It was four o’clock, and it was midnight already. It had been midnight for more than a thousand years, as nearly as Kelly could remember. He should have known better, but he’d gone ahead and invented it anyway, taken out the patents, filed the plans — everything! Made the whole thing available to the public instead of trying to make a fortune from it, though he still controlled the invention.|
He stared at that public through the window of his first floor apartment. They walked by slowly and languidly, not talking much, obviously, nor looking at much either. To look should have meant to be amazed: the marvelous city lying like a garden among the islands, the almost purple-pure bays carving themselves into the curves of the land, sunshine and shadow arranged like wind sculptures on the lawns and gardens.
Kelly moved restively in his chair. He’d known these things could be accomplished —they’d all known. All that had to be done was to get rid of the fear of the final darkness, and presto! there would be light. Forever. And yet it was midnight.
“For chrissake,” Kelly said to his phantom reflection in the windowpane, “how did everything go sour?” Through the hovering image of his forehead a young couple moved silently side by side not holding hands, not looking at one another — among the blossoms and arbors.
They’ve been lovers for centuries, the ghost in the window said, not moving its mesmeric stare from the inventor’s eyes. They’ve tried everything. Over and over again. There’s nothing new. Kelly picked up his glass and took a sip of the ancient Scotch.
Something like the same thing had happened when labor had been abolished earlier —when had that been? When was childhood? That had been another casualty — one forgot, eventually. You walk down a road, and the places you’ve been get smaller and smaller, and eventually they fade out of the picture entirely. Even if they’ve been good places, you lose sight of them. And you’re itchy besides. So you go where somebody else has stamped him- or herself into the landscape, then withdrawn, and pretty soon there’s nothing left but jade instead of grass — hard, cool, unimpressionable: beauty without sensation. And then even the mind’s delectation degenerates into boredom. So they’d all stopped working to have fun, and fun wasn’t fun any more; it became work.
For a few years after the abolition of labor there’d been a sort of frenzy of sensation, until Kelly had grown up and invented Eternity. Before that everyone had at least had death to brood about, like a cloak or a hood that got tighter and more stifling as time swelled bigger and bigger in the throat.
The grandfather clock across the room heard him thinking, Kelly guessed, because it swung a lancet through twelve and bonged five times. He snorted and took another drink. “Why in hell do we keep them around?” he asked the cold glass in his hand.
“It’s been midnight all over forever. Who needs to tell time? And what can you tell time anyway?” For a moment the meaningless questions floated around among the ice cubes in the rich, golden liquid, then they slipped away into a minute clink as he raised the glass again.
For death had kept accomplishment from being significant — really, from being enjoyable. One struggled throughout a lifetime to make something or attain a goal only to have it all sifted away through the bony fingers of the Grim Reaper.
Wouldn’t it be truly an accomplishment if one could abolish death so that everyone might spend eons appreciating what these marvelous things, this brain and this body, could do? — Kelly raised a hand and let his index finger massage his left temple for a minute. The ghost in the windowpane did likewise: Kelly sighed, for it had done the predictable thing — it had mimicked him and mocked him. No one did much of anything in these latter days. What was the point? There was no probability of the existence of the impossible anymore.
But there had been that personal fear, the cold fear that Death had induced in the human race. Death had kept people strangers from one another because, to let another person into the place of terror would be to expose too much — too much frailty, too much degradation of the heart. So we were strangers, the ghost said, strangers walking around with identical abysms yawning in our bellies. Strangers who had to keep up the common front, sinking slowly out of sight before each other, each amazed at the other for breaching good taste and faith by dying in public, or in private and letting the word slip out.
So Kelly had invented Eternity, and all that was done away with. What a relief it had been for a while! What marvelous leisure. The suicides — or attempted suicides, now — stopped. Nobody needed to worry about how it would take place, and no one had to take things into his or her own hands to end the suspense, or be in love with it in order to hide one’s hatred of it. Cowardice disappeared, for there was now a world of meaninglessly brave people.
“But later, when we began to miss age and to grow bored...,” Kelly shook his head.
They’d tried everything, in droves: leaky submarines, daisy chains off cliffs...you name it. For a while there had been a revival of sensation. Even those who didn’t want to die had given it a try, just to see what it felt like.
When they’d found out it hurt, they quit. Kelly lit a cigarette and put out the match by squeezing the burning tip between two fingers. He winced. Thank God there was still pain.
Why do you keep cursing? the watcher in the windowpane asked him. All those terms are empty now. We’re all saved. Forever. The inventor sneered derisively at his image. What kind of fantastic Heaven had it been that man had dreamt for centuries?
Eternal Life! Good Grief. Kelly couldn’t stand the irony of the thought or its ramifications, all of them run into the ground long ages since. So he dragged on his smoke and finished his drink.
It’s time, then. You’ve been thinking about it enough. The patents are yours in perpetuity — you made sure of that in the beginning. Millions had died while the world’s parliaments had debated it, the nations talking and rioting until all opposition had collapsed. So you can do it, and nobody will object anymore.
Go down and do it. His reflection wavered for a moment, steadied, then floated up toward the valence as he rose. He straightened his tie, brushed some lint off his trouser leg, and turned toward the door.
“After all, it’s the only reasonable thing to do,” the inventor said as he turned the knob and stepped into the street. Kelly’s footsteps shuffled in the thick grass of the lawns; his cuffs brushed pollen out of the blossoms as he walked at long last through the island city toward the vault in the Federal Building intending — yet one more time — to destroy his patents and the invention.