16. The rise and the swell

Sal and I are back in the copter’s gamer-dude interior, looking at the list of locations. I now see that it isn’t so much an insightful look at where the soldiers as been as a deliberate trail for us to find. They may have been confused by Sal’s transformation for a moment, but clearly not for very long. Perhaps someone (something?) above them had been watching and pulling strings from the beginning.

I’ll correct myself: Sal is looking at the list. I’m thinking about Mod.

Why was she there?

I haven’t told Sal.

Was she there? It’s not clear what, exactly, has been real since we got here. Maybe since before. If she was there, why? If she wasn’t, why does someone want me to think that she was?

Either way, after all this time, I feel more destabilized by this than anything else.

“Well,” Sal says, slamming her hands down on the control console, “I think we should just turn it off.”

Sal’s new idea is this: we should shut down the copter by force. If we pull cables out of the systems, it will need to be maintained. Either a maintenance crew will come out to service it, or some kind of backup system will kick in to deal with it. Either way, we get closer to mission control than we have been.

I mean, sure. It might work.

They point out the cables to pull and I yank them out of their sockets.

And then we wait.

If you were to take a drone and zoom out above me, flying it high above my head, I’d look like a single speck suspended in water, endlessly reflecting the sky. There was a city here, once, but now it’s just me, what passes for my house, and the ocean.

I feel so incredibly alone.

We’re built for connection, I think. People. We’re meant to be with each other, have a sense of community. We want to feel admired, and to admire other people. We want to feel closeness and love. More than that, we want to feel allyship: not just with someone in the physical present, but with someone emotionally, philosophically.

The apocalypse is not a perfect time to feel close to other people.

Touch is so rare that when it does happen, it’s uncommonly electric. The friction of brushing against someone’s skin is enough to create a charge.

When you’re lonely, when you’re desperate for connection and to feel like you matter, any kind of community holds power. The network holds power over me in a way that I’m not ready to fully admit. If I had someone, if there wasn’t this giant black hole in emotional self primed for another human being, I’m not sure I’d need to feel the artificial connection. But as it is, it’s been so important to me that it’s agony to turn it off.

And now I know it’s been manipulating me. My lens isn’t my ally at all. It’s a conduit through which I can be molded to someone else’s wishes. My desire for connection has become a weapon that’s used against me. A way to shape me to fit someone else’s goals.

All of ours has.

I wonder how long this has been going on. After the rise? Recently? Or long before it? When did someone realize that lenses could be used to manipulate our reality? Or were lenses designed for that purpose, with the reasons we all used them as a Trojan horse to get us to install them?

If I’m honest with myself, the messages I wanted to come down the wire, the things I wanted to receive most of all, were the ones that made me feel like there were people who felt I had value. I wanted connection; I wanted touch; I wanted to feel like there was the potential to feel more than I was.

It was engineered. It was all just a design to keep me engaged; to plug me in; to make me malleable.

I feel used.

The copter is dark, and as the day turns to night, it becomes cold. There aren’t any heating systems anymore, because we pulled out the cables. There’s nothing to do, because we’ve disconnected ourselves from the network (at least, as best we can). There’s no sign of rescue or a maintenance crew. There’s just the increasingly frosty night, and the two of us.

Sal catches me shivering, and finds a single blanket in the hold. They help me wrap myself in it, and I start to feel a little warmer, but not much. And then I catch Sal shivering, and it’s obvious that the only sensible thing we can do is huddle under the blanket together.

It’s not quite big enough, so we have to wrap ourselves around each other to make sure we’re covered by the meagre surface area. I feel comforted, but not relaxed; something in me is alerted by the closeness, and my heart is beating faster than I’d like it to. Sal must hear it - we’re too close for them to not - but doesn’t say anything. I feel guilty for thinking of Mod, for withholding my sighting of her from Sal. It feels right to be sheltered together in the way we are; in some ways it’s a manifestation of the allyship I crave, but the secret I’m keeping feels like a layer of insulation. By not talking about it, I’ve created a distance that Sal doesn’t even know exists.

Their head is nuzzled against my neck. I don’t have the words to express what I want.

After my parents died, Let filled that role. He made it his mission to take care of me; to find food, to keep me healthy, to protect me at all costs. It’s not that he was being paternalistic, or fulfilling some patriarchal role. We were all we had left, and that’s how we cared for each othe r. If either of us went away, the other would feel like there was a piece missing of ourselves.

When Let went away, I felt like there was a piece missing of myself.

In some ways, everything I’ve done since has been in service of filling that hole. Grief is tidal: it comes and goes, and when the tide is high there’s very little you can do. When the tide is low, what I feel is not so much sadness as emptiness. It’s a hole that needs to be filled.

The island with the house, I now see, was acquiescence to the void. I didn’t know how to fill the hole, so I stopped trying; I sealed myself off in a world I thought should make me feel like a person again. It didn’t, but I became good enough at self-delusion that I couldn’t have told you that. Not until Let’s message came through and everything changed.

I don’t want to allow myself to overtly think that Let’s message wasn’t, in fact, from Let, but it’s something I’ve been tossing around in the back of my mind ever since the events in the corridor. Whatever’s going on, and whoever’s behind it - the Menlo Park Corporation, whoever they are; the KS; someone else - it’s shaken my belief in reality, and my hope for the future.

Huddled under the blanket, entwined with Sal, there are things I would like to do with them. But it feels futile, and beyond my value. I realize that I look up to Sal; I respect their intelligence, their persistence, their insight. And when it gets down to it, I don’t believe I’m worthy of them, just as I was too scared to reveal my feelings to Mod. I think Sal knows; I think Mod knew. But I still don’t know what to do with that, or where to go with any of this.

Instead, Sal and I fall asleep in each other’s arms, under a single thermal blanket.

I resolve to tell them about Mod. I resolve to let myself express my feelings. I resolve to elevate my needs and make them transparent, and see what happens from there.

The light is still bright red when I’m awoken by something in the sky. There’s a humming noise, and a rush of water where copter blades have created a vortex.

Finally, in the dawning hours of morning, the maintenance crew has arrived.

Sal is still fast asleep. I’m poised to wake them, but I choose listen for a few moments. There are clanking noises and hydraulics, and then a firm thunk.

The copter is attached - magnets? something else? - to a larger ship that we don’t get to see.

Sal stirs while we’re being towed. They look at me sleepily, their eyes asking what’s going on. I hold a finger to my lips to indicate that they need to be quiet and gesture towards the roof of the copter, where the craft seems to have been attached to whatever maintenance vehicle was sent to take care of us.

I wonder if I’ve made a terrible mistake: if all that matters is the connection and the allyship, and if we’ve launched upon an adventure that won’t rescue Let and won’t give me what I need. I wonder, again, if Let really is out there.

And then, out of the blue, Sal kisses me.

They don’t mean to. It’s more of a function of our closeness and their sleepiness than any underlying intent. Still, it happens, and in an instant, everything feels different to both of us.

Perhaps we’re supposed to accept our losses and find ways to cope with them. Perhaps we’re supposed to create relationships as adults, calmly and intentionally. Perhaps we should not be so quick to leap into things that sit in the realm of fairy tale rather than reality.

Nonetheless, whether out of passion or out of a lack of options, I kiss back.