Picture the most perfect place on Earth. If it’s a deserted desert island, you’d be close. Blue sky, white sand, green palm trees, crystal water, gently sighing surf . . . Paradise, right?
Now picture yourself trapped there, with no way of escape.
It doesn’t take long for heaven to turn to hell.
• • •
“What do you mean, the booth’s not working?”
“I mean it’s not working. Don’t ask me why. It just isn’t.”
That’s Ronnie. My best friend, the science nerd. She got me into this, and now she’d better get me out of it.
“Can you fix it?”
“Not on my own, but VIA will help. Why don’t you go talk to the others?”
There are three people trapped here besides us—I was exaggerating about the island’s deserted-ness—but everything else is true. Just check my life-log. Paradise contains one and only one d-mat booth, and it’s broken.
“Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“Only because I need to concentrate.”
I want to tell her how that makes me feel worse than useless, but I wouldn’t want to distract her or anything.
“You don’t have to log that, Tash. There’s no need to describe everything.”
“If I don’t, how will anyone know what I’m feeling?”
This, I think, is the flaw in the whole life-logging thing. You can record everything: sight, sound, location, pulse, respiration, whatever you want. But it’s nothing without emotions. It’s just data.
Live it. Love it. Log it. That’s the slogan. But if you’re not actually loving it, what’s the point? It’s just a way of filling time I have too much of.
• • •
By now, word has reached friends back home. (There’s nothing wrong with our connection to the Air.) Clair and Libby call to express sympathy and, if I’m not mistaken, a small amount of amusement.
Libby: “So tell me how you got there, again?”
I explain, as I explained to my parents five minutes ago. Ronnie took me on a zero-degree latitude-jump to take my mind off the whole Miles thing. It seemed like a good idea. I mean, everyone with a friend like Ronnie knows that the Equator is the longest physical way around the Earth. What they don’t tell you is that it’s paradoxically one of the quickest lat-jumps around, because in terms of interesting stuff there’s not much in that band. No offence to anyone who lives there; that’s just the way it goes. There’s a volcano in Ecuador, where it actually snows. There’s the mouth of the Amazon. There’s a forest in Borneo. There’s the wreck of the Serbia seastead. And there’s Banaba Island, population normally zero, now five: Ronnie, me, some old guy and his granddaughter, and a woman with a shaved head who hasn’t said anything to anyone. At present, she’s building a sand castle.
“The booth just stopped working. No one knows why. We’re stuck here, maybe forever.”
“It’s only been an hour.”
Clair is trying to reassure me, and I know I shouldn’t be such a drama queen. But it’s not as if I haven’t had enough drama in my life lately.
“At least it’s taking your mind off things.”
She’s right about that. Being dumped by Miles really sucked, and it does help to put the bad things behind me. That includes the booth, I tell myself. The Stoics my Dad’s always quoting would tell me to worry about things I can change, not things outside my control.
Ronnie: “Where are you going?”
“For a walk along the beach. Might as well enjoy it while I’m here. You don’t mind, do you?”
“No, go right ahead. Don’t get lost.”
That makes me smile. Get lost where? I’ll probably go right around the island in five minutes.
But the island throws up a surprise by being bigger than I thought, and half an hour later I’m still walking.
• • •
I log details for posterity.
The temperature and humidity of the air. Wind speed and direction. A shell that looks like a miniature human ear. Several different species of palm and beach grass. A young blond god rising up out of the surf dressed in the tightest shorts I have ever seen. . . .
There are pictures, I know. I don’t have to describe him. But I need to. He’s so beautiful. Tight, wet curls. Jewel-like droplets clinging to his chest and shoulders. Eyes as blue as the sky. The fingers of his right hand straightening to wave. I’m logging even as I’m tasting the words on my tongue, imagining tasting him at the same time. Salt, I think. Miles who?
Wait. He’s waving at me.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” he says, and his voice is all tree bark and honey, with perhaps a little smoke thrown in for good measure.
I want to write sonnets and paint them on his skin with a sable brush, but for the moment that’s the best I can manage.
“What are we waiting for? Let’s get out of here.”
I’m about to swoon. Ronnie ruins everything.
“VIA says the booth isn’t broken. It’s been physically hacked. Someone sabotaged it, someone on the island.”
I think of the old guy and his granddaughter, and the bald woman with her sand castle. Population: six. Part of me dies a little.
“Gotcha,” I tell her. “Someone like this guy?”
There’s a flurry of semantic activity as everyone’s attention shifts to me. Suddenly I’m much more than a grouchy beachcomber best left to sulk alone.
“Keep him occupied,” says a peacekeeper from the other side of the world. “We’ll be there as soon as the booth is working again.”
“Take your time,” I want to tell them, but I’m not immune to the possibility that he’s a murderer as well as a saboteur. I’m acutely aware that I’m wearing a bikini top, a wrap, and not much else. But neither is he. I know he’s not packing anything more serious in his outfit than, uh, the usual.
I have to physically force myself to look away. My life log registers a blush. That word is seriously inadequate to express what I’m feeling.
• • •
Me: “I’m not who you think I am.”
Him: “Oh, shit.”
What am I saying? I’m not sorry. He sabotaged the booth and got me stuck on this crappy island. Beauty is no defense, although it does go some way towards ameliorating the task I have been given, to keep him busy before the PKs come to take him away.
“Are you a terrorist?”
He pulls a face that on anyone else would’ve looked ugly.
“Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you.”
“Is that a yes?”
“WHOLE is not a terrorist organization. We believe d-mat’s dangerous, that’s all.”
“Have you ever used it?”
“So how do you know?”
He shrugs and the smooth dance of his pecs momentarily flatlines my brain.
“If you don’t use d-mat, how did you get here?”
“I parachuted in from an airship.”
“And how were you planning to get away? Catapult?”
He glances behind him, at the curling lip of the endless ocean.
“A skiff. Someone was supposed to meet me here. A woman. Are you sure it’s not you?”
“Don’t do that.”
“You know. Smile.”
“What’s wrong with smiling? I like your hair.”
It’s green that week. Is he flirting with me? God, please, no. I feel like the entire world is aware of what’s going on. But I can’t stop logging now. This probably counts as evidence. It might even be keeping me safe. If there really is a skiff (whatever that is) and another terrorist waiting nearby, my lenses and life log could be all that’s stopping me from being kidnapped or worse.
Live, log, and prosper. That’s the other slogan of the life-logging movement. I plan to do all three, for the immediate future.
“Let’s, uh, walk, shall we?”
“I’m supposed to wait here.”
“No point to that now. Your friends aren’t coming.”
“You walk, then, and I’ll stay to see what happens.”
“Maybe they were never coming at all. Maybe you were set up.”
For the first time, he looks uncertain.
“They wouldn’t do that.”
I feel sorry for him, then. He’s my age. He’s stuck in the middle of nowhere. He’s waiting for rescue, just like I am. Where’s the harm in being nice to him? The PKs are watching his every move, and I bet he’s as acutely aware of that as I am.
“All right. We’ll both wait.”
“Can I call you Natasha?”
I’m momentarily surprised, but being a d-mat skeptic doesn’t mean you’re a complete Luddite, even if your name is Darryl. He picked up my name from my public profile just as I picked up his.
“Tash. Don’t get any funny ideas.”
• • •
The sand is warm, even in the shade. I can feel it through my wrap. By wriggling my toes, I burrow down to cooler layers. He stretches out next to me, improbably lean and gorgeous. That’s when I notice.
“Hey, you’ve got six toes.”
He flexes his feet and I’ll admit I’m a little weirded out.
“You don’t like them? I inherited them from my mother.”
“And her mother before her?”
“No. She got them from d-mat. I’m lucky we have any toes at all. Or legs.”
I pffft automatically and he puts the offending phalanges away.
“Seriously, Tash. Things go wrong all the time. You don’t hear about them because VIA keeps them quiet.”
“You do so hear about mistakes. There was one last year, in Australia. Two people died.”
“Perfect infallibility is the very definition of implausibility. They let enough through to make it seem as though they’re telling the truth. But there are more mistakes than you dare imagine. People like Mum, swept under the rug and forgotten, as though they never existed.”
This sounds like an argument he’s learned by rote. He’s probably heard it all his life, and if it helps him make sense of his weird feet, I can’t begrudge him that. But he does a lot more than just believe weird stuff.
“How does sabotaging d-mat booths help?”
“I haven’t really damaged anything. Just put in a code or two to slow things down.”
Ronnie: “Ask him about the code.”
“Will you tell me the code?”
“Maybe later. What’s the hurry?”
“I told you to stop smiling like that.”
“I mean it: What’s the hurry? You rush around the world like there’s no time for anything. Do you ever stop to look around? There’s no crime in making you do that for a little while.”
“I’ve looked around, thanks. Desert islands are all right, but I wouldn’t want to live on one.”
“No one’s asking you to, Tash. I just want you to think about what you’re doing to yourself. Think about what those machines are doing to you. Doesn’t it bother you? Aren’t you worried about what could go wrong?”
“Weren’t you worried when you jumped out of that airship?”
“The parachute would either bring me safely down to earth or it wouldn’t. There was zero chance of it tearing me apart and building a copy that only thinks it’s me.”
Ronnie again: “Ask him again about that code.”
But I’m stung by his comment.
“I don’t think I’m me. I know I’m me, just like you knew you were you when you woke up this morning.”
“Sleeping is different to d-matting.”
“You think a lot of things are different when they’re actually the same.”
“How is waking up the same as being rebuilt from scratch?”
“Because it’s not about the atoms. It’s about what the atoms do. That’s how you can tell when someone’s asleep or when they’re awake. They’re exactly the same material, only one moment the person’s there and the next they’re not. That’s how d-mat works.”
“Not really, Tash.”
“Yes, really, only in reverse. Someone’s in transit, and then they’re there. There’s no tearing apart of anything, except what’s left behind.”
“But that was you. You were left behind.”
I punch him on the shoulder. “Feel that? That was me. I’m right here, all of me, and thanks to you I’m getting sunburnt. If you really cared, you’d have bought some lotion to put on me.”
That shuts him up. Plus, he’s gone a little pink, so I count that as a double victory.
Ronnie: “Tash, if he tells you that code, I can fix the booth more quickly.”
Yeah, I get it. I’m just enjoying the argument.
“Let’s not sit here squabbling all day. Give me the code and we’ll go our separate ways.”
He brightens, which dents my ego a little until he says, “I’ve got a better idea.”
“You have got sunscreen after all?”
“No. You could come with me.”
“Are you real?”
“Of course I’m real. The skiff will be here soon. Don’t you want to know what it feels like to be out on the open ocean, with the wind in your hair and the spray on your face?”
“That sounds uncomfortable.”
“It might be. I’ve never done it myself. But I want to try, and I think that’s important, don’t you? Isn’t getting somewhere just as important as being somewhere?”
I open my mouth, and then I close it again. I don’t know what to say to that. I could tell him that he’s wrong, except part of me is willing to admit that he has part of a point. That was the problem with Miles, if I’m really honest with myself. We were together by habit in the end, never really going anywhere and destined to be unhappy until one of us did something about the rut we were in. Which he did, and here I am now, sitting on a beach with the most handsome boy I’ve ever met.
I could tell the handsome boy that the skiff isn’t coming, that he’s not going anywhere just for the moment and that he might as well get used the idea, but then I see a dot out on the horizon, and he sees it too, and we both stand up as it gets larger and closer, resolving slowly into the top of a small boat that’s skimming the top of the low waves, barely touching the water in its haste to reach the beach. A woman with black hair is waving one hand above her head.
“That’s my ride.”
“Thanks, Mister Obvious.”
“And this is your last chance.”
We’re ignoring the boat, staring only at each other. The world will never know how tempted I am at this moment. My throat is so tight I can barely manage a monosyllable.
“Okay. Your loss.”
Then he’s running down the beach, and I could write whole essays on his glutes. Literally on them.
“Hey! Wait up!”
I’m chasing him, not really expecting him to stop, but he does. He turns in a shower of sand, and I just about run into him. What happens next is completely unexpected. He grabs me and kisses me in front of the whole world, and for a second I don’t think at all. This wasn’t what I wanted. This is totally what I wanted.
I push him away.
“The code, you ass.”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry. It’s: VIA blows.”
He grins at me as he runs for the boat, and looks back over his shoulder no less than four times, as though making sure I won’t change my mind. Is he disappointed? I can’t tell. I feel like a fool, but I wave anyway.
Ronnie: “All’s fixed, Tash. The PKs are on their way.”
Too late, too soon. How often are you stuck on a desert island with a hot boy who turns out to be a terrorist?
Damn damn damn.
• • •
Ronnie is waiting for me at the booth when I return with my escort. The PKs met me coming the other way and walked me back, one on either side, as though guarding me. But the skiff is safely gone. I watched it skip back out to the horizon like a skimming stone, and vanish over the edge of the world.
The old guy and his granddaughter are still on the island. They’ve joined the bald chick and are making a giant sand sculpture that looks like it wants to be a whale. Or a rocket. The kid is in charge, so who really knows?
“Nice work, getting that code. Totally committed.”
Ronnie’s grin is sly, and I can’t tell whether she thinks I was faking the kiss or not. Best to keep her wondering.
“Do you think I’d make a great spy? I think I’d make a great spy.”
I am so over Miles right now. That’s the point I want recorded for posterity.
We link arms and jump to the next stop on our journey.