If time can stop, this is how it feels. 01:32:03 PLSS WARNING: Abnormal temperature detected in EMU. Yunuen was born to be trapped in this moment. She has been looking at the same alert in her helmet’s heads-up display for a perpetual instant that has become her whole existence. One billion kilometers away from home, she lies in the purgatory that is the red glow of this warning message. In front of her eyes, these petrified uppercase letters have lost all their meaning. Time does not exist anymore.
Boy was lying on the table when I put the power drill to his head and pulled the trigger. It was just about sundown. Crickets already talking. Motor whirred, but the screw didn’t rotate. In the candlelight, Boy looked up at me, not blinking at all. “Are you finished?” “Be still,” I told him. The chuck was stuck, so I turned it till I heard a click. Then, holding my breath, I kept my hands real steady as I drove the screw in all the way.
We met on the 107th floor of the South Tower. She was standing in quiet contemplation, watching fire spread through the building across the plaza, smoke and paper billowing out into that baby blue sky. I was nursing a thunderous hangover, neglecting my tour group, which had all gone to the southern side of the observation deck to watch the second plane’s approach. She wasn’t supposed to be here.
The ceiling for a jump without oxygen is fourteen thousand feet, give or take a football field or two. I step out of the plane at closer to eighteen, with the idea I can hold my breath for four thousand feet of terminal velocity. At ten seconds for the first thousand feet and about five seconds for each thousand feet after that, that should mean no more than half a minute of anoxia.
“Welcome to Float Isolation Therapy, an intensive twelve-day experience. You will become one with the stars. During your time in your personalized FIT pod, we encourage you to explore the deepest recesses of your mind.” Bei Bei floated in mid-air and felt the strain in her lower back, but she didn’t care. The picture had to be perfect. The lighting in the egg-shaped pod was excellent.
From where she lay on her back, on the grass of the Presidio in San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge with all its painted trusses strung from tower to tower seemed most like a red haired boy running along a jetty. She tried, objectively, to see it as they might. A span or a wing. It connected two land masses; of course it would be seen as connective. But there was no ‘of course.’ However they perceived the thing—anchored and cabled and suspended; material hung from more material—would not be objective.
Everybody gather round the bus, now! Thank you please. Sir, beg you, don’t try to pick the trumpet flowers. You might cause damage. Yes, sir; me know say you paid for an all-inclusive tropical vacation here on the little nipple of mountain top that is all left of my country, but trust me. Some things you don’t want all-included. Not since the sea uprise and change everything. Things like trumpet flower bushes.
You never expect to meet one of the refugees. You aren’t a scientist or a politician, you’re a middle school history teacher. The story of the refugees from a destroyed parallel Earth—security camera footage of dozens of bedraggled people appearing through a shimmering section of air not far from Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado—should fade into the background of your life like every other major news story and tragedy, present but mostly forgotten.
Try to picture the scene, Cybil, the same way I did when I got the call. Christmas Eve; two cops standing in a stinking motel room. Blood on bare white sheets, and a broken syringe, and a man. My brother. Whatever sounds he made, that got the neighbors to call the cops, they’re done now. The overdose is over. He hasn’t died. He won’t, tonight. He’s sick, crying, begging—probably wishing he had died, now that two cops are standing over him.
The cardboard sign read, “HOPELESS, ME AND MY SISTER NEED MONEY FOR SHUTTLE BACK TO VENUS.” The word “hopeless” should have been “homeless” but because Vida couldn’t write in Hangul, she dictated the words to Menino instead. She blamed the mix-up on her outdated translator, which began acting up ever since she arrived in Seoul. “People will get it,” Menino argued as the escalator descended to the first level of Chungmuro Metro Station.