To Azra

When I was seventeen, my father died. There was a small viewing down the street, not far from our block. Few people showed. Old friends. Neighbors. I think he would have liked it. 

The preacher spoke about the godless man’s life who he’d never met while long, pale shafts of light drifted across my feet. Dust particles floated by, almost motionless above the worn carpet.

The people in front of me whispered to themselves, commenting about how the place smelled.  The husband likened it to moldy potpourri while his wife favored the idea of a smoke-infused sweat, maybe the sweat from her husband’s old underpants. She snorted, amused by her cleverness. I didn’t mind; my father would have laughed too.

Then, when the preacher had finished, everyone left.

I sat for a time, watching the dust dance through the air, slow and settle again into the carpet.

That same day, I came home to a stack of envelopes on the front porch. I bent down and grabbed them, holding onto the thin rubber band that bound them.

“Hun, you see those papers, those envelopes there,” Ms. Shelton said from across the gray, littered street. “You take em’ inside, sweetheart. Maybe something important, like how much you owe on electricity. And hun, I’m sorry about your father.” Wincing, she stood to her feet and opened her rusted, white metal door. Then, with a violent crash, the door closed, and she disappeared.

The next day, I got a job at Jimmy’s Bar and Crabs – the corner bar, steps away from my home. I knew the owner, Mike. He might as well have been family and suggested I come work for him. I needed the money.

My schedule was the same every day: school, help around Mike’s bar, then study when I could.

One day, Mike stood behind the bar, cleaning glasses, and talking to himself about the local ball club and how this was their year. Liquor bottles shimmered behind him, lined up along the mirrored wall, like transparent gemstones – curative elixirs for our late-night patrons. I could see my reflection between the bottles: a tall, gaunt figure with black crescents below sad eyes, with hair that matched their blotchy brown skin.

“Hey, Mike,” I said, moving my rag over a bar-side stool. “Why do you call it Jimmy’s? Why not Mike’s?”

He smiled. “My father thought it’d be nice to name it after his brother Jimmy who died a few years back,” Mike said. “He thought it would make him proud.”

“Did my dad know Jimmy?” I said.

Mike grabbed for another glass. “He knew Jimmy. And you used to call him Uncle Jimmy when you were a kid. You were probably too young to remember.”

No, I remembered Uncle Jimmy – one of the neighborhood alcoholics. He was a nice man, and I’m sure he would have liked what Mike had done with the bar.

At Jimmy’s Bar and Crabs, I worked almost every night, mopping, cleaning, working until close. It wasn’t bad, but I wanted to be someone who didn’t work at the corner bar for the rest of their life.

So, I was relieved when a piece of mail came in that said, to my disbelief, a university in Boston accepted me on a partial scholarship; everything paid for aside from housing.

I figured it would be a big city with a small-town feel. Like Baltimore – just colder in the winter. Easy decision. I packed and moved my stuff up to Boston.

There was a restaurant, The Iron Horse, same thing as Jimmy’s – but waitressing, where I worked every night except Mondays.

Rick, the manager, wanted me to work behind the bar. He said I’d get some good tips and that I had nice eyes. “They’d take one look at you,” he said while shaking his head. “And well, you know. You’d make good money, for sure.” He shouted down the bar at some regulars. “Isn’t that right, guys?”

I passed.

And then everything changed.  

Professor Sorokin had given us the rundown the day before. “Azra Akyildiz is a practicing architect at one of the largest firms in the city. When she visits the class tomorrow, listen to her, write her words down, and emulate her.”

Azra sat in a wheelchair and looked so young. She spoke with authority, reviewing a century of architectural change, urban sprawl, and city planning, for an hour – nonstop.

After the lecture, everyone visited with her. I could hear the other students ahead of me, talking with her.

Thank you for coming…… you’re such an inspiration…I cannot believe you took the time today… what’s it like to live in New York?

I walked to the stage, the same stage I’d walk across as Summa Cum Laude a month later. “Thank you for coming.” I reached down and shook her hand.

Azra smiled. “It’s been great to visit Boston. A nice break from the hustle and bustle, you know? Not that Boston isn’t busy, just different.” Two people stood behind her, each holding one of her wheelchair’s handles. “This is my mom and dad,” Azra said. “They came to see me speak.”

Azra’s fair olive skin complimented her dark hair, with a sharp nose and slender build. She was the perfect combination of her parents.

I watched them leave the auditorium after Azra took time with each student, her father pushing her along the stage, down the ramp, towards the door that her mother held open. 

They were talking about where they’d go out to eat. And as they left, I wished I could join them, be a part of their family, talk about nothing or everything with people who cared, people who would listen, people who loved me regardless of it all.

When I met Azra Akyildiz, I found who I wanted to be.

#

The parking garages in Boston went on forever. And I was convinced the colossal red-brick-mother-building lived near the university; the one that birthed all the other uninspired, Lego-like buildings that continued down the street, blocking out the sunlight, beckoning the wind –something I often cursed, considering the harshness of winter near the Charles river.

I was walking between the Physics Lab and an unnamed offspring of the brick-mother when I overheard a group of students ahead of me.

Can you imagine what it would be like…I’d give up everything right now, drop it all and go….they pick recruits from architectural schools, that’s a fact…the trip is long and what about family, how old would your parents be when you got back?

I walked fast to get close to them and raised my voice. “What are you talking about?”

A blonde-haired student looked back, surprised as he threw a leg over the bike he’d been walking. “Just lookup S.S. Predecessor on Google. They recruit from architectural firms all the time. I think there’s a link on the university site too.”

I made it to my next class, opened my laptop, and began searching while the teacher scraped yellow chalk across the board.

The Predecessor graced the government website’s homepage – a metal titan, silver and graceful, surrounded reflective webs that connected two main hulls.

Near the shadow of Jupiter…our hope for humanity.

A world, not unlike Earth, flew into view, spinning below the Predecessor.

It was years later before I heard anything, and at first, I thought the acceptance email was a joke. But official paperwork, with stamps that looked like ancient regalia, started to flood my mailbox.

I flew to D.C. and took the tests: aptitude, mental stability, and cognitive transparence, which I later understood to be a metric that measured how well I would interact with the machinery aboard the Predecessor.

Three weeks later, I received an offer.

I told my firm that I’d be back in two years. They couldn’t promise they’d hold my job. “You know, Theta. This is a job that a lot of people want. We have hundreds of applicants, and I’d hate to see you lose this opportunity.”

I was two years into my first job, with an apartment on the north side of town that was more than I could afford, especially after my boyfriend – or roommate, or whichever term he preferred – had left. 

Easy decision.

I filled out the paperwork: the medical directives, beneficiary information, and other legal jargon. The hardest was the power of attorney, which would appoint someone on Earth to act in my place in the case of death, or permanent relocation. “Your proxy can sign legally binding documents…useful for reconciling assets while you are away.”  I ended up choosing Mike, from the old neighborhood bar, although I didn’t have any assets to speak of, only a heap of school debt. I sent Mike a letter explaining everything. And that I appreciated him giving me a chance after my father had died. I know he’d be proud; that he’d brag on me while serving the regulars their drinks. I hadn’t spoken to him in years, but he was like a father while I worked at Jimmy’s.

The trip to the Predecessor took me thirteen months, mostly spent in stasis.

The initial romance of traveling half a billion miles had worn off by the time I woke. I began the trip in a cold tight space. Then it was a deep sleep. And in an instant, I was in that same cold tight space, awake and sore, very sore. My legs and arms were the worst: frozen and bruised. But the medics assured me that the pain would fade.

The final portion of the trip lasted a month. I looked through the portholes, where a black nothingness lay. Occasionally, a white speck flew into view, but I wondered if it wasn’t my eyes creating something out of boredom. So I read, and re-read, the infographics plastered all over the interior of our ship. The Fringe, the corridor separating the military from the creatives, had the most variety of infographics, covering the wall in an odd overlapping mosaic. I could often hear the scuffle of men arguing, and when the words proved pointless, they used their fists.

I sat along the hollow bench that ran the length of the Fringe, reading the wall, while a group of military men played cards out of sight.

Did you know that PRYO-JI will be able to foster all of Earth’s current population and more…Depending upon the time of year, the trip to PYRO-JI can take between one and eight years….A fleet of spacecraft is being built to accomplish complete relocation within two decades.

I was startled when a man sat next to me and began to speak. “Did you know,” he said. “Pyro is smaller than Mars?” It was Edward, the loudest voice in the room, the ship’s gossip, the life of the party – someone I’d known about but never met. He was one of us – a creative.

Edward pointed to an imaginary infographic along the gray wall. “Pyro is smaller, but just barely.” Dark, twisted locks surrounded his golden face. Something about him reminded me of home: the fall moon hanging over the still bay, with crisp air pressing into my hooded jacket, and wisps of bronze light dancing in the mist, a gentle hand across my back. I rubbed my eyes, forcing the memories down.

Edward continued. “The world is sectioned into only two main continents. Imagine South America and Africa. Now put them on opposite sides of the world.” Edward moved his hands apart in mid-air. “Now stretch them until they barely touch. The negative space is water, and there you go, you’ve got Pyro.”

He raised his arm in an artistic pose and froze until he laughed, breaking the tension of his spontaneous monologue, causing me to laugh as well.

Many people aboard the ship were obsessed with PRYO-JI, or Pyro, as everyone called it. After all, the military had commissioned us to continue the fifty years of work upon the world. This prestigious mission would allow us, as a species, to get off our dying planet.

Edward had an in-depth knowledge of it all but spoke without the usual pomp and circumstance that bounced around our ship’s tight spaces.

It was refreshing.

Two officers walked into the Fringe while we laughed. Their fatigues were firm, but their faces said otherwise; space sickness had plagued many onboard, especially those who drank, which made it almost impossible to sleep.

            “Got a problem, kid?” said one of the officers. His eyes were bloodshot.

The officer’s shoulders bounced off each other.

Edward’s laughter became louder. He continued his interpretation of Pyro – his hands moving in wide circles, disregarding the officers aside from a slight pause in laughter.

The smell of liquor lofted towards us. I reached down and grabbed Edward’s hand, guessing it wouldn’t take much for the officers to become violent – something I wasn’t willing to test. “Have a wonderful evening, officers.”

I grabbed Edward’s arm. The men mumbled something incoherent as we walked away, raising their voices louder. We turned a few corners, eventually finding the entrance to the mess hall.

The room was the interior of a tin can, with aluminum walls that snaked from ceiling to floor. The infographics described it as lightweight with significant tensile strength, a breakthrough technology of the twenty-second century. The chatter of the mess hall bounced around the room, forcing us to speak louder.

“What’s your name,” I said.

He pulled out a chair gesturing for me to sit. “Edward.”

“Thanks. I’m Theta.” I shifted on top of the cold chair, trying to get closer to the table. The magnetized legs held onto the metal floor with purpose. “Making any friends?”

“Not really.” Edward walked beside the polished circular table and sat across from me. He placed his head in his palms. “I am bored out of my mind.”

“Three weeks,” I said, lifting three fingers off the table. “Three weeks until we get to the Predecessor.”

Edward snapped his head upwards, sending his hair air born. It rested with a thwack against his back. “Shouldn’t be so bad,” he said.  “Where’re you from?”

“Maryland. But I moved to Boston for school and ended up staying there.”

Edward nodded. “What’d you study?”

I set down my notebook on the table and hesitated. I wasn’t used to the attention, and something about Edward told me he was interested in what I’d say, desperate for someone to relate to – marking every word I spoke against an internal gauge.

“Architecture,” I said.  “With a minor in History of Art.”

“Who’s your favorite?” Edward said. He leaned forward, folding his arms on top of the table.   

“Favorite?”

“Favorite artist,” Edward said.

“Oh…the class focused on the architects that– “

“But if you had to pick one artist, who would it be?” Edward said, lowering his head on his arms.

Pastel leaves of orchids came to mind. “I like…O’Keeffe.”

Edward laughed. “Isn’t that the lady who paints vagina flowers? I had a friend in my company that was crazy about her. He used to talk about the funniest things. All kinds of theories about-”

I crossed my arms.

He waved his hand in the air. “I’m sorry for laughing. It’s just that this guy, Jean, we used to call him Peck – he was an excellent dancer but so odd. He ate at the same place every day, some local dive – and ordered the same thing. I think it was a roasted chicken on rye with extra pickles—something like that. The guy was deep into conspiracies. An excellent dancer, though.” Edward’s shoulders relaxed.

“You mentioned he was in your company.” I leaned back in my chair. “Did you own a company in New York?”

“No,” Edward said, sliding his chair from the table as he talked. “I’m a dancer that is part of a group – a company – a troupe. We travel the world and perform a mixture of ballet and modern dance.”  Edward lifted his hands in a dramatic snapshot pose, turning his face towards me.

“How about a demonstration?” I said, sensing he was begging for the question.

Edward bent down, took his shoes off, and lifted himself on point – the tip of his toes supporting the rest of his muscular frame. Edward’s thighs pressed against his pants, revealing a ridgeline peak. His arms floated upwards, moving in perfect symmetry. His body moved inches, but the wave of motion felt like forever.

I clapped, as did a few others around the mess hall.

Edward bowed.

#

The Predecessor had two sections: creatives on one side, military on the other.

And then there were the innates.

A blank-faced man greeted our arrival to the Predecessor. “Attention. Attention. Attention.” He spoke as if each syllable was following a metronome. He said, glancing down at his clipboard, sliding his finger over a matrix of portraited faces, then stopping at mine, “Ms. Theta Freidman. Stand here while I collect the others.”

The innate’s finger slid over more faces. “Oh, good. Mr. Edward Whittington, you will be in Ms. Freidman’s threesome. Command has determined that you will be a good fit. Your third is already aboard the ship, waiting in the pod.”

I looked at Edward. “Threesome?”

“It’s just what they call groups of creatives. How much research did you do before coming here, anyway?” Edward said.

A woman with a hooded jumpsuit walked towards us. “Follow me. I’ll be escorting you to your room.” The woman was bald, with the top of her left ear missing, and spoke into the walls behind us – never making eye contact with either of us. “This way.”

Edward followed her. “This is great news,” he said. “We get to work together, most likely the entire time. Once they pick a good match, it’s a done deal.”

I ran my hand over my head. “Threesomes…couldn’t they come up with a better term?”

 Edward laughed. “They’ve found that groups of three work best. Two creators and one manipulator.”

“Got it.” I lowered my voice. “Is it just me, or do people here seem off? The guy on the docking port and this girl. Did you see her ear?”

“They are innate,” Edward said.

“Innate?”

“Yeah, I can’t believe you don’t know about them,” Edward said. “They’ve volunteered to come here. It’s been going on for years. They undergo a process that makes them inert to the Predecessor‘s machinery. They can travel throughout the ship without interrupting anything. It’s the military’s way to have personnel on our side.”

The innate went down a hallway illuminated by pulsing shades of blue.

“Did you remember when you took your initial tests to qualify?” Edward said. “I went to D.C. for mine.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Right. One of those tests, the one where they submerged you in the tank, was a cognitive transparence test. You remember that?”

“I’ve tried to forget it, but yeah, I remember,” I said. “The hallucinations were intense.” 

“Exactly. I remember seeing giant purple elephants in an endless pool of murky water—trippy stuff. But somehow, the military can measure that. It’s the main thing they look at, and if you can’t pass that, then good luck. Not many people pass; it’s like two percent or something – but the innates wouldn’t even register if they were to take that test. They’d score a null, nothing, zip. They’re innate, meaning nothing upstairs. It’s like a modern lobotomy.”

“A lobotomy? Like a hole in the head?” I said.

“It’s not physical, they use lasers or vibrations, but it renders these people creatively innate. They get to travel to space – the final frontier, get free room and board until they’re sent back to Earth and live forever on the states dime. But they’ve lost any imagination or inspiration, gone. All of it.”

“What the hell,” I said.

“Crazy, right? But it’s necessary.”

“A lobotomy is necessary?” I said.

“It’s not a lobotomy, oh, never mind,” Edward said. “They don’t disturb the technology on our side of the ship. That’s the point.”

“What’s special about our side?” I said.

“Everything is connected once you walk onto our side of the Predecessor,” Edward said. “Our side of the ship is like a diverse forest, where the trees communicate through electrical signals underground.”

I lifted my eyebrows. “Underground signals. I’m listening.”

Edward walked ahead and continued. “The magic of it all,” he said. “Is the network of fungus that acts as a conduit, like a giant synapse. The trees dispatch electrical signals, and the fungus relays the message throughout the forest. Everything is connected.”

The innate turned another corner, and we followed behind.

“If the Predecessor is a forest,” Edward continued. “Then we are the trees, and the fungus is the ship’s technology that makes it all happen. I have no clue about the technology itself. I’ve heard speculation about alien technology, and whatever, but that doesn’t matter.”

Edward began to move his hands while he spoke. “We are part of the Predecessor’s connected environment,” he said. “And the innates are like stones buried beneath the soil. Yes, they are here, but they do not communicate with the technology that creates Pyro. They are innate like a stone.”

The innate stopped ahead of us.

An awkward moment of silence passed until she turned, and for the first time, looked into my eyes. “It’s true,” she said. “But it’s not as bad as you think. I’m at peace now. Something that I could never have on Earth.” The smile that grew on her face seemed unnatural, and her eyes showed no interest in what she was saying. She grabbed a small packet from her breast pocket. “Take this with you. They are instructions on how to access your pod and the schedule for the Illuminary Hall. Your pod number is X12, not much further down this hall.”

The innate bowed and left.

“Let’s go meet our third,” Edward said.

The thin, orange door to X12 was propped open with a book.

Edward grinned and pushed the door open. “Hello, anybody home.”

“You surprised me,” I heard from inside the room. “Come in. I’m Azra. Nice to meet you.”

Edward leaned his head out of the door. “Come in, Theta.”

Sure enough, Azra Akyildiz, the prodigy architect of New York, who I had worshipped for six years, was sitting on her wheelchair reading from a thin spiral-bound notebook. My mind raced through her accomplishments, her degrees, the designs she preferred for cityscapes, new construction, the name of her current firm, her previous firms, all of it – in one big flash. 

I reached out my hand, “Hello, I’m Theta.” I kept my mouth shut after that, knowing I’d embarrass myself otherwise.

“Hi, Theta,” she said. “Make yourself at home. Don’t mind me. I’m looking over some rudimentary substrate topography charts.”

Edward brushed against me and lifted himself into one of the beds. “I’ve got the middle bunk.”

The pod was small, a blueish-gray color, with three beds on one side, stacked together, with a modest reading area, with a table and chairs across from the beds.

Azra was next to the table in the corner, placing down a book.

“That’s fine,” I said. “I’ll take the top.”

“I wonder when they’ll bring our belongings,” said Edward. He looked to Azra, but she lifted another book and began reading.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “None of the innates mentioned anything. I’m sure they’ll bring them soon. They have other people they are sorting out too, you know?” I glanced over at Azra, still nothing.

“Excuse me,” Edward said. “What did you say your name was again?”

“Azra.” She didn’t look up from her reading.

“Azra, what happened to your legs?” said Edward.

She looked up, closed the book with force, and placed it on her knees. “What did you just ask me?”

“Your legs,” Edward said. “What happened to your legs? Why do you use a wheelchair?”

Azra placed her book on the table.

“Azra, I think I met you once,” I said, hoping to diffuse the situation. “In Boston, at my university – you came to speak to our class. Do you remember Professor Sorokin?”

Azra eyed both of us, back and forth. “It was nice to meet you. I’ll be in the Hall, working.” She gathered her books, placed them on her lap, and left.

The door would have slammed shut, but the hydraulics hinges wheezed against the assault.

Edward looked at me. “What just happened?”

I walked over to the table, where a few books remained, and sat. The chair was rigid. “I’m not sure, Edward. Maybe it had something to do-”

 I stopped myself.

I wanted to scream, explain he just blew it with the person I’ve been idolizing for years, but Edward didn’t mean anything by it.

Besides, we had two years to figure this out, and Edward mentioned that once the military decided who was a good fit, it usually stayed that way.

#

The Illuminary Hall was a marvel, and I can see why Edward suspected it was alien technology.

The micro-world hung above us, rotating silently on the magni-screen that stretched the ceiling’s length. PRYO-JI was like the pictures I’d seen of Earth from space, but something about it felt synthetic. It was a sphere of habitable colors: gradients of blues and greens, swirling together atop an upturned bowl.

Edward motioned, and the world zoomed in.

It took five weeks to get accustomed to the process and how to work as a team. We had made up with Azra, submitting to her dominance as our team lead – something that proved to be a hindrance to our patience but propelled us as one of the most efficient teams aboard. Command recognized our abilities and gave us tasks that pressed our limits.

Azra touched the underside of her wheelchair’s armrest, and an opaque screen materialized in front of her. “Listen, Theta, why don’t you get off your ass and help?” Azra slashed the holo-canvas with a flat brush – her preferred method of creation.

I closed my eyes, anticipating the blinding flash from above. “Just give me a second.”

Flash.

“Well,” Azra said. “Are you going to help?”

“Give me a second. You’ve been going at me all morning.” I lifted myself from the floor and made for the table.

Edward directed the magni-screen under a future settlement, at bedrock. Layers of substrate flew past, with varying opacity and scale – not unlike CAD programs back home. Edward controlled it all.

The face of a granite boulder split through the bedrock, slow at first, and accelerated upwards, above the water’s surface, into the clear sky. The magni-screen followed the newborn outcropping, zooming past, continuing skyward like an albatross beyond the mist-filled sunlight.

The hair on my arms lifted, expecting the ocean spray to fall through the magni-screen any moment. I grabbed the spec-book from the table. “What section are you working on?”

“If you’d pay attention, you’d know.” Azra swung her brush against the holo-canvas.

Flash.

The boulder fractured. Jagged chunks slid into the water.

“It’s Zone 6, southern hemisphere,” Edward said. “Command is requesting buffers at the sites near water.”

“Got it, Zone 6. Strengths and Drawback of Sea Walls see appendix for case study Hilo, Hawaii 1960.” I flipped through the spec-book.

“I’ve already read it,” Azra said. “I was here well before you got up today.”

Edward looked at me and shrugged.

I grabbed a pen. “Zone 6, marked complete. Where to next?”

Azra set her brush down. “Command wants to change HK-4. Substrate enhancement and another shoreline buffer. They’re concerned the lowlands will erode. We need larger aggregate.”

The magni-screen view zoomed out.

“Keep going. No, the other way, Edward.” Pyro moved as Azra commanded. “Now focus on CK-6. I’m going to do the same thing we just did. I’ll widen the footprint a bit. But let’s take care of the aggregate issue first.” 

It took time to learn that intention caused reactions upon the world, not the brush’s movement across a holo-canvas or sculpting the magnetized plasticity clay, which some threesomes preferred. These things were just tools.

“Stop,” Azra said. “Now keeping zooming in. Keep the aerial view.”

“This good?” Edward arched his arms; feet turned outwards, shoulder-width apart. His intention was expressed through his fluid movements, moving the world as Azra directed. His ability as a dancer allowed us to work at a rapid pace.

The magni-screen descended into soft textures and gentle slopes.

“Yes, that’s good,” Azra said. “I remember working here a few months back.”

I did too. I had suggested we used larger stones on the hillside. The rains would wash the topsoil away, leaving behind clay. Stones would be a foothold for seed during the inoculation phase. Only now was my idea realized and only at Command’s suggestion.

“We have a deadline, and you know Command is watching you. Come help!” Azra’s words thundered along the golden walls.

Flash.

Giant stones appeared across the hillside.

It was an exhausting process – the creation of a world. It was a mental game. The Predecessor heightened our senses and drew out every ounce of creativity.

I pulled my kolinsky brush from my back pocket and twirled it. The handle was smooth and familiar. The brush was balanced, with bristles that tapered down to a point. It would be easy to mark up my holo-canvas, go through the motions, but my heart wasn’t in it. I looked at Edward, the length of his shirt marked by sweat.

“Fine,” Azra said. “I’ll do it myself. I do all the work around here anyway.”

“You do all the work?” I bit my lip.

Edward stretched upwards. The magni-screen shifted focus to the shoreline of HK-4.

“Leave her alone. Theta works just as hard as you. She just needs a break.” Edward winked at me.

I’d never been in love. I was too busy paying rent, working through textbooks, working at fancy architectural firms – learning the art of obsessing over my career, to the point of numbness. But Edward was kind, and that had to count for something.

“She is meditating, can’t you tell?” Edward continued. “She’ll be more productive than before, isn’t that right, Theta?”

“Is that so?” Azra said.

“I’m sure of it,” Edward continued. “But seriously, let’s take a break.”

I nodded.

Azra held two fingers up, “We have two days to get Pyro ready for the inoculation stage.”

“I know,” Edward said. “Let’s take a short break.”

“Fifty years in the making,” Azra said. “And we get to be the ones to complete the world. Do you know how luckywe are?”

“Pretty lucky,” Edward said.

“We’re about to witness evolution. Artificial evolution. It’s like a terrarium on fast forward,” Azra said.

“A terrarium the size of the Moon,” Edward said.

“Mars,” Azra said.

Edward laughed. “You’re right. Mars.”

Edward lifted his feet on point, as he did the first day I’d met him, shifting the view of Pyro once more.

Azra’s brush quickened.

Flash.

Edward slumped to the floor. “I’m done. That’s enough for today.”

The walls of the Illuminary Hall seemed to fade into a patina of light green.

“I hope they let me visit Pyro before sending us home,” Edward said. “I want to walk down there. Swim in the ocean. What an amazing experience that would be. You think they’ll let us?”

Edward’s smile was irresistible.

“I’m sure of it,” I said. “They have to let us visit it, right?” It was a weak attempt to give him hope. We would never step upon the virgin land of Pyro.

“I doubt we will visit Pyro,” Azra said. “I doubt they’ll even let us watch the inoculation. Maybe we’ll be on standby just in case they need us. But if all goes well, what is the point of having us here?”

Azra packed away her brush in a compartment mounted to the side of her wheelchair. She was right, as usual, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to smack her. Her words too often affected Edward.

“You’re wrong,” I said, sensing the depth of Edward’s wound. “There are too many things that could happen if we aren’t here. They’ll keep us around. And we’ll be able to watch it as long as we have access to the Hall.”

Azra turned her wheelchair. “We’ll see.” Her thin eyebrows raised and remained lifted. She hated to be challenged, even on the smallest details.

Edward walked away. The glass doors hissed as his final words hung in the air. “We have a lot of work to do tomorrow.”

Azra glared. “Why do you do it, Theta?”

“Do what?” I said.

“Give him hope.” Her voice was sharper with Edward gone. “You know that he won’t visit the surface. None of us will. So why do you give him hope?”

I stood firm, looking down at Azra.

She repeated her question with different words, one of her usual ways to belittle me.

“Listen,” I interrupted. “You think you’re the center of the universe, that the stars bow down before your supreme intelligence. But the truth is that you’re a privileged rich girl, from a family who never corrected your condescending bullshit because you have a disability.”

Azra glared.

“Edward loves you and everyone around him,” I said. “He cares for you. For me. Even for the innates that wander the ship. Have you seen how he talks to them?” I shook my head. “But he needs hope, Azra. I know him better than you, and he is cracking. And besides,” I straightened my back and looked towards her wheelchair. “You should be grateful that he is good with the control sensor. You’d be hopeless otherwise, you selfish bitch.”

Defeated, Azra tilted her head forward, her back slumped in the wheelchair.

I grabbed my bag and rushed out, past the glass doors, through the orange hallway, six-three-two-three on the number pad, into the greenlit corridor, optical scan, finger scan, up the mini-ladder, into my bed, and screamed into my thin pillow.

“Are you okay, Theta?” Edward said.

I didn’t see the light next to Edward’s pod when I climbed into my pod; the pressure sensors helped us be mindful of each other in such tight living arrangements.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I can’t wait to get out of here. Get back home.”

Edward was slurping something below. “What will you do when you’re back?” he said.

“Nothing. There’s nothing on Earth for me, but I’m done here. Get me off this damn ship.”

Edward’s laughter startled me. “Nothing?” he said. “I doubt that. You can always go back to work at your old firm. Anyways, you’ll probably settle down, marry, kids, family, all of that.”

“Maybe,” I said.

“Yeah, maybe,” Edward said.

Was he slurping louder on purpose?

“We should stay in touch after this,” Edward said. “Maybe we can live in the same town, or something?”

Sausalito came to mind: a houseboat with blue shutters, red shake exterior, cafe nearby, firm land a few steps away. The moment passed.

“Okay, never mind,” he said with awkward laughter. “I have this thing soon tonight. My watch has been buzzing since yesterday. It says 1700 CMD POST, and there’s this little red star.”

I crawled and backed down the ladder. “Here, let me see it.” Edward held out his strong wrist. Sure enough, a backlit star overlayed his watch’s face.

“Any idea what it means?” I said.

“Well, aside from, I’ve got to get my ass to the bridge at 1700,” Edward said. “I have no idea.” He ran his hand through his hair and continued. “It’s going to be weird going over there. Do you know Naroki from X08? He told me a story about going to the Command side a while back. I think it was around when we first arrived. No, he was on the ship before us, so he’s been here for about ten weeks. But anyways.”

“I know Naroki. He’s the manipulator for Ked and Jackie,” I said.

“Right. He said once you get through the bridge, they have a sanitation mist that tastes like hell.”

“Why did he go over there?” I said

“Something to do with his charts. The Hall wasn’t responding as it should, or he couldn’t move the magni-screen as needed. I’m not sure. He didn’t seem to want to talk about it much.” I could tell Edward was worried.

“It will be alright,” I said. “We’ve only been here for five weeks, and the inoculation phase is in two days. They’re just checking on everyone to get ready for the big day. I’m sure I’ll get called over as well.”

“Yeah,” Edward said. “Maybe.”

The optical scan whined outside of our door, followed by the soft purr of the finger scan.

“Hi, Azra,” Edward said.

“I’ve brought food for everyone,” said Azra. She looked perfect. But still, I could sense the hurt in her voice. “They had noodles today. Nothing special, but at least it’s something.” She rolled into the room, navigating the tiny space, and held out a cup to Edward. “Here, give this to Theta.” It was a rare gesture, coming from her.

“Thank you,” I said with my eyes drawn down.

“Here, Edward,” Azra said. “I’ve got you one too.”

“Thanks, but I grabbed one on my way over.” Edward climbed from his bed and walked towards the reading table. “Hey Azra, do you know anyone who’s been to the Command side?”

“I haven’t been, but I’ve talked to a few people. They say it’s nothing interesting. A lot of innates. Higher up military folks walking around,” Azra said. “But they say it’s much different than our side, that it’s serious over there.”

“Look,” Edward said, walking over to Azra while holding out his wrist. “I’ve got this thing at 1700. I’m going over there.”

Azra looked up to Edward and flinched – she was worried. “It will be okay,” she said. “It’s nothing.”

Edward walked to the reading table and slumped into a chair. “Thanks.”

#

The next day our spec-book arrived the same as usual. It slid under our door with a swoosh, followed by a quick knock upon our door. It was our daily wake-up call, time to get to work.

None of us were morning people, but Azra had the drive to get out of bed first every morning, which became an expectation.

I heard her moving below. “Let’s see what we have today,” Azra said.

The soft light from her bunk helped me peel my eyes open.

“What’s on the list for today?” I said.

“This is different,” Azra said. “The Illuminary Hall will be shut down for the day in preparation for the inoculation phase. Please stand by for further instruction.”

I shifted onto my side and stretched my arms out. “I thought it would have been a mad dash to get everything perfect before the inoculation.” I pulled the sheets over my eyes, set on going back to sleep.

“Edward, you hear this?” said Azra.

I placed a pillow on top of my head.

“Wake up, Edward,” Azra said.

I could hear her move her wheelchair and lift herself to prod Edward. “Edward, wake up,” Azra said. “I don’t think he’s in his bed.”

My stomach turned. “What do you mean?”

“Come look,” Azra said. “He’s not here.”

I leaned over the side. Edward was gone.

“Give me the spec-book,” I said.

It was lighter than usual, with the message that Azra read on the front page.

I flipped to the next page. “Directive 33, a revision to scale and feasibility testing. We have opted to send a transporter to the surface along with our initial inoculation pod. Viability of the world to be tested with onboard personnel. Volunteers are as follows: Jacob Anthony, Naroki Dillard, Jackie Kharon, Edward Whittington…”

My finger stopped under Edward’s name.

“Oh, no,” Azra said.

What did Azra mean? My mind reeled, trying to put it all together: a transporter, humans on Pyro, volunteers during the inoculation phase.

“You know what this means, right?” Azra looked at me with tears in her eyes.

#

I sat in the pod for hours, reading and re-reading the spec-book. The inoculation phase was to take place in one day, and there was a total of thirty volunteers: twenty women, ten men. I knew a few of them. It was a mix of military personnel and creatives.  

“I’m going to do it,” I said. “I’m going on the second round. I’m going to volunteer.”

Azra closed her book. “You can’t be serious.”

“I’d regret it my whole life if I don’t,” I said. “I have to, Azra.”

She seemed to stare through me, not out of anger but disbelief. “You know Edward won’t be there.”

“I know,” I said. “But still, I have to go. Besides, I’ll make the history books, right?”

Azra smiled. “Sure. Because that matters any.” The tension of yesterday was gone; our petty differences washed away by Edward’s decision.

“Have you considered volunteering?” I said. I knew the answer before asking, but I felt like I had to ask.

“You know I can’t go,” Azra said as she patted her legs. “I’ve never let my disability get in the way of achieving things on Earth. But maybe there are different rules in space. I’m sure that will change in time. I’ll make sure it does.” She wheeled closer to me. “I doubt I would go anyway, even if I could. This was supposed to be a mid-career jolt, something to propel me to the next level. I imagined going back to Earth and starting a firm or becoming a partner, you know? I’m sure I’ll be able to pick where I want to be when I get back.”

“Didn’t you already have that?” I said. “You know, to be able to pick where you want to work?”

Azra rubbed her forehead. “I guess you’re right, to a degree. I wanted to push myself to see how far someone like me could go. I wanted to prove it to the world, to my parents, to myself.” She shook her head and continued. “I’m going to miss you. I’m sorry for being so damn mean all the time.”

I stood up. “It’s okay. I never did tell you, but you were my inspiration for a long time and still are. Without you, I doubt I’d be here today.” I knelt to the floor. “Thank you, Azra. You have nothing to be sorry for.”

Azra leaned forward, as far as her wheelchair would allow. “Thank you, Theta.”

I hugged her, pressing my face into her shoulder. I’d become my hero, accomplishing the same as her, and more – and in an instant realized how cruel the world was, that she, although her skills surpassed mine – could never step foot on the world we created together. I remembered her parents at my university, guiding her off the stage, willing shadows of their daughter. Their joy had become my fuel for years, but I no longer envied them. I now had hope and life in a new world – something that Azra could never have.

I held onto her. “I’m sorry, Azra.”

#

To Azra,

The place I grew up had a secret. Under the streets, beneath the cracks of the uneven sidewalks, slept our god. I’d seen it in my youth. It had many names: the distant shattering of glass, the shouting, gunshots, the used needles that rested beneath the concrete benches of our abandoned parks. It held us close, binding us there for generations, wanting us to stay put forever, to die there.

But I wanted to be someone who served a different god, and at one time, I thought it was you. Now, I imagine you’re hovering above us, considering the next options for Atlas, nudging us along with gentle brush strokes.

I often sit outside my home, atop the hillside at night, and look out towards the ocean. The clouds move towards the horizon, opening my hillside to the heavens. Long claws of lightning, blue and yellow, dance across the sky. It’s an endless source of enjoyment for me.

I live in HK-8. Do you remember the bay we created? It’s beautiful.  

My life has been amazing, and I wish you could see it. I’ve lived here, upon Atlas (what we used to call Pyro), for forty-some earth years. And I have a loving husband, four children, and six grandchildren.

I can’t imagine how much time has passed for you. I tried doing the math when I arrived here. Minutes? Days?

I asked about Edward. And I found his family, six generations removed. They said he was kind and a great father to his children, which he had six in total. Edward lived an exceptionally long and peaceful life from what I can tell, and I can see his legacy through the kindness that holds Atlas together.

I am sixty-seven years old and approaching my final days. My granddaughter, Ela, is writing for me as my hands do not work as they did aboard the Predecessor. I must keep this short, as others in the colony are sending messages to loved ones too. I never imagined paper being such a precious commodity.

But anyway, I’m writing this to encourage you. I remember telling you once, and I’ll say it a final time that you changed my life.

I had often thought that if Azra can do it, then so can I.

So please, when you get back to Earth, continue pushing and never stop.

Life is short (trust me).

Life can be good (but it’s hard to believe sometimes).

And your choices matter (no matter how small).

I grew up in a broken home, near addiction, poverty, you name it, but somehow, I’m here on Atlas with a beautiful family and a life worth living.

Never stop, my friend.

With love,

Theta Whittington