Short Story

This is a version of a story I wrote when I was in high school, almost 30 years ago. Yes, it’s dark. My sister, after she read it many years ago, asked if there was anything I wanted to talk about.

But please don’t try to read any psychological significance into this; it’s just a story. Like Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

“Isn’t it a beautiful day?”

It was the kind of question he’d heard a thousand times before. Meaningless small talk. Social interaction, nothing more. The asker of the question didn’t really care if he thought it was a beautiful day or not; he was simply being social, interacting with another human being in a manner typical to the species.

It was also the kind of question that drove him to distraction. Meaningless. Social. Without any purpose other than to connect one individual to another. The thing was, he didn’t want to be connected to any others. To be social. When he was honest with himself, he acknowledged that he didn’t even really understand what “beauty” meant.

He wasn’t full of hatred, or anger, or disdain for his fellow human beings. Truth was, he had no emotional experience whatsoever. “Numb” was a fairly accurate description of how he “felt.” He couldn’t remember being “happy,” even on Christmas or his birthday or the day he lost his virginity. He couldn’t remember being “sad” on the day his dog died, or when his parents divorced, or when the earthquake had demolished half the city he lived in, killing 2500 people.

He had no recollection of feelings of “pride” when he’d graduated from the university with top honors in science. He had no feelings of “love” for the woman he’d married and produced a child with, although he was always mindful to maintain the appearance of devotion and dedication to both his spouse and his offspring.

The reality of his existence was that he’d never, truly, really, felt ANYTHING at all.

He’d experienced physical discomfort, true, when it was cold. He’d known pain when his brother had hit him because he’d broken his favorite toy as a child. And he had known hunger, and thirst, and fatigue, and heat, and pain. But those were all physical reactions to environmental or biological stimuli, not something “felt” internally. They weren’t emotional responses.

For 35 years, he had existed, and felt absolutely nothing. He had no connection, whatsoever, to the living creatures around him. He didn’t hate them, he didn’t love them. He didn’t even view them as obstacles to his own goals nor pawns to be used; he had no feelings, at all, about them. Or anything else.

He simply existed.

He realized that he was different from others. He recognized the fact that other people loved, and hated, and feared, and grieved, and rejoiced, and worried, and exhaulted,  but he had never felt any of those emotions. He didn’t feel better than those who’s lives were filled with emotion, nor did he feel worse. Superiority and inferiority weren’t  something he recognized outside of quantifiable, measurable parameters. There was only difference.

“Yes, it’s a very nice day,” he responded.

Once he’d met the social expectations for small talk, he’d returned to his lab. His work was the only thing that held anything resembling meaning for him. It was his purpose, if indeed he recognized that there was any purpose to his existence. Because, while he felt no emotions- no love, or hate, or envy, or greed, or pride, or friendship, or ambition, or shame- he did experience one thing; curiosity. He wanted to know.

—–

Realizing that he needed to rest and to eat in order to continue his work, he paused. He prepared a simple meal of animal protein, grain carbohydrates, and vegetables, and consumed it. He required no seasonings or condiments, because he took no pleasure from his meal; it would have been as satisfactory to him if he’d eaten the contents of his sandwich as a blended mush. The food was fuel, no more.

A typical person, happening upon him in his lab, might have asked questions.

“What is the purpose of your work?” they might have inquired.

“What are you trying to do?”

“Why?”

Had any of these hypothetical individuals actually encountered him during his work, he would have answered, “Because I want to see what will happen.”

He had no goal or purpose beyond satisfying his curiosity. Like an impulsive child wondering, “What will happen if I push this button?” he had no reason for his actions.

Neither did he have concern for their consequences.
——

From an early age, he’d realized that there were certain expectations of members of his society. When someone asked, “How are you?” the correct response was, “Fine, thanks! How are you?” or some variation. When someone said, “I love you,” he was to say, “I love you, too.” If someone said, “Oh, that’s so sad,” he was to reply, “Yes, it’s very sad.” Actually feeling emotions behind the responses, however, seemed optional. If the correct words were spoken, it really didn’t matter what, if anything, he felt about the situation. His external response was, obviously, much more important than his internal response to any situation

—-

The premise of his work was simple, really; he wondered if it was possible to cause the atmosphere of a planet to spontaneously dissipate, and what would happen to the inhabitants of said planet if the atmosphere did, in fact, spontaneously dissipate. It did not occur to him that the consequences of such atmospheric dissipation would likely be horrific for those on the planet in question, as he was quite incapable of recognizing any such horror. If the entire population of the planet died, he reasoned, that was simply the result of the event. He reduced it to an equation in his mind:

If Event A occurs, Result B occurs.
A=B

Mathematically, it would seem reasonable to most people. That is, until they realized that A equalled the destruction of the human race.

But he wasn’t most people.
____

It seemed a very simple proposition to him; find a way to rid the planet of it’s atmosphere. Since the atmosphere was composed of chemicals (hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen primarily), if he could introduce something that would either cause those elements to dissipate or to react and form some other element, he’d be able to rid the planet of its atmosphere.

He’d studied Chemistry, and understood what happened when chemicals reacted. He also understood that there were some elements that resisted reactions, but, with the correct catalyst, could be “encouraged” to respond to stimulus. And, through his research, he’d discovered the catalyst he’d been looking for. The one that would make the planet’s atmosphere consume itself.

For a moment, only a moment, he felt the glimmer of something.

Deep inside.

Something he’d not experienced before.

A feeling that caused him to look upon his achievement with approval.

With… pride.
____

The explorers entered orbit around the planet. It was, to say the least, an anomaly.

The landing party approached the planet cautiously. While it had no atmosphere, sensors showed that there were cities, towns, buildings, technology. It appeared to be a modern, developed society, ready for contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. Except fot the fact…

…there was no life on the planet.

The explorers wandered among the silent, airless cities of the planet. Everywhere they found the bodies of the inhabitants of this planet, frozen in the moment of their deaths. The frozen airlessness of space had preserved them for eternity; millions of people, faces locked in expressions of fear, of desperation, and of hopelessness. Millions of faces, with similar expressions of horror.

Except for one.

In a science lab.

His expression, cemented for all eternity.

One of joy.

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