Drifting slowly, Wexler attempted to pull the strap of his bag from where it had twisted up. Every few moments a flash of light from the port side of the ship would blind him, but he'd be immediately blind afterward. The light didn't diffuse much in the vacuum, it was either hitting your eye straight from the source, or it was missing your eye.
It was cold, but that wasn't what he minded. He minded the way he couldn't stop himself from spinning. The last two days he'd bee spinning in place, twenty feet from the barge, but without any way of reaching it. There was air left for a week, enough to think of a plan, maybe enough for Jilly to notice he was missing and come rescue him.
Or, you know, this could be it. Maybe a seemingly inconsequential mistake during a task he'd performed thousands of times would be the end of him. There was no beacon, there were no distress calls, he'd stormed out of the desk in a huff so no one expected him back soon. Jilly was mad at him, maybe she would decide to let him cool off before trying to find him.
Well, he'd definitely cooled off. The light flashed again as he made another rotation. Perhaps he could define his own days, once every time around. Instead of dying in a week of asphyxiation and dehydration, he could take hundreds of Wexler years to die.
He should stop messing around though. It really was time to think about death now. Seriously. Instead of ducking the issue, or waiting for another time. There was literally nothing else to do. It was as if the universe had pulled him away from everything that could possibly distract him so he could focus on this one final thing.
The light flashed.
What was death? It was the absence of life. His cells could die, and he might be alive still. Parts of his brain could go, but he could still be alive. His heart could stop for a while, but irreparable brain damage seemed to be the real dividing line between life and death.
Of course, that couldn't be it. Trees don't have brains and they still died. Maybe it was a more complicated definition. A complex interacting system whose chain reaction loop stopped functioning. Was a drinking bird that had tipped over dead then? Truly dead, and not just figuratively?
Maybe dead wasn't a thing at all. Life is a continuum. Life is separated from non-life by the bearest of threads. Energy consuming, pattern replicating molecules.
The light flashed.
In all the universe, life had only ever arisen on one planet. One place. One initial replicator had kickstarted natural selection. His 10^100th great grandfather. In all the universe that replicator had only ever arisen once. Taking molecules from the environment, bending them into copies of himself. His grandfather had been dumb, but ingenious. His grandfather had inevitably died. Despite being alive by only the barest margin. By definition, the simplest thing that could be considered alive, somehow, he had still died.
It was true, that grandfather had produced offspring who lived. Whether any of his proto-genetic code still remained in Wexler, it could never be known. Whether Wexler had any of that tenacity in himself, tenacity to be alive. Imagine that hubris. Imagine the hubris of a molecule, once in the entire universe, who decided he wanted to be alive.
There was energy to consume! There were descendents to create! Descendents who would unfurl like the tentacles of a fractal octopus, extending out into time and space into the distant future. Linked by an unbroken chain of replications, all the way back to those impoverished beginnings. Beings of all manner of description, coating the earth in green pillowy leaves, slimy molds, stinking carcasses, swarms of insects, bark of trees, feathered birds, hard-shelled molusks, hairy fleshy warm blooded creatures who secreted thick white liquids to their replications. Like a kaleidoscope, the nature of these creatures were reflections of each other, of that shared genetic lineage criss-crossing its way through eternity. From a universe that was quite content to be unobserved for its entire life. The universe who would never care that nothing had arisen to observe it before all of its matter accelerated away from each other and protons decayed and entropy won the final battle.
Even if Wexler weren't going to die here, spinning twenty yards from his barge, the entropy would get him eventually. The universe would expand, and no matter how many molecules his metabolic system used to patch up the constant decay and damage, ultimately his atoms would drift apart, never interacting significantly again. One day, the very fabric of the universe would put his atoms so far away from each other, the speed of light would be too slow for them ever to send a message to one another. One day, the very notion that atoms ever interacted with each other would seem like a fevered hallucination. Ha! Molecules you say? Replicators? Life? A galaxy spanning hegemony? A species of unimaginable power and intelligence? What a waste of time! It's all going to drift apart! Didn't anyone ever tell them?
Why did the universe wake up? Why did that replicator play such a cruel trick, giving us a glimpse of ourselves, of what we were, before pulling us apart and silencing us in the infinite vast darkness.
The light flashed.
Wexler tried to sleep. He pulled his head back, stretching his weary body. The spinning kept him up. But it also kept him thinking. Spinning in the darkness.