International Copyright Jonathan Zap 2022
My name is Tommy, and I’ve been sealed in this biosphere for three years.
I was only fifteen when I entered, and the life I once had—a beautiful life I could touch and smell and taste, a life full of people I loved and who loved me—is ever more distant, like the receding home planet of a space traveler on a one-way trip.
With zero evidence of any other survivors, I’m not even sure what I am now. Does my existence even qualify as a life?
A horrible image keeps rattling through my head. A pair of flies buzzing around in a Coke bottle buried in the desert of a dying planet. Putting such dark thoughts into words feels like treason, but I need a place to express what I’m feeling. I need it to keep going.
There’s a grim truth that gets worse every day. The biosphere has a room full of scanners and terminals linked to several satellites, and yet we haven’t picked up a communication signal of any kind in almost two-and-a-half years. Total radio silence from the whole planet. So yeah, Kyle might be the only human face I’ll ever see again. And Kyle—well, I’ll get to Kyle.
Based on the information I got in social isolation training, it’s a near-miracle we’ve survived three years without either of us having a psychotic break. But I might as well confess now, I’ve been allowing the voices in my head to speak to me as other people. I realize it’s a classic isolation symptom. It might border on some kind of multiple personality disorder, but I think I’d be in far worse shape if I didn’t allow it. Sometimes I hear the voice of Rachel—Dr. Rachel Miller—the psychiatrist who counseled me before I was sealed in here.
“We’re social animals,” she often said.
So, if there are no other people, it becomes necessary to invent them?
“Yes, Tommy. And it’s better to allow yourself to knowingly invent them before they become uncontrollable hallucinations.”
See what I mean? That’s not something Rachel actually said during training. It’s what she’s saying in my head right now. It sounds sensible, like something she’d say if she were still alive. But it’s also a sign I might be going crazy. She once told me that if you doubt your sanity, you probably aren’t insane. I really hope that’s true.
Part of why I’m writing this journal is to try to break out of my disassociation. I’ve learned to numb myself as I go through the motions of my daily tasks and responsibilities. But I barely feel alive anymore.
I need to become more human again. More Tommy again. I can’t allow myself to break down. But if I am going crazy, this journal might be the only safe place to let it happen. The only safe place to pull myself together. I can’t let Kyle see me like this.
Although there’s no evidence of survivors, it doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Maybe they’re lying low, being careful not to emit electronic signals and draw the attention of anyone who might pose a threat to their shelter. As unlikely as that is, I can’t abandon my post while it’s still a possibility. And that means I need to help maintain Kyle’s morale as well as my own.
I haven’t confessed anything in this journal until now because everything I write becomes permanent. It’s kind of a weird setup, so I’ll explain how it works. Inside a steel vault, there’s a titanium sphere containing a small transcriber device. If I stop for ten minutes, the machine laser-inscribes everything I’ve typed onto a single, gold-plated disc. It’s like an old-fashioned DVD, but it’s meant to last forever. Like a time capsule. The vault unlocks automatically a year after the biosphere is unsealed. I guess they thought it would be a record of a historic experiment. But right now, it feels like the black box in an airplane recording the last moments before a crash.
With his tech skills, I’m sure Kyle could break into any other computer in the biosphere. But each of the sixteen dorm rooms—fourteen of them empty—came equipped with a journaling terminal connected to the transcriber by a single fiber-optic cable, that no one—not even Kyle—could get into. After ten minutes of inactivity, a timestamp is added to the end of an entry. Then the text is permanently inscribed. Everything we could ever write will fit on that one disc. But right now, my words are still in limbo. I could delete them, and no one will ever know they existed.
I feel like that myself. We are, as Rachel said, social animals. So if there’s no one to observe my life, the real-life of who I am inside, a life I do everything I can to keep hidden from Kyle, then—Is it even real?
That’s the kind of question that invites madness. I need to make my inner life real to keep myself from falling apart, even if the only witness is a machine. So . . .
Entry: 1 Seal Day: 1135 Time 19:42:07
There. It’s real now. Knowing that my words are recorded makes me feel more solid. I’m leaving a mark someone might read one day. But the price of this record could be my life. A couple of weeks after we sealed, I swore a blood oath to Kyle not to disclose certain things about him. But I need to break that oath. To tell my story, who Kyle really is must come out. But if he finds out about this—well, I just have to make sure he never finds out.
Am I being selfish in taking this risk? I’ve often wanted to end my life, so maybe I’m just reckless. But the possibility that someone might read this gives me the feeling that my life still serves a purpose. It could be a necessary madness brought on by isolation, but I feel someone will read this. Maybe that person isn’t even born yet, but I feel you out there, wanting me to continue. At least, that’s what I’m feeling right now. A rare moment of hope. It won’t last, but I’m grateful for it anyway.
I want to believe Andrew will read this one day. I realize it’s almost impossible that he’s still alive, but he haunts my thoughts. For years, it’s felt like we’re living parallel lives, but he always remains out of reach. My whole life has been guided by strange intuitions about impossible things that somehow became real. So why should Andrew be any different? If I’m honest though, even before the plague, I couldn’t be sure he was alive. I just can’t
Entry: 2 Seal Day: 1135 Time 19:58:32
I’m back. We just had a false fire alarm. A sensor picked up some anomalous hydrocarbons in a hallway near cryogenic storage. Gaia, our main computer, interpreted it as possible combustion, but we couldn’t find anything amiss. We get a lot of false alarms due to our super-responsive air sensors. You can’t let anything toxic leak into the air of a sealed biosphere. A loose cap on a tube of glue is enough to set them off.
Sorry about where I broke off. I didn’t mean to speak in riddles, but now I can’t delete that line about not being sure if Andrew was alive even before the plague. I hope this will make more sense once I tell you about my encounter with him.
Somewhere within our encounter lies a map of where to find him. And hopefully a way out of this impossible situation. Unfortunately, it’s a map I’ve never been able to figure out. We found each other a few months before we heard about the plague . . .
I’m picking blackberries along the edge of our settlement in the woods near the Green Mountains of Vermont. My basket is nearly full when a wave of slowtime passes over me. I need to be alone when this happens. Slowtime forces me to see into other people more than I want to—behind their thoughts and feelings. And that’s like disrespecting their privacy. So I take my basket and disappear into the woods to hide out in my treehouse.
From its high cedar deck, I look out over the sea of leafy branches and rolling hills that form the valley I live in. Gusts of wind rustle the canopy of leaves around me. The wind calms as the sun breaks through the clouds and lights up the forest with its golden rays. The warmth on my skin melts my uneasiness. I undo the hair tie holding my long, blonde hair, and lie back on the deck.
The grain of the cedar planks against my skin, and the smell of the freshly sawed wood, make me feel like I’m on an old ship, sailing under the sun. The wind carries the evergreen scent of fir trees from deep in the valley, bringing me back to where I am. My sensations become intensely vivid, like I’m feeling everything for the first time. I reach into the basket, wanting to taste the blackberries. They’re sweet and smooth, almost bubbly, sliding on my tongue. My senses cross, and their flavor becomes a deep purple light flowing into me.
Slowtime stretches every moment.
A great horned owl soars into view. I can see the brown and white stripes of its wind-ruffled feathers in perfect detail. The owl is like a banner rippling in the sky, bringing a message. It passes overhead and screeches, sending a current of fear through me. As the owl flies off, a strong gust of wind pushes dark clouds across the sun. I hear a distant rumble of thunder coming from the western part of the valley, followed by more gusts of wind. The sudden chill forces me to sit up and hug my knees to my chest for warmth.
The howling wind is making me shiver. The shivering builds until it becomes violent. It’s almost like a seizure or being electrocuted.
And then I become the electricity.
I erupt from my body into the howling wind, swiftly ascending toward the dark clouds above.
I look down and see my body on the deck of the treehouse, shrinking away as I rise higher and higher. I’m still sitting there hugging my knees, the windblown tree branches moving chaotically all around me. But it’s too weird to view myself this way. I feel intense vertigo like I’m about to plummet. A dizzy moment of panic grabs me and I drop—
Suddenly, I’m standing a half mile away at the edge of our land where it meets a dirt road that heads off to Bridgeton. I take a deep breath. The ground beneath my feet feels solid. I look around. Everything is familiar but—
I see the new gate we put up in late March, but things are off. The sky above me is clear, and it feels like early morning. The sugar maples are orange and red, and there’s a chill in the air. It’s as if I’ve gone from summer to autumn in the blink of an eye.
Sticking out of the ground like a green nylon tombstone is my backpack. It’s bulging unevenly because I packed it in such haste. A sense of urgency rushes through me.
I need to move. Now!
I reach for the pack to hoist it up. It swings wide and slams against my back. A realization erupts inside of me.
There’s no one left for me to help. Everyone but me is dead.
The moment repeats.
There’s no time for grief. Danger is close. I have to move quickly and be ready to hide.
What I feel doesn’t matter. My mission is all that matters.
The final slam jolts me back into my body on the treehouse deck.
I’m sitting exactly as I was before I was pulled away, arms wrapped around my knees, but I can still feel the impact of the backpack in my bones.
The wind calms. Though the sky is still overcast, it’s no longer darkened by thunderclouds. The warmth of the humid air stops my shivering.
I sense someone is with me, watching. I can’t see anything, but I feel their gaze emanating from a point in space about ten feet beyond my treehouse deck. I stare in that direction until an outline of light begins to form. From its center, a boy about my age comes into shape.
He’s not quite solid in the way I am, and as his glowing form takes on definition, I discover something terrible has happened. His clothes are burnt, and much of his skin is charred. I try to hide my shock at the sight of his burns. The fire hasn’t touched his face, so I focus on his intelligent, brown eyes looking deeply into me. I’m struck by how calm and aware he seems, even though he’s in such a terrible state.
I think of my volunteer work at the hospice. Everything I learned there prepared me for something like this. I’d been with old people as they detached from their bodies. Sometimes they communicated with me. Other times they’d just look back at their body and depart.
But he’s my age. He needs to live.
As I look into his eyes, it’s like I’m being seen for the first time. Understood for the first time.
I want him to live. I need him to help me understand what just happened—what’s coming—it feels like there’s something important we must do together—
Like knowing in a dream, I realize certain things about him.
We’re so different.
He’s grown up in a city world with books and complex ideas. His dark hair and eyes against his pale skin suggest an ethnicity I can’t name. We’re from different backgrounds and even different bloodlines. And yet, there’s a bond of brotherhood between us. Whatever’s coming has brought us together. I sense he understands much of what I do about this moment. His dark eyes are like portals of awareness, and I want to know the depths he’s seeing. It’s the moment to say something.
Despite the strangeness of the situation, I keep my voice calm and friendly.
“I’m Tommy. What’s your name?”
“Andrew,” he replies.
“Welcome to my treehouse, Andrew. Would you like to sit with me?”
He looks at me uncertainly. I smile and pat the deck with a welcoming gesture. He flickers for a moment and suddenly is sitting across from me. Closeness makes him seem more solid, and I realize that he’s not only my age but almost exactly my size. I want to hug him, my usual way of greeting people, but I don’t want to shock the fragile sort of body he’s in.
“Where are we?” he asks.
“Vermont. Near the Green Mountains.”
He turns to look out, but as soon as we break eye contact, his body begins to thin. He looks back in a panic and our gazes lock as we realize something. We need to stay focused on each other to keep him in my world. I slow my breathing and surround him with my energy to help him stay with me.
“What happened to you, Andrew?”
“I was . . .” Andrew hesitates, and his vision turns inward for a moment.
“I found myself looking down at the wreck below. There were two smashed-up metal hulks. Smoke was coming from the one that was once our—“
Andrew breaks off, his eyes fill with tears and cast downward as if he’s still seeing the wreck. His body trembles and I feel him trying to contain his feelings. I sense he’s afraid they’ll disturb me. He gathers himself, and when he looks up, his eyes are haunted, but his voice is calm and almost trancelike.
“There was broken glass everywhere. Flashes of red and blue lights from emergency vehicles lit up the fragments like rubies and sapphires. It all looked so strange, but sort of eerily beautiful too. There was a feeling everything was exactly the way it was supposed to be. The wreck was just something that unfolded in time—like a flower bud opening its petals.
“I let go of it and ascended into space. And . . .”
Andrew seems confused and hesitates, looking downward again. It’s like he’s realizing he shouldn’t tell me certain things. When he looks up, his gaze steadies.
“I blacked out. And when I woke up, I was floating near your treehouse.”
“Well, I’m really glad you found me,” I say with a welcoming smile.
“I’m glad you found me too,” he replies. “At first, you didn’t see me. I watched you. I saw you shivering, and it made me feel cold. When you rose out of your body, I went with you, almost like we were the same person. I saw and felt with you. I think I know what it all meant. Something’s coming. Something like . . . what just happened to me. But . . . for the whole world.”
I let out a breath, grateful that Andrew experienced the vision with me. I’m about to ask him more, but something in his gaze quiets me. We look into each other’s eyes and then . . .
It’s like we fell into each other. We were still ourselves, only swirling together without our bodies. Two sides of the same being. I really can’t describe it any better than that. I saw with my soul instead of my eyes, like some kind of revelation.
We separate. We’re sitting across from each other again on the treehouse deck. Andrew gives me an intense look.
“Tommy—” he begins to say when an electric shock arcs through his chest. His body seizes, and he vanishes in a flash. It happens so quickly I can’t even react. The silence and emptiness he leaves behind is crushing. There’s a painful moment, where I’m afraid I’ve lost him forever.
He was shocked out of my world, and I’ll never know—
What, Andrew? What were you going to say?
And then, I hear him.
“Tommy . . .”
His voice seems to stretch across space and time, like it’s traveling an impossible distance to reach me. An echo of an echo.
“This is a map of where to find me.”
The words are urgent. Pleading. But I can’t make out what he means. I’m waiting for something more, sitting at the edge of the deck, listening like I’ve never listened before. But all I hear is the wind.
In the quiet that follows, the echo of his words trails off.
This is a map of where to find me . . . a map of where to find me . . . where to find me . . . find me.
I stay on the deck for quite a while—an hour, maybe longer, searching for a trace of his presence. Hoping for something more. He’s gone, and yet I sense that wherever he is, he’s as desperate to reconnect as I am.
Before I climb down, I take a last look around. There are only treetops as far as I can see while the sun drops toward the ridgeline in the distance. I don’t know if my words will reach him, but I whisper a promise into the silence.
“Andrew . . . we’ll figure it out.”