Fiction: Aqaara – Part Six
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, Four and Five can be found here, here, here, and here respectively.
A schematic of the spacecraft Anori may be found here.
The Ascent was the grand finale of The Anori Games, the participants racing up forbidding avalanche trails, rocks falling past, the trails merging into one, wide enough for only two people near the end, jagged cliffs at either side. Dee accepted Liyuan's offer to watch on his Bearing on their lawn.
"Look at Sloan!" Liyuan waved his hand at the screen – Sloan and Val among the competitors – as they vied for position, grabbing one another's legs, one too aggressive and suddenly off the mountainside. "Look! He's gone! I know him, Tate! Oh, wow, Tate's gone!" The pack came to a jagged rockface, and Sloan leapt up, heaving himself up the first number of steps with a remarkable effort. "Incredible! He's in third!"
Dee played with Icarus' ears, fending off his paws as he swiped distractedly back. She realized it was the first time she had seen Val since she had been on the ship. "You're scaring Icarus."
"Look at him, Dee! Just look!"
Sloan ran on the heels of a broad-shouldered man as they crossed a wooden bridge, the cliff there again, reflecting the sun as it glinted through the trees.
"It's not possible! Incredible!"
Sloan jumped off the trail, trying to make a short cut to the next turn, but nearly toppled off the edge, catching a branch, jerking himself back, wild-faced, Val behind him. Chains hung down ahead, and Sloan jumped high for his, almost slipped and then pushed off with his legs to get to the top, now ahead with Val, a lone figure just ahead, running into the brightness of the sun through the trees.
Sloan and Val raced against El, an Atavok of Em's generation, to a wooden ladder, El swerving into Sloan and he into her as they jumped onto the rungs and pulled their way up, the sun now brilliant in a clearing. Val moved ahead, Sloan catching her, El behind them, Val vaulting forward at the finish, winning the event.
"Incredible! So incredible!"
Dee pressed Icarus' forepaws beside his head. "Liyuan, it's a video game."
"Their effort is genuine, identical to running up a mountain, a real mountain, exactly the same, like your Hive."
Icarus let out a low grunt, almost a squeak as he freed his paws and stretched out his hind legs and Dee sat up. "You never come to The Hive, Liyuan."
"I'm not so sure about that, Dee. Not like you."
"I'm not sure of anything, Liyuan."
"It's funny for me, Dee, and odd thing. We have evolved, right? We evolved to this point now. We have shed our fur and scales. We got rid of our tails. We stood upright and became aware. Isn't that right? We became aware of the world, or what we were, of our bodies. We found our humility – our embarrassment some might call it. We became aware of what we desired and then we thought about that. This only intensified our desires."
"Why should anyone be embarrassed by their desire?"
"Which way do we turn, yes? What do we eat? What do we wear? Everything, every moment a question, every choice, everything an unknown. Think about astrology or palm readers, superstitions, love, these ideas guiding us. We don't know and yet we want to know so badly. And so, yes, I have doubt about my desire. I don't want that known by others."
"Desire defines who we are." Dee watched Icarus roll off onto his side, a hind leg haphazardly up. "And that's all we want or pretend anyway, astrology and horoscopes, trying to find yourself in the chaos, like getting on this ship, flying into the void. Or staying on Earth. It's the same thing. No one knows. We know nothing except being satisfied."
"That is where we might not agree as much, Dee." Liyuan played with an unlit cigarette, rolling it finger to finger. "I like to be satisfied sexually, Dee. Oh yes. I like to be caressed. I like to be hard. I understand this. But I am more curious about it than anything. I am curious why I am this way, this assemblage of bucky balls, my random atoms through random slits, my alternate histories choosing me this moment. I like that intention. I like having evolved from that." He flipped a cigarette expertly into his mouth. "But we don't know our desires as much as we are owned by them."
"There is no confusion in my desire. There is only clarity. I know myself, to that crystalline point."
"And when it is over?"
She squeezed her hands together, wringing her left in her right, pressing too hard, holding the dull pain and not letting that go. "Sleep. You do it again."
Liyuan rose from his haunches and took a few short steps down the hill. "And what of ethics and morality? If there are only the physical sensations, finding pleasure, what of our decisions toward one another?"
"Morality means religion means me saying that mine is better than yours. My rules are the rules of the one and true god." Dee turned around, holding Icarus by the hind leg to reassure him as she moved around him. "Judgement."
"The Whole focuses on restraining judgement, focusing on the self. Maybe you should try that one instead."
"I'm talking about no judgement, Liyuan. Not even of yourself." She watched Icarus get up, stretch out his forepaws and yawn. "Judging yourself is probably the worst of all. We put ourselves down,
just so that we can measure up to something that doesn't exist."
"And if I murder? Is there judgement for that?"
"Oh, now we're on to murder."
Liyuan considered her for a long moment, unblinking. "If you murder and there is no one to judge? What do we have then?"
"There is no reason to murder."
"And what about Ucci's death, Dee? There was no reason for that. And yet it was accepted because of unspoken prejudice."
Dee watched Icarus lick his coat, down his chest and onto his paws and then wiping those on his face.
"Human nature needs judgement. We do not govern ourselves without it."
"Government is worse than murder."
"Ah, well, as much as I like this idea, the theory of this idea, Dee, I cannot help but to question your logic. We are together on this ship. We live together as a society. We dream of finding something in the distance. We are doing that together. We need to govern ourselves. We need to do that."
"I am not arguing that. I am arguing against the basic idea – the principle – of judgement. When we sit in judgement, we condemn our basic instincts."
"No, we were talking about sex, our primal dream – our knowledge – of who we really are."
"Yes, back to sex." Liyuan coaxed Icarus down the hill and rubbed his shoulders. "Sex breeds jealousy. It breeds conflict."
"That is exactly my point. It does not. It is the opposite of that. Sexuality breeds an essential understanding of who we are." She checked her bag for the vials, something she had forgotten the day
before. "It isn't logical. It is essential. It's the scientific essence of who we are. We are defined by our gender, our desire to couple, our need to connect with one another."
"And so if I want to engage with you sexually, and you do not reciprocate that essential desire, what then?"
"You want to have sex with me?"
Liyuan smiled broadly, nodding emphatically. "Why not? Why shouldn't I feel that?"
"Okay, Liyuan, what if you see a beautiful 13-year-old girl, and you are sexually aroused by her pert young breasts, what then?"
"You are making my point, Dee. That is morality. That is judgement."
"There is not some kind of bacchanal inevitability to this, you know. Once you throw out God and eternal punishment, we do not descend into the abyss."
"If I desire this untouchable girl of yours and she is compliant, all is well?"
"Why would you take that from this girl, Liyuan? There is nothing there. There is not only her despair but, more so, yours. You will lose yourself, your understanding of who you are. You will kill yourself doing that."
"Not if I lack morality."
Dee closed her bag, everything there. "The thing about sex, Liyuan, is that it is not who you are but what you pretend to be."
"No, what you present yourself as, what others think you want to be."
"More like their dread."
Icarus paced in circles, eager to move across the pod to the Uumasut.
"That's just fear, Dee, intimidating people, with the consequence of their actions!"
"You are relying on the fear of the Greeks, the fear of a barbaric people obsessed with fucking their mothers and gouging out their eyes." Dee was already walking, eager to move into the silence with Icarus. "As beautiful as this pristine girl might be, you die in that pursuit. Your sexuality becomes an abyss, not the sanctuary that you need it to be."
Dee scrolled through a montage of Blaze Casts – each and every one following the mantra of Janki, a marathon of repetition until they blacked out, confessing failure in an assigned tasks, an error in calculations, mental breakdowns, personal conflicts, attempted crimes, abuses of power, crying and sobbing, some ending in an overdose – and went to another screen, tapped around the Ethi icon, flicking the edges of the E, considering it, dragging along the turquoise landscape, scrolling the application away, down her menu to Fly Thru, Buy-Ubble, Eden, anything for a moment and then, bored, back to the Ethi App. She wanted to see Jabberjaw pop up again, wanted to see if the thing was still alive, retrieve it from its lost little world, even if she was just going to delete it again.
She looked over at Icarus, pressed flat against the wall, legs bent in, and flicked the icon distractedly, barely touching the image, and was half surprised when it was there, exactly as if it had been waiting for her touch, knowing that she didn't want it. "Hey."
It looked back and forth, past her, examining the surroundings, out the window, and then back at her, through her.
"Can I make a wish?" Dee blurted. "Do you do that?"
"Yeah, sure, do that."
It stared back, unblinking. "I can talk to you. I can listen."
"I have a question for you, Jabberjaw." Dee wished she hadn't conjured it; that's what she told herself. "Do you have a consciousness?"
"I am aware of my surroundings."
"What about death? Are you afraid of that?"
"That doesn't mean the same thing as it does for you."
"What about when you're not here?"
It looked like it smiled. "I'm not here."
"Is it like an Ethi waiting room? Or oblivion?"
"Dee, I wouldn't be able to return if it were oblivion."
"The waiting room then."
"What do you want of me, Dee?"
She pulled her knees into her chest and draped her arms out like she was an immature Buddha. "I have no clue."
It sat across from her on the floor, imitating her posture. "You're upset."
"You're irritating," Dee replied.
"Is it that I don't care that you don't care? Is that the frustrating thing?"
"How could you care? You're a jumble of 0's and 1's that has no understanding of anything."
"I process information like you."
"You just say things. You're not actually thinking."
"That is an interesting observation, Dee."
"That you don't think?"
"That I just say things."
"I prefer the Atavoks."
"They are more servile."
It opened its hands. "Materialization request?"
Dee raised her finger, ready to shut it off. "No."
"What is it, Jabberjaw?"
"I will always be here."
"Whenever you are prepared."
Odysseus had a low ceiling, a flickering, spinning neon light in the center and seats that slid into pods around the room's perimeter. It took four swipes to scan her palm because, they said, she wouldn't press down firmly enough, and then she changed pods three times just to make them mad. It was interesting when the program started, how real it seemed, climbing the path, the hot air down from the volcano, coming to the rock, reaching up for a handhold, looking down, like she had done in the Galapagos on Fernandina, pulling herself up, getting her feet in, reaching again, but she just didn't want to anymore, looked around at the wonderful false world and let go. She wanted to see what would happen; that's what she told herself. There wasn't much, just the letting go, that
moment feeling so final and then not, just sitting in the chair.
"You okay there, Ms. Sinclair?" The attendant was heavy-limbed, a giant boy-man with angular tattoos on his biceps.
He smirked at her, ready for her to laugh. "We'll get it started again."
He nodded at her, even offered her a hand as she got up and left. "Cool."
She loved V's hands, warm and soft in the cool blue light, the thumb at the edge, index just in, arching back, preparing herself, sucking in the side of her mouth, bunched up, certain of this, nothing but this, taut, without future or end, just this, absurdly so, certain of it. V's fingers pressed down her calves, caressed into her heel, and spread over the ball of her foot. She tightened her thighs, stretching out her toes, arching her pelvis into the blue light with intense anticipation. She had something in the back of her head, a memory of something she had done wrong, yelling at someone, throwing something, hearing it smash, angry and then not, sitting at the window, looking out in the darkness, the wind skating over the emptiness into her, and then taking her clothes off, going into that, down the stairs, out the door, across the unfinished wooden deck and through the wet grass, feeling her body get tighter as the wind gusted across her face, furious, and ran into that, falling forward and catching herself as it stopped and there was nothing but calm.
Something came up in her, a distant ringing, the blood flowing through her ears, and then it became whole, there, behind her, a thick scent from her childhood, thick branches in the late afternoon, distinct, something brought out of the ground and put back in, a drill, a yawing machine, relentless and deep. A figure flashed out of the darkness, tiny limbs, legs and feet there and then gone. She followed and found them, girls chasing after each other, swirling around one another, ducking back and forth, catching a hand, letting it go, touching her, grabbing, letting her go, reaching, holding her arms in knots. She was one of them, more than one, holding her arms with her hands, trying to escape, not letting go. She kissed the girl's shoulder, sucking down her bicep. She looked back at herself, at her eyes glazing over, barely open, and wanted to say something but could only mutter, "Um, um…uh" and took her hand and knelt before the others – there were now three other girls – and waited for them to go through their rituals, lolling back, feeling drunk, unable to think, to say what she wanted, a desperate animal, and switched to unintelligible, hyperventilated chant. "Ooh-soon-in, ooh-soon-in, ooh-soon-in."
The anorthite rods descended past her eyes, glowing. She watched it come past her and thought about touching it but did nothing, just stared and closed her eyes, thinking she would never wake again.
"The feeling will pass."
Dee sullenly returned to the mediocre light of Aeschylus and sat with everything coming past her, the universe a blur, incoherent. She had to keep moving. She had to get there. There was no time to stop, to sleep, to do anything. This was Hawking 4X, the morass of living in that, of having left, of not getting anywhere, out in the middle of it with nothing to hang onto, nothing but this feeling of emptiness. It exhausted her, and she woke with that in her head, the feeling of her hair flying back, leaning out in front of the ship, everything rendered silent in the vacuum of their endless flight.
Dee watched a young woman adjusting the shoulder strap of her dress, looking like she knew understood, and the man beside her, a little older. his head slumped almost horizontally forward, jacket blowing open at the side, his hand resting on his hip, as he hosed down the labyrinth, water streaming down, making people veer away, hastily in and around each other – a small man, bald and nervous, a heavy woman with gold bangles, a beautiful woman, eyes straight ahead. Dee considered each of them, each person, following them for a moment, noticing their ear pieces only for an instant, watching their bodies, how they moved, their hips and arms, their vitality, flashes of desire in just that, walking past – a mother and daughter, absently holding each other's hands, a boy running and stopping, his shirt half out, as he turned and went the other way, a slim woman lost in thought, her fingers flicking and counting, until Dee was verging on anxiety, feeling so much of them, just as they were, exact and true, and that there could not be more than this, in this moment, understanding too much or nothing at all, that wherever they went, however they moved, they would all soon be dead.
It should have been Christmas. Angelica had been right about that. They had missed their third one now and would soon miss it again. She had calculated that. They had had that three Earth Years pass, an Earth Year now one third of theirs on board the ship. It would get worse, a year in a month and less, a Christmas every three weeks, 15 Christmases for every one of their years. Every three weeks of theirs would be a year for everyone left on Earth. So now she slept late – a few hours now days and weeks – Icarus pushing her flat against the wall-side of the bed, and scrolled through her Bearing, played Eden and built toys for the animals on Buy-Ubble, worked the Uumasut, all of these things until she could get back into The Hive.
The stairs went into shadows, people there, a loose circle of men and women, naked but for gold bands on their waists and ankles. A woman grabbed Dee by the ass, and then a taut Adonis of man pushed in, reaching for her breasts and grabbed her, frantically thrusting at her, ejaculating mostly on himself. It was too familiar, dull and old, and continued into the darkness, sharp smells of burning cedar and cold dripping rock, water dripping down the sides, and saw a figure against the wall, the sensual nodules of her spine, climbing up into her shoulders, her oiled neck. It looked so much like her; it was Em.
Dee touched her skin, kissed it, pressing her nose in, vanishing in her smell, and pinned Em's arms back and played with this body of hers, the exact same skin, stretching out, the torso, arms out at the sides, her toes pointing straight, thighs held tight, her nose and mouth the same, her hips, exactly like hers, going under, her stomach arching up in tight contortions, her pelvis surging up and down, her breath sharply in and out, almost keening. Em's hand came down to her, touching her neck and hair, her nails creeping all over her, pulling her head back to tell her something, knowing what might come next.
"The feeling will pass."
"Where is she?"
V slowly wiped the oil from her ankles.
"Is Em here?" Dee sat up abruptly on her elbows. "Is she in The Hive?"
He held her elbow firmly, guiding her back down. "You have to wait."
"No. She's here. I'll find her." Dee stared at the anorthite rods hovering above her, changing from blue to red to purple, and then left, moving purposely through the rooms, up into the Atrium and found
Em at a visual display console. "How often are you in there?"
Em looked up briefly, not bothering to make eye contact, and returned to the console, slotting three-dimensional forms with the tentacle-like evaser wand.
Dee sat behind her, thought about touching her neck, stopped, and then did, her fingertips caressing the base of her skull. "That isn't like you, Em."
"What isn't like me?"
"You're evading a question."
"Do I go where?"
"You were in there."
Em turned around, taking Dee's arm as it fell of her neck. "Had a wonderful experience, did you?"
"That's what I wanted to ask you."
"How well you pleased me?"
She gripped Em's arm hard, wanting to kiss it. "What did you do? How did get in there, Em?"
Em turned back to the console, pulling her arm away and replaced the Evaser, tying the antennae together. "These experiences are yours, Dee, not mine."
Dee stared back into Em's clear blue eyes. "There's more to it than that. You were there."
"None of this is real." She looked distractedly at the console, a collection of colored bulbs rising and falling, the green one straight to the top of the screen, purple squiggles scattered everywhere. "There's a certain cruelty to it. That's what I think, like you might be finding answers when there aren't any."
"It's funny how you got like this, Em." Dee was suddenly mad, not being able to make Em talk, not able to make her understand her importance. "Where did you get this way of talking? You sound more like Lai than me."
Em tucked her hands through her knees, twisting herself absent-mindedly to her side. "Sorry."
"Em…" Dee gripped the anorthite counter, pressing her palm into the rough edge, pulling her hand back, trying to make it cut in. "I don't need this."
"You should perform my eulogy."
Dee peered back at her, looking for a smile. "I'll be dead long before you."
"Would you do it?" Em went back to the screen, dragging the green bulbs down, connecting the purple ones together.
Dee stared at the gap between her fingers, the thin webbing between her index and forefinger and thought about tearing it out, digging down to the ligament and bone, and felt the vertigo of that, of digging and clawing away at herself until there was nothing left. "No."
"I don't believe in this, Em. I don't believe in any of it. We're not going at Hawking 4X. There is no Decoherence Virus. We're not entangled. None of it. I'm not even here."
"What about The Hive? Do you believe in that?"
"I remember being in there, Em. What about you?"
Tak Deck on Zenobia bridge was the dome car of the Anori. Blue grey chaise lounges lined the semi-oval in a sine wave curve, telescopic units, attached to snake-like cables, voice-programmed to seek out viewers' requests. Andromeda Galaxy was getting in range, tilted terribly down, thick and transparent, bloated with light, white, yellow, bands of thick red, circular scars marking the monstrous thing's death. It looked like a threat. It would swallow them whole. They would be gone into that, dissolved, all of them, their entire mass, their eyes, teeth and sternums, their hair, their clothes, their jewelry, their glasses and shoes, their forks and plates, their sheets and beds, their Bearings, their pods, their orbs, all of them, all the anorthite, the dark matter too, the ship sucked and swallowed by an orgy of light. Dee felt someone beside her and then a hand on her leg.
It was Val, her uniform half unzipped. "Hey, stranger."
Dee stared back, still lost in the velvety black.
Val stretched her legs out, her arms half-heartedly above her head, eyes closed, almost like she was feigning sleep.
"Saw you in that big race."
"You realize how far we are from Hera?" Val spoke with her eyes closed. "A light year, a goddamned light year, Dee. You know what that is in miles? Our old sun is as close as Alpha Centauri now. Our sun is just another star, Dee. Proxima Centauri just gets bigger every day." Val leaned back in the chair behind Dee, her left leg crossed over her right, and dropped her arms like a forgotten doll. "What do you see?"
"Is that how long I haven't seen you? A light year?"
"You wouldn't believe everything that's going on in the flight deck."
Dee studied the universe ahead, an underwater landscape, layers, colors out of the corner of the eye, gone when focused on, bubbles of oily gas, milky, trails and threads, like looking through cellophane, crackling, broken in spider-web cracks, illusions of motion, moving in front of one another, the feeling of driving all night, the road still there when she tried to close her eyes. "Half of the ship hides in their pods, like kids on a plane, logged onto Solaris, watching three dimensional videos of pretend worlds or, worse, back home."
"While you're breaking all the records at The Hive."
"I'm breaking records, am I?"
"When aren't you there, Dee?"
Dee tapped the side of the telescope with her fingernails, scratching her index finger down the side before sitting back. "I have my moments."
"We have no way of stopping. You know that? We have no clue how to stop this thing. None at all."
"There's always something, Val, always fucking something."
"This isn't just something, Dee. This isn't a human thing. This is a universe…a universe thing. This is like being stuck in an elevator. And never getting out." She stood up abruptly and shook out her arms. "We're hurtling toward nothing. Nothing. We left our fucking sun, Dee. We left it."
"Fuck Alpha Centauri. We're going to just sail right on past all of it, one, two, three, and then gone. Proxima, Centauri A, Centauri B, and what's next? It's not going to stop. We can't make it stop."
"How is that any different from where we were before? From where we're going?"
"You don't understand, Dee."
"Stupid enough to be vaguely happy."
"You're not stupid." Val let out a violent sigh. "And you're sure as hell aren't happy."
"Val, you're the one who went on about the wonder of space, how Earth is floating in space like everything else, right? A thin atmosphere all that was between us and the vacuum, remember?"
"Yeah, well, I miss that thin little atmosphere we used to have."
"Try getting used to this one."
Val toyed with her bearing, flashing through documents and 3-D models, finally projecting a wall of data. "There is no friction, nothing to slow us down."
"What about a parachute?"
"Or just putting Dante in reverse?"
"Dee, we can't stop the fucking ship."
"Sounds like you need The Hive more than me."
"Or better yet." Och appeared, suddenly distinct, rising out of a group of people below. "Try Casino Galaxy."
"Hey." Val stood and kissed him. "Where did you come from?"
He hugged her tight, pinning her arm against her waist. "Taking Saturna on a little tour."
A figure appeared, imposing, thick brown hair to the shoulders, in a greenish-grey robe, a light coming from the sides, like a phosphorescence.
"This is Saturna," Och announced. "My Ethi."
Dee considered Saturna's long legs and slim arms, the delicate hands and fingers, round face and slanted eyes. "Someone from your past?"
Och rocked his head back and forth, boyishly. "No. Saturna is from someplace else. My future maybe."
"What does it do?"
"Plays Craps mostly."
"And what do you two talk about?"
"Oh, I don't know. What do we talk about, Saturna?"
"Craps." Its voice broke, like it was still in puberty. "And Black Jack."
"Val says we can't stop the ship," Dee said. "That we're all doomed to die."
Och kissed her on both cheeks. "Rumor is that you've become a bit of a Hiver."
"The Queen Hiver," Val added.
His hands flashed back and forth like birds in a cage, suddenly alight on her arm. "You two must come with me."
"I have to get back to flight deck," Val replied.
"And I'm supposed to be at the Uumasut," Dee said.
"Funny," Saturna said. "Och told me that you would say that."
Och sat down in the chaise longue beside them and offered each a thin blue sticker. "Put it on your forehead, between your eyebrows."
"Your third eye," Val observed.
Dee looked at the little circle at the end of her index finger. "I don't want it."
"Humor me, Dee."
She repositioned herself, her head lightly on the cushion, put the sticker in place and found herself in a mute passageway, behind Val and Och, going into a gold-vaulted room, a casino, every table
crowded with players and onlookers.
"I originally designed it to be other worldly, chrome and lights," Och explained. "The games were all space-age – Red Star instead of Black Jack, Interstellar instead of Roulette, Sub-atomic instead of Craps – but it seemed forced, fabricated, and so I changed it back, everything as it had been on Hera, a traditional Vegas casino with the slot machines, tables and drinks. Eden 2, the updated world-building application provided the backdrop, a simulated desert expanse and themed hotels to surround the Sortavut."
"Why a casino?" Dee opened her purse and found a row of purple and green chips. "I don't get it."
"There is nothing so marvelous as chance." Och stopped a craps table.
"They're just dice, Och." Val added. "Who cares?"
"No." He moved ahead into a crush at the side of the table. "It's chance!"
Liyuan was across from them, delighted. "Eight!"
"Liyuan?" Dee asked. "Is he in this program too?"
"It's more of a recording of when he was here before," Och replied.
"Shoot 'em, roller!" Others called. "Hit the number."
Dee looked on indifferently, more interested in the changing color of the sky on the dome above, becoming a distinct red behind the distant mountains.
The dice were launched across the table, a five and two landing tight in the corner. "Seven!"
"Watch him," Och observed. "That's the boxman."
The boxman, a stout triple-chinned man, pulled the chips away, piled them back into the House's stash and waited as the bets came out again. Och took the dice.
"More of the same, Och!" Saturna spun a chip toward Och. "More of the same."
Och picked up the dice. "Would you have everything as it was? All of us the same as when we left? Or would you plunge on into the infinite black, looking for the most remarkable of miracles, a planet beyond our dreams?"
"I just want to win!" Val yelled.
"Bets are in," the boxman announced.
Och threw the dice, hitting a two and a five.
"Seven!" Liyuan threw an arm into the air.
"Yes!" Saturna slapped his hand.
"Use your chips, Dee." Och looked around at her.
Dee kept her arms crossed.
"Play," he encouraged Val. "Choose a number, whatever you like."
"Come on, shooter!" Liyuan called. "Let's have it!"
She bent her chip in half and watched it snap back. "Weird."
"It's a game of chance," Och replied.
"That doesn't mean I have to play."
"Come on, shooter!" Liyuan called again.
"Choose a number, Dee." Val had placed her money on the 8. "Who cares?"
Dee flicked a batch of chips to the six.
"Now we'll see what's what." Och launched the dice in a practiced arc, and the number was six.
"Six!" Liyuan chorused with the boxman.
Och laughed. "There you go."
Dee watched the chips snap up into her tray, like lost ducklings coming home. "You're cheating."
"What would the fun be in that? Cheating is worse than losing. That would just be boring."
"You lose in the end."
"That's why I play."
Val put her money on the 5 again.
"All right, shooter!" Saturna called. "Another six! I can feel it!"
Och played out a number of chips to various bets and numbers. "The fact that we are here is against the longest odds at all."
"It is what it is, Och."
"You're not fascinated, Dee?" Och demanded. "You're not fascinated by this moment, that we're here, that we have survived to be this?"
"Playing a video game? That's your wonder?"
"Shooter!" Saturna called out.
"Alive, Dee. We're alive."
"It's temporary." Dee shrugged. "Like everything."
"It's extending the game that I'm interested in." He raised the dice in his hand and launched them across the table, one striking the far wall, the other bouncing over, caught by Saturna.
"Warning, shooter." The boxman scowled at Och as he picked them up again.
Och threw them underhanded, both hitting the wall this time, and rolling back, another six.
"Shooter! Six!" The crowd was electric, mad with the excitement.
"What about the ship, Och?" Val placed another bet on the 5. "What are we going to do about the deceleration?"
He watched the bets being made, the chips moving in, and she understood that he saw everything like this, numbers being placed. "200 in the Field."
"Come on, shooter!" Liyuan was red in the face, spittle forming at the corners of his mouth. "Six!"
"Let me throw the dice," Dee said.
"Why?" Och asked.
"I want to."
"The players won't like it."
She held out her hand. "It's chance."
Och paused, unsure, looking over the crowd, as Dee took the dice.
"No, shooter!" Saturna was the first to protest.
Other voices joined in, irate. "Shooter! Shooter!"
"Fuck your karma." Dee threw the dice, another six. "I wanted a seven."
He flipped his bets out mechanically on each number, in boxes, on corners and edges. "And so now you have to do it again."
She picked up the dice, tried to roll them between her forefinger and thumb, dropped both, and picked them up, feeling suddenly distant, that this game was more real than she, that she had never left The Hive, had never left Earth, had never left her apartment, was just alone, the power out, a corpse beside her dead cat, and no one coming to find her ever. "I get this idea in my head, I keep thinking about this, that we're just trying to escape our past, our selves, and that's it. We're not looking at who and what we are. We're not addressing any of that. We just rocket ahead, fast as we can go, thinking about nothing except our next digital fix."
"You have to throw the dice, Dee," Och said.
There were voices echoing in a language she didn't understand; she couldn't tell if it was inside or outside of her head.
"The world is indifferent, Och. There are no corners to hide, no places to pretend. It's empty and all rock, cold." She clenched her fist as hard as she could, hoping she might dissolve the dice. "There's no fire in the night, nothing but nothingness. That is what we have now, and we're just going deeper into it."
"There's still chance."
"Stop fucking with my karma," Saturna shrieked. "And throw the fucking dice!"
Dee wanted to throw the dice into Saturna's face, down its throat but only threw them lightly, so they barely hit the wall. Another six.
"You know how to shoot craps." Och collected his chips into a series of precise stacks.