The party was held at a hillside home built on prime borderfront property. Its southern exposure overlooked an immense expanse of colorless clay that ran all the way to the world’s edge. Clay, but not really clay. Closer to nothing at all. It defied the diurnal arc of sunlight and cleaved to an absolute and nameless hue and luminosity. The void, they called it, with the ‘v’ left lower case to minimize the impression of substance.
The husband leaned against the deck railing, clutching his drink. He ignored the razor-flat horizon and looked down on the traffic that choked the main drag of the little town below. Plump tour buses, lean rental cars, muscular media trucks sprouting satellite dishes. A small crowd milled in the turnaround where the beach merged with the void in a dance of perfect ambiguity. The congregation’s speculative buzz floated up the hill, aided by the heat of late afternoon, but failed to reach the husband.
What did reach him was the journalist. Young, female, ascendant. A good foil for a man in midflight at maximum altitude. She settled in at the railing and stared out at the borderfront. “So how did your wife get involved?”
The husband shrugged in resignation. “She read his books.”
“What about you? Did you read them?”
“I skimmed the dust jackets. That was plenty.” He recalled the titles. The Well-Earned Life. Breaking the Bounds. The Transcendent Self. And so on.
The journalist pointed down the hill. “That’s his bus, the silver one, the one without the windows. What do you think he’s doing right now?”
“Probably trying to get one last hard on.”
The journalist stayed chill. She was good at that. “Was your wife hurt that he wouldn’t attend?”
“Not really. He sent a very gracious apology, along with a few key people.”
The journalist looked back in at the party. The guests had fallen into the usual clusters, drinks in one hand, articulations with the other. The wife, tall and attractive, fronted one such cluster. She appeared radiant. The absence of Hector Earland had done no harm. One of his advocates stood next to her. Trim, personable, pleasant, latently vicious. The man chatted with a network VP and a conceptual artist of some note. A financial whiz and an Internet guru threw in nods of comprehension.
“Would you like a quote?” the husband asked. “Something compact, yet insightful? Or am I too far from center of the story?”
“What did you have in mind?”
The husband shifted his gaze out into the void. “He can’t lose. If he lives, he validates himself beyond measure. If he dies, he dies a god, the act itself his deification.”
“Not bad. I’ll keep it in mind.”
“You do that. Now go work the room. That’s what you do, right? Work the room?”
“Something like that.” She wanted it to come out in neutral. It didn’t, and that annoyed her more than his remark.
“Well I’m sure you do it very well, or else you wouldn’t be here.” He raised his glass to her. “Good luck.”
“Thanks.” She pushed off the railing and headed in. The wife’s cluster looked as good as any. The Internet guru was explaining the science of the void, or the lack of it. Its composition evaporated under the gaze of instrumentation, which led to endless discourse about “quantum effects,” which were inevitably hauled out to explain the inexplicable. What was of true import, the guru claimed, was that it fueled speculative imagination in virtually every field of research. They, here at this party, were standing on a border that defined the very edge of human knowledge. A beach town at the end of what could be known.
The journalist picked her target, the Earland advocate. She caught his attention just as the cluster’s conversation paused to catch its breath. “I understand you’re an associate of Mr. Earland’s,” she said to him.
“And I understand that you’re with the media,” he countered.
“You’re sure about that?”
“Absolutely. My communications people briefed me on the guest list.”
“And there I was.”
“And there you were.”
It seemed a dead end, but then he led them away from the cluster. “I assume you’re looking for an angle.”
“I’m looking for the truth.”
He smiled. “And what sort of truth did you have in mind?”
“What’s driving him to do this? Does he really believe he’ll survive?”
No one had ever lived to recount a walk out into the void. Each death mirrored all the others, and a great body of literature had evolved to explain the cause. In the most general terms, it was described simply as regret. Perhaps thirty meters from the shore, the walkers would suddenly drop to their knees and convulse in sobs so disturbing that nearby observers would sometimes become physically ill.
Each of them quickly succumbed to a crushing wave of self-incrimination that overwhelmed their will to live. The wave’s presence was inferred from the nature of their cries: “Why didn’t I do this or that? “I am so very sorry!” The sobs would subside into mute whimpers until the walker pitched forward face down. The last sign of life was a groveling and clutching of the fingers kneading the featureless surface. This terminal gouging created little ditches that promptly filled in when the motion ceased. The void maintained an integrity all its own.
Of course, there was always the safety line, a classic contradiction in terms. The victim would be hauled in, pronounced dead, and rushed off for an immense battery of medical tests. Aside from excess fluid in the tear ducts and nasal passages, they revealed absolutely nothing.
“Let’s try to provide some context,” the Earland advocate suggested. “What’s motivated so many others to attempt this very same thing?”
“They saw themselves as an exception to the rule. They felt that they were gifted or fated in some way.”
“Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. You see, they all were seduced by hubris, by feelings of grandiosity.”
“And you think that Mr. Earland is not?”
“Yes, I do. As you come to know the man, you encounter an amazing paradox. He wields immense personal power, but it springs from his utter and absolute humility. He has no personal entanglements that cloud his view of the world about him--or even the next world for that matter. He acts with a clarity of purpose that we can’t even begin to imagine.”
“And how does this hyper-humility keep him from sobbing to death?”
“He has no regrets, none whatsoever.”
“You mean he can categorically justify everything he’s ever done in his entire life?”
The Earland advocate smiled. He could feel the yawning jaws of a trap in the making. “No, that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that he has confronted whatever negative energy existed within him, and forgiven himself in an act of perfect self-contrition. Only a person who has completely dissolved their ego is capable of such a thing.”
The advocate’s eyes gelled into a deep, limbic fog. “No you don’t. But that’s okay. It doesn’t matter. You asked for the truth, and tomorrow the truth will be delivered. End of story.”
The journalist represented a prime outlet on the global net, and commanded a front row seat on the press platform next to the borderfront’s beach line. She was slightly hung over from the party last night, and avoided eye contract with the void. Its relentless neutrality induced powerful feelings of boredom if you looked at it for too long.
Earland’s bus sat directly in front of them on the turnaround at the end of the main drag. Behind it, sullen security people manned yellow crowd control barriers that held back his followers. The faithful fizzed and swayed in nervous agitation under the cool leaden sky. Cellphone cams sprouted like little seedlings from up-thrust arms.
The journalist wondered if Earland would ride some kind of vehicle out into the void. It had been tried before and always failed. The basic principles of mechanics held no sway out there. All conveyances quickly broke down, and left the driver to abandon them and descend into terminal grief.
Her speculation was interrupted by Earland’s appearance at the bus’s front door. It was instantly cast into video and sent to a big screen on the landward side of the press platform. The advocate she’d met at the party followed directly behind. He appeared considerably more anxious than he had last evening. The pair walked a short distance and ascended a little wooden platform with a mic-studded dais that gave the cameras below a clear field of view. A cluster of lesser advocates trailed behind them. (Hector had only advocates. No followers or disciples.)
Although Earland was in his fifties, his pale skin and shaved head were without wrinkle or blemish. The clear blue eyes and soft smile radiated compassion beyond measure. He wore a blue knit pullover and cargo pants, as if outfitted for an expedition. He raised his hands to shoulder height in a blessing of sorts. The crowd noise fell to a low simmer.
“I feel so honored, so privileged that you would all join me here today. But this is not a time for speaking or deliberating. What happens next takes us on a journey far beyond the reach of simple words. Let me just say that I go forth not for myself, but for each and every one of you.”
An assistant handed a harness and safety line up to the advocate, who held them out to Earland. He raised his hand to decline. The crowd gasped.
“We must have faith,” he declared. “Without it, we are truly lost.”
Son of a bitch, thought the journalist, he’s really going to do it. She realized she’d been waiting for some kind of cleverly fabricated deus ex machina to extract him. It wasn’t going to happen.
Everyone on the press platform came to their feet as Earland walked down a brief set of stone steps where the turnaround met the beach. The advocate trailed close behind, but Earland halted him, gave him a hug, and went on alone.
The air was still as glass as Earland strolled calmly out into the void without looking back.
On the shore, sophisticated instruments tracked his progress. They delivered meticulous measurements of the distance covered, a metric of great import. The advocate bounded back up the stone steps and leaned over the shoulder of a technician. “How far?”
“Just passed thirty meters.”
The advocate nodded in satisfaction. They were close to the record.
Screams flew out from the crowd. The advocate looked up.
Earland had stopped, and was slowly sinking to his knees. He tried to raise his arms, but they sank to his side. He wore a small microphone that now activated itself.
“I didn’t mean it!” he howled. “Really, I didn’t mean it.”
He erupted into a horrible fit of blubbering, and pitched face first onto the featureless, meaningless surface of the void.
Didn’t mean what? The journalist wondered. That was the story; that was the angle they were all going to pursue. But right now, she was distracted by the great throbs of wailing and moaning that poured from the crowd. All around her, the thumbs of the press corps were frantically stabbing messages into their handhelds.
On the turnaround, the advocate wandered over to the stone steps and stared out at Earland’s prostrate form. Back on the platform, the big video screen went tight on the gouge marks beneath his lifeless fingers.
They were already filling in.
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