The Laura Ingalls Experience26 min read
I am on fire.
Around me smoke and orange sparks spiral upwards. I feel the heat deep in my titanium bones, but there’s no pain. For a moment, I want to fight the instincts that scream at me to pull away.
I twist out of the flames as a hundred kilos of heroic wagon driver slams into me, carrying me to the ground. He wraps me in something wooly and rough — bison robes. In the fire I could hear the crackle of burning wood, the whoosh of my dress igniting. Now the only sound is Tasunke’s ragged breathing. Then the prairie orchestra: a symphony of crickets fiddling in the night. Finally, the alarmed voices of the others.
God, I’m a fool. And such a long, long way from home.
Here is a postcard from Earth.
Our small tour group left the town of De Smet, South Dakota two days ago. We trundled on our rickety wagon wheels through a sea of prairie grasses, the sky and the land stretching out flat and uninterrupted. Once we even saw the dots of bison on the far horizon. But they were travelling in the opposite direction and soon out of sight, even for my enhanced eyes.
That horizon — it’s so far away. It’s still hard to process the size of everything on Earth: the flatness of the world, the giant, blazing sun, hotter than it has a right to be.
The sky has been blue and clear every day. The nights full of stars. Tasunke, our wagon driver and guide, has rolled back the wagon’s canvas cover halfway, giving us our choice of sun or shade. Alice and Hitomi stay in the shade, fanning themselves. They arrived already costumed, wearing custom-fitted corsets, pinafores to protect their delicate dresses, parasols, and poke bonnets with blue ribbons and bows. Hand-made carpet bags and needlepoint.
Me, I’ve been stuck in my tourist-issue plain-Jane dress and ill-fitting corset. If my skin was made of flesh, I’d have chafing and blisters by now.
I’ve taken to sitting on the sunny side of the wagon. Across from me is Zara, with the glittering black eyes. And beside me, Marcus, the sole man in the group, who likes to sit close. Oh, and Jack the dog curled at our feet, panting in the heat. Named after Laura’s Jack, faithful companion and watchdog. Who was lost, then found again.
Like all postcards, this one is a short tale woven from half-truths. But still, the image is real: blue sky, green grass, a team of brown horses and a wagon. It looks as if Laura Ingalls herself might be inside with Ma and her sisters. Pa out hunting on the prairie. All of them heading to the plot of land where he’ll build their little house.
You would have loved it all.
The fire is out. The singed bison robe unwrapped. “Get the first-aid kit,” Tasunke calls out to someone behind me.
I sit up. “I’m alright.”
“Ella, you’ve been burned. Don’t move. Don’t move a muscle.”
My dress is in tatters, my hair melted to stubble. But it would take more than a few seconds of flame to damage me.
Tasunke doesn’t understand until he takes a light from the first-aid kit, the harsh brightness out of place in our lamp-lit trip. He touches my arm as if it’s made from bone china.
“I told you I was okay,” I say.
He looks up, the surprise obvious on his broad face. “You’re …”
“Mech,” I say, finishing his sentence. “And fire resistant.”
There’s an ugly red mark on his hand. I touch it and he winces. “Oh,” I say. “That looks like a nasty burn.”
He doesn’t look away from me. “Why didn’t you say something before?”
“Would you have let me burn if you’d known?”
“Don’t be an idiot.”
I don’t know why I said it. No, that’s a lie: I do know. It’s the same reason I’ve been eating with everyone when I don’t need food. Going off into the grass and pretending to pee when we stop for a break. But the curtain has come up during a scene change, leaving me exposed as the actor that I am.
The others have all arrived. I look up at them, my travelling companions, try to read their expressions in the half-light. Nothing is going to be the same.
You and I ignored the Church as children, even as it spread through the scattered settlements of the asteroid belt. Our family was devoutly undevout. Though I sometimes wished for the ancient gods when I was younger — the names of the Romans were written on rocks across the solar system, after all. Minerva, Juno, Ceres. What if the gods themselves had retreated there instead of dying out two thousand years before?
But then there was that cathedral inside Vesta, carved by miners who wanted to dedicate something to the glory of God in all that darkness. Sunlight piped in through optical fibers, glowing through stained glass. I only saw a monument to mankind, but it touched you in ways I didn’t understand.
There are still things I don’t understand. But I know one certainty: neural uploading is suicide. A mortal sin.
I am reminded of this when we set out on the wagon the next morning. Zara sits as far away from me as possible, avoids meeting my eyes. Her cross is now displayed prominently on her cream dress. The dull gleam of hammered meteoric iron.
I maneuver my own cross so that it’s visible, but it makes no difference.
Marcus isn’t avoiding me. In fact, he sits even closer than he had the day before. His gaze is hungry. “They made you sign something this morning,” he says.
The tour company’s little flitter had touched down just before breakfast, lawyer onboard, prop-wake pushing down the grass and scattering various flora and fauna across the prairie. Ruining the illusion of the nineteenth century we’d all paid so much for.
“I had to waive all potential claims from the accident. And future claims too in case anything else happens to me. They only have organic insurance coverage.”
“That’s discrimination,” he says. “I thought they were progressive down here.”
“As in Earth, fleshpot of the solar system progressive?” I glance at Zara. The words are aimed at her more than him but she still acts as if I’m not there at all.
Marcus nods. His hand has found its way onto my arm. I send it back where it came from with an almost absent-minded flick. But after it’s gone there’s an echo of the pressure. A disconcerting tingling.
“It’s certainly more open-minded than the rest of the solar system. Doctor Wu’s clinic is still here, after all.” I wasn’t planning on mentioning the clinic, but there it is, hanging in the air above the wagon floor. Jack the dog scratches himself in the silence that follows.
Marcus’s face lights up. “Is that where you were uploaded? Did you know Doctor Wu also makes the finest love mechs in the system?”
And there we have it. Now I know what he is.
Your new religion didn’t stop you from working with me, sister, but how could it not come between us? Twins share so much, but this we couldn’t find an accommodation for. In ports you’d visit the chapel while I hit the bars or the casino. Feeling your disapproval when I stumbled back to our ship in the wee hours. Or after breakfast if I’d hooked up with someone. All the while I knew you were praying for me and I resented it.
Did it make me sloppy? Did it make me careless in a place where inattention can easily get you killed?
We halt in a gentle hollow. The next stop on the tour approaches. Zara perks up, Hitomi and Alice put away their needlepoint.
“Lunch,” Tasunke calls out. There is a sense of deflation after he says it. “We’re almost there. Promise. But we need to eat first.”
He sets Patti and Pet on their picket lines so they can graze, then unwraps the meal from the basket he’s taken from the wagon. He looks at me for a moment with an awkward question in his eyes as he puts out the food. I shake my head. No sense in pretending any longer.
As Zara says grace, I walk cautiously around the wagon. Some days I feel like I’m remotely piloting a woman-shaped vehicle, and this is one of them. I have to think about every movement before I make it.
The horses are cropping the grass, chewing loudly. I walk up to Patti, who I can distinguish from Pet only by the name on her harness. “There there.” I feel faintly ridiculous. What do you say to a horse? I put my hand on her shoulder, stroking it gently. Patti is muscular and warm. Comforting.
After a while, something occurs to me. I’m kneeling behind the horses, looking back the way we’d come when I hear a voice. “I love the wagon tracks.” It’s Marcus, who has appeared quietly. “They’re so realistic. It’s like we’ve actually travelled back in time.”
“You think so?”
Marcus looks confused. “Isn’t that the point of all of this?”
I stand up. He’s close and I have an impulse to poke him in the chest, so I do. He steps back, startled. “How much traffic would it take to make these tracks?” I say. “How many trips to keep the grass from growing? There’s got to be a machine that grooms them.”
“OK, sure. But why does it matter?”
I don’t answer. I just keep barrelling on. “This wilderness around us: how much work do you think it would have taken to create it? Somebody had to remove the farm foundations and fence posts. The rusted tractor parts, all the fucking roads and ruined towns.”
Marcus takes another step backwards. I’m sure if I had spittle, I’d be spraying it on him by now, ranting away. There’s a point to this, I think. I grasp for it. “Patti and Pet. The horses.”
Marcus glances at the grazing animals. “What about them?”
“They’re mech. They’re not producing horseshit. Just pellets of compressed grass.” I point to one of the green lumps lying between the wagon tracks.
He looks at me as if I’m an idiot. “Didn’t you read the FAQ on day one?”
Of course I didn’t. Who reads FAQs?
“Animal welfare laws discourage using real horses to pull a wagon. They might get injured.”
Ah yes, progressive, bleeding-heart Earth. Where they’ve forgotten what it’s like to live in a universe that’s constantly trying to kill you.
I’m trying to think of something to say when the first Indian arrives. Or rather the second, because of course Tasunke is Sioux. But he’s from the metropolis of Sioux Falls and dresses as Pa would have in the Little House books: a plain shirt, dark jacket and trousers. He looks like the rest of us. Someone in a rented costume. This new man is something else.
He’s riding a real horse, for one thing. It glows with life, practically dancing in place. The man on its back has something of the horse’s vitality as well. He’s wearing tanned hide, moccasins, a brace of feathers in his hair. He looks at all of us impassively. Muscles move in his forearms and biceps as he holds the reins taut.
He speaks in a language I don’t understand. He talks for a couple of minutes, finishing with open hands raised. Then he turns his horse and trots back up the slight hill to the north and ,in a minute, is lost in the waving grass.
Tasunke stands in front of the group. “We have been welcomed,” he says. “And invited to visit their camp. We will spend the night there and partake in their hospitality.”
Alice and Hitomi grin at each other. Zara cracks a rare smile. “Nicely done,” Marcus says to Tasunke. “That’s attention to detail.”
Tasunke glances at me. I’m fairly sure I’m wearing a skeptical expression. That’s me: doubting Ella.
It was one of those early mornings that was clinging to the night before. I came back from a port bar on Ceres, blurry around the edges. I was halfway to my bunk when I heard your voice, softly. “Ella. Come here.” You’d been waiting up for me and I tensed, expecting a lecture.
Instead, you handed me a glowing rectangle. A slate with a decrypted message on it. “Tell me I’m reading this wrong.”
I looked at the slate, trying to make sense of the numbers on the screen.
We had our probes, like all mining co-ops. Little boxes studded with solar panels and Hall effect thrusters bumbling their way through the belt, looking for pay dirt in one of the hundred million or so unexplored minor asteroids that littered the space between Mars and Jupiter.
This was a message from one of them. The rock our probe had found was a long way from us. We’d burn a lot of fuel to get there. I was already calculating the cost, the time, all the logistics in my head that said it wasn’t worth pursuing this year, when I realized what the numbers were saying.
The asteroids are full of valuable things: rare earth elements, platinum group metals, water. But most valuable of all were primordial radionuclides, radioactive elements created in dying stars. Fuel for ship drives, for the reactors that kept the lights on pretty much everywhere past Jupiter. The rock was saturated with them.
“It’s got to be a mistake.” I almost shook the slate to see if the number would change.
“That’s what I thought,” you said. “So I got the probe to re-run the tests. Three times.”
I could feel my mouth opening, an O of surprise. “That’s got to be millions of dollars.”
“Tens of millions,” you said, the tiniest wobble in your voice. “Maybe more.”
“Jesus fucking Christ.”
You frowned at me. “Sorry,” I said. “But I don’t think He’d mind, just this once. Do you?”
I stand by the front of the wagon while Tasunke puts Patti and Pet on their picket lines again. “Why do you bother?” I ask finally.
Tasunke looks at me.
“Tying up the horses. They’re not going to wander off, are they?”
“Attention to detail,” he replies. “Like your friend said.”
“He’s not my friend.”
Tasunke shrugs. “This is the Laura Ingalls Experience. In the books they put their horses on picket lines, so we do too. It’s what you’re paying for, isn’t it?”
“I’m not really sure what I’m paying for.”
He looks at me in an oddly familiar way. It takes me a moment, then I have it. It’s how the counsellors at the rehabilitation clinic looked at me. Faces full of concern and sympathy.
“So tell me: why did you do it?”
If I had a heart it would be pounding now. I can imagine my brain fruitlessly trying to release adrenaline into my unresponsive body. “Do what?” I ask casually.
He looks uncomfortable for a moment. “You know … Go into the fire.”
I breathe out, realizing I’ve been holding my airflow back. Relief. “It’s not what you think. It’s just … I’d never seen one before.”
He looks at me, confused.
“There are no open flames out there.” I wave in the direction of the sky. “Fire in a ship or a habitat is a terrible thing. So I was watching it. But I was too close. I’m clumsy. I fell over.”
I can tell he’s deciding whether or not to believe me. Time to change the subject. “Are they actors, the Indians?”
Tasunke laughs. A short bark. “No,” he says. “Definitely not.”
“They can’t be authentic. Nobody lives like that any longer.”
“See if you can figure it out,” he says. “Most tourists don’t.”
“I’m not a fucking tourist,” I say, feeling like a fool the moment the words come out. He just raises an eyebrow. Time to go into camp.
You and I read the Little House books as girls, both of us racing to finish each one before the other did. Laura Ingalls’s life seemed to echo our own. The vast empty spaces around the family of pioneers. The intensely practical nature of their lives. The sisters growing up together, intertwined.
On the two month trip to our little radioactive rock you started reading them again. I had other things to do, some of them involving old movies and games, some of them constructing increasingly ridiculous plans for my share of the find. And some of them secret.
One day I looked up and saw a tear, a little globe sliding down your cheek at a glacial pace, pulled by the modest acceleration of our drive.
“What’s that for?”
You blushed. Wiped it with your sleeve. “Do you remember By the Shores of Silver Lake?”
I shook my head. At some point the books had all become mixed together in my memory. Houses, hardship, horses. I’d left them behind a long time ago — turned toward the real world of machines and rocks and the treasures within them.
“It’s just …” You stopped for a moment. I could feel the emotion radiating from you. “There’s this scene near the end where Laura’s little sister Grace gets lost. They’re all out looking for her. There’s a place called the Big Slough where there’s mud and water and you can tell the family thinks she’s wandered off and drowned. They’re frantic. But finally Laura stumbles across this hollow in the land. An old buffalo wallow full of blooming violets.”
I had an image then, the land carpeted in flowers. It swam up through my memory. I nodded. “Grace was there. She was safe.”
“It was as if she was adrift in the blue sky.” You paused for a moment. I waited for you to say something about me then. Something about the sloughs I’d found myself in.
“I’d like to see that sky some day,” you said. “Just once. See Silver Lake and the Little House. That’s what I’ll do with my share of the rock.”
I looked out our starboard viewport. Most ships don’t have them: they’re an extravagance, and they’re not as safe as just bringing a video feed in through the skin. But we had two — you’d insisted. Outside was the familiar darkness, studded with the pinpoint sparks of stars.
I liked the sky black. I had no interest in seeing it any other colour.
Hitomi and Alice find me at the edge of camp.
“You haven’t been avoiding people, have you?” They’re arm in arm, parasols in hand. There is kindness in Alice’s voice.
I’ve been scrutinizing the camp. “Just looking for seams.”
But there are no seams. The horses are real, the tipis are tanned hide and hand-carved wooden poles. The smell of authentic bison stew and woodsmoke drifts through camp.
“We just wanted to tell you we don’t mind,” Hitomi says. “About your …”
“Condition,” Alice finishes.
Hitomi frowns minutely. “Circumstances. I think condition implies something else. Like pregnancy.”
I touch my flat stomach. “Definitely not that.” Never that. All the biology of being a woman — the inconvenience and the promise of it, has been taken away from me forever. I just look like I’m whole.
Hitomi smiles, her face crinkling. She could be my grandmother: the same eyes, the same wrinkles. “We knew another upload.”
“On Mars,” Alice says. “A few years back.”
Hitomi nods. “They must be getting better. He was so stiff and awkward. You’re …”
“You have a spark,” Alice says. “An air about you.”
Hitomi puts her hand on my arm. “The thing we’re trying to say, dear, is that we don’t believe in all that sin business.”
I can’t look either of them in the eye. “The problem is, I do.”
There was a time when you and I didn’t hide anything from each other. There was a time when I sneered at people who used chemistry to mediate their experience of the world.
But you’d found meaning in coloured light flooding through the windows of a chapel carved in the heart of an asteroid. And I couldn’t be a part of that. So I searched for it in a small bag of pills that I’d bought in the bathroom of one of the less reputable port bars on Ceres.
Marcus approaches me after dinner. I’d joined everyone this time, chewing my bison and turnip stew after the traditional blessing and Zara’s grace. Her black eyes flashing at me as if I didn’t deserve to hear the words. I stayed as long as I could stand it.
Now I’m outside in the cool night. It’s alive with sound: a humming, buzzing insect chorus. The wind sweeps across the prairie, ruffling the grasses with invisible fingers.
“It’s a bit close in there, isn’t it?”
He’s standing a few meters away. I don’t speak. He comes nearer.
“I saw you had dinner. But you don’t actually need to eat, do you?”
“The food gets stored in a pouch in my abdomen, for disposal later.”
“But some models can, can’t they? They break down the food for energy.”
I sigh. Give into the pressure of his curiosity. “Not me. Food has a terrible mass to energy ratio for hauling around out in the black.”
He’s quiet for a moment. “Um … your other functions. They’re … um, are they …?”
“Oh for God’s sake,” I say. “I know you’re a mech-fucker; just come out with it.”
My night vision is on and I can see his face heating up as the blush rises. “Can you …?”
I remember the tingle when he touched my arm. On an impulse I turn to him and kiss him. There’s a flood of sensation, a warmth that spreads across my chest and down my abdomen. One of his hands finds my left buttock and squeezes. His body responds, heart racing, blood vessels dilating.
Orgasm occurs in the mind, not the flesh. I could test this new body of mine. It would be so easy to give into the feelings the synthetic nerves are feeding to my brain.
But I don’t deserve this. I step back from him. “I can,” I say. “But I can’t, also.”
I see confusion on his face.
“I’m a biological brain and a skull and part of a spinal cord, Marcus. All wrapped up in this body you think is so perfect.”
“Oh,” he says. It only takes him a moment to understand. “So I was wrong: you didn’t come from Doctor Wu’s, you’re going there.”
“I don’t know where I’m going.” This is the part when, if I were real, the tears would stream down my cheeks.
The United Nations conventions on solar system resource exploitation are clear. A co-op with mining rights cannot claim a rock via surveys or automatic probes. To possess their share of the wealth locked up in a rock, members of the co-op must physically visit it, perform assays, attach a transponder, then tow it back to an authorized orbit for mining operations.
Two months bottled up with you in our little tug and I was dying to go outside. So I volunteered to do the surface work. People can get lost outside. Not floating off into space lost, but mentally — reduced to fragments, ego flattened, distracted to the point of forgetting to come in when their air runs low. But not me. I’ve never had the imagination.
Still, I wanted to feel it. I wanted a taste of what you experienced. You saw a universe threaded with meaning, where all I could see was a cold and hostile place where we mattered no more or less than the rocks we drilled into. So after I’d set up the transponder and tow lines and transmitted our mineral claim to Ceres, I took some chemical enlightenment.
This particular mix was designed to shut down my default-mode network, that part of my brain that inhibited everything else. Dissolve the boundaries between the world and myself. The literature I’d read said it produced feelings of oneness with the universe. Adherents spoke of mystical experiences.
I watched you pass by one of the ports, the inside of the tug warm and cozy compared to the vast, cold bulk of the rock we had just claimed as our own. You were busy, probably humming to yourself as we both do when we’re alone. You looked happy.
I sent you a quick message — a lie about work I had to do on the surface for a few hours — then I swallowed the pill from the dispenser in my helmet and waited for something to happen.
I find the seam I was looking for when we’re on the train to Independence, Kansas. It was something I’d heard some of the Indians say when I was hanging around the edge of camp. When they didn’t know I was out there. Shuune. It’s not a word in Sioux, according to the dictionary. But when I whisper it into the translator in my personal slate it pops up a suggestion. Schön.
Tasunke’s reading a paper book in the forward compartment. The steam engine is chugging away in front of us. He looks up when I approach.
“Germans,” I say.
He raises an eyebrow.
“They were Germans, at the camp. Not real Indians. I’m right, aren’t I?”
“Got me,” he says. “They’ve been coming here since the twentieth century — dressing up, acting more Indian than the rest of us. They even speak Lakota Sioux. Most of the time, anyway.”
“People aren’t offended?”
“My great-grandfather might have been. He was something fierce. But we have our own nation again; the farmers are all gone and bison roam the plains. They have an audience who appreciates them. Everybody wins.”
He’s a good man. I can see it in him. “I’m not an upload,” I confess. “I just wanted to let you know that.”
Tasunke nods. “Marcus told us already. He said there’d been a terrible accident.”
So much for confidences whispered in the night.
“He also said you might go to Doctor Wu’s clinic after the tour. Let them upload you there.”
I scrutinize him, but he seems the same as he’s always been. Unflappable. “Would it matter if I did?” I ask.
He looks at me steadily. “I have no idea what it’s like to be you. If you think it’s necessary, who am I to say any different? Not everyone has the same ideas about the soul as the Christians do.”
I nod. It’s not nothing, having him accept this. I turn to go back to my seat. “But be aware,” he says as I go, “Zara’s going to come at you at some point. She has a mission now.”
“A mission? Like a spy?”
He smiles at that. “A mission, like a missionary.”
I felt myself die, twice.
The first was ego death. Courtesy of my little white pill. My self — the I inside my head — dwindled until it was a pinprick and my mind was flooded with emotion and sensation. I’d latched myself to the surface of our little asteroid, touching rock that had been unchanged for four and a half billion years. I saw you, my twin sister, connected to me by DNA, by history, by shared experience. I saw that my body was just a collection of atoms, connected to the rock by our shared ancestry in the birth of the solar system. A part of the fabric of the universe. A child of God. Connections everywhere. It was beautiful.
At some point, as my ego crept back in, I saw the sloppy work I’d done fixing the tow lines to the asteroid. I’d been in a hurry, trying to carve out a few hours for my pill. I’d used shaped charges instead of setting the much slower remote drills. And something was wrong. At least one of the charges hadn’t fired.
Mining charges have safeties: triply redundant. But they were not designed for a miner tripping on synthetic neurotransmitters who sees the hand of God in everything she does. I grabbed the tool carrier and set out to fix things.
No sound in space: you wouldn’t have heard the explosion. But you would have heard the bang as the hull was breached, then alarms, rapidly fading to nothing as the tug lost air pressure. You should have been safe: we’d trained enough for decompression. But a slug of liquid metal had passed straight through your environment suit, peppered the backup too. Shards of rock cracked one of those viewports. There was nowhere to go.
Getting to the ship was a bad dream where everything went wrong. It felt like I was piloting my body from far away. Everything clumsy, everything frustratingly slow. My suit leaking from a dozen tiny punctures. When I finally made it through the airlock, I found you floating, a softball-sized sphere of blood next to your head.
Our emergency hibernation system was designed to keep an injured person at a minimal metabolic rate until they could be brought to a proper medical facility. It was not designed for miracles.
Nevertheless, I put you in the first bag. A straw I clutched at.
The ship was rapidly losing heat and air. Warning lights flashed. The drive worked, but life support was wrecked. I set a course for the nearest habitat, turned on our emergency beacon. Then I slid my damaged body into the second bag and felt the bite of cold.
This was the second death. When I triggered the hibernation sequence I knew in my numb heart that I wouldn’t be waking up again.
The Little House itself is a disappointment. The reconstruction of Laura Ingalls’s famous prairie home sits on section 36, Rutland Township, Kansas. Just outside Independence, where the train stopped. It’s smaller than I’d imagined. And not unlike a pile of logs.
“So,” I say to Marcus as we stand outside, looking at the place. “Two hundred years ago they built a cabin here based on a description in a book from a century before. And Laura and her family only lived here for a year. It’s a bit of a stretch, isn’t it? They were at Silver Lake much longer, not to mention her parents finally settled down there.”
Marcus shrugs. “It’s on the tour. Anyway, this is the one everyone remembers.” He walks over to the big sign at the side of the house and starts reading.
I feel comfortable with Marcus: it was very clear what he wanted from me, and once it was obvious he wasn’t going to get it, we’ve settled on a friendly truce. I pretend not to notice his quick glances; he pretends — well, I don’t know what he pretends. Don’t want to know.
Then I realize he’s gone and Zara is in his place.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” she says, coming closer.
“Damn right I have. I don’t need your judgement.”
She stares at me. Her eyes are so dark. It’s only now I realize they’re artificial. “You think I’m judging you?”
Her cross is out, swinging on a thin silver chain. “I think you want to save my soul,” I say.
“If I do, is that a judgement?”
I glance around. Marcus and the others are at the schoolhouse. I catch his eye and he mimes a shrug, then he’s gone around the corner. The coward. There’s a little wooden bench by the door of the cabin and I sit down on it. “Yes,” I say. “You’re judging that it’s actually worth saving.”
Zara sighs. She rubs her cross between her fingers. “Did you know I have a brain implant?”
“No,” I reply, startled.
“Five years ago my husband got caught outside during a coronal mass ejection without enough shielding. I got careless after he died. I think part of me wanted to join him. Until I got hit by a flying bolt during a repair job in low Mars orbit. I shouldn’t have survived, but I did. And I knew God wanted me to live. Just like you. There was a reason.”
I used to experience emotions in my body: a jump in my stomach, an ache in my chest. Now there’s a ghost of those feelings — a phantom limb. Even though my torso only contains an artificial lung and my power cells, I feel tightness there. “And what about your husband? What about my sister? Did God want them to die?”
Zara ignores me. “I have Prosopagnosia. Face blindness. It happened when my temporal lobe was damaged. My implant couldn’t fix it.” She slowly lowers herself down beside me on the bench. Under her dress I see the shimmer of her exoskeleton, the fabric keeping Earth’s gravity at bay.
“The worst thing is, I don’t know his face. Even when my implant brings it up or I look at old pictures, my husband might as well be a stranger. But I still remember how I felt when I was with him.” She turns to me. Those eyes black as interstellar space. “What happens when you upload? Will you even feel anything anymore?”
“We’re not the same,” I say. “You know nothing about me. Nothing.” Anger makes me honest for the first time this trip. “It’s only temporary, what they’ve done. Nobody has ever kept a brain alive without a biological body for more than a few years. And it’s already been fourteen months.”
Zara frowns. “So, what? You want to die before you’re dead?” Her face wobbles for a moment, then her artificial eyes well up with tears. She puts her head in her hands and I see the scars on her scalp under her dark hair.
After a moment, I reach out and touch her arm. It’s warm and alive under my plastic fingers. She looks up, face puffy. She’s softened by her grief and I can see her more clearly now. She’s another wounded person, in a solar system full of us.
“It’s how you honour the dead,” she says, her voice thick. “You keep them alive in your heart.”
“I don’t have a heart,” I say. But gently this time. “But I’ll have my memories. If I do this, I’ll remember my sister for a thousand years or more. Even if I’m not really myself. Even if I’m just a copy. That’s how I’ll keep her alive.”
I woke from hibernation in a formless grey void. Time stretched out. I was in purgatory. Then the voice of a doctor came like the voice of God himself, beamed directly into the auditory centers of my brain. He explained what had happened, the work they were doing to save me, all paid for by the extraordinary wealth I now possessed as the sole surviving owner of our asteroid.
For a long time after that I believed I was actually in Hell: he was the Devil and I was suffering for my sins.
Imagine what it was like, sister, when I finally opened my new eyes in the rehab center and understood that my punishment was to live instead.
At the end of the tour the others go back home. I take a quiet magnetic train to Doctor Wu’s clinic in Sioux Falls. I lie on a black couch, the apparatus around me like a spider emerging from a burrow. “This is it,” Doctor Wu says cheerfully. “Last chance to change your mind before we change your mind.”
He is chubby and balding, both curable conditions, perhaps preserved as affectations. Otherwise he looks completely baseline. “Tattoo artists decorate their arms,” I say. He looks confused. Then he understands.
“Do I practice what I preach? Is that it? How do you know I’m not an upload?”
He shakes his head slowly. “Not yet. I have a body waiting for me, when the time is right.”
My hands are shaking. I’m not sure how — my adrenal glands are long gone. “How will you know when the time is right?”
“It’s right when it’s right,” he says. “You paid a great deal of money to be here today, my dear. So, shall we proceed or not?”
Cremation and recycling are traditions across most of the solar system but my twin sister had always wanted to go to Neptune, and with the money from the radionuclides, it was possible, so her body was sent there. I was still in purgatory when it happened, but I was given the video once I had eyes again.
Her casket was a black fleck against the planet’s serene blue. Like Laura’s sister in the violets, it was as if she was adrift in the blue sky of Earth. Safe. Then the fleck dwindled and vanished and she was gone forever.
I touch her crucifix, which I’ve worn every day since waking up in my new body. The only tangible thing I have left of her. It’s cold, as if it still holds a memory of the billions of years the metal was locked in a rock floating around the sun, waiting for humans to smelt and hammer it into a shape that held meaning, at least for a while, for one of them.
It’s time now. I make my choice.