We are pleased to introduce the fifth installment of our inaugural venture into fiction with Donald McPhedran Gibson’s Aqaara, the second book of a speculative fiction trilogy Umiariak, chronicling a trans-generational journey to a distant planet. Set in the present day, Gibson’s work reflects on what awaits in our inevitably entangled future.
A separate glossary covering some of the terms may be found at the bottom of Part One. Installments of Aqaara will appear every Tuesday on Outer Places. Parts Two, Three, and Four can be found here, here, and here respectively.
A schematic of the spacecraft Anori may be found at the bottom of this installment.
Dee returned to The Hive, where V stood exactly as she had left him. She lay back, his hands applying the oil to her calves and wrists, and stared up, intent on the blue light, waiting for the feeling to come back. Someone came out of it, just ahead, tall, broad shoulders, someone she knew from her past, his eyes on her, her music teacher from when she was a little girl. He took her hand and she squeezed it back. She loved that man, wanted to be loved by him when she was young, held, her cheek caressed, and he was doing that. She reached out and touched his arm, softly at first, and saw herself though his eyes, the young girl, wide-eyed, trembling. He kissed her on the forehead. She kissed him back. The sound grew into a thick aroma, through her pelvis, redolent and raw, stripping, scared, entranced, and she pushed up into it.
She was on a platform, a wooden square, and she came out of the blackness, the world suddenly there, right through the trees, branches whisking against the edges, the platform moving faster, all of it faster, and she wanted it faster, hurtling toward an inevitable crash, and she wanted like that, the vibrations wild into her head, spreading out through her fingers, tingling, like she had held too long and couldn’t let it go, and then it wasn’t there, and she saw herself, her body, gliding, a serene thing, shoulders bent forward, and then she was pressing, harder and harder into the platform, the trees coming through her, her face pressed against the wood, the world in her, and then caught in a stillness, firmly there.
“Just give it a moment.” V was there at her side. “The feeling will pass.”
“What if I don’t want it to?”
They had achieved .96 light speed, Hawking 4X. Chantal announced it, singing in a warbling off-key voice on The Ark News. The energy mass in Dante had been stabilized, prepared for containment; the ship was to be transformed from a tower, all pods – Zenobia, Eno, Miya, Didi, Trane, Sooja, Aeschylus and Zaha – condensed into a ball-like mass, each orb connected to one another, Dante attached like a tail. As impossible as it was to imagine, the spire atop Zenobia was retracted and Eno and Miya curled into the initial clump. Didi, Trane and Sooja followed soon after that and then Aeschylus and Zaha, Dante still at the back. It was no longer a space ship, no longer a thing going through space, but a part of it, a bulbous mass. The outer layer looked like nothing at first – just a fantastic play of light, a computer design wafting like a collection of feathers over the blackness – and then it pulled tighter together, sealed into place, piece by piece, until the surface of the growing sphere began to appear, the inside of a shell curling up, enveloping the pods one by one.
Everyone watched – in the Sortavuts, Taku Bridge and Dante itself – the transformation of Anori from spaceship to anorthite meteor, a spectacle that no one could fully comprehend, just like that, the giant stream of pods, close to two kilometers from Dante to the tip of Zenobia, were compressed into a little planet. The pods were now bundled together around Zenobia like flowers on a petal, Aeschylus between Zaha and Didi, Miya, Eno, Sooja and Trane most accessible from Aeschylus through Zenobia. The interior hem of the canopy was tightened, rotating the pods together, metallic balls rotating into a perfect circle, until the seal was complete. The ship had fully retracted into its shell, an anorthite planet moving close to light speed.
She didn’t understand how she was able to see it, the pictures from afar, as if from a camera crew on a ship following them. She asked Jabberjaw. “How are we able to see everything like that?”
“It’s like a selfie stick.”
“Except that there’s no stick.”
“It’s a digitized rendering.”
Earth, Hera as everyone now insisted on calling it, remained a focus. There was no avoiding that. They were five months out now, and many remained intensely focused on the sentiment of having left, the memories still all too clear. Herian memories populated the Solaris feed – pets left behind, trips to distant countries, walking a baby carriage across the street, dark clouds on the horizon, eating sushi on the sidewalk, a late train – and then the polls on which was most intense, significant, everything re-told again and again, a hyper-zeitgeist flow of moments defining who they had been. It became a frenzy, so many on the ship doing little but that, entering and commenting, watching the images over and over – children dancing by a pool, a woman trying to open a broken door, a kitten falling off the bed – until they were spent. They had never known another place; it was all they had. It was too much to think of, too final, far beyond what they had planned. It was beyond Earth-out-of-view Syndrome. Earth Never to Be Seen Again.
“Hera is no longer ours,” Och announced on the Bearing. “It is no longer for us to hold. It is no longer even a speck of light. It is gone. We will never see it again. We knew we would not see it again, but now we are experiencing that very loss. We need to understand and embrace that loss. That is the only way we will be able to develop our Anorian selves. We will never see anyone or anything from Hera again. The sooner we accept our new selves on this gentle ship, the sooner we accept that this is where live. We will become whole and beautiful together. It is in this light and understanding that we will celebrate ourselves in the First Anorian Festival, Eulogies for Hera.”
Och curated Eulogies for Hera, an interactive aural experience, for which all were encouraged to write eulogies for a loved one or for one another as they needed to turn away from their past and embrace what lay ahead. Och wrote Theory of Relativity, an electronic symphonic piece to open the gathering. In our accepted trajectory/At the speed of light/A minute for every hour/Thousands of millions in the universe/Always here/Always here/Never gone/Always here/A minute for every hour/In this place/Our home.
A music festival of traditional music followed, The Ceilidh, enhanced by slowing the ship’s rotation, reducing their gravity. The accordion player, a young bearded man, leapt and lurched, somersaulting over his instrument, another man behind him, on concertina, doing the same. Dee recognized the music, from Newfoundland, so many years ago, from when she was lost, from when this all seemed to have begun. Not this music, no. That was all she could think. Not this. It was a cosmic joke played by Fitz in concert with Och, Lai and Nico. We’re going to make you miss the only people you could, your family from Newfoundland, those very ones. It scared her how much the music meant, even if it sounded comical at first, fun, great for kids, kids’ music, for jumping up and down the steps of the Sortavut, for swinging around and laughing, as the adults clapped along, trying to make this real. It was hard not to feel happy, watching and clapping to that sound, Liyuan bobbing his head to the music. And then it changed. And she allowed that to happen. It wasn’t just music. It wasn’t a sing-song then. It wasn’t a game. It was in her, the long note, the accordion allowed to drift open, dangling there, painfully out, in her, harder, her lungs banging into her ribs, the breath barely coming out. The music was on, getting faster not because it was a game but because it had to, a compulsion, the notes chasing each other, furious, more than electric. Human. Fingers pressed those keys, fingers moving hard and fast, trying to sound the pleasure when it was only pain, just ahead of the next death, the next loss, the next tragic moment to be drowned. And everyone was dancing to that. She did too. They looped around the edge of the Sortavut, Liyuan at her side, leaping up and down, arms flailing. The concert went on, music from the old world, Irish, Scottish, French, German, Italian, Turkish, Syrian, Maltese, Malian, Gambian, Indian, Burmese, Cantonese, Haidan, Sioux, Iroquois, until everyone was drunk on something or nothing at all.
The Hive looked dead, the thin blue light around its perimeter dark, nobody there, no one out front, no one in the winding corridors. She went down slowly, her hand along the wall and opened the door to find V, like he had never left.
“I’m always here for you.” He helped her onto the table, touched her wrists and ankles with the oil and she was whole, a complete and entire thing, in her childhood, naked in knee-deep water, her feet softly balanced on the slippery rocks. She lowered herself fully in, floating, her hands just touching the rocks, hovering above, her mouth and eyes slipping in and out of the lake water, now bright and golden in the afternoon sun. She glided beneath the dock, considered the long slope out to the depths, fish swimming and drifting out past the crib, and then turned and pulled herself along the shore of the little island, hand over hand, catching rocks, smooth and round, long crevices, tadpoles slipping amongst the long stems of the water lilies. Boats hummed in the distance. She could see them, white specks out in the bay. None of them would come to these shallows. She was safe. She ducked under the water and glided down low, rubbing her body, her legs and stomach, her pelvis, against the smooth rocks, and watched the algae break apart and contort in her current. She dove deeper, snaking off a rocky shelf, into the cooler water, along a crevasse, over a log, long and old in the water, over it, a turtle, the yellow spots on its neck like specks of brilliant light, suddenly there, looking back at her, its jaws crooked, opening and closing, its legs firm to its niche. She wasn’t afraid, surprisingly so, and swam back to the surface, creating whirlpools amongst the water lilies, spinning the broad green leaves and flowers around into each other, the smell of the flower, verdant, there for a moment, and she drifted there like a turtle or frog and watched a merganser and her chicks, eight tiny creatures scampering to get close to their mother. The sun was high, well over the trees, the clouds scattered. She rubbed her body through the lilies and along the murky bottom, her fingers extended, reaching for nothing, her toes angled back, long and perfect. There would never be anything like this, this essential thing, the thing she had inside, had dreamed and lost, not in pursuit of something else, but just this, where everything opened on itself, the water to the trees, the trees to the clouds and sky, the clouds to the water, all of that spiraling down into the world of underwater magic, this delicate promise and not even that, this gentle, tenuous moment of love, so familiar and fragrant inside her, ambrosial, what might be ahead, what could be, the ever-distant and ever-wonderful thing in her head, and this was it. She floated there, still, in anticipation of nothing.
She was confused by V’s hand on her arm, scared that he found her hiding place. This was where she hid. It was as pure and real a thing as she would ever know and that no one could ever understand. Not V. Not this place.
“The feeling will pass.”
Live broadcast of G7 36-hour marathon dance, in anticipation of the new Mina day, now in fifth hour.
Dee turned off the Bearing and slept in her darkness, Icarus tight against her, and woke to see the dancers on the Sortavut screen through her window, the naked bodies floating amongst orbs in a blue-laser installation, spinning, clinging to one another, spiraling away, and turned it back on her Bearing. Sixteen hours in, and the Solaris on-screen chatter was that they would not make it; it just wasn’t possible for all seven performers to complete the endurance piece. The largest, Kaba, was voted most likely to fail. Bets were placed, odds 12 to 1 against, up to 15 to 1, back to 10. Kaba did not stop – nobody did – 23 hours in, 25, 26. Piri, a stern-faced woman with stick-like legs, stumbled, twisting her leg on an upright but was caught and continued on. They all did, to 28 hours, 29, 30. And then, in those final hours, it turned into a celebration for everyone, the entre ship in a single pod, crammed into Miya’s Sortavut, a contingency not even considered. This was what they had come to believe in. It was this or nothing. They were at 33 hours and then 34, and suddenly everyone understood they would make it. This dance was who they were. They were no longer of Earth, of Hera, but Anori. They were Anorians. They were flying together to another planet. Dozens and then hundreds stripped off their clothes and floated with the dancers, clinging and flying with the original seven. And then it was over, everyone exhausted. They had made it, everyone.
Anori was officially declared an independent society, its founding based upon Newton’s Third Law of Motion: That when a first body exerts a force F1 on a second body, F2, the second body simultaneously exerts a force on the first body, meaning that F1 (Anorians) are equal and opposite to F2 (People of Hera). Chantal announced an end to the Herian calendar, the Herian day, the Herian clock, the official end to all Herian holidays. There would be no more Christmas, no more New Years, no birthdays; that time was gone. There were stirrings at that. My Christmas is My Christmas posts dominated. And then I Know What Fucking Time It Is. Now Carry On. New holidays would have to be created based on new milestones and anniversaries, the death of the girl, Bridget, to be the first. Just Bridget. That’s what the day was to be called. Not Bridget. Not Bridget’s Day. Or Remembering Bridget. But Just Bridget. It was such a Lai thing, and Dee wanted to kill her for that. Other celebrations were announced – Hawking (honoring their first day of Cruising Speed), Discovery (for reflecting on the self and where they might go) and Darkness Together (reflecting on the universe) – all registered on the new Minian calendar of 418 days, 36 hours each – still the old Earth Hours, Dee noted – which amounted close to double a Herian year. And then Chantal announced the next official holiday, Atavok Day, the 150th day (Earth days, Dee noted) of the voyage and would be again every 100 Minian Days after that. That’s when the violence against the Atavoks began in earnest, and a female Atavok the second death.
It was a misunderstanding, not a malicious attack; that message was repeated extensively, accepted by most, by Chantal on The Ark News. Ucci, an Atavok greatly admired for her athleticism, had performed in a follow-up Eulogy, the gravity normalized again, and fell from a platform. She was supposed to have been secured by a safety strap – there were images of a technician (human) removing it – before she plunged to her death.
Who is an Atavok? Who is human? How does one even tell? Chantal Deschampes seemed to try to look like an archetypal Atavok herself, unblinking, emotionless, staring out from The Bearing. Is it vital to know who is Human or Atavok? Why must we know these things? What does it matter?
Atavoks should be designated with a uniform or name, Faith appeared next, Carson in her lap. It is a matter of safety. We need to know who is what.
This initiative, this idea to identify, or whatever they are calling it, is an evil. Baro, one of Dante’s chief SENSA engineers, gesticulated furiously on the screen. It is a gross affront to humanity, to all that we are supposed to stand for. What are we doing if we’re to allow this evil on our ship?
I’m an Atavok. V looked disinterested, like he needed to be somewhere else. I’m an Atavok. And I think it makes sense. I like being an Atavok. I’m happy with being an Atavok. I wouldn’t want to be a human.
The moment we delineate one from the other, the moment we decide that there is a difference, a hierarchy, is the day that we turn this ship back. Och didn’t look at the camera, but down, vaguely addressing his shoes. We are entangled in our past. We are entangled in those persecutions. Every one of them, against the Christians in Rome, against the Native Americans in the United States, against the Jews in Nazi Germany, the Twa in Rwanda, the Bosnians, Rohingya, Nuer, Yazidis, Darfuris, Moslems, against women, children, against anyone and everyone in minority, without power. This cannot persist.
Proposals for Atavok identification were rejected by the First Anori Committee, and then the Decoherence Virus had its first victim, no longer a skin disease and bleeding, but death, a young man, human, and that became the thing – pods evacuated, others quarantined, rumors of plague – until Liyuan found the cure.
“My Uumasut doesn’t include humans.” Dee watched the group parade through the Uumasut, harassing a Pudu Deer. “Can’t you scare them out of there, U?”
Baro, the Sensory System Attenuation (SENSA) engineer, sat straight at the console, head shaved in back, ragged clumps of black hair down, longer, dangling in his eyes. He had already initiated development for the nine SENSA environments – Bolero (Plains), Joshua (Deserts), Coto (Mountains), Layeh (Jungles), Algonquin (Forests), Laos (Hills), Mozam (Savannah), Vina (Coastal) and Illu (Arctic) – each climate regulated and maintained to the anticipated Mina cycle of 36 hours. The animals, most in various stages of incubation in the Nukak, had hardly begun to make their way out. It was the humans who wandered in, wanting to see the sunsets and fabricated storms. It had become a tourist attraction, a virtual Times Square. “I’m not sure that would be appreciated by everyone, Ms. Sinclair.”
“I rule the Uumasut,” she replied. “I want them out.”
Shanshan stood beside Dee, hands in her vest pockets. “They’re just curious, Ms. Sinclair. And the animals like it. It is good for their development.”
“We’re not raising pets, Shanshan. Our animals need to be left alone.”
“Bearing Dependency is a problem, you know,” Shanshan replied. “This helps.”
“Bearing Dependency?” Dee shook her head. “That’s the new thing? What happened to the plague? We already over that one?”
“Chantal announced it this morning,” Shanshan replied. “40% of all Anorians have it.”
Dee held her hands up in futility. “The device that is causing the dependency, the Bearing itself, is explaining the effects of the device?”
“She was in here yesterday,” Baro added. “She’s doing a story on the Illu environment.”
“She’s making the announcement of Bearing Dependency on the Bearing! You have to agree that that’s completely insane?”
“Research has demonstrated that the majority of on-board socialization is done on the device.” Shanshan scrolled through her screen, looking for a quotation. “She said…”
“Ms. Deschampes is a thoughtful person.” Baro moved side to side as he spoke, looking at an angle across the room, never making eye contact, awkwardly trying to look relaxed by crossing his legs at his ankles but which had the opposite effect. “Very knowledgeable. She dissected the Humans First Movement with poignancy.”
“This is it. Listen.” Shanshan read from her Bearing. “‘Excessive Bearing use denies the user of the physical interactions which are the foundation for a developing society‘.”
“You’re reading that on the Bearing, right?” Dee snapped. “Irony?”
“You’re being mean,” Baro stated flatly.
“You’re right,” Dee replied. “I am.”
“Angelica used to be always on her Bearing, right?” Shanshan had closed her Bearing. “And now she’s at The Hive. She’s always there, right?”
“A Hiver,” Baro said. “That’s what they’re calling it.”
Dee glared down at the group of teenagers, crashing through the elephant grass, the Pudu Deer running away again. “Baro, I need to get these people out of here. Give me some of that grey
sky, all right?”
“There is a sequence, Ms. Sinclair,” Baro replied.
“You’re holding out on me.” She gazed out as the Pudu vanished through the waterfall. “Make it miserable. Make it fucking rain.”
“Finn would like that,” Shanshan agreed.
“I have to follow the sequence, Ms. Sinclair.”
“I’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way and leave you to gossip about Hivers and Humans First fuckers.” Dee stormed down into the Uumasut, past the waterfall and into Coto, but there was nobody there. She went through Coto into Layeh, realizing that the SENSA transition between the desert and the jungle needed work. The Yucca Gloriosa were already infringing on the Hosta Undulata. They needed more animals, more animals and fewer humans.
She saw a figure ahead, legs splayed out from under the Giant Ostrich Ferns and lurched ahead. “Hey! Get out of there! You!”
“Hey, there.” Angelica sat up, her head just above the ferns. “Hi, Dee.”
“Angelica? What are you doing?”
“Oh, well, I’m…” She propped herself on her elbows and tried to blow her hair out of her face, finally giving up and wiping it away in a dramatic gesture. “I’m super good.”
“Why aren’t you with us in the Nukak?”
“Oh, well, I was there.”
Dee crouched down and looked Angelica in the face. “You don’t look like you’re super good.”
“I am.” She nodded back firmly. “I am.”
“Then why are you sleeping in here?”
“I wasn’t sleeping, Dee. I was looking at these ferns.” Angelica lay back on the ground and waved at Dee to join her. “Look.”
Dee bent down, flipping a fern over briefly. “We can’t have pests. We haven’t invented them yet.”
Angelica reached up to the underside of the Ostrich Fern and spread her fingers to match the pattern. “You see that? How perfect it fits? My hand and the leaf. Both reaching. Tiny explosions of life, frozen together. Whoosh!”
“Angelica, you’re stoned.”
“I’m not stoned. I’m not anything like that.”
“Cyfy is a drug, you know.”
“It’s not Cyfy. Nothing like that. It’s understanding, okay?” She sat up, the fern still in her hand. “I understand my body, my body and the world, how everything fits.”
“Your body, as perfectly as it might fit, Angelica, is supposed to be at the Nukak.”
“I know.” She sighed. “I know.”
Dee understood all too well, everything in this person, and said what needed to be said. “You’ve been to The Hive.”
“Yeah.” She fluttered the leaf up and down, almost urging to fly. “Wow.”
There were voices below, the group she was chasing now tramping through the Yuccas and Hostas. “I know, Angelica.”
“Bliss.” Angelica jumped up, knocking right into Dee, arms out. “Am I right?”
“Hey!” Dee leaned through the branches and called after them. “Use the path, okay? Use the path! If you walk on the trees, they won’t grow, and the animals have no place to live. Use the path!”
They stopped, a woman calling back. “Hello!”
“Stay on the fucking path!”
The woman stared back a moment and then went after the others as before, over the trees.
Dee turned to Angelica. “You’re not on the fucking path either, Angelica. You’re passed out in the bushes.”
“It’s like you get to something. And you’re there.” Angelica kept her mouth open briefly, her tongue lolling out, briefly, luxuriantly over her teeth. “I’m not saying it like I want. Dee. I…know more. I feel more. I am more aware.”
“More aware of what?”
“You know how when you think about something, how you, like, hope about it being something and then it’s not that. It’s a disappointment, right? Not what you wanted, what you expected. It’s something else, just another thing. And you accept that. That’s life. You move on.” Angelica seized Dee by the arm, looking at it, caressing her skin. “That’s not like this. Not this.”
Dee watched Angelica’s fingers move across her forearm, down to her palms, exactly as V had performed the ritual and grabbed Angelica’s hand to make her stop. “Listen, Angelica, it’s not like I don’t know, okay? I get it.”
“It’s real, Dee. It’s so real. It makes you understand the world, understand it, not like drugs, not like that, but real.” She held up her hand, turning it slowly like an exhibit. “I see my hand only as I can see my hand. Only me. It isn’t just a hand but something that can be seen and understood from an infinity of perceptions.”
Dee desperately held her hand up, spinning as did Angelica. “My hand too?”
“Hawking sex then? Is that the dream?”
“I’m telling you, Dee. It’s real. It’s the most real thing I have ever known.”
“Angelica, we still have things we have to do, right? It’s not just being in The Hive. It’s not just that.” Dee was saying the words, but she was not there, instead standing outside of herself,
wholly outside this body, watching her say things, wondering how the jaw moved, how those things were being said and when it might stop. “You have to live your life.”
She stared through Dee, looking more into the lingering twilight. “Think about numbers, okay? Think about how they seem real, right? You know what a six is, right? We all do. But it isn’t that. A six changes. It isn’t always the same thing.”
“A six is a six, Angelica.”
“Not in how we perceive it. It changes.”
“Angelica, you have to take care of yourself.”
Her fingers quivered out like she was casting a spell. “That’s the last thing I need to do, the absolute last.”
“Angelica…” Dee wanted to say nothing; that’s what she wanted for both of them, to just leave it as it was. “I know what you’re saying. I get it. But it’s not…You know something and then you
don’t. You have it, and then it’s gone.”
“Not this. It’s so true, so real.” She sighed, suddenly depleted. “It’s a physical thing, okay? I know that. It’s outside of what we are, what everything is. Sex isn’t what we think. It’s real. It’s true.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. But even if it is real and true, it doesn’t stay like that. It can’t. It’s there and then it’s not.”
“No, it’s entanglement,” Angelica replied. “This is it, that very thing.”
“It’s the essence of entanglement. And you know it.”
“Angelica, you’re just saying things about numbers and fern, like that has something to do with truth, sex, right?” Dee took her hand and helped her stand. “I mean, come on.”
“Move.” She pushed Icarus away from her closet and selected a sheer silver gown, tight at her breasts and shoulders, and walked through the pods, oblivious of the bright lights of their fake midday. She had been with the cartoons, Bugs Bunny, Fritz, Jabberjaw and the Neptunes, brilliant blue and pink smells lighting up her brain, had found herself empress, an alien and warlord. She had been with other women, men, a cat, a seal, a lemur, rubbing her glands against every branch she could find. They were all inside her or somewhere that she could find. She went through that; she wanted what was next. Oblivious of the lines going from Trane into Miya, she felt suddenly happy, almost fulfilled as she crossed the pod to the entrance, Evie in the shadows. She ducked into V’s pod where she stripped the gown and pressed her wrists and ankles up into V’s firm touch and floated through the blue meniscus, through the crinkling in her head, following the strand as it trailed out ahead, and then not, as the growing sound, echoing up, half broken, repeating, a distant train coming, broken shutters, chanting, priests in the mountains, burrowing out of those depths, devolving into longer and longer notes until it was just one sound inside and out, coming through the doors and from just behind her ears, almost inside her head, a thick wash, dripping; she held her feet down straight, her toes gripping an edge. It was wholly in her, the universe clear, first in wide thick streaks, slow motion, and then on a smooth rock, her feet in moss. She felt the first hand, fingers on her hip, and then another, the palm sliding on her back to her hips. She let her arm fall back, her hand absently open, the hands now on the curve of her neck, as she turned, holding hard to the torso there, digging her nails into the ribs, holding the arm as they pushed back, tenuous, climbing, her body as it should be, a sudden thing, like leaving the Earth, launching, impossibly faster, realizing that this really was a rocket ship and that only air could make her leave the ground, the magic of that, leaving, in the air, moving so fast, becoming a sound, the echo of the thing in her.
She clung to that, she was that, and found herself in Nani’s car, her childhood neighborhood flashing past, an electrical post on the corner, the steep lawn above it, dark clouds, her sister beside her, her foot against her sister’s, their toes against each other, the lithe lilac smell of their arms together, and then her, looking back at herself, though her sister’s eyes, feeling that love, that abandon, that willingness to do anything for this little person, and wanted to reach around herself and bring Crystal with her back through all of this time and space, and give her that love back, banging as Nani turned the corner, holding that ever so close, stretching her toes out, her leg, the shadow of the seat sliding over, at the edge of Crystal’s leg, back into her, just over, further across her lap and leg, onto her, sliding up her body, rising across her face, the cool of that, both of them in that shadow, hidden together, her breath coming up in her, holding that, her hands still at her side, never wanting to leave this thing, this certainty, and then them together, not just Crystal or Dee, but both of them, falling forward into that, tight clawed to this perch, the smell of a distant forest or ocean welling up inside, her whole self in that, willing it and not, wrapped up in a memory of herself so small and naked, young, swirled inside the salt air and cedar branches, where she knew that was everything, the world ahead, ready to be that, and so she knew, her shoulders up, hands clenched at her side, absolutely tight, her tongue out, mimicking what she desired, smiling, almost angry, and then chattering down, watching the plain come up to her, collapsing. It was a relief to do that.
“The feeling will pass.”
The light was grey, as she had instructed Baro, a dim, distant wall of clouds on the horizon, Layeh and Coto regions in the growing gloom. The Barashinga fawn lay in the thick grass, below it a pair of adolescent baboons hugging each other. They wouldn’t wander off; none of the animals did. The Adelie Penguins, Bobak Marmots, lynx kittens were all developing well, each huddled in their pens.
Dee scrolled through her Bearing, flipping through the images, watching them bleed, one thing after the other, celebrations of the new water source, Zhe Hu doing a dance, a multi-perspective of ice crystals, and stopped on the transformation of the ship, a stop-motion compilation of the entire process in 30-seconds, from tower to flower petals, the pods rolled together like tiny black marbles, turned around and around, connected, flipped, reconnected, and then this new spinning thing, Dante hanging to the back like a dragonfly’s tail. She played it over and over, amazed at the sequence, trying to figure out how the tubes vanished, how everything reconnected, that she was there, inside one of those things, that this was where she lived.
The Anori Games dominated Solaris, an inaugural event at Odysseus, competitions between the pods, the ultimate in video games, every event broadcast on the Sortavuts, fantastic images of competitors zigzagging through the rainforest, climbing mountains, on a majestic glacier, the paths merging together at the base, across streams, everyone splashing against one another, all of it so real. The swimming was set in a turquoise sea, brilliant cliffs towering above, the camera angles above and below, while the cycling went across a magical desert into a city with blue glass buildings, frantic crowds lining the route. Flight, an advanced version of Fly Thru, began at a mountain pass and plunged down a sheer rocky slope, the valleys suddenly dropping away, through arches, under stone bridges, and then up, impossibly so, over the treetops and ridges, groups of eight trying to win for their Pod.
She posted another Uumasut video, the young sea lions trying to catch Finn, jumping from the sand into the water, Finn drifting like he was asleep, and then gone as soon as they got near, the sea lion pups, confused, dashing back and forth. This would be a good one. She checked the numbers on the feed. The red panda video was still the most popular, the cub climbing the branches, swinging back and forth, its stubby red arms flailing out, falling, and then running on its hind legs, going up again. Nothing was going to top that. She scrolled back to the Uumasut feed again. The sea lions were already being watched, 38 views, the bear cubs too, as they tore up the Nukak paneling. The sleeping smiling snake was getting popular again.
She swiped ahead to an announcement for an upcoming dance party, the gravity reduced to a third so that they could float and spin to the dance music and Cyfy, and genuine comets in the forecast. As stupid as it sounded, she wanted to go. There was a ping, Chantal announcing an accident at The Hive over an image of someone being flown across Didi Pod on a Kiki, the protestors in a circle below, calling for it to be shut down. The anti-Bearing campaign continued too, streaming images and videos ironically more popular and frequent all the time. A contingent from Eno Pod, led by a pre-teen brother and sister, espoused group-think as the key to survival, a core method of understanding their environment through group experience. It was not the individual as the essence, exactly as Och had said, but the whole. That was the only way to experience the world they now inhabited, to understand their purpose, to survive, not on screens, on Bearings, but in person. They had gathered at the center of Eno some time ago, tore up the Sortavut, restructuring the pathways and trees to a circle at the axis, and stood in an infinity circle, playing melancholic synthesized music, followed by silence and words, alternatively said around the circle, silence, music, more words. We. Notes followed, low, reverberating through their bodies. We. The same word, until it evolved in another between the notes as they descended. We. Gather. Och participated and sang. Gather. Forever.
A crowd had developed, many recording the event on their Bearings and then broadcast across the ship, the chants filling everyone’s screens, preempting the Anori Games.
We can only find the truth in ourselves. A wild-haired woman called. We have to listen to each other. We have to listen.
I’m listening! One called back – it was Shanshan – and then others.
We here! We together! He called back. We together!
The groups gathered in loose concentric circles, calling and responding, singing and announcing, the music in an ebb and flow with silence, voices whispered, calling, silent again. They made their first demand, proclaiming that the day-night cycle on the ship be abolished, that there only be one light where they were, only one level of light so that they could understand the nature of their quest. The movement continued, gathering support from across the ship, other gatherings organized in other pods, more singing and group-think, more sleeping at the axis, and it seemed that it would go on, continue into something more.
A spectator at the Anori Games, a thick-bearded man named Janki from Zaha Pod, yelled out a series of clonist insults during the Flight semi-finals. He hid in the top row of the stands at first and then when he was spotted, laughed at the anger. What are you going to do about it? There’s nothing you can do. It’s crap! You’re all a bunch of fucking liberal Atavok-loving faggots! Messaging exploded on the Bearings: Everyone has their right to speak. Hate meets love. Nothing a tar and feather couldn’t cure. Off the ship. Now. And then he made his own broadcast, tears streaming. I don’t…I mean, I couldn’t. I mean, I was just…It was supposed to…I didn’t mean…It was so utterly and completely…I mean, I love…I would never…I couldn’t dream of… He chattered out non-sensical sounds, until finally he looked up into the camera and stated matter-of-factly, I am nothing. Nothing. I have nothing. Nothing. I am nothing without you. Nothing. He repeated the same phrases over and over, getting louder, screaming, and then when it looked like he had stopped, began muttering the phrases again, hours on end until he collapsed. The virtual conversation had continued unabated: A fool. Drunk. Sad. Lonely. As brave as I’d ever be. I still can’t believe it. Watched the whole thing. Going to watch it again. What a blaze cast! A blaze cast, man! And that’s how it became known. The first Blaze Cast. Many more would follow.
The victim of the attack, Shequ, had qualified for the final competition of the Anori Games. Her flight was remarkable, almost falling off right at the beginning, just missing the arch atop the gap, but only clipped her wing, fluttering wildly about, catapulting through the trees before finding an updraft and was back in the game. She waited atop the leaders, their legs kicking down ahead, through clouds and then the valley ahead, near misses, acrobatics, and then winning the event, to euphoric cheers and applause, resulting in an essentially hundred per cent viewing audience. The Anti-Bearing group dissolved into a core of 15 people, the group-think movement conflated to a meme of the group singing: Bearing Within.
It was startling how sudden it was, one moment on the bed, V’s hands on her, and then not, somewhere else, something from the back of her mind, a moment of surrender, young, alone, hovering between loss and contentment, surging remarkably into that, everything she had been taught no longer there, new made in her somehow, without anything she could remember. It was in her, a raw wild thing, undiscovered, and she didn’t know how that could be, but it was. It was in her, untapped, ready to explode.
She was naked in a hallway, her hands on the swirling wallpaper print, her feet deep in the carpet, a warm light coming from downstairs. It was her home but not quite that, and she was running along the hall to the landing and she was looking down the stairs at the people dressed for a ball, the smell of the fireplace curling up, and slid around at the top of the stairs, naked, looking down and was on the bannister, and she couldn’t stop. She was sliding down into the people and ducked around them, unnoticed, crawling beneath the silk dresses, the red high heels, and hid in an alcove, watching them, tucked in the shadows, and then in a soft orange light from across the room, between the legs and feet, like the fireplace had suddenly caught, but not that. It was the sunset coming through the window. She curled into herself, her lips barely against her shoulder, her bottom slid up against the carpet, and breathed in, sucking in hard, kissing her arms and chest.
V’s fingers melded, she in the room again. “The feeling will pass.”
She dressed, knowing this time it would not. There was no other. There was nothing but this place. She found Evie in her alcove, a leg sprawled out, as she stared down at her Bearing, a looping image of a woman perched atop an erect penis, moving in an up-and-down circle.
Evie pulled Dee’s face down to her and kissed her neck. “How have you been, little Dee-Dee?”
“Haven’t seen you.”
“Off on a secret mission.” She trailed her hand down Dee’s shoulder and across her breast. “Witch’s things.”
“It’s the smells more than anything.” Dee crouched beside her and then slumped against the wall. “They’re so crystal clear, like everything just in that smell. I can’t put my finger on it. It’s so real.”
“Most powerful of the senses, did you know that?”
“I remember this dream I had of being in a witch’s castle when I was a girl, hiding in her lair. I wanted to see how she made her magic.”
“Can’t imagine she would have liked that.” She gripped the end of Dee’s shirt, twisting the light fabric in her fingers, letting it go with a snap.
“It’s the smell of the place, I can’t describe, acrid but sweet. That’s the thing that gets me, that puts me back there more than anything else.”
“Smell creates an understanding between people.” Evie absently took Dee’s hand and pressed it to her nose. “It’s what makes us connect.”
“Yeah, those, yeah, but more than that. It’s not only, you know, the desire to couple, all of that. It’s more the oneness of the thing.” She kissed down Dee’s hand to her forearm and smelled
that. “It’s the empathy sense.”
“Empathy? Understanding through smelling each other?”
“Think about it. It’s the smell more than anything that attracts us and repels us. That’s the key.” Evie let Dee’s hand go. “That’s what I’m working on anyway. It’s the key bit to everything.”
Dee gazed at the Bearing image, the woman gasping for breath, her head sliding forward, her leg quivering, stuck in a loop. “V’s always here.”
“That’s because there’s five of him, Dee.”
“Five Atavoks? All V?”
“Sometimes there’s two here at a time, even three. And that gets confusing. Believe you me.” She patted Dee’s hip, stroking down her thigh. “But he knows what he’s doing, doesn’t he?”
Sanderson appeared in the foyer in a blue t-shirt and shorts, light patches of cyclopentane streaked on his hands and arms. “Evie.”
Evie closed her Bearing. “What can I do you for, Sanderson?”
He held up a shaky hand. “I’m feeling a little…”
“Wonky, is it?”
“I’ve got just the thing, Sanderson.”
“I don’t know about that.” He smiled oddly at Dee. “I’m not sure that I should be here at all.”
“You like it here, do you? Being here?”
“There’s nothing else for me.”
She snorted a sudden laugh, baring her teeth like a friendly wolf. “I like it too, Sanderson, too damn much.”
“That’s the thing, isn’t it? I don’t know how to stop.”
“That’s what I think. I, I, I…” He stuttered himself to a stop. “I thought it was just sex, Evie. Nothing more than that. And then I came here.”
“Good boy, Sanderson. You ready then?” Evie opened the door, waiting for him to leave and then opening the program again, swiping away the riding woman to an image of the Anti-Bearing cluster: Tartutuuttut. Group think in Greenlandic. We gather. Together. “The thing is I don’t want to gather. That’s the problem with all of this.” She scanned through Solaris, checking the hover-bots on Didion and Trane Pods, and then scrolling through her in a neon bustier, arms out-stretched, the words Flying High at the Hive circling the image in party font. “I’m thinking I would phase these ones out and do something more real, huh? What this place is really. What do you think of this?” She flipped to a series of abstracted images, extreme close-ups of eyes, lips, flesh.
“What’s that?” Dee asked.
“Never would have guessed that.”
“Mine.” She scrolled ahead to an image of her as Aphrodite, naked, with Zeus and Hephaestus, the text in script, Party like the Gods! “Yeah, this stuff has to go.”
Dee touched Evie’s index finger, her fingernail and slowly went around the tip. “You think you’re moving but everything is the same.”
“Isn’t it?” She turned her finger around and tucked it under Dee’s nail. “God, what I would give for a little bit of clarity.”
“How did you get onto this ship?” Dee asked.
“Answered an advert.”
“Val was sure it was a scam, that we were just going to be thrown in the back of a pickup and driven out to the middle of nowhere.”
She squeezed Dee’s finger and stretched back. “Not far off, if you’re asking.”
“And then if you question how real it is, you get all of the quantum crap, parallel worlds, alternate realities.”
“Entanglement!” Evie snorted. “If I hear that word one more time, I’m going to lose it.”
“And so why?” Dee leaned forward and peered through the gaps in her hands. “That’s what I don’t get. What are we doing?”
“It’s better than living in a cave. Can you imagine that? Hunkered down in some smoky hole, throwing meat on the fire, having some hairy bastard fucking you whenever he liked? That’s too
much even for me.”
“Medieval times. That’s what I think about, everyone pretending they’re civilized when they’re all just murdering, raping bastards.”
“Like today,” Evie chortled.
“Except we can escape through The Hive.” Dee stood.
“Oh, yeah, there’s no vacuum out there, Dee. It’s all safe and fine. And we’re going to be living on a planet of honey and chocolate forever and ever.”
“So it doesn’t exist?”
Evie reclined, languid, her thick sensuous arms over her head, crookedly smiling back. “I just want to enjoy what we have. I don’t care when we get there. I don’t even fucking care if we get there. Christ, think about that dream we’ve been sold. Will we be better off there? What will be so different on that planet? A Taj Mahal made of kittens? I don’t think so. I’m fine like this. I’m just lazy and want to stay like that.”
Angelica died of a cerebral edema, out of nowhere, perfectly fine and then dead, during a session at The Hive. There was a small funeral. Dee didn’t attend. She stared at her Bearing instead, watching a Blaze Cast. It was just a confession that went on and on, someone who felt guilty and wanted to change. And they always cried. They always asked to be forgiven. They always promised to do better. They always took forever to load their effigy into the cannister. They always paused before hitting the button. The cannister always vanished into the black. It was all the same. There had only been four broadcasts, and now everyone was talking about it. Faith was the latest to broadcast, confessed to the abandonment of her mother, betraying her family. They did everything for me, and I just left them behind. I’ll never forget my mother’s last words. ‘Do what you have to do.’ And I did. I hate myself for it. She loved me. She loved me. She cried like everyone else; that was called the sweet spot. She bore me. And I left. And now she is dead. My mother is dead. My father is dead. My brother and sisters are dead. Everyone is dead. I left them behind. I abandoned everyone and everything to be here, to be here in this moment with you. And as much as I dream and love and aspire, I cannot let that go. I cannot allow myself to forget that about who I am. I am that. I am that creature. Her broadcast was shared and praised. She had said all the right things, bore her soul in the right way. She had also cried over Sanderson’s death, the most recent death. I didn’t know him. I wish I did. She received the highest empathy grade recorded on the ship.