“Elegy for the Green Earthrise” by Joanne Rixon
The frogs died first. Not just the picturesque frogs in far-distant rainforests, but the small green and brown tree frogs I remembered from the muddy summers of my childhood. The Willamette Valley was humid and fertile and so terribly quiet that June. If I’d thought about it at all, I would have thought that the crickets would take up the slack, multiply in a world with fewer predators and make a racket with the joy of it. But they didn’t, and the long summer nights were silent as a cathedral, the fresh-leaved trees tall and straight and dark like mourners gathered around a grave.
The newspapers were bustling with sex scandals and war in Central Asia, but every so often there was a small headline tucked away in a corner: FROGS GOING EXTINCT? SCIENTISTS BAFFLED.
I barely noticed. I was too busy being diagnosed with melanoma, Stage IV. The doctors said: the cancer has metastasized to your lymph nodes and your liver. The biopsy shows mutations in an unusual gene, so the standard treatment is unlikely to be effective in your case. Our best estimate? Four months.
I got a second opinion, then a third. None of them had anything different to say. The tests were clear. I was thirty-seven, and I was a dead woman.
The diagnosis rang in my head like the peal of a glass bell, sharp and sweet. It was worst when I woke up, hours before Eun-mi’s alarm, too starving to wring out every last drop of life to sleep more than a few hours at a time. Every morning after the surgery, I stood naked in front of the full-length mirror in our bedroom and twisted to look at the stitches in my lower back, dark and brutal, surrounded by ugly purple and yellow bruises. This is my death, I told myself. I’m looking at my death with my own eyes.
I’m a materials physicist. I believe in matter and energy, precise mathematics and repeatable experimental results; I’ve never believed in the soul. I knew I was only an arrangement of flesh: wide hips, soft shoulders – hungry tumors. Death by cancer is a strange thing to understand.
Dealing with Eun-mi’s grief on top of my own was difficult. For three days after my diagnosis, she refused to talk about it. She got dressed in the morning with more care than I’d ever seen, like her bones were cracked and she had to bandage them with the crisp lines of her woolen suits, the careful fold of a neon pink pocket square, her short hair styled sleek and black in a point at the nape of her neck.
She worked twelve hour days for three days straight and then on the third day she came home with half a dozen clear plastic baggies filled with dried leaves and twigs. I wrinkled my nose at the musty, herbal smell; I could almost see the bent old man in the city who had mixed them together with blessings in his mother tongue.
“Marissa,” Eun-mi said. “You have an appointment for moxibustion tomorrow morning.” She leaned over my shoulder and tucked a slip of paper with a time and address on it into my pocket. “It’s like acupuncture. My grandmother swears by it.”
Eun-mi’s grandmother lived in Gwangju, South Korea, and I’d never met her. As far as I knew, she hadn’t spoken to Eun-mi since Eun-mi came out to her family the day she graduated from college. I knew she was a hard woman, and I didn’t like the thought of the kind of groveling Eun-mi must have had to do to enlist her help.
I couldn’t read the handwritten labels on the bags. “Song hwang cha ee da,” Eun-mi said. Her voice sounded different when she spoke the language of her childhood, like for a moment she was a person I’d never met. “It’s medicinal tea. Harvard did a study on it and…” she sighed. “My grandmother says it’s good for your skin. I’ll make you some.”
That evening, I felt like my tiny black stitches were holding together more than just those inches of skin. If I moved too suddenly or stretched in the wrong direction I would fall apart entirely. All I wanted was to lay gingerly on my side on the couch, watch something with a happy ending, and eat salt-and-vinegar potato chips, but Eun-mi insisted on baking me sweet potatoes with kale and turmeric and too much garlic. “They have anti-carcinogenic properties,” she said.
“So do these,” I said and shook an orange pill bottle at her. “I know you don’t believe in that alternative medicine crap – just come here and eat chips with me?”
Some people, when they’re about to cry, their face looks like they’re melting. Eun-mi just got harder, more solid. “Fine,” she said, but she turned away abruptly.
I spent ten minutes feeling irrationally angry that she was crying in the bedroom. I was the one who’d had surgery, I was the one who was sick, who was dying. I knew my anger was selfish and unfair, but I was stripped down to the bone. I barely had the strength to take care of myself; I couldn’t take care of her too. But then she came back out, her eyes only a little red. She smiled at me, and made me some tea, and sat on the floor next to the couch so we could both reach the bag of chips, and I knew I was forgiven.
When I let the tea get cold in the mug, she narrowed her eyes at me until I drank it anyway. It was disgusting.
I never really thought of Eun-mi as the love of my life. I’m a serial monogamist; I know that about myself. I loved her, but I never really expected her to be my last lover. Clearly she was going to be, though. We’d spent two years together, easy like no other relationship I’d ever had. That didn’t mean she’d signed up to watch me die. I wished I was strong enough to spare her, but I didn’t know how to stay alive and I wasn’t brave enough to leave her. Every time I walked back into a waiting room and saw her briskly typing emails into her phone, looking to anyone else like she wasn’t terrified, I knew I needed her with me.
The summer got hotter; my stitches came out and my test results came back and I was still dying. On the Fourth of July, Eun-mi pulled lawn chairs around to the front of the house and we sat in the swelter of the evening watching the teenagers down the hill set off fireworks. Down the road, two little girls were lighting strings of bumblebee fireworks that kept threatening to shoot off into the tall grass and burn the neighborhood down. I hadn’t seen a live bumblebee in years.
A crash filled the sky with pale blue sparks, and Eun-mi elbowed me. “I’m forwarding you an email,” she said, tilting the screen of her phone so I could see. “My web designer did some consulting for these guys when they were just a startup and he says they might be able to help you out.”
I peered at the screen. The Singularity Foundation, it said, along with a phone number and a geometric logo. I raised an eyebrow at her. “Funny name for an oncology group.”
“They’re not exactly oncologists, more like… experimental bioengineers. Sandra Espinosa, who runs the place, has this project – I want you to check it out, OK?”
I nodded; I knew if I didn’t make an appointment, Eun-mi would eventually make one for me. Fireworks flashed across the yard like dry lightning, and I inched my fingers into her palm until she put her phone away and twined her fingers with mine.
The lobby at The Singularity Foundation was bland and brown and furnished with those waiting room chairs – the ones with the hard, flat backs and thin metal arms that no one can sit in comfortably. I hated those chairs. The receptionist was on the phone. Each time she said “mhm” or “yeah,” she nodded and a few more strands of her silky black hair slipped out of the clasp at the back of her neck.
She smiled when I said, “Hi, I’m Marissa Werner,” pushed her glasses up her nose, and handed over a clipboard stacked with forms. I wandered over to a chair and sat gingerly. The gaping hole in my body where the largest tumors used to be was mostly healed, but sitting or bending over too quickly pulled painfully on the fragile new skin.
The paperwork they wanted me to fill out was mostly new-patient formalities and medical history. I didn’t know why they cared where I got my degrees, but I wrote it down anyway: UC Davis for my Bachelors of Science, and UT Austin for my Ph.D. in Physics. I’d finished my Ph.D. when I was twenty-nine. I’d thought I was looking forward to decades of work in a field I loved. Now here I was, barely eight years later, dying before I got any closer to my dream job than working in a product safety testing lab. I should have partied harder in college.
Something welled up in me at that thought, an emotion so physical it threatened to choke me. I didn’t want to cry in public, but I couldn’t throttle it down. It wasn’t until the sound burst out my mouth that I realized it was laughter.
I set the clipboard down on the seat next to me and refused to look at it any more. The waiting room was windowless and stuffy, with a trim television bolted to one wall. It was stuck on a local news channel, but anything was better than the inside of my head.
“–as you can see behind me, the beaches are nearly covered with jellyfish. Cleanup crews have been out in force since early this morning, but as soon as they clear a space, more wash up.” The reporter’s hair whipped around her head uncontrollably. The wind was churning the waves behind her; the camera highlighted small, dark shapes bobbing in the water. The ticker underneath her image was just as stormy: 7.2 EARTHQUAKE IN CHILE: 245 CONFIRMED DEAD, THOUSANDS MISSING * 5 CHILDREN SWEPT OUT TO SEA AS HURRICANE JOYCE ROCKS FLORIDA * GUSTS UP TO 220 MPH LEAVE MILLIONS WITHOUT POWER.
“Christa Valenzuela is reporting from the Coast Guard emergency response team’s temporary headquarters at Point Reyes National Seashore. Christa?”
The picture switched to a nearly identical beach: gray clouds, crashing waves carrying countless gray blobs to shore and depositing them on pale sand. The only difference was the stack of cliffs that marked the beach as edging the Pacific instead of the Gulf.
“Beaches all along the California coastline, and as far north as Canada, are also reporting massive amounts of jellyfish washing up on the shore. Coast Guard scientists say the creatures are dying before they reach the shore, but contact with dead jellyfish can still cause stings, and many beaches remain closed.”
The picture changed again, this time to footage of a boat that looked familiar from the hazy hours I’d spent watching reality shows after the surgery. Men in bright slickers pulled nets onto the deck.
“Do the experts know why this is happening?”
“No, Adrian. The scientists I’ve spoken with are hesitant to guess. A die-off of this magnitude is unprecedented, and they all agree that more data is needed before they can determine its cause.”
“How does this compare to other events they’ve seen?”
“Like I said, this is unprecedented. For one thing, it’s happening worldwide, and to dozens of different species at once. For another, the scale of it, according to one scientist I spoke with, is geological. We may be witnessing the extinction of many of these species–”
The door next to the reception desk swung open and I muted the television. The woman who stepped through the door matched the pictures of Dr. Espinosa I’d seen online: a solidly built African-American woman with a soft jawline. The articles she’d published were more impressive than she looked, with titles like “Artificial neural networks: Improved learning algorithms,” and “Methods of memory recovery in patients with prefrontal cortex injuries.”
Espinosa smiled politely and held out her hand. “You must be Dr. Werner.”
“You got my email?” I braced myself for something saccharine that I would have to pretend made me feel better.
She surprised me, though. “I’m sorry for your impending loss.” She looked me in the eye the way so many people didn’t seem able to do anymore. “I’m hopeful that my team might be in a position to make that loss less total. And I’ll be frank, your educational background makes you exactly the kind of candidate we’ve been looking for.”
Her selfishness was refreshing, and I found myself feeling oddly reassured.
Espinosa waved me toward the still-open door. “Why don’t I give you the tour?”
Four hours later, I was impressed. I’d known she was on the cutting edge of neuroscience, I just hadn’t realized quite what that meant. She’d started with an explanation that seemed calibrated for eking funding from bureaucrats, but the more questions I asked, the more detailed her answers got. Eventually she just handed me a sheaf of data and let me sit down with it until I felt like I knew what I was seeing. It wasn’t my field – software engineering never really interested me – but I couldn’t see any holes to pick in the design.
That didn’t mean I believed in the project, though. “You really think you can transfer everything that makes someone who they are onto a hard drive?”
She smiled. “I know it sounds far-fetched, but with the right tools, like the ultra-high-contrast brain scanner we developed specifically for this project and the Dou processor prototype one of my postdocs practically smuggled out of Taipei, yeah, I do. It’s taken me years to develop the necessary hardware and software. The technique that makes it possible is incredibly complex, but it’s sound. We’ve got NASA’s backing.” She waved a hand at the table, where leaves of paper were scattered. “And while we haven’t gotten a whole, perfect copy yet, our results are getting better every time we try. If you agree to be a part of the next phase of our project, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll more or less live forever.”
I looked down at my hands folded on the table. “I can’t even imagine what that would be like. To exist inside a machine that other people could turn on and off. To not be able to feel or taste or smell anything ever again.”
Espinosa nodded. “I can show you the hardware. It has a built-in battery that will last more than three hundred fifty years without recharging, so you’ll be less vulnerable than you’re thinking. As for not having a body… I have no idea what that would be like,” she admitted. “But you’re a scientist. Don’t you want to find out?”
I absently chewed my lip. Could I bear to say goodbye for the rest of eternity to the smell of Eun-mi’s skin, the way her ragged-bitten fingernails caught in my hair when I lay with my head in her lap? What if something went wrong? Would Espinosa just delete me – the copy of me – and start over with another candidate, leaving me dead forever? What if the weirdness of it was torturous, worse than being dead? What if the project succeeded, and Espinosa decided to celebrate by making a dozen, or a million duplicates of me – a Marissa for every home in America? I didn’t think I’d be able to stop her if I wasn’t a human anymore. Did I really want to be immortal? Was I really stupid enough to think that an identical copy of me would still be me?
Did I really think she could make it work?
“Feel free to ask me anything,” Dr. Espinosa said, leaning back and deliberately opening up her posture. She was a good saleswoman; I could see how she got to be the leader of this project. “I’m more than happy to talk about this project for hours. It’s my baby.”
I shook my head. It was pointless to ask; whatever the answers were, my decision wasn’t going to change. I wanted to live. “No, I’m good,” I said. “Sign me up.”
Daniel’s hands were gentle on my scalp as he placed the electrodes. While the drugs for treating my cancer didn’t destroy my hair, I was still shaving my head twice a week. It was either that or walk around with spots shaved into my ponytail. Being bald felt less ridiculous. My little sister Caroline had offered to shave her head in solidarity, but I hated the idea of her having to grow out her hair for months and months after I was dead. Instead, I bargained her down to just knitting me a hat. It was too hot to wear it, of course. It was still August.
“All right, we’re all set,” Daniel said, patting me on the arm well above the IV drip and using the foot pedal to recline the chair. The lights in the room were dim, and the lamp on his desk was obscured by his hips, casting a golden halo around his purple scrubs. Dr. Daniel Tremblay was my favorite person at the Singularity Foundation, from his friendly, clay-brown hands to his ambiguous accent, Haiti-via-Montreal. He was as intellectually invested as the rest of them – and with his M.D. in neurology he was more than qualified to be running the scanning procedures – but he always seemed more personally interested in me than the others did. While Espinosa called me Dr. Werner, Daniel called me Marissa.
“We’re going to work on capturing significant events in late childhood today,” he said. The cocktail of nootropics and stimulants was working its way into my blood, and I was already starting to feel like I was floating above my body. “Close your eyes and try to recall the summer you were thirteen.”
I closed my eyes obediently, but the rich purple of his scrubs remained vivid behind my eyelids. My mind was racing now, light and detached. There was nothing to keep me from making connections between the smallest details in the present and things in the past I thought I’d forgotten. I thought about Daniel’s purple scrubs, and the gardening magazine in the Foundation waiting room that mourned the way whole families of flowering plants – daylilies and hibiscus, clematis and hydrangea and scarlet rocket – had failed to produce flowers this summer. Suddenly, I was standing in the sunlight.
“This is Erin’s yard,” I said. Vocalization wasn’t necessary for the scan to work, but as Daniel kept telling me, it improved recall, and the recordings would be used to reconstruct my voice later on. “She was my best friend in junior high.”
The summer in my memory glowed. I looked down at my bare feet, tanned nut-brown and scratched, and dug my toes into the too-long grass. The flower bed full of daisies and dahlias was hazy off to my right, and over to the left stood the apple tree and the raspberry bushes that Erin and I were constantly eating the fruit from before they were ripe. They were delicious even when they were sour.
The smell of lavender was heavy in the air, and I could still taste the lemonade we’d just finished. I remembered this afternoon – this moment – in particular; we were lying together in the hammock in the shade of the apple tree, giggling about Jake Bernthal and the girls in our class who wanted to date him even though his ears stuck out and he always lost at tether ball. When we finished our lemonade, Erin went inside to refill our glasses with ice to ward off the heat, leaving me alone in the yard.
I heard the screen door rattling open, and Erin’s dog Bitty came tumbling around the corner on his giant paws. I could smell the river-water, summer-sweat stench of his fur when he jumped on me.
“Down, Bitty! Get down!” Erin came around the corner of the house after him, and he ignored her completely like he always did. One enthusiastic lunge put him in reach of my face, and he swiped my chin with his tongue.
“You’re so gross,” I told him affectionately, and pushed him away. He staggered sideways into the bed of flowers, crushing dahlias with his wagging tail. Crimson and magenta petals scattered, and the green smell of crushed leaves mingled with the smell of Erin’s hair when she jostled her shoulder against mine.
I smiled, remembering. After that we’d climbed back into the hammock, tucked away from the world just the two of us. Erin had bitten her lip and looked at her toes when she asked, “Do you ever wonder what it’s like, kissing? I mean, do you want to try it out and see?”
Two months later, Erin’s mom got a job in Pennsylvania and they moved away. After she left, things stopped being easy, but that day was one of the best of my life.
One morning in late September, I woke up just as the sky was beginning to pale and let myself avoid the mirror in my bedroom. Looking or not looking wasn’t going to make a difference, but still every day I studied myself, catalogued the lines on my skin and the veins shooting red through my eyes. I’d started to suspect, sometime in the middle of September, that the whites of my eyes were turning yellow. Jaundice would certainly explain the fatigue and dizziness, the way I couldn’t think sometimes, couldn’t understand the words people said to me. It would explain the way my skin itched like fire from the moment I woke up. My symptoms could be liver failure, or the anti-cancer drugs, or Espinosa’s drugs, or they could be all in my head, so I made myself look in the mirror. But that morning there wasn’t yet enough light.
Instead, I wrapped myself up in my quilt and tottered down the stairs to the window seat that overlooked the field where years ago our neighbors had kept a horse. The sun rose in a miasma of pink and gold.
Every species of bird I’d ever learned the name of, and many I hadn’t, were huddled together on branches and telephone wires, leaning into each other’s shoulders in one giant flock. They were supposed to be flying south, the news had said so. The southern migration was supposed to have started almost a month ago. They weren’t flying, though. The birds were all staying put, feathers fluffed up against the misty dawn. Many of them were refusing to eat. They were just waiting, like they knew something we humans didn’t know, something that meant it was time to stay still.
I felt like I should be perched in a tree too. I kept telling myself that there was nothing to be sad about, that there would be a few difficult weeks and then I wasn’t going to be sick like this anymore, not ever again. This wasn’t dying; this was only my last days in a body. That morning, though, I felt how I was certain the birds felt. I felt like there was something cold and slow in me, dragging at my bones, and I wanted to huddle my face into a crowd of living creatures.
I wanted to turn my back on the cold air and close my eyes and whisper, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m still here.”
On October 28th, the butterflies began to swarm. It was the second to last day of brain scans. Technically we’d already finished my entire brain profile, but Espinosa wanted auxiliaries and backups and reinforcing buttresses, and I wasn’t going to argue. The meta-structure was complete; the mind created from the scans would be me by any metric. But I wasn’t willing to give up a single snippet of memory if I didn’t have to. We were going to keep scanning my head until the very end, until I was too sick to leave the house.
The butterflies shouldn’t have been out that late in the year. It was impossible. They only come out in full force in late spring or early summer, I’d known that since I was a kid. They need the heat and the fresh green growth that comes after a torrential summer rain. The rain we’d been having was cold and gray and stripped the brown leaves off the trees. We’d had half a dozen mornings with frost on the ground already. Still, when the weather broke and we had two days that were bright and clear, the butterflies came.
It was like a decade’s worth of butterflies had hatched all at once. They filled the air in thick orange and yellow and white clouds, and coated every surface that was even close to horizontal. Great fluttering masses of color clung to the bushes that lined the sidewalk outside the Singularity Foundation. When I walked from the parking lot toward the building, leaning heavily on my utilitarian gray walker, Eun-mi’s hand was gentle on my shoulder and their bodies crunched under our feet.
The first day of the swarm was crystal clear, but the second day I was out of focus, like a dream or like the memory of a night when I was very drunk. I wasn’t drunk, of course, or high. I wasn’t on any medications at all anymore. I felt thin and hollowed out. I felt like if I held my hands up to the sun I would see the light shining through them like rice paper.
We spent only three hours in the recording room, a bucket tucked next to my chair in case I needed to vomit. We went slowly over my stray memories of a class I’d taken as an undergraduate, Lives and Deaths of Stars. That and an intro course were the only astronomy course I’d taken in my whole academic career, and it was important that the information be solidly rooted in my mechanical soul. NASA was going to want a return on their investment.
I just wasn’t up to it, though, and Daniel could tell. I kept losing focus, even with the stimulants in my veins that made me shiver and shake. He stopped my stuttering about nebulae and slid the IV out of my arm. He patted my shoulder and kissed my forehead like a mother might kiss a sick child. “It’s time,” he said, and reached to turn off the machines.
“Dr. Werner?” The voice was almost familiar. “Marissa, can you hear me?”
I could hear just fine, although the sounds I was hearing were strangely flat and textureless. What I couldn’t do was see anything at all, or speak or move. I couldn’t – I couldn’t feel my own body. I couldn’t tell which way was up, I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t breathe couldn’tbreathecouldn’t–
“Marissa? Your systems are coming online right now. The visual input is going to take a minute to boot up and calibrate, but you should be able to hear me, so I’m just going to keep talking.” I could – that voice was familiar. Whose voice was it? Why weren’t they helping me?
“The audio input system is a little more basic than the visual right now. Once we’ve got you up and seeing and talking, we’ll be able to upgrade your sound pickup. Right now, well, you’ve got one all-purpose microphone, so if it sounds flat, sorry. It’s a trade-off between complexity and ease of processing, and we wanted to make sure you didn’t wake up without a connection to the outside world. Last time–” the voice broke off. Was that Espinosa? What last time?
“All right, there we go.” There were sudden sparks in my eyes. Not in my eyes. I was seeing but it wasn’t like seeing. It was like – the sparks coalesced into coherent images: the lab deep in the Singularity Foundation building, Espinosa standing in front of me and Daniel and the postdocs crowded around us. Even Steph, the receptionist, was lurking in the corner by the coffee maker, nervously worrying at a strand of her hair. Being able to see the room was a relief.
I was awake. No, I was booted up. I was a piece of software. The only software installed on several million dollars’ worth of sharper-than-cutting-edge hardware, but still. I didn’t need to breathe. I couldn’t even feel my lungs struggling.
“OK, the cameras are online.” The voice hadn’t stopped telling me things I already knew. It was Espinosa, I was sure. I’d never heard her sound so casually friendly, and the pitch of her voice was off, but it was her.
“It’ll be a minute before you’re fully awake. You might be feeling disoriented right now, but that should pass once you’re one hundred percent online. We have two small cameras set up precisely the same distance apart as your old eyes, to replicate the binary vision you’re used to.”
I knew that. We’d gone over the tech specs a dozen times over the past three months. I could take those cameras apart and label each piece if I wanted to.
“We can upgrade them later, of course, and add more if you want to experiment. That’ll be later, though, once you’ve settled in. We want to make this transition as easy on you as possible.”
She was talking to keep me distracted, I realized. It was helping, a little. I was no longer panicking at my lack of lungs. It was an unpleasant sensation, to be so still, but…
Thinking about it only made the panic start to rise again, so I forced myself to look around the room. There were no windows this deep in the building, and the room was crowded, but if I focused on the coffee maker in the farthest corner I felt less claustrophobic. I wasn’t being crushed – I was fine. I was fine.
“Oh, I see you’ve worked out how to move the cameras!” Espinosa’s cheerfulness was starting to sound more genuine. “That’s fantastic. In just another few seconds, you’ll be able to tell us how everything looks and sounds. If you’re having trouble with focus or color right now, don’t worry about it. That’s all adjustable.”
More stuff I already knew and wasn’t worried about. The focus and color were fine, anyway. It was the sensation of seeing/not-seeing that bothered me, and I was already getting used to it. My vision was sharper than it had ever been. The way I was seeing everything at once, no divide between focus and peripheral vision, was strange, but I could adapt.
“Hi,” I said. “Good morning.”
My voice was all wrong, flat and randomly tonal and not my voice at all, and I knew as soon as I said it that it wasn’t morning. It was 15:48:17. The information fell into my mind, complete and just there. I was so startled by it that I missed the first bout of gasps and cheers and celebratory high fiving that burst out in the room.
It took me a second to locate Daniel, but there he was, waving at me and beaming. I automatically waved back, or tried to. But of course I couldn’t move, and I was hit with a surge of disorientation and fear so strong it was almost painful. An alarm beeped loudly somewhere nearby, and Espinosa leaned over me, blocking most of the room from view.
“All right, guys, clear the room.” Espinosa’s hand loomed large next to the side of my – not my head. Of my camera. The alarm shut off, and I could hear everyone but Espinosa shuffling out the door.
“You’ll have time to catch up with everyone later,” she said as she rolled a chair over and sat down. “Right now we have some function checklists to go through. Can you tell me the last thing you remember?”
After the first couple of days, I didn’t mind the loss of touch or smell. But proprioception and all the little motions a body makes even when still – losing those was bizarre. I felt constantly like I was floating, vaguely nauseous even without a stomach to vomit with. Of course it was all psychological. My balance was fine. My case sat flat on the table, perfectly solid on four little rubber feet.
There was another, more subtle wrongness in my new digital life. Espinosa kept me in the lab, disconnected from any outside system, for a month. Even after she was satisfied that my files were tidy and uncorrupted, she kept running tests. She told me the goal was to check the quality of my stored history, but when I asked why that meant I couldn’t call anyone, she clenched her jaw and changed the subject.
I’m not dumb. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I, now, was only one version of the thing created from my brain scans. There had been at least one other, less-successful version of me before I was woken up. I couldn’t help but wonder if this time, too, there wasn’t some deeply hidden flaw they just hadn’t found yet. Espinosa, Daniel, and the postdocs all relaxed incrementally as I passed their exams. Daniel smiled every time he came into the room where my hardware was set up, and I don’t think he would have if he thought I wasn’t the same woman he’d become friends with. But then, he’d only known the original me for a few months.
Maybe the flaw was subtle. I knew – I knew I was a half-step off. Privately, I kept a list of things that were different about me now, starting with “no longer have to breathe” and ending with “can’t remember losing the urge to talk with my hands.” The question was which miniscule change tipped the scale from me to not-me. Had I reached that point? I wasn’t sure. All I had was doubt.
Eventually Espinosa seemed satisfied by her tests. When they finally hooked me up to the internet, the first thing I saw was a news feed. ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS SUMMIT IN NEW YORK read the top headline, but what really shocked me was the date. It was several days past Christmas. I’d been dead for almost two months. There was almost a month of time before I’d woken up that was unaccounted for.
For a month I’d been itching to call my mom, or Caroline, or, more than anyone, Eun-mi. I couldn’t imagine what the last months had been like for her, watching me die but unable to let go of the hope that she might still have me, in some form, indefinitely. And then nothing for two months. God.
Maybe those unaccounted-for weeks were why, instead of dialing her number, the first thing I did when I got online was spend an hour watching news videos of the eruptions of Mt. Sinabug, in Indonesia, and Mt. Rainier, two and a half hours to the north of the Foundation lab. Once I talked to someone who really knew the old me, I would know for sure what I was. So instead I watched video after video of people shoveling ash off their cars with snow shovels.
When I finally worked up the nerve to call her, she didn’t pick up.
I told myself it was early afternoon, so she was probably in a meeting. Later that day, I called her again, and again. I knew it was still her number – her voice mail greeting was new but it was still her voice.
I listened to the greeting three times before I could leave a message, hoping to hear a hint of something, anything beyond bland professionalism. “Hey, it’s me. It’s Marissa. I–”
I didn’t have a throat to close up, but somehow I couldn’t continue speaking. Missing Eun-mi was the realest part of me, and I didn’t know what to do with silence. I knew she must be grieving, but I wished I knew why that meant she wouldn’t answer my calls.
A couple days later, I got my wheels. Espinosa had been holding off on hooking them up until she was satisfied that the design wouldn’t interfere with the rest of my software. But the robotics postdocs had finally produced a rover that she approved of. It looked like a cross between a crate full of cameras and microphones, a remote controlled buggy, and one of those grabby-hand arcade games that are rigged to never grip anything.
I looked at it and felt the robotics database pressing at my mind. Espinosa carefully explained the rover’s functions – this grabby-hand was apparently designed to actually grip things, complete with textured-rubber fingertips – but I just set my camera to record what she was saying so I could play it back later if I wanted to. I was pretty sure I could teach myself how to control it, and there was nothing she could tell me that could help me figure out how to live as a cobbled-together machine. I was the first, after all.
Portland in early January is always cold and gray, but of course I couldn’t feel the temperature. I could see Espinosa’s smile from inches away as she re-checked the rover’s camera. Steph had followed us out to the parking lot. She stood on the sidewalk and pulled her coat tight around herself, then gave me a thumbs up. I bobbed the camera up and down in the nod I’d perfected while my camera was the only part of me with any mobility, then flexed the claw-hand in a sort of wave. Espinosa smiled wider. Steph clapped her gloved hands together, and I took off to circle the lot.
By the time Steph’s cheeks were pink with cold, I’d figured out the exact speed needed to smoothly hop curbs. I spun a quick circle around the pair of them, then took off for the end of the parking lot in a sprint. I was having fun for the first time since I’d died. It didn’t occur to me until I was a couple dozen meters from the far end of the lot that my connection with the robot was reliant on the building’s wifi signal.
I couldn’t escape from the fact that I was tethered deep inside the lab. The further I got from the building, the stronger the sensation of double vision. I could see the inside of the lab, white walls with no windows layered over the input from the rover’s cameras.
When the connection with the robot flickered in and out, my sense of where I was flickered too. I was disconnected from anything solid, I was falling and had no hands to catch myself. I barely got the robot turned around and headed back toward the building before I lost contact and snapped back to the lab, blind, mind revving with falling panic. Sometimes I thought I was getting used to not being human, to not having a body, and then something happened to remind me all over again.
Espinosa showed up in my lab half an hour later, robot and a couple members of the robotics team in tow. If she was worried about what had happened, she gave no sign of it. I expected her to call off the test until she could make adjustments to the rover, but instead she rebooted it and set up the monitoring equipment next to my table.
“It’s cold out,” she said. “So let’s keep it inside the building for now.”
On my third lap through the halls, I passed a group of people loitering in the doorway to the break room. I didn’t stop, or even slow down, but my mics were a lot more sensitive than the first one they’d hooked me up with, and I caught a chunk of their conversation.
“–correlation between those algal die-offs and the blight in the Rockies.”
“No way Espinosa is going to divert resources on the Department of Interior’s say-so. They’re not the ones funding this place.”
“Yeah, but did you see that guy? He looked like he was living on caffeine pills and whatever he could shake out of vending machines. Geologists don’t usually get that stressed out, y’know?”
“My old roommate – she works over in Hawaii on this top secret government thing – she says there’s some seriously heavy shit going on over there, all kinds of generals and admirals coming and going at all hours. So, I dunno, man, maybe we should–”
Then I whipped around a corner and couldn’t hear them anymore. By the time I downloaded a password cracker, put it to work, and broke into the security system computers so I could access the CCTVs in the hallways, their conversation was over and they were back at their desks.
I stayed hooked into the security system. It was interesting, and as far as I could tell, no one was aware that I’d cracked open all the computers connected to the lab’s network. That makes it sound like I was going Skynet, but I wasn’t. I was just curious, and worried. I wanted to know what no one would tell me about the world outside.
My timing was excellent. I’d been browsing through the security feeds for only a couple of hours when I noticed a tall black man striding toward the labs. Across the building, I saw Espinosa glance at her phone, excuse herself from the daily staff meeting, and head toward us. By the time the man was outside my door, Espinosa was turning the corner and exchanging the annoyance on her face for a friendly smile.
“Dr. Werner, I’d like you to meet Carl Lunsford, the administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration Directorate. Mr. Lunsford, this is Marissa Werner.” Espinosa waved a hand in the direction of my hard drive case. I was already in the habit of viewing spaces from several angles simultaneously as the cameras in the room allowed, but that was maybe the first inkling I had that I no longer considered my hard drive to be the location of my self – Espinosa gestured, and it took me a second to realize it was me she was pointing at.
Lunsford glanced over at me, then returned his gaze to Dr. Espinosa. “I’ve been hearing great things about your AI program, Sandra. I’d like to run it through its paces.”
“Of course.” She paused. “AI is a bit of a misnomer, you know, since it implies an intelligence that was created from scratch. Dr. Werner is what we’ve been calling a transferred intelligence.”
Lunsford smiled dismissively; I wished intensely that I still had facial expressions so I could convey exactly what I thought of his attitude. “I’m interested in its capabilities, not the terminology.”
The interview wasn’t much different than the cognition functionality testing Espinosa’s crew had run me through a million times already, but there was an undercurrent to his questions. He was tense, maybe even desperate. I wasn’t surprised by the low-voiced argument I eavesdropped on afterword in Espinosa’s office.
“Get it hooked up with our project files,” Lunsford said. His tone of voice sounded like he was used to be being obeyed. “The next unmanned Heritage shuttle launch is in two weeks, and I want your AI to be on it.”
“She’s supposed to have training. Extensive training.” Espinosa wasn’t happy. “We barely got her wired into the basic rover yesterday – she’s not ready. She’s not supposed to be deployed for another eighteen months.”
Lunsford looked out Espinosa’s office window, toward the winter-naked trees that flanked the river. I could see the trees, but from that angle I couldn’t see his face. “The ecologists at Berkeley revised their models. We got the latest estimates yesterday. It’s classified, but I’ll tell you anyway: we might not have eighteen months. We might not have eighteen weeks. We don’t have time to restart the manned space program, but your AI is going up.”
Nighttime was when it was most difficult to quiet my anxiety. There was almost always someone in the building, but in the dim hours between midnight and six AM, it was easy to start wondering who I was without my body, without a single one of the atoms that made up the old Marissa. I missed my jaundiced, deadly human skin. When the lights were dim and the only person I could see was the night maintenance man, I missed sleeping with an ache that would never really be an ache, ever again.
I’d known since before I died that NASA had a claim on me, but Lunsford’s coming into the lab and deciding my fate without even telling me – that pissed me off. I hated knowing that there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Anger was better than fear, though. Especially when I didn’t know exactly what I was afraid of. Maybe I was a ghost, but I wasn’t so self-centered that I didn’t know that it wasn’t just me. The whole world was in shadow.
I spent the night after I met Lunsford wondering if my fear and anger were proof that I was still a person. When Steph came in early the next morning, I was glad for the distraction. There was a security camera in the corner of the ceiling behind her desk, so I could snoop over her shoulder as she worked, and another that looked out over the waiting room. I didn’t have any speakers, so I couldn’t talk to her, but I still felt better with company.
She hung up her coat and a chunky air-filtration mask. It was stained gray in the middle where dirty air must have been sucked in by her inhalations. I hadn’t seen anything on the internet about the volcano releasing any more ash or gasses, but maybe the wind was coming strongly out of the north this morning.
I was browsing social media sites for information about our local air quality but Steph distracted me when she settled in her chair and turned on the waiting room television.
“–spokesman for the WHO on the Indian subcontinent. India’s Ministry of Home Affairs declared a state of emergency in all cities in the country with a population over fifty thousand, and the Red Cross is gathering medical supplies to send with their teams into the affected areas. For now, the rest of Asia appears to be safe, but if winds shift–”
Steph turned the TV off abruptly and sat with her hand on the remote, not moving, for a long moment. Then she let out a breath and moved to turn her computer on.
I skipped away from that security camera, restless and worried and unable to do anything about it. I tick-tick-ticked through all the cameras in the building, once and then twice, then jumped to the morning headlines for a few seconds, just long enough to read: AID GROUPS TAKE EMERGENCY STEPS. QUARANTINE ON INDIA-PAKISTAN BORDER. CHINA BANS TRAVEL TO THE SUBCONTINENT. AIR QUALITY FEARS SPARK RIOTS.
I closed down my channel to the internet, then opened it again immediately to try calling Eun-mi. I knew by now that she wasn’t going to pick up, but I just really needed to hear her voice. Her fifteen second voice mail greeting wasn’t enough, but it was all I had.
To my surprise, the call connected on the second ring.
Her voice was so familiar, so human and warm. For a second I couldn’t think of how to reply.
“Hello? Is that you, Marissa?”
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s me. It’s – God, it’s really good to hear your voice.”
“I–” A sharp intake of breath. I could count the times I’d seen Eun-mi cry on one hand, even at the end, even surrounded by dead butterflies. She was on the verge of crying now, though. I could hear the roughness in her voice. “I really need you to stop calling me.”
“Eun-mi, I don’t–”
“Listen, I’m really glad that you’re you, that you exist. That you’re like you are. I’m really glad, and I want you to be happy, but I need you to stop calling me. I thought I could do this thing where you’re dead and alive at the same time but I can’t.”
There is a feeling like weeping that isn’t a feeling. It isn’t the gathering of tears in your sinuses and the trough of your eyelids, it isn’t that pain deep in your chest. It’s colder than that. A drowning feeling.
“I understand.” I didn’t understand but I knew I should be trying to. “I love you.”
They bundled me onto the shuttle two weeks later, and then I was in the air, the ship shaking like it was all coming apart. The engines roared until I passed through the atmosphere, and then went soundless. The shuttle was empty of air and my microphones weren’t able to pick up the vibrations I knew were still shivering through the metal skin of the spaceship. I had no ears and my audio feeds were, from this point on, going to be useless, and when the ship crested the curve of the Earth I felt for the first time since I died that I was dreaming.
It’s spring now in the Northern Hemisphere, or it ought to be. There should be green all over the globe that hangs like a jewel in my window. I say window but I mean the camera array on the surface high above the shielded archive at Moon Base One, of course. It should be spring; it’s April, but the leaves don’t sprout anymore and the only colors I see are the vivid blue of sterile ocean and the browns of the continents.
The water cycle continues, I know that much. White and gray clouds overlay the blue, and I get transmissions from solar-powered weather outposts on the ground, temperature and wind speed and inches of rain automatically measured. They tell me the same things I can see with my own eyes. Violent storms drown the coasts. Drought bakes the mountains and plains. Erosion and mudslides are stripping every surface bare.
One of the things I didn’t anticipate about being disembodied is that I never forget anything anymore. I can delete things, sure. But nothing is ever really gone, not unless I make a deliberate effort – and even that is never complete. My programming ensures I always have a record of the things I’ve deleted. There’s not much difference between the memory of Eun-mi telling me not to call her and the memory of deleting the memory of Eun-mi telling me not to call. I still know that, in the end, she thought of me as the ghost of someone she used to love.
I guess it’s fair. We all do what we have to do to survive as long as we can in the place where we are. So I still think of her as though she’s alive somewhere. I imagine her settling into being a business owner, making enough money to renovate our bathroom with that sea-green tile she always ran her fingers over when she flipped through design magazines. Drinking white wine with her clients at three o’clock on a Thursday, manicured fingers curling around the stem of the glass; drinking Scotch late on a Friday night with Helen and Sasha and Ann, all of them so beautiful it’s almost painful.
I think of her that way, even though I can see the Earth and the way the smoke curls up and obscures half of Australia behind a dense gray smudge. I can see the flat brown plains that used to be ecosystems, the storms that thrash whole continents, the way there is nothing living on the surface anymore.
I’m here alone with NASA’s best attempt at preserving all of human knowledge, history and science and culture: I have a library, crates of artifacts, and dozens of rovers of all types. They’re not much for company, but I’ve learned to program and repair them, and myself, as necessary. There’s a seed bank on the lowest level, climate controlled and shielded against cosmic radiation; I don’t know who might plant them someday, or where. This base won’t last forever, but maybe I’ll last long enough.
Soon it will be summer again, and quiet. The last of the automated radio shows broadcasting the voices of the dead out into the void ran down three weeks ago, and there’s no green anywhere. But I know that even when it’s no longer possible to go on, something does go on. After all, I’m here.
I’m still here.
About the Author
Joanne Rixon lives in an undisclosed location with a rescue Chihuahua named after a dinosaur; neither can be trusted not to bite a person on first introduction. This is Jo’s first published story.