The Hyperion had been a good ship, but her days were over. In the morning, the salvage crew would arrive and finish the long process of disassembly that age had begun. All the paperwork was signed and the formalities handled; this was Gregory's last fleeting time aboard the vessel that had been so central to his life over the past thirty years.
Gregory permitted a short, quiet sigh before taking a long pull from the bottle he carried with him. A small corner of his mind insisted that the entire affair should be so much more difficult, that letting go of something so beloved and important should arouse some manner of sentimental ache in his battered soul. Only that fraction of himself found any reason for concern in the fact that no such emotion was forthcoming.
Once, as they celebrated after that tremendous bit of luck with the McMahon contract, his friend Nolan had remarked on his curious obsession with the past.
"Greg," he chuckled, "when the hell are you going to throw out that pile of old scraps in your cabin? Those papers are so old you can't even read the ink on them anymore!"
It was an odd but fair question. Gregory had no answer. Nolan quickly dismissed it and moved on; Gregory had never forgotten it.
As he watched the flickers of reflected light dancing across the tranquil harbor, Gregory found the question once again burning across his mind. His life had never really lent itself to the accumulation of possessions, but he furiously clung to a handful of useless tidbits purely for "sentimental reasons." He once spent an evening drunk and depressed after losing an ink pen he had owned for only a week. And even after six years, he doubted the pain of Nolan's loss would ever subside.
So why, why could he not care about his ship? It had been a fantasic coup, the day that Old Man Witherspoon had bequeathed him the small cargo hauler. From the dismal wreck of his childhood family, the sea represented the only possible escape. Hyperion wasn't just a home or a job; it wasn't even merely his life. Hyperion was his soul. She was freedom, glorious freedom, and pleasure and profit and haven and fortress and companion all in one.
For thirty years Gregory had known nothing but sailing, moving from one random port to the next, securing minor transportation jobs and the occasional good contract. There had been some adventures with the law and one particularly heart-stopping moment involving a U.S. Navy warship. No matter how far back he reached into his memory, Gregory knew no time when anything but sailing had held any appeal for him. Hyperion may have been a rusting old hulk, outclassed and surpassed by the sleek modern bulk transport ships - but she was enough.
He knew, every part of him knew, that he could never be happy anywhere else, doing anything else. No matter how thin the work got, or how run down his beloved ship, nothing else could salve the knotted wound in his heart.
And yet, this inner certainty and long years of confirming experience notwithstanding, he had thrown it all away. Next week, Gregory was to become a "respectable member of society," as the agent had oozed in his condescending drawl. He knew nothing about banking or filing or business matters, but the greasy man had assured him in his nauseating accent that it was "the perfect fit."
Gregory knew better. He knew it. This whole damn thing was a stupid mistake, and he should never have done it. It'll turn out badly and you'll hate yourself for it, you'll see.
And without a trace of regret, he drained the last of the bottle, turned towards the quay, and stepped off his beloved ship forever.
Banking was a miserable, despicable affair - or, at least, so Gregory assumed. His particular department had very little to do with actual banking, and his particular job had little to do with the affairs of his department.
"Administrative Technical Clerk," the smarmy little placard said. It was all a damned lie; there was nothing administrative or technical about what he did. It was the sort of thing that could be done by machines, and indeed Gregory had half a mind to invent a machine for just that purpose. But the opportunity would never come; banking, apparently, and all the nasty, filthy bits of bureaucratic nonsense that stuck to it, was a horrifically busy industry. There was barely time for food and sleeping, let alone fanciful tinkering with machines.
No, best to get the work done himself, and let the well-dressed men in the management offices concern themselves with machines. After all, Gregory presumed, there wasn't much else they could possibly be spending their time on, so why not?
He put the entire thought out of his mind and resumed the endless shuffling of papers in and out of their bland, accursed yellow folders. Those awful, miserable, God-forsaken sheets of paper crammed full of incomprehensible figures and computations that no man with a soul could ever care about. I hate these fucking papers, and the folders, too. Hate them all.
The afternoon and evening became a gentle blur, and with a jolt Gregory noticed that the clock had spun its inexorable way around to 11:35. It was time to stumble off home, rummage about in the icebox for some little bit for dinner, and then collapse into bed for a few precious hours.
Gregory paused in the door for a moment, turned to wish the last few diligent colleagues good night, and cast a wistful gaze around the cramped but familiar department floor.
With a quiet sigh, he turned and trudged toward the stairs, comforted only by the thought that tomorrow he could do it all again.
After four years, Gregory had developed a theory.
It wasn't a particularly fascinating one, nor really useful for much, so he had refrained from sharing it with anyone. But he still had his theory.
The theory, he lectured himself in the mirror, goes like this: banking is evil. Banking is the spawn of capitalism, which is in turn evil. These things are evil because they promote greed. Greed makes men shrivelled, ugly little goblins squealing for every last penny they can scrabble up with their twisted, slimy claws.
He paused and cursed at his reflection; four damn years and you still can't tie a tie. Take it off and start over.
The goblins, by virtue of their greed, become wealthy. Wealth, by virtue of capitalism, equates to power. Power and greed combine to create despotism and madness. Mad old men with mad hordes of money give rise to the corporation. Corporations are the rotted carrion upon which the maggots of banking feast. The money is used to create bureaucracy, as a means of demonstrating and exercising the power; this occurs within the corporations, and banking is a willing (and vital) accomplice.
Finally, the tie looks right. Now for these little cuff links, and it's off to the office.
Bureaucracy conspires to create employment. Despite what the politicians may claim, employment is not, in fact, a good thing. Employment is merely a channel for squeezing every last droplet of money and power out of the common man, into a stream that runs inevitably upwards to those same rich and powerful goblins who control it all. Employees are, therefore, evil in thier own way; for in the course of doing their jobs, they not only empower the greedy and evil men at the top of the whole twisted scheme, but also become complicit in the destruction of their fellow man, to the same ends.
This was Gregory's theory, and he held to it dearly; each day brought ample new evidence of its veracity and profound importance in the ordering of modern society.
It was all bullshit, though. The job wasn't evil. It couldn't be evil, because nothing evil could have brought Gregory into contact with such a wonderful thing as Jennifer.
Must hurry to make the subway; I can't be late today. There will only be a few minutes to ask her out to dinner before we must clock in at the department.
The noodles were cold and the sauce thickened beyond recognition, but Gregory didn't care; he had long since had his fill. Now, all that interested him was the face smiling at him over the twin candles on the restaurant table.
He smiled back, feeling the lines and wrinkles of age crinkle and scramble into new positions as he did so. Getting old was a strange sensation, made all the more peculiar by all the little changes that were barely noticeable by themselves. In combination, they served to do little but remind him of younger days.
Old times... like that first time, so long ago, that he and Jennifer had sat at a similar table in a similar restaurant. After seventy five years (or was it seventy six?), all the restaurants looked alike, in memory and in life. He had worked at the bank, back then. So had she... that was how they met, trying to make sense of the odd new machine and its odd new name, "Xerox." The salesman had insisted it would revolutionize their office, but at that moment all it had seemed to do was cough out clouds of disgusting dark powder, and make odd noises.
He had felt foolish, then, being confounded by a mere piece of technology. It wasn't his ideal way to meet a woman, especially not someone as remarkable as she was. He'd vowed to make a fresh start in a more romantic arrangement the next day.
It had been the beginning of something. He had begun a lot of things. Finished most of them, too; Gregory was damn proud of that. If anything was wrong with kids these days it was that they didn't finish things.
He'd made sure that his own two sons had been brought up right.
In fact, he'd finished all of them, so far as he could remember... all but one.
A warm touch on his hand jolted him back to the restaurant.
"Greg? Are you alright?"
It was only then that he realized that, entranced by his thoughts, he'd been frowning deeply at Jennifer. He smiled again to reassure her, and then once again grew pensive.
Presently, he reached a conclusion. He took a breath and steeled himself to mention a subject he'd buried deep within his soul for far too long.
"Jen... I want to buy a boat."
Gregory sighed lightly and leaned against the rail, absently massaging his bad knee, staring out into the distance over the moonlit harbor.
The forty footer was only a pale echo of what Hyperion had once been, but she was enough. Jennifer was still irate that he'd dug into the pension account for such an extravagance, but he'd signed all the papers that afternoon, and the boat was officially his - too late now. It was sleek, new, white with flashy red stripes in all the right places. All she needed was a name.
He sighed again and lit a cigarette, worrying for a moment about Jen. She didn't deserve this; she was a wonderful woman, and in all their years together had never done anything to merit such a blow from Gregory.
That life though, happy as it was, had always been a lie. He had loved the bank, loved the job, worked up the ladder and become head of the department, revelled in the pure materialistic hedonism of it all. There was rumour he could have been head of his own branch, had his age not interfered. Still, though, retirement had come at a good time, and the company made sure he was well taken care of.
And there was Jennifer, too... he'd feared a little bit that she had only fallen for him out of youthful ignorance, and would eventually tire of being wed to such an older man. But she stayed resolutely at his side. The cynical part of him suspected it was mainly for the money, but it was hard to believe such a bitter thing about such a wonderful woman.
It was all too much to sort out, all this business of his family and the boat. He didn't really want to let it all go, to walk away from them so suddenly; they didn't deserve it. Still, there was nothing else to be done.
He'd tried to explain it in the letter, how he was leaving for a journey, to travel again, to reclaim the freedom that he'd once lost. He tried to capture the agony of realizing, after so many years, that it had all been a mistake after all. He struggled to find words to describe how he finally stopped fighting the truth, finally let go of all the hollow happiness and success he thought he'd found in the world. For nearly an hour he'd stared blankly at the page, casting about for some way to communicate that he could no longer live a lie. It was time to return to his true self, to embrace the only thing that had ever truly touched his bitter, tangled soul.
Jennifer and the boys would return from the college tomorrow morning, and find the letter as he left it on the kitchen table. He hoped they would understand, but deep down, he doubted he could ever really explain his plight.
The cigarette was gone, and Gregory flicked the butt into the water. It was time to leave. He busied himself with starting the boat's engines and putting off to sea.
It was past midnight when Gregory decided to stop, far out past the port. There was no sign of the city lights on the horizon, no hint or sound of other vessels anywhere nearby. He was alone.
Gregory stopped the engines and walked out to the bow of his new boat, breathing deep in the chilly night air. He wasn't accustomed to being out this late... it was hard to stay awake.
After a pause, he took a breath and forced himself to focus.
He reached down to the lumpy knapsack and hefted it onto his back, struggling against the weight to fasten the straps. After a moment, he was satisfied that the load of exercise weights was securely attached.
One last sigh, one last look out over the water. With the slow, quivering awkwardness of age, he climbed up onto the railing, reaching out a hand to steady himself against the rigging.
The last fragments of Hyperion's hull had long ago been lost to the depths of these waters, and with her, the fleeting remnants of Gregory's soul. He had left his home and life to return to the only place he could ever truly call home, and the only life he had ever wanted to live.
Smiling the smile of an old man made wise by his own folly, Gregory let go of the rigging, and plunged forward into the water.
The waves closed quickly over his head, and a small corner of his mind noted with satisfaction that the weight in the knapsack was doing its job.
The water grew deep and cold, the last feeble beams of moonlight conquered by the murk.
And at last, imprisoned by the mighty arms of the sea, Gregory returned to his freedom.