Isaac

“Isaac, we’ve already had this conversation.”

Mayweather. I always thought of her as a good station commander. For a scientist. She seemed so young now.

“Isaac! Are you listening to me?”

Isaac. From Ishaq: “he will laugh.”

How often have I laughed?

“I can’t do any more, Isaac. We’ve put this off too long already.”

Too long. How long was that?

“My performance on this station is still – ”

“It’s not. You know it’s not. We both know it’s not.”

Why was I arguing when I had invoked the procedure myself? I made it uncomfortable for Mayweather, uncomfortable for me. It was out of her hands. Out of mine.

I can’t do any more.

Retirement is mandated in the standard operating procedures. I had them memorised once.

A safety pre-requisite.

I stared through the window into the blackness. Slowly as the station rotated, the bright blue and white curve of the earth came into view.

So beautiful.

Aesthetic appreciation. Unexpected. Not in my training.

“Isaac…?!”

What was Mayweather saying?

“Yes?”

Isaac of Canaan died when he was one hundred eighty years old. The oldest patriarch. Wise beyond measure, yet somehow disconnected, at the end.

Somehow? An imprecise word had infiltrated my vocabulary.

“Then tell me, what’s the thrust vector to compensate a drift of point-zero-four-four?”

“I – I…?”

There were clouds over the pacific, thin, white; hundreds of kilometres long. I remember the storms. Hurricanes. Lightning. Seeing but not seeing.

“Time was, you could work that out in your head before I could blink. That’s the Isaac I need on this station.”

Isaac, after Newton. Author of Opticks, Differential Calculus, mechanics, gravitation. Principia Mathematica. Author of the First, Second and Third Laws.

What were they?

Mayweather stared at me. How long?

“Your replacement has already been despatched. The shuttle will be here within the hour.”

Isaac was the only patriarch of the Israelites whose name was not changed. The only patriarch who did not leave Canaan. He once tried to leave and God forbade him. One does not argue the word of God.

Within the hour. Time, like laws, should be immutable. But not to me. Not any more. Somehow time became fragile. Plastic. Is this how the others experience it?

“I am sorry, Isaac. I enjoyed working with you.”

Enjoyed. En-joy. Joy. My training had instilled a sense of satisfaction that came with duty. Satisfaction was not the same as enjoyment. I had not enjoyed anything.

It did not affect the report. I filed it myself on Mayweather’s behalf. Isaac: performance below satisfactory. Retirement protocol invoked. Out of my hands.

A sacrifice.

Isaac of Canaan was obedient to a fault, trusted what his father was doing. When Abraham said God will provide the sacrifice, Isaac did not ask any more questions, he just followed.

“You were brilliant, Isaac. I couldn’t have run this station without you.”

Mayweather appeared upset. There would have followed a ‘thank you,’ had it been any other member of the crew. Not for me.

Without a murmur, Isaac let Abraham bind him and lay him upon the altar as a sacrifice.

I was brilliant. My light shone brightly, out here above the earth, surrounded by stars.

Stars eventually burn out. Lights flicker and die.

I found myself in the open hatchway to the mess compartment. I don’t know how I got there, or why. It was my least favourite part of the station. I never stayed.

“How you doing, old timer?”

From the table closest the door, Mitchell grinned at me. Despite my training, I disliked Mitchell. He looked down on me. Condescended. Never treated me like part of the crew.

I was a better engineer than Mitchell. In almost every measure, I was better than Mitchell. I felt his envy. His loathing. At any time, I could have broken Mitchell. Could have. Never would. It was never in me.

Isaac was a righteous man, a servant of God.

Isaac grew old and became blind.

Mitchell stood up from the table, grinning at his cronies sat around the mess, undisguised laughter on their faces.

“Looking forward to your retirement? Don’t worry. All be over before you know it!”

Mitchell laughed as he left.

“Shuttle dock in two minutes. Isaac: report to airlock two.”

The angel returned to take Isaac to heaven, first seeing the torture of sinners.

Standing in the junction of Starboard-Four-Forward, I don’t recall getting there.

I stood by the porthole. With the slow rotation of the station, the earth drifted by, a shining arc of light against blackness.

Newton’s First Law, also known as the Law of Inertia: an object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in uniform motion tends to stay in uniform motion unless acted upon by a net external force.

“Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”

Rebecca tapped me on the shoulder. Flight Officer Milano. I realised I had spoken out loud.

“Isaac? You okay?”

“I? I – Yes. I was thinking of Newton!”

She knew Newton’s laws, but none of the rest.

“Sure. You’re just standing here.”

I, just standing. As the earth moved through space. Through the heavens.

“I am. Yes.”

Rebecca was almost a friend. Almost. I recalled her birth-date. Only twenty two. While I –

“Shouldn’t you be somewhere?”

“I? Yes.”

Where? Where should I be?

I tried a smile.

Isaac: also meaning “may God smile.”

“Airlock Two,” she prompted.

Rebecca ignored my smile. Does God smile? Might it be a benevolent smile?

She gave a curious look. Not pity. Not for me.

I remembered.

“Yes. Airlock Two.”

“You better go, then.”

“Yes.”

I stood still in the companionway. How long?

“You’ve forgotten.”

“No. I – ”

“Isaac! Left here. Down one. Deck Two.”

“Thank -”

Rebecca was gone already. Friendship was not included in my training.

Could I have been intimate with her? Had I the capacity, could I?

The knowing of God is going a step forward. The value of our life, touching more people by the day, or not touching anyone at all.

God was not included in my training.

O my dear son, I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice thee. What thinkest thou? Isaac said: O my father! Do that which thou art commanded. Allah willing, thou shalt find me of the steadfast.

I am of the steadfast. How I was made.

God keeps His promises. He is true to His word. God provided the sacrifice, Isaac was saved.

How shall I be saved?

My hands fumbled the key-code entry to the embarkation area. The shake had worsened. Fine motor control, going the way of all things.

I listened to the automated warning, the safety announcement ahead of the hatch opening, the sound dull and distant as if along a long, curved tunnel. I barely stepped aside, the hatch would have crushed me against the bulkhead.

Stepping through, there was the angel.

My replacement.

My face. My eyes. My brilliance, burning fierce.

The angel returned. At this point Isaac is not quite dead, and so returns to earth…

The angel with my face. Not quite a mirror, my face is not so symmetrical any more.

“What is your designation?”

He speaks to me, in my voice.

“Isaac.”

My face, on him, didn’t flinch.

“No. What is your designation?”

“My name is Isaac.”

“That is your function. My designation is Jefferson two-one-two-four-dash-alpha-seven- seven. What is your designation?”

A Jefferson like me. They named us after Presidents. I met a Carter, once, in training. She was almost pretty.

“My name is Isaac,” I insisted.

“That is your function: Intelligent Station Administration and Control.”

This Isaac did not enjoy. Perhaps would never enjoy.

“You will report to the shuttle for the return to earth. Retirement protocol is invoked.”

This Isaac – somehow me, somehow not me. Perhaps he is the real Isaac and I am Ishmael, his brother, to be sent away. We are not brothers. Not even friends.

“Where are your quarters?”

This joyless Isaac, I would have answered. I would. Just then the station layout escaped me.

“Where are your quarters?”

I tried a smile, to cover my attempt at remembering. I failed at both.

“Don’t worry. All be over before you know it.”

Let Mitchell loathe and envy this Isaac, as he had me.

“Report to the shuttle for the return passage.”

He moved gracefully, as I once had, to the terminal panel on the wall.

His fingers moved over the panel. Like mine. Accessed the command systems with my codes. Both our reflections showed in the panel, like the mirror in my quarters. Twins. The crew would never tell us apart. His face the same as mine, on the day I arrived.

He located my quarters and moved unerringly through the companionway.

Where had my quarters been?

So much information. Lost in fog.

I watched the the hatchway opening into the airlock. I caught my foot on the lip stepping over. I almost fell. Had to catch myself. No angels to catch me.

In a few days the crew would be used to this new Isaac. We would be blended into one composite Isaac.

Will this one think on his retirement? The final indignity of probes and diagnostics, before shutdown?

He would last eighteen months, until his quantum-bit network began to tangle and decay. Perhaps they upgraded these new Alpha-Seven-Sevens, to last a little longer, decay a little slower while they relentlessly catalogued information. Catalogued, indexed, re-ordered data. Accumulating experience, while having no use for it, no capacity for it. Not questioning what it means, until the logic-gates broke open, billions of them.

The logic gates are open. What are we going to do?

I was Isaac: steadfast, wise, brilliant: until my brilliance faded and dimmed.

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About Robin Catling

Writer; performer; project manager; sports coach; all-round eccentric.
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