In the shuttle, the day after Zinovy walks out into the new world.
The next day they talked some more. Archie found out that Charles had gone to college with his older brother. Eric discovered that he and Grace had the same birthday. Charles got to see pictures of Grace’s three small boys and hear how well Liang did in preschool, how keen Jin was to play baseball, and how much the brace on Shen’s leg had cost. And Grace even managed a chuckle over Eric’s account of the time he accidentally asked the wrong girl out on an e-date and had to do some detective work to find out who he was going with.
Eventually they got around to talking about the events of the past week. They’d shared their memories. Now they could share their grief and their fears. Their talk was gentle, and it brought healing. By the morning of their third day alone together they were at peace with themselves, with their fate, and with each other. They continued to go through the motions of daily living, quietly marking time.
After breakfast on that last uneventful morning, Charles and Grace lingered over their coffee and talked.
“You know,” Grace said. “I have a hard time believing the others are gone. It all happened so fast. First Daniel, then Ellen. And then Zinovy.” She paused. “It’s hardest to believe Zinovy’s gone. He seemed so. . .”
She searched for the right word. “So invincible.”
“Yeah. Like a large chunk of steel. Cold as steel too.”
“I don’t know. He seemed aloof, but I think he felt more than he showed. He must have.”
“Naw. I knew him before, you know.”
Grace raised her eyebrows.
“I worked in Russia on a short-term agricultural project a couple of years back and the Russians assigned him to watch over me.” He laughed. “I think they thought I might be a spy or something. Anyway, he had to follow me everywhere, for four months, and I don’t remember ever seeing him crack a smile.” Charles swallowed a mouthful of coffee and burped. Then he cocked his head and frowned. “He always acted like I was in his way—like he’d rather be alone.” He shook his head. “No, Zinovy didn’t need anybody.”
“Did he ever talk to you?”
“No way. Everything I knew about him, I found out from other people. I tell you, nothing fazed him. We were at this bar once in Moscow, see. I remember it was just before we went out into the field. I offered to buy him a drink. I figured if he had a few he’d loosen up. He wouldn’t touch the stuff—drank tonic water all night.” Charles chuckled, remembering. “The rest of us loosened up—a lot.”
He stopped and his brows drew together. “Might have saved him some grief though, I don’t know. A couple of women tried their stuff on him that night.”
Grace frowned. “You mean hookers?”
“Yeah. A couple of really good-looking ones. Ladies go for the strong, silent type. It’s the mystery that gets them, I guess. Anyway, these two sidled right up to him at the bar. They didn’t get any farther than that though.”
“What’d he do?”
“He ignored them—turned his back on them.”
“Yeah. He just shifted his body around to the side and started talking to the guy on his right. Left them staring up at the back of his shirt.”
“What did they do?”
“Oh, they were mad. The one especially. She jabbered something to the other one in Russian. I couldn’t understand the words, but the gist of it was plain as the nose on your face. They’d been shut down right properly and they knew it. They hung around a while, pretending they didn’t care. Then they left.”
Grace shifted in her seat. “I don’t feel right talking about him like this. I mean, he’s gone now. Maybe we should—”
Charles, caught up in the memory, wasn’t listening. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things the other guys told me later, after we’d gone back to the hotel. He worked for the FSB, you know. People thought that organization was more civilized than the old KGB, but it wasn’t. A lot of purges went on after Glasnost, when they changed the name, and our friend, Zinovy, developed quite a reputation for himself over the years.”
He leaned back again, pursed his lips and squinted at Grace. “He was known as a clean killer. He never shed a drop of blood, but his victims ended up as dead as if he had.” Charles held up his hands and studied them. “Did you ever notice his hands? Huge.” He looked at Grace. “Killers. Would have been registered if they did that to hands.”
Charles stood and carried his cup to the sink, talking over his shoulder as he rinsed it out. “He was a pilot too, you know. Flew spy missions for a while. It’s no wonder he didn’t talk much. He had a lot of experience keeping secrets.”
Eric walked into the galley. “Unlike you, Charles, right?” “You probably couldn’t keep a secret if your life depended on it.”
Charles frowned. Eric reached out and touched his arm. “Sorry, buddy. It’s not a good time for jokes, is it?”
Charles left and Eric sat down with Grace. “That was bad,” he said. “It’s especially not a good time for jokes about what our lives depend on.”
They sat in silence for a minute, then Eric said, “So strange. To think that we’ll be dead soon.” He looked up at Grace. “One day we’re breathing and talking and eating. The next day, or the next minute, we aren’t even here.”
Grace nodded. “It seems there should be more time—some kind of transition between being, and then not being, doesn’t it?”
“Do you think that’s it? One minute we are and the next we aren’t? That doesn’t make much sense. Maybe after we die we go on existing somewhere else.”
“I don’t think so. When you watch someone die, it’s pretty clear they just quit being. I mean, the personality ends, and then the body breaks down.”
“How do we know they quit? Maybe they just leave?”
“There’s no evidence for that.”
“But don’t you wish we just went somewhere else instead of quitting? Wouldn’t you like to think your family is still existing somewhere right now?”
Grace straightened in her chair. “Of course. I’d love to believe I might see them again. But wishing for something doesn’t make it happen. We have to face reality, even if we don’t like it.”
Eric sat back, folded his hands across his chest, and frowned. “Sure, wishing can’t make things happen, but why do we wish for things anyway? For things that aren’t real? Where do we even get the ideas for things that don’t exist? Like heaven for instance?”
“People always want things they don’t have. It’s human nature.”
“That isn’t an explanation, it’s just a statement of fact. What’s the explanation?’
“Do things have to have an explanation? Can’t they just be?”
Eric studied the deck of cards sitting in the middle of the table. “I don’t know. For some reason that doesn’t make sense to me.” They sat quietly. Then Eric leaned forward and picked up the cards. “It’s chance. I guess that’s the explanation. It’s pure chance what cards you get.”
He frowned. “But that’s not right either. You use your brain to make decisions what to do with the cards you’re dealt. You can affect what happens, even when chance is involved. So chance doesn’t determine what’s real. It just affects it somehow.”
“All the same, in the end it doesn’t matter. We play the game of life, and when the game is over we forget it. It’s not important anymore.”
Eric looked up at Grace. “If it’s not important at the end, then it’s never important.” He shook his head. “Something inside me says things do matter—that people are important—and if they are important, they have to last. If we all just quit being, then nothing matters. Everything is nonsense.” He slumped in his chair.
“What I’m saying is nonsense. I’m going around in circles here. Too much thinking.”
Grace shrugged. “I don’t know. We can’t know about this kind of thing.”
Eric straightened. “Well, we’ll find out, one way or another, I guess. We’ll find out soon.”
They looked at each other.