It seemed he had always been here. It seemed he had just arrived. He was seated on a hard, smooth surface — light gray and curving upward toward a high horizon of black — but he could not tell of what it was made. He could not tell if it was made of anything at all. Standing with a series of motions that did not feel like standing, he surveyed the ethereal substance. With perfect symmetry, the parabolic rise extended in all directions from his point of observation. Its contours were elegant to the extreme of conceptual purity.
The scene was mysteriously illuminated in the absence of light, and seeing clearly while throwing no shadow, he began to climb. How had he ended up here? In mild horror, he recalled the shades of pills — beige, pink, aqua, and white — on a porcelain plate. The image was pale and threatening, a memory of senescence, but in this context, it seemed irrelevant. He must be dead, he reasoned, but death was not the black unawareness he had imagined.
His thoughts carried him far up the rise until he reached the steep portion of the curve. Would it become too steep for him to continue? This question concerned him, for he wanted to see over the horizon and find out more about where he was. The curve answered him by rounding off at the top and dipping slightly before rising toward an even higher horizon.
Having conquered the first rise, he started upward again while he thought of a woman — several, actually, but one in particular. She had amused him, and he had used her. This reminiscence produced in him no pangs of conscience, no regrets. Quite simply, hers was the most memorable of many affairs that had come to nothing.
He came to another rounded summit, another slight dip, another curving rise toward a higher horizon. The pattern kept repeating itself, and he recollected various accomplishments, various victories over circumstances and rivals, at each elevation he attained. Eventually, he arose high enough to see down but not out from his off-center perspective. He determined that he was traversing a pattern of concentric, ascending rings.
To climb was to remember, and he suddenly realized that he was looking at the frozen ripples of his impact on the existential fabric. He had won more than he had lost in a game where one could do no better than to lose by winning. There was another black horizon above him, and there always would be.
Nothing remained but to climb ever higher, to reach new levels of acquisition. It was how he had lived his life, and he was isolated within this self-centric quest for achievement. The next solid wave would be higher than the last but more of the same. He had exactly what he had chosen — a world of his own selection, or rather, his own subtraction — but ultimately, what remained was not really his. Everything, including himself, was the provided minimum for maintaining his illusion of self-sufficiency — if only he could ignore the obvious.
In the face of this revelation, such ignorance was impossible, for his surroundings were devoid of the enabling distractions he had taken for granted in life: diversities of color and shape, the aesthetic contrast of symmetry against asymmetry, the variations in rhythm and pitch that are music, the ebb and flow of human association, surges of lust and adrenaline, the numbing gratification of pleasure. He himself was all he would ever get, but even this desultory existence was a gift, an act of mercy from an estranged God.
Plato’s dialectic on life before birth and after death, Aristotle’s discourses on the ethics to apply in the interim, Dante’s descriptions of deep pits in Hell, the speculations of Camus on the bleak happiness Sisyphus must have derived from defiantly enduring eternal punishment before the gods — these all came back to him as silent echoes from his university days. This, then, was all that was and all that would be. This was his personal pit in Hell, a state of being in which direction was inverted. The higher he ascended, the more deeply he buried himself.
He was not sorry. Given the chance to live his life over again, he would have done nothing different in the hope of procuring divine favor. He resented the estranged God, resented the very fact of his own existence, for it was not solely his. He could lay no claim on designing himself, the world into which he had been born, or the world into which he had died. Master of a fate he had chosen but not determined, he considered again the concluding words of Camus, and he shook his phantom head in disagreement. He could not imagine Sisyphus happy.
The Provided Minimum first appeared in Sci Phi Journal, December 2022 (4).