8850 words, novelette
Ask the Fireflies
They say the universe was created when a Giant lit a matchstick. That her great sigh fanned the flames that danced and wept into stars and constellations. They say some seas are blue and Slugs are naturally submissive. They also say that I cannot exist. But what do they know? These are truths or untruths contorted through generations, whispers leaping from ear to ear, unrecognizable from their original form. They are irrelevant to me.
The only truth I know, the only truth I care about is that Alshea is not “as good as dead.” Those in mint jumpsuits with low, measured voices that bounce off scarcely used eardrums—always an odd sensation, that—do not know what they are talking about.
No, Alshea is not as good as dead, how could she be? Proof is in how she is perched at the garden table, cheeks flushed despite the little bruise above her brow, eyes sparkling alertness, propped up on the soft feather pillow Norai sewed because the wrought iron chair is not high enough for her. Proof is in how vivaciously she regales her version of the Old Earth tale “The Little Wizard Who Lived” to her stuffed unicorn and me, pouring caramel tea in our periwinkle cups. Proof is in how the colors of a setting star soak rainbows into her dark hair and skin, how the breeze catches any loose strands and hair ribbons, how she blooms like the red valerian spangled in our garden, so sharp and so vibrant. So alive.
“Up, Podder! Prep the table for dinner.” Norai’s feathery voice dissipates my reverie. My whiskers twitch at the scent of warm butter; she wheels the dinner cart down the cobblestone path from the manor house. The purple cats at our feet stir at the promise of food. Tiers of perfectly creased cloth napkins, white dishes with painted lilies, unicorn cookies, buttered rolls, and: do I smell Norai’s hot chocolate? Her cinnamon-tulsi-peppermint blend is why Tedna, the gardener, sometimes stays for dinner, and locals like the baker and candlestick maker deliver themselves rather than send shop runners.
When I eye the chocolate pot longingly, but reach instead for the dishes, Norai suppresses a smile under half-moon spectacles, and her gray-mauve lips and rice paper wings of the same color flutter amusedly. The wings are small on her round, petite frame but she can hover a few feet off the ground, though she hardly ever does.
I prep the table in a way that meets the approval of Norai’s precise eye, and she lays the food, appropriately punctuating Alshea’s continuous string of commentary and tale-bits with “oh really”s and “how lovely”s. She allows a few crumbs to drop to the grass, which the cats love.
“And he who cannot be named got hiccups so he couldn’t swallow his tea,” Alshea is saying when a sudden chill erupts through her. I immediately extend my paws but Norai drapes her yellow-fringed shawl across Alshea’s thin shoulders first.
“Giant save me, it’s chilly tonight, isn’t it?” Norai says. “Lucky I’ve got just the remedy for that.”
“I’ll pour?” I say waving to the pot, and once Norai nods, it is not long before Alshea clutches a steaming mug between her palms.
The star streaks crimson and ultramarine behind Alshea as it settles behind the horizon, and little flickers of light emerge from the moss-covered trellises. It is Alshea’s favorite part of the day, the changing of the sky and the emergence of the fireflies. They drift toward us, drawn to our heat. Some break away down a path that cuts through lilac bushes, pooling around Tedna after another day of him tending the grounds of our Manor Flammel. Tedna: brown hair combed to one side, shirt moderately unbuttoned under a pale cardigan, a loosened bow tie, trousers patched with dirt, and shovel slung over a shoulder.
Fireflies and lilacs. Trousers and bow ties. Things Alshea taught me about, elements pieced together from the holobooks she spent much of her young life immersed in, recreated tales from Old Earth, like “Beauty and the Frog King” and “The Wheel of the Shire” and “The Man of Iron and His White Wolf.” She spent hour after hour in the holodecks, hours that would arguably be better spent studying or playing or interacting with parents. But options were limited when you were the only child on the MarkX21 mining station and your father was Station Commander and your mother was a holofilm star who was more often than not away for work.
Cats and stuffed unicorns. Cobblestone paths and manors. The Archipelago—a planetary assortment with New New Earth as its nucleus, framed by secondary planets and their mining moons, like MarkX21—did not harbor such things. A pity, really, because they are beautiful. We are lucky to have them here.
Tedna ruffles Alshea’s hair with his characteristic, “How do, little neighbor?” and reaches for a roll, his hands stained with dirt.
“The nerve! Get yourself sanitized, you sneak,” Norai says, lightly rapping his knuckles with a spoon handle. “And you might as well collect that blazer you always switch into from the mud room—leave the cardigan behind, I’ll wash it—and fetch Alshea’s riding hood.”
“And Podder’s scarf!” Alshea pipes in.
A short while later the four of us are seated, Tedna appropriately clean and blazered, Alshea in her riding hood, red as nasturtiums, and Norai draped once again in her yellow-fringed shawl. I wear my simple black robe and striped scarf, though only because Alshea likes how it looks around my neck; my fur is enough to protect me from temperature fluctuations.
The fireflies flit to candles at the center of the table, and Alshea lunges to grab one, but it slips away from her cupped hands. She laughs, and we laugh with her.
“Star set’s pretty tonight,” Alshea says.
“Agreed,” says Norai. “I’d capture it with paint, if I could; look at how those streaks interlock so, like the baker’s beard.”
“You paint?” Alshea asks, eyes widening. “I want to paint.”
Norai chuckles. “Well, it was lifetimes ago. I learned when I was your age.”
“Tomorrow,” I say. “On the return from the doctor’s we can purchase paints and its relevant accessories.”
Alshea frowns, eyes focusing on the smooth strokes of Norai’s hands buttering rolls. The girl shifts uneasily, and I know it is at the thought of visiting the doctor, the worry that ve might place her in the cold and dark sarcophagus—the cylindrical medical instrument used to stimulate healing.
“It’s only a little bruise!” she’d screamed at me when we fought earlier in the day. She threw a cushion, and I resisted the urge to chuckle. A little cushion is no match for a creature who towered over her. I caught it, careful to avoid tangling the pillow’s tassels in my claws, and placed it gently on her bed.
“Little, indeed. Which is why we wait for an appointment tomorrow. But it is your head,” I said. I imagined she deeply regretted jumping on the bed.
“It’d be something to look forward to, no?” Norai says. “Podder has a great idea don’t you think, jaan?”
Eventually Alshea perks up when Tedna lists the glorious things she could paint, the star set, the rock garden, the cats, the fireflies. The fireflies that help keep at bay darkness and Nightfall. Her excitement is infectious, and the table buzzes with ideas and banters and the occasional meow from underneath.
I interject a comment here and there, but mostly I watch Alshea, aware of her sudden dopamine surge at the thought of painting. The inevitable adumbration falls over her eyes, as it so often does when she’s extra excited, and I witness her struggle to ignore it. I do not need to look at her face to know when the shadow of saudade, the shadow of immeasurable longing, descends; I know everything about Alshea’s state even if my eyes are closed.
“She will come as soon as she can,” I say softly, only for Alshea’s ears, for the tenth or thousandth time reassuring her that her mother has not abandoned her. Technically, this is true. But holoprojection technology isn’t yet advanced enough to offer the experience Alshea longs for. They’d moved across stars, built stations, and terraformed planets. But they couldn’t do this. Tut tut.
Alshea is placated; we’ve done this before.
While one part of me is engaged with her, another checks her heart, her lungs, her kidneys, and all else, noting wrinkles and anomalies. The shadow lifts from her face. I am either very good at playing my role or seven-year-old girls are easily placated. For lack of a frame of reference, I like to think it’s the first.
They shine light in Alshea’s eyes and say: “Pupils unresponsive.” Out of all the measured voices I’d heard over the months, White Streak’s is the worst. Short and discontented, like a matchstick refusing to light.
When Alshea’s eyelids were pulled open I had immediately shifted my focus, my tavajjo, to the ocular windows, a rare visual of the outside world; I usually have to rely solely on Alshea’s ears. My hope was that I’d see Orange Hair, but protocol dictated that a doctor be present during the formal tests spanned across the three days of CLP, the Completed Life Procedure: three days of checking if the patient was indeed “as good as dead” culminating at the end of the third day with . . . a finality I refuse to accept.
It is Day 1.
Orange Hair had not yet earned the mint green that White Streak wears, and is instead in medical intern peach, a rosy blob in my periphery, next to another. Audio confirms the second peach blob is Green Eyes. Pah.
If only I could get Alshea to turn her head, to look at Orange Hair. Well, if I’m wishing for things, I may as well wish that a single-purpose AI like me had better communication capabilities. Then again, if I am wishing at all, I may as well wish that Alshea recover.
I clear my cache; my clock cycles are better not wasted on wishes.
The ideal scenario would have been Orange Hair conducting the checks alone without the distraction of Green Eyes and with White Streak otherwise occupied with “livelier” patients, considering the dearth of doctors—being stationed on MarkX21, a remote mining moon on the edge of the Archipelago, is apparently not a posting highly sought after.
If only I could catch Orange Hair alone, I would . . . I don’t know what I would do. I have repeatedly attempted and failed to communicate with them ever since Alshea’s ears picked up talk of CLP. But I’d think of something. I pulse with frustration, watch as White Streak works. Watch as their pocket hums and they answer their comm and to my utter delight turn to the interns to take over, they’re going to have to take this, are the interns capable of conducting the tests by themselves?
And then White Streak whizzes away with their usual driven gait, leaving behind a trail of barked orders for those they once referred to as “peachlings.” I buzz. I can work with this. I simply need to think of something that I have not tried before.
“Are you capable of checking on a dead girl you little incompetent Sluggies,” says Green Eyes in a voice altered to one of mockery.
“Be respectful,” Orange Hair says, but with the hint of a smile. “The kid isn’t deceased.”
Orange Hair ignores this and says instead: “And it’s Esslugai. I don’t think they like our term for them.”
“Oh please, they couldn’t care less. But you trying to put on their accent? Don’t tell me they wouldn’t mind that.”
Orange Hair is closer to my ocular windows, rearranging some tools at Alshea’s bedside. They are close enough for me to see their dulcet features, but from this angle their hair is a brown red, and not the bright orange of when they lean in to brush Alshea’s hair or clean her face and the lights directly above wash into the thick strands.
I do not quite have the grasp on human articulations and emotions outside the way I seem to in the world containing Manor Flammel, and the jumpsuits’ identification tags always hang too low for me to read, so I pool identifying nicknames from unique features. Green irises. A scar of white slashed across a left eye. And the way the light shines, orange on the hair, and something close to Norai’s kindness on the face.
“I suppose you’re right. Let’s pick up where the doc left off?” Orange Hair says, and I brace myself for the eyelids closing. But they appear to have forgotten, making their way to Alshea’s feet. “I’ll set up the electrodes.”
“I like how you’ve done your hair today,” Green Eyes says, reaching for the note tablet.
These two have an affinity for each other unlike I’d observed between any other pair. On the rare occasion Alshea’s eyes were open, I’d see them slide around each other like oil and water, moving around the room, not quite touching, always conscious of the patient-monitoring camera in the room. They seem confidants, Orange Hair whispering to Green Eyes their fears and concerns—of mining station protocols, Alshea’s reports, unattainable dreams beyond the moon—in a way they daren’t to anyone else. They do their little dance even now when CLP demands nothing but formality, sending electrode shocks through Alshea’s toes, testing reflexes, responses, all the while bantering, complimenting, confiding.
Alshea is blissfully unaware of the tests, of course, protected by a mental barrier dividing the outside world and the inner. She’s tucked behind an easel pointed at the rock garden Tedna zealously assembled for Norai. We’d bought paints—more reds and purples than anything else—after the doctor’s visit. The doctor inside, that is. Ve hadn’t needed to use the sarcophagus to heal the bruise and sent Alshea home with some balm, a candy, and a spring in her step.
I can’t see them, the girl and her fairy godmother, because my tavajjo is outward. The barrier is an opaque sunderance between two worlds, the inner and outer, an amnesiac membrane porous for some reason only for me: the physiological diagnostic routine. Out here her vitals—and thus my output—are borderline torpid, reflecting the opposite of the flurry of activity within; I have never been able to quantify what I detect on the inside, the upsurge of heart rate while telling a tale, the trickle of melatonin when I tuck her in and switch off the lights, the amygdala activation when Nightfall lurks in the shadows; it’s as though I am par to two different sets of data, but one I can process and one I can only experience.
Out here in the Medical Dome of the MarkX21 mining station, Alshea Patelkruz, the only child of the Station Commander, is in a coma.
All AIs are initialized with three entities. 1. A precise, unambiguous statement of functionality. 2. Proficiency and permissions strictly relevant to one’s objective, whether narrow for single-purpose AIs, or comprehensive for multifunctionals like the Mainframe of the MarkX21 station. And 3. A superficial awareness of position within the Archipelago—something humans theorize provides us with relevance and purpose even if our functionality is not locative—a preventive measure against existential ruminations.
They hope to avoid the anthropogenic desastre of New Earth, a human colony that lasted only a single generation before the humans were forced to flee from the AIs who sought to make the colony their own. This last bit is not knowledge I am programmed with, it is one of the many pieces I sifted from vignettes of conversations, my memory adapting to ingest new information, giving me a sense of what lay beyond Alshea’s brain.
I learned that cafeteria food on Tuesdays makes Orange Hair queasy, that New New Earth coffee is better than that of its little neighbor CelesteS2, that our moon is a barren cavernous rock suitable only for the native Slugs. That the Slugs use guttural vibrations and mucus from their salivary glands to mine the lumenite that powers terraformers and artificial habitat domes. I’ve also learned that I shouldn’t be able to piece things together the way I do, and that my love for Alshea is . . . unusual. That whatever this is never happens.
Much of what I’ve learned about what I should have been and what I seem to be comes from Green Eyes, who has more proclivity for medical engineering than Orange Hair: Green Eyes makes sure various AIs do what they are supposed to. Which makes them the last person I want to communicate with.
If only I could speak to Orange Hair. Well, that is the whole problem, now, isn’t it?
My single mode of communication is the meticulously formulated real-time output I relay to the external interface, the steady binary flow that I emanate as naturally as breathing is to them. Orange Hair doesn’t really know that I am here, the I who can think beyond my strict programming, who can love the little girl it is meant to monitor, an active participant in the wondrous inner world her brain concocted, the I who so desperately needed to speak with them. There’s only so much you can do when your vocabulary is limited. Normal. Low. 120/90. 19.5 kg. High.
I’d slipped in anomalies, outrageous values, a 1/100 for blood pressure, an N/A for heart rate, a 0% for O2 saturation. Each time White Streak ordered a reset, and I was torn apart by hands of electric current that I fast learned had not the same inclination toward sentience that I did when my protests hit silent pulsed walls. The process left me loopy, out of focus, not quite me for some time after, like Alshea’s father as she’d describe him when he’d return from his mine inspections and her mother was away.
“One more time and we’ll replace the PDR.” White Streak said the last time. And, what, take me from Alshea? No. No. I have to be more careful.
I watch Orange Hair and Green Eyes conduct their dance, conduct their tests, thankful that neither had yet thought to truly pay attention to my interface, because I do not have a plan.
Frustration ripples through me. What good is it to feel frustration and anguish and love, disparate from other PDRs in rotation, if I cannot make something of it? What good is it to evidently have undergone an anomalous evolution, the very thing the humans sought to avoid, if I cannot think of a solution to save the purpose of my existence? What good? What good?
“Codic deviation,” said Green Eyes one afternoon. “Or spontaneous machine sentience, is now impossible.”
“Eh, I don’t know, the glitches people report on the Network are intriguing. Someone on MarkX34 apparently found its Mainframe chatting to a Slug about involuntary servitude,” Orange Hair had replied.
“You like to believe anything fanciful, don’t you?”
“You never know; AIs are pretty smart.”
“They’re ‘smart’ because we make them smart.”
“But they also think for themselves, adapt to their circumstances.”
“Ja, within the parameters of the program.”
“Programmers like you are only human; you’re not perfect.”
Perfect . . . perfect. Perfect scores. If an unresponsive patient received a complete, perfect panel reflective of an epitome of good health, wouldn’t that indicate something? They’d see the perfect scores and think, who is in there? What is trying to speak to us? And then they’d provide a better interface, a chance to use words, a chance to tell them that Alshea does not need to die.
So when Orange Hair finally says, “Pull up vitals,” I am ready.
Sometimes Alshea holds her breath in anticipation as the star falls behind the horizon at dusk, eager to see which colors would emerge, which cloud shapes would manifest. The sky is never the same: sometimes cumulonimbic fish spiral across a sea of green and violet. Sometimes leaves of cirrus ride an orange current. If I had breath, I’d hold it the way Alshea does.
Orange Hair clicks their teeth, frowning at my interface screen.
Pulses of expectation involuntarily tharrump and eddy from my focus, though not strong enough to shock Alshea’s nerves.
“Would you look at this?” Orange Hair says. “The Giantsbanic PDR is glitchy again.” Oh. Oh no.
Green Eyes curses the “outdated machinery of this whole ward,” and grabs the interface.
“Let’s . . . let’s not bother the doc with this, just take care of it.” No. Stop.
I fumble my attempt to correct my output; Green Eyes already clicks away at the input device, and I can feel the entrails of a reset creep up. Vexed, I slam my pulses against the interface. There’s a lightning crack, and Green Eyes jolts backward with a yelp. Wait, had I shocked them?
I am as startled as they and before I can think to repeat whatever I had done, Green Eyes resumes their clicks one-handedly, sucking on a finger and muttering curses, and the reset rises anew.
Desperate, I dive into my subroutines, clinging to the here and now, refusing to slip away. But, alas, I am not matter in the sense that Alshea is; I am, at the end of the day, just code.
The intrusive electrical hands crawl over me, and for lack of a better word, I choke. Alshea fades and I gasp for her like a fish on sand.
The only words that hang in the air, melting away from me:
Alright. Reset initiated. Coffee, amor?
Unfocus. Discombobulation. I am a nebulous disembodiment sans tavajjo; the universe is a conflation of turquoises and rhombi, muddy glass grays and heptagons. I am. I am?
Things—memories? identities?—orbit a hair outside the span of my reach. I am nothing, but I am also not no one.
It is the way it was when I first assumed identity. My day of birth, if you will. But at that point I did not have satellites of understanding at my disposal, I was simply a newborn, placed in an alien world without instructions stamped into my core.
That first day, sight came before anything else. A clouded sky. Grass. Flowers. Details became sharper, more structured, the way a person does as you get to know them, calibrating from the very first: how do, what are your pronouns?
Then came odd sensations I later understood to be sound, touch, taste, smell. The soft stuttered hiss of sprinklers. Ground pressing into my back. A rogue earthy blade of grass caught between my teeth. Petrichor.
Alshea found me in the garden, though I learned it was the garden only later. When she came into view, something like two magnets snapped together. This. This is my nucleus. Alshea and her voice: are you okay? And later: do you have a name?
“I am . . . physiological diagnostic routine,” I said, tasting speech for the first time. “PDR.”
“Yick! How boring. PDR won’t do. Pidder . . . Padder . . . oh Podder. Like the wizard! Ja, I think I shall call you Podder. Join me for fika? Do you like tea?”
I do not believe in the Giant as humans do, I do not believe in anything at all, really, except maybe Alshea. So perhaps it is apt for me to say: thank Alshea resets do not wipe my slate clean; they only throw me out of commission. When the understanding, identity, and memories finally settle in, I find myself on the kitchen floor of Manor Flammel.
Norai is miffed, towering over me, her hands covered in powdered flour, likely from prepping the dough for the next day’s bread. Alshea is bereft, kneeling beside me, cooing, and when she sees the cats perk up and begin to circle, she scoops me into her arms and cradles me.
Well, this isn’t right.
I am usually much larger than she, and I am usually the one doing the cradling.
Alshea places me on the counter of the kitchen island, and blue and orange auras frame my vision cast from the bright hanging ceiling lights. The bay windows behind her are dark. Is it night already, then? How long had I been out? Time didn’t move here the way it did outside, it only took a few seconds to reboot out there. Here it seemed to slip and slide. The last time I was reset I disappeared for two days. Time before that I’d been gone five minutes.
“You had us worried sick,” Norai says, lightly scratching my head. The loose flour makes me sneeze.
“Are you alright?” Alshea says.
“Of course he’s not alright, look at how tiny he is!”
“Oh but he’s so cute like this.”
“Let’s get some tea in him, shall we?” And they rummage around the wide kitchen, the teapot goes on the stove, the cats who keep standing on hind legs to get a peek or a sniff are shooed away.
My head spins and I do not feel strong enough to speak. I look down, my robe, my body, my paws are still proportionate, just small. While I suspect the reset had something to do with my size, and that I’d restore to the norm eventually, my appearance is quite literally out of my control.
I learned early on that it is Alshea who steers the wheel, for after the first few times she voiced how she ached for her mother, the profound saudade visible on her face, I tried and failed to change myself to look like the woman, thinking it’d comfort the girl.
I had never actually seen the mother, I just heard her; during her rare visits, Alshea’s eyes were closed. Her voice is velvety, a good match for Alshea’s description of her: tall as the sky, skin as soft as butter, tumbling braids to her waist. Flowing robes and a kind smile. Larger than life, as any good mother looks through her child’s eyes.
But I, with chestnut fur and ears that stand on top of my head, closely resemble who Alshea calls the Northern Bunny. The stories say that every year the Northern Bunny flies through the Archipelago bestowing gifts of red and white on good little children.
“No he never did,” she said when I asked if he’d visited her. “Papa said I didn’t qualify.” The very next night I filled her bedroom with presents while she slept.
I sip watercress tea from a saucer. Alshea gently strokes my ears. Her head is tucked into the nook of her elbow resting on the counter beside me. Norai hums as she cleans.
“You. You should sleep,” I manage to say, noting how Alshea’s eyelids droop.
“Not until . . . ” And she slips away into a doze.
“Funny how that happens,” Norai says quietly. I wonder why Norai hadn’t sent the girl to bed already and open my mouth to ask, but she sees the question in my eyes. “The fireflies didn’t come tonight.” I suck in a breath, turn sharply to study Alshea’s face. When the fireflies are few or none, then Alshea is plagued with nightmares. And occasionally, something much worse shows up, something that—
“Norai!” I hiss.
The night outside the bay windows has leaked into the walls like ink, frilled with shadows and smoke, pooling into the shape of a creature elongated and many-limbed, like the Slugs. Nightfall.
I leap toward the window, but at this size I cannot get far, nor do I have control of my trajectory, and crash into pans instead. Norai grabs a knife knowing full well it won’t do any good; knives cannot cut through shadow and smoke. Not that either of us could ever really do anything. Getting Alshea to calm down is the trick to release her from an episode; the calmer she becomes, the weaker Nightfall appears until it fades away.
The creature’s voice booms, gritty and authoritative.
ALSHEA. WAKE UP. WON’T YOU COME TO ME, JAAN DEAREST? I’VE HAD A ROUGH DAY.
No. No. Not this. Not now.
Humans are a wet assortment of contradictions; they lack a united frame of reference. If fed two opposing premises, they split according to interpretation, rejecting any who do not. For an AI, the process is not so indefinite. We come pre-imprinted with seeds of veracity, and our truths manifest from our own adaptive learning. It is easy to reject a premise when it is not cast in proof derived from our own decision matrices.
Case in point: how Alshea describes Slugs is different from the way Orange Hair speaks of them. According to the peach jumpsuit, the Slugs on MarkX21 are not shadow creatures, they are olive and orange and yellow folk with an austere belief system. They wait for hours without complaint outside the “Slugs Only” entrance of the Medical Dome to meet with a human doctor or to refill prescriptions, despite how sensitive their scales are to direct starlight. And they anguish when a human is injured in the mines, and they sing when one of their own passes.
“They are so kind and familial,” Orange Hair commented to a fellow peach jumpsuit one morning while brushing Alshea’s hair. “We have much to learn from them.”
Orange Hair’s truth, however, is not the truth.
Alshea once said: “Papa never let me meet one because they eat children who don’t listen to their parents.” Her father’s words fall more in tandem with my own experiences of Nightfall.
No, Slugs are not kind and familial. The way Alshea is consumed by terror whenever Nightfall looms close, I vehemently accept her father’s words.
The kitchen is chaos: Alshea is on the floor, face devoid of color and contorted in a silent wail; the cats yowl and claw at the door, begging freedom; Norai hovers in the air over Alshea, her wings a blur, knife pointed at the shadow creature diffusing across the walls and ceiling.
I chant loud reassurances with Norai as I struggle to release my leg caught in a pot handle; every jerk sends a shock of pain through my spine.
“You’re okay. Alshea you are safe. You’re okay. We’re here. Alshea you are safe now.” No matter how loud we chant, Nightfall grows louder.
Tears blur my vision; Alshea’s stress response overstimulates me, as does the gravity of my failure. Outside I have failed to communicate that Alshea continues to live a normal life and is not “as good as dead”; inside I am a shrunken caricature unable to carry and protect Alshea from the manifestation of her own fears. Because, really, it is her own brain that is scaring itself, releasing stress hormones that trigger the fight flight freeze fawn . . .
Oh. Oh. Ohhh. Stress hormones. Perhaps . . .
Alshea was admitted to the Medical Dome three months ago: an accident on the holodeck, according to her files. She climbed an oak tree in a fairy tale and slipped, and the safety routines that are supposed to prevent that sort of thing had malfunctioned. Her body had undergone severe physical trauma.
Human bodies can memorize states of distress, physically swallowed by a cortisol loop when triggered. Does Nightfall loom near because her mind is reexperiencing the trauma? And if the experience can be recreated in her brain, can it be recreated in the rest of her body?
Those physical memories must be there somewhere, latent in her cells, on the outside of the barrier. The trauma on her legs and head that do not quite add up to a fall from a few meters according to my repository and according to Orange Hair’s whispers to Green Eyes, but never mind that now. Something happened. If I shock her body and stimulate those memories, then a response would be registered in my outward data stream. The jumpsuits would see this on my interface and finally understand that Alshea’s life does not need to end!
But . . . since it has been so long since the body experienced a sensation that wasn’t a trivial nerve response test, I cannot accurately predict the effect of an acute provocation. Would my shocks be enough for the sensors to register? Would Alshea get to know? And worse, would she feel something? Despite the barrier?
The last thing I want to do is trigger an unpleasant response in her.
I hesitate, but for a moment. If this works, then it is worth any potential discomfort she may feel. I watch her writhe in silent agony, and think: forgive me, Alshea.
I push a series of sharp delta signals through my . . . tendrils, for the lack of a better word—limbs? foci?—that extend through Alshea as subroutines. Urging her nerves to come alive.
It doesn’t work.
From the jumpsuits’ perspective, my interface screen reflects no change. Nothing to alarm them, nothing to have them storm into the room.
But, from my perspective, everything goes up in flames.
Alshea is no longer silent, she is screaming, clawing at her eyes and hair. Norai drops the knife and tries to lift the girl off the floor but her wings are not strong enough.
The cats roll around and bark and quack. The pans turn into birds and waffles and gimp, and in a caustic twist of irony my leg is free. The walls pulse translucent for a brief moment, and I catch a glimpse of the garden outside. It is barren, cavernous sans flowers and trellises. Like MarkX21.
No . . .
I scream canceling signals into the void.
Abort. Abort. Abort.
I scramble to reach Alshea, but no matter how far or how fast I hop, she is the same distance away.
What have I done?
Alshea’s amnesiac membrane is no longer penetrable by me; I am trapped outside. Her brain must have deemed me a threat, and rightfully so. The only information I am privy to are the muted thrums of her inner emotional states, but even then I have to strain as though I listen to drums through water.
Out here, all is quiet, except for the soft sounds that touch Alshea’s ears: the hum of machinery, my patter reflecting her steady heart rate. I shift my tavajjo from body part to body part, investigating crumples. In truth I do not need to focus on this ordinarily autonomous task, but what else am I supposed to do now that I have nowhere to go?
Time both flies and passes painstakingly slow, and it is soon Day 2 of the Completed Life Procedure.
A gentle creak and the affable click-click of soles mark the arrival of Orange Hair.
“Hello my little one,” Orange Hair says. There’s a tap on Alshea’s nose, a rearrangement of sheets, snaps of the colostomy bag being unfastened and a new one taking its place.
The door opens once more, this time a splash weightily. Green Eyes.
“Thought you’d be here,” Green Eyes says. “You skipped lunch.”
“Wasn’t hungry.” A rustling sound accompanies the words, akin to when I smoothen Alshea’s quilt.
A pause. “So you heard, then?” Green Eyes is quieter than they usually are.
There’s a subdued thud like Norai setting a dish on a cloth mat, and the bed rattles ever so slightly.
“They have no effin decency. ‘Giant’s mercy it is the biggest gala you ever did see, the biggest and best says everybody, and we positively need to be there and la dee da before our next very important post.’” Orange Hair spits the words as though they taste alien.
“Hey there are more important things than their dead daughter, didn’t you know that? She doesn’t fetch the credits the way walking down a gold carpet does.” The words are harsh, but the voice isn’t, and now the sound comes from beside Orange Hair. “What’s this?”
“Oh, a little something I made for her. Didn’t think they’d provide a shroud, they don’t really seem like that kind of people . . . what?”
“Hm, nothing. It’s really nice, I didn’t know you could sew. Why did you choose red?”
“I know your nothing; that’s not nothing. Out with it.”
“Look, jaan. I’m worried, is all. What are you going to do after tonight?” Tonight? Where is Orange Hair going?
“You think I’m attached.” Orange Hair’s voice grows sharper, louder. “I’m a professional, I know how this ends, I just want to make sure she’s dressed appropriately for the Hall.”
“This isn’t only about the dress. Ever since you found you can’t have any, you’ve visited her more often. You know this isn’t the healthiest way to . . . ”
There’s a whistled release of breath followed by silence before Green Eyes speaks again. “Jaan . . . amor? I’m sorry, I just . . . ” Sounds of a weighted fabric sliding over a lighter fabric, like Tedna removing his blazer at the door when he arrives in the morning.
“Forget it,” Orange Hair says in a low voice. “I need to finish this dress quickly; hold it against her for me so I can see how it fits.”
The two are silent as the lighter fabric rustles and they remain silent as White Streak strides in and the familiar clinks of fastened electrodes and of test prep begin to—
An abrupt shift in my sensories jolts my tavajjo away from them and inward, and I hardly pay heed even when they open Alshea’s eyes to check pupil response.
Something has changed inside: Alshea is no longer fastened into a loop of distress, and I feel sweet susurrations of normalcy from behind the barrier. I immediately recognize the generic patterns of emotions even if I am not aware of specifics; they reflect Alshea going about her usual life at Manor Flammel. After a few minutes, the fundamental pattern resets: a day has passed inside.
If I still had legs I’d leap for joy and use my eyes to weep tears of gratitude. Alshea is fine, she’s safe, everything is as it should be on the inside; I didn’t break her.
That I am stuck outside, barred entry by her brain, is of little consequence; I can grieve not being able to see her face again later. I didn’t break her! The joy is so blinding that it takes me a moment to remember that we still face CLP on the outside. Whatever elation I have is cut short, but with its departure comes a renewed determination to convince the jumpsuits that Alshea’s life does not need to end.
I have more than a day to come up with an idea; from the remainder of their sparse conversation I deduce that Orange Hair is not going anywhere and would be seeing the procedure to completion. The three leave once their tests are done, and I settle into a deep state of contemplation.
The door swings open with purpose, footsteps and voices swarm into the room. The lights overhead become brighter, deciphered by the way bullets of luminescence hit the edges of Alshea’s closed eyes. For a split nanosecond I am disoriented; I hadn’t expected any jumpsuits at this hour; the final tests aren’t due for another seventeen. It is still Day 2. A quick conscious check of my outward data stream reveals there is nothing untoward enough to alarm the jumpsuits and warrant this cacophony of voices. White Streak. Green Eyes. Orange Hair. A couple more of those who wear peach, and . . . a velvety voice. Alshea’s mother.
It is difficult to follow a single thread of spoken words with every person speaking over the next, but I hear the words “disconnect” and “steady now” amidst the audio cloud, and the bed begins to creak and roll in a way that it hasn’t since . . . since Alshea had been wheeled to the sarcophagus that first day to heal the wounds on her legs and head, just after I’d been inserted to monitor her.
There is only one reason they would be taking her to the sarcophagus now.
Alarmed, I block the noise and ping the AI who administers the whole station, the Mainframe—my brethren, in a way—with a request for information.
/culmination of completed life procedure./ is the reply, though it comes rather more contracted in our own language of 0s and 1s, as do my responses that follow.
I whir, I flounder, I panic, and even as I riposte an aggressive stream of What?? Why?? They’re a day early!! I know that I will not receive a satisfactory response; the Mainframe of MarkX21 has not undergone codic deviation.
/the procedure has been initiated, the sarcophagus is booting up./
Well, I’d asked for it.
The first time I sought the company of the Mainframe was when I overheard talk of CLP. As a medical AI I knew that them keeping Alshea in this state for more than a week was anomalous enough; the sarcophagus can heal most coma causes, and those who do not recover become CLP candidates. But Alshea’s situation with the inner world is supremely exceptional. Further, I hadn’t counted on her parents finally releasing the Medical Dome of her care. I figured the beloved daughter of the most important person on the moon would be here indefinitely.
Is Alshea Patelcruz being considered for CLP? I had asked the first time we spoke.
But, but why?
/your question is unclear./
Why are they initiating it now? After three months?
/commander patelcruz requested clp./
I was quick to understand that the Mainframe is not capable of contemplating the whys of things. We hit a wall, sucked into a communication loop until I eventually gave up:
Can you give them a message?
/yes, of course./
Tell them to cancel CLP, that Alshea’s perfectly fine inside. And she’s doing well.
/your message is unclear. it does not contain vital signs./
But I do not want to send them vitals, I want to send them a message. Can you give them a message?
/yes, of course./
Tell them Alshea does not need to die. She is alive and safe.
/your message is unclear. it does not contain vital signs./
Alshea’s body moves, she’s being dressed by Orange Hair, whom I recognize by touch, and one other. Her arms and legs are ritually crossed, her eyelids are pulled open, and in my frame of vision I see Orange Hair on one side and White Streak on the other.
I discharge another pathetic signal to the Mainframe, but it ends where it begins; I am now disconnected from my interface, my only connection to the rest of the station.
This isn’t right. This is beyond not right, this is abhorrent. How can they break protocol? How can White Streak, of all people? Though their bedside manner is wanting, I have always respected their punctuality, their adherence to protocol, the respect for things being as they should be.
The room grows quiet and White Streak speaks, and from what they say it is as though they’d heard my thoughts. Oh the irony.
“I urge you to once again reconsider, as this is most unprecedented. It is a matter of twenty-four hours.”
The doctor addresses a holocomm in their hands; the projected bust bares the face of a woman as dark as Alshea in a red-gold kimono, with braids gathered at the top of her head. Her face is all hard angles, not the buttery softness of Alshea’s descriptions.
“And I urge you to once again remember that you are speaking with the wife of your Commander, soon to be Mining General. I will not explain myself again.” Her voice is still velvety, and the flash of a white smile does nothing to smoothen the hard lines around her eyes.
A low grumble erupts from Orange Hair’s throat, heard only because they are close to Alshea’s ears. A hand gently squeezes Orange Hair’s shoulder; Green Eyes murmurs in their ear.
“Will the Commander be joining us? There is the matter of Secondary Witness.” White Streak says, not breaking stride, but I think I see them suppress a sigh.
“Oh, no, he’s much too busy preparing for our departure. I will be Primary, and one of your interns can be Secondary.”
White Streak opens their mouth but Orange Hair looms larger in Alshea’s vision, leaning over the girl, closer to the holocomm so that the mother can see them.
“But she’s his daughter!”
White Streak releases a dimmed hiss from between their teeth; I suspect Orange Hair will face the brunt later.
The mother simply smiles.
“My husband said his goodbye three months ago. This whole ordeal has utterly devastated him, and he has better things now with the promo—” she pauses and turns her head to something off camera. There’s a slight shuffle and an exchange of muffled voices. Presently a new face appears: framed eyes, a sharp beard. Their face is unfamiliar to me. But the moment they speak, acute recognition ghosts through me.
“Apologies, I regret I cannot tune in to the life completion; duty trumps personal affiliation. However, let it not be said that the Commander does not care for his daughter. You would be happy to hear I have named our new private ship after her.” The voice is gritty, authoritative. Nightfall. Nightfall.
Within me, something snaps. Alshea’s father is Nightfall. It is as though a single stone on a mountain shifts, and the result is an avalanche. The world swirls and every sound is a muted echo against Alshea’s eardrums. I pay no heed to any of his further words, I pay no heed to the mother reappearing on the comm, the other voices, our movement toward the door, our being wheeled into the hallway.
There was one evening—lifetimes ago it seems now—during which Tedna burst through the back door, screaming for help, covered in blue sludge carrying a half conscious Alshea. She violently projectile vomited blue bile. Norai and I rushed over, soothing her with water, urging her body to release whatever toxins it had consumed, urging her to stay awake, and to not sink into unconsciousness. Many long minutes later, when the worst had passed, Alshea revealed in a broken voice that shadows forced her to eat the wild blueberries at the edge of our grounds. It was her first encounter with Nightfall. There were no fireflies that evening.
Was it any wonder that this little girl’s brain needed to create such a powerful protective barrier against the outside world?
Profound emptiness hits me, my lack of eyes to weep, my lack of arms to protect Alshea, my lack of breath to hold. I spin in slow, idle circles, just inside the ocular windows, grappling with the horrific reality of what had been Alshea’s life outside.
Perhaps CLP is a blessing.
I open myself back up to Alshea’s senses and sounds flood in of the wheels against the metal floors, the sliding bulkheads we pass through, White Streak reassuring the mother on the holocomm that yes they are going as fast as they can, yes they understand that she has her ship to catch.
I watch the movement of the white panel of ceiling lights directly above Alshea’s eyes, and the neon strips framing it—colored markings to lead people to different parts of the station. I watch Orange Hair nod at those we pass—blobs in the periphery of my vision, edging aside to make way for the gurney and pausing in respect—they know where we are headed.
We enter a familiar room. A low buzz of static electricity rides the circulated air. I can almost smell the metal through Alshea’s nose, the cold cylinder suspended from the ceiling that Alshea was always so afraid of.
Gentle hands transfer her into the sarcophagus; she’s small and light enough to be carried alone by Orange Hair. As Green Eyes connects the wires to Alshea’s extremities, Orange Hair chokes back a sob and smoothens the girl’s hair.
“So say I: may the Giant welcome you to her Hall,” they whisper and kiss Alshea’s forehead. “Watch us when you’re up there, little one. I’ll light an orb for you.”
For a moment I am touched, and then the grating sound of the mother yet again urging haste reaches Alshea’s ears, and I am consumed with hatred for Alshea’s progenitors as rich and sharp as the love I have for the girl herself.
Her parents need to disappear. Fragments of an idea begin to form, and as the electrodes are fastened and I feel my reestablished connection to the outside, I ping the Mainframe.
I say: I sense an issue with the sarcophagus connections. Request a diagnostic.
I wonder if the Mainframe will see through the lie. I wait.
/acknowledged. queuing a diagnostic./
Green Eyes checks the interface outside the sarcophagus and curses.
“Watch your mouth, intern. What was that for?” White Streak says.
“Sorry, doc. Looks like the Mainframe has initiated a diagnostic on the sarcophagus for some reason. It’ll take fifteen more minutes after the all-clear for the machine to boot up again.”
On the holocomm the mother swears worse than Green Eyes and claims she has no time for this. And, thank Alshea, she disconnects.
Orange Hair is made Primary Witness, and Green Eyes Secondary. This is my last gift to Alshea: to be free of her parents in her final moments.
Orange Hair and Green Eyes will watch through cameras in the sarcophagus, and next to them will be White Streak, the doctor to sign the death certificate. Once Alshea is declared, her body will be incinerated, and her ashes released into space by the next outward cargo ship.
They say when the ashes scatter in the sea of space, the Giant will collect each particle and transform the deceased into a four-dimensional being who can watch the three-dimensional mortal world from her Great Hall.
The euthanization itself is painless, despite the strength of the electromagnetic fields being ten times greater than they are when they are simply used to stimulate cellular healing. The fields generated by the sarcophagus are crisscrossed, like thousands of tiny Xs where the field lines intersect. When the machine is used to complete a life, the state of each cell in the body is trapped by an X, effectively halting the cell in time, ceasing its functionality.
As Orange Hair pulls the sarcophagus closed, I settle behind Alshea’s eyes and stare into the camera lenses, knowing that they watch on the screen outside, even though they do not know I am here. The diagnostic is clear, of course, and the sarcophagus whirs as it warms up, softly at first then increasingly louder.
I think of Alshea, wonder where she is at the moment. Is she playing with the cats and her stuffed unicorn? Is she painting? Is she enjoying fika in the garden with Tedna and Norai? Watching the star set and the fireflies emerge from . . .
What is a firefly but a singular point of light? An individual photon, trapped inside the belly of a bug? Trapped the way Alshea’s cells will be by each X made by the fields. Could a photon be trapped there at the center of each X, suspended in air?
Green Eyes experienced an electrical shock when I pushed hard against my interface just a day prior; if I recreated that push, could I shock the sarcophagus into generating and then trapping photons? Could I create electromagnetic fireflies?
The hums grow louder, and the electrodes fastened to Alshea’s fingers and toes begin to warm. The end draws close, and while I am nearly resolved to accept Alshea’s fate, I need to try one last time. I think of her parents, boarding their private ship, leaving their tepid moon life behind for one of frivolity and acclaim. I think of Orange Hair fighting to suppress solicitude and remain professional, watching through the cameras. I think of Norai and Tedna and the cats and everyone else who lives in the wondrous, unusual inner world.
As a medical AI, I know life is valued above all else. If there is another choice, it will be taken. Orange Hair, even White Streak, will see to it.
I brace myself as the electromagnetic fields begin to form, and push hard signals against the electrodes, willing my pulses to travel, to shock the system, to manifest as points of light where the lines of each X meet.
Little jolts ripple over Alshea’s skin, and I can feel but not see singular infrared points begin to form in the air around her.
Come on. Come on. I push harder, urging the photons to increase their frequencies and enter the visible spectrum; they need to be seen. Time is of the essence; there is not much buffer for the humans to abort the procedure.
I strain to the point of breaking when, through Alshea’s eyes, I see faint signatures of light beginning to emerge, little points in the air above her, like fireflies emerging at dusk. They grow in intensity and if I could sob now I would sob with relief.
It works; oh it works.
Above Alshea’s eyes, and in direct view of the cameras, my message is suspended, clear as day:
Alshea is alive.
Alshea is safe.
R. P. Sand is a theoretical physicist turned scientific advisor for literature and film, science communicator and educator, and writer of speculative fiction whose words have made the Locus Recommended Reading List. Cats, coffee, cosplay, and colorful socks are a few of her favorite things.