[this is the second part. scroll down for the first if you have not already read it.]
Message in a bottle
Let me tell you what the thunder said.
When I was younger, my mother told me of Earth, but she called it La Terre.
She told me what thunder was. She told me about the mousson rains that would come to Pondicherry in the hot months.
She told me how the mousson began to fail more and more. She told me of cities swollen with refugees, of blue-helmeted soldiers handing out rations and water. She watched from behind the blast walls of the embassy, her own father rolling cigarettes nervously.
She told me of the dry thunder, when the rains did not come and the crops did not grow. She told me that whole cities could sometimes be destroyed in the blink of an eye. She would recite their names sometimes, like a prayer. Mombasa. Seoul. Jerusalem.
I’ve never seen a city with my own eyes. So many people all together! A pale blue ceiling that was infinitely high, swallowing up these huge glass buildings. The vision was unreal to me.
For her, this was the promise of Cybele. A world where war was unknown. A world where would be safe. She passed black beads between her fingers as she spoke. Justice for our lost children. Justice for my daughters. God, how could you let such crimes into the world?
We would sit together, after school-shift. She would read old poems to me and we would watch nature documentaries. There was this old man with a beautiful, clipped accent who narrated them. I used to think this was the voice of god, before father told me that god did not exist.
He ran his rough, scarred hands over the computer interface, and a human brain appeared. He pointed to a little spot in the temporal lobe. That was where god lived, he said. He could induce god with an electromagnet. Where he came from, rapture was a commodity. They gave it to people to convince them to blow up buildings and kill soldiers.
“Omar…” my mother cautioned him.
They argued through the whole night shift and we ate breakfast in silence. Later, after school-shift, we read poems and everything was normal. We watched a documentary about squid. Father was joking that we’d meet one on Cybele and it would try to eat us. Mother pointed out that he was a human medical doctor and didn’t know anything about alien squid. That was her field.
The narrator was a younger man with an accent almost like mother’s. I don’t recall what that sounds like anymore.
There was a girl in my secondary class named Li. She wanted to be a botanist more than anything, and it was incredible when you got her talking about plants. Her passion was intoxicating. She loved to sit in the oxygen gardens and meditate, and I loved to sit with her.
She was scared of the sky and how cold and black it was. She preferred the luminescence of the forest, and even when the lights dimmed there were algae that pulsed blue in the darkness.
We fell in love. We would walk together down the corridors of the medial drum, the broad sloping path that had always made my father so uneasy. A year later, we petitioned for our own communal living space and after a series of tests, we were granted it.
Father was too old fashioned to accept us, but he was a relic of a bygone era, a doctor in a world where machines could perform medical analysis with increasingly better accuracy. His scars, mother said, were the testimony of a world we had left behind. Still, he came in the end, standing statuesque in the back of the small crowd. He still loved me.
Not long after my wedding, he told me that he spent his last day on Earth at a hospital in Amman. He described to me a picture I could never have imagined. “Never forget.” He told me. “Never forget what we are capable of.”
I never have.
When my father passed away, it was a surprise. He’d always been a survivor, from growing up on the streets of Haifa to now. The stroke that took him was sudden, immediate, and utterly random. By the time I had reached his quarters, it was far too late.
He and his belongings were mostly recycled. The constructs and attendants were picking over the relics of the past. They left little room for sentiment. He had brought a book with him, a beautifully bound text on human anatomy that was scanned, memorized, and then recycled. His clothes vanished before my eyes and soon the room was empty and silent. The interfaces where mother had showed me all those documentaries, the bedroom where Li and I had first made love. All of that was erased and sanitized.
I hated the constructs then, even if I understood. Images were cheap – but tangible reality was expensive.
Our world had strict tolerances. Waste was impermissible. On Earth they burned bodies or sealed them in metal cases where they did not biodegrade for decades or centuries. On Earth the air you breathe never emptied. The ocean was omnipresent, always rising.
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Let me tell you about my home.
You gave me all my memories of Terre. Let me give you one of the future.
Looking wheelward from the engine, tethered to the exterior in perfect weightless harmony with the ship’s momentum, the whole vessel seems so small and precious – a child to be protected and nurtured. Or a skyscraper, fragile delicate glass rising impossibly against the elements. A monument to be cherished.
I will protect it, whatever the cost may be.
Where my father healed people, I heal our home. I follow its latticework conduits and make the repairs that will make our journey possible. I have always felt comfortable out here. So many of us do not.
When I return around lightdown, Li is always animated, torn between concern and joy. Some night-shifts she cradles me in her arms, whispering my name like mother’s prayers. Other night-shifts she is excited. “Renée!” She bounds forward and grabs me bodily. “Renée you won’t believe what happened at work! We fixed the mold!” She humors me in her stories because I’ve never understood her plants, let alone her discussions of genehacking and mold on the aestivum.
This is what I fell in love with all those years ago.
Still other nights, Li tells me about the seedbanks and the gene vaults, entire silos of resources that will not be opened until we arrive on Cybele. She tells me about the safeguards and reinforced walls. The vault is the closest thing to holy on this side of the vacuum.
With the tools and materials inside we could recreate all the living things on Earth, and yet its door is locked until our arrival. Sometimes, when no-one is looking she stares at it and imagines what it would be like to have the door slide slowly open and pure possibilities to spill forth. She always described the miracles inside. I know she would give anything to get inside.
I try to remind her that this dream is impossible. We have our own miracle to care for.
Now, sitting on the brink of a new cycle, writing these words, I place Li’s hand on my belly, where the slight swell is just beginning to become noticeable. Our children will be the middle generation.
It was always an unspoken assumption that we would bring new life into the world. It was always our duty to perpetuate this story.
But the actuality of it is different. I can’t avoid being overawed and terrified at this responsibility, at the fact that the future has crept up some medical instrument and into me.
Then I remember my father’s words, the images of those last days in Amman that I can see clear as day. I have never told Li what he said that day, nor will I tell my children. I can spare them those images. I can spare them Pondicherry in the dry season. I can spare them Mombasa, Seoul, Jerusalem. I can keep for them the beautiful things.
Shantih shantih shantih