Maybe her toes curl over the edge. The view is vertiginous. Maybe her gaze is tethered to something along the horizon, so that she steps forward, to reach for it, and plummets. Past analysts and technicians and international arbitrators and project financiers and insurance salesman and automated messaging systems, past janitors and clean-bots wiping soap suds off rectangles of glass in mechanized sweeps, and is then a million custom-made, factory-spec’d pieces on the ground.
The vision turns static. She returns to the present, re-sees the too-bright light shining through the office window, the desk at which she sits, the tablet before her, the skirt to her pristine nurse attendant’s uniform with the unnecessary pocket over her left breast.
“We’ve another one.” Brianne turns to go, oak-colored hair bobbing where its edges curl against her neck. She turns back and sees the tablet. Sees the newspage with the splash of the deceased android’s parts all over the sidewalk, cordoned off by police tape. She frowns (in sympathy?) and shakes her head, much like a nurse is supposed to. “What is that, five now?”
Cecile rises from her seat. The tablet goes dark. The nurse smiles. “Where’s the patient?”
Cecile follows Brianne out the office and down the corridor where nurses stream, back and forth, intent on one task or another. The human ones are all perspiration and determined urgency. The mechanized ones are all forward gazes and chilled deliberation.
When they get to the operating room, Tom smiles a greeting at both of them before handing Brianne his clipboard, off which she reads as they enter.
“Came in this morning from the West Side. Sustained severe damage to the abdomen and the head. Brain case in need of replacement. Nervous system short-circuited. Initial scan shows his pain receptors are non-functional.” She puts down the clipboard, and they pass through another room and another until they enter a third where cleanbots are already sterilizing the chamber. On the metal slab rests the remains of a male android. The skin of his face has been peeled back to reveal the mechanical right eye socket. Oil and blood that looks like oil streak and pockmark the unsheathed left arm, patches of the same dotting the right wrist where it ends. The right hand lies, separated and unflexed, by the man’s foot. The legs, when Cecile prods them with gloved fingers, are loose. Unhinged gears poke against the skin from within. She runs her index over the point where one sharp end protrudes from the thigh.
Discomfort ghosts across Brianne’s face. Cecile schools her own features to show the same. Cecile’s tools sit on a tray by the bed. The surgical equipment hovers overhead. She makes a quick scan of the body, marvels at the extensive damage, lingers over the severed hand and the wrist to which she will attach it. The face, a half-grimace where it reveals false ivory teeth dotted with red and black, becomes a curiosity. She depresses a button, and the slab detaches at its center. The back half angles itself so that the damaged android sits up. With care, Cecile puts one hand to the man’s opened eyes, then tucks his head forward to exam the socket at the back of his head. She runs the fingers of her free hand along its ridges, picking out patches of scalp that had come loose.
“Have a connector brought in, please.”
“For later. In case he has sustained damage to his internal organs. There may be things I missed during my initial scan. I would like very much to see if there is deeper wounding.”
In a matter of seconds, Cecile is alone with the corpse. She pulls a chair closer and feels her face loosen, muscles relaxing from the soured expression she forgot she’d frozen them into for Brianne’s sake. For several minutes, she stares at the body. The muscles attached to the skeleton are lean and she imagines them flexed. The torso, which, when she peels the skin away, she can see in its entirety, has acquired a flatness. But telltale depressions tell the story of blows received. She presses against his side, closes her eyes, and sees the imagined memory of flesh rippling against the fist or blunt object that must have struck him there.
With a start, she opens her eyes and realizes where she is. Sparing him one last glance, she calls down her tools and begins to work. First, the legs. She tests the feet with the pressure of her fingers to detect deficiencies, then peels away the skin along his ankle to cure what infirmities she finds there. Her tools sizzle along the metal as she works. Smoke curls into her eyes, but she does not wipe it away. She sees with perfect clarity the fusing of sinew and steel and, where one had been separated from the other, she leans closer and joins them together.
That fucking jab.
You know it’s all he’s got, so you try to anticipate it, and maybe once or twice you pin him with a counter hook and stagger him good. But whenever you corner him on the ropes, his head is never where you want it to be, so you go down to the body, but his elbows are like an extra plate of armor and before you know it, you’ve punched yourself over the ropes and he’s behind you. Just as you turn, he pings you with that jab. You stomp towards him and you’re at the center of the ring right where you started.
You’re the better puncher by half. When you catch him slipping, that thudding connect is the most satisfying sound in the world.
It’s too quiet. All you can hear right now, outside your own breathing, is feet shuffling against canvas. You’ve rarely been the bully in a fight, but you feel like one now. And already, you know how this is gonna play out.
The early rounds, he’s waiting for you to punch yourself out, so in the middle rounds when you’re slowed down, you’re just a standing target and he can let loose. But you know this, so you throw combos judiciously, and where they miss, they miss, and where they land, they slow him down just a little bit. But bulbs are flashing in your head and all of a sudden there’s a film of red over your left eye, like half a pair of old 3-D glasses and your ear won’t stop ringing from that right hook half a round ago, then it’s over. The bell rings, and you just now hear it. The other guy’s lucky the ref came between you two, or maybe you are, ‘cause now you can go back to your corner, fall onto your stool and catch your breath. Of all the defective parts you had to be made with, you got bum lungs.
They tend to you, swab the cut over your eye and splash water on your face, force the straw of a waterbottle between your teeth, and jabber in your ringing ear about watching the jab, moving your head, slipping past him. But all you can think about is how badly you want to hit him. Just one good straight. Or a hook, right to the temple, to send him rocking where you can charge after him and the bell rings and you’re back up, bouncing on your feet, gloves together at your stomach, stepping forward to begin again.
He looks at you like the fight just started.
Maybe she’s barefoot, and the silt squeezes her toes.
Maybe she hears the crickets and the cicadas and is reminded of her home in the Bayou.
By now the water is up her nose. It slides up each nasal cavity and chills her brain like ice cream eaten from a wafflecone too quickly.
Maybe she keeps walking until she can’t feel the ground shift beneath her feet. Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. Until the ripples caused by her descent have stilled and the crickets and cicadas and their music can no longer be heard.
Cecile finishes scrubbing him, making sure to get the soot out from under his repaired toenails, clearing away the ash from behind his ear. She combs through his hair for small flecks of blood or char caught along his scalp and washes assiduously the skin inside his thighs where they flank his genitalia and where they had grayed with continuous contact. He looks like he’s sleeping or like he’s been turned off. The light shines cold on him. The air smells of burning.
When she finishes, her instruments rise into their slots overhead and seal over with glass. She steps back to better examine him in his entirety. He looks somehow less without his injuries. The smoothness, the ridges of muscle unperturbed, the face made whole, all of it has been rendered plain, its edges burnished, like a palimpsest.
She feels nothing but the emptiness of inactivity. The mechanic at rest.
Her search engine alert pings, and her eyes glaze over as she reads the newsfeed. An android’s body has been retrieved from the bottom of a lake.
She turns to leave so the others can go to work preparing the man for his physical therapy, but movement out of the corner of her eye stops her.
It’s the eureka moment, that uppercut.
You slip his jab, and when he bobs, he’s not expecting the uppercut, so the knuckles beneath your glove connect with his chin and his head snaps back, and you feel like you’ve finally turned it around. He hesitates the next time he tries to weave and dodge your shots. His jab isn’t as trip-hammery as it was a few rounds ago. It still wallops you, though.
He’s planting more often, willing to stand in one place and trade shots and you don’t know if he’s just tired or crazy, and you look in his eyes and that’s when you see it. A dullness that tells you his elevator no longer goes up to the top floor. Suddenly, even though your shots stagger him and his brain should be telling his legs to fold, they don’t and he comes back. His hands have slowed and he doesn’t catch the hooks like he used to. The smack is as satisfying a sound as you’ve ever heard. But he won’t be finished.
All the while, he’s got that vacancy in his eyes, one of which is swollen shut. You’re waiting for the ref to call a standing knockout, the kid can hardly see, but the ref is shaking his head, so you keep beating the kid, and when he can, he looks at you, and you realize he doesn’t want it to stop either.
It haunts you, that look. Then you wonder why you feel haunted, why you feel bad for doing this to him, and by the end of the fight when the announcer gets ready to give the judges’ scores and their verdict, you glance in the kid’s direction and while his supporters crowd around him and congratulate him for lasting as long as he did, he’s smiling at something none of them can see. The fight you just won feels more like a fight you just lost.
The cameras flash and the lights make the ringing in your ear even worse, then the light gets to be too much and you’re on a slab of metal staring into a bulb in a room that’s all metal and glass. You’re not wearing your trunks and a woman is standing over you and staring at you.
She’s somewhere else, this woman, all dolled up like a nurse. And you wonder if, at that point in the fight where you figured out that uppercut, that kid wasn’t half-smiling almost like this nurse is doing now.
You wonder if she fixed you up too good. You’re faster than you were before. When you shadowbox, your hands are a blur. You’d notice it in the mirror if you paid attention, but you’re too busy dancing to music only you can hear. Jab, straight, jab, uppercut, hook. Jab, hook, hook, straight, hook. You circle while you throw them, and everything feels new, and the urge rises in you to push it further, to go for longer, and with a start, you realize that you’re still doing it, you haven’t slowed down. Your bum lungs haven’t gotten in the way, not this time.
The round bell buzzes, and you stand straight and realize you’re not even sweating. Something’s wrong. It niggles the back of your brain, but you’re too jazzed by what you can do to do anything but shove the worry down to a place where it can’t bother you.
The round bell buzzes again, and you work on the heavybag. The power shots thud with even more satisfaction. The bag swings back and forth, arcs higher and higher, and when the bell shrieks again, you hold the bag still and rest your head against it, barely huffing, eyes wide in marvel at this newness. You hold silent communion during that sixty-second rest. Then when it’s over, you’re a fucking whirling dervish.
When the fights get easier and easier, you try to find joy in other places. It’s not the winning that matters anymore. It turns into a game, figuring out different ‘how’s’. You try a fight where you stay on the outside even though the guy across from you’s got a good extra inch on you in reach, and you tune him up so that his kidneys start malfunctioning and, eventually, his legs give out. Then you try fighting from the center, waiting for the other guy to come charging in like you used to, and you weave, and you make him look like a bum with all that missing, then suddenly, a cut opens over his eye and his nose is busted, practically hanging off, and his cheekbone’s been bashed in and you’ve earned your fifth stoppage.
The botfight commission reps won’t call you out on augmentations because all your parts check out. The scans show nothing amiss, no banned chemicals in your system, just good fucking parts. And you forget what it’s like to get hit.
When it happens, it’s thunder behind your eyes and you wonder how he caught you. He’s not faster than you. But he’s a puncher and when he dings you again, maybe it’s because you’ve lost a step. Your hands are down, that’s gotta be it. But he slips through, right through your guard, and catches you behind your gloves, right on the temple.
The bell’s ringing is suddenly salvation, a chance to get your head straight and figure out how the fight got so changed so quickly. But another thought’s bubbling to the surface, another itch. This guy wants a brawl.
And you get up from the stool and the ref brings you guys together and you don’t get out of that center; you two are caught in a phone booth and you just trade and you can hear the crowd going nuts, and you feel the best you’ve felt in over a dozen fights. Because you’re finally giving as good as you’re getting. Or you’re taking as good as you’re giving. And that dopamine doesn’t kick in as much when you connect as when he connects on you, and when you stumble, vertigo swims the world around you, and your glove touches the canvas and blood drips from somewhere on your face and you reach for it with your free hand. The cut feels earned. You get up and the ref gives you a standing eight count, but you just look at him and smile-grimace behind your mouthpiece because you want to get back out there.
You don’t want to win, you just want to keep fighting.
The next four rounds are the happiest of your life.
And when they read the judges’ scorecards, you don’t even remember whose name gets called or whose arm gets raised. You just want to get hit like that again.
Cecile scribbles notes in slow, practiced longhand on a sheet of unlined paper: specs of the man she fixed earlier today. A catalog of his new injuries, how much more extensive they were than last time, how much closer to extinction they’d brought him. She hesitates when describing the fissure in his braincase (why?), but continues over that hesitation like traversing a grain of sand stuck beneath the page.
He has become a frequent visitor at the clinic, and they’ve taken to removing his braincase while she operates, so that they can repair it separately. Some of the data is lost in the process, and Cecile has come to wonder where they’ve gone to, whether the man mourns their loss or whether his trips to the clinic are an attempt to purge himself of these remnants of someone’s previous life. Does he miss them? Does he miss the places stored in them? The people?
She does not know who or what he is, but most of the people around her are red-bloods and thus mysteries. They think her cold, a few whisper of autism, but no one knows really why it takes her longer to react as they believe she should or how quickly she learned her trade or why she doesn’t seem to mind staining her uniform to work on this man and others like him.
She is tempted, she writes, to sneak occasional fugitive glances into his braincase, to plug in and observe the data, but prudence obstructs her path. Should someone catch her, they would of course notice the outlet just behind her left ear, the one carefully masked by the way she wears her hair. Brianne sometimes tells me, she relates in the letter, that I should try to wear my hair in a bun, just to spice things up, but I only smile demurely (as I should) and say I prefer it this way. When Brianne wonders aloud if it gets in the way of Cecile’s work, Cecile replies with just the correct amount of chill in her voice that she works just fine. And Brianne does not question anymore how Cecile should or shouldn’t wear her hair.
When he awakes on the slab, she’s washing her hands in a nearby basin. They’re pearly beneath the glisten of sinkwater. She flicks excess moisture away, then towels.
“Doll,” he says, and she turns.
“You’re awake.” No smile, no chastising frown. A hint of surprise at being addressed, and that’s it.
“How you fixed me up.” He raises a repaired arm, turns it over under the fluorescent light. Good as new. Better than that.
“It’s my job.” She doesn’t finish toweling until her hands are completely dry, he notices. “What I’m here for.” She smiles.
He doesn’t mind being naked, not in front of her. “But next time, mind not makin’ me so fast?”
“How do you mean?”
“My arms. My legs. They feel like they belong to someone else when I fight.”
She frowns, but the way a child frowns at a toy it hasn’t yet figured out.
“It’s not fun winning all the time.”
“You fight in competitions?”
He smiles, and he imagines it’s charming. Usually, it works. “Yeah. I’m a boxer.”
Her hands rest at her sides. There’s soot and oil all over her dress, but she doesn’t seem to notice.
“Feels good to get hit sometimes.” He’s surprised at how seriously he means it. “Really, it ain’t fair to the other guys.”
“The other guys?”
“The ones I beat up.”
She lets out a tiny “oh,” almost like a gasp. “All right,” she says, then she doesn’t say another word, even as the others arrive and cart him away for his physical therapy.
Maybe she doesn’t know why the two ends of the wire are in her mouth. But maybe she does know how, every morning, her breath frosts before her eyes as gold halos each and every viridian treetop outside. Maybe a tear falls down the side of her face.
Maybe when her braincase bursts into flames, she knows that the vision is lingering junk DNA, that it is false, that it is not hers. Maybe that tear manages to fall from her cheek and stain the floor before it too is gone.
The clinic is soundless. The red-bloods haven’t arrived yet to change shifts and tend to their patients, so Cecile sits in her office with the plastic flowers that always smell the same and the rising sun casting the glow of four non-uniform trapezoids of light against the opposite wall.
On the desk in front of her, next to the pen and the parchment of the letter she has just finished, is a small knife she took with her from home. For a long time, she stares at it. Then, she picks it up and puts it to her wrist. The first prick brings no response, so she pushes deeper, and pain shocks through her arm. She drops the knife. Blood pools from the incision. Her breath comes in short gasps, and she opens her desk drawer and pulls out a small towel and presses it to the wound. Her brain is abuzz with signals. Tiny fireflies swimming in a frenzy. Dots of silver flecking her vision.
Sunlight gilds her desk. Her heartrate slows, and she realizes how soaked through the towel has become. In a different drawer, she finds her seal kit. She puts the nozzle of the small tube to her wrist where the incision begins and just before squeezing, she notes the pistons and gears beneath the muscle she severed. A strange urgency (fear?) puts the nozzle to her wound and runs it up along her wrist. The bleeding ceases. With gauze, she wraps the wound tightly and rises from her seat just as the first shuffling is heard from down the corridor.
She settles her desk, arranges everything as it was and leaves her office to greet Brianne, not noticing the polka dots of blood that have stained an arc down her skirt.
His legs hang over the side of the slab. A few incision marks on his torso show as scar tissue, and if the metal cools his buttocks or his hands or his genitals, he shows no sign of discomfort.
“You get them too, don’t you.”
She’s drying her hands when he asks.
“They’re dreams. Or do you have them when you’re awake too?”
He’s got sympathy in his eyes when he looks at her, and she sees it. He bows his head, embarrassed. “When I fight, it’s the only time I can get away from them.” He pauses. “I have these memories of me being a kid, you know? But that’s impossible. I was born like this. I started in this body, how could I have ever been a kid?”
“It’s junk,” she says, startled by how firmly she says it. “Junk DNA from our source brains.” She feels warm. Too warm. Blood rushing to all the wrong places. “In order for there to be sentience, there must be enough base information. A new consciousness may only arise out of a complex enough system.” She realizes she is twisting her towel, tearing it. She stops. “Hence, the memories.”
The silence is thick and changed and hurt between them. He looks up but stares into the middle distance, past her. “I dream about horses sometimes. Can you believe it? Horses. I’m in this stable, and I’m a kid ‘cause my dad’s holding me, and he brings me close to one of the colts with this white lightning bolt coming down her head. Splits her eyes. Dad hands me a carrot and nudges me forward, and I hold the thing out. The colt snaps his head out. Grabs the carrot and I’m so startled I yelp. I’m watching the thing munch, then I turn back to Dad and say ‘more.’” His gaze fixes on her. “Apparently, I loved horses.”
“Someone else did.”
“And I bet someone else was getting their nostrils punished in there, and someone else was busy watchin’ that goat with nuts the size o’ cantaloupes walk by all bow-legged and whatnot.” He chuckles and hopes he’s being charming again. He looks up, catches the faint trace of a smile, but it’s probably just a trick of the light. “We’re born in this body. In this shape. We can’t grow.” He realizes how sad he is when he says it.
“But we can,” she says back. She surprises him by putting an awkward hand to his repaired shoulder. She’s smiling, and he can tell this time that it’s not a mistake. “We are growing.”
“You think, one day, we’ll be free of them? We’ll only have the stuff we’ve accumulated on our own?”
When he sleeps, his repaired braincase reinserted after his latest visit, she makes sure the operating room is empty so no one will intrude on her. She pulls a small USB cord from her breast pocket, plugs one end into a separate connecter she’d been carrying, and inserts this into the back of the boxer’s head. The other end, she plugs into the slot behind her ear.
The world is suddenly an excruciating glare of light that sears her veins. Pain buffets her face from different angles, her ribs cracking beneath the pressure, but there’s no time to think on the pain, to figure it out, because her own arms are moving, her own fists connecting with flesh and with the metal underneath it, impacting it, denting it, being dented.
In the memory, she’s locked to his skull. But with practiced meditative technique, she manages a separation where she is able to observe the scene in its entirety, as he remembers it. She watches from on high as the two men, one of whom she recognizes, step past each other, throw their arms forward, blood staining their shorts and the canvas beneath their feet. It looks, to her, like random movement, but the longer she watches, the more she discerns the dance, the small steps and calculations, the pulling back of a shoulder, the arcing of an elbow, the twisting, at the waist, of a torso.
She remembers the time she cut herself, and her own reminiscent intrusion on the memory causes it to go static. But the remembrance passes, and the picture of androids battling is restored. Even plugged into his braincase, she cannot access his thoughts.
With a start, she realizes there are none. It is simply body moving against body.
She gazes, enraptured, drawn in by this insight. Though metal gleams beneath the skin where it has been broken and oil mixes with the blood that sluices down their chests and stomachs, they are no longer machines in her eyes, but animals.
In his head again, his retina has been damaged. The world appears to her as from behind frosted glass.
Absent thought, perhaps pain ceases to be a warning and becomes instead something to run towards, a reminder that one is alive, an opportunity to accumulate sensations and knowledge. Information. Data.
She understands why he comes to the clinic so often. Even though the athletes are unknowable in the midst of their performance, here is a space where the mind and the body hack each other, where they live in blessed union, charting a scorched course towards some end in the distance.
A new sheet of unlined paper glares back at her, one word written where the salutation usually goes: Father.
She does not know why she begins each letter this way, who this person is or why she feels compelled to address him as such, but it feels correct. Today, however, words fail her. She does not know what to tell him.
Her drawer opens, and before she realizes what she is doing, she has the knife out in front of her, cleaned, sterilized, prepared. She unclips the gauze and unspools it, revealing the straight, puckered flesh she had severed. The blemish lives in ugly, garish colors against the lifeless alabaster of her forearm.
She has the knife to her naked wrist, then plunges it deeper than before, frowning against the pain, gritting her teeth, dragging the knife’s edge further up her wrist as hurt burns all the thought away in her head and there are only the synapses firing in her brain telling her to stop, STOP, STOP!
She’s on the floor all of a sudden, and blood squirts between Brianne’s fingers where she grips Cecile’s wrist. There is no moment for shock, only mindless, learned motion. Brianne seals the wound and hurries with a suture and gauze. But Cecile does not see the rest, as someone has closed her eyes and cloaked her world in thoughtless, dreamless black.
Maybe the engine drones. Maybe it hums.
Maybe the snow-capped and pointed mountain summits below sing to her like invitations.
Maybe, when she angles her plane, the sun gilds those summits, baptizing the silhouette of her aircraft, piercing the plane’s windows to sheathe her own finely-tuned body in aureate flush.
Maybe she is golden all the way down.
A hospital bed, white sheets, machines plugged into her, checking her vitals, a colorless ceiling, no glass windows, only walls, and one wire, fugitive, plugged into that socket behind her left ear. They know.
Brianne is at her side, eyes red from crying and from sleep deprivation, new wrinkles at their corners, fingers stiff and uncracked, a mucus-sodden tissue in their clutches.
“It will be all right,” Cecile says, because that was what she said to all her other patients. “It will be all right.”
Brianne looks up, surprise glinting behind a film of moisture. “We saved you.” She sniffs. “We got to you in time.”
“In time for what?”
“Your suicide.” Brianne composes herself, brushes back a length of hair that had come across her eyes. “Cecile, you tried to kill yourself.”
With a start, she remembers the women she had read about, who had fascinated her, the one who walked off the skyscraper, the one who’d drowned in the lake, the one who’d electrocuted herself, the plane crash…
“You’re an android.” It sounds like an accusation.
Cecile looks to the ceiling.
“Why…why didn’t you tell anyone?” She moves her chair closer. “We could have helped you.”
Like it was an illness.
Brianne backs away. “The others, in the news, they were discovered with a virus. They had been infected with malware during their manufacturing. If we’d known…we could’ve helped you.”
Cecile blinks and a tear slides, unbidden and unreasoning, down the side of her face. “So it was a virus.”
“It was only a virus.” She expects relief upon saying it the second time, to herself, but there is none.
“I fight till I can’t fight anymore. Then they send me here. Then I go back out and I fight till I can’t no more. Then I come back. To you.”
That was what he had said the last time Cecile had operated on him, just after he’d told her again of the horses. But she is no longer tasked with repairing him. Reports indicate that his braincase had simply suffered too much repeated trauma. What little data remains is not enough to maintain sentience.
Cecile wonders if he’d been able to keep any of the junk memories, or if the only ones left to him had been those moments he’d accumulated after his birth.
The parchment is in front of her, but she has no office anymore, simply a cell where she has been quarantined until the virus can be removed. A misguided effort to keep her from infecting the other androids.
She wonders what removal will feel like, whether chemical manipulation will allow those who tinker on her to locate, control, and eliminate the circuitry in her brain wired for suffering. They will return her to her earlier state, flatten out her experience of the world, depress her waking hours and shroud her dreams in fuliginous gauze. Waking, but not alive. Not like he was alive, fighting in that ring. Tragic and human. Tragically human.
And that is when she finds the name for it. For the tightening in her chest whenever she sits down to compose her letters. That existential reaching, that void somewhere between her stomach and her lungs. The stiffness in her fingers. The shortness of breath. That flushing in her face as her capillaries expand.
It’s pain. Delicious, expanding, exacting, fulfilling pain.
“Zen” grew out of two fascinations. The first was boxing, and the second was sentience. As a recreational boxer (and avid fan) who has developed and maintains a complicated and enduring relationship with the sport, this story was, in many ways, an interrogation of some of those parts of the sweet science that appeal to me. The other main line of inquiry centered on what I felt might be the final ingredients an android needed in order to effectuate human behavior beyond mere emulation. When I box, I feel more alive than at any other point in the day, and a part of me believes it’s not only due to the dissolution of self that occurs in stepping out of the way of one’s own body, but in the passage marked by bruised knuckles and sore lungs and shaking legs. Impact as catharsis. The experience of pain as an essential part of consciousness. As I wrote this on the eve of my Constitutional Law final, in lieu of cramming, there was plenty of pain to be had the following afternoon.
Arash Hashemi boxing gloves image is in the public domain.
My mother phones me while I’m in the garage store, and because my phone’s a broken-down piece of shit, I don’t even realise it’s her. I put the phone to my ear and hear her staticky shriek and hit End Call, immediately.
The store’s almost empty, but the guy at the counter titters a little. Ears burning, I shove the milk and bread across the counter at him, hating the benign glitter of hisAR Wildz VRDs: blacked-out irises, with silver X’s splayed across them. What kind of a cashier even has the money for full-on lens surgery, anyway?
And I can’t be blamed for not wanting to talk to my mother. It’s probable that in some way or another, she’s discovered my grades, or lack thereof. I’ve attended maybe twelve lectures in the last week; I just don’t have time to do any more. I didn’t think missing the Hydraulics test on Tuesday would have landed me a zero; I’d expected an Absent, but I guess the lecturer must be on to me.
I’m sure it’s even that serious. My lives on the other side of the city; if she really wants to scream at me, she can just drive out here instead. That’s when I’ll start to care, I think, pushing out through the sliding doors of the garage store, cheeks still hot.
It’s a warm brown Johannesburg evening, a faintly damp breeze smacking my cheeks with the smells of exhaust and piss and fried food as I shuffle off down the pavement. The streets are dark, apart from the pools of light from the shopfronts, and the people walking here are shufflers like me. I turn my AR glasses on because it’s depressing, and instantly — among the sudden bright spikes and crystals of neon that reveal themselves to me — I’m mobbed by adbirds. They flap and circle around me, flaring with video, emitting sweet, tinkling cries from their non-existent throats.
“Fuck off fuck off,” I mumble, blinking them away, but directly ahead of me there’s a hacked promo. Outside of a little BnB, a woman who looks like some vaguely-familiar TV actress (blonde, Americany, middle-aged, with pearls around her neck) extols for a few moments the advantages of the English-style garden beyond the high walls, before abruptly flickering to nude, a garishly pink body gleaming and gyrating below her white-toothed face. The sound file switches to Japanese porno screams, ridiculously loud as she smiles professionally, HD head bobbing spastically on the twitching flat-textured frame.
Despairing, I turn it all off. I just want to get home.
My apartment is dark; the sliding door onto the narrow strip of balcony is open, and the wind is getting colder. Someone in the block is playing 80’s metal, or something similarly unpleasant. On my unmade bed, with the clear plastic ALLHalo pressing into my eye sockets and ears, I make sure that the green panels of my gloves are resting securely on my fingertips. They’re a little loose; I get contact failures from time to time, but I can’t afford customs on my allowance, and I’m not about to ask for more.
In the eight o’ clock stillness I take a few deep breaths, like a swimmer preparing to dive, and hit play on the HopeBox humming on my duvet.
ALPINES, if you will credit it, started off as a post-apocalyptic sandbox sim. Yes, this hysterical many-fonted mess of pre-teens and addicted housewives, all pumping up their increasingly physics-defying Tuscan mansions in a kind of coreless suburbia, was once a solemn artsy project by some little British indie developer: you and your BA-wielding friends could experience the existential peace of a devastated earth, without having to start a war yourselves. Build your little ALPINE cabin with plastics scavenged from the poignant ruins, and wood from the tastefully muted forests just north of the original server’s settlement zone; ponder the meaning of life around the prettily-rendered fire every night.
But then, like Lander Virtual and Supershades, ALPINES introduced PC body-wraparounds: you could get scanned at your local VR arcade and upload the skin onto your avatar, with bonus airbrushed cheeks and big, blown-out tits.
Because only women ever want the natural look. Men are entirely too romantic: they’d much prefer to wear the hulking shoulders and bulging codpieces of normal PC’s, than to face up to bodies giving softly and spreadily in to addict rot. It was women who made ALPINES what it is: women who wanted something genuine and soft and 100% organic, just like the plushy ALPINE forests. Something to make your virtual reality experience a little less virtual, and thus a little more lonely.
N. wanted that, too.
For a moment, I’m at the loading screen, the PLEASE WAIT sign creak ing in front of me. Then my cabin’s bedroom shimmers into focus around me.
Thanks to N., it’s not bad looking. The walls and floor are pale, and above my bed hangs a yin-yang symbol, superimposed over a patch of gently shifting, pink-tinged ocean.
I look down at my hands (trad, not wraparound) and wait. It doesn’t take long for her to appear. N. opens my door and smiles at me, flower petals drifting down from the antlers on top of her head and melting into nothing.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she says, and sits down beside me. Say what you want about ALPINES, its graphics are near-perfect. I can see every pore on N’s skin, every hair on her head, even the glitter of her eyeshadow. It’s miles ahead of Lander Online’s uncanny-valley dwellers.
“Me too,” I tell her. Outside, the forest chirrs softly. The light is beginning to fade.
Some junior girl has a breakdown, claws her way out of the school hall in tears. I don’t know who she is: a real laitie, with a blonde weave and bubblegum-pink lips. Her face is split in a tearful wail. One of the English teachers pursues her, wobbling in her shapeless lump of a blouse.
The headmaster pretends not to notice. He’s a small man with a nasal voice; like his suit, his speech is too big for him. He’s droning about the five stages of grief when all anyone in this hall wants is to get out quickly so they can eat something before fourth period starts.
“ There is no pain greater,” he warbles, peering around at all of us severely, “than the pain of a parent who has lost their child. Those of you who attended the funeral yesterday will know that the Dlamini family is struggling to persevere through the hurt and the uncertainty that surrounds them.”
Not once in his whole speech has he come close to saying the word suicide.
At the back of the hall, I shift on my chair, rearranging my skirt over my thighs, and think about finals, looming up at the end of the year like some shapeless monster. It’s my final year of high school. It’s the year that will decide everything: whether I get into Engineering at UCT or whether I’ll have to settle for Wits, whether Oliver Tambo’s Academy of Science’s fees will have been worth it, or whether my parents should’ve paid more.
From the garlanded picture frame up on the podium, the dead girl smiles out at us. It’s a school photo, against the ubiquitous grey background of the counsellor’s room. She’s wearing the braids she had at the beginning of the year, and enough make-up to hide her acne scars. She looks like someone else. She looks almost pretty.
Looking at N.’s captured face, at the glassed-over ghost of her, a sudden wave of stuffy choking heat washes over me, slides slippery under my arms and behind my knees and into my dried-up mouth. The tears that gather in my eyes are only an afterthought.
N. and I go down to Cherokee Lake and sit under the glowing, mutated trees, watching a cluster of women in long grey skirts and headscarves washing clothes in the sparkling water. The leaf-shaped brooches they wear identify them as members of the AmishLoversUtd Guild; infamous for their kinky foursome RPs and staggering lack or irony. I suppose there must something appealing about the Amish, if you squint hard enough. All that denial of earthly pleasures. All those rules and forbidden god-knows-whats.
You’d have to ask N., not me. She’s sitting there with a goddamn romance novel on her lap, engrossed. The e-book file appears as a thick generic tome. I shift around on the fallen leaves, watch the background insects hover on their looping paths, waiting for N. to get bored.
This server ‘s time zone a little behind ours, so it’s still afternoon here. Everything is suffused in a puffy golden glow.
Eventually, N. closes the book, sticking a plum-nailed finger in as a bookmark, and asks: “Do you want to go to town today?”
I shake my head no. Town in this case means the nearest settlement, Indian Glade, which has nothing to do with Native Americans–as ALPINES–would have it but everything to do with India Indians (it’s owned by someone from Bangalore called ishq_meens_LOVE117 who charges too much rent, and occasionally lights up the night sky with Hinglish messages to her friends.) I hate it: only hardcore no-lifers are prepared to shell out enough to live there, so the town is a mass of blinged-out palaces and wraparound avatars in Harajuku outfits, and the chat is a continuous consumer whine.
“All right,” N. says, “then we’ll go to the Undercaves instead. How about that?”
I shake my head again, because what I’d really like is for us to go back to my house, where at least it’s private. I might even have cash for her interior decorating: N. can spend hours scrolling through the infinite design packs in the Modern Livin’! menu. She has an eye for this kind of thing, for someone who never showed a flicker of interest in art or aesthetics when—
Perhaps it has something to do with the computers. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that N’s mind now works exclusively in ones and zeroes, each one of her neurones replaced by a bright, hard little flicker of circuit. You’d think that art wouldn’t have anything to do with machines, but it does. Every brush-stroke ever made, every thumb ever jammed into clay, every shift or blurry stretch of texture tiles on my cabin’s walls, is based on a calculation, on some kind of terribly refined mental coding.
In the end, we go to the Happy Families Picnic Spot, because it’s boring and empty, and N. knows I want to be alone with her.
N. is waiting for me in our form classroom, like I told her to. She’s sandwiched between the teacher’s desk and the wall, head down, shivering. The air-con blasts icy plastic-smelling air through the room.
N.’s not fat, nor is she curvy ― she’s just big. Tall, flat-chested, the kind of barrel arms you’d expect to be muscular, but aren’t actually toned at all. She stands curled in on herself, slumped, as though she’s trying to take up less space. As for her face, it’s what novelists would call plain: so utterly lacking in ornament that your eye just slides right off it. It’s sort of long and lumpy, but she’s not ugly enough to be memorable.
I have known her since sixth grade. Back then, we were best friends.
“Where is it?” I ask her bluntly, slamming the door open just to see her jump. N. smiles at me, or at least stretches her mouth rather frantically, and crouches down to unzip her schoolbag. I wait, watching the muscles of N.’s bare, hair-fuzzed calves shift, watching her root with increasing panic, until she pulls out my Advanced Mathematics folder.
“H-here you go,” she says, holding it out to me. I take it from her, tuck it under one arm.
“Thank you,” she says in a rush. “I ― the notes were r-really, um, helpful. Thanks a lot.”
“Uh huh,” I say.
She smiles at me, and I like the nervousness in it. She’s like a character in a dating sim.
“How’s your boyfriend?” I ask.
She jumps, stares at me, wide-eyed. “M-my boyfriend? I. . .don’t have a boyfr–”
“Liar.” My laugh is genuine. “Your boyfriend, on Manning Road. In that apartment block. You visit him every week, right?”
N. looks horrified.
“I d-don’t have a boyfriend,” she says at last. “That’she where my research group meets. I t-told you about that. Um. . .h-how did you. . .find the. . .”
I say nothing, just smile coldly down at my shoes until she mumbles a quick “Bye,” and leaves.
Oh, N.! I could have told her the name of the apartment building (Clementine Heights), the exact time she last visited it (16h11 last Friday) and the colour of the top-floor door she knocks on (peeling red.) I see her when I drive home that way, after netball practice. She’s not even trying!
I could have told her all this, but then she would have thought I was a stalker, which I’m not.
Or I could have told N. that she didn’t need some stupid research group, because she was the cleverest person I’d ever met–but I didn’t need to. The newspapers, the teachers, the judges at all those inter-school Olympiads-―they’d already told her that, even if N. acts like she doesn’t believe them.
I didn’t need to, because N. likes me already. After all, I’m not the top Ad vanced Maths student, but it’s my notes she borrowed, not anyone else’s.
The one thing I couldn’t have told N. was what she was doing inside that apartment. That’s something N. will have to tell me, eventually.
The Happy Families Picnic Spot is on a hill-top, overlooking the Whitebush River. It’s supposed to look like it’s been hastily abandoned, presumably by people fleeing the nuke that started the ALPINES world. There are immovable Tupperware boxes on the table, immovable picnic baskets on the ground; just down the overgrown road there’s a ruined car, its green paint faded, plants growing through its windows. According to N., back when ALPINES started, there were four skeletons inside the car―two big, two small―but the dev team took them out when they dropped the age rating to 12+, just like how they took out the End of Haze Cult House (a huge Southern farmhouse, N. says, the lounge crowded with skeletons of the suicidal cult members, with big chemical-filled vats in the corner of the room in a vaguely offensive nod to the Jonestown massacre.)
From the picnic spot you can see the river, sparkling impossibly far away. Apparently, we’ll be able to take a footpath down to the riverbank from the Gas Station, in the December update.
N. says my name, and I turn to her, startled.
“I said, you’re really quiet today,” she says, smiling. “Is something wrong?”
“N-no.” I blink at her. “Why?”
She regards me. “You just seem a little down, that’s all.”
I bite my lip.
“You’re always so quiet these days,” she says vaguely, picking at the pale peach fabric of her dress. “You never used to be like that.”
“ I’m just relaxing,” I say, my voice tinny. “I’m just ― enjoying this.”
N smiles at me, a little confusedly, as though she hasn’t heard what I said but doesn’t want to bother me by asking to repeat it. And then she looks away again.
And it’s at moments like this that I’m gripped by a terrible uncertainty. N. as I remember her would have squealed, stammered some mundane reply. This kind of serenity doesn’t belong on a face like hers, even cleaned up by the tech.
So yes. I have my doubts. As to what N. really is. As to whether she’s even N. at all any more, outside of the name that floats above her shoulder on my HUD and that face, the painfully familiar, subtly altered face, bereft of its acne and lumpy hairline, that smiles in profile down at the river. A new N., made of numbers and looping animations, limbs scattered across a data farm in China, across the airwaves sucked down into my HopeBox.
The self is in the brain, and N.’s brain no longer exists; its tissue has long since decayed, carried away in the tiny subterranean stomachs of the millions of ants and worms and little nameless creatures, away into the spaces in the oil. Because that’s where her body is, after all. Her gravestone has carved daisies running up the side of it.
And yet here she is now, an antlered goddess, bright in the sunset, and the doubt twists and eats away in my wretched belly.
N. scrapes my hair out of my face, holds me steady as I heave and twitch. My vomit tastes of vodka, burning my nose and throat.
“It’s OK,” she says from somewhere above me, and I want very badly to cry.
After it stops, N. lets go of my shoulders, lets me sit up by myself. I steady myself against the toilet bowl. She finds a spray bottle of Sea Breeze and squirts it liberally around the room. I want to tell her to stop, because the smell isn’t helping, but I don’t trust myself to open my mouth.
It’s a nice bathroom, though. All spacious and white. The water purifying unit in the corner barely makes a sound, its side panel displaying a column of blue PureLife crystals. I can still hear the music from downstairs, reduced to a dull twang and thump. Someone shrieks half-heartedly. It’s a shit party. There wasn’t much else to do, anyway.
Eventually, I stop shivering and sweating quite so unappealingly, and N. crouches beside me again. My turquoise dress is slipping off my shoulder; the left half of my bra is nearly exposed, the black strap sliding uncomfortably. N. looks at me, and some second wave of alcohol pulses in me, and I feel my tongue loosen itself quite suddenly. Since she’s the only other person in the room, I fix her with a steely glare.
“You’re a bitch,” I tell her.
“You’re a recluse,” I tell her.
“You need, like, psychological fucking help,” I tell her.
“Why?” she asks, eventually. Her voice is quiet, a little resigned.
“ N.,” I say severely, “ I think you’ve got a serious problem. Don’t even try to pretend that this isn’t the first time you’ve gone out all year. And –” I stab at her accusingly with a quivering finger — “you’re hating it, aren’t you? If you were enjoying yourself, you wouldn’t be hiding in the corner like some fucking young-adult protagonist, would you? I saw you. Hiding by the speakers like a main character or something. You don’t even like this kind of music.”
N. just looks at me, her mouth turned down.
“I can’t go out,” she says eventually, plaintively. “I board. We only get to go out on F-Fridays, or on, um, weekends, if we get permission, and my parents say I have to keep my grades up–”
“So what do you do all day ? Play VR games? You can’t do that for so long.” I rest one elbow on the toilet seat, pulling myself up to see her face better. “What, do you boarders just have porn marathons all weekend, or–”
“I program,” she says, voice trembling. “I-it’s something I’m really, um, passionate about, you know. I even write for a blog now, there’s a whole group of us and we research things and, um–”
“You stay in your dorm room,” I say, enunciating each word clearly, “and just, like, sit on the computer all day. That’s what I hear. That isn’t healthy.”
“You h-heard wrong, then.” She glares at me. “I’m part of a r-research team. We have a blog, it’s called–”
“You shut your blog down two months ago!” Which wasn’t, on the whole, much of a great loss. Half of N.’s posts were vague, timid, cutesy essays about the merits of some specific VR game, or AR mystery setups, or some obscure tech or other; the rest were apologies for not posting enough.
“This one isn’t my blog,” she wails. “We run it. The team. There’s six of us, we write about ― um, about AI and–”
Footsteps clatter past the door. I can hear someone laughing breathlessly.
“Right.” I’m starting to feel sick again. “AI. Research into that isn’t even legal, unless you go through the Offices–”
“It’s not research research,” she protests. “It’s, um j-just a club. We’re all friends. And we just kind of, um. . .talk about ideas. Concepts. It’s nice. It’s not. . .”
No, I’m not nauseous. Something in my stomach doesn’t feel right, though.
“I could g-give you a link if you want,” she says, with a feeble, defeated spark. “I think you might like it.”
“I don’t want to hear about your shit,” I say, loudly enough that my voice flattens out and echoes on the bathroom tiles.
N.’s shoulders slump. She sticks her neck out like a turtle, looks down at the floor. I feel bad. I know I should ask her what else she does, all alone in the dorms, because I don’t even need to be told that N. is all alone.
I should ask, but I don’t. In the same way that I didn’t ask about the neat bracelet of bruises N. wore, after she came back from her parents’ house in Port Elizabeth, a little chain of smudgy skin. I noticed it for the first time sitting in EGD behind her, and I couldn’t look away. I’d never seen anything like it before. It was so cute.
“Can you stand up?” she says meekly, after a long time.
“Yeah,” I say, and she reaches out, drags me up off the glittering floor, the feel of her skin sending a shivering wave through me. I say, “Thank you.”
N. looks at me like I’m a different person, a nd this is when I kiss her. The truth is, I’ve never kissed anyone before, although I’d like to give the impression that I have. I just smash my vomity mouth down on hers, wait for a few seconds, then pull back and look at her.
When I see the look in her eyes, I slap her in the face, as hard as I possibly can.
The next day, lying in bed with a head that feels like a bubble of glass, I search for N.’s blog. I Google her name; I Google our school’s name; I search for programming blog teenager sa and computer blog high school sa, but I find nothing at all. And it’s not like I’m going to call her now and ask her what the name of it was, so I try to put it out of my mind.
Actually, I never call N. again. I stop talking to her, apart from the occasional encounter s at school, during which I am cruel. During which my face infallibly feels like a massive burn of mingled embarrassment and fury. This is because N. is more afraid of me than she was before, as if she thinks I’m going to try to kiss her again.
Which I wouldn’t. I’m not stupid.
It is three months and five days after the night I kiss N., in a designer bathroom at a house party, that she crushes and swallows half a bottle of sleeping pills, in the safe darkness of the girl’s bathroom in the school’s boarding-house. They find her on the floor the next morning. Her head was bleeding: she’d whacked it on the wall, falling.
It’s starting to get a little darker, here. The sky has taken on a dizzy tinge; in a few minutes the town lights will start to come on, and everything will become ink-blue, washed dark.
And I ― watching N. pick wildflowers flowers for her Herb Garden ― am suddenly reminded of something.
I sit up straight, suddenly wide awake, smack the table to get N’s attention.
“You do know about the restrictions,” I say, voice tight. “Coming in. With the December update.”
“Oh, that’s months from now, isn’t it,” she says airily. She is crouched on her knees, tugging at tugging at a stubborn root. “Months and months.”
“The restrictions,” I say, louder. “About time playing. If you stay logged in for eight hours straight, you get a warning. If you get three warnings, you get a suspension. If you get three suspensions they delete your account. Just like high school.”
The artificial sunlight makes patterns in her hair. N. looks at me, eyes wide, confused, her grip lax.
“So what are you gonna do?” I ask her. My voice sounds calm, but my heart is pounding so heavily my vision is trembling. “When the update comes?”
I am leaning forward, eager to hear, hanging on the faint ebb of her smile.
“I’ll have to see,” she says, and rips the flower out of the ground, tearing the stem, which cleaves like a crystal. It vanishes into a faint shimmer; she cries out in dismay.
N. never answer questions about the game, or what she’s doing here. Not ever.
Fair enough, I suppose.
When the e-mail comes I’m in Maths, watching the shapes moving across the e-board. I’m aware of my phone buzzing in my schoolbag, but I ignore it. After all, it’s my matric year, it’s the most important year of my high school career, and one would think I’ve had enough distraction already.
I ignore it all the way through Maths and all the way through Physics and all the way through the school to the parking lot at two-thirty. And then, in the car, I thumb the sensor and unlock my phone, scanning the message.
Dear Traveller. . .
. . .please click the link below to get your activation code. Remember: The Grass Is GREENER Over Here!
(This message has been sent to you by ALPINES consumer services. Please do not reply.)
Dear Traveller. . .
I stare at my phone for a long moment. It takes a while for the meaning of the words to filter in, even longer for me to understand them.
ALPINES is familiar. It was one of the games N. used to play―and fuck if the thought of her doesn’t make everything shudder, doesn’t make the car tremble around me as if it’s been buffeted by a strange wind.
W hen I look back at the phone my hands are trembling. One of her pointless social VR MMOs, isn’t it? They all bleed together in my head: the swords-and-sorcery types, the cyberpunk crime sagas and the spaceship soaps, the murder mysteries and zombie horrors and now this: post-apoc R&R.
I’ve never seen the appeal, personally. To play this game you’d have to admit that you were the kind of no-life bastard who got off on completing fetch quests and upgrading your farm equipment, like N. I’m not that kind of bastard. I’ve never even looked at the website, let alone made an account.
I switch my phone off and put it back in my bag and go home and study and study until my eyes are yellow and swelling up. And then―at half-past eleven, my fingers smelling bitterly of ink, my teeth locked into rictus―I click the fucking link.
It brings me to a generic thank-you page on the ALPINES website, with a messy snowy shape beneath the logo. I scramble off the bed, open my cupboard, retrieve the HopeBox from where I left it when fourth term started. One evening of time-wasting, I tell myself, can’t hurt.
(Because I’m in matric and I’ve already missed so much, all because of N., that selfish bitch, and in the state I’m in now, everything that isn’t studying — from eating to sleeping — counts as wasting time.)
I switch the Box on, point the camera at my phone, scanning the activation code on the screen. It doesn’t take more than a few seconds to link; no more than five or ten minutes to install the game. The icon is pretentiously pixellated. I click it anyway.
The character customization is done IRL, on the HopeBox’s touch screen. I skip through, impatiently. I put on my halo and gloves when the game signals me to, and then there’s the loading screen: blocky technicolour graphics like the intro to a 1990’s PC game, the ALPINE village cupped closely in the massed trees at sunrise, with the signboard swaying mechanically in a breeze that touches nothing else.
The opening is in comic-strip form, lush indie-graphic-novel images looming up before my eyes. I click: the Golden Age of Civilisation reached, blah blah, then greed, then war, then nukes, then me, hauling my ass through the radioactive muck to start my new life here, at the little ALPINE settlement of NEW HAVEN (the server name.) My heart is racing; I can’t shift the scowl from my face. I want to get this over with.
Fade to black. Sensation seeps in. I’m lying down. A hard bed. It’s cold. Birds humming, somewhere nearby.
I open a new pair of eyes, look up at a white ceiling, pristine and bare. Pull myself hesitantly upright. I’m not entirely at home with VR games, not yet. It’s all a little disorientating.
But here I am: Asian Female Preset 19, just with spikier hair because I couldn’t resist. I look down at my hands: generic tan, nails with perfect crescent moons at the bases, mirror-image patterns of creases on each one when I turn them over. I’m wearing a 1950’s-ish dress, teal and white, with a stiff skirt that wobbles unpleasantly as I move. When I look at it for too long a little greenish tag flares beside it: Stepford Sweetheart Dress, Type: Clothing, Value: $3. The dress that walked through hell with you. It’s still swingin’!
More flashes: here’s the HUD I recognise from the screenshots, Health Vitality Money Attributes Trophies Scrapbook Questing. Tutorial box in the corner: It’s morning. You’re here. Why not step outside, take things in?
I navigate Preset 19, step by miserable step, to the little door of the cabin. Select USE on the pop-up menu. Step out into fucking All-American Narnia.
An introductory cutscene plays: the camera zooms out, panning over the tangled wealth of forest before me, rising higher and higher over the flat dusty plains beyond, swooping past the gleam of abandoned cities, until it’s hovering somewhere above the surface of the planet; which spins, obediently, to show me the devastation wreaked by the wars.
When the cutscene fades I’m back to standing in front of my cabin, in the half-light, and N. is there: sitting cross-legged on the grass and waiting for me, smiling, burnished moss-stained antlers protruding from the top of her head, dripping pink flower petals down into her lap like candy.
“You came,” she says.
When she brushes by me, leaning over to retrieve her backpack, I sort of press into her a little, and she turns to look me full in the face. I sh iver. I pull away.
“Are you OK?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say.
In the sky over Indian Glade, silver lights flash, spattering words across the sky. shoutout 2 myy babyy nafisa. . .bEsT fRiEnD. . .mY dOsTiIiIi. . .
“We didn’t do anything at all today,” N. says.
“You read your book,” I point out.
She purses her lips. “Yeah. Sorry. I shouldn’t have ignored you like that. I was just ― I love that series. I know you probably think it’s stupid, but–”
“It’s not,” I lie. “I don’t.”
“I meant together. With you.”
Petals drift toward my arm, vanish abruptly, without the usual fade effect. I’m too close.
“I don’t mind,” I force out.
She smiles a Grammy-winning smile. Her voice seems to echo through the server. “Neither do I.”
In the end, I take a bus. Yes, really. That’s how far I’m willing to stoop for this: public transport. I tell my parents I had an extra Afrikaans lesson and at three o’ clock I walk out of the school gates, down and around the corner to the bus stop, pushing in under the blue roof. It’s a lot easier than I thought it would be.
The bus arrives, a big scary chrome-and-blue Metropolitan, and I get on without much of a hitch. Off it clatters, swaying in its mildly alarming way, and when the stale smell is becoming unbearable it grinds to a halt. My stop. I look out the window and shudder.
I’ve driven through here before, whenever my dad takes a detour on the way home from school, but I’ve never been here on foot. The sun has vanished behind the blocky mounds of the buildings. The whole place smells sourly of trash, and apart from the people the bus has disgorged, the streets are quiet. A trio of girls in public-school uniform, sitting on the pavement with their gleaming phones in their hands, regard me expressionlessly as I pass. Almost involuntarily, I dip my head.
Clementine Heights rises up in front of me, bulky spawn of Apartheid architecture: square, angular, face-brick, hideous. It’s in better condition than most of the other buildings around here ― no graffiti on the walls, the scabby red-earth courtyard is relatively clean ― which is probably due to the guard on his chair at the gate, an OPHD security drone hovering above him, dual rings spinning smoothly and steadily. I swallow, sidle up, but he doesn’t even look. The OPH is on standby, the green light on the core at the centre of its spinning rings fading in and out. I guess people just respect the fact that it’s there.
Heart pounding, I cross the yard, dart in through the double doors. There’s an orange-and-cream foyer, with a reception desk, but there’s no-one in sight. Which is OK, because I know where I’m going.
To minimise the risk of bumping into anyone, I take the stairs, not the lift. It’s a long way up ― I’m panting by the time I finally come out onto the snug balcony on the top floor ― but I’m here at last.
It’s the apartment on the right side of the top floor, with the red door, facing out onto the street. I saw N. going in here, just by chance, while my dad’s car was stalled in afternoon traffic.
The red door. There’s a grille at eye-level, although the screen behind that is pushed over it, and there are plants reaching thin green fingers into the crack between the top of the door and the bubbling plaster.
This is where N. is, some part of my mind wheezes.
I thought at first it was some kind of huge nasty coincidence ― some player character, with a cabin in the same zone as me, whose virtual face just happened to look like N.’s. After all, she wasn’t striking, not in any way. There are thousands of girls who look a lot like N. It’s so common I don’t even notice it.
But then, when I moved the target over her, her name came up lilac above her head, and—
Hands trembling, I reach out, and knock.
I have that feeling that you get sometimes when you can sense that someone’s there. Even though I can’t hear anyone inside the apartment, and I can’t see through the grille, I can feel it. Someone’s inside, listening.
If the door would just open, I’d see N. in there, definitely. Crouched over her HopeBox, eyes hidden by her SuperVisor, mouth open in a V of delight.
But the door doesn’t open, even when I start banging with my palms on the old wood. I don’t hear a sound.
So w hat I don’t understand is this. When N. crushed those pills with the base of her stapler, into a bitter dirty powder on the bathroom countertop, did she know? Did she know, did she want it ― to transcend, to ascend, whatever you call it, to become ― this? Was that why she did it?
Or was it only after her death that it occurred to them, to the people behind the door, to stitch up the parts of her into pages of type, to make her up anew?
And, if that was the case ― how much of it was my fault? Could we measure it empirically, my guilt, against the guilt of the bruises, and the isolating nighttime noise of the dorms?
The words hum, throw themselves against the backs of my teeth, buzz and shudder. This is the other thing N. will not talk about.
The clock reads 11h38. Hand in hand, we walk back to the lake. The sensation in your hands is strongest, because that’s where the gloves are. It really does feel like someone’s grasp. I can’t say it feels like N.’s hand, because I hadn’t held her hand before she came here ― not since we were little kids, back in primary school.
“Cinderella,” she says wryly, and I almost squeeze her fingers, but not quite.
“Do you want anything?” I ask her. “Tomorrow?”
“No,” she says distantly. “Just come. I’ll finish the book.”
“OK,” I say, and then she hugs me, and I feel a faint, ghostly pressure, a hard-drive warmth all around me. She holds me for a very long time.
We don’t say goodbye. I pull away, feel the faint tear of parting, and the darkness flows in, flowers.
Traveller, You’re On Your Way Out. . .
The Halo presses itself into my eyes. My skin is freezing, chill with goosebumps. The muscle of my neck burns. I don’t have the energy to move.
I try to think of N., but now that I’m alone, I can only think of December.
Someday, I think, I’ll go back to Clementine Heights. I’ll sit outside, in the whistling stinking city wind, above the streetlights and the car lights and the traffic-lights, in the dark. I’ll watch the red door until it opens. I’ll wait as long as I have to. It’s not like I have anywhere else to be, anyway.
It’s all N. It always has been. I was always supposed to be with her, and that’s all. It’s because of our separation that everything has started to come apart.
When that door opens, she won’t be in there, but someone else will. I picture it as far as I am able: banks of computers, humming like cats, and people hunched among them. Skinny programmers, fever-eyed, wan, sickly. Magicians. They’d turned N. from a real-life girl, with body heat and sweat and hair that stuck out in spikes and a mouth that tasted of soapy gloss, to a deer-queen, an Artemis, a chunk of symbols in a constellation.
And I’ll step forward, into the heat and plastic-smell and soft exhalations of the fans in the towers and wait for their eyes to turn to me, big and glittering in the half-light, and then I’ll ask them a very, very big favour–
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Maya Surya Pillay was born in 1997 in a small city on the South African coast. She is currently a high school student, living with her parents and little sister, and finds herself (to their dismay) burdened with glorious purpose. Her hobbies include competitive glaring, arguing, pontificating, creepy breathing, steam-rollering, leering, condescending, loud screaming, chest-beating, vicarious living, and quiet weeping. You can find her at www.echolalalalia.tumblr.com, if you find yourself in a position so horrifically unfortunate that that seems to be a good idea. She says:
This story started out as world-building for a novel, but grew into something somewhat more unwieldy. As we develop into a society drowning in 24-hour, self-indulgent escapist entertainment, surely–surely there will come a day when someone aspires to become more than a consumer, but part of the entertainment itself; part of the big, fluffy, colourful mass we ingest and worship, a literal god in the machine.
Also, I wanted to validate my burgeoning gaming addiction to my parents, and this seemed like it was going to work. (It didn’t.)
Photograph by Daneel Olivaw is offered under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
For our summer issue this year? A lighter note. (Shocked? So are we!)
We’re kicking off with return contributor A.C. Wise’s “Operation: Annihilate Mars! Or, Doctor Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron” – because there is no saying no to spacefaring, crime-fighting drag queens. Try it. We’ll wait.
Our second piece for this month, Vicki Saunders’s “Deus Ex Chelonia,” takes us on the most whimsical post-apocalyptic quest we’ve read in years and years.
We’re only running two fiction pieces this issue to make room for an interview with this quarter’s featured author: Ideomancer alumnus Sofia Samatar speaks with us about language, craft, and her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria. Her “Undoomed” is also featured in our poetry section this month, alongside work from Alicia Cole and Rob Bliss, and reviews of this quarter’s new releases.
We hope you enjoy this quarter’s issue, and if so, please consider dropping something into our tip jar. Ideomancer relies on reader donations to pay its contributors for their excellent fiction and poetry, and even five dollars makes a big difference.
Enjoy the issue, and have a bright and happy summer!
Vol. 12 Issue 2
“Doctor Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron” – A. C. Wise
“Deux ex Chelonia” – Vicki Saunders
“Undoomed” – Sofia Samatar
“Artemis Speaks to Aphrodite” – Alicia Cole
“Solaris” – Rob Bliss
“Sofia Samatar, author of A Stranger in Olondria”
Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds – Liz Bourke
Where Thy Dark Eye Glances: Queering Edgar Allan Poe – Claire Humphrey
The Best of All Possible Worlds, Karen Lord. Random House, Feb 2013, ISBN 9780345534057. Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
I’ve heard the term domestic SF used in relation to some works of the 1960s, often in reference to the stories of Zenna Henderson: a subgenre which takes the furniture of science fiction, but rejects the fantasies of political agency which often drive science fictional narratives, a subgenre within but at the same time tangential to the rest of the field.
The Best of All Possible Worlds is not a domestic work. It doesn’t centre around a domicile, around social interiors. But it is concerned with emotional interiority in a manner not often see in the wider SF field, a novel immensely – one might even say intensely – personal in scope and concerned with small-scale actions, despite the world-destroying tragedy lurking in the story’s near past and looming over its shoulder. This concern with the personal combines with a gentle nod at SF’s mythic furniture to create a thematic, tonal continuity with Lord’s first novel, Redemption in Indigo, although the two books are otherwise very different animals.
The Best of All Possible Worlds opens with the annual meditation retreat of a Sadiri man, Dllenahkh. His solitude is abruptly shattered when word comes – in the person of an old friend – to break the news: the Sadiri homeworld has been destroyed. All that remains of the Sadiri people are those who were off-planet when the attack came, and the Sadiri have gone from being the most influential people in the galaxy to a remnant who will need help to maintain their customs and their bloodline.
The narration picks up some time later with the first-person perspective of Grace Delarua, native and junior government official of Cygnus Beta, where a significant proportion of the surviving Sadiri men have come, searching for marriage partners among descendants of the long-ago Sadiri diaspora. Delarua and Dllenahkh work together on a cultural mission, travelling with a small team to Cygnus Beta’s far-flung settlements, attempting to build the foundations by which the Sadiri will be able to intermarry with the taSadiri – descendants of diasporas. Their journey is a series of episodes through which Lord explores both her world in all its odd and fantastic variety, and Delarua and Dllenahkh’s working – and eventually more than working – relationship. The influence of Vulcan on the Sadiri is visible, but the parallels are not exact, and this reader gradually came to realise that what on the surface seems a cheerful meandering straightforwardly personal little book is several times more complex than it first appears.
The Best of All Possible Worlds is an interesting novel on several levels. Its sensibility falls halfway between the SF novel and the fairytale. It uses SFnal images in a quasi-fairytale structure, whose mythic resonances operate on more universal levels than science fiction: Delarua and Dllenahkh visit people who do revenge-murder, an impregnable city with caste divisions, a secret monastery, the court of Faerie. And, too, the valencies of The Best of All Possible Worlds‘ metaphors are fluid. It has one foot in the river of science fiction, and the other in the ocean of literary fiction: employing science fiction’s concretisation of metaphor in one instant and then in another literary fiction’s metaphor as metaphor – labile, not concrete – maintaining a constant fluid tension between the two modes.
Although it’s an utterly different sort of book, reading it, I found myself wanting to compare it to Angélica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar. It enforces the same off-kilter alienation from the reading protocols of the SFF genre, a magic realist mood (though not as direct, or as obvious, as in Trafalgar) among the furniture of the scientific future.
It’s not quite fish, not quite flesh, and not quite fowl, and perhaps it has an imperfect execution. But The Best of All Possible Worlds stretches the boundaries of the kind of stories it’s possible for science fiction to tell. This is one reader who’s very glad to have read it.