Fiction: Aqaara – Part Four
We are pleased to introduce the fourth 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 and Three can be found here and here, respectively.
Dee worked in the Nukuk, the Uumasut incubator, where she shared viability and expectancy sequences with Angelica and Shanshan. It was an odd space, a backwards blue-lit horseshoe overlooking the Uumasut, like a sound booth in a concert hall. She was finishing the Asian Reptiles folder, sorting through the Keeled Box Turtles, Twin Striped Skinks and Asian Crocodiles, the cells transforming from swimming threads into opacity, a flowering limb or organ, the beginning of an eye, the minutest of forms, a recognizable thing. The crocodile hatchlings floated, their eyes just out of the blue-orange water, expecting, somewhere deep in their genetic code, to be set adrift down to a murky bottom, comb and root in the muck, settle and bob up again, live the life of a crocodile as all crocodiles had before, but not now, now here in neon-lit water, in a dish on a ship in the vast nothingness. It scared her, creating this thing with a dropper and a dish, watching it unfold. Not a god complex but the opposite. A dummy complex. How had it come that she was here doing this? It was a sin, even if she didn't believe in that. Nothing good would come of it. And yet here she was, Icarus at her feet, preparing the next batch.
She could almost see herself off this ship, in a taxi instead, going back to her Battery Park apartment, pouring a drink, looking down at the trees, the tourist boats at the pier, the statue out in the dark water, mottled New Jersey after that, all the same. She tried to hold that idea in her head, living in that world, in her corner apartment, Icarus the same as Apollo, but then thought of her sister, Crystal, her dead body in the same water, her leg against the dock, her torso bending down like she was reaching for the bottom, looking for the world to be something else, down in that abyss.
Dee rotated her Bearing into its compartment but couldn't get the thing to close. She checked for a latch that wasn't there and tried again. It was stuck. She tried pulling it back to no avail.
Icarus hissed quietly, sprawling against the cubicle wall as Shanshan approached. "Hello, Ms. Sinclair."
Dee pushed absently at the compartment again. "I finished the Asian reptiles."
"Oh, wow." Shanshan was exquisitely beautiful, her delicate round face – wide eyes and oval mouth – framed by her bangs and long straight hair. "Thank you."
She tried to close the compartment again and failed.
"Hey, there, Icarus." Shanshan crouched and tapped her fingers on the floor in front of him. "Want to play?"
Dee rolled her chair back. "Where are you from, Shanshan? Beijing? Shanghai?"
"Minnesota." She stroked Icarus lightly. "And then I moved to Los Angeles."
"Minnesota. Huh." Dee admired how Shanshan wore the Uumasut uniform, just off her left shoulder, her breast bone just out from the collar. She tried the compartment again; it wouldn't move.
"Can I…?" Shanshan pressed down on the drawer and snapped it into place. "I went to UCLA and then Greenland, like you."
"You were there?"
"Only for a few weeks. They sent me to the moon. I was there for much longer."
"What was that like?"
"I don't know. It was like Los Angeles in some ways. A lot of work." She stood, smoothing out her uniform against her slim figure as she turned her Bearing toward Dee, projecting the three-dimensional video feed. "Did you see this?"
Breaking News. The spaceship, Anori, has been detonated. I repeat, the spaceship Anori has been detonated. It was a news-feed from Earth. The spaceship Anori was struck by a series of missile attacks carried out by the joint forces of the United States, China, Russia and India. Footage of distant explosions in the starlit sky were presented, followed by an artist's rendition of the destruction. None of the 4,000 people on board survived. Our panel of experts will explain the steps that were taken to avert this catastrophe. Chantal appeared in a brilliantly white tight dress, her head tilted, smiling. Liaison Officer Zhe Hu replied with our official comment to Earth, stating our well-being and the continued success of our mission. This was not acknowledged.
Shanshan pushed her chin out, incredulous. "That's so insane. Right?"
"What if it's true?" Dee muttered.
"What do you mean?"
"We could all be dead, and we're just dreaming all of this. It could all be in our heads."
"But it isn't," Shanshan replied. "You're alive and so am I. We have different perceptions."
"That's your perception, isn't it, Shanshan? You only think I have a perception, but maybe I don't. What if you are just perceiving my perception?" Dee looked down into the Uumasut, thinking she might change the landscape back to the savannah.
"We're not dead," Shanshan replied.
Dee noticed a movement in the dimness, a couple having sex, the girl facing her, naked against the illusory trees. Dee banged on the anorthite glass. "Get out of there! Do that somewhere else!"
They continued in earnest, the woman on top, arms above her head, the man pushing her up and down.
Dee banged again "They're fucking with my elephant grass."
"Wow, look at them," Shanshan whispered.
Dee hammered on the window again. "Out!"
"Hey, I know him!" Shanshan announced. "That's Sanderson. He was at my Hive training."
Icarus stood on his hind legs and leaned into the glass, scratching to get out. Dee opened the door to the stairs, letting him surge down the stairs, banging around at the landing, into the
Uumasut, madly swerving around a growing clump of baobabs.
"I don't know if you should do that," Shanshan observed.
Dee watched Icarus jump and catch Sanderson's shirt, ripping it open, as he and the woman vanished into the dark. "It's either that or you running down there."
"Icarus could hurt them," she replied.
Dee watched Icarus weave in and out of the trees, his tail swishing back and forth. She banged on the glass at Icarus, but he ignored her. "Ever hear of the Giant Lemur, Shanshan?"
"That was extinct a long time ago," Shanshan replied.
"26,000 years ago," Dee said. "What about the Elephant Bird?"
"Elephant Bird? I don't know that."
"Extinct 300 years ago."
"Extinct 10,000 years ago," Shanshan said. "The Ice Age."
"No, it was us Homo Sapiens that did it. We wiped them out. The Ice Age just knocked off the remainders." Dee tapped the glass again, and watched Icarus turn back into the Nukak. "We killed them off, you and me, Shanshan, one by one, the Sea Mink, Tasmanian Tiger, Ground Sloth, Passenger Pigeon, American Buffalo—"
"The American Buffalo isn't extinct," Shanshan asserted.
"We systematically killed everything, we humans. We take over a space and annihilate all living things and then claim otherwise with this spectacular consciousness of ours."
Icarus jumped up the last few steps and wandered across the Nukak.
"People like that, like your Sanderson, fucking around in a fragile environment, not giving a shit. That's us." Dee looked out over the Uumasut, the thick clouds bunching up in the faux distance, the sharp blue fading under the drift of a storm that would never come. She switched the screen to the African savannah again, and watched the images turn over on themselves, blend into each other, like a kaleidoscope, the smoothness of the distant plains, the mountains dark blue. She wondered if she had been there, if these images were from when she had visited with Apollo so may million miles back.
The MARA flew out from the Kimsooja connector, skittered expertly around the traffic, up high, to the epicenter of Aeschylus, and then angled across the orb, gliding perfectly down, a woman in a blue uniform, floating right at Dee on her tiny balcony; it was Em. Icarus raced down the stairs to meet her.
Em grabbed him by the shoulders, rubbing her hand over his face. "Where have you been?"
"The Uumasut." Dee looked at her for a moment, tried to understand if she looked different up here, in space, her shoulders, the way she moved, or if she was the same, the same Atavok she had met on Earth. "Where you left him."
"We're at 2.4 Hawking." Em opened her eyes wide, uncharacteristically so. "It's getting real."
The projection from the Soratvut hovered in the background, detailed images of symptoms for the Velocitization Virus – flaking skin, rashes, lesions, bleeding too – and then a young woman explaining. It feels like mushrooms growing all over you. You scratch them off, and another bunch sprouts, disgusting. I want to pull my skin off.
"You look tired," Em observed.
"I've basically stopped eating," Dee offered.
"Is that one of the symptoms?" Em asked.
"I don't have the virus, Em."
"You should get it checked."
"I've lost my taste or something. I can't find anything that tastes like it used to. It's all mush, chewy mush. I'm just chewing and chewing. I hate chewing."
"Lots of people of the virus. Our bodies just aren't used to moving at Hawking Speed. Get it checked."
"More like cancer."
Em folded her MARA into its wallet and slipped that in her vest. "How's everything at the Uumasut?"
"We're doing all things Asia now. Red Pandas are next."
"People will flock to that."
"They're still blobs." She turned back to Em. "They look like slugs squirming around in applesauce."
Em took out a silver canister and tapped a transparent lozenge in her hand. "Have you tried one of these yet?"
Dee read the label. Cyberfy Infusion.
"Herbal multi-vitamins," Em explained.
"Chantal certainly goes on about them on her broadcasts." She inspected the lozenge. "They're supposed to be hallucinogenic."
"Do you get high?"
"It helps me close my eyes."
"You take another to wake up?"
Images of The Hive were projected at the Sortavut, glimpses of nakedness and flashing neon lights. The Hive had garnered minimal interest at the beginning of the voyage, mostly titillation, and then became a source of heated debate, until the ship had exited the solar system, images of Pluto, that tiny planet, fading from sight, the final vestige of everything they had known. The Hive was now a focal point, a place to find oneself and forget the despair. It wasn't a sex club. They were adamant about that. Rather, it was a place of sensuality, ethereal, a popular term for many things, a meditative delving into the human psyche. They were adamant about that too.
"You visited yet?" Em asked.
"It's just another app," Dee replied. "Like everything on this ship."
"It's a little more than that, Dee."
"You're saying that because you work there, right? But, if you ask me, it's absolute nonsense."
Em sat against the bannister of Dee's building and scratched Icarus' neck and ears. "How much do you think about Earth?"
"Like I'm still on it." Dee felt a terror creeping into her, realizing all too well where she was, trapped in a claustrophobic bubble, going faster and faster, hurtling on, surrounded by nothing. There was no escape. "You ever drive across the country?"
"I did the drive once, from New York to L.A." Speaking helped. Dee could focus on the words, say things and maybe make the claustrophobia ebb. "You never did that?"
Em pulled Icarus' neck up, made him arch high into her hands. "We just drove to Boston, Harvard and Brown, back and forth."
"I loved the road ahead, that was the thing for me, the wide grass median beside me there, the cars and trucks cresting the hill ahead. It was so simple."
She flipped Icarus over and he scratched back, running off.
"You could just zone out, look at a copse of tree at the side, the branches bobbing up and down in the sun, or an old red tractor surrounded by weeds, an abandoned house behind that, and
the cities, so many cities one after the other."
Em tried to coax Icarus back, but he wouldn't come.
"It's that complete stillness, utterly still, all of those things coming past, the entirety of the world – the cars and trucks, the signs, the fields and trees, the sky and clouds, all of that moving, except for you, going so fast that you're not moving at all." Dee stared out into the growing dim of the Pod, surprised by the sharp delineations of the buildings hanging like bats to the surface above. "Don't you wonder what the fuck we're doing out here?"
"Cyfy is good for depression." Em offered Dee the silver cannister again. "It's good for everything."
"So is opium. Got any of that?"
"You don't get how amazing all of this is? You don't get it? We've made it, Dee. We've begun this remarkable thing. You will actually save millions of species. Millions and millions of animals saved. We are actually doing that."
"Sounds like you believe in some kind of redemption."
Em looked at Dee, more tired than anything. "It's beyond us, Dee. We're just doing our tiny part."
"It's all lies and delusion, like The Hive. We put lies up on the news. We make fake sand. We are not great. We are the opposite of that."
"The sand's real."
A child burst across the path toward them, arms flailing, and swung crazily at Dee, hitting her in the stomach and thigh as he raced past.
"Hey!" Dee swung back in response, slapping his shoulder.
He looked back at her, wide-eyed, an ear piece popping out as he ran up, swinging again, this time into her ass. Icarus ducked low, ready to pounce.
Dee grabbed the boy's arm. "Stop it!"
He laughed, swinging up on her arm, kicking her in the neck and chest.
"What the hell is the matter with you?" She twisted him around, shoving the flailing boy away.
"You're funny!" He tried to swing at her again as Em reached out and held him by his shirt; he tried to swing at her but couldn't get his arms around.
"Carson!" A woman in Infinity Blue came toward them from the Sortavut.
"You're the real one?" The boy craned his face up at her. "Or is it her?"
Em glowered. "We're both real."
"Not in here. It's all magic, like that place." He waved up at images of The Hive, still playing in the Sortavut.
"We're real, kid," Dee affirmed. "All of this is real."
"You're not real!" The boy lunged at Dee again, grabbing at her face. "You're out of the computer."
"Carson!" The woman arrived, pulling the boy back.
"She's an Atavok!" Carson proclaimed.
"Get your kid to settle down," Dee snapped.
"It's been a difficult time." She crossed her arms around him; she was beautiful in a delicate dollish way. "It's hard to understand all of this. It's hard for everyone."
"You're excusing him for attacking me? Is that it?"
"He didn't attack anyone. He was only playing."
"He is mimicking behavior," Em replied. "Violence against Atavoks."
The woman pulled Carson to her side. "I am the ship's intercessor. I am well aware the interactions on our ship."
"Intercessor?" Dee asked. "What is that? Like a union rep?"
"I intercede in times of conflict," she replied irritably.
"On behalf of humans," Em added.
"The purpose of this mission is to benefit humankind."
"And Atavoks?" Em demanded.
"Atavok!" Carson punched his hand in the air.
Dee pointed her finger close to his face. "It's not okay to hit people? You get that?"
"Atavok!" Carson punched his hand in the air.
"Stop that." The woman looked around at the Sortavut screen behind them, the image of a towering naked woman, her breasts soft-lit and glowing, floating in slow motion. "This is too much for him."
"Hitting Atavoks has nothing to do with that," Dee replied.
The woman put her finger above her lip, left it there as if forgotten and then made an impassive gesture. "We have genuine concerns about The Hive. As has been noted, it is controlled by Atavoks."
"That isn't true at all," Em replied. "Atavoks and humans work there together. Lai is in charge of the project."
Faith stepped away, pulling Carson after her. "We are supposed to be building a better world. That is what we are supposed to be doing. We left Hera to be better than we were there. We left so that we might evolve."
"Oh, you're talking about that place," Dee replied. "The Queen Goddess planet."
She stared back at Dee, unbelieving that she had to explain any of this. "We left Hera to build something new, not degrade ourselves in places like that."
"Degrade?" Dee demanded. "You're worried about your kid seeing naked woman when he's hitting people. You don't see the disconnect there?"
"The Hive is a moral travesty." She yanked the boy after her. "And we will close it down."
The Hive was not just another building, not another egg-shaped thing, but was squatter, a low-rise of hexagonal faces, low against everything else, in shadow. Dee moved purposely past the scattered crowds and straight up the narrowing ramp to where Evie stood.
"The god genie approaches." Evie wore a sheer silver and grey dress, a translucent pearl light swaying with the fabric.
"Weird looking place," Dee remarked.
"Icosahedron." She gripped the doorframe's edge. "20 faces, 30 edges, or it would have been if they hadn't lopped the bottom bit off."
"You're the sex guru here?"
Evie flashed her immense toothed smile, like she was telling a joke, that none of what she was saying meant anything. "The Hive is actually a more active experience than you would think, more real, more real than most are prepared. The awareness of one another in The Hive, demands a higher level of understanding."
"All very cerebral."
"It's all in the head, Ms. Sinclair. Nothing but that."
"And what makes you the expert, Evie? You're 28, if that."
"I'm a witch."
Dee felt a piercing inside, like she might realize something she had always known, stupidly so, stupid for never considering it of herself, something that would have given her more certainty. "Witch? Is that what you said?"
"That is most precise and correct." Evie walked Dee into the entrance and down a bending hallway.
"What does that mean exactly? To be a witch?"
"It is my profession. I have powers."
"I remember everything I come in contact with – faces, smells, crimes."
Dee thought of her own death, how she saw that, or imagined that she did. "What do you do with this divine knowledge?"
"I know what is needed to please." Her smile was savage, somehow girlish at the same time, her canine teeth popping out at the edge of her mouth as she laughed. "Or otherwise."
"Evie! There you are!"
Evie turned back to a figure approaching from behind. "Being a good boy there, Sanderson?"
Sanderson looked half wild, calculatedly so, his shirt half undone, baseball cap askew, graying hair unkempt. "Never that, Evie."
"I know you," Dee snapped. "You're the one messing around in my Uumasut."
"Ah." He nodded back. "Nice beach."
"Sanderson is a Dante engineer," Evie explained.
"The very best." He offered Dee his hand.
"What about all of this sliding?" Evie asked. "When is that dreadful feeling going to stop?"
"Once we get a hold of our velocity, everything will settle."
"When is that supposed to be?" Dee asked.
"95% light speed," Evie replied.
".98. That's what it is," Sanderson corrected.
"As fast as we can get," Evie added. "That's what Einstein or Hawking, one of those clever fellas wrote a lot, travelling at light speed, as fast as you can get, correct?"
"They all wrote about it, Foucault, Romer, Maxwell."
"Which raises the question of what they hypothesized, yes? What the hell is this going to do to us then?"
"You mean like the Decoherence Virus? Is that what you mean, Evie?"
"I mean time. What's going to happen to that?"
"We are travelling along that dimension. Nothing has changed."
"Answer the question, Sanderson."
"Time passes as it always has."
"But what I want to know is how long a second really is? What is that here on the ship?"
"A second is a second, nothing else."
"So, I say 'One one thousand', yes? Is that still a second? Or has that gotten all stretched and warped and is now an hour or a year?"
"What about not here?"
"Everything is relative."
"What about Earth?"
"On Hera?" He adjusted his hat, pulling his hair back, laughing to himself, pulling it down over his head. "We don't know that. We're not there."
"But if you had to guess."
Evie wore her hair half pulled back, away from her face and ears, just letting it cascade down her back, in a brilliant, non-brilliant design. "Yes, you do."
"We think it's along the lines of a 50 to 1 ratio, something like that."
"So a day is…what?"
"Evie, it's all a little complicated for an engineer like me. I'm more interested in understanding the meaning of my desires."
"I make it out to be something like a minute being not far off an hour on the old planet."
"These are all abstracts."
"A day would be almost two months, right? One year to their fifty, is that what I've got in my head?"
"Why don't you take care of me, Evie?"
Evie pushed him ahead. "Jetsons, is it? The whole family this time?"
"Jane and Judy." Sanderson slid his hand onto her side. "Maybe a little less Jane this time. She really got into my head the last one out."
"Be a little more empathetic, Sanderson. Go with that."
"Cartoon sex," Dee scoffed. "That's it?"
Evie looked quickly, amusedly, at Dee. "More of a trip down memory lane, trying to find his inner child."
"By fucking cartoon characters?"
"Oh now, that's not too nice. We've all got our perversions."
"Perversion are what makes us so interesting, isn't it, Evie?"
"What might yours be? Broomsticks and cats?"
Evie scrolled through her Bearing, tapping and dragging, and then swinging it to Dee. "Just tap it there and we'll get started."
Dee considered the rotating image, her profile picture staring back, moving left to right back, and pressed her index finger on it.
"No allergies, correct?"
"I jest, Ms. Sinclair." She swiped across screens, took Dee by the forearms, rubbing her thumbs along the tendons and dabbed oil at the base of each wrist, stroking up along her thumbs and
then back across the palm. She bent down and rolled up one of Dee's loose pant legs. "You're wearing those?"
"What's wrong with them?"
"Some people just like to sex it up before they go in, you know, silks, skin-tight pants, pumps. Puts them in the mood."
"Loud and clear, my dear." She rubbed the oil into the base of Dee's calves, pushing along the ridge of her foot and then down the side.
"You're good with your hands."
Evie walked ahead with her and snapped open a door which led immediately to second. "In there."
Dee opened the door into the ellipsoid chamber, ensconced in bluish dark, a bed raised high. She sat on the edge of that.
The voice made her jump, too familiar, too much like Nico. She caught herself against the bed and turned. It was him, identical, the same drawn face, dark eyes, nervous movements.
"My name is V." He stepped toward her.
"You're his Atavok?"
He motioned for her to lie down. "I will prepare you."
"You're going to watch over me? Is that how it works?"
"Please." He held her shoulders, guiding her back, moving his other arm across her, grasping her thigh, straightening it against the other.
She resisted, thought of pushing him away and leaving, but succumbed, stretching out, considering the circular ceiling above, the bluish glow growing, and felt his hands over her hips and stomach. The blue haze grew, descending upon her in long thin strands, coalescing into rods just above and all around. She glided up from the bed, V's hands still on her and then not, floated up into the ceiling, through it into the black, as a sound rose, a vibration coming up from her pelvis, and she was suddenly moving ahead, imperceptibly at first and then faster, in flight. A light came over the horizon, warm, watching the world verdant and wonderful from on top of a fence, the smell of fresh rain in the grass, more than that, a moment she remembered, overwhelmed by its fragrance. There was a river ahead, and then she was going over it, one rock to the next, step after step, the trail up after that, back and forth, through the mud, the ferns thick, and then flattened out along the ridge. It was good to be there, going ahead, her lungs and heart working, her legs firm, everything ahead. She saw a creature in the distance, its head and shoulders, a glancing shadow in the evening light, and a brief terror went through her before it vanished down the narrow valley.
It began to rain, spattering through the trees. It was time. She knew that. She had it in her, that terror, that magnificent, the sun behind her, through the trees and rain, upside down, knowing everything. She took off her clothes, her shirt turned inside out, her pants wrapped into that, her bra and panties quickly down, and held them in a tight ball against her breasts. She wanted to get rid of everything, and did, and was naked, as she wanted it, needing nothing, not thinking of what she had left behind, where she was going, just here, this moment that she would always have, that no one would ever know. Alive. She was alive. It was good to be here. She thought that, exactly that, as she continued down into the cold water.
She dove deep into the current, pulling herself along the rocks, the water gliding hard over her back and legs, her eyes open at the clear green water rushing past. There was an entrance, and she snaked inside that, taking the handrails, and rose out of the water into the light. A young woman helped her out, dark brown skin, dangles of silver and green fingernails, and held Dee firmly, kissing her neck and was leaning back, one leg fully out, the other bent up, and she was at the edge, pushing hard against it, never wanting it out of her, to be forever on the precipice, the hardness in her, enticing her forward, out into the infinite, pretending like it was something else, hard and delighted, not delighted, pained, drunk and furious, rushing back, rushing in, leaving, leaving, leaving, back again, no thoughts, just her and them, her in her wildness and abandon, certain of this thing, she amongst everything, in and out, watching too, a wonderful spectacle, inside and out, sharp, hard, and then it snapped like that and was gone.
Dee breathed in, looking back at the ceiling, pinpricks of blue at the sides. She was lying on the bed, as if she had never left, her hands tingling, uncomfortably so; she wanted it to stop.
"Just give it a moment." V stood at her side. "The feeling will pass."
Dee woke badly. She had slept worse, turning one side to the next, staring up at the tessellated ceiling, watching the tiny black hexagons swimming into dots, and that turn into a long clean curve above her bed, all of that descend into the corner, down tight against the wall, the tessellations gone, the surface smooth, disquietingly so, like a distant cloud that never moved. She wanted it away but couldn't get it out of her head and tried to conjure her visions of sex, wanting that back, to be bent up, but images of Earth came with that, that place long gone, and knew she would die here alone, and was then on a flight path, the computer simulations of Fly Thru , into that vibrant glare, slipping through the smallest of openings, so intensely so that she had to lean back into the wall, afraid she would fall and never come back. And that was how she woke, still, trapped, not having even moved, before a single thought had coalesced. It wasn't morning. There was no more of that. She had surrendered the only life she could conceive of to wake like this, to this white tessellated nothingness. And as much as she wanted out, off this cruise ship, it wasn't going to happen. It didn't matter what she might question, how she might consider the void, no longer having time, whatever that meant, nothing being relative except for her abstracted self. This was all there was, there would ever be. That came over her like a distant sound now, beside her, right beside her, a window sliding shut.
Dee pushed Icarus off the bed as she straightened her legs and reached for her Bearing, flipping it open, and watched the hovering images. She clicked off the messages, the repeated announcements about Decoherence Syndrome and Earth-Out-of-View Syndrome and scrolled through the applications on Solaris one by one: Galaxy, live posts of approaching stars, planets and galaxies, archival images from the journey, Chantal Deschampes explaining from behind her blue-white egg desk; Be Charlotte, a colony building game where power coins and Bearings were collected on a forested, flowering island; YaNo (Your Anori), her images posted by Connections of activities, parties, accomplishments and favorite things, checking her connections "nods", "winks" and "bows". She checked her feeds from Jabberjaw, Scream Queen and Apollo before opening the Ethi application and downloading her information.
They were all men, rugged, studious, caring, all gorgeous and sexual. She answered the questions mechanically – First sexual experience, Sexual preference, Recurring sexual desires – and then checked off all the boxes to confirm what they already knew. She clicked enter and waited, the screen devolving to black and then a sudden brilliant blue, the word Complete appeared. She swiped the screen and it appeared, standing at the door, waiting for her permission to enter, a hologram, but not a hologram, a fully realized image of a person, broad-shouldered, gleaming eyes, waiting.
Icarus sat up, jaw moving, hissing; he wanted it out.
Dee watched the Ethi, and it watched her back. Its figure was somehow perfect, somehow not, not the definition, not the quality of the image. There was no glitch, no problem with the 1s and 0s. It was rendered as it should, a work of digital genius, certain and profound, even if it wasn't. There was just something about how it held its head, it rested its arms, didn't move its fingers and then as she realized that, moved them one by one. "You have a name?"
"Ethi1967," she repeated. "You need a better name than that."
It brushed its hair back, trying a smile.
"You can do better than Ethi1967."
"What name would you like?"
"You tell me," Dee replied.
"Ethan, your boyfriend from Hera." He turned fully around, displaying himself proudly.
"How are you programmed?"
"I am layered through basic cellular information cross-referenced with your biological strands."
Icarus crept toward it, head low, tail swishing back and forth, paused and bolted past it and out the door.
"You were created from my DNA?"
"Cross-referenced with several million others."
"Jabberjaw, that's what I'm calling you." She sat, leaning against the wall, arms crossed and then not. "You like that?"
"Jabberjaw, what do you know?"
"Let's start with that."
It looked like it would sit beside her, but didn't, stayed as it was with its arms at its side, gazing back. "I know that you have suffered terrible loss and regret and hide behind a façade of indifference when you want to be held and understood."
"Held and understood? Can they be done separately?"
"You deflect emotional connection as a mechanism."
"Are you going to hold me, Jabberjaw?"
"If you enter a materialization request."
"Meaning you will become real?"
"Meaning that you will ascertain that I am."
"Ascertain meaning be deluded into thinking that?"
"It will be your perception."
"Would you like to hold me, Jabberjaw?"
"I am programmed to empathize."
"Oh, well, that defeats the purpose, doesn't it?" Dee scrolled through the Ethi's menu, looking for a delete option. "If you're programmed to do that, to care about me, then it doesn't actually count."
"Why doesn't it count?"
"Because you're instructed to do it. That's what you have to do."
"I do care about you, Dee." It moved closer to her, waiting.
"But I'm not programmed to care about you."
It looked straight back at her, dark green eyes unblinking.
"What's your pronoun? Are you an it, he or they?"
"What do you want me to be?"
"Anything I want? Is that it, Jabberjaw?" She got off the bed, agitated. "Tell me something that is real."
"Life is what you make of it."
"You could coach a middle school volleyball team, Jabberjaw. Or should we just love each other and have a happy family?"
"I cannot reproduce."
"How do you really feel about me, Jabberjaw? Do you love me?"
"I empathize with you."
"Is that the only answer you have in your memory banks?"
It suddenly moved toward her, like he really was going to hold her. "If I understand you correctly, Dee, you wouldn't want anything else."
"A hologram explaining the false constructs of my profound self sounds like the abyss."
"What about the hopeless relentless void? Would you like to talk about that?"
"I can't tell if you're mocking me."
"I don't do that."
There was something in her, something whole and near, and she knew it was because of this thing, and she hated knowing that. "You're just here to reinforce my superficial perception of existence."
"I'm not sure that I do that."
"What do you do then, Jabberjaw?"
"I listen. I reflect. I empathize."
"My perception of existence."
"I help you understand yourself."
"By making me feel good."
"More like realizing that you aren't as alone and isolated as you might think."
"Getting babysat by a hologram is supposed to make me feel better?"
"Would you like to debate and argue?"
"What about sex? Do you do that?"
His penis suddenly became sharply erect.
Dee waved her hand through it. "Now what?"
"Enter a materialization request."
"I'm not doing that, Jabberjaw. You haven't earned it."
"You can order others, another that looks like you, and you could watch."
"And I could get someone that looks like you, Jabberjaw, and we could have a looking glass orgy."
"I am here to fulfill your needs."
"I filled in a form, Jabberjaw. It took me less than five minutes."
"The preliminary stage is a formality."
She examined her nails, a small chip in the blue on her middle finger, already, less than two days. She wondered why Lai hadn't developed some kind of Second Nail. She scraped at the edge
and only made it worse. "Turn."
"Like a model. Do your turns."
It stayed as it was, arms at the side, perfect posture.
"You're not listening."
"It is my understanding that the people that dream of someone ideal to speak to, an empathetic voice and ear, are the worst at accepting it when it is there."
"They want something they cannot have," Jabberjaw continued. "That is the irony."
"It is who, not that," Dee corrected.
"You only hear what you want to hear."
"And you say whatever you want."
"You like to fight." It smiled suddenly, too broad. "I like that about you."
"Too bad you are just programmed to say it."
"You prefer to dream about things. That is your preference."
"That is just fucking redundant."
"Everything about me is that." Its smile seemed sincere this time. "What about the void, Dee? Would you like to talk about that?"
She watched the icon for Fly Thru appear on her screen, a bonus of 20,000 miles enter her account. "Ever play this?"
TO BE CONTINUED.