The stars are quiet tonight.
Rising and falling, breathing and whirling, they prick against the velvet cushion of space in sheets of black and navy. The spaceship suspends on airless wings, smiling and winking at the sun. And thousands of light-years off, a supernova will spiral and recycle into new worlds.
Only one astronaut stands at the tip of the door, peering at the starlit wash of milk – like a careless brush, streaked – across the sky. Only one cord that connects him to the ship and keeps him from slipping away.
(Am I real?)
Milky Way smiles like a bright, unblinking eye.
(No, you are real. You sow stories in my heart and the impossible in my eyes. You gave me wings to fly. You gave me a reality that was not quite mine.)
And a lifetime.
(I spent my whole life understanding you.)
But what he remembers now is a story lodged at the back of his mind.
Once upon a time, a boy who was not quite real fell in love with a girl who was truer than earth. He did not know why; but knew he was borne of an innate longing to give. The sun shone in her eyes. Grass in her hair. He cradled her memory on wet earth days, preciously, and branded her smiles on his heart.
He could pass days and nights just dreaming of her. Skipping stones. Tracing stars. While ignoring Civilization's sporadic structures, he'd stand on top of a hill and feel Greatness washing over his metal frame. He'd pose questions: what is greatness? What is real? What's it like to drown in blue, nothing but blue and milky stars?
There was only one problem, or premise, or idea that lingered in the spaces between spoken words.
The boy was a robot.
The girl was human.
There's a scatter of stars in the distance, budging the ship ever-so-slightly.
Well, now, the astronaut whispers. His voice echoes, like Darth Vader underwater. But Darth Vader is gone. He'd haunted dreams, closets, and empty halls; a Past, dark and unknown as the world from whence he'd come. (What the astronaut never told anyone was why he became an astronaut in the first place.) And suddenly – Darth Vader no longer exists. Isn't real. How it must have been like, moving those limbs that were not his and inhaling a detached world.
(But then again, how do humans know they're not really inhaling a detached world?) At least Darth Vader will never haunt the astronaut's mind again.
(If only they knew what I'm capable of, Milky Way. If only…)
Far away, a supernova grins.
Elsewhere, a star will die unwillingly.
It's ironic, the astronaut muses. There are at least one hundred billion galaxies in this universe, ninety percent of which is formed from dark matter. But there is only one astronaut who doesn't feel quite real.
And the astronaut is so close to the earth that one step can send him into the deep, inky depths of an endless milky sea.
So, the boy who was not quite real got down to business and mapped an invincible plan. He pondered and poked around the AeriLibrary, that airborne shrine of a hundred-and-one books. He studied picnics, analyzed chocolate. Experimented with adhesive tape and, unintentionally, locked himself in a stalemate war between robot and relentless stationery. When he succeeded in stripping the last piece off his elbow, he was still unable to unlock the mystery of being human.
That's when the robot decided to write a story. After what seemed like an eternity of planning, he finished the first draft of Captain Jackie and the Amazing Phosphorescent Mushrooms of Andromeda Duplex. He'd never met a pirate before – only in visual simulations – so he was spared history's gruesome and tragic truth about pirates. This was why, as the robot tucked the story under his arm and skipped happily to the girl's house, he couldn't help feeling happy and unreal as the story he'd written.
It was a fine, sunny day when he rung her doorbell. He waited for thirty-two seconds before the door turned. Then, the robot was suddenly struck by a fear of the unknown and a terror of the all-too-familiar. He felt weak in the ears. Squeaky in the brakes. So he threw his story on the ground, by the door, and fled into the nearby trees praying for a miracle.
"Hey you, whatcha doing here?"
The astronaut frowns. His head is talking again and telling stories he doesn't want to hear. Or maybe it's the Earth talking.
"Whatcha doing at the top of the world?"
(Watching the Milky Way, dreaming, that milky splash of sea, wondering how I can fill her mystic holes of dark nothingness.)
Is the earth crossing her arms?-
"Now, now, close the door and get real. You've wasted a whole lot of resources just standing there and gaping at nothing."
"I am not gaping at nothing."
"Then, smart ass, you've obviously got your head in the clouds – or rather, above! You've chased the moon, lost yourself in the way. Now simplify. Get back to reality."
"I-I'm only a shadow."
"That's all I'll ever be."
Months passed. Finally, a package with no return address arrived at the boy's front porch. Curious, he tore the wrapping apart and came across his very own story of the past. And a message:
I've read your story. It's too unreal and I don't get a single thing from it.
Aghast, the robot went home and fervently finished a new story. This time, he wrote about something he understood. He wrote about a longing and a desperation for space. How to catch shadows. How to it was like to reach out, talk to thin air, hold Socratic discussions, and return to earth with nothing in hand. A real story.
When he was done, he decided to send the story through CyberMail. But that was too unhuman; he'd only be another obscure name in the volumes of spam that snaked through CyberMail day by day. So he took a deep breath, went to her house, and gently slipped his package through her door.
(Maybe you're not real, Milky Way.
Perhaps this is what you're telling me; your taciturn silence. I'll mistake it for an answer but it's only a cold, cursory glance. I can stand by the phone and wait: war of attrition. I can always be waiting. Perhaps, someday, you'll unfold like those Russian dolls and the truth will hit me like a whiplash.)
What would the Milky Way know? Ninety percent of it is dark matter without a feeling or form. There are one hundred billion galaxies in this universe, but only one reason to die.
Perhaps that was all life amounted to. Death paved the way to the stars.
The astronaut takes a deep breath: because you are more real than I'll ever be, therefore…
He slices the cord.
NoosMail; a conversation
Hi, I have no idea what is going on.
The story you sent me. What's with that astronaut? And him committing suicide??
What did you think of it?
I don't understand. Why would he do that?
I dunno, perhaps he was sick of life. Or couldn't wait to find another.
You call this a real story and you won't even explain why the astronaut got sick of life.
That's okay. Just a hint.
But really, your story gave me the chills. It's so… surreal.
Does the astronaut have a name?
…You know who the astronaut is.
I'm in love with a galaxy.