Once upon a time, when I was mortal, I tattooed the names of my loved ones on my body. Their names were lettered in tiny script, connected by faint dotted lines—constellations to navigate the passing of time and the orientation of my heart. It had begun with my sister, Frances, on a drunken road trip down a coastal highway in California and was followed by my husband, Ted, as consolation when I returned and he asked why he hadn’t merited a spot on my arm.
When I was 39, I added the name of my daughter, Anna, and later, her sister, Nina. Before my mother passed, the practice was just a part of the trend of its larger cultural phenomenon. Thousands of humans used to inscribe the names of their loved ones on their bodies for sentimentality’s sake. That’s how it was for me until I lost my mother.
Mom—her name was Lydia—was the first name I memorialized on my own. It was a way to keep her close, etched into the body I’d inherited from her, but the tattoo also kept her present with me as my mind evolved. She died only a few decades after I’d had the Immortality Editing. I didn’t realize back then how it would change my mind, how memories of who I had loved and who I had been would slip from my mind like water through a loosely woven net. I had already begun to lose track of memories in favor of the longer span of decades that lay before me. The practice of inking became a way of keeping track of the dead before I grew too old to remember their names.
I buried Anna eight days after her 124th birthday, bringing with me a bouquet of lilies and my tattoo kit. Anna had not inherited the gene necessary for The Edit from me, as hard as we hunted for the right DNA sequence so she could join me. Those were the early days of immortality. The science had only been around for a few decades when she reached adulthood, and we were still hopeful that there were genomes we didn’t understand well enough—backdoors to obtaining the longevity and anti-senescence that I and others had been able to obtain. My peers and I fit the genetic profile, both for the process and for the even more rigorous qualifications of being allowed to join the society of those with indefinite lives—those who would help guide society into a more humane and peaceful age.
But no sequence worked for Anna. I fought to preserve her as long as I could, editing enough to keep her from cancer, but not from old age. When she finally passed, I cried until I collapsed. She was all I’d had left; I’d already forgotten Ted, save for the long sloping arrow linking his name to hers on my arm. I didn’t remember his smile unless I saw hers, despite how much her face had changed. There was a flicker of recognition when she grinned, wide gaps between the corners of her mouth and her teeth, and I saw the face of a man I had once loved interlaced over hers.
Before Anna passed, I had sat by her side one afternoon in the sterile, pearlescent hospital pod where they housed seniors for study. We still didn’t know why some people weren’t candidates for The Edit, why age asserted its dominance over some and not others.
I bit my lip. It wasn’t fair. I tried not to watch Anna. I found myself searching for memories of her as a baby and coming up empty whenever I looked at her too closely. So I watched all the devices she was connected to. The minutes were being measured by the beeping of her various biomonitors and medicine dispensers. She grabbed my hand, hers thin-skinned and age mottled, mine scarcely more aged than the day I’d first held her.
I brushed her forehead. “Do you want something, sweetheart?”
“I’m fine, Mom,” she said. Her voice was hoarse. “I want you to promise me something.”
I squeezed her hand. The air in the room smelled like the forest. Anna had asked for a diffuser of cedar and geranium to combat the acrid smell of hospital disinfectant.
“I know the Council wants you to join them after I go. Please don’t. Don’t let go of your remaining memories. Write them down, now. We can talk about them. About us. About Dad,” she narrowed her eyes and squeezed my hand. “We can talk about Nina.”
I let go and walked over to the window, holding my breath. I didn’t want Anna to see me scowling. Not this close to the end.
“I know you Immortals don’t like to remember. It makes the long stretch of days too hard to bear.” She laughed, more of a cough. “But you need to remember. Please.”
“Immortals” was only a nickname used amongst the Society. We could be killed, but we did not age, and “indefinite lifespan” sounded less powerful for those who were allowed to undergo the adaptation. Anna knew this. Just like she knew it annoyed me.
“Yes, they have been making their intentions very clear.”
I turned back and smiled.
“More like they’re reminding me of my duty. It would be an honor.” I took a deep breath and started recounting the speech I’d been giving to myself the last several months as I’d been weighing the pros and cons of joining. “The Council steers the Society, and in the Society, we all prosper. With our longevity, we’ve transcended normal ties that bound one to bias or clouded their judgment. They pushed us forward as a species, past those who didn’t evolve fast enough or whose evolutions were contrary to what we deemed a just and cohesive society. Our scientists and philosophers can spend ten times a normal lifespan working on breakthroughs in technology and human interaction.”
I took a deep breath at the end of the speech. Anna rolled her eyes.
“I’ve read the pamphlets, Mom. Am I a tie you’re waiting to transcend?”
“I didn’t mean it like that, Anna. But be reasonable, am I supposed to do nothing after you pass?”
“I know. But they’ve been seeking me out for decades for my political and civic experience, the books I wrote, how I helped pioneer the technology after I cured your grandmother’s cancer. It’s,” I shivered and hugged myself, “nice to be needed. To be reminded the good I’ve done and can do. Why shouldn’t I continue to work for the good of all humans?”
I hated saying it, but I took Anna’s death and incompatibility with The Edit as a personal failure. Anna took it as part of life. It was one of the few areas of disagreement we fought over.
“All?” Anna threw up her hands. Her heart rate monitor began beeping double-time. “You mean people who choose to conform? What about those who don’t?”
I knew she meant Nina. I turned back to the window, shooting daggers past my own reflection to the other medical towers on the other side of the hospital campus.
“The Council issued the proclamation that all disabled and disordered people who aren’t willing to “correct” themselves to join The Society are sent off-world. How could you consider working for them? Do you even remember her, Mom? The songs she sang? The plays she’d write?”
My fists were wedged underneath my arms. I didn’t remember those things. I barely remembered Anna’s, or my own, youth. But I remembered enough. I spun around.
“Do you remember the tantrums she’d throw, Anna? The way she melted down when things changed unexpectedly?”
“She was a child,” Anna said, coughing as she sat up, smoothing her silver hair down as it fell into her eyes.
“You weren’t her mother. I don’t remember everything, but I remember the grief she gave me. She was easily overwhelmed and as prone to meltdowns as an eggshell was to shattering. When Nina didn’t place into the right track at school, the way you did, she was given a choice: labor camps off-world or The Edit. She was brilliant, but difficult.”
“She had inherited her idiosyncratic nature from him—curious, analytical, out-of-the-box thinkers, both of them. You’re like me. Reasonable. Logical. Rational. Of course, she refused to let me edit out her autism or her dyslexia. It had been your Father who insisted we wait for her to reach an age where it would be her decision. And she chose exile.”
Anna huffed, exasperated. I continued.
“She had the gene for anti-senescence. You and your Dad weren’t a match. But you know, we don’t give the procedure to those with Nina’s other mutations. Our society can’t sustain the lives of people who don’t want to fix their disorders and disabilities. Nina was defiant when I suggested removing the conditions she labeled, with the rest of her kind, as “Neurodivergence”.
“It made her who she was, it made her amazing, even though the world hated her for it,” Anna said, sniffling.
“The world hated me too, you know. For raising her, for refusing to force her to change when she made her decision, for the commotion she made with her existence.”
“Oh yes, poor you,” Anna said. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed, shaking as she supported herself. “As if you’re the one they sent to an off-world labor camp for refusing to edit part of yourself out to suit others.”
I spun around. Anna never sassed me, and I was more than a little shaken when she mentioned the labor camp.
“It was Nina’s choice to go.”
“No, it wasn’t. She was still a kid. She just wanted to stay the same. You could’ve fought for that.”
“No, I couldn’t. Others tried. Our Society depends on harmony. Of mind. Of body. Of purpose. Nina could have joined me. Joined us. But in the end, she chose keeping her condition over the family who loved her. And the labor camps The Council has set up, engaging physical and mental labor out on a self-sustaining planet far away, work meaningful enough to defeat any of the court cases that came up charging the Council with inhumane treatment, but mediocre enough that once a person was sent there for unwillingness to conform, neither them nor their contributions matter.”
I was shaking. “They choose to live outside the Society by not editing out their various differences. They had to live with the consequences of their choices.”
Anna’s eyes widened when she saw my shock. She had never had a temper, and whenever she did lash out, she was always the steady sort of good person who regretted it. I envied her that, as much as I resented the looks of pity and disgust that found their way into her eyes as she held out her hand.
“I love you, Mom, but this is why I want you to remember. You’re forgetting all the good parts, even the good mixed in with the difficult, and you’re just accepting The Society’s bias. I worry about who you’ll become when you forget entirely.”
I patted her hand.
“My conscience. I don’t know what I’ll do without you.”
“Remember. That’s what I’m telling you. You have to remember.”
Anna and Ted had been proud of Nina for her stand—just fifteen years old when she left home and so sure of herself. I would have admired her too, but I knew the cruelty of the world. I’d been raised in it, seen my generation stand on the brink of destruction and survive the chaos and greed of the 21st century, and it was clear: Unity of spirit depended on unity of mind—in every respect.
The day Anna and I said goodbye to her, I tattooed an arrow next to her name linking it to a phrase inked in scarlet: lost to the stars. Anna, who threatened at the time not to speak to me ever again after Nina left, guilt tripped me into adding: Lost to the stars… because they were friendlier than home.
At Anna’ grave, I wept as I turned on the needle, the device humming in my hand, sending shivers into my bones.
Light faded down behind the cypress trees surrounding the crowded cemetery, gray tombstones leaning ramshackle out of the neglected earth like the teeth of some half-buried behemoth.
I began to add a new thread to the web that wrapped around my body.
I drew an arrow from where her name lay on my left forearm up to my chest and starting at my shoulder, wrote, My conscience—when I birthed Anna, it left my heart and entered hers.
I cried for an hour, until I could no longer read the script on my arm or breathe through my tear-choked throat.
I wanted to add a directive, a way to remember her, a reason to go on without her.
I added, I am without an anchor.
There was nothing to do after Anna’s death but join The Council, but I knew what Anna had asked of me. While it seemed like a productive place to put my energy, since Anna viewed The Council as the evil that had motivated me to send Nina away when she was a teenager, to honor Anna, I spent decades on my own with my science projects. But over time it was too much. She was gone. They were all gone, and I was alone in our old house, my heart gathering cobwebs along with their things.
My longtime colleague, Nowa, was the one who finally recruited me.
Walking in the garden, the scent of the bioengineered honeysuckle variant I’d created, mixing with the smell of freshly cut grass, Nowa handed me a badge. The Council was apparently done asking. It looked like a medallion, shining with stars representing all the systems we’d colonized.
“Please, Jessa,” she said. “We need you. I know your family had interesting views, but that’s why you’d be an asset.”
I raised an eyebrow, about to ask her if the Council, if anyone in the The Society, would value the views of a mother who had lost her two daughters because the science wasn’t inclusive enough. Nowa guessed my mind and shook her head.
“Jessa, The Council has created rules for the Society. Think of what it would mean to people, who have concerns about the way they rule, to see someone like you join.” Nowa took my arm as we curved around a cedar I’d grown from a sapling, whose age I’d accelerated until it was wider around than we were tall.
“You want the image of my cooperation?”
“And your actual cooperation, naturally,” Nowa said. “You and I are as responsible for upholding the stability of The Society as the next person, so why not step in to shape those rules? Each person on The Council works tirelessly to uphold the benefits and provisions of The Society and strives in all things to preserve and protect it.”
“I remember what the world was like, before The Edit, before creating the science that granted us a way to bring the nations together and end our world’s suffering.”
“Everyone wanted to live forever. And we had the foresight to see that the gift of The Edit should be given with prudence, with consideration for what was ruining the world and what could set it back on track.”
I sighed. I remembered the days of heat waves and famines. The world would never again be what it was, but we had done so much to mitigate the damage and even improve on nature as we could. Longevity lead to breakthroughs in scientific developments like interstellar travel, a total shift in energy usage and production, cloning and reproducing honeybees, and of course, population control.
I led Nowa to a bench next to a koi pond, another hybrid I’d developed.
Nowa turned to face me. “We are more than equal to the task. While the names of our loved ones pass and the stories and memories we shared with our families fade, our knowledge of science, our off-world colonies, and the way to rule stay as vibrant as ever within our minds. You know that most immortals forget the details of their lives before the Editing, a flaw in human memory only accentuated by our permanence. If you join us, that’s not a thing to mourn. It’s a strength. As we acquire more knowledge each day, it pushes out useless knowledge, decades of unnecessary baggage, unless it is regularly accessed.”
Nowa looked down at my tattoos. Anna’s name stood out, freshly black against the other faded annotations.
“There’s a peace in letting the memories go, Jessa.”
No one else tattooed the names and phrases of what they’d lost. Only I chose to be slowed down in that way.
On my inner thigh, I had a map of the systems we’d explored, with an arrow up my right hip, around my lower back, connecting to my left arm where my immediate family’s names were clustered. My favorite galaxy of letters, all lost to me now, their meanings disappearing until I turned myself in the mirror, following the auxiliary spirals to make sense of my story. To retell myself their stories—every story except one.
But I couldn’t deny how much I wanted to move past the pain and loneliness. I took Nowa’s hand and nodded.
ACCESS: MEMORY BANK 5681. SEARCH KEYSTONE EXPERIENCES.
“Are you sure this is wise, Nina?” Cas asks me.
I key up the area of my mind that I want to visit. Sixteen hundred results float in front of me on the projected screen, illuminating my face in the dark setting of the MRM. The Memory Retrieval Matrix is a small hexagonal-shaped room just outside of the engineering deck. It is warm and still smells of newly soldered metals. I frown and run my hand through my thick dark curls. I keep my hair short so I can play with it—soothing myself on occasions like this.
I touch the temporal recall locator on the side of my head. I know it’s secure, but my legs are tapping, my fingers are strumming, and it’s an effort to make myself take a deep breath.
I don’t want to do this.
Cas has a quizzical look on his face, arching one brow and furrowing the other over his dark brown eyes. He looks at machinery that way when it presents a problem he can’t solve. I’ve learned over the years that he looks at me like that when he’s worried.
“I have to revisit this stuff before we arrive. I don’t want to, but…”
Cas shakes his head. His hair is plaited in four thick braids. He sighs.
“Just don’t lose yourself in there. I’ll come back around to check on you in an hour. That should give you enough time to review a few months’ worth.”
“Yeah, gimme two.”
Cas rolls his eyes and opens his mouth but closes it again just as quickly, compressing his lips into a smile. He knows better than to argue with me when I’ve set my mind on something.
“Be careful, Nina. Remember, you’re in control.”
I nod and shimmy my whole body, shaking out the nervous energy. The tension is bound up around my spine like an electrical current and I flap my arm up and down, fanning out my fingers at double the speed. I feel the energy follow the motion from my shoulders down through my elbows and as I throw my arms harder, feel the flow of it unlock the muscles in my forearms, then down into my wrists, until finally the nervousness is flung out through my fingertips.
I inhale and roll my head back and forth before taking another deep breath, this one exhaled through clenched teeth.
ENGAGE MEMORY BANK 52241/1/18/e – KEYSTONE EXPERIENCE: “DEPARTURE”
I am fifteen again.
“Nina, let go of your sister!”
I roar like a wounded beast as men rip me from Anna’s arms and Mom takes hold of Anna, drawing her back. I feel the hot pins and needles, the shards of glass in the pit of my stomach that I’ve learned to recognize as “anger.” Or is it fear?
Was I afraid that day? I feel cold. Numb and yet chaotic. It’s both. It’s everything. Love. Longing. Confusion.
Mom stands there on the platform, calm on the outside, refusing to look me in the eye. She is frowning—or am I imagining that? I want her to feel a tiny piece of what I feel, just so I can know that I matter. Even now. I force my body, outside the memory, to breathe, realizing how tight my chest feels being back in this recall.
I am in control. I am not my memory. I am from this—I am not this.
I undulate my fingers and kick my feet in the waking world as I breathe deeper.
I am not this memory anymore.
“Mom!” I scream for her in that moment of separation. I hate myself, then and now, for calling out to her—a knee-jerk childish reaction. I was an actual child, I know, despite the fact that she had been telling me for months that I wasn’t, as I’ve begged her to fight for me, her first born.
“It has to be this way. You’ll go quietly if you care about us, Nina. Do you even understand how hard you’re making this? Do you care what you’re doing to your sister?” she asks, looking at Anna—not at me.
“I’m. Not. Doing. Anything,” I growl through gritted teeth, still choking on the tears that find their way past my set jaw and down my throat. “Fight them. We can fight them together.”
Mom shakes her head and wraps her arms around herself.
Does she look sad? I could never tell with her. I could only ever tell with Anna.
Anna is crying as hard as I am, her arms outstretched for me. Mom is holding her back now.
She raises her eyes one last time as I am packed in with the others, most of them weeping softly, many of them rocking themselves or hitting their laps with flat hands. Her eyes are red and glistening.
Did she care? Was it difficult for her to let me go? Or was she just upset at the scene I was causing?
I meet her gaze as hard as I can. I may not understand what her emotions are in this moment, but I want her to know mine.
I will never forgive her.
END MEMORY BANK 2241/1/18/e.
Immortality dilutes the meaning of time. A century had passed on Council as easily as months had in the years before the Edit. I refused to forget Anna, keeping her memory with me with ritual and routine, but even so, much of the power of my connection to her was diminishing with each day.
Being a member of Council was all-encompassing. We led The Society outward from our planet and within the first century of my tenure there, we’d doubled our planetary bases in over four systems. The Colonies gave hope to mankind—we found resources that increased our medical capacity beyond what we’d ever dreamed, provided food for everyone, safeguarded our species from extinction through location diversification.
There was such a feeling of peace amongst the Immortals. Technology had ceased to be an impediment with the achievement of immortality—we had the patience to develop the solutions we wanted to manifest.
We discussed our plans to steer Society and never debated. There was no need to—we were all of one mind. We planned and never picked sides. Labor management, colonization strategies, news of elections on Kapteyn, the advancing gate production on Proxima Centauri, and a new symphony returning from the capitol city on Luyten.
As the years passed, it was a struggle, save for my devotion to Anna, to remember a time before the Council.
ACCESS: MEMORY BANK 2241/3/14/f. SEARCH KEYSTONE EXPERIENCES.
I go further back. Christmas mornings. Laying on cool green grass at home on Earth with Anna. Holding her hand. Being scooped up as an infant by Mom, smelling the warm cocoa butter smell of her body lotion as she holds me against her shoulder. I recall Dad teaching me to code and build small rockets that fly up from our backyard in white jet trail plumes and robots that wage war on the ficus plant we kept in the living room. I access the memories of fights Mom and I had after Dad died of cancer, when it was just the two of us looking for something to blame. I force myself to sit through the arguments about my autism.
She twists my anger over being cast out and says it’s just my autism making me unreasonable. I shake as I watch, forgetting to breathe through it, to remind myself I am not this memory. She uses my grief and anguish against me at every turn.
“Nina,” Cas shouts.
The image flickers and darkness snaps in around my synapses. I’m pulled from the memory, gasping, a headache blooming at my temples. My lungs are on fire.
“You weren’t breathing. I told you this wasn’t a good idea.”
I shake my head and slowly try to open my eyes.
“I just wasn’t prepared for the gaslighting.”
Cas kneels in front of me, checking the recall locator at my temple. It beeps softly at his touch.
“May I hug you?”
I shrug. I love that he asks and I need to be squeezed. He wraps me in his arms and pulls them tight around me while I bury my face in his chest. I shut out all sensory input from anything else. There is only his shoulder.
“I need to keep looking, Cas. I need to find the right memories before we arrive. I’ll be more mindful, I promise.”
Cas releases me.
“I know it’s important. But let’s balance it. Let’s look at what we’ve built, not just what they stole.”
I smile as I turn and key in a search for this particular memory.
“Your arrival. Our discovery.”
Cas reaches over and retrieves a temporal recall locator from the console and pairs it to mine. We take each other’s hands and breath deep in unison. Memory retrieval feels like a plunge into a cold ocean, but this wasn’t going to be a difficult memory to revisit.
ENGAGE MB 2363/6/31/c, “STRIKE”
The start of our rebellion.
“Jessa,” Nowa nudged my arm.
Robertson, the leader of The Council, had stopped speaking.
All eyes were on me; I had been tracing lines on my arm again. Robertson cleared his throat and hovered over the table we sat around, pointing once more to the Wolf 1061 system. The star system was rotating slowly in the black glass of the table’s surface, illustrating its star, three planets, and its massive labor colony.
“As I was saying, the unrest there has persisted, but supplies are easily cut off.”
“The forces stationed at Cepta Pactances will starve with the laborers,” Ove said in his characteristic monotone. His eyebrow had been raised at me for some time now. He wanted me to catch his meaning. “But as long as they keep Wolf 1061c from falling, they will die knowing they served the interest of the Society.”
“So be it,” Robertson said. “I put forward a motion to withdraw all ships from the area, halt all incoming supplies, and remotely shut down the power at Wolf’s capitol, Cepta Pactances.”
The others nodded and struck their yes votes onto the table. My fingers found their way back to my arm without me noticing until Nowa kicked my foot under the table. Wolf 1061c was tattooed on my wrist, at the end of an arrow that connected it to the name Nina. So many memories had faded, as they should. But the name, the location… I felt the pain of something more than loss as I stared at them. Regret. Shame. Longing.
I struck my vote to abstain.
PRESENT 2438/2/12 – MRM
The compression of memories from this particular year looks like an explosion of data lines in the extraction visualizer. So much happened. Cas and I choose the month after his arrival, a refugee from another Council experiment on long-term isolation in space and mental stability and resource management in children raised to know nothing but that environment.
Cas hardly spoke when he arrived at our colony, just wept for joy and half-insanity. He flinched whenever anyone came near and yet was hungry for embraces if you could get close enough.
When he did speak, it was clear he was brilliant. As brilliant as many of the other misfits the colony had collected either through deportation from Earth, the other colonies, or from those who’d heard that this was the bright spot in the universe, despite the labor conditions, for those of us who sought a community of our own. We were helpless, but we were not alone.
I had been working on a way around the helplessness—I had found a way to re-engineer the way our bodies translate aging into the quantum “micro/macro” focus of the neurodivergent mind. For those of us who were neurodivergent, we could keep our neural pathways intact while redirecting aging subroutines in the brain out through a transmission of excess energy. But it was only theoretical. Like the Edit machines on Earth, this was nothing without the technology to make it possible. We had an underground scientific network, trading theories in the mess hall between shifts and burning evidence after breakthroughs, taking advantage of the guards’ general disregard for us to plan. But the ability to build the tech escaped us.
And then Cas showed up in his ship, carrying an FTL drive beyond anything the Society used. And he had built it himself.
So in this moment, we select the memory of the day Cas first reads my notes.
MB 2365/12/2/e, “HANDS”
I have never been able to tell when someone is interested in me until I’m halfway done fighting them off and being tased by a guard for doing so. But Cas had been alone since childhood and a romantic from years of being friends with no one other than the stars he observed and his extensive library of books. His parting gift to those who had raised him in isolation to see what he was capable of was to send a data virus to them the year after he’d escaped.
Floating in the dark abandon of space, talking to stars and reading his books, Cas had been able to build a stealth program that traveled multiple jump points back to Earth when he arrived here.
After regaining his strength, he got up from his cot.
“Where are you going?”
“I have to erase it. The information from my life, the data they collected on me. In isolation. They can’t have it. The lives of the others in the experiments.”
He practically fell into his ship when he reached the abandoned cargo bay where we had hidden it.
“Has to be erased.”
After that, he was able to focus on those of us who were taking care of him. He opened up, talked to us of his stories, eagerly listened to ours. He wanted to help us.
This is the memory I find.
A few years later, Cas and I are sitting in the mess hall on Cepta, our dinner trays obscuring paperwork he’s scribbled on. He and Fyo are discussing engineering with me, better ships, better genetic engineering that doesn’t prioritize one neurotype or one ability set. Fyo signs at us, their hands a giddy blur of energy, excited to have another liked mind to converse with. The amino gruel they serve smells like burned eggs, but I barely notice as I listen to Cas. His voice is deep but keeps climbing higher than I ever heard it as he talks about his discovery, signing to Fyo as he does.
“I thought I’d figured out the propulsion when I escaped the station,” he says. “But I’ve had time, so much time, to figure out how I should’ve done it. I can bend space through the machine, it’s so elegant, so elegant. When we combine the quantum manipulations with your work, you can see the same effect. We can build better ships, we can create new neural pathways without leaving anyone behind.”
He takes hold of my hand while we all go over my theorems and it’s the motion of being enthralled by my work, enthralled with his own, and making his intentions known to me that stop me from my usual leg sweep and gut punch. I let him hold my hand for a little while longer as more join us at the table, and we all begin to discuss how the Upgrade should work.
I am still letting him hold my hand as we revisit this memory.
“This is nice, but you know what we have to look at next, don’t you?”
I know he’s nodding without needing to switch from the memory to the waking world. He squeezes my hand and I hear him key in the next entry.
It takes more than a decade, but we figure out the Upgrade and begin tailoring it to every neurotype, every person whose physicality was against what The Council and The Society had deemed normal. We had people of every neurological and physical dispensation at Cepta and, not counting the guards, we all had one thing in common: no one wanted us, as we were, except for each other. We upgrade as many people who want the upgrade as we can and fashion assistive technology for everyone, especially for those who can’t or don’t want to remove aging.
We wait for the guards—who continue to ignore us and allow us to expand our technological reserves as long as we meet our export quotas—to get older, and take advantage of the fact that they undervalue us so much that they don’t notice we are staying the same age.
We also get quicker. Faster. Smarter. Soon, we are canceling their shift reliefs and rerouting supplies to the far side of the planet where our forces take control of the food and medical equipment.
And the weapons.
It’s when the weapons go missing that they finally notice us. They ignored us for so long on Earth, an barely paid attention at the other end of the galaxy. It’s when we finally are able to defend ourselves that their heads swivel collectively in our direction.
This is the memory Cas and I pull up.
The day the Council sends ships to wipe us out.
The Council had become concerned with my frequent visits to Anna’s grave. I knew that the opinions of many on Council was that my grief made me weak and that votes to abstain were evidence of this.
As the only person on the Council I was friendly with, I was sure Nowa had been chosen, as had this location, for a gentle approach. Lavender, canary, and red ochre-winged butterflies dipped and darted around our heads. Nowa led us to a bench underneath a canopy of large emerald leaves.
“It is a sweet gesture, but there is a reason why we let ourselves forget,” Nowa said, taking my arm as she led me around the conservatory.
She had summoned me before the Council’s meeting that day to discuss the grave visits. Before Anna had passed, my grief had felt like a strength as opposed to the other immortals—a tie to the things that made me human.
Anna had felt this way about grieving Nina.
It’s important to keep the departed close, to remember the lessons they have for us, she would say.
I had taught her that, but hated the thought that now she was the one I had to remember.
“We forget our homes, our biases, our attachments, and it allows us to lead without the nationalism that plagued leaders in the past. You know this, Jessa. You are not as old as I am, but you are old enough to remember the state of the world before we sorted our Society into sustainable numbers and began prioritizing laborers for our colonies off-world.”
Since when were colonies ever a good thing? This is why we shouldn’t forget our history.
I shuddered as Anna’s voice forced its way into my mind.
The memory of her was becoming more like a virus than the remembrance I meant for it to be. Nowa appraised with a raised eyebrow. I looked down. I was gripping Anna’s name on my forearm.
“I know you’re right, Nowa.” You promised me you’d resist forgetting. I shook my head, trying to banish Anna’s voice. “I’ll stop.”
“It is the right thing. The Cepta rebellion has claimed another off-world colony. We need all our minds sharp and at full attention and…”
Her eyes flickered down to my tattoos. She closed her mouth, thinking better of what she was about to suggest.
“I’m not removing them, Nowa. I’ll stop visiting Anna’s grave, but that’s too much to ask. These are my choice.”
“You sound like the rebels,” Nowa chided. “And I did not say anything. I am glad you will not visit the grave any longer. It’s rather vulgar that some communities even still have them. We haven’t allowed zoning for them in the cities for centuries.”
She patted my arm and took a deep breath.
“Let us have tea before council begins.”
I walked on in silence with her, willing myself to break my promise to my eldest. Anna would fade like the others. I would be no worse for it. I told myself that, when I’d forgotten her, she would not be able to rebuke me for the betrayal.
The dead have no more voice than that which we give them.
MB 2397/8/10/s “THE BATTLE OF WOLVES”
Screaming. Plunging into this memory takes us from silence to chaos. Concussive explosions ricochet through the amber atmosphere of the mining camp. The bombs split open on our repulsion shield, residual energy from the blast sizzling across the dome as it’s absorbed back into the structure, strengthening it against the next barrage.
Our ships have not yet emerged. We need the armada to enter our atmosphere or at least leave the jump range. The Society’s ships don’t have their own FTL engines; they rely on FTL halos and a series of short-range jump portals. They have no idea what Cas has built.
Cas had designed a ship that carried its own FTL drive and had carved his way through space like Catherine wheels that Nina remembered from fireworks displays as a child. When he networked his ship with Cepta’s central system, he was able to reach Earth.
“Closer, damn you,” I growl in the memory, leaning over the war table that highlights the encroaching armada.
“How m-ma-many were outside the sh-ssh-shield when they arrived?” Ben asks.
Ben, our leader that day, and every day in our hearts. He is seventy at the Battle of Wolves, a late comer to the Upgrade, but far too stubborn and strong to succumb to the hardships of the mining life.
“Eighteen hundred and seventy-two were still on shift or on mission.”
Ben runs his hand over his face and up into his silver hair. He’d been seventy for the past century, but it still adds new lines of grief to his face when we experience losses. This memory is nothing compared to the day we rose up against the guards. I shudder in the waking world and feel Cas squeeze my hand.
“We are not this memory, Nina.”
“No, we are not. But we are certainly from this moment.”
I squeeze his hand back as I watch myself in the memory, a grin splitting my face open as I see the armada close the distance we need.
“They’re in range!”
Fyo, our nineteen-year-old engineering prodigy, whoops as they send out the message to all ships. Fyo has improved on Cas’s ship designs, speeding them up, increasing their capacity, and taking them from a miracle of engineering to machines capable of defending us, and one day—this day—carrying us home. Fyo hadn’t wanted to wait for the Upgrade until their twenty-sixth birthday as we’d advised. They wanted to put their energy into the work.
Cas and I watch ourselves in the memory as the ships close in around the few ships they had sent. The Council had thought they were coming to deal with the broken rabble they’d cast off, and the few hapless guards who’d fallen to them. They are not prepared.
This was just the first battle, the first good victory. I have to pull them all up. The day we lose Ben to the Council’s ships. The loss of Trace when we arrived at Luyten. Those we lost when we dealt with the Council’s last blockade that cut us off from all our bases. I have to watch them all.
Every victory and defeat is leading me home. I will account for them all.
A gavel struck the Council table, attempting to call the Council to order.
“The Cepta Alliance has brokered a deal with the Consulate of Proxima Centauri,” Robertson announced to an outraged Council. Fists pounded the table, angry shouts roiled through the room.
“This can’t be,” Fermin cried.
Ove stood up and began to pace.
“How is this possible,” Astra asked, “they have over seven starships already?”
“The other systems are weak. They are betraying us and the entire Society,” Nowa exclaimed.
“Robertson,” I asked. “Why are the other systems joining? It can’t be in their best interest to lose more labor camps and colonies. We’ve already lost eight. I thought Proxima Centauri of all planets would understand the need to have stability and order.”
Robertson groaned. “They have figured out how to gift the Editing to anyone.”
The room fell silent.
“No testing?” Nowa said.
“Even for those with deficiencies?” Ove looked horrified at the thought.
“How will they control the population?” Fermin asked.
I snuck a look at my tattoos.
“They don’t see people in terms of deficiencies,” I mumbled.
Was that a remnant of Anna or what I really believed?
“No,” Nowa said. She’d seen the glance I’d stolen. “They think of their various genetic issues as ‘evolutions’ or ‘differences,’ but we decided long before you joined Council that they hinder societal integration. It is better for them, kinder to them, to be put to work in areas suited for them. They don’t suffer at the labor colonies. They are much happier isolated amongst their own kind than being with the rest of us.”
“If that were true,” I replied, “there wouldn’t be a rebellion, would there?”
“Power no doubt deludes them into thinking things would be better if they were in charge. They’ve discovered a source of influence with their black market form of Editing—although I doubt it’s effective. That’s all. Simple greed.”
“Their version of Editing is effective,” Robertson sighed, sliding into his seat. “Their leaders have been practicing it for at least a few hundred years. What’s more, they have solved the indeterminate growth issue.” He motioned to our council, all between eleven and sixteen feet tall. “They remain their original size and increase in strength.”
“They didn’t just go a step further, they ran miles ahead. The reptilian medial cortex isn’t the roadmap for them, as it was for us. They modeled the Editing off their unique DNA. They overthrew Cepta Pactances before the final ship departed and from there, it was just a matter of getting in front of the right audience and offering indefinite lifespans for all.”
“Immortality for anyone,” Stuart muttered. “We’ll have a resource issue again.”
Robertson looked like he was going to be sick.
“The resources are being shared differently under their rule and the new physiological requirements of what they call ‘The Upgrade.’”
I pinched the screen and all nineteen star systems the Society oversaw appeared within the table and revolved beneath us, the faint blue light of the images casting a spectral glow over our faces.
“They had the power to edit themselves and chose immortality, but not uniformity?” Nowa asked. “They’ll never be at peace in society. We will not welcome them.”
“They’ll be at peace if they remake society,” I said, marking each planet and labor colony that they had taken red. I waited for Anna’s voice to guide me, urge caution, or advise some sympathetic course. Instead, the emptiness that I’d fought with for so long, that overtook me whenever I didn’t stare at the names, crystallized within my chest.
The Society over one family, I reminded myself. The Council’s will, not hers.
I smoothed my hands along the table and leaned onto my arms. I was nostalgic for Anna, but I’d come too far with the Council, seen the benefits of the order the Society brought to those willing to abide by our rules. No matter how I felt, I had to side with them.
I had sided with them over both my daughters’ protests. I would stay the course now.
“And what will that mean for those of us they label Static?” Nowa asked
“If I were them, nothing good.” I willed myself not to look at my arm and banished the prickling feeling of shame. “We have to be ready to take all precautions against them.”
My precautions were personal. I made one small change to my tattoos and waited for time to sieve the memories from me as the Council made its plans. I stopped visiting Anna’s grave and after several years, her voice eroded.
Plans to protect Earth from the Cepta rebellion were easier to make after it had. My mind fought for her, dreaming of her and my other daughter playing under a sparkling tree centuries ago. I’d wake up and remind myself of their names by looking at my arm. I had lost the word for the tree with its stacks of foil-wrapped boxes underneath. The dream had made me happy, however.
It made me want to look for the girls but the arrow on my arm from Anna’s name led to a black bar—a redacted name and location. I couldn’t remember who or what had been there and Anna was not here to remind me.
The Cepta Delegation did not come home. They circled us, gathering star systems around us until they had alienated us from our nearest neighbors. Only a few remained loyal to the Statics, as anti-neurodivergent governments became known. Several of our spies were able to avoid their patrols and report back news of what had become the new Society. Not that they called it that.
We waited years, surviving off of what we had taught the Earth to give back to us. We had revived so much of it in the centuries since the Council took over, but we still relied too heavily on resources from our colonies. We had sent several battle cruisers to meet the Cepta Armada. We had lost, but the casualties they had sustained had come from my stratagems. I was losing the will to remember what Anna would think of this all.
“Our society never evolved, did it?” I said to Nowa and Fermin over tea as we waited for a meeting. I had been staring at my left forearm again, forcing myself to recognize Anna’s name.
“What do you mean?” Fermin asked.
Nowa pursed her lips.
“We thought we had a better way to do things, editing genes, sending those away who wouldn’t edit,” I said. “We stabilized our world, but for who? We stopped evil practices here and then snuck behind our people’s backs and did it amongst the stars. We ruin other planets, just not the nice ones. We practice slavery—”
“We do not,” Nowa set her teacup down firmly, lapsang spilling onto lace. “They have a choice. Edit or leave. According to your file, your daughter chose the latter. It’s not slavery when there is a choice.”
“That’s what this is about, I am assuming?” Fermin said, arching an eyebrow. “Your daughter’s choice to leave?”
“Is it a choice?” I wondered. “What if she had been able to grow old here, like Anna? Would we be in this mess?”
Nowa said nothing. She stared at her teacup, a frown deepening on her lips.
“And what kind of life would she have led here? She would have been ostracized and abandoned. It would’ve been cruel to leave her in her state. And, by the way, it’s obscene you still even know their names,” Fermin replied, shaking his head. “We should start requiring you to wear sleeves. No one wants to see your literal crib notes.”
“Jessa, please. Your attachment to these names threatens our work. I will recommend your removal. Friend or not.” Nowa laid her napkin over the tea stain, refusing to look at me. “It is time to move on.”
“I will second it,” Fermin said with a sardonic smile, “And I am not your friend.”
A throat cleared behind them. A middle-aged man, about twelve feet tall, had entered and bowed slightly. “Robertson is ready for the Council,” the Initiate announced. “Follow me.”
I waited for Fermin and Nowa to leave, staring at the jacket next to me.
They were right; the memories put me too close to this. Anna wasn’t alive and millions on Earth still were. They needed the Council. The dead didn’t.
I pulled the coat on, covering the lists of names, dates, journal entries, and maps linking people together. I waited a moment for my mind to clear. It didn’t take as long as it used to; I needed the visuals to remember.
When no names would come from my long left-behind past, I felt ready to go. I’d long ceased being frustrated by memory lapses. I had to court them now.
Remembrance wasn’t necessary. The Society was.
MB 5784/74/E-H, “THE BATTLE OF WOLVES”
Cas notices I’ve stopped breathing as the memories from the battle stream through our conscience. His hand leaves mine as he brings us both up to the present.
“Maybe the problem isn’t that it’s too much, Nina. Maybe it’s that streaming one hyperfocus isn’t enough.”
He arches his eyebrow and waits for me to understand.
I take a few short breaths that slide into deeper, steadier breathing.
I bring up memories from childhood.
Mom teaches me to bake—way before my father taught me engineering. The first formulas I learn are honey wheat bread, throwing handfuls of flour into the air, hitting the dough with abandon. Mom hadn’t been ashamed at this point. I am too young—cherubic rolls on my arms as I reach for her—to have cost her politically yet, years before she would choose between her love for me and the weight society made her feel that I had been around her neck.
“Just focus on the bread,” Cas whispers.
I see Mom’s face as she helps me learn the motion to knead bread. I have difficulty. She smells the top of my head as she tells me over and over how to handle it.
I see these images as Cas brings the Battle of Wolves back up into the stream and both hyperfocuses weave their way through my mind, neurons sparking from my hippocampus through their pathways into a variety of receptors throughout my thalamus, my prefrontal cortex, my parietal cortex, and so on. The speed of the memories, the magnitude of them, calms me. My body relaxes as I watch my mother and I connect, and I watch the ships her Council sends fire on my fleet.
I love her. I want her to answer for what she’s done.
Both are happening in this moment.
Tears fall from my eyes as I take a deep, calm breath.
“The Cepta Alliance has established a new base on Proxima. They request our presence there next month.”
Robertson lumbered around the room, which took a while with his size and slow gait.
“They refuse to come home?” Ove asked.
“Their elders lead them and they are from Earth,” Nowa said. “A council of seven, which advises a Congress of one hundred and forty-four. But the council only advises Congress. Most of the Congress was born at Cepta, Regent Ordeviun, Kapteyn, or a dozen of the smaller camps.”
“So?” Astra snapped.
“So this isn’t home,” I pushed back in my chair and stood up, stopping Robertson’s sixth lap of the table. “What do we have to bargain with if they don’t want to come home?”
“Only our lives,” he said, ashen-faced. “They want us to stand trial. For crimes against humanity. If we don’t, the entire population of Earth will continue to be cut off. In sixty-eight years, unless we re-implement strict birth restrictions, we will be where we were when this all began. Starving, warring, on the verge of extinction…”
“So we go,” Nowa said.
“To die?” Stuart roared. “Let them start a war. If we’re going back to the way things were before the Council…”
“This is what I was saying earlier,” I pointed at Fermin and Nowa. “We’ve learned nothing. Push still comes to shove.”
“But leaving Earth to join an Alliance of Rejects? We’re talking about the extinction of the human race either way. Have they even solved the disabling aspects of their so-called evolution?”
“According to our informants, no, but they’re re-shaping society so that many of the things that were disabling when they dealt with who they call the Statics,” Robertson gestured at the room, “are incorporated into the way their new worlds run.”
“They developed a low-frequency device that allows for telepathic speech that enables the non-verbals to communicate, even from separate rooms, and those with ‘quantum attention’, as they put it, to apply equal focus to tasks simultaneously and without conflict. According to the latest report, it even helps those prone to seizures.”
Silence filled the room.
“I think,” Sau stood. “We need to answer for what we have done. And what we have failed to do. I motion that we vote to leave, to represent Earth’s interests and answer for the crimes they bring against us. We can request Corsair, a neutral system, send a delegation to judge our case.”
Those who had joined Robertson in pacing returned to their seats. Silence filled the room. If we went, the Earth would be spared war. That was our purpose. To guide and protect the Society. I looked at my arm for guidance, but no voice came but my own. Anna no longer had a voice in my memory. I had forgotten her face, stories connecting her to me, or anything resembling a person. But her name had come to mean integrity somewhere within me. Nina had never been given a voice, but I knew her name meant failure.
My failure. Ours. The Society.
We voted eight to seven to travel to Proxima to stand trial.
“We will make arrangements to leave by next Monday. Say whatever goodbyes you need to say,” Robertson tried to say over the disputes that erupted after the vote. “Best-case scenario: We are held on Proxima.”
The room fell silent again.
“Jessa,” he said, “You’ll have to remove your tattoos before we leave.”
Everyone turned towards me.
I tried to ask “why” but nothing came out. The names were burning through the jacket I wore, words of fire, searing memories unable to be kept secret by fabric. They were stories begging to be told, anchors to the best part of myself.
“All of us have either edited our family or given children to the camps,” Robertson answered my unasked question. “Our best bet is to deal in generics and the philosophy of what was done in the best interest of the Society. Your body is covered in specifics. Your arms detail the costs and losses. If you go there, you’re their Exhibit A and whoever sits on that jury will judge us harsher after they see you.”
“Can we leave her?” Nowa asked.
“I thought of that, but no,” Robertson replied. “She’s been asked for by name.”
“By name? No one outside the council knows anything but our region codes,” Sau said.
“Jessa is known.” Robertson shut down the screen on the table and brought up the picture of the Cetpa Alliance’s chief scientist.
She was a woman in what looked like her mid-forties, although with Editing, her age was unguessable. She had dark hair and a red scar stretching from her forehead, down through her right eye, and into her cheek. She squinted and the left side of her lip curled up to hint at a smirk, as if she knew this picture was only going to be viewed by potential adversaries and she was daring them to see her in person.
“This is Nina Rodriguez, sent away 414 years ago. One of the leaders of the Cepta Rebellion. Creator of,” Robertson rolled his eyes as he made air quotes, “what they call ‘inclusive editing’ or the ‘Upgrade.’ Known deficiencies: autism, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, dyslexia, projective synesthesia…”
Robertson stopped and looked at my arms, despite the jacket sleeves.
“She’s head of their council. She wants to speak to her mother before the trial begins.”
I arrived at my appointment for laser removal at 9am. Birds were singing in through the windows in the waiting room, but when I went into the medical bay, the door close out all the sound as if I were entering a tomb. I felt the weight of silence pressing against my ears, the heaviness of the air clinging to my skin as I disrobed.
“Get on the table and put on the glasses provided to you in the lobby,” I hear a technician’s voice say over an intercom.
Lasers passed over my body, removing every bit of ink. I barely remembered Nina’s name now because she was in our briefing materials. But I imagined that I felt Anna’s name burning specifically. She wanted me to remember the significance of each name. And I’d failed.
I tried not to cry as the laser continued on, searching, searing, burning away the last bits of rebellion, the last parts of the mother that I’d wanted to be.
Proxima Centauri was nothing to look at on the outside. A rocky planet with a wind-whipped surface— its thin, red daylight unsettling from any of the tinted observation decks within the Grand Station that allowed a view of the planet’s frequent auroras. The Proxima Grand Station covered the planet and functioned for the Society the way that the old O’Hare airport had centuries ago on Earth.
It was a jumping-off point, an enlarged mall with travel options, or a travel hub with amazing food and merchandise. Either way, it was expensive and exciting to take in. I had only been off-world twice and each time had gotten lost traveling through the maze of gates and landing docks, bazaars and cafes.
I closed my eyes and readied myself for the cacophony as soon as the Council was cleared from customs and decontamination. Our ship had landed three days prior and as much as I dreaded what awaited me, I was anxious to remove myself from my colleagues.
I’d felt more unwelcome than usual after Robertson’s news about Nina. The fact that she was just a name to me was no comfort to them.
The doors of the holding bay opened and we stepped into the Great Hall of Proxima.
A soft purplish light, the hue of dusk, glowed around us. People were laughing, swiping credits at stalls, eating, trading, hurrying to their gates, but the noise was a murmur compared to the normal state of the station. Other than the occasional laugh from traveling companions or the grunt of someone running to make their flight, there was no dialogue. Robertson pointed at a woman’s ear next to us, which had a silver cuff over the top of her left earlobe.
“That’s it,” he whispered.
“What’s ‘it?’” Ove hissed.
“Their neural communicator,” I responded. If I had developed one, that’s exactly how I would’ve done it. “It’s elegant, functional, and best of all, optional. You could take it off if you wanted neural privacy.” The scientist in me forgot for a moment why we were there. “Do you think we’ll get them?”
Stuart and Nowa’s eyes widened as they also turned towards Robertson. We were all engineers after all. Robertson shook his head and motioned to the guards that surrounded our party as we made our way through the Grand Hall to the Capitol Building.
“If we were meant to have them, we would’ve been given them already.”
Even as I felt the disappointment edged out by the dread of where we were being taken, I couldn’t help but admire the blue light they’d introduced to Proxima’s natural dim red light. I admired the way they’d take out the noise, but still maintained flexibility.
I realized that, if I had known the woman they said was my daughter, I most likely would’ve felt a swell of pride for this person whom I was told was mine, who I had allowed to be sent to a labor camp.
“I’m impressed with how different it is from the last time I went off-world,” I whispered to Nowa.
Nowa only nodded. She was nervous. Who knew how many people on this planet had been sent away by us? How many had sent people away because we required it? I forgot the light and on instinct, looked down at my arms. They were bare, though a webbing of white shining scars covered my body where the words had been, a lacey cocoon for all the memories I had let fade, for all those I had failed and forgotten over my long life.
I was scared. I was ready to be judged.
The soft purple haze followed us into the Capitol. The last time I’d been here for an outerworld science conference, my shoes had echoed on the marble floor behind me like the breaking of lightning on a hot summer night. Now, that same quiet from the Hall filled the room. Silk banners decorating geometric foam paneling hung everywhere, soaking up the excess sound of the palatial building. The blinding white stone had been softened by the new lighting and in the main chamber, no one spoke, though everyone was perched in conversation, turned towards each other with their silver-cuffed ears attuned to their neighbors’ thoughts.
Counselor Nina Rodriguez sat third from the left on the dais where all her peers waited, hands folded in laps, some of them fidgeting, others manipulating a moldable silver substance in their hands into different shapes. Only a few met our gaze; the rest either stared at the screens before them or slightly off to the side of where we stood.
Without a look at me, Nina stood and bodies through the room shifted. The atmosphere of the room tensed as they all regarded our Council. Whatever Nina was telling them, it commanded everyone’s attention, even our own.
She stepped forward, “Jessa Rodriguez, come with me.”
I walked after her into a small room just off the main chamber. She cracked her neck as I entered and rolled her head side-to-side, wiggling tension out from her shoulders, down through her elbows until it flapped out of her fingers like a bird after its morning bath. She exhaled and gave me a deliberate look.
“You always told me to look people in the eye if I had anything important to say.”
“That’s how we do it on Earth. I don’t remember raising you or,” I looked at my arm, but there was nothing there. “Or anyone else. But I would’ve most likely told you to do that.”
Nina pursed her lips. “It’s different now.”
She went over to the table and grabbed three ear cuffs. One silver, two gold. She walked over to me and offered a silver and gold cuff. Her hand was deeply scared with over a dozen gashes, her fingerprints burned away, and half of her right pinkie was missing. I took the cuffs.
“What happened to you?” I asked, copying her as she put on the remaining gold cuff directly behind her silver one on the left ear.
“You sent soldiers to put us down.”
She picked up a tablet and began calibrating signals between it and the cuffs in my ear. Every time she pressed a certain area of the tablet, I felt a slight buzzing on my earlobe and smelled something akin to the smell of burnt sweetgrass.
“Do you really not remember me or Anna?” she asked, her voice deeper than it had been earlier.
She continued to stare at her tablet as she waited for my reply.
“I used to,” I answered, holding up my arm and its silvery scars as evidence. “I wanted to hold on as long as I could. I was ordered to remove my tattoos before we came. Things slip quickly at my age without a reminder.”
I frowned as Nina made no response whatsoever.
“I’m sure you can understand the imposition emotions carry.”
Nina’s shoulders bounced as she gave a slight smirk.
“We Autistics have emotions. Deep ones. Now tell me: Can you see the tree in the middle of the room?”
The gold cuff on my ear buzzed faintly. Where there had been a simple desk now stood a tree. Two girls played beneath it, chased by me when I’d been less than six feet tall. I had only been immortal for a few years at that point. My eyes stung and the image swam before Nina shut it off.
“The cuffs are working,” she said.
“What are you going to do with us?”
I walked towards her. She shook her head, more to herself than me it seemed, and shifted away from me, frowning.
“You’re going to remember. If you survive it, all 638 years for you, you’ll be faced with a decision. I’m not positive older members of your Council will make it.”
My hand flew up to my ear. Nina held her hand up before I could remove the cuffs.
“Don’t do that. It’s already communicating with your neural network. You and I haven’t spoken for over four minutes.”
She was right. Now that I thought about it, I hadn’t seen her move her lips or moved mine. It felt so natural, as if I’d been telepathic since birth.
“What if I don’t survive?” I asked, turning from her to grab a chair from the wall to sit.
“Then that’s the verdict rendered against you. To conform, you denied the best parts of yourself. You were always non-conforming, even if you weren’t like us. Your memories made you unique. You removed those. Almost.” She smiled as she squinted at my tattoo scars. “It’s like your purposefully did a bad job.”
She walked to the door and turned back, not looking at my face, but allowing me to see hers. Her cheeks were wet.
“Anna would’ve loved to have stood here on this day with me, giving these back to you. Whatever happens next, I hope you make it. I hope you decide to join us if you do.”
She sat down, back to the door, closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
With a jolt, a wave of images, sounds, and smells crashed against me and then raced by around me, a wind tunnel of reminiscences.
Nina, on the day she left, tears consuming her large green eyes. Anna, her brown eyes twinkling the last night we were all together, telling an old joke she and Nina had shared from when they were children.
Christmas morning, the kids racing around the tree, Ted catching me in his arms to give me a kiss on the cheek as we watched them. I smelled cinnamon and cloves in those memories, then salt and citrus as the memory flashed to us on the beach.
The girls with their aunt Franny, building sandcastles over Ted’s legs.
Temper tantrums from Nina. She was scared. I felt her fear, heard sounds as she heard them. Conversations speeding towards me like freight trains, all clang and boom and no music. Crowds from her perspective were a maze of walls rather than people. Claustrophobia wrapped vice-like around me.
I was Nina. I felt caged and desperate to communicate. I saw myself, bending over my head, grabbing my own face. Jessa spoke, “Nina, look at me when I’m talking to you. You’re being disrespectful. Look at me!”
“I’ve located the memories now,” Nina said, her voice broken. Nina across the room, not me-Nina, but my daughter Nina. Nina who loved banana bread even though the bananas were synthetic and not what I’d eaten as a girl. Nina, who solved math problems that stumped Ted when she was eleven, but who hit a boy across the jaw when he tried touching her on the playground.
Nina who memorized every comedy we owned and recited them to make the family laugh, but who would run into her room when she’d had to talk to too many people and would exclude us for days. Nina, who shared my skills for science, her father’s love of literature, her sister’s heart, but chose to leave us all because she also loved her own mind and the ways in which it worked.
I wanted to run to her, but I couldn’t move. The memories were overwhelming and addictive.
“You never lost anything, but it did become buried. Forgetting is not the same thing as losing. I suspect you’ve been warring with yourself for a while now: Anna and I popping up in strange ways. From what I saw, anyway,” Nina said. “I’m glad Anna gave you such a hard time after I left.”
I heard Nina walking toward me, though all I could see was days long-past.
“I’m going to leave you in a cognitive recall loop.”
I saw Anna’s grave and her death unspool before my eyes as if they were happening now. Her sickness. Our last trip to Paris. Her tattoos. Our book club.
I felt Nina put a cylinder in my hand.
“If you’re able to accept your memories, the cuff will allow you to leave. If you choose to come out of the loop, press this button. You’ll be allowed to join our society. If you agree, we’ll reintroduce senescence. It won’t hit you all at once. You’ll live another half-century or so, but you’ll live in our world. Those on council who choose this path will be settled somewhere quiet and out of the way. You’ll have no more power but that, I suspect, may be a welcome thing to the right person.”
Her voice faded as the memories overtook me. I was no longer fed the overlapping memories Nina had of our family, but relived every single one of my own, back to front.
Ted’s death is replaced by Ted’s cancer, chased by our final vacation, playing gin every night before bed, the goofy smile he wears when he’s being silly, our wedding, our fights, our first date, the first moment we meet—he tries to flirt but falls into a park bench.
I see my girls return from death and departure, they run giggling back into my arms, and then I see myself return into my own mother’s arms, seeing the soft dark ringlets of her hair and her dark eyes as they smile at me. I am a child, I am a mother, and I am whole again.
I was suffocated and choked by emotion, held fast and secure by the memories. I was overwhelmed by pain and joy. I remembered each of their names, the memories knitting themselves to the scars of their stories that I still felt. None of that had really been removed. Nina was right. It had just been buried, and it did make me unique.
I decided that I would push the button, but not for a while longer.
My heart strained as it pulsed, but I continued to wait. I wanted more, despite the throbbing in my head. I wanted to remember each day, to risk it all, even if I ended up lost in it: Anna holding my hand, and Nina leading us a few feet ahead in a crowd. The sun is winking down through the waving tendrils of a willow tree, our picnic basket is full. Nina is telling us a story and Anna is acting it out.
We are on our way to an adventure, my little loves and I—I sigh in the present, tears falling like a blessing down my cheeks as my heart hit my ribs like a hammer—on a warm summer day centuries ago, before I was immortal.