CW: transphobic slurs, trans chaser, war crimes, Yugoslav civil war, Syrian civil war, homophobic slurs, kissing, OCD thought patterns, grief, suicidal ideation, gender self-invalidation, police, forcible mental health intervention, racialized danger, psychedelics, evacuation, conspiracy theories, heavy weaponry
“Marriage Lessons From Former Navy SEAL Waldo Beek.” “Waldo Beek On Why He Regrets Taking Part In Operation Snakebite.” “Waldo Beek Speaks On What Kosovo Taught Him About Leadership And Life.” “Waldo Beek Teaches You How To Apply NATO Special Ops Training To Your Business.” “Waldo Beek On Why The Future Doesn’t Worry Him.” “What Waldo Beek REFUSED To Do In Haiti - CENSORED ON ALL MAJOR PLATFORMS.” “Waldo Beek: How To Protect YOUR 401K From China’s Geostrategic Interests.” “Waldo Beek Breaks Down What’s Wrong With Today’s Generals (Top Secret Military Personality Science Revealed).” “Waldo Beek Responds To Leaked Military Climate Change Documents.”
Video taglines - from the most mind-numbing time I ever wasted, hours cast irrecoverably into the shit-caked dumpster of anhedonic despair that consumed my early 20s, serving no purpose but to reinforce my contempt for what this country did with its money - scrolled across my mind’s eye as I tried not to gape at the face crinkling at me across the helipad. It could have been a greeting or it could have just been the sun in his eyes.
One time on Tumblr I’d gotten ten thousand notes for saying Waldo Beek looked like someone fed John Kricfalusi’s George Liquor into Midjourney, but seeing him in person I realized it didn’t do him justice. Rather than the cartoon alcoholic’s red face, Beek’s skin was beaten bleached leather, as if built up entirely from stacked knots of scar tissue. X ray it all you want and you’d find nothing but gaps where anonymous corpses are buried and mothers spend long nights looking up at ceilings that have become unfamiliar, wondering if their children will again ever grace their kitchens with indulgent laughter. He had the same crew cut, but both wispy-thin and uncannily even, so that the dome of his head was perfectly visible through it (the only place his skin showed any reddishness was a shiny raw spot near the back of his skull that marked where it’d cave if you swung a steel bat against it). And while his face was stuck on the same smirk hoisted by the corners like a hammock from unnaturally clenched cheek muscles, his eyes were not round and wide but laugh-lined almost shut, upturned crescent arrowslits behind which it wasn’t hard to imagine shrieking, swallowing quasars.
“This is”- I glanced back at Caroline Bennett-Fog, hoping there’d been some mistake, like we’d been waiting for somebody else and instead he’d just crashed the helipad to do a video, but she was holding back snickers as visibly as hiccups.
He had a full SEAL uniform on and all his medals - some of which I didn’t recognize - which I also remembered he made a point of not wearing for mere commercial content.
For what it’s worth he looked just as confused as me. He shuffled halfway across the helipad and looked me up and down in a way he seemed to be trying to disguise as the minute movements of his folded facial muscles but was already apparent from his intent stillness. Bennett-Fog pressed into my shoulder from behind and, from a vantage point where I couldn’t read her face, introduced me: “This is Leona - Commander Lillywhite. And, well, we call them Halation.”
“And this is…” I began, pretending not to recognize the man now stepping closer forward .
“Come on. You know I have your posts about this guy in my file, right?”
“And you thought we would get along because…”
“M-ma’am, it’s clear you’re not my normal type of person nor I yours but if you can be open-minded I can. You know I frequented quite a few trannies myself in Kosovo,” he laughed, mouth cracking open like a crocodile’s, “but they were… tall golden ladies, golden skin, golden hair, a-quiline features. Aquiline! Means like an eagle. I suppose that means, they were eagles, you’re a lion! But you look more like a kid I used to buy pot from, so that’ll make things friendly.”
My eyes narrowed. “I edited Waldo Beek Transphobia Compilation #5.”
No I didn’t, Sophie did, but it sounded like a snappy line. He busted a gut, big burping guffaws.
“So you’re a fan!”
Then he snapped his head back from its laughing recline and fixed me with an eye contact that came as a total jarring shock after having gotten used to not registering his eyes at all.
And I saw why in all his speeches for business clubs and government agencies, and Youtube and Rumble and Fox News and Fox Business and subscriber-only video, Waldo Beek used his grooved, hypermobile face to hide his eyes.
His self-parodying Foghorn Leghorn persona - Bennett-Fog had referred to him, when she woke me up from a half-sleep half-planning exhausted trance state and told me who I was going to meet, as “Jester” - would have been deflated in an instant by those reptilian awls.
“I’m sorry, that’s probably not a way to speak to… a commanding officer. Although I suppose I haven’t been recruited yet. Not by you, if you’re supposed to be doing any recruiting. I’ve been hired by them, and their forces are apparently under your command. But I prefer, when I can get it, honest military organization to commercial arrangements.”
“What has he been hired to do? Shoot PR?”
“Shoot people. Or, I guess, aliens. And tell you where to point people to shoot them. Because you’ve never done it before.”
“We discussed this, remember.” Caroline crept around my shoulder now. “You yourself requested - people who can.”
“I thought you’d get me like a real general or something. Somebody I’d never heard of. Quiet expert.”
“You see, there are certain limitations we face in this respect,” Bennett-Fog began softly. “If nations commit forces to the IIEF” - International Interstellar Expeditionary Force: the acronym had changed three times this week - “presumably they’ll bring along some of their top brass. But at the moment, we need someone directly under you, advising you personally - who would have more say over the core priorities of the mission than any of them - and if any of the other countries are going to sign on, it can’t be one of their rivals. We need precisely someone not currently affiliated with any national military.”
Waldo Beek, a NATO commander in Kosovo, celebrated by military strategy nerds and accused in several highbrow investigative exposes of war crimes, had been honourably discharged right before a threatened investigation and since opened up a “strategic consultancy” (mercenary outfit) that had spent the past two decades doing little verifiable in, but producing lots of obviously inflated content about, various anti-terrorism operations across the Middle East. I knew about him because he even at one point had his own name-branded shooter game, which was essentially a bad Counterstrike mod that now filled half of giant cardboard sale boxes in already-going-out-of-business game shops. He was a rah-rah American patriot, but the kind who said the Iraq War was a mistake, and featured a sheepish John Mearsheimer on his podcast, and argued that dangerous areas of the world should be partitioned between “legitimate strategic interests” and policed by mercenaries such as himself. I had once chased out some embarrassing elements of the student left that were into him.
“Waldo Beek is not only formally unaffiliated with any of them, but in regular and trusted contact with the national militaries of every major superpower. Another problem is the kind of war we’re going to be fighting out there, we don’t have many people who have fought. Institutional legitimacy is going to be worth as much as officer school in World War 1. This guy… has at least seen a lot of different situations.”
“It’s not going to be standing around checkpoints in Fallujah either.”
“So you’re not a big enough fan to know what I was doing in Syria.”
“Bellingcat debunked that you were even in Syria.”
“Of course they did, that’s what they’re there for.”
I looked back at Caroline, more deliberately. She nodded, smiling with gentle sadism.
Of all the paranoid things to be right! Of course, that one hadn’t even occurred to me because the story Bellingcat debunked had been perceived on my side of the internet as a pro-NATO one - it claimed Beek’s “Nimrod Operational Solutions” was doing missions for Russia. Either that was a limited hangout, or the full extent of Beek’s operations had been approved and covered up with a high degree of international cooperation.
A degree of international cooperation that would bely part of the explanation of why he was here in the first place, so I still wasn’t being given the whole picture, one way or another.
“In this case, I understand if you don’t want to consider yourself my commanding officer, per se, and all considered that probably works out better for all of us. There are things it’s better to go through your life without doing, and I’m very good at them.”
“‘Everyone should point a gun at someone once in their life to experience their human dignity’. That was you, right?” I folded my arms.
He chortled, eyes completely concealed again. “Of course! The things I’m talking about aren’t just pointing a gun at someone. If you want to volunteer on the front lines feel free - as long as you let someone else talk to that alien if you die.”
Edison Lens had talked us into agreeing to pass Halation on to a successor, but I wasn’t saying who to soften the inevitability that they would try to influence them - although they knew everything about me, and so had to know there were only three or so people I would trust with the responsibility, and at least one of those I didn’t know if I could bring myself to. They might not guess the couple of distant internet senpais I was considering might do the job better than me. My major leverage, in any case, was Halation’s equally firm commitment to back out of any transfer, even at the cost of the war effort, if they detected the successor had been coerced in any way, or even that their values had substantially diverged from my model of them.
Once we were in a war, I asked in our late night planning sessions, were you sure you would be able to commit to those priorities. To lose. If lives were at stake.
They couldn’t say for sure. But if they weren’t sure, I wasn’t sure with them.
I don’t mean that in terms of some mindmeld self-confusion. I meant that in terms of sincere respect for their decision, their values.
The more I lived with them the more they struck me as a better person than almost anyone I had ever met on Earth, except for maybe Delilah and Mai, which embarrassed them because they didn’t even think of themselves as an especially good alien. They had treated the project they had survived mostly as an excuse to play number games, and had outlived researchers who would have suffered unimaginably for peace. But to me, they had just grown up on a better world, and it showed. If they were willing, as someone who thought like that, to risk introducing that world to capitalism and white supremacy for the advantage of time and lives, maybe I really just wasn’t serious enough about war.
Part of me wondered whether Contemplation would even make the same mistakes as the millennia of other humans who had fallen prey to the ambitions of people like Beek. But as so much of the colonization of this continent proved, the most vulnerable time for a civilization is when it’s at war and needs allies - and from everything Halation had showed me, war out there was no better than war here.
Maybe even, because they weren’t used to it, worse.
Halation understood that this was a weakness they would have to guard against in themselves, that I knew better than they did, and I didn’t know how not to trust them, but they trusted me to.
Of course, I barely knew it at all. Secretly, absurdly, I had hoped for a general who would know better than me how to fight a war without it eating your soul. Maybe from a developing country, a sober and reluctant bulwark against American imperialism. Caroline was right that my kind of people didn’t know war - and as soon as the risk of life and death became real to us, even in our personal lives, we tended to throw all our high-mindedness and restraint out the window. I had seen it. I had lived it.
“Anyway, there’s things we have to talk about if I’m going to need your approval to move on them,” Beek informed me, “so let’s get the introductions over quick. You means uhhh, Halation? too.”
Those things were apparently now visible in the upper stratosphere. Google and NASA had blacked a square out of all publicly available sky maps.
Halation’s own ship had, it turned out, only been discovered because a probe on the moon had picked up the three much larger bodies following it, with telemetric precision that had allowed them to predict Halation’s almost exact trajectory towards Earth. On the more powerful telescopes we had trained on them now, they looked somewhat like anomalocaris, and measured close to 700 metres in length.
When I made the comparison in my head, Halation informed me that there was something like that in the sea trenches of Orchid too. “Anomalocarization”, like carcinization, was something that happened in the first large stages of an ecosystem across the galaxy. Probability theory-specialized lifeforms had a deep explanation of it that took a CPU the size of Pluto to understand. Unlike our anomalocarids, these had three appendages at the front of their body, left, right and centre. Each one was about the size of its main body, and the appendages themselves were not only segmented but fanned like the main body of an Earth anomalocarid, curling feathers made of armour plates (each one a subtly different shade, though mostly in the range of deep rippling reds, blues and purples). The back body, on the other hand, had a row of short tentacles or pseudopods on each side. (These were paler than the armour segments.)
Halation called them, simply, Clamps.
“I’ve been watching those things for the past three days.” Beek was no longer smiling, not only for the first time since I’d seen him, but the first time I could pull out of my hazy, mostly suppressed memory of his videos. “Space Force brought me in for a strategy exercise before they even remembered you guys existed. Hosted by a goddamn science fiction writer. You know what we did? We played GURPS. Unknowns are one thing, but that just isn’t how a man like me operates. But I hear you can tell me what those are, what they’re gonna do when they get here, and what we can do to them.”
“They don’t even have to get here. I’ve been trying to tell them this. There’s a fairly easy way to divert them with a laser that interferes in their targeting system.”
“Right. But what’s been discussed with me is… well, think about this for a minute. You want to send a brand new army - and this’ll have to be a big army, bigger than we’ve mustered since the world wars possibly - to space, to fight a war for aliens. Under the command of an organization nobody except some of my nuttier subscribers has ever heard of, and you, someone nobody has. You know me, I’m down for anything, but most people, the President, the President of Russia, of China, are going to take some convincing.”
“That’s why were going to introduce the technologies. The Limited Asymmetry Field. I’ve been talking to the scientists here, sketching out applications for power, transit, communications, medicine…” weapons. Over and over again, they brought it back to weapons.
“If somebody told you your iPhone was made by aliens, would you believe them? Would you go to war for them? Maybe if the aliens showed up, talked to you - but you’re not letting anyone else talk to this one.”
“I’ve been willing to do video, genetic samples, controlled mental contact, every kind of proof and documentation” - My voice was getting heated now, and I struggled at once to prevent it from cracking and dipping into gravelly depth. It wasn’t that I wasn’t prepared for my proposals to be unconvincing. I spent almost every waking minute perfecting them - they had given me a little office, with a window on the sea and a digital whiteboard and deep work subliminal meditation tapes and a computer with access to the classified internal networks of several major governments and corporations, and a copy of Clausewitz I had been working through at about 50 pages a day, sitting right next to my keyboard - and at night in my cot, I didn’t exactly sleep the way I used to either, my dreams were lucid, training simulations - but I missed so many things, had to go back to the drawing board, disappointed them and myself so often - if nothing else I knew how easy it was to be wrong. But no one around me had suggested anything was off. They had all collaborated enthusiastically on the plans the man they had hired was now dismissing, and Caroline hiding a knowing smirk in my peripheral vision.
“There’s a simpler way to convince people. Let those things land. Blow them to hell. Say we could be invaded any minute by more, by things worse than that, but we have powerful allies, and we’re safer fighting out there than down here. Of course, that’s assuming we can blow them to hell. That’s what I need you to walk me through.”
“Is this… is this what you’ve all been… assuming we’d do? Just risk lives down here - for optics?”
“We’re risking lives down here by getting into an alien war, period. Risking all the lives down here. Better get used to it now.”
“NASA’s not willing to let us use their lasers,” Caroline placed her final piece coolly. I still had no way of knowing if that was true or not (I would need contacts of my own in all those organizations, but I couldn’t until I had my own army) and she knew it. “They might not trust you. But everyone’s willing to lend us bombs, tanks, planes, guns, men if those things land. Or rather, they won’t have to - they’ve all got their own wargames and plans but they have no idea what they’re doing. If we give them a plan that works they’ll go along with it, while retaining command in theory, and we can show that what we do works.”
“Tell me the minimum death toll,” Beek looked up at me with bittersweet Santa Claus eyes, “between them landing and us killing them, and I will do everything in my power to allow no more than that.”
I gulped. “Uhh, theoretically zero. It’s the maximum I’m worried about.” I let Halation quietly take over. “The Clamps - that’s the closest thing in your language to what we call them - aren’t enemy combatants. They’re parasites. They’re not complex in what they do or what they want. They live off heat waste and… informational entropy? not sure if you have the same concept yet but some of the tech people here were getting it - from complex information systems. Normally they live on computational life, and some of the enemy factions use them as spies or like, glorified USB sticks to carry viruses to targets. They wouldn’t have anything that would affect your confusing programming languages, though. So the point is, they don’t have any interest in harming any lifeforms on this planet. But as soon as they land and their field kicks in, anything electric’s probably going out in a 30-mile radius. Computational life out there runs way hotter than a city here; they probably won’t be able to get a consistent food supply until they inject their code into our systems. Then we’ll have the opposite problem.”
“Their… code? Hey let’s go somewhere on this floater, before my feet start to get hot standing on this asphalt.”
I turned without a word towards the ladder down from the helipad onto the sleek white surface (flat walkway and fluted, car-hood edges) of the main horseshoe of Plastic Beach, entrepreneur Hiram Ogier’s seastead campus just outside the California Coastal Zone, and current headquarters of Edison Lens. The horseshoe wrapped around the huge frame of the transmission tower complex, which also included a world-class telescope, a gigantic solar dish and a small SETI-style receiver array. At one end was canteen, bar, diving boards, umbrellas still folded up from heavy misty winds half an hour ago with no one up here still. The walkway was also dotted every ten metres or so with white plastic minibars and white metal benches.
“Yeah. They’re parasites on computational life so they have like… code that partitions off a virtual machine and just runs arbitrary calculations, sorta like mining bitcoin, to feed them without interfering in any of the actually important programs. It does symbiotic things on some of them too, like routine code-checking stuff, but nothing that’ll be useful to anyone here.” I turned but looked down at my feet, avoiding the canals of Beek’s now backlit face as I steadied myself on the rungs, and as a possibility so alarming and exciting I had to keep it to myself came to mind.
“Do they need to eat anything to keep the physical bodies alive?”
“Besides heat and energy? …nothing we need to be worried about in the near term. Those things are built from an extremely low energy state of matter, they’re built to last thousands of years out in space with minimal upkeep.”
“What does that mean for conventional weapons?”
“Uhhhhm. See that’s one of the things I’ve been trying to work out on the backburner in my head, but I’d need some ballistics and… low energy physics experts. Edison Lens has the physicists, I suppose the ballistics experts are your department?”
Spiked mines of sunlight bobbed on the sea below us. It was that time when the afternoon has just started to sink in - half of the sky had bleached platinum and half was beginning to darken and wear. I spent as much time looking as I could. Beek’s eyes caught me.
“Have you been to San Francisco?”
I was looking out to the other side of the sea. But the question had been surgically targeted nevertheless.
“What? No, of course not. I’ve been too busy.”
“Of course. But you’re gonna be even busier soon - and not on Earth any more, at that. I mean, I guess that’ll be a hell of a vacation. But there’s probably lots of Earth you wanted to see before heading out. That’s part of why an old man like me is here, I suppose, to take some of the burden off a kid like you. You get to be a hero of the world, no matter what you do, just by being in the right place at the right time. I had to work my butt off to fool everybody I was that. Lighten up!”
I had been offered a few days of vacation soon - starting tomorrow. Before everything went to hell, supposedly. I glanced at Caroline - had she told him that? And now I wasn’t sure I would even be able to take them, if I had to take charge of this whole operation they hadn’t been telling me about - but I couldn’t not take them, I couldn’t not see her before I left -
I clenched my knuckles white on the white grille table and flinched as I saw Beek’s victorious eyebrow raise.
Caroline was completely silent, had flipped her blue reflective sunglasses down over her eyes, and sucking the biggest piña colada I had ever seen out of a twisty straw.
The next few hours were a bizarre superposition. Halation and I were all business - we couldn’t imagine connecting to this man on any other level - working out a timeline to complete the final models of an attack on the Clamps, while assembling the troops and material we knew we’d need, and supply lines for reinforcements we might need depending on what the models showed - while Beek tried to make small talk and distract us with anything he could think of. Though he didn’t, or seemingly couldn’t, think of any of the endless things that would have distracted me in his position - he seemed completely uninterested in the fact that he was also talking to humanity’s first extraterrestrial contact, about the whole galaxy full of places unlike anything any human had ever seen, cultures unlike anything we had ever thought. Except when it came up in a strategic context - what terrains would we need to prepare for, what weapons did our enemies use, most of which he bracketed quickly for after we’d finished our first operation and started preparing for the expedition. (“Government fags are gonna wanna be in the room for every little detail, so we’ll have to go over everything again anyway.”)
“How am I ever going to live this down,” I groaned to Alastair on the interactive screen communicating between any two suites in the complex later that evening, baked out of my mind on a disposable vape from a dispenser. “They’re gonna push me out of this operation just by putting me around this guy!”
My suite, unlike my workspace or their (shared) glass balconied luxury corner apartment, was an ascetic affair, a glorified closet with no windows and a plastic-cushioned bunk sticking out of the wall - to prepare me for life in space.
“Live it down?” Alastair guffawed. “He’s evil but it’s still cool as hell that you get to meet Waldo Beek. You’re gonna meet so many famous people. I’d just treat it like collecting Pokemon. Even it’s an ugly Pokemon like uhhh. That bulldog one. It’s still part of your collection. By the way. You’re still on the stead and you haven’t met Ogier?”
I shook my head, then remembered he couldn’t see it on the phone. “No. Even the Edison Lens people don’t seem to know where he is. I’ve definitely heard him on the phone, in a meeting, though. The voice was garbled but the speech mannerisms were his. He’s paying attention.”
“Huh. Do you think he’s staying away from you for some reason?”
I laughed drily. “Why, does he think I’d just take my shot and kill him or something?” I probably could do that and Edison Lens would still have to listen to me. Maybe I should do something like that to Beek. If what I’d read in the investigative reports was true - not just the Kosovo ones but the ones about Afghanistan and Iraq, that got scrapped from every major newspaper and leaked in draft form to the antiwar blogosphere in the 2000s, where they kept getting taken down under odd circumstances every couple of years - not to mention whatever I didn’t know about Syria and God knows where else apparently - Waldo Beek was the kind of evil that deserved it even under whatever ideal of restorative, non-carceral justice you preferred. Yet my hatred for him was mainly distant, impersonal. I remembered him mostly as someone I made fun of on the internet for years, not all that differently from the guy who ran a tradcath “Crusader” MMO clan or the other Black Domnu defector who tried to start their own copycat cult with an angelic hierarchy of anime girls.
I was going to have to kill people who deserved it far less soon. What was I worried about?
You’re also going to have to tell a lot of people who deserve it as much as him who to kill, Halation reminded me. I am too. And we’re going to need people like him, because I never thought I’d have to do this. The Ahasurunu offered me a vow, when they rescued me, to defend the Anti-Adipose Alliance above any other value except the Precepts of Meteorology. I’ve been afraid to coerce you, that’s under the Precepts, but I also have strength I can lend you, if you ever need it. Strength isn’t the right word for it. Hardness.
It seemed almost laughable from this soft, literally fungal entity.
I know you like when you refer to you as if you’re not reading this. Heheh.
“Are you OK?”
I was meditating on the way they said “known”. It already felt like I had known Halation my whole life, but you notice how I struggle to get them down on the page, right? I’m sorry, Halation - some of it’s having to go on paragraphs-long tangents to explain any of your thoughts or beliefs or experiences, but like, some of it’s still just getting lost when I go digging for something, not having a map of this impossible mesh of connections.
“Hey lemme talk to my sister!” Jax fumed in the background. “Quit hogging her because you’re her boyfriend or something now!”
“I told you, I’m not her boyfriend - she’s an awful kisser.”
I had wondered at first how Edison Lens was going to explain our disappearance to our parents, and then during the first interrogation where they let us see each other again, Caroline asked us, and we agreed to just literally not tell them anything, let the local cops send out search parties and get stonewalled by the feds swarming the area, let Cloudskater give his completely garbled testimony and get chalked up as a junkie who might have seen something but didn’t have a clue what, let my dad field Facebook messages from local weirdos trying to connect our tragedy to the mysterious dome of light captured on grainy Youtube video. We fell on each other crying and laughing as Caroline tried to soberly game out a scenario. It was maybe more cathartic even than that first night in the trap. We knew we had both wanted to do something almost exactly like this, even if we couldn’t remember when and if we had told each other.
Then right before we had split up to our separate transports, I pulled Alastair around the side of the truck and kissed him hard on the mouth.
Jax would probably have been the most startled of anyone - especially by the smarting pinkish scar left by a canine on his friend’s upper lip - but Alastair should have by now explained, somewhere at a road stop outside of Edison Lens’ surveillance, that the real reason I had done this was to briefly let Halation into his body to relay a discreet set of instructions.
I made sure not to make it pleasurable at all - except the tooth.
Alastair was to use his internet celebrity to moderately advocate me and my decisions on Earth and counter any propaganda that might be deployed against me, but emphasize that he was not in any contact with me and had been roped into the situation mostly by accident. He was to pretend to Edison Lens that he wanted as little to do with the campaign as possible, except to profit off his celebrity as a bit player in first contact and indulge in a comfortable life as a globetrotting influencer. He was to remain in contact with me by a method to be determined, and report anything that Edison Lens told him to do, following their instructions but also instructions I would add to them. He was to use his influence to find people competent to organize a global network with which I could communicate in absolute secrecy, using a network based on the principles of the Carbonari, recruited from supporters of the line on the war and use of alien resources I would publicly advocate using the unrestricted media appearances Edison Lens had promised me.
“Hey, give my brother the phone if you’re gonna talk shit,” I said in an exaggerated tsundere snap, an absurd role to play but the kind of shit Edison Lens people would probably fall for.
Playacting this relationship, among other things, would help take their attention off the person I was seeing tomorrow.
They had been monitoring Mai, of course. I told myself what I had taken was something I would have demanded if they hadn’t offered it first. And Halation, I did ask you, that first night in the truck. As soon as our agreement was reached, their agent made contact. She was booked a hotel that night and moved in immediately, without a word to her parents. I remembered how small Mai’s bags - thin lavender and lilac plastic decorated with 90s squiggles, souvenirs of some mall that had closed when she was a kid - were, and how much she somehow packed in them, strings of Christmas lights like thorns around blankets and speakers and a stuffed Chimera. This very night a flight was chartered, one of Ogier’s private, from Seattle-Tacoma to San Francisco International airport. She had had to wait a week and a half, something I suspected was calculated to minimize our contact before I had worked with them for a bit and learned my role. A driver would tomorrow morning be taking her, like me, through the triple automated gates of Ogier’s private dock, a massive carbon fibre platform extending hundreds of metres off the point of Bolinas. She had been informed the basics of why she had been given a permanent suite on the seastead of the second richest man in the world - of what her ex had to do with it - that her ex wasn’t going to be there for very long anyway, and didn’t want her to feel dependent on her in any way - or on Ogier, and would help her find a regular place in San Francisco, on Edison Lens pay, but outside the creepy island we spent a whole night under the covers together laughing at the promotional video for - that her ex might never see her again, in fact, even, and if she wanted to meet up just once, on the Ogier private beach before she got on the ferry out here, just to make sure we were on the same page about everything, and to meet someone you’ve wanted to meet your entire life, and to see the sunset and the fact that you’re alive and happy and safe, and then we wouldn’t even have to see each other if you didn’t want -
At least, I hoped they had been able to convey all that. The beach. There was a ferry out to the beach at 11:00 in the morning. Which meant I wouldn’t have time to watch Beek prepare a bunch of stuff for the assault they had only just bothered to tell me they were planning.
Was the point supposed to be that if I wasn’t a silly soft-hearted faggot I wouldn’t go see her? Was I supposed to take that from Waldo Beek, whose anecdotes always included a winkingly, smirkingly old-fashioned story or two about defying tactical common sense to reward some local conquest?
Or was it from Caroline?
Jax just wanted me to play video games with him via the interactive screen in the wall, connected to everyone else’s. (I would still be able to see Mai on video through this. Maybe that would be easier, if we could just pretend there was the same distance between us we had come to expect.) I wasn’t allowed to tell him much and he didn’t have much to tell me, so the complex, efficient handshake of cooperation was closer than anything else we could have shared, unless I had dug into the past few years like I still wanted and didn’t know how.
“I guess it would be better for you if you were playing something strategic.”
“Noooo, man, I need to get my head out of that or I’ll go crazy. And believe me, from what I’m reading and the exercises they have me doing, there’s no RTS that’s gonna be close to the real thing.”
“No FPS to real combat either, besides that one the army uses, I guess. But the military still has people work on them because it makes us better soldiers. Like kids playing war games or knights fighting tournaments used to, probably.”
“Hmmm, if I was going for that I’d probably just play chess. Heheh. Do you think I’ll pick it up in space? Become like a chess-playing mastermind? I could start playing with Halation.”
Halation was interested.
“Do you think I could become a soldier in your army? I always used to think being recruited would do me a lot of good, except I didn’t believe in any of the wars we were in.”
I swallowed. Of course. What else would he do? What else would he go back to - Edison Lens getting him some normal job in Silicon Valley? Or a CIA drug trafficking gig?
“I mean probably whenever they start needing regular recruits I guess.”
“I’m not sure I believe in this one - I mean, I still don’t get what the fuck a Trans-Causal Adipose is. Sounds a lot like weapons of mass destruction. But I believe in you, at least.”
See, to Halation the idea would never occur that someone would want to go to war so much they would make up a reason to.
“I’d believe in you too if you were up there. But.”
“Awww, you don’t have to pretend you wanna keep me out of it like I’m Mai or somebody. I didn’t get into… what I was getting into at home because I didn’t know how dangerous it was.”
“How did you… how long did you…”
“Well here’s the funny thing.” He paused for over a minute, and wiped out an entire room full of enemies. “I also… I saw your posts about that girl, Delilah. About what she did. And I…”
I gasped, and got sniped from a balcony above the room I was entering.
“I don’t think you have to be sorry. I think just… I forget sometimes that things are this woven together. That they always are, but not usually this close, you don’t usually see them like this.” I paused the game. I looked down at my feet through the swimming space. “I’m so high I can actually see it, you know. It kind of looks like… like Halation.” I giggled. “Like the coloured fibres she’s made out of, or the way the colours blend together when she melts.” I had slipped into the gender again. They didn’t mind it, they had told me, but I didn’t want to use it if it didn’t mean more than that.
(Was I still only capable of thinking of someone that good in female terms? Was that hanging over me from Black Domnu - and everything else, of course?
No, that’s not it.
The reply came so instantaneous and firm I wondered for a second if I had imagined it.)
“Or like… there’s corals on Orchid. They’re the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, but sort of creepy too, they go from the ocean to the stratosphere like totem poles, and they look like the ship from Alien but colourful, mostly red and white. And they’re almost all dead things, with only a few centimetres of living growth a year, but it all forms these incredible patterns over generations, the Meteorologists figured out how…”
“Maybe I’ll get to see them someday.” My brother’s voice rang hollow. “Save the stories for her, tomorrow. You might not get another chance.”
Alastair sat behind me on the motor of the small hovercraft used for transit to and from Plastic Beach - black silk button-up short sleeve shirt open over Gucci print board shorts (provided with the suite) and a plastic platinum chain of a Grey in the Baphomet posture (his own) - while I leaned on the front rail, watching the beach haze into view and picking at a patch of dry skin on my arm. A hired pilot with a starched white polo shirt and a perfect poker face was actually driving.
I was wearing - just to drive home to Mai what I was now - my Edison Lens uniform slacks (beige, a little too small, looked like a curtain fabric that had been in a hotel since the 70s) over my black tank top.
“Until we’re ready to go public, I’m playing this like an ARG,” Alastair was rambling. “Just posting short clips of this place with no context. No audio besides distorted Kanye tracks. Not even saying where I am but somebody in the comments located it this morning. Now they’re trying to figure out if it’s real or if I got the footage from somewhere. I wonder if Mai’ll wanna be in on this somehow.”
“Probably not. But you can ask her.”
I scanned the beach - brown, clingy, wet sand - when we landed and didn’t see her. Edison Lens GPS, which our escort was monitoring, said her car was already in, but the driveway was back out of sight, behind the concession stands and a tall concrete seawall topped with a stand of Indian paintbrush and California poppies. And beyond that, hills beyond hills buffering the private beach from prying eyes… I didn’t think I had to worry about her turning and running the other direction. Or hope? I sort of hoped it was hope. Anyway, I had brought Clausewitz.
The clouds were forming big, rounded blooms that almost collapsed inward while letting trails of mist bleed off their edges.
I was reading when Alastair found her. Behind the end of the seawall where the sand trailed around behind it and a rock overhang stuck out on the other side, a little tidal pool was shaded by yucca branches. A few pieces of indistinct plastic fuselage, who knew if from another hovercraft or a regular yacht like there were a couple of anchored at the dock, stuck out from the shallow water and she was squatting among them, a straw hat with a blue silk tie floating almost antigravitationally on the billows of her neon purple and yellow 3C curls, tie-dye shawl around the spaghetti shoulder straps of her lemon lime one piece, the sun wavering in pale disks on the rounded bronze knees I had loved to make her giggle by kissing.
I bent my knees over the pool and she didn’t look up as my reflection intersected with hers. This didn’t necessarily mean anything painful; she had taken over a minute to acknowledge my presence on our first date, too. And as I stared into the dark grey of our mingling reflections on the rippled bottom of the tide pool, I saw what she was looking at: two or three pink amorphous sponges that looked like collapsed stress balls covered with soft spikes trembling in all directions. The bodies beneath the spikes tensed and released, curled and uncurled softly and hesitantly, the way a diaphragm would rise and fall if one was teaching oneself, in one’s sleep, to breathe.
She was hovering her finger over the water where the spikes almost reached the surface, not quite touching the surface, but maintaining an almost perfect symmetry with the reaching extremities on the other side of the mirror, and millimetering her fingertip closer or further as they approached and retreated.
Silently, I lowered my arm into our shadow. I extended my finger until its tip was hovering next to hers, as if separated by another liquid surface, but didn’t respond to the movements of her finger, only to our common object of curiosity under the water. A rivulet of shifting colours ran down my shoulder, elbow, forearm to gather under my fingernail - and then extend, slower than gravity, to break the surface of the water, slipping under so gently it barely left a ripple, besides her slight gasp that broke the symmetry of our illusion of indifference to each other.
The colours ran all over the pink surface of the nudibranch. I became aware, in a compartment of my mind, of an immense pit of dark and soft-edged, but intensely real sensations coexisting with my own. And of Halation’s fascination.
Her finger twitched at the edge of the water. And then - while my eyes were nailed to that spot, waiting for her to touch Halation and therefore touch me closer than I wanted to let her touch me - lifted away as she stood up… and hugged me.
Halation rolled slowly over Mai’s shoulders, her hands, her forearms, but wasn’t transferring anything except the feelings of the nudibranch - I knew it was a nudibranch because that was being transferred - we were, together, for a moment, the nudibranch, which was curious enough about us to let us. Not that it was the same kind of shared being as when Halation was in my brain; it was more like… well, what it was. A hug.
I got bored with it quicker than Mai, of course. Although I wasn’t as bored when I let myself wonder about and imagine what it meant to her; this calm, this chord; when I sat in the gap that was still there, the shallows, the tidepool between us. I had come to offer her an existence she had longed for across the stars, and here she was offering me another one that only existed here on Earth.
When we pulled apart, it was at the nudibranch’s instigation; it wanted the full attention of the sun again.
“Hey, Mai,” I gasped.
And when she looked up at me, her eyes were squinting so I couldn’t read them but reflecting flashes of sunlight: “Leona. What the hell is going on? What are you doing here?”
“I… did they not tell you? If they didn’t why did you do… what we just did?”
“I…” (echoing me) “I guess the alien must be real. I assumed it was all made up. You were trying to speak my old language so I wouldn’t get scared. You had some other reason to be out here.”
And then I remembered how I’d meant to separate myself from the inexplicable, impersonal, innocent closeness I’d allowed myself to enjoy for the last time.
“No, it’s true. We’re forming a human army. We’re conquering the stars.”
I chose the words like stilettos as I put my hands on her shoulders. I felt like a man. I felt like something I’d always secretly thought she only wanted because she was scared of.
But she just laughed. Drily. Lightly. Eyes closed and turned down to the sand. “For what?”
Halation wouldn’t let me say anything that would humiliate her. “There’s… a really important struggle out there, trillions of lives are at risk, and the stability of the universe itself for all eternity. It makes everything we fought for look like nothing. But it’ll help us fight for that too.”
I suddenly remembered a time, under the covers with a plastic lantern glowing cracked blue, we’d laughed that she’d read Ender’s Game as a boy and I hadn’t. It had scared her more than anything else as a child; she’d play out compulsive imaginary scenarios of being tricked into killing her imaginary friends, developed a persistent inexplicable belief that she would be used in such a way as an adult. “Traumatized” her, as she put it in the tone of “that weird Mark Twain Satan cartoon traumatized me as a kid”, before I knew about anything else about her childhood. God, I found out about so many things so much later in the relationship than anyone reading this must be assuming, although I could sort of tell just a few weeks in. It’s fine, I don’t have the right to talk about most of it.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been worried about fighting for anything.” She said it as if it’d been a long time since we’d left each other. For me it felt so recent that was half of the rawness I felt. “I’m just trying to live as long as I can. I feel like I’ll prove something by doing that, even if it’s not good, even if it’s not happy, even if it’s not worth it, even if it’s not as good as it would have been with you… and then you dragged me here, and swept all of that out from under my feet. Like I have a whole life to decide what to do with now. And I’m gonna owe it to what? Space Iraq? Why are you really doing all of this? Don’t tell me you’re doing it for me, you know I wouldn’t want it.”
I was silent, loading, with no idea what I could possibly have been caught off guard by, but wondering for the first time for real if I was doing the right thing. Which was absurd; I was talking to someone who knew nothing about the situation and who I was keeping from knowing the full situation. “I mean, it’s all Halation’s idea as much as mine.”
Oh, come on -
Nevermind, I get it.
She blinked. “That’s their name. Your person didn’t tell me their name.”
“They’re not really my person.” I gulped, admitting it even though I’d been planning to pretend the opposite. “I’m not really in charge of anything here.”
“Ohh. Sorry.” She walked over to a piece of fuselage. “Sorry. I can’t talk. I - I need to sit with any of this being real for a second.” Her voice cracked with laughter.
When she was done sitting - I looked at my phone, at my old secret Twitter account for lurking, they had drones projecting Wi-Fi on this beach - she didn’t try to talk again but walked over to the water.
She waded in half-steps out into the water, and shivered when it touched her hips. I stayed behind on the shore and dropped my pants; underneath I had a pair of athletic swim shorts with red fractals around the hems. And under my tank top, a top she had made for me out of sunflower-gold neoprene someone had sent her in lieu of an online payment, star buttons on the straps, my breasts half-filling the space she’d given them to grow into.
I glanced back and Alastair was running back along the edge of the beach dragging (bumping; he was going too fast for it) the glass pod on a wheeled plastic base he must have been wrangling off the boat during the time we were bonding over the nudibranch.
“Hey,” I called out to him, “there are nudibranchs in the tide pool over there!”
“Oh cool,” he acknowledged as he turned his head to me but didn’t stop running. “You wanted this for Halation, didn’t you?”
“Not right now, we’re going in the water.”
Alastair nodded, tilted the pod over, and laid back on the sand, leaving the water respectfully to us. Mai ran back and grabbed me by the wrists, somewhat roughly, and silently. As if to say, come on, I’m not comfortable here either, but what are we going to do, nothing? Try to smile, try to make this normal.
I shook myself off from her slippery palms and ran out past her, up to my diaphragm where I could leap forward and slide straight in like a dolphin without impact. Halation wasn’t used to how water felt on my eyes, but they were used to how it felt on other sensory organs, so we were respectively surprised by our comfort and discomfort. I could make more sense of my own senses in the filtered dark without my unconscious aura of panic around them.
Then I swam forward until I sensed wonder behind me, turned around, and saw Mai floating in a shaft of green-grey fizzing light, like a clay doll, her hair spreading, her mouth open.
I torpedoed back and almost landed nose-first in her stomach until she brought one hand forward in slow motion and blocked me with her palm kung fu style, then grabbed my nose. Started laughing, grabbed her own nose as air started escaping it, and shot back up to the surface.
We swam around her with our hair just poking out of the water.
Eventually we helped her all the way out to a brown seaweed-soaked rock outcropping and all sat silently - until she asked about Halation, and I passed them to her completely, and watched her sit in glazed silence, with no idea what Halation was telling or showing her.
“It’s so different from what I imagined.” There were tears on her bottom eyelashes like plastic decorations.
I shivered the water across my skin. I’d never seen her break her suspension of disbelief like that - no, I had when I’d first met her, but not since we’d started dating and somehow even less since Delilah died - but now what choice did she have? I had the sudden, ridiculous, understating thought that it was like finding out Santa Claus was and wasn’t real at the same time.
“Maybe if we had done something together, it would have looked more like this.”
I had somehow hoped that learning the truth out there would free Mai’s imagination. Maybe it still would, but I had forgotten how much it would hurt first. Maybe she wasn’t thorough the way I was when I edited wikis - when I’d tried to make a wiki for her it had failed, our first fight and we’d been so horrified by it then, not even a fight just me asking her questions and her getting more and more exhausted - but she was consistent, every detail with every other, every thought in the same universe for years, and that delusive consistency was the difference between her as an adult and the scrawled papers she had snuck out of her house from her childhood, a brittle shell in which she dragged around her soft imagination like a snail. The same kind of shell Mab had - I’d thought of them as rivals for my faith, which had become all love, when I’d first met her - but Mab had to keep people trapped in it with her. (Was that another thing I’d been afraid of before I left?)
“How far did we. Ever even talk about that.” Involuntarily, I edged closer. “What would it even have been for.”
If anything I hoped that learning the truth out there would free Mai’s imagination. Maybe it still would, but it had to hurt first. It had to - was I taking pleasure in that thought? Maybe it didn’t, maybe it was one of those things like a breakup that some people really didn’t feel any bitterness over. I had almost convinced myself I was one of those, and if she wasn’t she hadn’t given the slightest indication, because despite being the one who had broken up with me, she had made even less effort since to hold us apart.
This didn’t even confuse me, because on some level, I knew, she didn’t process things in this world, only in that one - so what would happen when that was torn away from her? If I couldn’t stay close to her through that, who could?
“I dunno, you had all kinds of ideas back then.”
“I wasn’t even editing Wikis any more. I wasn’t even reading. I was studying or on Tumblr 24/7. How the hell did you put up with me.”
“No but you would tell me about stuff. Stuff you did when you were a kid. I still remember you saying it was the only way you could feel real, and still feel like the present you. I still think about that.”
OK, so she was doing this on purpose. The certainty washed over me like a warm wave. I stretched out my toes in it. She wasn’t as good at it as Delilah, but Mai was better than she let on at the passive cruelty parts of femininity.
“You did too.” It wasn’t cruel. I remembered holding her through it.
“Remember when we tried to do littlespace?” she giggled. Giggling didn’t help.
“Don’t show Halation that. I’m not kidding.”
“I haven’t shown them anything explicit. Have you?” She blinked. Then let her eyes fold up again. “Neither of us could do a parent role. But that twelve minutes we met up in elementary school and infodumped about stuff we were into, that was pretty fun.”
“How do you remember the number of minutes?!” I snapped. I did too.
But then she was smiling again. “It’s fine! I’m fine. I was still way closer than most people, I think! Leona, do you still have pictures of those anime drawings of the Adamski Venusians I had in the folder from high school?”
My giggles broke through me. “Oh my god I completely forgot about those.” How did this fit into trying to hurt me with memories - why would she give me a free strike?
“And then I tried to make them black because I didn’t like any of the Hotep ones. I’m glad I tried to kill myself before making ‘Black Venusian Bishounen’ a concept to be honest.”
I flinched, thinking I should have probably warned Halation more clearly about the level of pain they would be sharing. Maybe she needed someone to share it like that, like I’d never been able to. Maybe she needed Halation more than me.
She fixed me with a look that was like an infinitely extending spear. “Look, you know I have to work up to harder stuff. So you can just sit with it.”
I gulped and nodded.
By that time Alastair was paddling towards us, using the pod as a floater, a weak fountain bubbling where his heels puttered above the water like a tiny motorboat engine.
The pod, one of Edison Lens’ state of the art replacements for my setup in the shower, was a physical comfort for Halation even though they hadn’t figured out how to give them much to do in there. But what were we doing now besides watching the sunlight butter the undersides of the clouds?
I placed my hand on a rubber sphincter at the top of the pod, and let Halation flow down and into her shape as she filled out the subtly blue-green gas mix. Mai gasped, even though she had presumably just seen the shapes in her head and memories. “Is it weird if I… put my face close.”
“Should have asked earlier,” I laughed, “but no. I’m sure.”
She climbed on and around the pod, peering in at different angles.
If this could have happened three months ago. I was glad Halation wasn’t in me to hear me think it any more, and Mai wasn’t paying attention to see the grimace on my face. When I could have reached out to rub her shoulders or squeeze her hips or nestle my face under her chin -
Alastair took us out of this uncomfortable dynamic by talking to her about music for a bit; he was trying to convince her to put some synths on a beat for a friend of his. I was ready to fucking pounce if he did anything weird the entire time but he didn’t, which maybe said something bad about how he thought of me but might have been for the sake of preserving the appearance of our involvement.
I wondered what surveillance they could possibly have on us out here. We were near naked; we were out of range of even the wifi drones; I knew from strategy discussions they didn’t have anything crazy like nanotech or robot animals.
The boat driver pulled up to us on a skidoo. He had a bouffant receding hairline and stupid Bono glasses. “How you kids doing? You want drinks or anything? We got em on the boat.”
Mai turned away from me to make eye contact with Alastair then shook her head - “No thanks, maybe in a bit” - as Alastair stood up: “I for one am gonna go make some ironic Jimmy Buffett Tik Toks. If only my mom could see me now! Ciao.”
He climbed onto the back of the skidoo as the jackass chaperone rummaged in a freezer full of random shit I hadn’t looked at on the way. He held out two red, white and blue popsicles in plastic wraps. (One of the guys had had one at the truck and I hadn’t thought anything of it! How?) I had stopped liking them when I had realized the nationalistic implications of the colours - shockingly late, we had laughed about that together - but then Mai had given me another interpretation; they were the three colours of star, besides yellow, the vague dim burn of our weak sun. A yellow sun, though this had never been observed (and Halation had surely shown her that it never had and never would be), could alchemize into the rarest of stars, a pink sun - red and white, hot and cold, together in miraculous superposition, instead of awkward compromise. (That was supposed to be us, but we ended up no different from this rotten sun that shone its light on us.) Mai turned her head back towards me with ominous, mechanical slowness as I watched them pull away.
“So,” Mai asked, “am I a hostage?”
I froze, opened my mouth several times, needing all the coldness I’d mustered at the beginning of the conversation and then allowed to flow out of me.
“I just… want you to live a peaceful life.”
“Of course you do. What I want to know is, is that my choice or not?”
I stopped dead.
“Like, what if I told them I wanted to go to space?” She smiled cruelly up at the sky, which was starting to get sickly with gold. “It’s not like I imagined it, but it’s still… not here. Not this stupid techie resort either. A lot of what Halation was showing me was beautiful.”
“I don’t, uhhh, know they’d let you, for a bunch of reasons -“
“Right,” she huffed, “recruiting sarge won’t let me on board because I’m a fat schizotypal tranny with a bunch of suicide attempts. And they put you in charge of this whole thing for some reason? What’s really going on here?”
“How much did Halation tell you?”
“I didn’t ask them, because I wanted to ask you. But I figured out enough - like how they can and can’t communicate - like how much leverage you could have if you wanted to. I want to know what you’re doing with it.”
“Mai,” my voice breaking, “we don’t have that kind of relationship any more. I’m not obligated to tell you…”
“You’re doing it again!” She stood up, got between me and the sun. “I can’t believe it, you’re doing it again. Just because I’m more femme than you doesn’t mean I’m like, gender affirmed by being treated like the damsel you need to protect, the pining woman you leave on the shore for seven years.” She glanced to the side. “Well, maybe a bit. But the last time you did that you made it worse!”
“That was also the last time I got you involved with a bunch of dicks in uniforms! What am I supposed to do?”
“No,” she yelled, “it was the last time you got involved with a bunch of dicks in uniforms! To save me! And now I have to make sure you don’t do it to the entire planet - or the galaxy! To my world!”
Tap. Tap. Tap.
I looked over my shoulder. One of the branches of Halation’s body had woven its soft tendrils into a single drill-tip point, and was tapping on the pod.
Did those fuckers really make it without a way to let themselves out from the inside?
“I think they want to say out of the pod.” I stretched my arm over the top of the pod, extending my hand to the aperture
“Can they tell we’re talking? Can they tell we’re in the middle of something?”
“Actually in that body I don’t think they can even perceive anything outside of the gas.”
Mai gasped. “That’s cruel! It’s like a Pokeball?! I thought they were sunbathing with us!”
“Well, the sunlight in the gas is something they can feel…”
“What are you waiting for? Let them out already!”
I stuck my hand back in the aperture. “Does that mean we’re making up for now?”
“Be quiet. Ask Halation what it’s OK to tell me. I only talked to them about space because I wanted to ask you first.”
She lay down and rolled over.
“You’re telling me I’m doing what we broke up over again, but you’re talking like we didn’t even break up.”
She propped her head back towards me on a wrist. (Compressing droplets down the lines of her shoulder.) “Huh? What in the audacity -“
This was an entirely different kind of cruelty than I had been prepared to use, but I had a plan.
“Why are you so determined to get involved in this? I gave you a place to live the rest of your life, and never have to see me again.”
“We already established I didn’t want that. We were staying friends. Maybe we won’t if you become space dictator, or you keep doing whatever this is… but I want to stay friends, and that’s why I want to know” -
“Aren’t we being naive? Everything we fought over… it’s gonna be so small in the scale of what’s coming. Do you think we’d survive that even as friends? I’ve given you a place to stay out of it. That’s all I can do for you, which means we were right about each other in the first place. I came out here because obviously I couldn’t make first contact without telling you, and to say good-bye to you.”
“I wanted to do this while Halation was in the thing too, but maybe they need to know what this means to me.”
I waved to the hoverboard, and heard it start up. Mai’s palm hit my shoulder, slammed me to the ground.
“No! Stop! Fuck you!”
“I just wanted to see you again. It wasn’t even fair to you in the first place.”
She slapped me. Not lesbian domestic abuse stats, don’t give a shit. Bright slap, Gundam. “I did! Don’t you get it? This is it! This is the carelessness! It’s not selfishness, it’s carelessness! Don’t fucking do this act -“
“I care about you. Maybe too much. I will always care about you.”
“- when it’s gonna hurt both of us!”
She pulled me up by the swimsuit straps. Straight into it.
Straight into tear-salt capturing gold powder lipstick.
Straight into big fake eyelashes brushing my eyelids shut.
Straight into the clueless harshness with which she crushes her nose right into you.
Straight into letting my top canine hook into her bottom.
Straight into warmth like a star dissolving into heat.
A few weeks after Delilah, I’d talked you down from realistic suicidal planning three times already, you’d been wandering around the house saying your intrusive thoughts out loud, banging your head on the wall to shake out music or something other than incomplete, obsessive, for the first time contradictory worldbuilding about death. I was barely doing any better, to say nothing of Sophie, I had slept three hours, but I was going up to your place for the fourth time this week. I didn’t mind. Cuddling wordlessly with you was the best thing I could do then, the only good part of those days I remember.
When I rang you, I didn’t get any response. I waited for somebody else to open the door of the building and snuck up to your apartment. The deadbolt had been broken since you moved in and I’d spent half a month’s paycheck to replace it with a fancy combination lock since you would get scared of your family tracking you down. (They still tried.) I entered the number (it meant “starflower” in a sort of space gematria you had made up). The plastic box buzzed angrily. Wrong password.
I called. And messaged Facebook, and Tumblr, and Twitter. And tapped, then banged on the door. And called again.
I paced up and down the hallway for 10, 15 minutes, checking each of my messages. I couldn’t focus on anything else. I wanted to pray to something, but all my metaphysical feelings had been swallowed by your world, and wouldn’t mean anything if you were gone. (Which was fucked, because that had to be part of the point of them, to outlive you, didn’t it? But for me…) I thought of Black Domnu, but any prayer I offered up would be returned to me as a curse, a primordial sickle claw striking you down if you weren’t dead already - this is what you get for abandoning me. At around the 13-minute mark, my father’s voice started creeping into my mind. I’ve always told you there’s no one you can pray to. You know I wouldn’t be mad if you went and got involved with people who pray, though, that’s just what sensible people do. Instead you went and got involved with someone that weak who can’t even pray to anything! You went and made yourself that weak! All this time you’ve been pretending you’re strong for running away and making things hard for yourself. What made you think you could help someone like that when you couldn’t even get a real job, keep your head down, ignore the things you need to ignore to get what you want? Society has rules to tell you what to pay attention to and what to ignore, what’s worth your time and energy and what isn’t. You feel like your gender isn’t right, who cares, that doesn’t get you anywhere. Be a man and you can help “her”. Follow the rules - not the ones you made up, not the ones some spectre handed down, the real ones - the ones with guns and money backing them up - and you can help “her”. Or not, if she doesn’t want it. But then, that doesn’t matter.
My fingers hovered over the keypad on my cellphone. She had told me never to do this. I knew a million reasons why.
Do you really care? Get real, now, or “she”’s going to die. You’ll learn the same lesson either way. There are rules to situations like this. They’re designed to prevent you from getting into them in the first place. Follow them. For your own good.
My fingertip skewered the “9” like I was stabbing myself.
Your little experiment ends now. The way I always knew it would. Both of you. Now pick up the pieces, and get out with what you can.
I hammered the “1” like the nail that sticks out.
I wanted to tell you, Mai, and I couldn’t without sounding ridiculous, in that moment I wasn’t even Leona. “Leona” was willing to die to save you - but [deadname] would have happily killed you to save itself.
I can’t even remember pressing the second 1, I was so numb.
You had swallowed three tabs of acid six hours ago and laid down on your favourite blanket on the floor, locked in there with no light but your lava lamp and glow in the dark stars on the ceiling, hoping to change something. You had told me you were planning this - a week ago - you hadn’t set a date, but when the thoughts came thundering down on you in the worst monsoon yet you knew it was now or never. When they broke down the door in body armour you had a panic attack that lasted sixty seconds in which you were an entire planet devoured by black armoured insects then somehow broke into a survival mode you said felt like being “piloted” and calmed them down with a story you made up about changing the number because you kept forgetting it, you were so calm even the pigs could tell something was off even though they couldn’t tell you were high, treating them like a neighbour who had walked in by accident, and when one of them tried to put a hand on your wrist and suggest you follow him to the car I was Leona again and ready both to die and get it on camera. I couldn’t believe we both made it out alive either. You refused to look at me for the rest of your trip, just huddled under a blanket over your computer while I wandered around in a daze and cooked ramen.
They asked over and over for your parents, for someone to contact to confirm everything was OK; you gave them that old forum administrator who helped you get out and hoped they would smooth things out somehow.
That wasn’t everything, we’d already been talking about it, you felt guilty about being a burden on me, I kept saying the wrong thing and triggering you, we wanted different things out of sex and neither of us knew what, but that was it. You sent me a callout post you said you were going to delete, just so I could think about it and what I would change. You still messaged me on Discord every day but couldn’t be in the same room as me for weeks without freezing up. You said you still needed me but now knew you needed not to.
We had slipped back under the water. There, surveillance shouldn’t have had any way to see Halation covering and joining both of our bodies, almost translucent, like an oil slick, like another particular formation of light through water on our skin. Petals of orange afternoon suspended in green glass.
Mai, I asked soundlessly, but forming words, what would you do, if this was something - if we were making this up?
There’s nothing like the Freezefire Light?
The Freezefire Light was what the Choir of the Big Bang, ancestors and mediators to all the stellar peoples in her world, used to quell evildoers - an indigo radiance that induced biological stasis except for the brain until an enemy had worked through whatever conflict was making them want to do harm.
Although hadn’t she told me the Choir had been breaking down for Millennia - no one was even sure if it still existed - and it never came to silent planets like this one?
Then I’d want to understand the Adipose as well as possible. Understand what could be done to contain it in places that don’t want it, for people who don’t want to be affected by it. If I understand it correctly, it’s a bit colonial, right? Like it changes parts of space in ways not everybody there gets to have a say in, for people in other parts of space. That’s a pretty good definition of that, actually, but I’m not sure you get exactly what that means here. I’m not sure her white ass would be able to explain to you properly, either, although I know she’d try. The thing is I’m not sure it means the same thing for you as for us. Here almost everyone who did that just straight up wanted to murder and enslave people. But it sounds like the people who want this Adipose… just wanna keep in touch with everyone else after the world ends, which I would want, too. But they don’t get to just walk all over other people for that.
Her every word (even in her mental “voice”) was measured, in a way I had only heard her a few times, because usually if she measured words like that, she just wouldn’t say them. The last time I’d heard her like this, we were deciding what exactly it meant to break up.
That’s what I was doing, Halation intervened, with a rush of passion we could feel in both of our bodies, tensing and wanting air. Non-partisan scientific research into anti-Adipose fields. (Sure, non-partisan run by the Ahasurunu, but…) The pro-Adipose faction blew them up. Civilians. An entire reef.
Mai nodded with a graveness belied by the way her cheeks puffed out when she thought, the way she rocked back and forth. Her hair swirled around her like ribbons in a Chinese ballet. In that case I’d focus on whichever faction or sub-faction is targeting that stuff first. Make protecting non-partisan research projects, that could end up deciding or limiting the focus of what the war’s even over, a priority for human involvement. You aren’t taking orders right? You’re taking contracts, as an independent… I don’t know exactly know what kind of structures there are for this in the rest of the universe. But you should set your own priorities, instead of leaving them to a guy like Waldo Beek or some aliens you don’t know. I still don’t know if it was a good idea to drag us into this, but I know I’d rather have you - both of you - dragging us into it than anyone else.
You’re saying this?
Yeah, I’m saying this as someone who knows better than anyone else on the planet that you’re an idiot, and the kind of idiot who can hurt people at that. But that was the fucked up thing about us, wasn’t it? When’s the last time you met a non-idiot who wasn’t evil? You’re the closest I ever met, and even you weren’t close enough to live with.
She choked in a laugh that would have sucked water into her lungs. I know, right! But look on the bright side: no one’s gonna be competent where you’re going. Not even Beek, or Bennett-Fog, or any of those people who are trying to tell you what to do.
They did talk to me about getting you involved as like, a consultant. The way they have sci-fi writers in the war room for these things. I shut them down, but if you want…
She was silent for a long time. Pangs of guilt, panic, bled over from her to me, and I tried to think of something to say to take the pressure off. I don’t think it would be a good idea. I can help, there are things I can do, but not that. She settled, like ripples evening out. I’d never seen her do it that fast. What had she been learning without me - what had I been holding her back from learning - and how.
The problem is, if I really had been dying in that room, there was no one you could have called to help me. No one you should have. You’re going to be in a lot more situations like that, I think. A long time ago I told you, the thing I most need from someone who loves me is to know how to let go of me. Not just from your life, but from this world, if I ever decide it’s time to go for real. And you’re going to need to let go of a lot of lives… without letting go of the part of yourself that cares about them. Without turning them into something else, something already dead, something expendable, in your head. I think in a weird way, because of me, you’ve faced that problem already.
So had she - that was, what I had learned, what she was doing with Delilah, in that room.
The planet the cops had chewed up was the planet of the dead.
It took her weeks to establish that Delilah’s soul was still out there somewhere.
It was because of me. It was still my fault.
Humans care a lot about whose “fault” something is. That was Halation.
If you lived here you would too.
They landed at 2 in the morning, right at the end of the vacation Edison Lens had scheduled for me.
By then the Bay Area had been evacuating for two days. Coastal areas had gone first - SF county, San Rafael, Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland - into huge cloth hangar shelters out in empty parts of Contra Costa and Alameda and Santa Clara that were already being called FEMA camps. (Alistair had released one video, one of the camps filmed from above on an Edison Lens drone, captioned: “This isn’t FEMA camps. This is bigger. Trust the Plan.”) The official story was credible threats of a dirty bomb, they couldn’t say from who except it wasn’t a national actor, no need for alarm about World War 3. Everyone had also been told it was imperative to back up any personal electronics on a solid state drive and get that as far away as possible, in case of an EMP.
When power went out throughout the entire Bay Area, the shelters had backup running but lost internet and communications.
But it wasn’t an EMP. As people in the not fully evacuated zones discovered, the tendency wasn’t for things to stop running but to overheat. It was as if a virus was running on everything at once. At first this was most obvious on cell phones and disconnected laptops, fans whirring and programs crashing, windows smeared in asymmetrical streaks across the screen. After the first hour or so of outage, though, everything came back on at once and couldn’t be turned off. Rolling blackouts would ensue as it overloaded again and again. The grid was running on its own, and seemed to be figuring out how to control itself in real time.
They settled in the Oakland Inner Harbour, between the Oakland and Alameda Power Plants. Their “tails” lay back to back on Coast Guard Island. Collapsed boats and upturned asphalt settled into new, more stable geological terraces under their immobile bodies. Their “clamps” cracked through the shells of the power plants on either shore and with golden tendrils like the Ohmu in Nausicäa somehow fused with the wires inside. A gridded circulatory system under the translucent plates of the mandibles glowed yellow-orange as they fed, as did a number of target-like phosphorescent rings where eyes might have been on a terrestrial equivalent. The colours I had seen on the telescope, opaque against the dark of space, were in fact translucent like the casing of an old iMac, and even at night just the flickering, sparking streetlights would highlight shadows of bubble- or chain-organelles. The firefighters deployed under military direction to take care of buildings burning from power bursts, though legally signed to secrecy and forbidden personal electronics, got out the first videos that made it onto the web. Then people started flying drones in. They would spiral out of the air if they got too close, but some 4chan kid calculated the safe height from previous instances and did a livestreamed, systematic, one-hour survey. We didn’t take it off Youtube. The spectacle wouldn’t have worked without a hint of secrecy, but the point was the spectacle.
The live fire at night, rhythmic light and thunder on the horizon, already proved to anyone aboveground that something other than a bomb threat was going on. This part of the show was essentially a military parade, designed to generate flattering footage of hardware that was bouncing right off them. Their translucent armour was a novel state of silicon in a self-readjusting lattice (that took the computing power of a brown dwarf star to discover, but was easy for even blind replicating algorithms to reverse-engineer) that oscillated between diamond hardness and rubbery elasticity. We hadn’t figured out an armour-piercing round that would work, and Beek had ordered up some experimental bunker-busters from Arizona built for a DOD contract no one thought would ever get put to use. Halation was telling me there was a way to do it if you mounted a Weak Asymmetry Field to them in the right way, but I wasn’t telling, because it wasn’t the best way to get rid of them anyway, and I needed that to put myself back in charge.
Tanks and mortars lined up in the harbour roads between stacks of coloured metal crates. Supply routes ran up and down the tight grid of downtown Oakland from bases safely in the hills. Beek took me out, on a personal helicopter, to view it every morning. I didn’t know what point he thought he was making. It just felt like a child’s dream of being surrounded by sized-up wargame miniatures. The power lines everywhere randomly humming and exploding - the military had to truck in their own cables for everything, wrapped in a superinsulator - added to the sense of incoherent, imaginary apocalypse. The Clamps had one reaction to any assault sufficient to bother them, which was to thrash. While keeping their mandibles thoroughly enmeshed in the power station, they would undulate along the length of their bodies and flop up and down like a fish pulled onto the deck of a boat. Sometimes it would be side to side, which scrapped a row of poorly placed tanks once, but they didn’t actually move. The area where they were beached was pretty much flattened anyway, so it didn’t even do any impressive property damage. Most of that was just our own artillery going astray, crashing through another shop window in Chinatown, caving in the roof of a strip mall, bending a lamp-pole across the highway. Beek would spend half the time just yelling boomer jokes and weird training academy slogans at guys in jeeps going past, and the rest of the time he’d be filling out Excel charts in his phone.
One time Hiram Ogier came out to the front. He was wearing a jet-black poncho that might even have been vantablack - he was famous for wearing that - because I couldn’t make out any creases or shadows as it cracked in the wind, over khaki slacks rolled up around his Italian loafers. His giant sideburns, biker-style over ear on bald head, whipped against his sunken face as he stared at his feet perched on the edge of a jeep, but looked up to fix me with his black sunglasses as he passed.
I had my own phone out as I stood behind Beek. I had told him I’d started my own strategic note, and he’d given me the exact precious look I’d expected, but still winced at, and never acknowledged it again. I had an audio file open in Azoth Drive, and if he had so much as glanced back he would have assumed it was a recording of the stats the lieutenant colonel was delivering in an air-cannon monotone. We had a hell of a time teaching our coders, but Halation had explained how to protect the Plastic Beach intranet, which now extended to every military unit brought in under our command, from the “virus” the Clamps delivered. They hadn’t explained much of what that “virus” was, or how they delivered it.
Wi-Fi and data were down throughout the city.
I wasn’t on the Plastic Beach network.
On the screen, over my browser, or homescreen, or any other display I toggled it to, was a glowing target-ring, electric blue or purple depending on the angle I tilted my screen at. If I pressed it, my connection bars lit up or went down. If I held it down longer, a stream of posts formatted for different websites - Facebook, Reddit, Snapchat, NextDoor - floated across my screen, all pictures of translucent humped shell over cracked roofs the horizon, flares rising and falling at night over the FEMA fence, status updates like “hey is everyone else on this?” and “bruh what the fuck goin on”. Blackout meditation Tik Toks. E-girls taking candlelit baths in the dark. Livewatch apocalypse movie marathons. All from within the blackout zone. “Is the government watching us?” “Does the government know this exists?” “Are we all going to Gitmo for being on here?”
If I held it down again, it glowed bright enough to obscure anything behind it, and any other element on my screen became movable. I pulled the sound file out of Azoth Drive and towards the centre of the circle.
A set of interfaces, including all my social media, floated across the screen. I ignored them all and pressed the centre of the circle, and it disappeared.
I kept my finger on the centre of the circle.
It took a couple of minutes for my screen to go black and text to come up in an unreadable programming language, seemingly random series of letters and numbers repeating as regularly as letters of the alphabet, columns spaced like lines of avant-garde poetry. The only colour or graphics on the screen, the same concentric circles.
I held it down one last time until the audio file resurfaced through the wormhole.
I let it go, hundreds of lines of code wrote themselves across my screen in seconds, and then my phone bricked.
That night when every computer and modem and mobile phone and game console and Apple TV in the blackout area came on at once, for the hundred and fourth time in three days since the landing - the shortest lasting a microsecond, the longest eight hours - a file appeared and played on every single device that had been blacked out. Very few of these devices - though they all had the concentric circles somewhere on their screen - were occupied. Active users dismissed the file to the corner of their screens as just another random eruption of their glitching devices and reality; others sat and listened for four minutes, coming away existentially pensive and with a renewed sense of mystery. On rows of abandoned computers filling office towers, on the other hand, it looped for hours, a noise that could be heard from outside the half-open windows as an insect-like buzzing.
When the sun goes nova
And the world turns over
I don’t want to be alone,
So honey, come on home…