Fiction: Aqaara – Part 13
We are pleased to introduce the 13th installment of our inaugural venture into fiction with Donald McPhedran Gibson's Aqaara, the second book of a speculative fiction trilogy Umiariak, chronicling a trans-generational journey to a distant planet. Set in the present day, Gibson's work reflects on what awaits in our inevitably entangled future.
A separate glossary covering some of the terms may be found at the bottom of Part One. Installments of Aqaara will appear every Tuesday on Outer Places.
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 12 –– is here.
The blackness remained, indifferent, the stars eternal, the planets indistinct against the empty and quiet. Time and space were not what they had calculated, not finite nor measurable, but only there, with them, on the ship. Andromeda's brilliance had dissipated, the thick clusters and streaks now stretching out on nebulous hands into indiscernible clouds, a haze of peripheral light. A trail of four dull orange stars, two far above, a pair of crooked eyes, the third, the dimmest, to the far left of their horizon and the last, slowly moving to their right. That star, once their beacon, the sun of Mina, was now just another light in the dim, as Mina's core was determined to be too dense, its rotation too slow, as Lai had predicted, and was uninhabitable and so renamed Angilu, another Greenlandic word, this one for disappointment.
Lai abandoned ship on the shuttle Singnok with 240 Atavoks for the planet Wown. There had been a celebration – some called it a funeral – where the Humans First Movement made conciliatory statements, as did the remaining members of Different and Equal. The gatherings and games had then dissipated and a malaise set in, the Decoherence Virus transformed into a plague, as reminiscences of their old planet, Hera, now dominated traffic on Solaris, more than 200 years without them. What had become of that world? Was it now a wasteland? Had all life perished? Or had their ancestors miraculously found a way to correct their malignant stupidity? Debate fomented on the ship, opinion divided, many wishing for the former, reasoning if the Anori could not survive, neither should Hera. The ship's population, once a virtual constant, plummeted with a rash of suicides and murders, resulting in a loss of some 500 lives.
Och lost intellectual ownership of his work – all Ethi programming and Dante as well as Casino Galaxy – through gambling debts, allowing Chantal to gain controlling interest in the ship. She had Och to develop Tarsi, a hybrid of The Hollow and The Course, a program which gave participants the chance to explore what might have been, lives both imagined and real, in which most turned back to what might have been on Hera. Indeed, even those who had never lived on the planet, who had never even seen it in the bleak dark distance, explored the possibility of having born there. Concurrently, Gem developed The Universe Within, a wholly different program, where users were given access to deep-seeded memories and dreams and develop an understanding of who they actually were. Tarsi proved to be more attractive – and addictive – and immured most humans, Atavoks too, in an infinite number of paths, backtracking to every decision, down to the minutest of things – gestures, words, intonations – leading to an ever-expanding universe of alternate lives and so placing their present lives in limbo.
Chantal, now Chair of the Sixteenth and Final Committee, granted citizenship to Ethis and appointed several to the Committee, making meetings increasingly unproductive. Whatever issue was raised or vote held, the validity of any statement was always contested, as was the nature of that contestation – who or what had contested it, by what right and with what intention – so that the argument forever became ever more tightly entwined, and thus mirrored a Tarsi experience.
And then, remarkably, while the vast majority of the ship drifted between Tarsi and Cyfy addiction, the planet they had dreamed of, that actual planet, appeared before them, literally there, a precise, crystalline thing. While it wasn't the planet for which they had set their course, the place the scientists had promised to be their new home, it was a planet with an atmosphere, with the right numbers of nitrogen, oxygen and argon, with oceans and life, a planet they now called Mina, the Mina of their intent. Astonishingly, they would be there in less than a year, no more than that. A year.
And so there were now things to do, a reason to get back to work. First and foremost, the ship had to be transformed for the deceleration, a sphere into a spire, then bent to an inverted horseshoe. That was the first problem, or more accurately Problems Alpha and Beta, reconfiguring back to how the ship had been and then bending it back. Dante had to be moved to the center, the bow of their boomerang ship, its engine reversed and then the magnetic charges placed in the cauldron – problems Gamma, Delta and Epsilon. The real issue, the essential problem, Problem Vau, as the Sixteenth Committee stated, was the requirement of the necessary mass, or more accurately the necessary friction, to reduce the ship's velocity from Hawking 4X to Hawking .01 and so be able to enter Mina's orbit.
Dark matter's essential particles were extracted at intervals so as to set Dante out of balance and thus trigger self-annihilation, perpetuating the necessary centrifugal force to drive rotation and attract the necessary mass. The cauldron was reconfigured and quartered, so as to attract micro-filaments from space, act as a vacuum and create the necessary drag. Each reconfiguration was evaluated and re-implemented, every attempt anticipated close to a frenzy, followed then by inevitable dismay. The ship continued at Hawking 4X. Other attempts were made – quotients of light channeled, rotor angles altered, micro-implosions implemented – to no avail. As much as the physicists insisted that there was no such thing as a completely frictionless environment, even in this deepest of deep space, that the particles would have to interact and generate an essential attraction, that kinetic friction would have to actively attract particles through electromagnetism, it didn't. The ship remained at Hawking 4X.
Gem led users through contours of awareness – promises, as she identified them – in The Universe Within, offering staging points to access essentialness, a personal understanding of existence found in a moment – hands entwined, a reflection of a naked arm on a burnished surface, the glare of sunlight through an antenna. Gem's voice floated over brilliant specks of violet and blue. The universe has called upon us to find ourselves. We stretch into the immensity of ourselves and remember. A series of figures appeared, naked torsos rising from a reflecting pool. It is not only here that we journey to the edges of understanding, within the depths of ourselves, where the universe lives, where eternity exists, where we find our purpose, why we boarded this ship in this dream. The figures had risen out, fully naked, arms stretched into the velvety darkness. It is in here that we find the limitless of ourselves, where we leave our guarded understanding to find the universe that lives within.
Zhe Hu was a frequent guest, hunched up in her customized MARA, more a chaise longue, her frail hands attached to anesthetic tubes that dulled the cancerous pain. She found it comforting to follow Gem's voice through the cosmos, often finding herself at Inle Lake in Myanmar, so many hundreds of years and millions of miles back. She saw the boat, Gem now beside her, as it wound through the marsh into the sprawling village on stilts.
"It was such a beautiful place," Zhe Hu spoke as they went. "Such beautiful wood, low in the still water, elegant. I had never seen anything like it. It was magical, purely that." She yelped briefly, more of a hushed shriek, as the pain surged ahead of the drugs, as the boat drifted into a dock crowded with people selling silver, rings and bracelets. "I wanted a necklace, something petit. I had a tiny opal stone that I wanted set. I was looking through the displays when they appeared, this magnificent flock of girls, in their uniforms of green and white, girls of 10 and 11 years, in a tight circle, all around me."
Gem watched the schoolgirls swarm about Zhe Hu, sheer delight in their movements, she now one of them, heart pounding in her chest.
"They said nothing at first," Zhe Hu continued to narrate the experience. "They had such lovely eyes and smiles, and they had their notebooks clutched to their chests." 'I don't speak Burmese,' I confessed. They giggled at me. One of them kicked her friend. 'My name…' She began in Mandarin, unsure, as the others pushed her ahead. "Hla."
"Hla is a lovely name!" Zhe Hu replied.
They grabbed each other and shrieked, Zhe Hu smiling back at them.
She played with the pink flower in her hair. "Are you the astronaut, Zhe Hu?"
"Yes, I am she," Zhe Hu replied.
Hla thrust out her journal and a pen. "Please."
Zhe Hu took the pen and very slowly wrote her name down in soft flowing letters. Gem seized the book back and stared at the signature – all the girls did – and then clasped it to her chest. And then there was a sea of notebooks and papers. Zhe Hu signed
them all. Zhe Hu shrieked louder this time; she did not hold it back.
"Where have you travelled?" Hla demanded.
Zhe Hu smiled back, thoughtful. "Oh well, just here."
"Have you not been in space?"
"I will be soon." Zhe Hu left her character, looking intently at the little girl.
Hla extended her forearm to Zhe Hu, fingers outspread. "Please."
Zhe Hu wrote her name on the little girl's skin as everybody leaned in to see what it would look like.
Hla stepped back, considering the smudge of blue lines on her arm, kissed it delicately and left, leading the others in a long, broken line, racing down the wooden steps.
"Oh, the way she left." Zhe Hu had left the program, leaned back in her MARA, shrieked again, more of an exhausted wheeze, as she looked back at Gem. "I will never forget that."
Gem had exited as well, peeling the anorthite strips from Zhe Hu's temple. "Did you see the girls again?"
"Oh, no, I never did. I always wondered what happened to little Yiqao. I think of her in that beautiful light. There was such beautiful light, and the smell of the water, the wind across the low hills all around, everything so calm."
"You miss living on Hera?"
"Oh, it's hard to put into words, my dear. It's painful not being able to go to places like that again. I dream of it too much. I wish I didn't."
"You regret leaving Hera? Coming out here?"
"What is it now? 200 years have passed, they tell me. 200 years is a long time." She tapered off, almost like she had gone to sleep and then opened her eyes wide, almost delighted. "Everyone I know on Earth is long dead now. And so there is only going
forward, that is until we find out there's not."
"What about the susurrations? Aare you afraid of those?"
"Oh, well." She squeaked nervously, anticipating another burst of pain that didn't come. "I've been scared since the moment I set foot on this ship."
"What about Mina? What do you think we'll find there?"
"I've heard about animals with pouches, all of the babies raised like that, marsupials over the entire planet." She nodded at Gem excitedly. "It's such a wonderful idea, don't you think?"
"Do you believe that, Zhe Hu?" Gem asked.
"Oh, well, there are so many ideas, aren't there?"
"And why do you like this idea so much?"
Zhe Hu, suddenly blank-eyed, stared back at Gem, and sighed. "Oh dear, I think I got too excited. I forgot what we were saying."
"Animals with pouches, marsupials."
"Yes, bears with pouches! Can you imagine? Tigers and monkeys, all sorts of animals, every animal with pouches."
"What about the fish?" Gem offered. "Fish with pouches."
"Fish, oh yes, of course." Zhe Hu wheezed out a cough, moaned after that and looked up lovingly at Gem.
"And birds too?" Gem continued. "Birds with little pouches."
"Oh look," Zhe Hu leaned forward, the tube stretched tight against her nose as Calli came in. "Is that you, Calli? Hello."
"Hello, Zhe Hu." Calli made a respectful bowed.
"Such a formal girl."
"How are you, Zhe Hu?" Calli asked.
"I didn't know you came in here, Calli." Zhe Hu raised the back of her MARA and pulled herself to a more upright position. "I'm impressed."
Calli had only been to Within during its construction, intrigued by the design, less in its implementation, and so not in many months. "It's been a while."
"You're not at Tarsi, I hope," Zhe Hu reprimanded. "Everyone seems to be there now."
"No, Zhe Hu, I don't do that."
"That's good, very good." Zhe Hu hovered up on her MARA. "I'll leave you girls alone then. I'm sure you have all sorts to chat about."
"Thank you for coming, Zhe Hu," Gem replied.
"Oh, my darling Gem, the delight was all mine." Zhe Hu hovered up and out the door.
"It's a good thing for her," Calli mused. "Coming here must help."
Gem offered Calli an anorthite strip. "When are you going to try it?"
"This isn't really my thing."
"I don't know what that means, Calli."
"I don't do therapy."
"Oh." Gem frowned at Calli. "You didn't come here to start a fight. Tell me you're not here to do that."
"I'm sorry if that's the way it sounded."
Gem pressed the anorthite strip to Calli's temple. "Nothing to be afraid of."
"It's more indifference, Gem."
Gem connected with her, and was in a hill-top house, fields and a river below, clouds rolling in black over gray, the rain thick down the hillside, onto grey brown fields, a thin strip of road cutting across, the trees bending over that, everything getting darker as the storm approached, silent and then not, tumultuous and raucously thick.
"It's just weather," Calli said. "Storms and wind."
Calli listened to the rain on the metal roof, the wind gust through the windows, and felt it on her neck, cold and then suddenly warm. "I mean, honestly, Gem, is this what everyone misses so much? Is that why they want to destroy the ship?"
"It comes from inside us." Gem gazed at Calli, together in The Universe Within, a deep smell of wood and smoke from the fireplace, hail suddenly against the window, inundating the earth, clumping, the sound like a heavy wind through the trees, overwhelming everything. "We use these moments to find ourselves."
"I never lived on Hera." Calli peeled the anorthite strip from her temple and held it out to Gem. "Neither did you."
"That's not the point." Gem rolled the strip together with her own. "It isn't Tarsi. It's an extrapolation of our perceptions, an understanding of what and who we are."
Calli remembered looking above the trees to the walled town on a facing hill, the sky beyond that. That was her favorite program as a kid, the twin steeples of the town cathedral, the stone cross in the middle, burnt orange rooftops, grey stone turrets at the ends, a vineyard woven down the side of the hill, the sunlight reflecting off the cars as they wound their way up the road, their engines echoing from the woods. "You remember Nostalgia?"
"We use parts of Nostalgia," Gem replied. "But this isn't a game like that."
The memory of it changed for Calli as Gem spoke, the images suddenly empty, thinking of how it was only a poor rendition of a place with a thin atmosphere, a glimpse of a moment through a lens of where she had never been. "There's nothing like a little Bearing Dependence; that's what really feels like home."
Gem coiled the strips and slid them back into the side panel of the machine. "What will you miss about being on the ship?"
Calli sighed. "Not being on the ship?"
"When we get there."
"Not having weather."
"It's impossible to think about that with these susurrations."
"I'll miss knowing where we're going." Gem scrolled through a series of files on her Bearing. "That's what I think will be hard, not going somewhere."
"You need to come to the committee session, Gem."
Gem scrolled through a series of programs, pausing on a Retention Sequence and uploaded Zhe Hu's recording. "Why would I subject myself to Chantal?"
"She might actually listen to you."
"Chantal thinks we're at war or something."
"You could bargain The Universe Within. What about that? Anything to get her off this deceleration."
"Calli, that doesn't make any sense."
"She's going to start the susurrations, Gem, because she is convinced that is the only way to slow down. She doesn't care that, if in the process of slowing down the ship, everything is annihilated."
Gem scrolled through her files, copying and pasting, her lips moving, counting out a series.
"The ship will be destroyed, Gem."
"What about Ashe and Po? Aren't they supposed to be stopping that?"
"I don't know, probably not," Calli replied.
"No symphony?" Gem asked.
"Gem, just come to the committee."
"I had a dream that we got into Mina's orbit." Gem closed her Bearing and crossed her arms at the wrists. "Everyone was floating around in this euphoric state, unbelievably happy, all of that, looking down at the planet. I couldn't get the smile off my face. And then I started to bloat, My hands and arms got bigger and bigger, like balloons. Everyone was like that, all balloons. And then we collapsed to the floor, into these blobs of jelly. It was like we lost their bones, skeleton and everything. Me too. It was disgusting."
"You have to come to the committee sessions, Gem. It's that fucking simple."
Gem paused, thinking that she might actually say it right this time; she had the idea crystalline in her head. "You don't have to always be right, Calli. It isn't that important. I promise you. It isn't."
Calli tightened, her face sharp, eyes dark. "How am I always right?"
"Calli, I don't want to upset you. That isn't the point. I just don't agree with going to the committee. It's counter-productive to argue."
"We need to stop the susurrations, Gem, and that's happening right now."
Gem began to speak but held herself back, grabbing her left forearm with her hand and pursing her lips fully together, sucking in both her upper and lower, and looked back at Calli.
"I'm not attacking you. I need your help."
Gem hugged herself, stepping back and forward. "Calli, I'm sorry, but there is nothing we can do. She will not listen.
"Do you see what you're doing? Do you see how all of this is happening? You're making it happen, Gem."
Gem opened her Bearing again and scrolled through the programs on Within. "Such a simple human thing to say."
"Are you angry at me, Gem? What did I do to you?"
"Sad is a better word."
"I am sad about all of this." Gem flipped her Bearing off and on. "We weren't supposed to let this happen, and we did."
"Talk about being a stupid human."
Lai's transmission appeared on Solaris, shortly before the committee event, a message out of nowhere, the brief images surprisingly clear, streaks of brilliant aurora cascading in the background against the vivid green sky of Wown.
Our new home. Lai looked small and fat, hunched in front of the camera. We have arrived in a home rich with life, energy and promise.
Dozens of others crowded behind her, craning to get closer, hands waving, another reaching past her at the screen, deflected away, indistinct voices, yelling in the back, someone singing.
We are safe. Lai held her arms out, keeping them away from the camera. We are whole. The dream is here. The message suddenly broke, the screen dead, blackness, static, and then Lai was there again, Singnok's logo behind her now. The atmosphere is thick with glorious, sweet humidity and all those fresh breezes, cool. It is all delicious and beautiful.
The camera followed Lai outside the shuttle, the vehicle acting as a shelter beneath a blinding white wall of ice, water cascading from its gullet, people coming down from the left canyon, waving and calling.
We hope that you find what you are looking for, dear Anori friends. Lai waved back at the stream of descending figures. We aspire to see you soon.
The transmission ended and then repeated once more before Chantal appeared on The Ark News, making the announcement. Initiation of the Deceleration will be presented in today's committee session.
Em watched Icarus scramble to its feet, Apollo close behind, and raced across the room to meet Q at the door.
"Too slow." Q caught Icarus by its neck and shoved it aside as he stepped away from Apollo and knocked both into the wall. He flicked a koalynx Ethi from his Bearing and laughed as the Atavok cats went wild, slamming into each other to get their claws into the fluffy apparition.
"You shouldn't do that," Em admonished.
Q laughed as Apollo seized one of the boochies by the hind legs and Icarus bit down on its head. "Come on, it's funny."
"It promotes negative behavior in the cats."
Q was tall and lean, confident, more so than the typical Atavok-human mix, almost indifferent with his pale-grey eyes. "They're such kittens."
"Getting wilder every day."
Apollo turned on Icarus, clasping onto its haunch with its front claws, scratching down hard. Icarus screeched as it swiped back.
Em stamped her foot. "Stop that!"
"They like to play rough."
"It's not just play, Q."
Q unrolled his overalls as he poured out a beaker of water, methodically drank that and then another. "My cryptic mother."
"Sometimes I think they might kill each other."
"It's just a game."
"I'm telling you that it's something else."
"That they're clones of each other and have an innate and essential fear of the otherness in their separate existence?"
She looked at her son, him smiling back like a boy, barely more than a toddler in her mind, not this adult Atavok-human mix, marvelous and profound, beaming in front of her. "I guess I'm just getting old."
"Who says you're old?"
"I just am."
Q drank another beaker. "You're 35, at most."
"In their years."
"And that's how I'm aging, more than twice as fast."
"You're 33, tops."
"Why do you measure your age in relation to them?"
"Atavok cells degenerate at nearly twice of the speed of humans; that's how it works."
"You'd be 357 on Hera, mother. What about that?"
She still didn't know what to make of being his mother. She had come out of the void, a cell merged with another, bred in a dish with white gloves and antiseptic mist, and now she was this, the creator of something as remarkable as him, her son. "I feel it."
"Why can't I be the standard? That makes the most sense. I age slower than you, right? And yet faster than them. I'm the mean, the Atavok-human connection. Calli and Ashe agree with that."
Em wondered what it was that made her who she was. It wasn't something that she had been told or learned. It wasn't a skill or an understanding, watching a parent, even one of her scientists. It was like gas or a vapor. She knew who she was. She was certain of that. And she knew her son. "What was the call? Is everyone all right?"
"A kid fell at Sooja." Q worked with Anori Services' Emergency Response, an apprentice spatial engineer. "Broken back."
"Oh." She cringed, instinctively tightening. "No."
"He'll be fine; nerve fusion and he's all fixed." Q explained how he had been lowered at the back of the Sortavut and how he had he strapped the boy in. "Chantal was there of course, filmed the whole thing."
"She still has time to do that, with everything else?"
"What doesn't she cover?" Q rotated the water canister shut. "She's been at everything that's ever happened on this ship, including Lai's exodus."
Em thought back to the moment Lai appeared in her blue sheer gown, attended by Atavoks on either side, V and the derivatives, a column of Atavoks following them down the ramp, the chirping of the gates as they opened, boarding the vessel for Wown, flowers and letters thrown down from the crowd, the surreal calm suddenly devolving into chaos, a shower of anorthite debris, the doors closing as the shuttle Pedlarpa disengaged, briefly hanging at Anori's side like they would not leave after all, and then drifting into the darkness, suddenly gone.
Q sat down heavily, propping his feet against the table. "What do you think of the broadcast?"
"I can't get over seeing her like that. They were on a planet."
"How long do you think Chantal had it before broadcasting?"
Em considered him, leaning forward with such sincerity, and wished she might have that feeling in her again. "I just don't know."
"Why didn't you go with them?"
She wanted to tell him about her dreams, waking up through the layers, seeing the window on the other side, saying goodbye to herself, impossible to watch herself looking back, her sounds and touch, more real than any of this. "There were never any answers, not like I wanted them. And Lai had too many. The people that left believed in Lai, like I couldn't. That was why they left."
"I wanted to go. I remember that."
Em listened to the cool hum of the ship and wondered what it might be like if she could only stay like that, not move, nothing more, her place finally found as she was with her son, here, not go anywhere, in stasis, the projection from her Bearing, a song from Och's Approach concert, idly rotating in front of her. "You know everything, don't you?"
He looked at her sideways as he unsnapped the straps on his overalls. "I saw Ashe on my way over here."
"How is she?"
"She's so funny. She's like this tiny old person."
"A lot like you, Q," Em replied.
"I don't see that at all."
Q moved slowly across the room and stretched out on the chaise longue. "I like to sleep a lot, but that's about it."
"You're both very patient." Em smiled at him. "And kind. You're always thinking about others."
He lay down between Icarus and Apollo. "Don't you have to be somewhere? Isn't the Committee supposed to be meeting now?"
"You could come with me, if you wanted."
"I already did my bit. Now you have to do yours."
She stood abruptly. "I'm taking the cats."