Rocket Science: Chapter 5 – A candle and the shadow

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A rising hum passed through his entire range of hearing, like the proposed Ravel-Class Dreamliner lulling passengers to sleep.

He had a sudden vision that maybe he should have done Flight Attendancy. Bags flashed through his mind: leather bags, suitcases, knapsacks, pouches, rucksacks, backpacks, bumbags, plastic bags, swags, beanbags, handbags. He saw every being he had ever encountered, holding a different bag.

Marley assumed PriMate was assessing his decisiveness. He advanced to the end of the corridor and propelled himself down a set of stairs which continually renewed.

A lift appeared. He entered. There were no buttons and Marley sensed no movement, upwards or downwards. The doors reopened a minute later and he emerged into a hospital ward.

The instructor from baggage handling tapped him on the shoulder: “Imagine the insurance bill of the company. Injuries of the staff!” Just when Marley thought the haranguing would never cease, the instructor slid through a crevice and vanished.

The walls became wooden and damp. Continuous dripping followed his echoing steps. He reached a blank enamel plaque next to a bolted door. Each bolt slid out of its socket and the door opened courtesy of an unseen mechanism. Venturing into the dark chamber, he perceived that the only source of light was a solitary candle.

A hooded man sat in a far corner, shrouded in shadow. A harsh whisper escaped him: “Are you the one I’m looking for?”

“No,” Marley said, “I’ve been looking for you. Or I think I’ve been sent to you.”

A figure hides behind the candle (Wikimedia)

“Sit down.” A chair scraped along the floor of its own free will. It pushed at Marley’s posterior. He slumped. Immediately he felt relaxed. He had heard about neon chairs. They sent the sitter into a trance. His awareness of the PriMate simulation faded and the room became the only reality. The chair was surrounded by a wan, pulsating glow.

Three minutes elapsed.

“You are a tiny drop in an immense pond.”

Another minute of silence … before the hooded figure opened his mouth, a pen poised over very old paper.

“What is your earliest memory?”
“I’m not sure. Playing in the greenhouse garden.”
“If you could have anything you wanted, what would it be?”
“That’s tough.” Marley laughed. “A Jovian Sports Coupe?”

“If you could go back and change anything, what would it be?”
“There are too many things I would change.” Marley looked at the floor. “I’d join LOL.”
“Liberation of Laughs.”
“Liberation of Life,” Marley corrected the shadow.
“Go further into your past.”
“I don’t have a past, really.” He remembered the day Olan departed. In hasty tones she had promised to return soon. She left him 10,000 elon and settled his tuition fees.

She was frequently less and less in touch but continued to send currency. Her messages were short: “On a cruise ship: 2,000 elon. Heading to Centauri, where your father was seen.” This message spooked Marley. Olan had told him his father was dead.
“Sailed past desolate Zorge. Deposited 2000 hyperion for any travel expenses.” Marley wondered why he would need to travel.

Then: “Here’s 4,000 flemings for additional medical expenses.” Marley could think of no reason as to why he’d need to see a doctor, then realised he was seeing one now. He was grateful for the money, but it didn’t seem much when Olan was flying around wherever.

He said to the hooded figure, “I am thinking about my stepmother. I spoke to her today, for the first time in ages.”

“Is that all?”

“I also wonder about, my mother…” If Olan had lied to him about his father, perhaps the same was true of his mother. He was told she had died after giving birth to him, maybe during his birth. But according to records, no one on Crete had ever died of childbirth.

The hooded figure threw a page in the air. It burst into flames. “This is your past. Combusting.”

An exhalation of air brushed the side of Marley’s head. Turning slightly, he thought he saw two figures side by side, one brighter than the other, man and woman. When he looked in their eyes, they disappeared.

“Who are they?”
“That is for you to decide.”
“Are they … my parents?”
“That is for you,” and he paused as if to give the words more merit, “to decide.”

Marley’s only remaining family was Olan. The last memory of his father was also his earliest. He was in his flight suit, helmet under one arm.

On second thoughts, that was not a memory of his father. It was the cartoon hero Captain Querulous.

“When you return, there will be a blue pill in the dispensary. Take it. The psychological assessment is over.”
“Is that all? Who are you?”
The husky voice replied, “That is for you to decide. Perhaps I am a projection of your ideal self.”
“My ideal self doesn’t wear a hood.”
“You lack insight into yourself.” The final three words reverberated around the chamber. He withdrew the hood.

There was nothing there. Marley gasped. His pulse quickened.
The lights on the neon chair brightened and relaxed, soothing him once more. The hooded figure began fading.

Marley quickly declared: “Why is my hooded self here, in this dark room? Where is the proper lighting?”
As if in response to his query the candle brightened. “Your ideal self is deep within. The candle represents your force, and how much of it is left!” There was a hint of menace.
Marley was alarmed. The candle brightened, then dimmed. The hooded figure leaned closer, “Every question is part of you. You are curious. Good! You want to be something more… more than you are!”
“You’re telling me, or rather, I’m telling me!” Marley laughed.

The hooded figure drew its hood back over the nothingness.
“Doesn’t my ideal self have a sense of humour?”
The hooded figure laughed uproariously. The laugh was wicked, unfathomable, unsettling. For twenty seconds it continued, almost mockingly.

Marley retreated, up the lift, up the stairs, around the corridors. The laugh followed him. The last laugh was a wheeze. He opened his eyes and found himself curled on the diamond plate. A strange exhalation of wind brushed the side of his head.

A blue pill was waiting for him. These were given to people who needed stabilising, one way or another. Marley looked at it sternly before taking it with the remainder of his tea, which was surprisingly hot. He was sure at least thirty minutes had passed since he started wandering through his unconscious.

The colours encircling him ceased to flash.

Weirdly, he heard the hooded figure whisper into his left ear: “Sleep and you will drown. Seek and you will stumble.” The echoing voice died.

His VT shut itself down.

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