Zella uncorked her brow and drew out her thread with the slow, sure elegance of a spider unspooling silk.
Gossamer windings hung driftless in the bunker's stale air, too light to be troubled much by gravity.
Braid by coil she coaxed the thread from the folds of her brain. She was Rapunzel letting down her knowledge to hasten the ascent of her lover.
"Want to know my final thought?" With a tug, the nib of the thread exited her cranial oris. She fed it to the recorder. "It was, 'Thanks, Orantes.'"
Orantes crossed his arms, exhaling like a bull. "I haven't done anything yet."
The recorder whirred and the thread wound in. The trailing sinews of nanic thread billowed. Beautiful in this light. It would take no more than an hour to encode the thoughts she had stored over half a lifetime. A premortem download would have been highly illegal once, but now there was no one left to enforce the Byzantine bylaws of the neurolex. Anyway, she wanted him to have a copy.
Zella ducked from under the hovering nest of thread and flopped exhausted onto the couch beside Orantes. His muscle-packed thigh made a poor pillow, but she loved the warmth.
The recorder straddled three of the bunker's four cots. Its clumsy interface blinked with an overabundance of assurances. It was an unused backup from before the powers failed, too outdated to pick up the highest registers of recorded thought. At best it would be able to play a dim simulacrum of the original. One more sobering compromise. It was amazing that Orantes had found a working vessel at all; one that could make copies. She should have been thankful—instead she fought back a surge of bile. So much thought would be lost. The deepest and the best of it would never be known by another.
The baby kicked.
"I saw that one." Orantes lay an arm on her waist. He slid a hand to her breast and cupped it.
She moved his fingers to her lips.
They smelled of garlic and grease.
A chill sluiced her spine and pinpoint bumps rose on her arms. The thoughts she was having right now were the first she'd had in a dozen years that weren't being recorded. At the revelation, her mind grew sky dark. Her thoughts were fireworks, flashing for a thrill and gone. It no longer mattered how she connected and arranged them; they existed for her alone, that is, until she reseeded the thread.
Zella kissed Orantes's leg. A wet print of her lips soaked into his jeans. "I'll name her after your mom."
"It's a girl?"
"My grandmother was Graciela. Didn't have a mother."
One more thing she hadn't known about him. "Grace, then. Maybe Ciela."
"I like Graciela."
Zella had not wanted a child. Now, yes. Yes. But not before. Never before. A child was an imperfect copy—isn't that how it went?—rife with mutation and uncertainty, not much better than the copy of her mind that the ancient recorder slurred to make. In an empty world a poor copy was better than nothing.
Orantes dug through the layers to her flesh. He searched with icicle fingers.
She rolled away. "That tickles."
The cloud of her mind slid into the recorder. Filaments twisted, unable to kink or tangle. The glide was perfect.
A hiss of steam came from the kitchen and for a bare moment she thought they weren't alone.
"I found coffee." Orantes lifted her head and put a chill cushion where he had been. He returned with a hot cup.
She pushed herself up and hunched over it. Her face prickled from the rising warmth.
"It's good you have me." Orantes tucked more supplies into his pack; a second compass and a bar of chocolate. "You'll be a terrible mother."
How would you know? She bit back the thought. He was only trying to draw her into it again.
"I'm not going," she said. I'm going all right, going gone; gone again like we all go someday and I'll see you there if there is a place that can be seen. Gone...
She found herself sailing an elaborate confuscation of thought, then wondered what was the point since none of it was being recorded.
Vega would have said it was worthy in itself. He'd have said that continuity of thought was what built thought, that thought is a physical thing, a cascade of chemical and electrical thresholds crossed, so many Rubicons, and as ruled by the laws of momentum as marbles on a track, yet as fragile as the emergence of a crystalline lattice. Why think at all? To be full of thought. Thought-full.
A disturbing tautology, she had countered. Wasn't there a time to let thoughts go, to let marbles run their course, and to behold the still mind?
Yes, he had said, that time is death.
"You're doing it again," Orantes took the cold cup and put a scalding plate on a towel in her hands.
The enchilada tasted like Orantes's sweat. A eucharist. We eat each other. Life eats life. As the recorder eats my thoughts. No, not eating: saving. The lower registers anyway. The last coil undoubled. Soon the recording of her life's work would be finished. The first half of my life. She could start a clean thread. She wondered if her first thought would also be to thank Orantes. There was a pleasing symmetry to that.
He perched on the empty cot across from her. "Where did you go that time?"
"Can you imagine what it's even like for me?" Zella said. "No chance of being understood, no possibility of entering the canon. No seat for me."
"Who cares about a seat when the table's broken? You hate me that much?"
"The seat is the table."
"A table for one." He forked a bite.
"There could have been room for everyone."
"See? You despise me."
"But my kind. You detest my kind."
"I was promised," Zella stood. "Do you get that? Promised."
"How can you even complain with your . . . pampered life?"
"This is not about privilege. It's about trust. I was told from the crib that if I studied, if I kept my thoughts clean and clear and steady, if I posted sentinels at the gateways of perception, if I tested every resolve that faltered—"
"Then what? What was your promised land? You had everything and didn't even know it."
"I took it for granted. Invisible as air. Is that my fault? What did I care about physical life? I was destined to redouble the light of the stars. From here on Earth. With thought alone."
"A false promise."
"Naive, maybe. Not false."
"You can't trust a promise. They neglect to teach you that one?"
"They gave me hope. The greatest hope. That's noble."
"Listen to you." Orantes shoveled in sauce by the forkful. The chile glowed red like blendered strawberries. He hadn't shaved and the stubble of his chin had chafed her skin last night in places that were still tender. If he kissed her now the pepper's oil would burn.
The muscles of his jaw worked as he chewed. "What?"
She shook her head and watched him watch her.
"You're the one with all the training," he said. He licked the remaining sauce off the plate until it was practically clean. "Why can't you evolve past it or some shit?"
"I'm feeling it out."
"The great thinker feels it out. Now that's one for the Ocean."
"If there was an Ocean," she said. "No archives exist without tributaries."
The last foot of thread inched into the recorder.
A vein pulsed on Orantes's neck. "If we made everything like it was before," he said, "what's to say it wouldn't end the same way over and over and over?"
"Then we'd try again."
He stood. "We? No one's listening anymore. Don't you get it?"
"No, I don't. Tell me."
The baby's hand pressed visibly within her belly.
Orantes rubbed his temples. "Must we go there?"
His backpack rested below the portal. It glistened with a fresh application of fallout sealant. There wasn't one pack. There were two. Next to them lay two helmets and two suits. Not much room for a pregnant belly in one of those. She had never even seen one child-sized.
A chill went through her. It was death up there. "I'm not going."
"You have to go. You'll rot down here."
"And you'll die up there."
"Up there, there's a chance."
"Of others, like us. Waiting. Alone."
Alone and scared. She saw, in the man, the wounded orphan wondering where his mother had gone in a world gone to hell, the only world he'd ever known.
"So for a chance to play the hero," she said, "you'd leave your own child."
"I'm not leaving. You're coming."
"I have to see this through." She pointed at the recorder where the last of her thread disappeared. It should have been cause for celebration. Most wakes marked this moment with a toast.
Orantes tightened the buckles on the packs, one by one. He glared at the recorder. "Looks done to me."
"If you mean your copy," Zella ejected the disc of newly imprinted thread. "Then, here, yes. All done."
He caught the disc and set it on his pack.
Zella stomped over, unzipped a top pocket, yanked out a logjam of jerky, shoved in the disc and zipped it back up. "There's the indexing, not to mention the next fugue."
"More copies? Next fugue? There is no one out there with an augment. No one will be able to hear it. It doesn't matter how hard you think, the world's not coming back."
"Then why are you going?"
"That world's not coming back. You know what I mean."
"You mean there's no one else alive like me." Her hand rested on the swell of her belly. "She'll be like me."
"And who's going to give her the augmentation? You? You're a surgeon now, too?" Orantes closed his eyes and stood like that for a long time.
Zella had thought to live in the bunker for the rest of her life. It was comfortable enough, sustainable. Deep underground there was little natural light, which depressed her, but that meant less fallout, too. There was plenty of food in the stores and at least some technology, though it was like being sent back in time.
She could birth and raise her child alone if need be. Zella would study the yield of her thoughts, press copies for the future and record more. When had a scholar ever annotated her own reel? One day humans would reach a sufficient level of technology again and perhaps they would discover in her mind an antidote.
That made a whole lot more sense than traipsing around a wasteland.
It was like that writer—what was his name? Can't think without my spool—the one who kept writing on that deserted island, the one who used his own blood to write . . . or was it that he wrote on the beach between high tides? The details didn't matter. It was the act of recording thought that heightened thought.
The passion of Vega's speech to commemorate her first augment was still with her. "You will think Shakespeare. Not like him. As him. That's what this is about: recording minds so they can be played back in the theater of mind. And then, when you're ready, when you've become a master you'll record your own mind."
Not that I'm a master, but there was no one else.
Those first years in the lab had been exhilarating. Even with the resolutions so low the holographic nature of the mind allowed her to catch glimpses of her own thoughts. Low resolution wasn't hard to understand, not like a message garbled in radio static. It wasn't mishearing someone, catching only a few words of a thick foreign accent. Instead what came through were base thoughts: good, bad, hot, hungry, horny. How many got laid in those first weeks before they increased the resolution? Everyone. They didn't get the lacing of memories or vistas of speculation until they reached the absolute bottleneck of resolution. And at the purest levels—ah, the fugues of mind! All this was lost in the recorder's imperfect transfer.
All those years of holding pure thoughts. Fuck, She thought. The putrescence of worms in a corpse, of biting into eyeballs, of, of . . . No. Calm down, she commanded herself. Just because you can think whatever you want doesn't mean you should.
Orantes snapped his fingers. His face was inches away.
Zella shook her head and covered her face while she gathered her thoughts. How long had she been staring right through him? It's hard to think without an echo thread. I shouldn't be exerting myself now; have to get that thread back in before I forget how to think at all. No wonder they never did premortems.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"Then you're coming?" Orantes asked.
"You're not. You think you're martyring yourself to some higher cause. Maybe. Maybe in a thousand years Leibowitz himself will unearth your thoughts and dub you a saint." He grabbed their breakfast trays, piled with coffee mugs and the remains of their chile, and turned to the kitchen. Sounds of cleaning and anger crashed out.
My god, she thought, he's about to leave for good.
He stomped from the kitchen and glared with red-rimmed eyes. "When I find them, I'll come back for her."
She crossed her hands over her belly. "There's no one to find up there."
Be kind, she thought. You'll have to explain this to his daughter someday. She smoothed his shirt. "But if there is, they'll be lucky to catch you. There will be some girl. You'll nurse her hope like you did with me. Don't leave her to fulfill some imagined promise. You want to do something for me? Get the grids back up—then my archive will be worth something."
"Fuck the grids." Orantes shouldered his pack. "We shouldn't have to be alone."
"I can't sit around doing nothing. I'd rather die."
Well, there it was.
Orantes tapped his temple. "You're stuck in here. In the past. The past is gone. I'd rather live."
"Even if it means dying."
He spread his arms wide, inviting a shot. "Even if."
She kissed his cheek, lingering on the bristles of the needle-sharp contact.
He pressed his lips into hers then spun away. He shouldered his pack, cycled the portal, and vaulted up the ladder. His took two, three rungs at a time.
Harsh daylight trickled in. Sand whipped down.
Zella reached out to cycle the portal before a dune caved in, but paused to watch the speck of him climb.
He reached the top without looking back and must have cycled the portal above, for the one below cycled as well. The hatch sealed with a sigh.
On the radar she followed his dot until it disappeared in the canyons.
The bunker's grey walls felt too close without him. It should have been the other way around.
She swept the sand off the recorder then went at it with a vacuum, seeking out every last grain.
He'd be walking across what was left of the plaza by now, or, more likely, running. Only so much fallout even he would risk in a day.
She switched the recorder's release. "Now give me back my mind."
The recorder offered the nib of the clean thread.
How very much she had to think about. She'd start at the beginning and re-envision it all: from what had happened to the clouds, to the rapid microbial evolutions, to the tremens. Over and over as many times as it took to paint it right.
She tugged out the leader thread and raised the nib to her head. She pushed out her thumb to uncorked her brow—but the cranial oris was already open. Had she forgotten to close it after feeding the thread to the recorder? Careless. Dangerous.
She fed the nib to her oris.
It didn't take.
It wouldn't do to jam it in, it was far too sensitive for that.
If only Orantes was still there to see what was the matter.
She upended boxes until she found the mirror she had seen while looking for baby clothes in the bunker's stores.
Grains of sand clung to the oris.
She tilted her head.
A stream of grains trickled out.
A cleaning would fix this. Expensive, yes. But possible. Any of a dozen parlors in any city could have performed it. If cities had still existed.
She tried again to thread it in, pressing until her fingers tingled.
The nib simply would not fit.
Her cranial oris throbbed. There were no feeling nerves within the socket, but she felt a pain anyway.
She corked her head. At least that still closed.
The nib retracted into the recorder.
She ejected the coil and clamped it safely in a disc.
All it would take is one salvageable sieve in the rubble of some parlor and she would be able to think again.
The bunker was filthy. Junk towered against cramped ceilings. Shelled out containers littered the floor. No place to raise a child.
She zipped the suit tight over her belly and murmured, "Hush."
Orantes would stay at the dryfall tonight, if he had taken to the West. Once she was topside she could read his footprints.
The pack's hip-belt wouldn't clasp around her belly and the straps dug into her shoulders.
Don't hurry from me, Orantes. She cycled the portal and started up the shaft.
The metal rungs chilled her through the gloves. Drifts of sand skipped off her visor like a rain of needles. The ladder stretched toward the surface.
She climbed, climbed into a radiant cord of growing light.