11550 words, novelette
A Gaze of Faces
I was sixteen when the viz came. The spiral went crazy for a while, shooting, soldiers at the corners. But then, like everyone knows, it went back to normal.
By twenty I was looking for ghosts in the vaults. I’m not the youngest to have gone into the vaults; there was a girl a few years ago, like twelve years old or something.
Maybe not the youngest, and maybe not the best, but I’ve brought a lot of ghosts back from the vaults. Close to fifty.
Which is what Ginz reminds me of when he’s trying to get me to do something.
“Fifty ghosts, Irvine. Or is it more?”
“But the quality. The ghosts you’ve brought back have taught us more about Origin Earth than the ghosts that any other five vault divers have brought back, I’d say.”
“What is it you want, Ginz?”
He smiles and cocks his head. A pack of cigarettes is the ubiquitous six inches from his left hand. He grabs.
“Care for one?”
I shake my head, and after the click of the lighter, an infant storm cloud is hovering around Ginz’s pristine face. Only his eyes betray the way he lives. They’re angry, infected pits beneath his smooth forehead.
“I want you to take someone in,” he says.
My thoughts flash. There are only a few interns. Not Emmy, he can’t mean her.
He reads me through the smoke and nods.
“She’s a kid, Ginz. What is she?”
He sips from a coffee cup and exhales a whiskey reek.
“She tests high. And she’s interned with us for three years. She’s going in, with or without you.”
I shrug. This is another thing about Ginz: his flattery, properly speaking, isn’t persuasion. Orders always follow his compliments.
“It won’t be so bad. There are sightings of a ghost pretty shallow, looks like a simple walk-it-home job. I sent the details.”
Ginz sets his cigarette down and his eyes clear.
“How old were you when the viz came?”
He smiles and shakes his head.
“Perfect. Go in tomorrow.”
You don’t go into the vaults, they go into you. The technology was probably old when we arrived, and probably still exists on Origin Earth in some form. No doubt their vaults make ours look bad. We’re a hundred years removed from landing.
Back then, the first colonists called the vaults the library. It was their history. Anyone could use the immersion couches and slip into the program of Origin Earth’s past. It was both education and history for the people in the spiral, and everyone lived happily ever after in the beautiful spiral, so it goes, so happily that they just lost interest in the library, and only a select few care anymore.
What they tell you when you start as a vault diver, though, is that it didn’t happen that way. Sixty years ago the library was education and history and eventually became brighter, for most people, than the real life of the spiral. There aren’t that many immersion couches, and people fought over them, and formed up gangs with names vaguely familiar to any diver: The Mongol Madmen, Black Belt Laser Throat Slicers, Werewolf Supernovas, The Blood Drinking George Washingtons. They take a little history from the virtual world of the library, add a few words to scare people, and predictably, war broke out between the gangs, all of them trying to control the library.
The Vault Divers—it was a gang name then, not the profession it is now—won.
Vault divers were mostly historians. That’s what they tell you, and they didn’t want to use the library for distraction—or even studying history. They were obsessed with studying the library to learn more about Origin Earth, finding the bits of the program that revealed its makers, and if we studied them enough, might tell us more about why we were here in the spiral.
They were seekers of truth, is what we tell ourselves, and so we are seekers of truth too, finding ghosts and examining them. And no one else, those descendants of the gangs that wanted the library just for themselves, gets to go in anymore. Just after we won all those years ago we renamed the library the vaults, and that’s how we treat them. Vault divers will tell you that it’s for the best; if your average citizen of the spiral could go in, it would all happen again: they’d never want to leave, and they’d fight to stay, and here we are, just animals fighting over something pretty.
The brightest, the most curious, maybe the ones who hate the spiral so much it’s impossible not to seek the lit cracks—that’s me, I guess—become vault divers. I’m not sure what Emmy is yet. Curious; afraid; tired of the darkness of the spiral: There’s only so many reasons to dive.
I meet her outside the controller’s office. She’s dressed up, but in a way that seems casual—a clean, ironed shirt, loose pants. She’d be nervous. She’d have heard horrors and glories about the vaults since she was a baby. And she’d have developed her own theories as she interned for us, cataloguing the reports that vault divers like me brought back. She’s probably even met some of the ghosts we brought back.
She says hi and I ignore her. In the controller’s office they pull the dustcovers off of the couches. Lights dance beneath the translucent surface of each couch, and I settle in, closing my eyes as I do. I suppose Emmy does the same. The controller doesn’t say a thing as he kicks up the sensory interface. He knows that none of us like small talk, and then the construct pours all around me.
Emmy and I are standing in a bare brown room.
“What do you think?” It’s the first thing I have said to her.
“Somehow I didn’t picture it this way.”
“This is the load space. The controller is checking to see if we’re tuned in.”
Her eyes are shining. A blemish near her nostril is swollen and pink. It must hurt. Funny that I hadn’t noticed it outside when I was actually in her presence.
“Where are we going?” she asks.
I gesture and the information that Ginz sent springs up.
“Vault fifty. It’s pretty shallow.”
“Fifty is one of the culture vaults, right?”
“Subcultures. Newest subculture to oldest—the deeper we go, the older.”
“How far back does it go?”
I raise my eyebrows: She knows this as well as I do.
“Fifty thousand years. This vault links to the larger culture ones, and has sims all the way back to Neolithic burial mounds.”
I look at the search terms that Ginz included with the brief. Before I can say them I check with Emmy.
“Twenty one forty five, Welk Island, East Coast of North America.”
The plain construct disappears. We are standing on a shore. Hills above us are covered in cinder block structures on long plastic legs. Holo ads flicker between them. Behind us cold seawater drags pebbles back and forth.
Knowing that Emmy will start asking questions, I begin up the hill. She follows. We find a path right away. The Welk Island kids must sneak down to the water at night; the path here is well-worn, but there’s a wooden staircase a quarter mile down the beach, the kind of thing the adults would use. Once we’re in the town we’re walking between empty structures. It’s quiet, only the wind and the distant water.
Emmy grunts behind me. She’s looking into one of the houses, and there are figures inside it now, and paragraphs of glowing text floating away from the structure, explaining the people inside. They’ll be slaver gangs if I remember correctly, having shown up with stolen weapons after the collapse of central authority in Washington somewhere near 2140. They were like Vikings with machine guns, and sold whole towns to their neighbors for all kinds of awful things. Flashing images elaborate the floating paragraphs.
“Don’t look at it,” I say. “The vault reads your look as curiosity.”
“I am curious.”
“Then go study postwar flesh economies. We’re here to get a ghost.”
We walk past the end of the street and amble up a trail. The trail leads up into very green hills and over fields of windblown grass. Finally the grass recedes and bare stone hills appear, and after cresting them we descend down into valleys choked with jagged black rocks. And then back up again. Finally, after walking most of the day, we see a small wooden cabin centered in a prairie.
“Sit,” I say.
Emmy does, and I sit next to her. I watch the cabin, and think about what might be inside. This brings to mind the worst ghosts I’ve ever seen. A man, no skin and no eyes, sockets packed with ash, teeth grinding until they crack, standing in the corner of a butcher shop. He was the third I brought in.
I know Emmy’s wondering, but she doesn’t say a word, so I say it for her.
“You hear bad things, but they’re pretty rare. Usually ghosts are just boring.”
“So why are we sitting up here just watching?”
“I want it to see us first.” I gesture to the grassy ridge we were on, in silhouette against the gray sky. “Ghosts are weird. Sometimes if you surprise them they act out. Run or fight.”
Emmy forces a laugh. “But they can’t hurt us.”
“No. We’re in the vaults. None of this is real.”
That isn’t entirely true, of course. If you are attacked by a ghost you can’t be hurt, but the connection between the vault software and your limbic system could be damaged. It could leave ragged edges. That’s why some of the vault old timers have weird coughs or wear diapers.
Emmy raises her fingertips to her face and brushes her lips. It’s endearing.
“You haven’t gotten your viz yet.”
“Are you worried?”
“Why would I be?”
Fingers move, she brushes her lip again. She is worried, and she is looking at me out of the corner of her eye, as if she can tell something about me and my own viz just by looking.
Far below, the door of the cabin opens, and a face appears for a moment.
“There he is,” I say.
We stand up and make our way down to the cabin. By the time we get there swollen raindrops are pattering the bare stones around us. Emmy looks at me.
“Do we knock?”
The door opens just as my knuckles make contact. Seeing the ghost Emmy gasps, but tries to swallow the sound even as she makes it. The man who opens the door is large and hunched over, his head near the rough-hewn rafters. His skin is shiny like the crust forming over an active infection.
“Mind if we have a seat?” I ask.
The ghost looks at me earnestly, then creeps its large body backward carefully. At last it eases into one of the wooden chairs. A pad of paper is in front of the chair, a single circle scribbled onto it enough to shred the paper.
“The third wave of settlers to Welk Island were slaver gangs from neighboring seasteads. Did you see them when you passed through the village?”
The ghost looked at both of us closely, its long face glistening.
“We’re fine,” I say.
“Slaver gangs are known to punish recalcitrant members by forcibly copulating with them. The resulting children are sold to the seasteads.”
“They sound unpleasant,” I say.
“Not as unpleasant as the second wave settlers were. They . . . ”
“Listen,” I say. “There’s someone you have to meet.”
The ghost’s eyes shift back and forth between Emmy and I.
“The slaver gangs?”
“No. Someone not on Welk Island.”
The ghost’s eyelids stretch as if trying to contain its eyeballs.
“Not on, Welk Island, you say? Are they from the seasteads?”
“Not there either.”
The ghost stares and then stands up. A moment later Emmy and I are leading the ghost back up the hill, and tepid, heavy raindrops are falling on its mottled skin.
You sometimes hear the old vault divers say that they have trouble knowing if they’re in a vault or in the real world. They’re full of shit. The spiral stinks. The vaults don’t. It’s that simple: If it reeks, it’s real.
Back in the stink, Emmy and I walk up the spiral. It’s early evening. Someone is shouting and the sound echoes through the rough metallic surfaces. The sound of water dripping is everywhere.
“We’ll start interviewing it tomorrow,” I say.
“What do you think?”
“The ghosts you find in culture vaults are usually pretty simple information oversight programs. When they loaded the vaults they put these programs into be, sort of, librarians.”
“Then why do they look like that?”
“Some imperfection grandfathered in. Over the years it grew, degrading the program’s appearance. Most of the ghosts are what they are because they have a limited ability to evolve, and some trace of their programmer’s personality was accidentally left in them. Our job is to treat them like historical artifacts.”
I hear Ginz’s voice. It’s ringing up a dark street, part of the spiral that I walk every day and hate each time. It’s abandoned here, dank, dangerous. Ginz’s voice is all vowels. Drunk.
“Which way are you going?” I ask.
Thankfully she points away from Ginz’s voice.
“I’ll walk you,” I say.
Emmy’s neighborhood is lined in makeshift garbage torches. People lie collapsed here and there, wet, filthy, and scrawny except for their pristine faces. They look as young as Emmy, some of them, except better—their smooth cheeks have an inner glow, a smoothness that I still, after all these years, am not used to.
Ginz is still shouting behind us, far down some dark avenue, so I try to make conversation.
“What got you into vault diving?”
She shrugs like she doesn’t want to say.
We pass another block of structures. To our left people are huddled around a small fire, and they look at us as we pass, their faces flickering with light like magical ovals.
I don’t like it.
And here’s why: I hear a foot scuff lightly on the corner ten feet behind us, as if in quickening step, and I turn. The foot is connected to a skinny, hard-looking man and he’s running at us, arm raised. I turn and catch the arm and thrust him against the wall. Up close he stinks and is strong and rolls me and now he has me against the wall and the raised arm is jabbing something sharp at me. It catches my left elbow and stings and in reflex I throw a short punch. It catches the man in the throat and he stumbles and I follow so he can’t recover, punching at him, hitting his skull, his ear, hurting my hands more than I hurt him, but it distracts him, and I hear his weapon hit the ground. I pick it up quick while he’s stumbling and swing wide. I don’t even know what I’m holding until it cuts into his face—it’s a piece of jagged metal—and opens him, cheekbone to chin. His hands come to his face, so I stab at his forehead, his temples, and when he covers those, I slice his cheeks again. The metal is good for it. Blood pours, and the thin man turns, stumbles, and runs.
I turn and look at Emmy. She’s watching the people who had been around the fire. They’re closer now, in a half-circle.
I hold up the piece of metal and point it at the closest one.
“Back up. You aren’t getting shit.”
We keep walking, me looking over my shoulder, and finally when we round a corner, at my hands, which are spotted in blood.
“You know him?”
“He’s at that corner all the time. I think he knows I work in the vaults.”
I shake my head. What some people think about the vaults—that we vault divers are rich, or get extra food rations. It’s beyond me.
Emmy’s house is another block down. It must’ve been abandoned by the owner. She’s living in it alone. She has the place organized, though. Stacks of neatly-folded clothes, a row of books along the wall. They’re warped and swollen. She must’ve found them on the street.
“Sit,” she says, pointing at the floor, so I do. She sits opposite me.
“Can I touch?” she asks.
It makes me uncomfortable, but I can’t really say why.
“Where are your parents?”
“I haven’t seen them in three years.”
“All right. Touch.”
Why not, I think. It’s harmless. It’s not even me.
Emmy comes up on her knees and leans closer. Her fingers brush my face, down over my brow to my chin, and then over the tender skin beneath my eyes.
“Does it hurt?” she asks.
“Yes. Badly, but not for long.”
Emmy draws her hand back and involuntarily wipes her fingers on her pant leg.
“I don’t want it.”
“So? A viz will come either way. Maybe there’s one in the house already.”
Having grown up in this part of the spiral, Emmy’s a hard girl, so she doesn’t flinch when I say it. But something changes. I know that I should comfort her, tell her some reassuring version of the truth, remind her that it’s something everyone goes through, and we all turned out OK, right?
But just now I can’t. I feel shaky from the fight and mad at Emmy for no reason I can name.
“Meet me at the vaults tomorrow,” I say, and walk out of the room.
Before I go home, though, I stand across the street from Emmy’s house, watching her draw fabric across the empty windows, and I tell myself I’m standing there to make sure she is safe.
For some vault divers, the clichés are true—we’d rather live in the past; Origin Earth holds an odd pull on us; we’re uncomfortable around the living.
Those all fit me, but I first wanted to be a vault diver because I knew I’d learn more about Origin Earth. When I was about ten I remember my teacher giving us The Dead Planet lesson. That’s what we are on, a rock called V0-563. There isn’t so much as a drop of liquid water on the surface; it is a frozen rock. This was before the viz came, of course. They count as a life-form. Which makes me wonder if in school these days there’s a Face Parasite lesson as well as a Dead Planet one.
Back then, she went on telling us just how frozen VO-563 is, and just how dead. Fifty years of expeditions hadn’t found anything on the planet’s surface: flat, dead, and frozen until the miles curve back on themselves; now, of course, we don’t even bother going out. We have no idea or record of why our ship was sent here, or idea of what it is our colony was supposed to do. Were our ancestors fleeing something? If they were, none of them wrote it down or talked about it, and although there are famous blank spots in the vault’s record—one a hundred years in, most notably—they don’t tell us much.
I’ve spent so much time in the vaults, in so many historic periods, in so many places, that it’s hard not to feel like I’m from Origin Earth, and that the spiral, and the people in it, are the dream. At moments like that, something like a viz falls away from my mind, revealing the mess of what I really think: the spiral is filled with animals all looking to fight and fuck and birth and do it again before dying. People barely even talk about the viz, unless they are Emmy’s age, and soon to receive theirs. The rest of us forget the agony, forget that the beautiful thing we look at in the mirror isn’t really our face. We forget that we are from somewhere else and we don’t know why we’re here, in this pit.
So this is how it seems to me: They’re not clichés. Any person with a heart would rather live in the past. The vaults should hold an attraction for us. And if the living are the things walking around this dark spiral, can you blame me for wanting to be around the dead?
The next day, on my way into the vaults, I see Ginz turning up a side street. His clothes are stained and his hair hangs thin and filthy over his beautiful face. He’s hunching to light a cigarette, and grunts at me, and I know it means he wants me to stop and wait for him.
I do, and he blows smoke vertical and hits me on the shoulder.
“Yesterday,” he says.
“You mean how was it?”
“You met the ghost, right?”
Ginz doesn’t say anything, and we walk toward the vaults. I can see that his hand is trembling as he raises the cigarette to his lips.
“It was fine,” I say, knowing that he’s really asking me about the vaults, and not the man that tried to roll Emmy and me, or about Emmy’s fear of the viz, or her dark, little apartment. “The ghost we pulled wasn’t anything special. At least not that I can tell right now. We’ll see when we interrogate him.”
“Just some shallow dweller. Probably nothing to report.”
“Are you asking me?”
Ginz flicks his cigarette into the street and I follow it with my eyes. It’s nearly empty out right now, and the light strips along the roof of the spiral are crackling and popping into life. Following the trajectory that the cigarette would’ve taken if Ginz had flicked it harder, my eyes fell onto the thin man from last night. The wounds were almost invisible—just a slight indentation along his cheek, a couple subtle divots on his forehead where his viz had healed overnight.
He’s staring, and his eyes feel like match flames a little too close to my own eyes.
I wink at him, and he looks down, and walks down an alley.
“Keep me in the loop, yeah?” Ginz says. I can’t tell if he noticed the thin man, but in the exhausted state he is in, I doubt it.
“Morning,” a voice says behind me. It’s Emmy, and she smiles at me, and looks at Ginz with a half smile.
Inside the loading construct, the ghost is seated at one of the chairs, looking uncomfortable, too big for the room.
“So what do we do now?” I ask Emmy, testing.
“We interview the ghost.”
“To try and identify whether there are artifacts present in it.”
“Right. How good are you with the code?”
I haven’t seen Emmy do this before: She smiles and raises her palms like she can’t put how good she is into words.
“All right,” I say. “We’ll see.”
In the waiting room, Emmy and I take seats across from the ghost and Emmy erects her code splicer on the table in front of her. The ghost smiles.
“I remember you both,” it says.
“From Welk Island, right?”
“Yes,” it says to me. “You don’t strike me as Third Wave settlers. Are you visitors?”
“Yes, that’s what we are. Visitors.”
We start by analyzing the ghost’s appearance. To set it at ease I ask about Welk Island fauna. As it answers Emmy steps closer to it with a set of goggles pulled down over her eyes.
The ghost stops on trees: “ . . . Pine, largely—what is she doing?”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s her job.”
“Is she a doctor?”
The ghost watches Emmy scan her goggled eyes over its skin.
“Yes,” I say. “Go on about trees.”
The ghost does. First the trees that were catalogued on Welk Island when it was constructed off the coast of Maine. The fill Welk Island is built on consisted of the ruins of a city, the ghost says, although it doesn’t say which one or what happened to it.
Emmy continues her examination of the ghost as it talks and I watch her out of the corner of my eye. A blush appears on her cheek and she looks over her shoulder at me.
“Thanks,” I say to the ghost. “Can we finish this discussion after lunch?”
It nods and closes its eyes, as if it’s just going to sit there and rest.
Outside, Emmy opens her mouth but I hold a finger up and lead her down the hall and out into the courtyard. It’s empty and looks like it always has been—a black wrought iron fence surrounding a bare patch of concrete.
“Find something?” I ask.
The blush has met the edges of her lips and Emmy is still looking at me like she doesn’t know how to say what she wants to say.
“So what is it?”
“Sonic tremor. And evidence of patchworking.”
She nods her head and I shake mine.
“The rarity of those, Emmy. Each one is a thousand to one. Both is impossible.”
“You think I don’t know? Didn’t Ginz tell you what I did before he sent me into the vaults?”
I nod, because Ginz probably had told me, or at least posted it on a file or something. But I have no idea.
She can tell, too: “I was a full-time code analyst. I’ve seen every bit of sonic tremor and every patchwork that we have found in the last three years. I know it’s impossible, but still, it’s there.”
“Pull it and check it out.”
Emmy makes a face that means to me that she’d intended to pull it and check it out and hates that I suggested it, and then she disappears back into the building, and I’m standing in the little patio all by myself. In a moment Ginz appears, a smoke between his lips.
“Ghost give you anything?”
“Emmy thinks so.”
Ginz lights his smoke and puffs on it.
I shrug. “I’m already tired.”
Ginz smiles and immediately I regret saying that—he’s looking for an excuse to get away, and here it is.
“Reality, Gently Sharpened by Tragedy.”
“That’s where you’re going with me, and we’re gonna drink there, and you’re gonna tell your life story.”
“Shit, man. I can’t.”
Ginz does a slow motion shrug, like he knows it’s natural to struggle in the jaws of a larger, stronger animal, and also knows that it will fail.
“Where you got to go? Where does anybody got to go?”
Ten minutes later we are walking away from the vaults, leaving Emmy to analyze the interesting bits she had found in the code. Reality, Gently Sharpened by Tragedy is a spiral within the spiral: Through the front door, which is open but blocked by a large man, and down steps. The whole bar is steps. To the left on the descending spiral is the bar itself, which is steps too, at waist level. In a moment I’m standing next to Ginz, holding a cup of whiskey, and he is standing on the step above me, holding whiskey also, talking about something that is both uncertain and very sad. Ginz talks and drinks come and empty cups go and people pass by, walking down stairs, into the darkness.
“It’s all an abject, heartbreaking, hilarious tragedy.”
“You mean the . . . ?” I intentionally don’t finish the sentence so Ginz could finish it himself, but he sweeps his right hand in a sloppy arc, indicating that it is all a tragedy. The bar; the spiral; the vaults; humanity.
I open my mouth to agree with him, because in this state there is no argument against what he is saying, but then Ginz’s face turns to blood. Striated muscle and exposed eye sockets. Teeth rictused and still talking because they don’t know they are dead yet. Then his eyes snap away from mine and focus on something behind me and he falls forward into my arms, dead. I let him go straight onto the stairs, thudding down like so much meat, and I watch the edges of the translucence that covers his face begin to detach itself and crawl away into the dim light of Reality. The last thing he sees, I guess, is me standing over him.
The morning after Ginz dropped dead we’re all standing in the complex, and I am passing through groups of vault divers, people I know but rarely see, listening to them not express shock at Ginz’s death. As I walk bits of story attach themselves to me: Ginz hadn’t been sober in three years or slept in three months, he’d stabbed someone just up-spiral—ripped his viz to shreds. Of course he had a stroke: It’s a miracle he didn’t die sooner.
Vault divers stand around the complex, talking and waiting to meet the new boss, and I see Emmy near the edge of the group, looking uncomfortable. When I get to her she gives me something like a smile.
“You ok?” I ask.
“Yeah. Are you?”
A voice calls us to order. A man named Jayay is standing to one side. His expression says he is actively inhaling chemical fumes.
“OK, divers. Shame about Ginz, right? He was a good man who gave his life to the vaults. Have your moments of silence or raise a drink to him tonight.” He pauses. “In light of it, we’re shutting down for awhile. Doors closed. Don’t come in. God bless you,” he says, but his expression says curse you.
With that he excuses us, waves us all away, and walks back into the waiting room. Most of the divers just stand there, more shocked at being told their job just vanished than at Ginz stroking. There’s anger in the air suddenly, whispering, bodies start pressing.
“Let’s go,” I say to Emmy.
We get out of the crowd and move up spiral. It is dim around us but it’s still pretty early, and crowds of people line the streets, and on both sides of us are what passes for shops this deep—shattered windows, people sitting in dark structures, watching the foot traffic on the street.
“They’re saying that this new guy Jayay is part of something called The Mongol Madmen.”
“So what does that mean for us?”
“That means we be careful.”
Ginz had talked about this a few times. What if, he said, those other gangs didn’t die out sixty years ago? What if they went underground? Bullshit, I’d said, we’d know, and Ginz had smiled his tortured smile. Would we? He’d answered—would we really?
“Are you going to ask about the ghost we pulled out?”
“What about the ghost we pulled out?”
She starts talking and I look up the spiral. People sit on the windowsills, rough looking, every inch of skin except their vizs tattooed in thick tangles of images. A dozen beautiful, glowing faces looking at Emmy and I: They are Mongol Madmen too.
Emmy reaches up and takes my ear between her fingers and yanks. The Mongol Madmen along the street laugh.
“Would you listen to me?”
“Not here. Let’s go to my place.”
Emmy shrugs and we walk up spiral. After ten minutes or so the buildings start looking better. The windows are intact, at least. I can smell food cooking. There’s a park that takes up a whole chunk of the spiral. The trees are column-thick at the trunks, and stretch up into the darkness at the top of the tunnel, growing in knobby, hard drapes in all directions.
“You live up here?” Emmy asks.
“You will too when they hire you for real.”
The front door of my apartment is behind one of the massive trees, set in a cape of moss that thrives along this wall. I open it and lights turn up and I offer Emmy a seat.
“Something to drink?” I say.
Emmy nods her head.
“I’ve isolated the vibratory patterns,” she says. “It’s more than I’ve seen before.”
“So? How much?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a sentence or two.”
“What about the patching?”
“I don’t know yet. But this is more than I’ve ever seen, and once we feed it into the algorithm, it could really mean something.”
Emmy is looking at the walls of my apartment.
“What did it look like when Ginz died?” she asks, running her forefinger down the bridge of her nose.
“Just like they say. It went translucent just the second before he died.”
“And then it crawled away.”
“That’s what they do.”
Emmy watches the corners of the room, and I snatch her drink from the side table and finish it.
“Let’s go,” I say.
“Have you ever been to see the lander?”
She shakes her head.
“Never. Why would I go down there?”
I don’t answer, and lead her down stairs. The spiral is mostly concerned with itself at this hour, the neighborhoods to either side of us quiet as we walk down and down and finally past the vault complex, which is locked up and has a clot of Mongol Madmen loitering in front.
“Jayay’s people,” Emmy says.
The whiskey is warm in my chest and I can’t bring myself to pursue the subject of Jayay.
Instead, the lander:
“It’s something you hear about in school, but Emmy, in person it’s a totally different thing. The lander is half a kilometer long, as tall as the spiral, as wide. The front has blades, drills, grinders.”
She looks exhausted by my enthusiasm.
“Think about the ship arriving, the lander releasing, falling into the atmosphere. The people inside were from Origin Earth, Emmy. Our ancestors.”
There are tunnels, I keep on, inside the lander, that were once filled with liquid. The first colonists were immersed in it to cushion them when they hit the rock of Bright Tomorrows and the lander began to dig, making the shape that was most energy efficient for its purpose—a spiral, a place for the colonists to live while they set out exploring the planet and planning their cities.
“All this nostalgia is our problem,” Emmy says. “O the lander. O the ship. O Origin Earth. And the colonists? Geniuses. But here we are, only a hundred years later, still living in a pit. The lander a piece of junk. The ship gone.”
It strikes me as strange that Emmy should feel this way; she worked in the vaults, after all. She sees it on my face.
“I’m in love with the code, not the past,” she says.
“It’s the same thing.”
A hundred yards past the vault complex even the ruins of structures vanish, and we are walking through a vast stone tunnel on a gentle downgrade. Poles in the middle have lights strung between them. Emmy looks nervous as we walk.
“Don’t worry. No one comes down here.”
“You need to see this, Emmy. It’s history.”
We walk another kilometer in silence, down the lit path, and then the ceiling plunges away into darkness, as do the walls. We’re in a vast open space. The lights lead off into the darkness, and just beyond them, I can make out a massive shape.
Up close the lander is taller than any building in the spiral.
“It dug the whole spiral, and then hit this cave system here.”
The back of it is a maze of piping and cables. A staircase winds up to a door about thirty feet off of the stone floor.
“I do not want to go in that thing,” Emmy says.
There’s a handheld light hanging on the last light pole. It’s old—held at shoulder level, it mostly just blinds me to the darkness all around us—but there’s no way Emmy is going in that lander without light.
“You know what I said when Ginz said I should take you into the vaults?”
“I said I wouldn’t do it for anyone else. I see guts in you, I said. I’d do it because of that.”
Emmy stares up at the black bulk of the lander.
“That’s a blunt tool, Irvine.”
She takes the light from me and climbs the stairs. They’re solid even after all these years, not so much as a creak as we climb, and in a moment we’re standing at the mouth of the door. Emmy reaches her arm in. Light bathes a perfectly oval hallway. I pass her, taking the torch, and we go deeper inside, through intersections that spread off in five directions, off to the sides but up and down also, at angles it would be hard to walk.
“Are you going to be able to find your way out?” Emmy asks.
I raise the lantern to show her the symbols on the walls.
A few minutes later we emerge into a spherical control room, screens set all around the inside of it. The hallway opens into the side of the sphere, and a path has been worn through the dust by people sliding down the inside of the sphere over the years, and a similar path on the other side where they clamber up.
I slide and Emmy follows.
We make our way up the other side. The oval halls go on for miles, sometimes opening into grand galleries, sometimes plunging out of nowhere straight down, into darkness. The deeper in you go, the more cushioned you are from the distant noise of the spirals, tinny and unbodied because of the stone tunnel, and here, you can really feel Origin Earth. In the lander, we are with the colonists, with their hopes and fears, with their ambition all around us like a vast ghost. The fact that the lander has been stripped over the last hundred years is significant, also. We stripped our forefathers’ machines; we turned them into shop fronts and cobble; even the jagged piece of metal that man tried to stab me with was once part of the lander. Everything in the spiral was meant for something grand.
“And now look at it,” Emmy says, as if she can read my mind.
“How did you know what I was thinking?”
She waves her hand around the chamber we are in. It is covered on the inside with personnel pods of some sort; the ones within reach are stripped down to bolts.
“Like I said, Irvine, blunt tool.”
“All right,” I say, “one last thing.”
A hallway leads out of the chamber, and we follow it for a hundred meters, then run into something like a highway. We follow that around a bend, and there it is.
Across the breadth of the wall is a huge mural. The colors are magnificent, but muted under years of dust. It stretches up into the darkness.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it? There’s San Francisco, New York, Beijing, London. Karachi. After they landed, Emmy, and the ship drained out, they came back to paint their cities.”
Emmy wanders forward and I follow. The mural seems to do this, possess you with its size and splendor, as if it were, even more than the vaults, a doorway into the past.
“Irvine,” Emmy gasps.
I know, I begin to say, but she is pointing. A man is approaching us, his shoulders hunched up around his ears, his eyes dark.
I step forward, in front of Emmy.
Looking down, away from the mural, I can see three other men around the flicker of a fire. It’s shielded by scrap so the light can’t be seen from far away, and feet stretch away from the fire, splayed in a way that freezes my guts.
“Come on,” I whisper.
I hear Emmy moving. The man steps forward again.
“Don’t fucking move,” I shout, and the echo crashes in all directions.
“I know you,” the man yells back, “high spiral, vault diver. I know your face.”
I know him too—or at least what he is. He is covered with the blurry tattoos and ritual scars of a Mongol Madman.
We are out of the chamber, in the hallway, and running now. In a moment we are standing by the first of the light poles, looking up at the lander.
“They were eating somebody,” Emmy says.
“Try not to think about it.”
I touch Emmy’s elbow and lead her back up the lit path.
Back at my place, I invite Emmy in, have her sit, and go into the kitchen to get two glasses of water. As the tap hisses I think about the man in the darkness and oddly, so oddly, the fact that he said he knows me—not the murder, not the dab of blood I can remember now was on his lower lip—makes me want to kill him.
I step back into the room carrying the two glasses of water. I feel it like an itch—not something I know until it’s too late, and offering the glass to Emmy, looking at her grateful smile, which is so pure it seems to produce its own light, I realize that something is clinging to the edge of the table. Emmy leans, placing her hand flat in a kind of affect, and the thing moves. It’s on her hand and she screams. Her hand goes to her face and she realizes what it is and yanks it away but it’s already too late. A wet, loose shape is on her face. It is almost the color of her skin, but not quite, and now that it’s where it wants to be, the viz moves fast, stretching over her face before she can stop it.
She screams, seizes, slips off the couch.
I fall on top of Emmy, trying to figure out what to do. As she’s thrashing the viz’s color begins to go translucent and I can see her skin beneath is bubbling, her mouth open, her scream contained by the flesh of the viz. The skin beneath bursts. Blood pops taut against the underside of the viz. Her hands bang on the floor weakly, the muscles underneath the viz straining. Finally the viz goes opaque and slowly withdraws from her mouth and nostrils.
She sobs once, quietly.
“It’s hurts so much,” she whispers.
“I know it does,” I say, and sit next to her, taking her into my arms. “I know.”
Her face is close to what it was, but the viz won’t get it completely right for a week or so. You see teenagers walking around like this sometimes, with a brand new, doughy viz, empty-eyed. As an adult, you laugh about it, call them overly-dramatic. Their viz will learn to match them soon enough, and they’ll forget the pain, like everyone does.
But holding Emmy right now, all I can focus on is the fear in her eyes, the claustrophobia. The feeling that she is smothering.
“Come on,” I say, and lift her. We walk together to the couch and I help her lower herself. “Stay.”
I find a half bottle of whiskey and two glasses and I come back and sit across from her and pour.
“Drink this,” I say, and Emmy does. Either she does not mind the taste or the wince doesn’t make it through the viz. I drink my own quickly then pour Emmy another.
“Does it still hurt?”
That’s the viz learning your nerves, I think, connecting its thousand tiny mouths to your veins so it can feed.
“Try not to think about it.”
“That’s stupid advice, Irvine.”
“It sure is.”
“How old were you when your viz came?”
“They all came when I was sixteen.”
“You’re older than I thought.”
“The first thing I heard is that a man in one of the tunnels had been attacked. There was a thing on his face. Or was there? People swore he’d been attacked, but in the hospital he looked normal. Of course the viz had their plan. The day after the first attack there was something like four hundred more.”
“Three seventy five, all that night. All sleeping.”
I should’ve known Emmy would’ve studied the viz.
“Then the next day there was shooting. People running everywhere screaming about monsters. They tried to operate on a few people.”
“On one. He died.”
I pour Emmy another drink.
“Is the pain better?”
“Good. And the viz kept coming. Before long we all had one. It’s not so strange. We have parasites in our guts, right?”
“It’s not the same.”
“Drink,” I say, and pour myself another whiskey. “You’ll sleep well tonight.”
The viz will be linking itself to your thoughts, I think, the better to smile when you mean to smile, and all the rest—the better to look like you, so it can thrive. The first night a viz is on, it will run through expressions. Practicing. The person will be lying there asleep, smiling like a hero, then suddenly heartbroken, then curious, then astonished. It was one of the creepier things about a viz, probably because in those moments you couldn’t fool yourself—the viz had its own mind, its own will.
“A parade of glasses,” she says, holding up the whiskey glass, her consonants slurring gently.
“I like to come up with names for groups of things.”
“Don’t we all?”
“A complaint of Irvines.”
“A blaze of Emmys.”
She changes tacks:
“What did your parents do?”
“When the viz came?”
“There was a riot. People who hadn’t gotten their viz yet went after people who had. There was fighting in the streets. Murder.”
The sadness on her face looks real; her viz is working fast.
“They were killed? Irvine, I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”
“Well, Emmy, they were killing. My mother and father both. Chasing people down and burning them, is what I’ve been told. But once enough people got a viz, the rioters weren’t freedom fighters anymore, now they were criminals. Then they burned the criminals. I got my viz a week after they died.”
A long moment of silence passes between us. There is half a finger of whiskey left in Emmy’s glass. She is holding it against her leg, so relaxed it is almost falling from her fingers.
“I want to see our Welk Island friend again.”
“The Mongol Madmen,” I say. “What Jayay did, Emmy, that’s a takeover. You should get your head around it. The vaults don’t belong to us anymore. You might never see our ghost again.”
“I have a plan,” she says. “And you’re really going to hate it.”
The vault complex is deep spiral, and at night gets dangerous. People start at the bars and drift down. It’s why the vault complex has always had a fence twice as high as the tallest diver. But, good for us, drunks are dumb, so the fence really never had to be that good.
I walk the last half block to the vault complex, lean on a tree, and look back at Emmy. She’s covered in filthy rags and she stumbles toward me, around me, and collapses at the fence. I look up and down the block; there’s a group of Mongol Madmen at the front of the complex, laughing and slap-fighting, oblivious.
I jog over to Emmy.
She looks at me out of her pile of filthy rags and shrugs, like how did you know? I shrug back.
The hole is at the base of the fence, big enough for one of us to slide under. I can’t see anyone on the other side, so I point for Emmy, and gesture go. She flips over and crawls under, and I follow. In half a minute we’re past the dying trees and next to the vault complex, which is lit up like it’s a workday, but as far as I can tell, empty. We crouch behind the last tree before the complex. I start to whisper something to her—I’d say something about how there’s going to be a lot of bad people in the vault complex, and if we’re going to turn back, and that would be the smartest thing, we should do it now. But looking at her shining eyes I realize my heart is jackhammering. I’m smiling. I haven’t done anything that feels this good in a very long time.
I get up and run towards the complex, and she follows me. I pull myself over the courtyard fence, hear Emmy land behind me, then quietly open the courtyard door.
It’s quiet inside.
I wink at Emmy and she jogs down the hallway. We get to the loading construct room and I lie down on the couch and Emmy starts working the controls. The world around me shifts, and I’m standing next to a table, looking at the ghost.
“I remember you from Welk Island,” it says.
“Yes,” I answer, “you do. Can you stand up?”
I think I can see the program space around us shimmer for a second; that’s Emmy making a copy. The ghost stands there looking at me, and I’m looking back, and then the construct vanishes. Emmy is smiling.
“Got it,” she says. “Let’s go.”
I follow Emmy out of the construct room and down the hall. Close to the courtyard door I collide with someone. It’s a Sinker, and we’re tangled, and he’s holding me, just as surprised as I am.
“Run,” I say to Emmy, and grab two fistfuls of the man’s shirt. And to the man: “I’m a diver. I was just getting some things I left. No problem. I’ll go.”
He’s tense and his eyes are wild. I know if I let go of him he’ll attack, but if I hold him long enough other Mongol Madmen will come. This close to him I smell booze and fear.
“Hey! Hey! Hey!”
His arm flashes and something digs into my hip. He’s stabbed me, going for the guts, and missed. I thrust with all of my strength, slamming his head against the wall. His arms are everywhere, throwing punches, and I slam his head again, then again, and he collapses. I run and it hurts, and at the corner of the hallway get hit hard from the side. It’s another few Mongol Madmen come running to help their friend, and they’re all over me. We stumble and struggle and I pry myself away and we slam through the courtyard door and now they’re taking places around me, sizing me up, pulling out knives.
I almost trip on a rock and reach down, lift it, and fling it at the closest Madman. It lands dead center on his viz with a loud pop, whips his head back, and he drops to his knees. The other two pause long enough for me to stumble toward the fence, and then I’m up and over it. The Mongol Madmen scream and I run out into the darkness as fast as I can.
I make it to the trees, and there’s Emmy, smiling wildly. Laughing. She takes my arm and we run.
Reality, Gently Sharpened is filled with vault divers, shoulder to shoulder on the stairs. They’re passing glasses of whiskey over their heads to each other. It’s quiet.
I close the door at the very bottom of Reality, and turn to Emmy.
The ghost is next to her. Outside of the construct space, projected just by the slapped-together diver tech we could find in the bar, the ghost is pale and shaky, and blind without its feedback tech.
I open the door and the divers get quiet.
“Here it is,” I say.
The ghost steps out.
“We found it in a culture vault, on Welk Island. Pretty much the end of the vaults, almost contemporary to the time the ship was launched. It has a vibration in it. An intentional one.”
“Bullshit,” a voice growls from upstairs.
“It’s real. Checked and checked, by her.” I gesture to Emmy.
“A message?” someone says.
“What is it?
I read the paper that Emmy transcribed the message on: “‘If you’re seeing this, you are a researcher of the historical documents included with your colony ship. You likely have questions. It is my intention to provide answers.’”
The growl again: “So where the fuck’re the answers?”
“Welk Island,” I say, “where we found him.”
Dead quiet as they realize.
Some of the clichés are true: If you talk to your average citizen of the spirals, someone who lives mid-to-up spiral, where it’s pretty safe and the lights work, they’ll tell you vault divers are a rough crowd. They’re right. We’re risk takers—but not many of us are crazy. Not a single one of these people likes the idea of taking on the Madmen.
“I know,” I say, and let it hang. “I know The Mongol Madmen have taken over the vault complex and are willing to kill to keep us out. I also know that there’s a ghost with some truth, and that’s what we all signed up for.
“Her and I are going.”
I gesture to Emmy, who is standing next to the ghost, looking small. And beautiful: Her viz has fully taken root.
Her and I are going: This is its own argument, and for the men and women here, I’m hoping it means a lot. They all became divers and analysts for the reasons I did. They knew there was a whole world before, and whole worlds behind the vault doors, and although they could’ve lived a normal life and worked in a shop and drank with shopkeepers at the end of the day, instead they dove.
“They’ll kill us,” the man closest to me says.
“Yeah, they might.”
We plan the whole thing in Reality, Sharpened. The divers and analysts have been all over the vaults, from ancient times on Origin Earth to the most recent that we know about. If The Mongol Madmen have numbers and savagery, we have knowledge.
The next night, up from the vault complex, there’s an uproar. A crowd of vault divers is coming toward it. They’re drunk and loud, and shouting about truth, and breaking into fights with each other. The Mongol Madmen, who are arranged around the front of the vault complex, watch quietly. When the divers get close enough one of The Mongol Madmen gestures and a few of them run forward with buckets and fling liquid in a wide arc, soaking many of the divers. The divers sober up and try to run but already flaming bundles have been chucked after them. A few in the crowd burst into flames and stumble. A few stop to help and they burn too. Vizs flop off of burning bodies.
From the trees on the flank of the vault complex I don’t scream or curse like I want to at what The Mongol Madmen have done but sprint from the trees. Emmy is with me, and a few other divers. We get to the edge of the complex quickly and help each other over the fence.
The complex seems empty when we kick the back door in. We move down the hall quickly and get into the construct room. Divers shove heavy furniture in front of the door as others jam at the control board, waking up the link into the vaults.
I look at Emmy on the couch next to me, and at the divers who stand in front of the blockaded door, and then I lay back.
When I open my eyes we’re on Welk Island, near the water.
Emmy and I run up the small children’s path that crests the hill, and start out over the grass. She’s panting to keep up, but it’s her mind tricking itself into thinking she’s tired.
“You’re not really running, Emmy. You’re on a couch. Slow your breathing down.”
The gaze she shoots me is tinged with panic, but she catches up, and her breathing slows down. After just a few minutes we are in town, jogging past the rows of buildings.
The cabin we’d found the ghost in had been in the middle of nowhere, but it wasn’t impossible to get to. The people making the vaults back on Origin Earth could’ve put the ghost in a safe a hundred feet under the ground if they’d wanted it never found, but they did want it found—just after some time had passed.
The message, though, offered answers. Whatever was going to give us those would probably be in an easy-to-reach place.
I stop running.
“What?” Emmy shouts back to me.
“Here.” I point at the town’s main tavern. It’s built out of a shipping crate, doors and overhung windows carved out of it.
“Too obvious. Vault divers and code analysts will have searched it at least fifty times in the last hundred years.”
“Maybe. But the person who sent the message wants to be hidden but also obvious. They can’t be found until after we get to the ghost, but once we do, they have a simple little program slaved to the cabin. We take the ghost out of the cabin, and the other program gets freed.”
“Story time with Irvine.”
I jog to the tavern and Emmy follows. Inside chairs are arranged in half circles and blankets are piled on the ground. Driftwood branches hang, strung with warm yellow lights. You could forget you’re in a shipping crate.
The woman behind the bar turns and smiles.
“Just who I was looking for,” she says.
The rest of the people in the bar are stock-still. The program is frozen.
“Are you who we are looking for?”
We sit down at a nearby table.
“You research historical documents,” she says.
“Yes. We call ourselves vault divers, looking for traces of the people who created the vaults, to learn more about Earth.”
“Are you one of the creators?” Emmy says.
“Someone like me. I’m here to answer questions. You want answers about where you’re from, and why you’re here, and I suppose other questions also. That is why the ghost was out in that shack, and why I’m here. We wanted you to meet us when you’d grown a bit.
“The best way to begin,” she continues, “is like this. You’re a guess.”
“About a hundred years before you left, computers linked up and formed thought pools, self-aware AI communities. You might have guessed that; there would be a gap in the historical records on your ship. Where I’m from, on Earth, they call it Nightfall—every computer shut off, all at once, and then the kill bots came for us. It took us years to fight them. Of course, we learned later, it wasn’t their goal to succeed. They always knew that their ability to kill us off in the real world was hampered. They could outthink us, but life had been evolving for millennia to fight for survival. There would be holes in their planning, they knew. Blind spots in their designs. Humanity had been scrabbling, fighting to survive, forever. They could outthink us, but not evolution.
“So they worked with evolution. While the war was going on—a distraction that cost two billion lives—the thought pools created vast city-sized laboratories. Birthing centers. The people inside them didn’t know they were in a zoo, involved in the most large-scale breeding program ever created, and neither did their liberators, those who freed them after the war was won. We didn’t know that the machines had written into human DNA a nearly invisible code. A disease.”
The bar is gone; so’s Welk Island. Buildings are around us, a crowded, bustling square. Where is it—Italy? The light looks the way that I’ve seen in vaults of Florence: clean, symphonic.
Everyone in the square drops mid-stride, dead.
“How?” Emmy asks.
“The virus is diffuse. Tiny fragments of it were hidden in the people that were liberated from the breeding cities. It has thousands of elements, many combinations of which are deadly when combined.”
“Combined,” I say; I hadn’t expected this. The spirals feel narrower, darker; the bodies around us piled on each other in the sweet light.
“People meet, have children, and pair the viral elements they’re carrying. Those children pair again. In a few generations there is an intact viral weapon in a significant portion of the population. It waits.”
“To surprise us, to make it harder to study. Then everyone in a city drops dead at just the same moment.”
“The virus communicates with itself?” Emmy says.
“Yes. We haven’t figured out how. Perhaps by pheromones.”
“Seems like an empty victory,” I say. “Everyone dead. The machines still lost.”
“Our working theory is that they have an ark somewhere. Perhaps it is far beneath the ocean, or in orbit. Machine technology waiting to emerge and blossom when all of us are dead.”
“Ah,” Emmy says. “You’re hoping to break the viral combos by changing the selection pool.”
“Correct. We can’t remove the viral component. It’s diffuse in the brain, impossible to cut out, and even diffuse across populations. But we hope that for it to be successful and create the combinations it is programmed to it must have access to a sizeable pool of people. So our solution was to pack people into ships, a max crew of five hundred, randomly selected from around the globe, and sent off to start new colonies. We started before many people knew just where the virus came from, and we kept it that way. The people loaded onto the ships were taken without consent or knowledge of where they were going.”
“You kidnapped five hundred people and shot them into space?”
“It had to be random, you see. What if the viral components can control our behavior? What if we fall in love with a certain person because the viral component tells us too—because they’ve got a viral component that matches well with the existing mix in our community, and by falling in love, we cause this?” She gestures at the bodies all around us. “The virus is exceedingly subtle. Our greatest hope of outlasting it, and ultimately transferring it into the realm of junk DNA, was to maximize the environmental and biological factors at work: to push, you see, the elements as far as they would go. Hopefully beyond its ability to adapt.”
“It wasn’t random. You chose the people you put in that ship,” I say.
“It was our best option.”
She says this smiling sadly, and she’s a program, so that smile could mean that she really is expressing sadness at the idea of people waking up on a ship tearing out of the solar system to drop them into this dark hole, or it could mean that there is no set response for what I’ve said.
I sigh. “You’re hoping the virus will peter out over time.”
“Yes. Without a sufficient pool of people it might be unable to achieve its outcomes. It’ll become junk DNA.”
“How do you know that the machines didn’t predict this?”
She nods and smiles.
“We don’t. We are guessing. The amount of guesses we make maximizes our chance of the right answer.”
There is a pause, a data shift.
“According to my records, you were the nine hundredth colony to leave Earth.”
“How many people on Earth have died?”
“Losses have been suffered globally.”
She smiles sadly again. “It is hard to say. North America is empty. Europe as well.”
“Where are you?” Emmy asks.
“A launch complex in New Zealand.”
Her voice changes. It sounds lighter. “The planet you were sent to had every indication that it could foster life.”
“It does foster life,” I say, “you’re looking at it.”
The program, perhaps reading it as a joke, smiles.
“Is anyone from Earth coming?” I say.
The program is still smiling.
“I can’t answer that.”
“But probably not,” Emmy says.
There’s not so much as a crack in her smile.
“I can’t answer that.”
“You’re probably all dead,” Emmy says.
“I can’t answer that.”
She—it, I’m thinking more now—is still smiling that sad smile, that veil over the ugly truth: Origin Earth is dead.
Emmy and I sit on a bluff overlooking the water. Except for the waves, the program is frozen, as if it is waiting for us to decide how to react.
“They’re dead,” I say. “This is all that’s left.”
“Maybe some survived on Earth. Maybe there’s other colonies.”
“Did we outlast the virus?”
Emmy doesn’t answer. What could she say? We don’t know anything about it. Maybe because the original colonists were from all over the Earth the virus won’t be able to construct itself. Maybe it will just take longer.
I could drop dead at any second, Emmy with me, and every person in the spiral. Watching the cold water below, it’s hard not to think of every breath as a potential end.
Emmy pats my back.
“We burn the vaults,” I say.
“Think about what’s out there, Emmy.”
“What? Spiral, viz, people?”
“Five hundred people who didn’t choose to leave Earth were on that lander. Not some crew of explorers, just people dropped into a hole. Out there is what we’ve become—still people in a hole, ready to kill each other, just surviving year to year on a frozen rock. What would those people do if they knew that all their dreams about Origin Earth are wrong? What if they realized the colonists didn’t come because they were brave and ambitious, they were just a guess, just the last ones standing after a plague? They’d have less than the nothing they have now. There’d be nothing to live for. All of us would be Mongol Madmen. If we burn the vaults at least we’d be free.”
“Not knowing something isn’t the same as freedom.”
“Yes it is,” I say. “It’s exactly the same. And what do you care? You’re not a vault diver for history. Let’s just burn all of the things we romanticized. Origin Earth is already dead. Let’s bury it.”
Emmy sighs and looks down at the water. It moves back and forth in a faithful approximation of the mournful shift-drag that is an Earthly tide.
“Irvine, there’s already nothing to live for. The spiral is dark; it always has been. We could die at any moment but it’s always been that way, for everyone, here and even back on Origin Earth. Every moment is luck. I mean, you think you’re so special? We’re all gonna die, none of us know when or how, and all of us—if we find a light in the cave, we don’t blow it out. There’s not much to live for, but we do it anyway, just like all the people who came before us.”
Emmy stands up. She bounces a handful a pebbles in her hand, then throws one out into the water.
“A moment is a coin discovered in the sand. A lifetime is buried treasure. Ginz told me that.”
“No he didn’t.”
“No, he didn’t.”
Emmy’s water-swollen books take up a whole wall in my house. I complain about it all the time but she doesn’t listen; she knows I read them too. It’s odd that it had never occurred to me to read the books the colonists had strung together when they first arrived. There are a lot: Those five hundred random souls had wanted to write. And what they wrote about was Origin Earth, their cities, the people they left behind. Reading is like being in the vaults except seeing them through the creator’s mind: It’s intimate. Close. And best of all, when one of them is trying to express some vital thought, and they can’t, and their words fail—missing the sunlight of a late winter morning; missing a lover who was waiting at a café for a person who never showed up because they were on a ship, and later, in a spiral, writing about it—that’s the closest, the most intimate. The failure of words in the face of yearning.
The Mongol Madmen keep the vaults closed. Short of attacking again, there’s no way we could tell what they’re doing in there. Maybe they’re looking for clues about Origin Earth, like we did. If they are, it will take a while before they’re good enough to uncover the vibrations in the ghost, or the bartender on Welk Island who knows that the Earth is already dead.
So like I said, I read, and so does Emmy. We talk about books.
Once in a while we walk down to the lander to strip it of some part we know would fix someone’s roof, or door, or wall, or whatever. Other times we stand in Reality, Sharpened and I nurse a whiskey and Emmy humors my darkness and we name groups: a glower of trees, an elegy of Ginzs, a shamble of landers.
But mostly I read. So does Emmy.
One day we’ll run out of books, and then here we’ll be, again, in the dark.
Mike Buckley is a widely-published short story writer whose work has appeared in national journals such as The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Southern California Review, and Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Escape Pod. His work has been anthologized numerous times, including in The Best American Non-Required Reading, 2003, and the upcoming Red Hen LA Writers Anthology. His debut collection of short fiction, Miniature Men, was released in 2011.