LIFE OF ORPHEUS
Orpheus. They call me Orpheus.
The asteroid had felt the weight of the shuttle displacing its particles, the slight increase in mass subtly changing its gravity. It had felt the pricks of the tools chipping away at its surface, and then deeper, down into its core–taking samples. The asteroid felt no pain—but perhaps some amusement.
It had never had a name, had never needed one. It knew who it was, and the other bodies of mass around it could not ignore its presence, so what did it matter what it was called? Still, the asteroid was flattered. It listened, intently analyzing the clanks and whirs of the machinery, the conversations of the crew members, the messages broadcast to them from Earth.
There were two things the humans were seeking. First, minerals. Sampling the rocky flesh of the asteroid was their primary objective, and the asteroid was willing enough to oblige. The millions of particles that composed it sang together as a single unit, forming thoughts and attitudes the same as those formed by any other coherent mass. To a rock of such size a few samples meant little, no more hindrance than the flakes of dead skin shed by a human. The second reason for the quest was of far more interest. The humans were looking for evidence of life. It was perplexing to the asteroid. The minerals were understandable, but life?
What is life?
Orpheus strained to discern the signals emanating from the humans’ brains, tuning out the overwhelming static of stars and planets.
They have a list?
The listed attributes included things like “homeostasis” and “organization,” “growth” and “reproduction,” various measures of stability and change that could loosely be applied to almost anything in the universe. Orpheus thought smugly about these criteria, trite descriptors it could sense being ticked off in the humans’ minds as they inspected the obscure particles, missing the massive intelligence of which the samples had been a part.
What were they looking for?
What more could they want?
Orpheus noticed that one of the crewmen was thinking a lot about his home—that he was scared. What was there to be scared of? It certainly didn’t mean them any harm. Orpheus listened closer to the crewman’s thoughts.
He was afraid of dying.
But what is death?
What did the humans think happened when they “died”? The nerve endings would cease to fire, keeping the humans’ cerebral consciousness from drowning out the thoughts and whisperings of the rest of their matter, but surely they didn’t think they would cease to exist. Some of their particles may be absorbed by other masses, but the whole of their body would continue to exist for decades—parts perhaps for centuries or longer. Individually, their particles would always endure in some form, a permanence of existence that was to be revelled in, not feared.
Searching for life, when life was all around them. Afraid of death, when death was meaningless. Orpheus was suddenly bored. It tuned out the humans and started listening to the radiation it was receiving from the sun. It paid attention to the stars, all of them, their sizes, intensities, and the distances between them. It basked blissfully in the cacophony of life burgeoning all around it in the ever-expanding universe.
Orpheus was jolted back to its immediate surroundings by an explosion.
Again, it didn’t feel any pain—now it did feel indignation. What did they think they were doing? It turned its attention to the humans and their thoughts.
Destroy it! They were going to blow it up! Orpheus sensed from the humans that it had been labeled “potentially hazardous,” and they had deigned to remove it as a future risk to the Earth. The impertinence!
Fortunately, that first explosion had only been intended to open a hole wide enough for loading the rest of the explosives, so Orpheus still had time to… to…? What could it do?
Orpheus began to panic, experiencing the sensation felt by the homesick crewman—fear. There was nothing it could do but sit and wait and watch as its imminent destruction unfolded. It tried to think, tried to reason away the whole calamity as just a natural progression, an evolution in its existence. It wasn’t very reassuring. Orpheus noticed that the hole in its side was full.
A sudden vertigo-like rush washed over the asteroid as the shuttle thrusters pushed the craft away from Orpheus’ surface, and Orpheus thought, briefly, hopefully, that maybe the humans’ plan wouldn’t work. Maybe the explosives wouldn’t go off, and the humans would decide to just go home. Maybe it’d all be okay.
Orpheus felt a spark deep inside of it, and after a moment of absolute calm—it detonated.
Great blocks of the asteroid blew apart in all directions. Orpheus felt them go with a wistful anxiety, sensing the diminishment in its consciousness with each departing molecule. It was like a human losing the senses of sight or smell, only all at once in millions of tiny pieces.
The mass of interconnected thoughts and emotions that was left of Orpheus careened toward the Earth, eventually hurtling into orbit and finally into the atmosphere. It felt the fire of the atmospheric particles’ resistance, the burning friction that enveloped it, and it longed for the solitary life it had had previously, only a cosmic blink of time before, high above in space.
But that life was over. The particles that had composed Orpheus’ body still existed, scattering across the solar system. The particles would exist in some form forever. But this was no consolation. For all practical purposes, they were gone. Orpheus reflected on its existence through the flames, wondering what would come next.
What will happen?
Where will I go?
Will I still exist?
Will I still be me?
For a moment Orpheus felt absolutely, utterly alone.
Then it felt the Earth. The pull of the planet’s mass reached out toward Orpheus, beckoning, its magnitude encompassing him, permeating him, soothing the panic with a warm embrace. The discomfort of the incineration ebbed away, and Orpheus’ awareness expanded beyond itself. It felt the Earth’s molten core, the various layers of rock and sediment, even the photons bouncing off of its surface, dancing in an array of choreographed chaos. The bright greens and blues stretched out before Orpheus, filling its consciousness with light and color and life.
Orpheus arced across the sky, now a meteor, blazing somewhere high above the Pacific Ocean. There was a final, brief, brilliant streak of light, and Orpheus died.
Food for Thought
The main philosophical underpinnings of this story are pretty transparent and the following questions can be found in the text of the story itself: What is life? What is death? (And after death:) What will happen? Where will I go? Will I still exist? Will I still be me?
About the Author
Carl Grafe lives with his family in the Salt Lake Valley, which he enjoys on days when it’s not snowing. His short stories and poetry can be found in The Colored Lens, Perihelion Science Fiction, Star*Line, and elsewhere.
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