Fiction: Aqaara – Part Eight
We are pleased to introduce the eighth 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 – except Christmas, 2018 – on Outer Places.
A schematic of the spacecraft Anori may be found here. Links to previous installments may be found at the top of part seven.
The black remained infinite, silent, purely that, stark velvet against the distant stars, some bright, intensely so, some bluer, some more purple, a thick loose band together in an arc, spreading out into a cloud-like mass, horns and hooks, a spiral, angels silhouetted one against the other, startling evidence of energy and mass. Andromeda was immense, a swirl wheeling at the edge, thicker at Helus, Pfieffer and Nol, sparkling brilliant dust, yellows and reds spreading across the horizon, the ship heading for that, silent like everything else in this vacuum.
The pods had been amalgamated, out of the spire, after an arduous process of re-stacks, 26 sessions in all, and now were tucked, a coil of balls, each looking at the other. Anori was now its own anorthite planet, a contained metal ball moving at .92 light speed. Thick streaks smudged the exterior, drunken lines of latitude, the burnished surface mirroring Andromeda, shimmering, bending the light into oblongs and strips, impossible to look at the edge of it, like a sunset.
There had been many challenges over their seventeen relative years. Power generation was never stable, the dark matter resisting, fighting containment, resulting in fluctuations, slowing the ship's rotation, making them feel like they might be going over a cliff. They were used to that now. Or so most said. Three leadership groups had been elected and removed, an entire system rewritten and pledged, Newton's Gravitational Laws still the base. They had grown by 426 people in their sixteen relative years – 192 years on Hera – 582 births and 156 deaths. Six children had been lost and too many teenagers. A third of Dante's engineers were gone, degenerative diseases, something they had expected. And then of course the casualties from the Miya Conflict, tentatively resolved by ceding control of Miya Pod to Lai and her followers, most of whom were Atavoks. The Hive was no more, while the Uumasut had blossomed, the vegetation thick, now culled, more deserts and plains curated to slow the ever-growing fauna. Icarus had lived twelve years, remarkable for an Atavok cat, and had been replaced by the next generation, a two-year-old named Zephyr.
Dee's girls, Calli and Ashe, were seven years apart. Calli was the eldest and acted it, singular and certain, defiant of Dee, fighting back with such a ferocious intensity as to give Dee physical pain. The worst altercation, over her Bearing, ended with Dee backward down the stairs and a separated shoulder; neither pain would ever end. Ashe fell constantly; she broke her ankle, her collarbone and ribs, gouged her triceps, lost part of a baby finger. Ashe could have had that fixed, but she wanted it to be like she had made it, a memory of the mistakes she made, caressing it, devout to that little stump. It scared Dee how much she was like this girl, Ashe, her second, almost terrifying how she felt the girl's breath and voice in her own, the way she turned a corner and picked at her food. It didn't matter how much Dee believed that she held both of her daughters dear, her arms tight around their bodies, her face pressed into their juvenescent skin, wanting to dissolve into that meniscus between them, there was something that she couldn't touch, the feeling of one being different, almost better. The girls understood, that even though this was in their mother, that they were bound up in strands of the infinite, they were different, one loved purely, the other out of obligation. And as much as Dee wished it wasn't like that, she wouldn't have it as something else, to be explained and deconstructed; it was what she was, what her daughters were, just the way it was, like losing her own sister Crystal, so long ago, long gone, like everything else left on that planet.
Dee had never told stories because she always told them wrong. She might have an idea in her head, but she would get the details backwards and jump to an ending that made no sense. It was only when Calli was first in her arms, those bright hazel eyes staring back, squinting, arms flailing out, waiting, when Dee began to blabber, saying whatever came. It started out as lessons, how things worked, the difference between cold and hot, the swish and whirr of the pod's circulation, the snapping of Icarus' tail, where Earth was and had been, the sun, all of those things, and whirled into along talk about everything else. Talk wasn't the word. Confess was what she did – her memories of Crystal and Apollo, of Pittsburgh and California, New York, Newfoundland and Greenland, ideas she didn't realize she still had, the sad little things and the remarkable – lying beneath plants, thick, wet mud between her fingers and toes, the body of her mother lying on the kitchen floor in that awful light – about her life as a little girl and about growing up. And then she began her stories of her imagined self, the one she had wanted to be, Space Enchantress Cx born on the coldest planets, Xx, in the emptiest of galaxies, Nx.
"Xx was a dark and blue planet where the people lived in cocoons. Cx lived in the warmest cocoon of all until, when she was very young, she lost her sister, Princess Vo. From then on, she spent her childhood moving from cocoon to cocoon, condemned to a vanishing curse by her dying mother, Empress Vx."
"What's a vanishing curse?" Ashe had always asked.
"Not knowing who you are," Calli had always explained. "Like she hasn't told you that a thousand times."
"Lost in the labyrinth of Grr," Dee continued as always, picturing it now in her head as something real, "Cx discovered Lassiter, the leopard-spotted Star Tiger, chained to a wall."
"And Lassiter almost kills Cx as she tries to free him," Ashe interrupted. "But she calms him with a song only he can hear – the beginning of her power to hypnotize – and he swears a lifelong allegiance to her. That's my favorite part."
"We know," Calli replied.
"And Cx's quest for Princess Vo," Ashe continued. "I like how she learns to use her power of hypnosis against the dark fury of the universe."
"What about how they abandon Xx?" Calli asked. "Do you like that? Do you like how there is only nothingness, nothing in every direction, and she dreams of being dead?"
"She doesn't dream of being dead," Ashe argued. "She is just looking ahead into the dark, watching the planets and stars drift past, her arms tight around the neck of Lassiter."
"She dreams of being dead." Calli turned on Dee. "That's what you said."
"Did I?" Dee replied.
"You did. You used to say that."
Calli was older now, just 15, no longer a kid, as Ashe grew into one, eight years now, and Dee tried to say as little as she could now, listening instead, marveling as Ashe explained how Cx ventured out with Lassiter to find new worlds, discovering planets, massive and tiny, mountainous and flat, where Lassiter went wild, climbing the trees, pouncing through the undergrowth, feasting on star voles and moon rats. Ashe nodded at Dee, encouraging to start the story again. "That's when the Obgum arrived."
"The Obgum captured Space Enchantress Cx and took her to a metallic city above the jungle where she was stripped naked and put on display." Dee wasn't sure about any of this, neither monsters nor the sex but that was how it came out. "The Obgum grabbed her, touching all over her body, as they grunted horribly. That's when Enchantress Cx willed herself to nothingness and made the vanishing curse hers. It was an incredible thing because she couldn't even see herself, not her arms or legs or torso, nothing. She only had her thoughts floating in her invisible head. That was how she freed Lassiter and all other trapped creatures."
"I still don't understand how the Obgum could only be men." Calli often sat with her back to them, playing Eden 6. "They wouldn't be able to reproduce. They would die off."
"The creatures all begged Cx and Lassiter to stay as their rulers." Dee continued. "But Cx knew that she could never do that and was soon adrift again, atop the great back of Lassiter, distant and alone, and now knowing her purpose – to answer calls of distress. The universe needed them."
"I don't see the point of her being invisible." Calli complained. "She already had the power to hypnotize. Why didn't she just do that?"
"Because that's not what happened," Ashe argued.
"It doesn't make any sense." Calli was talking more to Dee than Ashe. "Cx is just some lost person who doesn't know what she wants and doesn't belong anywhere."
"Don't you feel like that sometimes?" Dee asked.
"And why does every story have to have so much sex? It's so stupid. You are defining Enchantress Cx by her sexuality. Everything is sex. You're always talking about her breasts and being fondled and getting penetrated, mother. We're kids. You can't say stuff like that to us."
"Sex isn't a bad thing, Calli."
"I didn't say it was bad. I said it shouldn't be in stories for kids. Ashe is eight years old. You're not supposed to be talking about sex like it's a super power."
"Why not?" Ashe replied. "I think it's fun."
"Sex is procreation, Ashe." Calli was such a beautiful girl - full lips, green eyes, fair-skinned - and feigned an indifference, covering her lithe body in sweats and jeans. She wore her hair up, ceiling it in a
loose bun, the brown and blond strands dangling about her neck like spider legs. "It's what adults do, not kids. Not kids."
"Kids aren't having sex in my stories," Dee replied.
"Enchantress Cx is nothing but sex – her outfit, her powers, what she says, how she acts, literally everything."
Ashe was different. She had the same lips but was more open, wide-eyed, and her skin was a deep olive, lush. She watched everything quietly, wondering what that was, how that was, and endeavored to figure it out. "I love Lassiter!"
"Come on, Ashe. None of it is even real. They're just messed-up stories that our mother made up to amuse herself."
"Don't be mean, Calli," Dee warned.
Calli glared back, her body tight, ready to attack. "I'm not being mean. You're being mean. I don't like your stories. And I can say that."
"Yes, you can." Dee tried not to tighten her lips. She didn't know what it was that made her daughter so upset with her. Calli was such a marvel to her – her eyes, her hands, her breath – but she couldn't tell her like Calli needed to hear it. "They're just stories."
"I don't like them." Calli left abruptly – she was good at that – slapping her hand against the doorframe and jumping down the stairs.
"Tell me about Count Swanskin," Ashe demanded. "I love him."
"Planet Twil was Enchantress Cx's favorite place." Dee stretched her legs out as Ashe flopped on top of her. "It was a bright and magical place, full of light, sometimes sharp and bright, sometimes misty and mysterious, and the most wonderful air you could imagine, so cold and nice. She could never get enough of that air and remembered it wherever she would go."
"Tell me about Count Swanskin's magic floating house, where he waited for the clouds of ice that would crack and sing."
"That was his job, taking care of those clouds of ice," Dee replied. "He watched over them."
"You've been there, haven't you?"
"That place you talk about, the floating house."
"I travelled on a ship all around the world. I've told you that."
"It's not that place."
"No," Dee replied. "No, you're right. It's not."
"Tell me about Count Swanskin."
"Count Swanskin, yes." Dee pulled Ashe up so that her head tucked against her neck and ear. "Count Swanskin liked to talk. He told stories wherever he was; he was always telling stories. That was his
secret power. And he was very kind. To everyone. The kindest person Enchantress Cx had ever met."
"And that's why she stayed there so long."
"That's why she stayed." Dee talked quietly into her daughter's skin. "Her favorite place was being on the balcony of his ship, Lassiter with her, coiling between her legs, looking out at the Great Northern Sea, the wind swirling about, nothing to say to anyone."
"She should have stayed longer."
"She stayed there as long as she could, Ashe."
"No, I mean like forever."
Dee watched Ashe's toes wiggle and dig into the bed, the big toe try to curl the blanket over the rest. "She couldn't. She couldn't stay anywhere."
"She had to find Princess Vo. She had seen her once on that tiny planet, Ush. And she had to try to find her again."
"I don't think it was just that," Ashe replied. "I think it was because there was something behind her too."
"What was behind her?"
Ashe spread out her fingers and watched the dancing shadows on her legs. "She was being chased."
"Chased? By the Obgum?" Dee pulled the blanket over her daughter's feet.
"But not just them." She lifted her feet so that Dee could tuck the blanket around her legs. "All of the bad things she had faced, like those little men from Tixx. They wanted to take her powers."
"The men from Tixx could never be happy." Dee raised her hand over Ashe's face and danced her fingers over her cheeks and neck. "They were small and mean. And very, very stupid. You know what they called Cx, don't you?"
"C-X!" Ashe giggled at that. "They called her C-X."
"And what did she say?"
Ashe sat up, balancing on Dee's leg. "Cx smiled at them, with that sinister smile and said, 'It's Cx. Think sex.'"
"Think sex," Dee repeated.
"Why did Cx never go back to Ush?"
"She did. Many times."
"But she never saw Princess Vo again."
"What about Count Swanskin? Did he ever meet Princess Vo?"
Dee smiled. "No, he didn't."
"I wish they did. Who knows what might have happened then."
"It would have been something," Dee agreed.
Ashe insisted on taking her Ethi, Po, to the Rain-Ball Party at Terra. Dee didn't know why Ashe had to go the party at all, Aurora's seventh birthday, a girl who wore a golden tiara, and who Ashe didn't like at all. But Ashe had never been to Terra and was excited about her first time in the zero-gravity pandemonium, catching rainbow-goo pods, singing along to the frenetic high-pitched songs of Hi-Hi, the Ethi pop star on the rise, and she wanted to share that with Po.
"Mama says that I would be an octogenarian on dear old Hera," Ashe imitated, one hand held out, the other on her head, as she walked ahead with Po. "Can you imagine that? Being so old as that? I can just imagine myself at the villa, sipping my cyfy wine."
"Be nice," Dee remonstrated.
"Cx would spank Aurora," Ashe replied.
"Cx would spank her very hard." Po wagged her finger madly in the air. "And stick her tiara up her bum."
"Ashe," Dee admonished. "Po can't say those things."
"I didn't say it." Ashe kicked an anorthite tile along the path. "Po did."
Po had narrow eyes, like Ashe, short dark hair, was tiny-featured and wore a full panda suit with panda ears and a dark nose. "I said it."
"Don't do it again," Dee warned.
"I will!" Po shrilled back.
Ashe wore a panda suit too that hung down a little off her bottom. "No, you won't."
"Okay, I won't."
Ashe tried to get airborne as they had entered Terra, grabbing Dee by the elbow and swinging straight into the arched hallway, chasing after Po, and collided straight into the wall. "It doesn't work! It's
"Ashe, it's in there." Dee held out her hand, helping her daughter up. "Look."
Ashe spun around on her mother's arm, pogoing forward, as she looked through the dim, catching a glimpse of an upside-down boy floating past in the hazy blue-white light. "I love this! I love this!"
"I love this too!" Po chimed. Ashe had only had Po for a week and was now inseparable from her virtual friend. Dee accepted it at first, a gift from Em, happy that Ashe had the playmate, laughing at
their antics, virtual or not, and then worried that it was too much, that her daughter would be damaged, not knowing how to relate to other kids, real ones with real emotions.
"Me first!" Ashe ran at the entrance, only to be caught on the ear of her panda suit by Baro.
"Slow down, Ashe." Baro stretched waved his L-point over her. "Gotta check your height."
"I'm 120," she replied. "Exactly."
He examined the reading. "Oh, I'm sorry, Ashe. 119. Maybe next time?"
Ashe pressed against him, desperately trying to look at the reading. "Black hole, I am!"
"Just messing with you." He crouched down beside her.
"Let me go in!" Po yelled.
"Hang on, hang on, okay? There are rules, okay?" He tried to hold their hands. "Clockwise rotation only."
"No rules!" Po squirmed away.
"Hey." He turned his L-Point at Po, making her beep, stumble and then crouch down.
Ashe hunched beside her. "Is she okay?"
"You going to listen, Po?" Baro advised.
"I'm going to listen," she replied.
"Good girl." Baro laughed, as Po leapt up and was herself again. "Clockwise rotation and always wear your rainbow band."
"Always wear my rainbow band," Po repeated.
He passed them each a pair of rainbow bands and waited until they had them strapped on properly. "Good girls."
"Dark hole spectacular!" Ashe burst into Terra, doing a swan dive, her arms out wide, and somersaulted to the top, her legs over backwards, banging her head on the padded wall and kicked down to
cross again, Po after her.
"Clockwise rotation only!" Baro called after her again. "Clockwise!"
Hi-Hi soared above, hair changing colors with each note, brunette to blonde to neon green, as it jumped all over in high-cut glossy black shorts and a loose flowing top that sprouted flowers and streams of mist, its teardrop eyes glittering gold and cherry at the corners as it winked and tongued over the audience, its voice twittering and growling through its hyper-sonic hysteria. Ashe tried to run up the side of the dome to grab Hi-Hi, but her legs wouldn't catch anything, and she crashed headfirst, Po beside her, mimicking Ashe's mad flailing motions. And then they were singing too, Hi-Hi's voice suddenly out of Po, mixing with Po's – We are Loving Now For Too-Too Now All of Us In This Forever – as the other kids swirled with Aurora, upside down and around, and Dee watched from the portal, wondering how this had become the new normal.
Calli drifted to the Nukak entrance and held the portal's anorthite edge, touching her nose to it, breathing in its cool hardness, masking the singed smell, the smell of baked molecules, even for just that moment. It was an awful smell, like burnt hair or plastic, so awful that it had made her throw up. Her mother said that it smelled more like baked candy or almonds, marzipan, she called it. But it didn't smell like that. It was the awful smell of dark molecules being pulled apart, rendered into something else, in Dante, and it was in everything – Tak Bridge Aeschylus, even the Uumasut dirt. She was hyper-sensitive to it, something about her glands – or a sensitivity, as Lai said – and there were apps and pills, but the only way Calli could really escape was in her dreams, where there was the smell of other things, flowers and trees and air, each thing with its own smell, from its own essence and not on this ship.
She bumped her face against the wall, the soft of her nose hard into the frame – the vibrations of the ship still adjusting again to the dark matter – and descended the short ramp into Nukak where the smell of the sea lions and chlorinated water was almost enough to make charred smell vanish.
Dee stood in the shin-deep water, the smallest of the three sea lion pups cradled in her arms. "Where's your sister?"
The sea lion barked at her, getting the others to join in, sounding like boys pretending to be dogs.
Calli looked down into the green water. "Is it just the sea lions today?"
"Just the sea lions," Dee said it too sharply, thinking it made her sound mad when she wasn't.
Calli stepped into the holding pen, her hands quietly down like she had been told, as she arched her head up to touch her nose to the sea lion's neck. It had deep black eyes and stared away from her and smelled like vinegar and fish. "How come Finn's not here?"
"Finn's out, like everyone else." Dee smiled down at her daughter. "Your sister is supposed to be with you."
"Finn's always here for the feeding."
Dee watched her daughter move around her, her green eyes flitting back and forth, unsure, seeing everything too quickly. "You're just like your Aunt Crystal, you know that?"
Calli frowned back. "I'm not a drunk."
"Calli, don't say that."
"She was." It wasn't just in her voice and face, but more the way she stood, legs widespread, arms askew, self-conscious about being self-conscious. "You told me."
"She was other things too."
Ashe appeared abruptly, wearing a bikini shorts and nothing more, swishing her feet across the pen with Po spinning behind her, as she explained what Liyuan had just taught about quantum entanglement, how particles are part of an inseparable whole. "Liyuan says that there are a million realities, a million million, and we're just one of those."
"No Ethi, Ashe," Calli snapped at her. "That's the deal."
"She won't say anything," Ashe replied.
Po tugged on her panda ear, her sign of compliance. "I won't say anything."
"Mother." Calli turned to Dee. "That was the deal."
"Get her the bottle, Ashe." Dee placed the squirming pup into Calli's arms and brought up the next from the incubator. "You can see Po later."
"She promised," Ashe replied. "I do too."
Dee turned on the Ethi. "Goodbye, Po."
Po snapped its fingers at Ashe and vanished in a spot of light; it had now been over a month since she had appeared, and the two of them were only getting closer.
Ashe stood still in the water, arms down. "When can I have a boochy?"
The first boochy, a miniature cross between an Arctic Fox and Sea Otter, had been developed by Shanshan. What had started out as a practical approach to the lack of space in the Uumasut had transformed into who could create the cutest thing. Other versions quickly followed – Rex Rabbit/Pug, Ferret/Lab, Ring-tailed Lemur/Red Panda – and were now in high demand. Dee was furious with the spread of the creatures and wanted them eradicated. "You have Po."
"I'm the only kid that doesn't have one." Ashe opened the blue-lit cooler. "And Po wants it too, the Red Panda one."
"Who cares what Po wants?' Calli snapped.
"How come you don't like Po, Calli?"
"Because I don't."
Ashe was patient with her sister, not the other way around, and that made Calli madder. She tried to take it out on Po, mocking the Ethi's love of Hi-Hi, mocking her sister for being so young and stupid, but it didn't work. Ashe didn't even like Hi-Hi's music that much but loved how Po flipped and spun with the music. "She likes you."
"It doesn't like anything, Ashe. It's a thing made by a computer."
"That doesn't mean she doesn't like you, Calli. You're just being prejudiced."
Calli turned sharply to Dee. "Mother."
Dee lowered the pup into the water and let it swim. "What else did Liyuan teach you, Ashe?"
"Do you like Po?" Ashe asked Dee.
"But do you like her?"
"It's not my thing, Ashe." Dee caught the pup by the shoulder and lifted it back up. "Like those Mina holograms everyone has now. Just not my thing."
"Oh, I like those," Ashe replied. "You can touch the planet anywhere and it shows you everything. That's so Hawking."
"They're not Hawking," Calli replied. "They don't know anything about Mina, not yet. It's just all made-up."
"We know the average temperature is 25 degrees centigrade," Ashe argued. "And there are eleven continents, nine oceans and no polar caps."
"Ashe, we won't be in any kind of range – gamma rays, x-rays or fission – for another seven years. You'll be a teenager by then and I'll be in my twenties." Calli adjusted the nipple of the bottle in the pup's mouth. "That's when we'll know."
"It's real," Ashe replied.
Ashe gurgled a remark.
Calli turned to Dee. "How am I supposed to be like Aunt Crystal?"
"Oh, I don't know." Dee regretted saying it, knowing that she wouldn't tell her daughter what she had really meant and it would end in another argument. "She was just sort of forceful sometimes."
"You mean like you."
"No." Dee explained how Crystal would sometimes refuse to talk for days, not a word, how frustrating that was but how she loved her for it too.
Ashe gave Calli the bottle. "That's why she drank so much."
Dee held the pup against her shoulder, its fins down at its sides, sliding his head up. "Aunt Crystal had a really bad memory of our mother, that's all. It was always in her head. She just couldn't shake that."
"You mean about your mother dying?" Calli asked.
Dee watched Ashe nuzzle into Calli, reaching for the pup, and couldn't help but see herself in that, wanting to be held, to feel as important as everybody else. "Yes, about her dying."
Calli turned away from Ashe, her elbows out. "Get the other one."
Ashe stumbled across the water, her arms out like a glider, and grabbed onto her mother's leg. "But you were there too, right? You were in the kitchen. You saw her die."
Dee felt her heart stop, like it just wasn't there, a gap without anything, like a pause before death, and her daughter's arms would be the last things she would ever have. "I did."
Ashe whirled around in a sudden dance, her hands above her head, bouncing against the incubator wall. "And you talk all the time."
Dee's sea lion barked, his lower jaw held open to do it again, as if in response.
"And you're not a drunk," Calli added.
"Ashe, slowly," Calli warned. "Remember?"
Ashe stopped spinning, stood still, staring at the pup and Dee.
Dee crouched beside her. "Can you manage him? Remember that this guy squirms."
"I got him, yeah."
"These pups are okay?" Ashe asked. "Or are there problems with their DNA stuff too?"
"AJ says that they're stable," Calli replied. "Everything has been fixed."
Dee reached in for the last of the pups, already half out of the incubator, not wanting to be alone. "Well, you know, I was six months old when my mother died, your grandmother. I was too young to remember anything like Crystal. You don't remember anything at that age."
"I remember some things," Calli replied. "I can remember smells, like that blue blanket. I turn back into a baby when I remember it."
"I remember my Jabberjaw pillow," Ashe added. "I loved that pillow."
"You still have it, Ashe," Calli replied. "It's under your bed."
"I think about your aunt as a little girl, what she would remember," Dee said. "She was just a little girl, and she was trying to get our mother to wake up and not understanding why she wouldn't." The images coursed through her, like Calli described, the smells of the kitchen, the hot sun across the floor and then the dark, her own stink rising with her mother's. "I was crying. Don't forget that. She had to feed me cereal and bread, handfuls and handfuls of it. And still I wouldn't stop."
Ashe had her face pressed close to the pup's. "How long were you there with her?"
"Three days," Dee answered.
"Do you miss her?" Ashe continued.
"I think about Crystal every day."
"What about your mom?"
"I never knew her." Dee shook the last of the milk onto the pup's whiskers and slipped him back into the water. "And so I guess I don't."
"I think I'm more like Aunt Em," Calli said.
"Why do you think that?" Dee asked.
"I don't know. She's different from you or what you say about Aunt Crystal. She's kind of a square."
"You're not a square."
"I don't want to do anything wild. I never feel out of control."
"I'm out of control, am I?"
"I'm a Hive baby, right?" Calli sounded irritated.
"I know about The Hive." Ashe turned around and around with the pup. "It's that place where people had lots and lots of sex."
The Hive had been closed for many years now and only recently reopened as The Hollow, a place for meditation and spiritual awakening, although many of the sexual avenues previously at The Hive were still there. It was a key component to Atavok society and the few humans who dared make the trip. It was their place of contentment; that's what Lai called it.
"It wasn't like that, Ashe," Dee replied. "It's like The Hollow is now, where Calli works with Lai, a spiritual place."
Ashe slipped dizzily in the water and watched the pup swim around her. "Is Calli really a Hive baby?"
"I told you to be careful, Ashe," Dee replied.
"Come on, Ashe, Hive babies aren't real. They are just things people say to hurt each other."
"Is it true that I was a mistake?" Ashe asked.
"No," Dee replied. "Who said that?"
"We both were." Calli frowned at Dee. "You always said that you never wanted to be a mom."
"That's not what I meant at all, Calli. You know that."
"It's what you said."
"What else did Liyuan teach you?" Dee asked Ashe.
"Liyuan says that when we calculate measurements between particles that the entanglement is broken."
"You'll have to tell me more than that," Dee replied.
Calli put her pup in the water. "What she's saying –"
"Let me say it, Calli!"
"That the more you think about something–"
"I'm telling her!" Ashe insisted. "I'm saying it, let me say it, all right?"
"Liyuan says that when we calculate measurements between particles, that you have to calculate that you're looking at it too," Ashe said.
"It's more like the more you watch something, the more you affect that outcome," Calli corrected.
"Liyuan also says that the more you think you know something, the less you know something," Ashe added.
"I agree with that," Dee replied.
They watched the pups weave in and out of each other, swimming and lunging at one another, on top and then under, gliding along the anorthite walls, as Dee opened the incubator latch and folded the transparent anorthite stacks.
Ashe dragged her fingers in the water after the pups. "They have boochies that can swim now. That would be Hawking to have one of those."
Calli dried her face and shook out her hair. "I have to go."
"Who's cleaning up?" Dee demanded.
"I'll help," Ashe offered. "We can get Po to come out too."
"Go crazy." Calli didn't look back.
Calli rode her MARA across Aeschylus and had to wait, going through Didion with all of the Mina holograms everywhere – 76 of them now, an installation that was supposed to get bigger – lighting the orb up in an eerie blue-green light. She went to the other side and passed the F2 insignias at the entrance to Miya. Calli reached out to touch the graphic, her index nail just grazing the bottom edge of the 2. It was funny how much she liked the symbol, the way the F kissed the 2, and how badly she wanted it tattooed on her arm. But her mother wouldn't allow it. Calli had to wait another year, until her mother no longer had final say.
Miya had become an obstacle course since The Miya Incident. Twelve had been killed, nine of them human, including one of Zhe Hu's daughters, a devastating event that had torn open Anorian Society and raised the essential question of why they had bothered to leave Hera. As scientifically based the expedition was, as firmly founded on logical principles, as united they were to create a new society, to wipe their hands clean of all that had come before, the dream was only that, a dream. Within three years, they had fallen in line with their forebears, the forbears they had rejected, and acted exactly as they had: betrayed, lied and killed. Just like that.
It began with Humans First, a movement that was a trick, a gut feeling buried in ignorance. The fact was that humans had created Atavoks to be exactly like them, which of course meant that they were, that the only differences were in their birth and lifespan, the first thing that would eventually be altered – Atavoks could already be inserted into the human womb at six weeks. In the end, they were the same, the same physical make-up, the same brain processes, the same beliefs and outlook, everything the same, except different. The Atavoks were more well-adjusted than the humans in most respects, willing to do what was needed, whatever task, and had accepted their life on board with minimal stress. The Atavok suicide rate was .007, with only one suicide over the fifteen years, and even that case was suspect. Atavoks didn't fight and argued skillfully. They had genuine emotions, empathy the most intense, and struggled profoundly with the insults and physical attacks. It was pathological, the humans confessing to the violence but not acknowledging it as a crime. Em described it like this: "It's like they see us as something that isn't real, like we're cartoons or mascot creatures with giant heads. They're not attacking a person; they're attacking a figment of their imagination."
The violence continued, despite Och's attempts to resolve the conflict through celebrations and song, despite frequent debates at the Sortavuts, despite common sense, and as much as the Atavoks argued on their behalf on Solaris, it wasn't enough until an Atavok fought back. Wu, a young F-series, worked with a maintenance crew on Zenobia Pod and was grabbed by her supervisor, Kale. Wu struck back. The issue escalated on the Bearing and then the Sortavuts and seemed near resolution when another Atavok was beaten by a group on Trane Pod. Images were shared and the Atavoks – now totaling 488, approximately 15% of Anori's population – gathered to protest. It was sadly comical how the situation mirrored problems of their earthly past, but no matter the observations written, there seemed no way for logic to be applied. The Miya Conflict was brief, less than two hours, and twelve were dead. Lai came to the Atavok's defense, offering Miya as their safe haven. It was considered a temporary measure but evolved into an unofficial homeland. Lai championed the cause of the Atavoks, leading to the establishment of Anorian law: When humans exerts force (F1) on Atavoks, the second body simultaneously exerts a force (F2) on them. This means that F1 must accept F2 as an equal and opposite force. The insignia, F2, was posted at all Miya entrances.
The Hollow was quiet, voices from somewhere. She liked it here; it made her feel safe in this place. It smelled of life, something like that, perfumed hair, pheromones wafting out, artificial and real, overpowering at times, just brief waves, reminding her of being small, unsure, like she imagined her mother felt lying beneath the tiger lilies. Calli found Gem in front of the screens, rotating the Piursa through Andromeda, a thick oval of stars at the center, tight and brilliant, angular pinnacles at each side, white and purple, an orange blur below, and then to Angelica Galaxy.
"You see that?" Gem manipulated the controls, magnifying the images at the top. "See how the orange turns to red?"
Calli had just received her third extension for The Hollow as research intern. She loved the project, studying data of alternate systems and planets of habitation, and she liked working with Gem. More than that, she was fascinated by Lai and felt privileged to work at Miya with so many Atavoks. It was something to be part of the next step of understanding. "Dying star."
"Not the best place to live."
Calli gazed at the pink streaming lights, a firework frozen in the black. "You see that? It's all going there, all that energy burning up into nothing, but it's not."
"Did you see Tyler's Blaze Cast?" Gem whispered. "Her complete rejection of the plural equilibrium. She is so creepy."
Calli dragged her fingers on the bottom of the panel, tracking through the pink streaks. "She's just mixed up."
"She wants to live on an asteroid, Calli! Who wants to live on an asteroid?"
Calli liked how Gem smelled, almost like mint. "My mother, for one."
"No, she doesn't. You're making that up."
"What's the path, Gem?" Calli took the controls of Piursa, scrolling in her data. "You still haven't shown me."
Calli typed in the route. "Haven't we done that before?"
"We've done everything before, like seventy-five times." Gem hunched closer to the screen. "Those three stars, the one below those two, the nebula, the wave at the top. Right?"
"It's like panning for gold, girl," Calli imitated Lai, raising her voice slightly and lengthening the words.
"It might look the same, but it never is."
"She's right, you know," Calli replied.
"I know she's right. Everybody knows she's right."
"I like the way she thinks."
"Everybody knows that too."
Calli watched the path unfold, the lines break apart, pixilate at the sides, the thick gold and white light of nebula dissolve.
"You ever think about what Tyler said?"
"What did Tyler say?"
"About killing yourself?" Gem looked back at Calli, her eyes clear blue, her cherubic face sleepily wild in the low light.
"It's not like I'm going to do it." She intertwined her fingers together. "I think about what it would be like, the sensation of dying."
"I mean…" She turned back into the viewfinder, still gripping Calli tightly. "I mean, I look into the stars, the stars everywhere around us, and where we are going, into all of that, and it's not even what we see, is it? It all happened so long ago, millions of years. There might be nothing there."
"There's something there."
"I mean, I know there's something there. But there might not be, right? You get what I'm saying?" Gem zeroed the into a pinnacle of light. "You see how it could look like anything – a gate, a
mushroom, a rabbit? It could be anything. And in just this one little place."
"You know what I think about?" Calli paused, thinking about not saying what she wanted to say, but went ahead. "Being an Atavok."
"Atavoks are made with a purpose. You're here for a reason." Calli slowed the rotation of the telescope as it approached a mass with purplish streaks, like genetic strands.
"Calli, a scientist may decide on the genetic code and plot that, but that choice, the purpose of that choice, is no different from the creation of your code."
"Mutations occur for a reason, same as cloning."
"What I mean is that you have black skin because it is resistant to the cosmic radiation, not because you were randomly born in Nigeria."
"Nigerians aren't randomly black. They are black because they are born in Africa."
"That's what I mean, Gem. You aren't from anywhere. You just are. You were created."
The door opened below. "Where are my girls now?"
"Hi, Ms. Che." Calli called down.
Lai hovered up on her MARA, a boochy in her lap. "Come on now, Yizzi."
"Hi, Yizzi." Gem offered a small wave.
"Aren't you going to say hi to Gem, Yizzi?" Lai prodded the tiny wombat-lemur creature, squat and long-legged, to sit up. "There you are."
Calli glanced at it. "Is that one of the new ones?"
"I'm teaching him to speak, aren't I, Yizzi?" Lai guided the boochy into her hand. "Say Hi. Say Hi."
The boochy answered in a half hiss, half chirp.
"Good girl! Good little Yizzi." Lai turned back to Calli. "I'll be having her say such wonderful things so very soon."
"We've been working on the algorithms you sent," Calli replied. "Those tests on incandescence."
Yizzi burrowed into Lai's incandescent blue gown as Lai reached for her Bearing to retrieve a message.
"We've been working on the algorithms for the Angelica System," Gem added.
"We think we have it all figured." Lai stared down at her Bearing, tapping and swiping. "And then we don't. The water changes, the gold dust gone."
"There's a dying star in Angelica, Ms. Che," Calli said. "Gem found it on the ten percentile trajectories."
Lai looked up, wide-eyed, almost surprised to find Calli still there. "How's your mother getting along? She behaving?"
"She has three sea lion pups ready for exposure."
"Sea lions now? Goodness, they're hefty things, aren't they? What about the boochies now? Is she going to give that a try soon?"
"I don't think so," Calli replied.
"Let me tell you, your mother is a marvelous wonder, she really is, but she doesn't get it like we do, does she now, Calli? Doesn't like to look down the rabbit hole." She opened a package of yellow
candies and dropped one for her boochy. "Always mixing purpose with means, purpose and means. Everybody's always doing that."
"I wish she would talk to you."
"You know, Calli darlin', your mother and I used to be great friends. Great friends. And she's such a spirit, such a shining spirit. She just glows. She's probably the single most important reason we've made such progress on the suprathermal ions and all, girl. And now these platforms, all of it moving ahead so well. It's such a good thing we're doing here, you and me and everybody."
"I believe in you, Ms. Che," Calli replied. "A lot of people do."
"We're utilizing everything we know, not just one thing at a time, but altogether, quantum, isn't it? It's deep, right, girls. Itivok. That is what we can attain working together. It's all a guide to understanding of alternate perspectives, isn't it? Alternate perspectives, darlin'. That's all it is, all we need. Once we understand how the water flows, then we understand ourselves in it. I'm feeling atomically better every day, girl."
"Humans and Atavoks together," Gem said.
Lai's bearing glowed blue and spun in her hand. "Just keep watchin' the water, darlings. See what gold dust you find."