But the Earthlings misunderstand the nature of the Pax settlement and its real leader. Even as Stevland attempts to protect his human tools, a more insidious enemy than the Earthlings makes itself known.
Stevland is not the apex species on Pax.
Interference by Sue Burke is on sale on October 22. Please enjoy the following excerpt below.
Karola—Earth Year 2303
For all the danger in that forest with its tumbling-down ruins, the beauty pulled me back one last time. Old walls created cliffs and ravines, lushly overgrown by vegetation. Birds sang to each other. The wind smelled of wildflowers bursting through springtime earth. And there, on that late afternoon, I planned to injure Shani.
I waited for her, sitting on a mossy brick wall in front of what was once a grand building. The stones of a colonnaded entrance lay behind me amid daffodils and saplings, while in what had once been the street, flowers sprang up between black chunks of asphalt, with holes here and there caused by collapsed old tunnels. In my visual overlay, I saw them outlined in red for danger.
With a blink, I turned the overlay off. Shani was still out of sight, coming with other members of the task force, hiking down a path that twisted around dangers as it wended from the old main road. The unnatural landscape shimmered in the afternoon sunshine. The rustle of pliant young leaves blocked the sounds of the university and its interminable excavations and restorations. A kilometer away? An epoch.
She sang as she hiked with an easy vibrato on the high notes, a vocal smile, for she had every reason to be happy. I accessed the lyrics, signaled my location, and hid my plans, my public mind and private mind as separate as continents, as distinct as the present and memories.
All I could think was the truth: I will remember you always.
Her thoughts mirrored mine as she emerged on the path and smiled with a wide mouth made for joy. She sang, “Come to say goodbye, Karola and I. . . .”
She balanced on the edge between laughter and tears. I stood as they arrived, some to say goodbye, some to make plans. I would smile and weep with her, too, and we opened our arms and hugged, two young women. If I could have seen through her eyes, what would I have seen of me? But that was not the moment to look.
She would not see this place accurately. I would cause that. Amid the others, with their own mixed joys and sorrows, I hugged her and wept. Again.
Earlier that day, in the morning, more than one hundred souls had gathered in our finest formal clothing beneath a high-beamed ceiling painted with cherubs and allegories. We were surrounded by walls of fine carved wood and marble. The treasures of an Old Washington Dee Cee government complex had been restored and were reserved for scholarly assemblages of the highest merit, such as ours. Soon we would explore the living past. We would visit the Pax Colony, if it still existed half a light-century away. The planet Pax orbited a star barely visible to the naked eye just after sunset in the west of our springtime skies.
Or rather, only thirty of us would journey there, but which ones?
“It is an honor merely to be part of this task force,” our chairman said in a voice like an axe, as if anything stated with sufficient force could wedge open the truth. He stood on a podium next to a formal witness-robot, a sleek black memory spire with a pleated white antenna echoing the collar of an ancient human judge.
Three of us were competing for the post of linguist. Shani and I knew that the third candidate would decline because his children had convinced him to remain on Earth to help raise his grandchildren. That left us, sitting side by side. I twisted the ring on my finger and waited. The sun slanted in through grand windows.
“Those who go must sacrifice much, perhaps everything, in the pursuit of knowledge,” the chairman chopped on. “But the entire task force will be needed to prepare for their departure.”
Shani and I had confirmed our opinions the night before. Each of us was as deserving and as determined to go.
“Now,” he said, “after we have lost so much during the last centuries, we know the value of lives and hopes, and we will willingly risk ourselves to unite all branches of humanity again. Now I shall release the names of those selected.”
He gestured at the robot. The names came to our minds. We read silently.
Shani would go on the expedition, and I was the backup.
We leapt up and hugged, weeping out of joy or disappointment. We had known we would react that way and had supposedly reached mutual comfort with our rivalry. But my life depended on going. She didn’t know that because no one did.
The night before the announcement we had celebrated NVA Day, the commemoration of the Great Loss. Like all children, I had once delighted in it, playing with false terror, but now it meant unspeakable farce. But how could I fail to participate without hinting that I was the target?
In my dormitory room, I draped myself in a white body veil, the traditional ghost costume I brought out every April first. It obscured my face without even a slit for eyes to represent the idea that we were all the same in death, faceless. I set my visual overlay high to see better than I would with my real eyes.
The Pax Task Force had organized its own celebration, a small reiteration of Earth’s first global holiday held everywhere on the first night of April as the sun set around the globe. We were holding it in a cross-roads at the edge of a reclaimed section of the city, with our new dormitories on one side of a street and collapsed buildings on the other. The steel-framed rubble rose taller than the wild trees sprouting among it, and the glass that had once sheathed them, now shattered, sparkled amid green overgrowth.
On our side of the crossroads, squat cherry trees with pale pink blossoms decorated the spaces between the new buildings, which glowed with self-sufficient light. Our white costumes were tinted by sunset to echo the color of the trees.
If ghosts existed, they would be here in this city, in this once bustling street, one of countless emptied out one hundred fifty years ago by a great plague. But the dead stay dead, except for the architect of the Great Loss, NVA herself, punished eternally. People—some people—like to watch her suffer.
A stack of deadwood gathered from the forested ruins sat in the center of the intersection. I wanted to spend as little time as possible at that cruel ritual, although attendance was required by law, waiting until finally Shani called me to come. She said I was missing the fun. She was too kind, too thoughtful, to let me do that—my best friend, the first best friend I had ever had. I paused at the doorway to locate her. One more time, I would try to talk her out of going.
Almost two hundred people were celebrating, members of the task force, support staff, and their families. Children rushed around squealing with delight, a few disguised as ghosts but most as cute little animals. Almost all the adults were white ghosts like me, but a half dozen red ones circulated, even two men, and I flushed with anger at their disrespect. Anthropologists should know better. The red ghosts represented NVA, and there was only one of her. There should be only one at the celebration.
Task force members had settled into work groups around tables of drinks and snacks set up on the grassy, broken pavement. The pilots and engineers, who always had more energy than introspection, danced and sang to music I didn’t care to log on to.
Shani stood among the biologists at the far side of the intersection. She heard me searching for her and called me again. I wove through the festivities to get there. On the way, I passed several children dressed as animals who surrounded a tall red ghost. A little-boy cat hissed at it, a couple of girl-puppies barked, and a bird cawed and squawked and giggled.
The ghost raised its arms. “I’ll get you!” a man squeaked in a falsetto. “I’ll kill you all! You can’t run away! Hahaha!”
“You only kill people,” a puppy retorted, and took a step forward. “This time I’ll kill animals, too! Animals! You!”
The children squealed and ran away. For them the ritual was merely
about a scary person, and like all adults I had learned the true terror later, unfathomable to a child. NVA had poisoned the food her corporation distributed and had killed five billion people, everyone in the American continents and up to half the population elsewhere. She had done so deliberately, even eating the poisoned food herself, and she died before the disaster had been diagnosed. She had been pure, murderous evil, and too cowardly to face justice. Or so we were told. Debate was prohibited.
I passed the astronomy group. Many of them gazed with lost expressions at some broadcast information and discussed it animatedly. The few who noticed their surroundings called out greetings, and I returned them. “Good luck tomorrow!” All our voices were tense.
When I arrived, Shani draped an arm around my shoulder.
“We are practicing Globish. Can you help?”
We knew the Pax colonists had spoken Classic English. If they had survived and had descendants, and if we wanted to communicate with them, we needed to speak it fluently. That was the linguist’s job. The rest of the task force had to learn simplified Globish English, which was hard enough, and it made its speakers sound like simpletons.
“I can do that,” I said in Globish. “I like Classic English too. I learned it for work and now I love it, even though few people understand it.”
The biologists were discussing a proposal to create new colonies in the Americas despite the effect they would have on the ecology, which had been left to grow as wild as possible.
“Everyone who goes to Pax,” I said, “will never see the decision.” I meant to guide the conversation in the right direction to dissuade Shani. A young man named Mirlo laughed.
“But we will see it when we come back. We will see the results.”
“You are not going,” a woman told him. “You do not have good skills for species identification. The task force needs me.”
“I can count ant teeth as well as you can.”
Everyone laughed. It was a running joke, even though Mirlo was a botanist, so he counted petals.
“But,” I said, “what about your families?”
“My family has good teeth,” Mirlo said.
“Are you having second thoughts?” Shani said. She tightened her arm to comfort me, pleasantly warm across my shoulders. “I know how you love your family, we all love our families, but your family will feel happy for you. Mine thinks this is the best thing I could do.” Her family prided itself on exploring.
I took a deep breath. Globish couldn’t express complex ideas well.
“Do not worry,” she continued. “I know it will be a long and dangerous trip. But think. We know the colony was established. And we know that the planet had very much life with many kinds of animals and plants.”
“And then its satellite died and stopped sending reports,” an anthropologist said.
She ignored him. “We know exactly where and when. We will go to a good planet.”
“We will be famous,” he added, “like other explorers.” “I want to go,” she said. “We all want to go.”
Various people chimed in, “Yes.”
“But,” I tried again, “only one of us can go.”
“I know, I would love it if we could both go. We must understand that. If you can go and not me, I will be sad for me and happy for you.”
This wasn’t working, but I loved her for her kindness. She wanted to go no matter what, and I knew her nurturing personality would probably rank her above me, despite my superior linguistic skills.
“I understand,” I said. “I do not like to wait, that is all. I wish we knew now. If it is you, I will be happy for you.” I hugged her, trying to imagine what else I could do to get off Earth, cherishing her soft body and its warmth.
As cheerfully as I could, I participated in the party. I lifted up my disguise to eat and drink, even laugh a little, until the axe-voiced chair-man climbed up a chunk of masonry near the bonfire’s woodpile and began the ceremony, reminding us all of NVA’s crimes against humanity. The dummy that represented her was dragged out, a life-size doll made of old clothes stuffed with paper and brush. As people jeered, it was thrown on top of the firewood. But before the rain of stones fell on it and before the chairman set fire to it, he reached into her shirt and pulled out a doll.
I disconnected from the feed. I couldn’t stand to listen. But I knew what he would say, something like the words I had heard since my earliest memories:
“She will pay forever! She is in prison, but her clone lives among us. When the time comes, it will take her place in prison. Look into your hearts. Could you do what she did? Could you be her clone? Show us by your behavior that this will never be you.”
Any woman could be her, that is: another way to keep us submissive.
Without the feed, I heard his distant voice, the rustle of trees in the wind, the chatter of children. An anthropologist named Zivon, who stood next to me in a red veil and fancied himself a rebel, muttered in Globish, perhaps thinking no one important—I wasn’t important— would understand Globish:
“I do not think that. If this is true, we would see her, we would see her face. We can see everything else from the past, and we can see her body now in her feed, but not her face. She does not have a mirror. Have you heard of Halloween? This is just a new kind of Halloween. It was an old holiday with evil spirits to frighten us.”
“People did die,” I said. I wondered how often he watched her feed.
“Right. We polluted everything, and people died. Everyone polluted the Earth, but it is better to blame one person.”
“But you can log on to her in prison, you can see what she suffers.”
“A lie. You can log on to fiction stories, and they seem just as real, right? It is a lie like them.”
I was barely thirteen years old, and by coincidence it was the day of my menarche. For a history assignment I had accessed an old library and was rooting around, since I had little else to do but lie down and suffer cramps and ignore the younger children who played nearby. I knew barely enough ornate Classic English to know that I was bringing up records from the first half of the twenty-second century, primitive in their encoding.
I found a cluster of business news that no longer meant anything to anyone. I was supposed to be investigating early communications design, so I hoped I might find something. I slid through the pictures idly, and in one of them I spotted a woman who looked like an older version of me, with the same wide forehead and sharp chin. Her name was Nancsi Vasileios Altbusser, and she was attending a training class at a food corporation. . . . Was she NVA?
That couldn’t be, I thought, though the time period would be correct. I looked for more photos of this Nancsi and found two. She had my cheekbones and the same curl in her smile that made her look uncertain of her happiness. I overlaid my face and hers: a perfect match. I knew I’d find no photos of NVA herself because all children goad each other into searching, so I’d already tried. I learned a little more about Nancsi, then her face disappeared from history after she had founded her own food company and named it with her initials.
She was real. I was a clone like most children, selected by the government for what it deemed positive traits and assigned to a family clan. But I was really her, the NVA clone who would be punished when the current incarnation died. No one knew who the clone was; only a witness-robot carried that information locked behind layers of encryption. But I had seen her face every day in the mirror.
By then I could hardly breathe from terror as I paced in the little play area, so upset that a medical program intervened and one of my mothers came with a cool drink. They decided it was a hormonal spike, normal for a day like that. I got some medication and lots of sympathy. Two days passed before I could eat again.
While family members fussed over my health, I spent those two days considering what I knew about NVA. In the celebrations, they said she was cold, logical, determined, and cruel. I would have to be like her to save myself, and by the third day I had a plan.
Within a week, I was before my fathers, properly obedient and respectful. Our house was as absolutely ordinary as almost every other one in our region, with six mothers, six fathers, servants, and thirty-seven children in a self-sufficient compound. The architecture, though, reflected our location in Greenland. The walls resembled wood panels, and glowing orange globes hung in front of the windows, mimicking the sun that in winter did not rise above the horizon. The fathers’ formal reception room intimidated me with its tall peaked ceiling, elegant with flowing draperies and old-fashioned glittery furniture.
Although the men seemed old, I realized later they were barely middle-aged or younger. One or two of them came to the girls’ quarters briefly every day to play or help us with lessons or occasionally join us at mealtime. They were like visiting celebrities.
I had carefully prepared a formal request outlining the success of my studies and proclaiming my fascination with the robust grammar and vocabulary of Classic English, and detailing the utility that the dead language would have in my employment and benefit to our house. I didn’t mention that a profession might save me from becoming a mere minor wife, and especially, that I could learn more about myself, about NVA, the first step toward escape.
Now I would hear their response.
After formal greetings, I repeated my petition. “Our house dedicates itself to language. I want to specialize in Classic English. It’s a difficult language, and I’m prepared to work as hard as I can to master it.”
“Of course you can, Karola!” He didn’t seem as solemn as I had expected. “You’re determined—and very logical. You’ve done very well at languages. But you’ll have to study history, too, since Classic English is history and you can’t understand it if you don’t know history. It just won’t make sense. How about that? Do you want to study both Classic English and history?”
I felt myself smile before I fully understood how helpful it would be to learn everything I could about the past and myself. “I’d love to study history!”
“Then it’s decided. You’ll do both. We’ll handle all the permissions.” He looked at the other fathers, and they nodded with faces hard as glass. “And we know you’ll make us proud as well. And yourself proud. You’ve made the right decision.”
Then they dismissed me. Dinner was waiting—for them, in that fine room. For me, dinner would be served at the table in the kitchen in the girls’ wing. On my way out, I glimpsed the food that two of the mothers were bringing, meat, soup, two kinds of vegetables, and rice. The meal that awaited me would be only one simple dish, although plenty of it.
While I had been reminded of where I ranked, at least I had stopped being a child, and if I had been a normal young woman, I would have felt perfectly happy.
NVA’s feed is always public, always connected, always one-way. She surely knows that everyone sees through her eyes and hears through her ears because she was like me until suddenly she discovered she was like no one else in humanity. One day in my teens I connected to her for the last time and shared her captivity:
She stares up at the glass roof of her prison, watching a sandstorm. Clouds of dust whip past at insane speeds, leaving a trail of twisting, twitching dunes. The wind howls. Her own breath comes fast and loud. An emotion-meter in the right corner of our view shows that she is close to panic.
She lives in a prison, a wide bomb crater blasted into living rock, and she may know that, as punishment, she has been infected with a pathogen engineered to cause fear. She may dread against all logic that the roof will fall, and she may even know that the emotion is artificial and uncontrollable. Would that hurt even more keenly than true fear?
Her vision jerks, eyes darting from one place to another. The crater is large, two kilometers wide, full of black rock shattered by the bomb. She never sees her jailers. She is naked and alone.
Almost alone. Something moves behind a boulder. She cringes, ready to bolt. It’s a huge dog, and she is terrified. It bounds to the top of the rock and barks, ears back. She turns, and then the landscape bounces crazily as she runs and searches for a hiding place.
Her sight spins wildly as she falls and yelps in pain. She rises, looks at her leg, and dirty fingers brush away sand to reveal a jagged, bleeding cut. Behind her, the dog growls, and she runs again.
Finally, she drops behind a rock, eyes low to the ground, panting and cowering.
That was when I broke off the feed.
We’re told she deserves it, and some people watch all the time, but there’s a Classic English word for it: pornography.
Anyone subjected to that kind of stress could not live long. When the time for her replacement came, they would come for me.
I tried to learn more about NVA, about myself, and find the clue I needed to escape my fate.
The public record offered little. NVA had no recorded childhood; she had started a successful food business; and at some point she had begun adding a protein to her products that slowly destroyed the human brain stem and reduced people to vegetative states. Eventually too few people remained healthy to be able to help each other, and they all died as civilization fell into a nightmare. I could hardly bear to read the details.
I had caused that, or rather, I had the latent personality so twisted and evil that I could do that. My DNA, supposedly, carried that flaw. But I myself had done nothing, and I had been raised to be virtuous. I would be punished as NVA for what I would have done simply because someone had to be punished.
“Stupid girl,” one of my fathers said, the youngest one and the least patient. Other fathers treated us the way most men treated women, merely with condescension. The sister he spoke to dropped her head in shame. He rarely came to visit, and the sight of his short, square-shouldered silhouette in the doorway to our wing never brought us joy.
“Mars? You don’t know about Mars? After all we did for that planet, they revolted. We helped them and they gave back nothing. You don’t know that? I’ll send you a history lesson. You—all you stupid girls have to read it. You’ll be tested.”
I was sitting next to her. After he left, I murmured, “If no one ever bothered to tell us, it’s not your fault.”
“That’s right,” another sister said. Most of the rest looked away, too cowed to offer sympathy and annoyed at getting extra studies.
But once I read the history, I rejoiced. During the Reorganization after the Great Loss, Mars had objected to the terms, and though the colony could barely subsist alone, it cut off relations with Earth. And there the matter stood. Technically, the planets were at war, but in practice, nothing could be done.
The Reorganization had included NVA’s punishment. Mars did not punish NVA. If I could get to Mars, I would be free.
Women and girls as well as a few men crowded the little merchants’ gallery, the only market of its kind in our mountain-enclosed town. The glowing beams in the peaked roof lit the twelve shops offering trinkets and luxuries that mothers, daughters, and servants could buy with their allowances. I had come with a sister.
“Should we sample some perfume?” she said. “Maybe we could buy some rose cologne. It’s always cheap.”
“Maybe we could,” I said, then in a shop window I saw a tiny flash of color, orange-red like rust. “But let’s look there first.”
We slid between the people to stare at a jewelry store display.
“That ring is interesting,” I said, “the one with the round orange stone.” Round and orange like Mars.
“Then maybe I can afford it. I want to try it on.”
The shopkeeper greeted us with the graciousness of a natural sales-woman and fetched the ring from the display, talking all the while. “This is coral. It’s such a beautiful color, isn’t it? They told me the ring was scavenged from the Americas. Licensed scavengers, of course, don’t you worry. Try it on. Coral’s very old in its use for jewelry. And this design around it to look like a rope is very traditional. Genuine silver, of course. The black tarnish is natural and helps show off the silversmithing. It’s worn, but you can still see the design. It’s so pretty. Do you like it?”
As she continued her patter, I slid the ring onto my middle finger, a stone as wide as my fingernail that looked like the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, for it meant hope.
Used jewelry was inexpensive, but I would have paid anything, and I wore it out of the shop.
For four centuries, the Institute of English Studies in London had occupied a nineteen-story white building with narrow windows that overlooked the grand diked city. It abutted a squat library whose climate-controlled rooms contained a wealth of old paper books and antique-coded memories incompatible with current general public record technologies.
I entered at a respectful distance behind two professors I knew. One had taught me “Information Nodes, Redistributions, and Their Uses,” and considered himself liberal for accepting female students as equals. “And your skills will be helpful as an assistant to researchers, Karola,” he had said.
I had my own research and a three-part thesis based on my theories of meta-history. I wanted information at least one hundred years old. It needed to originate from informed sources, and they would be defined as sources that appeared in nodes, especially nodes that connected to other nodes. And they would be in Classic English, not Sino- Arabic Creole, so the debate would have been sheltered from popular opinion and politics. The Great Loss had ended a half century earlier, and NVA would have been recently exhumed and her DNA extracted. By then the shock would have dissipated and the consequences would have emerged.
As I searched, I became familiar with the little computer booths and their exotic equipment and databases, and with the long aisles of steel vaults that held shelves of delicate paper. The librarians proudly helped me explore the library’s ignored treasures.
The thesis took some fine-tuning because the debate I wanted had taken place before her grave had finally been located and desecrated, because the information in her grave changed everything.
I spent a full month refining my Classic English skills, and during that time I found frequent references to an analysis by a historian named Li Ming. It had been erased from Chinese-language records but had been cited in Classic English works that escaped the less educated hands of censors. From those citations, I reassembled his argument:
“We must praise the Heavens for the Great Loss. The progress of mankind had brought us to the stage of barbarism as the result of excessive population. People lost the correct relationships among individuals and societies, and among institutions and nations as they fought to survive. Soon warfare threatened to engulf the world and destroy it.
“Among these miseries was pollution, which caused disease. The Heavens saved us from war by means of disease, which blessed not one generation but hundreds. Where there was overcrowding, now there is space. Where there was competition, now there is cooperation. Where there was pollution, now there is a clean world. Where there was poverty, now there is wealth.
“Thus the Heavens benefited the world with illness. A great flood was drained before it could wash away the very rivers that had created it.”
Nancsi’s grave had been discovered and opened not long after Li had made his analysis, and a testament had been buried with her: “Only disease can prevent war, a fate worse than pestilence, for the coming war will kill us all. I chose to save humanity through kinder means. I weep for the loss and rejoice that some will survive.”
Could that be me? Had I saved the world?
“Try to locate to this.”
A blond middle-aged man pushed a button on a small box, and I closed my eyes. I saw and heard the ordinary background noise of my own feed, tailored over the years. Messages, reminders, items of possible interest, half-completed projects, storage, news, the locations of family and friends, weather, several conversations . . .
“Be patient,” he said. “First you have your own frequency. Everyone has their own. Now try to lose your own signal. Everyone can do that, and it’s bloody annoying. But don’t do it by accident, do it intentionally.”
This was my third try. On the first two, I had gotten nowhere, but this bitter man in an old-fashioned plaid coat had been patient.
“Every time I’ve lost it,” I said, “it’s been when I was switching off and on.”
“Then do that. Everyone is different. If that works for you, do it.”
What I sought to learn would have been illegal if any lawmaker had believed it possible, if they knew enough about the centuries-old science of one of the universe’s most basic forms of energy, the electro-magnetic spectrum. You could adjust radio-wave frequencies with a radio transmitter-receiver, obviously, so those were banned for private ownership, but you could never do it with your mind and your own chip.
No one was supposed to be able to do that, at least. No one in Greenland could, but London had always festered with rebellious subcultures. The blond man, an original Brit who made sure you knew he was, considered himself subversive: he strove to undermine the world union and assert ancient independence by eliminating controls over the population and reestablishing freedom. That’s what he said, anyway. I had met him through a friend of a friend who belonged to a group dedicated to maintaining “pure” English.
I switched off and focused on my surroundings. I was sitting on a hard, orange chair in a sub-subbasement next to the water-recycling unit. A series of translucent white tanks lined one wall with only enough space around each tank for repair access. Light fibers above them created complex shadows. The dusty tank next to me gurgled softly, and the damp air smelled of the must of bacteria eating the building’s waste.
Within that distraction, I switched off and then tried to reconnect to my feed, failed, and tried again. Instead, as if from far away, I heard a whistle being broadcast almost exactly on my own frequency. I tried to draw it closer but it was like trying to remember something I never really knew, something I had to learn anew rather than remember, until finally I heard it in full.
“I’ve got the tone.”
He switched another button on his transmitter box.
“Now I hear music.”
“Now follow it.” He slowly turned a dial.
I tried to follow, dragging my memory and attention like an anchor toward the music. I reached it and realized I was sweating and panting and swaying to its rhythm.
“Ah, you’re good. No one ever gets it that fast. Really. Rest a minute, then we’ll try again.”
After some deep breaths, I nodded. He turned the dial again.
Again I tried to move toward the sound. It was a little easier. But my head was pounding.
Each time I practiced, my head ached, but less than the last time. And each time, week after week, I tried to master another technical detail. Music let me tune in to other people’s feeds as well as my own because I used their reaction to music as a means to locate the feed. Feeds were broadcast from relatively few antennae, something every- one had been taught but few understood consciously. The recipients’ actions, such as moving to music, offered clues to determine exactly which feed from which antenna they were receiving, but there might be other clues to identify their feed. I wanted to see how far I could go. With a hood pulled forward to hide my face, I followed a language professor with a lazy teaching style and a weak vocabulary. I didn’t know where he was headed, but like most people he doubtless relied on his feed rather than really knowing where he was. He paused to check the way at every cross street—yes, he was using his feed. I began searching for it.
Before he reached the next corner, patiently waiting since even petty offenses like jaywalking were monitored and prohibited, I had found the antenna and feed for his visual overlay. The right direction to reach his destination would be marked green, and the wrong way would be red. I concentrated and reversed the colors the same way that if you stare at something, then close your eyes, you see it in reverse. I sent that as a preferred feed—or at least I tried to do that. Everyone could send and receive on their own frequency, and with the training I’d received, I could send on other frequencies as well. For geolocation he might receive messages from several sources, but one would have consolidated the others and become the preferred message. The process wasn’t secret, but only technicians needed to know how the wavelengths reinforced each other. I had learned it, or so I hoped.
He reached the corner and turned left instead of continuing forward as he should have. He had seen what I wanted him to see, not what he should have seen.
I sat down on a bench to rest as sweat dripped between my breasts. I no longer got blinding headaches, instead merely bad ones, and I felt as if I had sprinted three hundred meters. More than that, I felt triumphant. Hopeful.
This subversive skill might somehow help me escape, if I ever got the chance.
In the aisles of the Institute of English Studies library, a librarian stopped me. She was old, businesslike, and seemed to notice everything. Her gray hair was pulled back and tied, and she wore plain, simple clothing, as if she could afford nothing more, and perhaps she couldn’t if she had been abandoned by her family to the wages of a mere academic assistant.
“Do you know about Pax?” she said. “That colony, the one that sent a few messages back to Earth in the 2280s? They’re going to send a task force to see if they can find it.”
“Now, after so long?”
“Bureaucracies move slowly. Anyway, they’ll need a linguist, and with your history background, you’d be good. If you want to go, that is. It’s a long trip and you’d lose everyone you know. But things might be different when you get back.” She didn’t need to say what those things were, especially for women, or that few interstellar explorations needed linguists.
That might have been enough, but if I left, I could also escape NVA. I answered with less emotion than I felt. “I might want to go.”
She used a feed to show me the task force proposal, and it hung in front of my eyes and glowed with my own excitement. The colony lay fifty-eight light-years from Earth, and that far away, someone could live free and independent.
“Let me think about it.” I could go to Mars or to this place called Pax. Either would do.
“Of course. If you decide yes, I’ll get a professor to give you a good recommendation. A lot of professors owe me.”
I did some research. I discovered that before the colonists had left, they had written a Constitution in ornate Classic English that devoted its bulk to matters of governance, but its “Article II: Principles and Purposes” declared plainly: “The Commonwealth declares and affirms its special responsibility to promote the full and equal participation of all its citizens in its activities and endeavors without regard to race, species, color, sex, disability, wealth or poverty, affectional or sexual orientation, age, national origin, or creed.”
My family granted permission for my application without comment and agreed to pay for lodging and food in the least expensive women’s dormitory in Old Washington Dee Cee. A fine recommendation got me accepted, although in truth few people sought to leave the planet on a mission so dangerous it approached suicide. But suicide had its attractions.
I was down in the musty basement again. For helping me develop illegal mental skills, my “teacher” was going to want his payment, but he didn’t know how much I had practiced on my own. And there was only one thing a man without a wife would want from a woman, something he probably would have considered as subversive to the system as his lessons, and therefore as liberating, but it would have left me less free.
His eyes flicked on something in his enhanced vision as he fiddled with his transmitter box again. I located it, a feed from a different, more distant transmitter. He was watching the entrances to the building. I had worried about discovery, too, worried enough to have fully imagined it. I interrupted his feed with my own version of reality.
“Halt, police!” a voice commanded in his head. The feeds showed a blur of motion at one of the entrances.
He jumped to his feet, eyes wild. He looked at the box, then at me. I was evidence.
“Get out! Get out now!” he shouted at me. “The back way, take the back way!” He shoved me at a staircase. I heard him smashing the box as I ran. I never heard from him, or about him, again.
People trust what they see. They trust the system that sends them these visions even though it is as fragile as the paper in ancient books—because they have never read those books. They know nothing about their own environment. They trust it the way people once trusted the food they ate.
In Old Washington Dee Cee, a few days before the announcement of who would go to Pax, Shani was swinging her arms and moving her feet to a feed of dance exercise music in a corner of the patio of our dormitory. At a nearby table, I pretended to be studying something in my own feed, but instead I watched her shadow. I was sitting between her and the antenna. I scanned for her music, tuned in, listened, thought of another song I had stored in my own feed, substituted it as if it were part of the exercise plan, and sent it.
She interpreted the change as a programmed alteration of her routine. Now her feet moved to my rhythm. She raised her arms over her head and swung them from side to side as her hips swayed the opposite way. The music shifted to a refrain, and she bent and turned, her legs spread wide to maintain her balance as she draped her arms ever wider, front and back, left and right, with the grace of a bird navigating air currents. I glanced and saw her smiling wide: she loved to dance. She bent her knees and turned, swayed forward, stepped, and turned again, her hips making wide arcs.
I turned away and slowed the music slightly, and her shadow moved from side to side at my command, one two three four left right . . .
I continued until the headache made my eyes water. Or maybe I was weeping—for her or for me? For inflicting harm on my best friend or for proving that I was NVA, determined and cruel? I had to be prepared in case she won the chance to go to Pax. I only needed to injure her enough so that she couldn’t go. And if I failed, Mars still beckoned.
Several hours after the team to go to Pax had been named, on a warm spring afternoon, women working on the project had come to our favorite place in the green ruins of Washington for a happy-sad goodbye. Some would fly to another planet and some would stay behind. We all shared the bond of inequality and, beyond that, like the men, the burden of a system that decided our families, our work, and as much as it could our thoughts. I would have never doubted that the world was as it should have been had I not been able to see the world as it once was, and everything I had learned had left me with one horrible choice.
The men who ran the Earth wanted a monster, and they created one. To survive, I had to do something abhorrent.
“Karola,” one of my co-workers said, “since you’re staying, maybe you can join this other project.”
“What is it?” I tried to look attentive.
“It’s about artificial photosynthesis. We’ll need help understanding old research, and for communications.”
Shani was elsewhere talking with a trio of women, all of whom would be leaving. As usual, they chatted by feed while they wandered separately through the ruins and its overgrown cliffs and ravines.
“Photosynthesis for food or for energy?” I asked.
“Both. It’s a big project. Complicated. And long-term. . . .”
Shani was out of sight, but I found her feed easily. She and the others were discussing ways to coordinate their work. She was too involved with that to notice her visual overlay beyond avoiding dangers marked in red, and when she looked up at a singing bird, I switched the colors.
“The project is going to go to Mars,” my co-worker told me.
Shani was in immediate danger, and I wished I could know exactly how much so I could control it, make it no worse than it needed to be. I wished I could do something besides hurt her. Then I understood what I had just heard.
“Right, I knew you’d be interested.”
The wind made the yellow daffodils sway. Maybe I wouldn’t have to hurt Shani.
My co-worker continued: “Earth and Mars are at war.”
I twisted my ring. “They have been for a long time.”
Of course Earth would win. I looked down at my feet because everything inside me was collapsing. I struggled to maintain the color change for Shani and twisted my ring until the band bit into my flesh. No matter what happened, no matter what Pax was like, I could never come back to Earth or Mars. There was nowhere else to go.
Shani was surrounded by wild beauty, walking toward a wide and very bright green line on the ground, and then, a sudden shift in her visual feed spun into darkness.
What had I done?
My co-worker said: “. . . and it will need to capture every kind of radiant energy—Oh!”
An alarm sounded across all feeds and showed us where the trouble was. Everyone rushed toward her.
I was already weeping. I located her medical readout and it showed extremes, all of them wrong.
Copyright © 2019 by Sue Burke
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