A man makes the ultimate sacrifice for love. Twice. Would you trade your family’s security for a lonely infinity beyond the stars?
Love it or hate it, please leave comments. (The featured image comes from pollen in a puddle in my parents’ driveway.)
Nathaniel hated re-entry. It was the same endless elevator free-fall feeling he had when they pulled him off the bottom. It was the last thing he remembered before he died, lungs crushed to the size of fists. He longed for the clean pure air of a high mountain meadow won after a long hike. The trees lit up with alpenglow as soft and bright as an artist’s brush. The patient, patient trout waiting through the decades to rise to a well-presented fly. For one moment to be bound together – these living things in a lively dance – and to hold one in his hand as hydraulically perfect and functionally timeless as the monstrosity in his chest.
The red rocket came down fins first, lowering itself on a pillar of flame. It was the most stupendous thing Izaak had ever seen. Rockets left every day, but only a few came back every year. He held his mother’s hand and looked out the window. “Grandfather is here!” Mother looked down at him and smiled her worried smile. It seemed the rocket had barely hit the ground when a ramp opened and a group of rough-looking men tumbled out. A few went off alone or with other men, but most looked around expectantly. Izaak let go of his mother’s hand and raced out the door. “Be careful, no running!”
Nathaniel recognized his grandson from the ever-rarer vid chats, but was clearly flummoxed when the boy ran up and threw himself at him, not having touched another human in what, thirty years? When he saw Clare across the apron, shimmering in the heat, a vision of her mother, he wrapped his arms around the boy and lifted him off the ground, dropping his bag.
“You look so much like your mother,” he said when she walked up.
“Space will do that to you,” she replied. They looked at each other and he smiled. He knew what it was like to be bursting to say the right thing and say the wrong. It conveyed so much more information.
He held out his hand, “Daniel.” Of course he’d “met” him on chat, but this was the first he’d met the man who married his girl, the father of his grandchild.
“Nathaniel.” Nathaniel found Daniel’s grip offensively limp. “It’s so good to meet you.”
“Do you want to go fishing? I’ve been practicing, I have just the spot. I know everything: how to pick a fly and tie it on and cast and spot the fish and everything.” Izaak seem to speak without regard for breathing.
“Aren’t you tired, Nathaniel?” asked Clare. He would of preferred “dad,” or even “father.”
“Hell, no.” His eyes were still on Clare’s. “I’ve been sleeping for three months, and dreaming about fishing the whole time. You coming, Daniel?”
Daniel looked a little lost. “Um, well, not much of a fisherman, and besides, I have to scoot to work.” And with that, Nathaniel was looking at the back of Daniel’s suit as the man scurried off.
It was the biggest building Nathaniel had ever seen, the metal trusses of the roof marching into the distance, the unadorned cement walls disappearing behind stands of trees like distant mountain ranges. The ride over would’ve been quiet and tense if Izaak hadn’t talked non-stop.
Izaak beamed as they walked in. “Isn’t this the greatest ever! Over here you can fish for brown trout in a ‘New England stream,’ and here ‘Colorado Mountain West Slope Cutthroat,’ (I think they are extinct). Way over there you can fish for BC salmon, five kinds! (Although I can never afford that),” he allowed in an aside. “Where do you want to go?”
“Hmmm,” Nathaniel scratched his stubbled chin. “Don’t rightly know, not used to so much selection. Not since I was a boy, at least, and they were a long bike ride apart.” He meant to be funny, but his grin was too tight-lipped with his inside joke. “How about something simple to get my old bones warmed up?”
“Big brookies,” Izaak said with authority. “The river is wide and shallow, with nothing to hamper a backcast. I can test out my new hydrofoil line.” He held up his rod. “It’s teardrop in cross section, so it casts farther, but because it’s flatter in profile, it floats higher. Cool huh?”
But Nathaniel was lost in reverie. Out in space, on the skin of the ships, there was no gravity to collapse your loop. He was remembering those practice casts, awkward in his suit holding the delicate rod, but when the timing was right watching the line shoot out for yards, furlongs, light moments, nano-parsecs only the friction of the backing slowing it, and then back, back, and back like withdrawing the skeins of time itself, only to send it out again arcing against the stars. Even in space, casting’s metronome solace brought succor from the body’s memories when the mind would not quiet. It had been a long time since he had unfurled a line into water. He hungered for it, even here.
They had been walking for a while, past bass ponds and tiny little streams running over granite beds. There was a massive wave pool for fishing from the beach, stripers and blackmouths, tarpon and snook, together in a way nature forbade. There were trees and bluffs, all artfully stuffed into the building in a way that defied mere three-dimensional space. He was aware of other people tucked away, in solitary pursuit, or with a friend, the occasional guide. As grand, as magnificent, as it was, he could not shake the comparison with the miniature golf courses he played at the beach as a boy.
Finally, they topped a hillock and walked down to the river’s edge. As promised, it was shallow with some structure. He could see easily through the water, and realized that the building must be lit with polarized light. There, each place he would expect to find one, was a trophy trout lurking. Behind rock and log, in channels, they lie dreaming their liquid dreams, thinking in arcs, spirals, vortices.
“I’ve programmed them for dries,” Izaak announced, shaking him from reverie. He was standing in front of what looked to Nathaniel like an old-fashioned stamp machine. Izaak pressed several buttons in quick succession and a half dozen flies spat out into his hand.
“The fly of the day is the Whalloper, olive, size 12.” Trout almost immediately began rising.
Nathaniel looked at the proffered flies suspiciously. “I thought I might try a few of my old favorites, just for old time’s sake.” Izaak looked baffled.
“I, um, don’t know how to program the fish for something other than the hatch of the day.”
Nathaniel had been a long time outside the company of people, but knew when he was losing a moment. He held out his hand, “Okay, so show me how this works.”
Izaak smiled and launched into a complete discourse on how to tie on, cast, and fish the flies, all the time pointing out specific fish and giving pointers. Nathaniel was sincerely impressed by the boy’s knowledge, even if it was academic, and acutely aware how meticulously Izaak had planned for just this moment. His rod was a beauty, too, rolled from a single sheet of grapheme, almost as light as a fly, and completely transparent except for the wraps for the guides. And the line performed just as advertised. Although it made Nathaniel’s rod seem clumsy in comparison, it didn’t occur to him to covet it.
In no time Izaak had a fly on and swimming towards a big trout – they were all big – sitting in the still water behind a rock. Or pseudo rock, he still wasn’t sure. Izaak was intent on the fish, but more intent on his grandfather. It was easy to see how much he wanted to impress him. In fact, Nathaniel admired his cast, considering the vacuum he’d learned it in. It was clear he’d seen vids on mending and some of the other fineries, but remained unsure of them. Indeed, at the last moment he lost focus and the fly swept away from the trout in a most unnatural way. To the credit of the programmers, the fish turned away from it and returned to its lair.
Izaak stamped his foot. “Well, I put that one down. It won’t rise to that pattern again until it times out or it’s reprogrammed.”
“Well, there’s no shortage of other fish.” Izaak flicked a cast out, thoroughly heavy-handed although both he and Izaak decided not to comment. The Whalloper smacked down, and he decided to lead by example, high sticking it through a series of riffles and pools that he had chosen specifically because he had seen no trout in it. He did this several times, bettering his presentation with each cast, then put one out towards the center of the stream, making a few mends, and snatching it off the water just before he raised a fish. He was aware of Izaak watching him intently. He stripped in his fly pretending to check it, while he watched Izaak wade downstream and apply what he had learned. Working a seam, with his tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth, he reminded Nathaniel ever more of himself. Well, his original self. It was amazing what this kid had learned on his own. Nathaniel was genuinely proud.
Izaak raised a fish and missed it. “Don’t worry, put the fly right back on him.” Izaak looked dubious. “At least if it was a real trout,” he mumbled to himself. He crossed his fingers that the programmers had at least some experience with real fish.
Sure enough, on the next pass, the fly disappeared and Izaak lifted the tip of the rod, maybe a little harder than a 5x should take, but the fish was on. Nathaniel didn’t coach him at all, as it was clear the boy had long practice landing these little automatons. The fish put up a good fight, running the line to obstacles, creating slack by running towards the boy, taking it up with some leaping runs. The leaping was a little unusual for a brookie in Nathaniel’s experience, but he kept that to himself. The boy did an adequate job and soon had the fish to hand. Nathaniel waded over and lifted it from the water so the boy could remove the hook. “Nice fish.” He looked intently at the piscatorial trollop that was some engineer’s idea of a spawned up brook trout. All it needed, he thought, was lipstick.
“It did the same thing last time, but this time I didn’t let it get into the logs!” beamed Izaak. He turned to walk away and Nathaniel looked down at the fish in his hand. He squeezed it, digging his thumb into the belly until it ruptured, leaking clear yellow oil over his hand and exposing a ribbon of instrumented matrix fiber. It throbbed in his hand and a shudder ran through him as he dropped it in the water, instinctively sniffing his hand before rinsing it off. The fish righted and swam off in grotesque parody of its former self, settling back into its lie with its entrails loose in the current, a plume of yellow behind it, the illusion gone.
They caught a lot of fish that day. Nathaniel enjoyed the casting, made sure he missed most of the hits, and had Izaak help him release the ones he caught. The throbbing still resonated in his palm in a way that unnerved him.
When they came in to the kitchen, Clare was at the sink, as her mother often had been when he came home from fishing.
“Go get ready for dinner, Izaak.” She looked at Nathaniel. “How was fishing?”
“Well, that’s not fishing.” She looked up and he realized he’d started badly, “But your boy’s real good at it. He will love it when we go to the property.”
She threw up her hands. “That’s it isn’t it? That’s all you can think of: cutting out and running. You are standing here, with one of those precious days you so dearly negotiated to be with me, and you are thinking about fishing, aren’t you? “
His mouth opened and closed. He tried it again. He had no voice. It was like he was talking in the vacuum of space. Suddenly he wanted to laugh. To pick her up and hug her. To twirl her around like he imagined for eleven thousand days, holding her pressed against his mechanical heart, the thing that made it both possible and impossible to be with her. [J1]
“I have dreams too, you know. I dreamt someday I would come home, and meet you, and take my grandson fishing.”
“But you didn’t come home, did you? Mother died and you didn’t come home. You had her shipped to you. When I die, don’t ship my body out there. Let the people who know me bury me here at home, where I belong.”
He picked up his rod and looked at it. He didn’t come home to fight. He came home to see his beautiful girl. Always, to see his beautiful girls. And now his grandson. But they were stranger to him than the people he passed at the spaceport. He had given them everything, and it was not enough.
“Is that what this is about? It was your mother who wanted to come to me. She made those arrangements, not me. You should honor her wishes, just as I will honor yours.” He looked away. It was unfitting for a man to be talking to his daughter of her funeral arrangements. The saddest thing in the world is for a man to bury a child.
“No, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about you running off to space, and leaving us here. It’s about you filling my boy’s head with crazy dreams about being a fisherman, about being an astronaut. About being you.” She started to cry.
He beat his rod against his thigh in a frustrated staccato rhythm. In the long cold quiet of space he never imagined this contention. Just the high meadows, a little girl with curly hair and a wide smile. He had seen it, had heard it. Had even smelled it. But he had not been one bit right. He looked up at her. There had to be a right thing to say, to do, but in thirty long years he had not thought it out.
“I had a choice after the accident: I could die, and never see you or your mother again, leaving not even enough to cover my funeral. Or I could live, seeing you maybe 10, 20, 100 days before you died, growing older, passing me by, but making sure you were taken care of.”
“And then live forever?”
“I don’t know where I went wrong. Or where I could even have gone right. I’m here now. The least I can do is take him fishing, for real fish, on the stream I bought for you. For him. I will take him fishing.”
The moment passed. “Go!” she screamed. No matter how old the man or how young the woman, women are always raising the men.
“I will pick up the boy tomorrow and take him fishing for the weekend. Then I will be gone.”[J2]
Dawn painted the city with a bordello’s palette. Buildings grew from the dusky purple streets up through monstrous scarlet reds to branding iron tips. As the sun hit the hills they pulsed the true jewel tones – the lapis lazuli and ruby, copper, gold, and vermillion of a rainbow’s gills.
Nathaniel marveled at the resiliency of youth. Despite his mother’s obvious animosity towards Nathaniel, the boy had maintained a reverent, almost worshipping, attitude. The whole way up Izaak chatted and pointed things out as if they had known each other his whole life. It was clear he had never flown beyond the city. How hard was that, to take a child on a flight and show him the world, the living parts of it?
Between the city and the mountains Nathaniel pointed out the Mad River. “Used to be, when I wasn’t much older than you, I would get up in the morning and bike out to the river. Met a man there, name of Triggs. Kind of took me under his wing. We never really planned on meeting, but whenever we did, he would always fish with me. Show me stuff.”
“Like we’re doing today?”
Nathaniel looked over and smiled. “Just like this.”
“Pretty soon, I was showing him some stuff, too. That’s when he said I was a born fisherman.” He looked over at Isaac and laughed. “Who knew I would spend my life as far from trout as you can get.”
He put the flier down just shy of a ridgeline, on a bed of scree. “We’ll land here and walk in.”
“Why don’t we just fly to the stream?” Izaac looked at Nathaniel, the anticipation clear as he strained forward in his harness.
“Well, first because most good things are worth waiting for. I’ve been waiting almost thirty years for this, and I want to do it right.” He took his eyes off of the horizon and turned to Izaac to help him get unbuckled, “And second, a good fisherman always hides his trail. You don’t want to give your spots away.” He winked at Izaak who now seemed to be getting into the spirit of the adventure. “Oh, right.”
The pass didn’t seem far away, but here just above tree line distance was hard to judge. It was actually several hundred feet of hard scrabble up the slope. Nathaniel felt bad when he looked at the boy who was gasping and wheezing and who had obviously never been worked this hard in his life. He smiled wryly as he put his hand over his heart and tried to remember when he wished to do things his body could not.
Nathaniel was in the lead when they crested the rise, and he stopped so suddenly the boy ran into him. He made no notice of that and Izaak scrambled around him. Before him was a valley running north to south. The northern end of the valley was lush with old growth fir, the stream a silver thread winking in and out of site between the trees. But below them and to the south, where it once opened into a larch meadow, the valley was black from fire, which radiated out from a well-worn landing spot, presently occupied by a large scouter.
“And that’s the third reason.” Nathaniel’s eyes had gone hard. It’s better to have a dream of something that you can never have, sometimes, than to know what you can. He strode off purposely down the hill towards a group of men sitting and drinking by a fire, even on this hot day. Completely forgotten, Izaak sprinted, scrambled, and slid along behind him.
The years in space had crawled by, but it was agony to close the distance on the men who sat in the middle of their desecration. Each step was like a frame in an old movie shown a flicker at a time. He walked directly into the circle of men and their discarded beer cans and kicked the fire apart.
“What the hell!” they sputtered in unison, ludicrously trying to rise from their camp chairs. One lunged at him. Nathaniel swung his rod tube and broke his nose. A second made a dive which Nathaniel sidestepped, landing the man in the hot coals. A third was so fat he couldn’t extricate himself from his camp chair. Nathaniel merely hit him in the sternum with the rod tube and knocked him backwards squirming with his feet in the air like something out of an old silent film. The fourth stood there, beer still in hand, trying to figure out what was going on.
“You are trespassing. Get out,” was all Nathaniel said.
“What are you talking about, this is our stream. We stocked it!” said the one who was still standing.
“Amongst your other crimes.” Nathaniel shook his head. He looked genuinely disappointed as he gestured to the fire.
“It’s not our fault, what kind of asshole doesn’t have a landing zone on his property.”
“The kind of asshole who doesn’t want other assholes around.”
“Now look here,” said the fat man, finally out of his chair. Nathaniel did just that, giving him a withering gaze.
“Leave. Now. Check your computer, you will see that this land is private, and the owner has returned.”
The man with the broken nose took his bloodied hands from his face as if he would speak, but Nathaniel merely gestured with his rod tube and he thought better of it. Nathaniel stood there arms crossed while they collected their gear and got ready to depart. As they boarded, one of the men turned to him, “This is not over, old man.”
“It’s over. Your bones will be dust in the ground and these trees will be returned to glory, before I die. That is my only consolation.” He bent over, picked up a bottle and chucked it at the man as he hurried to shut the door.
Only then did he seem to remember the boy. He walked up and tousled his hair. “I’m sorry Izaak.” He gestured around the valley, “This was to be my great legacy to you. A piece of the world as I once knew it.” He acted as if he would say more, but words failed him.
Izaak reached up and took his hand. He pointed upstream. “We’re here…”
“Indeed.” Nathaniel smiled for the first time that he could remember since he had left earth, long ago. He turned his back on the desolation, and they headed for the cool shade of the trees. The boy was playing with his Darwin Conscillience device. “According to this, the best thing to use would be a Ephemeroptera Baetidae, if we stop under the trees I can print a few out.”
Nataniel laughed, the clear cool air under the trees filling his belly. It was good to breathe air that didn’t taste of metal and machine oil.
“I’m sure that would work, but I think we might do just as well with a few Parachute Adams I took the time to tie up over the last couple of decades.” He looked at the boy and winked. “In fact,” he reached over and turned off the Darwin, “let’s not have that on just for today, okay?”
Nathaniel tied on the Adams for the boy, and noticed he looked kind of pale, but excited. Almost immediately the boy hooked a trout. Nathaniel was impressed. He waded in to land the fish, only to find it was the same kind of robot atrocity they had caught at the warehouse. He squeezed it until it popped and threw it up on the bank.
“Grandfather, do you know what those cost?”
“I’m beginning to.”
“Those guys must’ve spent a fortune stocking this place.”
“You’re right, I’m sorry.” He turned his best smile on the boy.
The sun was setting and the valley cooling off early the way it does in the mountains, turning the shadows into purple tones. Out of Izaak’s sight, Nathaniel had probably caught a dozen of the robots, crushing them and throwing them far on to the bank, and not one of the trout he had dreamed of these many long years. Those frakenfish have been are too stupid to tell a fly from the real thing. Banal evil pollution, they had out-competed the trout that were here, outcompeted life.
He had been sitting on a rock, lost in thought for some time, when he realized it was time to break down the rods and head out. That kid had more stamina than he took him for. Nathaniel finally decided to walk upstream and get him, his mom would be mad enough at the hour as it was. He took his time, realizing that despite everything Izaak was having the time of his life. Even in your shattered dreams, there may be paradise for somebody else. He took one last look around, it would be his last time here, of this he was sure.
He walked carefully, so as not to disturb the boy. As he came around the bend lost in thought, at first he didn’t see him. And then he saw the little body, grotesque in his waders cinched around his tiny waste and sunken chest, floating in a little eddy, the rod nowhere to be seen.
Izaak was floating face up. Nathaniel grabbed him by one hand and dragged his frail body ashore. In space, life is rare. One mistake can leave you a fine pink mist sprayed into eternal orbit, unless you fall as rain on some random moon. Medicine was just one of the trades you pick up. Twice in the last thirty years Nathaniel had to stick tools into the oily monster in his own chest.
He put his ear to Izaak’s chest, but couldn’t hear anything over the stream. With a finger on the carotid he finally got a thready pulse, and he could see that the boy was barely breathing. He thought briefly of grabbing the Conscilience device but knew nobody could get to them as quickly as he could get to the hospital. He tossed the boy over his shoulder and sprinted up the pass towards the flitter. His pulse never faltered.
“A grueling hike, above tree line, a fist fight for god’s sake, a fight! What were you thinking?” Clare was incensed. “He has a heart condition. A heart condition he got from you. Don’t you remember that? Do you even remember having a heart?”
Nathaniel sat in a chair in the hall, running his hands through his hair. “I, I, I…” he stammered.
“Yes, always you, you, you.” He looked up at her. So beautiful, so like her mother. “I don’t know you, you don’t know us. You’ve been in town for just a few days, and you’ve killed my boy. Just leave!”
Nathaniel was at the bar when David walked in. He had his hand around a single malt and was staring into it as if it were the center of the Milky Way.
David sat next to him, signaled to the bartender, pointed at the drink, and held up two fingers. “Why are you such an unmitigated bastard?”
Nathaniel looked up and scoffed. “Daniel, we just met. Why do you hate me so much?”
“You ruined your family, and now you are ruining mine.” The drinks arrived. Daniel took a long pull on his while Nathaniel consolidated his into one glass. “You killed my son. Long after he is dead, you will be floating in space, your cold heart beating.”
“I have built galaxies in the skies and begat jewels on the Earth.”
“Are you quoting somebody, or do you make that crap up?”
“In space, you have a long time to formulate answers to questions you know people will someday ask.”
“Maybe by the next trip, you could be less inscrutable.”
Nathaniel remembered back those many years, waking up in a hospital room, although it looked like a morgue. Two interchangeable men in tacky suits hovered over his bed. “You’re back,” said the first. “You don’t have much time.”
“Time?” He mumbled. The last he knew he was on a deep dive in his Mark IV suit, dropping, dropping through the black as insignificant and temporary as the plankton his helmet lights illuminated in galactic splendor.
“We’ve got you hooked up,” said the second waving around at various pieces of complex equipment. “But your heart is gone. Imploded. Some genetic defect we missed.” He looked meaningfully at his colleague as if to say “And we won’t be making that mistake again, will we?”
“But it’s expensive, and temporary.”
Nathaniel just stared at him. He was still in the deep. Who were these men, what did they want?
“Nathaniel,” it was the first again, “pay attention. We need men like you. Men who can weld. Men who are not afraid. If you want, we will buy you a heart.”
Buy him a heart?
“If you don’t, we will unplug you, and you will be dead again.” They were trading sentences back and forth, as if they had rehearsed this many times. Or was it the silences they traded?
“And your wife and daughter will be alone, and broke. Do you understand? You haven’t saved anything, haven’t even paid off your loans to us for diving school. But if you sign with us, we will get you the heart and take care of them. Do you agree?”
He nodded. Dead. Alone. The dive, what happened to the dive? They took his thumbprint, recorded the whole thing to show him later, and he passed out again.
“He will never make love, raise a drink, have children. Do you understand? I hate you because you gave him your heart, or at least the worst part of it.”
Gave him my heart? He swiveled back into the conversation. “I have done the only things I could do.”
“Yeah, well sometimes the only thing is not the right thing.” Daniel emptied his drink.
The bartender, a rather attractive young woman, came over. She put down the drinks, but didn’t walk away, forcing the men to acknowledge her. “You are one of them, aren’t you?”
“The Methuselahs, the immortals.”
Nathaniel gave a deep ironic laugh. “I’m just an old man. A very, very old man.”
She reached out and touched his hand, completely ignoring Daniel. “I get off in two hours.”
Nathaniel downed his Scotch. “In that case, I’m going to need some more whisky.” She smiled and walked to the other end of the bar to get it, looking sheepishly at Daniel as she passed.
“You – are – unbelievable.” Daniel spaced out his words. “With luck, Izaak will be well enough for surgery in a week, and you are picking up a woman in a bar?”
“In space, it’s cold. Colder than anything you can imagine. Even in your suit. And quiet. All your thoughts play in your head like movies. And dark. I know where Earth is, but it’s hard to see. I float around out there and look down here and think ‘Maybe I’m dead after all. Maybe this is Hell.’ ”
“Even when you come in, the cold never leaves your bones. The only things that remind you that you are a man are far away, distant memories that have to last you a long, long time.” He turned and looked Daniel directly in the eye. “If I’m very careful, don’t come home too often, don’t need any more parts, don’t spend time on the V with my family, don’t gamble away my boredom, I will pay back my heart, my medication, my transportation, my lodgin;, it will take me 157 years to pay off my debt to the company. I’m not even halfway there. Granted, that still leaves me around 253 years of life, barring accidents, but it’s a long, long time without a pretty girl when yours is gone. A long time. It won’t happen, but it’s nice to know it could.”
“Is that supposed to make you human?”
He looked down at the other end of the bar where the bartender was pouring him a rather large tumbler. She started to walk their way.
“I’ve been thinking about this whole thing. There is nothing I can do here. Tomorrow I will go back to the land. I’ll be back for the surgery.”
“Is fishing everything to you?”
“When he comes home, every many needs a place to hang his hat.”
“What does that even mean, Nathaniel? You sound like a fortune cookie.”
“It means when you have lost everything, even the things you thought you were saving, you still need to keep something that means something, even if you don’t know what it is. It means that when I’m in space and look down, trying to see which point of light is the earth, I think of clear, cold streams in the mountains, so remote they’ve never even seen a contrail over them. And I know that I own one of them, when everything, and everybody, is gone, I will have this one last thing of my humanity.”
Nathaniel had thought he would never return here to the stream, but he had one last thing to do, and this was as close to a home has he had. It seemed grotesque, apocalyptic. These “trout,” were ghouls, zombies, underwater sows, approximations. They did not wait for cagey men. They didn’t sleep, or breed; infinite in patience, fueled by the sun, indiscriminate. They don’t need cool shade, purity, an audience, or even liquid. They could swim with him through space, indifferent predators, orbiting streams, dashing after hurled missiles. Programmed for gluttony, they hunted with subroutines and ate parameters, generic variables.
He walked over the ridge, down to the valley floor. There he took a bottle out of the pack and dumped his medication into the ashes of the fire. It settled through the dust, its wetness a hole in a void that soon disappeared into nothingness. He thumped his hand against his chest in an old familiar gesture. He figured he had about a week. He sat down on a log and pulled out a bottle while he contemplated the river.
It took five days. They found him next to the flitter, his head on his pack, unconscious. His chest was a single bruise the color of a smashed grape. The medics got him stable and loaded him up.
“He sure flew over a lot of other rock and dirt. Why did he pick here?”
“To inconvenience you, Joe, just to inconvenience you.” The hover winked into the distance, never rising high enough to see over the ridge.
“When we found him, he was almost dead. Seems after all of these years, his body finally rejected his heart.” The medic looked back and forth between Daniel and Clare. “It’s almost certain, he’s going to die.”
Clare looked at Daniel. “I don’t understand, he was supposed to live forever. Outlive me. Outlive Izaak.”
“The heart is a funny thing. Could just’ve been the shock to his system of coming home. Could’ve been anything. I’m sorry.” He shrugged. “He had this on him. It’s addressed to you.” He handed Clare a letter.
David took it for her and read it quickly. “It’s like he planned to come home to die.” He looked around at the group. “This is a will.”
“A will? Why would a man who plans to live for four hundred years have a will?” Clare snatched it from his hands. “His heart. He’s giving his heart to Izaak. Can he do that?”
“It looks like he did his research, it’s a simple deal, his heart for Izaak’s heart. He even has money set aside for the operations. Your father was a busy man before he went fishing.”
Izaak looked to the sky as he remembered their farewell on the gangway. Grandfather looked decades older then when he had come home. His hair gray, the tonus gone from his muscles. Up close the sleek red rocket was covered with soot and dinged up like an old tin pull toy.
“You cannot go back, it’s a death sentence,” Clare was pulling at him.
“It was always a life sentence, it’s just been commuted, is all. I have to go, it’s a contract. It’s the deal I made. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is still not the right choice.” He winked at Daniel. Already, he sounded far away.
Nathaniel smiled and brushed back a wisp of her hair, conscious of how many times he would not get to do this simple gesture. He turned to Izaak and grasped his wrist the way a man does when he is shaking the hand of an equal. With his other hand he pointed a finger at Izaak’s still tender chest. “In this long life you will have, I want you to remember this one thing: where ever you go, whatever you do, the most important thing is to die with a human heart. I almost forgot that.”
Izaak bent down and lifted the rainbow from the water. It was quiescent in his hand. He didn’t even look at it as he tossed it up on shore. He was looking downstream, where the larches had taken root and now were taller than he was. Few men live long enough to see a forest grow. He took a deep breath and scanned the horizon, far above him on the valley rim. He had grown to be a fine, strong young man. Somewhere out there, up there, grandfather would be looking down at him. He wondered if they would ever meet again. Until then, he had made it his mission to pull every one of the stocked fish out of the stream before he gave up fishing for good.
He checked his fly, and cast out into the pool. He’d never fished this part of the valley before, where a small cascade built a pool over the centuries. He let his fly float to the tail out and just as it began to skate, it disappeared. There was a vicious head shake before the line stared running. This fish fought differently than any of the hundreds he had caught here before, it leaped and fought with vigor born of glacial waters, without all of the choreographed tail walking he was used to.
It wasn’t large but it put up a great fight. Izaak imagined this is what grandfather hungered for all of these years, and felt a little guilty for it. When he finally landed the fish, he looked down at it. There in his hand was a West Slope cutthroat. The spots on its belly glowed like a galaxy in a way that no photo, no act of man, could ever capture. He held it in the water, pulling it backwards to increase the oxygenation to the gills. It took a few moments, then suddenly with a flick it was a three foot meteor disappeared into the dappled shadows as if it had never been. His hand was slimy, and he lifted it to his nose. It smelled like fish.
He smiled, and somewhere deep in his belly, he began to laugh. He laughed so hard he put his hands on his knees to keep from falling into the stream. He stood up and looked into the gloaming.
“Hurry home old man, hurry home.”