KAROLA—EARTH YEAR 2303
For all the danger in that forest with its tumbling-down ruins, the beauty pulled me back one last time. Old walls created cliffs and ravines, lushly overgrown by vegetation. Birds sang to each other. The wind smelled of wildflowers bursting through springtime earth. And there, on that late afternoon, I planned to injure Shani.
I waited for her, sitting on a mossy brick wall in front of what was once a grand building. The stones of a colonnaded entrance lay behind me amid daffodils and saplings, while in what had once been the street, flowers sprang up between black chunks of asphalt, with holes here and there caused by collapsed old tunnels. In my visual overlay, I saw them outlined in red for danger.
With a blink, I turned the overlay off. Shani was still out of sight, coming with other members of the task force, hiking down a path that twisted around dangers as it wended from the old main road. The unnatural landscape shimmered in the afternoon sunshine. The rustle of pliant young leaves blocked the sounds of the university and its interminable excavations and restorations. A kilometer away? An epoch.
She sang as she hiked with an easy vibrato on the high notes, a vocal smile, for she had every reason to be happy. I accessed the lyrics, signaled my location, and hid my plans, my public mind and private mind as separate as continents, as distinct as the present and memories.
All I could think was the truth: I will remember you always.
Her thoughts mirrored mine as she emerged on the path and smiled with a wide mouth made for joy. She sang, “Come to say goodbye, Karola and I.…”
She balanced on the edge between laughter and tears. I stood as they arrived, some to say goodbye, some to make plans. I would smile and weep with her, too, and we opened our arms and hugged, two young women. If I could have seen through her eyes, what would I have seen of me? But that was not the moment to look.
She would not see this place accurately. I would cause that. Amid the others, with their own mixed joys and sorrows, I hugged her and wept. Again.
* * *
Earlier that day, in the morning, more than one hundred souls had gathered in our finest formal clothing beneath a high-beamed ceiling painted with cherubs and allegories. We were surrounded by walls of fine carved wood and marble. The treasures of an Old Washington Dee Cee government complex had been restored and were reserved for scholarly assemblages of the highest merit, such as ours. Soon we would explore the living past. We would visit the Pax Colony, if it still existed half a light-century away. The planet Pax orbited a star barely visible to the naked eye just after sunset in the west of our springtime skies.
Or rather, only thirty of us would journey there, but which ones?
“It is an honor merely to be part of this task force,” our chairman said in a voice like an axe, as if anything stated with sufficient force could wedge open the truth. He stood on a podium next to a formal witness-robot, a sleek black memory spire with a pleated white antenna echoing the collar of an ancient human judge.
Three of us were competing for the post of linguist. Shani and I knew that the third candidate would decline because his children had convinced him to remain on Earth to help raise his grandchildren. That left us, sitting side by side. I twisted the ring on my finger and waited. The sun slanted in through grand windows.
“Those who go must sacrifice much, perhaps everything, in the pursuit of knowledge,” the chairman chopped on. “But the entire task force will be needed to prepare for their departure.”
Shani and I had confirmed our opinions the night before. Each of us was as deserving and as determined to go.
“Now,” he said, “after we have lost so much during the last centuries, we know the value of lives and hopes, and we will willingly risk ourselves to unite all branches of humanity again. Now I shall release the names of those selected.”
He gestured at the robot. The names came to our minds. We read silently.
Shani would go on the expedition, and I was the backup.
We leapt up and hugged, weeping out of joy or disappointment. We had known we would react that way and had supposedly reached mutual comfort with our rivalry. But my life depended on going. She didn’t know that because no one did.
* * *
The night before the announcement we had celebrated NVA Day, the commemoration of the Great Loss. Like all children, I had once delighted in it, playing with false terror, but now it meant unspeakable farce. But how could I fail to participate without hinting that I was the target?
In my dormitory room, I draped myself in a white body veil, the traditional ghost costume I brought out every April first. It obscured my face without even a slit for eyes to represent the idea that we were all the same in death, faceless. I set my visual overlay high to see better than I would with my real eyes.
The Pax Task Force had organized its own celebration, a small reiteration of Earth’s first global holiday held everywhere on the first night of April as the sun set around the globe. We were holding it in a crossroads at the edge of a reclaimed section of the city, with our new dormitories on one side of a street and collapsed buildings on the other. The steel-framed rubble rose taller than the wild trees sprouting among it, and the glass that had once sheathed them, now shattered, sparkled amid green overgrowth.
On our side of the crossroads, squat cherry trees with pale pink blossoms decorated the spaces between the new buildings, which glowed with self-sufficient light. Our white costumes were tinted by sunset to echo the color of the trees.
If ghosts existed, they would be here in this city, in this once bustling street, one of countless emptied out one hundred fifty years ago by a great plague. But the dead stay dead, except for the architect of the Great Loss, NVA herself, punished eternally. People—some people—like to watch her suffer.
A stack of deadwood gathered from the forested ruins sat in the center of the intersection. I wanted to spend as little time as possible at that cruel ritual, although attendance was required by law, waiting until finally Shani called me to come. She said I was missing the fun. She was too kind, too thoughtful, to let me do that—my best friend, the first best friend I had ever had. I paused at the doorway to locate her. One more time, I would try to talk her out of going.
Almost two hundred people were celebrating, members of the task force, support staff, and their families. Children rushed around squealing with delight, a few disguised as ghosts but most as cute little animals. Almost all the adults were white ghosts like me, but a half dozen red ones circulated, even two men, and I flushed with anger at their disrespect. Anthropologists should know better. The red ghosts represented NVA, and there was only one of her. There should be only one at the celebration.
Task force members had settled into work groups around tables of drinks and snacks set up on the grassy, broken pavement. The pilots and engineers, who always had more energy than introspection, danced and sang to music I didn’t care to log on to.
Shani stood among the biologists at the far side of the intersection. She heard me searching for her and called me again. I wove through the festivities to get there. On the way, I passed several children dressed as animals who surrounded a tall red ghost. A little-boy cat hissed at it, a couple of girl-puppies barked, and a bird cawed and squawked and giggled.
The ghost raised its arms. “I’ll get you!” a man squeaked in a falsetto. “I’ll kill you all! You can’t run away! Hahaha!”
“You only kill people,” a puppy retorted, and took a step forward.
“This time I’ll kill animals, too! Animals! You!”
The children squealed and ran away. For them the ritual was merely about a scary person, and like all adults I had learned the true terror later, unfathomable to a child. NVA had poisoned the food her corporation distributed and had killed five billion people, everyone in the American continents and up to half the population elsewhere. She had done so deliberately, even eating the poisoned food herself, and she died before the disaster had been diagnosed. She had been pure, murderous evil, and too cowardly to face justice. Or so we were told. Debate was prohibited.
I passed the astronomy group. Many of them gazed with lost expressions at some broadcast information and discussed it animatedly. The few who noticed their surroundings called out greetings, and I returned them. “Good luck tomorrow!” All our voices were tense.
When I arrived, Shani draped an arm around my shoulder.
“We are practicing Globish. Can you help?”
We knew the Pax colonists had spoken Classic English. If they had survived and had descendants, and if we wanted to communicate with them, we needed to speak it fluently. That was the linguist’s job. The rest of the task force had to learn simplified Globish English, which was hard enough, and it made its speakers sound like simpletons.
“I can do that,” I said in Globish. “I like Classic English too. I learned it for work and now I love it, even though few people understand it.”
The biologists were discussing a proposal to create new colonies in the Americas despite the effect they would have on the ecology, which had been left to grow as wild as possible.
“Everyone who goes to Pax,” I said, “will never see the decision.” I meant to guide the conversation in the right direction to dissuade Shani.
A young man named Mirlo laughed. “But we will see it when we come back. We will see the results.”
“You are not going,” a woman told him. “You do not have good skills for species identification. The task force needs me.”
“I can count ant teeth as well as you can.”
Everyone laughed. It was a running joke, even though Mirlo was a botanist, so he counted petals.
“But,” I said, “what about your families?”
“My family has good teeth,” Mirlo said.
“Are you having second thoughts?” Shani said. She tightened her arm to comfort me, pleasantly warm across my shoulders. “I know how you love your family, we all love our families, but your family will feel happy for you. Mine thinks this is the best thing I could do.” Her family prided itself on exploring.
I took a deep breath. Globish couldn’t express complex ideas well.
“Do not worry,” she continued. “I know it will be a long and dangerous trip. But think. We know the colony was established. And we know that the planet had very much life with many kinds of animals and plants.”
“And then its satellite died and stopped sending reports,” an anthropologist said.
She ignored him. “We know exactly where and when. We will go to a good planet.”
“We will be famous,” he added, “like other explorers.”
“I want to go,” she said. “We all want to go.”
Various people chimed in, “Yes.”
“But,” I tried again, “only one of us can go.”
“I know, I would love it if we could both go. We must understand that. If you can go and not me, I will be sad for me and happy for you.”
This wasn’t working, but I loved her for her kindness. She wanted to go no matter what, and I knew her nurturing personality would probably rank her above me, despite my superior linguistic skills.
“I understand,” I said. “I do not like to wait, that is all. I wish we knew now. If it is you, I will be happy for you.” I hugged her, trying to imagine what else I could do to get off Earth, cherishing her soft body and its warmth.
As cheerfully as I could, I participated in the party. I lifted up my disguise to eat and drink, even laugh a little, until the axe-voiced chairman climbed up a chunk of masonry near the bonfire’s woodpile and began the ceremony, reminding us all of NVA’s crimes against humanity. The dummy that represented her was dragged out, a life-size doll made of old clothes stuffed with paper and brush. As people jeered, it was thrown on top of the firewood. But before the rain of stones fell on it and before the chairman set fire to it, he reached into her shirt and pulled out a doll.
I disconnected from the feed. I couldn’t stand to listen. But I knew what he would say, something like the words I had heard since my earliest memories:
“She will pay forever! She is in prison, but her clone lives among us. When the time comes, it will take her place in prison. Look into your hearts. Could you do what she did? Could you be her clone? Show us by your behavior that this will never be you.”
Any woman could be her, that is: another way to keep us submissive.
Without the feed, I heard his distant voice, the rustle of trees in the wind, the chatter of children. An anthropologist named Zivon, who stood next to me in a red veil and fancied himself a rebel, muttered in Globish, perhaps thinking no one important—I wasn’t important—would understand Globish:
“I do not think that. If this is true, we would see her, we would see her face. We can see everything else from the past, and we can see her body now in her feed, but not her face. She does not have a mirror. Have you heard of Halloween? This is just a new kind of Halloween. It was an old holiday with evil spirits to frighten us.”
“People did die,” I said. I wondered how often he watched her feed.
“Right. We polluted everything, and people died. Everyone polluted the Earth, but it is better to blame one person.”
“But you can log on to her in prison, you can see what she suffers.”
“A lie. You can log on to fiction stories, and they seem just as real, right? It is a lie like them.”
Copyright © 2019 by Sue Burke