Through the windows, wind slaps our faces with the sweet floral scent that pervades the city. Holding my hair to prevent tangles, I clutch the door of the self-directed vehicle and marvel at the moving parts of a world that is fully directed by AI. My grandparents never struggled with their roles here. When they were young people, the Grid offered them mundane assignments in public service, assignments in which they flourished. Unlike Mom, they were satisfied with bridging the gap between AI and human society.
As their responsibilities grew, so did their positions and wealth. Nani is now a diplomat who regularly travels across the galaxy to help build communities with the same stability and prosperity as Dwaraka. Nana documents the successes and challenges of those at the edge of the Grid, working with the AI Economists and adding a touch of human intuition to create ideal production patterns.
So what makes my mom different? We arrive at the hospital before I have a chance to badger her, which is probably good, because she hates to be badgered. If properly cooked, they have effects on the human libido and are therefore of high monetary value. At reception, I finally come face-to-face with the man responsible for 50 percent of my DNA.
Krishna Banerji, a lean man with a sharp chin and even sharper eyes. Am I everything he hoped for in a daughter? Is he everything I hoped for? After all those years of calling him a deadbeat and an automaton, she still has feelings for him. Banerji becomes taciturn as he and some Nurses run me through a series of medical scanners. Banerji glances at me. Almost every citizen in the Inner Galaxy is connected at age sixteen. Do I possibly detect a hint of sadness in his voice at the thought of our departure? Or is that just what I want to believe? Something passes between them, an understanding.
A heavy feeling drops into my gut. More secrets. I want to shake her, shake them both.
DON’T TELL MAMA!
They both look at me with pity in their eyes. My stomach churns with confusion as it hits me: Mom ran away from something all those years ago. I thought it had to do with my father or her overbearing parents. But there must have been something more, something that catalyzed her into action. The day of my Connection, a storm blows in. I try to capture it on canvas: the gathering of great angry red clouds, the dousing of the city with wet and wind, the hammering of hail. The Surgeon is able to localize its work without affecting my motor abilities, so I continue painting even while it performs the surgery.
On my canvas, high water spills into digital circuitry, an intelligent biology molts into transistors and chips. With the implant procedure underway, everything slowly changes around me. At first I try to mute the colors in my painting, to make everything appear more like what I remember, but then I give in to the jagged strokes and slashes from my new perception of the world.
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My brushstrokes are heavy, heated, too fast. By the time the operation is over, the universe has shifted entirely. The shapes, the symmetry, the patterns, the variations of color. I blink, and all the anger and confusion of the last few days melts away.
A history of the Grid has been downloaded into my brain, and I can easily retrieve the sections with the keywords I care about: the mysterious case of Kavya Patel. She runs a hand through her hair. I was sure I knew who it was going to pick for me. We were perfect for each other. In love. But instead Deva chose me for itself, to be its Bride and Princess.
It wanted me to merge with it in digital immortality. But now I can intuit how a human might merge with machine, how consciousness can give itself over to digital storage. The Grid was engineered by a man who wanted to create a utopian equilibrium in society. As the network grew in power and precision, fear swelled in those he was trying to help. So the inventor promised there would always be a human element.
He uploaded his consciousness, every neural pathway in his brain. In doing so, he became a god, a Deva. An immortal inside the network, a soul to direct the other souls. Mom squeezes me. It would be the end of everything that was me. I rest my head upon her shoulder. Oh, my brave, strong mother. She laughs. They needed me. A week after my Connection, my father declares that my brain has adjusted well and the tumor can be removed successfully.
The Surgeon does its job, and suddenly death is no longer looming over me like a specter in the night. The two of us talk for hours about the least important things, like our favorite comedy feeds and pro asteroid surfers. Too alive. I laugh giddily, then cover my mouth to keep from waking the whole household.
Pulling out a fresh canvas, I think of the possibilities open to me. A lifetime of them. Registers store my thoughts and intentions, cataloguing them before sending signals to my fingers. The painting that emerges is of a planet tangled in wires, a symbiotic ecosystem of biology and technology. Through the length of each wire a new baby planet travels, a seed speeding out into the greater galaxy that will soon bloom into a new system.
Too perfect. Something is missing—a spark of mystery, perhaps. A powerful intelligence pays me a visit in that most private of spaces. Deva takes form as a digital tide, a wave that blows in with images and data and roaring sound.
It juxtaposes a picture of a blooming flower with the numbers of a blooming industry, the tangled roots of a tree with the nodes of interpersonal relationships, the vast expanse of stars in the galaxy with the expanse of the passions of its citizens. Numbers become art and music.
They become a sweeping landscape and a ribbon of night sky. And I see how everything is connected. How everything can be both chaotic and ordered, how probability and statistics can be tamed into submission. We are overdue for another human element, a source of surprise and serendipity. In the midnight expanse of a digital dreamscape, I contemplate this strange entity and the enormity of what it is proposing.
But they want me. You— Gabe. You could go anywhere. It could be close by. Near Reves. Between the two of us there have been many silences, but none like this. His eyes are glassy, his mouth downturned. You took me by surprise. A beautiful place. A good life. And I thought you felt the same. I believed it was…. He clenches his jaw, his body taut. Around us, potted plants sway in the blare of the heater. The scent of spring, fresh and Eden-green, permeates the room. I want you to choose whatever makes you happy.
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So please, do the same for me. I want Gabe with me, and I want to move on, and I want to live, and I want to love, fiercely and deeply, like Jad did in his short span of time. I want so much, want to dream again, to unbend all my old yearnings and start anew. I want to figure out the right thing to say and the right thing to do, but sometimes there is no right thing. Sometimes you just have to choose and have faith in that decision.
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Winter eats away at both me and my garden. Mama points it out, and I pretend not to care. But it hurts me to look at it. A lone flower amidst all that death and rot. It just wants to live. It just wants to be. When I started that garden, I made a promise. I will help you live. I will protect you as you protect me. But I lied. Maybe I was wrong about those magic seeds.
Because no matter how many I plant, no matter what I do, nothing seems to grow anymore. The hunger I clung to like penance, the hurt I carried like pride. I traded away my will and strength long ago, have leaned against one pillar after another. But nothing has changed. I should be delighted. Instead I trudge to and from school, quiet as a ghost, biding most of my days alone.
Miss Reed, my guidance counselor, corners me in the hallway on a Friday afternoon. Sleep, maybe. Whatever passes the time, I suppose. A bone to pick? I watch with no small amount of horror as Miss Reed shuts the door behind us. Everybody waxes poetic about these big choices, these moments and musings that can rule an entire life.
But what about mistakes? I would know. The three-way discussion—Miss Reed vs. So I try to nod my way out of it. Are you still interested? I shuffle my feet. Muted sunlight gleams through the window. That heat goes elsewhere, across the world, unbottled and free. Emotions are the same, depending on how you work with them. Those unspent feelings, those parts of you that remain hidden and dormant—how do you let them out? A fight? A love? A dream? Miss Reed takes a hesitant step toward me and pulls two glossy stubs out of her sweater pocket.
Gingerly, she holds them out. They sent us a letter. I thought you might want to go. I blink at her. My face is probably blank as a slate, because she takes my hand in hers and opens it, pressing the tickets into my palm. I just wanted you to know. She lets go of me and ambles to the door. I thank her, or at least I think I do, because she winks on her way out.
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Instead of going home, I go to see Jad. I use my phone-light to guide me and send a quick message to Mama about Hulm. Then I sink down in the dirt. I want him to be here. But both are impossible now. Even if every other wish of mine in this life comes true, this will never, ever be granted to me. The wind blurs past, and I wait. Yet none of that happens. The stars above remain still, refusing to align. They glint down like eyes, neither cruel nor kindred, and a ruined emotion stirs within me, full of grief and shame and hunger. I choke on the shape of it, both barbed and beloved, before it escapes in a single name:.
Maybe not how we used to be. But I want us to be happy. My entire body rattles as I heave in a deep, unsteady breath. Is that okay? I could only hope. A clipped dandelion, splayed in the grass. I pick it up with shaking hands. The dandelion is golden, sun-colored in the night. I close my eyes, and I see my garden. I hear it. But this time, it says something different. The garden looks different too. I see dandelions, fields upon fields of them. People call them rotten, people call them weeds, but Gabe would call them beautiful.
Dandelions for wishes. Dandelions for joy.
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I call Mama from the cemetery. Then, staring at the dandelion, I send a message to Gabe, and I hope. But I do not wait. Old habits are hard to shake. I often sleep in, let minutes and hours pass while I remain in a daze. I daydream; I muse about the past and the future while wading through the present like a murky lake. The last bus out of Reves leaves in a few hours, at midnight.
I watch the moon as it watches me, standing in limbo between one choice and another. But I am no moon. I am a girl. Not a satellite, but a soul. I am of this world. To be. When I get home that night, I treasure the hours like gold, like Jad treasured his eight years on this Earth. I rush around my room, hurrying to find a bag.
I keep one ticket in my pocket and offer Mama the other, and she takes it delicately, like a gift. I peer out the window, gazing intently at my garden. And I nod. The garden says nothing more; perhaps it will never speak to me again. Unbeckoned, I grab an apple to eat on my way out. I take a bite, then another. Rather than scour the house for the seeds Gabe gave me, I pluck a few from the core. I hold them like gems, like stars, before dropping them into the dirt outside. In storybooks, everything is always romantic, dramatic. Confessions, goodbyes, loves-at-first-sight.