The Stars We Reach

Anna tracked the winding mass of wires snaking from Lawrence’s shaved head to a table cluttered with equipment. Hard drives buzzed and hummed as monitors scrolled data faster than she could read. Other equipment lay alongside--connectors, storage devices, homemade machinery she didn't recognize. In the center of the chaos, a single dull glass cube nestled in a metallic base. It occupied the lone cleared spot on the table as if the other equipment had backed away to acknowledge its superiority.

In the opposite corner of the room, an IV drip and heart monitor huddled, disconnected and silent. A thin patina of dust dulled their surfaces.

"We’ll be together for the rest of your life! Think about it, Anna!"

She studied her husband’s gaunt face. Ember spots colored his otherwise pale and sunken cheeks. Excitement, or fever? She couldn’t tell. "I don’t know, Lawrence."

"I’m dying." He waved his arms, loose skin shaking with the movement. "It’s in my nodes, and spreading." He took her hand, his fingers cool and brittle. "We’ll be together, Anna. I’ll still be able to work."

Even in his frail condition, he radiated a heat of enthusiasm and confidence. Nothing is beyond your reach if it grabs your attention, Anna thought. Lawrence Delacroix's brilliance and doggedness had led him to success after success. It had led him to invent this technology to save himself even as his body inexorably failed. It was how he’d won her.

She'd thought she might take up her long abandoned studies again after Lawrence succumbed to the one challenge surely beyond even his genius. It had been so long. She'd nearly forgotten the person she'd been, full of hope and potential, destined, she'd been sure, for discovery. Recalling that younger woman ignited a rush of excitement in her chest, quickly quenched by the guilt of anticipating Lawrence's death. In the end though, it didn't matter. Lawrence, as he always did, had found a way to overcome the insurmountable. Her dreams would die in his place.

"What do I do?"

He smiled, his bloodless lips holding the same assured grin he’d flashed when she’d accepted his marriage proposal. "Flip the big switch. When the light turns green, pull the personality-cube out of its bay, and plug it into that other slot." He pointed a shaking finger at a second, empty indentation. "Then I’ll be able to talk to you through the computer."

She fingered the switch and wondered if she would be his executioner. But no, Lawrence never missed a detail. Leaving things to chance was the sign of a weak mind, he'd often admonished her. She managed a weak smile. "Ready?"

He nodded, his yellowed eyes bright.

"I love you, Lawrence."

"I love you too." But his eyes were focused on his machines.

She’d been studying astronomy, dreaming of traveling to the stars when they’d met. She'd understood immediately that Lawrence’s intelligence dwarfed hers, as unreachable to her as the galaxies she observed. She’d been young, and easily impressed though, and Lawrence had felt to her like touching those stars.

At first she worked alongside her new husband, helping where she could, doing the menial tasks that freed him to follow his leaping thoughts, providing a sounding board so that those thoughts could echo back to him, chain-reacting and evolving until they flared into leaps of genius.

Together they shared one breakthrough after another and his renown among the scientific community swelled. She leaned on his arm and smiled as colleagues shook his hand at gatherings and showered him with awards. Slowly though, so slowly she had hardly noticed at first, her grip on his arm slipped away. She found herself leaving his orbit, forgotten at an empty table along with his suit jacket, to be gathered on the way out. Finally, even this pretense became unnecessary and she stayed home dreaming of the stars she'd left behind and waiting for his return from symposiums in Bern or Kyoto or Sydney.

The light blinked green. Small bolts of light darted beneath the personality-cube's translucent surface. Anna held it in her palm and felt warmth, like the promise of life. It vibrated against her skin. Across the room, Lawrence’s body lay still on the bed, eyes and mouth open, skin already paling.

She pressed the personality-cube into the socket. The equipment around it hummed to life. Monitors that had darkened as the light faded from Lawrence's eyes, flared to life, awash with information. The hum of the computers pulsed, like a heart seeking its rhythm.

"Anna? Can you hear me?"

The voice blared from a mounted speaker, full of Lawrence’s rhythm, but none of his humanity.

She tilted her face toward it, not knowing where else to turn. "I can hear you."

"It worked! How magnificent!"

Anna wondered if he could sense her smile. "Did you ever doubt it?"

"There was no way to test the system other than simulations. It's still rudimentary. There's so much to be done." He laughed, a static cackle that coursed down her spine like a shock. "You’ll be my assistant, my eyes and hands, at least until we get the mechanical systems online. After that, I can do it myself."

She moved to a darkened window and pressed her forehead against the cool glass. "And what will I be then?" she asked, quietly.

"What you’ve always been. My wife!"

Outside, stars stippled the night sky. Familiar patterns beckoned, sending her imagination soaring along lines of potential, futures scattered like far flung galaxies. What she'd always been. Reality was simply a path chosen from potentials, and for the first time since her youth she could see choices before her.

As she walked through the door, she ignored the soulless call of her name behind her. She had spent too long orbiting that star when there were so many others to be explored.