~One~

Mom sent me to go get Mia, which I didn't mind because Mia had been quiet for a while, and that usually meant something interesting was happening.

I found her in the backyard, in the middle of the lawn.

"Mia?" I said.

"Yeah?"

"What are you doing?"

She looked down at me. "Nothin'."

It was true, she didn't look like she was really doing anything.

"Mind telling me why you're up there, then?"

She fluttered six feet in the air, her wings beating gently. She shrugged. "Just hangin'."

"Floating," I said. She drifted along the air, like someone relaxing in a pool. "Where did you get the wings?" I said, half afraid I'd find some confused swans in the side yard wondering why they suddenly lacked wings.

"I made 'em."

"Out of what?" I insisted.

"Clouds."

As though to prove it, both wings detached from her back and turned back to clouds. Mia fell a yard or so before the clouds zipped beneath her feet and caught her.

"Did you want anything?" she said.

I pointed to the house. "Mom says to do the dishes."

"Aww man." She sank down onto the grass. We both headed for the house.


~Two~

I walked to the living room and the first thing I noticed was that all the fish were out of the tank and flying around through the air.

Mia was on the carpet, coloring on a blank sheet of printer paper. She was drawing fish, using out flying ones as models.

"That's not good for them," I said. "They need water."

"They're fine," she said.

It was true: they didn't seem to mind being out of the water.

"Just remember to put them back soon," I said.

She nodded. "'Kay."

299

I didn't believe in ghosts until I went to the New Planet.  There, I learned that ghosts follow you.  They exist in a way similar to meteorites that burn in the atmosphere, whose contrails linger in the retina and, after that, the imagination.  They sometimes reappear when you close your eyes.

The first story of Mia began and ended twenty years ago when the South Country enacted war by generating a shockwave which liquefied the earth under the Capital, collapsing the Museum, the Council Building, the Market Center, and my daughter's bedroom.  Mia was four.

I lived with my wife and daughter on the second floor of a duplex within walking distance of downtown.  When the wave hit, Mia's bedroom slid off and flattened against the earth.  In the days that followed, I found pockets of air throughout what remained of the duplex that still held her smell.  My wife kept finding them too and soon gave up on the marriage.  As parents will, we had shaped our love to fit around our child; with her gone, its structure became unsound. 

Now I live in a house on the beach.  I say this with some unfounded pride: it is a public beach.  When my old life fell apart I started a new one, smaller than the first.  I became an electrician, contracting for businesses throughout the Middle Country - those, anyway, that still use the old-style electricity.  I conduct my business on the open stone-floored patio adjacent to my kitchen, where smells of good food drift out when I cook.  I awaken at dawn to watch the day's first swimmers chase the tide.  Flashes of sunlight find each other on the ocean's surface; strangers who pass by while I am outside tell me that the view is panoramic.

The first story of Mia is short.  In a way, so is the second; it came together two decades after the first, when my country's military asked me to participate in a weapons test on the New Planet.



-----



The New Planet is not actually a planet.  "New Planet" refers to a research facility built for the Middle Country Military in the desert several hours' ride from the Capital.  It's called "New Planet" because it houses lifeforms culled from other worlds.  This was once a secret

Most of the facility's area is represented by an expanse of desert extending past the horizon.  There is a landing area surrounded by single-story office buildings with a road stretching away to the east.  The end of the road is fringed with bungalows.  Further still, past the open desert, a ridge of pure shale rises up and follows the curve of the planet.  It is worn smooth by the wind.  The alien lifeforms used for this particular test are planted in rows half a latitude out from the main road: trees sixty feet high, with a smooth surface the color of amber.  They do not have leaves, only red flowers as big as fists.  Each tree is surrounded by a smooth wall of Lucerin twenty feet high built a considerable distance from the trunk.

I am taken to my bungalow on a large shuttle with the other volunteers.  There are men and women of all ages, all of whom stare at the horizon.  The shuttle rides six inches above the earth, leaving a trail of dust that quickly diffuses into the wind.  The sun in the afternoon casts a pattern of shadows on the ground like reptile skin.  My pores open to the heat.  The driver explains via speakers installed in the seats that after the tests are over our memories of the experience will be removed.  I am fine with this.

I am not the only one who notices that the trees are elastic, extending their branches to the shuttle as we pass by.  By the time we reach my bungalow - the last stop - the branches are obscured by a white haze, like smoke.

With me dismounts a woman at least two decades younger with dark hair.  This is how I learn that I will have a housemate.  When I introduce myself she does not make eye contact and comments that she expected her housemate to be female; she is too nervous to mean this cruelly.

In the bungalow the floor is carpeted, the walls paneled, the lights electric.  The Middle Country has created an atmosphere of familiarity.  It reminds me of the duplex.

The furniture is whitewashed and plain.  Everything is cheap and sparse, but functional.  There is a sleeping room with two beds, a small kitchen, a common area, and a latrine.  On the south wall of the common area hangs the only decoration: a large print depicting the skyline of the Capital at dusk.  The sky in the image is red, not from pollution, but from sunlight opening in the atmosphere. The facing window is oriented so that that the sun will shine through it for a short time each day, onto the print.  I wonder if this is deliberate.  The door does not open from the inside.  Vents in each room transfer air in from the desert.

My housemate is named Claudia.  She is a grocery clerk for a natural foods store subsidized by the government.  When the sun sets we pick beds.  Before she lays down she pushes her bed against the most shadowed corner.  I ask her what she does when she's not working.

"I read," she says. 

"What do you read?"

"Nonfiction mostly.  Why?"

"We live together now.  I should know these things."

"... What do you do?"

"I contract for a living.  I'm an electrician.  The times when you're working and not working run together when you own a business."

"Why be an electrician?" 

I do not like when people ask me this.

"Because I failed out of school," I lie.

"Why?"

"I was too young."

"How old were you?"

"Twenty.  The normal age.  But for me it was too young.  What kind of nonfiction do you read?  Biographies, history, science?"

"I read novels too."

A pause.

"Do you have any favorite authors?" I ask.

"Not really."

Another pause.  We don't speak again until morning.



-----




Soon after I wake up, two enlisted men pull up to the bungalow on a streetrider.  They unlock the door and enter without knocking. The taller one carries rations and the shorter one carries a small workstation, which he places on the dining table.

"This is your orientation," he says.  "Don't worry - it's easy."

The workstation is a screen with earbuds attached.  A thoughtscreen.  I notice that it is built of metal sheathed in soft rubber.  The screen is protected by a layer of plexiglas; it would be hard to break.

Claudia comes out of the sleeping area and sits at the table without a word.  Her eyes are rimmed and puffy.  She did not sleep.

The taller one waits a moment before beginning.  "This station generates tests of intellect.  Your job here is to solve ten of them each day to the best of your ability. This will go on for a week, after which time you will be discharged and resume normal life."

"That's it?" Claudia asks.  "We're here to do tests?"

"That's it."

"I couldn't help but notice the trees," I say.

"They're not actually trees," says the short one.  "Their biological processes are similar to those of mammals."

We are silent.

"They're immobile.  The pollen they're releasing is a relative of human hormones.  When you breathe it in, it causes hallucinations and a feeling of well-being.  So you get close to the tree, thinking nothing is wrong, and you're done.  Did you notice them reaching when you passed by?  It's why we keep the doors locked."

I look out a window, which I now notice is made of a reinforced plastic rather than glass.  The trees wave in the air; there is no wind.

The tall one powers up the testing station.  Its fan whines. "We'll be coming by every two hours to check on you guys, bring food, all that. We just want to know what aspects of reasoning are affected by this stuff when you breathe it in naturally.  I'm assuming you've already been briefed on your compensation?"

"We have," I say.

The short one stands up.  "Feel free to mess with it all you want.  You can do the tests even when we're not here.  We only ask that you finish ten each day.  From what we understand of the pollen, it should give you a pleasurable experience while you're here."

This is where the second story starts.

When we return to the sleeping area with our rations, Claudia says the longest sentence I've heard her say since we arrived.

"I like Dave Eggers, as a favorite author.  To answer your question last night."

Something shifts.  I sit on my bed.  "I suppose the karma of failing out of school is catching up with me.  A year of tests.  I left my wife and my house on the beach for this."

"I didn't know you were married," Claudia says.  "You're not wearing a ring."

I do not understand why I'm not wearing a ring.

"Twenty-two years," I reply.

"Is she pretty?"

"Moreso every day.  Are you married?" 

She is not wearing a ring either.  I noticed this the first day, but with this girl, conversation seems to be a precious commodity.

"No way.  I'm only twenty-four."

I smile.  "Good girl.  Your father's happy to hear that."

She laughs - another first.  "I guess it makes you happy when your daughter says stuff like that."

I smile even though I don't understand why she would say that.  Something shifts.

"How old is your daughter?"  Mia asks. 

"Twenty-four," I say.  "You know that."

Mia looks puzzled.  "I just met you yesterday.  How would I know that?"  She lays back on her bed.  "I guess that pollen stuff takes effect pretty quickly.  Let me know when you start seeing things."

"I miss you," I say. 

Something shifts.  It it not a feeling; it is more than that.  It's knowledge, but more than that too.  It's like I've been hit in the stomach.  It's more than that too.

The duplex where we lived was bulldozed to build a hotel, at which time the atoms of Mia's scent were released into the sky.  Over time they were diffused over the whole country.  Several dozen of them followed me to my home on the beach.  Rain carried them into the ocean where the swimmers chase the tide, perhaps sparkling in the sun, perhaps lingering on the retina in the shape of hands interlocking. In that moment she is there, more than atoms, more than memory, more even than Mia: she exists in the space between thoughts, reminding me, as she always has.  When I close my eyes she is sleeping in her bedroom at dusk.  I tell her how I've spent the last twenty years trying to stay away from the abyss of her memory.  The words simply do not work.

Claudia hits me in the face.  Something in my sinuses pops, followed by pain, and blood running out over my lips.  I am holding her so tight my arms shake.  I release her and she drops to the floor, coughing.

"I want to go home," she sobs.  "Get away!  Get -"

I am aware suddenly of the whir of three streetriders stopped outside, dust still swirling out from under them, and of enlisted men dismounting, weapons drawn.  Mia has disappeared.  Claudia cries.

"I'm sorry," I say.



-----




A day has passed.  The woman in the clinic eyes the bandage over my nose.  We are in one of the low buildings surrounding the landing area.  My sweat evaporates in the cool air coming from the ceiling.

"Claudia suffered three broken ribs and a bruised lung," she says.

I only look at her.

"Well, you asked."

"Where is she?" I say.

"She's in a bed down the hall.  You can visit her if you want, though I wouldn't advise it.  It's a good thing this stuff wears off, otherwise you'd really be in trouble.  Do you want anything?"

I want a lot of things.  I was not asking about Claudia.  I say "no thanks" instead.

The woman seems to collect herself.  "Okay.  Look.  We're not going to hold you responsible for what happened.  Obviously you were under the influence, which was the entire point of you being here.  What the Colonel has decided to do, since you're the only case so far to display violent tendencies, is discharge you early with partial compensation.  The medical staff agrees that this is what's best - you won't be experiencing any long-term effects."

"I don't need money," I say. 

"It's the Law - we have to pay you.  I can have the techs run a scan of your head if you want, since your roommate hit you pretty hard."

"I'm fine."

The woman engages the communicator on her desk.  "As the men told you when you arrived, it's policy with military tests that we disengage a bit of your long-term memory, for the obvious reasons." 

A voice comes through the communicator: "He's ready?"

"Yeah," the woman says.  "I'll bringing him over now."  She turns to me.  "We only remove what's transpired since you came here.  You'll remember getting communication from the military asking you to come out, and you will contact us wondering what it's about, and we will tell you it was a mistake.  That's standard procedure.  It'll happen with the rest of the volunteers when their time is finished too."

I close my eyes.  The pain flashes; I can see colors.  They suggest dusk.

"Is there any way to erase other memories too?" I ask.  "Or is it just what I remember from here?"

The woman pauses.  "It's possible.  We do it with our interplanetary crews sometimes when things go wrong.  I can pull some strings, I guess.  Is there something you want to forget?"

"Someone."

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