Fiction: Aqaara – Part Three

Tuesday, 13 November 2018 - 11:14AM
Tuesday, 13 November 2018 - 11:14AM
Fiction: Aqaara – Part Three
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Celine Laheurte

We are pleased to introduce the third 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. Part Two can be found here.

Dee lay still, staring sideways along the floor of her apartment, Icarus' hind paw stretched in front of her, and absently reached for her Bearing and opened Fly Thru. The trick was anticipating the next thing, knowing which side to move next, get her flying monkey girl over the precipice, across the tree tops, shooting the gaps, down the ice fields, passes and valleys, deep into the canyon and then the subterranean world. She was good at Fly Thru – no longer crashing into the crevasses, her winged suit shredded off – and had hit a new high of 16.7 million, Level 29. Soon she would make it out of the stalactite maze and see what was on the other side. Not this time though; she had clipped off the glacier, barely out of the Level 3, her over-confidence and stupidity letting the little monkey girl down again. She was going to start it again and did, the monkey gliding up and down, anxious for another chance, but scrolled through the Bearing updates instead, pausing at the Ethi program, scrolling the questions again, and then back to the news, Chantal delighting over the highlights of the upcoming Lunar Film Festival at The MazuAmerican Werewolf in London, Moonstruck and Moon – a zero gravity dance at The Whole and a techno-happening at Zaha's Sortavut. There had been five births in the first month on board, and still just the one death. Eggplant was the favorite food, just beating out kiwis. The Whole – a center for meditation – was the most highly used orb, followed by The Course – for physical fitness. All adult males had attended their first three sessions at Odysseus – a training facility reminiscent of the Spirit Quests they had done on Earth; the adult women were beginning now. And then there was The Hive, offering rapturous experiences, the womb-like calm needed for sexual surrender; it had grown in popularity almost as fast as they approached Hawking Speed. Hawking Speed was a fifth of light speed – or .24 ls as they called it; they were aiming for a cruising speed of four times Hawking – Hawking 4x – by the end of one Earth Year (EY).

Chantal continued her reports on the foyer screen, images of a wildfire overrunning Los Angeles behind her. And it is expected to get much worse, the winds predicted to reach 70 miles an hour. Earth could no longer be seen – the syndrome now upon them – and here they were obsessing over its demise.

Dee scanned the hologram map of their intended course, past stars and planets, charting through solar systems, a trajectory that went screen after screen, swiping on and on, refreshing the image repeatedly, but there was just no end to it. She scrolled through the three-dimensional images, examining the predictors for genetic mutation, ran each sequence after the next,
checking the computer's calculations, doing just that, checking on the computer, clicking buttons, dragging icons, the 35th sequence of the day, another 453 species to be verified before she would have to start it again.

The sound of the ship grew, not just the humming in the walls, but deeper, in her ears, the oscillating waves low, building. She leaned her shoulder into the wall and felt it through her body, her hips and legs, inside. She rolled onto her stomach and pushed her pelvis into the foam that wasn't foam but some other moon rock thing, then slid to the edge, but it wasn't what she wanted.

"Move." She rolled Icarus away from the side of the bed with her foot, kneeled and lay face-down on the floor, moving her inside knee out, her foot awkwardly trapped against the baseboard, and pressed down. It wasn't there, hardly at all, and then sharp, a whole thing, electric, almost painful and not at all, furiously into her, suddenly everything. She pressed up with her elbows, getting her pelvis harder into it, freed her foot, getting her leg out, obtuse, and rotated to her other side, pushing her other leg flat, her stomach down, back to her other side, pressing down on her stretched out her leg, trying to find the rhythm of the ship, snapped her buttocks away from it, and then down again. She had it and breathed out, blurting out uneven breaths, sucking in again. And then she got her leg out further, her knee completely straight, her pelvis down flat and hard, and then it was gone, like a bubble, the vibration broken into nothing, into a flat emptiness.

Ethi Request? She stared at the prompt, irritated, ready to smash the ring, and clicked it. A series of questions scrolled down.

Ethi Type:

Memory? Y/N

Family member? Y/N

Friend? Y/N

Fantasy? Y/N

Age:

Gender:

Dee looked down at Icarus, him dazedly back, half-awake from his eternal nap. "Let's go find Finn." She shooed Icarus out the door and across Aeschylus to the Uumasut, into the side foyer of the Nukak, scooped out a few medium sized mackerel and went down the concourse ramps into the savannah, palms and baobobs in the virtual distance, mountains behind that and then the low-lying clouds. As fake as it was, they both seemed to belong, Icarus an Atavok of a serval who would probably never survive the actual savannah, and she who had fantasized about living there too, thinking she really might, perhaps build a hut from timber lattice and mud, and then only visited for a day.

They turned through the thickening grass, Icarus hopping ahead, trying to scare out rodents and bugs yet to be created, and then peered ahead, to a rocky enclave, where Finn lay out in the sand, the simulated view of parched hills above him. Icarus went down, racing headlong, turning at the last moment, spraying up sand. Finn was unimpressed, barely opening an eye.

"You don't miss us?" Dee raised the net of mackerel. "Not one bit?"

Finn lifted his head, sniffed back at Icarus and then rolled on his stomach, turning to Dee who tossed him the fish. Icarus watched, intent, not on the fish as much as Finn's bobbing head, and suddenly bent down to lick his face, Finn not pausing as he swallowed the fish whole. She could have convinced herself that she was back on Fernandina Island, in the Galapagos, the boat behind them, banging against the rocks, the bow getting scraped and chipped as the clouds crept in over the distant volcano and the sun started to sink. She could stay here for the night, not go back to the ship, watch the iguanas parade into the dark waters, the crabs scampering out behind them, pink and red, from their alcoves, as it got suddenly cold.

"I like this." Och appeared behind them, small against the backdrop, looking down at them and then out to the rocky outcropping. "Those trees are such a nice touch."

Icarus went to Och, his head low, and curled around his legs; Dee felt angry, surprisingly so, at how the clone of her cat ingratiated itself like that.

"I like how they almost look dead." Och had let his hair grow, the bangs half in his eyes, some of it beginning to grey, but he still looked young, like a boy who was trying to look like a man.

"Black mangroves," Dee finally replied.

Och inspected the pattern of Icarus' chest fur, like he was looking for some sort of divination. "You've done a good job."

"Icarus." Dee snapped her fingers at Icarus, who went back to her immediately. "So, what is it? Two weeks in? And now you decide visit?"

"16 EDs." He looked back at her, eyes wide, like he might tear up. "It's exciting, isn't it?"

"Earth days, yes." She rubbed Icarus vigorously on his side, pulling him into her legs. "Not the Mina ones."

"I look out there, and it's like I'm running, running like mad, my legs flashing out, and I'm running. Flying really." Och stared into the projection of the sky, a thick band of light blue sky between cloud banks clumping on the horizons. "You can feel everything in this, energy, hope, understanding, and you go all the way to the cliff, and you don't even see it. You are on the land and then you are not. And you keep going, swimming with your legs and arms. You keep going like that."

"How does it all work, Och? The air, the water and light, the mission? Who's doing all of this? Your sims?"

"They're not sims, Dee." He went down the beach to Finn, touched him lightly, as Finn looked back, his eyes wide, expecting more food. "They're empathetic ethereals."

"Empathetic ethereals. Only you could come up with a name like that. Are they the ones who are running this fucking ship, putting up these projections?"

"That's like asking if the hour hand runs the clock."

"Why do we even have clocks?" She rolled Icarus over and kneeled down with him in the sand. "We're not on the planet. There's no day, right? No hours. And so?"

"You know what I think about? My mother, Dee, like you." He looked at her, his face pale, beard unshaved, eyes sunken. "I remember that moment when I looked around and realized that she wasn't there anymore. She was gone. My mother is gone. No one is watching. Your act upon the stage is at an end. There is just what is ahead. And soon we will be at Hawking speed and then 4X. What happens then?"

"Translation, please," Dee replied.

"Everything changes at Hawking speed, Dee."

"What's Hawking speed again?"

".24 light speed, a fifth of light."

"And 4X?"


"Light speed, just short of that."

Dee watched her fingers slide through Icarus' fur, almost content, but lost that feeling as soon as she realized it. "Who's in charge, Och? You haven't told me a thing."

"Across the fields and then the ground not there, suddenly high in the open." Och held an arm out and massaged his elbow. "We started in the nomad flats and ate what we could. We travelled everywhere, up and down every peninsula, soiled every friendship and love, and we pretended to make it all work. And here we are."

"You're unbelievable." Dee followed him, Icarus after her, cutting through the mangroves. "What's with these Ethis? Those things freak me out."

"Just another bit of Solaris." The path went up the hill, along a simulated river they could see through the trees. "Another collection of codes and applications."

"And what's running the apps?"

Och stopped, out of breath. "What would you think of a honey river? That would be fun for the kids."

 "Is it you? Lai? Zhe Hu? Who is it?"

"It's completely possible, you know." He lightly pinched a scalesia leaf, bending it back from the branch. "Anything is possible here."


"You used to be honest with me. At least I thought you were."


"There isn't one person in charge, Dee. It's a system, a simple system."


"The thing is not a simple system. It's anything but that."


He smiled at her curiously "Do you sing, Dee? We're having a concert. I bet you would be great, maybe Progressive rock, something like that?"


Dee was suddenly unsure if he was even real, not an Atavok or an Ethi. "The more you talk, the more you go on about all of this insanity, the more I realize what a mistake this whole thing I made in coming."


"What do you want to see?" He took a picture of the scalesia branch with his Bearing. "The microprocessors? I don't understand any of that. It's a room with lights."


"I was thinking more along the lines of the flight deck, the engine room. I want to see how this rocket works."


"Oh, just talk to Sloan about that. He knows more than anyone about all of that."


"Sloan?" Dee replied. "The guy at the Nerri?"


"You sure don't want to play something?" Och closed his Bearing and held his hands out, touching her elbow. "Drums? Harp maybe? I really think you'd be great."

 

Sloan had taken off his ear piece and pointed his Bearing screen up, images of Dante's mysterious engine rotating like an abstract sculpture, as he ceremoniously washed his hands and began to make a salad. "What do you know about dark matter?"


Dee reached out to the swirling form and swished her fingers through it. "I didn't think anybody knew anything about dark matter."


"In a way, you're right. In a way." He made the salad in specific stages, sliding the roasting pan back and forth, toasting pine nuts, grating the cheese in long even gestures, mixing the oil and vinegar like a chemist, and then washing the greens, shaking the water off lightly, frowning, half thoughtful, half moronic. "But theoretically…"


"I'm looking at theory?" Dee studied the machine's elongated fins swaying back and forth, like palm fronds, almost peaceful, hypnotic, and then suddenly snapping up, churning one way and then the next, whirling into a metallic blur, a golden black molten mass surging up from the base, over the fins, sucked up along the edges, blending into the same thing, a singular metallic mass, and then separate, the fins there again, the material, the mass beading on the edges and then gone, evaporated, the fins swaying again, methodic.


"Neutrinos are a fuel source or, more accurately, the fueling point." Sloan shook the leaves and then shredded them by hand. "Magnetism is the conduit for that. It's basic quantum mechanics, right? The relationship between the extremely small with the extremely large, wave lengths of radiation and galactic sub-atoms occupying the same exact point, in and out. The power source is derived from anti-matter contained in that vacuum, maintained through magnetic fields, like at Ukaleq."


"You actually sound like you know what you're talking about."


"The acceleration peaks at 200 hours/units," Sloan continued. "Once it has achieved cruising speed, the fins are retracted-"


"When are we at Hawking speed?"


"Another two ED's." He sprinkled dried fruit into the bowl. "Three more and we reach twice that."


"Still Earth days, right? We haven't changed to the Mina time zone yet?"


"We'll get there eventually, Dee."


"And so once we get to this speed of ours-"


"Hawking."


"Okay, Hawking," Dee continued. "We cruise for thirty years?"


"We're going to go faster than that."


"How much faster, Sloan?"


".98 ls."


"So light speed?"


"Hawking 4X."


She watched the screen as Sloan explained how the rectangular plates rotated in a perpetual spinning machine, how the mass was solidified, connected to the apparatus, and with it, the ship, everything, coalescing with the mass, siphoning that energy, and went around again. It moved in a low sweeping wave, the edge of a waterfall, that very edge, the black mass flowing past and then back, the darkness then converted into something golden, hard to look at, like a sharp glare through a mist, and then thicker, almost lava, back and forth, and then not moving at all, but the apparatus itself, that was the thing that moved, not the mass, and then it all swirled into one thing, all of it moving or completely still, and then suddenly broken, shattered into fragments, dissolved, dark again, swirling again. "When's that supposed to happen? Five years?"


"42 EDs, close to that." He sprinkled the final ingredients into the salad. "Once we get going, acceleration builds exponentially. Doubles almost every two hours. Our problem is slowing down."


"What do you mean, like stopping?"


"What about M Theory? Know anything about that?"


"Is that your entanglement thing again?"


"Entanglement is only part of it. Entanglement Theory explains our inextricable connection to all things, both physical and psychological." Sloan served the salad, spooning purposely, like he was trying to pretend he wasn't drunk. "In other words, no matter where we go, even to another planet, we are still bound to our existence on Earth or Hera, everything that came from there. We cannot escape that."


"Yeah, me and Xbox go way back."


"M Theory is more than that. It includes Entanglement and goes much further. It considers a combination of all thing seen together, maps of every detail overlapped together to compose an understanding of the whole. That includes everything you can calculate and imagine, including entanglement, alternate realities, all sort of possible histories and perceptions, all of it together. That's when we know what's going on."


"The all and everything?" Dee pressed her fork through the leaves, staring down at the cranberries and pine nuts clinging to each other in the oil. "Why I am I and you are you?"


"M Theory merges our understanding of the physical laws on every scale, planetary and atomic, a unifying principle through which everything is linked."


The ship shook and seemed to slide, off the tracks and then back, righted; the metallic taste was back in her mouth, the thick air, and made her feel like the back of her head had been opened and then snapped shut, a vacuum sealed, opened again, wires now inside her brain, touching everything. She touched her ear quickly and rubbed down the side of her neck. "When is it going to stop doing that? It makes me feel like shit."


"Dark matter doesn't like the manipulation."


"Meaning what?"


"We don't know all there is to know about M Theory."


"Jesus, you scientists, I mean, you say it's all an abstract thing, like a fucking equation or something, but it's real." She put down her fork. "I want to throw up."


"Press the tip of your tongue into the back of your teeth."


"Your M Theory, all this bullshit about entanglement, and that's what you come up with? Push my tongue into my teeth?"


"Try it." He ate meticulously, a spare batch of leaves, pushing down to get the pine nuts, the oil everything on it.


Dee felt better and jabbed her fork in again. "Where's your wife?"


He glanced down at his wedding ring. "I once hooked up with this mess of a girl, and I put way too much into her. I never handled that great. Before I met her, I did everything right, school,
top of the class, research grants, all of it, but with her, I was just cuckoo for coco puffs."


"What happened?"


"Yeah, well, she died."


"Suicide?"


He stabbed through the salad methodically. "You know something and then you don't."


"So what are you? A cook, an engineer or just a philosopher?"


He spoke through a mouthful and swallowed. "I'm nothing compared to old Liyuan. You talk to that guy?"


"He's an engineer."


"And a programmer, linguist, architect, musician, teacher, the guy does everything." He balanced the neck of his fork on the side of the bowl, the tines over the remaining nuts drowning in oil. "What about you? What do you do besides talk to the animals?"


"Nothing."


"Bullshit."


She pushed away her plate, the food only half eaten. "Well, I'm really good with people, so yeah, I could plan weddings, maybe be the mayor of Aeschylus."


"You worked in porn, right?" He asked it like he was commenting on her hair, something he was supposed to say.


"I was a performance artist."


"That what you call it?"


"That's what it was."


"Hey, it's not like I'm judging you."


"Don't worry about it." She picked out a semi-squashed tomato from her bowl and flicked it back in. "Judgement is genetic in all of us. It's our curse."


"Well, I mean, not all judgement is like that." He took her plate and ate the squashed tomato. "Got to make decisions, you know."


"Morality then. Curse."


"What do you think about the Hive protests then? What's your judgment on that?"


She had seen the posts on her Bearing, rants against sexual abandon, references to Babylon and Gomorrah. "You a bee? I'm not a fucking bee."


"I bet you're there 24/7."


"That's an expression that's going to die soon."


"How many times have you been?"


"I can tell you something about me," Dee replied. "There's one thing I know about who I am."


"You're ahead of me on that," Sloan said.


"I don't lie to myself." She spoke too quickly, spitting out a green fleck, picking it off her lip and eating it. "I wouldn't be able to do anything if I did that."


"I lie to myself all the time. That's how I trick myself to get things done."


"I don't mean lying about things like stupid promises you make to yourself, exaggerations, that's all bullshit. I'm talking about knowing who I am."


"Who are you then?"


"My point, Sloan, is that I don't act like I know everything."


"I went a few times." Sloan opened his Bearing and scrolled through his feed. "Gets old fast."


"Have sex with too many beautiful babes?"


"It wasn't like that, not for me."


"What was it like, Sloan? The tension is killing me."


"I don't know, it was wearing." He stopped on a picture, enlarged it, and then swiped it away. "It's the kind of thing that addictive personalities would like. Not me."

 

Dee mounted the MARA, grasping the central strut and adjusted herself forward. She hadn't been on a MARA in a long time, not since she had moved to Old Uka in Greenland, and barely even then. It was ridiculously small, hardly even a bicycle frame, barely wider than that, but nowhere to put her feet. Her instep kept sliding off, making her think she would smack her head as she rose and looked up like she wasn't supposed to, the vertigo of an upside-down world swirling inside her. Never look up. That was she had to remember. Never look up. She grabbed back onto the metal against her thighs, and looked tentatively forward, just ahead, at the path below and the base of a conical light standard and floated up again, almost perpendicular, back over the dome of her building, a Kiki suddenly overhead, its blue eye-like scanners bright with coils of piping in its grip, on its senseless way toward Zaha Pod.


Dee glanced over her shoulder as she landed the MARA to walk the Sooja connector, holding it in her hand, now in a line behind a roller cart and a mother with her kids. She glided across Sooja, quieter than Aeschylus, fewer buildings and people, except the MARA Park, a 360-degree transparent ball with inverted volcanoes and pyramids, fun-boxes and nessy-strands, dozens of kids attempting ridiculous upside-down stunts as they yelled back and forth – "Fair done!", "Hawking!", "Chund!" – whether they landed or wrecked and watched it over again on the Bearing screen floating at the hub.


Dee followed the transit route toward Trane Pod, in and out of those coming the other way and then into a crowd toward the connector, stuck behind a somnambulistic man bowed over his Bearing, and stepped around him, into others coming down, on their Bearings too. 


"Come on!" She cut around him, glancing off a woman's shoulder, moving furiously ahead. She had open space through Trane Pod, many at the Sortavut there, streams of blue light reflecting within the transparent blue anorthite, and then slowed again through the connectors through Didi Pod to Miya, people huddled at the edges of the narrow gaps, like they were trying to escape the vertiginous world all around. "It's called a connector for a reason! It's supposed to connect!"


She dared to glance up, a building with adjoining pathways just overhead, and didn't lose her balance, slowly gliding through the passage, moving aside for another, nodding back, and came into Miya where Lai's building dominated, an immense icosahedron on the opposite upside-down side, surrounded by strips of metallic-anorthite, a confusion of bands, rings in every direction, the top brightly lit, a railing there like a crow's nest or point to a spinning top.


The building was bigger on the inside than she had expected, the entirety of the structure exposed up to the oval gap in the roof, supported by what looked the ribs of an immense beast. Shallow balconies protruded from the sides of the six-story structure to a series of terraces, each leading to the next, all washed in a dim blue light, like they were just beneath the ocean waves, the sun right there, up the gentle slope to the beach, that world just beyond, giving her a sense of falling backwards, the vertigo again. Dee looked down to see Lai on the balcony just below, floating there, idly swaying back and forth, holding the arm of a tall, large-breasted woman in a tight silver jacket and shorts.


"Atavok logic, that's what we need." Lai wore a translucent blue flowing robe; she was rounder than before, her neck as thick almost as her head, the backs of her arms swollen at the elbows. "Down the rabbit hole, Evie, down the rabbit hole, that's where we have to go."


"Atavok, human, lesbian, transgender, Ethi, it's all the same to me." Evie was elegantly proportioned with an immense smile, her white citadel-like teeth flashing out. "Atavoks aren't the problem. It's us silly little humans that are slowing The Hive down. Humans are inconsistent in desire, in our willingness to surrender, as it were."


"Some eggs will have to be broken then."


"Might be more than a few, Lai." She wrapped her arms around her waist, bending down to Lai. "You leave the human brain alone in that id place too long and it turns into a blubbering mess."


"Evie, if they can't cope, well, then that's all there is to it."


Evie glanced up at Dee and then back at Lai. "There's a wee bird perched up above."


Lai barely glanced around. "What are you doing up there, girl? Come on down and see us!"


Dee crossed the platform and descended the narrow winding stairs to find Lai now alone.


"There you are, girl!" Lai, her hands out, floated toward Dee. "I've been wondering when you'd come out of hiding."


"You can fly now." Dee caught Lai as she hovered down beside her.


"Tiny, isn't it?" Lai opened her hand to reveal an elliptical cage with an oblong object trapped inside. "It's our latest MARA, the smartest yet."


Dee reached out, expecting an electrical shock, but found it cold and soft, almost like an old sponge.


"Try it, girl!"


Dee held the tiny cage, expecting to shoot up with it and be dragged around like a doll.


"You have to move it in your hand." Lai demonstrated an almost imperceptible shaking of her fist. "Like you're making music."


Dee kept her hand open, rolling it across her palm indifferently. "I'm still trying to figure out the old one."


"Once I'm up, girl, that's it. Away I go." She took the MARA back and floated up again. "You know, I've got these tiny people racing around in my head, every one of them with their jobs, and I have to put them to work. All in my head. And so that's what I do, put them to work, gung ho, all of them, doing what they have to do. Away they go. I go upstairs to a corner in my head and pick on the management people and start that brainstorming party. And then I've got all the layout and design folks walking back and forth, eyeball to eyeball." She smiled manically, happily awed by her meandering metaphor. "And then there's the nitty gritty, you know, the little bits that nobody wants to handle. And it's time to do the work. Away we go again. I tell you, it can be an incredible thing, living in my head, incredible. But it's more than even I can handle sometimes. You know what I'm saying, girl? Always something going on."


"I thought you were supposed to be in Oregon," Dee replied.


"Oh, well, Oregon. I left some lovely people there."


"I was told that you stayed."


"Well, now…" Lai shook her head, idly opening her Bearing, scrolling through her feed. "The things I could tell you."

"Hi there." Em appeared behind Dee, hair cut short like Chantal's, in the Atavok officer's uniform of dark blue, a thin red trim diagonally across her chest. She looked marvelously regal. "Where's Icarus?"


Dee stood awkwardly, still unsure how to understand her clone, her actual self, the chromosomes that combined to make her and only her, free and moving about without her, in someone else, standing there now. "He wanted to sleep."


"My girls." Lai surrounded them with her wobbly arms, kissing Em on the cheek, holding both of their hands. "I've got another Second Skin for you to try. It's for space! Isn't it the greatest thing? A Space Second Skin. Em's giving it a whirl. Aren't you, Em?"


"Yes." Em looked back at Dee, her eyes, back and forth, eye to eye, right to left, left to right, zeroing in on Dee's. "I'm going to give it a whirl."


"That's my girl." Lai stroked Em's forearm.


Dee pulled her hand away from Lai as she looked back at Em. "I thought you were coming to the Uumasut."


She crossed her arms. "I was."


"And then we got all caught up with these missiles trying to kill us," Lai replied. "Can you believe the Americans and the Chinese working together like that? It's always the way, good out of bad, bad out of good."


Dee glanced up at thick ribs in the ceiling, soft and milk-like. "I haven't seen Val anywhere either. She coming to these powwows here too?"


"Val is a pilot," Em replied. "She won't be off Tak Deck until we reach Hawking speed."


"We're almost there?"


"We're getting close at 6 million meters per second." Em swiped through her Bearing and examined the numbers. "We're finally beginning to move."


Lai slid her arm lightly along Dee's forearm, their arm hairs just touching, tickling. "I have something for you, girl."


"What I don't like, Lai, is this." She gestured at Lai's hands trying to hold her. "You make it all like a game, and only you know the rules. It's tiresome."


Lai kept her hands out to Dee. "It's all about survival, isn't it? That's why we left that planet. We're changing everything. We're evolving how evolution works."


Dee sighed, looking back at Em. "It's a privilege to be here, to be with you. I get that. I get that I'm on this epic thing. But then when I think about why, I don't have much an answer. Why would I want to be on an epic voyage? Because I don't. I'd rather be on my terrace at home, waving goodbye."


"Girl, you have nothing to be worried about."


"Honestly, you don't look at all these moon-rock things, this giant egg you're living in, and think what a lot of crap it is? You don't think, 'Just stop everything for a second. I need a break'?" Dee looked around at Em. "I mean, we keep talking about all of these things, using all of these crazy things, like we're in this story, like none of this is real. Can't we just stop it a minute and think about it?"


Em shut her Bearing and rolled it expertly on her palm with her pinky finger. "I'm your clone, Dee. Everything's crap to me."


"At least we could have orbited Earth for a while," Dee replied. "We could have figured out what it is we're really doing, right? Just stay in that Lagrangian orbit for a while and see what
happens next."


"Do you know how far away we are from Hera now?" Lai asked.


"Yeah, well, no, Lai, I don't want to know that. That's my point, isn't it? I'm sick of all of this, your Second Skin and Solaris, the Kikis and anorthite, and those fucking Ethis."


"We're more than a million kilometers from Hera," Em replied. "It will be another million by tomorrow."


"And the Ethis are not mine, Dee," Lai retorted. "That's your friend, Och."


"And where is he supposed to be now? Is he at your house in Oregon or on Tak Bridge with Val?"


"Och is…such a smart man, a smart and marvelous man," Lai mused. "We have to give him that, don't we? You watched at the funeral for that little girl?"


"Why would I watch that? It was an awful thing to broadcast."


Lai opened her Bearing and projected the video. "We have to watch awful things sometimes, Dee."


Dee glanced at the footage, a crowd of people around the coffin, someone pushing away an Atavok, knocking her down.


"Not even four days since Dante's initiated and we have Atavok hate sprouting again." Lai opened the Ethi prompt at the top corner of the image. "And then we have this."


Ethi Request?


"This is where your Och lives."


"I'm missing something, Lai."


"Och denies the Atavoks, Dee," Em looked up briefly. "Atavok Dependency, Entanglement Theory, everything. He has moved on."


"Och developed the Atavoks."


"Oh yes, but we have to be careful of these Atavoks, don't we?" Lai tucked her shoulders in tight, hunching forward. "They can be real sneaky, if you don't keep your eye on them. Don't know
where they all might be taking us."


"Nothing you say is making any sense," Dee replied.


"Girl, you've got a lot to learn, a lot to learn. But I'm right here to give you that push. You know that."


"Ethis." Em was checking through her messages. "He's more interested in the Ethis."


"That's just an app," Dee replied.


"It's not an app," Em replied. "A competitor, more obedient,"


"Ethereal Companions, Dee," Lai explained. "A virtual collection of whomever you desire, anyone from your past, a lost baby brother, a fantasy partner, anyone you might imagine, playmates to share your innermost self with, to open up your soul."


"That's how Och sells it," Em added.


"Our Anori is a very tight market." Lai turned sharply to Em. "Speaking of which."


"Ready whenever you are," Em replied.


"Hive politics, girl." Lai pulled Dee's arm and kissed her at the side of her mouth as she hovered up with Em. "Things are moving fast, and you've got to keep up."

 

Dee opened Fly Thru and clicked off the promotions for Eden and Power Gem. She was still at Level 35 but had earned Spectral status, only six people away from earning Phantom, the next two 150,000 points above. The path was hard at first and she was about to close it when she shot a gap perfectly, and then the next, the third almost too easy, making the screen rotate and the blue shards scatter past. She clicked off the succession of tubes, not even thinking about it, and was promoted to Level 36. Just like that. Her bonus level had doubled; she now had Spectral status. She looked off the screen, thinking she would announce her achievement to Liyuan, but just clicked ahead and went on. She would quit once she reached Level 37, as soon as she did that; she decided that as she curled her feet under her and rested her head against her shoulder. The icons spun and she caught everything but the last and tried again, spreading her elbows, but did worse the next time through.


She looked down at Icarus, his hind legs in the air, shoulders bent to the side, head upside down, and returned to the game, getting it on the third try and then lost a level immediately after that. Now she had to get that back. It was a ridiculous game, and she didn't even really like it, but there was only another 45,000 points left. She failed at the next run, but her points doubled, and she was almost there when she was challenged to take a foolish risk and clicked on it immediately. The odds were even but she lost before she could even figure out what had happened. She had slipped to Level 30 just like that, only a quarter of what she had started with, and she knew that she should just come back to it later but didn't and fell another 16. She just needed a bit of luck and she'd be back to where she was, or better. Level 14 was too easy, but then she was challenged and lost again, down to almost nothing. She made the challenge this time and should have won if she had just paid more attention. She had to either buy credit or wait for the next bonus.

A message appeared on her Bearing from Ethan, his face odd, eyes smudged, poorly rendered. Fernandina Island was behind him, a bobbing horizon, low cloud bank gathering at the summit of the volcano. The sun was intense. Dee didn't know how she had received it. Earth was supposed to be long out of range.

Your eyes are my…like I have the universe… The static scattered his words. Everything I have seen…I feel like dust, evaporating into nothing, that I never was even here. And then he was crying, his face cracked in desperation, red eyes, mouth turned down, reaching out to the camera, rocking like a lost child. Dee was sad, not that he was upset, but that she didn't miss him, that she didn't care, thought of him as something gone, left behind. She didn't miss anyone, maybe only Fitz, because he should have come. He would have been wonderful here. But that was just an abstraction, not Fitz but like a dream of him. She missed the sun. She admitted that. The simulations in the orbs were a long way from what that was like. She ended the message, of Ethan crying, the sun behind him, the Galapagos. All of that was done, a closed thing, permanently gone.

Dee looked through her updates on Solaris, for Fly Thru, Eden and Wise Matter, an application she had yet to even open, and then scrolled through the news, scanning an article on another hate crime against Atavoks in Eno Pod, developments on The Velocitization Virus – they were calling it The Decoherence Virus now – and then saw a rotating silhouette banner for The Hive, two naked images moving in and out with each other, and clicked on that.

Off core and gravity-free, The Hive is located at the heart of Didi Pod. Like other centric orbs, The Whole, The Course and Odysseus, used for meditation, physical fitness and emotional training, The Hive is a virtual environment that offers a completely immersive experience. Guests may choose from any of hundreds of thousands of settings, such as nostalgic anime backdrops or complete definition three-dimensional renderings, and interplay and merge with the animations themselves as well as other current users. The only limitation is your imagination. Remember that no devices are permitted inside The Hive.

Lai appeared on the next page in an interview with Chantal. The Hive was conceived as a simulation of Spirit Quests. And then we moved that idea into Odysseus, the journeys, which is something we're really excited about too, and refocused our energies for The Hive on what makes us happy, an opportunity to explore our more fantastic selves.

Chantal leaned into her, a hand on Lai's knee. How exciting!

It's all about those sensations, those delights. That why it's so good for sexual expression. The images became abstract, dark colors, close-ups of neon-painted flesh. The Hive offers a real pleasure, a place of erotic centeredness, where you can know your body, the pleasures it can experience.

There are those that believe this will increase our isolation from each other. Chantal asked. Won't The Hive cause problems in the development of Anorian society?


Exactly the opposite.
Lai chuckled, her face rosy and firm. The Hive will aid those that are lonely or isolated in our new environment. It's not easy being an Anorian, is it? We experience difficulties. We miss our loved ones back on Hera. We have a melancholy at times. We do. And that's okay. The Hive is ideal for that. It helps us focus on the moment. It counteracts that melancholy we've had from leaving so much behind. And not only that, not only that, but it also generates healing agents – I'm talking spiritual, physical and mental – healing agents for the body. Anything you do in the virtual world is a great advantage in our quest for enlightenment.

CONTINUED NEXT WEEK.

Part 1 here (includes glossary)

Part 2 here

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