A Brief Lesson in Native American Astronomy

October 25, 2021

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Rebecca Roanhorse is a NYTimes bestselling and Hugo, Nebula, Ignyte, and Locus Award-winning speculative fiction writer. Rebecca has published multiple award-winning short stories and five novels, including two in The Sixth World Series, Star Wars: Resistance Reborn, Race to the Sun for the Rick Riordan imprint, and, most recently, the epic fantasy Black Sun. She has also written for Marvel Comics and for television and had projects optioned by Amazon Studios, Netflix, and AMC. Her next novel, Fevered Star, is out April 19, 2022.

We were gonna be stars. That’s what you got to understand. Big fucking stars. Like Jack and Rose or Mr. and Mrs. Carter, like our faces on every screen, dominating every media feed. Everyone already loved us, wanted to be us, wanted to fuck us. And people like that, people like us? Young, rich, famous? We don’t just get sick and die. They’ve got med docs and implants and LongLife™ tech that keeps people alive for 150 years now if you can afford it, and we could afford it. So how could they let her die? How could I lose my perfect girl? How could they do that to me?

§

I keep the room dark. My agent’s been calling, but fuck him, you know? He says I’m missing important appearances, that if I’m not careful people will forget about me. Maybe it’s time I move on, he says. Find a new girlfriend. Someone hot. Be seen with this new hot chick at a big premiere or something. They’re launching a new luxury liner at the end of the week, he says, something that takes you to the edge of the atmosphere and projects your digital image into outer space before hurling you back to the earth. A billion people will see your face, shining like an honest-to-God star. You should go, he says. Go to almost-space and smile a big almost-smile with a new almost-girlfriend and make people remember who you are. But who the fuck would want to ride that? You can’t breathe up there. Who wants to go where you can’t breathe?

My agent convinces the boss lady of DigImagine to come talk to me. She bangs on my door until I think she’s gonna shatter the glass. That door cost me half my pay on that damn Japanese shampoo commercial where I had to wear that breechcloth and pose in front of a stuffed bison. Sure, it was humiliating, but I do have really stellar Indian hair—long, black, and it moves like it’s got its own built-in wind machine. And the shampoo company was paying big for a few hours of easy work—flip, smolder, flip, smolder. It’s what I do anyway most of the time, so why not?

Can’t remember last time I smiled for the camera. They want stoic, so I give them stoic. Cherie always thought it was funny. We’d laugh about stuff like that all the time.

Whatever.

Anyway, I don’t want some motherfucker breaking my glass door, even if she is a studio head. I let her in because she’s holding a little white envelope. I know that envelope. What it holds. That’s the only reason that I open the door. It’s like I can already feel the wet burn on the back of my eyes. Only question is whose memories she’s holding.

“I’m Carol Elder,” she says, her bone-white pumps click-clacking on the hardwoods as she strides through the door. “Sorry to hear about Charlene.” She turns toward me and thrusts two things into my hands. The white envelope and an old-fashioned business card, her name printed in neat black ink on a white linen card. Our fingers touch briefly, accidentally, and hers are cold.

“Cherie.” I tuck the card in the pocket of the bathrobe I’m wearing and take that envelope over to the kitchen island.

“What?”

“Her name was Cherie. Like the kind you eat. She was sweet.” I don’t know why I say that, but it feels important, like she should get her name right and know that she was a decent person. Despite all the other stuff, the rumors, the thing with the biowear executive. None of that mattered. She was good and didn’t deserve to die.

Carol Elder follows me into the kitchen. She watches as I take a knife from the block and slice the envelope open. I catch her eyes roving the room. The overflowing ashtrays, the food cartons, the big engram needle on the coffee table surrounded by pieces of human hair, nails, flecks of skin. All laid out in a row. I swear she shudders.

“Did the doctors figure out what was wrong with her?” she asks. “What killed … I mean … why she died? Walked on,” she adds hurriedly. “I mean, don’t you people say ‘walked on’?”

I can almost hear the roar of the Pacific out back, but with the blinds down and the air on, it sounds more like traffic on the 405. I don’t give a shit either way. Cherie’s the one who wanted to live on the beach. Malibu, she said. All the real stars live in Malibu, so we have to, too. Even if the truth is half the stars these days are kids with fancy digital setups in Kansas or big corporation simulations that aren’t even fleshies. But Cherie wanted it, so we moved to Malibu.

I shake the contents of the white envelope out. A small glass vial, marked with the initials C.A., a little red band wound around the cap as a warning that the contents are high potency.

“Is this …?” I say, suddenly breathless.

“We keep some high-grade engrams of all our stars for … emergencies. Someone dies mid-production and a vial of quality engrams provides us with enough of the person to project a replicant that will get us through filming and retakes. Sometimes even a few promo interviews. Not in the flesh,” she adds hastily. “We’re not magicians. The replicant is digital, but it is interactive, and they look as good as the best simulations, but with more personality. Closer to the real thing.” She smiles briefly. “We have some of yours, too, you know. It’s part of your contract. DigImagine didn’t just draw your blood when you sign with us for shits and giggles.”

“I didn’t think you did,” I murmur absently, mind still on the vial in my hand. I’m afraid to ask, but I have to. “And this is … her?”

She nods. “She was under contract, but she wasn’t actively filming anything for DigImagine, so her file is scheduled for decommission.” She shifts her weight from one foot to the other. “The authorities can get excitable if we keep engrams when unnecessary. They usually go to next-of-kin, but Cherie didn’t list any. I thought you might want it. That it might help.” She shrugs, her shoulders rising under her spotless pale silk suit, like she doesn’t care either way. Just cleaning house, keeping things tidy.

My eyes dart to the coffee table, the needle. It’s illegal to drop other people’s memories directly into your brain, but I’ve been doing it. It’s all I have left of her. Squeezing engrams off strands of hair left in her brush, fingernail clippings she liked to pile on the nightstand, sweat stains on the dirty clothes she left behind. It’s fucked up. I get that. But she was my perfect girl. And then she died.

“There’s a catch,” she says. “If I give you these engrams, there’s a catch.”

“Anything.”

“You signed contracts, Mr. Hunter. People paid you a lot of money to be in their digitals, and, well, you can’t just not fulfill your obligations.”

“Bereavement,” I mutter. “Can’t you tell them I’m taking time off for bereavement?”

“Yeah, I wish we could do that for you. I really do. But this is millions of dollars. The other actors, it wouldn’t be fair to them.” She leans in. I can see a hint of a tattoo on her shoulder where the blouse gapes at her neck. “And your community back home. Aren’t they counting on you? Expecting you to represent them to the world?”

I wave that away. I don’t think much about home anymore.

“There’s talk of replacing you,” she says.

I look up, annoyed. “With who?”

“The guy from Sixteen Tipis. You know the one.” She gestures towards her short blond hair. I know what she means. He’s got the wind machine hair.

“That guy ain’t even Native. He’s Persian.”

“The engrams are yours, but you have two days. After that, it’s out of my hands.” She spreads her hands to show me just how powerless she is. But I know about Carol Elder. Rumor is she’s a billionaire, controls the fate of every digital that the studio puts out, and she’s telling me it’s out of her hands? Excuse me if I don’t believe it. But here I am, anyway. An idiot who signed a contract, and no way I can flip and smolder myself out of this one. And no way I’m letting them replace me.

The vial feels hot in my hand. She’s in there, my girl. And we can be together again.

“Two days,” Carol repeats. “That’s all I can give you. Just you and her memories and then you’re back to work, okay? Be grateful I got you this at all. Oh, and Mr. Hunter? Dez. I know you’ve been shooting scraps, but this is high-grade stuff. Don’t put this stuff directly into your brain. Find a nice VR system and load them up in an Experience like a goddamn normal person. Nothing good will come from sharing brain space with a dead person, especially when it’s biologicals.”

“Yeah. Sure.” But I’m already stumbling over to the table, my hand searching for the needle, the vial with her initials whispering my name.

Carol opens her mouth, as if to protest, but settles for shaking her head disapprovingly. My hand closes around the cap, and I twist. It opens, and for the first time in days, I smile. I don’t even notice when Carol leaves.

§

I wake up on the couch to someone knocking on my glass door.

“Cherie?” It takes me a minute to remember that it can’t be her. My brain comes slouching back into my noggin and I see the engram needle on the table in front of me, Cherie’s vial empty beside it. I reach for the vial, furious. Shake it, as if that’s going to reveal something I can’t see with my own eyes. But I’m a greedy bastard and I took it all and she’s gone now. My chest hurts like my heart’s gonna break in two, and tears press against the back of my eyeballs.

I wipe at my leaky eyes and notice my video display is on. It’s cycling through pictures. Sharp and technicolor. Cherie’s audition reel. There she is, dressed as a Plains Indian maiden, her hair in two braids. Another as a prostitute, her hair in two braids. Another as an alcoholic mother, her hair in two braids.

I don’t remember turning the display on, but I must have done it after I shot up the engrams, something to enhance the sensories. Looking at her, it’s like I can still feel her in my brain.

The knock comes again.

I twist around to look at the door, but there’s no one there. God, am I hearing things, too?

“I’m over here, babe.”

I yelp at the sound of Cherie’s voice coming from the kitchen. What in the entire fuck? But there she is, wearing her favorite shirt, blue jeans snug on her perfect ass. Her dark hair is twisted up in a bun on top of her head. She gives me a big smile.

“Good morning, gorgeous,” she says. “I thought you were going to sleep forever. Want some coffee?”

I stare, slack-jawed. My heart speeds up, again, this time in that grasping desperation you feel when you wake up suddenly from a really great dream you don’t want to let go.

“Are you …?” I manage to stutter out.

“I’m alive in here,” she says, tapping a pretty painted nail to her temple. “As long as my engrams are still floating around in your head, I’m here.”

“That lady said they’d be potent.”

“She was right. Coffee?”

§

We spend the morning together. A perfect morning. Drinking coffee and laughing over shared jokes. Jokes I thought died with her, but here she is, so real. Real enough to touch. And we touch. In fact, we touch until sometime in the late afternoon, and the sun’s starting to set somewhere out there over the ocean, and I crawl out of our bed with nothing on and throw the curtains open wide so the ocean air comes in, and the dwindling daylight with it.

It’s a mistake.

“Cherie …?”

She looks up at me, catching the alarm in my voice. The flesh on half her face is missing, the sunlight degrading the memory of her to skeleton and ruin. I step back, alarmed. I remember something on the news about engrams being sensitive to light, but I didn’t know they would do that. For a fleeting moment, horror crawls up my spine and plants itself in my brain, right next to my true memories of my girl, fouling them. Turning them into something out of a B-grade screamer.

“Maybe we don’t need the sunset after all,” I tell her, my voice shaking as I hastily pull the curtains closed.

“Oh.” She smiles as the light leaves the room. “Sure, Dez. We’re better in the darkness anyway.”

§

Dinner is a pack of cigarettes by shards of moonlight on the deck out back, the crash of the surf wild and rough in my ears. Cherie sits next to me, smiling. She’s faded and eerie where the moonlight touches her face, but I try to ignore it. Keep my eyes out on the blackness of the Pacific. Even better, close my eyes so I can’t see her at all, but can still know she’s there.

But with my eyes closed, her scent is stronger and unnervingly sweet. So, I open them.

She reaches over and lays her hand over mine. Something skitters over my fingers, and I pull back. I swear I catch sight of a black beetle crawling over the edge of the deck and disappearing into the vast stretch of sand around us. But I’m not sure.

§

We are in bed, me and Cherie, and I wrap my arm around her, and at first she is soft in all the right places, like I remember her. But then she is soft in the wrong places, flesh giving way where it should be firm. My fingers dip into the curve of her stomach and keep going, digging out flesh the same way the light cut away her face before, and the smell follows. I recognize it now, the startling stench of decay in my nose.

I gag. She turns toward me, sleepy and smiling faintly. Unaware that she is rotting and I can smell her doing it.

I stumble out of bed to the bathroom, the contents of my stomach coming up. Shivers rake my shoulders, and doubt settles thick in my head. This can’t be real. This is a fucking illusion, just like Cherie herself is an illusion. One I asked for, sure. One I want. Wanted.

I tiptoe back to my bedside and fumble in the dark for my phone. Slide the slim earpiece in. Find my bathrobe and pull the card out of the pocket where I left it. Recite the number into the voice recognition.

“Do you know what time it is?” Carol’s voice comes in crisp and irritated just as her image pops up in my visual. She’s sitting up in bed, in a dark room. A female shape sleeps beside her, hazy in the shadow.

I glance at the time output in the corner of the screen. “Five in the morning. Shit. Sorry.”

She shakes her head, waving my apology away. “I was getting up soon anyway. What is it, Mr. Hunter?”

“I … I did what you told me not to do.”

“And that is?”

“The engrams. Cherie’s engrams. I injected them.”

Carol’s lips curl, her expression unsurprised and my confession unworthy of comment.

“And now she won’t go away,” I rush on. “And she’s … degrading.”

“What do you mean ‘degrading’?”

“Like a corpse.”

Carol makes a sound in her throat. “Jesus.” She frowns. “Have you tried just sleeping them off?”

“You don’t get it. She’s here. She’s real. She’s in my bed right now. Rotting.”

“You’re simply hallucinating,” she says, dismissive. “I warned you. You’ll just have to wait it out.”

“Dez, babe, is that you?” Cherie’s voice from the bedroom.

Carol’s chin lifts. “Is that her?”

I nod.

“I can hear her, too. It must have something to do with this.” She taps her earpiece on the visual. “Amazing.”

“You have to help me!”

“I’m not a memorologist,” Carol snaps, sounding exasperated. I flinch at her tone, and she must take pity on me because she says, “I’ll make some calls. See what I can do.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re supposed to be back at DigImagine tomorrow.”

Another day alone in the house with Cherie? Before it sounded like heaven, but now. “I’ll come today if I can. But if she’s still in my brain …”

“Will she follow you out of the house?”

Into the sunlight? “I don’t know.”

“Try that. And I’ll try to find someone who can help.”

§

I leave the house just as the sun is peeking over the eastern mountains. Out here in Malibu there’s no paparazzi, no WeCams or fan drones that follow you around recording everything you do. The skies are patrolled, and the houses are behind gates. So, it’s just me, alone, as I slide into the back of the driverless car.

“DigImagine Studios in Culver City,” I tell the onboard computer as the car comes to life.

“Good morning, gorgeous.”

I grip the edge of the seat. Turn slowly to see her sitting next to me. She’s wearing her favorite shirt, and those jeans. I stifle a whimper as she smiles and I can see her jawbone through the place on her face where the rot has set in. See the hollow of her throat, grown black and green.

“Cherie?”

“You left without coffee. Don’t you want your coffee?”

“How did you follow me?”

“I’m alive in here,” she says, tapping a pretty painted nail to her temple. “As long as my engrams are still floating around in your head, I’m here.”

“For how long?”

“Don’t you want me around, Dez?” Her pout shifts to something else, and she leans forward. Her eyeball looks wet and too round. “You promised you’d stay with me. ‘Always,’ you said. You said you’d never leave.”

“I—I know,” I stutter out. “And I meant it. But—”

“Always is forever, Dez.” Her voice hardens. “Don’t back out on me now.”

“I won’t.” I tell the car to turn off and climb down out of the back seat. Walk back to our house and through the glass door. Slump on the couch. The visual display is on. There’s Cherie in her two braids. Cherie as a—

“Want some coffee, gorgeous?” Cherie calls brightly from the kitchen.

§

I wake up on the couch to someone knocking on my glass door. Light trails in as the sun rises over the Santa Monica Mountains in the east. Sunrise. Sunrise on the third day.

I look around, cautious. Everything is quiet. The visual display is off, even if I don’t remember turning it off.

“Cherie?”

No answer, so I try again. Twist my neck to look in the kitchen, my breath in my teeth, half expecting her to be there, coffee in hand. But it’s empty.

Relief bubbles up from my belly, and I let my breath out with a harsh whoop. Carol Elder was right. I just needed to wait it out, sleep it off. The engrams must have worn off.

The knock comes again, and I pull myself up off the couch and double-step it to the door, feeling clean and brand-new. Carol’s there, in another crisp suit, holding another white envelope. “We missed you at the studio this morning,” she says, as she click-clacks over the threshold. “I did say two days.”

“I tried,” I explain, “but she was still in my head. She’s gone now. Two days was the charm. And don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I got to say good-bye. Grateful even,” I say, folding my hands in prayer. “But we all gotta move on.”

She stops and studies me, her chin tilting to the side. “I spoke to a friend of mine. A memorologist. She said that they’ve done experiments with test subjects willing to inject the engrams directly, and the results were … unpleasant.”

“What does that mean?”

“The effect is permanent.” Her voice is precise when she says it. I imagine she fires people with that voice. “The foreign engrams integrate into the subject’s brains. They never go away, Dez.”

I flip my hair over my shoulder and grin. Hold my arms out wide. I catch a glimpse of myself in the wall mirror. I look like a goddamn movie star. “Save your pity, Carol. Your memorologist is wrong. I’m fine. Better than fine. And, listen. I learned my lesson. No more engrams for me, okay?” I tap my forehead to make my point.

She sets the white envelope with my name written on it on the kitchen island. “My friend said they have had some success countering the effect by reasserting the subject’s own memories. Enough of Dez Hunter, and Cherie Agoyo is consumed.”

“You’re not listening to me. She’s already gone.” I feel a tinge of sorrow when I say it that way. I loved her. She was my perfect girl.

Carol presses a hand to the envelope. “Keep this anyway. A just-in-case.”

“Fine, but I won’t need them.”

We walk back to the glass door. She pauses as she steps through. “I put them off one more day, but tomorrow is it. Be there tomorrow at six a.m. or you’re in breach of contract and we call in Dabiri.”

“I’ll be there. No way Sixteen Tipis is getting my job.”

She waves over her shoulder as she walks to her waiting car.

“Hey,” I call. “Did you hear about that luxury liner that goes all the way to space? That’s tonight. I might go. Be seen. Get my face projected into space!”

Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. And I’ll look good doing it.

§

And I do. I condition the hair, find just the right outfit to wear, a mix between glam and effortlessly cool, and then let my good looks do the rest. My agent’s more than happy to arrange to have a WeCam follow me, and my image streams out live to millions of households and handhelds as I wave and walk up the ramp onto the waiting liner. The party inside is thick with celebrities, and I work the room, accepting condolences and welcome-backs and propositions with equal charm. When I hit the bar, I almost order a champagne like I used to do for Cherie, but I catch myself and ask for some kind of Croatian beer instead that’s all the rage.

Everyone gathers at the windows as we take off, and the acceleration through the atmosphere feels like nothing, smoother than the airplane turbulence that used to accompany low-altitude flight. Soon enough we’re approaching the hundred-kilometer mark, and when the captain tells us we’ve reached the edge of the atmosphere, I lean forward and peer out the window into the perpetual darkness, like everyone else.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Cherie says.

I swerve with a shout, my hand spasming. Drop my beer, which splashes the woman next to me. She cries out, and I rush to apologize, but she storms off, distraught, before the words are out. The WeCam over my shoulder buzzes as the viewer count erupts upward by a couple million.

“Smooth move, gorgeous.” Cherie looks out the window not more than an arm’s length away. She smiles, and worms fall from her mouth.

I reel back, slamming into the people behind me. I hear glass shatter and rough voices, and someone pushes back, and I stumble forward. The WeCam buzzes loudly.

“I’m alive in here,” she says, tapping a pretty painted nail to her temple. “As long as my engrams are still floating around in your head, I’m here.”

I grip my jacket pocket, the one with the engram needle and the vial Carol Elder brought me. My just-in-case. They are solid and real under my hand, and I force my way through the crowd toward the privacy of the bathroom, my hand already pulling the needle from my pocket.

I stagger into the narrow space and slam the door shut. It catches the edge of the WeCam flying in over my shoulder, knocking it into the wall. The indicator light flashes an alarm, but I can still hear the buzz of view feeds growing. I splash my face with water, try to get my goddamn calm back, but when I look in the mirror, Cherie is right behind me.

I stifle a scream. Yank the vial marked D.H. free and twist off the cap with a jerk. Ram the plunger home and watch the needle fill.

Hands shaking, I dare to look up. Cherie hasn’t moved. She’s watching. But there’s something dark in her face. Something waiting.

“Come on, come on,” I mutter, until the needle is at full business and I grasp for the back of my neck and ram that thing into the injection spot. I can feel when the engrams hit my brain. Flashes of childhood. My grandma’s place by the Rio Grande River. My first ceremonial dance. And meeting Cherie in high school. And then my memories are all Cherie. Cherie at prom. Cherie when we both landed our first digital gigs. Cherie moving into the Malibu house. Cherie. Cherie. Cherie.

Carol Elder didn’t tell me what to do if there is no Dez Hunter without Cherie Agoyo.

On the camera feedback screen I see myself, sweaty and panicked, my eyes glazed and a needle gripped in my hand. And Cherie standing beside me, looking as real as any fleshie.

The WeCam dings, indicating the livestreams have hit capacity. A billion viewers, our faces projected across outer space.

We’re goddamn stars.

© Rebecca Roanhorse
Originally published in The Mythic Dream, ed. Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe (Saga Press, 2019)

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