Into the Depths

GALAXY

It’s a weird thing facing your own mortality at age eight. Lying in a hospital bed in hospital greens, fading away from the effects of leukemia. Spoiler alert going into this: I don’t make it. Yes, I’m dead. I know you’re probably wondering about the whole writing when you’re dead thing, but the rules are different here. And it isn’t anything like you’d think it is. No pearly gates or endless fire. No eternal black, either. I don’t know, maybe it’s different for everyone. Maybe I just lucked out with what I got.

Even though I died when I was eight, I guess I’d be in my late twenties now. At least that’s what it feels like. Your faculties continue to evolve even after you die, or at least mine did. But anyway: me in the hospital bed. I remember passing the time trading Pokémon cards with the kid across the hall, the one with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I gypped him out of a first edition holographic fossil baby Raichu for a Dark Charizard, the budding collector in me already knowing how much my haul would be worth.

There are people who allege that those close to death can sense things that others can’t. I’d have to agree. It’s hard to make sense of what this is around me, but it feels like you’re at the end of a strange and good dream, just getting lucid, aware that you’re dreaming, and you try to wake yourself up but can’t. It’s like that, only instead of waking up you exit yourself entirely, separated from who you were though you retain everything, floating with no sense of direction. There is no up or down, only around.

For lack of a better word, there are different “settings” you can tune into. You can see in ultraviolet if you want to, dip into the milky swirls of nebulae. You can take on a more physical form, but it’s painful. Not in a physical sense, but an emotional one. Like someone close to you just died, but the feeling won’t go away until you leave. Maybe that’s what it is to be a ghost. I don’t know. I’ve only been here twenty years or so, and in the cosmic scheme of things that’s nothing.

The first thing I did was to stay with my parents after I went. I couldn’t get the hang of it at first. I’d segue into the fibers of their bed and see everything at a microscopic scale, scale everything down until Earth was a marble in front of me. I figured it out, though. Took a physical form to try to reach them, but nothing really worked. My mother cried into her pillow, muffled as her chest heaved like she was being defibrillated. I’d shift pictures, close doors. That’s about all I could do. Her and my father would shift the pictures back, open the doors up again. So I left the physical form and just watched them. Watched them go about their days, trying to will themselves to follow their old routine without change. I watched my mother collapse at a bus stop, finally revived by a passerby. Her tears ran her makeup down her aching face and she caught the next bus out.

It wasn’t pain so much as an aching dullness spread throughout my body as I listened to hospital beeps and lie awake, light pollution letting up sometimes so I could catch Orion’s belt through my window. I’d make little sketches for my parents and the kid across the hall just to pass the time, still lifes of medical miscellanea and my feet peeking up from underneath my blanket. Wrote stories of children who discovered hidden superpowers while lying in hospital beds, transmuting to an insubstantial form and gliding through windows and walls, flying past the clouds and into the inky blue. I’d get up sometimes at night and walk the halls, careful to duck into doorways whenever nurses or orderlies would pass. I’d peek into the rooms of the elderly especially, watch in curiosity as they struggled to breathe through the night, tunneling tubes and ventilators helping them out. Sometimes I’d sneak in and stroke their silvery hair, touch their soft cheeks before touching my own in comparison.

If I want, I can watch each subsequent year pass by like a flickering movie before my eyes, projected against inky black. See what it would’ve been like to have my first kiss, manage pimples, graduate high school. I watch as I pack my beater for college, taking the interstate with the windows down. I get married, have a couple kids, watch them toddle towards their grandparents. After that it gets fuzzy, the potential realities colliding like particles in the LHC. There’s too much guesswork to be done, even in the afterlife.

I can swell to the size of planets, shrink to the smallest quark, but I can’t bring back what was lost. I busy myself with returning to the origin of man, observing dinosaurs as they roam prehistoric lands. I watch as the first organisms traverse through the primordial ooze, illuminated even in the depths by the sun that gives them life. I ache for my parents and wish I could tell them that it’ll be okay.

I walk those lonesome hospital halls now, looking for the ones who are soon to join me. When they’re asleep in the middle of the day, I shift their curtains to keep the sun out of their eyes, push with all my might to shut doors when it’s noisy out in the hall. And when they go I guide them, into the depths, away from all of their pain and suffering. We float above the room and leave it entirely, rising higher still till the sky doesn’t exist.

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THE GOD PARTICLE

It was a routine job. They’d just tested a 7 TeV event, the beams had circulated already, but a component needed to be replaced. Overheated likely. It was a common occurrence at the LHC. Billions of dollars, and still the thing was as vulnerable to minor malfunctions as your average coffee maker. But that’s what Dmitry was there for. He was a tinkerer, and so he plied his trade in any way possible. It just so happened that the machine he was currently tinkering with was responsible for the discovery of the mythical God Particle.

He hated the name. He didn’t want to be a pain in the ass, but he corrected anyone whenever the term was used in his presence. “Higgs Boson,” he’d say, like some stern schoolteacher. “The other term is more of a media construction, not entirely representative of what it is…” By then, whoever he’d corrected was already zoning out, a combination of annoyance at being corrected and disinterest in Dmitry’s attempts at being pedantic. But he wasn’t really. Being pedantic, that is. He felt as deeply about the proper use of terms in public life as he did about his nonbelief in God or any sort of spiritual deity. He wasn’t an antitheist, didn’t feel it necessary to convince anyone else of anything they didn’t already believe (he recognized the irony of atheists who complained about religious fundamentalists espousing their views while simultaneously trying to push their own beliefs on others), he just refused to take anything on faith. He was an empiricist of the highest degree. You could have a gun pointed at his head and tell him that you were going to kill him, and he’d refuse to even accept the fact that a bullet would come out of the gun until it actually entered his brain.

But anyway, Dmitry was replacing the component. Simple, he’d done it a thousand times before. The machine was delicate despite its enormity, but Dmitry was a consummate surgeon tending to his patient, each movement precise and handled with the utmost restraint. He really cared about his work, it was tangible. Out of nowhere, an alarm sounded. Blaring, seemingly coming from every direction. Dmitry’s stomach dropped out, like it had just decided that being a part of his body was no longer in its interest. Before Dmitry even had the chance to conceptualize the fact that this was a nightmare scenario, that the particle accelerator had been activated while he was still tending to it, before he could panic or pray to a God he didn’t believe in or rationalize his impending death, a beam of pure white nothingness escaped from around the bend of the LHC, heading his way. The last image Dmitry had in this mortal world was of Jon Osterman, his favorite character in Watchmen (and perhaps his favorite character from any fictional work) as his intrinsic field was torn from him, fating him to become Doctor Manhattan.

Th-re was a w-rm, m-lky swe-tness. A sp-ce had op-ned in his m-nd. The pi-ces were sc-ttered in the w-nd, and he had to p-ck them all up, like l-tters m-ssing from a Scr-bble bo-rd. He used his bra-n feroc-ously, the only th-ng he ever f-lly tr-sted. Sl-wly, l-ttle by l-ttle, his id-ntity came back to him.

He was Dmitry. He was a tinkerer. He had been fixing a component on the LHC at CERN, and there’d been an accident. He had died. But no, that was impossible. If he’d died, there’d be no consciousness, no mind to think these thoughts. He was alive. But he looked down, and there was no body. Rather, he thought he looked down. He had no eyes to look with, but he was seeing. No mind to think with, but he was thinking.

He was surrounded by the most brilliant colors he’d ever seen. They had an ethereal glow to them, full and rich beyond conception. Dmitry felt as though he could swim in them, taste them. They filled him up as he explored this new plane, like pure sustaining manna. He hadn’t a care in the world. The words “Higgs” and “God” meant nothing to him. He didn’t need them, or any other words for that matter. This was an all-consuming bliss, permeating his every fiber of being. He felt as though he was being held in the arms of an inconceivably massive giant, a creature whose every wish was to keep him warm and comfortable. He could lie here forever. And so he wanted to, just like that.

But it wasn’t to be. It all flooded back, Dmitry’s consciousness filling up his flesh-and-blood body like a bucket pouring haphazard into a dirty aquarium. The vessel muddied up the pure water, that spirit of light and love that Dmitry had been a part of for the briefest of moments. He coughed up, his lungs fighting to provide oxygen to his brain. His body didn’t want to let go of that spirit just yet, like some child desperately clinging to his favorite blanket. Dmitry laid there, flat against the cold ground in CERN, his eyes peering up at the ceiling. In the periphery, the LHC itself. The sound of footfalls as others rushed to Dmitry’s aid. But he wasn’t worried. On the contrary, he was excited. He knew what was waiting for him now.

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