It was a second later that he discovered his right foot was cut sheer away. It almost made him laugh. The air was gone from his suit again. He bent quickly, and there was blood, and the meteor had taken flesh and suit away to the ankle. Oh, death in space was most humorous. It cut you away, piece by piece, like a black and invisible butcher. He tightened the valve at the knee, his head whirling into pain, fighting to remain aware, and with the valve tightened, the blood retained, the air kept he straightened up and went on falling, falling, for that was all there was left to do.
Hollis nodded sleepily, tired of waiting for death.
“This is Applegate again,” said the voice.
“I’ve had time to think. I listened to you. This isn’t good. It makes us bad. This is a bad way to die. It brings all the bile out. You listening, Hollis?”
“I lied. A minute ago. I lied. I didn’t blackball you. I don’t know why I said that. Guess I wanted to hurt you. You seemed the one to hurt. We’ve always fought. Guess I’m getting old fast and repenting fast. I guess listening to you be mean made me ashamed. Whatever the reason, I want you to know I was an idiot too. There’s not an ounce of truth in what I said. To hell with you.”
Hollis felt his heart begin to work again. It seemed as if it hadn’t worked for five minutes, but now all of his limbs began to take color and warmth. The shock was over, and the successive shocks of anger and terror and loneliness were passing. He felt like a man emerging from a cold shower in the morning, ready for breakfast and a new day.
“Don’t mention it. Up your nose, you bastard”
“Hey,” said Stone.
“What?” Hollis called across space; for Stone, of all of them, was a good friend.
“I’ve got myself into a meteor swarm, some little asteroids.”
“I think it’s the Myrmidone cluster that goes out past Mars and in toward Earth once every five years. I’m right in the middle. It’s like a big kaleidoscope. You get all kinds of colors and shapes and sizes. God, it’s beautiful, all that metal.”
“I’m going with them,” said Stone. “They’re taking me off with them. I’ll be damned.” He laughed.
Hollis looked to see, but saw nothing. There were only the great diamonds and sapphires and emerald mists and velvet inks of space, with God’s voice mingling among the crystal fires. There was a kind of wonder and imagination in the thought of Stone going off in the meteor swarm, out past Mars for years and coming in toward Earth every five years, passing in and out of the planet’s ken for the next million centuries, Stone and the Myrmidone cluster eternal and unending, shifting and shaping like the kaleidoscope colors when you were a child and held the long tube to the sun and gave it a twirl.
“So long, Hollis.” Stone’s voice, very faint now. “So long.”
“Good luck,” shouted Hollis across thirty thousand miles.
“Don’t be funny,” said Stone, and was gone.
The stars closed in.
Now all the voices were fading, each on his own trajectory, some to Mars, others into farthest space. And Hollis himself . . . He looked down. He, of all the others, was going back to Earth alone.
“Take it easy.”
“So long, Hollis.” That was Applegate.
The many good-bys. The short farewells. And now the great loose brain was disintegrating. The components of the brain which had worked so beautifully and efficiently in the skull case of the rocket ship firing through space were dying one by one; the meaning of their life together was falling apart. And as a body dies when the brain ceases functioning, so the spirit of the ship and their long time together and what they meant to one another was dying. Applegate was now no more than a finger blown from the parent body, no longer to be despised and worked against. The brain was exploded, and the senseless, useless fragments of it were far scattered. The voices faded and now all of space was silent. Hollis was alone, falling.