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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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?"
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.
"I was too young."
"How old were you?"
The normal age. But for me it was too young. What kind
of nonfiction do you read? Biographies, history, science?"
"I read novels too."
"Do you have any favorite authors?" I ask.
Another pause. We don't speak again until morning.
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."
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.
comes out of the sleeping area and sits at the table without a word.
Her eyes are rimmed and puffy. She did not sleep.
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?"
"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.
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.
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.
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."
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?"
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."
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.
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 -"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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?"
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?"
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?"