Fiction: Aqaara – Part 10

Wednesday, 02 January 2019 - 8:59AM
Wednesday, 02 January 2019 - 8:59AM
Fiction: Aqaara – Part 10
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Celine Laheurte

We are pleased to introduce the 10th 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. Last week's installment is here.



Shanshan entered the Nukak, three of the newly-created boochies, the lemur-koala breed, swinging with each other off her fingers. "Aren't they adorable?"


Dee held Zephyr by the neck. "They're an abomination, Shanshan."


"Everyone loves them, Ms. Sinclair. They are so playful."


Dee tried to get back to her screen, to examine the anomaly in the Atavok otter, where and why the cell deterioration had begun. "We're not running a pet store, Shanshan."


"People get lonely, and the boochies make them happy."


"We're supposed to be preserving species, not mutating them."


"You don't want to play with one? You should." The boochies were in full battle, swiping and biting, ganging up on each other in mad sudden bursts, until the middle one almost toppled off, Shanshan catching it, and it whirled around, like it might snarl and then comically spread his legs out and licked his stomach, as Zephyr hissed and whimpered to catch one. "They're too cute."


"Is that why you got into biology?" Dee pulled Zephyr tighter against her leg. "To make cute things?"


The boochies sat in a haphazard row on Shanshan's arm, licking and preening each other.


"How long do they live, Shanshan?"


"Almost a year."


"And then what? What do people do then?"


"Miss Sinclair, you have to admit that Zephyr is a clone too."


Dee hated how true that was, how she had agreed to the cloning of the clone of her cat, Apollo. She didn't want to let go of her first cat, not with the technology there, and knew that she would keep on doing it for as long as she lived. "Icarus was a present."


"You don't have to explain anything to me, Ms. Sinclair. I love Zephyr. I loved Icarus too. I will love the next one. I love them all."


Dee watched the boochies climb over each other, licking and pawing. "Shanshan, it's just…so awful and sad. It's miserable to think we've made creatures like this."


She laughed. "It's not like we're eating them!"


"Shanshan, they're puppies that we don't have to abandon because they just fucking die."


"The next breed will live for two years, Miss Sinclair. Maybe more. And all of this is helping genetic research for the Atavoks."


"That is such nonsense."


"We could create a small exhibition, Ms. Sinclair." Shanshan lowered her arm, one of the boochies dangling precariously from it, for Dee to get a better look. "I think that the people would really like that, especially the kids."


"Either you take that out of here," Dee was close to killing it. "Or I'll feed them all to Zephyr."


"You don't mean that, Ms. Sinclair."


Zephyr lurched up, only grabbed at the last moment by Dee. "Goodbye."

 

Calli sat at the entrance of a small cave, her foot against a tree root, her other leg crossed underneath, as she lay back and looked down at the beach, the branches of the honey locust tree leaning down to where she could almost touch them now. This had been her favorite Uumasut spot as a kid, just sitting here.


Ashe hung upside down above her, testing the tree root that acted as head jamb for the cave's mouth. "Calli?"


"Hmm?"


"Would you ever go back to Hera?"


"You're going to break your head."


"Would you?" Ashe squinted up at the bright light growing on the horizon. "Liyuan says that it would only take 15 years."


"We'd have to turn the ship, Ashe. That alone would take as long as that." Calli considered the upside-down face of her sister, her hair floating out like a spider's web.  "Longer. And Hera would have aged something like 2,500 years."


"2,632 years."


"Nobody knows that, Ashe."


"That's what Liyuan says."


"He doesn't know, Ashe. It's impossible to actually know."


Ashe spun over onto the ground and then rolled down to the water's edge, toward where Finn lay in the sand, his flippers tucked flat against his side. "I agree with mom. Time is weird."


"You want to go back to Hera?"


Ashe wiped the bark and dirt from her shirt as she flopped down beside Finn. "I think it would be so Hawking, you know, all of us space children, space Atavoks, this Hawking ship to go all the way back, and just see their crazy reactions, everyone getting into a black hole about it." Ashe scratched the sea lion's neck. "You would love that, Calli."


"You get that mother would be something like 100, right? And Em would be 140."


"We would coast right down over the Atlantic Ocean and pull up into Manhattan and be like, 'Don't get all Rotwang and everything, cousins, you know, it's just us space kids dropping in to say hi'."


"Manhattan wouldn't even be there, Ashe." Calli pushed her toes against the wet stones. "Nothing would be left, Ashe. They'd be stuck in some mine shaft or something, eating each other."


"That would be so Ultimate Hawking!"


"You sound really stupid."


"I bet you I know something you don't." Ashe opened her Bearing and projected a genome map on the rocks. "What's that?"


"A genome," Calli replied.


Po suddenly appeared beside Ashe, leaning over Finn. "How many are there in a genome?"


Calli frowned, slumping her head into her arms. "Why did you have to bring it out here?"

 

"You see those bands?" Ashe pointed at the green squiggles as they wrapped themselves around the blue thickness. "That's a replication."


"I already told you, Ashe. I don't want that thing here."


Po spontaneously spun in a circle, paused and then did it again. "I love replications."


"You don't even know what you're looking at." Calli snapped back. "Ethis don't know anything about replications."


"It's a polymerase chain reaction," Po replied.


"You're just repeating words," Calli said.


"The process creates billions of exact copies."


"And then what happens?" Calli demanded.


Po jumped up and spun around again, the arms of her panda costume whirling around. "They multiply!"


"Replicate," Calli corrected her. "Polymers don't breed. That would imply that they breed. And they don't."


"They replicate," Po repeated, spinning still.


"They replicate and form cells," Ashe added, playing the projection along the rocks. "And then those cells replicate. And it goes on like that."


"What's the difference between the DNA of a panda and a monkey then?" Calli challenged her.


"The polymers are all different," Ashe replied.


"Not just the polymers, stupid."


Ashe sighed, turning off her Bearing. "The primer sequences, both forward and reverse, are all different."


"That's like saying they have different colored fur."


"The haplotypes are different," Ashe continued. "No combination of alleles or nucleotide polymorphisms exist on the same chromosome."


"You're still just reciting."


"And you're just being mean."


Po had stopped spinning and stared, agape, at the back and forth between the sisters.


"What about humans and Atavoks?" Calli continued. "What makes them different?"


"Nobody knows anything except that the polymerase chain reaction is quicker for an Atavok. That's why they have shorter lives."


"We actually don't know that, Ashe. They degrade faster. We know that. But they replicate more frequently, and so we don't know-"


"Who will live longer," Ashe cut her off. "Now you're just repeating what Aunt Em tells you."


"I'm working on this at The Hollow." Calli lay back, looking up through the branches at the dimming sky. "We're doing case studies on every chain reaction there is to find in an Atavok."


Po looked like she was going to spin again but stopped and bobbed up over Calli. "Hawking."


"Go away." Calli swung a foot at her. "Seriously. Leave."


Po glided over Zephyr and back to Ashe. "Why do you want to go, Calli?"


Calli swung her legs down abruptly, Zephyr suddenly raising his head.


"Why do you want to go live with her?" Po asked again.


Calli glared hard on Ashe. "If you want to ask me something, Ashe, don't use your Ethi."


Po pulled down on a furry ear, turned and vanished in a spot of light.


"You can't go to Miya." Ashe kept her eyes on the empty space. "Mom said so."


"I don't belong here, Ashe. Mom doesn't listen to me."


"Talk to her, Calli." Ashe looked scared, like her sister would run away and she would never see her again. "You can talk to her. You can do that."


"You're telling me? My seven-year-old sister-"


"Eight. I'm almost eight."


"You'll never get it, Ashe." She paused. "She's always mad at me."


"That's not true, Calli."


"She's not like she is with you. She's mad. And when she isn't, it's like she's pretending or something, just pretending to be nice. She says one thing and does completely the opposite." Calli couldn't keep her arms at her side. "Besides, Ms. Che told me to come to Miya."


"I don't like her," Ashe blurted. "She scares me. She talks all the time about things nobody understands."


Calli was about to go down beside her sister when she saw Michael and his younger brother, Kirk, at the rise. "Our mother is a thousand times worse."


"No, she's not." Ashe rolled back in the sand. "She's so Hawking funny!"


"She acts like she knows everything, like she's better than anyone. She hates people, Ashe. She hates everyone."


"She's funny," Ashe affirmed.


"Angry and mean," Calli insisted. "She hated the people on Hera and she hates the people here. I'm totally sick of it."


"You're just mad because we have different dads."


"Who said that?" Calli demanded.


"I look like a Chinese person, like Liyuan."


"No, you don't."


"I've got slanty eyes and straight black hair."


"Don't say slanty, Ashe. It's racist!"


"They're different than yours. You've got mom's eyes and face. You look more like her than me."


"Ms. Che wants me at Miya, and that's where I want to go."


"Hey, Calli!" Michael came racing down the slope with his brother, crashing through the undergrowth.


"Look at the seal!" Kirk stumbled onto the beach. "You've got a seal!"


Ashe scratched along the sea lion's belly. "He's actually a sea lion, and he's the oldest animal on board. Didn't you know that?"


Kirk looked closely at the animal's bulging black eyes. "I've seen him, sure, everybody has."


Michael swerved toward Calli. "Cool cat!"


Zephyr squatted back, unsure, bobbing his head at the intruders.


Calli moved protectively beside Zephyr. "You're scaring him!"


"He's so cool." Michael crawled ahead. "He's the Atavok of Apollo?"


"Second generation, Atavok of an Atavok."


"We atavoked our dog, Toby." Michael waved his hand out at Zephyr, as the serval bobbed his head back. "He was a big Dalmatian. I don't know. Wasn't the same."


"You still have him?"


"No. My dad got another. He was supposed to be better, I guess."


Calli hated him for that, not caring that the Dalmatian had been euthanized, but kept her hands at her side, watching her sister and Kirk play with Finn, the sea lion wriggling at the attention.


Michael jumped at Zephyr. "You want to play, buddy?! Huh?"


Zephyr reared back, ready to swipe.


"Don't do that, Michael," Calli warned.


"I'm cool with your buddy." Michael jumped again, feigning a grab at Zephyr's hindquarters and got a hard claw in retaliation across his forearm. "Rotwang fuck!"


"What did I say?"


Michael shook out his hand, a distinct streak of marks there already, blood bubbling at the edges. "Wow. He got me."


Zephyr hunched back, face tight, ready to swipe again.


"Round one to the kitty." Michael sucked at his hand. "I had it coming, even if he's sec-gen Atavok."


Calli had the urge of taking it from him, taking his hand in hers, and licking the blood away. "Why do you say things like that? Atavoks are the same as us, Michael."


"You work at The Hollow? That's what Bryce says."


"I do a lot of the data entry."


"That place is all Atavoks, buddy. Are you, like, the only human there or something?"


"There's other humans too."


"The Hollow is supposed to be pretty wild, right? Magneto. You ever try it?"


"I'm not allowed, Michael. I'm too young, same as you."


"I wouldn't mind trying it out, sweet and salty. I mean, you never tried it? Really?"


"Why don't you like Atavoks?"


"I like Atavoks. They're cool."


"Then why do you say those things?"


"I hear you, yeah." He tried to entice Zephyr toward him. "But they're not the same, right? They were created by scientists. They were born in a little dish, created by us, you and me. That makes them different. It's not like I care or anything. That's just
how it is."


"You wouldn't know that Zephyr is an Atavok, if I didn't tell you."


"That doesn't mean anything."


"Or Gem." She wanted to tell him that she knew that Atavoks and humans were the same because there was no difference in smell, that every Atavok had their own smell, just like people, and smelled as much like another human as one another, but there
was no point. He was dumb and proud of it. "It's like AJ says. It's all perception."


"I wouldn't know this place wasn't real, the Uumasut, if I just sat here either, but it isn't. It's fake. That's just how it is."


She watched Ashe and Kirk standing knee-deep in the water, as Finn circled through their legs, knocking Kirk down. "Careful, Ashe. No deeper."


"How deep is it?" Michael asked.


"15 feet, a little further out."


"What's out there? You have sharks?"


"Some. Mostly fish. Octopus, krill, as much of the cycle as we can manage."


"Is it real stuff? Or is it all Atavoks?"


She held her hands down and watched her foot push out into the rocks and dirt.


"I loved this place as a kid," he mused. "I remember you. You rode a little tiger."


"That was Icarus."


"Calli!" Ashe called from the water.


"No, it was a different animal, not like this guy. A bigger cat."


"There was no bigger cat, Michael. I rode Icarus. He was my cat."


"Calli!" Ashe called again.


"What?" She called back.


"Why don't we hit anything?" Ashe started coming out of the water, dripping wet.


"What are you talking about?"


"Why doesn't the ship hit anything in space? We're travelling at Hawking 4X. We have to hit something."


"We run through things all of the time, Ashe," Calli replied. "Everything evaporates as soon as we hit it."


"I mean bigger things. Meteors. Planets."


"Tak guidance," Calli replied. "It tracks everything."


"So you don't know?"


"I just told you."


Ashe shrugged. "It's way more complicated than that."


"It isn't," Michael replied. "It's like your sister says."


Ashe squenched her face at him. "I'm smarter than you are."


"Oh yeah?" Michael laughed.


"Yeah."


"So what's 13,341 times 323?"


"What's with all of the 3s?" Ashe replied. "That your secret number?"


"You don't know."


"4,309,143."


"You're just making it up."


"She isn't," Calli replied.


Michael laughed. "I guess I'll have to take your word for it."


"Ask me another," Ashe demanded.


"No."


"Want to play a game?" Ashe insisted. "I could beat you at anything."


"Ever play Decoherence? Nobody beats me at that."


"What's that?"


"At Odysseus," Michael replied.


"Gem could beat you at that. She's the best."


Michael turned to Calli. "Oh yeah?"


Calli watched Ashe do a back flip into the water, Finn ducking and gliding in and around her.


"Funny kid," Michael commented.


"Smart is more like it," Calli replied.


"I never see you guys at Odysseus."


"We used to go sometimes."


"Used to?"


Calli shrugged. "Not scared she's better than you?"

 

"Any time, buddy. You know where to find me."

 

Ashe's favorite story was The Kassa because it seemed like she had always known the story in her head; it was the story she always told Po.


"We're just like them, the Kassa." Po looked at Ashe over the Eden 6 settings, constructing a new version of P'Ville, her imagined city to be the capitol of Mina. "We're nomadic too."


"We're not nomadic, Po. We're just going from one planet to the next."


"That's what it means, isn't it?"


"Nomadic means to be always traveling, back and forth, never in one place" Ashe corrected. "Not just going from one place to another."


"Why is the planet Oonan baked in mud?"


"It's not mud, Po. It's formite. That's why the Kassa people had to stay, to mine the formite."


"Formite?" Po somersaulted up in a slow spin toward the ceiling. "It sounds like mud to me."


"It's like a blue diamond." Ashe built a tower of anorthite on Eden 6. "It was a precious stone that the Sarcamentists wore, and it also powered their factories. Everything is about formite for them. It's like the sun."


"Solaris."


Ashe coated her Eden 6 tower in a layer of formite. "The Kassa were forced to be there by people on other planets, like the Ess."


"That's where Cx goes," Po replied. "The beautiful place."


"The lushest planet in the galaxy, the universe." Ashe poked her finger at Po's foot and tickled her. "The Ess hosted a great masquerade ball, everyone wearing masks and costumes, in her honor. Very sensual."


"Sensual!" Po laughed hysterically with Ashe about that.


"The Ess celebrate their bodies in sensual ecstasies."

"Ecstasies!" Po shrieked.


"Enchantress Cx gets covered in oils and slides around the ballroom, all of the Ess people in the oil too. It's so crazy and sensual and fun."


"I love to slide in oil!"


"And then they tell her about Princess Vo being there, a guest at many other sensual balls and masquerades."


"Enchantress Cx has to find Princess Vo!" Po exclaimed.


"Cx wants to see her sister, Princess Vo, but she refuses because she knows it is a trick and demands that the Kassa be released."


"Why won't they free the Kassa?!"


"The Ess say that it is an ancient law, going back billions of years, a price they must pay for something that happened long ago. And so Enchantress Cx hypnotizes the leaders and the ancient laws are forgotten, and the Kassa return."


"So easy!" Po spun in circles, her arms and legs out wide. "I love Enchantress Cx!"


"And then people from another planet capture Enchantress Cx and take her as a sexual servant."


"What does that mean?" Po's spinning circle went sideways, looping over and around Ashe. "A sexual servant?"


"They used her for sex. And it's all so crazy, because she liked all of it, but then she tricked their leader to give her a death promise."


"What did Lassiter do?"


"He saved her in the end. He always does."

 

Odysseus was overrun with kids, mostly teens, moving station to station in packs, jamming into the control center and alcoves all around, playing one game and then the next. Decoherence was the favorite, a multi-player game to save civilization against alien species and corrupted cyber-intelligents (CIs), and Michael was reigning champion.


Bryce was the first suited and tried to override the other players with his Bearing, inputting a sequence of commands. "Pure space suit!"


"Slow down there, buddy." Michael, in the third position, deleted each of his codes in rapid succession, inputting the accepted CI values and galaxy levels.


Bryce tapped out another rapid sequence. "Hyper-tense!" 


"Calli, come one, I've got your spot." Michael pushed one of his friends back. "Right here, buddy."


"You coming?" Calli pulled Gem after her, and they sat, waiting for Michael to move another of his friends out from the center.


"Next time, buddy! Ovi, come on, buddy!"


Ovi, a tired looking boy with narrow eyes and a wide forehead, ignored Michael's demands. "Get Bryce to leave, buddy. He's the one rotwanging all the codes."


"Bryce, buddy?" Michael nodded at him. "You can get in the next one."


"But I was here first!" Bryce protested.


"Next one, buddy."


Bryce slid back as his boochy suddenly appeared and scurried down the collar of his t-shirt.


Gem tried to coax it into her hand. "What's his name?"


Bryce looked around, half-surprised, and then indifferent. "Dunno."


"He's cute," she replied. "He has to have a name."


"How old is it?" Calli asked.


"I've had him for a week."


"These ones are only supposed to last a month," Calli replied.


"That's awful," Gem scoffed.


Michael leaned into Calli, touching her leg. "You have no idea how much those things freak me out."


"He doesn't bite or anything." Bryce grabbed the koalynx, dangling it by the scruff off its neck at Michael. "His tongue is pretty sticky though. See?"


"Yeah, okay there, buddy." Michael shoved Bryce's hand away as he slid on his helmet and nodded at Calli. "Ready?"


Calli had never played this version and lost her stomach down the first chute, down too fast, and went wildly off, and then found herself in last place. She rode up the swells, tight to the edge of the tube, flinging her legs out, counter-intuitive, tight against the green speckled surface, and caught an opening sideways, swinging back the other way, through the swirling grey-black that twisted around, skirted through a gap at the center, into the slats, through the inversions, vibrating, and plummeted as it dissolved to reveal itself, a citadel, inside that, a narrowing aperture as it narrowed to a pin and came in second last. Gem went undefeated through five rounds and then had high score.


"I've lost my touch." Calli slumped back in her chair.


"You're in the center too much," Gem replied.


"How do you do that?" Michael demanded. "You never get the shape-shift and you're still get through the dimension."


"You can't stay out there, buddy," Ovi was frustrated. "You get rotwanged in the meniscus."


Gem shrugged. "I don't."


"That's how it's programmed!" Ovi snapped back.


"She's Solarian, buddy." A second player, Sid, tore off his headpiece and snapped his Bearing back. "Ultimate Solarian."


Ovi left after him. "You're importing code."


Bryce laughed at them. "You just wish you were as good as her."


"Never trust an Atavok," Ovi replied.


"Like my father says," Sid agreed.


Gem looked at Michael, as the other boys left. "You don't think I'm a Solarian?"


"Just you and me, one on one." Michael bent over the console, popping his Bearing back in. "Hammerhead! You ever try that? That's the thing, better than The Hollow."


"Hammerhead!" Bryce jumped back in, gesticulating manically. "They're crazy man-eaters!"


"Buddy, come on, not this one."


"Hammerhead!"


"Next one, buddy." Michael took Gem's Bearing. "Five-dim experience, full-immersion."


Gem pursed her lips.


"Scared of full immersion?" He slid their Bearings into a slot and placed a blue grain-sized crystal in Gem's palm.


"What's that?" She asked.


"Just a little bit of Cyfy." Michael dropped the crystal onto his tongue in a practiced gesture. "You need it to focus for the five-dimensions."


Gem winced at Calli. "I don't know."


"Why does she have to take it?" Calli demanded.


"There's nothing wrong with Cyfy, Calli," Michael replied. "It's all been tested, and like I said, it's a five-dim experience."


"Let me have it!" Bryce tried to grab the pill from her.


Gem turned her shoulder into him and popped it quickly. "I have it, Bryce, thank you."


"You can do it too." Michael offered Calli another crystal. "Unless you're scared."


"I'm not even playing."


Michael shrugged, as Bryce snatched the pill for himself.


"Fine." She took one from Michael's packet; there was no sensation. "I don't feel anything."


"You will." Michael put on his helmet.


Gem felt it creeping in as she adjusted the helmet, up through her shoulders, into the back of her head and felt herself moving up, fully immersed in the black, and lost the feeling in her arms, and then it was suddenly cold, sliding back down her spine, as
she was floating in open water, the rocky shoreline out ahead of her. A wave washed over her face and she had to catch her breath.


"Hey, buddy!" Michael shot up in front of her.


"Pok!" Gem lunged away, heart racing. "Don't do that!"


"You're funny, you know that, buddy?"


She floated at the surface treading water, tasting the salt. "Now what?"


"We get the sharks." He dove underwater.


She hesitated, looking around at the jagged rocks behind her, and then followed, holding her breath, swimming as hard as she could.


"It's not like that, buddy!" Michael's voice echoed in her head. "You don't have to hold your breath."


She opened her mouth and realized it was true; the water was the same as the air. She could feel the water around her head, in her mouth, but it was like it wasn't there. "You can talk?"


"It's a game! Like Decoherence, Wayfarer, anything." He swam deeper, toward the base of the cliff, the sand swirling up in a light cloud. "There's a Hawking spot here."


A shark was ahead, in the misty green, suspended, disinterested, the light reflecting off his belly and nose, tail wafting back and forth. She couldn't tell how far away it was, if it was big, and then it was turned sharply toward her, surging through the water directly at her, jaw drooping open, as it swam harder. She tried to turn, kicking wildly, but it caught her foot and bit down hard. The pain was terrible. Michael was above, knife in hand, swinging down onto his nose, as she pulled off the helmet and found herself back in the room, the pain gone, like it had never happened.


Bryce was laughing. "You got bit!"


Calli grabbed the sides of Gem's face. "Are you all right?"


Gem gasped sharply, her jaw suddenly becoming locked. "It was eating my leg!"


Calli stared back, confused, sharp smells jumping in and out, a burst of singed particles, awful and acrid, and then gooey and honeyed, and then nothing, an absence, like nothing was there.


"You made the koalynx pee all over me!" Bryce continued to laugh.


Michael took off his helmet. "Why did you do that?"


Gem could still see the shark's teeth, her foot still inside the thing's mouth, her flesh gouging out in chunks.


"Get out of its way, buddy!" Michael slapped her thigh playfully. "And use your knife. I thought you were supposed to be good at these things."


"You get a spear gun too." Bryce rolled the koalynx from hand to hand, flipping it around like a toy.


"That's third level, buddy," Michael replied.


Gem wiggled her toes, all of them exactly as they had been, stroked down her leg, as it had been, still there, and took a deep breath. "It really hurt!"


"Punch it, buddy." Michael made a one-two punch. "Bam, bam! They always let go when you do that."


Gem moved her jaw sideways, feeling at the joint in her left cheek and it popped out as she pulled the helmet back over her face and watched the world get dark and watery again, the same ocean there, the same rock face and Michael beside her, reaching
for her arm. She pushed him away.


"Just showing you where the knife's at." He tapped her left shoulder. "That space suit for you?"


She unsheathed the knife and dove down ahead of him. The shark appeared again, tail back and forth as before, its half-bent smirk, close too fast, and she swam sharply to the side, the rock face there, and it turned and came at her again, jaws open, lunging. She punched it hard in the gills and then on its nose as she stabbed the knife into its eye, grabbed its dorsal fin, and stabbed it again, twisting the knife in. It drifted down dead.


"You're getting it, buddy!" Michael swam beside her. "Omniety!"


She followed him down the rock face into the open water, schools of fish swimming ahead over a coral reef. Michael pointed out the shark below, smaller than the last, out from the shadow of the reef. "This one's is a little crazy."


Gem watched it as it briefly turned after a school of fish, drifted off and turned back towards them. "Like how?"


He led her to the sand floor, as the shark turned along the reef and then around at them, hovering above. "Rotwang crazy."


It swung around sharply and dove down hard, opening and closing its mouth manically, its head jerking back and forth, until it was just above the sand floor.


"Dig in, buddy!" Michael burrowed into a trench, Gem behind him, as the shark attacked.


She held the knife loose in her hand, the shark snapping at her, and dug her hand into its gills, pulling it sideways, gouging its left side, and only then, as it turned back up to the reef, dug the knife into its stomach and ripped it open.


"Buddy! Space suit, buddy!"


They went through another three levels, accumulating harpoons and detonators until she grew weary and helmeted out.


"You're, like, omni magneto." Michael rolled his helmet across the floor. "Omni magneto, buddy."


"She's an Atavok!" Bryce exclaimed.


Calli could only smell the koalynx now, the miniscule creature secreting some kind of pheromone that had taken over the room. "Don't start that again, Michael."

]
"Then how come they're called Atavoks? Why not just call them human?"


Gem clenched and unclenched her jaw and felt it click, like the bone had popped out of place. "I like being an Atavok."


"Come on, if Atavoks are exactly the same, no offense, buddy," Michael continued. "But I mean if you're exactly the same, then you would have exactly the same definition. You would be called human. And you're not."


"Like the difference," Gem replied, "between living in Miya or Zenobia pods?"


"Simultaneity." Bryce's jumped up, suddenly excited. "We're still on Hera, right? We're all still there, still on the planet, living on Hera, living Herian lives, hiding in an underground mine together, terrified of solar storms. We're all there right now. We're not on this ship!"


"Okay, there, buddy," Michael rolled his eyes. "Ease off the Cyfy."


Gem felt the joint as it popped out and tried to get it to stop clicking.


"And you didn't say that." Bryce jumped at him. "You're on Hera. You're just making all of this up in your head to pretend you're not."


"What are you on about?"


"Alternate realities, buddy!"


"Alternate realities don't work like that," Calli replied.


"Yes, they do. They do!" He gesticulated frantically as his koalynx jumped from his hand. "It all exists at the same time, simultaneity. They're all there, millions and millions of them, billions and trillions, all the same things, everywhere. We're just pretending
to live another thing."


"Time's part of it, Bryce," Calli argued. "It's not like everything is moving forward, all of these alternate realities, like on a giant moving plane. It's way more mixed up than that. It's impossible to understand."


"Not as an abstract thing," Bryce replied. "Because that's what it is. It's just an abstract."


"I don't like it." Gem, trying to keep her jaw still as she picked up the koalynx and stroked its tiny back with her index. "It's like saying that there is no ship."


"There is no ship." Bryce lay back, crossing his hands over his stomach. "There's no space. There's nothing."


"My old man is Rotwang about Hera." Michael slid hand onto Calli's thigh. "That's all he talks about, walking outside. Buddy, you should hear him talk about skiing. Buddy, it won't stop!"


Calli couldn't get the smell of the koalynx away, no matter how she waved the air across her face or covered her nose with her shirt.


"Think about all of those people back there, buddy," Michael mused. "All of those people skiing down a mountain, tens of thousands of them every day. That's so Rotwang. All of those people on skies going down mountains."


"And then going up again!" Bryce added.


Calli thought about living on Hera, not being where she was, that everything was in her head, that it was all relative, not this Atavok girl beside her, not these boys behind her, but something else, something only in her head, and she knew it was possible, that she only had to think it, with the cool air coming past her, but it wasn't. It was Michael's sweaty skin more than anything now, thick, almost choking her. She moved down beside Gem.


"Think about Dante, right?" Michael went on. "They didn't even know what dark matter was on Hera when we left. They didn't know how to trap massive particles in a black hole as power."


"It's not a black hole, Michael," Gem replied.


"They must have figured that out now, right?" Bryce said. "They've advanced over a hundred years since we left. I mean, come on!"


"You think anything's changed?" Gem asked. "Everything was so bad."


"I bet they've sent a ship after us or something," Bryce replied.


"They've forgotten us." Calli's voice sounded hollow and distant in her head.


"No way." Bryce flipped over and stood on his head, hanging onto the two tubes beside him. "I mean, they sent missiles after us! They wanted us dead!"


"They were just scared," Gem replied. "Like everybody."


"You think they're still on Hera?" Michael asked. "Atavoks?"


"They were invented on Hera, Michael," Calli replied. "Why wouldn't they be there?"


Michael sat, his legs dangling off the bench, casually banging the heel of his boot into the anorthite panel. "Gem, can I ask you a question?"


"Can't you just leave her alone?" Calli snapped back.


"I'm asking Gem, okay?"


Gem rolled the koalynx on its side, tickling its ear. "Okay."


"Don't take offense or anything."


"What are you going to ask her?" Calli demanded. "If she has a computer scanner in her head? Or a sideways vagina?"


"Whoa, Calli, come on!"


"A sideways vagina?" Bryce asked. "I've never heard that one."


"Listen for a second, all right?" Michael continued. "I know you're like this crusader and everything for the Atavoks, Calli, but I don't think you're giving me a chance. The truth is I'm being honest, okay?"


"Honesty?" Calli focused her nose on her fingers, but they had the koalynx on them too. "Is that what this is?"


"I'm being more honest than you, if you want to know the truth. I'm not pretending that I know everything. I'm not making a big show about it. I'm just asking. I've just never talked much to an Atavok before."


"Well, that's weird because they talk and everything," Calli said.


"I'm asking Gem a question, all right?" Michael continued.


"I don't mind." Gem felt her jaw pop out again. "Really, I don't."


"What I want to know, Gem, is what you think, okay? Do you think you're the same? Are you the same as a human?"


Gem sighed, holding her jaw again, trying to get it back. It was more the muscle; that was the thing bulging out. She massaged it, trying to spread it out. "My cells age twice as fast."


"And we're changing that," Calli broke in. "That will be different soon."


"All right already, Ms. Science Genius," Michael continued. "I'm asking Gem what she thinks. So you're the same, Gem, right, except for that? Just the cells aging faster? Nothing else?"


"Yes."


"What about sex? You like Atavok boys more or humans?"


"Why are you asking that?" Calli demanded.


"You like me more? Or Nick?"


"Fuck, Michael," Calli snapped.


Gem's jaw popped again but not as bad.


"I'm asking, all right? I'm curious."'


Gem stared down at the koalynx. "I think you're right. We are different."


"Fair done!!" Michael slapped the bench. "Like I said."


"We're stronger," Gem added.


"How?" Bryce asked. "How are Atavoks stronger than humans?"


Gem shrugged.


"You said it," Michael challenged. "Come on."


"Leave her alone," Calli replied.


Gem turned to Michael abruptly. "I mean, The Hollow, okay?"


"The Hollow!" Bryce repeated. "What did I say!?"


"I'll go to The Hollow. I'll beat you at that."


"It isn't a game, Michael," Gem replied.


"And we're not allowed," Calli added.


"Stop getting all human on us, Calli. You afraid of an Atavok thing? We're all the same, yeah? That's what you said. Let's all be the same together in The Hollow."


"And anyway, on Hera, we'd all be a hundred and something. I'd be 148. And you'd be 153." Bryce glowed at his logic. "And so, if anything, we're too old."


Gem held her jaw to the right, away from the popping side; that seemed to make it stop.


"You're right, yeah," Michael agreed. "I'm 153, Calli. Chund. You're, like, 158 or something."



 "You don't understand, Michael," Calli replied. "It is an empathetic environment, entirely empathetic, out of your known understanding of space. You don't have the capacity to handle that. It isn't safe."


"What does that mean? 'Entirely empathetic'? You think I don't care about other people? You think that?"


"It's not like that, Michael. It's not like thinking about other people. It's different. It's being absorbed by that."


"How would you even know? Have you done it? Have you been in this entirely empathetic environment?"


She was feeling more normal now, the smells not so intense. "What are you trying to prove?"


"That we're all equal. Like you said."


"It's hyper-reality," Calli replied. "That's what it is."


"I'm into that." Michael stood up. "Let's see what makes Atavoks stronger than me and my buddy Bryce here. It'll be Hawk-styling."


"Space suit," Bryce chorused. "Hyper space suit."


Gem slipped the Koalynx in her Bearing pouch and pulled Calli up with her. "The Hollow it is."


"You really want to?" Calli asked her.


Gem held her jaw firmly, tightening the muscles on both sides, which almost worked. "I do."


"Space suit, yeah." Michael replied. "Gem's in."

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