By Scott Volentine
Greetings. My name is Jebuiz Y’har. If my calculations are correct, you should be receiving this transmission in the year 2013 AD. We calculate our years differently where I’m from, but to make things simple, I am writing from the year 49,170 AD.
There is so much I need to tell you. But I must be wary because any manipulation of time could have unforeseen consequences. What has happened to us, the few humans that remain on Earth, must be told, but I have no exact goals for this transmission; rather, I hope merely to inform you of a possible outcome for civilization, and perhaps this little foresight could allow. . . maybe we did make the right choices, but just in case.
There are laws—even though we have fallen apart, there are still laws. But I keep asking myself what the laws mean. Those of us who survived—we were lucky, but what sort of future could we hope to rebuild? I lost Niko. . . we lost so many people. That was three days ago, and I can still see her face, the last time I ever saw it.
It had been a perfect evening on the INS Ammavaru: dinner in the large ballroom, where Master Akirabe gave a lecture on the singularity of mind. Afterwards I retired to my cabin with Niko, and we discussed ways to erase the void between minds. This was our entertainment, sitting in armchairs that faced each other from across the room. As she spoke, Niko gestured empathically, a fierce light in her deep brown eyes, severe lines in the bronzed skin of her face, her satin shirt billowing with each motion.
“You know,” Niko said, “all we have to do is to wire our brain into a computer and then connect to a router, and through this portal we are able to see into another’s mind.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “It is possible to erase the void using our technology. You remember when we all tried that?”
“It wasn’t all that bad,” Niko said.
“It started with good intentions, but we went too far. The technology allowed us to connect with the collective consciousness, but we severely underestimated the pride of the individual. The original plans for the unification of mankind were forgotten so long ago I feel like I am the only person who remembers them.”
“I think you’re looking at it from too large of a scale,” Niko countered. “The whole of the collective consciousness would have turned me into a single drop of water. But when I was there—it was our house. You were there and our friends were there. We had such good times, and so much possibility was open to us.”
“Infinite possibility.” I laughed, but the expression never changed on Niko’s face. “Our house was nice, but I feel like we started to grow away from it.”
“What do you mean?” Niko asked.
“You became obsessed with your infinite possibilities.”
“If I remember, you were just as obsessed as I was.”
“Right,” I said. “But I knew there was an entire world you were creating that I could never see.”
“All you had to do was look.”
“Don’t you think I tried that? By that point I had grown too far away from the house. I had become obsessed with this program that let me create my own universe. I had watched the evolution of an entire civilization from a single cell. They were my children. So when I tried to look back, to find you, I knew the technology had been corrupted because I found myself adrift in the midst of the void.”
“But with infinite possibilities…” Niko said.
“You don’t need to say that anymore,” I interrupted. “I was just trying to be. . . ironic.”
Niko rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she said. “Whatever you believe, whatever you did—you were able to do everything you wanted and you still were there for me.”
“But don’t you see?” I said. “I was too distracted to be able to see the part of me that you saw.”
“Is that why you unplugged yourself?”
“It must have been my fault, but I couldn’t see any other way. Completely surrounded by my own artificial constructs, I knew the house we shared was in there somewhere, but I was lost. I felt nostalgic for the old world.”
“Right,” I said. “A long time had passed since then, but I could remember the last thing I saw before closing my eyes.”
“What the last thing you remembered?” Niko asked, resting her chin on her entwined fingers.
“First I could hear the drone of the machine. I like to think of that sound as the sound of creation, like om. A week before we plugged in, I had been so excited. I had ordered the most expensive mattress I could find. I figured if I was going to be lying in it for the rest of. . . it felt like I was preparing for eternity.”
“I’m glad you bought that mattress,” Niko said, a soft smile on her lips.
“I remembered the mattress, but I couldn’t remember how it felt. I wanted to remember that feeling so badly, so I taught myself how to open my eyes again.”
“Sometimes. . .” Niko began. “Sometimes I wish I was back in that bed.”
“You think that other life was better than this one?” I asked.
“I was in control there. I don’t know if any of it was real, but that’s how it felt. What are we even doing back in this world?”
“Well,” I started to say.
“We built ourselves a ship so we could avoid the world.”
“Without the technological capacities aboard this ship we would have been stuck in one place.”
“And what’s wrong with being stuck in one place?”
“There weren’t many of us. I thought it was our duty to try to convince others to come back.”
“That’s your problem!” Niko said. “You got bored so you had to go bother other people.”
“I still think what I did was right,” I said. “You are with me, and the others are under the impression that this reality allows for more fullness of experience. Doesn’t it thrill you that, together, we are all creating a new civilization out of the ashes of the old?”
Niko stared out of the porthole for a minute before replying. “It feels like a storm’s coming.”
“We should take our rest so we’ll miss it,” I suggested.
“May the morning be calm,” Niko said, and she began to disrobe.
I pulled on my night clothes and climbed into my hammock. Niko’s hammock was hung along the opposite wall of the cabin, and I can clearly remember how she looked climbing into it, a ray of moonlight illuminating her ankle for an instant.
“Good night!” I said.
“Sleep well,” Niko whispered.
Did she really mean it when she said she missed the digital world? She always talked about how I had been the perfect husband, but she never would acknowledge my version of events. I still believed in the mystical potential of technology to bring people together—the possibility of a singularity of mind where all consciousness is permeable, but most people seemed to have chosen fantasy.
When I had first opened my eyes after all those years, I looked to my right and Niko was right there, a faint blush on her cheeks, fast asleep—peaceful. But when I touched her arm, she did not stir. No amount of shaking would bring her back, so I had to plug myself back into the system. She was somewhere in there, and I had to find her.
It is hard to describe the journey I took. Once hooked back into the system, I was accosted with all the distractions I had built for myself. My universe was finally starting to get somewhere, and it seemed no less real than the one in which I was sleeping in my bed. It took all my willpower to look away from it.
Every few days I would open my eyes and catalogue all that I knew to be real, and with patience I managed to retrace my steps to the house Niko and I had built when we first migrated to the digital realm. I slipped back into the space that Niko considered to be me, but it took months for her to be able to see me again. During this time, it felt like there was always someone else in the room who Niko was speaking to even though only I would respond.
Once our consciousnesses were recalibrated, I was finally able to talk to Niko about the existence of another world. I told her that all she had to do was open her eyes, but she was hesitant at first. I could not understand what she had become, but I persisted with my argument, and she finally opened her eyes.
That night I fell asleep at 10:30 PM. At 12:37 AM, the dark matter reactor in engine block three experienced a meltdown. The tremor lasted about thirty seconds; the sound of pictures falling off the wall woke me up.
“Jebuiz!” Niko screamed.
I leaned to my left and rolled out of the hammock. Falling to my knees, Ilooked around the cabin: Niko was holding onto her hammock as it rocked back and forth, her head sticking over the edges, her eyes wider than I had ever seen them. Several more books toppled off their shelves, and then silence gratefully returned.
“What was that?” Niko whispered. Her whisper sounded like a shout.
“I’ll have to go check…” I said. “I think you should go up on deck after you get dressed. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Where will you go?” Niko asked as she rolled out of her hammock, landing on her feet.
“It sounded like something happened below deck. I’m sure the others are heading down there too.”
After pulling a shirt and pants over my nightclothes, I opened the door and let Niko pass into the hall, then I stepped out of the room and faced her.
“Be careful!” she said, her hands clasped over her chest.
“I will,” I promised. “I’ll see you on deck in just a couple minutes.”
Niko turned and walked down the hall. I watched until she turned the corner, then I turned the other way. As I walked down the hall, I saw several doors hanging open, men and women gazing down the hall, hurriedly whispering to each other.
“You should proceed to the deck to await further instructions,” I told them as I passed.
I took the stairs down a level, and as I emerged into the hall I ran into my old friend, the engineer Calixo Lorriat.
“Jebuiz!” Calixo said. “Do you know what happened?”
“No,” I answered. “I’m going to find out.”
“We should hurry. I didn’t like the sound—it sounded like an explosion.”
“That’s what I fear.” I gritted my teeth and picked up my pace. As I went down the stairs to the cargo level I jumped the last five steps, landing with a thud that vibrated through my knees.
The cargo level was a wide open space filled with all the supplies we needed—along one wall dozens of spare hyperbolic tubes were stacked to the ceiling. A refrigerated container stood in the center of the level—three meters tall, twenty meters wide and fifty meters long—with enough food inside to last us a year. Close to a hundred cages were stacked along the far wall, where we kept the animals we mostly used for scientific experiments. A cacophony of roaring, snorting, screeching and cawing was being played out over there. The entire level was filled with smoke and a sulfuric odor that conjured forth the image of hell.
“It’s coming up from engineering level!” I said.
“Shit!” Calixo yelled, and he sprinted across the room, disappearing around the side of the refrigerated container. I jogged behind him; when I passed in front of the container I saw a group of people standing around the staircase to the engineering level. Calixo was talking to them as he waved his arms around. As I approached them I could hear snippets of conversation, and shivers started going down my spine. My legs started shaking so badly I could barely make it, and when I did I leaned against the railing. It felt like the skin on my hand had caught on fire; when I pulled it back, blisters had already bloomed across my palm.
“So…” Calixo said.
“McLaughlin was down there,” Captain Remar said. “About ten seconds before the explosion he had sent me a message over the radio.”
“What did he say?” Calixo asked. I clutched my hand, unable to think.
“He said, ‘Something’s wrong with the reactor… what does “coolant flush” mean?’ But then the radio went silent, and. . . I think the dark matter reactor experienced a meltdown.”
Calixo and the others started shouting over each other, but I started backing away. I knew the nearest restroom was up one floor; I had to get to the cold water. Running as fast as I could, I couldn’t bring myself to look at my hand, fearing that the skin was beginning to melt off.
I shouted as I sprinted up the stairs and down the hall. The bathroom was at the very end, and I shouted the whole way. When I burst through the door, I twisted the faucet to full power with my and stuck my burnt hand under the flow.
The pain didn’t lessen, so I kicked open the nearest stall’s door, knelt on the white porcelain tiles and dunked my hand in the toilet bowl. The pain gradually dispersed; I sighed as I remembered that the dark matter reactor had exploded.
I took my hand out of the toilet bowl, but it started burning in the air. When I submerged my hand again, a second explosion echoed up from engineering level. The floor shuddered for ten seconds, the stall door banging against the wall. Faint yelling echoed down from above as the floor tilted off its axis, and I had to hold onto the toilet to keep from slamming into the wall. I tried to focus on something pleasant—a giant bowl of ice cream. I would have loved to stick my hand in that bowl, to feel the squish as it melted.
I jumped to my feet, bracing myself against the wall. The pain—no, I had to get to the main deck. As I climbed out of the bathroom I had to hold onto the wall with my left hand so I would not fall and slide deeper into the bathroom. Climbing past the row of mirrors, I saw my reflection in the mirror—my cropped black hair was sticking up in the back, my eyes were boggling in their sockets, and my copper skin was covered in a thin layer of ash; I was the perfect picture of madness. Clawing my way through the door and into the hall, I leaned against the wall and dragged myself towards the stairs. I climbed up, and when I emerged onto the main residential level, people were running all around—men looking for their wives, women looking for their husbands. Everyone was carrying whatever valuables they could hold in their arms. None of them noticed me as I stumbled past, and soon I was climbing the stairs to the main deck. When I emerged into the cool night air, I felt a raindrop splash right between my eyes, and I had to blink several times for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. I could hear people wailing all around me—dim figures that seemed a dream to my pain-wracked mind. Above the wailing I could hear someone shouting orders.
“Help me with the lifeboats!”
The deck was lopsided by about thirty degrees to starboard, and another forty degrees to aft. Someone recognized me as I looked for Niko, coming up behind me and touching my shoulder. “What’s happening?” he whispered in my ear.
“Explosion…” I said without turning around. “Meltdown. Get to the lifeboats!”
The bridge stuck up fifty feet in the center of the deck, and a floodlight cast an island of light in front of the bridge. I walked in this direction purely through instinct. When I passed from the darkness into the light, I heard a familiar yelp.
“”Jebuiz!” Niko cried as she wrapped me in an embrace. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come back.”
I did my best to stifle a cry. “Please,” I said. “Not so hard.”
“What’s the matter?”
Niko grabbed my wrist and I howled at the sky.
“Oh my god,” she gasped. “What happened?”
“Stupid. Explosion—fire, engineering level.” I gritted my teeth. “We need…”
“Is the ship sinking?”
I leaned against Niko, and she supported me as we walked towards the lifeboats. The slope was so much that we slid half the way to the railing. The first lifeboat had already filled up—maximum capacity was forty, but it looked like sixty people had crammed themselves in it. The water was less than ten feet beneath the lifeboat, so when it was lowered, it hit the water while forty feet of extra rope started spilling into it.
Another lifeboat was being latched onto the pulley system, but someone—an old friend of mine, Daniel Smith—yelled out, “The deck’s about to go under so what’s the point of using the fucking pulleys?”
The crowd that was lifting the lifeboat up pushed it further beyond the railing and let it slide overboard. It hit the water and immediately was propelled away from the ship by the turbulence of the ship’s sinking. Daniel Smith, a good man, climbed over the railing and jumped for the lifeboat. He smacked into its side and slid into the frothing sea. The others who had been helping were quick to follow suit, launching through the air but coming up shorter and shorter. Soon they were all clawing at the side of the lifeboat trying to climb into it.
The water was starting to seep over the edges of the deck, and those of us left—Kara, Sanjay, Alberto, Joshua, Simi, Falak… twenty of thirty of us in total—stared with grim eyes at our fate, anticipating the moment when the ocean would take us. A couple rushed over to another lifeboat and began tugging at it, trying to turn it over, but it was too late.
I held Niko to me and kissed her forehead.
“What do we do?” she asked.
“The ship will soon slip beneath the surface,” I said.
“So we swim.”
The seawater crawled up over the edge and started inching its way up the deck. My slippers got wet, so I took a step backwards.
“I think we should jump,” Niko said.
“Okay.” I let go of her waist, grabbing ahold of her hand. Niko looked me in the eyes—her face was set in stone. She did not look scared, and her voice did not quiver when she said, “Okay… on three, two, one…”
We ran towards the railing—just the top rail was above water. I aimed for this rail, taking a step and launching myself into the ocean. I held onto Niko’s hand until we hit the water, then the turbulence tore us apart. I could not tell in which direction I was being pulled, tumbling head over heels. Salt water went up my nostrils as I clawed at the sea. My eyes flashed open and I could see the ship sinking even lower, the bridge halfway submerged. The floodlight still illuminated the deck—all the bubbles kicked up by people fighting for their lives
I saw all of this in an instant, and my lungs started to burn. Up—I had to go up. Kicking my legs, I reached for the air. My head broke the surface, and I gasped for breath. I treaded water until my breathing slowed, and then I looked to my right where I expected Niko to be floating. I looked to my left then I swam in a circle. The antenna atop the bridge was sliding underwater, and I could see over a dozen people floating in the ocean. As I scanned the area, five more people broke to the surface. Everyone was looking for their partner.
“Niko!” I shouted.
I could hear other shouts float over the waves. I saw a woman with brunette hair floating twenty meters from me, but as a wave crested I lost sight of her. But that was too far away—it couldn’t have been Niko. I swam in another circle. A few meters to my right I saw someone break above the surface before being sucked down again. I swam in that direction and grabbed her in my arms, treading water to keep us both afloat. It was Simi. She started gasping like she was having a panic attack.
“Did you see Niko?” I shouted, despite our close proximity.
Simi looked up at me, pushing herself away. “No, I haven’t. Have you seen Josh?”
“No,” I said, spinning around in a circle. “Niko!” I called.
Raindrops began spattering upon my forehead as the ocean raged all around me. I had to battle to keep my head above the surface. I saw someone floating close by as a wave lifted me up, so I swam over to him, the physician Alfons Komachi.
“Have you seen my wife, Niko?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “But I can see the lifeboat over there—” he pointed behind me. “I think someone has gotten in it and is lifting others up.”
Alfons swam on, and I swam to the next person I saw—Kara, a scholar.
“Have you seen Niko?” I asked.
“Everything is ruined!” she cried. A wave pushed her under the surface and she spit out a mouthful of water when she came back up. “I’m going to drown!”
“Have you seen my wife?”
“Niko?” she asked. “I can’t find my husband! We were mid deck when the ship went under.”
The pain throbbing from my hand returned full force as if conjured from memory. Salt in the wound—but I had to find Niko. Kara swam in the direction of the lifeboat, but I just treaded water, surveying the waves. Everyone was swimming towards the boat. Ten people were already in it, and they were all reaching overboard to pull others up. A woman started yelling as it tilted to the side, and several of the people went to the other side of the lifeboat to keep it level.
I followed the stragglers towards the boat. Reaching up for the edge, someone grabbed my hands and pulled me up. I screamed as I rolled into the lifeboat, falling on the person who had rescued me. It was Erikur, a sailor of massive proportions. He held me up until I found my balance.
“Thank you,” I mumbled.
The lifeboat was ten feet wide and twenty five feet long. Rows of benches filled it—over half the seats were taken, everyone talking about who was still in the water.
“Niko!” I yelled, stepping over a bench, my feet splashing in water. I felt exhausted and my clothes were dragging me down, so I slumped down on the bench.
“Jebuiz? Is that you?” someone shouted.
“Daniel?” I replied.
“I was worried about you for a second,” Daniel said.
“Have any of you found Niko?”
“Has anyone pulled Niko out of the water yet?” Daniel asked.
Nobody said anything.
“Has anyone seen Nigel?” Kara asked.
I felt the lifeboat rock and I looked to my left in time to see Erikur pull a woman out of the water. She clung to Erikur as he tried to put her down.
“Jeanette!” A dark-skinned man named Dante called out, stumbling over benches in his haste. The woman let go of Erikur and jumped into Dante’s arms, and they both sat on my bench with a thud.
“How many people are still missing?” Daniel asked.
Several of us shouted in unison: Niko, Nigel, Darshana, Raj, Olga, Andrei, Brad, Rohanna. . .
“I need some of you to grab the oars,” Daniel said. “Let’s find everyone!”
I sank into my weariness as the others rowed the lifeboat around the area where the ship had gone under. The rain picked up and the wind turned the ocean violent. It felt like I was riding a bucking horse as the lifeboat crested each wave.
“Olga!” someone called out. “Darshana! Nigel!” Someone different called out each name. Although I remained silent, I heard Daniel call out, “Niko!”
They rowed the boat one hundred yard in one direction, fifty yards to the left, a hundred yards back and so on. On the second sweep I heard someone yell “Help!”
It was a woman’s voice, and I held my breath as I watched Erikur bend over the edge. He pulled up the plump Rohanna, her brown skin dripping water. In that moment I hated her.
We searched for survivors for hours, but as the moon began to go down, grim feelings clutched my heart, making me sick. My nerves screamed in agony as they had been doing for as long as I could remember. The others decided it was too dark to continue the search.
“I’m sorry,” Daniel said as he slid onto the bench next to me. I couldn’t even look up. He studied my face as I tried to will myself into unconsciousness. Putting his hand on my shoulder, he dug his fingers into my skin.
The lifeboat drifted where the waves pushed it, water spilling over the edges with each dip. I was drenched to the soul, shivering violently in the breeze. Far beneath us—ten thousand feet deep—the ship we had called home for over a century, the INS Ammavaru was coming to a rest on the seabed.
When the sun rose, we continued searching the waves—both boats working together to cover the most water—but the emptiness spoke and we turned our sights to land. Not that we knew where the land was, but our last port had been in Mumbai over a year ago, and we thought we hadn’t strayed too far from land as we floated through the Indian Ocean. We used the sun to find North and starting rowing. All the strong men took turns, and we hit the shore after two days of blistering heat. The lifeboat skidded into the sand, and when I stepped into the surf, feeling land under my feet, I nearly broke down and cried.
Dr. Alfons Komachi told me he thought he could gather ingredients to make a salve for my hand. He had only disappeared into the jungle for a brief moment before he returned to the . beach with a wry smile on his face.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like this before,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“The jungle. . . it’s unbelievable.”
It turned out all of our doctor’s knowledge was now outdated. Those first days I never ventured away from the beach, but from the distance I was struck by how large all the plants were in the jungle. The trees towered well over a hundred feet in the air, vines snaking down from the canopy, and all the space underneath the canopy was crammed full of all sorts of plants that looked brand new. There were ferns with fronds that seemed to never stop unfurling, and massive flowers bloomed in the shade. The scent floating in from the jungle was overpowering on the beach. Dr. Komachi assured me that he would bring back an ointment and disappeared into the jungle.
Everyone was very kind to me, letting me be as I nursed my wounds, lying in the sand; I also happened to be the most senior official left. There were ninety three of us in total. The first day we landed on the beach, a part led by Daniel was quick to strike off into the jungle to search for freshwater, for the supplies from the lifeboat were running out. The search part brought a dozen canteens with them and promised to be back before nightfall. Some of the women volunteered to gather fruit from the jungle.
“Promise you won’t bring back anything poisonous,” Kara joked, fighting back tears.
“We know that!”
Those of us who weren’t gathering supplies or grieving volunteered to build lean-tos, and I watched them from where I lay in the shade of my palm tree. For the better part of an hour they debated the best angles for the roves, the ideal depth for the support beams, and they rapidly degenerated into a debate about what caused the dark matter reactor to malfunction. I supposed that the sealant which isolated the dark matter had decayed over time, but that was just a guess.
I stood up, feeling very heated about the subject, but when I approached the workers—instead of joining the conversation—I said, “I thought you were supposed to be building a lean-to.”
“We are!” said Mika, a scrawny man of Indonesian descent.
“I thought you needed branches and leaves to do that.”
“We just don’t know how much we need.”
“As much as you can find!”
The others were silent for a long moment—probably realizing that I was now. . . that I was their superior.
“How does your hand feel?” Simi asked.
“I learned how to ignore it. Who knows, it might be getting better—I just don’t want to think about it.”
“That’s good.” She smiled and followed the others to gather building materials.
The beach was left to those of us too miserable to do anything, lying comatose or else pacing in the sand. I couldn’t move, and she was all I could think about. Niko. . . where was she? She couldn’t be. . . no. I could still feel her inside of me. I knew she wasn’t. . . we know that life isn’t confined within the world of actuality. Possibility insisted that I would find her.
By dusk the builders had put together two so-called lean-tos, which looked more like the longhouses of tribal peoples, and they had another in construction. They had fashioned blades out of the lids of the cans of provisions in the lifeboats, and the rest had come from sweat. I was still sitting in my spot, a pad of paper in my hands. As the sky was starting to redden, a rustle in the jungle alerted me to the return of the gatherers. The first group stomped out onto the beach, struggling under the weight of their packs, filled to the brim with coconuts. They headed straight to the longhouses like they were going home. They were soon followed by news of a river about four miles down the coast and several gallons of water—canteens sloshing against their hips as they walked down the beach. Daniel spotted me and broke off from the group.
“We’ve got fresh water,” he said. “You should come with us.”
I was parched, so I jumped up and followed Daniel to the nearest longhouse. People were unloading their packs, and half the floor was covered in fruit, loose coconuts hitting the pile and rolling away. Daniel handed me his canteen, and I clutched it to my lips, feeling my body grow cooler. It seemed funny how miserable I had been sitting on the beach.
“How’ve you been passing the day?” Daniel asked when I handed back the canteen.
“I found a pad of paper. My handwriting is awful, and it makes my hand hurt, but I think it helps me deal with things.”
“Yeah, it’s rough. I’ve been using my damned search to alleviate. . . all these feelings. But we have to focus on living now.” He took a long drag from the canteen, wiping water from his lips. “Are you hungry?”
“I couldn’t eat. I feel terrible—Dr. Komachi said he’d make me a salve for my hand, but he’s been in the jungle for hours. I wonder where he’s at.”
“Hopefully he found somewhere secure to spend the night,” Daniel said. “But I’m starving. I’m gonna get to work on one of these coconuts.”
“Someone should build a fire,” I said to no one, for Daniel was bent down by the pile of coconuts.
People had brought a dozen large stones into the longhouse, and Daniel whacked his coconut just like the others were whacking theirs. Those who had gathered the fruit were standing off to the side, holding pieces of soft fruit—mangos, bananas—in their arms. They kept their eyes on the others in case any of them got any funny ideas.
“Why isn’t anyone building a fire?” I asked again.
“I don’t think anyone knows how to,” Ren—a delicate woman aged like a statue—said, turning away from the coconuts.
“Nonsense!” I said. “There are matches in the lifeboats. What do you mean no one knows how to build a fire?”
As people filled up on fruit, some of them headed back to the beach—those who didn’t immediately lie down to sleep. I found a spot near the end of the longhouse, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. I watched as two shadows walked towards the beached lifeboats—ghostlike in the moonlight. I willed oblivion, and the sounds from the beach were muted in the thick jungle air. I hoped, even prayed, that the morning would see the return of Dr. Komachi.
But that was not to be. After the fifth day, people assumed Dr. Komachi was dead.
“Hopefully he’ll show up one day,” Daniel said after I brought up my concern. “He’s probably just fine, but completely and totally lost. Who knows what he’s found in the jungle? We didn’t go very far in, and. . . but from what I saw, it’s just a jungle. I’m sure Dr. Komachi can handle himself just fine.”
That day I was sitting with my feet in the surf, enjoying the coolness of the ocean. It was extremely humid—I could see storms rushing over the open water, anticipating that each one would hit us, but besides a brief shower at midday, the waves were the only relief I could find from the layers of heat pressing down on me.
Every so often, schools of tiny fish would swim near my legs, checking out what I was, but I let them all be. It was with a great shock that I looked to my right and saw a squid—about a foot long, its translucent grey tentacles in front—crawling towards land. I was frozen in time as my brain made the connection from the image of this squid to my conception of squid and what I knew squids to be. I could have sworn they liked it deep underwater, but I couldn’t remember much about squids besides the Giant Squid, which I just thought of as an interesting idea. I’m sure I had seen pictures of them, but one thing I was certain of was that they should not be crawling on the beach, as this one was trying its hardest to do. It hesitated to leave the reach of the tide, waves washing over it at steady intervals. It finally dawned on me what was happening, and I stood up, water dripping off my body. The squid turned around, saw me, then it darted back into the ocean, disappearing from sight.
I was so compelled that I immediately searched Daniel out to tell him what I had seen.
Ten days after we landed on the beach, we had a system we adhered to—we had all read about hunter and gatherer based societies, so we set to perfecting it. The jungle was not about to cede its land with a fight, though. Daniel had organized and equipped a group of hunters with spears, so boar was added to our menu as well as any other animals that we could catch. On one expedition, a hunter had been savaged by a tiger while the others fled the scene, so since that training had intensified.
I woke that morning feeling better than I had since that night. I ate a mango and a slice of pork for breakfast and spent all morning writing by the edge of the jungle, sitting on a moss-cloaked boulder. I was staring out to sea, so when I heard a rustling behind me, my body tensed, imaging a tiger leaping at my neck. When I turned around, I saw Dr. Komachi striding through the undergrowth.
“Just the man I was looking for!” he said, a broad grin across his face.
“We thought you were dead,” I said, and I embraced him.
“You’ll never guess where I’ve been.”
He was right.
The first day, Dr. Komachi headed into the jungle with a promise. Leaves like elephant ears felt slimy to the touch as he approached the bank of a nameless river. He pondered how to cross when, in the denseness of foliage on the opposite bank he spotted a pink face shrouded in fur in the branches of a tree, partially hidden behind the leaves. When the monkey saw that Dr. Komachi had seen it, the face disappeared behind a rustling of leaves.
Dr. Komachi turned his attention back to the river. The stretch he stood at flowed slowly, and it looked quite deep. He leaned forward, holding onto a sapling as he looked both ways down the river. A hundred yards to the right he spotted white rapids, and he guessed there would be rocks there that he could use to cross. It took him twenty minutes to pick his way along the riverbank, but after much sweating he stood at the bank where a line of stones stretched to the opposite bank. He knew the crossing would be no easy task for the stones were slick, and if he slipped he would have to contend with the rapids.
Dr. Komachi bent down to unlace his shoes, and when he stood back up, with his shoes under his arm, he saw several monkeys dash back into the jungle. Sucking in a breath, he stepped onto the first stone. It wobbled under his weight, and he held his arms out to catch his balance. He stepped from stone to stone until he was in the middle of the river. He paused for a minute as he contemplated the three-foot gap to the next stone.
He could envision himself leaping for it, his foot slipping as he smacked his head into the stone before the river sucked his unconscious body out to sea. Instead, he sat down on the stone and slid into the water. It came up to his waist, and the current pushed at him, but he held onto the stone. He let go and leaped towards the next stone, splashing water up through the sunlight. He positioned himself on the upstream side of the stones and waded the rest of the way to the bank. He put his shoes back on, and when he stood back up he was surrounded by a dozen of the small—two to three feet tall—pink-faced monkeys. They were all staring into his face, and each one knelt down in turn, prostrating themselves in the thick layer of leaves.
The shock turned into awe as Dr. Komachi studied the monkeys. They were all coated in grey or brown fur, which camouflaged them against the ground—at least when their pink faces were hidden. The grey monkey that was bowed in front of Dr. Komachi glanced up at him before hiding its face again. He figured they were waiting for him to make the first move, so he knelt down and held his hand out towards the monkey. It raised its head and studied the hand. Crawling closer, it grabbed Dr. Komachi’s hand between both of its hands. The monkey issued forth a string of chirps and coos.
“Hey there, little fella,” Dr. Komachi said.
The monkey warbled and it started jumping around, doing back flips. The other monkeys took this as the cue to jump up and dance a circle around Dr. Komachi. He was so touched by the monkeys’ gesture that he silently accepted everything. After the dance, the monkeys crowded in to touch Dr. Komachi’s pant legs, cooing with fascination. The grey monkey had stood back and after a moment it started chirping. The other monkeys backed away and sat on their haunches as the grey monkey chirped a few phrases.
“My name is Alfons Komachi.”
The monkeys all looked at him, and the grey one stepped forwards. It held up its hand and cooed. It could only reach to Dr. Komachi’s waist, its tiny fingers held wide. After a brief silence, Dr. Komachi grasped the hand, and the monkey started chirping. It turned away from the river and tugged at Dr. Komachi’s hand. The other monkeys were standing still, waiting to see what he would do. Stepping forwards, the monkeys all jumped around some more, chirping with jubilation, before following Dr. Komachi into the jungle.
Where previously he had been crawling through thick undergrowth, Dr. Komachi now found himself led down a well-traveled dirt path. As they walked, he stared with wonder at the jungle—trunks so wide it would take a team of people clasping hands to encircle them, vines that looked like boa constrictors, everything green besides the flowers which covered the rest of the color spectrum. Occasionally, he would spot a familiar looking plant—maybe that’s Pippermint, or Henna, or maybe this one is Nageswar. The monkeys waited whenever Dr. Komachi would bend over to pluck a flower or handful of leaves, sticking these herbs in a pouch at his side.
The jungle was filled with a symphony of birds, the song echoing from every direction, and there was such a variety of sounds—the tone and rhythm altering when one bird would pick up where another left off. Each species had its own call, and there were hundreds of different species within ear shot. Dr. Komachi would catch a glimpse of a bird every so often, sitting up in the beaches. Some were very colorful, but most of them were green. Once, Dr. Komachi jumped when he heard a commotion on the jungle just off the path. Leaves starting shaking as a red-breasted parakeet shot through the air, the tips of its wings grazing his face.
After two miles, Dr. Komachi and the group of monkeys came to a crossroads where five paths all came together. He was directed to a path that was ten feet wide and covered with sand and broken sea shells. The path crunched under his feet as he stared up at the canopy. There were houses in the trees—most were about five feet tall, ten feet long and eight feet wide, and they were all built uniformly: logs latched together with twine formed the floor and walls, using the tree limbs for foundations. Enormous leaves had been stitched together and draped over the roves, though Dr. Komachi couldn’t see them from his angle. Rope bridges hung between tree limbs, forming a pathway that connected all the houses. He noticed a group of monkeys walk out of a larger building that had been constructed from smoothed boards rather than logs, cupped in the branches of an ancient banyan tree, its trunk concealed behind a wall of hanging roots. He had to fight the urge to climb it.
Dr. Komachi lowered his gaze and noticed the monkeys were all looking at him with penetrating gazes.
“This is incredible!” he said.
The grey monkey cocked its head to the side and scratched its chin. Dr. Komachi thought for a moment then gave the monkey a thumb’s up. The monkey’s eyes opened wide, so Dr. Komachi gestured at the tree houses and gave a thumb’s up again.
“It’s good,” he said, giving a thumb’s up with his other hand as well. “Good.” To throw the point home, he smiled.
The monkey fell back on its haunches but jumped up again. It bared its teeth and started chirping. Dr. Komachi was starting to notice that the change in tone and rhythm of the chirps seemed to follow a certain pattern, like they were syllables that, when arranged with other syllables, had to mean something.
Other monkeys up in the trees were peeking over the edges of tree limbs or out of doorways, and some were already climbing down the trees, leaping to the ground. Soon Dr. Komachi was mobbed by dozens of the monkeys. He spotted several monkeys’ heads poked around tree trunks, and most were knelt or bowed several feet from him, but some of the younger monkeys couldn’t control their excitement, running up to Dr. Komachi’s legs, tugging at his pants or trying to climb up him. One monkey—less than a foot tall, with a thin tail like a rat and hands half the size as the grey monkey—ran at him and leaped in the air. He instinctively reached out his hands and caught the baby monkey. It climbed up his arms, grasping his shirt between its fingers, and onto his shoulder. It tried to grab Dr. Komachi’s ear, who turned his head and stared into the monkey’s brown eyes. It put its hands on Dr. Komachi’s cheeks, but one of the adults screamed and the baby monkey lowered its hands and started climbing down from his shoulder. He knelt down so it could jump to the ground.
All the monkeys were on the ground, groups of them chirping amongst themselves, jumping up and down and always looking back at Dr. Komachi. The largest of the monkeys—over three feet with almost-white fur and several scars across his face which looked like leather—climbed up a nearby tree and perched on a low branch. It gestured with its arms as it chirped at the monkeys. When it drew silent, the monkeys gathered all the children and climbed back into the canopy.
The white monkey—Dr. Komachi figured he was the chief—climbed back down and walked towards him. Dr. Komachi wondered what was expected of him, and he was given time to think when the grey monkey who had first found him stepped towards the chief. They conversed for a moment and the grey monkey ran to the banyan tree, climbing up it.
Dr. Komachi knelt down as the chief approached him. The monkey walked on all fours but stood up as he drew near. Both of their heads were level, and the monkey stared into Dr. Komachi’s eyes for a long moment. Finally, it chirped and turned around, walking towards the banyan tree. He paused and looked back at Dr. Komachi, gesturing as if waving him on, so Dr. Komachi arose and followed the monkey to the tree.
The chief jumped onto the roots and starting climbing up, but Dr. Komachi looked dumbly around for the stairs. He stuck his head through the roots to see if there was a ladder concealed back there. When he pulled his head back out, the chief was back on the ground. The monkey gestured at the roots and grabbed one of them. He let go and grabbed hold again, gesturing at Dr. Komachi to do the same. Dr. Komachi reached out and grabbed onto a root; the monkey hooted, clapping its hands together.
Why the hell not? thought Dr. Komachi, and he grabbed another root, a little bit higher. Pulling himself up inch by inch, he noticed there were notches in the roots—swollen spots where he could put his feet. The chief dashed past him, and Dr. Komachi could hear it cheering for him up top. Twenty feet—Dr. Komachi was scared he would fall, knowing he didn’t have the strength for the climb, but at the same time, he was so intrigued by the monkeys he needed to see what their village in the trees was like. So he kept climbing, his arms locked around the roots. When his feet would slip, he would hug the roots tightly to keep from sliding down, and he slowly inched his way up the tree.
When he made it to the top, Dr. Komachi pulled himself over the edge of the platform and rolled onto his back, panting for breath. Several monkeys were standing in the doorway of the large tree house. They disappeared inside it, and the chief touched Dr. Komachi’s shoulder. He sat up and looked around—the platform he was on was made of bamboo and it was a twenty by twenty foot square. Rope bridges hung from every corner over to the next treehouse. The largest building in the village was in the center of the platform—two stories tall, the bottom floor seven feet high and the top five feet. The walls were made of polished boards of mahogany, and there were designs etched along the outside of the building—whorls and curved lines flowing towards the doors. The double doors were made of bamboo, and the chief held one open and looked at Dr. Komachi, who crawled on all fours across the platform. He crawled inside the building, followed by the monkey.
The room was lit dimly by two windows on opposite ends of the room. There was a brazier in the center filled with ashes, and flecks of dirt stained the floor, but otherwise it was a remarkably clean place. Dr. Komachi couldn’t see the other monkeys who had been in the doorway, so he assumed they were upstairs—glancing around, he saw two rows of pegs leading up the wall to a hole in the ceiling.
The room was too murky for Dr. Komachi to make out what was on the walls except for the space near the windows. On the right side of the room, he saw a large circle etched into the wall with a smaller circle beneath it. On the left side of the room, the figure of a man was carved into the wall—it was two feet tall, its features nondescript, a bulging head on top of a thin neck, standing perfectly erect.
As Dr. Komachi considered the image of Man, a monkey jumped down through the hole in the ceiling and landed on the floor. A clay bowl was then lowered down at the end of a rope. The monkey unhooked the bowl and carried it towards Dr. Komachi. It placed the bowl at Dr. Komachi’s feet, who was sitting with crossed legs. The monkey walked towards the brazier where it was joined by the grey monkey, who had a chunk of flint in one hand and a dagger carved from obsidian in the other. It only took a moment before a fire blazed in the brazier.
Dr. Komachi picked up the bowl as the monkeys worked; there were two whole leaves at the bottom with a lump of mashed foliage covering them. He lifted the bowl to his nose and sniffed—sour, like it had fermented. He glanced over at the chief and noticed the other monkeys standing against the wall. The chief nodded.
Dr. Komachi took a pinch from the bowl and put it on his tongue, chewing and swallowing the slimy mash. The monkeys along the wall scampered up through the hole in the ceiling as the chief gestured for him to keep eating. Though his stomach refused to rumble, Dr. Komachi knew that a little food would be good for him, so he ignored the seaweedy taste and ate several mouthfuls. The chief let up after a while, so Dr. Komachi left a layer of mush in the bowl, putting it on the floor and pushing it away with his foot.
The chief had retreated into the shadowed corner, and Dr. Komachi could hear the sound of wood sliding against wood. When the chief stepped back into the light, he held a wooden pipe in his hand. He walked to the brazier, next to which was a pile of sticks with bits of cloth wrapped around the end, and he grabbed one of these, sticking the wrapped end into the fire. It flamed up then settled to an ember as the chief returned to Dr. Komachi, the monkey sitting on his haunches. He used the burning stick to light the pipe, puffing until it was cherried. He handed the pipe to Dr. Komachi, who inclined his head and took a puff. The smoke tasted acrid, so he let it hang in his mouth without inhaling, handing the pipe back to the chief. As the pipe passed back and forth, the fire in the brazier kept the darkness at bay, for the sun was setting and, in the jungle, all was darkness.
The monkeys who had brought food to him—Dr. Komachi figured these were the servants for this building which seemed to be a temple of some kind—the monkeys climbed back down through the hole, carrying a mat between. It looked like two antelope hides had been stitched together and filled with something, perhaps leaves. The monkeys laid out the mat in the corner under the image of Man. One of the servants dashed back up the hole while the other waited beneath it as a clay pitcher full of water was lowered down. Dr. Komachi shared the water with the chief, who had just returned the pipe to the cabinet in the corner. After drinking his fill, the chief stuck the tips of his fingers in the pitcher and touched Dr. Komachi’s forehead. Giving a final bow, the chief stepped out into the night.
Dr. Komachi felt drowsy, so he lay down to rest; though the mat was two feet too short, he didn’t worry about it. He was held by the wonder of it all—what had humans become since they vanished from Earth? He looked up at the carved image of Man and fancied it looked like Gandhi, dancing in the shadows of flame. Turned into myth—none of the monkeys were alive when humans still walked the Earth. Their ancestors had lived side by side with humans in the busy streets of cities, but they were lost to time; memory of humans must have clung to the unconscious of this species of monkey. Their civilization must have been some sort of reflection of the civilizations of Man, with the way they built their villages, the way they communicated, all raining down by way of myth.
Dr. Komachi remained in the village of monkeys for eight days. He liked relaxing on the platform surrounding the temple, marveling as he watched the children play at the feet of their elders, sitting out on porches while the adults scavenged the jungle floor for food. Dr. Komachi was much too large to cross the bridges, and he crawled cautiously across his platform.
Confined, the village of monkeys came to him. All through the day they would drop by—some with no reason but to gaze at Dr. Komachi. Other monkeys were more devout, performing various rituals before him, meditating before the images carved along the walls. With the brazier continuously lit, an entire chain of images connected all four walls in what was obviously the story of becoming—mountains rising out of the water, the big dipper and other star formations, monkeys and tigers—all forming a cohesive image of what life was to this village of monkeys, and perhaps of its entire species.
Dr. Komachi didn’t even think about climbing down from the tree the first several days. Food was brought to him, and the monkeys kept him entertained. They did not seem to have the sort of mental reservation that comes with the burden of too much knowledge, except for the chief and some of the elders. Otherwise, they just wanted to play with him, tugging at his ears. Dr. Komachi would laugh and grab the monkey off his shoulder, hugging it while it twisted and jumped away, but the whole time Dr. Komachi was building up a mental file on the behavior of this species.
Perhaps by way of the foragers, word spread beyond the village about Dr. Komachi, and the second day after his arrival, there were three times as many monkeys climbing around the village. All day long, Dr. Komachi sat on his mat, watching while dozens of monkeys worshipped him. So many offerings were laid at Dr. Komachi’s feet—nuts, berries and an entire assortment of fruit. Even with the commotion inside the temple, he could hear a louder commotion outside the temple.
The entire platform was loaded with monkeys waiting for room to clear out inside, pushing and shoving each other to get closer to the temple. More kept pushing their way inside, climbing up the walls to get a better look at Dr. Komachi. By midday, the traffic was backed up beyond the bridges—monkeys were coming from every direction, even jumping down from higher branches.
By the third day, it wasn’t just the rhesus monkeys in the village—a tribe of gibbons showed up in the morning, and throughout the day, half a dozen different monkey species shuffled through the temple. As the jungle started to darken, a group of lemurs showed up; they alone didn’t enter into the mystical fervor that the other primates were working at—the lemurs walked through the door and froze as they saw Dr. Komachi. They started yakking amongst themselves and promptly exited.
Dr. Komachi was amazed at how the different species interacted—fights threatened to break out constantly between the different groups of monkeys, though the gibbons were left well alone. There had to be bitter enemies amongst the worshipping masses, but feuds were put aside, at least within the temple. Who knows what happened after they exited? Dr. Komachi grimaced as he imagined dozens of monkey corpses down on the jungle floor.
When he had to relieve himself, he would have to fight his way to the door—tugging his legs out of the grip of monkeys, always weighed down by a couple climbing his back. He would relieve himself over the edge of the platform before getting sucked back inside.
One night, several days after his arrival, a large vat was lowered down from the ceiling, liquid sloshing up over the edges. It was placed near the brazier; Dr. Komachi wondered what it could be, peeking inside. Gobs of plant matter floated thickly through the brown liquid. The monkeys all drank freely from the vat, and things quickly got too weird for Dr. Komachi.
It started out innocently enough, the monkeys kneeling in rows before him. The energy in the room stabilized, and Dr. Komachi thought it was the quietest it had been since he first arrived. The monkeys started to chant in their high-pitched chirps. He noticed that the syllables that were chanted formed a chain that played out with perfect symmetry; he would have liked to spend a lot more time studying the monkeys so he could understand how they communicated—maybe he could learn to communicate with them.
As the chant continued, monkeys started jumping up and dancing. Some of them started chanting different phrases, but the same base chant was maintained by the majority. Monkeys started stamping their feet and clapping their feet, and all the while they would break away to drink more of the potion in the vat.
The more they drank, the more frenetic the monkeys became, leaping wildly across the room. A pair of monkeys started going at it in the middle of the throng, and Dr. Komachi wondered why the other monkeys weren’t paying attention to them. They kept dancing around the pair, but when other monkeys started going at it, Dr. Komachi had to draw the line. He stood up and the monkeys all fell back—besides those mid-coitus. He had to stomp his feet to get their attention, rattling the entire temple.
“Bad monkeys!” Dr. Komachi said, wagging his fingers at the horny monkeys.
But they had worked themselves into a frenzy; the jungle was starting to brighten before the last of the monkeys had crawled off to sleep off the hangover. Dr. Komachi retired to his mat hours before, but only now was he able to fall asleep. He had a good ten-minute nap before a monkey jumped on his chest. This one was almost full-grown, a steady tan color, and it tugged at Dr. Komachi, who grunted and turned to face the wall. The monkey jumped away then walked up to his back. It placed the palm of its right hand on his shoulder blade.
The room was soon full of monkeys, again, but none of them disturbed Dr. Komachi’s rest, trying to be quiet, chirping and cooing in hushed tones. Dr. Komachi spent the entire day facing the wall, staring at the insides of his eyelids. He drifted in and out of consciousness, and, when the traffic in the temple died down, he felt well-rested.
He spent the night in the company of the jungle, lounging with his legs over the edge of the platform. Animals lurked in the shadows of the jungle floor—the rustle of leaves and the crunch of a branch would have Dr. Komachi guessing at what type of animal it was. More often than not, he decided it must be a tiger. Cats owned the jungle at night; Dr. Komachi could barely see his fingers.
He savored the taste of jungle in his lungs, listening to the nightsong like a connoisseur of music. For all he knew in that moment, his heart soared at the memory of the shipwreck. Thank God. He thought about God most of the night. Before, he had never thought of God as being an option—he had created his own universe using the Program, so surely he had filed the space that had previously been referred to as God. He didn’t like to think of himself as a god, so he had chosen not to think about God at all. But now—something had continued outside of his drive to create the world in his own vision. Nature had filled the space left by humanity, like it was healing a wound, and nature had no regard for what kinds of worlds people were creating elsewhere.
Dr. Komachi could see a fundamental truth in the way the monkeys conducted themselves. This truth dictates how civilizations form and evolve, but what the civilizations do after they become more powerful than the truth is a different story.
With this fundamental truth locked in his inward vision, Dr. Komachi scooted back to the temple. In the morning, he felt better than he could ever remember feeling, and he started thinking about returning to the beach. He felt badly that he had forgotten to make me a salve, grimacing as he wondered whether my hand had gotten infected.
The traffic in the temple was lighter, but whenever a new group showed up, he hated to disappoint them, so he stuck around all day without a complaint. As dusk fell, he waved at the chief, who was about to walk out the door.
“Excuse me,” Dr. Komachi said.
The chief grunted and walked towards him.
“Well, how do I explain?” Dr. Komachi pointed at the door then at himself. “Tomorrow.”
The chief walked back to the door and opened it. He looked around the platform, then turned to face Dr. Komachi. The tone of the chief’s chirps sounded uncertain, pointing outside before letting the doors swing shut, and he walked back to Dr. Komachi.
“Yes,” Dr. Komachi gestured at the image of Man on the wall. The chief cooed and sat on his haunches. “You see? My friends—on the beach.”
Dr. Komachi imitated the motion of a wave with his right arm. “Beach—you see?”
The chief studied Dr. Komachi’s arms.
“Ocean—” He pointed back at the image of Man. “At the beach.”
He made the wave motion again. The chief studied the image of Man then glanced at Dr. Komachi’s arm. The monkey scratched his chin, and Dr. Komachi had no way of telling him his point had sunk in at all.
“I must be getting back to my friends tomorrow,” he said.
The chief clapped his hands and started towards the door. He paused with the door open then disappeared into the night.
The next day, Dr. Komachi kept his eyes peeled for an opportunity to make his exit, but it wasn’t until the following day that he was able to get the message across—he started climbing down the banyan tree. The chief pushed to the front of the platform and started chirping at him.
“I’ve been trying to tell you,” Dr. Komachi said. “I must be going.”
He had both legs over the edge and was feeling for a foothold in the hanging root system. “I will be back!”
The monkeys crowded at the edge as he started sliding down a root like it was a pole. Several monkeys climbed down after him and monkeys from other platforms were climbing down too. When his feet touched the ground, he found himself in the middle of a throng of monkeys. It sounded like they were singing a song, and they followed Dr. Komachi down the path. He paused at the crossroads for a moment, trying to get his bearings, and the monkeys followed him all the way to the river.
There had to have been a hundred monkeys along the riverbank—dozens hanging in the trees, others peeking through the underbrush, though none dared to step in the water. Dr. Komachi crossed at the ford; not bothering with the stepping stones this time, he plowed through the water. The more daring monkeys hopped across the stones to the center of the river, but none went any further.
Stepping onto the opposite bank, Dr. Komachi looked back and waved at the monkeys. “Goodbye!” he called.
An uproar broke out on the other side of the river, and Dr. Komachi turned towards the jungle. He pretended he knew how to follow tracks, which was simple because of the swath of bent branches and scuffled leaves he had made on his way to the river.
That night, all ninety-two of us gathered on the beach. Dr. Komachi stood before the bonfire, promising to tell us where he had been. It took all night to get the whole story out.
“What kinds of monkeys were they?” Olga, a blonde, fair-complexioned woman asked as Dr. Komachi described the river.
“Rhesus macaque. Or, at least they are descended from the Rhesus macaque.”
As the story unfolded, I stopped thinking about everything and my heart shook off its gloom. We prodded Dr. Komachi for any details he might have been hiding.
“Did you notice if they used anything metallic—made of iron?” Erikur asked.
“No—all their tools were made of stone.”
“What was in the pipe?” Sanjay asked.
“I don’t know. There are dozens of plants in this jungle with psychoactive properties—it could have been anything.”
“What’s a gibbon?”
“Gibbons are apes, not monkeys. Bigger—long arms. They seemed pretty decent.”
Question after question—people were more eager to talk than to listen, and before the story had reached its conclusion, a faction had formed that thought we should immediately go to the monkey village. Another faction argued that we should wait until morning, but members in the first faction started lighting torches and handing them out. A third faction immediately formed, arguing that Dr. Komachi should return by himself and bring the monkeys to the beach.
The torches were dropped, sputtering out in the sand when Dr. Komachi mentioned the monkey orgy.
“They what!” Rohanna cried.
“What do you think was in the vat?”
Dr. Komachi’s speculations were drowned out by gales of laughter. The air started ascending through the hues of grey by the time the whole story had been squeezed out of Dr. Komachi.
I can’t wait to visit the monkey village!
Two full moons passed, and we had not yet started thinking about leaving the beach. Families had built huts for privacy, and those of us who had lost loved ones found the longhouses more and more comfortable as space cleared. An economy appeared as contact was made with the various tribes of monkeys in the neighboring jungle.
Though we avoided talking about it, I could already feel a weariness settling upon me, like I would rather go hungry than crack open a coconut. We had never gone so much as a day without our technology, so we never learned how long a full charge would last—you see, we plug ourselves into a mini-reactor to charge our energy, usually while we’re asleep. It’s not what it sounds like; we don’t have a hole in our back and metal melded onto our skin. It’s much more civilized that that—you see, our brains exert an electro-magnetic field, so the mini-reactors are programmed to communicate with our brains through these frequencies. They replenish our reserve of psychic energy and enable the regeneration of cells so that we technically don’t grow older. It has been over two months since all of that went under, so where does that leave us?
One evening, when we were all gathered around the evening fire, I called Daniel and Dr. Komachi over, and we retreated behind a palm tree.
“How have you been feeling these past couple days?” I asked.
“I’ve been feeling pretty good—yeah, pretty good,” Daniel said. “Business with the monkeys really lightens the spirits.”
“I think I know what you’re asking,” Dr. Komachi said, and he trailed into silence. Daniel looked at me then turned to face the fire.
“I don’t know if I got a full charge that night,” Dr. Komachi said. “I didn’t return to my cabin until a quarter to midnight. I’ve been moving pretty slowly the past few days.”
“Agreed,” Daniel said, his back still turned. “Where’s the nearest city?”
“Well,” I said. “I think our best bet would be Kolkata.”
“By my estimates,” Dr. Komachi said, “Kolkata should be a few hundred kilometers north east. Hopefully nearer.”
“How would we get there?” I asked.
“Best to stick to the coast,” Daniel said. “The jungle can be a nightmare.”
“When should we bring this up before the others?” Dr. Komachi asked.
“Let them have their fun tonight,” Daniel said.
“I’ll call a council in the morning,” I said.
Dr. Komachi nodded and stepped into the light. I followed him and return to my spot in the sand beside Kara.
“What was that all about?” She asked.
“I’ll tell you in the morning.”
As the sun started to rise, the smoldering ashes of the fire were starting to run out of steam. The ocean lapped at the sand nearby, and the early risers were beginning to stir. Smoke drifted through the chimneys of the huts clustered under the edges of the jungle, but it was silent save the jungle’s murmur. I had just risen and was shaking sand out of my clothes, considering whether I should bathe in the surf.
The sun brought warmth, for it was getting colder these nights. The water washed sand off my body, and I toweled off with a towel that the monkeys had traded to us. It was thanks to them that we had any material comfort, and even though we only had fruit to trade, they were more than happy to share their wealth with us. I had spent a lot of time with the chief from the village of rhesus monkeys, and we had—mostly through the efforts of the chief—been managing to communicate. It inspired awe to hear him try to speak in our tongue. His vocal chords must have been exhausted, but he managed to chirp out,
“My. . . name—” with greatly exaggerated syllables, wavering through the high pitches—“My, name,” he touched his chest and chirped a few syllables. I concentrated on his mouth as he chirped again, and I thought it sounded like “Ché-du Makar.”
I focused on the sound and tried to wrap my mouth around it. “Ché-du-mah-kar?”
Ché-du clapped his hand and touched his chest again, “Ché-du Makar!”
“My name is Jebuiz Y’har.”
“Jay—” he scratched his chin as he considered the rest.
“Juh-buiz,” I said.
Ché-du clapped his hands. “Yaaa-ha?”
“Close enough,” I said. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Ché-du Makar.”
Every day another tribe of monkeys would show up with gifts. We’d always try to give them fruit or whatever trinkets we had lying around the beach. Some tribes would refuse to take anything, and those that accepted our offer always took less than we offered, but the lifeboats had been completely salvaged and scattered among the tribes of monkeys, though we kept the best parts for ourselves. A few of the tribes joined us at boar roasts, but most of them ran away from the smell.
It was not from any material lack that I ached, but I could feel myself aging, and that scared me. So many years—I daren’t even consider them, but as they say, best to keep plodding along. The carrot dangling before mule’s muzzle keeps it from considering what’s beyond the field, so I set the ruins of Kolkata before my eyes. All that was left of the city was tombs, but the tombs held the key to our survival.
As more people began to sir, they started making their pilgrimages to the ocean. I informed all who passed that there would be a village council at lunchtime. I suggested we roast a boar, and the news spread as the air filled with gossip. The general feeling that morning was that departure was on everyone’s mind.
We all really came together in the preparation of lunch. We had a smoke house filled with meat, and the women had been working at quite the larder, with roots and vegetables hanging from the ceiling and cabinets full of fruit.
The men skewered two boars that weighed over two hundred and fifty kilos each and they were stuck over the fire while the women seasoned the boars and prepared vegetables. We had fashioned a cauldron out of a sheet of metal savaged from a lifeboat, so a third fire was built as the cauldron was filled with freshwater. A little bit of everything was tossed in it.
It all smelled so good that I had to join in the preparations. I sidled up to the cauldron and took a whiff.
“You think it would taste good if we put some meat in there?” I asked.
“Only if the meat is already cooked,” Rohanna said.
“Right. I’ll give you a hand—“
I walked over to the roasting boars where Erikur and a few other strong men were sweating away as they rotated the boards over the flames. I had to swallow a mouthful of saliva before I spoke.
“Would it be possible for me to get a few slices of meat for the soup?”
Akhmed, a lean man hailing from Persia, stepped forward. A turban was wrapped around his head, and his bare chest gleamed with sweat. He studied me for a second, but called over his shoulder, “Keep turning ‘em!”
Akhmed looked back at me, saying, “You can try slicing ‘em if you want, but you’d just catch your ass on fire.”
“Well,” I said. “When they’re done cooking, could I?”
Akhmed looked out to sea and scratched his armpit, then he turned back to the fires and yelled, “Fan that fire! My god.” Grumbling, he grabbed a palm frond and started waving it at the fire, which seemed to wave back.
When the first boar was lowered off the fire, I stepped forward as Akhmed sawed charred flesh off the meat. He looked me in the eyes, causing me to hesitate in my step.
“Jus’ for you, cap’n,” he said. He carved off a dozen slices, loading the meat on a plate for me to carry. “Let’s make this a feast to remember!”
“Thanks,” I said, and I brought the plate over to the cauldron—boiling thickly with vegetables.
“I brought some meat,” I said.
“Give it here,” Rohanna said, grabbing the plate from me. She tossed the slices of meat into the cauldron, where they immediately assimilated with the vegetables.
I licked my fingers and turned to face the village. Everyone was looking at me.
“I think I can speak for us all,” I said. “I’ve been talking it over with Daniel and Dr. Komachi. It’s been over two months, and withdrawal seems to be settling in.”
I paused, but nobody uttered a sound, so I continued, “By our calculations, Kolkata should be up the coast a ways.”
“When will we leave?” Erikur asked, stepping forward.
“That’s what we need to decide,” I said, and everyone started talking.
We decided we would leave the following day—or maybe the day after. First order of business was to settle accounts with the village of rhesus monkeys. We had learned that it was called Ay-ish’ka To’ayudeen Ish’ka-mota, so we referred to it as Ish’ka. It was impossible to keep all the monkeys straight, but most of our communications were with Ché-du and the village shaman, Zo’aht.
Both of their personalities were highly developed. Ché-du was reserved with the air that he was always considering heavy questions. He did have the welfare of some six hundred monkeys to think about, and he seemed to take it very seriously.
Zo’aht was a highly inquisitive monkey. Her tan fur was always matted thickly with mud, and leaves were always clinging to her. She was older than Ché-du, but she made up for a lack of physical prowess with stunning mental acuity. Somehow she was able to figure out how to manipulate her vocal chords, and she seemed comfortable as she mouthed words—
She was always asking for new words, and she could weave them into incantations: “Water—stars—fire—earth—ash—water,” and so on. She could work herself into a frenzy, but without much physical motion. She would often sit cross-legged and sway back and forth and she chirped out our language.
Ché-du could be seen around our village most days, accompanied by many of the adult males. Zo’aht only made the journey once a week, and she was always followed by her congregation.
As for us, we had all made the trip out to Ish’ka they day after Dr. Komachi’s return, but I had not returned since then. Many of the others had spent considerable amounts of time in Ish’ka, though. Dr. Komachi spent most nights there, and Daniel had put a lot of effort into bush whacking—a trail had been cleared to the river, where a rough bridge had been built, connecting the spaces between the stones. The path became a highway under constant traffic. We decided we would throw a feast under Ish’ka.
Work began that afternoon to organize the feast. The biggest challenge was how would we get a dozen tables out there when we barely had one on the beach? After much contemplation, we decided we didn’t need tables, but not everyone could accept that.
“How would it be a feast without tables?” Simon, a representative of the United Kingdom, argued.
Ren stepped forward, her aura aglow like she was shedding off the morning dew. “You can cry all you want,” she said. “But God put us here with nothing to our names, so we just have to make do with nothing, or what we made out of nothing.”
It was still difficult for some to shed off tradition, but, by sunset, we had all come to accord that we simply did not have enough tables.
The next day we spent the morning preparing food. We had informed Ché-du of our plans, so the monkeys of Ish’ka were preparing food as well, but we still made sure to leave some dishes vegetarian.
Although no one was watching, we started a parade through the jungle—seven in a row, and everyone was carrying food. The jungle quieted as we passed through, and when we approached Ish’ka we set to preparing the space on the jungle floor. A fire was built, and the boars were hung near it to keep them warm as we welcomed the monkeys to our farewell feast.
Ché-du walked forward as women laid out platters of food on the jungle floor. “Thank you,” he chirped, and he continued chirping in his own tongue as monkeys started climbing down from Ish’ka.
The feast was scheduled to start when darkness overtook the jungle, so the monkeys started lowering their dishes from the trees, and they brought down several tables to keep the dishes off the ground.
Monkeys and people were buzzing around, enjoying each other’s’ company. Laughter echoed from every corner of the jungle as the monkeys played with each other. Ché-du and Zo’aht communed with Dr. Komachi, and I watched it all.
We lit several fires across the ground, so when darkness fell, none of the jungle beasts dared intrude. Monkeys and people lined up at the tables and grabbed handfuls of food from the dishes. We ate everything by hand, milling around the fires. Groups of monkeys chatted amongst themselves, and groups of people chatted amongst themselves, and I stood back, basking in the glory of this friendship we had built with the monkeys.
The monkeys of Ish’ka showed up in full force, but few of them realized the reason we were throwing the feast. Besides Ché-du and Zo’aht, the monkeys kept to themselves, nibbling on handfuls of food, observing us from a distance as we tore into our boars. After I had eaten my fill, I walked around the gathering until I found Ché-du.
He sitting near a group of monkeys, all munching on fruit, but Ché-du was standing to the back of them, a frown on his lips.
“Hey!” I said as I approached.
“Jebuiz!” he said.
“How do you like the food?” I asked.
“Food?” he asked. “Oh! Food good! Ché-du like!”
“I like the food too,” I said.
I had tried several of the dishes that the monkeys had prepared for the feast, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed them. The flavor—a mixture of fruit juice into vegetable dishes—quite surprised me, and I found myself taking seconds; I never even touched the roasted boars.
Ché-du was taking another bite when I cleared my throat. He looked at me as I said, “We are leaving tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Ché-du asked.
“Yes. We are dying. We have to get to a city.”
“Dying? No dying. No.”
“Yes,” I said. “No dying. We are leaving so we can live.”
“Live good,” Ché-du said, and he bit into a mango.
Zo’aht stayed with us as the rest of the monkeys started climbing back into the trees, but she followed them after one last word with Dr. Komachi. Ché-du watched Zo’aht ascend then turned back to me.
“Ché-du go sleep,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. I knelt in front of him and held out my hand. Ché-du shook it and I said, “It has been incredible getting to know you. I wish we could stay, but I guess we have to say good bye. So, good bye.”
“Good bye,” Ché-du said. “Jebuiz.”
With all the food eaten, we set to smothering the fires with dirt. Lighting several torches, we began walking back to the beach. I was full and I could feel a warm glow behind my eyes, so when I stepped into the longhouse I lay down and instantly fell to sleep.
In the morning, the sun lifted up the village, and we packed what little food we had into bags and gathered the rest of our supplies. The bulging packs were hoisted by the strong men, Erikur, Erasmus and Craig, and the rest of the supplies were distributed among able bodied men, but that left me with nothing to carry. We gathered on the beach in front of our village and set off down the coast.
“Keep the ocean to your right and keep moving forward!” Daniel cried.
To keep spirits high, we started singing a song:
“Into the morrow, we step
And step—into the morrow,
We step and step—”
It wasn’t anything meaningful, but the song kept us from thinking about the strain of walking through sand. I tried to stick closer to the jungle, but firm ground was a luxury and my thighs were burning within the hour.
Two hours before sunset, I came to a halt and waved for the others to stop. They gathered around me. “Okay,” I panted. “This is just an idea of what’s to come. We should start setting up camp for the night.”
By the time the sun started to set, we had a fire blazing on the beach and several lean-tos bordering the jungle. We sat around the fire and told stories of the old days.
“Remember how it felt to have solid steel under your feet?” Rohanna asked.
“It didn’t feel like I could be sucked underground at the first opportunity,” I said.
Our memories followed us into the dream world, and in the morning we shook sand from our clothes and continued up the coast.
Women chattered with their husbands, and the surf lapped at the beach. My legs felt strong as I kicked at the sand. Crabs scuttled into the surf as we passed, and seagulls followed our progress, picking over last night’s campfire.
Nights were called when the sun was two finger-widths from the horizon, and groups would venture into the jungle while we set up camp, bringing back fruit and wood for the night’s fire. The first week, the nights were accompanied by dancing—the more energetic of us spinning before the fire, but festivity dampened with the second week.
It was getting ever colder, so we built the fires larger and slept closer to their flames. Wildlife fled from the sound of our coming, so the beach remained vacant as our footprints trailed behind us, disappearing beyond the horizon.
The jungle squirmed just beyond our path as gulls cawed at us, and I could see beyond the sand to where the Rupnarayan River flowed into the sea, where we would cut off from the sand for the warm loam of the delta.
While we walked down the beach, gulls would swoop and dive towards us, veering away at the last second. The air was continuously filled with their raucous song, and people started getting ideas.
Daniel jogged over to me, grinning. “What do you think seagull tastes like?” he asked.
“You know, like chicken,” I said. “But how would you catch one?”
“Check it out,” Daniel said. He took an arm out from the straps of his pack so he could reach into it. He pulled out the end of a string and kept pulling—eight feet in total, with a lump of dough tied to the end. “Fishing for seagulls,” he laughed.
“I don’t know about that. You’ve got to be fast.”
“I’ve got Mika in on this too. I’ll jiggle the string around to get the gull’s attention, then he’ll sneak up behind it and pounce when it goes for the dough.”
“Good luck with that,” I said, and Daniel went skipping across the beach.
Maybe he would be a better leader than me. It’s so hard, but Daniel makes the hardest tasks seem fun. He knows how to keep our spirits high, but my spirit seemed to be leaking down into my shoes with the sand, and I had to keep emptying them as I walked. Finally I just took them off and put them in Daniel’s pack.
Five minutes later I stepped on a sand spur, dancing around on my right leg while the others walked past me. I sat down and pulled the spur off my heel then jogged back to Daniel.
“On second thought,” I said. “I’ll take my shoes back.”
Daniel laughed but handed me the shoes without asking any questions.
At night, smoke rose from our fires, dissipating among the stars. I liked to think we were sending smoke signals and that a spaceship would see them and swoop down from the sky. It could land on the beach and its doors would slide open, and our long lost cousins would step down into the sand.
“Looks like you could use a lift,” they would say.
“So you decided to come back after all?” I would say.
“We went all over the galaxy and never found a planet as beautiful as Earth.”
Or maybe in the morning, the sun would rise in the west and the ground would start spinning under my feet, depositing me away from the beach, up through the misty, moist jungle and onto the concrete of Kolkata—if the concrete hadn’t disintegrated by now.
Every time the wind picked up, coconuts began knocking against each other up among the palm fronds. Storms would hit then disappear into the jungle, and when thunder boomed, it silenced the birds. Bugs would come out at night and fly into our fire—small puffs of smoke and they were gone.
We needed protein and fat to energize us, so every night as we set up camp, a group would take their spears and head into the jungle. Daniel was much slimmer than people like Erikur, but at the end of a day’s walk he always led the hunters. I got the feeling he didn’t like the more domestic issues like warmth and shelter. Erikur skipped the hunts in favor of fire building, but there were always half a dozen or more who accompanied Daniel. I was surprised one night when Kara walked up to Daniel.
“I want to go with you tonight,” she said.
He studied her face for a moment then said, “Grab a spear.”
I ducked away from the fire-builders and approached Kara. “Are you sure about this? If you run into a boar, it could get you with a tusk.”
“It could get anyone else just as easily as it could get me,” she said.
“I’ll come along then. Just so I know someone will have your back.”
“Aw, that’s so sweet,” she said. “Here, have my spear—” she handed the spear to me with its tip pointing at my chest. I grabbed the shaft of the spear and redirected it to the side, grabbing it with my other hand. I tested its weight and looked up at Kara. “Thanks.”
“You’re joining us too?” Daniel said, walking up so the three of us formed a circle.
“Figured I hadn’t been putting all my effort in.”
“Nonsense! But since it’s both of your first times, let me give you the run down.” He yelled over his shoulder, “Hey, Mika, come over here.”
Mika jogged up to us, wiping sweat from his brow. Even though it wasn’t hot anymore, he always seemed to be sweating. His shirt was always stained at the pits.
“What is it, boss?” Mika asked.
“We’ve got some greenbloods with us today.”
“Is that so, boss?” Mika looked at me and nodded his head. “How are you doing, sir?”
“I’m doing fine,” I said. “I’ve been getting bored of the beach so I figured I would accompany you into the jungle for a change.”
“Oh, yes,” Mika said. “Nothing more exciting than a good hunt.”
“Hey, Mika,” Daniel said. “Tell these greenbloods the first rule of hunting in the bush.”
“The first rule?” Mika blinked. “The first rule is pick a buddy and stick with him.”
“Or her!” Kara said.
Mika did a double take, his eyelids falling away. “Hey, boss!” he said.
“Yes?” Daniel asked.
“You sure this is a good idea?”
“Hey!” Kara said. “You bastard! Talk to me if you have any objections.”
Mika squirmed as he looked at her. “Okay. We’re hunting boar. Do you know what a boar is?”
“Hey Mika,” I said.
“No, Jebuiz,” Kara said. “I can handle myself.” Turning her eyes on Mika, she said, “I know boars are dangerous. They weigh upwards of three hundred kilos and can cut you open faster than you can blink. You know how much three hundred kilos is? That’s almost five times as big as you. And you’re not much bigger than me, so it could just as easily be you as me with the tusk through us.”
“I’ve killed dozens of them hogs,” Mika said. “Not one has got me yet. You need to kow what you’re doing before you can take ‘em on.”
“So teach me,” Kara said, her hands on her hips.
“That’s the spirit!” Daniel said, clapping his hand on his thigh. “Follow me.”
We followed Daniel towards the jungle, where he walked towards a tree, turning his back to it.
“So,” he said. “The most important thing is to find a good, thick tree. Stand with your back to it and raise your spear in front of you—always hold it with both hands, a shoulder width between your hands—” Daniel raised his spear and braced its butt against the tree. “Because you’re going to have three hundred kilos of meat bearing down on you, you need to lodge your spear firmly against your tree.
“Now, while some of us will be waiting for the boar to charge, the others will be shaking out the bush with torches—I should also mention that when you pick out a tree, it’s very important that it has low limbs that you could climb up if shit goes wrong.”
“And shit will go wrong,” Mika said, grinning. “Especially your first hunt.”
“I want to be one who chases out the boar,” Kara said.
“That’s wise,” Daniel said. “Better watch how the hunt goes before you try to skewer a boar for yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Me too—I’ll be a chaser too.”
“Then you’ll both want to grab a torch. You can give your spears to Craig—it looks like we have a good turn out tonight.”
Craig, Akhmed and the twins, Wei and Bolin, were already holding their spears, the twins chattering with Craig while Akhmed brooded in the shade. At the last moment, Erasmus ran up to us.
“You’re up to it tonight?” Craig asked.
“Oh yeah!” Erasmus said. “I feel like I could take on a boar with my bare hands.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Daniel said. “Here, take my spear—” Daniel walked up to Erasmus and handed him the spear then turned to face the group.
All right,” he said. “As you can see, we have two greenbloods with us tonight. They’ve volunteered to be wranglers, so I’ll go with them. We’ll need one more wrangler.”
“I’ll do it,” Akhmed said, stepping closer.
“Alright. I’ll take Kara with me, so can you stay at Jebuiz’s side?”
“Sure thing.” Akhmed walked to me, shaking my hand. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’re safe with me. Has Daniel given you the run down?”
“It would be good to go over it again,” Daniel said. “Most important thing to know is where everyone’s set up. The spear-holders will try to set up in a circle with everyone facing the center—know where they are. We’ll strike into the bush that we have surrounded, and if we get lucky we’ll hear a snuffling in the bush, and when leaves start shaking, turn on that spot and hold your torch in front of you. Boars are scared of the flames, so if you’re lucky it will turn and run, and another wrangler can direct it to a spear-holder.
“But,” Daniel said. “They’re not always scared of the torches. Sometimes it just makes them mad, and that’s when you climb a tree. And always keep up communication. When you see a boar, yell out, ‘Boar!’ and once you set it off, yell out which direction it’s heading—that’s why you have to know where everyone is. Call out whoever’s name the boar is heading towards. But always be cautious—when in danger, climb a tree. Got it?”
“Yes!” Kara said. I nodded and gritted my teeth.
“Everyone ready?” Daniel asked, gesturing across the group.
The others cheered and began pounding the butts of their spears on the ground, which was muffled in the sand.
“Follow me!” Daniel said, turning towards the jungle. “Kara?”
She was already at his side. “Yeah?”
“Stick close to me.”
I walked by Akhmed’s side as the murk of the jungle closed over us.
I had to crawl through raw foliage when the bush grew thick, but Akhmed slipped through branches and leaves like he was coated in grease. When I clambered onto a patch of dirt, I paused to get my bearings. Erasmus was our point man, at twelve o’clock—approximately north. Mika was set up a hundred meters to his right, at 2:30, and Craig was at his left at ten o’clock. The twins took five o’clock and 7:30.
“Hey, Erasmus!” I called.
“I’m here!” His voice echoed from my right so I faced that direction.
Akhmed waved me over, heading towards the center of our circle—well, more like a pentagram.
“Remember,” Akhmed whispered. “If we stumble across a boar, wave your torch at it and yell. We want to make it panic, so be as wild as you can.”
I nodded and lifted my torch higher. All the shadows it cast off leaves had my nerves on end. I could feel my skin tingling, but I tried to be silent so I could hear if anything moved in the underbrush. I kept Akhmed a couple meters to my left as sticks cracked under my shoes, and my pants got stuck in a sticker bush I tried to walk through. I swore as I tried to pull myself loose.
Akhmed hissed at me, “Quiet! Get over here.”
I stayed closer to him as we continued our sweep. As I grew accumulated to the jungle at night, I felt like mufflers were being shoved over my ears. It was silent—not even the insects were chirping, as if they could sense our presence, sense that we were intruders.
“How long does this usually take?” I whispered as we stepped through a ray of moonlight.
“As long as it takes,” Akhmed whispered. He held his finger to his lips and lifted back a branch for me to pass. I ducked under a vine and stepped to the other side of the branch, and I heard a snort a few feet away from me. I could see the coarse hide of a boar in a pile of leaves. I froze, slowly turning to Akhmed. “Go. back.” I whispered through gritted teeth.
Akhmed gestured that he was coming forward, so I raised my hands and stared into his eyes.
“There’s. a. boar. at. my. feet.” I mouthed.
Akhmed’s eyes went wide and he stepped back. I hurried after him as the boar grunted behind me. I could hear a rustle of leaves, so I grabbed Akhmed’s arm.
“Get me out of here,” I whispered.
“Stand back,” Mika said, pulling his arm out of my grip. “Remember, wave your torch and yell.”
My feet were frozen to the ground, but Akhmed lifted his head and yelled out, “Who wants a boar?” his voice booming like a bass drum.
“Send it over here!” Erasmus’s voice floated from the left, sounding like he was a long way off.
I could hear the boar standing up. Its grunts pounded at my ear drums as my muscles tensed. I raised my torch and pointed it at the bus, but when I looked at Akhmed, he was pointing at a spot to my left, waving his torch like it was a sword. I readjusted my aim as leaves started shaking, and I nearly shat myself when a long, curving tusk cut through the leaves. It was stained brown and there were several leaves impaled on its end. The nose followed, snorting at the air, and I was faced with a very angry looking face—black as pitch, but the torchlight made its chin hairs sparkle.
“Yaw!” Akhmed screamed, leaping at the boar. He struck it with his torch, and it screamed and swiped at him with its tusk. Akhmed leaped to the side, yelling at the top of his lungs. He landed and readjusted for another swipe. “Get!” he yelled as he swung at the boar’s head.
I realized that I should be helping, so I lunged forward, attacking the boar’s other shoulder. I did my best banshee impersonation and the boar fell back.
Akhmed lunged again and the boar twisted around in the bush, snapping dozens of twigs. I tapped its haunches with my torch, and some hair flared up. The boar screamed and stampeded away through the bush.
“It’s heading to four o’clock!” Akhmed roared.
“We’ll redirect it,” Daniel called out. “Mika, get ready.”
“I’ve been ready!” Mike called, his voice faint.
The leaves seemed to suck all sound from the air, but after a moment, Daniel called out, “One boar, coming up!”
I listened, but the jungle was silent, and it was silent. I looked at Akhbar and whispered, “when is it over?”
Akhbar looked at me, and as he parted his lips, a blood-curdling scream echoed out of the darkness. The note was held for an incredibly long second before its echo was only left inside my head.
“Mika!” Daniel cried.
“I’m coming!” Erasmus yelled.
Akhbar had already disappeared into the bush, so I followed. The boar had torn a path through the underbrush, so I ran as fast as I could. I heard crashing through the underbrush all around me. It felt like I was running backwards, this one moment stretched out in all of its terrible feeling. As I stumbled over roots I had to fight the urge to vomit.
I could hear the others yelling in front of me as I sprinted the remaining distance.
“Mika!” Kara was moaning, over and over.
I looked from her to Erasmus, who was kneeling over Mika, a bloody knife in his hand. I looked at Mika and vomited. I vomited again and again and kept heaving. I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up at Daniel, who said nothing.
Craig and the twins stumbled up on after another. Craig started vomiting, but the twins looked at Mika with curiosity.
“Did Mika kill the boar before it got him?” Bolin asked.
“Naw,” Erasmus said, the knife still clutched in his hand, blood dribbling down his forearm. “I had to slit its throat.”’
Kara stumbled towards me and fell into my arms. She buried her face in my chest, moaning, “Mika. Mika, why?”
She looked up at me with tear-stained eyes. I kissed her forehead, whispering, “Don’t look.”
Mike had skewered the boar, but the boar kept pushing forward until the spear went all the way through from its right shoulder and out its left side—just far enough for it to reach Mika. I fell into Kara’s arms as I started dry-heaving again. She patted my back and pushed my stumbling back so we were concealed behind a tree.
“Isn’t anyone going to say anything?” Erasmus said, tears streaking dirt down his cheeks.
“We need to get Mika back to the beach,” Daniel said.
“How?” Akhmed asked—his pale face looked like a skull in the torchlight.
“Someone go back and tell the others. Find something that can be used as a stretcher.”
“We’ll get it,” the twins said.
“Take my torch,” I said, stepping around the tree but keeping my eyes averted. Wei took it, and they disappeared into the underbrush.
When I stepped back around the tree, Kara was slumped on the ground, sobbing silently. I sat beside her and squeezed her hand. The others were all silent, but I could hear them pacing back and forth behind me.
The minutes crawled by, and I felt my stomach starting to settle when a rustling of the jungle drew nearer. I could see torchlight reflecting off leaves as the twins came into view carrying a six by two foot bamboo pallet between them. They were followed by several other concerned men. Each of them froze when they saw Mika—some swore, others vomited, and Erikur fell to his knees, crying out, “What cruel god would do this?”
I stepped around the tree, thinking I would help lift Mika onto the stretcher, but my legs wouldn’t carry me any closer as my stomach jumped back into my throat. I leaned against the tree as the twins set the stretcher beside Mika.
“Get the boar off him!” Erikur said. “Why is it still on him?”
Erasmus walked towards Mika, his eyes blank, and he leaned down and heaved the boar off him. It rolled into the leaves, and intestines plopped out of Mika’s belly into the dirt.
Somehow I found something left to vomit up, and even the twins jumped back.
“Someone needs to grab his legs and someone else needs to grab his shoulders so nothing else falls out,” I said, but I didn’t realize I had said it.
The twins stepped forward—Wei grabbed Mika’s legs and pulled forward as Bolin grabbed Mika’s shoulders. They lifted his corpse and put him on the stretcher.
“Can other people carry him to the beach?” Bolin asked as he wiped his hands on the ground.
“I got it,” Erikur said, and Craig joined him on the other end of the stretcher. They lifted, trying to find balance. Erikur stumbled backwards while Craig guided him around trees, and the rest of us followed at a distance. Daniel started humming a funeral dirge but quickly stopped. Kara sniffled as we inched through the underbrush, sticks crunching underfoot. Daniel and Akhmed stepped forward as we were blocked by a thick bush. They stabilized the stretcher from both sides as Erikur and Craig tried to guide it around the bush. The twins darted in front of the stretcher and held their torches aloft to guide the way.
When the trees started thinning, our pace picked up, and we broke onto the beach where a bonfire was raging. Everyone looked at us as the stretcher was lowered beneath a palm tree, and they started pouring in our direction.
“Is he dead?” someone asked.
Potsami, Mika’s wife, ran up to us screaming “Mika! Mika!” but Daniel caught her before she got too close.
“Don’t look,” Daniel said, holding her tightly. Potsami started sobbing and she didn’t let up all night.
Erasmus and Craig disappeared inside the so-called supply Tent and came back out with makeshift wooden shovels in their hands. They retreated within the edges of the jungle and started digging near the trunk of a Neem tree. The earth was foam, giving generously to the shovels, but they soon struck roots, so they had to dig the hole further from the trunk, in the middle of a grassy clearing. Their sweat chilled them in the cooling jungle, but they kept digging while the rest of us were snoring by the campfire. Our horror and grief had drained us all.
The funeral proceedings began as the sun shimmered across the ocean all the way to the horizon. First, a group of women led by Ren prepared Mika’s body, washing away all the filth until his skin shone like a newborn. They wrangled a shirt over him to keep everything in place, and with a clean pair of pants I could try to forget what happened to him.
Those of us who had been with Mika last night gathered around his body after he had been placed back on the stretcher. Together we lifted it up, raising it on high. Women wailed behind us as we marched into the jungle, everyone following us in columns. When we stepped into the clearing, a ray of sunlight burst through the leaves and dust swirled up to heaven. Without saying a word, the eight of us walked towards the lip of the grave and lowered the stretcher beside it.
I turned around and watched everyone else filter into the clearing, forming a circle around the grave. Master Akirabe, our spiritual advisor, a bald man with a dark complexion and a compassionate demeanor, wearing a tan robe, followed at the rear of the procession but moved through the circle and joined us by the grave.
“My friends,” he said. “What a tragic morning. My deepest empathy is with all of you.”
“Thank you,” Daniel muttered.
“I feel like I’m responsible for this!” Kara cried.
“Oh, no, no,” Master Akirabe said. He stepped towards Kara and raised his arms. She clung to him, wracked by sobs.
“It’s alright,” he said. “I think we’re learning that Nature is beyond our control. What happened was nobody’s fault.”
Kara let go of him, wiping her cheeks with her forearm. Master Akirabe turned towards the crowd and raised his voice.
“My friends. It is with a heavy heart that I must address you today. Mika was dear to us all. I fear we have lost a very valuable member of our community.
“We have lost many these past months. I still see all their faces, but I don’t have their laughter to cling to anymore.
“We all need something to cling to. I choose to cling to memory when someone I love is stolen from me. In my memory, I see Mika laughing, strong. He never liked to take life seriously, and I loved him for that.
“I think it was because of this that he emerged as a leader after the ship sank. He would do anything to keep a smile on his lips, whether it be from hunting or dancing around the campfire, he helped to keep us fed and to keep our spirits high
“So it is with remorse that we must say farewell to the friend that we all knew and loved. If the beach is quieter at night from now on, we will remember the one who kept the festivities going, but we must learn from him and learn to face the brutality of life with a grin on our lips.”
Master Akirabe fell silent, and Daniel stepped forward. He drew a breath and started to speak. “Mika. . . he was one of my closest. . .” his voice quivered and he had to pause for a moment as his eyes shimmered. “He was my closest friend. I know everything there is to know about that man. He didn’t like to act serious because he thought he would bring everyone down if he let on what was worrying him. He was kind and hilarious, but also very intelligent. What I will miss most is romping through the jungle with Mika by my side, both of us yapping on about whatever crossed our minds. He was. . .”
Daniel wiped tears from his eyes and turned around to face Mika. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there, I’m sorry, I. . .”
I put my hand on Daniel’s shoulder and he stared at the sand.
Master Akirabe stepped forward and raised his arms. “Today we bequeath another son to the earth. As it was in the beginning, so it will be in the end.”
Two ropes had been laid across the grave, being held taught by four grim-faced men. Us pallbearers lifted the stretcher and lowered it onto the ropes. It tilted back at first, so we pushed it forward until it was balanced. The men manning the ropes looked to Master Akirabe for a cue. He nodded to them, and as the stretcher baring Mika slipped down into his grave, Potsami began shrieking, standing at the front of the crowd.
She stumbled forward, trying to clutch at the air. “My baby!” she cried. “Don’t leave me!”
As she stumbled towards the grave, Erasmus grabbed her, hugging her to his chest. She screamed at beat at him with her fists, but he whispered, “Potsami. Please.”
She quited, and when Erasmus let her go, she slumped to the ground. He had Craig picked up their shovels and began filling the grave. As they worked, first one person, then others, started singing.
“From the ashes we grow.
Into the ashes we fall.
As long as the world turns.
As long as the world turns.
Each day grows shorter now,
And into dust we will fall
As long as the world turns.”
Once the grave was filled, a marker was fixed above it and we set our sights to the journey ahead, gathering our supplies and filling our packs. As we gathered on the beach to leave, we realized that no one had seen Potsami since the funeral. We found her sobbing on top of Mika’s grave, her face buried in the dirt. Master Akirabe stepped forward and knelt beside her.
“Potsami,” he said. Her body shook. “We need to keep moving forward. I know it’s hard, but Mika wouldn’t want you to join him on the other side.”
Potsami resisted for several minutes, but her strength drained into the dirt and she let us carry her away. We supported her to the beach, but she shook us off and kept walking on her own across the sand. We had to grab all the bags and hurry to keep up with her.
We had butchered Mika’s boar, and the slices of meat filled two bags to the brim, blood dripping to the sand as we walked. If I turned back and squinted, I could imagine the trail of blood leading across the sand, back to Mika’s grave, but I told myself to look forward. I couldn’t stop the images from floating through my mind, but I just dug my feet into the sand and relished the burn.
We were all driven by this energy, and we continued marching as the stars started throwing swatches across the sky, but the moon was nowhere to be found. It was the start of a new cycle.
As people started collapsing from exhaustion, we called it a night. We didn’t bother building a fire, huddling together in the sand. The next morning we devoured a bag of fruit and started shuffling through the sane again. Some people tried to keep up conversations, but all the talk sounded hollow, so as noon approached, we lapsed back into a silence that lasted all afternoon.
The silence was finally broken as dusk drew down on us.
“Do you hear that?” A woman asked.
“Is that running water?”
Our pace picked up, and the sound intensified as we broke onto the bank of the river. Muddy water turned white as it swirled into the ocean, and cheers broke out among us.
Daniel came up to my side and sucked in a lungful of air. “So,” he said. “Kolkata is just up the river?”
“Or what’s left of Kolkata,” I said.
People were stripping off their clothes, wading into the river in their underwear. I saw Rohanna splash water at Sanjay, and for the first time in so long, I heard laughter as Sanjay splashed back at Rohanna. Soon there was water flying all through the air.
We set up camp that night on firm ground, along the banks of the river. While others gathered wood I rested beneath a tree, and when I stood back up, sand was not dusting my trousers, but my haunches were moist and mud-stained, deep brown splotches over the khaki. I slipped them off and stuck my socks in my tattered shoes, and then I waded into the river where dozens of naked bodies were unwinding from the pulse of life, letting the river suck all our filth out to sea.
I took off my shirt and flung it towards my pile of clothes, revealing my pale chest to the air, but I left my drawers on as I stepped deeper. Dirt clouded the water, but I could see pebbles lining the river bed. As I waded even deeper, I lost sight of the riverbed, and the river tugged gently at me. Looking down at my legs, a layer of dirt camouflaged the copper-tone skin. I scrubbed at my legs and let the current wipe my skin clean.
In the center of the river, the water rose to my chest; sucking in a lungful of air, I dove under the surface. I clenched my eyes shut and let the current pull me a couple meters before I stood up, water dripping from my hair. I wiped my eyes and dragged my fingers through the hair, which had grown unkempt, but grease seemed to have solidified the tangles. Ducking back underwater, I raked my fingers through my hair through the tangles. When I came back up I felt cleaner than I had in months.
Turning to face the others, I looked around for Kara, but there were too many faces. As I swam past crowds of people, I drank in the music of laughter.
“Jebuiz!” I heard Kara call out behind me. She broke away from a group and floated over to me. Her black, silken hair floated behind her and a smile lifted her cheeks. I had forgotten how good it felt to smile.
“Hey there,” Kara said.
“You look like you’ve been reborn,” I said.
“So do you.”
She floated closer and dragged her fingers through my hair; I felt a shock where her skin touched mine, and my mind went blank.
“You need a haircut,” she said.
“I think we’ve run out of scissors.” I laughed.
Kara smiled, and her eyes sparkled in the sun. “It’s been so long since we’ve had a reason to laugh,” she said, wiping her eyes. “When we get to Kolkata, I’m giving you a haircut.”
An urge ripped through me—something I thought I had lost—and I found myself holding Kara in my arms.
“I’d like that,” I said. The air between our smiles glowed as Kara wrapped her arms around me. “I don’t know how you women deal with your hair.”
“It’s a labor of love,” she purred.
I could see galaxies glowing beneath the bronze of her cheeks and her eyes searched mine. I came to and let go of her, but she kept hold so I let my right arm drape around her waist. We floated in silence for a while.
“What do you think Kolkata’s going to be like?” Kara asked.
“Well—we stopped by Kolkata a couple decades ago and it was mostly jungle. The city is on top of an active fault line, so all the skyscrapers tumbled over a long time ago. It was odd to see—the ground had absorbed the rubble, and you would never have known what lay inside the hills without pictures—buildings lining the avenues, seamless glass panes reflecting the sun.”
“Are there no buildings left at all?”
“There’s the tombs all huddled near the river in what used to be called the Maidan. For some reason, the jungle stopped at the edges of the Maidan. Around there are the old football and cricket stadiums—you can see the bleachers covered in ivy in the shadow of the jungle, but most of the city central is impossible to navigate, but you can see the foundations of many buildings and houses north and south of that. It’s been so long, even the tombs are starting to show their age.”
“I’m excited for it!” Kara said. “I haven’t been there since before the migration.”
“We’re not there yet, but this last leg shouldn’t be too hard.”
“It looks like everyone else is back on shore,” she said, letting go of me.
“That’s right!” I said. “We should help set up camp.”
Kara followed as I waded out of the river, suppressing a shiver. All the towels had been used, piled up in the shade of a short but thick-trunked tree.
“You want a towel?” Kara asked.
“I’ll let the wind dry me off.”
She grabbed a towel from the pile and started drying off. I could see her nipples through her bra.
“Yuck!” she said. “I feel like I’m getting dirty again.”
“It’s warm,” I said. “It’s not so bad being wet.”
“I know, but still…”
When she was as dry as she was going to get, she tossed the towel back in the pile. “I’m gonna go find my clothes,” she said.
“I’ll be here, in the sun.”
As Kara walked down the shore, I turned to the jungle and listened as people gathered wood, passing in and out of view behind trees. Several people carried armfuls of sticks out onto the riverbank, and I stepped closer to help build the fire. Daniels walked out of the jungle as Akhmed started positioning the sticks.
“Hey, my boy!” Daniel said. “You sly dog, you! I didn’t know you had it in you.”
I couldn’t hold back my grin. “I was as shocked as you were.”
“When are you going to make it official?”
“Official. . . no, no, no. I’m married to Niko.”
“I don’t know what I was doing.”
“If it’s making you smile, I say it’s a good thing.” Stepping towards Akhmed, Daniel said, “What are you doing! My man, you need to make a tipi with the sticks.”
“We’ve been over this before,” Akhmed growled.
My head somewhere else, I wandered down the river towards where I thought my clothes might be. I couldn’t give up on Niko. She always talked about how she wanted to return to the Digital Realm. I knew she’d be there. Pulling my clothes back on, I wandered into the jungle where I could be along with my thoughts for a while.
The air was inky with night when Kara came looking for me. She held a torch aloft and branches cracked beneath her feet.
Her voice sounded like a whisper drifting through stagnant air. “I’m over here,” I said.
Bushes rustled as she approached; I was sitting with my back against the trunk of a tree with bark that flaked off from the slightest contact. Kara stepped up beside me and sat down in the leaves.
“It’s getting dark in here,” she said. “Why don’t you come back to camp?”
“I don’t think I can do it anymore,” I said.
“What? You can’t do what anymore?”
“I can’t lead them.”
“You’ve gotten us this far.”
“That wasn’t me. That was everyone working together.”
Kara’s deep brown eyes glimmered in the torchlight as she studied me. “What’s really on your mind?”
“Niko,” I whispered.
“Yeah,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about Nigel a lot.”
Her head slumped down, so I grabbed her free hand in mine.
“I still can’t imagine living without her—without Niko. All the memories.”
“All the memories,” she said. “Each night I pray that I’ll wake up aboard the ship. We had a routine then—I’ve forgotten how to handle change.”
“Really? You never let on.”
“Yeah. I just went where no one would hear me.”
“I never had a chance to say goodbye, and now people are looking to me to tell them what to do. It’s too much.”
Kara sidled closer to me, resting her cheek against my shoulder. “Maybe we can help each other.”
I leaned my head against hers and hugged her. “Thank you,” I said. “Let’s head back to camp before we get eaten alive.”
“Okay.” She giggled and jumped up. I followed back towards the river.
Everyone had already had their fill of roasted boar and the fire was starting to dwindle down. Most people had already retired under a lean-to or in a bed of leaves, but a few still lingered on the riverbank. Upon seeing us, Daniel walked up to me.
“I was wondering when you’d show up,” he said.
“Hey, Daniel,” I said.
“I was wondering if you would. . .”
“What is it, Jebuiz?”
“It’s no thing,” Daniel said. “Just tell me and I’ll see what I can do.”
“I’ll tell you when we get to Kolkata.”
“Alright. I’ll hold you to that.”
I felt Kara tug my arm. “I saved a plate for you,” she said. “You should eat before it gets too cold.”
After I finished eating, I walked with Kara into the edges of the jungle.
“It feels like it might rain tonight,” she said. “So I got Rohanna to help me build a lean-to. Follow me!”
Kara held out her hand, and after a hesitation, I grabbed it and let her lead me deeper into the jungle. Passing by a tree, a shaft of moonlight pierced through the canopy, alighting on a rough lean-to—a pile of branches leaning against the trunk at an angle. Looking inside, there was a few feet of space covered with a mound of leaves and a rough brown blanket.
“After you,” I said.
Kara knelt down and crawled inside the lean-to, spreading the blanket over the leaves as she went. She scooched to the side to make room for me, so I crawled in next to her. Looking back, I saw my feet were sticking outside the lean-to, so I bent my knees and turned on my side, leaning on my elbow. Kara turned to face me, reaching up to brush hair out of my eyes. I lifted the long lock of hair that hung over her face and tucked it behind her ear. As I did this, she grabbed onto me.
“Hold me,” she whispered.
I hugged her to me and we sank into the bed of leaves.
I need to be honest with you, whoever may be reading this—I have no way of telling anyone how mixed up I’m feeling. It doesn’t help that all of this is so new—so different. I have been managing to make it all work because of my writing; I put everything into order with the narrative, but everything that’s going on outside of the narrative—outside the possibility of language—is driving me mad. There’s a word for it: ineffable. That word has been floating through my mind these past days like a fishing bob floating in the current of a river, waiting for a salmon to bite—a salmon of doubt.
I use metaphor as my jungle—a place where I can hide while I try to give pause to the war inside me. Kara sticks to my side like a lieutenant in war. The war strides thickly through the marsh, where more mud clings to my pants and crusts my shoes with each step.
Kara speaks through one ear as Niko, or her memory, sits in the corner of my mind and tries to join in the conversation. She tells me she understands. She and Kara had been such good friends.
“Why don’t we just walk through the river?” Kara asked as she dug her shoe out of the mud.
“People have been attacked by fish,” I said.
“But there are good fish too!”
“Oh yes! They are so fun to play with!”
Despite all my bemoaning, we did manage to have a pleasurable time. We made camp earlier each day so we could wash all the mud from us. As we settled into the environment, dolphins had a tendency to gather in the river around us. They were absolutely the kindest creatures I had ever encountered. The young were just as playful as the monkeys, except they stuck to themselves mostly.
I’m not a scientists, but I enjoyed discussing the matter with Dr. Komachi. He wore a pair of navy blue shorts that weren’t water resistant, but he wore them like swimming trunks. He was bare-chested, leaning against a tree near the riverbank, watching as people lingered in the shallows, waiting to see if the dolphins would come closer.
Approaching him, I said, “What do you think of the dolphins?”
“Back when we were still on the Earth we had already built up communication with their leaders. Back then they had to stay away from all the water we contaminated, so by now I imagine they will have settled all navigable waterways.”
“How does their intelligence match with ours?”
Dr. Komachi blinked and scratched his head. “I don’t really know. Our main advantage is our thumbs, but they’re doing alright.”
“Jebuiz!” Kara called. She had waded a ways from the bank, and she was waving at me. “Do you see the dolphins?”
A group of three dolphins, not yet full grown, were splashing water at each other, inching closer to the people. For some reason they always seemed to like the women more than the men, perhaps because of the tenacity of the women. Kara never tired of waiting for them to approach, and when one came within an arms’ length of her, she would reach out and spread her palm for the dolphin to contemplate. If it nuzzled her hand, Kara would reach out and stroke its skin, dragging her fingers over its fin.
Because the dolphins were all reserved in their interactions with us, most of us watched from the riverbank as they played amongst themselves. Dolphin song always filled the air, so I would pretend to interpret for Kara.
“That one’s saying, ‘What in the bloody hell are those things?’”
Kara laughed. “What’s that little baby dolphin saying?”
Less than a meter long, this dolphin was tumbling through the water near a couple adults, emitting a constant stream of whistles and squeaks. To the untrained ear, the little thing sounded like a virtuoso.
“That one’s reciting the great soliloquy from Hamlet. I truly have never heard better delivery.”
“Oh my goodness. Yes! What a talented dolphin!”
“Now his mother’s yelling at him, ‘Quit showing off!’ Oh, but his father’s cutting in—‘Now, darling, we should encourage him.’”
“You see how gentle they are together?”
The parents were nuzzling their baby between them, and they turned and led it away downriver.
“Goodbye!” Kara called. “Remember to follow your passion!”
On the eighth day, I woke before the sun had risen. Crawling out of the lean-to, I made sure not to disturb Kara. I gathered my clothes from the line we had strung between two trees, and, after lacing my shoes, I turned and walked out to the riverbank. There was a meter of rocky soil between the jungle and the water, and when I stepped out I inhaled the cool air. Mist rose from the river, a haze over the darkness as it gradually lifted. I could feel the weight pressing on my shoulders. The laughter from last night echoed through my mind, but now the laughter was pulling me down like gravity and I knew the ground would eventually open up and swallow me.
I hated that thought—that I would crack jokes, that I would forget myself. Why should I be happy? Sometimes it isn’t the answer. I knew that Kara was just using me to help her forget her loss, and she had almost convinced me, but she can’t know how I feel.
With the sunrise lightening the air, an idea struck me and my heart began racing. I returned to the lean-to and hoisted my pack onto my shoulders. Kara was breathing peacefully inside, so I crept away, heading towards Daniel’s lean-to. I could hear his snores as I approached. Kneeling down in front of the opening, I whispered, “Daniel?”
His limbs were all akimbo and a cowlick stuck up on the side of his head, a blanket pulled up over his chest. I whispered his name again and still nothing.
“Daniel!” I said.
He sat up and started crawling towards me. “What is it? Somebody hurt?”
“No,” I said, raising my hands.
Daniel sat down. “What is it?”
“I need to go.”
“Go? Go where? We should be in Kolkata soon.”
“I need to go on by myself.”
“What’s the point of that?”
“Kara has me trapped.”
“What do you mean?” Daniel asked. “The past week you’ve been in such a good mood. I think she’s doing you good.”
“It’s just making the pain all that worse. Laughter just keeps the darkness at bay, but it always floods back in each morning, worse than before. I think I need to embrace the darkness, so I can learn to live with it.”
“Wait. . .” Daniel said. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
“I don’t think of the darkness as negative. It’s just there, and I don’t want to let it disappear.”
“Could you be a little more specific?”
“Yeah, I think that would be good. I don’t fully understand it, but let me consider it.
“Okay. We’ve all lost someone we hold dear. The only people I’ve ever known who died were my grandparents, and I was barely in my twenties at that point. You know how twenty years can pass in the blink of an eye when you get set into a pattern, and our patterns have been stretching out for so long they completely covered up Death.
“Back when my grandparents died, this reality in the physical world was the only reality we had access to, but when we plugged into the Digital Realm, this new reality blotted out the real, and we became so entrenched into the patterns that were now available, and everything was possible.
“You can understand the appeal. I’ve had a great time returning to this organic mode of life, and it really has put everything into perspective—how incredible technology is. I know that Niko is waiting for me.”
As I finished, my hands were shaking, so I clenched them together and closed my eyes.
“So you’re just going to sneak away from Kara—to leave us?”
“I love everyone among us, but this is something I have to do. Besides, I know I’ve been terrible company—I’d like for you to assume leadership in my absence. All along you’ve been the one holding us together.”
“I’d be honored to. What do you want me to tell Kara?”
“Tell her that I’m going to find an answer.”
“Gotcha,” Daniel said. “You know, I really hope you do. I’d like to think of Mika smoking his pipe out on the porch somewhere. Do you think you’ll come back?”
“Only time will tell.”
“Well, at least we’ll know where you’re at.”
I stood up and Daniel crawled out of the lean-to, wrapping the blanket around his waist.
“Well, I hate to see you go, but I wish you all the luck in the world,” he said.
I held out my hand, but he went for the hug. I tried to readjust, but he caught my left arm against his chest.
“You really mean so much to us,” he said, letting go.
“You know where I’ll be,” I said, lifting my pack. “’til next we meet.”
“Be safe!” he called as I turned to the river, and within a minute I had left the camp behind me.
My legs throbbed with energy, and without the others to distract me I found myself jogging along the riverbank, dodging roots. After an hour I had settled into a brisk walk, and as I rounded a bend in the river, I saw, on the opposite bank, four concrete pills sticking out of the water, all covered in moss. With my attention fixed on the opposite bank, my foot hit something very solid and I fell onto my face.
Coming up covered in mud and blood—scrapes on my arms and chin—I turned around to see the culprit. The end of a discolored steel beam poked up through the dirt.
“I need to be careful,” I said.
I grabbed the towel out of my pack and disrobed, perching my clothes on top of the pack. Wading into the river, I scrubbed the mud away and splashed water over the scrapes.
I moved quickly as I toweled off and redressed, looking around for more signs of the city. The jungle thinned away from the riverbank as I walked on, and within a kilometer I ran across the weathered foundation of massive proportions—a jagged line of concrete blocks like enormous teeth stretching across the jungle floor. I let myself be distracted as I scoped out the perimeter. As I traced the foundation in a rectangle, I imagined that this building had been a warehouse in the middle of a busy port.
As I walked I marveled at how little of the city was left. There were plenty of concrete pillars in the river, but the jungle had hidden the rest of the city. The most I could see were hopelessly rusted iron bars poking out of the dirt every few meters. As I passed the third one, I kicked it and it exploded into dust. This entertained me for a few minutes, but I had business to attend to.
I knew I was approaching the Maidan for the air tingled with energy. A glow suffused over my mind, lightening it, dissolving my pity-trip. The energy ignited rows of neurons in my brain and synapses which had atrophied began firing again. I felt the serotonin hit, pausing me in my tracks. Looking up, I watched a cloud float by overhead.
I stuck to the edge of the jungle as it peeled away from the river, and after a beat the tree line ended. I stepped into an expansive field where nary a tree grew.
And there they were—dozens of lines of steel-plated tombs. Each had a unique design; some were unadorned cubes large enough for just a bed, but others were massive—a scaled replica of the Taj Mahal towered over the rest, but even that wasn’t the most impressive. As I walked down a line of tombs, my heart jumped to my throat when I saw an enormous diamond the size of a goat, glittering at the tip-top of a structure where four spires intersecting, curving up from each corner. The sun was catching every face of the diamond and rainbows refracted across the surrounding area. The tomb itself was framed with metallic columns on the front and the walls were made of a smooth metal that still reflected the sunlight. All the other tombs showed their age, even the Taj Mahal, so the preservation of this tomb shocked me more than the diamond did.
Walking towards it, I placed my palm against the tomb and my hand started glowing. It felt like I had stuck my hand into warm apple pie, and the feeling spread up my arm. I walked around the perimeter but there was no sign of a door, so I kept walking down the line. I thought back to the last time I had been in Kolkata. We had convinced a few people to join us, but which tombs had they left vacant?
For a while I hoped that seeing the vacant tombs would trigger my memory, but after going down eight rows I had had nothing. From then on, I peeked inside each tomb I passed that was unlocked. In the first tomb I saw an elderly Indian man and his wife lying side by side. As I investigated each tomb, I fancied myself the census-taker, figuring out the demographics. The majority had entered the Digital Realm as a couple, be it a man and a woman or two men/two women, but about one in five tombs housed someone who had entered the Digital Realm by themselves.
As I made my way down the last row of tombs I prayed that I wouldn’t have to go back to the beginning. Opening the door to a weather-stained and beaten tomb, its hinges shrieked and light filtered in, revealing the wrinkled sheets of an empty bed. Without a look back, I stepped inside.
The room was spotless. Everything inside was white: the floor, ceiling and walls; the bed and the desk that sat at the head of the bed. A computer lay dormant on the desk, so I walked over and powered it up; the screen flickered to life, asking me for the password. Searching through drawers, I found a manila folder labeled ‘network info.” Pulling out its contents, I thumbed through the pages until I found the password.
Logged in, I booted up the Digital Realm program and hooked the electrode-hat into its drive. The screen flashed—Enter the Digital Realm? [yes] [no]. Hooking the electrodes over my head, I clicked [yes] and jumped into bed. After pulling the sheets over me, the electrodes whirred into life, and I could feel my brain tingling.
After closing my eyes, I opened my other eyes—the ones that look inward. I saw Niko, glowing in the predawn murk, but she turned and ran away. I watched until she faded across the horizon, and as she disappeared, the sun rose to take her place. As light spread across the ground, it revealed dozens of tents set up in the middle of a field. I walked towards them.
“Hello?” I said, but there was no answer. Lifting the flaps of the nearest tent, I saw the blank tarp floor. Every tent was just as empty, and I couldn’t find any evidence of a fire.
Leaving the field behind, I walked towards the sun. I started to hear blast echo from the distance, and as I climbed over a ridge, I saw a battle was going on below me, between a human army and an alien army. I couldn’t tell they were aliens from their appearance, for they were covered in armor that glared in the sun, but by their weapons, which were unlike anything I had seen. They had cannons that shot blobs of plasma that exploded on the ground, giant guns they rested on their shoulders, shooting bolts of lightning across the field, and all sorts of smaller rifles and pistols.
The two armies covered many kilometers, and I really didn’t want to walk around them, so I magnified my voice and called out, “Could you call a cease-fire for a few minutes?”
The battle quieted down as both sides turned to look at me.
“My friends,” I continued. “I have no part in your battle. I am simply a traveler, passing through. Would it be possible for me to pass by?”
The human commander sprinted over to me after he pushed his way through his army. He was wearing deep-green military garb.
“My lord,” he said. “Could you consider forming an alliance with us? These intruders are here to steal our women, as well as our resources.”
Just then the alien commander strolled up, removing his helmet. Its face looked like a bowl of mashed potatoes that had been molded to resemble a face. Its eyes seemed to float around inside its head.
It gurgled a few phrases then pulled a device out of a pocket and flicked it on. The device said, “We are fortunate to have you in our midst, but surely someone such as yourself has more important things to worry about than this conflict. Our forces will gladly call a cease-fire to let you pass.”
“But sir!” the human said.
I studied both of them. “If this conflict is over resources,” I said. “Why don’t you two make a deal that would be mutually beneficial?”
“They’d never agree to it,” the human said. “Their home planet is drained of resources.”
“That’s not true,” the alien said. “Our planet is abundant in resources. Your planet simply contains certain resources that are unavailable to us at home. Don’t you understand that not all planets are the same?”
“You see,” I said. “This should be mutually beneficial. I’m sure there are plenty of minerals on your planet that are worth a fortune here. You could trade your resources for those available on the Earth.”
After a very pregnant silence, the human muttered, “I kinda like the sound of that.”
“Your wisdom is the stuff of legends,” the alien said.
“Well, I’ll let you two hammer out the details,” I said. “I’m on my way home.”
Both commanders shook hands with me—although I was glad that the alien was wearing gloves. As I walked away, they turned to face each other, and I headed straight through the heart of no-man’s-land.
Over the next ridge there was a forested valley. Mountains stood guard on both sides and a river cut through it. I could see a trail of smoke rising through the middle of the forest, and I remembered that this was my home—a cottage with a broad front porch that overlooked the river, where the fish practically jumped onto the porch, and in the evening the lightning bugs came out.
As I walked down into the valley and passed into the nature preserve, squirrels jumped through trees, coming to have a look at me. Birds alighted on limbs and started chirping a song I had taught them millennia ago.
The ground was springy underfoot, carpeted in pine straw. Game trails cut through the forest at random, and I went from one to another as I followed the sound of running water. Before I knew it, the forest opened into a clearing that edged the river. There was my house. Its chimney puffed out smoke, and the timber walls looked like they had been newly tarnished. The yard stretching up to it had been mowed recently, and I could see a glow in one of the back windows, as if a light was on in another room.
I walked around the house and climbed onto the porch. A line of rocking chairs ran along its length, and I saw a couple empty beer bottles on a table as I walked to the door. Twisting the knob, the door swung open, and I stepped inside. I slid off my shoes and felt the hardwood floor against my feet. The smell of cooking filled the air, so I crossed through the parlor and stepped into the kitchen. Niko was standing at the oven with her back turned, but when I came in, she turned around and her eyes went wide.
Throwing open her arms, Niko said, “Oh, my darling! I wondered when you were coming back.”
I ran into her arms and held her tightly, planting feverish kisses on her lips, one for each tear I had shed. Tears streamed endlessly down my cheeks, making the kisses saltier and saltier.
Niko backed away and wiped my face clean with her apron. “Don’t cry,” she said. “We’re together again.”