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, and 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.