by Laurel Wilson
For Rozlyn and Rowan
First draft blog edition
This portion October 2017
Earth: The End
For him, it was their last meeting. For her, their first. Gareth waved goodbye to little Maya, who clutched Dr. Hernandez’s neck. Panicked people rushed around him. Moist, sticky drips fell from the sky onto his intricately woven clothes. Dr. Hernandez and his daughter disappeared into their clandestine quarantine bunker.
Gareth’s heart sunk. He’d held her wrinkled hand hours before; he’d watched the fire in her piercing eyes, blue as this strange sky, flicker and die. Now this glimpse of her at six, then maybe a glimpse of the ship in fourteen years, if he lived that long. His eyes unfocused, seeing the memories behind him and before her.
The pushing rush shifted into screaming, headlong panic. He heard barked orders. Exoskeletons enameled midnight blue prodded runners, who screeched and bolted.
“Halt for medical evaluation!” seemed to be a recording. How could they find people to put on those insectoid suits, to harass and terrify these people?
Perhaps they were robots.
A woman clutched Gareth, pointing behind her, panting “The Paramedics!” She tried to drag Gareth, who should have been moving faster if he wanted to live. She dropped her armload of clothing and papers, stooped to gather them, and peered up into a Paramedic’s shadow. Gareth could see no face, no hands, no skin. Shouldn’t a paramedic be a healer? The woman bunched her things together and sprinted. The Paramedic watched her go and regarded Gareth. It cocked its head and said, “This is a Voluntary Evacuation Zone.”
Definitely a recording. Man or machine inside?
A motion caught the Paramedic’s eye. One runner’s pace wobbled and slowed. He dropped his luggage, staring up at a wheezing old juniper beside the road. He hugged the trunk; his right foot slowly stepped up, seeking a hold.
The Paramedic’s outstretched arm vomited flame, incinerating the man.
Shock froze Gareth; the Paramedic’s flamethrower was built into the glinting wasp suit; its hand, if it had one, was invisible on that side. A paramedic really ought to have two warm human hands and no inferno. Gareth saw the climber’s flesh blacken and split. A waft of grilled meat made Gareth’s mouth water and his stomach turn. He ran.
He kept to the center of the pack, away from the trees along the road. Between trunks, he saw an enormous dome over the city center. Glittering tall buildings and greenery inside, concrete devastation and wilderness outside.
It was an Enclave.
The Paramedics herded runners toward an elevated ribbon of concrete, a raised road almost level with the top of the dome at its highest point. The voluntary evacuation drove them out – out of the delivery zones where sealed trucks moved goods between Enclaves, out of the service zones, out of sight, out of mind.
Shoved in the lunging crowd, Gareth remembered Earth’s end as Gram Bee told it. She’d be weaving silks by the fire with her pack of spiders, crooning to them as they collaborated at her loom. Enclaves were domed and quarantined luxury residential areas. Residents danced the masque of the green death while most people lived hardscrabble lives at the mercy of Paramedics, disease, and thieves. Pestilence was bad enough, but break people apart and the world ends. For Gram Bee, it was a scary bedtime story with a moral: remember inherent value, prevent the same disaster.
Gareth first heard it at her knee almost sixty years ago. Gram Bee was born on Sappho during the voyage. She heard the stories from Maya and the crew who were, at his present moment in time, children under quarantine in the hidden installation behind him.
Gram Bee hadn’t mentioned the elbows in the ribs, forced marches, or flamethrowers. Time and astronomical distance softened the story considerably. He loped in the panting crowd, blending with them, matching their motion. Today was a bad day to test a Paramedic’s flamethrower. What motion had triggered that blast of flame?
Inside the Enclave he saw a woman, tiny as an insect in a jar, leaning out a window high above the ground. She craned her neck toward the roof. Gareth ran in the panting crowd, flicking his eyes toward her, knowing what history said he might see, appalled, enthralled.
She began to climb outside the building. She scrabbled over the ledge to the roof.
On the incline, the runners around him struggled. He matched their pace.
The roof had a spired coppery dome. She clung to the spike, shinnying up. Then her body jerked taut. Her fingers and legs locked around the spike. Her head cocked back, eyes straight at the sun. Her forehead bulged. Out mushroomed a green missile, as long as the woman’s whole body. Her leg disintegrated and blew away. Her empty trunk collapsed. The green extrusion puffed and floated in billions of microscopic particles into the Enclave’s atmosphere.
An alarm pealed. The Paramedics halted, listening. Tiny people inside the Enclave poured out of the shining city buildings toward the emergency air locks.
“This is a Mandatory Evacuation Zone,” the Paramedics boomed. They turned to the Enclave, flamethrowers drawn, to seal the exits.
Uninfected Enclaves were paradises of privilege and comfort. Infected Enclaves were burial grounds.
Sirens multiplied. Paramedics now disregarded the surging throng. Containment was first priority. The vermin would keep coming back.
Runners began to trample each other as the weak fell.
Where the ribbon of road again touched earth, Gareth sighted a cemented creek. A distant green slope beckoned. High chance of water, low population density, no Enclaves, no Paramedics. It was a plan. He left the road.
“Mom!” Alice’s voice rose over the clothing racks. “This shirt is only 10 gig!” She stomped. Cartoon frowning faces floated off her head, paused and jerked in space while her perfect complexion wavered and acne appeared. The faces whooshed upward and farted as they popped. Mortified, she screamed, “It’s glitchy!”
Their mother Xochi rolled her eyes. “Alice, sweets, you have a budget. I have a budget. I’m not blowing that budget so you can get a terabyte of new clothes.”
“La’ii has a terabyte.”
“La’ii took a freelance hacking job after school and paid for it herself.” Xochi’s arms folded and her brow came down. Alice was losing. La’ii walked away. Her fingers dragged against a hundred identical, extremely cheap sleeves on the rack. No use making the clothes actually warm or useful or even crafted. Projection took care of it all.
Alice whined. “This year is Apocalypse. I can’t show up in old clothes.”
Xochi frowned. “That Apocalypse talk is bunk. The ecosystem has survived at least one Cycle. We’ll survive the next. We just haven’t been on the planet long enough to see it. Three centuries is nothing in geologic time.”
“Mr. Rystad says boiling seas and melted gems flowing across the landscape like water.”
Xochi snapped. “Mr. Rystad is a religious extremist from…” She stopped herself. Could she say “The Coast” without implicitly using the pejorative “Coasties”? She faltered.
“…from the West,” Alice offered. Coasties throwing their projectors into Maya’s purple ocean and groaning about the Apocalypse flitted through both their minds.
Xochi smiled. “Let’s look at the budget and the apps you want and see what we can do.”
La’ii quirked a lip as her mother and sister dove back into the clothing racks. Not quite a sneer, but far too distant for warmth.
La’ii did have the terabyte, though she didn’t project with it much, mostly just the tapered ear tips and the continually breezy movement in her hair. A little bit of suppressing her secondary sexual characteristics. k’Mils women always had what Loonie Annie Gracious called “breeder’s hips”. Ew.
At eighteen, La’ii k’Mil wasn’t interested. Though Annie Gracious was probably Reading at the time and La’ii wouldn’t have any choice at all. There were rituals involved, genealogies to study. La’ii wasn’t against doing her part for the Expansion, but there were her feelings to consider. She’d never met anyone she’d allow to touch her, much less… “Expand.”
She sucked her lower lip. Most of that terabyte went into hacking nearby projections for their truth ratio. And seeing the real people beneath their projections. That was technically illegal. Courts had long since upheld the right of individuals to project a self-image to the exclusion of the physical truths of their bodies.
Hence the rituals and genealogies when it came time for a girl to Expand. Expansion still had to happen the old fashioned way, and it took more than a terabyte of projection to convince La’ii the centaur with the cobblestone abs wasn’t really an arrogant coward hiding behind the code.
Alice projected a taller, more busty version of herself based on a fem first person shooter, autoplayed flying emoji clusters from her biometrics, and looped last year’s free clothing animations.
Xochi projected more muscles, less fanny, and fewer wrinkles. It was a total projection, tastefully designed as both plausibly human and unretouched. She customized an imp app to hide in her earring and whisper to her about her schedules, lists, food intake, exercise, and spiritual growth.
La’ii’s goal to neutralize her gender was a lost cause from the start. Her hair fell below her waist in heavy waves of honey blonde. Hazel eyes glittered with piercing humor. Her carnelian mouth set as a jeweled lock against words that might encourage some buffoon with a titanic projection.
Spider silk tunic and pants, luminous and floating, accentuated her graceful frame and slender limbs. These strange, old fashioned clothes and her mysterious smile highlighted her rare natural beauty.
Friends and family assumed she’d hacked her way into special equipment.
Alice and Xochi settled on a 100 gig booster pin, a connector repair kit, and a 10 gig scarf.
La’ii followed them outside, aloof.
Two suns blazed in a lavender sky. Which, if the Coasti… people from the Coast were right, was exactly the problem.
Earth: The End +14
Arcing high in the blue sky overhead, Sappho’s booster assembly separated. It would fall in the Pacific as the ship passed escape velocity with Maya and all her kin aboard.
Gareth nodded. Now he was truly alone. No history of Earth existed past this moment.
They knew the launch would break quarantine in the bunker. With no communication to the outside and their children shot into space, they could only argue.
Would they all contract the pestilence? Was it safe? Were there people above? Had every living creature on Earth succumbed to disease? Certainly a zoonotic fungus that could so effectively control complex behavior like climbing towards light could come up with new horrors in fourteen years. What had been the plan once the kids were gone? Could anyone stay? Could anyone leave?
Dr. Hernandez rubbed the back of his hand in small circles, self-soothing. Fourteen years in a bunker with even the best of friends and brightest of minds got old. A breath of fresh air, even if it killed him. An unfamiliar flavor, an unfamiliar face, even if it killed him. They were already breathing traces of external air. The decision had already been made.
Dr. Hernandez shot the bolt and opened the door.
“La’ii. Join me?”
Xochi’s projection flickered off as she headed down the hall. La’ii dragged her lip against her teeth. Xochi never took off her projection.
Xochi sat at the kitchen table. Her imp bounced off her ear and disappeared through the smooth center surface. The imp gave the table Xochi’s printing instructions for dinner.
Turning her projector off for a serious talk didn’t mean Xochi was going to eat food out of the ground, for Sappho’s sake.
La’ii tried on the distant smile, but it slipped into something honestly warm when she saw her mother’s gray, receding hairline. That was the kind of honesty no one projected.
“You know your brother is studying astrophysics?”
“Yah.” Astrophysics was a relatively new study. History was voyage, crash, survival, division (historians agree things ran much more smoothly without the Loonies and Coas.. people from the Coast around), and re-tech. Plenty to accomplish in three hundred years, even with Earth’s libraries and Sappho’s surviving equipment. They’d just got around to calculating the orbits of the planets and double suns in their system.
Xochi leaned in. La’ii’s mind wandered a lot. “La’ii. I need you to go talk to Annie Gracious.”
La’ii’s neck rigidified. “I’m not having a mandatory Expansion, mom.” Weren’t they done with this? No babies, no babies with strangers, no babies without co-parenting agreements, no contributing to Expansion for La’ii. Her jaw already set, her eyes snapped to Xochi’s.
Xochi reached for her hand. “I’m not talking Expansion. Of course I want you to have children with many fathers. Every girl does. Expansion is a social duty.”
La’ii’s eyes drilled.
Xochi’s hands warded. “Do as you please. Don’t Expand. Expand. Raise them, don’t raise them. Give them many families, give them none. Pick a small group. Pick a big group. Group with women. If you think you could be happy, pick one man and stick with him your whole life.” …’As unnatural as that sounds’ stayed behind her teeth, but La’ii heard it anyway.
“If this conversation isn’t about Expansion, change the subject?”
“You’re right.” Xochi shook her head at herself. It was so easy to open her mouth and hear thoughtless drivel come out. “I need you to talk to Annie Gracious about the Apocalypse.”
Picture of La’ii, completely dumbstruck.
“Greth has been calculating Maya’s orbital path relative to the suns.”
“So? Colonial planet, binary stars. What does Annie Gracious have to do with it?”
“Those suns are coming into conjunction. Global temperatures will rise dramatically, the visible light spectrum will shift, and we will die. Coa… people from the Coast expect to die. Loonies, however, seem to have a plan.”
“You said the Apocalypse was bunk! You said the ecosystem survived so we would! What does Greth’s math class have to do with it?”
“He proved it’s real, La’ii. He proved the Apocalypse is here.” Her voice throbbed. Her eyes brightened with tears, real ones. Her projection was off.
“If Loonie Annie Gracious has a plan, I want it. Dr. Hernandez didn’t shoot Maya into space so we could lose it all to a solar conjunction.” A tear rolled, and La’ii noticed how the edge of the drop interacted with the fine hair on Xochi’s face and minute, drawn threads of surrounding reflections. That’s exactly the kind of detail projections missed.
The End +14
Dr. Hernandez squinted. He hadn’t seen a blue sky in years. He expected to hear motors, to smell asphalt. Instead, he heard birdsong and clean, unfiltered, unprocessed air rushed his senses. He felt warmth on his skin and leaned his head back, marveling at the touch of sunshine.
A low, calm voice called, “Dr. Hernandez?”
“A survivor?” he stammered.
Gareth’s strong, rough hand reached down and grasped the man’s arm. Dr. Hernandez almost popped out of the bunker onto soft grass. The old tarmac had crumbled to nearly nothing. Nature and the persistence of life never ceased to amaze him.
“Dr. Hernandez?” Gareth repeated. He needn’t ask. The laughter dancing in the corners of his eyes was exactly like Maya’s. And at this particular point in time, Gareth was a generation older than his father-in-law; Maya was 20, accelerating into space, and hadn’t met him yet. Gareth pumped his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.”
Hernandez stammered again. “A survivor?”
Gareth equivocated. “I have an unusual immune system. A few more of us survived. I risked returning to the city to collect you after the launch.”
“How did you know about that?”
Gareth smiled. “Long story, which I will be happy to tell later. First we have to get back to the safety of the wild.”
Hernandez balked. “I’m not moving. None of my people are moving. We will plunk right back down into that bunker and close the door. How did you know?”
Gareth shrugged. “I’m from the future. I’m your son-in-law. Also your great-great grandson.”
Hernandez’s eyes blazed. Gareth could see Hernandez not only accept the truth instantly, but like Maya, his eyes tracked up and right while his mind worked. The improbable truth thrilled him, his intellect leapt at the possible paths through time that Gareth had taken.
Gareth grinned. “I’ve read your work. It’s an honor to meet you, sir.” His green eyes danced. This man was father to Maya, but also to Sappho and all three colonies back home.
Hernandez’s eyes turned sad. The expression was identical to Maya’s. Gareth’s heart split open.
“I’m never going to see her again, am I?” Hernandez asked.
“I don’t think I am either,“ sighed Gareth. “It’s hard to see her expressions on your face.” His openness and vulnerability, his helpless hapless love for Maya etched in his every lineament instantly won Hernandez.
Hernandez punched the older, greyer man’s shoulder. “Well, son,” Hernandez laughed, “come and meet the family.”
La’ii was really the best choice to go see Loonie Annie Gracious. Loonies didn’t spook her, she didn’t mind walking, she was calm around wild animals, and she had clothes that would shelter her off the grid. She was sensible enough to survive the trip and open enough to Loonies to bring back a reasonable understanding of their plans for surviving the Apocalypse.
Xochi just wished La’ii didn’t have to go alone.
It wasn’t illegal to visit the Loonies. Certainly people went on pilgrimages when there was an Expansion question that needed a Reading. Certainly there were whispers of miracle cures and spiders trained like printers and stoned priestesses telling the future and underground houses and wild beasts that ate children and magical farmland that grew what you asked for and, well, all manner of completely looney ideas.
La’ii would be fine.
Xochi watched her daughter sway away, and knew as only Loonies should know that her child would never be the same, would never return as a child, would never live under her roof again.
Because she was not Looney, poor Xochi worked herself around to not believing it, even to expecting La’ii’s return exactly as she was. Xochi visualized them braiding and brushing as they did when La’ii was small. She thought it through thoroughly, even aging La’ii a little older than she was now so the idea felt like future. There was the stink of wish in the vision, not of truth. Because she wasn’t Looney, Xochi ignored it.
La’ii strolled through the city, crossing roads and open spaces in a direct line toward the Loonies. She enjoyed slicing through the unwritten rules of sidewalks and roads oriented toward the larger, more pervasive pattern of Maya’s surface. The Loonies lived where Sappho crashed landed. All roads began there. Tracing them back was simply a matter of perceiving them. That would be easier the farther she got from the city.
The streets were crowded. With the push for Expansion, you’d think people would spread out. But they clustered in crowded groups, movement defined by the grid’s reach. No one took off their projections in public.
A slick young man in a spider silk shirt talked business on a park bench with a floating mermaid. Airmaid? Moved like a person with a fish tail in the water, but floating in the air. Rich projection, that. Making the inconvenient parts of the body disappear was hard code to flow. A good job. High-end custom or genius homemade. Who was she kidding? Home made was almost a criticism. Too Looney.
The man shot his French cuffs and an archaic business card appeared in his hand. He offered it to the airmaid. A fish swam around from behind her back, and took the card in its mouth.
In terms of code, he was giving contact, health, and genetic information. The projected old-school card was a stand-in for the data exchange. The fish was Airmaid’s way of examining the card while keeping his code away from hers until she had time to examine it. The fish nibbled at it, spit bits of it out in blooming puffs (good animation there – completely plausible), sucked them back in, and chomped some more. Airmaid seemed pleased. A little seahorse scooted over to Slick and anchored its tail in his hair. He made a pretty good show of petting and cooing at it while checking her code.
Airmaid’s pleasure showed in a slow, turning roll during which her breasts floated and flashed. La’ii noticed a gesture of dappled light upon them, as if Airmaid were lit by sunlight under water. Definitely a 5 terabyte projection, even with grid support. Impressive.
Impressive flirt, anyway. The guy was delighted and nearly floated behind her himself.
La’ii asked herself where the relationship might go. Airmaid held his hand, almost towing him like a floating corpse. The truth under their projections was Airmaid was heavy, pale, and awkward. Her eyes were calculating and hungry without warmth. Slick was unkempt and short. He followed her, shifting his shirt to a seaweed drape and tucking in the seahorse.
La’ii kept walking.
A stern female centaur swished her tail as La’ii passed, and La’ii stopped to give her a scratch between the ear and the mane. The woman nickered and cavorted on her way. A family of foxes minced along the sidewalk together. The biggest adult had nine tails, and the smallest cub had one. They snarled and shied when a wookie passed. They licked their chops when they spied an old couple perched on the rail as pigeons, cooing.
Unimaginative, grid-dependent projections, every one.
La’ii felt the stir of her spider silk blouse against her skin. Her skirts swirled near her ankles, her hair fell over her shoulders. She could feel them. They were real; her sensations were real. Projections had to have some tactile output, of course. You had to be able to interact with the environment. But the code an the processing needed to have full body full time tactile both inside and outside the projection was seriously prohibitive.
As her mind wandered, she began to twiddle the ends of her hair. She loved how it was brush-soft from an angle and almost prickly end-on.
Her focused shifted outward.
A seven foot tall meerkat locked eyes with her. His ears had pointy tips. She smiled. He smiled; his tiny feral meerkat teeth squared up into human teeth. His face shifted, the fur receeded; he relaxed into an almost entirely true projection. His hair, exactly her color, zigged down his back in springy ringlets. His body was confident and strong, but not rugged. His ears stayed pointed.
La’ii tossed her hair over her shoulder without projection.
He paled, never taking his eyes off her.
Neither had any awareness of crossing the street or approaching each other.
In La’ii’s mind, she was merely going about her business only a slightly curved path toward an interesting phenomenon. As she passed, they glitched. La’ii’s hair turned curly, his body become slighter and curvier, which was either inexplicable or an outrageous coincidence of code sheilding strategies. La’ii glanced down at herself and saw a flatter, squarer body than she’d had. Their clothes matched.
La’ii read truth in code and saw that he was wearing real clothes like hers, but the projections shifted a little here, a little there so they were identical.
“Wow!” he said. “Twins! Nice code. I didn’t think my projection was so glitchy.”
La’ii’s face took an imperious angle. “My code doesn’t glitch.”
He smiled gently. “Except today, yes?”
Their eyes flicked toward a shop window. They fell into step. At the window, they looked at each other, side by side. They turned toward each other, which was the same as the mirror. They turned back to the window. He reached for her hand, touched her fingertips. Staring into a double reflection of her mysteriously changed self, the touch reassured her.
In fact, she liked it.
They turned toward each other again, still holding hands. Ungaurded, staring, amazed they gazed.
He gaped and drew back his hand. “Sorry. I didn’t ask to touch you. It was just so odd seeing myself double-”
“-That you needed the contact,” she finished. “Me too.”
He took a step back and bowed. “Leor.” He stuck out his hand to shake.
“La’ii,” she replied, and took his hand.
“Which way are you going?”
Chagrin twisted up her face. She’d forgotten she was on a mission. Not for long, but a glitch like that was a distraction!
He saw the play of emotions on her face, yet lost himself in the maze.
That imperial carriage came upon her features again, this time with fire. “I’m going to talk to Looney Annie Gracious about the Apocalypse.”
His projection flickered, all his colors lost saturation and he looked like stone. She dropped his hand. “What?”
He brightened back up, and the eerie mirror of herself returned. “Me too.”
La’ii paused. She checked in with her heart. She checked in with her spirit. While she was trying to think a bit, her body volunteered. She reached for his hand again, interlocked fingers, and drifted a bit on the comfort and warmth, the kind strength flowing toward her.
Embarassed, she turned to speak, but his mind had unhinged, too. His slack, dreamy look was a reflection of herself.
She gave his hand a squeeze.
Theysmiled. “Shall we?” they asked, and strolled right out of town.