Science Fiction & Fantasy

CHOSEN ONES

Advertisement

Fiction

Dying Light

She was using an ice-cream scoop this time. I came home to find her slumped in the deck chair out back, scoop in one hand, other hand holding open the skin of her abdomen.

“That is disgusting,” I told her.

She scooped out a lump of guts and dropped it onto the tiles beside her chair. Already there was a significant mound of the stuff, coiled like pale snakes. Blood seeped out and trickled along the grooves between the tiles.

The cat padded over and licked at a rivulet. I tried to kick it, but it jumpcut to the left, vanishing and then rematerializing a few feet away. Glitchy little bastard.

“Mag,” I said, “can you knock that off for a second. We need to talk.”

“I can’t talk now,” Mag said. “I’m busy.” She hummed while she scooped. An old folk-tune about flowers or drowning or something like that.

“Mag,” I said once more, but she ignored me.

Some part of me still ached to run to her. To grab fistfuls of her insides and stuff them back into her chest where they belonged, hold her shut.

Instead, I went into the kitchen for a beer. I’d spent the day running flight simulations like always. The highlight was when I’d briefly monitored a proxy sent out to buff some micrometeroid scratches on the ship’s hull. The real ship, that is, out in heavy space. I always find the heavy work thrilling, even though it’s usually just a matter of monitoring automated processes. There isn’t a whole lot going on out there in the real world, on the real ship—we’re all still slumbering away out there, still a decade away from the colony, still accelerating every day.

I was headed back out to the deck with my beer when the doorbell rang. Our house didn’t usually have a doorbell, so I knew it must be Angelica. She was never content with just knocking. “Hey, Ruth,” she said when I answered the door. “Is Mag here?”

“No,” I said. Angelica frowned over my shoulder. “She’s busy,” I amended. “She’s in the shower.”

“But we’re supposed to go browsing. Do you mind if I come in and wait?” She was already pushing past me. “Roberta says she has a huge batch of new skins.”

I followed her into the living room. Mag was still humming. Angelica gave me a dirty look and headed for the back deck.

I should have tried to stop her, or at the very least warn her, but I didn’t. She stepped through the door, silhouetted for an instant by the afternoon sun. A moment later I heard a shriek and then the sound of the ice cream scoop clattering onto the tiles.

Angelica jumpcut back into the living room, appearing beside me suddenly with an ostentatious flash of light.

“Oh, Ruth!” She gripped my arm. Her face had drained of all color. I wanted to point out to her how stupid it looked—faces don’t really do that—but Angelica had never much cared about realism. “I thought she’d stopped all that nonsense.”

I shrugged, more to shake her off than anything else.

“Oh, Ruth,” cried Angelica again, as if she herself were in some horrible pain. I doubted whether Angelica even knew what real pain was. She’d been born with a bank account bigger than our ship. She was used to living light.

“Maybe you should come back later,” I said, and she said maybe that would be best and left in rather a hurry.

I went back out to the deck, but the deck was gone. In its place was an Olympic sized in-ground pool. Mag was floating face down, apparently drowned.

“We agreed to consult with each other before changing the house,” I shouted down at her. “Remember?”

Her hair fanned out around her head. There were pieces of seaweed tangled in there. Her body was slightly bloated, as though she’d been dead for days already.

“Fine,” I shouted. “I guess this means I can finally get rid of those stupid curtains.”

Mag gave no indication that she had heard me. The cat rubbed against my legs. I picked it up.

“You’re a dog now,” I told it, and it was.

Long ago, when there were whales, their bodies would apparently sink to the ocean floor after they died and there become ecosystems unto themselves, both food and dwelling for thousands of smaller lifeforms.

So it is with the constellation Cetus, space whale, skin made of stars. Nestled in what could, by those with sufficient imagination, be called his flipper is a red dwarf star and orbiting that dwarf is a planet which we on this ship have been instructed to think of only as Home.

We are the fifth colonist ship sent off to the whale carcass. The fourth is out there somewhere ahead of us. The sixth was scheduled to launch two years behind us. Whether it actually has I could not say. We’re travelling too fast for messages now.

Our ship, the real ship, mostly flies itself. I spend my days piloting far smaller craft, zooming past lights cliffs and over light seas, approximations modeled from scans beamed back years before. It is practice for the work I will do when we finally reach Home. And I do need to practice. I’d been piloting professionally for less than a year when I was accepted to this voyage. I wasn’t accepted because I was the best. I was accepted because I was adequate, sure, but also because I was young and I was female.

When we reach the colony, Mag and I will both be expected to carry children—as many as we are able to for the rest of our lives. They are all on the ship here with us, vitrified oocytes and spermatozoa, near infinite combinatorial permutations.

For now, we wait. We try to stay busy to the extent that we can, asleep out there, but awake in here, living light.

The morning after the incident with Angelica, I went to see the ship’s doctor. In the three years we’d been traveling, I hadn’t visited him once, but I knew he kept tabs on me anyway. He kept tabs on all of us. It was his job to detect irregularities in behavior, to correct them.

Mag saw him once a week. She was required to as a condition of her acceptance, due to some distant family history. She told me that if she tried to skip a session, she got a persistent buzz in her left ear until she complied.

The doctor’s office was at the west end of our town, down a street that nobody actually lived on. The street led to the forest, which surrounded our town and which was, as far as we were concerned, the end of the world.

The inside of the office was bare apart from two cushy chairs, facing each other. The walls glowed a gentle sunrise color and buzzed faintly with white noise.

The doctor himself was pale blue. The exact shade shifted from moment to moment, responding, presumably, to my own mood.

“You’ve got to make her stop,” I told him.

“Have a seat, please,” he said, gesturing to the open chair, “and tell me what’s troubling you.”

“Oh, quit it with the protocol,” I said. “You already know all about it.”

“True,” said the doctor. He steepled his fingers and raised an eyebrow.

“And quit that, too. It’s unrealistic.”

“I’m sorry, Ruth. It’s in my code.”

“Whatever.” I sat down. “You’re supposed to be fixing this. I trusted that you would fix this. But she just keeps getting worse.”

“Worse?”

“She’s doing it three or four times a day now, and probably more when I’m not around.”

The doctor stroked his chin. He didn’t have a beard—and actually his face had softened somewhat since I first walked in and he was no longer identifiably male—but I suppose that gesture was coded in, too.

“She told me she had cut back to every other day,” he said.

I snorted. “And you believed her? Some doctor you are.”

“I’m not omnipotent, Ruth. What you do inside your homes is private data.”

“Really?” I hadn’t known there were limits to his surveillance. Mag must have known, though, or figured it out. Had it been in our contracts? I’d read most of mine. Skimmed it, at any rate. But I probably would have signed away every human right I had, knowingly and gladly, if that’s what it took.

“She doesn’t really want to die,” I said. “She’s just bored, right?”

The doctor steepled his stupid fingers again. “Have you asked her that?”

“Jesus, of course I have.”

“And?”

I sighed. Mag had told me once, a little over a year into the trip, that she’d changed her mind. That she didn’t want to go to the colony. That she wanted out.

Well, it’s too late now, I’d said, uncomfortable.

I thought it would go away, she said. I thought if I ran far enough, fast enough, it wouldn’t follow.

What are you talking about?

This, she said, and she pointed to her chest. But I didn’t understand.

When I got home from work, Mag was in the kitchen, slicing an onion and her fingers.

“I talked to the doctor,” I said. Mag stopped slicing and looked up. “About you. Now I understand if you’re mad, but I—”

She launched the knife at me and it lodged itself in my left shoulder. It bled, but I felt nothing. We’re automatically thresholded for pain in here. Scrapes and bruises hurt a little so we don’t get too careless, but anything worse than that and the sensation will just cut off.

“Sorry,” said Mag.

“It’s okay.” I pulled the knife out of my shoulder and set it gently in the sink. “But you’ve got to start talking to me. I want to help you, but I don’t know how.”

“I’m fine,” she said.

“Fine? Jesus, look at yourself, Mag. You’re bleeding all over the counter.”

She just stood there, staring at the floor. A slice of onion circled the stump of her middle finger like a ring.

“I love you,” I said, but it came out wrong. Like an accusation.

“You shouldn’t,” she said.

No one on Earth lives light nonstop. Even the sickest and the richest stop sometimes. Stretch their legs a little. Remind themselves that they exist.

Most people can only afford it a few days out of the year. When I was a kid we couldn’t even afford that. I can still remember my first time: a special field trip for at-risk youth sponsored by the city museum. It was the most blissful half hour of my life. We were supposed to be observing the flora and fauna of an early twenty-first century forest, but all I could think about was how my feet no longer ached. How I no longer felt tired or hungry. When they unhooked us, the trees blinking away in an instant, I suddenly understood why people call the real world the heavy world. It was like stepping out of a pool, your body suddenly leaden, gravity pulling down on your bones.

I met Mag light, actually, at a big benefit shindig Angelica’s family threw for investors and potential colonists. Angelica didn’t have to go through the same ten-tiered application process as the rest of us. She just bought her way in.

The party was held in a light mansion which was modeled after Angelica’s real mansion which was modeled after Versailles. It was the fanciest place I’d ever been in my life. Everyone was skinned up crazy. Some people were animals, some had planets for eyes, some were mirrors or fractals or abstract concepts.

Mag was pretty plain, really. She had on a white sundress with little pearl buttons down the front. I could see the outline of her bra beneath it.

We talked. About me, mostly. I bragged about flight school, about my future, about how I’d made it to the fifth tier in the race to qualify for the voyage. I made it sound like I was a sure thing, like I wasn’t sick every night thinking about it. Off this dying rock for good, I said, that’s me. I was drunk on light wine. I was an abstract concept: idiocy. When Mag leaned forward and kissed me, I almost fell backwards into a fountain full of stars.

Later, she took me by the hand and led me through the crowd, through a door hidden behind some potted palms, to a little room with one window and a twin bed.

She told me that this was her room, a replica of a room in the real mansion. She told me she worked there as a maid. She told me she and Angelica talked sometimes, briefly, when they passed in the hallways. Told me she’d put in a good word. I wasn’t really listening because while she talked, she was also undoing the buttons on her dress one by one.

Between her breasts there was a small door. It was the same color as her flesh, but hinged. She kissed me again and then she pulled the door open and I could see her heart, a glistening fist of pulsing tissue. She pulled my hand towards her chest until my fingertips brushed the surface of it, soft and warm as bread dough. I pressed my fingers into it. I could barely breathe. Mag laughed and laughed.

“We’ve talked about turning her off,” said the doctor when I went to see him again the next day.

“Isn’t that dangerous?” It had been done that way on some of the old research voyages—passengers placed in artificial comas, defrosted on arrival. No matter how carefully refrigerated they were, though, a few always spoiled.

“It’s safer than it used to be.”

“Is that what she wants?”

The doctor shook his head. “She wants me to wake her up.”

Of course she did. Then she could do it for real.

There are provisions in place for emergency waking. A few key members of the crew first, then everyone else in waves. We’d done simulated drills for it. I’d be in the second wave, if it ever came to that. Mag would be in the last. She is inessential personnel, accepted only as my spouse. When we reach Home, her job will be basic childcare.

As I was leaving the doctor’s office, I saw her coming up the path from the forest. Except it wasn’t her, not really. She was standing up straight. She was smiling. She was wearing a white dress with pearl buttons down the front. She waved at me.

I turned and ran.

In the first year of the voyage, many of the single passengers on the ship met light matches, though we were warned to keep things casual. Roberta is known for having a different guy each week. Light children are strictly forbidden. Pets are okay because their natural lifespans tend to be about the length of our trip anyway.

Mag had a light friend for a while in the first year. John. He taught her and Angelica how to grow hydroponic vegetables. When the doctor told Mag she needed to get out of the house more, she and John got jobs at a restaurant downtown. Mostly they served light food to light customers. Mag said it was fun, like a game.

Then John died. Apparently he cut his arms open with a butcher’s knife in the kitchen of the restaurant and bled out on the floor. Which would never happen on its own. The AI for the light townies is not that deep. They can all manage intelligent conversations, sure, and they’ve got a variety of personality types, but they don’t get depressed. They don’t get violent. So it must have been Mag’s idea. She must have convinced him to do it. Later that same day, she told me she’d changed her mind. About the voyage, about everything.

After that, she started starving herself. Or pretending to, anyway. The nutrition system out in heavy space is automatic—we get our daily allotted drips, no more, no less—but Mag stopped eating light food. She lost weight, or appeared to, at any rate. She kept it up for months, until her skin was pulled so tight against her skull I thought it would snap. One Sunday morning she collapsed and lay on the dining room floor for the rest of the day without moving, curled up like a corn husk. I stepped over her on my way to bed, annoyed.

From then on, she died regularly. At first I thought she wanted attention. It seemed like a childish way to get it, but I played along. I mourned her every time she died, rejoiced every time she returned. When that changed nothing, I tried ignoring her instead. I figured maybe I’d made it worse, that I’d rewarded the behavior. So I pretended not to notice. I looked away. I read a book.

I knew the doctor was adjusting her dosages, pumping this and that into her little vat out in heavy space. He’d hit on the right combination eventually and she would stop.

I remember one night she crawled into bed beside me, naked. She had that door in her chest again. I opened it up, eager, but instead of a heart she had a rotten peach, sunken and gray with mold. She pulled it out, squished it in her fist. The juice ran down her wrist and I laughed at her. I laughed! I told her she was such a cliché. And after a moment she laughed, too.

When I got home from work that evening, Mag was out back again. The pool was filled with piranhas and she was sitting at the edge of it, feeding them. I sat down cross-legged beside her.

“Mag,” I said. “I need you to stop.” I put a hand on her arm.

“Stop what?” she said. She kicked her feet in the water. Little ribbons of red unfurled from her toes.

“Oh, come on, Mag. I’m tired. I’m so tired of this.”

“Go to bed then.”

“Dammit, Mag,” I said, digging my fingers into her arm, trying to pull her back from the edge of the pool. “You can’t keep doing this to me. It’s selfish, okay?”

“It’s a compromise,” she said, coolly.

“Compromise?” I said. “Compromise! I don’t think you even know what that means.”

“I get part of what I want and you get part of what you want.”

“What is it that I get, Mag? Huh?” I couldn’t help it, I was shouting now. “I’m not getting a damn thing out of this.”

“You get me.”

“Barely.”

“Isn’t that better than nothing?”

She looked me right in the eyes and it felt like a punch to the gut. All I saw in her eyes was hate. For who, I couldn’t say.

“Mag,” I said, but I had no follow-up.

She yanked her arm away and slid off the side of the pool into the water. The piranhas flashed silver in the sun.

I watched them converge. I didn’t want to watch but I did. It felt like I still owed her that much.

“I was on the first colony ship, you know,” said the doctor the next morning.

“What?”

“They sent me back. My memories.” He tapped the side of his head.

“Oh,” I said. I’d forgotten for a second that he was pure light. “Did any of them . . . were any of them like her?”

“There was a rash of murders towards the end,” he said. “I had to facilitate quite a few group therapy sessions.”

“But no suicides?”

“No.”

“Well then, why the fuck are you telling me about it.”

He blinked at me, seemed to shrink. “I’m sorry, Ruth, I just want you to understand.” Yes, he had definitely shrunk. He looked almost like a child, dwarfed by his cushy chair. “There is no precedent for this. I’m doing the best I can with what they gave me, but this is all new.”

“This is fucked up,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “It is.”

It isn’t healthy, what we’re doing. We know that. We’ve got our little holding vats. We’ve got vitamins and drugs and intermittent electric pulses. It’s enough to keep us alive, but they warned us of the risks, too. Our lifespans will be shortened, our muscle tone diminished. There may well be other, unforeseen consequences. I knew all that. But I didn’t know anything. I was eighteen when I signed the contract. Eighteen when I left that hot dry husk of a planet I was never again supposed to think of as home.

“Mag and I have been talking,” said the doctor. “She’s come up with an idea, a compromise.”

“I doubt that.”

“It’s a tricky situation,” said the doctor. “Part of my job is to keep you all happy, but there are limits. You each represent a significant investment, you know.”

“I know.”

“Your lives are no longer merely your own.”

“I know,” I said. “I know.”

“So from her perspective,” he said, “everything is a compromise.”

Mag and I had been dating for only two months when I proposed. I knew it was quick, but I was up to the seventh qualifying tier by then and I didn’t want to go to space without her. That’s what I said, “I don’t want to go to space without you,” and that made her laugh. There was no sound I loved more than the sound of her laugh. I heard it often back then. She seemed happy. She seemed normal. She said yes. We filed right away.

I made it through the rest of the tiers, and she made it through the screening for spouses. The psych tests, too, of course. Maybe she lied. I don’t know. But we were accepted, both of us.

We went through training together, boarded the ship together, woke up together on a plot of land lusher and greener than any on Earth. Everything was sweet and new and terrifying and full of sun.

In my worst moments, now, I wonder whether it was all a lie. Maybe Mag was just using me to get on the ship, to get away from a lifetime of scrubbing other people’s tubs. To follow Angelica, even. To live light.

But I want to believe that Mag truly meant it when she’d said yes. I need to believe that she was happy. That she loved me, or that, at the very least, she had loved me once.

I still love her, as much as ever. But it’s not enough.

Why isn’t that enough?

Sometimes it is like she is in love with someone else. I imagine death as a woman, breasts like the tops of mushroom clouds, eyes empty. I imagine walking in on her and Mag kissing. I imagine walking in on them fucking.

And I wish it was as simple as that. I’d forgive her. It would be fine.

I agreed to the new compromise, the terms of which the doctor relayed to me. I told him fine, go ahead, tell her I’m too tired to fight, tell her I don’t care anymore.

She did it pretty simply for the big finish. Just a gun to the head. She did it in the middle of town so people would know. Some light police showed up and zipped her into a body bag.

At the funeral the next day, I thought I saw her peeking—one eye open just a slit, just for a second. I don’t think anyone else saw. And it was so quick that afterwards it seemed possible that I’d only imagined it.

Roberta designed an entourage of light mourners for the funeral; they stood in a circle around the casket, wearing black lace veils and wailing in a language I did not recognize. Angelica, draped in black velvet, kept shooting me glances.

I hoped Mag was pleased with the service. I leaned over her casket and kissed her on the forehead. Her eyes were firmly shut. A light attendant eased shut the lid.

The dirt was light. The ground was light. We might as well have been children, playing pretend. Mag’s casket was slowly lowered into the ground. I looked past the graves to where the forest began. I watched the tree line until it was my turn to throw a handful of dirt down the hole.

Later, I lay on the grass beside her grave and dug my fingers into the freshly turned soil.

It was a balmy night. Crickets thrummed from the tall grass beyond the churchyard and fireflies blinked among the gravestones. Nice touches, I suppose. I’d never seen fireflies in my life before the ship, never heard anything at night but sirens and the groan of machines.

“Mag,” I whispered into the ground. “Mag, can you hear me?”

She was still awake down there, that much I knew. Or if she slept, it was only light sleep. She wasn’t in a coma. She wasn’t dead. Her neurons fired as fast as mine.

I figured she was probably decomposing herself, filling herself with worms and maggots, letting them slurp her eyes out of their sockets. Becoming an ecosystem unto herself. I pictured her sinking slowly through the earth like it was water, pictured her falling through an ocean of darkness. I felt sick.

“Mag,” I said again. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I still care. I care so much.”

I wiggled my fingers deeper into the dirt. I wanted to wriggle all the way down and pound on the roof of her coffin.

“Can we go back to how things were?” I said “Please? We could work out some kind of schedule, maybe. Half the week you could be dead and the other half you could live. Please? Mag?”

There was no answer. I could have dug her up I guess, but I didn’t know if she would forgive me.

I went to the doctor the morning after the funeral.

“It’s humiliating,” I told him. “Everyone’s pretending like things are fine, like this is all normal, but I can see it in their eyes when they look at me.”

“Do you think they blame you?”

“Shit, I don’t know. Maybe. Has anyone talked to you about it?”

“You know I can’t tell you that.”

“What the hell am I supposed to do now?”

“Well,” said the doctor, “there are five stages of grief.”

“But she isn’t even dead. This is idiotic.”

“Of all the available options,” he said. “It seemed best.”

“What will happen when we get to the colony?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh, fuck you,” I said. “Fuck you and your stupid blue face.” He turned pink, quick as a wink, but I was so sick of it.

“Ruth,” he said, “anger is a normal—” but I didn’t care what he had to say. He was light, pure light. He’d never felt a real thing in his life. He’d never even had a life.

I jumpcut straight to the sidewalk outside his office. Behind me, the building burst into flames. I could feel the heat on the back of my neck. It was melodramatic, I knew that, absolute overkill, bad as Mag and her piranhas, her thousand little deaths, but I didn’t try to stop it. Instead, I willed the flames hotter, higher. The other houses on the street ignited one by one like a row of birthday candles.

And there was Mag, in her white dress with the pearl buttons, coming down the thin dirt path from the woods. She smiled at me. She waved. She hadn’t smiled like that in ages. I’m not sure she had smiled like that ever.

“Ruth,” she said when she was close enough, and in a moment I had my arms wrapped around her and I was holding her as tight as I could. She didn’t slip away. She was there and she was—

Light. She was only light.

But she felt solid. Her skin as soft and warm as bread dough.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I forgive you for everything.”

I told myself to let go. To go home. To wait.

I held on tighter instead.

“Jeez,” said Mag, “are you trying to crush me?”

“This is a compromise,” I whispered into her shoulder. “It’s only a compromise.”

She laughed. “Whatever you say.”

I pushed my hand up under her shirt. She laughed again. I ran my palm up her stomach, until it reached the little hollow between her breasts. I felt the lines of the door, which I knew would be there. Mag, this light Mag, this nothing which I could not let go of, laughed again.

“I love you,” I said.

“I love you too,” she said quickly. Too quickly, maybe.

“And you are happy?” I asked.

“Of course,” she said. “Very happy.”

I didn’t try to open the door. I just put my hand over it and pressed down, hard, as hard as I could, keeping her together, holding her shut.

Maria Romasco-Moore

Maria Romasco-Moore is the author of Ghostographs, an interconnected collection of flash fiction inspired by vintage photographs. Her first novel, Some Kind of Animal, is forthcoming in 2020. She currently lives in Columbus, OH, and teaches writing at Columbus College of Art and Design. Find out more at mariaromascomoore.com.