Only Atoms

He felt his eyelids open but there was nothing to see. This was a darkness that transcended darkness. This was more than nothing. This wasn’t blackness. This was oblivion. 

Mr. Graves was weightless.

‘Hullo?’

His voice was empty. It sounded like a whisper within the helmet. 

‘Hullo?’ he said again, but the word trailed away. He had no confidence in such a simple word. The vastness of the all-surrounding dark was horrible.

The first mate’s breathing was growing louder. He was panicking. A tear rolled down his cheek and he groaned.

Calm, said a voice from the dark.

‘Huh? Hullo?’ Ezekial turned his head frantically one way and the other.

yourself, the voice said.

‘Hullo?’ he pleaded. ‘Who’s there? Nathaniel? Or Zebediah? I cannot see you!’

Neither, replied the voice.

‘Oh, who is it?’ he asked. ‘Reach out, perhaps we can grab onto each other.’

There is no need, said the voice. 

‘Come now! Reach out! We’ve quite clearly gone overboard from the ship!’

I am all around you. I feel your very atoms.

‘What is this?’ Ezekial demanded. ‘A game? We are going to die out here, wherever we are.’

I cannot tell you how this will end.

The first mate didn’t respond. He felt his brain tingle. His breathing slowed.

Hello, Ezekial.

‘Who are you?’ he whispered.

I have never considered that.

Ezekiel hesitated, then said, ‘You are in my mind.’

I feel your very atoms.

‘You don’t have a name.’

I am a void.

‘That’s where I am,’ said Mr. Graves.

Yes.

‘You do have a name.’

I have been named many times.

‘I know all your names.’

I have shared them with you.

‘I am in the center of a void.’

You are the only atoms here.

‘You are here.’

I have not an atom.

‘Because you are a void.’

Because I am a void. 331 million light years across.

‘777 million light years from Nantucket Sound.’

And not a million light years more.

‘So there is nothing here.’

Oh, you know that to be false.

‘There is more here than I could ever fathom.’ Ezekiel Graves knew that to be true.

Here there be not a single atom. And yet an incalculable number of them as well.

‘How?’

The voice seemed to inhale. The void exhaled. How? the void concurred.

__________________

First mate Ezekial Graves woke up to the cabin boy shaking him. 

‘Adam,’ he slurred, trying to push the cabin boy away, but aching with fatigue all over, ‘what is the meaning of this?’

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ the boy said. ‘You’re burnin with fever. And you’re in and out.’

Mr. Graves gazed around. He was on his cot, on the starship Cygnus. ‘In and out?’ he asked.

‘Awake and asleep, over and over,’ Adam replied. ‘Tossin all around.’

Ezekial put his hand to his forehead. He felt his skin on fire and sweat pouring down. He could hardly breathe. His head sunk into his pillow, which was uncomfortably damp. The first mate looked the cabin boy in the eyes. ‘My boy . . . am I dying?’

Adam shrugged. ‘We don’t know, sir. Captain’s just got me keepin your head cool with this here rag, and shakin you awake when you start tossin about.’

Mr. Graves was silent for a moment. ‘Where are we?’

Again, the cabin boy shrugged. ‘Captain don’t know.’

Ezekiel inhaled and exhaled painfully. ‘The captain does not know?’

‘We came to the black hole . . .’ The boy paused and thought and didn’t go on.

‘And then what?’ the first mate said.

‘I don’t know. No one really seems to know.’

‘Well, did we pass into it or not?’

‘Some of the chaps on board think we did . . . and some don’t.’ The cabin boy appeared just as confused as his words.

‘I must get up and see.’ And try the first mate did, pushing himself to sit up in bed. His breathing came sharp and stabbing. He collapsed back down, huffing for air.

‘Better to avoid that, sir,’ said Adam. ‘You need a good night’s rest, actual rest. Maybe try to sleep. And don’t get up, don’t toss. Avoid that.’

‘Avoid that,’ Ezekiel Graves muttered to himself. ‘Avoid.’

The cabin boy nodded, wetting the rag in a pail of icy salt water. ‘Yes, sir, avoid.’

The first mate reached out to the candle’s flame flickering on the table beside his cot. 

‘Careful, sir,’ Adam said. ‘Don’t want to burn yeself.’

‘What does it look like out there, boy?’ Mr. Graves asked.

‘On the deck, sir?’

‘Ay,’ whispered the first mate.

The cabin boy swallowed. ‘Tis dark,’ he said. ‘Such darkness like nothing I ever seen.’

‘Ay,’ Ezekiel repeated. ‘Twas my notion.’

‘Captain’s certain we’ll find our way out of it.’ The boy attempted to sound hopeful.

The first mate nodded weakly. ‘Quite.’

‘I can’t imagine how we find a way out,’ the boy whispered, a whisper now so suddenly vacant of hope.

‘Boy,’ said Ezekial. ‘You are the only Adam in this void.’

The cabin boy stared at the dying first mate. 

‘You are the only Adam in the void,’ the man said again.

‘I don’t know what ye mean, sir.’

Mr. Graves smiled. ‘Tis just a joke.’

‘Ah,’ Adam said but still didn’t comprehend.

‘A play on words.’ The first mate’s eyes drifted closed. ‘It matters not,’ he mumbled.

The cabin boy rested the cold rag on Ezekial’s burning forehead.

The first mate’s lips moved.

Adam leaned in. ‘Did you say somethin, sir?’

Ezekiel Graves only barely whispered. ‘It matters,’ he said. ‘It all matters.’

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