Chapter Six – The Song Remains the Same
They climbed the slippery bank to the now defunct railroad tracks and headed south. The steel from the tracks and spikes gone, torn up for scrap metal long ago before any war. The path dissimilar—doubled, tripled, cloned, and yet incomparable. Variables emerged; some noted—others banished to the empty where exhaustion ruled. Crossing the trestle or the creek was not an option. Not that she would ever want to with all manner of cadavers and calamities lurking in its dark depths. Pollutants surrounded them. Jay smelled the sharp bite of chemicals in the air that blunted responses and poisoned a more normal body. The runoff from the surrounding hilltop mines worsened once the hostilities escalated. West Virginia became a wasteland of contamination slightly more from what it was prior to the country and the world unraveling around them. Long forgotten was the beauty she used to be: the rolling green mountains, the fresh crystal clear springs, the brilliant blues and pinks and yellows of wildflowers teeming with bees—all now gone.
They were quiet as they walked. Jay felt their thoughts—the sting of their questions with each step pulsating aggressively into hers. She brushed them away; they kept returning—an unintended pun that evoked few crumbs leftover. Fresh in their minds, dropped on them like blocks of hail, the memories clobbered them. Losses suffered; husbands, wives, children, friends, family, freedoms—all dead; liberties long gone. Their children and partners conscripted, sent off to parts unknown, never to return. Her Aunt and Uncle and Jay’s mom—all elderly—erased in the first days of the purge—baby boomers, amongst the first, exterminated since they weren’t needed anymore and a drain on the system that fed the wealthy oligarchs that now dominated their government, the country, the world.
She watched them as they moved. Slow, they wound tight—automatons ceaseless in their misery.
There was little hope there. If only they knew.
A line from a George Michael tune floated through Jay’s mind: Hanging on to hope, when there is no hope to speak of. This was not an original thought. It rolled again towards another of the many collected in a sea of garbage.
“How can you see,” Reese asked.
“With my eyes,” Jay said.
“Jay, always the smartass,” he mumbled.
“Lots of things changed—very few never do,” she told them.
Another pun. She was kicking it this go around.
“Focus,” she told him.
Jay felt his eyes bleed all over her body. His thoughts bullied through the air towards her—words hurled before. She pulled them in, embraced them, and used them to feed her impetus, ultimately ignoring the ugliness behind them. Instinct proved to be arbitrary. Each echo altered by tweaks or inclinations born of flashes or fused memories—none of which he seized. The bluntness became ritual and ritual became norm.
They briefly stopped at the old house—what was left of it. A glance at the remains showed very little. Stripped of parts, withered in the elements, the old house collapsed long ago down the hill like a lazy landslide. Walking steadily, silent the entire time, several hours go by before Jay stopped them for the night. They made camp outside a long familiar dead town. Gathering what dry wood they could without words or thoughts, Jay sparked the wood creating a flash and the fire burned to a warm harsh glow blunting reflections around the dirty smog. She saw the awe and felt the unasked questions leap at her wrapped in condemnation and apprehension.
Who knew creating fire in the 21st century would bring such fear.
Jay excused herself to step outside the circle of light to connect with control. Opening a gate on her armband, the air in front of her undulated; reflections shifted; illusions mirrored. She walked through emerging in command. Two synthetics stood waiting a report. Their Black bodies covered in indigo blue uniforms merged into the flat black helm of the ship. Dancing pale pink, orange, and blue lights bounced off their eyes like funhouse mirrors as they shuffled words and symbols back and forth in the air.
Translations reached Jay’s brain. Since they were not aimed at her, she waited for them to complete their scan.
“This plan sucks,” Jay told them.
“Your doubts have been noted,” they replied.
“This won’t work. Haven’t we proven that yet.”
A terse ‘no’ was their answer.
She continued to challenge them: “How do you know it will work without the context?”
She was skeptical of anything and everything.
“This will provide insight into the experiment,” Tinta stated cryptically.
“You break the laws of physics on a daily basis and you can’t do—” Jay trailed off.
They stopped what they were doing and looked at her.
Their silence armed and intimidating, she swallowed realizing she offended them. Or not? She tried to lighten the mood: “Too disingenuous,” she suggested aiming it at them but also mocking her own inability to come to terms with this little experiment.
They said nothing still staring.
Jay sighed and told them she understood. Glancing around command: “Where’s Niko,” she asked.
The pale greys and whites of dim light from the arena-like display lent to an ambient glow over Niko’s face as her body moved slowly reminiscent of Tai chi, but far more… poignant. Her body—tall and athletic—seemed small against the backdrop of the planet. No longer blue, it looked like a grungy grey soccer ball with enormous swaths of dull white swirls. The large blue marble was no more. In its place was this broken hole of a planet wasting away. What people were left, fleeting, crawled across it defeated and abandoned.
Jay shook off bleak thoughts and focused on the woman in front of her. Flexible and elegant, she floated. As graceful as a ballet dancer, she carried herself agile and strong for someone one hundred fifty-some years old. The body Jay now occupied—born off the 3D biological printing production line by a fortnight—altered radically and yet still definitely not as irrefutable as Niko’s. Jay, however, witnessed her sublimely human—wasted and blundering from one poetical and philosophical thought to another like a stoned teenager.
Jay’s consciousness rendered old. And tired. Age was relative and a fortnight wasn’t really a fortnight, was it?
“This time feels different,” Jay said.
Niko continued to move. “Nanite adjustment,” she replied. A sweeping arch of her body and hands towards the immense window and a final flourish to a breathless stop. “I expect this will be the last trip,” Niko told her.
Jay laughed sarcastically at that. “You said that last time.” She paused for a deep breath then continued. “Are they worthy of your sacrifice,” she asked her.
The long silent stare between crackled with emptiness. Niko was remarkably sober presently. Regardless, picking her mind came naturally to Jay and she realized that the question was callous and obtuse knowing little of anything really.
“No, but neither are you,” Niko said as blandly as she could not really offended by it—at least appearing not to be.
Jay laughed at her supposed apathy. “You are the catalyst in this realm. I defer to you and your team’s tactical brilliance. I am merely a pawn. A mediocre one at that,” she told her. My gang even more so. She didn’t say it aloud—Niko heard it though.
As taciturn as usual: “Yes.” Niko stood still for a beat before continuing. “This isn’t about you or them—or me. It’s about—history. It’s about—survival. It’s about—humanity. Empathy.” She began again with those movements, so fluid and alluring. The highlights from the planet emphasized her dark Black skin and sharp edges. “History is not linear. It is cyclical. It rhymes,” she breathes in and out parroting the same phrase she had previously.
“Couldn’t virtual reality do what you’re doing or wanting to do,” Jay asked her.
Niko said nothing, such words blasphemy to her cause, and continued with her moves.
Was this penance as much as it was a lesson? Their punishment and hers as well? Her entertainment was their misery? That misery schooled her into thought? And progress?
Pain stalked her—history challenged her. An outcast that broke time’s boundaries and swam against the current, Niko was a scientist that violated the rules. This the only info Jay gleaned from one of their many altered philosophical chats.
She didn’t want to go back and sleep on the ground. She knew, however, that Niko wouldn’t let her stay. Jay asked anyway: “Can I sleep…”
“No,” she said cutting her off before she finished.
Jay left after a long sigh of irritation and an inarticulate fuss that Niko ignored while continuing to do her thing. She returned back through the gate and made her way towards the campfire.
Faint steady breathing from the men indicated they slept. Nat, awake, stared into the flames. Jay sat across the fire from her arranging her pack as a pillow trying to get comfortable and cursing Niko and her capriciousness along with her arbitrary rules.
Jay wasn’t sleepy. Apparently, Nat wasn’t either.
“I experienced death. I felt my body blown apart,” she said, her voice soft and settled.
Vacant, her face highlighted in the flare of the fire, Natalie lived in that memory over and over again. The death of her husband or four sons didn’t haunt her as she wasn’t with them when they perished. It was that of her own demise. Seared into her memory like a scar—the flash of fire, the pinch of heat, the scent of burning flesh, the tearing of skin and muscle and bone as the blast ripped her apart, then nothing; blackness. No white light. No heavenly concierge escort. Repeatedly, in slow motion, she floundered in that memory like a fog she couldn’t escape. Jay could pull her from it, but that would do Natalie a disservice. She needed to find her own way out. Jay couldn’t help her.
Okay, maybe Jay could help her. Did she wanna? She wanted to be petty. She wanted call Natalie selfish and an asshole. She wanted her to wallow in the pain, and obsess over it ceaselessly like Jay had since Nat’s betrayal. She wanted to hate her—she really, really did; since that fateful day so long ago long before the war, she really, really wanted to hate her. Alas, Jay’s compassion rose from the ashes of this barren land like a phoenix and planted itself in front of her at which she grumbled incoherently at it, then sent a blast of mercy towards Natalie.
“Don’t obsess on it. It only makes it worse,” she told her. That dead-eyed vacant stare leveled on Jay and she sighed. “Focus on something else. Replace the memories with a good memory. Even if it’s a fake memory. That’s how you’ll survive.”
“I don’t want to survive. I want to die. I was dead. Till you,” she accused.
The anger in her tone caused Jay to chuckle feeling nothing in response but humor—a dark rambling exhausted humor. She wasted all the rage years ago. Along with the hurt. Both dried up, like her desiccated corpse somewhere rotting and long forgotten on this disintegrating heap. Now there was only indifference. For her, for the rest of her family—and those like them. They no longer made her blood blister with antagonism. They were just sad and flustered and unawares, absurdly so. Always avoiding instead of confronting and confronting instead of avoiding. Even now.
Jay rolled over and went to sleep.
© 2020 Pamela Gay Mullins