Fiction: Aqaara – Part 16
We are pleased to introduce the 16th and final 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 15 –– is here.
"Q! Faster!" Calli tried to steer around Q through the portal, push herself down the wall, to get to out of Didi Pod to the Uumasut.
"We're no good to anybody dead, Calli." Q guided his MARA through the portal, waiting for the Bearing's pressure readings for Dee Pod, and then out the gap, down toward the collapsed Uumasut, the front of it squashed down, like a turtle smashed into the ground. Calli broke past Q, too quickly, her stomach suddenly in her throat, scraping, bouncing off the ground, and pulled at the bent entrance, the anorthite bubbles bobbing up and down, her whole body snapping back up, but it wouldn't give. Q pushed
ahead of her and snapped open a device that bore, cut and toppled the frame to create a passageway in.
The pressure sucked up, an impossible rip current one way and then another, slamming them hard into the anorthite landscape. Calli grabbed onto the verbena, but it just tore out and swung her around into Q, making him lose his grip, and then his leg hard against her shoulder as both toppled into a cave, the same place she had spent her childhood years with Ashe, Icarus and Finn.
"Wait," Q commanded.
But she didn't. She swung around the lip, rattling hard to the ground where the sea had been, her wrist bent backwards, as a swirling white and grey mass of anorthite grit spattering against her, collecting at the edge of her Respi, so bad she couldn't spit
any of it out, and was swung back by the undertow, spinning in a ball along right inside the Nuuk. The anorthite cloud sucked past, everything suddenly clear, bent cannisters, strips of paneling, trees and pipes, bunches of fabric, shreds of things she didn't understand, and then the body of a boy she didn't know, his arms grotesquely bent backwards, swirling in a cyclone, almost dead center of the sphere, and then banking into the wall. Calli gripped the edge of something that was once supposed to be a habitat and tried to push off, only to be grabbed by Q, and heaved back as broken anorthite broke apart all around.
The jagged ends embedded into the walls, into the dust, until there was only the distant sounds of engines and the vacuum of space. Another cyclone of dirt and debris hit. Wires, panels and anorthite shards spat out from the vortex, as they skittered against the wall, protecting themselves against that, toward a mound of half-bent things – tubes and clumps and half-broken doors – and used that as a shelter the deafening wave grew louder, the mound swelling out, the wall across from her right there, a trio of figures huddled against the remnants of something, one of them Ashe, definitely her. And Po, brilliant orange. Calli lurched across the vacuum's current, her MARA faltering, thinking it might give in, as the tide turned again and thrust her hard into the struts at the side of her sister.
"Calli?" Bryce leapt at her, grabbing her by the throat, like he might choke her. "Calli! Please!"
Calli swung her arm into him, pinning him there, holding his shoulder hard against the underside of the sloped-down wall.
"Get me out of here!" He flailed desperately.
"Get me out!" He hung off her weakly, like a flag with no wind. "Please."
Calli turned to her sister, the anorthite support jagged up through her shoulder, keeping her fastened like a piece of equipment, her head lolling back and forth inside the helmet, limp and lifeless.
"No power." Po flashed back and forth around her. "No power."
Calli grabbed at the pole and tried to break it from its mount, twisting it back and forth, her sister's head banging with that, and suddenly Po vanished behind her into that tiny gap and severed it from the wall. Calli gripped Ashe's face, held it to hers, the cool warmth of her skin a marvelous, miraculous thing that she would hold forever, thinking this was all she would ever need, and the sound stopped. It was over. And then Q was there, his hand against Ashe's neck and inserted a tube as he pulled out the Respi and, gripping the anorthite support, had her up against him. He turned to Calli, pushing Bryce against her. "Get him."
Q was already away, Ashe wrapped to his side, Po tightly following, as another wave of anorthite scattered around them.
Calli heaved Bryce's limp body with her, watching desperately after Q and her sister, ahead and then lost in the raging white grey storm, until they were out, like a switch had been it, and they were in the half quiet, wondering what was next.
The planet sat idly, not a projection, almost oppressive, so much of it in their sky, all of their view that, a planet, real, absorbing their light. Ashe stared down into the thick swaths of clouds, grey, white and black, a dull grey pink at the sides, across the bottom of the panorama, the vertiginous south, far from the suns, the ice shield dominating the bottom, the primary sun, Proxima One, far to the north, the secondary, Proxima Two, and then the moon, Gor, the smallest of the four, orbiting in concert with Mina.
She stretched out on her chaise as she stripped off her socks and pressed her feet flat against the anorthite glass. Her heel felt hard and cold, the flesh not even there, not part of her, her toes amazing, anemones in some deep ocean current, each one living a life of its own, thrusting out, like they were searching for bits to eat in the water, each of them moving, tapping against the glass. She thought of letting her feet slide down, to make sure that they were still connected to her, and the feeling was gone. They were just toes again, just her feet.
The second sun, Proxima Two, slid behind Mina, quickly gone, not even an aura, darkness now along the horizon. She didn't like the idea of being on the planet, exposed like a bug on the surface, trapped in that nebulous emptiness, an inevitable victim of evisceration. The first sun, Apollo Major was behind the ship, sharp, the same cold hard light she had been told of on Hera.
"You look good." Calli arrived, touching her sister's neck, well away from the scar, still raw, frayed at the edges, that stretched across her tattoo of Cx. "Getting your color back."
Ashe bent her arm up, caught Calli's fingers and held them against her face, like she was a fledgling that needed warmth and might vanish without pure concentration. "I was so mad at you."
Calli could still picture the slanted edge of the anorthite sticking out, the dull white splinters of collarbone pushing out of her flesh. "What did I do?"
"It was worse than I can tell it, Calli. Much worse than that."
Calli wanted to pull her sister close but was scared to lose the marvel of their hands together. "Where's Po? I thought she would be here."
"She's singing at the naming ceremonies."
"You know that one of mother's Ethis is naming herself Dee2?"
Ashe looked back at the planet, the swirls of condensation that covered the surface, thickest, darkest at the top. It made her tired, intensely so, all of that down there, so massive and tiny at the same time. It was easier being in the eternal blackness with nothing but her imagination. She felt her eyes droop and then her fingers not working, thinking she might be doing something, erasing that thought, forgetting, asleep again. She opened her eyes and looked again at the new world. It almost made sense in her head. It was a wonder. Was that the word? No. There was another word. She needed to sleep. Not sleep. Just be here. "She was here."
"Dee2? What did it want?"
"To see how I was doing, I guess. Like you."
"It isn't like me. It's its programming."
Ashe almost laughed and coughed instead as she retracted her hand. "You sound like her."
"She would say that," Ashe affirmed.
"I don't know, Ashe. I'm not against them. Ethis are part of everything, I know that, but they're not us."
Ashe curled tight onto the chaise as she looked up at Calli. "Know what I think about? Cx."
"Don't start that."
"What would she do next?" Ashe felt tiny and young again. "Remember Count Swanskin?"
"Who's at the naming then? All of the Ethis are there?"
"I loved Count Swanskin, Calli. I really did." She was talking in her sleep. "Cx was happy there, Lassiter too. They lived with him and he made her a countess. She had everything she had dreamed of."
"What is Po? Like the officiant or something?"
"And then she left." Ashe stretched her arms out and watched her hands against the surface of Mina, her fingers play through the storm currents. "She left."
Calli tapped the glass where the light was rising on the left, Proxima Two coming back. "She had to find her sister, Ashe."
"She had to find her sister. That's what I'm saying."
"What are you saying? They're made-up stories about our mother."
"I'll never forget when she told me that Cx had left. I couldn't believe it. It just wasn't possible for that to happen." Ashe brought her hands together, her spread-out fingers touching like starfish. "She couldn't leave. And she did."
"That was just something that happened to our mother, Ashe; she was with Fitz and his family, and they took care of her. That's what the story was about."
"She shouldn't have left, Calli. I know that." She could feel her eyes closing again. "I still think that."
Calli lost the clarity that she had briefly, or thought she had had; it was just she and her sister, as they always had been, not sure about anything at all.
"I had all of these stories in my head, with Cx queen and Lassiter king."
"I brought this for you."
Ashe looked around and saw Calli holding a helmet, their mother's from when she had first come to the ship, her hands stretched wide, white at the tips.
The green of the planet glowed dimly off the lacquered Herian-made surface. "I want you to have it."
Ashe tried to swing around but caught herself with the pain in her side and shoulder and slumped back stupidly.
"You have to be careful."
She curled back up, one leg left lazily out. "Where did you find that?"
"Em gave it to me a while back." She passed it to Ashe.
Ashe rubbed her hands over it, like a crystal ball, bobbled it and lost her grip, and watched it roll and bounce across the floor.
Calli grabbed it, returning it to Ashe's lap as she stepped over her sister and looked down to where the largest of the moons, Gor, appeared on the horizon, small in the darkness and then something of substance, sharp against the black, coming toward them. "Try to hold onto it this time."
Ashe pulled the helmet over her head, struggling to get it down, rotating it back and forth, looking up at her sister. "How do I look? Like Enchantress Cx?"
"I don't know about that."
Ashe let her head droop, sliding her helmeted head against her sister's legs, and pulled the visor down as they watched Gor approach, right on their course, looming bigger and bigger, remarkable and beautiful, so clear and bright, and so close, like they might really go right into it, making both of them recoil involuntarily as it sailed past. "In orbit, about to descend."
It made Ashe scared how her sister said it, a hollow thing, something leading to a complete and utter end. "I'm happy you're still here."
Calli stared back at her, intent.
Ashe sat, abrupt and stiff, grunting. "People talk about their dreams, right? They want to walk on the sand, the sunset, but they will never do that. What they're going to do is huddle in the ship, in the Tarsi, arms crossed, and think about doing those things, being happy and everything, when they never will."
Calli rotated her Bearing between her forefinger and thumb, let it drop to her palm and caught it with her pinky, spun it back up with her index and rotated it again. "If there's sand, I'm walking on it."
"You're going down?"
"Ashe, it's what I always said I would do. We both did."
"Did we?" Ashe smiled at her. "I don't remember that."
"You're staying on the ship?"
"There's something beautiful about being in orbit, right? Not going anywhere, around and around, back to the same place nine times every day. It's like Hawking 4X. Always in the same place but never."
Calli looked down at her younger sister, thinking how much tighter the curve was in her chin, how her eyes looked smaller, everything about her so different. "I should stay with you."
"Yes, you should." Ashe gave the helmet back to her sister. "But you won't."
"I have to go."
"No, I mean, the committee."
"Yes, Calli, I know."
Calli went down the ramp, past the people at the gates, along the front edge of the hospital, one foot and then the next, ahead across Zaha into Dee Pod, stopping to look through the portal of what remained of Sooja, the people standing there, none of it meaning anything, into Trane and Didi, through the crowds of people rebuilding the Sortavut there, glancing around them, not stopping, looking for the emptiness ahead, moving faster into Miya, empty, and faster still, finally to Eno, the portal to Zenobia sealed, turning away and going back, through all of the remaining pods again – Eno, Miya, Trane, Didi, Dee, Zaha – and stopping at the barrier to Dante, staring at the locked panels, no one going in or coming out, nobody, thinking she might try to open it or just kick it in, and turned away to begin the journey again.
The Seventeenth and First Minian Council, chaired by Liyuan, Gem and Ohz, Evie's converted Ethi, convened to finalize the damage from the Deceleration – 245 human and Atavok lives lost, all but nine of the Ethis obliterated, Tak Deck gone, Zenobia and Sooja Pods reduced to fragments, Dante's core no longer there, Solaris operating at a tenth of its capacity, creating Bearing malfunctions – and more importantly celebrate their remarkable survival, their speed a manageable Hawking 0.003 as they maintained orbit and established the Descent Committee with AJ as Chair. Deceleration Day was made the 21st holiday on the Anorian Calendar, to be Day One as well. Po, the ceremonial regent, appeared on the Sortavuts, and vocalized the experience.
The Nuuk had been rebuilt, a quarter version of itself, lower to the ground, the surrounding Uumasut rubble cleared, a small terrain prepared with copse of trees and stream leading through a trio of ponds. Shanshan worked with Bryce, organizing DNA strands, initiating replications and gestations, preparing the primogeniture species for the Minian environment.
"How is he doing?" Bryce walked over to Shanshan in a stiff awkward gait and bent over Shanshan's shoulder.
"Be careful." She held her elbow out, protective of the pink creature, its stomach and face covered with a downy layer of whitish fur, its naked pink legs reaching out.
"How is he?"
"It's a she, Bryce." She daubed a minute drop of liquid at its mouth. "Formulae number seven."
Bryce leaned down closer. "Looks like a boochie to me."
"We're done with those, Bryce."
"Just saying it could be a cool one – an oce-roo, right? An ocelot-kangaroo mix, something like that."
"She will be a full-sized ocelot, Bryce." Shanshan looked around at him. "The first of her kind on Mina."
"The fisher cells are stable," he replied. "The organisms are responded optimally to the protean charges."
"The fishers have always been hardy at the initiating stages." Shanshan turned back to the kitten as it tentatively tried the milk. "It's the introduction of their reproductive glands that we have to monitor. Ms. Sinclair always talked about that."
"That's months away," Bryce confirmed.
"After we get them down to Mina."
Bryce limped back to the microscope bay, suddenly stumbling forward and catching himself on the counter.
"You all right?" Shanshan asked.
"Stupid legs." Bryce jumped spritely up and down on the spot. "The left one kind of pops out when I don't expect it."
"You'll get them working again. It takes time."
"We've completed the sequencing for Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrels, Hoary Marmots, Grasshopper Mice, Northern Fur Seals, Bobcats and Black-Tailed Jack Rabbits." He scrolled through his Bearing screen, inputting figures. "The American Fisher puts us at 36 species."
"34, Bryce." She daubed another drop of milk, intent on the ocelot's tongue snapping out. "I terminated the marmots, both strains, like I told you. The Deceleration damaged the error-checking mutations."
"May I see the data?" The Dee-like Ethi, now named Dee2, appeared.
Shanshan nodded at it. "Hi, Dee2."
"Terminated the marmots on what data?" it repeated.
"Anomalies," Shanshan replied without looking back. "Anomalies that established inevitable mutation."
"What data, Shanshan?"
"The strands do not separate properly. The inherent error-checking devices are stunted and the growth fails in its bi-directional development. Ultimately there are no complements and no stable synthesis. It's always the same, Dee2, in varying degrees."
Dee2 peered into Bryce's electron microscope briefly. "The environments should be expanded in the Uumasut. Bolero, Vina and Illu should be the first."
"The Uumasut environments?" Shanshan replied.
"Bolero, Vina and Illu."
"We have to prepare for the descent; that is our sole priority."
Dee2 inspected a microscope and then a series of projections. "I have initiated the reprogramming of these SENSA environments."
"The reconstitution of Bolero, Vina and Illu," Dee2 replied.
"You're rebuilding the Uumasut?" Bryce clarified.
Shanshan stood up from the incubator. "We have closed those programs."
"I have reopened them, Shanshan." Dee2 leaned forward and inspected the ocelot kitten.
"You're taking over the Uumasut, Dee2?" Shanshan leaned down beside her, more protective of the kitten than anything. "Is that some kind of council decision?"
Dee2 straightened up again. "I would appreciate it if you could share your expertise whenever you might be available."
"I appreciate your enthusiasm, both Bryce and I appreciate your interest and enthusiasm, but that is not our priority."
Dee2 turned away, briefly twisting and vanishing and then reappearing at the DNA banks. "You have focused primarily on land mammals, Shanshan. I would like to begin the development of the avians and amphibians."
Shanshan stepped toward her, pausing a few feet away. "Dee2, what do you remember of Ms. Sinclair?"
"I remember everything."
"What is your strongest memory of hers? Do you remember being young? Being on Hera?"
Dee2 looked back at Shanshan intently. "I remember hiding in the flowers, the dirt, the sun coming through the leaves, the cool air."
"What about Calli and Ashe?" Shanshan asked. "What do you remember about them when they were small?"
"I remember when they were born. That is vivid."
"Do you remember Ms. Sinclair coming here to the Uumasut? Do you remember how she felt about being here? Do you remember how she felt when she came in here and killed all of those kittens and cubs? Do you remember that feeling in her?"
It looked back, waiting.
"Do you remember that? Killed everything, one by one, every little thing? Do you remember that? I sure as hell remember it."
"Shanshan, none of these things will occur again." It extracted a DNA slab and set that on the counter. "We will prepare the animals for descent. And we will rebuild the Uumasut. We will do both together."
Em had been to The Universe Within many times, often taking the path through the bent grass and entangled succulents to the crest of the dunes, down to the beach, wide and empty in both directions.
"Och brought me here when I was a child." Em maintained a brisk pace ahead of Gem across the hard-packed sand. "Off season, when there were only a few people out with their dogs. Icarus would tear past us, chasing all of them down."
Gem considered the sun, muted through the mist and cloud. "No dogs today."
Em jumped down a ridge, closer to the surf, where the sand was soft and it was more difficult to walk. "Sometimes we were just alone."
They watched the heavy seas curl and build, the tumultuous water brown and green, broil onto itself, contort and smash, vanish into foam.
Em looked up the beach, squinting into the glare, and then down the other way. She stayed like that, holding her gaze, and then finally turned back to the dunes, from where they had come. She looked at Gem. "I keep expecting to see her somewhere."
"You can generate anything you want from your memories," Gem replied. "You control the content."
"Not Within." Em started walking again. "Well, it could be here too, yes. I suppose that's why I came."
"So not Dee?"
Em looked at her steadily, intent. "You really didn't have that feeling, Gem? It was so intense in me. I was divided in half."
Gem nodded. "The Deceleration."
"I was two at once, two beings, side by side." Em's voice was only barely above the surf. "We were two, distinct and real and the same. Where had she gone?"
"The effects of time dilation," Gem said.
"I could reach out and touch that person. She was there. Or I was there. We were both there."
Gem watched a wave crash high onto the beach and rush towards them.
"She was there." Em walked through the foam and water. "More than that, Gem, I knew that she would always be there. I knew that. I have never been so certain of anything. And then she wasn't."
"Like being cloned." Gem remembered her awful dream, watching herself strapped down, paralyzed with fear, others of her too, a line of herself, the exact same, stretching back, just standing there, mute, watching as the contraption slid forward and the flat metal tablet smashed deep into her face, obliterated her head, and then continued along, her body quivering in spastic death bursts, then pierced by a phalanx of rods, mutilating it in its entirety, everyone, all of her selves, knowing that they were next. She shook her hands out, trying to get rid of the feeling. "AJ calls it an echo."
Em stopped and let the water race back over her ankles. "It was more than that. It was a duplicate sense of my very self, not a clone, but the exact same. There were two of me."
"It was all in our heads."
Gem looked sideways at Em and laughed.
"What are you going to do on Mina?" Em asked. "What's the first thing you want to do?"
"Yes, on Mina."
"I would like to walk," Gem said. "Just walk and walk and walk."
"And never come back."
"But the truth is that I'll probably only take a step, if that." Gem watched where the dark of the water met the bright of the sky. "the idea of looking up and seeing nothing there, nothing on every side. Sky and space. It's too much."
"I got used to living on the ship, didn't I?" Em replied. "Same thing."
"What are you going to do?"
Em pulled her feet out of the wet sand and picked up a stone, rubbing it in her palm. "I'm clueless, Gem. Utterly clueless."
"What do you think we'll find down there?"
"Fish." Em tried to skip the rock, but it just vanished into the swirl of water. "Some pretty big ones too."
"Let's hope they don't eat us."
Em tried another rock and missed that one too. "Not if we eat them first."
"We'll build nets," Gem replied. "Catch them all."
"Make everything safe again," Em added.
"Empty the seas," Gem continued.
"And fly off to another planet." A glare surged across the water, the reflection of the sun out of the clouds, as Em dried a stone on her shirt. "I used to think that there might be something else, something a bit better than that."
Gem pressed her fingers into the rock, knowing it wasn't that, not a rock, not anything but a dream inside Em's head, and she was with her in that, her thumb digging down a gap of the anorthite, her index finger too, and turned them back and forth, drilling slowly in. "Like what?"
Em skipped the stone perfectly this time, six distinct skips and then it sank, sliding backwards, into the foamy water. "Maybe something like that."