Janya lay on her back on the small raft floating in the pond under the late summer stars. She let her arms hang out to the sides, the chill on her fingers where her hands bobbed in and out of the water. Inside her head she had access to the names of each and every glowing object in the sky. She could recall their age, their size, their distance, not by memory, but by conscious link to the UI—the Universal Intelligence network. She knew which stars had planets orbiting them and which of those planets were just the right distance from their parent star that they might harbor life. In a time before the UI, someone might simply stargaze and wonder about these easy facts, but instead she was left to wonder about things not yet known by anyone—about the atmospheres and the possibility of liquid water on the surface of some of those extrasolar planets, about the slight imbalances at the beginning of the universe which led to their exact distribution, about the future of the human race and whether people might once again attempt manned missions away from Earth—perhaps even leaving the solar system.
The UI didn’t reach that far, though. Any space program would be hard-pressed to find volunteers willing to fly in a ship so far away from the universal mother, the constant comfort, the constant knowing, the constant linking and sense of being one with the world’s population. But surely things would evolve even more in the coming years. That’s what her grandfather always said. People would find a way to make it work.
Janya waved her hands around in the water, causing ripples, small splashing sounds against the background hum of mosquitos. She lifted an arm and let water drip onto her face. It all felt beautiful, every sensation, every bit of endless understanding—how water molecules could form up to four intermolecular hydrogen bonds, giving rise to water’s high surface tension, making those drops linger at the tips of her fingers so long before dropping. The thousands of sarcomeres that made up her arm muscles all contracted to hold her arm there. Arrector pili in her skin reacted automatically to try and keep her warm when each cold drop hit her forehead. And deep in her brain—in her lateral habenula—the decision to perform this action was made in the first place.
In the periphery, she could sense the whole world’s population—the blue-eyed, the brown-eyed, the tall, the short, the young, the old, the athletic, the sedentary, the wise, the dull, the artistically inclined, the science-minded, those who thrived in routine, those who preferred spontaneity, the picky, the easy-going—all people everywhere, feeling that same gut-burning contentedness that was being alive, that was being in the arms of the universal mother, knowing so many things, seeing the depth in everything. And every bit of every person fit perfectly in the world. All of these traits—these perfections and imperfections all played off of each other like instruments in a symphony.
The cool evening air opened Janya’s lungs as if to take in the whole of space and time.
Her chest felt light, and goose bumps crawled up her arms. Her toes were a comfortable sort of cold—the kind that didn’t spread. A mosquito landed on her cheek. She could barely make it out as a fuzzy blob below her eye. Earlier she had doused herself with repellent, but the dousing was imperfect, or it had begun to wear off, or perhaps this particular mosquito simply did not care. But instead of swatting it away, she held herself perfectly still and let it go about its business, watching it with curiosity. She could feel the smallest sting as the insect pierced her skin, taking drink from her body. And she thought of herself as a mother nurturing an earthly baby. The skin on her cheek tingled as the insect finished its meal, leaving a tickle as it flew off.
Earlier Janya had sat with her grandfather as he lay in his bed in the spare room in their house. Her grandparents on her mother’s side had been living with them for the past year as her grandfather’s health deteriorated. He was expected to die sometime in the coming weeks, but would be a hundred and three in a month if he made it that long. Janya had never been close to someone about to die before.
Her grandfather was born just before the UI, and he had been rambling lately about being disconnected. He claimed to remember a time when he was an infant and the only link between him and his mother was her breast. He told Janya to try and imagine that. He told her the UI changed so much over the years, but people don’t usually think about it. They live in the “now.”
“The UI is not static,” he’d said. “It evolves. It has always evolved.”
Of course Janya knew this already. She may not have experienced much noticeable change in her life, but she studied the history, as all people had.
“It will change in ways we can’t know,” he’d said. “Maybe it will even be gone one day.” Her grandfather’s age imbued him with an almost supernatural authority. His words felt as real as any information she might pull off the network. Maybe the UI would be gone one day. Predictions didn’t give much likelihood to that possibility in her lifetime, but Janya couldn’t shake the feeling that there were things her grandfather saw that he couldn’t or wouldn’t put into words. He knew something—knew some pocket of information that the UI didn’t have access to.
Janya couldn’t imagine what living without the UI would be like. Sure she could put up a mindblock and temporarily block her link by focusing her thoughts and ignoring the strong pressure of input and output. But the second the mindblock became uncomfortable, it would fall. Using a mindblock to understand what living without the UI would feel like was like trying to understand pain by pinching yourself. You could always stop when it got to be too much. You were always in control of it.
All Janya figured was that it must be horrible to live like that—to never feel the thoughtpresence of others, to not have the comforting aura of the universal mother, to not know things, to misunderstand. No wonder there was war and crime and poverty all those years ago.
The stars had moved twenty degrees across the sky in the time Janya had been lying out on the raft. Her fingers dipping in and out of the water had pruned. She could sense her mother in the house, in the kitchen probably, waiting. Her father never minded her wandering around outside at night, but her mother felt some odd compulsion to remain waiting until Janya came back in the door. They were such different people, with different proclivities and different temperaments. All so different, that in a world without the UI there would surely be discord under their roof. But instead, the differences only registered as facets of a gem. Different sides, different angles, but all reflecting light.
Janya closed her eyes and let the subtle tension of her mother tug at her. As she imaged her mother’s will pulling her raft toward the shore, she swung her hands around in the water, slowly propelling herself in that direction—a leaf in a river, perfectly happy to dance in the flow and let it carry her.
Soon her raft ran aground, and she sat up as the blood rushed from her head, down into her lower limbs. She waited for the heavy feeling to dissipate, then stood up, gravity tugging at her in a way it didn’t when she was floating, sinking her into the earth. She combed her wet fingers through the tangles in her dark hair, and walked back to the house.
It was warm inside. Her mother was indeed waiting in the kitchen, her back leaned against the counter, pressing her fingers into a thick cloth to clean under her fingernails.
If Janya picked a color to describe her mother in that moment, she would choose yellow. It was the glow of a warm house in the cool evening, but with a sort of flatness to it, a drowsy resignation. Not stale, but so familiar that its constancy made it feel like a plastic covering.
Still staring at her hands, working the cloth around, her mother said, “It’s late.” She dropped the cloth in the sink and looked up at her. “What happened to your cheek?” she said.
Janya touched her cheek and felt a small bump. “A mosquito, I think.” Her mother then disappeared to retrieve something from the bathroom. Her father must have already been in bed. She could sense the loose dreaminess, like shades of lavender with elaborate black patterns tracing through it. She always liked the feel of his thoughts. They had a different color to them than most.
Janya’s mother returned with a small tube of cream and dabbed a little on the mosquito bite. “You need to use the repellant.”
“I did,” said Janya.
“Then you need to be more careful.” “I will.” Her mother ran her fingers through Janya’s hair, tucking some of the unruly strands
behind her ears, then cradling her head, looking into her daughter’s eyes. “You should get some sleep,” she said, then she left down the hall to return the cream to the bathroom, waving the lights off on her way, leaving Janya standing in the dark.
Janya waited until she heard her parents’ bedroom door close, then she walked upstairs toward her room, passing her grandparents’ room on the way. She paused at their open door to watch them sleeping side by side under the dimmed light of a lamp that they always had on.
Her grandfather was so ashen, his skin matched seamlessly with his gray hair. So wrinkled, so withered, he looked like a corpse as he slept with his mouth open. Each inhale was the sound of air being drawn like wind into some dark chasm, and sometimes it seemed like minutes before the exhale would come. Her grandmother’s head lay tilted in his direction and she had one hand on his arm like she was keeping him there, keeping him alive.
One thing the UI couldn’t tell anyone was what it felt like to die.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Gayle Towell is a writer from North Plains, Oregon. Her short stories have appeared in Menacing Hedge, Pif Magazine, and the Burnt Tongues Anthology among other places, and have won the 2013 Women’s National Book Association contest and the 2014 Willamette Writers Kay Snow fiction award. She is the founding editor of Microfiction Monday Magazine, cofounder of Blue Skirt Productions, and recently released a novella titled Blood Gravity. She also teaches physics to community college students, is married with three kids, and enjoys overextending herself and never sleeping. For more information visit gayletowell.com.