Terminal Velocity

My dreams were fragmented and frightening; when I awoke I was falling. We all were.It seemed unremarkable that we were falling, or perhaps there was just a reluctance to mention it. At any rate we were together, plummeting into the steady wind of our own motion. Had I been alone it would have frightened me, especially after the staccato insecurity of my dreams; but there was a comfort in company, a sense of normality in the sheer numbers involved. We all fell at the same speed.

We are supposed to fear falling by instinct, but since we were all moving in the same direction at the same rate there was no general fear. There may have been panic in the beginning, people trailing screams behind them, clutching at others who were falling just as precipitously as themselves, but we would no longer know about that. What we do is adapt. In that respect we’re all equal.

Oh, there were ploys and techniques for varying the speed of descent. By flattening out as wide as possible, dishing the spread body like a leaf, it was possible to slow down a bit, to ascend through the ranks of falling humanity. Though perhaps I could have termed it “falling behind” as easily as “ascending”.

Some people found ways to diminish the resistance and friction of the wind, and thus to fall faster. They were divers actually; streamlined, penetrating, and absorbed with the tiniest details of their profiles. It was actually possible to swim into or against the wind, to change one’s neighbors and surroundings. For myself, I preferred the familiar, to be with people I knew well. I liked knowing that I could drift off to sleep and fall like a dark feather, waking to the sight of the same faces and furniture.

Of course there was furniture. We were not without our properties and other civilized artifacts. I wouldn’t want you to think we live any different from you or your friends. We weren’t birds on the wing, you know; we were human beings and capable of accomplishing anything we could dream up. Even with no purchase beneath our feet we had need of a cupboard to shut up the dishes, after all. Our possessions fell right along with us. Which is only logical; had they not they would not have remained ours.

In the long run, objects were of less importance than people, of course. My main enjoyments were in others. Just waving to a friend, feathering my hand against the slipstream, was a joy. Or seeing a woman turn her head to let her hair stream away and show her smile. Physical love is itself a matter of objects, but it seemed less so in free fall–I couldn’t have imagined a lover pinioned by gravity, or myself pinning her against unmoving, resistive objects. We were loose and lost, but we were free.

All and all, it was a fine life; breasting the brisk wind, flying without support, floating free and apparently weightless. I say “apparently” because the matter of weight was theoretical and, at least to me, not a little disturbing.

It was a matter for scientists, philosophers, and whatever other kinds of people draw conclusions from beyond what the normal person could personally verify. They concluded that weight was an intrinsic, though unprovable, property of all things; that without our weight we would lose our impulse to fall, would lose the very motion that kept us together. If a person were to become weightless he would suddenly pop out of the world, shooting up past us like a rocket. (Actually, the learned say, he would merely stand still while we shot by him. Like most relative concepts, it is hard for the average person to grasp.)

But it was not weight or weightless that bothered me, or even the loss of motion and the resulting loss of context. It was the idea that the fall itself might stop. And what that would mean. There were those who professed eternity–that the falling would go on forever as it apparently always had. Others postulated a Bottom, an unmoving obstacle to further plunging. It didn’t take much imagination to see what would happen to us at the Bottom. We would all be dashed to death, our leading parts crushed between the Bottom and our trailing parts, which would still be moving. The idea seemed quite horrible and, as I say, it bothered me.

The very concept of a Bottom is tricky, involving not only it’s nature and distance, but the very design of our existence. How long had we been falling? And, therefore, how large was the fall? There was the idea of Infinity, rejected as often by those who could not imagine it as it was grasped by those who merely preferred terminology to mechanism. There was a related idea–considered more parsimonious, or at least less wasteful of space–that we were falling in circles, eternally spinning around a central core, passing through the same space over and over. This could conceivably have been proven by an experimenter changing his speed relative to the rest of us. If the explorer had disappeared in one direction then repapered from the opposite, it would not only have established, but quantified the theory. As with the Bottom and Infinity, the endless circle raised more problems than it answered.

A logical chimera conceived by the Bottom was the idea of a Top, another absolute limit above (behind? before? past?) us. A Top from which we fall away seems to be a concept that lends itself better to poetic surmise than to everyday concern; it is neither imminent nor threatening. The idea of beginning or source is inspirational, but lacks the weight, threat, and practical properties of ending. Probably this is because we can more easily imagine being crushed to death than being created, but why that should be is another matter.

For whatever reason, many people became quite obsessed by the Bottom, with the end of our long, separate fall. Others denied it so strenuously that it was obvious that their energy also stemmed from fixation. There are those who make plans against it, armor themselves with inventions and devices to survive or obtain advantage from contact. There were those who abandoned all pleasure and even hope of the world; lost in the contemplation of a future impasse or impact. Some became mute and without volition, tumbling in their flight as aimlessly as discarded dolls. It disturbed me immensely to believe that the informed imagination can be unwholesome, even lethal.

My own solution to this occasional malaise was not to think on it. I saw very little to gain by anticipating such a universal ending. It would have made more sense to anticipate and defend against my own death; an eventuality with much more proof to support it and with a much more imminent timetable. But what end would that have served? Intriguing concepts, but I saw no advantage (and little likelihood) in getting to the bottom of them.

I contented myself with merely falling day to day. With keeping abreast of my neighbors, with the essential human tasks of knowing, daring and loving. Occasionally I would take certain positions that allowed–or forced–me to look down (ahead? forward? yet to come?), to focus on the constant reeling of new space and depth, squinting into the eye of what is really my own personal, self-generated wind. It’s not a sight that informs or sits easy. But it places me–all of us–into a perspective. I find plenty of things to worry about; falling is no longer one of them. What to make of my dreaming remains to be seen.

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