Erika D. Price
Ernestine made us a butternut squash soup with chunks of green apple and pear. She blended the ingredients with a hand mixer and simmered it while Sam and I cleared the table. The table was covered in old receipts, photographs, cords and clamps, playing cards, notes scrawled in pen with unsteady hands, and brown-ringed teacups. We asked her where it all went, but she didn’t know anymore. She couldn’t remember much, but she remembered how to make the soup.
The produce came in a thick metal box with a clamp. There was a button that defrosted the contents. Ernestine gets all her produce from an outpost near Ganymede, and her meat from a station on Io. Her freezer is all blocked up with maple sausage patties; she says they’re for me, that she remembers how much I like them. I’ve been allergic to the coloring agents in them for nearly a decade now.
Sam helps her take the pot off the stove and holds the bowls steady while she ladles them.
“Get us some bread why don’t you?” Ernestine asks. She does not look up at me.
I open the refrigerator. I see unopened mustard, a shampoo bottle, and two beers. “There’s nothing,” I tell her.
She shakes her head with grave disappointment. “Not there.” She takes a long time before speaking these days, gathering her wool and stitching it out. “There’s a lady down on Complex 5, by the fountain. She’s got a little bakery there, cute little place. That’s where I get it.”
“What, you want me to go buy some now?”
Her head shakes when it nods. She has trouble holding it steady.
“My card’s on the coffee table,” Sam says. He’s going into the dining room with the bowls.
“I have money, Samuel.”
My hand is on the door. Complex 5 isn’t far, but it’s 16:30 UST, and everything closes damn early on this station. It’s a glorified retirement community. I might get there and find out the sweet old lady who bakes the bread has been dead for a week. Our mom wouldn’t know.
I’m on the stoop when she says, “That’ll be fine, we’ll just need to get some bread later. You’re still growing, can’t just have you sippin’ soup.”
Ernestine locks her watery gaze on Sam, who smiles and taps the table with his fork. “Yes ma’am!”
His smile intensifies and pleads at me. So I sit down beside our mother. Her hand shakes the spoon through the surface of the soup and clinks all the way to the bottom of the bowl. But she makes it back up and takes a sip with no problem.
“The doctors have me on this nectar diet,” she says, after she swallows. “Five days a week, just the nutrient juice. It’s like mucous, the stuff. But I’m so pleased to have somebody to cook for.”
“It’s wonderful, Mom.”
And I’m not bullshitting her when I say it. I wouldn’t. The soup is delicious, tart and sweet like early fall on the surface of I-2367. They don’t grow apples like these so close to the sun. Not anymore. The old bird must’ve paid a small fortune for the shipment, and then she went and pulped ‘em.
“Do they make lots of different flavors?” Sam asks. “Of nectars?”
My little brother is pale with green eyes. He’s not sturdy and tanned like my mother and me, like most of the people from the outer belt. His biological parents were energy farmers just outside of Sol, or so we heard. When he came to us, he was several months old and had been sleeping since his birth. When we woke him, he didn’t remember them.
Our mother is frowning. “No, they make about five or six flavors I think. Apple. Cran-Grape. Cinnamon Latte. Honey Peanut. Let’s see…Onion Chive.”
“Really?? Onion nectar?”
She waves her hand around. “Oh, and it’s this murky white color, it’s awful. And your piss looks like that, after you’ve had it.”
“Why would they make that?” Sam asks.
“They had to do a savory one,” Ernestine says. “You can’t just have sweet all the time.”
I say, “It would make you a baby. Only babies live on sweet things all the time.”
“Breast milk is very sweet,” Ernestine whispers at him, to clarify.
“Okay, okay. Mom. Gross.”
We eat a while and then I bring out the jug of wine. I got it at the duty-free shop on the way to the space station. I pour a little extra into Mom’s (stemless) glass, hoping to loosen her.
Sam proposes a toast and stammers out a few sentimental words. We’re not the toasting kind of family, but Mom doesn’t remember that. She’s pleased as punch and the glass nearly flies from her hand. I have to push it back into her palm with my own cup. I sip for a long time and stare at her. She takes tiny hummingbird slurps.
“Mom,” Sam says. “What else do the doctors say?”
Our mother wipes her mouth after every bite or drink she takes. This is a new development, born out of her illness. That along with the sterling silver jewelry, heavy makeup, and the new glasses. She knows she is dissolving, so she’s putting a ton of effort into looking presentable. If the trajectory keeps up she’ll be a camera-ready corpse.
“It’s not so good,” she says finally. She focuses on the soup bowl as if the bay leaves will tell her future.
“What about the lab on north Mars?” I ask. “The one I sent you the hologram about? Mom, did you look into it?”
She says wearily, “It’s all so much trouble.”
“I sent them a blood sample. It’s the same, Abril. Your doctors saw the scans, same as everybody. It’s nothing you can fix.”
“But Mom. If you got involved in a study, you could at least get free treatment, and then, if nothing else happened, you could at least know that you’d be helping other people-”
“She doesn’t want it,” Sam says. “Abril, leave it be.”
“I don’t want to go all the way out to…Mars, or whatever,” our mom says. I’m too busy fuming at Sam to interject. “I know you kids came all the way out here for a reason..,”
Sam’s hand shoots across the table and caresses her on the wrist. I’m right next to her but I don’t know what to do. Wrap an arm around those frail shoulders? Cup her tiny white head in my hands? I could rend my garments and cry with the best of them, but that’s not what would help her. She has to think it’s her own decision.
I can tell Sam is about to say some crap about how all we want is for her to be happy. I stand up and button my sweater. “Mom, we all saw the test results. We all know where this is going.”
Ernestine looks at me, then at something in the corner, to the left of my head. “I just want to stay here. It took so long to get the house perfect.”
“There’s shampoo in the fridge, Mom.”
She nods. “I know. I mean. I know it’s not gonna be good…for very long.”
“I’m here,” Sam says. “Abril has six weeks, and I—I can be here as long as you want.”
She sighs. Her eyes dart back and forth, those dark, slow brown balls, as if she’s calculating something. “I won’t be dead that soon.”
“What’s coming,” I say, “is gonna be painful. We talked to the doctors – Sam and I – and we know that you don’t want that. We could take care of you. I have a spare room, I could set you up—”
“I don’t want to leave here.”
Our mother lives in a huge condo inside Tiangong-4, an Earth-based space station. She’s owned the property since before we were born. Her father died on it. His father purchased the unit; he came here from Earth. Tiangong-4 was launched when people still lived on the surface, years before the Great Expansion. The condo is our family heirloom, intermittent vacation home, distant in-law’s suite, inner-Milky Way outpost, and now our mother’s home.
But, being nearly as old as the Earthen dirt and just as historical, it’s worth trillions. And it’s doing us no good, sitting and rusting away, days of travel from where Sam and I live and work. On Tiangong, there’s no schools and no central business park. There’s no university or teaching hospital where I could get a job. There are no art galleries for Sam. They don’t export anything. All they import is geezers who want to spend their final days staring into the craters of the mother planet.
I unbutton my sweater and button it again. “Mom, if something happened to you out here, what would we do? It would take us so long to get out here. . . we wouldn’t get to say goodbye. You know?”
“I can’t stay out here forever!” I’m spitting a little when I speak. I need to be more like Ernestine, and wipe my mouth every few seconds.
“Your brother just said he can stay with me,” Ernestine says. And she continues to eat, a napkin at the ready in her right hand.
I look at Sam. I don’t know why he won’t say something. I think my desperation is clear.
“Abril and I were thinking,” he finally says, very slowly, “that maybe it would be best if you uploaded.”
Now the spoon drops and she gets mad. “Uploaded? That’s what you want? Just get rid of me?”
Sam takes a long breath. “It’s not getting rid of you. It’s just giving you a place to stay, where you don’t have to worry—”
“Just shove your old mother in a moldy air sickness bag and hurl her into space,” she continues. She pushes off the table and stands up. She used to be five foot seven, but three of those inches have turned into a hump in her back.
“It’s not like that Mom, and you know it.” I put a hand on her shoulder and she flinches a little. “The sooner you do it, the more. . . intact you’ll be.”
“Your father’s in the Haze,” she spits. “I can’t look at him again.”
The Haze is the informal name for it. It’s a cloud-based network, created in the days of the old internet. On Earth, before everything went to shit, they invented a way for people’s minds to be downloaded from their brains after death.
But the minds got lonely, living all alone on hard drives that sat on their relatives’ desks. So they networked with each other and shared their information, pooled their memories and experiences. The Haze has been with us ever since. Not everybody chooses to join when their time comes (and not everybody dies, not anymore), but most do.
They say that adding your mind to the Haze is like walking into a big room full of laughing people, and when you enter it’s like you’re adding one more riff, one extra punchline that just sends everybody into new fits and giggles, even yourself.
They say it’s one big intellectual hug with everyone that’s ever lived, where all misunderstandings are smoothed out, where all ignorances are eradicated. Every child grows up looking forward to it and fearing it, just like puberty.
I reach into my bag and pull my smartglass out. “I have the documents right here,” I tell her. “We could hook it up today, if you wanted. Or whenever you decided.”
We watch our mother hobble around the dining room table, into the kitchen, through to the living room, where she settles in a heap on our dad’s old rocking chair. Her sewing is a garbled knot of threads hanging off the arm. She rocks furiously, scowling, almost muttering to herself. She used to be the kind of mom who said you were an idiot to your face. We miss that.
“Mom,” Sam says, “Think about it. You wouldn’t be alone out here anymore. And you’d feel better. It’s good for people in your situation.”
“Just ship me off to Never-Neverland already.”
“No,” I say. “It’s not like that. Your brain – shit, Ernestine, we know it’s getting worse by the minute. But if you put your brain on the network, that’s it! The Alzheimer’s won’t progress!”
“I know my brain is getting worse,” she growls. “I was talking to the woman that makes the bread yesterday, and I forgot your husband’s name, for crying out loud.”
“I don’t have a husband.”
She shrugs and makes a face at me, a smug, what-did-I-tell-you face.
“Kids. You think I can just walk into the Haze, with everybody that’s there. . . and let them see me like this? What will I say to your father?” She grips the armrests. “What if I don’t recognize him?”
“Old memories are the last to go,” I tell her, automatically, and Sam shoots me a look.
“Everyone loves you. They’ll be happy to see you,” he offers. “I don’t think they’ll mind.”
My brother is a painter. His ‘job’ is graphic design, but his work is painting. Mom’s guest room is filled with canvases and sheets of paper, all stacked up from the floor to the light switches. He has a little studio set up on Mom’s back deck, overlooking Tiangong Park.
“They’ll think I was always an idiot,” she says. “I get so confused. . . and then I get scared. And I think, will it always be like this? If I go into that Haze place, I’ll be stuck like this. It might be better to just. . . let it get worse. Because then it will stop.”
I try to speak, but a quivering sad noise comes out instead. Sam is practically on his knees, taking Mom’s hand once again, whispering, “Okay, it’s okay. We’re not gonna make you. I’m not gonna leave you.”
My brother believes we should do whatever Mom wants. He thinks we ought to follow her word as gospel, until the day she dies. I think we should teach her to want what is best. I’m a life assessor, of course I think that. It’s my job to help people find their best setting, their best circumstances, their best self. It’s also my work.
“What time does the bakery close?” I ask.
Our mom looks at her tablet a moment. “19:45,” she says. “Better get a move on.”
The bread is warm under my arm as I cross the plaza back to our Mom’s condo. It’s night on I-3001 where I live, but here it’s midday. Tiangong and this half of the Earth are cloaked in warm sunlight. The solar panels are in bloom, the dome is open, and we are facing the rough brown surface of the mother planet. Grey blue water lays flat between the torn ground like shards from a mirror. The ruined ground looks like chippings from a terra cotta pot that’s been dropped.
It’s not beautiful to look at. People romanticize what the Earth is like; there are posters of the planet in every school in every major outpost in the Milky Way. In them, the Earth is oversaturated with blue and green. The big holes are smudged until they resemble canyons or old cities. The natural light is nice, shining down on Tiangong’s streets the way it does, but you can’t escape the ground staring at you, knowing you’ve betrayed it and left it for dead.
I’m a few steps from Mom’s stoop when I get the shiver. In the shadow of her building, my arms prickle. So I turn around and go back into the sunlight. I head down the plaza into the park, relieved to discover that it’s basically empty.
Tiangong Park is this space station’s only green area. There are no crops here, no wildlife reserves; it’s too small. Originally designed as a research base, it was rehabbed into a community in the midst of the Great Expansion. Modern space stations have dozens of acres of designated green space of all kinds.
Here there’s just a measly one-acre quad with a few maple trees. A fountain, some wooden benches, a box garden with a few sad tomatoes that the old women dig around in. That’s it. I leave my shoes on the brick and go across the grass. I look up at the Earth as I squish my toes in the turf, and imagine what a whole floating orb of life would look like, really look like.
My brother wants to stay and paint the Earth. As Tiangong orbits, he gets a new perspective on the planet, something fresh to paint every day without leaving Mom’s porch. He wants her to dig the telescope out of the attic so he can scour the surface for signs of life and undiscovered ruins. He paints the forests that are dead, the trees that have fallen, the canyons that remain, the skeletons he imagines in the rubble.
He wants to stitch all the images together, large and small, to create an exhaustive artistic rendering of the world below. That’s what he calls it. Terra Below. If he had a daughter he’d name her that, probably.
He won’t tell me that crap, because he knows I’ll pitch a shitfit. He’ll bleed Mom dry buying those paints, shipping them from Io or wherever, eating Mom’s expensive produce and meat. I know he’ll take good care of her in return. I know that if I abandon her to die, I don’t deserve to resent him. But I do.
At night I open his smartglass and read his diary, read about his art and his plans, and my stomach gets all acidic. I can’t sleep; I can’t lie down without the acid spilling up my throat. I want to spit it in his sleeping face. I stay up all night and keep reading, leaf through his drawings trying to find one that’s horrible.
The fountain in the center of the quad is a big copper-colored bowl of water, with a round bellied fish spitting a stream into the air. A small-titted mermaid leans against his back, squeezing one of her nipples. With her free hand, she holds a jug across her lap, which spills more water into the basin. There are rocks and a few coins in the water, and goldfish.
I stick my feet in the water and the fish startle and swim away. The bottom of the basin is painted blue, to simulate oceanic freshness. We should paint the bottom of the Earth blue, so the water looks right again. I’m not sure it really ever looked the way it does in old and doctored photos. One day, I will die and join the Haze, and all the dead people will tell me the truth.
I look at the Earth and try to see what my idiot brother does. All the bumps and holes, the crags and canyons. It looks like a bunch of dried-out old lady labia. It’s fallow. There’s nothing for anyone here but the pretense of a memory. Our bodies can’t tell that we came from that place, they can’t sense it. There is nothing magical about it. You can look at your mother’s stomach all day and you’ll never see yourself.
As a life assessor, I come across three types of clients. The first are those with straight-up mental illness. Their lives are crumbling because they are defective for the setting they’re in. Sometimes they’ve been an ill fit forever; occasionally there is a precipitating event. I cannot help these people improve their lives. I can, however, direct them to new ones.
The autistic, obsessive-compulsive, and antisocial do well on Io, for example. They enjoy quiet manufacturing jobs and darkness. They live in spartan dormitories and have meals brought to them. The co-dependent make amazing nurses and caregivers, and live in big flocks on every medical wing and retirement home in every space station.
The second group of clients are victims of tragedy. A person close to them died, or they lost an essential part of themselves, or they failed in some incurable way, and now everything feels wrong. These clients take some tinkering. There is no perfect solution for grief or shame. But the great thing is, most tragedy-struck clients will eventually get better. If you keep trying new treatments, keep sending them to new settings, eventually they will recover and think you were the cause. They pay their bills on time and recommend me to other clients.
The final class of clients are the languishing. These people have no defect that we can detect, biologically or psychologically. They had good upbringings, they are smart, and they have many talents. And yet they find their situation to be lacking. Logic says they should flourish wherever they go, and yet they sink. They’re too porous.
The solution for the languishers is simple, though. You send them someplace horrible. A mine on the base of Mars or Mercury for a depressed writer. A solar farm on the edge of Sol for a despondent stay-at-home dad. A terraforming base on Charon for an old man with fifteen ex-wives.
That’s it. That’s the solution. You take the miserable person and you find their perfect, complementary miserable situation. It breaks them open. They write you heartfelt messages saying you’ve touched their soul, wiggled your finger around in it, and dug all the lint out. These clients pay handsomely, because they don’t need the trappings of their old lives.
My job is to help people find their optimal living conditions. Everybody has one. Everyone has some circumstance they are suited for. The gift of our era is that there are so many ways to live. And there are people like me who can tell a person what’s best.
After a few minutes the solitude is broken by an old man in a long jacket. He’s carrying a big box, or a briefcase; whatever it is, it’s covered in a brown tarp. He settles on a bench a few feet away and places the box at his feet.
“Afternoon,” he says.
He proceeds to flip the cover, revealing a mesh cage filled with little grey and white birds. They make a soft cooing sound and arrange themselves near the door, in a small huddle like children at story time. The man lifts the latch and they come out, onto the grass.
He’s reaching into his pocket. Breadcrumbs in a gallon plastic bag. “Pigeons.” He spreads some of the crumbs before him, and the birds peck with surprising calmness.
“You have them well-trained,” I say.
He sucks on his lower lip and tells me, “They know there’s plenty to eat.”
There’s seven of them. One bird hops over and lifts off the ground. It settles on the edge of the fountain, a few feet from my legs. I’ve seen plenty of birds before, at the nature reserves and zoos, but none as bland and stout and stupid-looking as this one.
“You can touch it,” the man offers.
“I’m good.” It doesn’t get any closer to me. “Where are they from?”
He extends a shaking hand to the brown globe below us.
He chews at his lip and flings more crumbs. An overflowing cupped hand of stale bread, probably from the baker-woman our mom frequents. The man points to one of the birds, the shortest and grayest of them all. Its feathers stick out at jagged angles.
“This one,” he says. “His great-great grandaddy was taken off the surface.”
“And the rest?”
“Great great great grandaddies and mommies. My great aunt was there. They rescued them. Like Noah’s ark.”
I slide to the edge of the fountain. His skin is brown and suffused with purple and red veins. His nose, especially, is streaked. You could drag a dull fingernail across his skin and draw blood, it looks like.
“I didn’t know they took animals off the surface after the expansion,” I say.
He removes his hat and works a crumb-dirtied finger through what remains of his hair. He’s not as old as his clothing and his existence on this space station led me to believe. He could be in his fifties.
“My aunt told me there were dozens of missions. They even sent a few marine biologists back into the oceans, with traps and things. They scooped up all kinds of clown fish and baby sharks, jellyfish. Can you imagine how hard it was? All those heavy tanks and cages stowed on board?”
“One of the shuttles was too heavy. They were trying to bring an antelope up, or a seal. Maybe it was a tiger. Anyway, they didn’t even break through the atmosphere.”
He swallows some spit. “Eh. All the birds made it. Bones are hollow. It was stupid of them, trying to take big mammals up.”
“I’m sure they didn’t have the space for them,” I say, “you know, to run around in.”
He empties the bag of crumbs. There’s a mound two-inches tall. The bird by my side hops off and goes to eat, cooing very softly.
“We never had enough space,” he said. “Those days we felt like animals on Noah’s ark, too. I-200 had fourteen thousand people on it, back then. Stacked up like crates.”
“I can’t imagine.”
“Shit-water running out of the pipes, us all huddled up and eating oats and bits of cardboard…but the pigeons made it.”
He strokes a pigeon on the neck. Then he looks up and surveys the quad. It doesn’t look as pitiful now. It’s green and long; all of Tiangong’s citizens could line up on the lawn and they wouldn’t have to touch elbows. The population density is only going to improve.
“I guess living here must be heaven compared to that,” I offer.
While he’s brushing the crumbs from his lap he says, “It makes a good womb. And nobody here gives me crap about the animals.”
When he opens the cage the birds go in single-file. The man groans a little with the weight of it, and hobbles across the uneven turf, back to his unit.
“Nice meeting you!” I call, a little too late, and he puts his free hand up without looking back.
The brown earth gets an orange tinge as the sun disappears from this side. Sam should paint the birds. I want to tell him. I want to say that there’s a lifetime worth of paintings to be made here. I thought that maybe he wasn’t living up to his potential, being here. . . but perhaps he’s just like my languishing clients. He needs an impossible task.
I stuff my hands into my sweater and dash across the quad, up the bricks, past the baker’s house, to our mother’s front door. It doesn’t even have a lock. Tiangong has a population of three hundred, but not everyone who owns a condominium here actually lives here, and they all know one another.
“Mom! Sam” I call. I let the door hit the wall, but nobody complains.
The house is dark. Our plates are in the sink, the wine jug is on the table, drained. Sam is not a big drinker, and Mom doesn’t like how alcohol makes her even more fuzzy. My smartglass is there, the upload paperwork pulled up. I go into the kitchen, calling their names.
I go onto the deck. Sam’s latest painting is there, with all his implements. A vast grey-blue sea with a cluster of sand-colored islands. I look in his telescope. All I see is grey, endless grey water, nothing else.
And then I see the glow coming from Mom’s room. A bright blue lighting is shining out the window, into the yard. I run back into the house.
“Mom! Sam! What are you–”
They’re lying a few feet apart on her bed. The comforter is drawn up and they’re lying with all their clothes on, their hands turned down, their eyes fluttering like they’re dreaming. A small console sits between them; a cord runs from the machine to ports in each of their heads. The screen glows bright blue.
UPLOAD IN PROGESS, it says.
Their bodies aren’t cold, but they aren’t warm either. Their breathing is very slow and their eyes are darting rapidly. She was afraid to walk into the Haze alone, with her mind in the state that it is. Sam said he would stay with her. Now he can lead her there.
I take Sam’s hand and find a piece of paper.
I’m coming back, it says.
People have joined the Haze prematurely before, saying they’ll come back. But no one ever does. You can ask a person what they want, what will make them happy, but they’re terrible at knowing. People rarely end up wanting what they say they do.
Food for Thought
This story poses several questions about the nature of identity and the phenomenology of consciousness, as well as what it means to live a healthy, happy life. The reality that Ernestine and her children live in is meant to provoke questions that are both personal and far-reaching: first, would you make the choice that Ernestine and Sam did? Does uploading your mind to a vast interconnected network appeal to you? Does this seem like a suitable form of an afterlife? Would you look forward to blending your brain with the minds of thousands, if not millions, of other deceased people? What about Sam’s choice to join his mother as she uploads to the Haze; is that a sacrifice you would be willing to make for a loved one? What about the concerns voiced by the narrator, who seems to believe that Ernestine is no longer her original self, due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. How is selfhood defined, in terms of conscious experience? How much must a person change or degrade before they cease being the person they originally were? And what of the narrator’s description of happiness? Do you agree with her that most people don’t know what’s best for them, and that being happy is simply a matter of finding your proper place? I hope this story sparks thought on many levels, and provokes discussion about aging, mental illness, life satisfaction, and identity.
About the Author
Erika D. Price is a writer and social psychologist in Chicago. She has been featured in The Missouri Review, The Toast, Liar’s League NYC, Literary Orphans, Bacopa Literary Journal, and others. Her literary sci-fi novella, Corpus Callosum, is available from all major ebook retailers. She writes regularly at erikadprice.tumblr.com and tweets @erikadprice.
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