Shefali Shah Choksi (b. 1964) teaches Literature and Composition at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. She has an MA (English) and MPhil (Women’s Studies) from the MS University of Vadodara (Gujarat, India) and lived in Florida since 1988, when she immigrated from Mumbai. She published her first book of poetry, Frontier Literature, in 2011, and has published short stories, reviews, and reflective essays in a variety of anthologies and publications
There she is, looking like a rusty toy, a forgotten favourite in the back pocket of a youngster’s jeans. This broken toy was once blue and green, my grandmother used to tell me. I always shook my head when she said that: no green and blue planet, this. But Grandma had the best stories, and, true or not, I, who could never resist a good story, loved all her tall tales about how the home planet resembled a translucent blue-green marble back when her grandmother was a girl. Her stories, all for me, to me, would begin with my name: “Tara, now listen. Once, in ancient days, Tara . . .” and I was hers.
I shake off the nostalgia and look for the galactic com, a small button on my Vimaan pod’s dashboard that would activate communications with the world outside. I fumble a little to find the button. It’s located at a different place in each spacecraft and I should have noticed it when I first got into the pod. But this standard communication device was too minor a detail for me to worry about when I was beginning, what I believed then to be, my odyssey back home.
Finally, I find the com, an innocuous-looking white button with a lumon, an artificial light source that blinks green when communication channels are open. It was concealed by a steering control. I press it a couple of times for good measure: I want to be heard by anyone who remains capable of hearing, for friendly and unfriendly reasons. The only problem with the galactic com is the time lag between the moment a message is sent and the time it is received. I have to wait for the lumon to begin blinking. This could take several pulse beats and there is nothing to do but wait. Once the lumon stops pulsing, communication channels are open. While waiting, I give in to my Earth memories.
It has not been an easy decade for me. Ten years in space equal 110 years on home planet Earth. I was posted in a supervisory capacity to manage a mining community on one of the farther asteroids, a few star families away. It is my first visit back and I am hoping to get a taste of some foods that do not grow in a packet, to not having to count every ounce of urine for fuel. I know that I will not meet anyone I remember unless they, too, happen to be between assignments to distant star systems, but that is the lot of the 24th century human. So few of us remain at any rate that it seems the pods and vehicles carry and transport stories more than organic humans.
The first years on the asteroid were the worst for me. News from Earth never made it whole to my personal com pad and I had to teach myself to be content with sporadic, garbled strains that somehow, seemingly accidentally, got stuck in my com pad’s wavelengths. I had no idea whether what I heard was from a past, an alternate dimension, a future, from a passing cruiser or transport, or, indeed, from Earth at all. I knew how dangerous it was to seek out these comms, but I could not help myself. My pad’s net was always activated, trying to snag rogue snippets. Thanks to my mother’s diligence about my schoolwork, I could navigate the five languages spoken on the home planet, but the missing information forced me to construct elaborate news for myself in my native dialect. The other supervisors, who had come from distant parts of the solar system made up their own news to suit their needs, I’m sure.
The workers on the asteroid? Roaches, my mother used to call them. They originated from Earth, but they don’t look or behave like humans. They move on multiple feet, even fly occasionally, and have a brown, armour-like exoskeleton.
Something crawls up my spine every time I find myself in the presence of the roaches, a fear from beyond memory, an inexplicable disgust that makes every molecule of my being scream in protest. My grandmother, who shared my fear and disgust for the roaches, claimed the roaches would survive any apocalypse. She was right. They had survived. When humans began exploring Outer Space, the roaches carried on their life on Earth, unconcerned, daring to leave their nests during the day.
We did not communicate with the roaches on the asteroid and imagined they hated us intently. But perhaps they did not. It was difficult to decipher the mood of the buzzing and clacking and that seemed to envelope the asteroid.
In fact, now that I think about it, I have no idea about the roaches. Absolutely none. I don’t know how they think, and what they think about. The controllers are the ones who would know that.
The controllers, the only living species now that can control the workers, arrived on Earth as the planet became part of the galactic routes. They seem to be an odd hybrid of a roach and a human, stand on their two hind appendages and have short forearms that keep busy, grooming inner organs and foraging. They have antennae, but their faces, though more triangular have two human eyes, a nostril, and thin, black lips behind which rows of teeth are seen.
In my dreams, I cannot decide who frightens me more, the roaches or the controllers. During my waking hours, though, there is no confusion. It is definitely the roaches. Once, when I exclaimed that it was impossible to control them, a controller turned around and chittered at me. It wasn’t difficult, it said. It is all about directing the workers’ spirit or common voice. The controllers claim the roaches are happy enough.
Happy or not, the roaches are good workers, all Earth-born. It is difficult for me to imagine that my ancestors hated these workers. They are no larger than a human palm. But for all that, they don’t tire easily, they don’t make such a mess when they die, and are so resilient that they have not had to evolve much at all. In fact, one of the supervisors swore that he saw a worker whose head was missing for over three days. Only, the worker didn’t seem to be missing it much. The controllers pointed out that there is nothing particularly disgusting about a headless worker as long as the work goes on. All in all, a strange species and a great labour source, a valuable commodity, sold throughout the mapped star families by the craterful. The controllers, who have colonised many asteroids, travel the galaxy, trading roach crates with intact nests, along with their services.
I, however, am allergic to the roaches. Some humans are known to be thus and being exposed to the air they exhale makes my chest tight. Their corpses and sheddings make my eyes water, and I feel… I suppose, spooked is the best way to put it. Thankfully, I was not required to deal directly with them on the asteroid. My office dealt mainly with the smoothness of the water flow to their nests and ensuring nourishment for the controllers. I had to teach myself to tolerate their constant noise, their endless need to preen their wings, antennae and legs. Their sheer numbers, the sight of the females carrying around those young ones, the way they breathed and chewed from their sides, all of it set off clashing alarms through my entire being, thanks to DNA messages coursing around my veins that no amount of unlearning could tame or calm. I had my hand-held light strapped on me at all times, even during sleep cycles.
After all, I am the inheritor of the 21st century, and humans of the 21st century were not the most rational beings. They had no reason to be rational. Their sky was still more or less blue and the apocalyptic Data Fever had not hit them yet. The first onslaught of the Fever affected only human life, but the impact of it was so devastating that it found a major foothold in my history courses, two hundred years later. In the early 21st century, the seeds of the Fever were still germinating in data clouds, raining down softly and hiding, growing in the depths of lakes and swamps. No one had any idea they were brewing the deadly toxin quite deliberately; this toxin needed help from the only agent that, ironically, it would destroy, the human communications network. It was the time of the data explosion, when all things big and small were worth knowing about. Everything was information, from weather to the latest colours, even the routines of ordinary people and what they were doing every minute of every day. Humans walked around glass and metal cities with info-glasses that filtered, identified, and analysed every element the physical eye could see, from landscape identifiers to air composition. Humans of the 21st century believed it all to be relevant and integral to their successful survival.
By the end of the century, though, humans realized the data strains that had carried their news and information had infiltrated their nervous systems. The data strains began to influence the human body’s internal messaging networks, thoughts and impulses and, inevitably, communications failed. The Fever spread across the human nations. The virus colonized the human nervous system. Minds drowned in data waves, throwing out random snippets that did not seem connected with anything and in the random snippets of incoherent conversations, violence took over society. No one trusted anyone anymore. People forgot who they were.
Eventually, humanity fought back, just Grandmother said it always had before. In a few decades, humans adapted enough to create stable habitat pockets on the planet, complete with greenhouses and cattle corrals. Information filters and analog antidotes were invented, and experiments to fuse technological safeguards in humans led to the first humans, immune to the Fever and capable of carrying on with life. But by then, wars and famine had torn at most of the planet’s surface and its population. Earth was a barren wilderness, a broken toy.
My grandmother kept a cat around, just to keep our habitat safe from unwelcome pests, for there were rodents, birds, and insects aplenty in the trees. When I left Earth, Grandmother’s cat (the fourth that I could count) was still a kitten and it had been the hardest thing for me to leave the animal.
Of course, on this visit, I do not hope to meet Grandmother, Mother, or the cat. They would have left paperwork for me to return to, so our habitat would be unoccupied, waiting the century for my return. The very idea of an unoccupied habitat bubble, covered in a patina of rusty dust, perhaps even colonised by tree rodents, is not an appealing one. I wonder if another human family may have occupied our home, and I shift uncomfortably. I am not good with confrontations and wonder where I would sleep if the occupants are inhospitable and aggressive. I wonder what the daily rotation would be when I land; would it be dark? If so, I sincerely wish that the Earth humans have not done away with all night-eating bars. A few had sprung up near our habitat when I left. I am sure there would be thousands more by now. After all, a century has passed since and there are bound to be changes.
I am looking out at the space before my Vimaan when I receive the first missive: it is a bit of a song, floating like a lost dream, which my com has somehow picked up. How has that happened? I notice that the blinking lumon now glows steadily. I must be nearer the planet than I had realized. Frantic, I check and re-check my coordinates to ensure that I do not crash into the atmosphere and burn up. But my coordinates show me empty space. I send the standard greeting I have programmed, requesting permission to approach, and wait for a response.
A little while later, my com picks up canned laughter from an ancient television series. I abandon the lounge seat that doubles as my bed and leap onto the navigator’s seat, buckle in. Something is off and I need to understand what is going on. As the Vimaan advances along its trajectory, I begin to pick up these fragments and place them on a display table, to make sense of it all.
It seems that the Data Fever, which had almost destroyed civilisation in the late 21st century, returned with a vengeance after I left for my assignment. It mutated into a complete organic virus that attacked the centralised softwares of human nerve centres and adapted to fit the non-human species on the planet. This is a strain that the survivors of the 21st Century Data Fever had no immunity against. According to a medical blog I pick up, the Fever was airborne and humans did not have the time to create an antidote. A news broadcast claims of tropical flowers blooming madly in iced oceans; ant armies that destroy themselves because they could not tell their own from other insects; a woman hysterical on a phone as she watches birds devour their eggs and their young; animals rife with the Fever, tearing each other apart.
Humans, unable to tell the real from the imagined, have fallen before the Fever’s virulence.
This horrific tale creeps by me as I near the Inner Rim of Planets, like flotsam from a spirit’s song. Now, my once silent com pad buzzes constantly, receives help signals, urgency buoys, ancient blog snippets, broken bits of census records, and before I know it, I have all the pieces of a terrifying jigsaw puzzle, a relentless hum of a story that, for once, I do not want to hear. Finally, I have enough to understand.
And then I enter the orbit and see what is left of my home. It looks like some monster has bitten into the Earth, a shadow eating along jagged lines.
The surface blisters with volcanoes that rumble and erupt, as though controlled by a puppet master. Roiling dark clouds, stitched with lightening, hover over it constantly. The visible Surface is black and charred. There are no habitat bubbles, no green houses, no trees, in fact, nothing to tell the sky from the Surface, or whether the Surface is solid. In horror, I see particles, burning rocks, unidentifiable pieces spin off from the planet, gyrate madly in its orbit, and leave the orbit to swirl gently through outer space. Judging by the difference in what the Earth had looked like a century ago, when I’d left it, the Fever must have struck a year or so (Earth time) after I’d left, killing at least over 90% of the species.
Soon, there wouldn’t be enough of the Earth left together to go nova, like a decent dying planet; my home planet will just slowly disintegrate itself, molecule by molecule, and the final explosion that will split the rock to smithereens will sound like a pop.
I sit upright in my navigator’s seat, staring at the display screen, trying not to blink.
Indeed, the century has brought changes.
On that asteroid, I had missed the home planet with an extreme longing. I would try to relive concrete experiences, like the feeling of new grass in the greenhouse under my toes (my feet had not been bare for years now), laughing without knowing the fear of swallowing a stray worker, the taste of stew from my mother’s pot, even down to the canned air in habitat bubbles I used to hate so much as a child. My thirst for home has bombarded my sleep with constant dreams about stepping on Terra Firma, even a barren, rust colored one, so unlike the treacherous smooth softness of the terraformed surface of the asteroid. When I left the asteroid a few months ago, I’d actually believed that my feet would finally quench their insistent thirst. I have even stocked up on precious fabrics to wear around my regular pelts, sensitized as I would be to the air of my home planet, thanks to all the immunizations I’d taken to tolerate the air exhaled by workers and the projected atmospheric changes of Earth over the century. So anxious have I been to begin my journey to Earth that I did not wait for the regular transport, ignored the annoyance of other supervisors in my hurry to reach home, did not even resend my depleted savings for the little Vimaan pod I could afford, crew-less, pilot-less, because no other sentient being (except, of course, the rare human) ever goes beyond the star junction, a hub that attracts visitors from all over the civilised worlds. The station is an outpost, a watering hole of sorts for the weary galactic traveler that offers shelter, nourishment, and fuel, an immense structure orbiting Neptune. No galactic highways go any closer to the Sun than this station. To reach Earth, a traveler has to follow space-ways, narrow, winding portals that require constant navigation.
But now that I am here, I know only one thing: my journey has not ended. It has just begun. I consider the improbable temperatures of the burning oceans spewing charred rocks. I consider the virulent, Fever-laden yellow-green-violet vapours swooshing like spirits from my grandmother’s stories; I consider the absolute, seething darkness squatting like leprosy lesions. My unfortunate self, whatever few humans remain in the remote reaches of mapped space, and the indestructible, un-evolving workers on the asteroid seem to be the sole survivors. Suddenly I feel weighed down, like one of the worker females, carrying the burden of the future, the only one whose back can hold stories of a once-blue-green-marble of a planet. I need to get to some sentient beings and spill my stories before I self-destruct as many lone survivors of civilisations are known to have done out of sheer despair and unimaginable loneliness.
I switch on a few packets to begin food growth and programme portions to mature for edibility up to several feeding cycles. Next, I inventory material I can use for trade; those fabrics I’d been hoarding would be an excellent start. Finally, I release the hatch to direct an entire month’s worth of collected urine to the fuel tank, add a large box of methanized ammonia enhancers and a can of C. Diox to fuel an unimaginable odyssey. I gather all of myself, my mother’s scoldings and stews, my grandma’s stories, my home planet, and my feet’s dreams, all to help me set in coordinates for Neptune. I banish all plans beyond that point. I cannot imagine where in the mapped and unmapped universe I may go from that star junction.
I consider the glowing lumon on the galactic com. My programmed greeting is just another fragment of the debris that wanders around my destroyed home. I construct another and release it, a beacon-bit set to blink on the hour for a year (Erstwhile Earth Time), the first of many bread crumbs I will scatter behind me. My Vimaan sighs softly as it forsakes the home orbit.
“Bit Zero // Coords: Tara (Organic Human) of Erstwhile Earth / / Home Orbit”