Selected by guest editor Daniel José Older
5 Reasons I Have To Break Up With Nia (Zoraida Tun’s journal)
1. Dragged me here, never see her anymore anyway
2. Promised we’d set up one household together in six months, and it’s been a year
3. Stuck me with her stupid pet orchid
4. …OK, it’s pretty much all about #1.
5. …See 4.
At midnight, with 18 hours of darkness left to go, Zory knows she can’t do this anymore. She spends a few more hours alone in the narrow bed — the bed is too small to fuck anyone in, anyway — and leaves Nia a message as soon as she gets up. Not a break-up message, which would be horrible; just a request for a conversation. Then another message. And another. The honorable thing would be to go tell Nia in person, she knows, but her shitty little “just for now” municipal job is here, and not flexible. On top of that, Nia’s beloved data-shaping job has turned out to mean constant travel. It would all be done remotely if there were any kind of decent infrastructure here! (Turns out the difference between “frontier” and “wasteland” is basically nothing.) The traveling itself is a lot of the problem, but anyway, she wants to get the breakup over with. Zory eats breakfast at a tiny table in her tiny living room, since her kitchen consists of a cooking unit and a fridge, and watches a frothy drama, but mostly keeps willing Nia to call back.
The shitty little job eats away her day. Zory is done with work and is sitting in the same place in her tiny living room, eating dinner and mindlessly watching three news feeds, when they all pause and are replaced by a scrolling message. Over a chiming alert, the apartment reads it aloud: “Quake warning. Quake warning. Mild at this location.” Zory points at the alert, and the apartment elaborates: “Quake centered in Northern Domain. Estimated Shindo 7.”
Seven. That’s bad, but she’s never even been up there, so she can’t picture what it might be like. But the news feeds are about to be flooded with images of disaster, so, popiah roll still in hand, she gestures the news off.
5 Worst Things About This Place (Zoraida Tun’s journal)
1. No use for teledildonics specialists (“thriving maker culture” MY ASS), working for godforsaken municipality instead
2. That is not a proper sky color
3. Winter nights way too long (especially alone)
4. Communications infrastructure still being built (!)
5. Currently available housing way too small. Well, it would be. If there were two people in it.
The apartment trembles slightly. It lasts longer than any quake Zory’s felt before, but it’s not a bad shake. She takes a sip of her apple soda while the liquid is still quivering.
Of course, that’s when Nia’s icon flashes up. Zory almost drops her glass, but puts it down and smooths her eyebrows. It takes a moment for her to register that the camera icon is crossed out. What is Nia up to? Did she catch on? Zory is sure that her messages were neutral — no note of impending breakup in her voice.
Zory accepts the connection. Text appears on the screen.
Zory, are yuo gettig this
“What the hell, Nia? I’ve been calling you for hours, and now… is this some kind of game?” An [abc] icon appears on screen. Nia’s not getting Zory’s voice in reply, just a transcription.
Im getting thru, good. worst business trip ever. thk goodness i chareged everythung last week when i was out east
Zory makes a face. “Are you in some kind of shantytown hotel with a bootleg satellite linkup or what? We still need to talk.”
Havent chked msgs, sry. zory, I think im trapped
hueg quake up here, didn’t you see the news?
ugh, sorry fr typos. never used txt entry on this before. Its so weird.
Oh shit. “You’re in Northern Domain. I forgot.” Zory flushes.
Nia’s somewhere different all the time and it just all blurs together. Zory hasn’t been paying much attention to their calendar lately. She didn’t need it to remind her that Nia’s birthday was two days ago or to send her a present (and based on the bland “Thanks so much! Kisses!” message she got in return, Nia — self-declared queen procrastinator — probably hasn’t sat down long enough to unwrap it yet).
Zory still checks the calendar sometimes, but Nia’s entries haven’t included Go home in at least six weeks, and don’t as far in the future as Zory has looked.
She presses the backs of her hands into her eyes. “Are you hurt? Are you safe?”
Not hurt. just stuck. No power here, no light. Door won’t open.
Feel better talking to you thoguh.
“Where are you?”
going thru archival data hives, old schooool! Way out in an outpost. don’t think anyone knows exactly where I am.
Tried a million things arlready
Tired connecting by txt to hq, but no txt connections, maybe becuase that new system update
Txt connections are obslete I guess hA HA HA But anyway, I have you, itll be ok
Long as I don’t chew my own arm off from boredom anyway
Guess I’ll check for some kind of non0bvious exit again
“What? Nia, what?”
Zory stares at the screen, waiting for more words to appear where video of Nia should be. There’s just a looping image of Nia’s brown face and slightly-chapped pink lips. She smiles her deeply-dimpled smile, then breaks into a broad grin and turns away, and then the image loops and she does it again. Then even that blinks away. The connection is gone. “Shit.”
5 Responsibilities Of Municipal Employees In An Emergency (virtual poster, Zoraida Tun’s work space)
1. Assess situation and identify any possible threats to life safety.
2. Take action to protect themselves and members of the public in their immediate vicinity.
3. Note critical information on slate and immediately copy to headquarters.
4. Report time-sensitive life safety information to supervisor.
5. Follow response procedures established by their department’s emergency plan. See 090a-q.
Zory has emergency training. Everyone in the department is required to. But what can she do with it now, from here? Nia may be her about-to-be ex, but Zory still has to figure out how to help. She tells the apartment to call the emergency line in Northern Domain. “I’m sorry,” it replies smoothly. “All calls are restricted to support emergency communications. Do you affirm that this call is a real emergency?”
“Yes!” she says.
“Connecting. Connecting. Connecting.”
Zory stares at the news feed’s jumble of words, not really processing them: aftershock, damage, preliminary, infrastructure, casualties, setback.
“I’m sorry, your call cannot be completed. Communications in and out of this region are impaired.”
“No shit,” Zory grumbles, but the apartment is used to it and doesn’t inquire further. She drums her fingers and is trying to think, when Nia reconnects.
think I cracked a rib or smoething. Feel like ive got asthma.
Zory takes a deep breath herself. “How bad? Severe shortness of breath?”
No don’t think ive punctured a lung. Maybe smoek or dust or other crap in the air.
Zory takes Nia through the rest of the first aid questions. “I think you’re OK for now.” But for how long? She doesn’t say it aloud, but she can’t stop from thinking it. Her chest feels tight. “I mean, don’t panic; you’re not going to die or anything. OK?”
everythig OK on your end
I mean, I can’t hear you
And your’e probably upset
But seems like something is wrong
I love you zory
Zory closes her eyes. Nia’s never been good at picking up on Zory’s body language or the subtext of her discontent. But now, now she can tell? Fuck.
She sighs. It’s probably because of what she didn’t say. But Zory doesn’t want to think about this right now. She wants to get Nia to safety, get everything back to normal so that she can put her life back together. She doesn’t want to deal with this bullshit earthquake.
Reasons To Give Nia — Use this during the call so you don’t wimp out!!! (Zoraida Tun’s journal)
1. You broke your promise
2. We’re already separated. Literally
3. We basically don’t have a relationship anymore
4. I need to find a good life for myself somewhere
“Nia. Nothing’s wrong.” Shit, no lying. She promised herself that, which is probably why that list, lurking among all the other notes in her homespace, is still stopped at the unlucky number of 4. “I mean, let’s talk about it later. I want to get you help. Don’t move around much; just keep typing. Tell me about where you are. Start with the coordinates and tell me what you can hear and see. If you run out of things to say, just … type the alphabet. I’ll be here. And… I love you.” It’s the truth. Otherwise? None of this would hurt.
I’m around 64 n, 22 w. East of the lab base up here.
The room is in a printed hut. You know the north s been having development issues…
Nia keeps typing. Zory puts a mute on the convo so that her voice commands don’t get transcribed. Occasionally she types “k” so Nia knows she’s there. She’s trying to pace back and forth, trying to figure out what to do, and not succeeding at either.
She doesn’t know anyone here. The loneliness has become a thing that feeds on itself, growing larger in her chest every day. She hasn’t made any friends, partly because she hasn’t been able to work up the energy to fake extroversion. Her neighbors are all either eccentric or completely characterless. She doesn’t know anything about her co-workers; the local network is robust enough for her to work from home most of the time. But it seems a safe assumption that they’re dull as the grey dirt outside. Why else would they still be here?
Her co-workers… Zory’s supervisor, the municipal director, might be able to get in touch with someone up north. She tries calling him directly.
“I’m sorry,” says her apartment, and she almost throws her dinner at it. “All personal calls are restricted during the emergency.”
“Fuck you,” Zory responds. “Municipal business! Put it through.”
Theo appears on the screen. He’s in the onsite office, and although he’s juggling two data slates, he looks like he’s just come from a dance club. Clothes that tight are definitely not the municipal uniform, and silver glitter stands out on his dark cheekbones. He cocks an eyebrow at her. “This isn’t a local emergency,” he says straightaway. “I can’t compel employees to come in.”
Zory grimaces. She thought she’d been doing a better job of putting on the face of a dutiful, if not enthusiastic, worker bee. “I — no, I’ll come in if you need me! I’m calling about my… my girlfriend, Nia. She was working up North, and she needs help.”
Theo sets down one of the slates and listens to her. He takes some notes and makes a gesture at the office network. “All right,” he says. “I’ve sent the information you passed me to my counterpart in Northern Domain on the government channel.” He picks up the other tablet. “It’s nice to be useful for once,” he adds wanly.
Zory looks at him, puzzled.
“Our day-to-day is bullshit. You know that.”
She almost takes an actual step back. “I thought it was just me.”
“Please.” Theo shakes his head. “Course it’s bullshit. Fuck’s sake, Zory, how dumb do you think I am?” He sighs and rubs his closely-shaven head. “Ah! Sorry. I did take an anti-intoxicant, but I don’t think it’s completely kicked in.” He waggles his jaw. “My tongue might be a little loose.”
“It’s OK,” says Zory, feeling the flush rise again in her cheeks. “Is there anything I can do onsite?” That priority connection means she’ll hear any news about Nia earlier.
“Yeah,” Theo says, stabbing at the slates again. “We could really use you, actually. The shitty connections up there are, well, shitty. They need remote ops, and you have a license, right?”
Zory nods. Teledildonics is more about AI, physics, and robotics and less about sexuality than people tend to assume. Apparently Theo not only actually read her resume back when she first applied, but paid attention to it — though it hasn’t really come up in her work so far, which has been mostly pointless busywork like adjusting the pavement smartpaint’s sensitivity or changing the tint of the streetlights (and then, many complaints later, changing it back).
“How fast can you get here?”
She turns her face away so Theo knows she’s addressing her apartment. “When’s the next tram to work?”
“I’m sorry,” says her apartment, and blood rushes into Zory’s head, almost drowning out the next words. “Trams have been halted for safety checks. They will resume service within two to three hours. Would you like to be updated?”
The building is only a few minutes away by tram, but on foot… at least a couple of hours. Not that she’s ever done it.
“I was about to tell you that,” Theo says. “Sami and Miryam are on their way in, but I have no clue how long it’s going to take them.”
“I’ll figure it out,” says Zory. “I have an idea. A long shot, but an idea.”
She waves the connection off, then sends Nia’s convo to her slate and clips it to her tank top. She taps a bud into one ear in case Nia gets audio back, and unmutes the convo. “I’m going to the office, but it’s going to take a while. Do you have water?” She shakes her head at herself as she straps on her shoes. It’s like she was infected by the emergency training.
You know I alway stravel with my water bottle :)
“Well, good. Ration it out and keep still.”
Zory starts to head out, but reconsiders. She goes over to the sink and pops in display contacts so that she can keep up with Nia. She’s hardly ever put them in out here — things are so slow-paced on the planet, and Nia’s almost always busy, so there’s been no point. But now, for once, they’ll be useful.
Tell Your Friends And Family! 5 Reasons To Emigrate From Their World To Ours (display, municipal recreation area)
1. Mild weather! Never less than 20 C or more than 30 C!
2. Build community! Networks and gatherings are waiting for YOU to start them!
3. Learn a new career! Municipal positions include paid on-the-job training!
4. Start or grow your business! Endless opportunities and very little competition!
5. 20 different floorplans to choose from! Customize your exterior or design your own unit from the ground up!
Zory leaves and goes down the hall. Her eccentric neighbor in 894 makes bicycles, though obviously not in his tiny little apartment. She knows this mostly because they bumped into each other at the public workshop on their block, where she was half-heartedly working on an origami bot — nothing naughty; she has a sense of discretion — and he was brazing a frame. She presses the button on his door, imagining his face when he sees his hermit neighbor’s face on the display.
A few minutes later, she’s wobbling down the street in the darkness under the tram tracks. He’s lent her the one bike that he had hanging from the ceiling, the only place to put it in his tiny studio. She’s a little bit surprised that he was so willing, and now she feels vaguely guilty for not having gotten to know him at the workshop.
She knows how to ride a recumbent bicycle because they were the low-energy vehicle of choice on the station where she lived as a kid. But that was a long time ago. On top of that, gravity is lower here, so the bike is structured differently and it handles strangely. The grippy tires are freaky. Still, now the trip is maybe an hour, if she can last that long without crashing into something.
She can feel the adrenaline kicking in. Even with the weak lighting from the bike’s headlamp and the pink blobs from the solar streetlights, it’s easy enough to follow the tracks. The dark air chills her exposed shoulders, pushing the lower boundaries of the 20C claim. She wishes she had remembered to grab a windbreaker. Zory reads Nia’s messages, responding with grunts that are transcribed as “Mm” and “Huh” and “Heh.” Nia has run out of observations and is reminiscing about their last vacation, two years ago. Zory finds it hard to keep her attention off of that looping image of Nia, taken on that same trip. Nia’s dimples always need to be kissed, she thinks. Right now, even more so.
But neither Nia’s dimples nor her situation make Zory’s situation any different, Zory tells herself, trying to concentrate on the road. How far has she gone? She shivers. The streets are quiet. Some businesses stay open into the long night, but most people just want to stay home with the lights on. Nia’s always been a night owl, though. She’d find something to do.
When Zory is about halfway to the office, there’s a long silence from Nia. Zory brings up the news, which she’s been carefully avoiding. Another big aftershock.
The minutes stretch out. Zory can only hear her own breathing and the buzz-hiss of the tires. She tries to breathe deeply, regularly; tries to sort out the jangling in her head. She can’t stop picturing Nia coughing blood, or crushed on the floor underneath a data hive, or choking on smoke. Whenever she thinks about living in her tiny little apartment forever, her stomach always clenches, but this is different: a full-body dread, a sweeping ache.
There’s still silence as Zory gets to the office, which glows with light. Zory parks the bike in the lobby and goes to find her supervisor.
Theo waves her over as she comes out of the lift. “We’ve heard from the coordinator up there. Well. Actually, the assistant coordinator. We haven’t been able to contact Maya,” he says wearily, and Zory impulsively hugs him. He pats her on the back, awkwardly, and Zory feels the warmth of his hand. “They’ll find your Nia and take good care of her.”
The office, always bland in its inoffensive civic taupes and blues, feels different. A little eerie, like being in a school after hours, but also a little like being in a lab with an exciting new project. There’s a sense of purpose.
Miryam comes over. “You — you made good time,” she says, as though she started to say something else and then changed her mind. “So, no complaints about nonexistent changes to pedestrian crossing times today, eh? We’ve actually got something to do.”
“Yeah, I guess we do,” says Zory. She looks at Miryam carefully. “Miryam… I’ve kind of had my head up my own ass. I’m sorry. I’ve been having a lot of trouble adjusting.”
Miryam nearly drops her slate. “It’s OK,” she says after a moment. She smiles. “It sounds like they need help with the drones. We’ve got minis up and running, but the local municipality is still on such low data — most of the ground infrastructure got taken out — that they can’t even get images from them.”
“Got it,” says Zory. She takes out her slate and hooks into the information on the minis that Miryam sends her.
“So what are you going to do, fly them around and look for signs of life?”
“Oh — uh, no.” Zory slides into a seat. She brings up the specs on the minis. She’s worked with similar models before, though for very different purposes. “That would be too slow. Inefficient. Even if I farmed out the image feeds to the smaller municipalities, we wouldn’t be able to process things quickly enough. No. I’m going to integrate it with this AI pod. It’s one of mine, but I’m reconfiguring it to look for life signs, movement, fire, water, instability, and the rest of the list from rescue training. It’ll categorize the results and send them to the correct services by text.”
Theo looks over at them. “Awesome, Zory. That’s just what we need. Miryam, you can move over to relay for now.”
Zory sighs. “We shouldn’t even have to do this. This is an old system. I thought everything out here was supposed to be cutting edge, but instead—”
Sami has just stepped out of the lift. He rolls his eyes and raises his hands and interjects, “—everything’s running ‘just good enough’, or in other words, barely, waiting for the amazing day when everything will finally be updated. Real soon now!”
Zory has never heard so many words in a row from Sami. She repeats her apology, not taking her hands off the slate. Sami looks at her in surprise. “Wow, thanks. Used to think you were just mad at me for no reason, but eventually, I realized it wasn’t personal.” He scratches at the dark curls of his beard and then adds, “You know, I don’t like it here that much, either.”
“Nah. I mean, come on. I’ve got a good community going at the coffeehouse, though. It helps to find your corner.”
Miryam nods, fingers flying over her slate. “Let’s face it, this isn’t the greatest place on the world.”
Zory concentrates on her code for a moment. The fact that they don’t adore the municipality either feels like a revelation, but she also feels ashamed by how revelatory it feels. “I suppose I should just… talk to people, sometimes. Just knowing it’s not only me feels a little better. Not enough to make me want to stay here with no girlfriend, mind you!” Miryam and Sami both grin wryly, mirroring Zory’s facial expression.
Time passes; coffee is consumed. Sami is doing human monitoring of the image feeds until Zory finishes her code. Across the room, Theo is having a half-text, half-video argument with somebody.
Zory? Are you there/ Is someone coming? I dont’ feel good
The convo is back in her lens. Zory whispers a reply. “They should really already be there. I’ll check with Theo. Nia, hang in there. I love you.” Still true.
Theo gets himself a cup of coffee with one hand and sends files to somebody somewhere with the other hand. “Sorry, Zory. Got a three-ring circus going here. Check with Miryam.”
She catches Miryam’s eye. “Hang on,” Miryam says. “Well, sounds like there are bunch of those huts up there, and enough of them have heat sources that they’re having trouble locating her. And…” Miryam looks up sharply. “Given the traffic I’m seeing, they don’t have the resources to stay up there very long. Not for one person.”
Zory feels time stop. They have to find Nia. She fantasizes briefly about somehow racing up there and digging through the buildings with her bare hands, but it would take too long, and Nia — wait. Nia’s birthday. Nia’s birthday gift. “Nia! They’re having trouble finding you. Do you have your birthday gift with you?”
… Well,t hat’s embarasging. Also reeeally off-topic? But yeah, it’s mpretty much exactly where you think it s.
And ummmm yeah, I haven’t opened it. I’m soryr. I suck.
Zory laughs, managing to keep one eye on her code as it goes through a final round of debugging. “We’re going to talk about that later. You need to open it now if you can.” When Nia’s in a hurry or distracted (which is usually), she puts things in her big bag — the one she takes everywhere — and then she forgets about them. Zory has found molded rice-balls, multiple identical discs of expired and unopened medications, and souvenirs from long-finished trips in there.
Omh nmy god Zory, you made them for me!
Nia’s home has clean air and deep green forests and fireflies, which Zory thought were mythical until they visited Nia’s parents on that trip before they made the move out here. Zory has been experimenting for a while to make little firefly bots that behave like the real thing (only better, of course), and so she packed fifty of the best version into a small box for Nia’s birthday.
“Can you get to a window or any kind of opening to the outside? If you can dump them out there, they’ll activate. Then—”
I get it, the search team willk now where to find me. can do it, it’s just going to take me laittle while to get ove there. Hang on.
Zory gives 100% of her attention to her code again. “Nearly there,” she says to Theo. “I’ll shunt it to you the instant I’m done.”
“The good thing about being out in the wilds,” he says, “is that I don’t have to get anyone’s approval for unleashing your bashed-together emergency teledildonics code on the world.” He grins crookedly.
Did it! Ugh, dont’ wanna movoe anymore.
“Don’t worry.” She mutes the convo and gives Theo a thumbs-up.
Theo nods and releases Zory’s AI into the minis. “Sami, as soon as we know it’s working, you can move over to relays. Zory, keep an eye on your little monster. And uh, your AI, too.” He cackles and salutes her with his coffee mug.
Zory grins, multitasking again: one eye on the AI, one eye on the convo. “Miryam,” she says. “Tell them to look for a cloud of fireflies dancing around one of the prefabs.”
Zory closes her eyes and pictures it. “In the dark, there’ll be a swirl of little specks of light. Greenish, yellowish, glowing light. They’ll be dancing, darting back and forth.”
Miryam stares at her for a moment, then nods and sends the information to the team up north. “Good thing it’s still dark,” she observes, and Zory nods.
“Looks like it’s off to relay for me,” says Sami. He stretches and spins his slate around on the beige desk, sending the streams to the desk surface.
“It’s slowing down a bit,” says Miryam. “That’s a good sign. And the AI’s got most of it. So we’re good, and I can go to the bathroom at last.”
“The AI is mostly finding structural damage and minor injuries. I guess those ugly printed huts are good for something,” adds Sami. “Oh, and Zory, these are for you.” He flings a handful of comments from the data stream to Zory’s slate.
“What—” She reads them. “Job offers? Is this some kind of joke?”
Theo snoops over her shoulder. “I think they’re serious,” he says. He makes a sad face. “I guess they were pretty impressed by your AI, but still, poaching you when I’m in the room is pretty rude. Rude… but practical. I bet the restoration teams are going to need datashapers, too. There’ll probably be quite a few jobs up there, if anyone else wants to jump ship.” Theo narrows his eyes and sweeps an accusing gaze around the room dramatically. Sami and Miryam laugh, but don’t deny anything.
Zory opens her mouth, then closes it. For the last two weeks, she’s been half-imagining a luxurious, bright, plant-lined office of her own somewhere else. Somewhere that’s not here, and certainly not a disaster zone up North. But at the moment, here doesn’t seem so bad, and returning to robotics work doesn’t seem so bad either.
Theyre here, zory! takig me to the hospital. I’ll be back in touch when I can, but dont worry about me, ok? I miss you so much SO SO much
Her vision blurs. Tears well in her eyes, which is stupid, because now things are OK. Well, mostly OK. “I miss you, too, Nia,” she says.
“Estimated time for full data networks to be restored: three hours,” the office informs them.
Three hours till she can talk to Nia face-to-face, she thinks. For some reason, that’s what makes the tears spill down her cheeks.
“You want to talk about it?” asks Sami.
Miryam nods and adds, “Relay traffic is way down. I can handle it with half my brain tied behind my back.”
Theo just watches.
Zory shakes her head. “No, I’m fine. I—” Theo turns away, rolling his eyes. Zory takes a deep breath and a huge gulp of coffee. “Yeah, OK, OK. I don’t want to talk about it, but I… I guess I need to. I’m kind of crap at… at this, though.”
“We know,” Sami and Miryam say simultaneously. Zory talks with them for the next hour. For another hour, they tell her about everything going wrong (and occasionally, right) in their lives, and then all four of them let their imaginations run wild with dream jobs and bright futures for a while, till the conversation fades out. There are still a few things to take care of, but they’re mostly just waiting for the networks to come back up.
The sun will be rising soon, Zory realizes. She gets herself more coffee, but she’s already had too much and it just cools on the desk next to her. She’s not like Nia; she doesn’t always have to be doing something. But right now there is something she needs to do. Zory needs to make a new list.
####5 Best Things About Nia (Zoraida Tun’s journal)
4. Not good at taking a hint, but good at listening to me… when I actually talk to her…
5. Great cuddler
6. That smile
7. Those eyes
8. Super good at her job
9. Will look completely badass in one of those Northern fitted winter jumpsuit things
About the Author
C. C. S. Ryan likes stories in which the princess gets the girl and stories in which the mad scientist looks nothing like what you get when you google the phrase “mad scientist.” Or even better, stories that do both at the same time. She keeps sabotaging her never-ending quest to achieve a reasonable ratio of books to bookshelves by buying more books. You can follow her on Twitter at @wintersweet