Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

All in a Hot and Copper Sky

I have written a thousand letters to her in my head. Part of me is always writing to her, while I sit in front of the dusty yellow windows in the coffee shops on Market Street, or roll sticky cinnamon dough on my cold granite counter, or stand in the smooth gray sand at the very edge of the sea. I never wrote to her while she was alive, not even at the end, when letters might have comforted us both. That, I think, is why my head is so full of words for her now, when she is dead, and beyond the reach of everything but my dreams.

• • • •

Dear Socorro,

There is a boy who wants to write a book about you. His name is Anthony Crusan, a red, labyrinthine name—it will look good in hardcover, on a thick glossy spine. He sat at the edge of my couch, tapping his pen against his clipboard, and stared at the old photographs of Eve, the folded glass candy dish on my coffee table, as if they would tell him all my secrets.

He wanted a photograph of you. “Of us together?” I asked, because your face is as common as pennies and twice and bright—smiling out of textbooks, smiling out of survivors’ accounts in drugstore magazines, smiling, smiling. But of course it wasn’t us he wanted. It was you, but a private you, a you he thought I had kept to myself all these years.

As if I could keep any part of you secret. As if you had any secrets to give.

And I wondered what made him want to write about you, Socorro Vargas, the Joshua Tree Biosphere’s angel of death—what pieces of himself he thought he recognized in a woman thirty years dead.

“I don’t know how you let them get away with it,” he said, suddenly bitter, as though years and years of acrimonious sorrow had been unstopped by a brief shake of my head. “The newspapers, the so-called survivors, all those terrible things they’ve written about her. Of all people, I thought the woman who loved her would . . .”

“Would what?”

But the bitterness had swept on, out of those wide red-brown eyes, and taken Anthony Crusan’s words with it. He didn’t complete the thought. I laughed, not unkindly, because I was twenty-three when you died, and I knew nothing about love. I told him so. He stared at the sharp edge of my coffee table, and he did not laugh; he is twenty-four and in love with you, Socorro Vargas, the angel of death.

You would have played with him, dear. Not intentionally, perhaps; you might have tried, at first, to be helpful, but soon you would become swept up in the riptide of history and remembering, carried away on your own self-importance. You would have brought down albums of photographs and paged through them for hours—photographs of the agricultural sector and the industrial kitchens, photographs of our dormitory, photographs of you bent over a tomato plant or bent over your paperwork, glasses shoved up to your hairline. Photographs of the Gatehouse, its bizarre corona of blue-tinted glass. You would have told him stories about all of them, and most of those stories—did you ever understand this about yourself?—would have been lies.

But I am not you. I told him a different lie, a kinder one; I said I had no photographs.

And Anthony Crusan left. And I stared at the pictures of Eve in their warm wooden frames and my folded glass candy dish and the sharp edge of my coffee table, but they told me nothing I didn’t already know.

• • • •

Dear Socorro,

Why the sudden interest in you? I turned the television on this morning and there you were, leaning into the court stenographer’s microphone. You tossed your head roughly, shaking your short brown hair back from your eyes, and I saw that your glasses were tucked into your shirt pocket, broken across the nose, and I knew what it must have cost you not to squint. What it must have cost you to face your accusers blind.

I think the anniversary is coming up. Thirty years since I saw you by the door of the produce cooler, inspecting a crate of tomatoes and squinting slightly in the pink light of simulated albedo, and when I asked Taylor Wallace who you were, she murmured under her breath: That’s Socorro Vargas. She works in Agriculture. And yes, she’s queer and gorgeous as all hell and you should get her number.

Thirty years later, I remember every digit.

Now I pull up the news and they’re talking about doing it again. As if we still had a future with biospheres and Mars, as though our attempt were anything but a gin-soaked one-night stand. I’m sure the kids at JTB half-expect me to come creeping out of the woodwork, draped in the habiliments of the grave, returned to warn them of their folly. What good am I otherwise, the girl who survived the Joshua Tree Biosphere 988-1? What good are survivors but to save the rest of us from becoming like them—flotsam, if we’re lucky, and jetsam, if we’re you?

• • • •

Dear Socorro,

How’s this for a script? See, I remember your history as a film student, the history that boys like Anthony Crusan want to call on in their pretty little eulogies, with all their talk of pans and frames and exterior shots, as though your life were always already a documentary.

But here it is, INT, afternoon, the offices of JTB Vice President Kroger. Sunlight slashes through the windows onto the secretary’s desk, where he wades efficiently through a pile of paperwork. Enter me, like the Red Death at Prospero’s masque.

 

DOLORES ÁLVAREZ: Dr. Kroger, you’re making a mistake.

KROGER looks up, takes off his bifocals with one hand. He’s too young for bifocals—too young, in fact, to remember JTB 988-1 with any real distinctness, so I can hardly blame him for the sudden bout of amnesiac enthusiasm over Real Time simulations.

DOLORES takes a deep breath. In the background, the soundtrack builds; slow, single strings at first, clarifying into a melody. DOLORES says: The Joshua Tree Biosphere is a death trap. It always has been. You think because you’ve filled it up with rainforests and industrial kitchens and dormitories with internet access that people aren’t going to panic the moment the oxygen breaks again, or the moment the water filter clogs or the irrigation system springs a leak or God knows what else goes wrong. Maybe you think everyone’s done their research on 988-1, so they’ll all know to read the fine print and sit tight in the face of disaster, waiting patiently for the doors to unlock. Maybe you think you’ll do a better job screening your applicants. Whatever you think, you’re wrong. And this time, you won’t have Socorro Vargas.

(This is the only time, the only time I ever defend you, Socorro.)

DOLORES continues: We were stupidly lucky last time. Six people died, out of nearly a thousand. Just six. Negligible. A bad car crash, or flu season. How many would it have been if Socorro had followed procedure? But we all know what happened to her. No one is going to follow her now. If you run a second Biosphere 988, or one thousand or ten thousand or however many people you want to cram in there, if you run a Real Time simulation again, you’ll be lucky if it’s only six dead, only sixty.

KROGER, exasperated: Ms. Álvarez, you are trying to halt scientific progress!

DOLORES: Are nine hundred and eighty eight corpses your idea of progress, Dr. Kroger?

KROGER: Are two researchers shot through the head yours, Ms. Álvarez?

 

My script leaves me here, stranded in his stupid office with a stupid expression on my face. I convince myself that I will do no good as a deterrent, and I excuse myself from trying.

• • • •

Dear Socorro,

I was at the plant shop today, picking out some tomatoes to grow in the kitchen window. You’d think it would remind me of the biosphere, all those plants inside my house, the stench of rotting green things, tannic things. But it doesn’t. Anthony Crusan was in the next aisle, sniffing at a display of basil, rosemary, cilantro in clay pots. I’m not ashamed to admit that I fled.

At my kitchen counter, I spread out newspapers to collect the loose potting soil, and I saw an advertisement.

QUALIFIED VOLUNTEERS NEEDED
Do you have two years to dedicate to bettering YOURSELF and HUMANITY?

Two years, Socorro. That’s how long they told us it could take for help to come—if we were really on Mars. Nine months of flight, but ten, sixteen, maybe more, to wait for the proper angle, the proper alignment between our planets. So that’s how long they left us, pretended we didn’t exist. There’s some debate now—this would not have surprised you—about how extensive the video surveillance had been. Could they really have left so much unsupervised? Could so much have gone unrecorded? (Apparently, yes. If the footage existed, the kids at JTB did an excellent job swallowing it to cover their own assess—it never appeared at the trial, or even afterward, for the documentaries.) They were as surprised as anyone, they say, when the Gatehouse fractured under your override and there you stood, clutching your stolen gun.

Two years. Twelve months washing vegetables and heating vats of instant potatoes in the industrial kitchens. Two months watching panic seize nearly one thousand people as our oxygen meter dipped lower, lower. And eight months, more or less, as they briskly ran through your trial, eager to put you away, eager to shelve the whole business as quickly as possible. What was I even doing there? Why did I come? Because the Joshua Tree Biosphere was going to pay for my education. Because it looked safe.

And you came for the same reasons: to pay off student debt. You were bored. You were a drifter, traveling from minimum-wage job to minimum-wage job, despite your intelligence, despite your work ethic, because you were caustic as hell, Socorro, you made enemies and half the time they were your bosses. Someone offered you a job in the agricultural sector and you jumped. And just look at where you landed. Just look—

Even when writing to you, I hold back. I flinch from the mess on the floor of the Gatehouse. It’s the trial all over again, the microphone in my face

“Did you see Socorro Vargas commit homicide?”

“No.”

“Are you aware of what happened to Eric Botting, Annalise Procelli, Lamara Simpson?”

“Yes. But she didn’t have a choice. They wouldn’t give us the override.” My lawyer shook her head at the point—did you see? I ignored her, because I was only looking at you, your brave face, your brave blind eyes. “They were more committed to the simulation’s time scheme fidelity than they were to—to us, to the people trapped in there.”

“Do you believe that justifies murder?”

Why the hell did he ask that question, Socorro? But that’s the same question I’ve been asking for thirty years. Why did they put me on the witness stand, what did they think I was going to say? It was never about justice, it was about spectacle, and who could have been more spectacular than you, the Joshua Tree Biosphere’s angel of death, and me, her young and photogenic and oh-so-naïve lover? No wonder there are so many books about you now, so many documentaries, so many articles and special reports. You made your enemies out of people who had their eyes on the cameras, on the future, every time they mouthed your name.

And I stared him down as best I could, a kid of twenty-three with no interest in the future if it didn’t hold you. “Doesn’t it?”

I should have denied everything. Denied knowledge of everything. I was only a kid, I was only sleeping with you; how much could they expect? I still wonder that, incidentally. Thirty years later, I see that boy picking through pots of basil, and I flee before he can ask the questions I have never been able to answer.

• • • •

Dear Socorro,

An email from Eve today. She’s been so quiet, I wasn’t quite sure she was still alive, and I have no idea how she found my new personal address. The message was stupidly simple. You have to stop them.

I don’t know why you let them get away with it, Anthony Crusan said.

You see, Socorro, it’s my responsibility now. You and JTB 988-1.

I was happy with Eve. Very happy, sometimes. I think you would have liked her. She made glass—beads, mostly, but also the candy dish on my coffee table, and a few bigger pieces we carted to craft fairs and flea markets in the back of her Chevrolet pickup. She wanted kids, eventually, talked about donors, adoption agencies, paint colors for the bedrooms. I was always carefully noncommittal. Maybe if I had said yes, she would have stayed.

But she left, Socorro. She left because you poisoned her, like you poisoned everything you touched.

It was the death threats that did it. Always sent to me, sometimes from students, family members, disciples of those at the Gatehouse. Sometimes from strangers who wanted to pick a fight. Dead women, dead murderers, make easy targets. I tried to delete them before Eve saw, but I wasn’t always quick enough.

“Tell me you never loved her,” Eve said. It seemed like a stupid non sequitur to me; what did it matter if I loved you? I was your replacement, your stand-in for the survivors, because I was a survivor myself. (And what good are survivors otherwise, but to read our sorrows and grievances against the dead, to listen to what the dead cannot hear?) But I should have been obedient, I should have denied you, deny, deny, like on the witness stand.

“I can’t take this anymore, Dolores.” She ran both hands through her shortly, bristly hair, looking at the email on the screen of my tablet. “It’s like when you look at me, you see her.”

“That’s bullshit.” It was bullshit. But just barely. “I don’t think of her, Eve, not when I’m with you.”

“And when I’m not here?”

“Please, Eve.” If you leave me, I thought, I’ll be hers, I’ll be all hers.

And she left.

It is love, Borges wrote, that creates its own mythology, its minor and pointless magic. Can I judge the depth of my loves by the inanity of their symbolism? Here is Eve, the giver of trinkets she made with her own hands, claimer of love songs and tree trunks and park benches—our song, our bench—a photograph and a glass candy dish. And here you are, Socorro. You are everything hot and crimson and metallic, you are blood and sunlight, coffee and tomatoes, you are Mars in the night sky. In the pantheon of my heart, you are the goddess of red. Our magic was not minor, not pointless. I doubt I loved you, Socorro. It was too dire.

• • • •

Dear Socorro,

You were not very romantic. I liked that about you. I’d dated before you—sometimes boys, if you can believe that—and the romance was always what killed it. Too much love can be stifling. I remember one young man assuring me, ardently, that I was the only good thing in his life. What can you say to that, Socorro? I giggled loudly and quietly left him.

Was I a good thing in your life? The only good thing? Probably, but you never burdened me with that knowledge. I can see now that you were desperate, desperate and too old for me, but at the time I could only see you, your brown hair and your brown skin, your dark eyes and your red, red mouth. You were not frigid, not by any means, but you were cool, dignified, restrained. I liked that about you, too.

I try not to think about the physical things. The kissing, the sex. Eve was better at both—or I was just better then, more experienced, wiser. But I remember you whispering to me afterward, and that was the only time you approached romance, approached it warily, like a snake hunter handling a viper.

“Mystic and somber Dolores,” you called me once, and I giggled, not recognizing the poem. I know it now. Swinburne’s Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs: All the joys of the flesh, all the sorrows / That wear out the soul.

I know those, too.

• • • •

Dear Socorro,

Today the email is from Anthony Crusan. He has picked a photograph for the cover of his book; it is the jacket they found in our closet, red leather, the one they say you were wearing at the Gatehouse. Utter bullshit, I tell him. They know what you were wearing at the Gatehouse, it was the same thing you were wearing when they arrested you. Still, the image sticks. Could you imagine yourself in red leather, Socorro?

Perhaps I’m too harsh on them. But it’s hard to be gentle to lies. For all that when I close my eyes I, too, see you swathed in crimson like nightmares, I know that you never wore red. The image of you that I carry with me, the image of you in Anthony Crusan’s book, is a myth, an interpretation. You are the victim of so many interpretations, Socorro. It’s what you deserve, I imagine for being so closed, so indecipherable, so cold.

Anthony Crusan protests that the red leather jacket is a symbol. Perhaps he’s right. It’s a symbol, as you turned me into a symbol by making me a survivor. It is the reason why I could not go out in public for seven years after the trial, the reason why Eve left me, the reason why my letters to you will always stay here, in my head. I hate that red jacket, Socorro. Sometimes I even hate the woman inside it.

• • • •

Dear Socorro,

It was my jacket. My red leather jacket. Just in case you, or anyone else, was wondering.

• • • •

Dear Socorro,

They’ll never know that they have me to thank for your arrest, your trial. You were so close to beating them, so close to escaping. Standing over the sink in the Gatehouse restroom with the emptied gun at your feet, your hair and lipstick flawless, the pill between your teeth.

“Don’t do this,” I said, and you pushed the bottle towards me. It hadn’t been standard issue; you smuggled it from somewhere, from the hospital, from the Gatehouse’s own panic room. I imagined I could smell it—almond, cyanide, whatever it was, sweet as a sugar pill.

“It won’t hurt,” you promised. “That’s more than I can say for what they’ll do to us otherwise.”

Do to us, Socorro? When exactly had I become a part of you, a part so intimate that I carried your sins? Sins I had discovered only moments before, as I entered the Gatehouse through the service door and saw the bloody footprints on the carpet. Sins that have followed me ever since.

Seven ages would fail thee to purge in, / and then they would haunt thee in heaven.

“I’m not dying with you,” I said. And oh, Socorro, you weren’t brave enough to die alone. You trusted—how could you, you selfish bitch?—you trusted that I would kill myself for you, to be with you. And I was young, but not that young.

Still, I wouldn’t have stopped you, if you had bitten that pill. I saw as clearly as you did what was coming: the arrest, the trial. And after that, a dim and fatal outline, an outline that eventually resolved into a prison cell, a knife in the dark. I saw you destroyed. But at that moment, with your stolen gun on the floor between us, I saw a life after your destruction, a survival for me, a life without you.

But they’ll never give me that, Socorro. They’ll never let me have a life without you.

• • • •

Dear Socorro,

It is a simple scene to replay in your head. You must have spun it out a hundred times, a thousand, in varying degrees of detail and resolution, in your cell and on the bench and in your cell again afterward. I wasn’t there. All I have is your testimony, the barest sketch, and the gruesome aftermath. Maybe it’s enough, and maybe it isn’t. Maybe the truth can be picked by this, my skeleton key, and maybe it can’t. It’s that simple.

It’s early in the fourteenth month of JTB-988 and three people are dead. One asthma attack, two cases of what the medical sector is calling a respiratory tract infection. Antibiotics did nothing. The next morning, there are six more cases scattered throughout the biosphere. I’m feeling lightheaded, slipping in the shower. All of your tomato plants are dead.

The Gatehouse says: Calm down, sit tight. Everything’s under control.

And the Gatehouse says: Remember that this is a Real Time simulation. Help will be here before Christmas.

Calm down. Sit tight.

Fuck that, you say. There has to be an override. It’s that simple.

(They have to believe me: I didn’t know anything.)

You enter the Gatehouse through the service door with a rollaway cart of aluminum pans, as though you’re delivering meals from the kitchen. You swipe my card to get in. (I didn’t know, I didn’t know.) I can imagine the look on your face, your tight lips, tinged with blue. You have a gun in your belt, stolen off of Eric Botting, a peace officer with a drinking problem and a bad heart. He’s dead by this point, lying on the cold tile floor of a dormitory bathroom, not a scratch on him, but no one will ever believe you had nothing to do with it. You’re in the Gatehouse, in the main service corridor, and Central Communications is the first door on your left. There are four women inside.

Annalise and Lamara, Nayna and Jennifer.

You pick one. Nayna and Jennifer disagree over which. I’ve always imagined it was Annalise. I never knew her, never even knew what she looked like until I saw her picture in the papers, but she had a weak chin, soft eyes, fair and girlish hair. She looks easy to intimidate. You would have thought so, pressing the gun against her temple, the strands of yellow hair curling around the barrel. “Open the lock,” you say.

“I don’t have the override,” she squeaks. Which means there is one.

“Who does?” you ask. She points. And whoever she points to takes too long to answer, so Annalise winds up dead. You aren’t fucking around.

Maybe you say so. “I’m not fucking around. Open the fucking lock.”

No one says anything coherent. They’re all shouting, screaming. An alarm has been set off somewhere, but you don’t know that yet. I hear it in the kitchens on the other end of the biosphere, and my first thought is for you. (I didn’t know, Annalise. I’m so sorry.)

You turn to the next likely suspect, Lamara, whichever one is still alive. Now she isn’t. You hear an alarm, a strident single-note blaring. The override has been entered. And when you step back into the corridor, you hear the first alarm, the call for Emergency Services. They’ll be waiting for you when the gate opens.

Just three minutes for a pathogen scan, for the atmosphere to equalize. And then the gate opens.

Eventually, Nayna Sundari and Jennifer Marks will point out that it was your job to install the carbon air filters in the agricultural sector in the first week of the experiment. By the time the investigation reaches that section of the biosphere, four weeks after the deaths of Annalise and Lamara, the filters will be completely absent. Very solemnly, they’ll announce that they’ve found the source of the atmospheric abnormality. The press will smile knowingly and nod, and begin to call you the angel of death.

For now, you go to the restroom with your sugar pills and I, having run as fast as I could, am there to meet you.

“Don’t do this,” I say. But it isn’t that simple, and it’s far, far too late.

• • • •

I open my email again. And again, and again, the curser blinking at me like a panic attack. I have to tell them to stop it, to stop this—this experiment, this story, this scene I keep replaying in my head, this script I’ve cut and recut and shot from so many angles that I’ve lost track of where I once stood. No, this isn’t my idea of progress, and it isn’t any closer to an answer. It’s just me, writing to her. Always writing to her, and always far too late.

• • • •

I still dream of you. Not as you dream of someone who is dead, but as of someone living, someone you’ll sit across from at breakfast the next morning, knocking shoulders as you reach for the same cereal box. I dream of you incidentally: Last night you were a tour guide in an art museum of stones, and the night before, you met me on the first landing of an endless staircase, carrying a basket full of golden fish.

When I am awake, I listen to the wind in the branches of the plane tree outside my window, and I see the speckled glow of wet headlights slide across the ceiling, and I compose letters to you, full of what I cannot say in dreams. In dreams, Socorro, I believe that you are still alive. What might I say to you if I remembered everything in my sleep—if I dreamed for a moment you were listening, if I thought you could understand?

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Megan Arkenberg

Megan ArkenbergMegan Arkenberg is a student in Wisconsin. In the name of story research, she racks up late fees at the college library, gets dizzyingly lost along the shores of Lake Michigan, consumes a steady diet of M.R. James, and lusts quietly after the architecture and costume of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her work has appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and dozens of other places. She procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance and the historical fiction e-zine Lacuna.