2058 Rebecca, June
This will be the last time we see each other. Not because I’m going to try again, but because I’ve received the answer I hoped for. Yes, I’m leaving Earth.
“Would you look at the camera, sis? Have you changed your hair? Your hair looks lighter, different. It’s been ages.” Sam is snapping away, testing the light. The plant I bought him is perched on the windowsill next to me. Will he care for it after I’m gone? I squirm; not wanting my photo taken, sat here on the floor of his small studio. I’ve been doing the rounds all morning, visiting a handful of people here in Scredda. Leaving him until last. Kaolin Heights used to be an affluent neighbourhood, not anymore and I feel scruffy, wearing my oldest pair of black jeans and a sleeveless tee. I’m scared that if I look at the camera, he’ll be able to read my thoughts, see the secret in my eyes.
Sam moves around, taking photos, not really expecting an answer. He enjoys life here, I’m sure he will be okay. I will 6 EARTHLY BODIES miss his innocent way of looking at the world, but I must think of myself now. Being here isn’t good for me. I need a fresh start.
“Do you have your old Instant here?” I finally say, shaking off my thoughts. “Let’s get a shot of us together for a change.” He digs through a couple of cardboard boxes until he finds it.
“There’s one shot left.” “Well it’s fate then, isn’t it? A fair exchange: a plant for a picture.” Grabbing his arm, I pull him down next to me, his beard brushes the side of my face. C-CLICK I catch the photo out of the top of the camera before he even has a chance to try. He pulls that face, the same one he did when we were kids, when I’d won.
“Hey, let me see!” “Sorry, Sam, I didn’t realise the time. I’ve got to go.” I hold the photo to my chest. If I stay any longer, I’ll end up telling him everything. I can’t even look at him. Swallowing the tears in my throat, I jump up from the floor and say my goodbyes—leaving my bewildered brother at the door. He’ll receive a letter once I’m gone. I’ve made sure to follow the instructions exactly.
It’s dusk as I head out onto the street and finally look at the photograph. Sam is right. My hair does look lighter, but my skin is still near-translucent, partly covered by stories etched on with the tattooist’s needle. I look like a fairy goth and Sam, my sweet, sweet brother, looks like Dad. The tears come freely, and I start to run.
The once pretty streets are crumbling. The pavements are full of cracks, the roads are full of potholes. Buildings sit derelict but for the homeless, and someone tries to sell me drugs as I run past. I weave in and out of zombie-like users. Many places are like this now, not just here. People have lost more than hope.
Back at my flat and out of the muggy air. I stand for a minute and catch my breath. It doesn’t feel like home. I’ve sold or given everything away, even my bed. The rucksack is waiting for me by the door. Packing was easy, once I’d begun to purge stuff, carefully taking only a few favourite pieces of clothing. I saved the most space for personal items. These are classed as Earth memorabilia in the travel instructions. The bag sits there, waiting to exhale its belongings into a new life; my new life. I have a few hours to kill before I need to leave. Everything feels shadowy and underhand, done in darkness. I know this is because of the secrecy, but I hate to lie.
My mouth is dry, but there’s nothing to drink. I had the water switched off, so I could settle my bills. I test the tap in the small kitchen anyway, and a dribble comes out, which I slurp at like a cat. As instructed, the warm travelling clothes are folded by the side of my rucksack. Sitting on top is the wristband I must wear from now on, it’s preloaded with my journey details so I won’t get any awkward questions when I’m scanned at the travel gates. I strap it to my wrist and commit myself fully. Then I slip the clothes on, their heat makes me drowsy.
The jumper was my husband’s. Its itchy fibres tickle my skin. Lying on my side, I draw the bag under my head and pull my arms in close to my face, and I caress my cheeks with wool-encompassed fingers gripping the jumper. It makes me feel like he’s here, the sensation of him fills me up, and I can forget he is gone.
Space tourists are common now. I’m on an electric coach, it has small, long windows which remind me of letterboxes. The people here will have saved up for their trips around Earth, or even to one of the Lunar Orbital Space Stations. My ticket is one way. We pull to a stop and almost everyone gets off. We must be on the borders of Wales; I’ve read there is a launch site here. I’ve been told only to exit when prompted by a facilitator, a MAGIE, who will make sure my transfer goes smoothly.
The MAGIE are robotic humanoids. A type of Artificial Intelligence: Mindful, Able, Genderless, Interoperable Entities. Pitched as useful, they are a way of keeping watch over citizens, like spies. I try to avoid them. Whoever is left on the coach at the end of this leg, will be coming with me, further north of here to somewhere near the Shetlands. A couple of people get on—they don’t seem to know each other—and we pull away.
There are around twelve people who must have boarded while I’ve been dozing. I’m relieved to see that it’s mostly women. All the same, I keep my eyes low, not ready for small talk. Out of the window, I catch the eye of a teenage boy that has just been dropped off on to the grey tarmac, he leans back on the railings, the epitome of teenage disinterest. His parents are obviously rich; they look antiseptic. His mum busies herself with her MAGIEpad while the dad takes multiple puffs of an inhaler. The boy stares at me with an accusing curiosity, looking out from the grey. I feel sad. Sad for what could have been. Sad that his parents are the way they are, and sad because all life has potential, unless you aren’t on the list.
What will happen to these people left behind? The fact is, I wouldn’t be on this coach if we’d had a child. ‘One extreme always leads to another,’ Mum would always say as she sat crying in front of the news. It’s been that way for as long as I remember. Despite three applications, we’d never been given the go ahead. Christian had blamed himself. Even if we had received a parenting license, there was no guarantee of a full-term pregnancy, and medical intervention was only for the rich.
I settle down for another attempt at napping, rolling my coat up and plugging it between my shoulder and head. I lean against the window, quickly realising I haven’t worn this coat since last winter. It’s matted with dog hair; Juniper’s. My parents’ dog that had come to live with me when she got too much for Dad. We pass what must be acres of scrap metal yards. Far into the smog I can see cars, boats, even a few helicopters at different stages of corrosion, stacked in wonky columns. I drift into a fitful sleep. The domes of my old workplace blend with visions of grey, rocky cliffs and spikey, foreboding trees which beckon at me from the gloom.
Spending my days inside the Eden Project had been a dream come true. A man-made botanical paradise and the blueprint for many other eco-dome projects around the world. I’d felt at home there, recreating how Earth used to be by working as a storyteller. My job was to capture the imagination of visitors and transport them into different worlds, times, and places. I was good at it and believe it’s part of the reason I’m on this elopement. It had been a sad, slow decline for the park. The funding began to dry up first, some of the staff were let go. Then the park couldn’t be maintained at its usual standard and, as word got out, fewer visitors came through the gates.
Eventually it became the focus of a guerrilla group. They managed to infiltrate the networks of the remaining staff at the park, playing on their insecurities about the future. They’d used the lush environment to grow and manufacture illegal drugs—a highly addictive cannabis hybrid. In the end, I didn’t know who to trust; friends had turned against one another. Before the park’s downward spiral, I’d got one of my first pieces of body art—depicting the biodomes and the lush greenery hinted at inside. It sits on my left thigh, reminding me of a beautiful and idyllic time of my life. I met Christian around that time, too.
“Wakey, wakey.” Somebody nudges me in the arm. My thoughts fade instantly. There must have been another stop after I’d nodded off. I hadn’t felt anyone sit down. “Looks like we have to get off,” they say as a hooded figure passes us down the aisle of the coach. I roll my shoulders up to my ears and push out my rib cage, stretching my spine. Here and now is where I need to focus, not the past—especially when looking at it with a rosy perspective. I grab my backpack from the cage above my head. Everyone else has left already and are standing outside, waiting. I’m the last one. For the briefest moment, I contemplate hiding under the seats or at the back of the storage cages: a stowaway ready to be taken back, not wanting to face whatever unknowns are beyond this point. The thought passes, and I quickly slip down the aisle to join the others.
This is it. I’ve arrived at the place where my future begins. The sun is setting, I can see it here, the sky is so clear, so big. A battered Saxa Vord Resort sign looks down at us at the side of the track. We are at the very north of the Shetland Isles, roads as I know them don’t exist here. There are patches of small shrubs and heather making headway among the abandoned low breezeblock huts we’ve been dropped beside. It feels bleak but is much leafier here than I anticipated. The shades of browns and greens bring back flashes of my work in Cornwall and the past I’m leaving behind. There are around twenty in the group. We aren’t the first to be deposited here. It’s been made clear in the documentation that there are other groups, feeling ready for a different future, trying to prepare for the unknown.
We are in an open area, with a slope to one side. I hear the sea, a new companion on this last leg. In the distance I can see some basic cabins and a small group of figures coming towards us. The group quietens and a palpable sense of foreboding spreads among us. The sense of isolation here—at the crossing to another world—is frighteningly real.
“We are in the middle of nowhere for sure,” someone says. I can almost see the eye roll, despite the voice coming from behind me.
“What have I done?” someone else begins, sinking to the floor, unable to process the remote situation. Other murmurs start from the small crowd, but having not spoken to anyone on the trip up here, I don’t want to start now. It begins to rain, a misty drizzle that hangs in the air making everything damp, leaving a coat of droplets wherever it falls. I feel like I’m being covered in dew. I tilt my face up to the sky to really feel it on my skin. The sky is heavy with more moisture, perhaps even snow? The weather is harder to predict than ever these days, a tempestuous child: the product of our systemic abuse.
The figures coming towards us are clearer now. There is a tall woman in the centre, with strawberry blonde hair tied back in a ponytail and an open friendly face. The woman is in step with two MAGIE, and my stomach flips. More MAGIE, I should’ve known the one on the coach wouldn’t be the only one for a project like this. Of course, it makes sense that there would be a MAGIE presence. I have no choice but to interact with them—it’s a means to an end. The woman in the middle is wearing wellies and a long, thick coat. Her hands are in her pockets. We can all see plainly that she is talking to the MAGIE. The trio get within earshot and the woman stops talking. The path they are on is more like a track, well-worn and narrow. The MAGIE flanking the woman break free from their formation and move to circle us.
My experience with MAGIE has been mixed, mostly occurring through the education system. The lab technicians and administration staff at my school used a couple of MAGIE. They performed their duties well enough but never integrated with the school population. I’d always felt that they were there to collate and report, more than anything else. The group here seems to feel the same way. A whisper of apprehension, hands clutching backpacks a little tighter, making knuckles white. The MAGIE are checking to see who is here. The strawberry blonde-haired woman positions herself close to us newcomers.
“Welcome, welcome.” She has a calm voice, but there is a faint shrill to it that she struggles to hide. “We are glad you made the choice to attend this retreat. We hope at its conclusion you will all be able to go further onwards. That is down to you and what you can bring us, what you are willing to share and perhaps even unlearn. My name is Doctor Annabel Morin, and I’ll be your main point of contact here at Saxa Vord.” The doctor was looking at each of us in turn, attempting to make eye contact with everyone. I want to hold her eye, but instead I look slightly past her, over her shoulder, annoying myself. “You should all know by now that there will be weeks of intense coaching and counselling here. Hypnosis, dream therapy, and more. We need to ensure you will hold up when the departure time comes. I’m assuming there are no immediate questions?” Questions? We all have questions. “I know you’ll all be very tired and want to freshen up, so let’s head in.”
Spinning on her rubber heel, Dr Morin heads back towards the buildings in the distance. I spot a man rushing to catch up with her. I’m tired, and lag behind, withdrawing to the edges of the group as we move towards the cabins. Looking down at my feet, I feel grateful to have steady land, real earth and not concrete, under my feet again.
“You must keep up with the group, Rebecca.” A stern, robotic voice comes from over my shoulder. Why am I surprised the MAGIE knows my name? The sloping rooftops of the buildings appear to be at acute angles and run down, almost to the ground. We enter the biggest building, from a door on the wall-side. The interior is surprisingly rustic. I’d expected to walk into a clinical environment, but the heart of the Saxa Vord compound—where I’d assumed things would be shiny and new—instead feels warm, almost cosy. Through the large window at the other end of the room, I can see that the warren of small bungalows is connected by boardwalks. In here, there is a long communal dining table and a kitchen set up at that end of the space. This space is warmed by a fire, a real fire. There are blankets, musty sofas dotted around, and bookshelves on nearly every wall. I can feel myself smiling, and I’m growing a little overwhelmed and dizzy, but I also sense safety. I let the feelings wash over me, grateful to feel them. It’s going to be okay. I hear myself let out a big sigh as I sink down into the nearest chair. Dare I relax? Seems I can’t help it. It feels idyllic. I want to drop my guard. It’s exhausting being alert and suspicious all the time. The sleep I’d managed on the journey wasn’t enough. I let it come for me here; my limbs heavy, my eyes close