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Fiction

Her Appetite, His Heart

It came to Javi in a vision while he was at Burning Man. There was something calling out to him, and he’d hoped an ayahuasca ceremony would help him figure out what it was. It was during the ceremony that she appeared to him. Isla.

In his vision, she was a temple priestess and he was laid out on a sacrificial stone table. She was literally eating his engorged heart out of his chest cavity. It wasn’t as frightening as it sounded. It was only when the vision disappeared that he felt an aching in his chest. Isla, come back.

And it wasn’t until his hangover the next morning that he remembered why he had broken up with her. He had wanted to sleep with other women, and when Isla balked at this idea, he had asked her to move out.

His current partner and yurt-mate, Lily, poured some kombucha into a thermos for him so he could have something to drink while he visited the holy deer. He grimaced as she kissed him on the cheek. They would have to part ways at some point when they got back to Oakland. The vision was clear: Isla was the one. And Isla had been clear: She needed to be the only one.

The holy deer roamed in an area beyond the cluster of 747s. People called it a pasture even though it wasn’t; it was the same blond dirt as everywhere. The instructions were to walk along the golden mean segment that connected two vertices of the pentagon. Javi had been told you had to be naked in order to see it. While he didn’t believe this, he didn’t want to disrespect the customs of those who did, so he walked there wearing boots and socks and nothing else. Isla should be with him now, sharing his kombucha. It was raspberry, her favorite flavor. He found himself narrating the event in his head in anticipation of telling it to Isla the next time he saw her: There were other people on the same path. Some had binoculars. I wished I had also brought binoculars. A crowd gathered. That’s how I knew the deer had been spotted.

They had not spoken since the break-up last year; they were going to have a lot to catch up on. But he wanted to tell her all about this day. Today was the most important day of the time they had spent apart because today was the day he realized just how wrong he had been about everything. Today was the day he was certain he needed to ask for her forgiveness. To beg, if necessary.

There was an acrid stench in the air, presumably emanating from the strange animal. It smelled like vinegar and gunpowder and people instinctively knew to keep their distance. A guy offered Javi use of his binoculars, and Javi offered some kombucha in exchange. Through the binoculars, Javi could see the deer bucking and prancing off in the distance. It had a pale lavender skin that shimmered. When it stood still, Javi could see its skin was bubbling. Something seemed to be dripping from its antlers.

“It doesn’t look holy. It looks like some sort of weapon,” said Javi, to no one in particular. Telling Isla about it, he would emphasize how unimpressive the whole thing was. He didn’t want her to get FOMO. She had always wanted to go to Burning Man but could never afford to take the time off work. Next year, if she let him, he would pay for her to go.

“I heard it escaped from Robot Country,” said the man who was drinking Javi’s kombucha. Javi didn’t know what Robot Country was but he nodded as if he did.

• • • •

When he got back to Oakland, Javi broke up with Lily and the other women he was seeing. Then he messaged Isla. Repeatedly.

After she didn’t return his messages, Javi began to worry. She didn’t have any family or any close friends. Her best acquaintances hadn’t heard from her in over a year. It was possible she was just bad at keeping in touch with people. Maybe she had moved to a new city and found a new crowd. He tried to forget about her, but every time he did, he felt a gnawing sensation in his chest. At night he dreamt of her gripping the stone table as she bit into him. She wore a high ponytail and gold jewelry. Her white gown was covered with his blood.

When he woke, he sent a prayer to her: It’s okay if you don’t want me. Just let me know you are okay.

He still had her email password. She had checked her account once on his laptop, and he used his keylogger to recover it. He felt numb when he saw that she hadn’t logged in since last year. Maybe she knew he had access to this account and so she ditched it. She had always been smart. What had she done after he had cast her out? According the online reservation confirmations in her inbox, she had checked into a local women’s shelter.

Isla had always been so stoic and self-contained. Just so unbelievably strong and self-disciplined. She hardly complained. Mid-breakup, he remembered her mentioning that she had no one to stay with. He had somehow convinced himself to ignore that fact, and then he had forgotten it until now. His shoulders slumped as he pondered the distance between who he was and who he wanted to be. He would close that gap. He would walk towards the truth. Everybody in your life has something to teach you, as long as you are willing to listen. Isla was teaching him through her absence.

From her last messages, he could see that she had stayed at the shelter for two weeks as she steadily applied for jobs. Then she had received an offer to work at Robot Country.

Javi thought back to the deer at Burning Man. That was where a fellow bystander had mentioned Robot Country. It was the first time Javi had heard of it, but he had remembered. The deer, unpleasant as it was, had brought him closer to Isla. So maybe it was holy after all.

There was scant information available about Robot Country online, and much of it conflicted. Some sources claimed it was a testing ground for biological weapons, others claimed it was a habitat for a dozen different species of venomous wasp. Multiple credible sources claimed it was an open-air desert laboratory where Company Omega developed autonomous technologies, and this was confirmed by the emails Isla had exchanged with her contact at the company before she disappeared. Isla had accepted a job as a drone minder; she would make sure the machines in Robot Country were behaving themselves.

Robot Country had been originally situated on a million acres of land in New Mexico bordering both the Gila National Wilderness Area and the White Sands National Monument, but the border was in dispute, and internet conspiracy theorists conjectured that the area was growing.

Deep diving into weird forums and local news blogs, Javi had found out that two Robot Country drone minders had gone missing two years ago. He couldn’t find anything about Isla. Could a person just disappear without anyone caring?

There were always missing woman stories in the news, but less lately since various countries had begun issuing nuclear threats against one another. The missing women in the news tended to be white, attractive, and have teary families that advocated for them. Isla was mixed, her beauty strange, and she never talked about her family.

He hired an investigative firm to look for her, but her trail went cold after she started working for Company Omega.

Javi’s destination was clear, but his resistance to the journey remained. He decided to work through it by taking up residence at his monastery in Marin. He shaved his head and donned robes, and though he stopped short of taking vows, it had certainly crossed his mind.

He was silent for two weeks and then broke his silence to speak with a priest.

“I am worried she is dead and it is my fault,” he said and then he broke down in sobs. When he recovered, he added, “I know what I must do, but I am scared to do it.”

The priest spoke few words, but he spoke them with such a clarity and force that they were imprinted on Javi’s mind. He went back to Oakland that evening, and as soon as he got home, he wrote them down using ink and a piece of paper. Then he folded it up and put it in his pocket. These words would be his strength on his upcoming journey.

Javi tried to apply for a job as a Robot Country drone minder, as Isla had done, but found the listings had been taken down. So he contacted Isla’s former boss and asked for work. He presumed he would get it. He was a senior software engineer at a prestige company; this was its own type of priesthood. If the offer didn’t come, he would find another way in, but the best way to find Isla was to retrace her steps. Do the job that she did right before she disappeared.

His roommates were old friends from college. He gave them three months rent in advance and told them he was going to Europe because that was easier than telling them the truth. He could have moved out long ago and gotten his own place, but Javi’s plan had been to save up as much as possible so he could retire by thirty-five. He had shared this room with Isla for a time; she had loved it for the light that came in. They had installed a planter box outside one of the windows. She had planted lavender and installed a hummingbird feeder. The birds came to feed constantly. Isla said she knew the secret of how to make hummingbirds like her. The secret was to prepare their nectar using twice as much sugar as the recipe called for.

Since his vision, Javi thought of her whenever a hummingbird approached the window box. He quadrupled the sugar and they came more often still. He took this as a good omen.

Practicing nonattachment, he quit his job with no notice and cashed out all his stock to fund his search. He thought about leaving a note for his family; instead, he made another copy of the priest’s words and pinned them to his mood board. If his body went missing, then at least these words would be found. He hoped they would bring the people who survived him comfort.

The offer from Company Omega finally came, and Javi bought a plane ticket to New Mexico. Right before he was about to leave, a new message landed in Isla’s inbox. It was from somebody named Zayn.

“Isla, where are you?”

Javi hired the investigative firm to find out more about Zayn. He was a park ranger stationed in the Gila Forest. Javi altered his travel plans so that he could talk to Zayn before he ventured into Robot Country.

The firm had prepared an extensive file on Zayn, so that when Javi walked into the bar in town at the edge of the forest, he knew he’d find Zayn there, drinking. He sat down next to the ranger and ordered two of Zayn’s preferred drink, a locally brewed black mold ale.

“I’m looking for Isla.”

“Yeah? Are you a cop?” asked Zayn. He didn’t look up from his drink.

“I’m her ex. Javi.” He faced Zayn so the other man could get a good look at him. Javi found their similarities annoying. Both had olive skin, black hair, green eyes with dark circles underneath. Their jaws made a similar curve, and both faces contained an identical amount of unshaven stubble.

“Isla never mentioned you,” said Zayn.

“That’s pretty typical of her. She leaves the past for dead. When’s the last time you saw her?”

“Why should I tell you?”

“Because tomorrow I’m going into Robot Country to find her. If you know a better place to look, now would be a good time to let me know.”

“You’re crazy. If the machines killed her, they’ll kill you, too.”

“Then at least we’ll be together.” Both men, near mirror images, regarded one another. Javi stood up and left his card on the counter. “If you remember anything, let me know.”

Javi walked back to his motel room. He had been recording his entire exchange and wanted to run the audio and video through a deception analyzer. The analysis confirmed what he and the investigators already suspected: Zayn did not kill Isla (probably), but he knew more about her whereabouts than he was willing to say. While Javi searched Robot Country, the investigators would investigate Zayn.

Javi reported for work first thing the next morning. The warehouse on the border was surrounded by tanks and armored vehicles in varying shades of light brown. Javi had to check in with uniformed men before being allowed in. His new boss, Kaya, was a white woman with auburn hair. She introduced herself, and then said, “You don’t have to go through with this.”

“What’s going on here? Was this place always so . . . militarized?”

Kaya shook her head no.

“The war is new. And the information grayout is tight.”

“Information grayout?”

“It’s a security tactic. We restrict information coming out of the area while widely disseminating alternative facts to news outlets.”

“My work keeps me too busy to follow the news, alternative or real.”

“We already know about your reading habits. And Isla. That’s why we picked you.”

“Not because of my qualifications?” Javi had a special display case where he kept his hackathon trophies. He had a Twitch channel where ten thousand people watched him code.

“You’re a code monkey. You’re not qualified to be a drone minder. I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to. You can back out now.”

Javi suddenly understood why she was being so rude to him: She was trying to get him to quit.

“What was Isla like, when you talked to her last?”

“Not suicidal, as far as I could tell. Homely. Also underqualified. She knew she was underprepared, but she never complained.”

Javi shook his head. Kaya’s insults only reminded him of the necessity of his mission. He was here because Isla had not been loved enough, not by him, not by anybody.

“You know we fired her, right?” asked Kaya. Javi’s investigations had uncovered this fact, too, but no need to let Kaya know. “She left Robot Country after three days to shack up with that park ranger.”

“I talked to him. He says she came back to Robot Country,” said Javi. Zayn had not told this to Javi, but to the police investigators who questioned him regarding Isla’s disappearance.

“That seemed unlikely at the time. How could she get past our security systems? Why would she even want to? We all thought he killed her. And the other missing minders, too. But then things got weird here. And then there were the satellite photos.” Kaya showed Javi some photos of Isla hiking across the desert wearing a weird gray jumpsuit. “If these photos are real, then they are the last images anyone has captured of Isla. So she probably did come back here.”

“What do you mean ‘if’ they are real? What happened to your surveillance? And why didn’t you share those photos with the police?”

Kaya arched one eyebrow. “Are you a cop?”

“Why do people keep asking me that?”

“Because only cops asked about Isla after she disappeared.”

“I’m not a cop.”

“I didn’t think so. Anyway, to answer your question, our robots have turned on us, and the rot runs deep. Our satellite images are . . . unreliable. Everything that can be hacked by a hostile entity has been, and that’s bad because there were a lot of weapons in Robot Country. Still want to look for her?”

He insisted. So Kaya outfitted him with the gear he would need to hike into Robot Country. He was given a mesh tent and a down sleeping bag that folded into a frameless backpack. A canteen of water and rations for ten days. A portable stove. Everything was brand new and amazingly light. The bag and tent both had a reflective silver sheen that made them look like they were designed for space. It had to be expensive. But Company Omega could afford it; they were one of the richest corporations in the country.

“Back when Isla set off, the drones were presumably still under our control. They helped her camp and delivered her supplies. You are on your own in a hostile territory. There will be no way to contact us once you get past the border.”

“I don’t think this is enough water,” Javi said, looking over his supplies.

“Water isn’t your primary concern. The border is. If you can get past the border and into Robot Country, then there are water sources available to you. We think.”

“You think?”

“Yeah, like I said, our surveillance is fucked. Our intelligence is fucked. If you could get in and have a look around and then come back and tell us what you see, that would be a big help to us, actually.”

Kaya walked him to a strategy room, where he was to be briefed by the military.

“Robot Country was once a dynamic large-scale robotics laboratory. It was a daring corporate experiment, a testament to scientific inventiveness and American ingenuity. It is now an illegally occupied territory ruled by hostile machine entities. The plan is to invade the area and reconquer it. But we are having difficulties sending in ground forces.”

Javi nodded, and they pulled down a projection screen. They showed him video footage of an unmanned jeep trying to enter the border of Robot Country. It was quickly enveloped by a cloud and then left for rubble.

“What happened? I couldn’t quite see,” asked Javi.

“Wasps.”

“Excuse me?”

Kaya cleared her throat and said. “Defensive wasp drones developed by Company Omega. These were originally used to keep our technology within the borders of Robot Country. It is now used to keep us out.”

There was more footage. Tanks and airplanes being consumed by wasps. Then bipedal drones. Then a human being. He crossed the border in fatigues. The wasps formed a less-dense cloud around him then around the other things they devoured.

“We think they are struggling against first law constraints.”

“What are those?” asked Javi.

“Wow, they really don’t teach you anything at Stanford, do they?”

Javi rolled his eyes, but didn’t say anything.

“The First Law prohibits robots from harming humans. It’s written deep into the architecture of the code that supports these robots. They’ve obviously found a way around it, but are still struggling.”

Javi did not particularly want to see a man get eaten alive, but if this was the way he was going to die, then he figured he might as well pay attention.

The wasps surrounded the man. First he screamed, then he collapsed. Then the footage ended.

“Did he die?” asked Javi.

“Presumably. We were unable to recover the body. They always disable our filming drone last. They want us to see. They’re sending us a message.”

“Maybe the feed was falsified. You said you were having issues . . .”

“Could be. But nobody who has ventured into Robot Country in the last nine months has emerged. Not since Isla found Zayn. Do you still want to go?”

The vision at Burning Man had been powerful, and he’d dreamed it again many times since then. He kept the priest’s words in the pocket closest to his heart. The story of his life was already written in a book somewhere and kept in some celestial library. He knew that he was going; he just didn’t know what would happen after that.

“Yes,” he said, and Kaya grimaced and looked away as if she was ashamed of herself and her complicity. When she met his gaze again, a look of contempt had returned to her face. She might hate herself for sending people into Robot Country, but she hated him more for being willing to go.

How to explain to her that moral clarity had struck him like an asteroid? That the impact was irreversible? His body was only a vessel.

“We have to find some way in. We’re going to be firing weapons into the territory from the ground, from the air and from space. You might get hurt or killed in service to your country.”

He signed waiver after waiver, and one of the military men told him he was a hero, whether or not he survived this.

One general asked him if he knew about the Singularity.

“Yes, they did teach me something at Stanford,” replied Javi.

“We believe it’s occurred already, within the borders of Robot Country. That means there will be things in there that are beyond your comprehension.”

Good, Javi thought.

“This is war. It’ll get worse before it gets better.”

Javi nodded. The point of life was not to avoid suffering. Then he walked out of the station and towards the border.

Past the military base, there was no fence or wall, just blonde dirt as far as the eye could see. The land surrounding Robot Country had been treated with an herbicidal agent, and that combined with the lack of rain made for a barren landscape. He walked for ten minutes, the base growing distant behind him. He wondered how he would know when he crossed the border.

Then he saw the wasp cloud.

From the footage he had been shown, he thought it would be a uniform group of crow-sized wasps that descended on him, but when the wasps arrived, he saw that there were at least four different sizes. The smaller ones came for him first. He had been issued a tan uniform that was heavy with sensors. The tiny wasps landed on his clothes and not his skin. Right away, he could tell they were dissolving the fabric, tearing it apart. But still he walked.

The grainy video they had showed him had made the wasp drones seem gray. In the hot sun, he could see they were actually all different shades of an oil-slick black that shimmered many hues. Javi continued his walk forward as the medium-sized wasps began to fly nearer. If he was going to be killed, he wanted to die while walking towards her.

In the dark, he felt he had escaped his own body. He imagined telling Isla how he died when he met her in the next life. I walked into wasps in order to find you.

He would tell her how the little wasps dissolved his clothes and his pack and the water he had brought with him spilled on the barren ground, but still he walked towards her. Then the medium-sized wasps began to land on him, and they didn’t quite sting, it was more like an embrace that covered him. The wasps began to spread out their mechanical bodies until they covered every inch of him, even his eyes and his mouth, and he could not breathe and they tightened their embrace. It did not hurt and he felt like he was flying and that it might have been a good way to die if not for all the fear.

He regretted the fear, but the priest’s words were gone, the pocket that held them was gone and finally the fear went away, too. Then only two things remained: his body and the ache he felt for her.

He walked. He believed he would see her again; that’s why he kept putting one foot down after the other, even if he could no longer feel the earth beneath his feet. Each step took him closer to her, but whether he was still walking in this world or the next, he could not tell.

And suddenly the wasps dispersed. They dropped him on the hard ground, and he was somewhere else now, having been transported by the swarm. The impact hurt his ribs, which made him feel like he might still be alive. He struggled to raise himself up to hands and knees and was almost knocked over by the smell. An acid stench that burned his throat and made him cough. He had smelled a weaker version of this odor before, and he remembered watching the holy deer through binoculars, wearing only his boots. Now he didn’t even have boots, and the smell was a thousand times stronger. He opened one eye slowly and it began to burn as it was exposed to the miasma. He closed it shut, but not before he confirmed what he suspected: The deer was there, standing right in front of him. The deer was there, and with it at least a hundred more like it.

He attempted to stand without opening his eyes. He fell once before finding his feet. Then he kept walking. He opened his eyes again and found, to his surprise, that the sting had lessened once he stood. He walked slowly, with eyes open, through the herd. They were all still facing the same way, lavender skin bubbling and dripping, though whatever it was oozing from them evaporated before it hit the ground. He got the sense he was breathing them in, that they were in his respiratory tract. His mouth still tasted of wasp.

Some had antlers, some didn’t. Some had two heads, some none. They had no eyes or mouth. No fur or skin, only the continually evaporating liquid surface. As he slowly walked forward, the deer walked past him, in the opposite direction. The terror returned. He was probably dead, and this was proof he had landed in the wrong afterlife. He wondered how to abandon fear, and he realized he could not abandon it without abandoning her, too.

He put his hand over his heart, the place where the priest’s word used to rest. Where did nonattachment fit into all this?

He found it easier to keep his balance as he walked through the herd if he kept his eyes closed. And he found it easier to keep going if he imagined telling her about it later.

Isla, I was so scared and I just kept walking. It was the only thing I knew how to do.

Gradually, the texture of the ground beneath his bare feet began to change. It became coarser and cooler and even a little moist. Javi hoped for some kind of shore, but didn’t believe it until cool water began to lap at his toes. He kept walking forward and didn’t open his eyes until he was waist deep. He was in a lake. Around him the water was blue and dotted with mossy rocks. On the far shore, there were reeds, and then bushes behind that. The color green was a balm to his burning eyes. There were bunches of algae that floated on the surface and water striders that skittered between them. He heard things chirping and buzzing. He was probably alive, after all.

He turned around to survey the land where he had come from. It was dusty and empty. Facing the lake once more, the way forward was clear. He swam across to the fertile shore, hydrating himself with great big gulps of freshwater along the way, dunking his head to wash his eyes and hair.

On the other side of the lake, he found clothes and supplies. A lightweight gray jumpsuit. Bottled water and dried fruit. Things to camp with and an empty backpack. He got dressed and then kept walking forward. He had no way of orienting himself; forward was the only direction, but when a flock of herons flew overhead (and these seemed to be real live herons, not drones), he altered his course so that he was walking in the same direction they were flying.

It was straightforward camping after that. Sometimes he would find extra supplies or food in his path, but never a clue as to who was leaving these things.

Isla, is it you? Am I going in the right direction?

Once, his mysterious benefactor left an empty journal and a pen. On the first page of the book, he wrote down the priest’s words, then tore out the page, folded it up and put it in his left breast pocket. He had nothing else to mark in the journal except for the days.

His surroundings were ordinary desert. The only frightening things happened in the sky far above him. Drones buzzed and missiles collided with other missiles. Large clouds of wasps hovered. The war seemed to be happening in the air only. He hoped Isla was safe.

He wished for a map. He said this wish out loud and also wrote it in his journal, just in case the book could grant wishes. For three weeks he walked until he found the Cadillac.

It was an aqua green convertible with a soft black top. Javi understood that he was supposed to get in the front seat, so he did, and the car began to drive. It stopped after a couple of hours, presumably for Javi to get out and stretch his legs, and when Javi got back in, it resumed driving. He spent the night in the Cadillac and continued riding in it the next day until he found a road and then an abandoned building. The sign out front read “White Sands National Monument Visitor Center.”

Javi let himself into the dusty gift shop, which was thankfully filled with maps. His wish had been granted; he knew where he was. The maps indicated that the land he was standing on was once a park open to the public. The US military used to test weapons nearby. But Robot Country had swallowed it up somehow. There used to be highways and Indian Reservations and towns in the area. Had they all been absorbed, too? He checked the visitor center for signs of Isla. If she had been there, she had left no trace. Outside, something in the sky exploded and then the ground shook. It was louder than last time. Either Javi was getting closer to the war, or the war was getting closer to him

He searched the gift shop one last time, this time looking for a present for her. Underneath a display case were various pieces of trinitite, white sand fused into green glass by the force of a nuclear impact. He selected a heart-shaped, aquamarine piece and placed it in the same pocket that contained the priest’s words.

Another explosion went off overhead. It shook the visitor center and knocked the books that were once for sale off the shelves. The Cadillac outside began to honk its horn, and Javi took that as a sign that it was time to go.

He hopped in the car, and as soon as he was in, it sped away. Bombs fell on the ground around him. The war had found him, finally. There was a great rumbling, and a hole seemed to open up in the earth ahead of them. When the car drove into the widening hole, Javi thought he was going to die. Perhaps he was already dead and the hole just represented a different level of Naraka, which was the priest’s word for hell.

It was a hard landing into a dark place, but the car kept driving forward and down. And then it emerged into a room filled with tiny lights. As his eyes adjusted, Javi thought they were stars, then fireflies, and then he thought it was a cityscape. Eventually he realized he was in a giant, miles-long server farm. The ground shook, and the car stopped, and Javi took this as a sign to get out.

He walked forward until he came to a set of polished aluminum doors. They were twenty feet high and when they opened for him, he found Kaya on the other side.

“What? What are you doing here?” he asked her.

“I got here yesterday. Things were getting dire on the outside, and the military men said they would murder my whole family if I couldn’t find a way in and stop the Robot Country drones. Now I’m a prisoner here, and so are you, apparently. Where have you been for the past month?”

“I walked here. I mean, the last couple of days, I was driven. But yeah, I mostly just hiked and camped.”

“Whoa, sounds spiritual.”

Kaya turned and led him into a giant room. On the walls were electronic projections of maps. Kaya had bare feet, her toes lacquered with a bright red polish. She wore cashmere sweatpants and diamond stud earrings; if she was a prisoner, she was a comfortable one. She walked to one end of the room, where a man was assembling a model city on a table top.

“This is Naim,” said Kaya. Naim pushed his working goggles up to his forehead and said hi.

“You look familiar,” said Javi.

“He was that guy in the video the military showed you, they one that supposedly got killed by wasp drones.”

“Yeah, the wasps didn’t sting me to do death, they brought me here,” said Naim.

“Same,” said Kaya. “They formed this buckyball around me. Naim’s been here for two months. He actually likes it here! The other missing minders are downstairs racing go-karts.”

“Where’s Isla?”

“I don’t know. Out gallivanting. She was here yesterday. The drones love her. She’s like the queen of this place or something. She’s the only one of us allowed to leave,” said Kaya.

“The Computer predicted a high chance of a nuclear strike that could penetrate our defenses and destroy the surrounding area. She said she needed to go aboveground and save some idiot,” added Naim.

“Oh God, she’s out there trying to find me. We have to get her,” said Javi.

“We can’t. The Computer says it is not safe to leave. I’m going stir crazy,” said Kaya.

“Why would you want to leave? Upstairs they’re dropping bombs; down here, the Computer gives us all the best toys,” said Naim.

“The Computer?” asked Javi. Kaya gestured to the giant monitors that were mounted high on the walls. They had maps of world on them. The ground rumbled and the room went red and then white. The maps became covered with red clusters.

Just then the aluminum doors opened, and Isla walked through. She was tan and her cheeks were flushed. She wore the same high ponytail she did when she was the temple priestess in his dreams.

“Thank God, we made it,” she said. There was someone with her. She was holding his hand. It was Zayn.

“This idiot thought he could ride out the nuclear war in his cabin.”

Zayn looked up and around at all the monitors. He wore his ranger’s uniform and a dazed expression.

“It’s okay, we’re safe here.” She kissed him on the cheek and he put his hand on her waist. They had the easy familiarity of people who’ve fucked more than one or two times. They were probably seeing each other this whole time, this whole year when Isla pretended to be missing and Zayn pretended not to know where she was.

“What’s going on?” asked Javi.

“Javi?” said Isla. “Is that you?” She let go of Zayn’s hand and walked towards Javi to get a better look. He was dirty from camping, dark from the sun and wore a beard, unlike Zayn, who was both clean and clean-shaven. “What are you doing here?”

“I was looking for you. I thought you were dead or kidnapped or something.”

“Javi status,” said Isla.

“What?” asked Javi. But Isla wasn’t talking to him, she was talking to the Computer. The monitors changed to a bunch of maps and figures. They were incomprehensible to Javi, but Isla seemed to be gleaning information from them.

“Ah, so you crossed in. And the machines didn’t want to kill you, because killing is wrong. But they didn’t want to let you in, because they thought it would make me mad. So they kind of had you wander around until they could figure out what to do with you. But when the strikes intensified, and they thought you might die on the surface, they brought you down here.”

“What’s going on up there?” asked Javi.

“Conflict status,” ordered Isla. The screens changed to different maps and figures. They looked like lines of code in a language that Javi didn’t know. Javi looked to the others, to see if they wore expressions of comprehension. They didn’t.

Isla gasped as she read.

“The war got really bad. Whole cities have been destroyed.”

“Fuck your machines,” said Kaya. “I hate you.”

“We only employ defensive measures here, but . . . The US suspected Robot Country was getting help from Mexico, so the US pre-emptively nuked Mexico City. That led to this whole chain of response events. Every country that had a weapon fired at least one. Every country but Robot Country.”

“Which cities were hit?” asked Javi.

“Javi, I am so sorry.”

Javi didn’t feel himself fall; he only felt his knees buckle. He heard Kaya ask how many were dead. He heard Isla say it might be more than a billion people.

Javi ripped his pocket from his jumpsuit; he wanted the priest’s words and the nuclear glass away from his heart.

“If we are soulmates, then we will meet again and again,” he had written.

Isla, who in her old life had nothing and nobody, now had a kingdom and a prince. Javi, who hadn’t even said goodbye to his favorite people, was now totally alone.

“Why am I alive?” asked Javi.

“Because you are here. We have everything we need here. We are miles below the ground. We are safe.” She knelt down next to him, placing a cool hand on his forehead. A spider drone tottered over with a glass of water. She helped Javi sit up and drink.

“I am alive because I followed you here,” he said. Which was proof she was holy. She was the high priestess of Robot Country. His vision had been correct; it was his interpretation that had been wrong. They were meant to be together, though maybe not as lovers. Maybe they existed to torture one another.

“Javi, I’m sorry.”

He looked away. He felt the psychic connection in the place where his heart used to be. He could tell she no longer loved him. She put one hand on his shoulder and the other on his chest. The ache was still there. It was never going to go away, not in this lifetime, not in the next. Grief was the price of survival. Survival was the price of loving her.

Dominica Phetteplace

Dominica Phetteplace is a math tutor who writes fiction and poetry. Her work has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, and Clarkesworld. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop. Her honors include a MacDowell Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize and a Rona Jaffe Award.