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Extant: Part One
Author's note: This is my third NaNoWriMo entry. I really just wanted to write about being the alien but yearning to learn and be a part of the culture, but it turned into a lot more than that.
I had the news delivered to me by the technicians, of all people. A meteor was spotted far out in space, but directed at our very own Earth, and scientists predicted that it would hit in approximately a month. They were evacuating all of us under the age of fifty onto college-campus-sized airships to fly to the nearest galaxy that had livable planets that they had been studying for twenty or so years – Alpha Centauri.
The technicians were surprised I hadn't heard. Hadn't it been all over the news? I supposed so, but I wouldn't have been the one to receive it. I was probably the last person on Earth who stubbornly stuck to the anti-technological ways of the last century. While everyone else was sending instant messages through their headsets, chattering about the latest installment in the evacuations, I was sitting at home, in my dark study, writing my newest novel on old scrolls of lined paper.
The technicians checked through some lists and declared me to be evacuated onto Airship 552, which departed from Los Angeles on April 18th. I was directed to start making the journey there now before planes were brought down from the skies by the unbending prowess of the meteor.
After they left, I went onto one of my old computers to see if I could bring up the news. No luck. One of the cords in the wall fizzled out and sent sparks sprinkling onto the carpet, and while I was occupied with that, I didn't stop to see if there was a way to fix it. I guessed I was going to be the one person without knowledge of the coming disaster.
Packing up and leaving was not an easy thing to do. It wasn't so much that I had a lot of stuff I had to hold on to, but rather the prospect that this was not a vacation. If you wanted to call it a vacation, though, it would be appropriate to title it The Eternal One-Way Vacation to the Outermost Reaches of Space.
I sat for the whole of yesterday staring at my piles of belongings, and today made the decision to pack up my journal, my two favorite paper books, my ancient mp3, an assortment of clothing articles, and my glasses from the ninth grade, made from actual plexiglass that helps one to see. Nowadays everyone got eye replacements and surgeries throughout the years. I likely was also the only person with naturally bad eyes with no fear of showing it.
I drove down to the nearest train station and boarded the Amtrak to LA. The car was crowded and bustling and stank of century-old smoke fumes and anxious sweat. I wormed my way down the aisle and found a seat towards the back of the car and slid into it, ignoring the under-kept state of the train. It must have been years and years old, but still reliable to be used when much more modern and efficient trains were the cross-country way to go.
A family with a spacious father and teary, soot-eyed children crammed across from me in the booth. The mother, thin and pale and jittery with her fingers dancing wildly across the screen of her touch-screen phone, alighted down next to me, never looking up from the animated light at her fingertips.
I observed them only for a moment before gazing out of the window disinterestedly. The haze over the city had grown to noxious highs, purple and brown clouds clinging to the air around the mountains. Everything was industrial – taller and bigger and shinier buildings were erected in place of the old, more traditionally built ones until the entire metro area acted as a giant, hundred-way mirror of silver and glass beaming the light and heat of the sun right back out into space.
When I took one of my journals out of my pocket, the youngest son of the woman stared at me, artificially corrected blue eyes waltzing with the pen as it curled around and around and down and across the pages. I soon got tired of it, though, and banded my book shut with an angry snap and went back to looking out the window. The train conductor made an announcement, stating that a delay would keep us from LA until the next day, but not to disembark. A girl child sitting across from me burst out crying in sniveling, snotty sobs, and I kept my eyes averted until the plump father smothered her face into his bulk of coats and fat. I sighed inwardly and pulled out one of my books, ignoring the boy's newly watching and wondering eyes.
I was the last to get off of the train when we finally arrived in Los Angeles. I had visited the city many years before, and so many years away had shown remarkable increases in pollution and building improvements. Top stories dully scratched the bottom of the skies, but a misty pink and orange haze obstructed the familiar blue from sight.
Everyone was gathered in irregular clusters as they frantically messaged each other to check everyone's safety. I broke off and headed off down the roads to any available hotel, thankful for the empty lobby when I walked through the doors. The clerk asked if I wanted them to activate satellite chat for my headset, as the first message boards were already encountering network errors, but I denied him and I was led to a quiet tan room on the second floor. Even at my refusal, I was allowed a complimentary headset during my stay, free of charge. He must have wondered at my lack of earpiece and my naturally brown eyes unaltered by medical advances.
In the peace of my room, I pulled closed all of the shutters and made sure the door was locked before pulling out my journal. It had a frayed spine, yellow and brown water-dried pages, and a thin elastic band to hold it closed. Pages fluttered out of it and I scrambled to pick them up off of the floor before the antiseptic in the carpeting dissolved their thin and fragile fibers.
My papers. My words. I held them in my open palms, too grimy and dirty to be within the legal protocol, wandering the lines again and again.
I have been evacuated from home. Earth won't last long enough for me to pass these things on, the wind and skies and sun of my years. It won't be the same on an atomic airship hurtling through the stars. There is only one Earth, solamente una tierra, and it has breathed its last.
Why did the most inconceivable things always happen? What grudge had karma and the fates held for so long against us to explode in a fuming rage now? I didn't know. I had no explanations aside from the rotting, crumpling leaves in my hands. I had nothing except for my thoughts and my words. With this disaster, it could all be taken away.
I tried the headset, and I was instantly blown by all of the information they presented at once. Advertisements and message notices and news and photographs, all bouncing around just out of your vision, always grabbing for your attention. All of the lights and sounds banging around in my head started to give me a migraine after just a few moments of it. I thought it was a waste of time and effort until I got a news report flashing about revised evacuation lists. I couldn't figure out how to access it – what with having no expertise on the modern technology of the day – but after a second it opened itself, screaming warning sirens and flashing frantic red and black text in all caps.
The most I really comprehended was that the acceleration of the meteor – the Black Meteor, or the Death Star, ironically enough – had been miscalculated by a lot, and the earth was actually going to be hit in a few days. There was a list of airships that were now on early departure, but I didn't read those. The headset acquired satellite data about my region and ordered me to race to my designated airship station as soon as possible.
I shoved my books into my suitcase and tore down the hall to the stairway and stumbled hurriedly through the lobby to the doors. The clerk didn't even remark upon me still wearing the headset; we just ran together as fast as we could down the streets, through back alleys and across stretches of poorly maintained buildings to reach the airship station.
On the outside, it just looked like a large factory building, but inside there were complicated attendance lines with people dashing helter-skelter in their confusion. I raced over to a line marked M – T, and I gathered all of my scattered belongings together back into my briefcase as I waited behind the many couples and families ahead of me.
It took everyone ahead of me an hour to get sorted and registered for the aircraft. I walked up and told them my name and my information, and after a few minutes of paper sorting, I was handed a stapled document and registration to get on the airship. I filled out all of the necessary forms and turned them into the technicians and administrators at the entry to the airship. I was led through long hallways and rooms to an assigned dorm that I was to share with a slender girl who introduced herself as Adriana.
It wasn't until after Adriana had gone to bed and the lights in the airship were turned off that I realized I hadn't packed my journal.
I started documenting the occurrences of the airship in between lines in my books. I hated to ruin them, but my journal had been a living, breathing asset of my life, and I couldn't let myself come to a halt just because I had misplaced one in the inevitable confusion of this meteor.
Adriana awoke not too long after I had started in my scribbling, and had an uncomprehending look upon her face until she obtained her full consciousness. She tiptoed across the space of room toward me and her gaze fell hard on the pages of the book. I glanced at the page number and felt a bit hollow inside; I had now reached my favorite part of the story.
“What are you doing?”
I stared up at Adriana. Her face like was stone and her eyes deadpan. She had not a clue what these words read or what my pen helped create.
“Nothing. Well, just a bit of journaling.”
She watched silently. I started to feel uncomfortable.
“You can't read it?” I asked finally. Adriana, without moving her eyes, shook her head.
“They'll capture you for having that,” she murmured very quietly.
“Writing. It's against protocol.”
My mouth opened, then shut itself, opened again to make a protest, but was closed again. I had never thought that my hobby would be seen as a danger to them.
“And what you write is not safe.”
“You can read, then,” I remarked accusingly.
“You have to hide this,” she ordered me, ignoring my question. “Now. I can hear the morning guards coming.”
She snatched the book from my hands, along with my pen, and shoved them under my bed. She stood at attention when the door was swung open, her eyes frozen over in monotonous obedience.
I recognized the guard as being one of the technicians who had come to my door a week ago, but he didn't even glance in my direction inquisitively. He walked over to Adriana, circled her pensively like a drill sergeant, and then stopped behind her. It must have been some cue, for Adriana robotically moved forward and out of the room. In the room was led another person I recognized... the hotel clerk, and the only thing the technician said to explain himself was, “Enjoy,” and then the door was pulled shut and a dull metallic echo rang through the small room.
I didn't know what to say, or if I should say anything at all. He was different now, more anxious, less cocky (although he had been very nice). He didn't say anything either. In fact, I don't know how long he was actually awake in his new room, for within a few minutes of his entrance, I heard soft snores emanate from the opposite bed.
I extracted my makeshift journal out from under the bed, and wrote.
It was only a matter of time before I realized the actual reason Adriana had been exchanged for the hotel clerk(new name: Carlos). After an orientational meeting explaining everything on the ship – including roommates and why we had them – I clearly understood why Adriana had been replaced. Why she had been taken away so abruptly though, I did not understand.
Carlos had only ever said three words to me on the ship, whereas I had said zero to him, yet I still felt annoyed by his lack of attention. Obviously the fact that I had essentially stolen the hotel headset meant nothing, but we were supposed to be engaging with each other by this point, and he hadn't made any effort. This I also inscribed in my journal.
That day I had just begun to make my way to the constellation rooms when I felt a cool hand on my arm. I spun around in a fright and came face-to-face with Carlos. His cheeks were taut and his eyes were serious and firm.
“It's today,” he stated, his voice wavering like wrinkles in the wind.
“They've scheduled room 1182,” he continued, and after a second I comprehended. The meeting had gone into some detail, and while I had ignored most of it, I did pick up the room schedulings as being the base for the start of the inter-person relations.
I followed behind Carlos as he took to hallways and staircases and slipped past the others in the corridors until we reached our room, 1182. He fumbled with the card in the slot and when the door did open, he did not rush into it in any hurry or eagerness. I ducked around him to go over to my bed, but since I could not write in front of him, I just had to sit with my hands clasped patiently on my knees.
“I don't want them to make us do this.”
I paused. “Um... Neither do I.”
“But they monitor it, so, we best start soon.”
I shuffled awkwardly in my position before I heard rustling and watched as he twisted himself to extricate his shirt. He felt my gaze on him and spun around, but he gave me no response other than a diversion of his eyes, and I resigned myself to getting up and removing my clothes as well.
Carlos walked over to the window and slid the chrome shutter down, even though it was technically unnecessary. I felt the finality of his gesture hit me hard like a stone in my chest, and for the duration of the assigned act I couldn't stop picturing his sun-kissed, hair-brushed hand sliding the silver cover over the only view of the outside world, and the arrow with which he pierced any chance of my retrieving those lost words of mine.
I was not feeling particularly well after Carlos' and my scheduled inter-relations. I felt the kind of nausea that only lives in one's throat, a cauldron fizzling just enough to wet one's uvula and stimulate consistent swallowing and retching.
My antidote from the medical officials was an injected tablet that was shot up into my arm to release anti-hormones to keep the body at neutral. My personal remedy was writing. I picked up my books and wrote, over and through the author's already printed type, a story weaving in and out of another tale. My thoughts on the evacuation and the end of the world and the airship drew their own picture in strange curved and rounded and pointed symbols through pages and pages of the book.
I don't know how, but I was the only person watching out the window when the meteor hit.
We were already a good stretch of distance away from Earth, but not so far as not to see it as we often saw Venus up in the stars on our old home. I had been gazing out through the multitudes of stars, running headlong through them with my eyes alone, when a small flash of color diverted my attentions. A small, distant star erupted into an expanding ball of orange that grew out and out until the black of space engulfed its smoky fangs in its jaws.
I didn't know what to feel. I didn't know how to react. The only home anyone had ever known on this airship was suddenly... gone. I sat staring as the orange rode away from our flying vessel until the night guard swung open the door and I spun around to face her, at attention.
In the door strode a petite woman with dark hair and a lab coat, clearly one of the fertility nurses by the green stripes on the coat's lapel. She injected me with a meter of some kind in the same place the pill had been inserted and recorded some quick notes about it with eye blinks into her headset. Then she had me pull my pants down a ways and poked into the flesh of my lower abdomen with a syringe and extracted some fluid. She would have to do some tests but would be back soon with the results of her experiments.
She came back not too long after she had left and remarked that the test results were positive, and that the fluid had proved positive for having placental matter. I was now directed to one of the seminar rooms, along with Carlos, to attend the meetings for to-be parents.
The orientation went into detail of how the pregnancies were supposed to go. Us women were directed in what to do in the mornings, what to eat for each meal, when to take our calcium and vitamin shots, what extra activities to engage in to promote healthy babies and as-painless-as-possible childbirths. The men were led through directions on how to assist the women in reaching their fullest maternal potential, and how to prepare the nursery dorms and arrival of the child. There wasn't much more reference to how things would go after the birth, and I left the seminar haunted by the void of lack of information on the subject.
My only way of keeping time and days had stopped working a few days earlier, and I now titled my entries with the latest happenings in my life on the airship.
Between the seminar and the first checkup, I'd say about two weeks stretched. Carlos, although he accompanied me to the fertility nurse's office, did not have any visible enthusiasm for the project at hand. The doctors all referred to it as a project: the first generation of children born in the recesses of the airship, the first generation knowing no other life, the generation that would likely determine the likelihood of all others was only a scientific experiment to them.
I was assigned a new headset – I had ditched the hotel one soon after entering the aircraft – and the nurse messaged all of the results to me on there and wished me luck before bringing in the next patient. I walked down a hall to one of the waiting areas and fell into one of the chairs. Carlos sat himself across from me, now staring at me intently.
“Well?” he said. “What do the results say?”
I didn't respond, my embarrassment at still not knowing modern technology overruling the necessity of Carlos knowing the results of the checkup.
He only stared at me impatiently for a few more moments before recognition encapsulated his face and softened his features infinitesimally.
“You still don't know.” His lips made not a twitch, and yet his voice was right there in my ears. It took me some time to comprehend that he was speaking to me through the chat box. Through coaxing words I thought I was imagining, he led me through a short tutorial on how to access the government-sent messages, and after I followed his lead and did so myself, I chatted him back on the results. The developmental process was moving along smoothly, and I was assigned a daily schedule which I was to follow and be monitored upon for the parents in the next generation, if it all worked out successfully.
Carlos smiled very briefly, then got up and walked out. I felt a momentary spike of ire but it diminished as I saw him returning with glasses in his hand. He handed one to me, and the toast he declared broke the sizzling silence that burbled in my headset.
“To luck and success.”
I echoed it, but was overcome with confusion at Carlos' sudden interest in our contribution to the next generation.
A few months passed between the first and second checkup, and they passed without words written in my journal. Carlos was now more of a presence in our shared dorm, and he participated with more eagerness in anything involving the pregnancy, and so I could hardly ever get away to write anything.
I watched all of the other moms around me, and they all moved slowly and grudgingly, grumbling about all of the scheduled orientations and yoga sessions and diets and which programs to watch on their headsets. The men at their sides stood erect as the telephone poles of the past, walking beside the women with deadpan faces and automatic and wooden gestures. This only aided my wariness and suspicion of Carlos' higher level of engagement with the process.
Just a few days before we had received the progress reports for the second checkup. Carlos bubbled with giddy excitement that made me nervous in my better moods, but there were positive assets to this unusual development. After the fourth month started, I was sick all the time with chills and fevers and dizziness and vomiting, and so was confined to my sleep cubicle in the dorm. Carlos caught me up on all of the seminars and brought to me all of the necessary medications and remedies prescribed by my assigned pregnancy nurse. It was remarkable the adoration he exhibited for the child to-be, but even scarier was how he started paying more attention to me.
The medications started having positive effects that became apparent during the fifth month. I had more stamina during our time segments for jogging and walking through the outer corridors of the airship and endured longer than the other moms during our yoga exercises. I gained a strange interest in going to the children's ward and watching them play and interact with each other, already quickly adapted to their new living environment. I sometimes snuck out during the assigned “night hours” and went to the star observatories (constellation rooms) to watch the ship fly by the explosive gas nebulae at inconceivable speeds. The most revered development though was the lack of illness. I was able to consume all of the required meals at the designated times without any queasiness overtaking me, and I didn't ever find myself chilled with sweat in the sleep cubicle with the still image of the ceiling above me swirling like a pinwheel.
A few nights ago, something changed in me that prompted a reactive adaptation in Carlos. I was lying in bed, craning my head so I could watch outside the window, and I jumped a bit when I heard a message, spoken in a low voice, enter the headset inbox.
“You look out the window so often these days. What's the matter?”
Even though I knew in my heart I was a writer, I searched helplessly for words to satisfy his question. “The only thing we ever had is gone for good. We're starting a new generation that'll only ever know airship life, with no idea where we're even heading...”
I didn't realize that my response had brought frustrated tears to my own eyes until I tasted a drop of salt that grazed my lip. This only prompted more of the same, and I ignored Carlos' response message and turned my back to him, wallowing in the misery of my despair.
A few moments passed, but suddenly I felt a touch on my shoulders and Carlos helped me sit and then wrapped warm arms around me. I had no reason to question it at the moment, and I was surprised at the magic remedial powers a comforting hold could give.
He sat with me in my sleep cubicle for a long time after my rivers of tears had stopped flowing. He sat with me until I had nearly fallen asleep, and when he got up, he laid me gently back down on the bed. I thought he would have walked contently back to his own cubicle without a second thought, but he hesitated at my bedside, and in the dimness combined with my somnolence, I thought I was mistaken when I saw something flicker in his eyes. I was briefly jerked back into consciousness when all of a sudden he crouched down and kissed me, and I was lulled back to the realm of sleep when he whispered goodnight into my hair with warm, moist lips.
I didn't have to look at the stars to get that exhilarating feeling of flying anymore.
It only took a little over two weeks following that night for Carlos and I to become more open and grow closer to one another. It never really got anywhere besides that one kiss – at first, anyway – because we had learned that public affection was prohibited from watching all of the other couples in their stiff, inanimate gestures and actions.
The third checkup rolled around a little less than a month before the baby's due date. The pregnancy nurse poked and prodded here and there, and recorded an ultrasound video that we could download from our chat boxes. Carlos had been so happy after getting the news that he hugged me fiercely as soon as we were out of sight.
The baby grew heavy with each passing day, and so did my mixed feelings for Carlos. I did not love him, but I returned to him a pleasant affection and adoration, and, of course, I did need him, even for the little things. He emanated more than just childish adoration. I would sometimes be stirred awake during the night and find him gazing softly at me from his sleep cubicle. Ever since what I referred to as “the night of tears,” Carlos presented himself as available to talk about anything I needed, and he didn't hesitate to hold me in his arms in his own times of need.
Carlos and the baby. Our baby. I had a apprehensive feeling that I would be parted with both of them very soon, but I tried to ignore my intuition and live as I could during what felt like our last days. Carlos came with me to the star observatories and to the children's ward. He accompanied me to all of the “mom meetings”, even though the fathers weren't typically allowed. He helped me catch up to the technological advances of the present and acted as a mentor.
One of the nights I was practicing capturing and sending photos through the chat boxes because it was something I had been having trouble with and Carlos had just gone over it with me. I focused my gaze on my swollen stomach and then held my eyes shut tight for three seconds, taking a snapshot. However, I still couldn't grasp how to send the picture. I fumbled through the settings and controls and eventually managed to delete the photograph all together.
Carlos chuckled to himself and came over to sit next to me in the cubicle, and I thought I was in for another one of his tutorial-lectures. Instead, he leaned in and caught my lips with the savory fruit flavor of his mouth. When he pulled back, I waggled my eyebrows and teased, “Where did the true explanation for the photo controls go the first time?” and he smiled and said, “Oh, doing this results in something completely different,” but we both fell into an awkward silence because there was a month-long limit after the baby was born to start engaging with those things again.
“Do you think they'll separate us?” I asked him later.
“Never,” he replied, but it was in too dreamy a tone for me to believe him.
“I don't know if they'll let us stay together,” I continued, and Carlos' eyes grew fearsome in defiance of the airship's permitted ways.
“I won't ever let them separate us,” he retorted, and I was surprised at him for saying something like that so strongly. Carlos quickly put his arms around me protectively and kissed me, and I had a feeling he did it to cover up whatever embarrassment he may have aroused from his words.
It had been silent in our dorm for a long time when he finally said, “If ever they separate us, I will break away from all of their restraints and come back to you.”
I doubted that he would be able to if the situation arose, but something entirely different let me believe him with every ounce of soul I had.
They had said at one of the seminars that we would know when the baby was going to arrive, and somehow they were right. More than my water breaking or anything like that, I knew in more intuitive ways. Inside me, I felt something that was trapped release itself, and I knew it was time to welcome our child.
Carlos and I raced as fast as we could to the maternity center of the medical facilities, and my nurse was there to escort us to a room. I hadn't known about the scientific advances made to ease and accelerate the birth process, but I was thankful to them for making these discoveries in any case.
It was only a few hours, but they were anxious, strained and painful hours, hours that faded into mist when I heard the first cry and they held my baby up to the world. I was tired and aching and sore and weary, but as they passed our child into my arms, I forgot myself and my necessities and only saw the trembling, pink mass that was our daughter.
I only held her for a few minutes before I transferred her to her father's arms. As he gazed upon her I saw everything inside him flip over and upside down and spill out in the tears that he shed and dripped onto her new blanket.
“Hello beautiful. Hello beautiful girl.”
One of the nurses then took her from his arms and he reached out to me with the happiest and the saddest eyes in all the world. I grabbed out to him and he held me tight in his arms and we lay together on that hospital bed the whole day and through the night.
We hadn't a clue that the first time we saw our daughter would also be a last. The doctors came in the next day and shooed us out to one of the conference rooms, and there we received the terrible news and why they hadn't told us the after until after.
Once the babies were born, they spent a short time with their parents before being relocated to a collective nursery to be logged into all of the airship records. The day following that, they would be moved to the nursery dorm that their parents had constructed for them, and here they would live, likely with multiple other children, interacting in the children's ward and the center of the youth's world on the aircraft, never to engage with their birth parents again.
I felt a weakness in my knees as I rose that prevented me from standing. Carlos supported me under my arms until we reached our dorm, and once there I collapsed into his arms and held onto him as strongly as I could.
“W-why did they take her aw-away?” My voice was thin and hard and dull, and my throat a rocky desert canyon that prevented me from projecting my words fully.
Carlos did not reply at first, and carried me over to his sleep cubicle with arms strengthened from many defeats.
“They can never take her away,” Carlos murmured into my hair after a while. “I called her Deirdre and they can never take her away. She'll always be ours.”
Tears clouded my eyes and wet my cheeks at the irony of the name. “Deirdre was my grandmother's sister's name. She died when she was little.”
I listened to Carlos breathe, in and out. “Deirdre was my aunt's name.”
After I departed to my own cubicle and settled into my bed, I pictured our tiny Deirdre, and bestowed wishes upon the stars shooting past our window. Let our Deirdre be safe.
A month by itself changes a lot of things. A month between Carlos and me changed us. A month between us after having essentially lost our child, changed everything, in both good and bad ways. A month after having our child allowed us to enter what the nurses all called “the fertility hour.” We were encouraged to sign up for sex scheduling again, but the opportunity was only open for a little while. The nurses' plans were to have children of similar birth dates in the generation to make for easier choice of a roommate and dorm partner in the time of their puberty.
Carlos had grown angrier over the course of those weeks. Not at me, but at the establishment. He did not sign us up to be parents on that year's roll call. Our separation from Deirdre had fueled some underground emotions inside me, and my feelings for Carlos increased immensely, and he sensed this.
The intercourse we had was ravenous and primitive. It satisfied only the deepest primal needs and decreased our savage fury at the officials. Breaking the rules that way was a personal freedom for each of us, and we only spent a few silent moments apart, clothed, in our separate beds, before the guards came in.
The door was swung open in a flash, and it was too fast for either of us to react. By the time Carlos had crossed the floor to me and swept me into his arms, it was already too late. The guards reached out towards him with long, flat metal capsules and I met his terrified and infuriated eyes before they went white and he collapsed on the floor. One of the guards slung him over his shoulder and the other one yanked me forcefully out of the room by my arms, not even giving me enough time to grab onto my journal.
I felt like a repressed scream.
Over the torturous months I could write nothing. I was kept in a dank gray cell with no windows and one door only accessible from the outside. They fed the prisoners periodically, but a hollowness cemented in my stomach that provoked ever-increasing hunger. I was hungry for everything: food, words, touch, the stars, Carlos and Deirdre...
Carlos had made me that promise, and I had doubted it at the time, but now it seemed within reach. Somehow, through the walls that blocked message receptors we chatted night and day about everything. I ached to have this wall separating us, but neither of us regretted having thrown the officials off, if only briefly.
The days passed, the weeks passed, and the months passed. I logged my thoughts into private electronic message boards – though I still filtered what was recorded – so that I could write them on paper later.
The day when I felt the weakest, the sickest, the angriest and the loneliest was, miraculously, the day a parole officer slid open the door to bring me to the courtroom. I scrambled to my feet and followed them out, and my heart lurched when I saw Carlos being led beside me. He shot me a brief glance, but in his eyes I recognized none of what I had become accustomed to seeing there. Both of us squeezed down the dark and narrow corridor and were led out into the bright, open space of the courtroom. Our guards placed us on benches on opposite sides of the hall and sat to our interior as the judge walked up to the stand.
I wasn't listening to most of the sentence, but we were released to be branded with a first offense marker around our collarbones, and Carlos and I were to be placed in the “expendable” ward never to see each other again. Before our relocation, the judge gave us a fifteen-minute period in the court waiting room to say our goodbyes. I didn't hold back, and ran straight to Carlos, but he didn't receive me as enthusiastically as he might have before our imprisonment. I looked at him and his eyes were lost as the stars; I held him and his skin was cold; I kissed him and his lips were distracted and lifeless. I pulled back away from him despairingly, and the way he held my eyes in those moments was not comforting in any respect.
“You promised,” I said, tears burbling in my throat though my heart was hardened every moment he didn't break into laughter and uncover this as a prank.
“They'll reunite us again if we follow all of the rules,” he reminded me, but his tone was without conviction.
I extricated myself from his false grasp and watched him warily.
“I lost Deirdre but I shouldn't have to lose you.”
Carlos broke with an exasperated moan. “I shouldn't have to lose you either.”
“Why don't you love me?”
“Five more minutes,” rumbled the guard from just outside the waiting room door.
“What? How can you even think that I don't love you?”
I took several steps back to counteract his desperate approach. His eyes were the saddest and most tarnished spot of light in the room. I stepped backward and when I felt the doorknob prod into my back, I broke through the barrier and ran the whole way back to my dorm.
I slammed the door right in the guard's face and curled up on the floor of the room. Everything reminded me of him until I closed my eyes. I closed my eyes and blotted Carlos out of my world, burying my face in my knees and forgetting everything we had done.
I hoped that he wouldn't come by looking to conciliate me, but there it was a few moments later. His hand thrummed against the dull hard metal face of the door, sending waves to the other side of the room that echoed continually.
“I'm sorry, I really am. I made that promise and I meant it and I have yet to keep it. Please come out. Please. I miss you. I miss you already. We had that wall separating us for all those months and I don't want there to be another one any time soon. Please.”
I was only slightly won over by the fact that his words were actually spoken and not virtually present in my headset. I remained curled on the floor, though, and let him plead with me through the door for hours until the guard finally came by again and took him away. The guard came back for me not too long after with downcast and regretful eyes.
“I'm sorry we had to do that. We'll have to move you to your new ward assignment now.”
I was no longer in the fertility/maternity ward of the ship; my new housing was with the expendables. If you weren't fit enough, not fertile enough, too old, not experienced enough, disabled, not smart enough, or just plain useless to the mission, you lived in this ward. Seeing myself amongst all of the airship outcasts only made me feel worse about my situation.
Even here I couldn't skirt Carlos for long. While seating myself down in the dining area, he caught me by the arm and pulled me away from my table assignment into a shadowed corner.
“Please,” he said. He had turned hollow and wretched at my refusal and was now acting out of such starved need as to resemble a wild animal.
“I need time,” I replied quietly. “It's not that I won't take you back; I just need... more time.”
Carlos did not appear satisfied by my response but he did leave me be for the next few days. I couldn't help falling into stride with everyone around me and momentarily dismissing any thoughts of my former roommate. I did not like life as an expendable, though, and spent nights planning an escape back to the “real” world.
It was as if I had known all along that the expendables were inevitably in the path of airship execution. I had noticed a few people who one day just disappeared, but had never put rhyme or reason to it.
Thankfully, I had become more adept with the airship technology, and managed to send a “snap chat” photo message to Carlos hinting at my plans of escape. It took some time, but he responded, and during one of the designated mealtimes we congregated at a table far away from the majority of the populace. His eyes were wounded and pleading, but I managed to resist his unconscious and discreet advances and stay on the task at hand.
“How long does it have to be to revoke separation and reenter the engenderment sector?”
“I wouldn't think there would be a specified date... In the courtroom they said as long as both people consented to being reunited and put under constant surveillance for twenty-four months...”
Carlos' eyes brightened. “I believe so.”
His change of heart lifted my spirit, and Carlos looked at me like he wanted to come around the table and embrace me but we both held back due to heavy supervision in the ward.
We appeased to the guard when he came by to let us have another court trial, and after some skeptical once-overs and grumbling, we were separately escorted to the court room to sign electronic documents and reinstitute our partnership.
They told us that we had picked a smart day to decide this. After two weeks in the expendable ward, members were “disposed of” in sanitary manners non-threatening to the ship. The guard chuckled with a laugh that sounded like broken marbles and led us back to our former dorm, 1182, and secured it tightly closed behind us with a snap: the start of our twenty-four month constant surveillance.
The day I was reunited with Carlos was also the day I found myself recording in a journal again. All of the months immersed head to toe in technology made my handwriting shaky and uncertain, but I persevered until I returned back to the level I had been at upon leaving. I wrote and wrote and wrote, knowing I was likely under their scrutiny but disregarding their rule. They either had said that just to scare us into resisting the temptation of law-breaking, or so long ago my first roommate Adriana had said what she said to me just to keep me from writing. Just briefly I remembered her, and never seeing her again in the shadows of airship corridors I concluded that she was an expendable that had been misfiled.
Even as I ran out of paper I utilized the sheets from my sleep cubicle to write. Tearing them carefully into squares and threading them into a collection of linen pages, I created the new collection and chronicles of my airship journey and life.
One night, I had stayed up hours past Carlos and long into the night I let my pen ink the pages with the letters that constructed my memory. I had been so involved and captivated in the world created by the pages that I didn't feel his eyes on me for some time.
As soon as I caught Carlos looking I ducked my eyes away and shielded the book under my arms and out of his view. He looked baffled at my actions, and pretended to go to sleep again until I picked up the pen and started writing.
“Why are you so ashamed?”
I started, my pen cutting a slice of purple ink across the entire page. I held my head down and shrugged at him defensively, hoping all the while that he would forget asking me, forget seeing me breaking possible laws and not intrude into this private world I had made for myself.
“I'm not,” I answered him in a hard tone, but it did nothing to dissuade him. He rose from the comfortable cocoon of his sleep cubicle and approached mine, settling himself down in the cushions and quilting next to me. His eyes wandered the pages curiously but helplessly as he tried to comprehend all that I had presented to the fabric of the bindings.
I opened my mouth to say something, but I closed it and forgot what it was. Would I have denigrated him for not being literate, when it was something people of the past century had done? Would I have willingly read him those words, risking everything to pull him into the womb of understanding? Or would I have done nothing but release a warm breath, the most neutral reaction of all, and not known what it prompted?
Carlos met my gaze, and his eyes asked me all that I could have ever hoped, everything I could and could not do, everything I wanted and could not have:
His eyes asked me to teach him.
We had only been under “constant surveillance” for a few months when we were called to another court hearing to possibly have it revoked. They believed we had been diligently following the rules with no rebellious incidents to date, and so felt that they could leave us be. Or perhaps the guards had grown tired of having to watch our every move, and the most we had done was sleep or sit together on the floor and read.
Carlos had absorbed a lot for his age and lack of literary upbringing. Within a couple of weeks he had progressed in writing, and could write several common words. Reading was even easier. Some of the technology in the day required this kind of comprehension, and he picked up on it quickly. He still struggled in being able to read more complicated things, which is why I still had to teach him. His eyes had asked for me to teach him so he would be able to read my work, and I believed that in my heart I trusted him enough to be able to share that with him.
We were escorted, as we had often been, to the courtroom with the head of surveillance in the normal spot of the judge. He remarked on our fabulous records considering our criminal offense and we were granted what they called “surveillance parole” for a matter of weeks, and if we kept up our good progress, we would revert back to the original camera schedules that they had within the fertility wards.
Carlos and I were assigned to an activity in the upper levels, something with the teenagers. The guard explained it as we were supposed to give them all a virtual classroom lecture on the importance of following the ward rules. Being the first ones to have done it on the airship, we were “fine examples” of what they shouldn't be doing. Carlos did most of the talking, while I elaborated on certain points he made and laughed quietly at the boredom that was evident in the lack of discussion responses prompted.
Although it was “surveillance parole,” it didn't feel any more liberating than having been under their private microscope for the past months. There was a guard shadowing us in every corner, every niche in every hallway, and standing sentinel outside of the door of our dormitory. Carlos tried to ignore it – he was eager to get on with his learning – but I jumped at every out-of-place movement and eye glance he gave me. We were not very physical during those weeks.
After a while, the guards slowly disappeared out of sight and it seemed we had regained most of our privacy again. The day we made this discovery, Carlos celebrated by snagging me around the waist and spinning me around before drawing me into a whirlwind of a kiss. I laughed at his exuberance, but I did not complain. A tension inside of me had been relieved with his single, one-minded gesture, and I felt freer than any parole could ever make me feel.
The months and months passed, and Carlos and I were able to sign up for the third round – the final for the parents who had participated in each year solidly – of parenthood for this generation. It was not to be our last, though the sad smiles which Carlos bestowed on me at every corner certainly made me think so.
We were signed up, we were scheduled, we were monitored. Into the cold robotism of the law's perception Carlos and I brought feeling and light and emotion. I folded myself into the smallest being I could possibly be and transported millions of miles into the depths of his soul by way of his eyes. They had grown gentle and compelling, soft and reassuring, wise and curious. He was an old sage that had not written any of his own feelings on paper, an old sage that had only lived twenty-nine years.
After we had passed through the designated hour, I went over to our study center, the clutter of paper and pencils and my book in the middle of the floor, and sat cross-legged down on the antiseptic-smelling carpet. I was surprised when Carlos came back with papers in his hands.
“I wrote these... for you,” he said, holding them out to me with a shy blush creeping underneath the skin of his cheeks.
I was disbelieving of his words at first, until I gently took the papers from his hands and saw his inexperienced but determined scrawl forced into the hand-drawn lines of the pages.
Their are things in life we canot say. So many things we can't speak. To much to know. But there has ben one thing certin and unchaning in my life.
It starts with the stars, their glitter and niht. It travled thruh reaches of space and time. One thing that gets me back to the write universe evry time it happns.
Ther is a kiss. An explosin of fire and life and being. It sucks me of my toes and binds me to my soul. My hart leaps and jumps and begs to be frede. The only one whos evr made me feel this way has also let me find the words to exprss it.
Its more than love, but I dont know how I can rigt it.
I read his words again and again. Big and clumsy and misspelled they might have been, they reached into my heart and twisted it, gently enough for me to see it coming. With teaching Carlos to write and read, I had opened this door for him no one could.
I tried to say something in response but I couldn't. Carlos dropped down from his position slumping shyly over me and took my hand with an understanding gesture. It was if a few moments in the light of the brilliant specimen of words one easily understood how hard it was to find the right ones at the right time.
A tear rattled down and splattered the top page in my hands, smearing the ink of the words “rigt it.” Carlos did not even regard the few words he may have lost; instead he gathered me into his arms and rested his head on my shoulder.
“I'm sorry,” he murmured apologetically.
I pulled back to meet his eyes. “Don't apologize,” I said, and kissed him hard to transmit to him the feelings his writing had given me.
We were immersed into the entire process once more. Carlos remarked to me a few days after I was confirmed to be “carrying placental matter” that we had gotten off scot-free, and we were the luckier ones in the group to have had a year-long rest time in between to prepare again.
Unlike the first time, Carlos and I tried not to attach ourselves too emotionally to the child. We went through the motions, transferring any possible outbreaks of feeling into words and into each other. Carlos was becoming a writing warlock, and he wrote every day, sitting beside me in my cubicle before we fell asleep. I watched over his shoulder as his writing grew from its prior large stature and clumsy awkwardness into small, carefully scrolled letters that gracefully occupied the spaces on the page. He composed poems and songs, stories and narratives, journals and opinion pieces. He had me read every one, with the anxious look of trepidation that a student holds for a teacher when their work falls into their hands.
I believed, after reaching the second checkup and receiving our results, that Carlos was ready to read my journals. He fizzled with eagerness the whole day after I had told him, and I playfully told him I'd revoke the opportunity if he didn't calm down a little bit.
Carlos followed me as close as a shadow until we reached our dorm, and he stretched out in my cubicle, lazily trying to deflect his earlier interest. I held the book in my hands, felt its worn binding and saw the ink stains on the ends of the pages, and let go all of my worries about judgment. I had grown to wholly trust this man, despite any of the suspicions of any of the officials, and I was able now to open my whole self to him.
I turned to him and held out the pages that compiled my soul, and Carlos received them with gentle hands and a soft kiss to my worried lips. He settled slowly into the nesting of my sleep cubicle and carefully opened the book to its first page.
I watched his face as he wandered through the symbols inscribed on the first pages, but he glanced up at me so often that my nerves skyrocketed and instead I resigned to sitting on the floor, in our study circle, with my head up against the wall, angled to watch the stars fly by outside the window.
I didn't know what time it was, or when he had started, but I had become enraptured by the celestial comets and fallen into a zombie-like meditative state in which I stayed for the duration of his reading. There was no time in that void I inhabited. I had fallen into white space, a black hole of my mind. I could stop worrying about what Carlos would say or how he would react. If I had had enough trust to hand him the book, enough love to teach him to be able to read it, then I should have enough sense to know he wouldn't judge, not after this, not after everything we'd gone through.
“You wrote about Deirdre,” he said into the stillness.
I jumped a bit, my eyes focusing in on the room. I looked at him and nodded, and he gave me a sad, sad smile before turning back and reading, silent in his scrutiny and discovery.
I hadn't fallen asleep. I couldn't have. But when Carlos finally tucked the book shut and slid it back under the bed, I was deep in a neutral zone; of course, I crawled out of it groggily when he came to sit down next to me and cradled his arm around the back of my neck.
“There are so many words I cannot say,” he murmured into my hair, and at his expression of approval I was able to fall asleep.
The due date for Carlos' and my second child was exciting, but when the nurses left us alone with our son, we felt more to be in the presence of a stranger. We greeted his tiny hands and smiling toes, but this baby certainly wasn't as close to us. His rosy red face and tightly squinted eyes told a story – of that much we were certain – but it wasn't a dialect we spoke; it wasn't a language we read.
We still weren't completely okay with handing a child we had made together away to the establishment, but rules were rules, and our punishment for second-time offenses with adequate warnings would likely be drastic. We'd turn out like all of the expendables, who one day vanished and never returned.
As we were waiting in the waiting room, we were surprised when a nurse came out and told us we could visit someone. She led us into one of the quick-access elevators instead of having us walk, and I was even more astonished when we found we were in nursery of the children's ward.
“Is it... Is it true?” I whispered to Carlos, my heart a distressed sewing needle vigorously pumping thread into the lining of my ribs to hold them in place and keep them from shattering.
“I believe, yes,” Carlos responded, his eyes storm clouds heavy with evident rain. We followed the nurse patiently down the hall and we were met halfway by one of the “teachers”, who had been cradling a child in her arms and then set her down on wobbly feet to meet us.
Deirdre. It had been two years since we had seen her but we would have recognized her anyway. She had Carlos' dark hair and inquisitive eyes, and a delicate nose and tiny lips. She looked at us not with confusion or fear, but curiosity and perhaps intuitive knowledge. Carlos ran to her and scooped her in his arms, no matter what the nurse and teacher thought.
He came back to me and swung Deirdre in his arms, a radiating beam of happiness. He bounced his daughter and smiled and nuzzled her neck and kissed her, and I slipped her into my arms and cuddled and cradled her, so surprisingly happy I could have burst. Deirdre did not seem fazed by all of the attention from strangers that she was suddenly getting, but we noted how sometimes her eyes wandered and her body wriggled in our arms.
“We're only letting you see her because... Well, you know.”
We spun around to face the female officials, stopped in our tracks. “We know what?” Carlos demanded, clutching Deirdre to his side. I froze and felt each circulation of icy blood in my veins in the silent moments that ensued.
The words she should not have ever said, words I never again wanted to hear, words that brought the stars crashing down around me, words that ended all hope of the light of day: those were the words she decided to give to us that day.
“Your daughter is an expendable.”
The ward downstairs and beyond the balcony of the corridor grew hauntingly silent. Deirdre squealed and wriggled herself out of Carlos' arms, running back over to the teacher, who cradled her again.
“She was born with a spinal deformity, which ultimately lead to brain damage that we didn't find in the CAT scans until recently. You may assist her by living in the ward as well, but we can't allow that you keep her in your dorm with you. As you know, these children aren't supposed to have extended contact with their birth parents. Your daughter, however, is an exception.”
Carlos stood against their tides of words like a resilient cliff face. He himself only projected a dark emptiness with which he combated all of their wounding words. I watched Deirdre snuggle up in the arms of the teacher and felt a pang of loneliness. Our daughter, who had been wrongly taken from us at her birth, was labeled an expendable. We hadn't seen her in two years, she was more attached to the false parents of the nurseries, and somehow she had birth defects.
“We did everything right,” I said to Carlos as he packed up some of his things to spend the first night in the dorm with Deirdre. He glanced over his shoulder at me and gave me a reassuring smile that chilled my bones.
“I'll miss you, but we'll meet up tomorrow at lunch.”
“Me too,” I replied, and I was given a souvenir kiss on the head before Carlos exited the room, taking all of the light and life with him as he left.
I met up with Carlos the next day at the cafeteria in what we called the X-ward. Deirdre was sitting up on his lap, reaching with clumsy toddler fingers towards the plate of french fries that sat on the table. Carlos looked haggard already. His eyes were bloodshot and faintly shadowed with purple gray underneath. When I sat down across from them, he shot me a weary smile, a smile that showed how hard this revelation had hit him. He wasn't starstruck in love anymore. He was no longer oblivious. It saddened me to know now that he carried one of the most unbearable weights.
I watched Deirdre as she hummed a make-believe song to herself while dancing a french fry across the table. After a while, a somber hollowness began to grow inside me, an ache that spread through my bones and fingertips. I found myself so incredibly dubious of the fact that Deirdre was our own creation, our own blood and genes.
She put her chin on the table and walked the fry in quick hops into her mouth before eagerly moving to another. I was snapped out of my reverie and I reached into my bag for something I had brought for Carlos.
“You left this,” I told him as I slid his journal across the table. He perked up as his pages reached his hands. Deirdre sat up and reached out her arms, slapping the cover of the journal demandingly. Carlos laughed and slid it out from under her arms so he could compose the newest entries.
“You wanna try?” Carlos asked, and Deirdre nodded emphatically. The book flipped open to the empty pages in the back and Carlos placed the pen in Deirdre's tiny and pudgy hands. Deirdre gripped the pen and dragged it across the page, biting her lip in fierce determination as she created scrawling hungry circles.
“Have the nurses said anything else?” I inquired. Carlos shook his head slowly.
“I don't think I'd want them to, what with the news they've been bringing us lately.”
I ducked my head in agreement. Deirdre had finished her scribbles and proudly displayed the book to her father, who smiled in approbation and carefully extracted the book from her hands.
“It'll be your turn tonight,” Carlos remarked neutrally. The little girl was bouncing in his lap but it only enervated him more.
“Greetings to you,” a sickeningly familiar voice said in welcome, and I regretted turning around to see the nurse once more – the one who had been my fertility nurse from the very start of the launch of the ship.
“Do you have any new information perchance?” Carlos questioned her in a flat voice. Deirdre looked tempted to run to the nurse – sadly even the nurse had been more a part of her premature misfortune than we had.
“We do not. I was just coming by to make sure everything was doing splendidly and that you had no questions.”
Before her gaze cast down upon the tabletop where Carlos' almanac of life and writing lay, I slid it over to me, off the table and into my lap. The nurse narrowed her eyes a bit at my odd attitude and behavior, but made no comment about it.
“We also came to inform you about the... demovement day.”
Demovement. It was just another example of how illiteracy destroyed the decency and capabilities of any language, English or otherwise. The medical officials had created the word to “decrease the intensity of the words 'destruction' or 'death' while not quite breaching 'removal.'” Demovement. A hideous word I never wanted to have known, and unfortunately it had been inadvertently taught to me.
Carlos immediately erected himself straighter in his chair. Deirdre squirmed in his lap, but his gentle hold was firm enough to have the girl gradually decrease her efforts of escape. Intuitively it had reached her that there were bigger things than temporary discomfort or discontent.
“In twelve days we will come to arrange your goodbyes. It is not good for the... victims to have people surrounding them during their final day.”
Carlos did not show his fierce scowl until after the nurse had left. He clutched Deirdre to him and in his eyes I saw the rekindling of his anger, his rebellion. I wanted to warn him, I wanted to plead with him not to give in to such temptation, though at the same time I also wanted to throw myself along with him. If any journey like that were to be made we both had to do it together.
We had spent alternate nights and every day with our daughter, squeezing lifetimes into the brief moments we shared with her. We started to note her deficiencies: more than just lack of attention span, she had no conception of speech, at least in creating it herself, and she would often break in spastic jerks and become a complete vegetable without warning. However, Carlos and I disregarded these things. We were lucky to have a daughter at all, to be able to see her, to be able to teach her. Oftentimes Carlos was the only one who could revert her from her comatose states, and the only one who could prompt speech, even if immature and ill-practiced.
Deirdre might have had some toddler intuition about her and knew we were more than just ever-present strangers. She persevered over her mental obstacles and reached out to us every moment, and we both gladly received her. One of the nights I had spent with her, Deirdre had been sitting on the floor playing with a robot doll, when she suddenly shook my shoulder, gestured to the toy and forcefully sputtered the word “robot.” When I laughed and grinned and hugged and congratulated her, she broke into one of the first smiles I had ever seen on her and ran from wall to wall of her small dorm, goading me in chase.
I missed her. I missed her already. I missed all of the things we wouldn't be able to see, wouldn't be able to do. It was completely illogical to think that anyone in my generation, or anyone in any of the next ten, would survive to reach our destination, but I ached to know that Carlos and I wouldn't have Deirdre to make the journey with us.
The night before the last day we could spend with her, Carlos and I had been prohibited from the X-ward, and so lay in the cubicles of our dorm and spoke aloud all of our thoughts. Being with Deirdre, and the reason for our even knowing our daughter after her birth, made us wonder if our son had acquired the same unfortunate fate.
“We lose too often in life,” Carlos murmured despondently. I approached his cubicle and comfortingly hugged him.
“We'll never lose her,” I reassured him, as he once had me, but the words were thrown back at me with a fiery snap.
“But haven't we already?” he contested, and I sat in silent reprimand. “I'm sorry,” he lamented quickly, but I had already felt the heat of his sting, the fire of his heart. We were to be changed once again. Likely it would be a dangerous metamorphosis to make. I didn't believe my heart could handle two consecutive losses, two consecutive catastrophes such as those.
All of a sudden, it seemed, it was our final day with her. We spent the whole day running after her through the rooms in the X-ward – it was easier than sitting down with her and explaining why we had to leave now that we had been every part of her life for the past half-month.
It was strange to discover that Deirdre seemed to know something about this. She ran up and hugged our legs, burying her face in them and whimpering, “Bye-bye Momma/Dada, I miss you.” We would crouch down before her to give her a full and proper hug, but then she would giggle and scramble out of our tenacious hold.
That day also happened to be the day she made the most development. She walked better than she ever had (the problem with her spine was unnoticeable to us, but she did walk with a slight tilt to the right), she spoke more often and with words we had spoken to her, she paid us more attention and often was the one to gently shake us out of our stupor. She was so real and involved in her world that it stung to have to see her go.
We weren't allowed in her dorm the night of our final day, either. We sat together and wondered what she would do the next day, if she would notice our disappearance, if the nurses had tricked us to “demove” our daughter earlier than the schedule allowed. I fell asleep in Carlos' weary arms, dreaming of the lights that Deirdre would experience back on Earth. If anyone were to make it back, it should be her.
She did notice our disappearance the next day, but we weren't close enough in the vicinity to know for a while. We were busy signing wavers to opt out of the next cycle of pregnancy when we heard a terrorized scream shoot down the hall just outside the door. We raced to peer around the door frame, as did many people in the adjacent rooms, but everyone else disappeared before they discovered the source.
Deirdre. Somehow she had escaped from her dorm and passed through all of the X-ward security and bypassed every guard on stand-by to reach us. She slipped on the cold tile a ways down the hall, and she sat hard on her butt without a peep as her eyes found us. She scrambled back up and ran, and Carlos and I went out to meet her. I scooped her into my arms, trying to soothe both her tears and my own, when the nurse also appeared at the end of the hall.
“Your daughter is a clever one. We must never have seen her capabilities.” She approached like a shark and whisked Deirdre out of my grasp. “However, her average intelligence is low, and skills like these would only create more difficulties for the officials assigned to look after her.”
As soon as she finished the last word she spun on her heel and floated back down the hall. Deirdre climbed to see over her shoulder and wailed, reaching her arms out to us before they turned the corner and disappeared.
“We already have lost her, haven't we?” I whispered hoarsely to Carlos. He cupped my face in his hands and met my eyes with such hollowness inside of him that I melted.
“We haven't. We can never lose her.” He didn't even reassure himself with his own words. We made the long trek back to our dorm and spent the rest of the night there, knowing we would be honing for the presence of our daughter for the next lonely ten months.
The days Carlos and I spent were gray and despondent. We participated in the airship activities but we showed no enthusiasm for them. In what way could they “demove” the body in a manner sanitary to the persons aboard the ship? I had no life left to write, no energy remaining to lift the pen and decorate the pages. Every night I was haunted by her scream as she was taken away; every day I followed the lines she had scribbled in Carlos' notebook and replayed all of the days we had spent together. She hadn't deserved to die this way.
I didn't realize I had slowly descended into depression until I was consulted by a therapeutic official and brought into one of the external wards. If their methods didn't help in improving my mood, they said, they would have no choice but to place me back in the X-ward. Of course, I had no fear of their threats at the time. I had no initiative to care about their ridiculous “demovement”, and if I had wanted to make a choice I would have opted to go the same way Deirdre had.
After walking through the valley of depression, I grew angry. The rebel in me rekindled its flame and the fuel leftover from Deirdre's death sparked a fire that encompassed my whole being. I couldn't walk down the hall without a nasty remark for the guards and wandering nurses, and I refused to participate in activities that occurred in rooms near to the X-ward or that in any way advocated the removal of expendables. Carlos would come into my sleep cubicle and hold me in an embrace, only holding tighter if I spat angrily at him or fought to be released. I was a fireball and I felt the day of my ward reassignment hovering at a nearby date. Everything I did was opposite of the rules of the ship, everything I said was offensive towards individuals.
Somehow through all of it, Carlos regained himself and stood as the strong anchor. Carlos, the one who too often broke down, the one whose heart often couldn't take it, he held an unwavering and solid composure. He wasn't happy, but neutral. Hardened. He wrote furiously every night but even I couldn't find the strength to watch him. He worried at my illness and brought me all of my prescribed medications and even took the time to create his own hopeful remedies which I would consume unfailingly. He was the rocky cliff face again. He would not blindly and servilely give in to their rules, but he would not snap and destroy himself in his advocacy against the law. His holding steady was eventually what brought me back to the right side of the lifeline.
The road was hard. It took a long time, and we were required once we reentered “the hour” to go through the process again, as two unblemished children were a necessary minimum per couple to at least maintain the population count. The word “unblemished” slapped me in the face with a hard sting, but Carlos coaxed me into the decision with his ever-gentle heart, and we fell into the old routines all over again.
The start of the old routine prompted new inspirations and I spent more time writing. I claimed absences from activities due to “morning sickness” (it was the one illness the nurses strictly stayed away from) and sat in the dorm and wrote. I didn't have any specific motives or goals for my writing; I just wrote. Poems and stories and biographies of both Deirdre and Carlos were interspersed with the regular inputs of my journals, and I spent as much as I could of the duration of the pregnancy compiling them.
Our third child was born near the second anniversary of the loss of Deirdre. I felt a connection looking into our second daughter's eyes, an ache that tore apart at my bones, a connection to our lost first that I knew was mutual between Carlos and I, as he shed a tear as he had so long ago. We weren't eager to hand her off, but we knew she wasn't Deirdre, and she certainly could never take her place.
We took a field trip to the children's ward that afternoon. We hung over the balcony into the indoor courtyard and tried to see if we could spot the toddlers, and if we could pinpoint our son. Meeting our second daughter and third child had reconciled the both of us and we wallowed in a midway, limbo-ing between happiness and neutrality.
Carlos and I were required to attend a seminar to determine the outcome of our “parency” (yet another poorly created and useless word). We could continue producing if such was to our liking, or we could be temporarily moved to the retirement ward, only a step above the expendable ward, or so they said. Moving to the retirement ward would “open up young people to the opportunities that arise after parenting, or perhaps opportunities that replace parenting, and give them a chance to live their lives, either separately or with their previous mate, and explore the world to their heart's content.” We found ourselves at a roadblock. Should we continue through the process that would eventually lead to directly becoming an expendable? We were still considered young enough – the establishment liked to have parents in their twenties, but early thirties was accepted – and retirement seemed so far-fetched for our age. I directly requested an extension from the ward assignment committee and we didn't have to make the decision for another two days.
“Would we want to have another child?” I asked Carlos the next night.
“Would we?” He looked up from his writing and patiently closed the book, signaling the start of a serious decision-making discussion. “You've seen what happened to us. You've been through what happened. It was already hard enough to give our daughter up but it was even harder to receive her again under the circumstances of her disability. I don't know, honestly. I personally don't want to look into the eyes of another Deirdre but know deep down that our little girl is gone.”
“You're right,” I sighed. I hadn't planned to contest him, but what he said was so in tune with my thoughts that I was battered farther down into my position.
“On the ship, parenting doesn't exist, child-bearing becomes a chore, and retirement comes at thirty.”
“It's our only other option. Aside from the expendable route, I guess.”
Carlos stared at nothing for a long time and breathed evenly. Then he picked up his own chronicling and walked to his cubicle, which had become the study area following the designation of my cubicle as our shared bed, carefully concealing his book within the covers. He walked over to me and took my hand, a shock of his power transmitted into me, and we walked to the committee office to confirm our final decision.
The retirement ward was very different from what I would've expected back on Earth. All of the parents I had seen in the first cycle were here, their eyes tired and drawn with purple lines, their gait slow and timely. I felt more out of place here than if I had been housed with a multitude of senior citizens. Neither my heart nor my mind had given up at this point, but to fit into the order of the retirement ward, you had to have let go of both.
Carlos and I were assigned to a dorm on the third floor, room 643, a cluttered and unkempt space that only hinted at the personality of the previous owner. There were not sleep cubicles, just regular spring-mattress beds that made me selfishly yearn for the heated half-tubes that we had in our old dorm.
There were no scheduled activities. They weren't joking when they said this would open us up to anything we wanted to accomplish. The entire ward was just a giant play space for the retired parents before they were sent off to be disposed of. I guessed it made sense, though, to let us do anything for a while before getting rid of us. They had no use for us, but if ever we changed our minds, we were there, and we could still give lectures to the adolescents (even if they weren't at all interested in hearing detailed accounts of our past and screwed-up experiences).
I couldn't say what made it so, but Carlos let his age catch up with him, and most days he sat in the dormitory and wrote. I would come back from whatever I had been doing and Carlos would just be sitting on the floor, scribbling in his notebook as quickly and furiously as he could. It was either that, or during the night I would wake up – my sleep schedule was very much disturbed by the sudden change of dorm reassignment, no matter how planned in my mind – and Carlos would be staring out the window with his eyes transfixed. I worried for him, but he let walls build up around him, and in the early days of our reassignment, we hardly acted as if we had been four-year roommates.
My early days were comprised of trips to the star observatories and brief visits to the children's ward. I never looked for anything specific; I just watched the youthful energy of the children and wondered where all my determination had disappeared to over the years. At night I crept into the room and tried not to fidget too much in my sleep so as not to cause noise. I only wrote every once in a while – never as much as Carlos had been. My thoughts were ever-wandering. I pondered all of the achievements I had yet to reach, goals I had set way back on Earth in the years of my childhood and adolescence. Had I wanted any of what I had received? Who would I have chosen had this catastrophe not occurred? I had no answers to these questions, and my newly-shortened attention span discarded them and quickly moved to new ones, those without explanations either.
When Carlos returned to me, it reminded me so much of the first time he had, after we had been imprisoned for months, except that this time, the wall was of his own neglectful creation. He walked up and leaned against the balcony rail overlooking the children's courtyard, and when his arm brushed mine I started but fell back into my attitude of calm indifference. I had no idea what his intentions were, if any, and I felt too far from him now to be able to swim back, no matter how much I might have loved him in the past.
“I'm sorry,” he said quietly, but there was a hesitation at the end of his statement that kept me from immediately responding.
“This change has been a lot, just piling on after Deirdre, and I... I saw nothing but inside of myself. I had to write to reach the outside again. I didn't mean to create a divide between us. I miss us and I'm sorry.”
I stood in the reverberating silence for a while, immersing myself in it. “I haven't been much help, either, so it's not entirely your fault.”
Carlos shook his head. “It's me that pushed you away, and I apologize.”
I didn't turn my head to meet the eyes I knew were watching me. I didn't move my lips to speak the forgiveness I knew he wanted to hear from me. Inside of me, the light that was usually on in my heart, even if flickering, was shut off. I felt the pitch-darkness as it thumped through to every part of my body. I had lost him for the last time, and even if he tried to retrieve me again, I was lost to him, too.
“I'm sorry, Carlos. It really isn't your fault. I... Whatever I had, I lost. I'm sorry.”
Carlos' eyes looked so pained when the meaning of my words hit him. He stepped closer to me, but was stopped subconsciously and jerked to a stop. I couldn't feel the pain he tried to express, and I was sorry for it. I couldn't deny myself goodbye, though, and I moved close to him and kissed him, one last time. If he tried to hold on to that last sweet bit of our union, I didn't recognize it.
He didn't repeat it, and I turned and walked away from him, freer than I'd ever been.
Life without Carlos was very empty, but I managed to fill the insidious void by participating in all of the activities outside of the ward, leading all of the lectures for the adolescents, running down empty halls and sitting in on operations in the emergency room of the medical ward. I made sure I did things Carlos would never think of – not that I honestly thought he would do anything; he hadn't before, and maybe after my leaving him it would only grow worse.
The airship wasn't necessarily the greatest place to “explore the world”, but explore the world I did. As much as was possible under the given circumstances, anyhow. I rediscovered music (somehow I came upon physical musical instruments, and I was surprised that they hadn't been destroyed in the technological and computerized age of music) and taught myself to play as many instruments as were available, within the secrecy of the basement dorm in which I had found them (it became my new second sleeping quarters). I stayed in shape by visiting the gym whenever I had the chance. I had the easiest time being vegetarian because of the abundance of garden wards and lack of fresh meat. I popped my head into every ward except the X-ward and my own ward, and I paid a visit to the new residents of Carlos' and my old dorm. Being solo again, as I had always been back on Earth, there were absolutely no limits to what I could and couldn't do, and my independence let me do nearly everything.
Months passed without my conscious recognition. I didn't give heed to inconsequential things like when my birthday was, and so I grew older as years passed and passed by. I watched kids in the children's ward move to the “youth and adolescent” ward, and I watched those who experienced pregnancy without the rewards of parenthood disappear into the retirement and X-wards. There were times I saw Carlos, and his hurt never kept him from trying to catch my eye, but the time of my life that I had spent in his company was now over, and somehow I was able to deny myself feeling any connection, and therefore bypassing the inevitable hurt and loss.
It was not long until my day came, and I expected it even with all of the excitement I engaged in. I let myself be led to the expendable ward once more with resigned acceptance, and the two weeks I lived there were blank and lifeless.
I returned to my notebook one last time before my demovement. It was not for myself, though. I felt that before I was to be sent to wherever I was going, be it death or someplace else, I needed to express to the two people I had ever loved on the ship my hopes for them, and my apologies.
I adjusted my headset, waiting until the camera function set to record. I lifted the pen into my slightly shaky hands. To Deirdre, I wrote:
Wherever you are, I hope you find the lights.
There was never a time I didn't love you.