What I miss most are the smells.
It’s different for everyone. For Brock, it’s weather – though God knows why, given the way it used to rain on Prospera. Cynthia says that she misses animals most, which doesn’t make any sense to me either. Then again, I never had a pet, and she had dozens. DeLilo says he misses his wife – he’s a good man. Anderson says same thing, but I know Anderson, and what he really misses is the sex. I don’t blame him. When he pulled up an image of Alicia, all of us – even Cynthia – couldn’t help but sympathize for a moment.
But I miss the smells.
There are all sorts of simulators here, of course, and one of them handles “Olfactory Stimuli: Real and Imagined.” But whoever designed it must have had hay fever his whole life, because not one of the smells gets it right. Maybe they leave the imagining up to the user.
The last real smell I remember is burning flesh. I suppose it’s fortunate that the aural simulators run a bit better, because the last real sound I heard was Brock’s whimpering. Second to last was the gurgle of metal tearing apart flesh. Much less pleasant than, say, “The Forest Awakens,” or any of the other audio tracks we’ve got here.
Brock wasn’t burning, even though he was cut nearly in half, and Cynthia had managed to avoid injury altogether. She would die as the oxygen slowly leaked out of a fissure in the broken ship. The flesh I smelled burning was my own, but I couldn’t feel myself dying. The nerves across the left side of my body had been completely destroyed. All I could do was smell.
Before that, I remember the smell of coffee. One of the few things worthwhile about Prospera was that the jungles provided a rich variety of organic foods. When we were away on planet leave, all of us would make sure to eat as much of it as we could. The coffee was the best part.
I’d always brew mine slowly, because I loved the anticipation, the sound of the dripping, the rich scent that filled the entire kitchen. Most of the time, I wound up drinking it iced – Prospera was too hot for much else – but the day before the attack, the coffee I drank was so hot it scalded the inside of my mouth.
When the call to the ships came, I was still eating breakfast. It caught everyone unprepared: Brock still in bed, with a hangover; DeLilo and Anderson with their wives; Cynthia, no doubt, with her pets. And me with my breakfast.
Arthur assures me that my lack of personal attachments in life will make things easier here in the Wheel.
He pointed out that DeLilo still can’t forget his wife, that he spends days just staring out into the white, unformed space that could be his home. That Cynthia still looks down at the ground with a smile that takes a moment too long to fade, searching for the phantoms of pets she no longer takes care of.
Arthur guarantees this to me, but he himself had a wife and three sons who stood around him as he uploaded his mind into the Wheel. He doesn’t realize that loneliness in life doesn’t make loneliness in death any easier.
Brock’s eyes were bloodshot and his hair a mess, but he had a huge, optimistic smile. Last night be damned, that smile said, today will work itself out.
“Long night, buddy?” Anderson asked him, slapping Brock on the back. Anderson’s skimsuit was polished so slick that it glistened in the artificial light of the station. I imagine he smelled like the same damn cologne he wore every day.
“You got it,” Brock answered, still all white teeth.
“How ’bout you, big guy?” Anderson continued, turning his smirk to me. “You have a wild time like old Brock?”
I didn’t give him a smile, or the satisfaction of a rejoinder. “Just had dinner.” I shrugged. “You know me.”
“Ri-ight.” He chuckled slightly and then rocked back on his heels. “You know, if they’re gonna break my flow-” He paused and glanced at Cynthia. “No offense, honey.” Then he winked dramatically at Brock. “You know, if they’re gonna wake us up so damned early, the least they could do is tell us why.”
Ten minutes later, we learned about the enemy’s battle group. Twenty minutes later, we were in our ship. Two hours later, we were all dead.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Arthur says that to get beyond living, I need to confront the past. I suspect that he’s really just trying to justify the multi-volume memoir he published after uploading. But maybe he’s right, and maybe it’ll help.
Everyone talks about the smell of fear, but that’s really just the smell of sweat, which can just as easily be the smell of honest work or sports. You can’t smell sweat through a skimsuit, anyway. Still, it’s dramatic to say that Brock smelled of fear as we unfolded from our warp cleft. I know I was scared as hell.
What we had been told was a battle group turned out to be a full-fledged fleet. Later, here in the Wheel, we learned that the fleet preceded the arrival of one of their world-burning dreadnoughts and was the vanguard of their last big push against our strongholds. At the time, all I knew was that there were more ships than I had ever seen.
“What are we doing here, Alan?” Brock whispered. “What the hell are we doing here?”
“Stay calm,” I answered. “Cynthia, how many are there?”
“The computer’s still calculating.”
DeLilo cut in, “Captain Salem, permission to reset the engines?”
Before I could answer, Anderson shouted, “Yes, you idiot, do it! I’m turning us around now.”
“No,” I said softly. “Not until we transmit a warning.”
I doubt it made a difference. The enemy frigates probably would have overtaken us whether we had attempted to retreat or not. None of them will admit they blame me. But I know they do.
I had a choice. And that is why we had to stay. We are defined by our sacrifices. Despite what the enemy claims about our decadence and egoism, our freedom gives us to opportunity, the duty, to do what we know is right. To stay and hold the line. Stay despite knowing that if we fled and escaped, the penalty might be discharge, not execution, that DeLilo might hold his wife once again, that Brock might still feel the summer rain.
So I chose. And so we stayed.
Maybe half a dozen of their ships were destroyed before they breached our shields. In the minutes we bought with our lives, a few more transports could have escaped Prospera. Thousands more survived. And now here we are.
I blame myself.
I remember the smell of her body, of the chemicals on it, after the doctors ended her life. I remember the faint scent of her perfume that hung in the air of our quarters. I remember the smell of our love-making, which smells a lot like fear and work, but is neither. I remember the stench of the disease in her, even though I know that was just an “Olfactory Stimulus: Imagined.”
Annie hated space flight. Every part of it. She hated the stale, recycled air. She hated the rhythmic thrum of the engines that caused every wall to vibrate, if only slightly. But more than anything else, she hated the idea of being surrounded by nothingness. When we were in the fleet transport that took us to Prospera, she insisted on covering all of the portholes with curtains.
When I asked Annie to upload, to keep living even when her body died, she said she wouldn’t. She told me that if she went into the Wheel, she would lose the parts of herself that had touched me, had held me. That so much would change, when I saw her next, she wouldn’t be Annie. But I wonder if what she really feared was the knowledge that in the Wheel, there is really is nothing – even less than there is in space, which has its distant planets and suns and drifting molecules of gas. Whatever the reason, she died, and left me alone.
My crew and I didn’t have a choice. Standard procedure mandates the uploading of military personnel killed in action. The enemy left the hull of our ship behind, too busy with their invasion to bother finishing the job. Weeks later, when they found us and put us in the Wheel, the war had turned in our favor.
Arthur assures me that, without attachments, you fit easily into this new existence. He explains that after a while you stop using the simulators, because the things we felt as humans are worn and faded beside the wonders of the Wheel. DeLilo will forget his wife, because the DeLilo who bothered with things like love no longer exists.
But after Arthur says this, he hesitates for a moment, and looks down at a flickering ring on the projection of his finger. It’s the phantom pain of another life, a life separated by an endless expanse of empty, white space. He must have once realized what I now know: that we are walking shadows, living nothing but a make-believe existence in the wires of a machine. That we will fade, as memories do, losing meaning and substance. That our new existence isn’t the end of decay, but the beginning.
Mark Yohalem owes the inspiration to “But a Walking Shadow” to many things, but perhaps first among them the wonderful, if maudlin, Circuit of Heaven by Dennis Danvers and the incomparable The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.