”Round and round at the break of day, candles glow, fiddles play . . .” The Fantasticks

Second Chances
by Daniel Kason ©2013

The others are gone. It is just me now. We crossed the vast gulf of space, we passed star after star like streetlights on a dark empty road. Except here the streetlights are separated by light years, and the road has no end. We were asleep for most of the trip, but these past few years have been the longest of my life.

I wonder sometimes if I have gone mad, if my years of seclusion have twisted my mind. But I am not insane. I remember every detail of the trip with perfect clarity. I still suffer through the deaths of the others, when I can barely rest and drift in and out of sleep.

I stare down, hovering between my ship and what cannot be mistaken for any other planet but Earth. The blue oceans, the swirling white clouds, even the shapes of the continents: they are so clear to me, and the truth is so obvious yet so hard to accept. It isn’t possible. So many years have passed. I should be at the other end of the universe, not at the doorstep of home.

What has happened? What has gone wrong? What does it mean to travel farther than anyone before me only to end up right back where I started? No human being has ever been so far from home, yet so close.

The others would have their theories. If Matthews were still here, he would say there was a glitch in the ship’s computer. We set out into space, but we only circled our solar system before returning to Earth. We were not millions or even thousands of light years away from home, but only one, maybe two.

If true, this theory would mean all of our waiting has been for nothing. Instead of going into stasis, we could have been with our families; we could have been home. If Matthews is right, it would mean all this time, while we thought we were farther from Earth than anyone has ever been, in reality we were only a short trip away. And now it is too late. Everyone we ever knew died eons ago, and we have no real home anymore.

I don’t like this theory. I have more faith in our computer than that. Besides, we mapped the stars each time the ship roused us from sleep, and each time they were different.

Jacobs would have a different theory. Jacobs liked to believe in the impossible, in the extraordinary. He would have said that during our voyage, the ship entered a wormhole, a breach in space. Without knowing it, we have been traveling through that wormhole for years, centuries, or even the majority of our trip, and have only just reentered space, back where we started. Earth.

I’m fond of Jacobs’ imagination and enthusiasm, but I cannot believe this argument. If wormholes exist, the odds of encountering one in space would be extremely low, and the odds of that same wormhole happening to lead directly back to Earth are nearly impossible. No, I love Jacobs, but he would be wrong here.

On the far side of Earth, it is night. Artificial lights brighten that half of the globe. I even see the glow of New York City, millions of people going about their lives. This planet is undeniably Earth, and yet I continue to believe, against reason, that we made no mistake. What other explanation can there be?

I have been lonely these past few years. We started with thirty. When we awoke, only six remained. We were supposed to gather data from each galaxy, visit the planets that were the most likely candidates for life, move on and repeat the process. The supplies were meant to last ten years, to account for those brief intermissions when we were not asleep in our tanks.

The trip certainly didn’t happen the way we expected. Most of us died before waking, yes, but the greatest travesty was when we discovered that the tanks had quit functioning. We were stranded in space, unable to reenter stasis between galaxies. Going home was now an impossibility, as the journey would last far longer than a lifetime. What other choice did we have but to tour the universe until our last breaths left us? And who knows? Some of us thought. Maybe we would find an alien or two after all.

I wonder what the others would say now if they could be here with me, if they could glimpse the planet below me, if they could see what all of our efforts have amounted to. I don’t think they would be happy. I don’t think they would even believe it, much less understand. I know I don’t.

Because we were only six, rather than thirty, the supplies lasted longer than ten years. But as time went on, food started to become scarce, people started to get anxious and scared, and then they started to die. McMillan was the first to go, after about twenty-five years, and Hendricks followed soon after. Matthews was taken after the thirty-third. And Jacobs finally succumbed on the thirty-eighth, making me and my wife, Dawn, the last two survivors.

I’m lucky. I’ve only been alone for a year. Dawn waited until we were nearly there before allowing death to take her. She couldn’t have known, and I was supposed to follow her soon after. There is almost no food or water left. Everything is gone now, even my resolve. Even the sight of Earth isn’t enough to fill me with longing for the past. I did not expect this. No one could have expected this. I imagined myself journeying through space alone, touring star after star, planet after planet, finding nothing, and then dying like the others.

We were searching for Earth-like planets, not Earth itself. In all of our discussions of what alien life might be like, we never once imagined turning a mirror to ourselves. We imagined the bizarre, the extraordinary, but it turns out the only thing humanity is capable of finding and understanding is ourselves. Horrifically, tragically, implausibly, that’s all there is in the end. Us. Our own image.

This is insane. Idiocy. Some kind of sick joke. Maybe I am going mad after all.

I know what Dawn’s explanation would be. Before leaving Earth, we heard a theory. It has long been supposed that the universe sprawls out infinitely in every direction, but over the years this explanation lost favor. But, perhaps, even though the universe is not infinitely large, it has grown to such a monstrous size that it approaches or even mimics infinity. Perhaps the universe is so tremendous that even given a trillion trillion trillion years, light will never travel more than a fraction of the distance from one end of the universe to the other. And in such a universe, would it not be reasonable for certain worlds to be similar, or for some even to have duplicates? After all, there can only be so many outcomes before a certain event must appear twice. Flip a coin a million times, and the chances of only landing heads are despairingly low.

But with an infinite number of attempts, you will inevitably land a million heads at least once. In the same way, you could try to recreate our Earth a trillion times and still fail, but given enough tries, maybe even on the trillion and first, you would eventually succeed. The universe has had fourteen billion years and more space than our minds are capable of conceiving. However unlikely, any possibility is probable or even destined to occur.

How many failed attempts did it take before the universe synthesized a true Earth? Quintillions? Decillions? Centillions? A googolplex? Do we even have numbers high enough to guess?

But this Earth is different. This Earth endured the possibilities. Against all odds, or perhaps because of those odds, this Earth turned out like ours. The logic is simple, really. You can believe Dawn’s theory, or you can believe something else. In any case, I see no alternative. Perhaps I choose to believe her theory because I love her. I do not deny this possibility. But I cannot ignore my feelings, either, and as I look below, gazing upon the carbon copy image of my planet, my home, I truly feel that she is right.

I am old now, and I will die soon. To me, the ship is a coffin. Twenty-nine people died for me to get here. To this one spot. None of them knew it at the time, not even me, but this was the reality. This was the most likely outcome. Even Dawn, who believed in the unlikely, would have trouble making sense of this.

I look down, and I wonder: are there people there? Of course there are. I saw the lights. But what I mean is: are there people like me? Do they have five fingers on each hand, or six? Do they have two legs, or three? Perhaps I stumbled not upon Earth’s identical twin, but its cousin. Perhaps I will fly down to the planet and live my life thinking everything is the same, only to discover years later that here, the Allies never beat the Axis, or here, Shakespeare never wrote Romeo and Juliet, or here, Beethoven died before he could compose a single piece. Man never landed on the moon. The Beatles never recorded a record. Every great accomplishment withered into unlikelihood before it came to be.

Or consider the other side of the coin: the atomic bomb was never deployed, the bubonic plague never wiped out a third of Europe, a thousand wars and diseases and genocides simply never happened. Or maybe Dawn’s right, and it is exactly the same, down to each person, place, and event. The same political figures, the same writers, movie stars, businessmen: they all lived and died right here, in an atom-for-atom scale model of our world.

Can it be that everything we thought was special and singular and unique is exactly the opposite? Everyone on Earth, living their lives, thinking their experiences are their own, when on another Earth the exact same events are happening in the exact same way at the exact same time. Perhaps there is even a clone of me down there, going about his life, not knowing that another version is floating out in space at this very moment. But if this man is my perfect copy, and events in history went exactly as planned, then this second me wouldn’t be on this planet. He would be out in space right now, on a voyage through the stars that left him the last survivor of what everyone assumed would be a failed mission.

Only it didn’t fail. But it didn’t go as expected, either. At the other side of the universe, he is floating now over yet another Earth. Or perhaps it is the same Earth. My Earth. And he is having the same thoughts I am at this very moment.

I cannot account for everything. Wondering about every possibility or eventuality will bring me no closer to the truth. Yet I am content drifting here, letting my eyes wander from continent to continent, sea to sea. The sun is coming up on the other side of the planet, and the glare hurts my eyes, but I look anyway. New York is fast asleep, its lights blinking on and off for those still awake and daydreaming as I am. Maybe I am getting nostalgic after all.

I do get lonely sometimes, even though I have been so fortunate. I had Dawn with me almost until the end. I remember fighting for her to be selected for the mission. I said I would not go without her. But if I were given the choice again, I don’t know that I would take her with me.

I wonder sometimes if we really have a choice, if the people down there are acting freely or are bound by some law or force of nature we do not understand. If this is a true reproduction of Earth in every way, as I imagine Dawn would suppose, then they must all act in accordance with the people of my Earth. If a man on one Earth cheats on his wife, so must the other. If a woman on one Earth develops a vaccine for a deadly virus, her counterpart must do the same. There can be no deviation or it would only be a defect, not an exact copy. This would mean that my twin floating above the other Earth is having these same thoughts. Now. At this very moment. He would have a choice. He could return to his ship, leave this second Earth, and live out his final days alone, or he could take his chances and descend upon what may or may not be a duplication of his home. If there is such a thing as free will, then neither version must follow the actions of the other. One may visit the planet, and the other may leave.

But this supposition is not fair. In my mind there is only one choice. Whether the other me is choosing as I am makes no difference. If I could do this voyage over again, perhaps I would have chosen differently. Perhaps my Dawn would not have come. Perhaps I could have helped prevent the tanks from malfunctioning. Or perhaps I would have been one of the ones who died.

But none of these events happened. I am here. I am still alive. It does not matter what could have been, because this is what is. And now, amidst a sea of probabilities, I can see that there is only one real possibility. Only one real choice. And I have made it.

New York City is approaching sunrise now. Billions of people thriving below me, living their lives. If I am right, I know everything about them. I know their names. I know their history. I know their struggles.I could be there in a matter of hours. I could walk through Manhattan as I did many lifetimes ago, and I wouldn’t even have to pretend that things are the same. Only, none of it would be the same. I see only shadows and reflections, not the real image. Because no matter how hauntingly familiar, this is not my Earth. This is not my home.

I look down one last time, no longer wondering if the planet is a copy or a farce, the first or the second, the real or the duplicate. I look up at my ship, where twenty-nine people I knew lived and died. My wife, whom I loved, lost her life on that ship. Soon, I will be with her again. I knew more people on that tiny tin can than I do on the entire world at my feet.

At the brink of insanity, dying of thirst and hunger and old age, I have journeyed through the desert of space, and for a brief moment I thought I found home. Of course, it was only a mirage, and as old and weak as I have become, I still recognized that. If only dreams could be reality. If only I could pretend, even for a moment, that it is the same. But I cannot.

All these thoughts, all these memories . . . but none of them of this place, this world. I do not belong here. Maybe if Dawn were still with me, I would go. Maybe if I were forty years younger and a lot less weary, I would take my chances. But I am an old man now. I have lived my life, and I have known my world. Knowing another will not fix my mistakes or change my reality.

As I pull myself back into the ship, I think again of my second self, at the other end of the universe, having these same thoughts, making this same choice—or making his own—and I wonder whether he and I chose the same, and whether it even matters.

x x x

And so we end another year at dear old anotherealm – not with a bang, but a whimper. Did the author whimper well? I leave it to you. Tell him on our BBS. -GM

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