Fiction: Aqaara – Part 12
We are pleased to introduce the 12th 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 –– part 11 –– is here.
Our ship will continue on the original course. Chairman Knowles of the Fourth Pan-Anorian Governance announced. We will not change any coordinates, as per Ms Che's statement. Planet Mina remains our destination.
Solaris chatter quickly became inflamed with gross exaggerations and fears, each hyperbole building on the previous: Lai is being expelled from the ship! She has begun the Hive experiments again! She is now under house arrest! Construction is underway for an exclusive Atavok ship. Lai has always wanted all humans neutralized. Atavoks are plotting a takeover of the ship.
Restrictions were placed on travel between Miya and its neighboring pods as the chaos unfolded everywhere, with Atavoks refusing to work with humans and then used a solar shield to siphon power. That's when the demonstrations began.
Dee took Ashe and Zephyr to the protest at Miya's Sortavut where an uneasy mix of humans and Atavoks gathered, angry exhortations and conciliatory remarks made in the same speeches, Em about to take the stage when a Kiki came just over their heads, directly into the base of Lai's complex. The damage was minimal, as the device was more of a flare, but the blast that echoed from all over, followed by deep vibrations, impossible to understand, smoke behind it, anorthite fragments fluttering down. Dee pulled her daughter in tight, arching her back, transforming into a shell, her spine and legs burning hard. She couldn't breathe and didn't care as the smoke was sucked up, thick streams of black and grey air whipping past, and covered her daughter's face with her shirt, Zephyr burrowing in with them.
Ashe tried to pull away, stretching out from Zephyr. "You're hurting me."
The sound and smoke bound together in Dee's head, and she twisted her daughter against her tighter.
"Mom, you're breaking my wrist!"
The smoke rushed through her hair, whipping across her neck and shoulders, the thick sound devolving into a distant alarm.
"They're here, mother." Ashe pulled herself up on her mother's arm, still trying to get out. "They're here. A.S."
Dee unclenched, straightening out to see the trio of MARAs from Anori Services vacuuming in the smoke, and suddenly took her daughter directly toward Lai's complex, through the crowds pushing the other way. Dee knew where she was going, just not what she would do. Zephyr squeezed past them, up the short ramp, inside the half-open door, snaking between the lab's stations, the clear plastic tubs and tubes, boochies crawling in every one.
"You need to leave." Dee snapped at the three technicians.
The closest, a second or third generation U, looked at his Bearing screen, then back at her. "Ms. Sinclair-"
Dee held the door open. "Not a discussion."
U wavered, moving forward and then sideways, waiting for the other Atavoks, and then out the door. Dee had a song in her head, something from when she was a kid, Rock Me Baby, and sang as she opened the incubators and, one by one, piled the tiny things together and then broke their necks. It was as systematic as she could make it, a turn of her wrist, one after the other, just that, the little thing made dead, just a twist in her wrist, dead.
Ashe stopped following after her and watched helplessly as one of the boochies arched back, its rear legs twitching, as if trying to straighten itself back. "Mom?"
"I don't know if it's something Cx would have done, but it's as close as I'll ever get." Dee watched her hands close each valve of the remaining incubators, taking the tiniest ones out and pile them in together, the tiny limbs and heads moving incomprehensibly as she snapped each one dead. It only took a moment, less than that, for them to be inert, all of them dead before the first security officer came in. She sat down heavily, looking back at Ashe, and then at Calli and Lai, Yazu on her shoulder, as rushed in. "I feel a lecture coming on."
Lai sighed loudly. "Not your finest moment, Dee."
Zephyr ran at them, turning suddenly, curling around Calli, staring up, jaw half open, as he hissed at the creature.
Yazu swung around Lai's head to her other shoulder. "Bad, bad."
"Get that thing out of here, Lai," Dee snapped.
"Can't stop progress, girl." Lai rubbed the side of Yazu's head. "Got to keep moving forward."
"Progress?" Dee opened another incubator, scooping the dollish bodies out. "Is that what this?"
Zephyr slunk between Calli's legs and jumped on the counter, head low.
"Bad cat!" Yazu shrieked. "Bad cat!"
"No monkey business out of you," Lai warned Zephyr.
"You going with this woman, Calli?" Dee demanded. "Is that really what you plan to do?"
"The boochies are for research, mother." Calli leaned across the counter and grabbed Zephyr by its collar. "You want us to ignore cell degeneration and have Atavoks live half of their lives? Let them die?"
"We could stop cloning," Dee replied.
"We've already added 15, 20% to Atavok lives. 15 years, mother."
"None of it should have happened." Dee clumped the boochies into an anorthite bag, pushing the loose limbs as she sealed it. "None of it."
"What do we do then?" Calli retorted. "Execute them? Should we execute Em? Is that what we do?"
"If that's what it takes."
"I don't know, girl." Lai stepped away from Zephyr, as it jumped out of Calli's grasp. "Sounds to me like you're trapped in your rabbit hole."
Dee deposited the bag in the disposal and turned on Lai. "Lai, and I say this with the utmost restraint, I recommend that you take your rabbit holes to Wown and shove them up your fucking ass."
Calli stepped between Dee and Lai. "Mother. That's enough."
Zephyr slithered through the legs and leapt from behind, seizing Yazu by the back of his head, wrenching it to the ground.
"Yazu!" Yazu shrieked as it swung furiously at Zephyr, trying anything not to be dragged across the floor.
"Zephyr!" Calli grabbed after, trying to catch its tail, but Zephyr got away, Yazu now pinned between his paws. "Zephyr!"
"No! No! No!" Lai screamed, as Zephyr scuttered to the corner. "No!"
"Mother! Stop him!"
Lai stumbled awkwardly off her MARA and into the corner as Zephyr spun out of the way. "I'll kill you, fucking cat!"
"Zeph." Dee cut it off, seizing its forepaw. She crouched down over him as Zephyr hissed back. "Zephyr, this can only end badly."
"My baby!" Lai wailed. "My baby!"
Dee pushed Zephyr's head to the ground, Yazu still dangling from its mouth. "Drop it."
Zephyr tried to back out, but its haunches went up against the wall.
Dee pulled Yazu out, Zephyr's claws catching and gouging its thin fur, only one of its eyes open now, more dead than anything, and gave it to Lai.
Miya Pod was empty now, the smoke and debris gone, everything seemingly as before, a small group gathered around the Sortavut, projections of the Atavok ship schema rotating above their heads. Dee went the long way around, Zephyr behind her, through the storage tanks and the coagulated mass of what used to be Tak Deck, into the side door of the building, and found Em in her Bearing station at the end.
"Are you going on the ship?"
Em didn't look up from her screen. "You talk to Calli?"
"Not after what I did."
"What did you do now, Dee?"
"I killed Lai's boochy."
"We never were the political type."
"And so I don't expect to see her any time soon."
Em minimized her screens and reached out to Zephyr.
"Well, Zephyr's actually the one who did it." Dee sat down, taking Em's glass of water. "You should have heard the thing shrieking."
"She'll just make another one, you know. It's not like she's going to stop."
"What about you, Em? Are you leaving with them?"
Em wrapped her arms around Zephyr's neck and stroked down its chest. "Why would you ask me that?"
"You surprise me sometimes, Dee. You can be as thick as a wall."
"So you're not going?"
"No, Dee, I'm not."
Em knew that she shouldn't feel insulted by the question, that she might ask it of herself too, if she were human. "Not the mission I signed up for."
"Talk to Calli."
"You're the one who should talk to her, Dee."
Dee poured out another glass of water, idly watched the contents swirl inside. "I don't think so, not after what I did."
"What makes you think she'll listen to me anyway?"
"You're an Atavok."
"But I'm not Lai."
"You think Calli's going to leave?"
"I wish I knew, Dee. I hope not."
Dee sat up and put her feet flat on the floor. She was going to stay like that and then kicked her feet out. "We're all strangers, Em, my daughter and I, Ashe, even you and me."
"You should get an Ethi." Em wrestled Zephyr to the ground. "I hear they're pretty good at getting into your head."
"How old are you now?" Dee demanded. "When do you catch up with me?"
Em offered a weak smile. "I'll never catch up with you."
"What are you now? 45 years old?"
"Human-centric version? 39." She opened a packet of Nutrito, Zephyr whirling at that, and tossed a piece to him. "My version – 26."
Dee sighed. "How long until you catch up?"
"When you're 64, just before that, another 13 years."
"And then you'll be my older sister," Dee mused.
"I can give you advice."
"That would be something."
"I'll tell you to be less dramatic. To enjoy your twilight years."
"You're going to be a mean older sister."
"If I was your sister, that's what I would have to be."
"I keep waiting for them to come after me." Dee walked around the back of the back of the angled desk and banged open the oval window. "I expect them to come through the door, you know, any minute, hand on my shoulder, and take me away."
"Whoever's supposed to be in charge."
"Hey, they're after me too." Em watched the dangling chain from the window swinging back and forth. "They're after all of us."
Dee held onto the window briefly before turning away and facing Em from the other side of her low desk. "I thought everything would make sense when I grew up, when I became an adult. That's really what I thought. I could be exactly who I was. That's all I wanted – to be who I fucking am. And then I was 20 and then 25 and then 30, 40, and none of that happened. I just realized that nobody knew who they were at all, that the game of pretend only got worse the older you got."
"Having an Atavok didn't solve your problems either."
Dee laughed. "You just made things worse."
"I don't know." Dee bent down to Zephyr, but he was indifferent, gnawing the Nutritos, dropping the bits into his saliva and chewing it down. "I wish I could say that she made my life more real. And I guess she did."
"What answers are you looking for, Dee?"
"Look at Val, right? I mean, she really has her shit together, everything. Smart, beautiful, totally in charge of her life, someone I should completely admire, right? But she believes in all of this, living on this ship, travelling at light speed, everything about
"But you don't. And that makes everyone else stupid."
"I know it makes me sound like an asshole. It's just that there's got to be something better than this, boochies, the Anori games, everyone lying to each other like we always did."
"What game of pretend did you say you were playing, Dee?"
Dee pulled her hair sharply back, coiled it into a bun and let it flop. "Want to come over for dinner or something? You never do that."
"What about you?" She playfully kicked at Zephyr. "You coming?"
Zephyr looked like he might follow but then flopped down in the corner instead.
Dee stared dumbly at the glow of the Bearing playing off the bottom corner of the Nukuk's wall, the prompt for Fly Thru 5 playing over, what looked like a rhinoceros with butterfly antennae playing hide and seek in a nebula. Calli's shadow appeared first, undulating across the empty space, and then her hand before she stepped fully in, in Atavok regalia, blue and grey. "Hey."
Dee crossed her legs at her ankles and adjusted her head against the corner. "Is this an official visit?"
Calli crossed her arms. "Try to be civil. This once."
"You're leaving on this Atavok ship?" Dee waved absently.
Calli looked around the echoing space, the center table pushed to the side, tubs stacked neatly in the corners. "I don't know."
"That's what it says on my Bearing."
"What's confusing? The Atavoks? Going on their ship? Your thing with Lai? Hating me? What?"
"All of it. I don't know."
Dee rolled the Bearing into her fist. "I don't know how you could have ever consider any of this. Leaving with them is insane."
"I'm sorry. Is that clonist? To call Atavoks 'them'?"
Calli looked tiny in the space. "Tone."
"It's a question."
"Why wouldn't I consider it, mother? It's an option like anything else."
"No." She cocked the pinky out from her hand and dragged her ragged nail down the groove on the wall. "It actually isn't, Calli. If I taught you anything, you should at least know that."
"What did you teach me? That's what I've been trying to figure out."
"The atmosphere on that planet is not suitable for fucking humans. Did you at least listen to that? It's on the Bearings. Or have I am an illiterate?"
"Tone. And content."
"Too much argon, Calli! 3.8% of the atmosphere. Don't you understand that they, those Atavoks, can process argon at four times the human rate? We humans cannot process this fucking noble gas. You get that, right?"
"There are preventative measures, contraceptive filters—"
"Calli! You're not stupid!"
Calli leaned toward the door, ready to make this the last moment, but held herself back. "Mother, you're just underlining the main reason of why I should."
"Everyone knows what a shitty mother I am."
"And what an ungrateful daughter I've become."
Dee pursed her lips, slowly shaking her head. "I've never said that. When have I said that?"
"I'm not the preferred one."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"I love Lai." Calli looked at her mother unblinking. "I love you too."
"Next thing you'll tell me is that you're in love with an Atavok. Gem maybe?"
"You don't listen, mother. That's your thing. You know what you know and that's all there is."
"I'm sorry that we never really got along, Calli. I am."
"It has nothing to do with getting along. You're my mother. We don't have to get along." Calli stood with her hands pressed against the narrow walls, like she might climb up out of the narrow alcove. "We both need to reflect on who we are, not on the
other, but ourselves."
"We're as archaic as we've ever been. Moderation, control, morality, always the same." Dee sighed. "Lai proved that. Och proved that. We're just not that advanced."
"And I will have to respectfully disagree."
"The bliss of the thing is just the thing, Calli, not knowing what it is." It was perfectly in her head, that feeling, that wonder of understanding exactly what she thought. "It's turning everything off, having nothing working except for your body, and when that happens, that mindlessness, we're happy. And that's all there is."
"As much as you might believe that, it's madness to me."
Dee ground her thumb into the wall, watching a plug of anorthite dust plop to the floor. There was still no mark, not the slightest mark, nothing, after trying for so many years. "Groping and lost, plunging, gone into that vacuum. On forever."
"'On forever', Dee?" She stumbled over saying her mother's name, trying to say it for effect, create some equal footing, losing her edge instead. "Why do you have tok always be like that? So dramatic?"
"What I'm saying, Calli, what I've been trying to, I don't know, share with you, my daughter, my eldest, is that I want you to stay. Let them go, if they want to. Let Lai take them to her cult planet. Let them all leave. If that's what they want to do, fine. But
not you. You need to stay here."
"I don't aspire toward you, Dee, all of this hiding you do, hiding in the Nuuk, your apartment, never talking to anyone, pretending not to be part of something when all you want is to be cared for, sulking to get attention."
"Huh." Dee liked this part of her, being alone, and as terrible as Calli made it sound, it was still good to hear.
"I'm sorry, Dee." She said her mother's name better this time, not like she had practiced it but was something she said every day. "I'm sorry for everything I've done to you, every mistake I've made, everything I haven't been. I'm sorry."
She wanted to confess everything she could think of, her guilt and shame, every foolish thing she had ever done. "I'm sorry too, Calli."
"No, you're not." She turned, in spite of what she wanted to do – touch her mother's arm, stop what she was going to do – but couldn't. "You never are."
Dee watched her daughter leave, her body and then the shadow, and looked across the room at a half open cupboard, her helmet there. She had forgotten that she was in space. She had forgotten that she was a space person. But she really was. The helmet proved it. She closed the cupboard only to open it again and examined the seal of the helmet. It was coming out. She could call Anori Services for that. She sat it up in the corner, dragged her finger around the top edge, and shut it back up.
Fitz was dead. And Elaine. Tommy. Her uncle, her sister and mother. They had been gone for over two hundred of their years, theirs and hers, whatever that meant. A generation had passed, another and another, everything changed, gone. Earth was nothing now, not a home, even a place. It was an approximation of something in her head, half of that. She had the idea of calling them, opening the application on her Bearing, and listening to it ring and ring, his voice suddenly there. "Hello? That you, is it, Dee?" But he was dead. And even if she could, even if she could have had that, she knew that she would have wanted off within moments, tired of the voice, not what she had needed, as suddenly bored as she had bene anxious to make the call, waiting for him to say goodbye. It was just nostalgia to think of them now, a game, being in the city, the old buildings, the morning light across the trees in Bowling Green, the facade of the Custom House behind that, going down the subway stairs, the dirty concrete pillars, the thick cables banded together, and then picking up speed, suddenly racing ahead, into the darkness, beneath the streets, faster until it was impossible, swaying against the others, happy because it felt like they were going somewhere. It was all nostalgia now that she was here, left to wonder about how she had come to this place in the infinite black, moving and not, the same as everything else, and not even that. She considered her weak shadow on the wall, waved at it, and tucked her foot under her other.
Dee was far behind, watching Po go down the hallway after Ashe, suddenly stopping, standing sideways at the door, wavering there, almost turning after Ashe into their room, and then turned back quickly and flew at Dee, hugging her hard, her head pressed against Dee's stomach.
Dee held the Ethi by the head, pushing the panda bear head down, stroking her hair and saw that Po was crying. "What's the matter with you?"
Po tightened her grip, pinching the backs of Dee's legs, and then let her go as suddenly and raced back ahead.
Dee went into their room. "What's going on with Po?"
Ashe shrugged. "She's acting weird these days. She says it's a bad update or something."
"Bad update!" Po floated along the ceiling.
"You're a funny one, Po," Dee replied.
"Why would those people go there?" Ashe asked. "Wown sounds bad."
"I wish I knew, Ashe."
"Aren't we going to Mina for home?"
Dee tried to answer as evenly as possible, like it was any other question. "I don't understand much of anything in this place."
"Wown is a weird name for a planet." Ashe moved into Dee's arms. "It sounds like a place in the eternal void."
"Did I tell you about the people of Kerrivan?"
"The masterless race lost in void. Yes, that's what I mean, mom."
"Did you like that one?" Dee asked.
"What about the waterlings?"
"Who are they?"
"They lived on a planet entirely of water, but they were afraid of the water."
"Why did they live there?" Ashe asked.
"Because they were born there."
"Cx was afraid of the water too."
Dee watched Ashe twist her Bearing, scrolling through the nebula of images, listless, flinging everything away like dust, Po floating behind. Dee felt suddenly guilty for being here with her daughter, for holding her hard, for making her live, bringing her on
the ship into this insanity. "I love you, little star. You're my Cx."
"She's not going to go, mother."
"Calli is a smart girl."
"Po told me that."
Dee sighed. "You ever think that maybe you see too much of Po?"
"How come?" Ashe asked.
"Maybe it's...your connection is maybe too much, like you're living too much in her world."
"I like being with her."
"You're not an artificial being, Ashe."
"I am sort of." Ashe threw her head back and watched Po hover over her face. "We all are."
"Maybe you could spend more time with other girls. Humans."
"Humans aren't so great, mom. You told me that."
"Isn't that what you're supposed to do? You're a mother."
"But I don't like to worry, Ashe. It doesn't feel like me."
"Well, just think of what Cx would do." Ashe squeezed her arm suddenly, pinching the flesh sharply. "You always told me that."
It was dangerous, even it didn't feel like that. Dee saw all of the desired possibilities, that quantum vision, in an absolute second. But all of it meant nothing in the end. It was just a moment, a sequence of events leading to this, something that happened, something that didn't, like being in a high chair alone with her sister and dead mother, trapped there forever.
Dee pulled the lever again and guided the magnetic canisters into place, their dark metal dully reflecting the yellow green light of Chula, the fabricated desert. It was empty now, the few remaining animals asleep, as she replaced the resonators, as she had done for these fourteen light speed years. It was a simple thing, a repeated action, something she had come to enjoy, to think about anything she could remember – a dog running in circles, a cow killed with a tap, the light in the living room, the smashed-in jack-o-lantern, the smell of her sister's t-shirt on the bureau, Nani wheezing after dinner, the underside of her cupboard shelf, leaning off the railing of the ship, reaching her arms out through the water, dug deep into the ice and snow, Apollo's hiss from up the stairs, the broken molding in the hallway, a dead spider web hanging from that, the first heave of an iceberg calving, the silence after the storm, thinking she might die with Apollo right there – as she placed the canisters, one by one, and watched them slide in with a click. Her shoulder was working again, the sinews in her back tight down through her ribs, coiled, a beautiful mechanism; it was the first time it had worked like that, as it should, in so many years. She was thinking that when she heard the sound come through her, and everything stopped. Dee wasn't scared but couldn't understand how the creature would be there, this the furthest possible from the puma's natural terrain. She turned to face the cat, her eyes clear. Dee was just going to accept it, that she created this moment on purpose, but didn't and went at the cat as she came at her and had her for a moment, nothing more, everything zeroed in on a single thing, just what was ahead, fixated on that. There was nothing but this thing, nothing in her brain, an abandonment of everything, certain that there was nothing except this, balanced on the precipice, sliding helplessly backward, tongue out, snapped back, coming hard over the rise and then rattling down the other side, into emptiness, monstrous and magnificent, back to an essence, the blood back, more than anything ever could be. She pressed her hands up against the cat's jaws, but she couldn't keep her balance, and went back, the puma on top of her, one paw on her head, claws digging in, as it bit into the side of her neck and tore. It was only a moment.
The sunlight lit up the water, made it almost gold, offering a magic kingdom, wavering, lapping at the thick old logs of the crib, the stones covered in algae, the bottom edge of the dock. Dee was in the boathouse. She was small. The heavy door had slid half down and she could see a few feet out, just to where the rocks sloped away toward the channel, a stray weed dangling up from around the corner. It was quiet there, the boathouse always like this, the echoes of the water, the heavy door softly banging, and distant things – the wind, a boat, someone calling, and her breathing. She slid her feet in tighter, hunched closer to the corner, almost completely between the water skies now, one slid over sideways, its base caught in the grooves between the wood, the life belt and boat chain dangling just above her. The sunlight reflected on the wood ceiling in twisting, mystical patterns, and for a moment, a looping infinite sign, perfect and long, and only to be scattered as the waves washed inside. She loved it like this, the boathouse slip empty, nothing where the boat had been, where it always was, but now gone to the harbor with her uncle, aunt and sister. She gazed down into the murky water and watched a tadpole coming past and then a leech, long and green. She flicked her finger in the water, trying to tempt it, but it continued into the shadows.
The fish were there now, a nervous group just outside the door. She could see their small shadows cutting in and out from each other, an occasional shimmering fin. And then something other, brooding and massive, a long shadow skating over the contours of the rocky bottom, what she thought was the fish of all fish. She watched, wide-eyed, the thing coming around the corner, intent, into the boat slip, a long, leafy branch dragging with it, bending against the logs, and then the thing itself, up from the water and to the surface, wide and bristling, a beaver. It drifted into the boathouse slip, nose at the waterline, paws dangling just down, barely making a wake, one paw out, slowly turning, the branch along the dock, the leaves fluttering along the wood, flapping up and back down into the water. It opened an eye, or maybe it had always been open, and saw her, not surprised but pausing, still, just a floating thing, like the branch, and then ducking down, a swish of water surging from his hind paws, tail up, not slapping, but moving the water, disappearing under the dock, shadow.
The abandoned branch spun slowly on its own, making shadows in the sunlight, cutting the infinite in two, the water lapping at the edge, the wooden door banging softly, and that was it. Her life had come to this.