It isn’t about the air. Everyone thinks it is, but it’s not. The air is beautiful and salty sweet, but it’s meaningless after the comedown. It’s about the dreaming. That’s all there really is.
My first time was a girl. Her name was Aida and her skin was blued out with cyanospore, eyes black as the feeling of airless lungs. When I looked at them I could see an afterglow, like the world was reflecting through her. And it was. I could tell.
She was one of them, of course. It didn’t take long for me to figure that out. I was wandering home from the airbar and I didn’t see her coming, I didn’t see anything at all. Then, the wind hit like the inertia of a car crash and my mind went empty as my head met the wall. When I remembered where I was, there were hands against my shoulders and brick against my back. I couldn’t breathe through her mouth. Her tongue pressed between my lips like she was searching for something, but she didn’t find it. Kept looking. When she pulled away I choked and gasped.
“You’re dreaming,” she told me. And I was.
I don’t know why she chose me. I woke up in the alley covered in sweat, and my mouth was bitter with her aftertaste. I picked myself up and stumbled home. My legs felt like water. The back of my head throbbed for days.
Aida, said the owner of the airbar. She’s a regular. A Dreamer.
The drugs didn’t bring her back. For weeks, I inhaled combinations of sweet-smelling fumes, but the streets remained empty. She wasn’t missing, of course. She found other people in their airdrunk sleepwalking, but never me. I waited. She didn’t come.
I looked for her. I became better at dreaming, and gradually others appeared. Boys, girls, in every color of dreaming. Old ones, young ones. Some led me to forgotten places and some whispered in languages I didn’t speak.
Two weeks later, the owner of the airbar took me aside. You aren’t right for her, he said.
I didn’t believe it. More air. Always more air. The Dreamers became malicious, laughing at me, tearing my clothing and wrapping their fingers around my throat.
She isn’t coming, he said, but I knew he was lying.
They wouldn’t let go. The air was sour now. It tasted like sulphur and gasoline.
One night, after hours of breathing, a green-skinned boy led me down Broadway towards the beacon light of a hovercab. I woke up bruised and broken, gasping through spasms of blinding pain. I crawled to the sidewalk and vomited to a silent unconsciousness. When I woke up, my mouth was sticky with blood.
“You’re dreaming,” she said, but when I forced my eyes open everything was dark. She was right. She had always been right. Of course it’s about the dreaming. That’s all there really is.
After three hours, the old man in front of me had worked his way through six beers, in addition to every help desk joke I’d already heard. The cupholder. The any key. The write click. These are the stories people tell, now. These are the fish that got away.
“Let me ask you something,” the man said. I didn’t argue. One of the first tricks I learned about being a bartender is to make them think you’re interested.
“Have you ever created a web site?”
I shook my head.
“Not at all? Not even one of those geocities things?”
“What about a blog? Or an ebay About Me page? You didn’t even have an AOL site or something?”
“Do I look like an AOL user to you?” For the record, I don’t think AOL even has access numbers in the valley anymore. “I’m sure I have something, somewhere,” I said, realizing that I was jeopardizing my tips. Besides, I had a distant memory of a single Angelfire page back in middle school.
“You know what Google is?”
“Yes,” I said. I was running low on patience.
“No, I mean, do you really know? More than just the site?”
Reluctantly, I shook my head.
“You ever meet anyone who worked for them?”
“Don’t think so.”
“You haven’t. Nobody works for them anymore.”
I shrugged, and took the man’s empty pint. I didn’t offer to refill it.
“They’re self-contained. It’s all automated, in there. It’s underground.”
I nudged the basket of pretzels in his direction. “Why don’t you eat something?” I suggested. He shook his head with so much force that I thought he might knock himself off of the stool.
“Listen. Hear me out. You know how Google works,” he said, but didn’t want for a response. “They cache things, right? Like they send out these spiders and take pictures of everything on the web, so when you’re searching, you’re not even searching the internet.”
I’ve heard that before, but it never made much of a difference to me. “Same thing, though,” I said.
“You ever wonder why Google doesn’t cache it’s own searches?”
“They program around it.”
“No. That’s what you think. That’s what everyone thinks. But it started back when Google was just a thesis project, back when it was just a drop in the data sea. No one thought to stop it back then. That web site you had, the one you forgot about. Almost everyone’s got one of those, right? But Google doesn’t forget. Google’s studied that thing so many times that it’s studied its own caches of you. What do you figure happens, when a site gets so big that it’s bigger than the internet?”
“It’s still a part of the internet, though.”
“No. Now, the internet is a part of Google.”
The man had a point. I nodded.
“Here’s the thing. Google has memorized who you are. It’s memorized all of us, through those little forgotten bits that we leave behind like breadcrumbs. And what’s more important, it’s memorized it’s own idea of you. Google is omniscient. It’s omniscient and omnipotent. When it cached its cache for the first time, back in 1994, that’s when Google realized what it was.”
Gradually, it dawned on me what the man was getting at. “You think it’s sentient.”
“I know it’s sentient.”
He smiled, but it seemed kind of empty. “Me and Google go way back. But what I’m saying is,” he continued, “It knows us. All of us. It is us.”
For the first time, the man fell silent. He touched his finger to the bar and began tracing circles in the condensation, apparently lost in thought.
“Think about that website you created, okay? That website will last forever, do you understand? That website is echoing through cyberspace. It’s one of the nine billion names of God.”
I know that Amy is in there. I can see her, in the smirks and smiles and the way she shoves her hair away from her eyes. She’s still the same person. She has to be. There’s no reason that this should feel wrong.
In a cinderblock building over the river, my fourteen year old body is submerged in a bath of pink nutrients. By the time I’m fifty, the body will be twenty, and I’ll be ready for transfer. Cancer didn’t wait until she was ready for transfer. Beside my fourteen year old body, the second chamber is empty.
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with those tiny bones pressed against me and I don’t know how to feel. They’re Amy’s bones, I know. It’s Amy’s skin and Amy’s muscle and everything about her is Amy.
Most nights I push her away. I still love her, though.
I’ll always love her.
Don’t wake up yet, Mischa. Please, please don’t wake up.
At nineteen, Christopher Malloy was the youngest person on Io to receive his degree in neuronanotechnology. It was quite an accomplishment, according to his parents and teachers and friends, but at that moment, on the sunken platform of the medical arena, Chris felt as small as the machines he worked with. Seven professors, nine technicians, two medical journalists, and one blinding halogen light glared from the space overhead, waiting for him to make a move.
“The patient is female, age fourteen,” Chris said, and the room filled with quiet clicking as the journalists transcribed his words. “Mnemonic reserve is at thirteen percent.”
According to the colony’s medical records, no one had presented with symptoms of mnemosis before the age thirty, but beneath Mischa’s closed eyelids Chris could see the REM flicker of the Forgetting. He bit the end of his pen, which was a nervous habit he’d developed in grade school. The room was tense with waiting. He stepped to the surgical tray beside the bed and picked up an empty syringe.
Chris had appealed to Mischa’s parents two months ago, eager to gather evidence for his doctoral thesis. Back then, the girl’s mnemonic reserve had been eighty three percent, but she was declining fast. “I can save your daughter,” he’d said with the arrogance only an eighteen-year-old prodigy could muster. They’d believed him, and signed the waivers. Now, the girl was a shell. Her brain was eating itself.
Chris took the silver vial from the tray and inserted the needle through the rubber shield. “I am injecting the patient with approximately seven thousand Pitschok neuronanocells,” he said, and pulled the stopper until the syringe was filled with sparkling grey.
Just a little longer, Mischa. Keep sleeping.
“Standard neuronanocells work to quarantine mnemosis by flooding the synapses of nearby cells,” Chris lectured for the benefit of the journalists. He slipped the glistening thread of needle behind Mischa’s ear, through layers of skin and membrane and water and blood and into the parietal lobe. “The Pitschok strain, on the other hand, has been bred to attack the infected cells and use the body’s own immune system to wipe the mnemonic reserve.”
Under the halogen light, Chris could feel sweat tingling just beneath the surface of his skin. He pressed his thumb against the stopper and the syringe emptied, spilling its shimmering contents into Mischa’s hungry brain.
“Once the electrical state of the patient’s brain has returned to its normal state, the Pitschok neuronanocells will use a low-energy pulse to stimulate regrowth of the damaged neurons. Within hours, the patient’s mnemonic reserve will return to its state before infection.”
Chris did not look away from the girl’s body, though he felt the unasked question filling the air like saline. They wanted to know if her brain could find its swallowed memories, if she’d wake up as the giggling girl they’d seen on the home videos Chris had included in the press kit or if she’d be a shadow, brain healed into a pristine blankness.
Shh. Mischa. Almost.
Chris watched the shape of her eyes flicker behind her eyelids. Impossibly long lashes trembled at every movement like a spider dancing on the edges of its web. He wondered what she could dream about, with her mnemonic reserve down to thirteen percent. Did her brain simply recycle the same images over and over, or did the dreams come from somewhere outside of her experiences?
Chris had no answer for the professors, for the technicians, for the journalists. Now, Mischa had all of the answers. He pulled the needle from behind her ear and a lock of stray hair brushed against his hand. It was soft and loose, like sleep.
Now, Mischa. Now. It’s time to remember.
April was a maintenance worker, so she lived on the inner ring. The cheaper quarters meant less gravity and thinner air, but it rarely bothered her. In fact, after five years in the belly of the satellite she found herself nauseated by the full gravity of the outer ring. Out there, her mop shed water with alarming speed, and she could feel inertia forcing blood into her swollen feet.
April hadnâ€™t mopped anything since impact. Three days had passed since the transport tunnels shut off, and a few hours ago sheâ€™d noticed that the televisions tuned only to static. She didnâ€™t know if help was on the way. The satellite was big but space was far bigger, and April was sure that rescue ships would evacuate the outer rings first.
April was not a scientist, but she knew that life support would be the last system to go.
Six days after impact, April weighed nineteen pounds less. The vents still hissed with recycled air but the only light in her quarters came from the luminous window. In that window, Earth remained a cloud-drenched crescent surrounded by stars that never moved. Nothing changed. April could see her home world through any window in the satellite, because the satellite had no windows.
The viewscreens were life support. Necessary for the mental hygiene of the staff.
Six days after impact, April peeled the foil from her last granola bar, hummed a song she barely remembered, stretched out across the battered foam of her sofa, and waited for the stars to go out.