|So, what do you want to do tonight, Senator?|
That was Senator's body in the coffin, right? You did come to ask about the late Senator Darby? That's the only reason reporters ever buy me drinks and you just bought me six. So now I'm thinking I might just lay the whole untold story out right here and now. God, It was one weird joint of a job, I'll tell you that. D.C. B.S., of course, some suckface senator old enough to wear his George Washington deer-teeth dentures, searching for evidence of the holy spirit. Let me tell you, comparatively speaking this program was cheap, the political whimsy of the very Senator Jack Darby. Good senator name, that. Sounds like a pub. Not a bar but a pub, the kind of place non-drinkers like to feel like drinkers, safe and cozy with not one alcoholic in the joint. The thing is, my friend, some folks tell you science is another religion, but then others think religion's the science. That is, they want and expect proof: "Lookie, here, boy, I'm God. Go ahead, stick your finger in Me. That's it. See how it goes right through time and space? Well, yeehaw, my faithful little friend, what the hell you waiting for? Climb on board. Break out your bad music manuals 'cause it's hymn singing time." Okay. This is what happened. One day Senator Darby read a Popular Science magazine article. It concerned my research into the high altitude blackouts suffered by jet pilots. When the brain can't get enough oxygen, it shuts down into a white light blissout some might call heaven. It lasts just until a pilot blinks and remembers he's flying through space. You've heard that near death crap, "Come to the light." That's all it is: oxygen deprivation. I was yanked off Edwards Air Force Base and shipped to D.C. with a copy of that magazine and a bible signed by Darby. Under his signature was one of those smiley faces--the smile upside down. I guess that meant he hated my conclusions. Most likely, he interpreted my research backwards. That is, he thought the pilots really did see the Pearly Gates and were rudely interrupted by danger. Now he wanted a longtime study with reliable results, proof there's a God and heaven, especially for Americans. That's what I thought he wanted, anyway. Next day I'm in Darby's office. "I'm not gonna lie to you, Senator," I said. "I don't believe in the mysteries of life and love." "I'd rather not believe, either," he said. "You understand, I am not a good man. Evolution can't use a person as twisted as me, except to bug up the gene pool. I just hope the lights go out and that's the end of the story. That's the rub: You tell yourself if you ever get a medical death sentence, you'll travel the world, shoot dope and screw everything that moves. Or become a desert monk and stare at the moon. But you don't. Your mind gets taken over by the past, weird angles of light, memories, sad songs, elevator music, the way an egg cracks on a coffee cup. Most of all, you start worrying about hell." He drummed his fingers on the desk. "Being raised with a conscience was a terrible thing for a man like me. All I want is a few months free of it. You know what conscience is? A break in the action. It never stopped my misdeeds; just ruined the fun. Now I wanna sail the seven seas, rape and pillage, one last hurrah. Who wants to be judged? The thing is . . . " He leaned in close and grasped my hands. "I wanna ride that jet and see it myself. I wanna see and feel the light burn away, know it's an illusion, that when those curtains part there's nothing but whatever darkness minus darkness equals. Nothingness is my final wish. Blankness. Serenity." "I can't put you on a jet, Senator." "Why not? What's the option? Put a taskforce together, study my ass and kiss it? How long would that take? I can arrange it. It's six in one hand and half a dozen in the other -- years, that is. I don't have that long. I'm on the big committees. I've got a lot of power for a dying man. Would you rather spend the rest of your career in a veteran's ward? I can arrange that, too." Three months later I'm staring at the New Mexico sun. I could only imagine Darby's jet propelled astral projection. He said nothing on his way through the lower edges of space. All I heard was the breathing, the raspy pipes of a man on his way out, amplified and ripped, a faint phlegm gurgle. No doubt rocketboy Faust crapped his pants and never noticed as he shot through blue and made his way to white oblivion. The Washington cover story? Darby had "fancied jet aeroplanes" since he was 12 years old. So Congress would oblige the old coot with an atmospheric retirement gift. But why should they care enough to grant the bizarre request? Darby's history of sexual indiscretions was about half an inch from journalistic daybreak. His compatriots figured they'd shoehorn him out of office before the public demanded ethics hearings. If the plane crashed, all the better: Six gun salute sends the whole mess six feet south and well shy of the next campaign. The magazines and news shows would settle for "Dying Senator's Last Wish Ends Tragically." And that would be that. When the pilot zeroed in on the runway and started coming down, I made a secret wish: Let the Senator get what he wants. They had to remove him as if turning a crab inside out. It wasn't easy. Darby, you see, got just what he wanted and was practically paralyzed with joy. I never saw a man so happy to learn there was no afterlife. I guess it was a little like a guy who feels safe in prison scoring a life sentence. Maybe Darby was onto something--change the rules of the game and you can win every time. You just have to redefine winning to a point most folks would call losing. Finally they removed his helmet. His eyes were split wide open like he just dropped 50 hits of acid. Seemingly, he had turned into an Albino. He had the expression of a lion focusing on a zebra. We took him straight to the hospital for all the tests you'd give an old man. We let in one pool camera for the networks and allowed no interviews until he was released. He was silent for hours. He not only wouldn't talk, but couldn't. The next day we let him go. He never said a word to me. Two days later they found him on a D.C. freeway, skin dragged across half a mile of concrete. How does a grown man fall out of a car moving 90 miles an hour? Not by accident. He opens the door and jumps. He makes like the highway's space, the car body a jet plane. He looks to merge with nothingness and blots himself out on the hot summer concrete. You don't know this part, right? Well, they buried it good. And how do I know? The morning after his death I received a letter from the Senator, dropped in the hospital mail slot so it'd take the usual week reaching me back in Washington. "I have to thank you, doctor," he wrote, "but I must face something. Nothing is ever enough on this earth. I got what I came for, but it spit me back into the dull dry desert. Now here I am again with the tubes. I know I can't go back, but I thank you for the experience. Zero fades fast. Into what? I can't answer that, but tomorrow night I will. So I'll say my goodbyes now. Destroy this letter. Of course, say no prayers for me." As far as the public was concerned, an old man fell asleep at the wheel and fell out of a door he had left half-closed. What they scraped off the highway wasn't pretty. When I touched the Senator's "hand" to say goodbye, it wasn't his. Nor did the Bishop know he had just kissed and blessed the body of a surgically enhanced mannequin, soon buried six feet under with the knowledge that nothingness is as uncertain as being and could not exonerate him for a misspent life. Only acts of Congress, along with a few lies and omissions, can do that.
x x xThis story--hard sci-fi with a horror edge--swept me along with its terse style and outre subject matter. I found myself liking the narrator but--strangely--also liking the senator. Go figure. -GM