Fiction: Aqaara – Part 15
We are pleased to introduce the 15th 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 14 –– is here.
Ashe turned to Po as they approached the precipitous staircase to Chantal's complex. "Be good."
Po imitated Ashe's steps up, almost a game but not, her feet shadowing and then suddenly ahead. "I'm always bad."
"I'm serious, Po." Ashe remembered the building from when she was small, reaching high to hold the banister as she entered, following her mother in to visit Calli many years ago when she had moved in with Lai – the nebulous blue ceiling, water flowing down the porous sides, Kikis hovering in an articulated pattern, whirring past, a magical place, even if it made her feel like she wanted to escape. It was different now – the ceiling defined, the streams of water gone – an elliptoid platform now at the center with a steep sloping backdrop of finger-like pillars, an altar, a production studio, the broadcasting nexus for Ark News and Blaze Casts.
A small flock of Ethis waited at the top of the stairs, the Dee-Like and Lai-like among them, all in their Anorian uniforms, tight and brilliant blue, Chantal in the middle. "To what do we owe this honor?"
"I wanted to talk to you about the Deceleration," Ashe admitted.
Chantal offered Ashe a Cyfy liquid capsule. "Why not just come to our meeting?"
Ashe didn't want the amber pill – she had tried Cyfy and hated the feeling, how it slithered through her – but accepted it, squeezing the gel lightly between her thumb and index finger. "I'm not on the council, Chantal."
Chantal considered Po briefly. "Rumor has it that you and this Ethi of yours are up to no good."
"Po is singing the sounds of the ship," Ashe replied. "A chronicle of every sound that the vessel has made from the beginning."
"I have been led to understand that it's a lot more than that, Ashe."
"I will sing to you now." Po spun, haphazardly starting and stopping as she ducked her head into her arms and began to hum. It was another ominous melody, low, a multi-layered sound that ebbed and flowed.
"Stop that," the Dee-like Ethi snapped.
"Enough," added the younger of the Chantal-like Ethis.
Ashe felt the drug seeping in and thought about backing down the stairs, going back to the Uumasut as Po continued, the sound getting deeper and then duplicating itself, tailing off, getting louder, separating into layers, one sound building, much deeper than the rest, the others sharp, plaintive; the Ethis dimmed and shuddered, squeaking and sighing as they did.
"Tell it to stop," Chantal demanded.
"I don't control Po," Ashe replied politely.
"Ashe, tell it."
"I can only ask, Chantal."
"Ask it then."
Po whirled to a standstill, pulling its panda ears over its face.
Chantal brushed her hair behind an ear, dropping her hands back down together. "That's an act of aggression, Ashe."
"We are creating drag, Chantal. It is complicated and slow, but it has been started." Ashe felt the drug deeper in her now, creeping into her skin. "We are slowing down the ship."
Chantal turned sharply to the Ethis. "What are the numbers? Tell her the numbers."
The Ethis stared back, arms behind their backs, legs spread, at attention, waiting.
"The numbers?" Chantal repeated.
The older of the Dee-like Ethis turned side to side. "Numbers?"
"One," the Lai-like Ethi announced. "One is the number.
"Zero," a third Ethi, tall and slim, a younger version of Dee, countered. "Everything starts from zero."
Chantal flicked her eyes between the Ethis, her head moving more slowly back and forth from one to the other and then turned on Po. "That singing, what is that? A virus?"
Po smiled furtively, like she might in fact be doing something else. "I shimmer."
"She calls it shimmering," Ashe explained.
Chantal spun her Bearing to reboot, all of the Ethis, except for Po, vanishing in an instant. "Shimmering?"
"I murmur," Po added.
"She calls it that too," Ashe added.
"I murmur," Po hummed.
Chantal eyed Po briefly as the Ethis reappeared one by one, all six of them, each standing as before, eyes blankly open.
Po sang again, her voice just a vibration.
"Ashe!" Chantal yelled. "I won't ask again."
Po went still and watched, intent.
"We think differently, Chantal." Ashe thought that she was saying it right, that she might actually get Chantal to understand. "Just delay the Deceleration for two days, until AJ finishes his calculations. Just two day."
Chantal surveyed the Ethis, stepping one way and then the other, stopping at the elder Dee-like one. "Numbers please."
Po began humming again, louder, a murmur itself, a whisper of vibrations that formed into words. "Murmuration."
"Murmuration," the younger Dee-like Ethi chorused.
"Susurration," Po sang.
"Susurration," the Lai-like Ethi chorused.
"Murmuration," the elder Dee-like Ethi repeated.
"Susurration," the Lai-like Ethi continued.
Ashe listened, entranced, thinking she might sing too.
And then they were gone, all of the Ethis, in an instant, Po alone again, her humming stopped, as Chantal turned abruptly away and walked toward the Ark News set. "You were born in this place, Ashe, on this ship."
Ashe listened to her voice, as it echoed through her ears and forehead.
"You've never been on a planet." Chantal placed her Bearing in a holder and began the reset sequence. "Mina is a reality. It's not something that lives in your head, a dream. It's real, Ashe. It has gravity."
"Have you visited The Universe Within?" Talking made it easier for Ashe, less to think about. "Gem has downloaded hundreds of thousands of meta-connects from everywhere on Hera."
Chantal sat at The Ark News desk and crossed her heel over her knee. "You know where I lived on Hera?"
"It's dust and flat, nothing else, hundreds of miles in every direction, everywhere you go. That's exactly what that place is. Wherever way you walk, it's dust and flat. There's nothing there, an absolute nothing of a place, but it's where I come from. It defines who I am."
"You miss Oklahoma?"
Chantal had a crooked smile, something she had cultivated on air and no longer knew that she did. It was part of her, like her hand coming across her face, pulling her hair behind her ear, looking back at everyone with disdain, thinking that she had once believed in something better when she knew she never had. "You never went to college, Ashe."
"My mother taught me. And AJ."
"You know how many people were in my college?" Chantal slid her hand across the panel and studied the three-dimensional graphics.
"Your college in Oklahoma?"
"Take a guess."
"One thousand people."
"I should guess again?"
"Twenty-five thousand, Ashe." Chantal swiped the screen to a view of Dante where the crews were preparing for the susurrations. "Six times as many as have ever been on this ship."
Ashe watched Po move slowly to Chantal.
"We're not even the size of a college, one mid-western college in America." Chantal flicked camera to camera, pausing on each, moving to the next. "And you don't even know what that means. But you think that you do, you think that you know what I'm saying because of your assimilation and meta-cross-referencing, growing up on this perpetual motion ship."
"You knew all of these people?" Ashe knew she shouldn't have said it but blamed the Cyfy in her system for letting the words out.
"I've been on this ship for 23 years, over half of my life on this ship. I grew up in a city of 55,000, Stillwater, Oklahoma, a city full of waste cases and degenerates, but still enough to cull 3,000 for this ship, from one backwater place in a backwater state in a collapsing country, just that place, Ashe, that one place in a world of another 10,000 places just like it." Chantal got up suddenly and grabbed Po, taking its right hand and then the left, stretching her arms out, Po letting her, as she inspected its eyes and ears like a customs control agent. "I left that world, Ashe. I knew what I wanted. I understood my choices and I made them. I made this choice. I made the choice to go to another world. I left the dust and endless flat to get to another planet. I made that choice."
Ashe had her hand out involuntarily, knowing that even if Po was in no danger that she should protect it. "Let Po go, Chantal."
Chantal adjust her grip on Po as if she might pull it in tighter and suddenly let it go as she re-opened her Bearing. "Everything is normal on Solaris, every setting on Dante, everything. All of it normal. But not my Ethis. What do we make of that, Ashe?"
"I don't understand what you want, Chantal." Ashe held Po's hand, squeezing it hard, feeling it squeeze back.
"Tell me what happened to my Ethis." Chantal tilted her head and dropped her feet flat to the floor. "Why did they have to be rebooted? But not it?"
"I am different," Po replied. "I am not connected."
"Not connected?" Chantal demanded. "Not connected to what?"
"I deleted Po's setting a long time ago," Ashe admitted. "She does as she wishes."
"That isn't possible."
"But it is," Po replied.
Ashe loved how Po spoke, with such clarity and understanding of what it was. "She is no longer connected to Solaris."
"It has to be connected," Chantal asserted.
"But I'm not!" Po hummed.
"You're just a Solaris bit," Chantal countered. "Digital components, nothing more."
"Digital, yes, but my own," Po replied and then sang. "My own digital."
"We are seven years past our arrival date." The younger of the Chantal-like Ethis suddenly returned. "We were supposed to have arrived."
Ashe grasped Po's hand, pulling it closer. "Our species left Hera, and all of our iterations. We chose to do that. We chose to be here. We chose all of this."
"If we don't stop the ship, we'll be here for another 85 years," the Lai-like Ethi reappeared with all of the others. "85 more years."
"Darkness and light." Po sang again, her voice rising. "Darkness and light."
"Only 1,329 people are left," the younger of the Chantal-like Ethis replied. "Of the 3,200 people who left Hera, only 1,329 remain."
Ashe felt the Cyfy clearly now, a round floating thing all around her, pleasant but heavy. "This ship is like anywhere. We are here."
Chantal walked purposely at Ashe, swinging suddenly, her right fist into Ashe's arm, and then again with her left, the second punch harder, knocking Ashe sideways. "Did that hurt?"
Ashe stepped back, her hands out, ready to fend off another blow. "What are you doing?"
"Did that hurt?"
Ashe hugged herself tight, Po swerving back and forth between them.
"Pain isn't an abstract concept, Ashe? I mean, we can talk about. You can tell me all about it. Would you like to do that? Would you like to tell me about your pain? Would you like to explain the sensation of being hit, what that felt like for you?" Chantal leaned into Ashe, threatening to strike again. "Would you like to make a Blaze Cast for the rest of us?"
Po flashed at Chantal, burning brilliant orange. "Don't touch her. No."
Chantal tightened her grip on Ashe's forearm away, waiting. "This place isn't like anywhere, Ashe. And we need a planet. Not in 85 years. Now."
Po sang again, deep and loud, a jet plane coming in low over their heads, and they were in it, revolving, floating up in that sound. It abruptly ended, Po gone, the Dee-like, Lai-like and Chantal-like Ethis with her.
"What has she done?" Chantal turned back to her console. "Where are my Ethis?"
Ashe felt the drug losing its grip, incrementally dissolving from her system; she was happy for that. "She's composing."
"Your Ethi isn't going to stop the murmurations," Chantal replied. "It isn't going to stop anything."
Chantal ordered Tarsi's portals closed as final preparations were made for the Deceleration, and so many turned to The Universe Within. Gem immersed them, one after the other – Liyuan in a hot water spring, Val gliding through an equatorial valley, U diving at a coral reef, Nick walking castle walls in the night – Ethis too, everyone, some experiences mixed into others – twilight through beechwood trees, a train surging in and out of city tunnels, eating saltwater taffy on the edge of a bridge – comingling into marvelous abstractions, and then Och was there, quietly waiting his turn.
Gem gave him the anorthite strips, trying to catch his eye. "I'm happy that you are here."
The room was warm with light green carpeting and jungle wallpaper, a pair of twin beds, both neatly made on each side of a tall window. Och sat on the bed against the wall, his feet flat on the ground, hands on his knees, a child's suitcase, striped brown and green closed beside him. Gem waited in the doorway as Och stood slowly, moved the suitcase around, about to open it, and then left it there as he went to the window and looked down into the small yard. The suitcase jostled and then sprang open, Lucce appearing, a brilliant glowing dancing dollish sprite.
Och had barely turned as he was grabbed and taken out the window by Lucce over the garden, the neighbor's houses and gardens, high into the sky, the streets far below and then down suddenly to a playground on the hill.
"Let's play!" Lucce vibrated with excitement, changing colors – blue, purple, green – as it leapt on a swing. Och was timid in his swings, watching Lucce go much higher until it leapt high in the air and landed in the grass and then stood up straight and fell down like a piece of wood, rose up again, over and over, like a trapdoor to a secret world.
Och jumped down beside it and climbed into the suitcase and closed himself inside. Lucce seized it and threw it high into the branches, where it almost stayed, teetering, before falling, banging hard through the branches, spinning wildly, and crashed furiously to the ground. Lucce laughed and spun around in the tree, as Gem stared down at the inert suitcase, thinking she must go down and get Och out when it opened suddenly, brilliant starlight teeming out, and Och was there, climbing the tree, ready to do it again.
Lucce stood straight up, duplicated itself as a swarm of animals streamed out of the forest, starburst sparking off their skin, making incredible noises, screeching and cooing flooding toward one another. They were flying too – Lucce, Och and Gem – into the sky, and the suitcase appeared again, and they flew into that and were once again on the bed.
Gem emerged from Within. "Where did that come from, Och? A dream?"
Och didn't seem to hear.
"Och, where were we? Within is based on memories and experiences, not imagination, not like that."
"It wasn't imagination, Gem."
"Lucce is my childhood friend."
"When you were alone, for pretend?"
"Not at all."
Gem closed her eyes, still caught up in the wonder of Och's magical world. "Well, he's an idea then? Something you created."
He smiled briefly. "If anything, it created me."
The pods were deserted, a lone Kiki idling overhead, hovering through a passageway and gone, the cats glancing suspiciously around the emptiness, a ghost land, as they came out the door.
"Not today." Em snapped a collar on both and pulled them back into the apartment. Icarus eyed her suspiciously, edging back, resisting as she pulled him forward by his forepaw. She grabbed them by the scruff of their necks and harnessed them together. "You'll thank me later."
They looked back at her, chewing at the straps and trying to wrench off the collars. Em snapped her fingers at the floor and waited for them to lie down as she considered the images of Mina on the Bearing screen, the planet tiny against a band of stars, and then another angle, closer, alone in the dark, looking green and lost. Apollo heaved back.
"Apollo, enough!" She slapped her hand against the counter and watched him acquiesce. She was glad that Calli hadn't stayed at Didi Pod and went with Q to Miya where the strain on the outer wall had already been detected. It was odd that she felt they would be safer together, even if they would go where it was worst, probably to Piursa, to save everyone who was seeking to be with Chantal, where it was worst, at the center of the Deceleration.
Despite all engineering efforts, every attempt to create drag – the fences, sails, bowls, the gills, the initial detonations, the accelerators and colliders – we remain at Hawking 4X. We are going a hundred thousand times too fast. Chantal was on the Bearing, her tight blue Anori jumpsuit a throwback to the mission in Greenland, zipped down to the middle of her cleavage, her hair pulled back into a bun, sunglasses in her left hand. Her massive eyes and lips eclipsed the image of Mina behind her. Her voice was grave, excitedly so, the catastrophic moment ahead and she there to tell the story from inside Piursa, its screens open on a panorama of galaxial images – the brilliant radius of stars, the distant wing of the galaxy, and then Proxima 3 and Proxima 4, the stars turning into suns, and Mina, dull green in the blackness, each of the images layered against the other, a series of three-dimensional telescopic sections placed together, a number projected beneath: .667, the target number for Deceleration. Chantal was tethered to a complex swing, from a MARA, like a swinging space-aged Herian 1970s chair. We must reduce this number, this number, .8918, to .6671. That's the target. That's what we're watching for today here on the Tak Deck, watching Piursa, in the bow of our great ship, the immense Dante immediately to my right, where the detonations will occur. And this is where we will stay right to the end, until that number changes to .6671. We need to be secure for this spectacular moment!
A second image appeared from Sooja Pod, rotating with the images from Tak Deck, Och surrounded by dozens of Ethis, in every shape and size, dancing and flying together, spinning in an immense circle, a twittering, reverberating sound rising from their core.
Chantal swung around on her harness as a low sound flooded out, the long wash of a heavy wave onto the beach, growing louder and then gone, as someone let out a scream.
The first of the murmurs have been released! Chantal proclaimed. They are here! The murmuration has been initiated!
Another 62 susurrations! Och's voice appeared.
A message floated across Em's Bearing screen, Together forever, a cherub dancing beneath, Q's sense of humor. She typed her reply – You're no angel – deleted that, and, as certain as her son was, how brilliant and confident, she replied simply. Be careful.
Ovi! Chantal had gone into the audience around her, the camera revealing every of the hundreds of seats in the Piursa filled. How are you feeling after our first murmuration?
Oh, hey Chantal. Ovi nodded to himself, staring into the Casino Galaxy platform on his Bearing. Well, yeah.
Are you excited about the murmurations?
Ovi held up his Bearing, the numbers floating before them. Solaris gives us 93.4% odds.
Oh, wow, Ovi, that's so great. 93%!
Yeah, well, against, Chantal. That's, like, 7% in our favor.
93.4%! Sid laughed too loudly beside him. That's down at least .42%, buddy!
92%! Ovi yelled out. House always wins!
Nothing to worry about, Chantal promised. Just keep your arms crossed across your chest, not too tight, but held together. Hang tight to your straps and keep your head down. That's the most important thing. Keep your head down.
It's up to 94.1 again! Sid waved at Chantal, excited.
Oh, what's the number? Chantal swayed back toward him.
It's bad! He laughed crazily. Just one of those things to tell your grand babies on Mina.
Oh buddy! Ovi hunched over his Bearing, a pair of Kings and an Eight in the flop and tapped out another bet. They don't have it.
They don't have anything, buddy! Sid agreed.
We're getting a report from Dante. Chantal swung back, the screens of Proxima 3 and 4 once again dominating behind her. We have a report, a report. Another murmuration. She looked down to her Bearing and back to the audience gravely. At any moment.
Ovi waved absently. Nice knowing you and everything.
The murmuration! Chantal tightened the harness around her shoulders and waist. To all my dear viewers, you need to brace for impact. Brace for impact.
Em swiped through her screens, from Chantal to Mina, waiting for Q's reply to materialize, but there were only the scrolling public messages: Stay safe, everyone. Love from Trane to Miya. My heart is pounding. Enjoy the ride! Next stop, Mina. She refreshed her message screen as another susurration hit, this one sharper, and then slid down, like the ship had hit a ramp and gone off the edge. Em watched the images on Piursa vacillate, shimmering for a moment and then lose focus, vertical waves
coming up in front of everything like heat from a radiator, the number now .8989
Six susurrations, Och announced. We have reached six susurrations.
Another wave hit, the ship pausing, as an anorthite plate suddenly snapped out from the ceiling and toppled out onto the stairs. The images of the galaxy flickered and snapped, the number vanished.
Chantal stepped forward and back, hunching down, turning back to see the screens flickering and fading. The roof is falling in here at the Tak Deck. It is falling. The roof is falling. An anorthite plate has collapsed from the canopy and crashed into our
audience. Is anybody hurt? She became hysterical when she tuned back to see the number wasn't there. Our number is gone! We don't know what the number is. Can we fix this?! We need to get this fixed! Fix the number!
My Bearing's dead! Ovi yelled behind her. I had Kings!
Brace for impact! Brace for impact! Chantal swung on her tethers, twisting over her shoulder to the camera, with a marked looked of excited determination. Brace for impact!
Icarus and Apollo wedged themselves under Em's chaise, flattening their haunches out, digging the claws in, as she checked her messages again.
Ashe was with Po in the Uumasut. There were others there too, nervously huddled with their boochies, Shanshan among them.
"How many more will there be?" Ashe played with Po's panda jacket, twisting it at the wrist.
"The ship will break." Po's spoke too loudly.
Po looked at Shanshan, as she approached, a lemur-pygmy sloth boochy on her shoulder. "It's going to break apart?"
"It has to," Po replied.
"Where's your Respi?" Ashe demanded. "You need your Respi, Shanshan."
Shanshan clutched the boochy to her chest. "I have it."
"Keep it close." Ashe rolled the whistle-like cylinder in her hands. "There could be a breach, and then what do we do?"
"What about your boochy, Shanshan?" Po asked. "You have one for him?"
Shanshan pulled the creature up to her face. "My little bear is safe with me. Aren't you, little bear?"
"Your little bear will die," Po replied.
"Don't say that," Shanshan gasped.
Ashe was going to turn to Po and make her be nice but there was an odd blue-white light and then she was flying. It felt like nothing. It was more the sound of something breaking. That's what scared her. Flying toward the wall was almost fun, as fast as it was. It was different anyway. Po was beside her and they were flying another way. And then she couldn't get her leg out from against a support, and Po was putting the Respi in her nose. There was a shrieking sound. She couldn't tell if it was something breaking or leaking, and then realized it was Bryce. He was screaming like a wounded cat.
"Bryce." It came out just as a whisper, trapped in her head. She was going to yell but didn't have the energy. It was his problem anyway. She just wanted him to stop. She didn't like she was going to die like this, with that horrible noise. And then she realized her Respi was slipping out. She was getting less air. She tried to get her leg out again but that wasn't going to happen, and so she just lay back, blacked out the screaming and watched the velvet of the universe come through the opening crack.
Em had stepped outside of herself. That was the first thing that came to her. She was here and she was not. Em and not Em, or another Em anyway. Nothing was there, no edges, no focus, and yet it wasn't that. The taste was the most concrete thing, chalky, burnt, creamy, sweet, almost lemon. And it wasn't so much in her mouth. It was more in her nose, almost in her ears. She was hearing a burnt lemon come through her; that's what she thought or knew when she realized she had already thought that. It was the same for Chantal, the images broadcasting again at the Piursa.
I don't know how to describe… Chantal stared back agape.
I don't know how to describe… Chantal stared back agape the same, but it wasn't again. It was the same thing, the same moment, side by side, together.
I can see…think, I can think… She opened and closed her mouth, stunned.
I can see…think, I can think… She opened and closed her mouth, as stunned as she had been, a repeat, but not, the same moment, identical, as she continued ahead, to live in the future.
Em turned around sharply like she would catch herself watching. And she did. She was seeing herself do that, turn around to see and then she wasn't or was doing that again, and she did it again and saw herself doing that again, a rewound moment that was now. The ship was in a split dimension, no longer at Hawking 4X. That's what she thought and thought it again. They were no longer at Hawking 4X. They were stopping too fast or not fast enough, and now in long trails, her hand blurring, the cats jumping on each other, the same, melding into one, some kind of singularity, or the Decoherence Virus in full force. Em felt herself going backwards and couldn't stop that. She let it happen and saw herself sitting, her knees pulled to her chest. A girl was coming up the beach out of the setting sun, the waves running up to her knees. It was Dee. She bent down to pick up a shell, a stone, and looked at that.
Chantal beamed, realizing something before she did. We're in some kind of…
Chantal beamed, identical, again, remembering what she would see. We're in some kind of…
Echo. She waited. Here and here.
Echo. It was getting tighter together, the pause not as long. Here and-
We're slowing. Och appeared beside her.
Slowing. Och beside himself.
The Piursa… Chantal looked gravely back and forth between her screens.
Piursa… Chantal looked gravely back and forth between her screens, more impatient now.
Chantal knew what she was going to say and she watched herself thinking that, thinking that she would reach down before the other her thought the same.
The collapse at Piursa was instantaneous, all of it snapped shut in a dreadful silence, there and then not, the entirety of the space folded into nothing, there and then not, an impossible thing, and yet as simple as that. Over. There had been a wavering
moment, the edges vibrating, waves of energy coming through, and then everything, everyone, Ovi, Sid, U, Chantal, everyone gone, molecules now in a different form. The screen now dark. Nothing.
Em didn't understand how it was gone and then why the rest of the ship hadn't followed. She knew that it couldn't be contained just there, only in Piursa. Everything had to follow. The anorthite could not hold. She knew that. Everyone did. That was that. But it wasn't. Instead she just floated up, Apollo upside down above her, looking back, wide-eyed, waiting for her to catch him. Icarus was not as patient, wheeling around, swinging wildly at the harness, trying to catch onto the chaise long, which he did, and then flipping upside down with that as it twisted up to the ceiling.
The echoes were still there, although it was more of a throbbing now, bulging out from her head, as she caught the edge of the counter and looked again at the screen of three-dimensional black, scrolling through the empty screens for news of Piursa. Nothing from Q. Calli too, and Ashe. There was nothing she could do and reached out to catch Apollo's forepaw behind her as he scratched her back. "Goddamn cat."