Knowledge is neither good nor evil. It is an understanding of facts, and understanding of nature and the reality that we live in. It’s what we do with this understanding that can forge the brightest future or the death of us all.
She slowly descended the winding staircase, carrying a candle and a platter of food.
“Gilbert, are you working again?”
There was no answer. It must have been the article that had unsettled him so. It was such a striking thing, not something that could be easily forgotten.
It was not easy to make her way through the heaps of books that rose up to her chest, but she managed nevertheless, careful not to tip any into a paper landslide. Her eyes were scurrying the darkness. Why was it always so dark in here? She could easily trip and fall. It was dangerous.
“Gilbert, I’ve brought you your favorite!” she cried out loud. It was always hard to find him, down here. She’d look and look and then he would pop up where she least expected him.
“Over here!” came a faint reply.
It was easier to find him now, following the voice. She discovered him nestled in a corner between the piles of old publications and manuals. He was curled like a baby, somehow managing to read a magazine on the faint glow of a gas lamp with stained, almost opaque glass, all the while scribbling in a notebook and checking something in a dusty old tome. He didn’t pay her any mind when she approached.
“Gilbert, have you stayed up all night again? I’ve brought you food, so you better make sure to eat it all, and get some rest afterwards, your eyes are all tired again.”
“It doesn’t matter.“ Take the article, give it a read,” he thrust the paper towards her.
“I can’t do that,” she shook her head. “My hands are too dirty. You read it to me.”
“This is going to change everything. They’ve made a huge leap of stabilization. So far it has always been about fission, about breaking heavy elements down and feeding on the remains of the process. But now that fusion is on the table, we could change the entire game. Tap into almost unlimited energy. Change everything for everyone.”
“That sounds nice, dear.”
“Aren’t you excited?” his face beamed in the darkness. “They’ve stabilized it, using a new deuterium-tritium fuel, along with a hydrogen isotope that makes the Coulomb force much easier to overcome. They haven’t managed to make it a net positive yet, but we’ll get there, perhaps even in the next decade! Can you imagine that? Here, look!”
“Gilbert, that’s lovely,” she smiled, “but you know I haven’t a single clue what you’re talking about. These things aren’t for me. Here, have some food. It’s your favorite.”
She left the tray on the floor and left from the same path that she’d come. By the time she reached the staircase, Gilbert’s gaslamp had grown too faint to see, leaving only darkness and cobwebs around her.
“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”
― J. Robert Oppenheimer
The doorbell rang, pulling her out of her thoughts. Finally, they were here! But had she been expecting someone? Yes, she had definitely been expecting, otherwise she wouldn’t have put on that pretty dress. And it was the only one she had left now, the only one with flowers. Oh, she better get the door, they must be waiting.
It was just one person, a familiar face from the old times.
“Margaret! It’s so good of you to come, please come in! Here, let me get your coat, you can leave your shoes by the door. I have coffee and biscuits, do you want some?”
“Thank you, Annie, I’d love that. I brought you a little cake from the bakery down the street, you can open it now or save it for later.”
“Ah, let’s open it, there’s no harm. At our age we don’t have to keep a figure anymore.”
They moved through the narrow hallway where Margaret paused to fix her hair in front of the mirror. The living room was too cold and her bedroom too tiny and messy for visitors, so they just sat in the kitchen, perched around the round table. They were a bit like two old crows in a nest with shiny trinkets, little things that Annie had accumulated over the years. There were porcelain puppies, postcards and foreign coins, along with various other objects. Margaret fiddled with them while Annie took out cups and plates for the two of them, then sat to join her.
“I see that your place is as clean as ever. I’ve always admired this about you, Annie. Clean desk, clean home. Never knew how you managed to keep it.”
“It’s a habit, really,” the woman sighed. “Once you teach yourself to do it…. the rest is routine. Quite boring, to be frank. But it keeps you going.”
“It’s been a while since we last saw each other, Annie. How are you holding up?”
“I’m- I’m alright. I cook, I clean. The days pass me by. Life goes on.”
The two women sipped their coffee quietly for a moment. The kitchen had a small balcony that overlooked the street below, and as it was only the second floor you could overhear bits of conversations from the passer bys. The minutes rolled by.
“Have you ever considered coming back? We could always find you a place, you know. There is work. We need good people, people with brains.”
Annie had a sad and distant look on her face. “I appreciate the thought, Margaret, I really do, but it’s just not for me, not anymore. I’m fine here.”
“Fine? You’re not fine, Annie! Living alone, your mind rotting away…” Margaret was looking Annabelle with fiery eyes, her knuckles white around the tea cup. “Why are you doing this to yourself, Annie? Why?”
The host didn’t reply, but gazed outside through the window, her eyes glancing the snow-covered square. It had just started to met here and there, giving way to the first days of spring.
“What happened wasn’t your fault, you know,” said Margaret in a quiet voice. “It’s been years. Let it go.
“Let it go?” this time it was Annabelle’s face that lit up, no longer the frail woman. There was anger and there was grief as she spoke. “Do you know how many people, how many lives-”
“It wasn’t our fault! It wasn’t your fault. Decisions were made that had nothing to do with us, with our work. Please- I know you, Annie, you can’t live like this. You can’t be happy like this.”
For a moment it seemed that Annabelle was going to raise her voice again, to say something angry back at her friend, but then her face softened and relaxed.
“I can’t go, can’t you see? I am just a simple woman. I cook, I clean, I take care of myself. And Gilbert. If I were to leave, who’d take care of him?”
Margaret’s eyes narrowed.
“So Gilbert is back?”
Annie sipped her coffee. It had grown cold.
“I see.” For a moment it seemed that Margaret had given up, but then she spoke again. “You have to take care of yourself, Annie. It’s a waste, such a terrible waste. Such an extraordinary mind. Come back to us. Come back to Manhattan. You have a duty, to your abilities, to your fellow men, to your country.”
“Do not speak to me about duty, Margaret!” Annabelle slammed a hand on the table, sprinkling the cloth with droplets of coffee. “I have given everything, EVERYTHING for this country. I owe no more. Leave me be!”
There was nothing more to say, nothing more to do. They finished the coffee and cake, then Margaret left.
Down, down, down the twisted staircase and down into the darkness Annabelle went, in a cellar filled with endless books. She wandered about for a while, until she found Gilbert, that bright eyes young man who was always optimistic about the things to come.
“Look at this, it’s absolutely amazing how far we’ve come! Won’t you read it?”
“I can’t dear, my hands are too dirty. You read it to me.”
He began reading as Annie’s head lay on a thick manual, worn from her years of research. It was soothing to listen to his voice, even if she couldn’t understand a word. After all, she was but a simple woman. How could she ever understand such things?
Perhaps it was for the best.
Please, read this:
This was Andon Andonov’s graduation short story, published here exactly as submitted.