It’ll teach you everything about the menace.”
She held out her palm, one apple green pill within.
“I don’t need to know the menace to kill him. My hands are enough.”
“No,” said the captain. She jammed the pill in his mouth, holding his nose shut until he swallowed and when he did, reality melted.
Gwyn knew everything. He saw the breadth of time and the length of space; he knew light as a particle and a wave, and a joke. He saw himself as a biological machine in a dot, floating by a fleck, orbiting a point, drifting in a galaxy, awash on a beach of endless others. There was nothing he did not know.
“Woah,” said Gwyn. “What was that?”
“Come,” said the captain. “We have a long way to go yet.”
Gwyn fell asleep once again, watching the bright receding dot of the Morning Star, joined by the blue marble in the rear viewport, and dreamed of his brother’s death.
The next morning Gwyn awoke to war. The red planet lay before him, dusty and ancient as anything; streaks of green flourished in its ancient canals: great fields growing food for the rich. Massive stations hung above it, opulent and unnecessary. Trade barges lumbered between, measuring their cargoes not in weight, but currency.
“Take this Gwyn,” the captain opened a rusty case. “You’ll need it to kill the menace.”
Gwyn took the gun. It was heavy, sinister and black. He felt its power and knew he could kill the menace. He knew he could kill anyone he wanted with it; he had the power to make a difference.
Gwyn slept with it under his pillow, dreaming of the games he used to play with his brother as a rusty red dot joined the Morning Star and the blue marble in the rear viewport.
Wispy smoke filled Gwyn’s nose. It smelled of cloves, a delicacy he’d never tried, only the imitation stuff. Through the dim cabin lighting the captain blew smoke rings; the bowl of her pipe glowed orange. Specks of light flashed by the viewport: asteroids. Small, large, misshapen or not, abandoned mining rigs graced many of their surfaces.
“Why’d they leave?”
“The mines ran dry,” the captain said. “They were forgotten after that, left to fend for themselves. Those with ships left, those without suffocated, or starved, or gave up.”
Gwyn was quiet for a long time, watching it all. “Why didn’t others come to save them?”
“The menace,” the captain said, flicking her pipe.
“The menace,” the captain repeated. “They attacked rescuers, sundering their ships and leaving them to drift. Earth, Lua, the rest weren’t kind enough to rescue em.”
“How the hell am I supposed to kill the menace if entire fleets can’t?”
“The thought crossed my mind. Still, your mind and gun will serve you well, but there are more things you need.” She held her pipe to him.
“What’s this?” Gwyn took the pipe; the smoke was pungent, making his head spin.
“Don’t worry about it,” The captain said, pushing it towards his lips.
He put it between his teeth and smoked. Warmth filled his chest, fingertips tingling, as thoughts of his brother, the menace, and himself slipped away. Gwyn looked down and realized that nothing really mattered. Not him, not the captain, not anything in his life.
“Who cares?” Gwyn mumbled.
“Who cares,” the captain agreed. She took his hand and led the nihilist waltz long into the night. She was warm and Gwyn forgot about the world for awhile.
The Morning Star was a dot in the rear viewport now, not that he bothered to look.
The viewports were empty save for distant stars. Sol shone brighter than the rest, and down the maw of its gravity well, Gwyn saw the Morning Star. It was tiny, insurmountably so. Everything he knew from his life was nothing but a speck against the backdrop of infinite space.
It was lonely, enough so to send a shiver down Gwyn’s back. There were no ships, no stations, nobody in the vastness of space around them. Jupiter was all, but it was only a bright dot ahead. Gwyn thought of his brother and how they would never be together again.
The moment stretched on. He was truly alone--no family, no friends--nobody cared if he lived or died. Gwyn thought of the menace. He was alone because it killed his brother; he would kill it and then he’d be alright.
“Hey,” said the captain. “We’re almost there.”
Gwyn didn’t answer.
The captain frowned. “How do you feel?”
“Angry,” Gwyn said.
The captain sat down beside him, looking out into the voidal wasteland. “It’s okay to be sad, Gwyn, your brother’s dead.”
Gwyn couldn’t look at her.
“It’s okay to feel, Gwyn, you’re human. Humans feel.” She took his hand, wrapping it in her own. She smelled of smoke, and booze, and age. Just like the ship.
“It’s the menace’s fault,” Gwyn said. “I’ll kill it and everything will be alright.”
“You’ll just move on with your life like nothing happened?”
“Of course not,” Gwyn looked at her, angry. “My brother’s dead.”
The captain dropped his hand, tired wrinkles around her eyes deepening. “There’s one thing you need, Gwyn.”
She pulled a syringe from a threadbare pocket--silver liquid glinted with starlight--and uncapped it.
Gwyn took it, the thing heavy in his palm. It burned as he injected himself, like fire in his veins. At once he felt his heart throb and lungs spasm; the ache in his back disappeared and the first strands of grey in his hair darkened. Wrinkles pulled tight across his face and his vision sharpened.
“You cannot die,” the captain said. “Time nor shot can kill you now.”
Gwyn looked at the empty syringe and felt the truth in her words.
“There is one last thing, Gwyn.” From the same pocket, the captain pulled a photograph of his brother. She pressed it into his hand, “To remember.”
Gwyn looked at it for a long time, a strange feeling in his chest, and Jupiter grew larger and larger ahead. The planet was afire with swirling clouds and a snarling maw of pressure and temperature, just like the Morning Star. Long forgotten were the planets behind: his home, humanity’s cradle, and the failed planet of the asteroid belt.
“We’re here, Gwyn.” The captain said.
Jupiter dominated the viewport. They landed on a moon, rocky and icy. Fissures rose in hills and mountains around the craft and dirty snow fell from a distant geyser.
They suited up, stepping foot on the frozen surface. Gwyn held the gun close, the picture of his brother in his suit’s pocket.
They walked in silence, jumping over bottomless fissures and scrambling up the hills. Gwyn’s heart beat faster in his chest; it was almost time.
Finally, they crested the highest ridge. Jupiter hung above Gwyn’s head, almost close enough to touch, and Sol barely crested the horizon. The Morning Star shone proudly, and below it, down between the fissures and cracked ice, was the menace’s ship. It belched smoke and flames from great evil engines, polluting everything it touched.
“There it is,” said the captain. “Do what you will.”
Gwyn raised the gun; it thrummed with power. His breath hitched and he could only think of his brother. With a scream, Gwyn closed his eyes and pulled the trigger.
A blast of light erupted over the ice. Shards rained down and water spewed into the sky.
Gwyn opened his eyes.
The menace’s ship was gone. A ragged hole remained, blasting water many miles into orbit. There was no wreckage.
“What happened?” Gwyn asked. “Where’d he go?”
“He didn’t go anywhere,” said the captain. “He didn’t go anywhere because he doesn’t exist.”
Snow fell faster around them.
“Did you really think there was some outlaw facing off against military fleets and winning?” She put her hands on her hips. “Did you really think there was some evil man concocting plans to kill wantonly, steal randomly, destroy carelessly?”
Gwyn swallowed hard.
“Did you really think the world was so simple that one thing is responsible for all the bad days?”
“Did you really think your brother’s murderer ran all the way out here?” The captain poked him in the chest. “He did. Because you murdered your brother.”
“You ran away because you couldn’t face the truth: your brother is dead because you made a mistake. A simple, easy, stupid mistake, and now he’s gone forever, and you can’t live with yourself.”
“I gave you perfect knowledge, and you still wanted to kill the menace. I gave you ultimate power, and you still wanted to kill the menace. I even gave you the ability to move on, and you still wanted to kill the menace.” The captain flung her arms wide, to Jupiter, to Sol, to the endless stars. “Finally, I gave you eternal life, and you still wanted to kill a phantom of your own creation.”
“Who are you?”
“Who is anyone.”
“No!” Shouted Gwyn, brandishing the gun towards her. “No more lies.”
“Gonna kill me too, now? Will that make you feel better?” The captain shook her head. “No matter what I give you, you won’t be happy. I know your kind: you find the smallest flaw in something beautiful and burn it all down because of it. You had your brother on the Morning Star, and yet it still wasn’t enough. You couldn’t see that you had everything you needed to be happy already, so you burned it down.”
Snowflakes stuck to Gwyn’s visor.
“Mistakes happen. Bad things happen and there’s no reason behind it. It’s complicated, just like there will never be a time when everything is simple and nothing hurts ever again.”
“I’m sorry your brother is gone. I’m sorry that you can’t live with yourself.” The captain stepped closer. “But strength is being able to look into the darkest abyss and still be a good human. Everything will be gone someday, and all we can do is enjoy it while it’s here. I certainly hope that you don’t keep wasting your time on menaces and windmills--you only have so much.”
Gwyn’s arm ached from holding the gun, trembling as he tried to keep it steady.
“Gwyn,” the captain pushed the gun aside and hugged him. “Your brother is gone forever; he loved you just as you love him. It’s time to say goodbye”
She pulled the picture from his suit pocket, waiting for him to take it. Gwyn let his arm drop, gun disappearing into the snow, and took the picture. His brother smiled up at him, a reminder of easier times.
“Let’s go home, Gwyn. Exist for awhile, don’t try to be a hero, or a badass, or anything. Exist for a while and be decent. Be happy, Gwyn, and that’ll be enough. Your brother would have wanted that.”
The captain pulled away and walked towards her ship; Gwyn looked after her and down at his brother. The Mourning Star shone brightly and Sol rose into the sky: sunrise on a new day.
“Goodbye,” Gwyn said, taking a step towards the Elysium fields.