It all happened hundreds of years after the popular scientists of the day discovered that suns, that is stars, were actually sentient beings.
That particular beam of enlightenment had only come about because we’d finally reached a point where humanity as a whole had hesitantly put away its collective anger and gingerly joined together under the assumption that if anything was going to get the human species out of the sorts of messes it was so good at getting into, it was going to be science. That, and we’d finally been in possession of the right sort of equipment for long enough to take notice of certain astronomical quirks that had always been cast aside as mere unexplainable phenomena.
After all, one wouldn’t have much luck reading War and Peace given only the first letter of each word all at once.
Picture this: A lone astronomer in her nondescript lab coat working in her nondescript lab. Her name is Barbara Bossbottom. She’s holding a nondescript clipboard and a very fancy fountain pen, and she’s walking in and out of rows of banks of machines whose primary function is very much like that of a sophisticated cosmic colander. Frothy, rolling, boiling streams of data fall toward earth from space and the machines catch the parts that human beings have decided are important and then let the rest dribble away. The machines say, “Beep!” Barbara, forever sequestered in the Otto Swanwelter 242 Observatory in Utah, sometimes quietly answers them with her own, softer, more feminine beep.
Barbara is a Gemini and loves cooking traditional Mexican dishes. She has also been dead for many generations, but that’s neither here nor there. She departed this life after producing two healthy sons, creating the original design for the EXCELSIOR line of safety goggles that were popular with scientists for almost half a century, knitting more than one hundred sweaters and, of course, making one of the most enormous and disastrous discoveries ever.
On one particular (and very important) day, after marking what needed marking and crossing off those things that needed crossing off on her clipboard, Barbara returned to a desk in a small office away from the rows of banks of machines and settled in to do what she did best in the world. Everyone in the world is best at something, usually something small and most never know it. No one in the entire world was better than Barbara Bossbottom at tabulating and condensing large amounts of the universe’s babbling. When the machines in the other room were cheerfully beeping away, she would sit down in front of long, continuous sheets of paper and imagine the pulsars keeping time while planets piped, comets called out and the stars sang in harmony.
On that (very important) day, Barbara was listening to the stars. She was listening to their song via graphs and charts and long strings of numbers intelligible only to those who had amassed years of training. Barbara had amassed not only years of trainings, but eight degrees and numerous honorary degrees, awards, highly-praised papers and the respect of her fellow astronomers. You’d think she’d be happy, but she was very, very sad.
It was that simple emotion, which throughout time has so inspired us to love those we shouldn’t love and step out where it’s inadvisable to tread, that for some inexplicable reason inspired Barbara to comb through the oldest data she had access to, then the next oldest, then the next oldest and so on, until she thought she simply must be crazy because there, all lined up like astral dominoes, was a message.
The message read, quite clearly: “Hello. How are you?”
“I’m fine,” she said to no one in particular. She was holding the clipboard. Her fine pen was in her pocket. She felt like the butt of an extremely misplaced joke. In fact, Barbara was so convinced that one of her colleagues was playing with her that she contacted as many as she could think of, just to be able to shove the data in their faces and say, “I’m not anyone’s fool!”
The result of that action was that the news spread throughout the scientific community with the combined speed of no less than eight solar flares and, while astronomer after astronomer rushed to publish newer and more up-to-date findings, the headlines of every major world paper printed headlines like SUNS SPEAK! QUITE POLITE! and WE’RE FINE, HOT STUFF and SUN STROKE: THEY ASK, WE TELL? and WHAT TOOK US SO LONG?
As scientists were quick to point out, the real question was not what took us so long to notice but what took the stars so long to say. A careful and critical analysis by the team headed up by one Barbara Bossbottom revealed that stars had plenty to say and were saying it, all the time. Stars discussed a wide range of topics, none of which would interest the layperson (except certain bits of cosmic gossip usually left out of released reports at the scientific community’s best judgments) and all of which captivated the hearts and minds of astronomers. They were, as was initially discovered, very polite and quite fond of small talk. They also spoke very, very, very, very, very, very slowly.
After Barbara died and the rest of her team did the same, special groups of astronomers were brought together to further study the talk of stars. The groups were called Generationals. Eventually, they also died but the trainees they’d trained went on to train others and so on. A new sort of public emerged, thirsty for scientific knowledge. Pop idols were a thing of the past. Sun worship, in more forms than one, was back in vogue. All over the world, people were sporting t-shirts and bumper stickers and lunchboxes emblazoned with the words Wir Sind Nicht Allein, No Estamos Solos and We Are Not Alone. It was an important, joyous, and magical period in man’s history.
Four-hundred and twenty-seven years later, further careful and critical analysis of the messages broadcast by stars revealed that they had nothing to say to us. Nothing at all. The greeting that had sent shivers of excitement and true universal brotherhood down humanity’s collective spine had not been meant for human consumption. It turned out that stars were a pretty insular group.
“That,” said astronomer Obvert Kukule, as a guest on the Sunday Morning Early Edition Unbiased Human News (or UHN for short), “would explain why they haven’t been, eh, returning any of our calls, so to say.”
It was Obvert’s respect for the intelligence of the common man that led him to make this announcement and, while it is quite generally known that very few people tuned in to the Sunday Morning Early Edition UHN, the news spread rapidly.
Obvert went on to say: “Further analysis of certain messages passing between Mintaka, the uppermost and faintest of the three major stars that form belt of Orion and the magnetar NTTS 045251+3016 has led us, eh, the scientific community, that is to say, astronomers, for the most part, to understand that these suns recognize our messages as being meant for them but see humanity as nothing more, eh, than billions of monkeys at billions of typewriters. Sometimes, according to the stars, that is, we churn out something that makes a bit of sense.”
“So, in essence, we’re chattering gibberish,” said the newscaster solemnly.
“Gibberish,” agreed Obvert.
The public’s reaction was immediate. Some saw the cosmic cold shoulder as the inevitable result of humanity’s fundamental immaturity. After all, what would a bunch of giant, helium- and hydrogen-based life forms want with a bunch of puny beings like us? Others countered, saying that Homo sapiens sapiens had as much of a right to join the conversation as anyone else. A few days after the broadcast, the real hardcore, anti-sun fanatics (and there were plenty, going around with beautifully-tinted, mobile, personal darkening chambers) declared they wanted nothing more to do with any stars at all and sent petitions to all the world’s major governmental bodies, as well as the U.N. The petition had been signed by millions of furious people representing a cross-section of all races and all religions. It read:
We the people of Earth, of the Solar System, of the Milky Way and of the Universe at large, believe that the whole of creation has been as of recently shown to be nothing more than a giant cosmic joke, with the stars being the biggest jokers of all. We demand the immediate eradication of all things in the following categories: solids, liquids, gasses, plasmas, organic matter, inorganic matter, reproduction (both asexual and sexual, spontaneous and not so spontaneous), life, death, love, energies of all sorts, matter in general, anti-matter, and, most especially, stars. We demand that these things be eradicated on the sub-sub-atomic level so as to be sure that the whole of creation understands once and for all that we, the people of Earth, will not be mocked!
Governmental leaders wrung their hands, not sure of what to do. As would any list of names representing a cross-section of all races and all religions, the anti-sun petition was appended with the signatures of many extremely influential people. The high papal unit of the Church of Universal Computing was signer number three-hundred thousand, four-hundred ninety-two. Buzz Galosh, famous actor, former governor and signer number six hundred thirty-eight thousand, nine-hundred and five, had penned his moniker with a particular flourish and a tiny note in boxy script that read: Let the bastards burn!!
And burn they did while an anxious Earth wondered if every solar flare was a disdainful chortle, every burst of radiation a stuck-up giggle.
What it was that happened hundreds of years after the popular scientists of the day discovered that suns, that is stars, were actually sentient beings, is that humans, residents of the planet Earth, a denizen of the Solar System, which itself called the Milky Way home, declared war. A war of epic and unheard of proportions. A single, simple message was beamed into space eternal from every manned and unmanned observatory of Generationals. We are here, it said, and we will not be ignored.
“The war on suns is less of a military operation, and far more of an intelligence-gathering operation," stated presidents, regents, monarchs, and dictators in simultaneous world-wide press conferences designed to put the people at ease.
The people, at ease, cheered as factories across the globe churned, cackled, creaked and squawked, brought to life by satisfied taxpayers who could finally feel like they were doing something to help all of that errant intelligence get gathered. One factory in Berlin, Germany made rivets. A factory in Arsholi, Italy was producing custom EZ-install airlocks at the rate of fourteen per hour. Two production facilities that sat facing one another on the banks of the Pis Pis River in Nicaragua were having trouble keeping up with orders for Duple Drives.
The Duple Drive was the most advanced method of propulsion available at the time. Of interest primarily to historians and space buffs is the fact that the Duple Drive was conceived of, in theory, centuries before by Sir Lawrence Duple, a dabbler in the sciences. Sir Duple was a descendant of one Dr. Barbara Treadle, whose maiden name was, of course, Bossbottom. The drive was later built by 12-year-old Flumps Walker in the basement of his parents’ home in Medford, Massachusetts, USA. Poor Walker, however, was a sickly child and didn’t live to see the fruits of his labors.
Young Flumps Walker most likely never imagined that his invention would be the force which was to propel the world’s most precious resource, its rosy-cheeked, just-budded youth, out to the furthest reaches of the known universe. Neither is it difficult to believe that Dr. Barbara Bossbottom, alone in Utah, foresaw nothing but goodness in that intercepted communiqué from her beloved singing stars.
Generations later, responses to the informal declaration of war began to slowly drip in, literally from all sides. The Generationals, clipboards and pens in hand, were kept busy night and day as streams of data were filtered, printed, checked, tabulated, and, finally, interpreted, first by the Generationals themselves, then by the most brilliant intelligence experts of the world’s governments. Numbers were carefully scrutinized and information leaked to the press at a pre-determined rate while, behind the scenes, fleets of glitzy silver spaceships were crammed into every available hiding place. A wary public was informed by an even warier press that the outlook “was not good.”
Canopus, in the constellation Carina, one of three modern-day constellations that formed the ancient constellation of Argo Navis, the ship of Jason and his Argonauts, was one of the first to react in full.
“Suck it,” said Canopus.
A collective message, originating from NGC 206, the brightest star cluster in the Andromeda Galaxy M31, translated roughly as, “Just try it and see what you get, meatlings.”
“You don’t have the balls,” said NTTS 027998+1026.
“The time has come,” said earth’s world leaders, “for action.”
The draft began. The fleet was revealed to a now angry public, who ooh’ed and ah’ed at the mile-long rows of new, unmarred spacecraft glittering in the sunlight. Our own beloved star, Sol, was still undecided. “Better that, than with them,” most people said, idly waving toward blue-black night skies pinpointed with sparkling dots of yellow, blue, and white light. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t know for at least two generations what side Sol would choose since when the message finally did begin to arrive, it came more slowly than usual and thus, by the time we knew where Sol’s loyalties fell, the war had been over for more than one hundred years.
The draftees, all resplendent in tight-fitting green and gold uniforms, were also revealed to the public. They stood, hopeful, smiling young men and women with straight backs and determined faces, lined up, two by two, on lush green grassy fields, under pure-white, waving banners reading: Outer Space: Where We Meet At Last! The hope and unflagging spirit of youth seemed contagious. Some said many decades later that it was like a disease. The disease of brainless, unfounded optimism.
What no one but the highest military intelligence officials and one lone recruit knew was that the world’s brave soldiers were also Generationals, albeit of a different kind. Private Bernardino Aurelia, tan, handsome, and rugged, was blandly smiling for the cameras while looking askance at the curvaceous, plain-faced woman standing at his side. He noticed that she was blinking back tears but grinning a genuinely pleased grin, and waving frantically to someone in the crowd. When they first met, at the briefing where they had been given the assignment that designated them shipmates, he’d noted with interest the wedding band on the ring finger of her left hand.
Aurelia knew the Duple Drive well. He knew what it could and couldn’t do, what it would grudgingly give if pushed to its limits, how to break it, and how to fix it. As a youth, he’d devoured every published biography on both Frumps Walker and Sir Duple. When he graduated from university with a degree in Advanced Universal Engineering (or AUE), the Dean of Students presented him with a commendation for his graduate paper, Doing It Duple: A Precise Look at the Fallacies of Duple-Based Long Range Interstellar Travel. Because of his intimate knowledge of all things Duple, Aurelia was able to reason out a few facts about the impending war that the public hadn’t been party to. These facts included that the Duple Drive would be incapable of bringing a human being to any but the closest stars in a single lifetime. And that he was going to be ordered to mate with the curvaceous, plain-faced woman before twenty years went by. Aurelia was, by nature, curious but he was also a very good soldier and, as such, continued to do his duty efficiently and with unfailing energy.
The enormous, silver fleet was launched on October 23, at 2 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, on a beautifully sunny day, made even more lovely by the unobtrusive phenomenon of Indian Summer. There were long and eloquent speeches by the leaders of the collective world government, televised and broadcast to the remotest corners of the earth. There were grand celebrations thrown by the anti-sun faction in their tinted, mobile, personal darkening chambers, toting posters that read: Burn, Baby, Burn! The elderly, safely ensconced in their rocking chairs and long-term care facilities, collectively decided that it was about damn time and let out a loud, “Humph!” before going back to their newspapers and crosswords. The young, that is to say the people too young to have been chosen for the draft, were split finely down the middle. Some hoped there would be a second fleet launched before too long. Others sat in groups sipping smoke from homemade water pipes and discussing how, really, suns were people, too, and couldn’t we all just get along?
All the rest, the bankers, sewage workers, shop clerks, bus drivers, librarians, school teachers, beauticians, gymnasts, mechanics, prize fighters, TV repairmen, short-order cooks, and everyone else who was too old to be young and too young to be old, had one last long look up at the sky and then got back to banking, treating sewage, selling, driving, cataloging, teaching, combing and fussing, walking balance beams, fixing, fighting, repairing, cooking, and whatever else, quickly forgetting about suns and stars and astronomy in general because someone else, somewhere, was taking care of the problem. That meant that newspapers, radio outlets, and television networks were once again free to discuss not only the scourge of the Zelhombrian Beetle and the record sales for pop sensation Chacco, but the latest white sale at Macy’s as well. Fifteen minutes after the last silver ship was well past the Stratosphere, if you’d asked any respectable adult to give a brief summation of the state of the world, he or she would have given the same response: All is well.
Eleven years later, Private Bernardino Aurelia, who, by then, had a very long beard, smelled like stale beef jerky, and was no longer what you might call a very good soldier, was absentmindedly shuffling a deck of forty-seven playing cards when the Automated Computer General issued an order stating that he was to, with all haste, impregnate Private Natalia Uschevsky.
“Look here!,” he said. “Look. It just came in via the ACG, just like I said it would. We bet, let’s see, ten stubs good for one picture show each at Arnie’s. Right?”
When Private Aurelia and Private Uschevsky had finally reached space and realized the ship was flying itself, when they understood that there would be no real amusement in checking the many buttons, knobs, and dials that looked important but did nothing, when they stopped being Private this and Private that and just became Aurelia and Uschevsky, they began to look for something to occupy themselves. First, they tried conversation, but after four years each knew everything there was to know about the other.
For example, if someone had asked Aurelia the nickname with which Uschevsky had labeled her first EXCELSIOR-brand sexual pleasure unit, he would said Senor Blanco. Or, if Uschevsky had been quizzed on the first three book Aurelia ever read, she would have quickly answered, “The Mighty, Mighty Johnson Twins, Toby Finds A Bone, and The Duple Drive For Children: A Guide.”
Then, the pair attempted to whittle away the endless hours playing word games but, being that they had both received the best engineering education American dollars could buy, they found that their collective vocabularies were somewhat lacking in sophistication. It was during one of the long stretches of silence in which they found themselves more and more often that Aurelia had the idea that they might find something interesting to do in one of the many cabinets and cubbyholes scattered throughout the two tiers of the ship. They found one deck of forty-nine playing cards (two of which were later lost in an accident involving the custom EZ-install airlock), three books of crosswords in which most of the answers had been filled in, two heavily dog-eared Bibles, a wallet-sized photograph of a dark-skinned woman in a tiger print bikini on which had been scribbled, “To my little wuggums Johnny B. -Yours forever Kanji Kane,” a picture book of African mammals, a box of Moon Crunchies, and one hundred ticket stubs good for one picture show each at Arnie’s Movieplex in Jacksonville, Florida, USA.
So it came to pass that the daily life of Private Bernardino Aurelia and Private Natalia Uschevsky fell into a routine of idle speculation. On a day just like every other day, Uschevsky asked, “What do you suppose we are meant to do when we arrive at our destination?”
“Do you really care?” said Aurelia.
Uschevsky shook her head but Aurelia, eyes burning like Christmas candles, was suddenly struck by an idea.
“I’m a betting man. Let’s bet on it,” he said.
“What shall we bet?” she said.
He quickly appraised their remaining possessions.
“What happened to those Moon Crunchies?” he said.
“Eaten,” she said. “I know. We will bet tickets to the cinema.”
Uschevsky bet fifteen tickets that when they reached their unknown destination, they would be ordered by the ACG to set up a base, either stationary or in an elliptical orbit, from which to have it out with the nearest star. Aurelia, who secretly knew quite well that they would never live to see whatever it was they were flying toward, said that he thought that a large cannon might come out of some unknown part of the ship and bet that the cannon might blast some hostile star to kingdom come.
One very important fact that Aurelia had not been able to puzzle out at the start of the mission, for the simple reason that no one had ever conducted an empirical study of the long-term effects of Duple Driven space travel, was that space travel in general, and long-term space travel in particular, was very, very bad for human physiology. What no one on earth knew or, more specifically, cared about, was that the main by-product of the Duple Drive’s methods of propulsion included something called FDA, or Form Dissolving Actualizer. The people of earth were far too busy thinking about rising export taxes on cornmeal, the upcoming Iraq-Costa Rica football match, whether paisley prints could be incorporated into bridesmaid dresses, when Chacco was going to beat his painkiller addiction, where to go on their summer vacations, and other similar matters to wonder, even for a single moment, about the tragic young men and young women who were at that moment caught in the empty grip of space, risking their lives for an uncaring planet.
This was why, when Uschevsky answered Aurelia, saying that he knew very well where she kept her Arnie’s tickets and he ought to just go take them, she was dragging herself across the floor of the ship with a pair of suction cups rather than walking. Uschevsky was an optimist and very handy, besides. When her right leg went numb, she’d limped through the ship, never once complaining. When her left leg went numb as well, she casually began modifying a pair of the suction cups as if she were dabbling in some childhood hobby she’d forgotten to mention, always whistling cheerfully while she worked. Aurelia, who’d spit out two teeth one morning while performing the cleansing rituals prescribed in the army handbook, Daily Living, The Military Way, felt that, because they had never been intimate, it was not his place to bring up her disability.
Nonetheless, watching poor Uschevsky, who was by now no longer so curvaceous but also no longer as plain, navigate the deck had a profound effect on Aurelia, who by then had fallen quite deeply in love with his shipmate. He’d never told her, never even let a hint of it slip, not because she was married or because he knew that close quarters can often be the most potent aphrodisiac but because he knew two things that she didn’t and, in his love, his one true wish was that she continue being happy at all costs. The things he knew were that they were never meant to return to earth and that the Duple Drive was going to kill them sooner or later anyway. He came to understand these things only during the journey, after calculating their trajectory in relation to the nearest stars only to later watch those same stars become visible and then zoom past, quickly fading to pinpoints in the distance. Then there was the FDA, something that had only been hinted at in the many Duple books he’d read, but was clearly very real and very dangerous.
“We should get you into bed,” he said.
“Don’t be a fool,” she answered. “I don’t care what the ACG has to say about it. I’m not going to have sex with you.”
“That’s not what I meant at all,” he said. “I just meant you seemed tired.”
Uschevsky was still a very good soldier. More than anything else in the world at that moment, Aurelia wanted her to go to sleep because he was about to do something that he knew she wouldn’t care for and, even in all his love for her, he didn’t care an ounce that she wouldn’t care for it. They’d passed hundreds of bright yellow and white stars and Aurelia knew, sentient or not, a star was still just a spinning ball of burning nuclear fuel that didn’t give a lick whether he lived or died. He knew that it made perfect sense that burning balls of nuclear fuel wouldn’t have much use for friends who weren’t also burning balls of nuclear fuel. And he knew, with absolutely certainty, that the only thing that really mattered in the entirety of the universe was that thousands upon thousands of young, eager people like himself had been sent on a fool’s errand.
During their time in space, the ACG had, one day, arbitrarily assigned Aurelia a rank one grade higher than Uschevsky’s and, though he hated exercising the authority that came with such a promotion, he did it now, ordering her to go to bed immediately. He watched her drag herself off of the bridge and listened to the POP, POP, POP of her suction cups grow fainter and then disappear altogether.
Everyone in the world is best at something. Private Bernardino Aurelia was best at making Duple Drives do whatever it was that he wanted them to do. He was, it should be noted, only slightly better at it than five men at two production facilities on the banks of the Pis Pis River in Nicaragua but, in this case, slightly better was more than enough. With an ear toward the door in case Uschevsky decided she didn’t give a damn about rank, billions and billions of miles from earth, Aurelia stripped off his ragged and dirty green and gold shirt, tossed it aside, and pulled a square panel off of the wall. Behind the panel were seventeen small, blinking red, yellow, blue, and grey lights, six thick wires wrapped in green insulation foam, two switches, and one large, round, red button. He flipped the switch on the left , which gave him partial manual control, and ripped one of the thick wires clean out of the wall.
It would be impossible, at this point, to explain the many complex manipulations and substitutions that were made by Aurelia’s competent fingers to anyone except the five engineers in Nicaragua. The five men wouldn’t have been interested in an explanation anyhow because, fifteen minutes after that last gleaming silver ship had passed the Stratosphere, they had been sent home to their waiting wives and children and mortgages and student loans and televisions and minivans and no longer had time to think about stars, spaceships, Duple Drives, or things like that. Suffice it to say, all of the things Aurelia did involving the wires, switches, and buttons eventually, after about half an hour, gave him full manual control over the ship’s environmental and navigational controls.
The first destiny-influencing decision made by Aurelia, after putting the square panel back onto the wall, cleaning up the bits of insulation foam that had fallen to the floor, and putting his ragged and dirty green and gold shirt back on, was to raise the ship’s internal temperature by four degrees. Uschevsky often hinted, almost coyly, that she was cold. The second decision, and this was the important one, made by Aurelia was to turn the ship halfway around, so that it was facing the opposite way, and would begin retracing its own path to arrive, eleven years later, in earth’s ungrateful orbit.
Uschevsky never realized that anything had changed, never noticed that they were passing the same stars they’d passed in their younger days, because everything was supposed to be automated and so there was no dial to tell her one way or another where they were, where they were going, or when they’d arrive. They continued to place bets on this star system or that, whether they’d eventually be court-martialled for failing to copulate, and if one inexplicable light or another would blink that day. Aurelia continued shuffling the deck of forty-seven cards. Uschevsky continued to POP, POP, POP around the ship until one day, seven years into their return journey, her arms became too weak to move about the ship and Aurelia made her a soft nest of blankets and old clothing in the center of the bridge and tenderly sat her down on it. Eventually, to ensure that he would always be nearby if she needed anything, Aurelia took to lying there at her side with his face close to hers and his left arm draped gently over her middle.
When the end came, four years later, it was sudden but not unexpected. He could glimpse earth, blue and green and white, from the ship’s few portholes but she, bald, wasted and unable to move, had never wavered in her soldierly conviction that they had remained on their ordered course. He held her tightly as they descended, fast and hot, through the upper atmosphere and then crash landed, hard, on very solid ground. It was nighttime and the interior of the ship was suddenly plunged into a rich, velvety, and wonderfully terrestrial darkness.
“We’ve made it,” Uschevsky said weakly. “That noise, it must have been a docking web deploying. We’re setting up a base.”
“Yes, my dearest,” said Aurelia, who was, by then, using the suction cups she had fashioned to pull himself from place to place because the FDA had taken its toll on his legs as well.
“You,” she said, trailing off.
“Yes?” he asked, putting his ear to her cracked lips, which were stretched tightly over her few remaining teeth.
“You,” she breathed, “owe me fifteen tickets.”
And then she died. Aurelia held her body until it was cold, then left her where she had lain for the last four years, and POP, POP, POP’ed his way to the main console where he switched on an emergency homing beacon. Just like the government, he thought, drifting into the blessed deep sleep of the grieving, to put beacons on ships that were never meant to come home.
The newspapers, always ready to cater to a fickle and gossip-hungry public’s latest obsession, printed headlines like, SUNMAN RETURNS and IT’S A BRIGHT DAY FOR AURELIA and SHINING, HAPPY, AND HOME. As quickly as the public had forgotten about the shun of the stars, the fleet of silver ships, the young, eager soldiers, and everything else, they embraced the idea of Bernardino Aurelia’s triumphant return. While no one was, by then, twenty-two years later, quite sure what he had done or even what he had been sent away for, everyone in the world knew that they adored him. Companies from ADEX Condoms to Zanzibar Climedes Limited, but especially Moon Crunchies, were using Aurelia’s name to endorse their products. Party lines claimed that, for two dollars for the first minute and one dollar ninety-nine cents each additional minute, anyone could talk live with the real Bernardino Aurelia.
The real Bernardino Aurelia was in a nursing home in a small town in Arizona and, while he had an old, black, rotary telephone right beside his bed, there was no one on the entire planet that he would have cared to call. Twenty-two years had passed, his parents were both dead, his few close friends had eventually created images for themselves first in drinks, then in drugs, and finally in stable family units of husbands, wives, and two point five children, and had long since forgotten about him. They knew him, of course, as the face behind Moon Crunchies, but did not remember ever calling him buddy, or pal, or chum. Aurelia’s only love was dead and the real Bernardino Aurelia was nothing but a nearly toothless, broken, and paralyzed man, destroyed by the Duple Drive, FDA and fleeting whims and fancies. For a few months, he’d see his face, his old face, on the evening news, which showed the picture of the tan, handsome, and rugged young man, with the bland smile, resplendent in green and gold. The public, however, quickly tired of the triumphant return of the Sunman and he, in turn, decided he might, on some distant day in the far future, be the littlest bit happy again, as long as every human being left him entirely alone.
His ideas that it might be possible that every human being would leave him entirely alone and that he might be the littlest bit happy again were both proved right, with the notable exception of a single incident. On one October evening many years later, when clouds had filled the visible bowl of sky overhead, igniting a sunset of vivid pinks and oranges and reds, Aurelia was sitting in his wheelchair, contemplating the grass and the trees and the birds that never failed to strike him as beautiful, much more beautiful than the vast, lonely emptiness of space, when he was approached by a young man, who didn’t look much younger than he had been when he’d been sent away to die. The young man was tan, rugged, and handsome in his white suit and Panama hat, and his smile was excited, eager. The young man skipped up the three steps onto the porch. Aurelia lifted a twisted, gnarled hand in greeting. The young man sat down beside him in an old wicker chair and nodded back. Aurelia wished the man a good evening and, taking that as an invitation, the man let loose a stream of words. He was, he said, a student of recent history, double-majored with Advanced Universal Engineering. His name was Kukule and long ago he’d had a relative in astronomy during the sun situation. He was doing his graduate thesis on the long term effects of the Duple Drive and the Aurelia Maneuver. Aurelia nodded politely.
“After all you’ve been through,” said the man. “After everything that happened to you, and here you are, in Arizona, sitting on a porch. You’re lucky to be alive and here. No one knew you could even reverse a Duple Drive before you did it! Tell me, you probably hate the government, right? Wish you could give those old bastards who sent you off a piece of your mind, yeah? As far as I’m concerned, you’re a hero, first class. You went up there but you weren’t going to stay up there, no sir, because you were a survivor. You didn’t let them give you a bum deal, didn’t let them snow you. Are you angry? You must be angry. I mean really, I’d be angry if they sent me up there with no hope of returning, but you, you got back! If you could do anything, anything at all like call the president or bomb the UN or something, what would you do? Right now. Anything.”
“I’d take a walk,” Aurelia said, pointing to his useless legs and then, thinking of all the young men and women who eventually died out in space, particularly one curvaceous woman with a plain face, as an afterthought, added, “in the sunshine.”