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. Their perceptions would depend on any number of subjectivities that arose from their strange and immaterial existences. Her imagination could not stretch far enough to allow her mind to reach their reality.
They didn’t have bodies.
She pushed herself up on one arm. Damp stuck to the shirt at the elbows, at the shoulder blades, in patches of dark green, black. The seat of her jeans was wet, cold. It was nearly empty, the green blanket of earth spread before the blue-gray water of the bay, with Alcatraz right over the shoulder of the land. It was empty because it was, after all, still a weekday, and people still worked. A pair of adults passed with a brown tufted dog that galloped over the grass. The dog ran open jawed and delighted; it bounded to rub against her leg and to be rubbed by her hand. A few lean bodied people clutching nylon harnesses and slim rubber shoes, gray, and blue, and yellow, entered the climbing gym across the grass from where she sat. It looked coldly appraising with its bank of shining windows. She imagined the climbers inside clutching textured plastic holds—gray, and blue, and yellow, layered with enough chalk and grease and dirt so that they looked gray, or black, or brown—with their tight, desperate bodies. She wondered whether they also looked out at the green grass, and the green-gray salt water, the red-bronze boy jumping across the bay, and were transfixed by the miserable hulk of Alcatraz. Squatting, hulking, gray yellow. Or whether they were simply enjoying having bodies for as long as they would continue to have them.
“Are you really just sitting there?” a voice asked from over her shoulder. Without a face to accompany the voice, she had to work harder to understand its tone. Curious, or hostile? She shut her eyes. If she refused to turn, or if she kept her eyes closed, she would leave the voice suspended in the air behind her. Would there be voices, she wondered, without the accompanying tongue, throat, lungs? The voice repeated itself. “You’re really just sitting here?”
“Yes,” she answered. “In protest.” She imagined what she would feel if she were a voice hovering over the grass, if her palms did not press against the ground.
“Half a year left. And you want to waste it sitting around doing nothing, just like a lump.”
“Why not?” She poked one finger, index, in the dirt. The bottoms of her jeans were wet through with dew and stuck to her ankles.
“I hope you go to hell.” The words were flung at her. The voice was passionate, it remained with her, pushing into her ears, skull, brain, even as its body was taken away. She opened her eyes. For a moment, all she saw was brightness; no objects could be differentiated against such light. And then she turned, and watched the man walk away. He was lean, and tall, and white. He looked strong. She wondered whether he wanted to wring as much power from those facts as possible, before they were gone.
“You won’t be like this soon,” she yelled after him. “You’ll be the same as anything else.” If he heard, he didn’t turn.
They would arrive later that year. They would set foot—no, that phrase was wrong—they would be on Earth a few years before climate disaster. The disaster that would, supposedly, create a dust cloud dense and persistent enough to kill everything on Earth within days, if not hours. There was no reason not to believe it. They had provided enough data to substantiate their claims. Of course, many people refused to believe. But disbelief would not be a problem for long. Once they arrived, she thought, people would believe. And belief would manifest in many different ways—violence, and grief, and numbness, and preparation. They would have a month to do whatever they could with their feelings, and then decide. They could join them as bodiless consciousness drifting amongst the stars. Or they could remain on earth, and wait to die.
Many people had already decided, one way or another. Or believed they had decided. She was sure that, when the time came, when they were really in front of the choice, some people would, with input from their bodies, change their minds.
Now, she stood up from the grass and stretched. A red backpack sat, sodden, by her left foot. She picked it up by one strap, shouldered it—overfull, clunky—and began to walk. A woman was walking an intersecting course, holding a girl’s hand. A mother and child.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello,” the woman said. They both stopped.
“May I walk with you?”
“Do you mind?” the mother asked the child, who shook her head.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Jackie,” said the mother. “This is Frank.”
“What’s your name?” Frank asked after Jackie prodded her.
“Avery.” They began to walk. Avery was taller than Jackie and Frank; she was aware of her strides, shortened them.
“Where are you going?” Frank asked.
“To Alcatraz. But first I’d like to talk with you.”
Avery pointed. “There. May I take your photo, Frank?”
Frank looked at Jackie again, who nodded again. The child’s face was small, sun-browned, and friendly. “I guess, yeah,” Frank said.
Avery stopped, and the others stopped. She positioned the phone, the girl, and the sun such that what she photographed was a small, dark monolith outlined by a white corona of light. In the back right-hand side of the photo, the shadowed edge of a large metallic box.
Avery asked, “Where are you each going?”
Jackie said, “I am going to drop Frank at her father’s house. They will spend the day together, while I get some work done.”
“Work,” Avery was abruptly bitter. “And what does work mean to you?”
“Well,” Jackie said. She had reacted to Avery’s tone; she slowed, Frank slowed. “It means normalcy. It means I can pay for my child’s food and our rent. What else should it mean? What does it mean to you?”
“And what about trying to understand all this? After all that we’ve done—will you really—you’ll walk right in when it’s time?” Avery gestured—sunlight striped white light down the left side of her arm; the rest was shadowed by the box. She shifted her focus from the woman, umber haired and ochre skinned, plain and reasonable, to the child. “Frank, don’t you understand how terrible this all is? Maybe you don’t because you’re a child. But look.”
Only now did she show the photo to Frank, who said, “I don’t know what that means.”
“We’re solid through,” said Avery.
Jackie stopped, and pulled Frank toward her, away from Avery. “I’m sorry, I don’t think we can walk with you anymore.”
“Don’t say things like that,” Frank added. “I don’t want to talk to you.” The woman and her child turned and walked in the direction they had come from. They did not look back.
Avery put her phone away. The bursts of anger and emotion were startling. “Already,” she said out loud. “It’s like I’m a different person already, and nothing has even happened.” She looked at her bare arm, at her hand that she could still close or open. “Everything on the outside is the same as it was two months ago, but it is all different.”
The ferry to Alcatraz was scheduled to leave at 11 o’clock, and Avery wanted to be on it, so she began to walk again. She would walk to the pier with her face tilted upwards, with her sleeves bunched at her elbows, and her forearms and wrists and hands bare, would let the late spring sunlight excite her cheeks, her arms, the backs of her hands. Her skin, muscles would be alive with heat—but not thoroughly; the sun’s heat would stop somewhere (tendon? bone?), and she wondered where, and wondered how she was different from a brick that would, in the sun, be hot throughout. She stretched her legs, long, full of blood, and tensed the muscles of her back and core to lean slightly forward against the counterweight of the pack. Her legs carried her and the sun was on her face.
At the pier, she asked to speak to security.
“I’m a filmmaker,” she said. She handed the man a small yellow card with her name and website printed in blue letters. “I spoke with someone already. I need to collect footage for a documentary. Relics of the human age.”
Backpacks were not generally allowed on the island, or even on the ferry. But things were different now. People were hopeless and wanted a reason to feel hopeful again. The man asked her to open the pack, and he sifted through its contents. Three cameras and a tripod. A bottle of water fell onto the table and he handed it back to her.
“This all?” he asked without looking up.
“Fine.” He said no more than three words to her, and she pressed her lips together to keep from chastising him as she took her pack and left. Don’t you understand? she wondered. But he didn’t seem to understand.
“Could there be love?” she asked out loud. If anybody standing in line heard her, they did not answer. “Without a heart, how could there be love?” A man and a woman glanced back at her, and moved away.
She boarded the ferry. Her backpack shifted against her as the ferry swayed over swells and she watched the small white waves fold into the gray-green-black water. From this perspective, on the ferry, the bridge towers stood above and to her left, large and silent. Her arms rested on the gunwale. Two more arms appeared. Had she never noticed this before? The way that her body made people approach her; allowed her to approach others?
“I wonder what you are thinking,” the voice above the arms asked.
“I’m thinking about what the aliens will be like,” she answered, deciding not to let the voice remain a voice only. She turned to look at the man who was leaning against the railing. His sandy hair blew into his face, and he raised a hand to push it out of his eyes. Blue.
“Why think about it? You’ll find out soon enough.”
“How cowardly,” she said, and moved to step away from the railing. She stopped herself. “I’m sorry. I’ve felt very angry.”
“I don’t understand. What is there to be angry about? You should be grateful.”
“So you agree with what’s happening?”
“Of course.” He held up his arm. “It’s all just material. Don’t tell me you’re a resistor. Is this so important?” He tapped her arm softly.
She’d noticed this tendency, in herself as much as in others. People had become drawn to touch, less precious about personal space. It was as though physical boundaries had become more permeable, bodies both more and less important. “I don’t know,” she said. She grabbed his hand, and squeezed. “Am I? The word sounds so backwards. I suppose that is what I am doing. Looking backwards.”
“I don’t want to look backwards,” he said. He squeezed her hand. “I can’t wait for freedom. We’ll be able to be for once, totally free. Equal.”
“Maybe.” The ferry was docking. She removed her hand and asked if she could give him a hug. “What’s your name?”
“Terry,” he said, and smiled. They hugged.
“I’ll see you on land.”
Her shoe slipped, caught on the corrugated silver ramp as she left the ferry. Once on the island, silty and salty and wet, she let the small group wander ahead of her. Terry and another man—one he had just met?—walked together, arms slung over each other’s shoulders. She stooped and opened her pack and took out one of the three square, sizable cameras—there was never a good way to fit them into one regular backpack, they always knocked—and took three photos of the men. The images appeared centered, boxed in by the rectangle of her viewfinder. They were light redirected from the lens by a prism; they were not solid through; they were light scattered onto liquid crystal.
The question at the convening, months ago, organized by the National Parks Service in conjunction with the Preservation Council, was what to do with Alcatraz. They couldn’t take their bodies, but they could take some earthly relics, or more accurately, could take the essence of those relics. What they had held, what they had represented. They could also take animals and plants. Not mandated pairs, as there was no longer a question of material reproduction. The determinations of what relics and animals and plants to take, and in what number, were made locally. The local committees had faced surprising dilemmas. Was it enough to represent rabbits, or did each individual rabbit merit consideration?
Along with state legislators, corporate executives, producers and a filmmaker from National Geographic, a handful of people who had been incarcerated (not at Alcatraz of course, but at Tehachapi or Pelican Bay or San Quentin or Solano) had also been invited to decide the question of Alcatraz.
“How can the bodiless understand what it means to cage the body?” one man asked.
“The mind and the body were caged. The aliens have minds,” a woman said. She sat at the opposite end of the table.
“It’s just rocks,” another man said loudly. Some in the room looked at him with disgust; others nodded.
“Once it’s been through the—process—it wouldn’t be ‘just rocks’ anymore.” They all, if they said it, placed a delicate emphasis on the term “process” because no one knew exactly what, besides boxes, the process entailed.
“You are exactly right. It would be nothing.”
“We don’t know that. You’re guessing. It’s all guesses. They’ve told us nothing. Our scientists have been able to discern nothing. Nothing with certainty.”
“What else would it be?”
“We don’t know. That’s the point. How can we preserve the essence of a thing, the function of which was to be rock—solid, heavy, immovable—when, once it’s done—processing—it will be immaterial, weightless, nothing but air and light and movement!”
“Exactly. The site is just another relic of what once was, but will never be again. We are already taking the Holocaust Museum and the Lynching Memorial. Let those be enough.”
“Who’s to say it will never happen again?” Avery asked. She was the filmmaker, and regarded with skepticism. “Because we give up bodies, we give up torture?”
“What does it matter? Taking or not taking, there is nothing we can do to change what’s happened.”
“They have been freed from the body. We can be, too.”
“If we don’t make right what we’ve done, we will never be freed from ourselves, no matter what happens to our bodies.”
“What is it that we’ve done? We’ve done nothing.”
The preservation of relics was not costly, but there was a feeling of scarcity. The feeling of scarcity was either irrational or ideological. They wouldn’t have bodies; nothing would take up space. There would only be space. Listening to the room with her eyes shut, Avery heard voices overlapping, no one voice clearly connected to any one body. She felt lost, afloat, sure that if she opened her mouth, she would hear her voice speaking to her from the opposite corner of the room.
Ultimately, seven voted one way, and six voted the other. The fourteenth person abstained, not before monologuing at length about agnosticism. It was decided that within two generations of disembodied life, the “essence” of Alcatraz would not carry any meaning. The context necessary to contemplate Alcatraz—the thoroughly somatic context, it was argued— would be lost. It simply would not translate. The full reality would not compute, or it would compute in a perverted way. It would convey no useful information about humanity, being, materiality, or anything else.
The dissent had included all those who had been previously incarcerated.
Now, Avery watched the tour group round the corner. She rounded it herself.
The smell was terrible.
Rows of outdoor pens, reinforced black chain and metal, stretched nearly the length of the rock, and were stacked ten high. A box of pens, cages, cells. The cells were small, no more than a few inches of free space on each side of what they contained. The impression, Avery saw, was rather like a monument: geometric, symmetrical, awe inspiring, and awful.
The aliens, the ones that had arrived first years ago, were in the cages.
They were solid through. Bricks. Rocks. Lumps.
“Look at them,” Terry said. Avery’s hands had appeared beside his. They both gripped black linked chains strung from heavy metal stanchions spaced four feet apart. As though under a directive, Terry and Avery and the other man stood without speaking for thirty seconds in front of one of the cages. An alien was in it. It appeared gray and rectangular, about two feet by four feet by six feet, cement-like. The smell was unmistakably animal, alive, rancid. Terry lifted the chains an inch or so, let them clang gently down. “No mind at all in there. Just body.”
The aliens had no eyes and no mouths or nostrils. No faces to speak of. They were sickening to see.
They watched the lump. It vibrated sullenly. The effect of the grid made it hard to look at any one lump for a long period of time. Avery looked away. And still she felt that it was aware of her.
They were not bricks, rocks, or lumps.
“This is what all the protest is about? Taking lumps into space?” Terry was leaning toward the cage, pressing his arms straight against the chains.
“We are taking animals.”
“That’s not an animal. What does it do? It does nothing.”
The aliens did do something. They had arrived on Earth, after all. In San Francisco, and in other cities across the world. The aliens had never established a language to communicate with humans. They vibrated, always, slowly, terribly. They could move quickly. They had caused a number of deaths by throwing themselves, without warning, heavily against humans. Whether they acted in self-defense or fear was unknown. Many had been destroyed in retaliation.
World leaders responded in different ways. In the United States, the lumps that were not destroyed were incarcerated. They could not be understood, but they could be contained. The prison, Alcatraz, defunct since 1963, was reopened to cage them. They did not need the modern conveniences of other, functioning prisons.
There were protests across cities. Now, a line of protestors stood behind more chains strung up between more stanchions. These were reinforced by armed guards who looked like blue blocks wearing caps pulled low over their eyes. The protestors yelled and blew air horns. “No justice, no peace!” they chanted, and “no box, no locks, everybody walks!” Avery wondered if the aliens could hear the protests, and if so, whether they understood the sentiment.
“It’s not like we can do anything about this,” the man with Terry said.
The press of tourists from behind moved them forward. The press of protestors to their left pushed them closer to the cages. At the end of the row, they rounded another corner.
Now, cold gray water to their left. Avery watched the water, which was the same cold, gray color as the rock, but which shifted and rippled gently, and reflected the cold sunlight in triangles that flashed in her eyes. To Avery, the shared color gave the impression that the water was a continuation of the rock on which they stood. As though the solid rock was, in essence a cold, still, fragment, and the water was a cold, moving, fragment; as though all it would take was a key to unlock the force holding each atom of the rock serenely in place, to arrange them differently, more freely, until all the same pieces remained as water. Insight tried to unlock a movement of understanding in her mind, tumbled the lock carefully—but Terry gripped her arm, pulled at her, and she lost her catch.
At the tour’s natural terminus, the box came into view across the bay. The tourists gathered in a clump, each transfixed by the sight. Giant and metallic, with a sea-green tinge that was luminescent in both sun and moonlight, the boxes had appeared lined across fields, stadiums, even floating on oceans, lakes, and seas. Days after the local committees made their decisions about relics, more boxes enclosed the physical sites that had been chosen. When the time came, it was understood, humans would also go into the boxes.
The box filled Avery with natural horror. Her mind tried to stretch to imagine a consciousness that would not use physical confinement as a torture. She could not do it.
The protestors shouted, their voices sounded from the salt, from the air, and rose until they might have been a whale of sound, breaching over the prison. A wall of bodies surged over the chains and through the guards. She saw the wall break into pieces and scatter. Three pieces, dressed in blue sweats, wool hats pulled over their faces, holes cut for the eyes, ran straight toward the prison. Avery was directly before them. They ran at her. Terry cried; she pulled her arm away.
“The fuel is in the bag,” she said. “In the plastic bottle.” She swung the backpack—the cameras, the two still in the bag, clunked heavily. A hand grabbed it, slung the strap over a shoulder, and was past her. Now, to the chains; now, hurtled over the chains and to the wall; now, fingers and bare toes searching, graceful, caressing the slick wall, not clutching but gliding, letting go of each stone to touch the next.
At the top of the wall, each stood, panting, painted dark against the bright sky. There was one moment, two. And then, almost as one, each dropped from the wall to the roofs of the cages, using tools to flick open the pens. Guards shouted, raised rifles, could not shoot in the chaos. A lump, unpent, struck a guard. On the ground, tourists ran, slipped, hurtled against each other and toward the docked ferry. Avery ran to the water and jumped, arms pressed around her head.
They had asked themselves, at the last meeting, whether there was a message the aliens might understand.
Across the bay, from the Presidio, the explosions were red, orange, bronze, and black. Two strange, disembodied essences, hanging in space high above the green grass and the cold gray water, they would look most like bright, random strokes against a marbled white space. The aliens would read into those marks various meanings, some of which the protestors had intended, some of which would depend entirely on the aliens’ strange, disembodied realities.
“At least they should know,” Avery had said, after everything was decided, “that whatever else we were, some of us wanted to be free.”