Discovering mortality after the age of fifty was much different from what it had seemed to be in his early twenties. Then, still in the post-adolescent rush of being grown-up, it was a momentous discovery, full of philosophical portent and much self-conscious (if soul-less) searching. It had led, then, to a very satisfactory melancholy and even a genuinely unhappy depression. It was a very important event.
Thirty years later, as the doctor wrote out the prescription for nitroglycerine and fussed about how soon he could schedule a stress-test, the realization of his mortal condition was more 'real' but not at all cosmic. `Will the ding bat lawyer get that will drafted' drifted in his consciousness at about the same level as `will the dry-cleaner have my shirts ready?' It was as if real, measurable, even datable mortality (none of which were provided by his suspected `condition') were far less worrying than the banal adolescent realization of potential mortality.
The real thing was simply a fact, and he was used to dealing with facts. They came neatly packaged. He read about momentous facts every day in newspapers and magazines, he saw facts reported on television: genocide, disaster, the constant threat of expanded war. These were things to remain aware of, to be interested in, to read about on the train, to dissect and consider; but they didn't stop one from shaving, or buying a new umbrella, or ordering a new suit. And they marched about on a par with the baseball scores, the weather, the snits of politicians and actors, and the occasional diagnosis of something `serious.' As the lady said, looking around, somewhat bemused, "not dead yet!?"
None of this seemed to matter as he vectored his X-ship into the wispy atmosphere of the fourth planet. The ship's server, one of several AI units in high orbit, would soon break contact and the relatively puny client processor would have to spread the lifting surfaces, and then take over the maneuvers as he fell like a rock towards the landing strip. The constraints and vectors had come from the server; the client was designed only to execute. Odd choice of words. Normally this would have set his heart pounding, but the beta-blockers were at work so all he felt was the odd thrumming of his elbow. "The right elbow, doctor."
It was actually an almost guilty kind of pleasure he felt. He bought a peanut bar at lunch, smiling, remembering the Updike novel where the old Rabbit muses on the tactile sensations of eating the forbidden, fatty treat. Rabbit just liked the way it felt in his mouth. So he smiled as he pulled the lever on the machine and wondered how much of his whistling was for pleasure and how much to cover the pain and grief he was supposed to be feeling, and how much to cover the fact that he wasn't.
On about the sixth or eighth day he woke up with a familiar feeling. His eyes opened on the new day and within seconds he remembered that there was something there to spoil it. Years ago it was his great depression, this time it was his still-murky prognosis. `Oh shit, I'm still sick.' The familiarity lay in the fact that his condition, if real, was irrevocable. If you're poor you can get rich, if you have an ordinary illness you can get well. But his life had changed; permanently, and for the worse. Something real (in his jargon, inescapable, something final) had happened.
The one resort he would not take was to imagine that the preliminary diagnosis was wrong. He was not building any castles in his imagination. There was never a moment's temptation to do that for this situation. He was too well practiced; he knew the limitations of the technique. He'd rather build a secure house; imagine his way into, not out of, the reality of the situation.
So his condition remained, like his various physical sensations, a nagging irritation, like the infection in his toenail that had developed after a day in the bloody astronaut slippers. Keep it down. Don't scratch. Remember to shave. Rome wasn't built in a day.
Landing, he was a little out of sync with the horizon as he fell like a stone towards the surface, and his flare was just a tad aggressive. His gear and the strip seemed to reach for each other at the last instant, and he shuddered at the impact, imagining the squeal wailing to invisible ears. The drogue `chute seemed such a waste of engineering in this atmosphere. The server took over again shortly after he hit the auto-stop, and he waited for the ground crew to arrive, wondering how detailed a briefing his new bosses really expected, and how long he could avoid a confrontation with the alien ambassador.
His brother's news about Bolivia seemed to help. Packing up, going away (his brother being checked out for high altitude.) Something happening indeed. Life was going on. Still, he would look at people, the way he used to, wondering if the fat men were out of breath, if the tall men were experiencing any discomfort at that moment; wondering if anyone else in the world was like him; wondering if he would ever be able to walk fast again, or to fling himself casually onto the train, rather than all trim and together, walking carefully, and settling in.
"You're to travel immediately to Ingland Dome" (the other side of the planet) "and await your contact. While you're waiting, you may observe, but do nothing conspicuous; in fact, please do nothing at all, if possible. Stay in your quarters until you are contacted. The situation is not exactly delicate or precarious, but I'd be happier" (the expression in the ambassador's language was actually sexual, but no one in the room knew that) "if you had as little impact as possible."
In the ambassador's language there were several choices of single words which meant `lack of anticipation;' not dread of, or the opposite of, just lack of. They were all appropriate to his feelings for this assignment. But he never made it to the far side colony. He was using a ground flier detailed to him, and he was just cruising around the space port to make an arrival inspection of his `client' drone lander. One of the three engines in the flier faltered on a bit of settlers' jetsam which had probably drifted in the atmosphere for years. The engine's filters choked on it. He decided to land with his remaining power. That was a mistake. He should have bailed out. He shouldn't have been flying that afternoon. He should have stood in bed.
The pain was no more or less intense than it had been over the previous two weeks. When he finally got home and cleaned up he decided to push the system. When he called his doctor and described his day, the doctor suggested immediate hospitalization, and he was a bit surprised.
During the night, activity inside his body continued, and by the next morning it had become clear that the potential problem was now real. He was damaged; he could need major treatment. His life expectancy had shrunk. He was pissed.
Dosed with Valium and Morphine, be descended into funk as the technicians on the 6am shift clicked into a sequence of actions designed to minimize the potential for continued damage; some more sympathetic, some just glad to be working on someone with a life still ahead; others, probably, silently critical of what they assumed was a lousy life style. How lousy was it? How lousy would it be during his "recovery?" He feared that life would be transformed into an endless series of debates and compromises between duty and satisfaction: a long task list of chores. Maybe not as much of a transformation; maybe just a shift in emphasis; the same selection, a different set of choices. And a different set of judges. Even if his doctors eventually were to allow a cigar a week, would Dorothy? (They wouldn't anyway.)
His doctor joked about sex; he dreamed of it. His medication acted against it. His imagination was barely functional; his body and his mind limp in the hands of the medical technocrats.
[While in the hospital, he could imagine friends making kind gestures and remarks and he cried at the thought of such kindness. But he asked that no one call, that the possibility of such a gesture stay slim. He favored his usual irony and sarcasm, hollow as it sounded even when he could muster it.]
Since he'd been eating less and his new medication was a diuretic, he had lost weight. Not visually yet, but on the scale. And he felt much lighter. Earlier in the week his morning evacuations had suddenly become calm; nice polite little piles of shit. No rages; no loose pieces. Now, in the aftermath of his attack and in the forced immobility of the hospital room he could shit, but he was told not to strain. Now that's a trick. How can a shit be satisfying without the strain? And how hard is it to be patient sitting on a commode, waiting for it to just plot out into the dry pan, with a nurse standing by to wipe up? At least his dick hadn't shrivelled up so much that he couldn't get it into the urinal. Peeing was OK.
He hit the planet hard. the entire flyer doing little more on impact than crumpling sufficiently to keep him alive, for the moment. He wondered a little about who would end up with his assignment. Then he passed out.
And so, for these reasons, in consequence, inevitably, he began the rest of his new, last life, as he would each day thereafter, each morning, after each nap, after each brief interlude with a novel or just as he was walking about, noting the sunshine, listening to the noises outside. This would not really be the last new life, he knew, but it was of such a different character than his old that the ways of thinking, he imagined, must inevitably change. He wondered if the ways of imagining would also change. At first, as his imagination gradually came back into action, he felt that they had not, but that what had been his primary means of understanding and passing through his life would still be available, aimed less at passing through, even less perhaps at understanding, as his new life focused more and more locally. on his actual life.
Perhaps at last he would come to a working definition of actual life, one within which to place his own actual life. He spent a morning musing on the concept of the person, as expressed in the word personality. Person-ality. It seemed to be the only thing about this evanescent instant called a life which would matter, which could matter. Whatever it was, either as a physical fact or as a conceptual conceit, whether in the body or even the `soul,' (imagination) he grasped this concept of hyphenated person-ality, as simply and honestly all of the expressions of the person. The words and gestures, the creations, as it were. They were the' 'public' presentation of the `person.' They could take immediate effect, or none at all. A persona-ality then was just as perishable or as immortal as its effect on the personalities which perceived it. Ever. Time could be rationalized as immaterial, at least until he rolled over and got up to begin another day.
Sleep was death, in his little cult-view of personality. Personality dies each night and began again each morning. How sure could you be that the `person' inhabiting the body in the morning was the same (or different, for that matter) from the one from the night before. Sleep was a discontinuity; discontinuity a metaphor for death. Seemed very neat. He had written stories about the old cliche of personality transfer, and all of the emphasis had been on the contradiction or paradox of two simultaneous copies of the `same' personality: a kind of a Hegelian situation where the two personalities must necessarily begin to diverge as soon as they become separate; infinite variation at each night. But that was all about something else. His personality, whatever it was, was certainly unique. And if each day were a new person, then each old day's person was surely dead, discontinued, terminated, gone. Yet we feel connected with all those yesterdays, and anticipatory of all of the tomorrows which will happen to, presumably, someone else.
He was frustrated to hear of his immediate transfer off-planet. He was consigned to an orbiting R&R station for a few days, then sent as part of a small crew to a small planet in a neighboring system. He'd find out what that was to be about when he got there. Accelerating from planet orbit in a more elaborate but still client-limited ship, he could sense that the server system was using limited power, and he knew that many days would pass as the client was handed off from controller to controller, ultimately send out of the system on a virtually ballistic path to the next controller. There was little choice but to relax and try to wait quietly for the long-sleep drugs and the dreams.
He awoke with a start next to Dorothy. He was in the grip of a nightmare. A first nightmare had passed, but his second was a nightmare about nightmares. He was in bed, in his dream, thrashing and writhing, trying to scream himself awake, trying to wake his mother who would hold him and comfort him. He actually awoke as Dorothy murmured a soothing question, "are you dreaming?" She had heard him moaning.
He tried to clear his mind of the afterimages of the first nightmare. He was a cop? capturing and dismembering a dangerous killer whose decapitated head was tightly Saran wrapped separately from his body for security purposes, but still jabbering in the cruiser. Then he remembered the second nightmare, and why he had reason to be afraid of nightmares. He grasped as his heart. He woke Dorothy. He tried to be calm. He failed.
All his imagination could produce, all that this magical `personality' could express, was terror. Terror at this incident: how badly had he stressed his injured system? Terror at the future: would he ever get control of his anxieties; would he ever regain the ability to survive the fight or flight adrenaline rush? Terror at his own terror. He needed to talk, wanted to lay still, needed to relax, wanted to pace. He became aware that all of his drugs were for his physical system, he had nothing to calm him rudely re-created personality. He mourned his life, his confidence, his self-control, now apparently all dead. He couldn't sort out the sensations in his body from the terror in his mind, yet he clearly felt his insides knotting. He tried deep breathing, tried to appreciate Dorothy, now fully awake and trying to comfort him, but he was totally disconnected by his terror, which consumed him.
When he did sleep again, hours later, his dream was an angry confrontation, and he awoke to a silent re-play of the same emotional debates which he could never resolve. He wished he could look into his chest to see the artery, confirm that it was still open, see the oxygen flowing through to his heart muscle. But the terrified part feared that he could never be so assured, that he could never see, that he would never know, and that the old personality was indeed dead. Maybe now he knew what the discontinuity of personality transfer did feel like. He had died, and his personality was now contained by a different, fragile, almost artificial vessel. The vessel was OK, but the personality was threatening to disintegrate under the strain.
The ship played soothing music, which had no actual effect but to remind the crew that they were about to be drugged into oblivion. He barely knew the other passengers; in his present state of mind he barely cared. The alien ambassador, back on the planet, had fretted about the need for getting a new recruit for the special assignment, but that was all receding at the speed of time.
At least he was driving now. Wherever he was, this galaxy didn't use client-server ship control. Each vehicle was autonomous, and he was the man. Of course, he had also been drugged to the gills and been sleep-instructed hundreds of times on the proper flight pattern. Still, if he twitched, so did the ship. If there were any ground-based safety systems at all, he could, if he chose to, fly right into them. Crashing was an option.
But he was a very careful flyer now; he had made notes after the sleep training. He was not going to crash again; he didn't like it.
The atmosphere was blue, with clouds that had a burnt-orange edge. Busy flying, he seemed to appreciate the view even more than when he was only a guest in the cockpit. He decided to come in rather low (optional route 7a) and follow the craft's shadow as he descended directly out of the star-light. Touchdown was rougher than he had anticipated; either the runway or his touch was '2% off nominal.' After landing he was elated, hungry and tired. Space flight never used to tire him out. That was then.