Gizmodo is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “The Incorruptible World” by Anjali Sachdeva. You can read the story below. Enjoy!
The Incorruptible World
That first autumn it felt as if the whole world had been made for them — which, of course, it had. They walked down the avenue of oaks that reached above their heads like Gothic arches, red leaves drifting lazily down to collect at their feet. Ashwin was pleased as anything and couldn’t say enough about the designers, how it was worth spending more sometimes, how you got what you paid for. Everything was just as he’d imagined it: roseate light, unseasonal butterflies, crisp air with a faint waft of frost in it. To Jade, the place was beautiful without having any special charm; she knew she could have seen the same landscape in a vidroom down the street from their apartment, could’ve had the scent of fog and bonfires pumped in and controlled the temperature from her cuff. But Ash was always a fanatic for authenticity. He didn’t care if the trees looked real if you couldn’t reach out and touch them, crumble the dry leaves in your fingers, scrape your shoulder on their bark with a careless stumble.
The planet was small, about sixteen kilometers in diameter. Watching from the ship as they slowed for landing, Jade found the way the horizon curled across the little freshwater ocean unsettling. The ocean took up about a third of the planet — blank canvas for later expansion, if they wanted it, Ash said — with a coastline of white-sand beach all around it. The land was divided into three sections: grassland, deciduous forest, and tropical jungle. At their nexus were four city blocks. The city had been Jade’s idea. “Nature is not to everyone’s taste, you know,” she said, “and we might want to have guests some day.” She had designed the city herself, and so it was a hodgepodge of the megacities she loved, part Omaha, part Shenzhen, with traces of Mombasa and McMurdosburg and Oslo. In the middle, a single building rose up twenty stories into the air like an obelisk, though it was faced with mimicry panels that kept it blended into the surrounding sky and foliage until you were within the city itself. Most of the floors were empty — for later, she said — but the penthouse had been fitted out with furniture to match their place at home, and from it you could see much of the rest of the world.
The city was Jade’s only contribution to the whole enterprise. When she and Ashwin had gotten engaged and Ash had decided to purchase the planet as a honeymoon escape, he had asked her to come with him to meet the designers, ostensibly so she could give her input. But it was quickly clear that in this, as in all other aspects of his life, Ash had very specific ideas about what he wanted, and she was mostly there to witness.
It didn’t matter. The whole thing seemed like a very involved pet project and she was just as happy to let him make the decisions while she dealt with the more practical aspects of their future together, arranging for their partnership paperwork and giving notice at her job; even with the prenup, she’d never have to earn an hourly wage again.
When she arrived at the orbscapers’ offices for the main design meeting, Ash was already there, poring over maps and artists’ renderings of the proposed terrain. As she entered the room, Jade was struck, as she often was, by how handsome Ash was, in spite of his strange looks. Among his obsessions was a horror of physical reconstitution, and while he didn’t complain about her treatments, he himself refused all but the most basic procedures. He had let his hair turn silver, and his dark brown skin was creased and lined. In part, she was sure, it was a power move, a look that instantly communicated that he could not be bothered to conform to others’ ideas of desirability. But more than that, she found it charming. She saw him every day, and yet she could always find something different in his face.
As she approached the table, the designer stood up and bowed. He looked to be about twenty-five, just as she was, but who knew; they could do wonders with a complete facial reconstitution these days. He was wearing the loose pants and sleeveless shirt that were practically required for men in business, the look that said, “I’m too busy being wildly productive to wear anything more complicated than this.”
“I’m Maddoc,” he said, shaking her hand and pulling a chair up to the table for her.
The office was done in a style that seemed tailored for Ash’s interests, all polished stone and biofabric, with a sheet of water running down one wall. Jade wondered if the company didn’t just whip up a new conference room for each of their high-level clients to make them feel comfortable; there was probably a room next door that was all polystericon and mirrored floors with andro-throb remixes pumping through the speakers, designed for someone with more contemporary taste. Ash glanced up and reached for her hand, which she gave him.
“We’re looking at customisations,” he said. “I’m thinking a temperature range of twenty to twenty-five during the day, maybe down to fifteen or ten at night? Occasional higher and lower points thrown in for variation, maybe some seasonal changes. It would be fun to have seasons, wouldn’t it? Rain a couple of times a week. Do we need the rain?”
“Not strictly, no,” said Maddoc. “The plants need to be watered somehow, of course, but there are a few options. We can use low-moisture plants, which will be fine with a couple of days of rain each month, but then you’re more limited in the variety you can choose. Or we can set it to rain at night, and then do a quick burst of heat in the early morning to dry things out before you start your day. Some people find that really peaceful; ‘rain on the roof’ was actually a favourite sound back in the era of single-family dwellings. But if the rain is going to bother you, we can just install subterranean irrigation, although of course that’s an additional cost.”
Ash looked at Jade, eyebrows raised.
“Rain at night sounds fine,” she said. “We’re not going to be outdoors at four in the morning, I don’t think.”
“But if we did want to . . .”
“We can also install a manual override,” said Maddoc. “If, for example, you had a night or two that you wanted to be out late? You could just shut it off for that night and it would automatically resume the next day.”
Ash nodded. “That sounds perfect,” he said, but Jade could tell he was thinking of something, judging by the way he kept pursing his lips, as if words were trying to creep out of his mouth. Maddoc seemed to sense it too, because he muted his screen and turned to look at them.
“There really are a lot of different customising options available,” he said. “And we’re adding new ones all the time. Did you have anything particular in mind?”
Ash toyed with one of the sleek black pebbles that had been scattered on the table for decoration. “Is it possible for the planet to be sterile?” he said.
Jade looked away and closed her eyes for a moment. He couldn’t help himself, she knew.
“Do you mean the plants?” Maddoc said. “Seedless?”
“No, not sexually sterile. I just mean . . . clean. Germless. The whole planet, and everything in it.”
“Uh,” said Maddoc, “I mean, we haven’t done it before, but . . . Well, I’d have to look into the specs for that. It would certainly be very . . .”
“Expensive,” said Ashwin, speaking the word with the relish of someone with a vast supply of funds.
“Complicated,” said Maddoc. “And, yes, expensive. I mean, it would be easy enough to make the interior of the buildings sterile, but then of course as soon as you went outside you’d be bringing in bacteria from the environment.”
“And we’d need to be decontaminated ourselves,” said Ash. “But it can be done. They do it for xenonauts travelling to new planets, to avoid the risk of biocontamination. So it can be done.”
“I mean every squirrel, every tree. Every ounce of dirt and water,” said Maddoc, but his tone was changing. Jade could see he was intrigued by the idea, thrilled by the madness of it.
“Some of that would be quite simple,” said Ash. “The water, for instance. The air. It’s really the biologicals that are complicated.”
“And it wouldn’t work indefinitely. We usually build the planets to be self-sustaining, enough plants to supply oxygen for the number of aerobic organisms, enough water to create a rain cycle, a self-contained sewage plant to recycle waste. But some of that couldn’t be made sterile.”
“But for a month?” Ash said. “It could sustain itself for a month. You could use nanos to replace some of the biological functions that are essential for the short term, and then we’d just arrange some kind of a cleaning service before the next time we occupy it, some kind of re-set.”
“Right, right. Something like that.”
“Or we could just use some soap,” said Jade brightly. She couldn’t deny that she liked spending Ash’s money, but sometimes when he was in the process of making an especially extravagant purchase she found it sickening to contemplate just how little the cost of things meant to him. “I hear it’s very effective.”
Both men turned to look at her sharply, as though she’d uttered a slur of some sort. Maddoc collected himself quickly and tried to put on an air of polite interest, but Ash didn’t bother. He frowned at her and turned back to Maddoc.
“As long as we put a proper airlock system in place and nothing unsterile enters the planet when we come and go, it would remain sterile indefinitely,” Ash said. “The only things that would need to be decontaminated again for future trips would be us, and whatever we brought with us. Clothes and food — easy as anything. We could do that at home.”
Now Maddoc laughed, a burst of wonder and excitement that made Ash smile. It was obvious to Jade that neither of them wanted to be sensible about this. She glanced at her cuff for a moment as though it had vibrated, and got up from the table. “Sorry, I’ll just take this quickly,” she said, gesturing at the cuff and making her way to the door.
Ash nodded, and Maddoc managed to force his attention back to her long enough to bow before resuming the conversation. “I mean let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’ll have to talk it over with some of the other designers. I’d like to bounce some ideas off Evelyn, in particular. But I think maybe. Well, let’s see.”
“Great, that’s all I ask,” Ash said as Jade was closing the door behind her, in the tone that meant he was certain things were going to go his way.
They started their honeymoon in a little cottage in the forest, at the end of the avenue of trees, a place Ash had designed himself. The house looked like a seed pod made of polished wood, the corners all rounded and the windows and doors graceful curves, like something that might have grown up out of the forest floor all on its own. Aside from the bathroom and kitchen, there was only one room, with a huge bed in the middle and windows on three sides that looked out onto the woods. In the late morning, Ash cooked breakfast from whole food he’d had specially stocked for the trip, and they took a walk through the trees down to a little stream where the water ran as warm as bathwater, and swam in the big pool in the rocks.
Even Jade had to admit there was something romantic about being the only two people on the planet, and that Ash was more relaxed here. It wasn’t just being immersed in nature scenes out of some other century that pleased him; it was the sterility. To say that he was germaphobic would be putting it mildly. At home he changed the sheets on their bed every day, refused to make love unless they’d both just stepped out of the shower. He had four housekeepers who worked in shifts and followed him discreetly through the apartment, wiping down each room he vacated with disinfectant and turning cleansing UV light wands on everything that couldn’t be scrubbed.
Ash had grown up in a slum, and though he rarely spoke about it, Jade gathered he had seen some terrible things in his childhood, infections and filth that most people couldn’t imagine. The flesh of his left thigh bore a deep divot surrounded by scar tissue; the one time she’d asked him about it the look of anguish that had crossed his face had frightened her into apologetic silence. So Jade was willing to live with his obsession, to wash her hands twenty times a day and carry sterile-wrapped forks and spoons in her purse for him, because he wouldn’t trust the flatware at even the best restaurants. But it was nice to be able to forgo these things, to live like normal people, even if the place itself was surreal.
The second morning Ash was up and prowling around the cabin at some ungodly hour, when the windows still showed a deep green twilight and the birds were just starting to sing. Jade could hear him in the kitchen, chopping and measuring, and then the smell of onions frying, enough to draw her out of bed. She stood in the doorway, one foot in the kitchen, and watched him shake the frying pan as he prepared to flip an omelet. He caught sight of her mid-flip and dropped the omelet on the floor, where it lay steaming like a misplaced organ.
“I’ll get the cleaner,” Jade said.
Ash crouched down over the fallen eggs and looked at them. He scooped up the omelet, smiled at her, and took a big bite from the end, drawing out a long string of melted cheese.
Jade gasped. Ash wouldn’t eat wrapped candies if they fell on the floor. He wouldn’t share drinks with her or touch any food that had been sitting out for more than fifteen minutes. It was like seeing him eat a handful of dirt.
He stood up and walked to her. “That is delicious. Try it.” He held the omelet up to her mouth, his eyes sparkling as she took a bite and swallowed.
“Who are you? What happened to my husband?” she said.
“It’s this place. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so free in my life.”
“It is charming. But I could have done with a little less mud. And those birds wake me up at dawn every day. Could we get some quieter ones on the next go round?”
“I’m pretty sure we could get them to sing the national anthem, if you’d like.”
As the days passed, Jade realised that Ash was almost a different person in this world, a person she liked better. The longer they stayed, the more she realised how much his phobia had impacted their lives. Things that had formerly taken an hour to do now took only minutes, because they didn’t have to observe sanitary protocols. He was never afraid to touch her; if anything he was more amorous than she was, but she could live with that. And the changes in his behaviour amounted to more than just an absence of the fears that had formerly defined him. The freedom he felt spread into all aspects of his life. He was more adventurous, more energetic, pulling her out of bed into the forest at all hours of the day and night. They didn’t even bother turning the rain off most times, just roamed through the dark, windblown landscape and returned to the cottage soaked and happy to peel off their wet clothes and tumble into bed. Sometimes they didn’t get dressed for days. It was bizarre and exhilarating and exhausting, so completely different from their life at home that she often felt she was in a different reality altogether, not just on a different planet. If her nails were chipped and her feet were dirty there was no one there to see but Ash, and since he had insisted that they not have access to anything other than emergency communication there was no intrusion from the outside world to break the spell. They didn’t even venture into the other areas of the planet for the first three weeks, until finally Jade suggested that they should at least see the beach before they left; where else would they ever have the chance to be on an empty beach? They packed the transport with their belongings and set off.
The beach house was more refined than the cottage, with marble floors and blonde wood furniture polished to glassy smoothness, but it still had the rustic touches that appealed to Ash. There was no vidroom, no exerciser, and he had muted most of the house’s auto-functions. The most obvious differences were in the kitchen, which was dominated by a huge old fire stove, while the aggregator was hidden in a carved wooden cabinet like contraband.
“Honestly, don’t you get tired of cooking?” Jade said.
“I might, if it weren’t such a novelty. Anyway, I think the food tastes better.”
“I think that’s your imagination. But it does taste good. Who knew you could cook as well as the box does?”
That week was more relaxed, less manic, swimming and sunning and taking short forays into the jungle. One evening Ash came back with his arms full of multi-coloured orchids, which he arranged in a crystal bowl and set on the table like a biotic firework.
“They’re beautiful,” Jade said.
“It’s a shame we can’t stay longer.”
“Paradise is only paradise when it’s temporary, dear heart. If you wanted to live like this all the time you missed your chance by a few centuries.”
He laughed. “People lived like this for about sixty years, if they were lucky. No, I’m grateful to be right where I am. All the best parts of the world available for order and all the nasty parts taken out. Anyway, I’ve never been away this long before. The whole company will probably crumble if I don’t turn up at the office on Monday.”
“Probably,” said Jade. “And I could use a few face treatments and a skin coat before I show myself in public again. We’ll come back next year.”
“Every year. We haven’t even used half of the place. Maybe we can steal a few days off around New Year’s.”
“Mmm,” said Jade.
The next day they set the house to start its cleaning cycle at noon and took their bags to the pier, where a small boat was tethered. The landing pad was about a hundred meters out into the ocean, connected to the airlock above by a sealed elevator shaft. For all that Ash had been philosophical about their departure the day before, he seemed to be in a darker mood now, one that grew worse as the day progressed. At one point he dove off the pier and swam hard to the landing pad, then turned and swam back. When he reached Jade he hooked his arms over the pier and scooped up a handful of the ocean water to drink. “I won’t be able to do this at home,” he said.
“What time did they say?”
“Two, I think. Another twenty minutes. Just enough time to get dry.” He hauled himself up onto the dock and stretched out next to her, his head leaning against her thigh, and threw his arm across his eyes. “Wake me up when they get here.”
At sunset, Jade shook him awake. The sky had turned a vivid purple with streaks of pink and gold, and the last of the sun was sinking behind the landing platform. Ashwin sat up and took a sharp breath through his nose. “Are they here?”
“No. Do you think we got the time wrong? Could it have been two a.m.? Or maybe a different day?”
“Why would we ask them to pick us up at two a.m.? They’ve gotten the time difference wrong. Or they’re just having some kind of delay.”
“Let’s go back to the house. They can always come and get us once they land.”
They had dinner from the aggregator, ostrich steaks and asparagus, having already cleaned and stored away Ash’s cooking supplies. Jade couldn’t help but look out the window every few minutes toward the landing platform, but soon it was dark.
“What could have happened?” she said.
“Plenty of things. But they’d better get here soon — I need a couple of days to rest up at home before I go back to work.”
They moved to the sofa and sat looking out across the water until they both fell asleep.
In the morning, Ash went back to the pier. The landing platform was still empty. “Time to try the phone,” he said, but when they turned it on they got nothing but hissing static. Ash frowned. “It’s not supposed to go down. It’s a guaranteed signal.”
“Get that emergency beacon,” Jade said.
“I’m not sure this qualifies as an emergency.”
“Get it. This is freaking me out.”
He went to the bedroom and returned with a polished metal box the size of his fist, which he set on the table in front of them and opened. Inside were only two controls: an on/off switch and a single green button. He turned the beacon on and pressed the button. Immediately, the interior of the box began to glow a soft, pulsing blue. “It looks like it’s working,” he said.
“Now we wait. It’s not for communication, just for sending a distress signal.”
“Well, that’s brilliant. How can they just leave us sitting like this?”
“Maybe they tried to call and they couldn’t get through. The phone’s still down. But it’s very unprofessional. They’re not getting the full transport fee, I can tell you that.”
Jade sighed and picked up the beacon box to examine it before setting it disconsolately down and heading for the bedroom. “I’m getting changed,” she said. “We might as well go for a swim while we wait.”
A week later, they had eaten almost all of the whole food in the house. They spent their time at the beach, still looking hopefully out to sea for the shuttle, but all they got in return was the glare of the sun in their eyes.
They tried the phone two or three times a day, from different locations, but never with any success. The beacon box continued to throb like a small blue heart, though Jade looked at it with loathing now, rather than hope. “It might not even work,” she said. “It might be just some . . . some toy they gave us to make us feel safe.”
“There must be an explanation,” Ash said. “I only hope nothing awful’s happened at home.”
Jade stood with her hands pressed against the front window, looking out over the water. After a long time she said, “What if they never come?”
“Don’t be silly.”
“But what if they don’t?”
Ashwin stood behind her and rubbed her shoulders. “Be logical. It’s only a matter of when. And we could probably survive a thousand years in this place if we had to. There’s enough biomass that the aggregator could turn it into food for much longer than we’ll ever live. More fresh water in that ocean than we could drink in several lifetimes. We’re sheltered and clothed and very unlikely to get sick. We just have to wait it out.”
“Well, I can’t stand looking at that empty platform every day; it’ll drive me crazy.”
“Give it another week. If they don’t come by then we’ll go to one of the other houses until they arrive.”
At last they gave in and climbed into the ground transport. They had agreed to go to the city, but headed first to the cabin in the woods to collect a few things. As the tropical foliage gave way to oak trees they saw that it was autumn again — the forest had been set up on a month-long seasonal cycle. A new crop of red leaves drifted down to land on top of the dry brown ones from the previous season. Birds and squirrels erupted here and there from the piles of downed foliage.
Jade shuddered. Before, the forest had seemed like a place of wild adventure. Now it was a nightmare. Every gust of wind shifted the landscape and the patterns of light all around her. She felt as though she had sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Certainly she could feel the weight of all those fathoms accumulating on her chest. She began to cry, the tears slipping silently down her face. Ash kissed her forehead, parked the transport beside the cabin, and went inside. Soon he emerged with his arms full, dumped their belongings into the hold, and wiped away her tears with his thumbs.
Jade took a shuddering breath and exhaled heavily. “It’s like a ghost world,” she said. “Let’s go somewhere real.”
As soon as they broke the tree cover they looked for the skyscraper, but all they could make out was the faint shimmer of the mimicry panels in the air where they knew the city was, like heat haze rising high into the sky. Near the border of the city the grass tapered off and gave way to concrete, and a moment later the skyscraper loomed over them. Jade could feel her pulse quickening as they got out of the transport and walked to the entranceway. The streets felt eerie without people and cars to fill them; the only sign of life was a row of large, leafless trees beside the building, crows drifting in and out among the branches. But as soon Jade stepped into the lobby, walked across the polystericon floors and pressed the button for the lift, she felt halfway normal. She took Ash’s hand, and they rose smoothly into the air, watching through the glass back panel as the world dropped away below them, and then the doors were chiming softly and sighing open to their own front door. She went inside and dropped her bag, turning a slow circle. If not for the view and the quiet she might have been home. She sank down on the sofa and buried her face in the upholstery. The room smelled of polymer and circuitry and calibrated air. She took a deep breath and turned over to face Ash. He was looking around as though he were lost, as if this were the strange place. Jade pulled off the ugly sneakers she’d been wearing for the past six weeks and flexed her dirty toes. “We’re going to take a shower,” she said. “And then we’re going to have sex, and when we’re done we’re going to have dinner from the aggregator. And neither of us is going to mention our ‘situation’ or the rest of this whole damned planet, not even once.” She strode to the window and looked out on the glittering sea for a moment before tinting the glass to full black. In a moment she had pulled up the central control panel, set the lighting to a rich orange glow and started a dance mix playing through the house speakers. She swayed her hips as she walked toward the bathroom, stripping off her clothes as she went. “Come on, darling,” she said, and Ash followed, stopping only long enough to pull off his socks.
With the windows darkened and the music pumping and the aggregator producing an endless supply of food and wine, it was easy to pretend they were home, things were normal, nothing was wrong. They passed two weeks soaking in comfort, watching movies and reading and talking about things they’d never found time for before.
Jade lay on the couch smoking antique cigarettes and experimentally shaping mouthfuls of smoke as she released them toward the ceiling.
“I have to say, Ash, some of your old-fashioned amusements are nice. These are much more fun than vapes, as long as you don’t breathe in too deeply.”
Ashwin was sitting on the other end of the sofa, which curved around so that he faced her across the coffee table. “That was the point, to breathe them in.”
“But they’re so burn-y when you do. And the flavour is disgusting — is this the only flavour?”
“There are subtleties of flavour; you just can’t taste them yet. Try one of the ones with a green band next time.”
He was looking at her, talking to her, but he had leaned his head against one hand, which often meant he was thinking.
“You’re trying to figure out how to get us home,” Jade said.
“Of course I am. What else would I be doing?”
It was a fair question. Jade knew she was focused so aggressively on “relaxing” because the alternative was to fixate on the fact that they were trapped here. Every drink she downed, every stimulating conversation she engineered was just a way to avoid acknowledging it. If Ash didn’t want to play along any longer, she couldn’t blame him.
She stood up, took a final drag on the cigarette, and dropped the stub into her wineglass as she walked to the window. She stroked the glass and the tint drained away. For several minutes, Jade stood looking out at the sparkling curve of the ocean.
“We’re doing this wrong,” she said at last. “We’re focused on waiting for them to come get us. But that’s going to become unbearable pretty quickly.”
“I’m sure the transport company’s just having some kind of technical problem. But at this point we need to contact someone else. I can’t imagine what’s happening at home without me. Williams has probably named himself CEO by now.”
“That’s exactly why I don’t think anyone’s coming. The company would have been alarmed if you were a day late. By now they would have sent someone to get you themselves; the expense of picking us up can’t be anything compared to what they’re losing by not having you around. So they can’t come, for some reason. And we can’t keep spending every day waiting for them. For anyone.”
Ash didn’t say anything. Jade went from window to window, un-tinting the glass and taking in the view — ocean, forest, grassland, jungle. In the parklet across the street, the crows had gathered in a massive elm tree, and even though she couldn’t hear their harsh cries the sight of them chilled her. You could have had bluebirds, Ash. Or wild parrots. You could have had anything and you chose this. But all she said was, “Cheer up, darling. It’s your paradise after all. Mine would have had more buildings. And people. Definitely more people.”
Ash didn’t reply, and when she turned around she saw that he was crying.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
She sat beside him and laid her head on his shoulder. “You couldn’t have known. It’s beautiful, at least.”
Three years in, Jade found that she sometimes managed to stop fantasizing about escaping the planet for a few days at a time. They had developed a routine, which helped. She and Ash rotated between the different houses every two months — moving from beach to jungle to forest to grassland — and spent the last four months of the year in the penthouse. It created a rhythm to the year, a sense of things coming and going that kept the days from merging into an endless blur. Ash also set tasks for the two of them. Jade had insisted on equipping the city apartment with a reservoir-based internet system, a huge server that contained a copy of about five per cent of the web, the most popular content, current as of the day they left home. From here Ash selected books for her to read, films to watch, heavily focused on the instructional. Before, she had never been self-conscious about her lack of education as compared to Ash, but she felt it acutely now. She knew he hadn’t chosen her for her brains. And whatever he had chosen her for — her body? her face? her willingness to indulge his flaws without comment? — was fading fast. So she didn’t object, spent long stretches of the days cocooned in blankets, reading and watching. It certainly made the years pass faster.
Sometimes Jade thought of all the people she knew, going on with their lives back home. She’d been estranged from her family and had never really warmed up to Ash’s friends, but there were a few people she wished she could see again. Darius, who ran her favourite vidroom and would always tell her about his latest romance and sometimes, on a slow day, come into the room with her, so they could pretend to be travelling together, strolling through projections of Thai street markets and Antarctic resorts. Or her friend Lizzie from high school, one of the few people she’d known from life-before-Ash with whom she still kept in touch. Lizzie had four kids and was usually too busy to see Jade, but a couple of times a year she’d pay for a babysitter and the two of them would sneak off to get a facial reconstitution together and just talk. It was strange to think of everyone still out there, living normal lives, drinking maté and buying flowers and paying bills, while she, Jade, was here in a world that never overlapped with theirs, reading from a library that grew more obsolete with every passing week.
Ash turned his own intelligence to practical matters. He was used to working eighty-hour weeks, had nearly driven them both mad in the first few months knocking around and trying to figure out various methods to contact Earth, none of which were effective because he had so little to work with. He had taken the phone apart and reassembled it, but it produced the same soft humming sound it had before his efforts, and would not dial anyone. He had spent a long time rolling the emergency beacon in his palms before Jade took it away and hid it.
“At least leave me something to hope for,” she said. “If you break that, we’re really screwed.”
So instead he experimented with adapting the machines around them. He tried reprogramming one of the aggregators to make medicines instead of food, but found the calibrations required were too fine, the machine not designed to extract the necessary ingredients from the leaves they fed into it.
“Things are going to break,” he said to her one day as they sat in the beach house, facing the usual splendid sunset through the living room windows.
Jade shrugged in response. “Eventually.”
“Eventually could be tomorrow. Things are going to break, and we won’t know how to fix them, or we won’t have the materials to do it. We have to be prepared for that.”
“We have to learn the basics,” he said. “What if the aggregator quit working? What would you eat?”
Jade nodded toward the ocean. “Fish?”
“There are some edible fish in the ocean, though we picked most of them for aesthetic purposes. Do you know how to fish?”
“You know I don’t.”
“We have to learn. We can hunt the squirrels and the rabbits and most of what’s in the forest biome. There are some gazelles in the grasslands, though I don’t know the first thing about how to butcher them. But we could figure it out.”
“We don’t even have a gun.”
“I know. But we can improvise some kind of weapon. Can I leave that to you?”
“All right,” said Jade, surprised at the question, surprised that he would give her such a responsibility.
The next day her video queue was all hunting-related. As she watched animals being stalked and killed and gutted, she felt a building thrill, where she had expected disgust.
As it turned out, Jade was an excellent hunter. She was naturally patient, and this turned out to be a useful skill. When she hunted she didn’t get too bothered about anything, about how long she had been sitting crouched behind a tree or how far she’d had to walk in pursuit of a wounded animal when she missed her strike. She’d developed a love of Ash’s antique cigarettes, and usually had a few of them in her pocket, housed in a sleek silver case, to smooth the edges off the long hours.
She started with a slingshot and went after squirrels and rabbits and ducks, hard to hit but likely to die if you did hit them. The first few carcasses she tried to skin ended up as a mess of severed tendons and spilled intestines; she tossed the mangled pieces to the crows, who somehow always seemed to know when she’d made a kill, and sought her out, gamboling and preening for her attention. Eventually her butchering yielded edible results. She never liked the taste of the meat, even when Ash had mixed it with vegetables from the aggregator and seasoned it and slow-cooked it, but there was a satisfaction in eating those meals, she could say that much.
It was a year before she felt ready to go after bigger game. She fashioned a spear from a branch and one of Ash’s cooking knives and taught herself to throw it accurately. When she was good enough she went to the grasslands, chose one of the gazelle, and began to track it. Every time she got near, it retreated a little more, until it came to the edge of its territory, where the wall of waving grass gave way to the sand of the beach biome. It stood looking at her for a moment and then took off across the sand, its hooves sinking into the unaccustomed terrain. Jade followed, quiet and patient, until the animal reached the sea. There, she and the gazelle stood looking at each other for a moment, before she launched her spear and pierced it through the neck. The animal leapt away, but only made it a few strides before it fell to the ground, bleeding heavily from its carotid artery. Jade kept her distance until it had died, then dragged it back from the water’s edge, across the sand to a large, flat rock, and began to remove the skin. She returned home sticky with blood, her arms wrapped around a haunch of meat.
It was a few nights after she killed the gazelle that Ash’s stomach began to hurt, and at first she blamed the meat. Maybe she’d taken too long to butcher it, and it had turned.
“Impossible, remember?” Ash said. “There’s no bacteria to make it go bad.”
“Maybe you’re just allergic, then.”
“I probably just ate too much. I’m sure I’ll feel better tomorrow.”
But he didn’t. He was plagued by constant stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhoea. He began to lose weight.
“No more hunted food,” Jade said, though she’d eaten it too and felt just fine. “Strictly aggregator meals until you’re better. It’s not as though we need to be eating this caveman cuisine.”
But months passed and Ash wasn’t better, or at least not much. Even on days when he wasn’t sick, he had a constant low-level stomach upset that killed his appetite. He forced himself to eat anyway, setting the aggregator to produce a bland, nutritious porridge, but she could see that he hated every bite. Even without reconstitution treatments, he’d always seemed younger than his fifty years, but now he looked his age, and then older. He rarely worked on his projects any more, spent much of the day just sitting on the veranda of whatever home they happened to be in, looking out at the world he had ordered. Jade found herself taking longer and longer walks, ranging across the different biomes and the seams between them, trying to smother her restlessness.
One day she came home to the forest house, their current haunt, and found him lying on the patio, his body turned away from her, a small grey-and-brown bird perched placidly on his shoulder. The bird took flight as she ran up to him, and she turned Ash onto his back. He smiled up at her and she caught her breath.
“What happens when we break, Jade? No one here to fix us, that’s for certain. Beyond my skill; probably beyond yours, too. Though I admit, you have surprised me with what you can do.”
“We have to try,” she said. “What can it hurt to try?”
“I think it’s the nanites,” he said. “The ones we used to replace the gut bacteria. They were only meant to last a few months. They’ve done much better than that, you have to admit. But mine aren’t working any more, and yours will probably give out too. Bit of a joke, really. I can’t tell you how many times in my childhood I could have died from a bacterial illness or an infected wound. Always made it through, and took to the opportunity to build a path right to this place. Clean to death.”
“There’s got to be something we could use to replace it. In the animals, or the dirt.”
“There isn’t. Trust me, I saw the bills. No expense spared. It’s the very definition of this place.”
Ash wanted to sleep outside after that, to be outside all the time, and how could she say no? There was no reason not to: no mosquitoes, no predators, no unexpected weather. The roof of the porch kept off the rain and sun. Ash grew weaker by the day but was content. Often he would ask her to bring him something — a shell, a stone, a branch in bud — and would spend hours running his fingers along the contours of it.
“It’s a king’s world, after all,” he told her. “You couldn’t buy this kind of quiet at home. You couldn’t find this much unspoiled land.”
Jade helped herself to a cigarette and did not answer. The quiet was very much on her mind. She knew how quiet it would be once he was gone.
He slipped from her in such incremental degrees that she began to think his death would be unremarkable. He slept for increasingly long periods, waking up sometimes to tell her the long-hoarded stories about his childhood, or the early days of building his company. Sometimes he mistook her for some of the women he had been with before her, talking to her about friends whose names she did not recognise and events she had never lived through. It didn’t bother her. There was something refreshing, in fact, about slipping momentarily into those other lives, as though she had been with him all along the way.
But when she finally woke in the middle of the night and found he was not breathing, Jade felt herself squeezed by a compressive panic that caught her off guard. She shook Ash’s frail shoulders as though he were only playing a joke on her, and then, without a clear thought in her head, got to her feet and walked out into the forest. The sound of night insects filled the air around her. Back home she would never have known their names, would have spent all her days in a city where she would never even have heard them, but now she could differentiate crickets from cicadas, and hear the intermittent soft call of a barred owl. The dead leaves of six years surrounded her, more than seventy autumns gone by on the forest’s monthly cycle, the world designed for a cleanup that never came. She and Ash had cleared paths, the leaves heaped into drifts that nearly reached the branches of the trees they came from, but there was no real relief. She wanted to scream, but the knowledge that no one would hear her but birds and squirrels kept her from it.
She reached to her pocket for her cigarettes, pulled out the silver case and the lighter, flicked a flame to life and stood staring at it. Let it all go to hell, and go with it, she thought. What’s left for you? She touched the lighter to the nearest pile of dry leaves. A line of gold ran along a leaf’s edge, a small orange and blue flame licking along its surface. There was a minute where everything was silent and slow, the flame wending its way from one leaf to the next, the soft grey scent of burning rising to her face. And then things happened very fast. The pile of leaves caught quickly, and the flames seemed to suck all the oxygen out of the air. They jumped, reaching for the branches above them, and Jade stepped backward. Already, a cloud of black smoke was pouring from the leaf pile, and the next pile had caught flame, and soon another. She was coughing, choking on the smoke. Around her she could hear rustlings in the leaves, the panicked sounds of animals taking flight. She, too, turned and ran, but unlike them she knew better. Ultimately, there was no escape. The fire would burn until it reached the ocean, until it had reduced the whole habitable world to ash. At her back she could hear the crackling of branches as the fire reached up into them, turned to catch a glimpse of the trees burning like torches. Stupid girl, she thought. Stupid way to find out you don’t really want to die.
Something landed on her nose. A moment later, on the back of her neck, her arms, her legs. She swiped at her body, imagining sparks, but realised she was not burned. Jade looked up through the branches and leaves, saw the pale outlines of clouds against the stars. The four a.m. rain, right on time. She ran on as the storm gathered intensity, soaking her, subduing the piles of leaves to a slow burn and then a sizzle. She reached the house and sat by Ash’s still body, one hand resting lightly on his forehead until the sun came up.
The next day she buried him in the circle of char her moment of despair had created, tamping the dirt into place and running her hands along the blackened trunks of the trees.
With Ash gone, something broke loose inside her. She and Ash had talked, a few years into their exile, about whether they should turn off her birth control implant and try for children, knowing it was uncertain at best that rescue would ever arrive. They’d agreed it would be foolish, and cruel. She had not doubted that decision for a moment, but suddenly she felt keenly her own isolation. It wasn’t just that she was the only creature on the planet without a companion of her own species. With no means of communicating with other people, nothing seemed meaningful. She could write sonnets, symphonies — what did it matter? Is it possible for the planet to be sterile? The whole planet, and everything in it? Her life was recursive, turning back on itself, immaterial to anyone else.
While Ash was still alive, the two of them had been playing a game: the game of home. She could see that now. Even with all her determination to let go of the life they’d left behind, she hadn’t quite managed it. As long as he’d been with her there’d been someone to perform for, some reason to wash her face, speak words aloud, eat food from plates. Someone who knew what normal was, who had carried it inside him, just as she had, to this place. This place that was now an inescapable and daily test. Figure it out, or it will kill you. Or you’ll kill yourself.
A new game, then. The game of becoming a native to an unnatural world. She grew indifferent about brushing her teeth — no bacteria to give her morning breath, or cavities. She stopped putting the milk and meat in the refrigerator. She began to plot novel means of destruction, though nothing here, it seemed, could truly be destroyed. She couldn’t burn bodies, whether plant or animal, for fear of overwhelming the atmosphere with smoke. Burying them was just a labour-intensive means of storage. She had never realised how necessary decay was. Leave an unwanted orange, a rose on a grave — if the rabbits and squirrels weren’t interested it would still be there in a month, a year, a decade, shrunken and dried, molested by wind and rain, perhaps, but still there. The dead would pile on top of the dead until there was no more room. What she would give for a colony of carrion beetles, a pile of maggots. But of course, Ash hadn’t wanted such creatures in his paradise, and she hadn’t bothered to state her opinion. Oh, come on, as if you’d have been requesting maggots if you’d stayed for the whole meeting. You didn’t even want the crows.
One morning she woke up and knew the answer to this one small piece of the puzzle, as clearly as though someone had handed her instructions. She went to the city, got online, looked up the instruction manual for the aggregator, then headed into the forest and began gathering dead leaves by the bagful. She carried them into the little house and fed them into the aggregator, pressing the Process button again and again to separate each hopper of organic material into its constituent fibres and fats and proteins. On the next round she took the bodies of whatever dead animals she could find as well. Her revulsion, she told herself, was born of another world, a world where death meant disease and corruption and putrefaction. There was none of it here. The dead couldn’t hurt her. She picked up the little desiccated bodies and fed them into the machine. When the storage units were full she set the aggregator to produce shelf-stable, calorie-dense discs of nutrients and vitamins. They’d last fifty years in storage. They wouldn’t be a joy to eat, but they would keep her alive. You didn’t think of that, Ash, did you? A decade’s worth of food produced in a day, so much more logical than learning to hunt against the eventuality that the machines might break down. And thousands of cubic feet of dead matter consolidated to boot, shrunken down to the size of a suitcase. Straw into gold. If she couldn’t manage the alchemy of decay and rebirth, she could manage this, at least.
Still, she hunted for pleasure, and to feed the crows, who sometimes perched on her shoulder or her knee as she sat in the evenings, singing quietly to herself and watching the night come on. Some of them learned to say a few words: hello; c’mere; why, why, why? She loved them for their cleverness, and out of loneliness, and because they sometimes seemed to be the only things in the little world that did what they were made to do, sleek, bright-eyed scavengers setting flesh free from bone. She wore their feathers like charms, and sitting among them as they reeled and swirled was the closest she came to peace. They’d eat her, too, if she cut herself open one day; she was grateful for that knowledge. Whenever the temptation became too great, she would go to the circle of burned trees where Ash was buried and say to herself, Be sure. But she never was.
Jade woke up to a soft, insistent ping. She rolled over and reached for the alarm clock, before she woke fully and remembered that she hadn’t used an alarm clock in almost ten years. She lay in bed listening, working through the possibilities: Fire alarm. Dripping water. Mimic bird. Malfunctioning electronic. But the sound seemed so close, as though it came from within the room. She listened carefully and then moved to the closet, opened the door, crouched down and swept her hand along the gap below the bottom shelf. Before her fingers closed on the soft, nubby texture of a wool sock, she knew what the sound was.
She sat down on the foot of the bed and shook the sock until it coughed up its prize: the emergency beacon, pinging away, its light shifting from blue to red with every chime. She had hidden it from Ash so long ago, it seemed she had even hidden it from herself. The small silver cube chirped and flashed in her palm. At last Jade slipped on her sneakers and climbed into the transport. She refused to do more than that, refused to believe anything momentous was in the works.
But when she arrived at the landing pad, there was already a ship there, hovering at the top of the elevator shaft. Jade felt an unexpected urge to vomit. She closed her eyes and opened them again. The ship was still there. Unsteadily, she climbed from the transport, walked to the beach, and shucked off her shoes. The swim to the base of the elevator was nothing; she had swum this entire ocean dozens of times over in the past decade. She punched the elevator button savagely, not sure whether the elevator itself was even still functional. She’d had no reason to use it, of course. No one had used it since the day she and Ash had arrived. But a second later the doors eased open and she stepped inside, looking out the glass walls at her world as the elevator rose.
When she entered the ship, the door opened into a clear box the size of a large closet, which contained a comfortable chair, a table, and a tray with tea and snacks. The room was situated within a larger room. A large, plush red ball sat in front of her, a few feet beyond the transparent wall, and a moment after she took her seat a man came in and sat on it, relaxing as the ball reformed to the contours of his body.
She could not remember his name but it was him, the same man who’d designed the planet, looking just as he had that day in the orbscapers’ office years ago. Now he wore an outfit she could not even recognise as clothing, an opaque, silvery mist that clung to his body and flowed slowly around his torso and limbs. An expression skipped across his face too quickly for her to catch, gone almost before she noticed it, but it made her stop and take stock of herself. Of course: he was unchanged, but she had aged drastically. Ten years without treatments or even a proper haircut. Not to mention that she was dirty, unkempt, wearing clothes that had been stained with animal blood and dirt on a regular basis, her hair woven with crow feathers. There was a reason she had taken the mirrors down years ago.
“Maddoc,” said the man. He leaned forward as though to shake her hand, but stopped short of touching the wall between them. “I’m sorry about the box,” he said. “We weren’t sure what your immune system would be like at this point, and we didn’t want to take any chances.” He was watching her carefully, as though afraid of what she might do next.
And Jade did find herself ill at ease. After so many years of waiting for rescue, she did not know how to react. The furnishings of the ship felt strange against her skin, and the air tasted metallic. She sat for several moments without speaking. Finally she said, “Why didn’t you come for us?”
Maddoc nodded, began to speak in a tone that suggested he had had this very conversation a hundred times before. “We wanted to. But we didn’t know where you were.”
Jade laughed before she could stop herself. “Where else could we be?”
“We didn’t know where the planet was. The location you’d chosen — all records of it were erased. And not just your planet. All of our clients’ planets. It was a very sophisticated cyber attack. A group that had apparently been gathering data on us for years without our knowledge. They even had people working inside the company, providing them with access to our information.”
“But there must have been some record,” she said.
“There were lots of records. In different locations. Systematically and simultaneously destroyed. As were the phone links. The only people we were able to find were those who had left their exact coordinates with their families, or those the designers themselves could remember the location of. And that wasn’t many.”
“But we told people where we were going. All our friends, our co-workers . . .”
“Did you? Think about it. Did you say, ‘We’re going to a newly-formed planet at these coordinates’? Or did you say, ‘We’re going on vacation’?”
Jade shook her head and didn’t reply.
“Well, don’t feel bad, no one else thought of it either. It was a catastrophe, exactly as the people who planned it anticipated. We only had clients at the highest levels of society. The terrorists waited for a time when the maximum number of clients were on their planets before they struck. So imagine, a couple hundred of the world’s richest and most powerful people, suddenly gone.”
“They wanted to get rid of us.”
“They wanted to make a statement. And they did, loud and clear. They were apprehended almost immediately, but that didn’t help much. They’d already accepted that they’d spend the rest of their lives in prison; they didn’t want a plea bargain. And our company was bankrupt soon after, which of course only complicated things; it’s hard to interview employees when they’ve all scattered to different organisations and don’t want to be associated with such a debacle. Some of them changed their names, had their faces redone, started new lives.”
“But then what happened to everyone else? The other clients?”
He looked uncomfortable then, shifted in his seat. “Some of them we found fairly quickly. Within a few months. Mostly those who were closer to Earth, or near established shipping routes.”
Jade shook her head. “And the rest?”
“Some of them were dead by the time we got there. It was years later, you understand, years of detective work. They’d fallen prey to simple diseases, or heart attacks, things that could easily have been treated at home. In a few cases there’d been a major malfunction and they’d suffocated or starved.”
“Or killed themselves,” she said. “Don’t leave that part out.”
He nodded. “Yes, that’s true. Several of them.”
“And us? How did you find us?”
“Chance. A passing transport reported a planet that wasn’t on the charts, one that appeared to be man-made, broadcasting an emergency signal. I always follow up on those leads, as slim as the chances are of finding anyone alive at this point. I’m still trying to reconstruct the whole map of the thing, find whoever’s left. Me and a few volunteers.”
He seemed about to say more, but instead he paused a moment and then asked, “You said ‘us.’ Do you mean to say that Mr. Gulmohar is alive as well?”
“No,” Jade said. “He passed years ago.”
“I’m very sorry,” said Maddoc. “I didn’t mean to — ”
“What’s it like, back home?” Jade said, though the word home felt funny in her mouth, as though it cast a shadow when it left her lips. “When we left, they were worried about heavy metals contamination and increased mutation rates. And Min Lei Huang taking over the world.”
Maddoc laughed. “I haven’t thought about Huang in years. He was poisoned, shortly after you let. Everyone suspected his wife, but she’s still running the country, and the rest of the Eastern hemisphere. The other concerns turned out to be, shall we say, sideshows. You won’t have heard of Bloer’s Disease, but that’s the big problem these days. Epidemic levels in the poorer countries, and even in the upper economies, it’s getting pretty bad.”
Jade took a deep breath and nodded. “How soon will we leave?”
She gathered a few belongings from the various houses, half of them things that had belonged to Ash. Everywhere she went she closed windows, made beds, drew shades, flipped switches to off. The emergency food disks she slung into the underbrush for the animals to eat. Finally, she grabbed her spear and headed into the savannah.
By evening she had slaughtered a trio of gazelle, loaded their bodies into the transport and driven them back to the city. She butterflied them in the street beside the skyscraper, below the elm the crows favoured. The birds descended to eat, dropping from the tree like leaves of burnished lead. Jade leaned against a lamppost, and watched. “I’m leaving,” she called, again and again, “I’m leaving.” The crows looked toward her, canted their heads. Some called back to her in low, warbled cries and clicks and whywhywhys. She knew they didn’t understand her words, but maybe something of the meaning came through. And anyway, she wanted to say it.
The next day Jade stood on the surface of her planet for the last time. She paced down the avenue of oaks that marked the heart of the forest biome, heading toward the house. How strange to imagine the version of herself who’d arrived here, young and careless. How eagerly she and Ash had mounted those steps, sequestered themselves in that little cottage.
But even as she walked through the world, she was already gone from it, encased in the sealed and filtered suit that she would wear for the duration of her trip back to Earth, whenever she left the confines of the small bedroom the crew had sterilized for her. Once she had access to full medical care, she’d been assured, they could slowly expose her to other people and deal with any resulting illnesses as they arose. “You still have an immune system, after all,” Maddoc had said. “It’s just a decade out of date.”
She walked to the place where Ash was buried. Most evidence of the fire she’d started the night he died was long gone, subsumed beneath subsequent years’ growth, but a ring of black tree trunks still marked the spot. She knelt in the undergrowth there and with her clumsy, gloved hands she unsealed the container she’d brought from the ship. It was filled with detritus she’d asked the crew to collect for her: yogurt cups, used tissues, fruit peelings, scraps of meat. Common trash, rich with invisible possibility. She dumped it out and heaped dirt over the refuse. The four a.m. rains would water it.
She knew it was possible that nothing would happen. That the spot would turn dry and sterile like everything else in this landscape. But she hoped not. She hoped the invisible microbes would reach out, expand, contaminate all they touched. Turn fur and feather and the delicate architecture of leaves into rot, into dirt, into the possibility of something new. She imagined, the whole way back to Earth, that blessed contagion — the planet coming to life at last.
About the Author
Anjali Sachdeva is the author of the story collection All the Names They Used for God, winner of the 2019 Chautauqua Prize and an NPR Best Book of 2018. The New York Times Book Review called the book “strange and wonderful,” and Roxane Gay called it, “One of the best collections I’ve ever read. Every single story is a stand out.” Sachdeva’s most recent fiction has been published in McSweeney’s Quarterly and The Fairy Tale Review, and is forthcoming in the MIT Technology Review. She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and in the low-residency MFA program at Randolph College, and will be an instructor at the 2021 Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the January 2021 issue, which also features work by Maria Dahvana Headley, Adam-Troy Castro, An Owomoyela, Liz Ziemska, D. Thomas Minton, P H Lee, Greg van Eekhout, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $US3.99 ($5), or subscribe to the ebook edition at a via the link below.