Fiction: Aqaara – Part 11
We are pleased to introduce the 11th 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.
A low vibration subsumed the distant traffic from Miya to Eno, and there was a pressure change before another sound, heavy and sharp, a chamber closed tight, a vacuum created.
"Baro," Bryce whispered as they edged through the narrow gap between The Hollow and ship's exterior. "He's always down here."
"You want to leave?" Calli demanded.
"Not me," Gem said.
"I'm just saying," Bryce replied, "that my mother would kill me if Baro catches us here."
"Settle down, buddy." Michael patted Bryce on the arm. "We're all space suit here."
Calli curled her hand around the edge, projecting her Bearing against a screen, and opened the door and then led them past a semi-circle of silver sparkling tubes, the empty mouths yawning up, into an oval room where a ring of blue-grey chaise lounges spiraled out from the hub. Calli opened a cabinet at the center of the spiral and lifted a metal tray of blue-gold containers onto the pedestal, snapping open a spider-like apparatus.
Michael lay down on the nearest chaise and crossed his arms behind his head. "So that's the thing that's supposed to be such a big deal?"
Bryce moved beside her, peering closely at the metal spokes. "This is so Hawking!"
"Move, Bryce." Calli snapped the metal bands into an interweaving triangle and fastened the apparatus, now like a ribcage, to the pedestal, rolled the structure over, sliding each of the metal ends into the slots of a cone.
"Spacesuit!" Michael took off his shirt.
"What are you doing?" Calli demanded.
He began to take off his pants. "We've got to get naked, right?"
"Are you out of your mind?"
"I thought this was supposed to be a sex thing."
"That's why all you humans failed." Gem lay on the bed at the opposite side. "Unhealthy focus on reproduction."
Calli leaned over her, the anorthite tabs cupped in her hand. "I don't think you're ready for this, Michael."
"The same as Atavoks?" He refastened his pants and lay down on the chaise beside Gem. "Isn't that what we said?"
Calli slid the tabs behind Gem's ears and turned to Michael. "It's not a game."
"I can handle anything an Atavok can."
Calli slid the tabs behind his ears, pinching each hard.
"That part of it?"
Calli offered them to Bryce. "What about you?"
"I'm not an Atavok." He stepped back, up on the sloping sides of the room, his koalynx back in hand. "Not me."
"Wise choice." Calli placed the tabs on her own neck and then slid down on the central chaise.
"Why are you over there?" Michael demanded.
"Just lie down," Calli replied.
"Aren't we supposed to touch?"
"Stop moving your head."
"Do I close my eyes?"
Calli adjusted herself, tucking the pillow under her neck, sliding one knee up. "Whatever you like."
Calli slid the Bearing along the edge of her palm and dropped it into the slot, tapping through the prompts, turning each image until the background was filled, an overexposed grey-green blur, and she was slipping down into it. It was abrupt, the turn from where she was to being in-pro, like she was waking up, falling asleep, missing the step, and then further, down a steep drop, her heart tight in her chest. She held her hand out, the other back to balance, the shift now inside her, crackling into her nerves, spreading like sharp branches through her body, a tickle creeping everywhere, pleasing for a moment, and then she thrust about madly, her shoulders back, her pelvis up, until it filled her solid. She was there, the thick smell of earth and animals all around, warm light cascading from behind her, the sound of rushing water and then voices, indistinct, murmurs and rumblings in her head. Calli stepped into the mud, sinking to her knee, rocked back and forth, and stepped again, sinking less, stepping more quickly, feeling her shoe sucked off. She leapt forward and lost the other one too, her sock with that, her other sock, and then the leg of pants. She kicked them off, pressing into mud with her hands and was almost stuck like that on all fours, the mud sucking up all around her. She made herself flat, rolled over, took off her shirt and was now naked and wanted to stay like that, deep in the mud, enveloped in that earth, seeing nothing, gently, wholly consumed, rising up as much as she might be sinking, the water flowing past, a stream that became a river, and slithered back, sliding on her bum, and peered into the green water, newts and water bugs somersaulting with the current, going past the oblong rocks, like a fortress from a distant galaxy. She slid in the water, now crystal clear perfect.
"Calli!" Gem was high in a white pine tree.
Calli watched her friend dangling at the end of a branch. "Look at you!"
Gem plummeted into the river, the water cascading up in a crinkling slow-motion arc. Calli ducked into the water and flipped upside down, her feet above her head, dove deeper, into a secret passageway that cut in and out of the embankment, into a green glowing cave, and twisted around again, her arms behind her, a dance of her hands and legs in different lines, up and down, out like a bug on its back, and was in the bright light again, flipped and twisted, a voice in her head, maybe her own, twirling to the side, the water suddenly cool, and brought her head out of the water.
Gem was there, naked, her face looking sideways back at her, her eyes on the surface of the water, and then her hand wiggling along the surface, slow motion, gently onto Calli's shoulder. "I heard you."
Calli let the current pull her body around, float sideways beside Gem's, their legs and hips bouncing gently, Gem's toes pressing out and between hers as they oscillated one way and then the other, seeing the world through each other's eyes. The voice came again into Calli's head, not words but whispering and light, musical notes, long and smooth, remembering a dream, and she looked backward, at the water and sky upside down, when a figure appeared, flailing and wild, Michael.
He did a backflip into the water, crashing into the riverbank, toppling rocks and earth, clouding the water. "Hawking!" He torpedoed between Calli and Gem, splashing and grabbing, first Calli's hip, and then against her breasts, and twirled around, grabbing Gem now, beating the water into froth, and pulled them under. Calli was pulled into him, grunting, as the water sucked them ahead, fiercely off in a waterfall, throwing them out, the river far beneath them, and then, wild, plunging headfirst, from the madness to silence, deep in the water, wide-eyed salamanders looking oddly back. They found Michael thrashing on the surface.
"Michael?" Gem tried to grasp his arm. "You've got to relax."
"This is so hawking spacesuit!" He whirled around faster.
"Slow down," Calli commanded.
His voice changed, realizing that he couldn't. "It's getting black hole fast."
"Michael, listen to me."
"It's not like I don't want to, buddy." He was now spinning underwater, his arms slapping through the surface like a water wheel.
"Focus, Michael." Calli swam around with him as best as she could. "Focus on my hand."
"Calli, I don't…" He was struggling to breathe. "I can't see."
"Rotwang!" He gurgled through the water.
Calli knew that she should never have allowed him here. She was such a kid, stupid and needy; that's why she did these things. "Close your eyes. Can you do that?"
He thrashed in the water past her and suddenly jerked up, convulsing, his legs kicking up and down, arms pounding against the water and mud.
Gem tried to hold his legs but slid off into the mud.
Calli jumped out of the water and pulled herself out of The Hollow, spinning off the chaise over to Michael and snapped off the anorthite tabs.
Michael jerked up on the bed, like he was going to get off but only got one leg off as he fell back. Gem grabbed his arm and held his hand.
Bryce hovered over them. "He's a black hole mess."
It wasn't what Dee said or anything that happened after that – the crowded room, the AS units, Michael taken on a Kiki – but that one moment that she would remember – Dee's open sweater, her hand clutched at her collar as she came inside and stopped beside her.
"It could have been so much worse." Dee sat on her daughter's bed and leaned down, her hand flat beside Calli's legs. "Like that kid being dead. Maybe you too, Calli."
Calli stared back at the underside of her mother's jaw, watching the sinews of her aging neck. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"That program is made for Atavoks. You don't think I understand that?"
"There's no difference in our genetic structure."
"I'm not debating this."
"Because you know I'd win."
Dee wasn't angry, nothing like she had been at first, when she had thought it was something worse, losing her daughter, everything gone. "All I'm saying is that you don't have to grow up so damned fast. You can stay young for a while."
Calli made a hissing sound, almost like Icarus, and turned away.
Dee looked past her daughter, at the corner between the doorway and the dim hallway and dimly recalled a childhood moment as she followed her sister down the path as it curved down toward the lake, an old stump bent over the side, the shadows of the
birch trees waving across the dirt, the sound of a motor boat going past. She had been there once, at her uncle's cottage, when she was ten. "I was a kid a long time ago. It's all I think about sometimes."
"Did your Nani read you stories about Enchantress Cx?"
Dee slumped backwards. "I'm just saying that being an adult isn't anything either, Calli. It's the same thing, the same people all around you, just older."
"Being a kid means I have to listen to this bullshit."
"I'm doing my best, Calli. This is all I have."
"I'm going to Miya." Calli thought it would sound bad, just saying it like that, but it didn't. "I'm going to live there. It makes sense."
Dee thought about hugging her daughter, like it would make this work, but knew it wouldn't. "Calli, listen, I know what it's like, thinking you have something clear in your head. I know that. I know you see something there, just lying there, so genuine, something right there. But it's not like that. Nothing is."
"I'm going to live in Miya."
She did reach for her daughter's hand and held her fingers, even if they were hard and wanted nothing to do with her.
Calli left her hand for a moment and then pulled away and scrolled through her Bearing. "Atavok discrimination isn't a thing of the past. I want to do something about that."
"If you're going to solve something, you have to communicate with each other. You can't just isolate yourself at Miya and decide what's what."
"Humans First is the problem, not Lai, not Atavoks."
"But you're just doing the same thing as they are, you versus them."
"And who did I learn that from?"
"Unlearn it then."
Calli scrolled through her Bearing. "I'm requesting her avatar."
"Calli, no, I'm not doing with that." Dee hated the Avatar Method – something the Third Committee had promoted for conflict resolution – as users could diffuse the issue before meeting one another in person.
"Too late." Calli opened the program and Lai's avatar appeared.
"Hey, girls." The avatar was thinner than Lai, younger and darker, as if her teenaged self had just come back from a holiday in Italy. "How you all doing?"
"Lai, how long have we been away from Earth?"
"We're talking about Hera? Well, it's sure has been a while, hasn't it?"
"Do you remember how long?"
"Something like 8 years now."
"Fifteen years, ten months and fourteen days, all Earth units."
"Well, Dee, you know it's unhealthy to focus on that." Lai's avatar girlishly shook the hair out of her eyes.
"We left Earth for a reason, Lai."
"We sure did."
"Why did we leave, Lai?" Dee sat up, looking at Calli now, smiling to make her understand how ridiculous the whole thing was – the journey, the ship, Lai's avatar now lounging on the bed. "Do you remember that?"
"Well, now, there's a rabbit hole, isn't it?"
"As simply as you can." Dee saw Zephyr hovering at the door and waved him in. "Just the basics."
Lai's avatar drifted beside Calli. "To build a better world, Dee. Isn't that what we're doing?"
"And so, how's our course?"
"We're sure trying."
"I came on Anori because of the hate, Lai." Dee coaxed Zephyr against her legs and then onto his side. "I came to leave that behind, the lies more than anything. I never could understand how people, all of these people with the same genetic code as me and my daughters, how these creatures identical to us could say and act the way they do, justifying fear and ignorance for selfish gain."
"You've said it wonderfully."
"Calli was never there. She's only heard of Hera." Dee held Zephyr's paws back over his head, helping him stretch out long, his back legs out as far, holding it and then collapsing content on his side. "But it isn't gone, Lai. It's still here. All of that is still with us."
"We're going down that entanglement hole again, aren't we?"
"No, Lai. It's not entanglement. It is how we behave, infernal stupidity, like this right now."
"I know you're upset about your girl coming to Miya. I can understand that."
"I'm not upset about Calli leaving. That's not true." Dee looked up at Calli, her arms still crossed. "I think she should. It's a good idea for her to leave."
"You do?" Calli crooked her head.
"You've got things to do." Dee was surprised how simple it was to tell her. "You're a bright girl, brighter than I ever was. You're going to figure things out, maybe even the deceleration. Who knows?"
"I bet you will do that," Lai's avatar agreed.
"But that's not the point, Lai." Dee turned back on the avatar. "It's you, Lai. You keep spinning this entanglement bit, entanglement this and that, when it's just about you getting back in charge and manipulating the rest of us."
"That hurts coming from you, girl."
"I know it to the core of my queen DNA."
Lai's avatar hovered up, like it might actually fly away. "I don't deny that my rabbit holes go down. I do like to dig deep."
"The only rabbit hole you have is yourself, how marvelous you think you are in a bullshit mysticism that doesn't exist."
"You're being rude, mother," Calli said.
"Direct, Calli." Dee considered shutting off Calli's Bearing and walking out. "And we're all good at that. Aren't we, Lai?"
"Fury of a woman," Lai's avatar chirped. "I do love that."
"You don't, Lai, and that's the thing."
"We humans and Atavoks are both flawed, aren't we?" Lai's avatar admitted. "Inertia, that's what it is. For all of our grand ideas, we tend to drift. We can like to sleep a bit too much."
"The existence of this ship counters that," Calli argued.
"Oh, we have our days, Calli. We have our moments, busy doing things, building, making decisions about what to do next."
"And that's where you come in, Lai. Isn't it?"
"I am here to guide, Dee." A boochy appeared in her adolescent hand, another of the wombat-lemurs. "That is my role."
"You go on about entanglement and incoherence, when they're just made-up things, and make everyone think that there is no other option, with this idea of getting somewhere where we don't have to do anything. They used to call it heaven. Now I don't know what it is. It's Mina? Is that what it is? That's our goal, to get some rest after the killing's been done."
"You sound crazy, mother."
"Change happens only when it has to; that's what we call progress. We're always so proud of that, our esteemed progress, creating a weapon, building a cage for some wild thing. We humans survive; that's our greatness, but the truth is that we want things to stay like they are. We don't actually want that change. We don't like it. It's a threatening thing, a place where we don't know if we'll belong."
"I do like your little rabbit hole, Dee," Lai's avatar replied.
"That's your modus, Lai," Dee continued. "Always positioning yourself so that people feel compelled to follow, because they don't want to be left behind."
"It's my pleasure and honor to serve."
"I almost think that you believe that. I know Calli does." Dee felt like she had been saying it right but was suddenly lost. "But all you're really doing is treating people like pets in the end, like your boochies."
"Oh, now, I am sorry that you feel that way, Dee. I am."
"What do you think, Yazu?" Lai's avatar held the boochy up to her face.
The avatar of creature's voice was awful, high-pitching and screeching like a bird. "I am so delighted!"
"You made it speak, Lai?"
Lai's avatar beamed. "Isn't it amazing?"
"We have animals dying in the Uumasut, animals that we've raised from embryos. We can't keep those alive, and you're still making shit like this."
"I know about your trouble at the Uumasut." Lai's avatar stroked down Yazu's chest.
"They're dying, Lai, one by one. The virus is in everything; it's killing everything."
"It is a challenge."
"Fuck your boochies. Fuck you too."
"You've always been a little lost, Deirdre. I don't begrudge you that. I love you for it, but it does get all the worse the further we seem to get on our trip."
"Is my interview terminated then?" Dee asked. "Are we done?"
"It does seem we've rounded that bend." Lai's avatar made an odd regal-like gesture toward Calli. "I'll see you soon."
Calli switched the avatar off and looked at her mother. "Not like I haven't seen that one before."
"I wish you weren't against me."
"I'm not. It's you, Dee versus the universe."
Dee flicked Zephyr's tail absently. "I've always got Cx."
The casino was full, drunken voices calling for the dice, leaning over the table, and Och was at the center of it, winning, every bet making money, as Dee arrived, a soft container of dead Fisher Cats against her chest..
Och glanced at the wet grey carcasses before doubling his bets. "Fishers."
"Yellow-Throated Fishers." Dee opened the anorthite container further. "Two of them are kittens. You see that, right?"
Och pulled her head into him, absently kissing her cheek.
"They're supposed to live ten years, Och, not ten fucking days."
"The mutations are anomalies, Dee." Och hadn't aged since she had known him, some 17 years now; if anything, he looked younger. "None of this is perfect."
"Lai said that too. You're in her camp now?"
"The coding in those animals, the Red Fox, the Caracal and Tamarin, it was all addressed. They've been restructured."
"What about the American Marten? The Mountain Coyote, the mink and wombats? Not to mention the fucking anoa, orangutans and capybara, the fucking lynx. Everything is dying."
Och watched Lucce caress the dice, hold them above its head and spit them across the table – a 10 – to the cheering crowd. He turned from the table and peered at the over-sized ears of Fisher Cats still peeking out. "I know it's a tough thing to go through, Dee, but it's been confined to the mammals, third and fourth generations."
"This one barely put up a fight. It wanted to die, Och. I mean, a fisher not putting up a fight. Who's ever heard of that? They're the meanest fucking creatures out there." She snapped the box shut. "The whole thing revolts me."
Lucce raised its arms, pivoted back, and vaulted the dice across the table. It was a 6. Och collected his winnings and spread his bets out again. "You should say that at the festival. Share your heart."
"This started with the boochies. Everything has been dying off since Lai started making those things."
Och continued sorting through his chips. "It's terrible, for you especially."
She stared back, furious that she had ever believed in him. "What are we going to do about it, Och?"
"I don't have the answers." He placed his money on the Field bet. "I wish that I did."
Dee lunged out and scattered the chips, throwing handfuls across the table, onto the floor. "What do I have to do to make you listen?!"
Och pursed his lips. "We're here, Dee. That's something you need to help all of us face."
"We are killing like things we need most. We are as stupid, as sexist, racist and clonist as we've ever been."
"You could say that on a Blaze Cast. That would be a great thing for everyone to hear."
Dee looked around at the avatars staring at her, no one picking up their chips. "I'm not much of a person, Och. I know that. I'm not making excuses. I'm not saying I'm any better. I'm full of it, more than the rest. I've always been angry. Always. Resentful. I've caused more problems and hurt everyone I know."
"Just that," Och replied, smiling. "Yes, say that on your Blaze Cast."
"No, I'm not doing that." She turned away abruptly. "I'll just kill the animals instead."
Ashe sat against the wall, her heels pressed up against the foot of her bed as Po manipulated the Eden 6 program, projecting the landscape – finger-thin valleys snaking off in three directions, parabolic and horseshoe arches following along halfway up the valley walls – in a sweeping three-dimensional image that commanded the room
"Turn it the other way." Ashe pointed from the floor. "Do it from above."
Po swiped the screen and tapped the changes, rotating the point of view to reveal a rocky precipice and a mountain high above.
"Tubes," Ashe added. "We need tubes."
Po was more advanced now, repeatedly updated, until she seemed real, not a projection, but a living thing with a shadow and doubt. "To be safe."
"You're missing the rivers." Liyuan appeared in the doorway. "And the waterfall."
"Waterfall." Po looked around, the voice a threatening presence in this magic place; it didn't like him there. "There is no waterfall."
"Everyone programs in a waterfall on Mina."
Po pulled the panda head forward. "Not this one."
"What are all these towers?"
"Towers." Po sometimes repeated what was said as a mechanism to understand the nuance; that's what it told Ashe. "Panda ears."
"We're going to have panda ear houses?"
"They're portals," Ashe replied. "Where the tubes come out."
Liyuan stood next to the projection, touching at the edges. He had become thin over the years, his arms wobbly atop his slender frame. "Is that where we live? In the tubes?"
"We live in the tubes," Po replied.
"Is that what you think it's going to be like living there? That we'll live in tubes underground?" Liyuan examined the title floating in the Bearing sky: P'ville. "You're missing the 'o'."
"It's pronounced 'pah-vi'," Ashe explained.
"Pavi," Po repeated.
"Don't you want to live on the surface and see all of the stars in the sky at night?" Liyuan asked. "What about that?"
"I like the tubes," Ashe replied.
"Me too," Po added.
"Think of all the things you can see and hear, all the smells. It could be an amazing place with forests, cool breezes, sunsets. It would be a shame to miss all that, living in the underground tubes."
"It's safe in the tubes," Ashe replied.
"Safe," Po repeated.
"Besides," Ashe continued, "everyone knows that only Atavoks can live on the surface. We can't breathe out there."
"We can't breathe," Po repeated.
"That's not true." Liyuan sketched in a park with pathways by the river.
"Why do people say that on Solaris if they're not true?" Ashe demanded.
"They've never lived on a planet. They don't know what that's like." Liyuan moved the trees and lake lower down the slope, the MARA park further from there. "You know one thing I'll never forget seeing on Earth, uh, Hera. An eclipse."
"The planet in front of the sun?"
"The moon between the sun and the earth. When it happened, everything went dark like it was night."
"Night in the day?" Ashe asked.
"We drove all way down to the southern sea. All of the signs on the road were flashing these warnings, telling the people not to stop." Liyuan tapped circular platforms in beside some of the panda ears. "And it was nothing at first, just a little dark, you know, like a cloud passing in front of the sun."
"I don't know what that's like," Ashe replied.
"Either do I," Po added.
"Like the end of the day, the bright settings reduced to dim." Liyuan dimmed Eden 6's to evening. "And then it got darker and darker, like everyone said it would, and it was scary, and the birds just stopped flying and stayed where they were, waiting to see what would happen. And then all these people were screaming and cheering like they were at the Games, you know, cheering for someone to win. I burrowed into my mother's arm, wanting it to end."
"Did you think you were going to die?" Po asked.
"And then I opened my eyes, and it was bright again. It was over. Everything had gone back to like it should. There was no reason for me to be scared."
"I'm still scared about living on Mina," Ashe replied. "I don't want to be on a scary dark planet with rocks and trees."
"You're just nervous because you haven't seen it yet." Liyuan brightened the settings back to day. "Anticipation is the hardest thing. You've lived your whole life doing that. And when it happens, it just happens. It's never what you think."
Po swiped out the MARA Park and pathways and dotted the Panda-ear houses in their place. "Scary trees."
Lai appeared on Solaris, an unannounced broadcast, with Yazu, her wombat-lemur boochy, his sharp smile stark against her black shimmering frock. Love to you, love to you all!
Love! Shrieked Yazu, his blue paw flailing about. Love Yazu!
We are all very excited about our upcoming festival, the 8th Annual Atavok event. Lai stroked Yazu's chin as he stretched it up close to her. And we all have Och to thank for that. Like so many things.
Yazu clapped his hands, bent over backwards. Yazu!
I am here for a different reason, a bearer of mixed tidings, exciting and new. Lai continued to caress Yazu's chin and breast. As you are aware, we have recently acquired a much clearer picture of our Mina.
Yazu stretched up into her hands. Yazu.
It's an amazing planet, amazing, just like we thought, amazing place, the two moons, the sun, unbelievable tides, all mixed up, not you wouldn't believe, weather like you wouldn't believe. Lai looked down at Yazu, absent-mindedly rubbed his shoulder. But it isn't what we expected at all.
Yazu put his hand on her arm and held on to her wrist. The atmosphere is insufficient for habitation due to the planet's rate of rotation. The oxygen is neither sufficient nor is the temperature range feasible. There is a 200-degree range that would require habitual interior habitation.
Yazu took a stick candy from Lai and chewed on that. No Mina.
Lai raised her hands like she was conducting a symphony. We've got options, another planet, a much better planet, marvelous thick vegetation everywhere, oceans like you would not believe. And it's closer than Mina, much closer. Closer and better, right, Yazu?
Yazu! Yazu shrieked, its mouth stretched wide. Yazu!
The Planet is called Wown. Lai stroked its chest again as she looked back at the audience. That is the name of our new home.
Yazu! It climbed on her head, pulled at her fingers
We are calculating our change in course. All of that to come. And we should all be excited, like little Yazu here.