June 8th, 2189
I’m afraid of space.
That’s why you’re up there and I’m down here, sitting on a dune with a broken nose and a split lip, stabbing a shuttle into my hand while I try to repair the net I dropped on a reef last week. We don’t even have any spare rope; I have to scavenge what I can off of even worse nets. The fibers are all rotting and falling apart on me. It would be easier to get through this if you were here. Stupid of me to think ‘friends forever’ implied being together in some capacity.
It’s easy to ignore the pain in my hand. I feel like giving up and just sewing the loose edges of this net together, but I know what your dad would say. You half-assed it, as usual. This is your last chance. You should be grateful. What else do you have? You failed the first time, dropped out the second time. This is your only chance. Be grateful.
The worst thing is you don’t even write.
It’s like you want to forget this place, like you want to forget us. Like when you swore that as soon as you left this town you’d never eat fish again, as if that amalgamated goop they pump into you isn’t pasted together with carrageenan and anchovies and bonito.
I don’t blame you. I want to leave too. It didn’t work out as well for me, did it? Because now I’m stuck here with a bunch of old people and kids and everyone in between is dead or gone.
Can you believe your parents still buy into the line that we’re doing something vital with our duct-taped trawlers and broken nets? Like we can’t see the state’s big commercial ships sitting on the horizon, picking up every fish that so much as waves a fin in their direction? Half the town works on them as it is. And our own catches keep getting smaller. Listening to your parents’ cheering when another supply shuttle is launched makes my skin crawl.
While I’m on forced shore leave, I also get to watch over Nila. Did you forget about your real sister too? We don’t have a shovel for her, so she’s digging with her hands. We’ve been out here since before dawn and she’s barely got half a bucket of clams. After this I’m supposed to tutor her, since the school server went down again.
I’m going to give up on fixing the net for today and help Nila with the clams. I don’t have anything else to say, so I’ll sign off. I miss you and I hate you and I really, really wish you’d get back to me.
June 10th, 2189
I’m at the bar reviewing Nila’s curriculum, trying to understand why a 9-year-old needs to learn set theory. Instead of times tables, she’s doing Cayley tables, because knowing ab = ba is more important than knowing 7 × 6. Right.
A bar is the worst possible place for me to be studying, but it’s the only building that’s still on the power grid. If that goes down, they’ve got fish oil lamps, and everyone’s too drunk to care about the smell. I miss studying together, it was easier to focus. For me, at least. I have no idea what you got out of it. I look at a proof and I’m like, sure, it makes sense, it’s obvious to me. But I say that about anything, even if it’s wrong. You were always so formal, so meticulous.
The only possible way this experience could be worse is if what’s-his-face showed up. So of course he has. He’s with some rich girl. I can tell she has money because she’s wearing shoes, how fucked up is that? I have to scrub my feet with sand for half an hour to get all the dried wine and ash off. But that’s how bad things have gotten since you left. It sounds like I’m connecting the two events, but I’m not. OK, maybe.
I never liked him. And no, it’s not because dating him meant that you spent less time with me. It’s because he’s a creep. I mean, when you told him you were studying for the navigator exam, he dropped off. Then, when I failed and you didn’t, he came up to me talking about how ‘selfish’ you were. As if I’d want to commiserate with him, of all people. I didn’t just lose you, I lost the chance to leave.
Now he’s got this new girl, like you never existed. This one looks like she’s pregnant. I mean the dangerous, beyond the point of no return kind of pregnant. Why anyone would risk having kids now is beyond me, but people keep doing it. Do they think they’ll get on a generation ship? Do they think there’s still room? Who needs fishers in space?
I fixed the rope situation. Once I figured out what to do it was pretty easy. I sold some of your stuff. Nothing important, just your old computer. The one I bought parts for, when I worked between two ships all year and didn’t see land once while you stayed in school.
I sold it to the scrap yard.
June 16th, 2189
The ping timed out for the last few messages I sent. Either the sat relay is down or you’re still ignoring me. We both know which is more likely.
Your dad took the crew out and left me behind. Took the new net with him, though.
Since there is nothing else for me to do, I was thinking about taking the entrance exam again. I’m not past the cut-off age. Yet.
Nila wants to take it, after she finishes the standard curriculum in a few years. I think she’ll do fine, she’s a lot like you. The problem is, your parents can’t afford the textbooks. I could try to teach her myself, but it’s not like I’m doing a great job now. I don’t even know if I’ll be around long enough.
I could pirate the books if I hadn’t scrapped your old computer for a net. And if we had internet access. I might turn into a real pirate if I can’t figure out what to do with myself. I’d be robbing other poor people, though, so probably not.
If you pass by one of those nonresponsive satellites, do me a solid and hack it so we get free access in town.
June 30th, 2189
I got the bends.
I know we used to joke about it when we were diving, but this seriously sucks. I’ve been in bed for a week.
Nila is the one who spotted me. I don’t remember being pulled out of the water. They think… Well, I’m sure you know what they think. If someone else went out alone on a banged-up fiberglass dinghy, without the sense to even tie a line to herself, I’d think the same thing.
I just wanted to try diving again. Remember how we used to freedive every day after school, jumping off that big sea stack in the cove? I haven’t gone since you’ve left, and I pushed myself too far, that’s all. And I’m paying for it. Everything hurts. There’s this deep, frightening ache throughout my arms and legs. When I told the nurse about it, she just upped the oxygen intake.
Nila keeps checking on me. It’s sweet, but kind of annoying. I hate that she saw me like that. Like this. I think she thinks it’s her fault, that she should have been watching me closer. I’m supposed to be the one looking out for her. She treats me like your replacement. I’m not. I can’t be the kind of big sister you were. I’m glad I’m an only child. What a shitty role model I would have been.
When I was down there, in the water, I could pretend I was with you. I could pretend that I wasn’t afraid to drift through space just above Earth, from where you look down on the rest of us through the hazy veil of atmosphere. Falling weightless through that ambivalent medium, the vast and unknowable water that siphons heat and deadens sound, sustained the illusion. I felt terribly alone. My chest seized. I wanted to claw my way back to the surface, but I forced myself down. I needed to be deeper.
I didn’t notice the regulator’s pressure dropping until I was struggling to breathe. There was a leak in the line. I was fucked. I ditched the useless gear and struggled towards the surface, growing weaker with each stroke. I could feel the sun’s warmth and I pushed through the current. The closer I got, the more blackness invaded the edges of my vision. I was tired, Sarah. I’m always fucking tired.
That’s where my memory ends, as abruptly as a dream. It was beautiful, for a moment.
July 10th, 2189
I caught Nila going through a massive copy of Dummit and Foote. Kids these days. She’s claiming it ‘just showed up’, but she probably stole it from the university library. At her age she shouldn’t be skipping school to go all the way to the city for that, especially not alone. I would’ve done it if she asked me. Still, I don’t think she’s wrong for doing it, and we were worse at her age. She’s mad I don’t believe her, though, because when I asked if I could look at it she flipped me off. I didn’t teach her that. Did you?
August 22nd, 2189
Your dad still won’t let me on the boat. In fact, he’s told everyone else in town not to give me work, period. I spent a few days walking up the coast to see if anyone would hire me. It was a bad idea.
At the first group of shacks I approached, an old auntie came out to shoo me away. Her hands were splotchy pink and shaking. I could see through the door she came out of. Inside there was another thin woman, holding a twisted child who screamed like a pig being slaughtered. Someone saw me looking and slammed the door shut, but I could still hear the kid. I walked down to the little cove they fished in. The waves were lethargic, lapping fetid red foam onto the shore.
The farther north I went, the worse it got.
I went home, thinking about clam digging. The problem is everyone’s got their kids doing it these days. Even old folks are out there. They’re pulling clams out of the sand faster than they can breed.
It took me a while to figure out, but I finally realized what I could do to make money. Salt. I’m a salt woman now. I can’t say I came up with the idea on my own. I heard the packing house was having trouble getting shipments. It’s only a matter of time before other people in town get the same idea. It’s not exactly novel.
I borrowed a few sheets from your room. I hope you don’t mind. I can’t afford to keep a fire burning all day, so after I boil off most of the water I spread the salt over the sheets to dry the rest of the way.
Your mom talked to me about paying rent. Your dad must have asked her to; I don’t think she cares. The original deal was I would work for your dad while staying there, which I did. For years. Of course he’d make me work, not pay me, and then charge me room and board. Honestly? I don’t blame them.
Nila says she wants to accelerate her curriculum. I told her not to overwork herself and she rolled her eyes. I think she’s sick of fish.
September 6th, 2189
I was at the bar again last night. It’s kind of a regular thing now, a weekly ritual. Remember how much I used to hate drinking? The veil has been lifted.
I was sitting at the bar, nursing my watered-down seaweed wine. Normally I’d be studying at one of the tables, where the lighting is better and the surfaces less sticky, but the lights were out. That’s been happening a lot more lately.
The counter is also farther from the pool table and its endless clacking. A few weeks ago the bartender dug this wind-up radio out of somewhere. I didn’t know what it was at first, and now I’m obsessed with the thing. We take turns cranking it. It’s the only way to get regular news. That’s how I learned they’re doing a mass launch next month.
The remaining cohort in orbit, your cohort, will start their flybys, siphoning gravitational force off planets and comets and whatever’s convenient so they can be flung deeper into space. You’ll break and scatter like billiard balls, each mapped trajectory a new path for humanity to follow towards some possibly viable world. Even if it takes us millennia, even if we never find a new planet to latch onto like a leech, at least you’ll be out there, an eternal reminder of what we were.
Since trying to contact you directly isn’t working, I’m relaying future messages. The navigation base enabled permissions for me to use their ground proxy, and confirmed your signal is extant. When are you going to respond?
When you finally get what you want, when you finally leave this place for good, how will I be able to reach you?
September 15th, 2189
This is a rude question. You’re probably not in any shape to answer it.
What’s it like to lose your autonomy? I know they say that isn’t what happens, but that’s not true. If something else, some executable set of instructions, controls your decision making you cannot be autonomous. By definition.
Is that why you aren’t writing back? Am I sending this to an empty shell?
The idea of losing who I am. That is what I’m afraid of, more than being in space. What happens during that discontinuity? I think about it when I fall asleep. How easily I trust that I will wake up as the same person.
What happens in that space of time? Where do you go? Are you still the old you, or is this a new you that merely shares the same memories?
How would you even know?
October 24th, 2189
I have achieved a new low. Some people in town got together and set up a bigger salt operation. They’ve got an entire field for evaporating the water, huge piles of salt raked up. The packing house isn’t buying from me anymore.
Since I can’t pay him, your dad kicked me out of the house. I’m sleeping on the beach, living off of ice plants, kelp, and whatever else washes up. Like that dead sea nettle I’ve been eyeing all day.
I still carry a lighter, though you’re not around to borrow it, and if you were there’s no fuel for it anyway. I’m trying to start a fire with some driftwood but most of the pieces I find are still wet. I’ve spun the flint wheel so many times my thumb’s starting to bleed.
I did, finally, get a couple of sticks to light up. It’s not very warm, but at least the flames are pretty.
November 20th, 2189
Nila turned 10. When that was us, we thought it was a big deal. Double digits and all that. It was significant. Nila wasn’t that excited.
The bar radio’s been less reliable lately. Some of the usual bands we pick up are garbled. I took Nila with me for her birthday, figuring she’d enjoy the novelty of it. Not that a bar is the best place for a kid, but it’s not like we’ve got anything else around here. We were able to hear a few pieces of news, nothing interesting to a child, but she seemed happy enough. Whenever the sound cut out, or was jumbled, I pretended it was an encrypted message from you. I told her that you said how much you miss her, how grown up she is now. It made her day.
December 15th, 2189
I always hated it when you called me negative. I think you were trying to turn it into a joke, or maybe you wanted it to be true so we could be opposite. Magnetic poles. Negative, positive. You know, the designations are completely arbitrary.
This morning your mom said something that reminded me of that. She lets me in the house when your dad’s out. We were in the kitchen, threshing foxtails, bitching about how hard it was getting to find weeds, of all things. She told me to shut up, that I never have anything good to say. But I do. I’ll prove it.
On the first of the month, that big factory purser went dark. Dead in the water. At the bar, people were talking about some satellites being knocked out of orbit. The reports we got over the radio just said ‘systems malfunction’. I don’t care what happened, I’m just glad it did. It took a week for tugboats to get out to the purser. Its crew had to abandon their net.
As soon as the purser limped out of sight, the town fishers moved in. I’ve never seen your dad move so fast in my life. Together, they got the abandoned net up. The town’s still arguing about what to do with it, like anyone can actually use it.
Ever since, your dad has been able to go out farther than usual, and he got a big catch of quality herring, not the chewed-on stragglers he normally pulls up. The packing house needed extra workers and they hired me on the spot. So I’ve been gutting, filleting, pickling, and packing fish for the past three weeks. I know we said we would never work there, but what choice do I have?
It’d be better if they had enough gloves to go around.
December 16th, 2189
I forgot to mention that I watched the new cohort launch last month. Those improbably perfect orbs always creep me out. I know you’re in one too. It’s still weird. Plus, the speed, those maneuvers, aren’t things a living person could withstand.
January 1st, 2190
Happy New Year. Can you tell I’m excited?
Nila got a tablet for her New Year’s gift. She said I can use it when she’s at school. I don’t know where your parents got the money for it. Or high-speed sat access, for that matter. They seemed as surprised as I was when Nila opened the box. Maybe someone upstairs is looking out for us.
Through a combination of Nila whining and bribery, my ‘gift’ was your parents letting me stay in your room again. It’s a bit infantilizing to have to follow their rules, but at least I have a bed. It beats fighting seagulls for half-eaten crabs any day.
More commercial ships showed up, effectively trapping us in the bay again. The fish rush is over, which means I got laid off from the factory. I’m back to harvesting salt, but I’ve got a new idea for it. I thought of it when I had to make lye water for the lutefisk. Who eats that stuff? Me, me eats it. Anyway, after my shifts I raided the dumpsters for the offal. I’ve been boiling it and skimming oil off the top to resell to the factory. I make less than I would if I were hired by them to do it. It’s bullshit.
I put some aside for myself, and your family. Do you know how many kilos of fish guts it takes to make a bar of soap? I do. I have to render it a couple of times to get the fishiness out. I don’t have anything to make it smell good, so the best I can do is make it smell like nothing.
In six months you’ll be passing Jupiter in your space orb. At the rate I’m going, I’ll be tanning fish skins in their own offal. Once I am clad entirely in fish leather, you will know I have accepted my lot in life.
February 13th, 2190
Every time I see a matrix, I think my brain dies a little. I’m on Jordan decomposition, it’s a nightmare. There is no practical use for it; a computer can crunch linear equations faster than I could put them in normal form. A computer doesn’t need to change the base first. Programming exists. Why should we have to learn something that a calculator can do? Whoever decides what material goes on the math exam is forever on my shit list.
I know what you’d say. You’d say it helps create convenient neural pathways to implement said programs, if one so chooses. A place where a memory can be stored. To exploit what we have that a computer lacks: consciousness, agency. Choice.
I don’t care how many organic parts they replace, the human brain is not a computer. It shouldn’t be treated like one. You’re still a person. You’re still in there, somewhere. Right?
I have money saved up for the exam. The way it ended for me last time was embarrassing. I freaked out during the first round of injections. I only got half the shots and felt like shit for weeks after, like I was going through withdrawal. Next time, they’ll probably sedate me and keep going. If I get in.
I don’t know. I mean, there aren’t that many able-bodied adults anymore. I’m a bigger help than your parents want to admit. And what about Nila? It’s not all about me.
I’ve been making the same excuse for years. We both know the truth.
I’m not as brave as you.
March 22nd, 2190
I saw him again at the bar. He actually came up to me, asking about you. I asked him about that pregnant woman. I haven’t seen her for months. No baby, either. It was a shitty thing to do. I knew as soon as I saw the look on his face that she was dead.
If you had wanted kids, would you have stayed? Is it worth dying for?
April 21st, 2190
Your dad got it in his head that he wants to be a shrimper. I mean, if you’ve seen one eyeless cod with its scales slipping off and an oozing hole in its side, you’ve seen them all. No need to change careers over it. I’m pretty sure shrimp are bottom feeders and are at the top of the list for ‘things in the ocean horribly deformed by pollution’.
His crew is very literally falling apart. Mercury poisoning is leaving more of the older folks too fucked-up to work. They’re all shaky and confused. So, he’s got me out on the boat again, picking crabs out of the traps and tossing them back in the water. They pinch me every time. You’d think they’d be happy for the chance to grow up before being killed. That’s more than you can say for the rest of us.
The way these white shrimps’ little legs flail around is too relatable. I’m close to throwing them all overboard. I mean, most of them are under the size limit. Not like anyone gives a shit about that.
Your dad has hinted, i.e., outright stated, that he wants me to take the shrimp up to the city’s farmers’ market this week with your mom and sister. He says he’s already paid for a spot, assuming we can even get past the tent cities.
We’ll have to borrow a truck to get there, and the toll fees, and I’ll probably be up all night working the generator, charging the battery.
I think his usual clients aren’t buying from him anymore. And if they aren’t buying from him, they aren’t buying from anyone else in town.
I don’t know what to do. I suggested to your dad that we, as a town, could consolidate our resources, find a better distributor, and split the profits. You know, like a co-op.
He told me I’m the reason he has high blood pressure, but really, it’s the mercury.
June 3rd, 2190
Well, Sarah, a funny thing happened. The commercial fishing ships went down again last month. Three at once. We were packing up for another drive to the market when it happened. Feds came through town a few days later, interrogating anyone who might have a motive. So, like, everyone. I’m surprised they didn’t leave as soon as they took a look at how run down we all are.
Coincidentally, it was just in time for halibut season. There’s a two-fish bag limit, so I’m out trolling on the boat again. We pulled up a six footer, took us nearly an hour. Imagine existing for that long just to end up on a hook. I prefer salmon. When we catch the run headed for the delta, at least I know they’re going to die either way.
July 16th, 2190
I’m reviewing complex analysis, which is a relief. I found your copy of Ahlfors. I’m surprised your parents didn’t sell it. The cover’s faded to grey, and the pages are all soft along the edges. After this, it’s all modular forms and L-functions.
I’m doing fine, I guess. At least with respect to the exam. Pretty confident. I got a copy of the official review material. The core content hasn’t changed, so I’m not worried. About the exam, at least.
Your cohort’s final flyby of Earth is coming up. Then you’ll be swinging past Jupiter, Neptune, hurtling back to the Sun, glancing off it and getting the hell out of here. A human couldn’t stand the acceleration. And you will reach a point when and where time stands still. You’ll leave the galaxy in the time it takes to translate thought to action.
What I’m saying is, if you are planning to get back to me, do it soon. In a few months you’ll be 20,000 years too late.
September 2nd, 2190
The exams are next week. I paid the fee in advance so I’ll have some incentive to go through with it again. I hate finishing early, then reviewing my answers, then reviewing it again, then just sitting there doing nothing until time is out. I just want to get it over with.
Your sister’s excited for me.
Does she know what happens to us? Not that ‘ambassador to the universe, next stage of humanity’ bullshit, but what they actually, physically, do to navigators?
Maybe she doesn’t. She was only 6 when you left.
I don’t know if I should tell her. People like us don’t have many choices. That’s how they reel us in. Give us the opportunity to become ‘more than what we are’. If I tell her the truth, she might not go through with it. Maybe that’s the best life for her. Maybe she will be too afraid of that choice, like me. And look at me, what kind of life is this? I have no dreams, no goals. My only friend isn’t capable of verbal communication and is on the other side of the solar system. Is this the kind of future Nila would want for herself?
I keep sending these, hoping you’ll actually say something. Instead I get these enticing little hints that I’m half convinced are just in my head. Just talk to me, please. I have no one else.
September 16th, 2190
I went swimming tonight. It’s been hotter than usual, clinging to the upper 80s even this late into summer. They’ve been shutting down the power grid an hour after sundown. For the entire coast. We’re all using fish-oil lamps. The beach is the only place I can get fresh air. The wind picks up in the evening, blowing away the lingering haze, exposing the stars cluttering the sky.
They say that when you get to space you’ll be among the stars. But, really, you are surrounded by emptiness, caught in the vast distances between bright spots. That perfectly encapsulates how I feel about my life. Maybe I do belong up there.
So, I’m swimming. It isn’t quite high tide, but it’s getting there. I swim past the few summer algal blooms still clinging to what’s left of the pilings. I’m out far enough that I won’t get pushed back to shore right away. When the dunes blend into the murky sky, I stop. I float on my back, looking up at all those stars. Too many, if you ask me. The waves are gentle, as you might remember, and they pass under me. There are a few boats out, not many, too far away for me to care. I’m trying not to think about the exam tomorrow. This time it feels inevitable. Irrevocable.
Me. Ocean. Stars. Obsessive thinking. Have I set the scene yet? Good, because next thing I know, my pity party gets crashed. I hear something big slam the water, and it sends a huge wave over me. I flip over and swim under it, coming up to face the direction of the sound. I push wet hair out of my eyes, but I still can’t see it. What I do see is a wave coming, and a shape bobbing on top of it. I swim for it fast, muscles burning, spitting out salt water. After a few minutes, when my arm comes down for another stroke, it hits something firm. I hit it again, and with a dull thud, it yields under my fist. It’s enticingly warm. Somehow its surface is bending light, reflecting, refracting, I don’t know, and I suddenly hope the physics portion doesn’t include optics. I swim around the object and start pushing it towards shore. It is disturbingly light. I attribute this to the relative density of the salt water.
I get to shore and roll it through the sand, above the tide line. Since it rolls, I know it is spherical, and I feel a heavy sense of dread with that realization. I still can’t see it that well, amid the confusion of sand and stars, but my hands tell me it’s there. Two meters in diameter. I don’t want to touch it again; it terrifies and disgusts me. But what if?
I keep my hands on it. I feel its warmth, the way the surface feels like skin, and nausea swells over me. I think about how humans are homeomorphic to the sphere. You would say a torus, to be pedantic. I’d counter with n-torus, to be worse. It depends on how many holes there are.
I think of more stupid, old arguments we had, trying to detach myself from the hands exploring this thing. I trigger something, or it reacts to me in some way, because light flashes across its surface like an asterisk, leaking some clear fluid, defining the shape. It abruptly splits along these lines with a wet, sucking sound, opening like a lotus, and the liquid oozes thickly over my bare feet. I squint against the light, but it only continues for a moment, then it dulls. Dies. My eyes start to readjust to starlight. I move in close, any caution I had erased.
I always thought it would smell bad inside these things, but there is no smell at all and that’s worse.
Vision restored, I see long hair, a rounded face, lips slightly parted, an upturned nose, swaddled in dusk. And then I see all these things together and my heart cracks because it isn’t you.
It’s some other girl, naked and curled like a fetus in her womb, asleep. Her spine has been replaced with a bundle of impossibly thin strands of glass that shimmer with rainbows, even in this distant light. Her body is prosthetic. Mind and body are fundamentally the same; when they tried to entirely eliminate the latter, integration simply did not work. I know this much. And though human brains are not constructed to last forever, this silicone will last hundreds of years. You can synthesize it. These new parts of you can be replaced.
My next thought is to cover her. I believe there is no true her to mind, but if it were you, I would want you covered, against the cold wind coming off the water, against invasive eyes. Maybe it’s a stupid thing to care about. My shirt is drenched with salt water, but it’s the best I can do, so I peel it off. I step closer, between the petals of her ship, and lay my shirt across her. And then I go for help.
Within the hour, a team arrives, cordons off the entire beach. One of the helmeted workers in dark, rippling layers of complex polymers looks for a moment at the shirt I have left on her. They leave and return with a silvery safety blanket to replace it.
The questions they ask leave me unsettled, and they grow disturbed with my answers. If this were some simple error, an accident, they wouldn’t need to ask anything at all. They ultimately decide I have nothing to do with this. I did the right thing by bringing her to shore. I climb up the dunes to go home, to your home. I take one last look as they guide the petals gently back into place. It’s for her own good.
Now I’m home, failing to sleep. My thoughts keep jumping to her face, looking as if she were about to cry, forever locked in that expression. The exam is in a few short hours.
It was a violation. Touching that sphere, that ship. Touching her.
November 1st, 2190
I passed. Top ten. I’d be impressed if I weren’t a decade older than everyone else.
Nila was thrilled. I acted like I was too, though I know she will follow me, like I’m following you. Your parents looked relieved. I leave in two months.
I wish I had something to make this headache go away.
December 31st, 2190
This is the last New Year I will celebrate. No gifts this time. Just food, the things we never have. Gritty bread, a few withered tangerines. Desalinated water without the aftertaste of iodine. Your mom managed to find chicken somewhere, or at least something that tastes enough like it for us.
There is nothing left for me here. There’s no reason for me to feel so sad.
January 1st, 2191
I’m standing in front of the house. I didn’t bother waking anyone up to say goodbye. The small pile of battered textbooks I’ve left for Nila says it all.
The power’s still off, this early in the morning, so it’s pitch black. I barely notice the white van pulling up. The headlights make it stand out, make it more obvious how the mist clings to everything. Someone comes out wearing a white hazard suit, white helmet, and an impenetrable silver visor. They don’t dare breathe the same toxic air as us poors. I take a deep breath, testing the air. Brine, ammonia, decay. The ubiquitous, scentless, heavy metal particulate.
They open up the back, revealing a shadowed interior, then turn their mercurial expression on me. Inside there are two benches loaded with teenagers. I stand out as the only adult. I’m at least twice as old as the youngest. I look at these children and think neuroplasticity. I take the end of the bench closest to the driver, who is distorted by a thick pane of fluted plastic. The air has an odd, metallic tang to it.
The girl sitting across from me bounces minutely in her seat. She keeps leaning forward, stealing glances at everyone else in the faint light. The van starts, and we’re all clutching the benches so we don’t go flying.
After half an hour, I can’t take the loaded silence, so I tap on the plastic. No one responds, so I knock it a little harder.
“Hey, is it okay if we talk back here?”
The kids look shocked that I have the balls to ask. Still, no one responds.
“I think it’s fine. Go ahead, talk to each other.”
As if they’d been waiting for my permission, they all start babbling. After a few hours, as the conversation rises and falls, things quiet as the van slows, stops, and lets on another kid. We bump along, increasingly nauseated. No one talks to me, though they keep looking at me. I cross my arms over my chest and pretend I’m comfortable.
Indeterminable hours later, the van slows, and we hear the rattle of a gate being pulled back. We rumble forward, tilting down, into a tunnel. The van brightens intermittently, the air becomes dry and stale. There is no talking now.
The van shudders to its final halt. The back opens to two more people in haz suits. Behind them the cement tunnel curves up into darkness. We are quickly escorted into an empty room bathed in a cold, clinical light. They take us into an adjacent room, one by one. No one returns. I go last.
January 15th, 2191
My stomach hurts. My upper arm is a knot of pain.
I don’t remember this from last time. I don’t trust my memories. Remembering is such a feeble thing, it seems strange to have tested us based on it. How can it compare to simultaneous access and near instant recall? I see the appeal. What I have now feels fragmented and lossy. Still, what is a person if not their memories?
It’s hard to think when I feel this bad. I don’t know how I managed it before. I think the injections are meant to break us down in more than one way.
I don’t mind the acrid taste of the nutritional fish paste anymore. Soon, I won’t be able to taste it at all. Or need it.
My relationship with time has changed. As endless billions of neural proteins crystallize into invisible silicate lattices, new connections are forming in me and with the others. The others linger on the fringes, but they are there. We have formed a local network for our cohort. It’s strange, to be present both with them and within myself, and yet remain undivided. This new unity helps us forget the people we’ve left behind.
They have access to all of this, these things we share with each other, that we keep to ourselves. We are not our own creatures. I know, now, that to respond to me would have been to reveal yourself. I comfort myself with this.
It is almost perverse to compose these missives. I feel closer to you, as if I could drift across this electromagnetic field that spans between us and find you floating behind the crest of an oncoming wave.
We who are left are now fully encased in our sacs, our albumen, and I note with disinterest the titanium mesh beginning to coalesce about me. It creates a shimmering, fibrous network that will be my interface for external stimuli. A second skin, a third eyelid. It scrapes against the delicacy of my consciousness.
I look outside of myself, while I still can, at what remains of some other girl. She is curled and suspended in her own electrolyte bath. A sleeve has been fitted over her spinal bundle, and code streams across the surface of her tank. An external cue, a flicker of her otherwise vacant eyes, and I know she is still in there.
I thought the question I asked you was one I’d be able to answer myself at some point. Are you the same? Am I? How much control over myself could I have, when all these pieces of me have been co-opted? The me now and the me then seem as different as the me at 29 and the me at 19. The changes were imperceptible. I feel like I’m the same person, but I suspect I’m not. I don’t think I’ll ever know. The Fleet of Theseus, one of the girls calls us. It’s supposed to be funny, but none of us can laugh.
They’ve got us rolled out on the beach this morning, like some massive carton of filigree eggs. Boosters and fins abrade our shells. We don’t have an audience, just our own silent and discrete company.
There is no preamble, no ceremony. The launch is abrupt. We huddle close as the ice-white flames propel us through the atmosphere, leaving cutouts in the clouds we pass through. I feel the temperature like a breath, a blush, a fever. Our flight accoutrements, depleted and useless as they are, melt and adsorb into our hulls. I feel the first wave of unabated radiation splash across me, converted into electricity that courses through me.
I expect the fear to come, choking me back down to Earth, but it doesn’t.
They said I would feel starlight on my skin. All I feel is sick.
I measure time in tedious revolutions about Jupiter and Neptune.
ter and Neptune.
I guess those fucking matrices were useful after all.
One more pass of Jupiter, then the Sun. I’ll greedily store her gamma rays and x-rays. Then I’ll be riding your wake, deeper into space.
I’ll be there soon. I’m right behind you.