Dedicated to Jack
International Copyright Jonathan Zap, 2023
BOOK ONE BIOSPHERE 3
1 My Name is Tommy
My name is Tommy, and I’ve been sealed in this biosphere for three years.
I had only just turned sixteen 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 three 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 other 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 threaten 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 is 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 . . .
2 Breaking My Blood Oath
There. It’s real now. Knowing 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. Now 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. For years, it’s felt like we’re living parallel lives, but he always remains out of reach. I realize it’s almost impossible that he’s still alive, but he haunts my thoughts. 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
3. A Map of Where to Find Him
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-sensitive 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.
Kyle inspected the hallway suspiciously, checking everything with an infrared scanner to see if anything was overheating. Finding nothing, he cleared me to go. He usually contains his stress and is hard to read, but for some reason he seemed really on edge. I wonder what he was working on when the alarm got tripped. As he walked away, he flashed me a paranoid look, as if I had purposely set up the false alarm to distract him from something.
Maybe he’s aware that I’m finally using my journaling terminal? If he’s monitoring changes in the wattage going into my dorm, he could tell I’ve turned it on. But we were strongly encouraged to use those, and there shouldn’t be any way for him to know the actual words I’m writing unless he’s messed with my terminal or keyboard, and we were told those were made to be tamper-proof to ensure privacy.
What if he set up the false alarm because he wanted to stop me from journaling?
No, that doesn’t make any sense either. The interruption was more than ten minutes, so everything I wrote is permanently inscribed, and I’m still journaling. Rachel warned me that paranoia is a dangerous isolation symptom, and I can feel it infecting both of us.
Anyway, 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 first encounter with him. Somewhere within that 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. As important as that encounter is to me, I’ve never actually written it out. Maybe once I do, I’ll finally see the map.
It happened three years ago, just a few months before the plague, but it’s still my most vivid memory.
It begins with me picking blackberries. I’m in the woods near the settlement I grew up in, deep in a valley of 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. I’ll explain it later, but 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 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 newly sawed wood, make me feel like I’m on an old ship, sailing under the sun.
A fresh 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 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 throws 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 to Bridgeton. I take a deep breath. The ground beneath my feet feels solid. I look around. Everything is familiar but—
There are no storm clouds anymore, but the air is smoky from distant fires. 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.
I turn toward the dirt road and see the new gate we put up in late March.
This isn’t a memory.
Sticking out of the ground beside the gate, 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 settles. 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 anyone, 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 glowing and not quite solid in the way I am. As his body 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. I’d been with old people as they transitioned at the edge of death. 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.
“Hey.” 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. Can you—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. A valley in 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. So 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. Then, 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 still sitting across from each other 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 empty silence he leaves behind is crushing, and there’s a painful moment where I’m afraid I’ve lost him forever.
He was ripped 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 my mind, 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.”
4 His Voice Echoes
His voice still echoes within me.
For three years now, I’ve hoped and prayed Andrew made it back to his body. But he looked so badly burned. Even if he survived, his life would be painful and difficult.
So maybe I’m being selfish to hope he’s alive. But I want him to look at me again with that deep understanding. I want to know what he saw in me during our merger, and what he thinks all of this means. I need him to share the burden I feel.
Yeah . . . I guess that is selfish.
I still need to
5. Magical Thinking
Sorry, another false alarm, but this time we found the cause—a smoldering circuit board that controls a water pump near cryogenics. Fortunately, a replacement was easy to locate and install.
Anyway, I scrolled up to see the last thing I wrote—about it being selfish to hope Andrew is alive—and maybe I shouldn’t have written that. It’s probably what Rachel called survivor’s guilt. I might have selfish desires, but the need to find him feels like it serves something larger. Merging with Andrew was the most profound experience of my life, but I don’t know how to put even part of it into words. We were together in a dimension that felt like it was above time.
Normally, I have so much work to do I have to keep running from daytime to nighttime to daytime and on and on. Just one damn thing after another, as they say, to keep this place going. So I keep running on my hamster wheel. But it’s not just me—that’s just the way time is—the wheel keeps spinning whether you want it to or not, and you’ve got to keep up.
But Andrew and I encountered each other in a dimension beyond the hamster wheel—the Nowever.
“Tommy, you need to reality-test your belief in Andrew. Do it now, and in writing!”
Rachel just harshly broke in with that. When she’s warning me, it’s not like this whisper of suggestion—it’s more like she’s trying to slap me awake. Her voice can be severe, but I’ve got to respect her advice because she’s given me survival warnings that probably saved my life.
But I can’t just follow what a voice tells me. That would be totally irresponsible. It’s up to me to decide if my thoughts, or anyone else’s, are right or not. Rachel isn’t the voice of God. Logic isn’t the voice of God either. And even if I thought I was hearing the voice of God, if it told me, like Abraham in that Bible story, to kill my son or something like that, I’d disobey. I’m not crazy enough, not yet at least, to let voices command me. But I do take Rachel seriously even if there are parts of her advice I don’t follow.
The way Rachel described the need to reality test made it sound like more than advice. It felt like her religion.
“Reality testing must be a daily and hourly practice,” she once told me. “You must be in the habit of applying it to any thoughts that are elaborate and removed from physical evidence. A mind stressed by isolation drifts into magical thinking, and if you give such thoughts energy, they will pull you into psychosis. You must use reality testing to defeat magical thinking!”
Something inside me rebelled every time she said, “magical thinking.” It was too risky to tell her about my life-changing paranormal experiences, especially my encounter with Andrew. If I confessed, she would have said I had a hallucination and was giving it energy with magical thinking. And then she might have felt duty-bound to disqualify me from the biosphere.
Rachel always meant well, but she didn’t have the paranormal experiences I had—experiences that were not just real, but far more real than anything else in my life. But that doesn’t mean I should ignore her advice. She’s the one who tried to help me the most. The only training I got for living in isolation was from her. She gave me the tools that have helped me survive and stay at least partly sane. And I’m ashamed that I didn’t give her the appreciation she deserved when she was alive.
She was so serious when she told me, ”Stay vigilant, Tommy. When magical thinking appears, reality test it!” The way she said reality test it! sounded like she was saying, Reality test the shit out of it! She said it angrily, like reality testing was a sledgehammer and magical thinking was a wingless fly begging to get squashed. But anger isn’t logic. It felt more like a strong prejudice. Like angry reality testing was her religion.
But I haven’t found magical thinking so easy to get rid of. And with Andrew, I don’t even try because I need to believe in him. Rachel told me to deprive magical thinking of energy. I do the opposite. I give a lot of energy to Andrew, and my thoughts about him are elaborate and without evidence.
By not reality testing Andrew, I know I’m disobeying Rachel, and I feel how disrespectful that is. I owe her more than that.
I’m sorry, Rachel, I should have followed the practice a long time ago. I’m going to make some strong black tea, and then I will reality test Andrew with logic and rules of evidence, like you said.
6 Reality Testing Andrew
The first thing I notice when I apply logic, is that Rachel’s advice is contradictory. She died before the seal, so her telling me now to reality test, fails reality testing. But to be fair, she gave the same advice when she was alive, so that doesn’t excuse me from applying the practice. So here goes.
I’m living in social isolation, and my emotional life revolves around someone who isn’t physically present. I have zero evidence that Andrew exists or that he ever existed. Although he feels real, Rachel told me that people often adapt to isolation by creating imaginary companions. So, the logical explanation is that I’m hallucinating an imaginary friend. Andrew is just my version of Sugar-Candy Mountain, a wish fulfillment kept alive by magical thinking. That’s the answer to the reality test she would consider correct.
But it’s just not what I feel from my depths. Andrew is another person. And there’s an unfinished destiny between us.
Neither of us said it, but I think we both understood we were being called together to serve a larger purpose. So it’s not just selfish that I want us to reconnect. Andrew followed me into a prophetic vision I was having about the end of the world—the reality I’m living in right now. And it’s always felt like he knows more about our shared mission than I do.
No matter what reality testing says, the encounter with Andrew seems like the most real thing I’ve ever experienced. I’m going with it because I need it to keep going. And that means I need to decode the map of where to find him.
I’ve searched our archives for any record of a boy named Andrew in a car accident with his parents on that date. But that type of search has never turned up anything. There’s some pattern I’m not seeing. Maybe it’s because everything in my life that led to my encounter with Andrew was also part of the map?
I don’t know. But maybe I should expand the edges of the map and start with my life before the plague. After all, my encounter with Andrew wasn’t my first experience with the paranormal.
I was already changing that summer, before we even knew about the virus. Of course, any fifteen-year-old is going through changes. That’s normal. But I was changing in ways that weren’t. Looking back, I think something in me must’ve known the plague was coming. My new abilities began to surface only a few months before I’d need them to survive.
It was a beautiful time of year where we lived, in the Green Mountains of Vermont. We were a small community of twenty called “The Friends,” which you may know as some Quaker thing. They loosely inspired our customs, especially our commitment to nonviolence. Like Quakers, we saw each other as friends, and our meetings were similar in some ways. They happened every month, and anyone who felt called to, including kids, could speak. But, like I said, loosely inspired. We had a few shared values, but we didn’t impose religion on anyone. We also applied our nonviolence to the land and lived sustainably.
7 Where I Came From
Sorry, I had to take a break. I guess I knew this part would be hard to write about, but I need to tell you where I came from. I had such a great life then, and it ended so suddenly.
One day, I’d like to write a whole book about each person I grew up with, but at the moment, I can’t face all that loss. So for now, I’ll just tell you what I can about my former life.
My education was a type of alternative homeschooling set up by what’s called the Sudbury model. No kid was forced to learn anything. Even from an early age, we picked subjects based on what we were into. Schooling wasn’t scheduled according to a program, or for a certain time. My life was my schooling, and my schooling was my life.
For example, my mom, Eleanor, read me storybooks. When I wanted to learn how to read them for myself, she taught me. Soon I wanted to write, so she taught me that too. I saw Mark, who used to be a major graffiti artist, spray-painting an amazing mural for our meeting hall. Seeing my interest, he gave me art lessons.
I spent time with Dorothy learning herbalism, nutrition, and cooking. Later she taught me how to make essential oil blends which were carried by a few local stores. I learned about farming from everyone, but especially Josh, Jordie and Scott, who were trained in permaculture. I worked beside them, doing every specific task from tending to our beehives, to grafting vines onto hardier rootstock, and animal husbandry. They showed me how every part of the farm functioned together as an ecosystem.
We were free to learn from people or sources outside the community too. If we wanted to use the internet, we’d catch a ride to the public library. Our community was intentionally low-tech in that sense. We didn’t use smartphones either, so we spent more time with each other than with screens. From an early age, I felt different than the other kids I saw in town who were always lost in their phones.
At ten, I had a strong urge to volunteer at the hospice in Bridgeton, where my mom worked. I know that wanting to work with dying people is a strange calling for a kid, but I felt deep inside that I should do it. I also didn’t want to selfishly use up resources without giving anything back. Helping out at the hospice and within our community, gave me a sense of purpose.
The hospice was my most meaningful work, but I spent a lot more time on woodworking, which I learned from Matthew, our master carpenter. We made one-of-a-kind furniture, boxes, mirrors—all sorts of beautiful things. A large craft co-op on one of Burlington’s main streets carried our work. People bought whatever we made as fast as we could make it, and it helped fund our community. Matthew was also the designer of our meeting hall, cabins, and workshops. We all helped with the building, but he guided us every step of the way.
At fifteen, I‘d already been Matthew’s apprentice for a few years. People said I was a fast learner. There was some truth to that, but it didn’t hurt that I lived with my teacher and spent most of my time enthusiastically learning my craft. In our last winter together, Matthew and I worked on a new project—handmade kaleidoscopes. We ordered front-coated mirrors, lenses, a laser cutter, and hardwoods with interesting grain patterns—rosewood, poplar, walnut, and teak. This allowed us to create intricate inlays. It was the first project where we worked together like equals.
When spring came, Matthew announced I was ready to design and build my own completely independent project. I’d always been drawn to the forest, so I began researching treehouse builds. I discovered techniques that didn’t require putting nails into the trees, and as I worked, I came up with some of my own innovations that allowed me to save weight and put less stress on the tree.
Building the treehouse was my initiation into what it was like to work on my own, and every part of me rose to the challenge. At the same time, I was going to the hospice a couple times a week, handling farm chores, cooking, and helping Dorothy make essential oils. So to get the treehouse done, I had to work more efficiently. I was busy doing something every minute.
I loved everything I was doing, but at the same time, I was uneasy about myself. I was going through an unusual kind of growth spurt. It wasn’t so much about getting bigger, but growing in other ways. I got much faster with my craft and chores. And as I got better at anything, I seemed to get better at everything.
It was great being able to do tasks more quickly and efficiently, but I soon discovered that what seemed natural to me, didn’t seem that way to others. There were raised eyebrows when people saw how quickly I was moving. It made me really self-conscious. I didn’t want people around when these speedy phases came over me, so I figured out ways to do my work in private.
Hiding became its own skill. If anyone approached or even looked in my direction, I could feel it, and I’d slow down to a more normal speed. But when no one was around, I went with the waves of speed—what I call “quicktime.” It felt great while it was happening, but I sometimes felt guilty after. We were such an open community, and I was hiding something from the others. I knew quicktime wasn’t normal—that I wasn’t normal—but I didn’t want to worry anybody about it.
I also found myself entering these zones of what I call “slowtime.” It tended to come over me when I wasn’t busy doing a chore. Like maybe I’d be out walking by myself, and it’d just take me. But other times, I was more in control. I could usually bring it on just by sitting still and breathing deeply, almost like a kind of meditation. But sometimes, weird stuff happened once it kicked in.
When in slowtime, I didn’t move any slower than normal. It was more like everything around me, especially people, slowed down. I always tried to avoid others when it was happening, because I saw more deeply into them than I had a right to. I felt their innermost feelings, which seemed wrong, like an invasion of privacy. It made me uncomfortable around people. Knowing who someone was on the inside, made it harder to relate to who they wanted to be on the outside. So I tried to resist slowtime unless I was alone.
The only exception to this was when I would sit beside a dying person at the hospice. When it felt right, I’d close my eyes, take a few deep breaths, and allow slowtime to take hold. It let me feel closer to them and sometimes share their experience at the edge of departure.
I hid this part of my hospice work. But I didn’t feel guilty about it. If the other hospice workers knew how strange the shared experiences were, it would only raise doubts about whether a young kid should be there at all. At least some of them would think this work was causing me to become delusional.
They could see my visits were calming, but it was better if they thought I was helping just by my presence. Like the way spending time with a dog or a cat can help a sick person.
What I saw and felt in those moments was part of a bond between the dying person and me, and the experiences still feel too private to write about. Also, my mom always told me that if you work with patients, everything is supposed to be confidential.
Anyways, a few days before the summer solstice, I finished my treehouse. The Friends gathered there for a brief ceremony, and everyone got a tour. Then it became my private space. Although I had a room in my mom’s cabin, this was the first time I had a place to myself. At night, I pulled up the rope ladder, sealed the floor hatch, and was totally alone.
I designed the treehouse to look like a wooden ship, and I even called it the Tree Ship. I didn’t share that name with anyone else, but it’s how I thought of my treehouse. When the wind blew, it moved slightly with the branches like it was sailing on waves. Slowtime often came over me there, and I went with it into many strange experiences. And that’s how I met Andrew. Someone who
8 The Whip
Sorry, same damn fire alarm! The new circuit board started smoldering too, so it looks like a grounding problem or a bad transformer. Kyle’s working on it.
Anyway . . . a couple of weeks after I encountered Andrew at my treehouse, everything changed. That’s when we started hearing about the plague. It had a terrible name, “The Whip.” They called it that because it created lesions that looked like whip marks.
The virus was artificial and engineered to be as deadly as possible. It had been released in several international airports but was designed to remain dormant for months. So it spread invisibly across the planet before being detected. There were lots of conspiracy theories about who made The Whip and why. Many believed that a sentient AI had created it to rid the planet of humans. The government denied knowing its origin, and if anyone on the biosphere team knew the source, they never told me.
Like I said, The Whip was undetectable during its dormant phase. But it had a time trigger. It came out of hiding in late July and began replicating and mutating into multiple lethal forms. Many people died as soon as three days after the first appearance of symptoms. Others bore its marks—the whip-like lesions—while they slowly weakened and collapsed into a high fever. Finally came convulsions and bleeding out.
The final stage turned the cells of the dying body into a Whip factory, pumping virus into the air like a cloud of deadly spores.
The danger of this last stage was so great that governments began distributing “The Dose.” It was a little bubble pack of pills. If you took them, you went unconscious in a couple minutes. Once you were out cold, it paralyzed your breathing and ended your life painlessly. Government-subsidized mercy killing.
The Whip mutated too fast to create a vaccine. To overcome immunity, it had been designed to use the illness’s final stage to generate new variants. Some totalitarian countries tried killing the infected and burning the bodies. But attempts to control the virus quickly descended into chaos. When the soldiers commanded to carry out the killings became infected, they turned their weapons on their superiors.
Like all medical facilities, the hospice was taken over by the military. They turned it into a Dose distribution center. The Friends retreated to our settlement in the woods to care for our own. My hospice work helped prepare me for what followed. My mom was a nurse, Dorothy was a licensed midwife, and the three of us worked side-by-side, tending to the dying. We worked around the clock and barely slept, doing whatever we could to give our friends as dignified a death as possible.
A lot of our care was about respecting how long people wanted to go into the illness and stay aware, versus when they wanted to be more sedated or felt ready for The Dose. Some of them wanted a little more time to reflect on their lives. Mostly I was just staying with someone—holding their hand and giving them a chance to talk if they wanted to.
My mom died on September 24th.
9 Discovering My Mission
Dorothy and I were the only caretakers left. At that point, she was already sick, but she kept going so long as anyone needed help. Finally, when the last patient in our care, Jordie, died, she collapsed. Within a few hours, Dorothy was gone too . . .
Why am I the only survivor?
When I thought about it, I realized that all along I feared others getting sick, but never myself. I know lots of people are fooled by “it can’t happen to me.” But this was different. It was another case of strange intuition—what Rachel called magical thinking—turning out to be right.
At the time, surviving felt more like a curse than a blessing. It still does, but I’ve grown used to living with the feeling. But when all the other Friends died, I was still a newborn in the world of despair. With no one left to care for, there seemed no point to anything. It was like everyone else had gone away and left me behind. I just wanted to go to sleep and join them wherever they were.
I slumped onto the floor of Dorothy’s cabin, and within moments, exhaustion took over and pulled me into sleep.
While I slept, my mom visited me in my dreams. I’d had experiences at the hospice watching patients cross over, but this was the first time I’d seen anyone cross back. And it was my mom.
She’s kneeling before me, radiant and younger than I’ve ever seen her. The way she must have looked in her mid-twenties, just before I was born.
The sight of her is overwhelming.
“Tommy. My beautiful son.”
“I’m fine, Tommy. Please don’t worry about me. I love you, but you need to take care of yourself now.”
She looks into my eyes, and it feels like she’s looking into my soul.
“Tommy. . . I can see the beginning of your journey. The world is dying, but you must live. So much depends upon you . . . you’re needed to do something crucial, and you have everything within you to survive and serve this great purpose.
“But you can’t stay here any longer. Dangerous people are coming. You must leave here right away.”
“But mom, leave to where?”
“I’m sorry, Tommy, I don’t know, but your purpose is about to be revealed. Go wherever it requires you to go. Walk along the edges of the roads. Let no one see you. Use everything you learned with The Friends, and we’ll always be within you.
“Stay alive and fulfill your mission. Tommy! GO—”
Her last words are so urgent they jolt me awake. I shoot to my feet and hear voices outside. I fear they’re the dangerous people my mom warned about. Overcast morning light is filtering through the windows, but when I steal a glance outside, I find everything’s shrouded in a thick fog. Smoke from distant wildfires has been getting worse every day, and I can’t see where the voices are coming from.
The quickest path to the woods from Dorothy’s cabin is a few yards from her back door. I creep quietly over to it, ready to run. I’m about to break outside, when I stop to listen more closely and realize the voices are coming from a radio in a nearby cabin. They’re giving instructions on how to burn the dead, and then there’s a bulletin—
“It’s crucial we locate anyone who may be immune to the virus. If you’ve been heavily exposed but are completely symptom-free, you must get tested. You may be our only hope of finding a cure. This is a nationwide search. There are testing facilities in every state. In Vermont . . .”
The closest facility listed is in Burlington, about seventy miles away.
This must be the purpose my mom was talking about!
A wave of quicktime comes over me. I use it to gather what I need—water, food, flashlight, sleeping bag, bivy sack—and shove them into my backpack.
I can balance the load later. I need to go now.
When I hoist the pack, its uneven weight slams against my back. The impact ripples with déjà vu—storm clouds, desolation, Andrew—but I can’t think about him now.
When I reach the gate at the edge of our land, the gate from my vision, there’s still no sign of anyone approaching, but I know I need to keep moving. I walk a few steps down the road, then turn back to look at our settlement. The place where I was born and spent my whole life. I know I’m seeing it for the last time.
There’s an old bandana around my neck. A gift from my mom. It’s deep purple and spotted with little orange flowers. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember. I don’t know why, but I take it off and tie it to the branch of a hawthorn tree leaning out over the road. It hangs there like a trail marker. Then, before the wind has time to lift it, I turn and start my journey.
As my mom advised, I walk along the edge of the dirt road. The radio had warned that prisons were not being maintained—they had all been unlocked and abandoned. It was advised to use extreme caution when traveling. About fifteen minutes into my walk, I hear a vehicle approaching and duck into the woods, hiding behind a massive oak. I peer out as it passes, catching enough of a glimpse to see a large, red pickup truck. It slows near me to go over a rough patch in the road, and as it passes, I hear the shouts of a bunch of guys arguing with each other. They’re speeding right toward our settlement, and I’m sickened by the thought of them invading it, but there’s nothing I can do.
I keep hiking, maintaining a high pace well into the night before I set up camp. A crescent moon hangs coldly above me as I crawl into my sleeping bag inside my bivy sack and surrender to sleep.
When I wake up, there’s smoke in the air again from distant wildfires. They were happening more often even before The Whip, but now, with too few left to fight them, they’re just letting them burn. I hadn’t brought any masks with me, and I left my bandanna on that tree, so I pull my only other shirt out of my pack to tie across my face.
I packed light so I could hike faster. I’ve got only one water bottle and a filtration straw. For food, I have a large bag of raw almonds and another of dried apricots. It’s enough to keep me going. By nightfall, my feet are aching from hiking all day, and my eyes and throat are irritated from the smoke.
On the third day, I get caught in a vicious thunderstorm. I have a water-resistant parka with me, but in my haste to pack, I forgot a key part of my wilderness survival training. All the clothing I have with me is made of cotton, including my denim pants. When they get soaked in a cloud burst, I remember Matthew calling denim, “death cloth,” and warning me that most hypothermia fatalities aren’t caused by extreme cold, but usually happen at moderate temperatures when people wear cotton clothing, especially denim, in the rain. Thank God for the parka, or I would have been completely soaked. Even so, I have to hike really fast to keep from shivering, and my wet boots and socks blister the hell out of my feet.
Eventually, the storm blows off and another three hours of fast hiking into a headwind dries out the denim.
I’m only a few miles from Burlington when I set up camp that night. I’d been there many times with Matthew making deliveries to the craft co-op and thought of it as a wealthy tourist town with lots of stores. I fall asleep uneasily, sensing danger.
The following morning, my fear intensifies as I approach the edge of town. Most of the store windows are smashed, and broken glass is everywhere. I reach the craft co-op where most of the stuff Matthew and I built was sold. The windows are shattered, and the place has been torched. I recognize the charred remains of our furniture and the best kaleidoscopes we ever made.
I can understand people taking things they need, but this is just totally pointless destruction.
The sight of it hits me hard, and I can’t hold back my tears, but I push on toward the testing site.
There’s no sign of women, children, or old people anywhere. The only ones on the street are a few sketchy-looking guys. Most of them are shuffling about in a sick haze, while a few healthier ones loot what’s left of the stores.
I try not to draw attention, but there are no woods anymore. I’m in plain sight and have to travel through the streets to get to the testing center.
“Hey, I got somethin’ for ya,” a guy says from the entrance of a looted store.
I sense his bad intentions in every cell of my body.
Growing up, I often got compliments from adults about my looks. But it was harmless stuff—what you expect to hear as a kid. Now my appearance has a completely different meaning—it marks me as prey.
Just as the man rushes toward me, I take off running down the street. Thankfully, I’m much faster, and he can’t catch up. As soon as I lose him, I slow down to avoid more unwanted attention.
I pull up the hood of my jacket to cover my long blonde hair, but nothing can keep me from standing out. Many pairs of bloodshot eyes are tracking me. And they sense I’m not sick. No one else is moving quickly. Most of these guys lack the energy to chase me, so I walk swiftly, even though it draws more attention.
I’m making my way down Church Street when a guy with a scruffy beard coming the other way passes me on the sidewalk.
He’s staring straight ahead. He seems totally unaware of me, determined to get where he’s going. As we pass, he stumbles and trips in my direction. We collide with a shocking impact as his fist explodes into my face, and I’m hurled to the ground.
My head is spinning.
I’ve never experienced violence before.
The sucker punch should’ve knocked me out, but I will myself to stay conscious. I shake my vision back from the explosion of lights in my head.
Oh my God.
He’s dragging me by the scruff of my jacket, backpack and all, into an alley. The guy is huge, and I only weigh a hundred-and-fifteen pounds.
My head clears, and time slows as he pulls me behind a dumpster. He crouches over me in extreme slow motion. I look up and see the rape he intends burning in the dark pupils of his bloodshot eyes.
Memory flashes from him.
I see him walking in a prison yard like he’s minding his own business. Hidden in his hand is a piece of stray metal he’s sharpened to a razor’s edge. Suddenly he pretends to stumble into another prisoner. He slashes the other guy’s throat in one smooth motion before calmly walking away.
It’s a memory he relishes, and it’s flickering through his mind right now. A triumphant use of his special play, his sneaky way to take someone down before they even see him coming. Now his trick is paying off again.
His blunt and vicious thoughts are like a hammer hitting the back of my head. He smells of sweat and violence. The slowing of time nearly freezes him in place, and I see what he is. All he feels is the gratification of a victim under his control. But he’s beginning to perceive a strange awareness in my eyes. It’s the signal I need to act.
My body knows what to do. My knees shoot up to my chest, and my legs explode outward. The rubber soles of my hiking boots strike his crotch with enough force to slam him against the dumpster. His lower body hits first, and as his spine whips back, his head strikes the blunt metal edge like a gong.
I roll away from his body as it collapses to the ground, spring to my feet, and take off in a full sprint.
A wave of speed propels me to the sidewalk, where I run with bounding strides. Even with a backpack on, it’s effortless, like running in a dream. I no longer care about avoiding attention. People I pass on the street seem impossibly slow. I’m moving through time so differently they don’t even notice me.
Before, I thought of people’s eyes as camera lenses capturing the world in front of them. But now I see them as projectors, shooting energy out toward things to see them. Staying ahead of the sweep of their vision, I’m hidden in plain sight. The ability feels natural, like remembering a forgotten skill. I’m riding waves of survival adrenaline, focused on getting to the testing center. When I finally reach the facility on the south side of town, I find soldiers guarding the entrance. They’re in full riot gear, their hands resting on assault rifles.
“No treatment here,” one of them shouts. “Move along.”
The guards aren’t really awake. Their uniforms make them robotic, and what’s yelled at me is like the barking of a dog guarding a fence. But then I realize my face is throbbing and swollen from the sucker punch.
They must think I’m infected.
I’m usually shy with strangers, but I need to be assertive now.
“I’m not here for medical treatment!” I shout, as one of the guards begins to raise his firearm. “I’m immune! I’m here to be tested!”
The commander motions the guard to lower his weapon. He opens the gate and gestures for me to step in.
Several rows of tents line the open courtyard, but the space feels oddly abandoned. I expected to find a crowd of people waiting to be tested, but there are just a few bored-looking soldiers and a nurse who leads me past the tents to a testing station inside.
A blood sample is taken from me before I’m shown to an empty waiting area. Uneasy minutes tick by as a guard posted by the lab door eyes me suspiciously.
He must think I’m here to steal medical supplies.
I sense when they get the results. A wave of excitement surges through the building. Suddenly, soldiers surround me, and the wave of excitement sweeps me up like I’m being pulled into an action movie.
“We need to pat you down,” a soldier behind me says.
Another searches my backpack and then slings it over his shoulder. They hustle me out of the waiting room and up a staircase to a rooftop helipad, where a helicopter is powering up. Wind blasts my face as I’m forcefully pulled into it. My backpack is tossed in after me, and we take off before I can even catch my breath. I’ve never even flown in an airplane before, and it’s a shock to feel the helicopter suddenly ascending.
A medic buckled in next to me does first aid on my face as Burlington shrinks away beneath me. From the air, it looks really bad. Scattered across town are fires sending tall plumes of smoke high into the sky. I don’t see any cars moving. The whole town looks like it’s dying.
Within minutes, we land on an airstrip and board a small jet. In the curtained-off section I’m in, it’s just me and two doctors—one male, one female. We take off right away.
Once we reach cruising altitude, they start examining me. They take my temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate, and look into my eyes, ears, and mouth with lighted scopes—basic checkup stuff. They question me during most of the flight, especially about my injury and how it happened. I give a simplified version—I was attacked but managed to run away. They take a detailed medical history. Mostly I’m answering “no” to a long checklist of health problems I never had. They ask me about my family, schooling, community, and work. My answers are straightforward, but I keep quiet about my paranormal experiences.
The whole process makes me uncomfortable. I try not to let my nerves show, but when they ask about The Friends, I become defensive. I know it’s stupid–I’m the only one left. But The Friends lived off the grid. I was delivered by Dorothy at home and never even had a Social Security number. It feels like the government is shining a spotlight on our whole community. Earlier, my blood was examined under microscopes, and now everything about me and my upbringing is being picked apart.
They take notes, and my answers are audio-recorded. The questions only stop when someone comes by with a tray of food and a drink. It’s some kind of microwaved attempt at curry with a yellowish mush on white rice. But it’s the first hot food I’ve had in days, and I eat everything without paying too much attention to what it is.
The two doctors do their best to act with professional courtesy and treat me well, but I feel their tension as they study me. Neither of them is visibly sick, yet I sense they’re infected and know it. They’re desperate. And their desperation is partly directed toward me. I sense what they’re thinking—Why this kid and not me? Why him? Will this kid provide a cure in time?
I’m wondering the same things.
I feel bad for them, but there’s nothing I can do. They’re here to be professionals, and I’m an immune kid they have to process.
After they finish the interview, a grim-looking guy in his thirties comes through a curtain at the back of the plane. He must be a government lawyer because everything he says sounds so carefully worded. He asks me to sign a nondisclosure agreement, warning me that even though I’m a minor, everything I sign is legally binding, due to martial law. After he gets my signature, he tells me I’m being taken to a secure facility at the University of Arizona in Tucson, set up for people with immunity. They’ll brief me about a special program if my test results hold up. If I decide to participate, there’ll be more documents to sign.
When he’s done, I finally have time to collect my thoughts as I stare out the window. It’s actually really peaceful. From this height, there’s no sign of the plague, just an ocean of clouds beneath us.
Before long, I overhear one of the doctors on a phone near the cockpit. She’s nearly whispering, but my hearing is really sensitive. At first, it’s just technical stuff like my blood pressure and a description of the injury to my face. But then there’s a pause like she’s thinking about what to say next. She’s being asked something important.
“He’s remarkably calm, given what he’s been through—he’s alert, intelligent, and well-mannered and . . . Mmm hmm . . . Yes, Doctor Miller, as far as I can tell from our preliminary checkup, he’s in perfect physical health. Yes . . . Yes, as far as his mental health, he gave no outward signs of trauma–at least no obvious PTSD symptoms, and he spoke in complete sentences and gave appropriate, well-organized responses to everything we asked . . . Mmm hmm . . . Yes, doctor, I found him quite personable and cooperative . . .”
The seatbelt light chimes on, and the doctor returns to her seat.
As we descend through the clouds, and the city of Tucson expands below us, my heart starts racing. I sense a shock is approaching, but I have no idea what it’s about. In the hands of these professionals, I’m probably safer than I’ve been in weeks. It’s not about the plane crashing.
No, it’s a person I’m going to meet. Someone who’s just been told about my arrival.
I sense a powerful mind scanning the sky like a searchlight. The sensation lasts only a second or two before I lose track of it. Perhaps whoever it is thought of me briefly, and now their attention is onto something else.
As soon as we touch down and the plane rolls to a stop, the hatch opens, and the doctors usher me out.
I’m shocked by the sun’s intensity and the dryness of the air. It’s so different from the overcast, humid weather I’d left in Vermont. Nearby, another helicopter touches down. I stand on the tarmac in the desert sun for a few seconds before I’m hustled into the copter, and we’re airborne again.
Something obvious finally occurs to me.
Their efforts to get me to this facility are over the top. It must mean immunity is extremely rare.
Our headsets allow us to communicate over the rotors’ noise, so I ask the doctors a question.
“How many people with immunity have you found?”
There’s an uncomfortable pause as they exchange a nervous glance. Eventually, the female doctor answers me.
“You’ll get a full briefing after we arrive and run more tests,” she responds. “If the initial blood work holds up . . . you’ll be number two.”
“Two?” I can’t believe I’m hearing her right.
“We’re hoping to find more,” she adds. “There are facilities all over the country designated for testing people.”
I’m waiting for her to tell me more, but she turns her attention out the side window, perhaps to avoid any more questions. She was uncomfortable telling me what little she did, so I decide not to ask anything else until we get there.
We land on a helipad at the top of a large building. As the rotors slow, and we get out of the windblast area, a lean woman in her sixties with dark hair and intelligent eyes approaches. She smiles and extends her hand.
“Hello, Tommy. I’m Dr. Rachel Miller, but please just call me Rachel.”
She’s carefully informal and friendly, but I can feel her studying me closely. The others keep a respectful distance from us, and she seems to be in charge, at least of me. I like her immediately. Something about her reminds me of Dorothy. It’s her confidence or her sense of dignity, maybe. She takes me by the arm like an old friend, and I feel looked after, carried along by her quiet authority. We make our way down a flight of stairs to a bank of elevators.
“Tommy, we need to trouble you for another blood sample and to run a couple of scans,” she says, “but I’ll be with you throughout. Did they feed you on the plane?”
“Good,” she replies. “But while we’re going through these few procedures, I want you to tell me your favorite foods. I’ll make a list, and we’ll bring them to you a little later this afternoon. Once we’ve completed the scans, we’ll do a brief orientation and tour the facilities. Finally, we’ll end up at your living quarters, where I’ll introduce you to your roommate, Kyle. He’s nineteen, just a few years older than you. I’m sure you’ll like him. He’s excited to meet you.”
I’m not sure why, but I pick up a sense of forced cheerfulness as she tells me about Kyle. We step out of the elevator, and I follow her down a hallway and into her office.
“Is Kyle the other person with immunity?”
“Yes,” she says, giving me a guarded look. I sense she’s hiding things, but it doesn’t feel sneaky, more like hiding things is just part of her job. She gestures toward a chair and sits across from me as a lab tech draws another blood sample.
“You and Kyle will be working together closely. And you’re going to be roommates, so you can get to know each other.”
“What’ll we be working on?”
“Well, that’s getting a bit ahead of the orientation, but tell you what,” she says, “I’m going to put a hold on your scans till later today, and we’ll go right into it. That way, you’ll know what’s going on. How’s that?”
I can tell she’s trying to win my trust, but I sense her goodwill. I’d spent the last few weeks tending to the dying and then on my own, so it’s a relief to have someone taking care of me for a change.
“Thanks,” I say.
The lab tech applies a small bandage to my arm, and then quickly disappears into the hallway.
“Have you ever heard of Biosphere 2?” Rachel asks.
“No, I haven’t.”
“About thirty-five miles from here, in Oracle, Arizona, is a facility now called Biosphere 3. It was originally built back in the late nineteen-eighties. Until recently, it was called Biosphere 2. The idea is that the Earth is Biosphere 1, and Biosphere 2 is the second complete ecosystem that can support human life. But since we’re upgrading it with the latest technology, we’ve rebranded it Biosphere 3.”
Rachel rotates the monitor on her desk so I can see it. She projects images of Biosphere 3—how it looked originally, and how it’ll look when the refurbishment is finished. It’s this huge, complex structure in the desert. A series of domes and wide pyramids made of metal struts and glass triangles, almost like a computer-generated wireframe, only it’s real.
“The original foundation was built with a stainless-steel liner, enabling it to seal up as tight as a spacecraft,” Rachel continues.
A series of interior images appear on the monitor.
“Inside are biomes—a tropical rainforest, an ocean, a desert, a savannah, an agricultural area, and a human habitat. As you can see, the facility is spacious, over three acres. To be independent of any power grid, we’ve built an extensive array of solar panels in the desert around the main structure. Ten megawatts of autonomous power. The latest robotics will take care of outside maintenance and are currently being programmed to do routine tasks within.
“Once sealed, the biosphere will sustain an atmosphere with optimal levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. It’s designed to function as a self-contained ecosystem, able to recycle water and produce all the food needed for a community of up to sixteen people, whom we call biospherians. In the first experiment in 1991, only eight biospherians were sealed inside, but we’ve figured out ways to increase its carrying capacity.”
Suddenly, what she’s saying hits me. I thought my immunity might lead to a bunch of medical tests to figure out why. But now I realize that something much stranger is going on.
“And I’m going to be one of the sixteen people sealed inside?”
My question derails her technical pitch. It’s like she forgot she’s dealing with a fifteen-year-old kid. Rachel looks at me with tender concern.
“Tommy,” she says gently, “We won’t seal you in anywhere unless you’re willing. There’s no easy way to say this, but you need to know certain grim facts about our situation. This pandemic is a potential extinction-level event. Unless we find a cure soon, which is highly unlikely, in a few months, the Earth will depopulate. Industrial facilities requiring human maintenance will deteriorate, spilling all kinds of toxins into the environment. It takes a couple of years to properly decommission a nuclear power plant. Once the power grid goes down, the cooling and pumping machinery will be kept up by diesel generators until they run out of fuel. Then they will go critical and melt down. The Earth’s atmosphere will be poisoned for many years with genetically damaging levels of radioactivity. The only place where you or anyone can survive is in the biosphere. And we need you to survive, Tommy . . . If you were my son, I’d want you to be there.”
I can almost see my mom standing behind her, willing me to accept the task before me. She’s gently coaxing me to trust this woman I’ve only just met with my safety, my life. I’m touched by Rachel’s concern, but not sure how to show her this.
“Thanks, Rachel,” I nod quietly, overcome for a moment. “I’m grateful for the chance. I want to help.”
“I’m so glad, Tommy. We’re all working to make the biosphere succeed, but the demands on you and Kyle will be tremendous. It’s too much to ask of someone your age, but we don’t have a choice. Your life will be difficult, and it will remain that way, but you will be serving as great a purpose as any human being could possibly serve.
“Beyond protecting you and your rare immunity, we need to preserve the genetic potential for humans and other terrestrial life to continue. The future seeds of the human species—uninfected embryos and sperm from a genetically diverse set of people—will be stored in cryogenic suspension inside the biosphere. So in addition to the biospherians, animals, and plants, there’ll be extensive banks of seeds and genetic samples of numerous species.”
“Like Noah’s Ark?” I ask.
Rachel gives me an appraising look. I can tell she’s a science type who’s allergic to religion. She’s wondering if I’m a fundamentalist Christian or something.
“Don’t worry,” I add, “I’m not super religious or anything.”
Her eyes widen momentarily as she realizes how much I read from her expression.
“Yes,” she continues, “it actually is like a high-tech version of Noah’s Ark. Others have made the comparison. Of course, you won’t have two of every animal. But the biosphere will have insects, fish, pygmy goats, chickens, and six monkey-like primates called galagos.
“And Biosphere 3 is like a ship, though more like a stationary spaceship than a seafaring vessel. A remarkable coincidence is that Biosphere 3 is located in Oracle, Arizona, a town named after a 19th Century sailing ship. It’s as if the place was destined to be the site of a great desert ship. The vessel itself, Oracle, was named after a sacred site in Greece with temples dedicated to the twins Apollo and Artemis. People went there during times of danger to consult the cosmos.
“As you can see,” Rachel continues while projecting a video on the monitor, “the biomes are rather beautiful, but beneath them is an industrial basement level called the Technosphere. It’s filled with tunnels, machinery, plumbing, and wiring. One of the original eight biospherians compared the biomes to a miniature Garden of Eden growing on an aircraft carrier. The Technosphere includes storage rooms, workshops, laboratories, cryogenic facilities, and a supercomputing center. As we speak, the mainframe computer, which we call Gaia, is being uploaded with just about every bit of digital information in the public domain.
“The facility is designed to comfortably house, feed, and maintain a breathable atmosphere for a capable group of immune people.”
“A capable group?” I ask. “You mean being immune isn’t enough? What capabilities are you looking for?”
Rachel raises an eyebrow.
“Very perceptive, Tommy,” she says, smiling. “Don’t worry. I’m already certain you’re highly capable. Starting tomorrow, if you sign on to be part of the program, you’ll begin extensive training on how to live in and maintain a biosphere, especially the high-tech agricultural work.
“You’ve already got a great background. I listened to your interview on the plane. I can’t imagine a more perfect upbringing to prepare you for living in a biosphere than growing up in an isolated permaculture community. And your roommate, Kyle, is one of the most capable people any of us have ever met. All I meant by ‘capable’ is, well, suppose we found an immune person who was psychotic? Or what if they were immune to the virus but about to die of another cause?”
Rachel pauses, and slowtime comes over me as I sense a major revelation coming.
“I was planning on going into this later, but the most crucial attribute we’re looking for is the capacity to live in isolation with a tiny group of biospherians. I must be honest with you, Tommy. The outcome for small groups living in isolation—Antarctic explorers, astronauts, cosmonauts, and biospherians—is not good. Human beings are social animals meant to live in open communities of at least a few dozen people. Biosphere 2 was originally designed to support eight people. With the upgrades, we think we can double that capacity. However, for the biosphere to succeed, we need fertile, immune women.
“To be frank, the isolation factor is troubling. Even though they’d been part of the same community for years, the original team of biospherians developed bitter conflicts. Like most cases of communal isolation, they factionalized into two opposing groups.
“My job with the Biosphere 3 project is to prepare biospherians for the social isolation they will endure. This is quite a challenge because although technology has advanced enormously in the decades since Biosphere 2, human nature hasn’t. Tommy—”
Rachel gives me a serious look.
“I’ve known you for less than an hour, but I can tell you’re an asset to this endeavor. Your upbringing in an isolated community, the volunteer work you did at the hospice, your obvious ability to tune into others—as far as I’m concerned, you have the most crucial capabilities we’re looking for.”
Slowtime allows me to study everything Rachel says. It’s as if her intelligence is boosting my perception. I see what’s beneath her statements. Although I tend to hold back with people I’ve just met, something tells me to show her I’m picking up on what she didn’t say.
“You say you’ve been looking for those capabilities. You mean—you didn’t find them in Kyle?”
She’s startled but quickly recovers her poise.
“Kyle has great leadership skills and absolutely crucial scientific and technical abilities. But like many technical people, he doesn’t have the—,” she hesitates, “your emotional range, let alone the empathic ability you’ve shown me already. Advanced technical thinking and high emotional sensitivity in the same person are a rare combination.
“But I’d rather you form your own impression of Kyle. And I don’t mean to imply any deficiency in him. He’s by no means a science geek or someone dry and technical. He has high social skills, but of a different sort than yours. Most people here find him highly charismatic.”
Rachel pauses to read something on a computer screen.
“Congratulations, your blood work confirms the initial tests. You’re officially immune to the virus. And now I think we should alter our plans once more. I’ll take you straight to your living quarters to introduce you to Kyle so he can complete your briefing. It will be more valuable for you to spend time with him than anyone who won’t be in the biosphere.”
Rachel gets up and beckons me to follow. We step into an elevator. The doors close, and the moment stretches. As we descend to the dorm level, my heart starts racing again and I sense the shock I anticipated on the plane is about to happen.
We step out to enter a long, stark hallway. As we walk by a series of closed doors, I sense the dorm rooms behind them are empty and lifeless.
Rachel stops at a door at the end of the hall and knocks. At her third knock, the door swings open, and a tall, athletic-looking guy with piercing gray eyes stands before me. There’s a split second of surprise when he sees me. Maybe it’s because of my huge black eye. Before I can read any further into it, he gives me a bright smile and shakes my hand in a powerful grip.
“Tommy! I’m Kyle. Great to meet you. Welcome!” he gestures me into the room.
“Thanks, Kyle,” says Rachel. “I’ll leave you two to get acquainted.”
Kyle waves, and so do I before he closes the door behind us.
“Rachel probably explained why they’re not giving us separate rooms or much living space?”
I nod and take a deep breath, trying to relax, but slowtime has me feeling too out of phase to speak. My instincts are picking up things about Kyle that my mind can’t grasp, so I try to tap into what my body senses. Waves of nervousness pass through me as my heartbeat quickens again.
Kyle is, like Rachel said, charismatic. He’s friendly and cheerful, yet something about him is different from anyone I’ve ever met. His sleeveless shirt shows he’s got crazy muscle definition—like an Olympic athlete. But looks aside, I can’t catch hold of what makes him so unusual.
I sense no ill intent from him. Quite the opposite. He seems to like me and is happy I’m here, but that’s all I can read from him.
He doesn’t seem phased by my silence and quickly fills in the gaps.
“This one’s yours,” he says, giving the bed along the left wall a friendly pat. The room is small and perfectly clean. My pack is resting on top of a dresser. Kyle opens an artificially wood-grained refrigerator and passes me a bottle of cold water.
“Thanks,” I finally say.
It’s the first word I’ve spoken to him, and I had to force myself out of the more extreme depths of slowtime to get it out.
“We’re under orders not to drink a drop of tap water,” says Kyle, “but there’s bottled water for us everywhere. Are you hungry? They’ll have dinner for us in a couple of hours, but we can get snacks from the cafeteria.”
“No thanks, I’m fine. They fed me on the plane,” I reply.
“That’s quite a shiner,” he nods at my black eye. “Are you in any pain? Want an ice pack?”
“Ah, no thanks, I’m fine. It probably looks worse than it feels.”
Kyle reaches into the fridge for another bottle of water.
“In case you want to rest it on your face, the cold will help.”
“Thanks.” I take the bottle to be polite.
“I was told you arrived safely, but they neglected to say anything about the injury. You were attacked?”
As casually as I can, I give him the version of the assault I told on the plane. Of course, it’s at least half a lie considering how much I’m leaving out.
Kyle studies me.
He knows I’m being deceptive.
I’m ready for him to call me on it, but he takes it in stride.
“I wish I could’ve been there,” he says enthusiastically. “I’ve been training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and other martial arts since I was a child. Sorry you had to go through that, but I’m glad you were able to escape. If you’re fast enough to get away from an attacker, that’s often the best course of action.”
The martial arts training explains a lot. Kyle’s eyes and movements are almost cat-like. I sense some version of quicktime might be his normal state. He’s hyper-alert, like a Navy Seal who might be called into action at any moment. I’ve no doubt he could’ve demolished my scruffy attacker.
“I wish you would’ve been there too,” I offer, trying to cover my anxiety about being caught in a lie.
Kyle smiles, pleased by my compliment.
“If you’d like to learn martial arts, I’d be happy to teach you. Exercise breaks are built into our schedule, and it’d be great to train with someone again. We’re not likely to need such skills in a biosphere, but it’s a great mind-body discipline and way to keep in shape.”
“Thanks, I’d like that.”
The words have barely left my mouth, and I feel guilty. The Friends were committed to nonviolence. For me, it’s not just my upbringing, but what I feel and believe. And now I’ve agreed to martial arts training.
“I understand you had to hike about seventy miles to get to the testing facility.”
“Something like that.”
“I bet you’d like a shower.”
“Oh, I’d love one. But is there time?”
“Of course,” says Kyle cheerfully. “I’m under orders to make you feel welcome, and that takes precedence over anything else today. Once you get settled, though, you should expect our time to be tightly scheduled.
“There are clean towels and toiletries in the bathroom,” he points to a door at the back of the dorm. “They stock this dorm like a hotel room and clean it while we’re away. They’re not trying to spoil us—it’s because every minute of our time is needed for training. But Rachel put everything on hold today, so this feels like a vacation.”
As Kyle speaks, I go through my pack to find clean clothes. His cheerful tone seems like an act. For some reason, he’s playing a role that has nothing to do with who he really is. Like he’s in an ad for the University of Arizona portraying the perfect college roommate from the perspective of parents. This feels like a vacation sounded completely fake. The most obvious thing about Kyle is that he’s the type that’s always on alert and ready for action. I doubt he even knows what vacation feels like.
Kyle sees the old clothes in my hands and points toward a closet.
“Forgot to tell you, a set of new clothes was delivered for you when they brought in the bed. You’ll find more in your dresser.”
I put the old clothes back in my pack and quickly check out the drawers and closet, taking a few things to wear after the shower. There are high-quality tracksuits and casual clothes, exactly my size, along with cool-looking running shoes.
“Let me show you something about the shower. It’s tricky, and I scalded myself before I figured it out.”
Kyle speaks in the same perfect college-roommate tone, but he gestures toward the bathroom with eyes that look deadly serious and commanding.
I use the mirror to track him as he follows me into the bathroom. In a clever move of faked clumsiness, he bumps the bathroom door, causing it to shut behind him.
My heart is pounding. Adrenaline pumps through me like I’m about to be attacked.
He turns the shower on high, puts his hand on my shoulder, and leans in to whisper in my ear.
“If it seems like I’m acting, it’s because I am. Everything we do and say here is being monitored. Cameras and microphones are nearly everywhere, and we’re being studied and evaluated constantly. Be careful what you say to Dr. Miller. She’s the one who could disqualify either of us. Don’t ever complain or look worried or stressed about anything. Just follow my lead. Your life depends on showing them you’ve got what it takes to fulfill this mission. I’ll tell you more next time there’s a chance to evade the surveillance.”
Kyle turns away before I can say anything.
“Enjoy your shower!” he calls out in a loud, cheerful voice as he closes the bathroom door on his way out.
The hot water is running, and steam billows toward me. I take a deep breath and try to shake out the tension in my body. It’s a relief to have a moment of privacy during a day of such extreme scrutiny.
As I’m undressing, Kyle’s warning plays a few times in my mind.
“Your life depends on showing you’ve got what it takes . . .”
He’s intense, but he seems like an ally. We only just met, and he took a risk to clue me in to our surveillance. But what he said isn’t particularly alarming. Hearing my life depends on keeping it together isn’t exactly news. I’d been living on the edge of death for weeks. A few days before, I lay on the floor of Dorothy’s cabin next to her body, willing myself to die.
Now I have a reason to live. A mission. And the people here are doing everything they can to help me fulfill that mission.
I don’t care that much about being monitored. This place feels safe.
I hop in the shower, turn the knob to a comfortable temperature, and stand there with my eyes closed. The endless supply of hot water running over me is a luxury. At home, we always had to conserve our solar-heated water. It feels like I’ve got all the time in the world as the warmth of the shower pushes anxious thoughts out of my head. As it does, I come out of slowtime feeling better than I have in weeks.
10 Up for the Challenge
By the time I step out of the bathroom, I feel like a new person. Kyle is doing bare-knuckle push-ups but rises to his feet when he sees me.
“We should sit and talk for a few minutes before I take you around,” he says, gesturing toward two chairs on either side of a small table by the window. A view of Tucson and the mountains unfolds in the distance.
“I’m assuming Rachel covered the basics about the purpose of the biosphere project?”
“OK, good,” he says enthusiastically, his perfect-college-roommate persona firmly in place. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about this without sounding overly dramatic, but that might be impossible because this is an extreme situation—as I’m sure you’re already aware.”
Kyle opens a laptop on the table between us before continuing.
“It’s incredibly fortunate Biosphere 2 had already been built. If we had to start from scratch, even with all the resources of a superpower, there wouldn’t have been enough time. No country, before or since, has built a completely sealable structure anywhere close to the scale of Biosphere 2. Even in 1991, when it was sealed for its first mission, Biosphere 2 had a lower gas leakage rate than the top-of-the-line spacecraft of that era. Of course, that’s not quite as impressive as it sounds because the pressure differential with the outside atmosphere was nothing compared to a spacecraft in a vacuum. Nevertheless, it was an impressive accomplishment in its day.”
I don’t know how long Kyle had to learn the details of the biosphere, but he talks about the project like he’d designed it himself. He’s obviously brilliant and isn’t shy about showing it.
“Even with the head start we had—a functioning structure already built and tested—we’re still in a race against the clock. As far as we know, no other country is doing anything like this. There’s no conceivable way they could have anything ready in time. And what that means—” Kyle pauses dramatically. “It means we’re the only large-scale, viable biosphere on the planet. The future of the human species will likely depend on the success of our mission.”
Kyle touches the trackpad, and a video clip of the ongoing rebuild plays. It’s different than what Rachel showed me. All the glass-and-space frame structures look like they’re covered with giant spiders.
“What are those things?” I ask.
“Robots specifically designed to reinforce the window seals,” replies Kyle. “The old seals have been under the desert sun, deteriorating for decades. So every one of the sixty-six hundred space frame windows must be individually resealed. Quite a challenge, but as of today, we’re eighty percent done with the resealing.”
As I listen to what Kyle says, I search for something about him I know I’m missing. Everything he does is for my benefit and to impress whoever is monitoring us. It’s carefully planned, not a word wasted. It also feels like he’s hiding something, but it’s locked away deep inside.
“We don’t need any technological breakthroughs for the mission to succeed. We’ve already gathered the hardware. Mostly there are logistical challenges—checking and double-checking that the systems work together and will be ready in time. The limiting factor, the one resource we don’t have, is enough people with immunity. Did Rachel explain about the cryogenic facilities, the sperm and eggs stored in the biosphere?”
“Our cryogenic bank holds the genetic potential to repopulate the Earth with the human species once atmospheric contamination reaches acceptable levels. But it’s worthless unless we can find a few immune, fertile women. And those women would have to be willing to have multiple, invitro pregnancies to achieve genetic diversity.
“For our mission of repopulating the Earth, fertile women are far more valuable than men. So, if we had sufficient immune candidates to choose from and train in time, it would only be logical to select a crew consisting exclusively of fertile females. Obviously, it’d be ideal to find these women before we seal. However, even if they found their way to the biosphere after, that could still work. The biosphere is equipped with every type of radio receiver and transmitter. If we don’t have sufficient immune people when we seal, we will continuously broadcast radio messages on every frequency, urging any immune survivors to contact us.
“Although there’s no other facility like this, we hope immune people will find their way to underground survival bunkers with air-filtration systems. We’ve heard conflicting reports that the Mormon Church may have set up such a facility somewhere in Utah. So it’s possible survivors could emerge from well-equipped shelters years from now and travel to our location.
“Rachel probably didn’t get into this grim aspect of the facility, but the biosphere is also an automated military fortress. Its perimeter is defended by electric fences, drones, and surface-to-air missiles—the latest AI weapons systems. Roving bands of the infected won’t be able to get near us, even if they find a tank at an abandoned military base. AI systems linked to satellites surveil a one-hundred-kilometer radius surrounding the biosphere. There are signs and PA systems to warn anyone wandering through the desert that only immune individuals may approach. Automated facilities can screen them for immunity. If they pass, we’ll screen them remotely for general health and fitness. Obviously, it’d be disastrous to seal someone into the biosphere who isn’t fit—”
Suddenly, sirens go off in the building, followed by a voice over the PA system.
“ACTIVE SHOOTER LOCKDOWN. ACTIVE SHOOTER LOCKDOWN.”
My heart surges with adrenaline.
“C’mon,” says Kyle, perfectly composed. “It’s probably just a drill, but we’re required to go to our panic room.”
I follow him quickly down a couple of hallways, and into a windowless room with a heavy metal door, four cots, MREs, and bottled water. After he bolts the door shut behind us, he calmly picks up a phone at the far end of the room. “OK . . . I understand . . . Got it.”
“Not to worry,” Kyle says as he hangs up. “It’s just some looters out on the street exchanging gunfire. They’re getting it under control right now.”
I nod, trying to regain my composure.
“It’s usually a few minutes before the doors unlock,” he says, giving me an appraising look. “We might as well continue the briefing here.”
He crosses the room and sits on the edge of one of the cots. I mirror him, taking a seat against the opposite wall.
“In general, it’s ideal for us to train together in isolation to prepare us for being sealed into the biosphere. Even in this facility, you can expect to have little face-to-face contact with anyone besides Rachel and me. Technical briefings and training sessions will be done via video conferencing as if we’re already sealed in. Our activities are scheduled to keep us from running into cleaning, maintenance, or security personnel. Rachel designed our social environment to replicate isolation as much as possible. It’s partly to prepare us for that stress, and partly to evaluate how well we handle it.
“The irony of this evaluation is that we’re the only candidates so far. As I said, the key limiting factor for the mission’s success is a sufficient number of immune people capable of maintaining the systems. A team of eight was considered enough when the first biospherians started their mission in 1991. With the technological enhancements and robotics we’ve got now, a crew of four can handle everything. Until today, I was the only candidate. One person couldn’t keep up with the workload, and even if they could, no one could deal with complete isolation for more than a few months without cracking.
“But as of today, there’s two of us, and that begins possible viability for the Biosphere-3 Mission. We hope to locate more immune candidates. But my position is that we need to win with the hand we’re dealt, even if we don’t like all the cards. Although four is a safer minimum, I think two highly efficient and physically fit people are sufficient to maintain the systems.”
“ALL CLEAR. ALL CLEAR,” announces the PA.
The door unbolts electronically, and Kyle, unfazed by the interruptions, leads us back to our dorm as he continues the briefing.
“Since there’s only two of us, I propose we train to work as a crew of two in case that’s all we have when we seal. I’ve already got a working knowledge of all the technical systems. Right now, I’m getting intensive training on troubleshooting and hands-on repair. However, I haven’t been trained in the agricultural systems necessary to provide oxygen and fresh nutrition. We decided whoever arrived next would get trained in those. Fortunately, you already have agricultural experience. Of course, there are many differences between outdoor permaculture and the finely tuned agriculture of a sealed biosphere, but this is what most of your training will consist of.”
We return to our seats by the window.
“The first few months in the biosphere will be particularly stressful as we work out inevitable kinks in the systems. But as we get the robots programmed to help with routine maintenance tasks, we should be able to get the workload dialed down to manageable eight-to-ten-hour days. I know that’s a lot to absorb. Any questions?”
I have too many to know where to begin, but I follow Kyle’s lead and try to appear as capable as possible.
“I’m sure I’ll have some questions later, but I understand what’s being done and why.”
“And are you up for this challenge?” Kyle asks, almost leading me to the right answer for whoever’s watching from behind the camera mounted in the corner of the room. “Any reservations or concerns?”
“I’m up for it,” I say confidently. “And given what’s at stake, I better be. I’m also willing to give up my place to a fertile woman if enough of them can be found in time.”
I’m trying to talk the way Kyle said I should, but I also mean everything I say. He seems pleased with my answer.
“Sounds like you’ve got the right attitude,” says Kyle. “The biosphere and our mission are not about ensuring our personal survival, but the survival of the species.”
I nod in agreement, and Kyle sits back in his chair, studying me approvingly. There’s still something I can’t quite gauge in his eyes, but I’m thankful that he’s guided me through my first test.
11. Robotic Life
The next day, I’m kept busy from morning till night with training via video conferencing. The lead botanical engineer, Michael, starts teaching me the science of sealed biosphere agriculture. I’ve never spent so many hours on a computer before, and I’m grateful for the distraction.
But a feeling keeps creeping up on me throughout the day, even when I’m trying to stay focused on the work. Guilt. The sense that I should be grieving for all those I’ve lost, instead of learning about irrigation lines and seed banks. My only comfort in those moments is remembering my mom telling me I was needed for a great purpose.
I’m serving that purpose, I keep telling myself. So, in a way, I’m still being loyal to The Friends by giving the project all my focus.
But even with that thought, I work myself to near exhaustion trying to stay ahead of the guilt. I operate in a form of low-grade quicktime throughout the day, not enough to turn heads, but fast enough to keep my senses fully stimulated with whatever the technicians throw my way.
The project as a whole is moving even faster than me. By the third day, we get the news that the biosphere refurbishment has reached the stage where our training can proceed on site.
The next day, right after breakfast, Kyle and I are ushered to a bulletproof van that’s going to take us to Oracle, Arizona. We barely get our seatbelts on when screens light up in front of us as the van speeds away. Technicians on-site at the biosphere brief us about various issues with the rebuild, and what to expect when we arrive. I barely have a chance to look out the window and see what Arizona looks like, but mostly I catch glimpses of looted big-box stores. The screens don’t shut off till we turn from the highway onto a dirt road that leads us away from civilization, or what’s left of it, and into the deep desert.
“They always take us in through the back way,” Kyle says.
The vehicle rattles along, stirring up dust as I look out at the large Saguaro cacti on either side of the road. A massive structure glittering in the desert sun rises into view. Before long, it’s nearly on top of us. Too much to take in all at once. We step out of the air-conditioned vehicle into intense heat, and suddenly this place I’d been briefed on so intensively is a physical reality.
I stand there, awed by the scale of the massive glassed-in structure. My attention is drawn toward a particular part of it—a white tower with diamond-shaped windows and a geodesic sphere on top. It looks like a giant mushroom. I’d seen images of the complex during briefings, but now that I’m actually here it feels like I already have memories of this place locked up inside of me.
I’m contemplating that strange sense of memory when a young woman in a pantsuit comes up to us, radiating forced cheerfulness. She asks us to follow her to our living quarters on site—what looks like a small condo covered in red and pink stucco. As we walk, she tells us that Columbia University built these dorms years ago when they used to run Biosphere 2. To save time, our stuff has been packed up and is already being moved in.
She gives us a tour of our quarters as if we were prospective renters, showing us the various amenities. It’s larger than the dorm we had in Tucson. While she takes us around, she keeps making eye contact with Kyle but not me. Her nervously upbeat tone makes me uneasy.
I drift away from her at one point and part a heavy curtain to look out at the massive structure. The glare reflecting off thousands of glass triangles is blinding.
After the tour ends, Kyle and I are separated, and training recommences immediately. I’m given glasses that allow the trainers to talk to me and to see and hear everything I’m doing throughout the day. They also project checklists and images. If that isn’t distracting enough, the biosphere’s supercomputer, Gaia, speaks to me through the glasses in this weirdly calm feminine voice.
It’s a shock to have zero privacy, or even space to think my own thoughts. I was used to working alone or with a few of The Friends, but now I have to constantly interact with voices in my ears, people I never met before, their faces sometimes appearing as heads-up displays projected in front of me. It’s like ground-control guiding an astronaut through step-by-step instructions. Amidst all their constant input, I must stay focused on the agricultural tasks they’re talking me through. I’m a good worker, but it’s hard to find my rhythm with so many people I don’t know communicating with me.
I’m not complaining about anyone—they’re all doing their jobs with great professionalism—it’s just that beneath it all I feel their anxiety about impending death. It eats at me. It’s never talked about. Nothing human is ever talked about by anyone except Rachel. And it seems like each of the techs has had around ten cups of coffee before they get on the glasses with me. They talk really fast and urgently about everything, and I’ve got to stay on my toes every minute to keep up. It’s partly because there’s so much material to cover, and partly because they’re testing to see how I perform under stress. Before long, I begin to feel like a robot constantly following instructions.
I’m just learning to manage the stress of this robotic life when, barely a week into training, the malfunction of an actual robot nearly kills me.
I’m in the basement Technosphere, looking for parts in Storage Bay C—a long corridor with floor-to-ceiling metal storage lockers. It’s a test to see how efficiently I can navigate the computerized inventory system. I’m pulling out the last item on my list when I hear this terrific banging.
At the other end of the corridor, a huge lifter robot is repeatedly ramming itself into the steel lockers. Its carbon-fiber exoskeleton is the color of gunmetal with yellow stripes, so it looks like a giant wasp with broken wings. It’s clearly glitching out. Its torso shakes with each collision, and it seems like it’s in agony, like an ant being burned by a magnifying glass.
Head cameras pan frantically in random directions while hydraulic pistons trigger its powerful titanium arms to lash out wildly. It slams back and forth across the corridor, leaving large dents in the sheet-metal lockers.
Panic seizes me as I realize I’m at the dead-end of the storage aisle and have no escape route. Despite the juggernaut’s erratic motion, it’s quickly closing the distance between us, careening in a zigzag pattern toward me.
“EMERGENCY! Storage Bay C!” I shout. “HELP! HELP!”
Frantically, I open the largest locker near me, but it’s way too shallow to fit inside. The robot lurches toward me, and I fling open lockers looking for something, anything, to fend it off. All I find are useless small parts. I hurl them in the robot’s path, hoping to slow its progress and continue calling for help on our com system.
I’m backed into a corner.
The whipping arms are seconds from slashing range when suddenly I see Kyle sprinting up the corridor toward the lifter. He’s moving faster than I’ve ever seen a human being move.
He lifts off from a few feet away and delivers a powerful kick to the robot’s massive torso. It slams against a wall of lockers, but immediately rebounds, its arms whipping in Kyle’s direction.
He dodges the flailing arms and deftly reaches in to yank out its battery pack.
The lifter’s hydraulics release, and it hisses into lifelessness.
“Holy shit!” I shout. “You saved my life! Thank you!”
I’m afraid to even step near the dead lifter in case it sparks back to life.
“Are you OK?” Kyle asks. He can see that I’m still over-amped on adrenaline.
“I’m fine, I’m fine. Are you?”
Kyle shrugs. He’s not even breathing hard and seems completely nonchalant, like fighting robots is an everyday event.
“Target practice,” he says. His manner is casual, but his look is serious. “It’s a shame to damage valuable equipment though. We’ll have to take our three other lifters out of service till we figure out what went wrong.”
Kyle steps over to me. I’m wired, standing in the littered corridor, still clutching a wrench I’d intended to throw at the lifter. He puts a hand on my shoulder.
“You look pretty shook up. I’ll ask Rachel to give you the rest of the afternoon off. Accidents with robotics are extremely rare. Statistically, any car is a thousand times more dangerous to life and limb than a robot. This was a freak accident, and the odds of another one happening to the same person are infinitesimal.”
“Of course. Yeah. I understand, infinitesimal,” I say, loosening my grip on the wrench.
Kyle kneels beside the lifter to pull out components for testing, and I take in the destruction of the hallway. Lots of dented and thrown-open lockers, their contents strewn everywhere. I feel the many eyes watching from the cameras, all the technicians, and Rachel.
I panicked. Damn it. And Kyle was so decisive, taking down the lifter and calmly bringing the situation into perfect control. Nice going, Tommy.
I bend down and start gathering parts off the floor. I’m still rattled, but I can hide it, and there’s no way I’m taking the afternoon off.
“Thanks again,” I say to Kyle, as collected as I can. “And thanks for the concern, but I’m fine. Really. I’m ready to get back to work.”
That night at dinner, Kyle explains how a defective battery fried the lifter’s motherboard.
“Don’t worry,” he assures me, “the others are out of service until their batteries are replaced, and additional safeguards are installed. I’ve asked the robotics team to add an independent failsafe processor that can initiate a shutdown if it detects a malfunction.”
“I’m glad to hear the problem is being taken care of,” I say, trying my best to match Kyle’s even tone and forcing myself to smile. “And thanks again for the rescue.”
I resume eating, but I feel restless.
During the rest of training, I get anxious working around lifter bots and other large machines, fearing they might malfunction at any moment. I begin having nightmares too, but I don’t report them to Rachel.
12. The Last Session
In the following weeks, we’re kept busy with mostly separate training from morning to night, but we’re together for every meal and exercise break, and sleep in the same room. Still, I learn little about who Kyle is as a person beneath the act. He said he would look for another chance to evade the surveillance, but since then, he either hasn’t had an opportunity or has decided the risk isn’t worth it. The awareness of being continually monitored shapes our every word and action. I follow Kyle’s lead, and we act like perfect teammates. It’s as if we’re a couple of astronauts living and working on a space station under ground control’s constant, watchful eye. You don’t want to show you’re stressed or worried about anything.
Nevertheless, I notice Kyle’s expression brightens whenever we interact. As unreadable as his feelings are, his friendliness doesn’t seem fake. He’s always looking out for me and is there when I need him, like with the lifter incident. And I start relating to him almost like a protective older brother.
The trainers put on their own version of the astronaut-with-the-right-stuff act, but they deserve more credit for keeping it up. While Kyle and I prepare for a mission with a future, the people helping us know they’re going to die soon.
In one-on-one sessions with Rachel, she tries to get me to drop the performance to see how I’m feeling, but it’s too risky to confide in her. The nightmares might make me seem mentally unfit, and I’m certainly not going to tell her about my paranormal experiences. Most likely, she’d think I was delusional and a risk to the biosphere.
There was one moment though where she caught me by surprise, and I reacted emotionally. She mentioned my sixteenth birthday coming up and asked how I’d like to celebrate.
The wrongness of commemorating another year of my life, when everyone I’d ever loved was taken by the Whip drains the color from my face. I beg her not to tell anyone else or do anything special to mark the day. Only when I realize how adamantly I’m pressing her, do I regain my composure and remember to thank her for thinking of me.
My excessive reaction isn’t lost on Rachel. Our next session is on survivor’s guilt.
Often, I feel Kyle studying me. He gives me martial arts lessons during our exercise breaks, and I see he’s sometimes startled by my speed. I sense he has a depth of strange aspects too, but he hides them well. He’s better than me at not letting those qualities slip out. He’s obviously got plenty of experience keeping people from reading between his lines, and he plays his role to near perfection.
Some techs on the other side of the video screens aren’t as careful as me and Kyle about letting things slip out. During video conferences, I catch hints of what they think of us. I learn the project’s security team has given us code names. Kyle is “The Quarterback,” and I’m “The Kid.”
And Kyle really is their quarterback. Those in charge often defer to him. Part of it is his charisma, but mostly it’s because he’s just really good at everything he does. He has a photographic memory and the ability to master anything he turns his mind to. He’s on top of all the technical details and the science behind every biosphere system. Individual project managers know more about their specialties, but no one else has Kyle’s grasp on how it all interrelates. This allows him to figure out the logistics of getting everyone and everything to work together.
He also has great leadership skills. He’s quick to thank others for their contributions, and even if he has to contradict someone or point out a flaw in their approach, he does it with grace. He manages to come off like he admires their work but just has a suggestion about how to make it that much better.
Kyle never hesitates before speaking and knows exactly what to say. He does all this while never breaking character. He’s like an airline pilot in heavy turbulence, calmly telling you there’s nothing to worry about.
“Yeah, most of the species is being killed off by the Whip, but here in the biosphere project, everything’s under control and working itself out, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the remainder of the flight, folks.”
Despite his age, Kyle has made himself our unofficial project leader. And as far as I can tell, he deserves to be.
Meanwhile, I’m The Kid, a predictable role given my age. To be fair, I am the youngest. And the gap between fifteen and nineteen doesn’t just seem huge to me but to everyone.
The agricultural and ecosystem specialists hold me in slightly higher esteem. Maybe because I spend more time with them than Kyle does. At first, they treat me like a kid, explaining stuff with lots of oversimplifications. But they drop that mode when they see how quickly I catch on.
Overall, I like our roles. It’s easier to be The Kid than The Quarterback, and Kyle’s vast tech and management skills take some pressure off me.
Rachel’s the only person who seems doubtful about the roles we’re playing. I sense she’s skeptical about Kyle, but I can never get her to reveal why. She adopts a more serious tone in our private sessions, trying to draw me out. I feel bad hiding things from her, but I can’t think of a way around it.
It’s unfortunate because Rachel’s the only person who doesn’t put on an act, and she has a sense of me as a person. The others see me as bright and capable, but Rachel focuses on my empathic side. Although she acknowledges the need to solve all the logistic and technical issues, she always emphasizes isolation as our greatest challenge.
Instead of being cheerfully upbeat, she always warns me about the psychological and social challenges we’ll face. She wants to prepare me, so I won’t be thrown off when they happen.
In what turns out to be our last session, I report to Rachel’s new office in the administrative building outside the biosphere. She seems uncomfortable in the new setting. Her stuff has been moved and is still disorganized. Her tone is grim from the start of the conversation. It’s like she’s cautioning me about Kyle but not really explaining where it’s all coming from.
“If the interpersonal dynamic is going to remain healthy,” Rachel begins, “it’ll be due to your efforts and adaptability, Tommy. Everyone’s dazzled by Kyle and for good reason. At the moment, he’s riding high because people recognize his talents and let him take the leadership role he was born to play. But what happens after he’s solved every technical challenge, and his intense energy is confined to an increasingly routine life of extreme isolation? What’ll happen when he has no one to lead but you?”
She seems a bit off-center. Like she’s working her way around to something in her mind but hasn’t found it yet. I’m not sure if she’s asking me these questions or asking herself. Either way, I keep quiet.
“None of us have any idea how he’ll handle that stress, including Kyle. It’s not a situation he, or any of us, were designed for. Fundamentally, we’re social animals. Staying physically and mentally healthy during long-term isolation is an incredible challenge. But if there’s anyone I know who could handle it, my hunch is it’s you. You’re a well-balanced person. More so than Kyle. Or most of us for that matter. But your emotional resilience will be stressed to its furthest limits.
“Unless we find another person with immunity in the next few days, it will be just the two of you. You’ll have outside support at first, but at the rate we’re losing people, you and Kyle may be alone within a few weeks. Your challenge will be helping Kyle handle the stress of fine-tuning the systems and keeping his morale up. You’ll have to be a one-person support system for an intense, tightly wound person. Tommy . . .”
Rachel sits back in her chair, studying me, weighing what she’s about to say.
“Underneath his casual, upbeat professionalism, Kyle has a ferocious inner drive that needs outlets.”
I don’t know what she’s getting at, but I take it as criticism of Kyle and reply defensively.
“Well, he’s just focused on getting everything done.”
“You’re right,” she replies. “Of course he is. We all are.”
Rachel pulls back to consider. Like most sessions, she’s hit the wall of my astronaut-in-training act. But something’s different this time. She’s tired. She looks at me compassionately as she continues.
“I’m not trying to cast doubt on Kyle. I know you’ve grown close to him over the last few weeks, and that’s a good thing. A great thing. It bodes well for the two of you surviving this situation. Now that you two are closer, I wonder if you’ve noticed anything in Kyle? Anything that I and the other specialists might have missed?”
Now I see everything Rachel’s saying is based on wanting to help me live with Kyle, not disqualifying him, so I decide to admit something.
“I usually pick up on the feelings of people I spend time with, but I rarely can with him.”
“You and me both,” Rachel sighs. “Kyle is great at containing himself and showing only what he wants to. But I think there’s another possibility. If you can’t pick up on his emotions, living and working so closely with him, it suggests he may not have them . . . Not everybody has the usual emotional range.”
I start shaking my head. Without realizing it, I become defensive again.
“No, I think it’s what you said earlier. He’s great at containing himself. He’s under all this stress and needs to put a good face on things to keep everyone’s spirits up.”
“Remember, I’m not blaming Kyle for anything,” Rachel replies. “If he has a limited emotional range, it wouldn’t be his fault. It’s just an intrinsic part of his nature. People differ in all sorts of ways. That’s why we’re meant to live in communities. One person’s deficiency is another’s proficiency, and we get different things from different people. But there’s no one else to fill the void if your one companion has a limited emotional range. So, you’ll need to be Kyle’s support system and very likely your own. Kyle has great leadership skills, but that doesn’t mean he has the capacity to be a long-term companion. If that’s the case, all you can do is accept it. You may never get the warm feelings from Kyle your upbringing may’ve led you to expect from someone close to you. Those feelings may not be in him to give.”
Rachel pauses and takes a deep breath. She’s always been cautious when speaking about Kyle, but now she’s going way past those limits. I look at her and become alarmed. The room is air conditioned, but she’s starting to sweat. Fever is usually the first symptom of the Whip coming out of hiding.
“Anyway, I could be wrong,” she continues. “We should all have the humility to realize it’s easy to misjudge people. They’re more complex than the diagnostic labels my profession puts on them. But assuming that Kyle’s emotional range is limited, you’ll need to accept that he’ll be genuinely unable to provide what you need in a companion. However, there’s a need you must insist on. Always. And that’s basic respect.
“When I said you need to be adaptable, I don’t mean you should adapt to disrespectful or abusive behavior. You may be isolated, but for two people, the biosphere is a gigantic house. So, if at any time you’re not being respected, stay away from him. Communicate from a distance and keep it about practical stuff.
“Respect is a boundary you must always defend. Enclosure will begin with Kyle playing the role of leader, but as time goes on, he should relate to you more and more as an equal. He must respect that you have a will of your own and can differ on various judgment calls. You may often need to defer to him on technical matters, but never when it comes to your values.
“Another part of respect is honesty and truthfulness. Right now, you guys are under such scrutiny it’s perfectly understandable why you’re avoiding self-disclosure.”
My face flushes with guilt as I see what I should have picked up earlier—Rachel is well aware I’m hiding things.
“Soon, that outside scrutiny will be gone, and it will likely be just the two of you in the biosphere. You must establish a relationship with Kyle built on respect, truthfulness, and proper boundaries. Going along with anything that compromises your values might make living together easier in the short term, but it won’t work for the long term. And this is going to be a very long-term situation.”
The finality of her last phrase settles over me. It’s not like I’d forgotten but hearing it out loud is jarring. Soon, everyone will be gone. Rachel will be gone. I realize how much she’s tried to help and prepare me. I want to thank her, but at the same time, I disagree with her attitude toward Kyle. I can’t accept it. So I put on the unshakeable astronaut act one last time.
“Thanks for your advice,” I say diplomatically. “So far, I’ve found Kyle to be extremely fair and respectful and all those other things you said. But if that changes, I’ll remember your words and keep my distance until he starts acting properly again.”
Rachel studies me silently, her eyes sad, even mournful.
Only a few days later, she came down with a fever.
We never met again.
13 Entering the Biosphere
The fact that I didn’t thank Rachel in our final session still eats at me. She was right that I didn’t really know Kyle yet. But I felt brotherhood growing between us, and I was always searching for moments when we could make a genuine connection. One of those finally came on the day we sealed into the biosphere.
We stand beside a podium in front of the airlock for a send-off ceremony. It’s a really awkward situation. Most of the officials who show up are people I haven’t seen before. The one person I want to see, Rachel, is too sick to be there, and a number of the attendees show signs of the virus that will soon end their lives.
I feel their desperation to establish themselves in the spotlight of history. They each want their names and faces in the biosphere’s permanent record, so they are more interested in speaking to the cameras than to Kyle and me. At one point, they patch in the acting president of the United States, who makes a brief, prepared speech in which he declares the Biosphere 3 project, “The hope and future of our species.”
After a series of these grand speeches, Kyle speaks last.
“Today, we do not enter the biosphere as individuals, but merely as representatives of a heroic team,” he says. “Thank you. To everyone who put their tremendous efforts into this gravely critical mission, I and the future of humanity salute you. Your sacrifices will never be forgotten.”
A small scattering of applause follows. To my relief, no one asks me to say anything.
Kyle opens the submarine hatch-like door, and we step into the airlock. As we do, a wave of slowtime comes over me.
The first door seals shut behind us.
I watch Kyle open the hatch at the opposite end of the airlock. He pauses to politely gesture that I should step through first.
The moment feels dreamlike, as if I’m reliving an important memory.
As much as I’ve trained in it, I’m always struck by the deep green smell of the biosphere’s humid air. Outside is the Sonoran Desert, but once inside, I smell our tropical rainforest.
Then Kyle seals the second hatch behind us, and the great experiment begins.
The sense of separation from the outside world is profound. We turn to face each other. Our eyes meet, and our masks drop.
“It’s ours now,” Kyle beams. “Finally.”
His tone makes me uneasy, almost like he’s boasting. And it makes his humble, we’re-merely-parts-of-a-team speech seem really fake.
“Yeah,” I reply warily. “And who knows how long before we’re ever outside that door again.”
It’s a rare instance of privacy that lasts only a moment before we link back up with all the techs in the outside control room. We put on our glasses, and with them our astronaut acts, and we’re as monitored and scheduled as ever.
14 The Day of Radio Silence
The initial phase after the seal is a combination of doing the actual work and training at the same time. We’re kept busy from morning till night, on pace for the sixteen-hour days we’ll face as a two-man team. I understand the need, but I get tired of hearing voices in my ears giving me feedback and instruction about everything I do. It gives me little space for my own thoughts.
Gradually, the number of people speaking to me through the glasses drops, but I’m never told about any casualties. I ask every tech I talk to for news about Rachel, but everyone says they don’t know. Finally, when Michael, the trainer I work with the most, tells me he doesn’t know for the third day in a row, I’ve had enough.
“Hey Michael, I know this isn’t your fault, and maybe they’re telling you not to distract me with news, but I’m done training until someone gets me a straight answer,” I say.
I’m never assertive, and it catches him off guard. He nods and steps away from the com.
I hate putting Michael on the spot because he was always so nice to me, and I knew he had asked to be my lead trainer. But I also knew that if anyone was going to find out about Rachel for me, it was him. I was pretty naïve then, but now I realize Michael was attracted to me, not that he ever said anything flirtatious or inappropriate. He just seemed excited and a bit nervous or insecure sometimes when he would first get on the glasses with me.
About five minutes later, he returns. There’s a moment of silence while he gathers himself, but I already sense what he’s going to say.
“Tommy, I’m sorry to tell you, but she died a week ago.”
The news hits me hard. Rachel was the one person on the biosphere training team who helped prepare me for the isolation. Not getting the word when it happened only makes it worse. I should have been grieving for her days ago, so it feels like I’ve disrespected her passing.
A couple of weeks later, Michael is the only tech left on the glasses with me. I can hear in his voice that he’s getting sick, but he doesn’t want to acknowledge it. One morning, he has a coughing fit, and I tell him to take a break to look after himself. He tries to push through, but eventually, it gets so bad he has to log off. For the rest of the day, I work in silence.
I wake up the following morning sensing something’s changed. I pull aside the curtain of the floor-to-ceiling window in my sleeping loft to look out at our farm—the Agricultural Biome, divided into eighteen little plots of land, with pens for our pygmy goats and chickens.
The outer glass reveals a smoky orange sky outside the biosphere. We were told to expect this. Climate change caused more droughts and wildfires, and now, with no one to fight those fires, the whole country is covered in smoke. There’s no risk of our air inside being polluted, but the sight of so much smoke outside is unsettling.
I reach for the glasses charging by my bed.
“Good morning, Tommy,” says Gaia in her ever-cheerful voice. “All conditions are normal.”
She says that every morning, but nothing seems all that normal to me. She shows me a display of temperature, CO2, and oxygen levels. All the data fields are green, indicating everything is within acceptable range.
I descend the spiral staircase to my small living room below. Normally, a second or two after I reach the lower floor, I get a second hail from Michael in the control room. But this morning, he doesn’t log on. A pang of guilt stabs at me as I realize how much I’ve taken him for granted. I should have expressed more concern and appreciation.
What if it’s too late now?
I walk out to our kitchen. Usually I make every meal, but I find a thermos of coffee and a bowl of fruit salad already out on the gleaming granite table in our dining area. Kyle stands with his coffee mug in hand, gazing out one of the windows into the Agricultural Biome. The morning sun filters through the smoky haze to illuminate the outline of the Catalina Mountains in the distance.
“It’s happened,” he says. “You probably noticed. Total radio silence.”
Kyle’s manner is serious but relaxed.
“Gaia, show control room in all glasses,” he says.
A live video feed of the control room appears. The lights are on, but all the chairs are empty.
“We knew this day would come,” says Kyle, “and now it’s here, even sooner than expected.”
A cold and empty feeling overtakes me.
“What should we do?” I ask.
“Nothing,” he answers. “I set up a repeating hail to all personnel. It’s working silently in the background, but no one is responding. I’ve already reset Gaia, so we’re in fully autonomous mode. We can monitor the outer facilities through video feeds. They should continue operating until their diesel generators shut down.
“It looks like the geometric progression of the depopulation is steeper than predicted. Outside radio signals are ninety percent below where they were just two weeks ago. Based on present trends, global radio chatter may drop to automated signals from devices running on battery-power in a couple of weeks.”
I nod, at a loss for words. I feel disturbed by the news and the completely relaxed way Kyle is taking it. His voice is as calm as Gaia’s.
“Well, let’s see how the day goes,” says Kyle. “There’s a chance someone will log on later. For now, we’ve plenty of work to do. If we’re still in radio silence this afternoon, I suggest an early dinner. After, we can take the evening off and talk. Meanwhile if you run into a problem you can’t solve, give me a call, and we’ll work on it together.”
15 This is My World
I go through my day feeling strange. For the last several weeks, I was coached most of my waking hours, and now there’s complete silence. I try to hold out hope that Michael will sign on, but I sense I’m alone.
It’s a solitude I’m not quite ready to accept.
I’m inside a three-and-a-quarter acre bubble made up of seventy-seven thousand space frame struts and sixty-six hundred panes of sealed, laminated glass. There are thirty-eight hundred carefully chosen species of plants and animals. And then there’s Kyle and me. This is my reality. A glass-and-steel-enclosed island in the midst of a desert on a dying planet. And this will be my reality for the indefinite future.
I fight off my uneasiness and try to summon a sense of purpose while I take my morning inspection tour of the biomes. I can’t afford to be paralyzed by grief. My mission is to take care of the biosphere and all its precious life. That’s what Michael trained me to do, and I’m not going to let him down.
I let a calming wave of slowtime take me, and with no one talking to me through the glasses, it feels like I finally have the space to discover where I am.
As I walk through the rainforest, I hear the call of the galagos, or bushbabies, the six monkey-like primates who swing from the branches of trees or use the struts to travel through the biosphere. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but it seems like they sense a change in the air too. They’re more vocal than usual for the morning, as they’re nocturnal creatures.
If they’re affected by the change, why isn’t Kyle?
Maybe he is but wants to keep up our morale. I should support his efforts.
I try to push away my heavy feelings and focus on my inspection.
I stand on the narrow wood-planked path suspended above the ferns and mud puddles. A column of tiny ants spirals up the trunk of a banana tree. A few black-and-yellow heliconius butterflies flutter through the misty air.
Outside is the Sonoran Desert with five-percent humidity, but where I’m standing, it’s closer to one hundred percent. The rainforest is modeled after a Venezuelan cloud forest, and no other biome is so lush with vegetation. Machine-generated fog drifts above the canopy. The space frame echoes and amplifies the sound of the waterfall. It descends from the simulated thirty-foot-tall mountain into a pond, where pumps turn it into a stream running the length of the biome. Forty feet above the mountaintop is the highest point of my world—a ninety-foot-tall arched ceiling of space frame. Small clouds drift near the top, waiting to precipitate into rain. The tropical mist wilts my hair, and my clothing sticks to my skin as I walk from the rainforest into the Ocean Biome. The smell of saltwater greets me. I stand next to the frankincense tree at the top of a three-story cliff and look down at the million-gallon ocean. Coconut palms are scattered along the white coral-sand beach, and I see fish swimming in the gentle, machine-made waves.
I take a deep breath of the ocean air and feel the sunlight on my skin. Unlike other parts of the biosphere, the glass above the Ocean Biome is made to conduct ultraviolet light. It’s mainly to keep algae from killing the reef, but it also gives us vitamin D and the benefits of unfiltered sunlight. One day, once the smoke clears, there might even be time to sunbathe. But even now, the orange sun is drying the dampness of the rainforest from my clothes and hair.
I walk along the cliff path through the savannah, where forty-five species of grass are growing. Some are more than six feet tall. The stream that begins at the rainforest waterfall meanders through the length of the savannah, which is like the Florida Everglades but without mosquitos or alligators. Tall cattails grow at the edges of the flowing water. A garter snake with fine blue and red stripes slithers across the path in front of me on its way to the stream to hunt for small fish.
I stay on the wooden plankway through the Marsh Biome. It’s densely green with forested swamps and mangrove trees. In the water, I see some nearly transparent fairy shrimp swimming around anemones.
The humidity drops as I step into the Desert Biome, being careful not to catch myself on the thorny cacti. I stop before what looks like a cave entrance framed by sun-blasted rock. It’s actually a large air vent releasing dry air into the Desert Biome. It takes the last trace of dampness from my hair and clothes.
This biome was built to mimic a scrub brush desert kept at forty-percent humidity. It’s more of a coastal fog than an arid desert like the one outside the biosphere. Compared to the other biomes, it’s pleasantly dry. Large boulders are interspersed amidst the cacti—cardon, boojum, yucca, and San Pedro. When it’s not smoky, the Desert Biome provides great views of the Sonoran Desert outside and the Catalina Mountains in the distance. It’s one of my favorite places. I sometimes sit on a large, flat-topped boulder and meditate.
I head to the Intensive Agricultural Biome. Most of my work time is spent tending to this half-acre, highly productive farm. It’s divided into eighteen rotating plots, including four rice paddies. There are more plots of sweet potatoes and lab-lab beans than anything else because they’re our most successful crops. But we also grow corn, kale, chili peppers, squash, beets, tomatoes, various herbs, carrots, cabbage, onions, eggplant, peas, peanuts, strawberries, and watermelon.
I set to work pruning the sweet potato leaves to stimulate the growth of the tubers. It’s a routine task and slightly meditative, which keeps my mind off the silence of the outside world. When I finish, I gather the loose leaves for composting but stuff a few bundles into a backpack to feed the goats. Then I circle back toward the Human Habitat Biome.
On the way, I stop for a moment in our tropical orchard. It’s lush and dense with green shadows. There are taros with giant fan leaves, banana, guava, avocado, fig, lime, lemon, and tangerine trees. Ventilation fans make the leaves sway. Even though I know the wind is artificial, it makes this dense grove seem like a real jungle.
Below the Human Habitat’s living quarters is a barnyard area for our domestic animals—chickens and pygmy goats. I love working with them. My first chore is to feed and milk the lactating goats. When I take off the backpack, the sound of the zipper opening brings the goats over to me, and I feed them handfuls of sweet-potato leaves. I talk to them a little, while the milking machine does its job.
They don’t seem to know that everything has changed. And looking around their enclosure, why would they? It’s the same today as the day before, as it will be the day following.
What’s really changed? The world in here is the same.
Trying to ground myself in that, I focus on my next task, harvesting peanut plants.
The afternoon arrives with still no word from Kyle about whether anyone responded to the automated hail. So I continue digging out peanuts until it’s time to shower and make the early dinner Kyle suggested.
I wonder if the quiet is getting to him too?
I switch from reflection to quicktime as I blend some pre-cooked sweet potatoes to use in a pie for dessert. Once the pie is in the oven, I cook a stir-fry with fresh veggies, lab-lab beans, and brown rice. Going with the speed wave helps to suspend my anxiety.
When Kyle returns from the Technosphere, he’s cheerful and relaxed. But he quickly picks up on my anxiety.
“I know it probably seems like we should be mourning, but I don’t see what purpose that would serve,” says Kyle. “It’s not anything they asked for or wanted. All our training was about getting us to this day. We could mourn for the rest of our lives, and it wouldn’t be enough, given how many people we’ve lost. The best way to honor them is to focus on the biosphere.”
True to his word, that’s exactly what Kyle does. During dinner, as usual, he briefs me on the status of various technical issues and how he plans to fix them. This time I only pretend to be interested in what he’s saying. I want to support his efforts to maintain morale and a sense of normalcy. Maybe it’s what he needs to deal with the stress, but I’d prefer talking about our loss of connection to the outside or not talking at all.
Despite my efforts to keep up a good face, Kyle reads my unease.
“Hey, why don’t we head to the beach to decompress. We can take some time off and talk more openly now that we no longer have to put on the act. Sound like a plan?”
“Yeah, I’d like that,” I reply.
“Yeah, I’d like that,” I reply.
16 The Long Night of the Radio Silence
As I’m cleaning up after dinner, Kyle returns wearing a swimsuit and a beach towel draped around his shoulders. He must have stopped by storage because he’s carrying a case of vintage wine labeled “For Special Occasions.” Unlike the original biosphere experiments, we’re not trying to prove ecological self-sufficiency. Instead, we’ve been provisioned with plenty of stored food and supplies. He pries open the case and grabs a couple of bottles.
“We need something to lighten the mood,” he says cheerfully. “Why don’t you go change?”
When I return from my dorm, Kyle tosses me one of the bottles of wine. He’s got another under his arm and a pair of wine glasses dangling from his hand. The glasses clink together as we walk, as if they’re celebrating.
In the short distance to the Ocean Biome, I do my best to blend with Kyle’s mood.
If he’s taking this so smoothly, maybe I’m missing something.
When we get to the beach, Kyle spreads his towel across the sand. The orange light of the late-afternoon sun gives everything a warm glow.
The Ocean Biome is like a miniature Hawaiian island. The water is kept between seventy-seven and eighty degrees. And it’s actual ocean saltwater trucked to the biosphere from the Pacific. The deepest part is twenty-five feet, and we can dive into it from the cliffs.
“Listen, Tommy, I know you’re upset,” Kyle says, setting out the wine glasses. “And I understand that. Really, I do. It’s a big moment. But we’ve spent months preparing for this. We knew it was coming. And it is what it is. So we should let it go and relax a bit, right? I know I could use a break from all the pretending.”
Kyle uncorks a bottle and pours a large glass of red wine for each of us.
“To our new life in the biosphere,” says Kyle.
“To our new life,” I echo half-heartedly as our glasses clink.
The Friends made homemade wine and mead, so it’s not the first time I’ve ever had alcohol. But it’s the first time in many months, and it hits me immediately. My face flushes, and my muscles relax as the warmth of the wine flows through me.
“Gaia, play EDM Set 2,” says Kyle.
Techno beats fill the Ocean Biome from hidden speakers. It isn’t my favorite genre, but I don’t want to insult his musical taste. The electronic music is jarring at first, it seems so out of phase with what’s happened to the world, but I try my best to get into it.
My thoughts become a little more playful as the alcohol starts loosening me up.
He spends all day working in the Technosphere, so makes sense he would like techno.
“Drink up,” says Kyle, grinning at me.
I do, and a pleasant swell of intoxication comes over me. Kyle smiles encouragingly as I finish off my first glass. I relax under the wine’s influence, the sun’s orange glow, and his increasingly joyful mood.
“Feels great, doesn’t it?” Kyle says, pouring each of us another full glass. It’s the first time I’ve seen him having fun, and his mood lifts mine. I start on my second glass and feel the weight of the future on our shoulders fall away. I thought this might be disrespectful, but it’s starting to feel good.
We’re just two friends chilling on a beach.
Maybe it’s the alcohol, but Kyle feels like even more than a friend, like maybe a cool older brother. He’s always looking out for me. He amps up the music until the whole Ocean Biome reverberates to a high-speed electronic rhythm. Now he’s gyrating with his arms and upper body. We have to shout to hear each other.
“I didn’t realize how much I needed this,” I say, raising my glass. “Everything’s been so damn serious. This feels great!”
“Great? It’s fucking amazing!” shouts Kyle. “No more Big Brother breathing down our necks!” He downs his second glass and lets out a wild howl that rises over the throbbing music like a wolf baying at the moon. He turns to me with a big grin. “Come on, Tommy, I know you want to!”
He howls again. I can’t help but join in, even though it feels silly. We laugh—at each other, at the moment, maybe at the insanity of it all. I’m suddenly charged with confidence.
“I’ve got to admit,” I shout, “at first, I thought going to the beach might be disrespectful or something, but this feels fantastic!”
“Definitely!” says Kyle as he tops off my glass. “Sometimes you just have to say fuck it.”
“Fuck it!” I shout over the music. Then I laugh before I take another big gulp of wine. “Hey, before I get too drunk what’d you wanna talk about?”
“Lots of shit, now that we can finally talk without being spied on!” he yells, raising his glass in the air defiantly. “One thing I’ve wanted to say but couldn’t before is I haven’t just been pretending to get along with you. It just so happens I really like you!”
The compliment catches me off guard. I’d never realized how much I wanted his approval. I blush, unsure how to respond, but there doesn’t seem to be a need because he’s on a roll.
“Don’t think I’m flattering you, but you should be flattered because I don’t like many people. So you can take that to the bank. Most people are totally lame. They annoy the shit out of me and disappoint me constantly. They’re too slow, and I can always guess what they’re going to say or do. But you—Gaia, lower the volume—”
When the volume drops, Kyle shifts his voice to a more confidential tone.
“You’re different. It was obvious the second I met you. So, let’s get it out in the open. It’s not just immunity—we’re unusual people. We’ve got . . . abilities. You’ve tried to hide yours, but I’ve noticed them. The martial arts lessons we did—you’ve got incredible speed, more than I’ve seen in anyone. And I’ve sparred with some of the best. I’ve never met anyone faster than me, but you’re at least as quick.
“And I’ve seen you . . .” Kyle searches for the right words, “read people. I do too, but in a different way. You sense changes before they happen. So do I, but it’s mostly a high-speed calculation of variables in play. With you, it’s more instinctive. Right?”
I’m a little startled by how well he’s observed me, but it feels good to be seen. At least partly.
“I thought so,” he continues. “See, we’re unusual in different ways. So we can learn from each other. And I like that there’s no competitive vibe with you. Not that I don’t like competition, I do. But each of us is specialized to be good at our own things, so really—we’re the perfect team.”
Maybe it’s the drunkenness creeping in, but his rush of compliments is so unexpected I don’t know how to respond. All I can manage is a grin and a nod. Kyle sees my hesitation and fills the gap.
“And I’ll say one more thing about you—and I hope you don’t think I’m bullshitting or just running my mouth because of the wine—In vino veritas!” shouts Kyle as he uncorks the second bottle. “I can even say I like you more than anyone I’ve ever met. And I’ll tell you why.”
His face is flushed, but his silvery-gray eyes look clear and in control.
“There’s an edge of mystery about you. I pick up some things, but there are other things I don’t. And that’s great because it’s a challenge. And I love challenges!”
So, he hasn’t read all of me. Never thought of myself as mysterious, but it’s cool to be seen that way. Tommy, the mysterious.
“And speaking of challenges,” he says, “there’s a huge one that never got addressed in any of our training sessions—sex!”
The one-syllable word springs out at me as if Kyle popped a white rabbit from the wine bottle and tossed it in my lap.
A sudden surge of fear, my face flushes, and my heart pounds.
“Sex?” I ask. I feel stupid, embarrassed by my startled reaction. And Kyle sees it. He smiles slyly, studying me.
“Yes, SEX!” says Kyle laughing. He reaches to top off my glass, but my desire for wine is gone. “We’re healthy young guys. I’m nineteen, you’re sixteen. Sex was a major part of my life pre-pandemic. How about you?”
I’m forced to think back to my life before the plague, and that throws me even more off balance.
I was a late bloomer. I finally hit puberty earlier in the Year of the Whip. It happened at the same time my abilities appeared. But it all got mixed up in the paranormal stuff and the vision of something horrible coming. Before I could sort it out, that something came, and I needed to care for the dying.
I feel awkward answering.
“Well . . . I’m still pretty young. And with the plague and training and all, I haven’t had time to think about it.”
“That’s fine,” says Kyle. “I can understand that. A lot can change between sixteen and nineteen! But I’m sure you’ve noticed those fertile, immune women they kept expecting to find . . . they’re not here. So . . . you’ve got an instinct for what’s coming. Do you see anybody joining us in the near future?”
I never even allowed myself to think about it, but it had always been there in the back of my mind—a sense that no one would be joining us for a long time.
“No, I guess I don’t.”
“Exactly,” says Kyle. “I’m not expecting company any time soon either. But it’s not just a hunch. It’s a straightforward, logical conclusion. When the biosphere project was conceived, it was assumed a tiny percentage of the population would be immune. Even if it was only one-thousandth of a percent, we expected there’d eventually be a statistically calculable set of immune people. Unfortunately, this was not the case. You and I are not statistically significant—we’re anomalies.
“For months, I was afraid I’d be the only one. As soon as I met you, I sensed you were another anomaly. Not merely immune, but unique in other ways.
“Maybe somewhere else on the planet, it’ll turn out there are a couple of female anomalies sheltered in a well-stocked underground base. Maybe in ten years, the radiation levels will drop enough for them to travel here. But based on present trends, with so many unattended nuclear power plants melting down—any fertile, immune female who wanted to travel to the biosphere would be sterile or genetically deformed from radiation poisoning by the time she got here. So . . . this brings us back to the subject of two isolated young guys and sex.
“The practical reality is that if either of us is going to have sex in the foreseeable future, it’ll have to be with each other.”
He’s staring at me intensely, but I’m too shocked and confused to return his gaze. Instead, I look out at the ocean, and a deep state of slowtime comes over me.
It borders on an out-of-body experience.
I’m not looking at Kyle, but I know he’s looking at me. There was always something unreadable about him. That’s gone now. I see what I didn’t want to see before. And now it’s obvious how he’s been manipulating me—the wine, the beach, the praise. The realizations are sobering while I follow what Kyle says next.
“The good news is that even though we’ve only got each other, it so happens we’re both highly desirable specimens. And my flag flies both ways. I don’t like to boast, but pre-pandemic, I had my choice of partners, male and female, and none of them went away unsatisfied. And you, I don’t know if you realize this, but you’re exceptionally beautiful. And it’s not just me saying that. Do you remember Deanna, the computer engineer who led the team that set up Gaia?”
It’s hard for me to form words, but I force myself to. I don’t want Kyle to see my fear.
“I only talked to her once, but, yeah, sure.”
“She accidentally left her glasses on transmit, and I overheard her talking about you. When Michael said, ‘He’s remarkably good looking,’ she said, ‘Good looking? He looks like an angel. I have a theory that Kyle is immune because he’s the most physically fit person on the planet, and Tommy is immune because he’s the most beautiful.’”
Kyle gives me a smirk that shoots sparks of fear through my brain.
“From the first moment I saw you with your long blonde hair and that black eye you had, I found you incredibly attractive. Exactly my type and not what I expected at all. When I heard an immune fifteen-year-old was on the way, I imagined an annoying, pimply kid. Maybe you don’t have a type yet, but lots of people would consider me ideal. You’re at the age of experimentation, so I suggest we experiment. They never talked to us about this directly, but I’m sure the team would’ve wanted us to work it out. What do you think?”
Before I can think of an answer, I detach from my body entirely.
I ascend and float near the top of the space frame enclosure.
I look down and see the two of us below, sitting on the beach blanket. My face is vacant, while Kyle’s eyes glitter with fire.
Gazing down is a mistake. A panic of vertigo—I’m about to plummet back into my body.
I shift my gaze toward the silhouette of the Catalina mountains framed by drifting smoke and the setting sun.
My awareness expands as insights flow through me. They’re deeper and more complex than anything I’ve ever comprehended. I realize what I couldn’t in my body under the direct pressure of the situation.
An array of portals appear all around me. They’re tubular and spinning like pipelines, the kind that surfers ride. Somehow, I know they’re possible timelines branching off from this point. Every move I make, every choice, and every word I say to Kyle, will send the biosphere in a different direction.
Every spinning portal I look into shoots flashes of images.
Flash—I wake up on the floor of the Desert Biome, but I’m too weak to stand. Both doors of the rear airlock are wide open, heat rippling in the air outside. I feel the furnace-like, poisonous atmosphere of the outer world seeping into the biosphere and realize this is the death of all its life.
Flash—Kyle and I are arguing. Our shouts get progressively louder and more enraged until Kyle strikes me in the throat with his fist, crushing my trachea. I struggle to take a breath that is no longer possible and look up at the face of my killer.
Flash—Kyle straddles me, holding a syringe in his teeth as he wrestles my squirming body with both hands. He manages to put me into a submission hold, one arm pinned between his clenched legs, while the other is held in his death grip. He releases the grasp of his left hand just long enough to grab the syringe from his mouth and pierce its glittering steel needle through the soft skin of my neck and into my jugular.
I pull back from the terrifying visions and become aware that I am the spinning portal at the center of all these pipelines. They each branch out from my potential choices.
I look into the deepest pipeline. It’s the outcome of a complex series of delicately balanced choices that allow me to survive much longer, but it disappears into unformed darkness. The darkness is turbulent and unstable. It’s the horizon line of the unknown outcomes of Kyle’s choices and mine.
Kyle is his own spinning portal, with timelines branching off from him. His choices have the power of life and death over me and the whole biosphere. I need to understand what Kyle is. So I focus my mind on him and insights flow into me.
Kyle is the pinnacle of an evolutionary stream—an apex predator. But he was made to operate in an advanced global civilization, not a biosphere. Captivity here is just as traumatic to his nature as it is to mine. He’s a highly complex being, and there’s conflict within him. He’s aware of his warring sides and struggles to stay in control. The predator part of him has been suppressed for months and wants to be unleashed. But his strategic mind realizes surrendering to such an animal impulse would destroy the biosphere.
Kyle’s mind and will keep his body in check. He’s not focused on destroying, but on skillfully manipulating me. To him, I’m an extremely valuable reward he’s earned. His every word and action is logically aligned with his purposes. But this limits his options and makes him predictable. As fierce, intelligent, and deadly as he is, I’m the less predictable one with more choices. I can see deeper into him than he can into me.
Only, I have no skills for dealing with such a creature. Power and manipulation are as natural to him as breathing, but they go completely against my upbringing. We’re like members of different species. Since I can’t change his nature, I must alter mine. I must learn to use manipulation to counter his destructive impulses . . .
These insights pass through me effortlessly, like I’m remembering things I already knew. Soon my mind has expanded as far as it can, and I’m sucked back into myself, into being Tommy, the kid who has to start making all those delicately balanced choices.
And it’s all just completely overwhelming.
What should I do right now?
“You’ve already done the first part, Tommy, by recognizing what’s at stake,” says Rachel, speaking in my head for the first time. “You need to see the forces in play to help you solve an impossible situation. Kyle is your adversary, but there’s also no survival path without him.”
“Rachel, I’m so sorry. You tried to warn me, but I wanted to believe in him.”
“Don’t be sorry, Tommy. It’s perfectly understandable. People like Kyle are experts at gaining trust. But you need to focus on what’s happening right now. The predator in him sees you as weak. He set this trap—the wine, the beach, the compliments— to blindside you. He wants you in a confused and vulnerable state. You need to blindside him back to gain his respect. He must show you respect. Now and always. You’re in a battle for control. You need to set up boundaries and claim territory.”
“He wants a contest, not an easy victory,” Rachel replies. “So give him one. Kyle may not form deep attachments, but it’s obvious he’s attracted to you, which gives you a certain power over him. You must use that power to keep him challenged. The single greatest threat to the biosphere is Kyle becoming bored. Seeking is a crucial animal drive. If an apex predator like Kyle finds himself in a situation where there’s nothing left to seek, his sanity will unravel. His darker impulses will overwhelm his logical mind. So you must never cease to be a challenge for him. Feed him with partial victories when you need to, but never allow him total control.”
“What do you mean by partial victories?”
“I’m so sorry, Tommy. There’s something you have to face. Refusing him will end in violence and the destruction of the biosphere. You’ve been shown that. He’s determined to experiment with you. You’ll lose all control over the situation if it happens by force.”
Rachel’s words horrify me, and I push her out of my head. But that only fills me with panic and a sense of being trapped without anyone to help me. It feels like when I got sucker-punched by that guy in Burlington who dragged me behind the dumpster. I survived by fighting back. I could never win a fight with Kyle, but I might be quicker. I could grab a wine bottle and try to knock him over the head—but then what? There’s no place to run away to, and I can’t run the biosphere by myself.
Suddenly, I’m pulled back into my body. But I’m not sitting on the beach anymore. I’m in the dark forest surrounding my treehouse in Vermont. In front of me is a boy. He looks just like me when I was about six. He’s wearing Star Wars pajamas I had at that age, and his eyes are filled with tears.
This boy is me. But he’s also outside of me.
“I don’t want this. I want to go back to The Friends.”
His tearful eyes and pleading voice overwhelm me with sorrow. His emotions feel more real than my own.
Which me is me? Whose eyes should I look out from?
I’m supposed to protect this boy, like an older brother, but I’ve abandoned him. Forgotten him. Left him alone where he could be hurt.
I fall to my knees and hug him. I’m crying now too, as remorse floods through me.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to—I didn’t mean to leave you.”
“Don’t be sad, Tommy,” he says. But I can’t stop crying.
“What can I do? What can I do to help you?”
“I don’t know,” says the boy, “I don’t want this. I don’t want him! He’s scaring me. I want The Friends. I want mommy! Where’s mommy? Where’s our mommy?”
“Mom’s not here,” I reply, “but I am, and I’ll stay with you. It’ll be OK, we’ll be OK. I’m right here to protect you.”
The boy is trembling with fear. I have to pull myself together for him. I need to stop sobbing. There’s no one else to take care of him except me.
I hug the boy closer to me. As we relax, we dissolve into each other.
17 We are the Law Now
I’m floating again above the ocean, peacefully gazing down at the water from the top of the space frame.
I’m larger now, more whole.
I see two figures sitting on the beach. It looks like a mythic painting of a scene that was destined to happen.
An understanding unfolds within me. In these months of fighting for survival, and training for the biosphere, I’ve had no time to reflect. When I turned fifteen, I was still a child in some ways. Then the plague came, everyone died, and my world collapsed. I was forced to split into parts. A survivor took over. The child part of me was left behind. The survivor, a grown-up self, had to be in charge from morning to night. He forgot there was once another self. The survivor thought he was me, but he’s only part of me. I’ve become only a part of myself.
Another part, the boy, was abandoned in the dark forest within me where I don’t look. He peers out from the edge of the woods and sees terrifying things.
And I sense other watchers living in the dark woods with him. My mom, Matthew, and Dorothy look out from the edge of the forest and see Kyle staring at me with his glittering eyes. They see what he is and what he wants and are horrified. They want to protect me, but they can’t. They don’t want me to surrender my body to a predator.
Helplessness is pulling me apart. But I can’t allow it. The whole world has shattered—I can’t let this last part of it, the biosphere, fall apart too. I have to keep myself together for all of them. The survivor needs to step up and protect the boy in the forest.
I hear the last thing Kyle said to me,
I’m sure the team would’ve wanted us to work it out. What do you think?
His last question echoes in my mind as I plummet back into my body.
What do you think? What do you think? What do you think?
I’m not sure what Kyle saw while I was disembodied. I turned away in shocked confusion. There must’ve been a couple seconds where my eyes looked blank or spaced out. It feels like I was gone for hours, but Kyle seems to have only just finished speaking.
I hear Rachel’s words in my mind:
You need to blindside him back.
I snap my head around and lock onto Kyle’s eyes before he can disguise the flames of desire raging inside them. My unwavering stare tells him that I know what he’s up to.
“You want me to think they would’ve approved of this,” I reply defiantly. “But the biosphere is a government program. A U.S. government program. And the law of this country says it’s a crime for a nineteen-year-old to have sex with a sixteen-year-old. I think they call it statutory rape.”
Kyle laughs. He’s surprised and curious, but his confidence is unshaken.
“Good point,” says Kyle. “Though it’d be more correct to say the biosphere was a government program. There is no government anymore, and therefore there is no law. We are the law now. We—”
“WE are the law now,” I shoot back. “That means both of us. So any new laws require two votes, right?”
“Absolutely,” says Kyle, intrigued. He raises his glass to me, smiles, and takes another drink.
He tries to refill my half-full glass, but I pull it away.
“Thanks, but if I want more, I’ll pour it myself.”
Kyle shrugs cheerfully.
“Of course.” He sets the bottle between us and gives me an approving smile. “You’re full of surprises today, Tommy. I love it.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re having fun with this whole beach-party-getting-me-drunk set-up. How many other kids have you gotten drunk like this?”
Kyle smiles slyly.
“You sound jealous.”
“You sound like a sex predator,” I fire back.
Kyle, still smiling, flashes me a dangerous look.
“That’s quite an accusation. Perhaps you need someone to show you the difference between sounding like a sex predator and being one.”
His whole body radiates a menace I can feel in every cell. There’s a sinister glint in his eyes, like a match flame held near a short-fused stick of dynamite. I will myself to hold his gaze and not show the fear shooting through me. My heart pounds with adrenaline, but my thoughts are cold and sharp.
I’ve gotten ahead of myself and made a serious mistake. I can’t afford to do that again. There’s a hidden tripwire between challenging him and defying him. I’ve got to yield ground but without sounding weak or apologetic, or I’ll define myself as his victim.
“Look, I want to get along with you,” I reply. “We have to for this biosphere to work. I’m willing to consider an experiment with you, but only under certain conditions.”
Kyle’s pupils dilate at the word “experiment.” Waves of heat radiate from him, while he appears calm and amused on the surface. My heart pounds with fear.
Am I yielding too much, too soon? I can’t take back my words.
“Conditions?” Kyle says with supreme confidence. “Awesome—a negotiation! I love negotiations! Go ahead. Let’s hear your conditions.”
Kyle takes a drink of wine. I’m about to as well to calm myself, but I don’t want to mirror his gesture, so I wait.
“I might be willing to experiment with you, but I’m not willing to be experimented on. We both have to be cool with every part of it. For me, it really is an experiment because I don’t have any experience.”
Something surges in Kyle as I admit my lack of experience. His smile curls into a smirk. Another stab of fear.
I am giving away too much.
I’m afraid but also angry and disgusted.
“But I guess I’m not the first sixteen-year-old to be inexperienced,” I say, glaring at him. My anxiety is spiking, but I hold his gaze. I take a deep breath and force myself to regain control. “So that’s one condition—we both have to be cool with every part of every experiment.”
Kyle gives me a casual shrug of acknowledgment.
“That everything be consensual? Of course, Tommy, goes without saying. What kind of monster rapist do you think I am?”
“I’m not sure, Kyle. What kinds are there?”
He looks blank for a second before laughing heartily.
“Nice one, Tommy. You got me. I’d no idea you were such a comedian. Excellent timing and delivery!”
The compliment seems genuine, and there’s a break in the tension. We both know what type of creature he is, and this way of bringing it into the open seems to have worked. I allow myself to drink a gulp of wine to steady my nerves. There’s almost a feeling of respect from Kyle at the moment, like the cat-and-mouse game is shifting into two operators competing for advantage.
“So, anyways,” I continue, “since you said the old laws are gone, it makes sense to pass some new ones. So, consensuality gets two votes. Right?”
“And we respect each other as equals.”
Kyle raises his glass to me in a slightly facetious salute.
“Absolutely. Two votes.” He studies me before sitting up and speaking more seriously. “Of course I respect you as an equal. I’d be an idiot not to. I can’t run the biosphere by myself, and no one could stand total isolation. Disrespecting you would be like pissing in my own swimming pool. If you feel disrespected in any way, we both lose because we’re an interdependent two-person team.”
He takes another drink of wine while I sort through the layers of truth and deception in this. For the first time, he looks a little drunk. But it doesn’t fool me. He’s still in control of himself. And though the heat of the wine burns inside me, I have myself under control too.
“Any more conditions?” asks Kyle with an amused smile. Rachel’s voice pops into my mind.
“The power struggle is entertaining him too much,” she warns me. “He has to take this seriously. You can’t afford to give in to anything until Kyle gives up what he’s been hiding.”
She’s right. I’ve got to know who I’m dealing with, and there might never be a better chance to find out.
“I’m not done with the respect condition yet,” I say sharply. “Respect is really the main condition. Consensuality is part of respect, but another part of respect is honesty.”
“Have I ever been dishonest with you?” replies Kyle with a look of mock innocence.
“Oh, of course not,” I say, matching his sarcasm. “I can’t imagine you ever being deceptive.”
As I reply, I catch sight of myself from the outside. I’ve never mocked anyone before. It feels ugly, and I’m disgusted by the need to mirror Kyle’s attitude.
“This whole beach party set up, getting a sixteen-year-old drunk and trying to have sex with him, some people might see that as creepy and dishonest.”
“Some people are idiots,” replies Kyle. “Yeah, we drank wine. And you said it felt great. Plus, it looks like you’re holding your alcohol as well as I am, which is pretty respectable, given your size. Besides, I didn’t just get you drunk and start groping you. Have I laid a hand on you? In case you didn’t notice, so far, I’ve been as respectful and civil as I get. This is me on my best behavior. Yeah, I brought up sex. But it came up during a reasonable conversation, and now we’re having this awesome negotiation. So, where’s the dishonesty exactly?”
“OK, OK,” I say. “But honesty is more than not lying. We need to be open about things. I think we should know more about each other so we know who we’re experimenting with. We’ve been hiding stuff because we had to, but now we don’t. I’m willing to tell you anything, but are you willing to do the same? That’s my last condition.”
“Fine,” replies Kyle, his expression more serious this time. It’s a major concession. “Two votes. I think we have a deal. And I’m happy to fulfill all the conditions. But since it’s your suggestion, you go first. Tell me what you’ve been hiding, and then I’ll do the same. And believe me, I’ve been hiding plenty. I was planning on telling you most of it eventually. I’m good at deceiving people, very good. But no one is good enough to live in isolation with an empath and expect to hide anything major indefinitely. So we might as well get it all out in the open.”
He’s leveling with me. It’s a sort of respect I haven’t felt from him before, and I have a hunch he’s treating me as more of an equal than he’s ever treated anyone.
So, I go first. I let out my truth in small doses. I tell him about slowtime and quicktime.
“Very interesting,” says Kyle. “It sounds close to what I experience in competitions when I get in the zone. But I’m not getting the difference between slowtime and quicktime. It seems like in both modes, the outside world would appear to go slower, and you’d have more space to think and react.”
“Well—,” I pause to think. They feel so different that I’d never actually thought it through before. “Quicktime involves being physically and mentally sped up. It started with me just getting faster doing carpentry work. At first, I didn’t think it was strange. It just felt great to be working quickly. But when others saw, they were shocked, even disturbed. They said my movements were a blur. So I began hiding my abilities from everyone around me. But quicktime is useful when I need to think and react fast in the moment. I let it come on when we sparred because I felt you were in your own version of quicktime. That zone you mentioned.”
“So, in quicktime, the world is going at its normal speed,” I continue, “but I’m able to move and think quicker. In slowtime, the outside world decelerates. I get more space to observe and consider options. And my perceptions are enhanced more than my movements. I can look beneath the surface, and access intuitions about what’s really happening. I see a high-speed situation as if it’s happening in slow motion, so I can react to it more precisely. Like when I was attacked on the way to the testing center. Slowtime allowed me to see into my attacker’s mind and know what to do next. But when it was time to act, quicktime took over.”
Kyle’s eyes glimmer with avid interest when I tell him the real story of the fight in the alley and how I defeated my attacker. But I leave out the part about the telepathic flashes. He has me go over the details a second time before he’s satisfied.
“Nicely played,” says Kyle. “Though if I were you, I would’ve taken the opportunity to give the old bastard a few well-placed kicks to the head while he was down.”
“Well, Kyle, I guess that’s a good example of me not being you. I was raised to be nonviolent, so I’m not proud of what I had to do.”
“Yeah, you were raised to be nonviolent,” Kyle scoffs. “You were also raised in a hippie commune out in the woods where you didn’t need to be violent. But when you were attacked, your body knew what to do, and you became violent. Would it have been better if you were nonviolent and let that guy do whatever he wanted with you? Suppose you grew up in a neighborhood full of guys like him? I think you would’ve figured out the problem with nonviolence pretty quick. By not kicking that guy’s head in, you probably allowed him to dust himself off and find some other kid to attack. Did you think about that?”
“No,” I reply, as the image of my attacker flashes through my mind, his bloodshot eyes and foul breath. “I didn’t think about it. I’m not sure what to think about it. I didn’t say defending myself was wrong, just that I’m not proud of what I had to do.”
Kyle questions me about my ability to anticipate certain events, and I give the best explanation I can. But I don’t tell him about my out-of-body experience, the possible futures I saw, or the insights I had about him. Intuition tells me to hold back. Perhaps that makes me deceptive, but Kyle had me go first, and I’ve given up a lot of secrets without knowing how much he’ll share about himself.
When I sense he’s running out of pressing questions, I level my attention at him.
“So, now you know what I’ve been hiding. You’re the only person I’ve ever told about my strange abilities.” I try to register if this means anything to him, but there’s a concrete wall behind his eyes. “Your turn.”
“Oh, me? What’ve I been hiding? Plenty of things. But don’t worry, I won’t hold out on you. I do, however, have my own condition before I begin.”
Kyle twists the base of his wineglass into the sand next to him and turns to focus on me with deadly seriousness.
“At the moment, there’s no one for you to share my secrets with. But in the future, there could be. So I need you to swear a blood oath on pain of death that you’ll never, under any circumstances, share any of this. No matter what happens.”
“OK,” I reply, “if you swear on your life to the other conditions you already agreed to.”
It may sound like something two children would do to form a secret pact. But for me, blood oath is no figure of speech. It’s a consequence I know Kyle will enforce.
Obviously, I’m breaking that oath by writing this. But I’m willing to pay with my life if I get caught. The way things are going, I probably won’t survive in here much longer anyway. The only reason for me to keep living is in case it helps others.
If there are any survivors in the future, I owe them this record. I don’t want Kyle to manipulate anybody else. And, yeah, if I’m going to be honest with myself, I guess there’s a part of me that wants to live on in some way, even if it’s only through these rambling words etched on a gold disc . . . So maybe it’s a selfish risk. I don’t know. But I need to keep the hope that someone will read this one day. That any of this will have mattered. It’s the only hope I have left.
18 Kyle’s Secrets
After we swear our blood oaths, Kyle begins his turn at truth-telling.
“Alright, good,” he says, confident as ever. “Well, we might as well get the big one out of the way first—why I’m immune to the virus.”
He casually reclines onto his elbows, but I can tell he’s studying me.
“I’m immune because I’m genetically engineered.”
His tone is so matter of fact, but the shock of his admission causes my breath to catch. My mind starts snapping jigsaw pieces into place—he looks too perfect—his off-the-charts IQ—his superhuman athletic abilities. It all makes sense now, but it’s too unreal to accept.
I feel a wave of revulsion.
He’s a GMO.
I’d heard of genetically engineered animals. So I guess I knew doing that to humans was possible too. But it always seemed like one of those futuristic sci-fi possibilities. I never imagined I’d be living with a GMO person.
I struggle not to show the revulsion on my face. For a moment, I’m almost paralyzed by fear as his cool, engineered eyes study my reaction. Then I realize I have to say something.
“Genetically engineered?” I blurt out. “By who?”
“Lab techs, of course,” replies Kyle with amused sarcasm before continuing in a serious tone. “A more meaningful question is who or what was behind my being engineered. And the answer to that question is James W. Vaughn. A wealthy and powerful old bastard. One of those behind-the-curtain billionaires, who was, purely in a legal sense, my father. My adoptive father. He happened to be one of the richest men on the planet, the owner of numerous corporations, with a controlling interest in many others. And one of his fully owned corporations was a biotech company doing cutting-edge research into recombinant gene manipulation.”
His explanation goes mostly over my head, but I try not to let it show.
“So, your dad arranged for you to be genetically engineered, but what about your mom? She went along with it?”
“My mom?” Kyle emphasizes the word as if I’d said something really childish like teddy bear. “I have no mom. I was implanted as an engineered, fertilized embryo into a surrogate. She was a human incubator paid for her services. Of course, she had no idea she was carrying a genetically engineered embryo.”
“Wow,” I reply. It’s a terrible thought to grow up without a mother. I’m sorry for Kyle, but I know he’ll resent my sympathy. “I didn’t even know it was possible not to have a mother.”
“Didn’t have one, didn’t need one. It was annoying enough to have a father. Technically, some might call the anonymous woman who donated the embryo my biological mother, but even that would be a stretch because both ovum and sperm were so extensively modified. The original genetics were more like raw material for the bioengineers.”
My mind races to keep up with the disturbing implications.
“Well, so what did they engineer you to be?”
“That’s an open question. I was never able to learn the specifics of the modifications.” A bitter edge of anger, even rage, lurks beneath his words. “Of course, some of the intended changes are obvious—enhanced immunity, reflexes, strength, memory, IQ, and so forth. But there are probably others that aren’t so obvious. For example, I could’ve been designed to have an exceptionally long lifespan. Or I could auto-destruct at age twenty-five.”
“But wouldn’t your dad know those things?”
“Of course he knew!” Kyle shoots back furiously.
Startled at his own loss of control, he takes a deep breath and sits up straighter before continuing.
“Of course he knew, but he wouldn’t tell me,” says Kyle. His voice is tight, and I notice the slightest tremble in his hand as he twists his wine glass deeper into the sand.
“When I turned eighteen, he told me I was engineered, but refused to give me any specifics. When I asked, he laughed at me and said, ‘Ah, so you want to know what’s in the secret sauce. That’s proprietary. You don’t expect me to give away trade secrets, do you? Consider yourself lucky I disclosed anything. Let’s see how pleased I am with you when you turn twenty-one, and maybe then I’ll tell you. We need you to be fully developed first to compare how well the actuality matches the design. We don’t want any heightened expectations skewing the results. But don’t worry, we put a lot of work into making you as optimal as possible. Just don’t fuck it up. I’ve got big plans for you, kiddo. You’re my secret weapon. All you have to do is make sure I’m pleased with you and your future is taken care of.’”
“Sounds like a real asshole,” I reply, careful to keep any hint of pity out of my voice.
“Of course he was. But he was a rich and powerful asshole. And I was glad he was a rich and powerful asshole. Just not that he wouldn’t disclose the secret sauce. I’m sure it was kept in a database somewhere, but my father’s most important projects used state-of-the-art firewalls. Not even Government-funded hacking teams could crack them. I’d have gladly wrung his neck if I was sure it’d lead to the secret sauce. But I never found the chance. And then the old bastard managed to croak a few months before the plague.
“Obviously, I didn’t tell anyone in the biosphere project about the engineering, but they’d be fools not to suspect. Until you came along, I was the only one with immunity. And it just so happens my father was the owner of a biotech company specializing in recombinant genetic manipulation?
“When my father dropped the news on my eighteenth birthday, he claimed there were no manmade fingerprints in the coding. He said I could get my genome mapped anytime I wanted, and it’d look like natural variations. But who knows what the most sophisticated analysis might reveal? If the biosphere project turned up anything anomalous, they certainly didn’t tell me. Maybe they thought I wasn’t aware of my genetic origins and didn’t want to traumatize me right before the mission.
“The official story was that I joined the family through a Russian adoption agency. And that was fully legit, at least on paper. My dad received an actual Russian boy, an infant. Who knows what they did with him once they did their little switch-a-roo, but I’m sure he wasn’t wasted. A living human subject without a legal identity is a valuable resource. And if there was one thing old James was good at, it was getting his money’s worth.”
Kyle pauses and looks at me for a reaction, but I try to keep my face neutral as I study him. He takes a deep breath, and I sense him feeling relieved to be able to discuss this openly. Like me, he’d never said such things about himself before. For a moment, I feel a twinge of sympathy. We both know what it’s like to carry heavy secrets.
“So,” Kyle says, regaining his composure, “That’s big secret number one. I’m genetically engineered, and no doubt that’s why I’m immune. A more interesting question is, why are you immune? That will be worth looking into at some point.”
He studies me for a long moment. The analytical part of him wants to cut me open. Instead, he continues.
“I was planning on telling you my other big secret anyway because there’s no way to hide it from an empath for long. And it looks like you’re already onto it. That annoying Rachel woman was, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she warned you about me. Did she?”
I don’t respond and keep my face neutral. Kyle smiles.
“That nosy bitch! I knew it. So, this isn’t all empathic X-ray vision, is it?” he laughs. “No need to respond. Your silence says enough. But I’m guessing Miss Rachel gave you a watered-down version with a lot of euphemisms so as not to unduly alarm. Have you heard of the Warrior Gene?”
“No,” I reply
“It’s a normal variant of the MAO-A gene present in about one percent of males. It correlates with increased athleticism, aggression, and psychopathy.”
“Psychopathy? You mean like—being a psychopath?”
“You mean—you’re a psychopath?”
“Yes,” replies Kyle, with patience.
“But—,” I’m thrown off by the starkness of his revelation combined with his casual tone. It’s as if he were telling me he was a Capricorn. “Why should I trust a psychopath?”
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“Well . . .” I trail off, unable to think of a safe answer.
Kyle sighs theatrically.
“You obviously have many of the common misconceptions about psychopathy, but I can help you work through those. We don’t all drown puppies.”
He stretches and takes a deep breath like a schoolteacher readying himself to provide a tedious but necessary lesson. I can tell it’s a carefully planned performance, and he led me right into it. His patience makes my startled reaction seem immature. I’m supposed to be the student with a head full of fuzzy misconceptions, and he, the dutiful teacher helping to clear up my confusion. To be fair, he did say he planned to tell me eventually.
“First off, psychopathy is a poor name for a natural variation. One percent of males are genetically coded to be alphas—dominant males, who tend to be more athletic, aggressive, possibly violent, and less emotional in a conventional sense. For example, they may not form attachments to people. These qualities combine to make them fearless warrior types, a type any hunter-gatherer tribe would need as a defender and perhaps leader. Hence, Warrior Gene.”
Kyle pauses to make sure I’m following along before pressing forward.
“Psychopathy is a poor name since path means illness, as in pathological, yet the condition isn’t considered a mental illness. People with these attributes tend to be more rational and intelligent than average. Technically, it’s categorized as a character disorder, but that’s also nonsensical. Our characters aren’t disordered. We just operate based on different principles than the cultural norm.
“Uninformed folk think psychopath is a synonym for violent maniac. Yes, psychopaths are more violent than average, but many aren’t violent at all. They may be highly successful politicians or businessmen. The professional group that tests with the highest level of psychopathy are CEOs—like old James W. Vaughn. So, I’m pretty sure this trait was genetically selected for me. I don’t think my father would’ve called me his secret weapon if he thought there was any chance I didn’t have it. But none of this is a big surprise, right?”
“Right,” I lie, keeping my face and voice neutral. Instinct tells me to go along with his assumption that I’d seen through to his true nature early on. “When we first met, I noticed that I couldn’t pick up much emotion. Rachel suggested you might not have the usual range.”
“Right,” says Kyle. “Usual range. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have emotions at all. It’s like color blindness. Most people with color blindness have trouble telling red and green apart, but that doesn’t mean they don’t see any color. Likewise, people with the Warrior Gene have what are called proto emotions—we get angry, frustrated, excited, and we do like to have fun and receive pleasure. But, as I’m sure you’ve already sensed, psychopaths like me don’t have the warm and fuzzy feelings you want us to. We’re as sentient as anyone, but we’re not sentimental.
“Not having such emotions, and not having certain moral inhibitions, what’s conventionally called a conscience, can be useful. According to some evolutionary biologists, psychopaths are a successful subspecies. We have an adaptive advantage in social systems where most people are inhibited by conscience and confused by excess emotion. Plus, male psychopaths are more likely to get women pregnant than the average guy. So they’re more likely to pass on their genes.”
“Why are they more likely to get women pregnant?” I ask.
I’m more horrified than curious, but I don’t want him to catch onto my revulsion. Apparently, this is Kyle’s big chance to give someone the lecture on the total awesomeness of psychopaths he’s been rehearsing in his mind for years.
“A few reasons. One is that women find them more attractive. Females seek the alpha male, and those with the Warrior Gene are more likely to be alphas. Also, psychopaths don’t form typical attachments, so they have no problem leaving one woman and impregnating another. Males in general have that tendency. We’re biologically hardwired to spread our genes as much as possible. Psychopaths are just better at it. Since they excel at spreading their genes, evolutionary biologists assumed their numbers would likely increase. One of them even referred to the psychopath as the man of the future. We may have arisen in the hunter-gatherer epoch, but we’re even better adapted to mobile, modern societies. We excel at everything corporate interviewers or voters look for—strength, confidence, charisma, and strategic thinking. Sound like anyone you know?” asks Kyle, affecting a charming smile.
“Indeed it does,” I reply neutrally.
“Anyway, psychopathy is a normal genetic variant. I think the evolutionary biologists who described the psychopath as the man of the future understood us best. They noted that psychopaths are ideally suited to play valuable roles in technologically advanced societies. We’re immune to fear and will act effectively in chaotic situations like wars and natural disasters. Research has shown there are situations in which psychopaths are more likely to act altruistically than the average person.”
“Why would they do that?” I ask.
“Because we’re fearless and enjoy risk. So a psychopathic first responder may be the one willing to enter a burning building to save your life. There are many life-or-death situations where you’d be better off in the hands of a psychopath. Saving you from that malfunctioning lifter robot is an obvious example.”
Suddenly, a horrifying possibility shoots through me.
Did Kyle manufacture the robot disaster? It was too rare an occurrence and too perfect a rescue. Was it all a setup? A game to win my trust?
“Surgeons test out higher in psychopathy than average. Let’s say you have to undergo a high-risk operation. Would you want a surgeon who cares deeply about you, is highly emotional and might freak out if things go wrong? Or would you rather have a cool-as-ice psychopathic surgeon who’s totally focused, enjoys risk, and won’t hesitate under pressure? In dangerous situations, there’s no better ally than a psychopath. And what situation is more dangerous than a global pandemic threatening the whole species?
“If you think about it, the most reasonable conclusion is that the higher-up biosphere people were in on both my big secrets. The dots were easy to connect. My guess is there was something like a gentleman’s agreement not to talk about it. They were probably afraid some high-ranking bureaucrat would disqualify me if they knew. If that happened, they’d have had zero immune candidates until you came along, and the government might’ve stopped funding the program. With the notable exception of Miss Rachel, I’ll bet many of the better-informed realized my psychopathy was an asset. The whole world was in an emergency that would emotionally overwhelm anyone who wasn’t a psychopath. A leader who could act efficiently in a catastrophe was ideal.”
“Well, they did call you The Quarterback,” I reply. “But wouldn’t a leader who doesn’t care about other people have disadvantages?”
“Often, the person who isn’t emotionally attached to the people under them is the best adapted to make the right move and save lives. I’ll give you an example—it’s a classic thought experiment.”
“Sure,” I say. I don’t know where this is going, but I realize Kyle’s on a roll, and I couldn’t stop him if I tried.
“Let’s say you’re standing in a railway yard next to a track-switching device. A train’s brakes have failed, and it’s coming in way too fast. A track switch is set so the train will derail at a platform where six people are standing. It’ll definitely kill all six. However, if you throw the switch, the train will be diverted to a different track and hit another platform where only one person is standing, killing them instead. So, what would you do? Would you stand there and do nothing and let six people die, or would you throw the switch?”
“I guess I’d throw the switch,” I say uncomfortably.
“Good choice,” says Kyle. “And that’s what most people say they’d do. But you don’t know any of these people. Maybe the six people are members of a criminal gang, and maybe the one person is a saintly mother of five small children. You’ve basically made a cold, mathematical, but correct decision based on the information available to you—it’s better to save six lives than one. You acted to choose an outcome that came out five units ahead of the other one. But you also violated your nonviolence principle, didn’t you? By taking action and throwing the switch, you chose to kill a person who was safe until you acted. In this situation, most people would act the same way as the psychopath, the logical, correct way that saves the most lives.
“Now consider a variation of this situation. You’re in the train station, and the same train is speeding down the track toward the platform with six people. But you’re not near the switch anymore, and you’d never reach it in time. You’re standing on a bridge above the track. You look down and see the six people are these lovely kids who’ve just been let out of a school for gifted children. They’re full of promise, and their whole lives lie ahead of them.
“Beside you on the bridge is a morbidly obese man eating doughnuts out of a greasy paper bag. You can tell he’s a diabetic, slovenly mess who obviously doesn’t bother to take care of himself. Judging by his terrible physical condition, he’ll likely be dead in a year or so. Plus, he’s too obese to have a girlfriend, so he’ll never pass on his shitty genes anyway. And he’s not even enjoying his life. He looks totally apathetic and barely aware of what’s going on around him.
“Suddenly, with seconds to spare, you realize how you could save the children’s lives. If you were to push the fat guy off the bridge, he’d land right on the track where the train is heading, and his large body mass would cause the train to derail before it got to the platform. Of course, the fattie would be killed, but all six gifted children would be completely unharmed. Also, no one is watching. There are no surveillance cameras, so you know you won’t get caught. If anyone asks, you could say he jumped to save the kids. With one push, you’d transform him from zero to hero and give his pathetic life meaning.
“So, what would you do? If you do nothing, the fat ass lives his miserable life for another year or so, but all six gifted children die. But if you push him, he’ll lose that last miserable year of his life, but you’ll save all six of those lovely children. So what’s your choice?”
I feel trapped, like I’m actually standing on that bridge. My pulse is quickening, and I can’t think of an answer that feels right.
“So, what’s your choice, Tommy?” Kyle presses. “You’ve thought for about five seconds. In that scenario, you had five seconds to act before it was too late. Hesitate any longer, and those six kids are dead while the fatso is still scarfing down doughnuts. But you get to walk away from the bloody wreck with your conscience clean.
“You stay true to your nonviolence. You don’t lay a hand on anyone, but those six kids pay with their lives to preserve your precious conscience.
“Doing nothing is still a choice of who lives or dies. Your hesitation, your choice to do nothing, just killed six kids. But you know what? I’m going to give you a do-over. I’ll set the clock back five seconds starting now. What are you going to do?”
I feel cornered and desperate, but I’ve got to say something. Kyle enjoys watching me squirm.
“I don’t know, man. I hope I’m never in a situation like that. I’m not sure what I’d do, but I’d have a hard time pushing someone off a bridge. I’d rather jump off myself.”
“But that won’t stop the train,” replies Kyle. “You only weigh a buck-fifteen. So the price of martyring yourself for your conscience would be seven gifted, dead young people and one fattie eating his doughnuts. Oh, and one of those seven gifted dead kids, you, would later turn out to be the only naturally occurring person the U.S. government could find with immunity to a global plague.
“So that’s really your answer? You’d commit suicide? Think about what that would mean. There’d be no Tommy, thus we wouldn’t have the minimum of two competent people to run the biosphere. Biosphere 3 would be nonviable without you, so your suicide would dramatically lower the odds of our species surviving. Your choice means you’d be willing to sacrifice our entire species just to preserve your precious conscience. Your suicide would be the most selfish act in the history of mankind!”
“OK, well, sorry if I just destroyed the whole species. I said I don’t know the right answer.”
“Really? Even with a do-over, you still don’t know? So how come in the first situation, you had no problem throwing the switch and killing someone? And the person you killed wasn’t this fat slob—it turned out to be a saintly mother who had five kids depending on her. It sounds like your nonviolence thing isn’t about saving lives or caring about other people. It’s about not wanting to get your hands dirty. It’s about wanting to feel superior to people willing to act. Isn’t it?”
Kyle is pressing his attack brilliantly. My head’s spinning. Maybe I’m finally drunk.
“I said I don’t know. I guess you got me. Can we just—can we talk about something else?”
Kyle smiles, enjoying my defeat.
“That’s fine. But first, I’ll tell you what should be obvious. If I were standing on the bridge, and knew I wouldn’t be caught, I’d push the fattie in a heartbeat. I’d save the six gifted kids and kill the fatass. Instead, you chose to let him live and for six kids to die. All because your conscience made you unable to act. So, who’s the good guy, and who’s the bad guy here? Whose character creates the highest body count? Who’s better at leading the human species back from the edge of extinction—the psychopath or the virtuous empath? Maybe I’m the one who shouldn’t trust you,” he says, grinning.
I can’t afford to give Kyle total victory. I need to keep challenging him, but I have no idea how.
“You should see yourself,” he laughs as if it was all a big joke. “Come on, Tommy. Relax. I have no choice but to trust you. And you me. But you see my point? Psychopathy has its benefits.”
“Yeah,” I say flatly.
Kyle gulps back his glass of wine and reclines on the sand. I’m increasingly fearful of what’s coming next.
“Anyway, now you know my big secrets. Have I met all your conditions? Any questions about any of this?”
I need to say something. I can’t let him see me helpless and confused. Not now. Not ever.
“Yeah,” I say, grasping at straws. “You said you don’t form attachments to other people—”
“Right,” says Kyle.
“So why should I trust someone who doesn’t form attachments?” I ask.
“Because attachments don’t make someone trustworthy or reliable,” Kyle replies. “Unattached people are more likely to relate to you reasonably.
“Let’s say a guy is highly attached to his girlfriend, but he thinks she’s cheating on him. Because of his attachment, his assumption he owns her, he might decide to kill her rather than think about her being with another guy. Happens all the time. If someone’s attached to you, they’re likely to relate to you irrationally and cause you all kinds of trouble. So, yeah, I’m not attached to you, but that doesn’t mean I don’t value you. I value you very highly, more than anything else in the biosphere, which is practically saying I value you more than anything else in the whole world outside of myself.
“I’m not a machine. I’m a human being, and a social animal. Like anyone, I need other people. Even if I could run the biosphere alone, the isolation would drive me crazy. The only rational relationship between us is cooperative interdependence. I’m a reliable ally because there’s no reason for me not to be. Psychopaths are more rational than regular folk, and I’m a particularly logical psychopath. If I were attached to you, there’d be moods, jealousies, demands, dramas, acting out—the usual human crap. Acting irrationally toward someone is disrespectful, isn’t it? I behave rationally, which is another way of saying respectfully.
“What do you actually lose by my lack of attachment? In a dangerous situation, I’d act in the most efficient way possible to save your life. But if I couldn’t save you for some reason, I’d move on. I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life crying myself to sleep. Would that help you? I wouldn’t want you to do that for me. I’m not asking you to be attached to me. All I’m trying to do is set up a relationship based on cooperative interdependence. Sex, for example, is a human need. Since each of us is the only other person we’ve got, if we can work that out, it’s a win-win outcome. Isn’t it?”
“What if it doesn’t work out?” I ask.
“I don’t suppose failures, only success. I focus my energy on finding ways to make things work, not anticipating failure.”
My last question was a mistake. Kyle is getting impatient, and he’s essentially right. We can’t afford to suppose failure. To cover my misstep, I hurriedly reach for another question.
“You said you’re more reliable because our interests coincide. But what about a situation where our interests don’t coincide?”
I regret the question as soon as it leaves my mouth, realizing it also implies a negative outcome.
“But our interests do coincide,” says Kyle irritably. “That should be obvious. The only way that could change is if other people entered the biosphere and you broke your oath. That’d absolutely cause our interests to diverge, and you’d be right at that point to consider me extremely dangerous. Anything else?”
“No,” I say tiredly, “not at the moment.”
Kyle’s satisfied. There’s a mutual sense we’ve talked enough. He’s met my conditions, and more resistance would be dangerous. Given the circumstances, our negotiation reached the best possible outcome. There’s nothing left to do but wait for his next move.
The sun has set, and the Ocean Biome’s artificial lighting is low. I feel Kyle slowing himself down to study me carefully. I let him. I’ve been more defiant and aggressive than I’ve ever been with anyone, and that’s not an easy stance for me to maintain. The fight in me is burned out.
In the silence, I enter slowtime. The moment stretches long enough to locate the basic direction of Kyle’s thoughts. He’s studying me with the psychopath’s version of empathy, trying to put himself in my position and calculate the best way to seduce me.
I’m the object of his desire, but he realizes I’m more than that. He’s well aware he underestimated me, and that I still have unknown aspects he can’t fully predict. But Kyle is a careful strategist who knows how to avoid unnecessary risk, and he’s adapting at high speed to these new findings. It’ll be better if he can pull off the experiment without freaking me out. He can afford to be patient. After all, I’m not going anywhere.
“Any interest in a swim?” Kyle asks. ”Clear our heads from the wine and intense conversation?”
I pull myself out of slowtime.
“Yeah,” I say. “Sounds nice.”
We wade into the ocean water, and he’s right, it relaxes me.
Deciding to be playful, Kyle asks Gaia to increase the wave power until it’s strong enough to bodysurf. Then he changes the music to a techno remix of “Surfing Safari” and splashes me when I ride in on a wave.
Kyle is an excellent swimmer. He shows me a technique to hold my breath longer and how to wrestle while treading in deep water. We take turns putting each other in headlocks and trying out various moves.
Yeah, I understand what he’s doing and why, but I go along anyway. He’s getting me used to physical contact in a non-threatening way.
After the swim, we’re quiet as we walk back to the Human Habitat, and I try to prepare myself.
It’s just an experiment. Any sacrifice that keeps the biosphere alive is worth it.
But . . . but how much of myself can I sacrifice without losing who I am? And if I’m no longer me, can I keep the biosphere going? What will happen to the boy in the woods?
I feel myself starting to spin out.
Stop thinking, Tommy, it’s just making you more nervous.
I’m trying to still my thoughts, but there’s no way around it—I’m intimidated by what I know is coming.
When we get back to our quarters, Kyle suggests we take showers to get the salt water off and meet up in the Mushroom.
He’s trying to be nice by using the word “Mushroom.” It’s a nickname I’d given to the mushroom-shaped tower at the center of our habitat, designed as our recreational oasis. It’s got a vast library of movies and virtual-reality games. All state-of-the-art. The biosphere team, probably thanks to Rachel, recognized the hazard of boredom. So they went all out, creating a space for virtual travel and adventures to relieve the monotony. It’s one of the coolest places in the biosphere, but I’m not sure how I’ll feel about it after tonight.
19 The Experiment
Once I’ve showered and dressed, I start up the stem of the Mushroom. It’s a spiral staircase enclosed by space frame and long, diamond-shaped windows overlooking the desert. Each step makes a hollow sound beneath my feet as I climb toward the head of the Mushroom.
The Mushroom is a domed space, sheathed with panes of optical glass. Its default mode is called Transparent which gives you a spherical view of the desert and sky.
When I get to the top, I find Kyle lying on one of the black futons, staring up at the stars.
My heart rate’s way up, and my palms are sweaty. I try to slow my breathing and find a degree of calm. Kyle rolls to his side to look at me as I approach. I sit beside the oversized futon on the floor, hugging my knees to my chest.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey,” I say back.
“Beautiful night,” he says. “Look at the stars.”
They’re dazzlingly bright and look lifelike, but I know it’s a processed image because of the smoke outside. With the optical glass, we can dim what’s outside or magnify it. Even at nighttime, the light can be altered to look like sunset or other times of the day.
Kyle pats the open space on the futon next to him.
“Don’t kill your neck, man. We should be able to get a great view of Saturn tonight.”
I lay down beside him. I’m sure he can tell I’m nervous, but at least he’s not drawing attention to it.
My mind races as I try to relax.
Maybe he’s right. We’ve got no one else to choose from. And I’m not even sure if I have a gender preference. I find certain people attractive, but I don’t really care much what’s between their legs . . . I think. Maybe it’ll be easier than I—
“Gaia, enhance our view of Saturn,” says Kyle, interrupting my anxious thoughts.
Saturn expands to fill the dome as Gaia’s color mapping software enhances the contrast of its ring bands. The planet looks imposing amongst the stars burning coldly above us.
“Watch this,” Kyle says, grinning. “Gaia, enhance with Hologram Mode Three.”
In a flicker, Saturn becomes three-dimensional, floating in the space above us. Subtle colors are now distinguishable on its surface as the ring’s striations become more complex.
Kyle turns to look at me.
“I never had a chance to mention this before, but I’m an expert massage therapist. Care for a session? It might help you relax.”
“OK, sure,” I say, hoping he’s right.
He asks me to remove my shirt. I take a deep breath, and my hands shake as I comply. I lie down on the futon on my stomach, trying to calm my nerves.
His hands are strong, and everything he does seems professional. None of it is overtly sexual, and I try to calm my mind and go with the physical sensations. In his massage-therapist tone, he asks for feedback here and there—if he’s using too much pressure or if I’m willing to take a little more.
He has me turn onto my back to work my legs. Saturn is still floating there above us. I try to keep my breathing slow and go with everything, but I can’t stop my heart from racing with anxiety.
“Are you ready to go past massage?” Kyle asks in his massage-therapist voice.
Up to this point, the whole experience has felt docile and consensual, even if it wasn’t. Manipulation disguised as care.
“OK,” I reply quietly.
He has me roll over onto my stomach again and kneels behind me. I feel his hands sliding toward the waist band of my shorts, and that’s when it hits me—the volcanic onrush of predatory energy he’s been holding back. I freeze with panic.
NO! I don’t want this! Run! It’s the alley again—the alley and the rapist—but I’m letting it happen—I’m letting it happen!—But I have to let it happen—Run!—I have to—Run!—I don’t want this. I don’t want to be—
He grabs the waistband of my shorts and pulls down. And then . . .
And then . . . I disassociate.
The word floats there so harmlessly. I guess I got the term from stuff I read later on sexual trauma.
But it was more than just disassociation. Time stops—completely—and I branch off into a different timeline, an alternate reality. I’m still in the Mushroom, but I’m clothed again. There’s no Kyle, no fire burning above me, just quiet space. I take a deep breath as my panic releases.
Then I hear the echo of approaching footsteps. Someone’s climbing the spiral staircase within the stem of the Mushroom, but the footsteps are lighter than Kyle’s.
His head emerges from the opening in the floor, and he pauses to look at me. Then his whole body is up, and he’s striding toward me.
But—I’m not sure how to put this. He’s not real in the same way as the Andrew I met at the treehouse. He has a stronger glow, almost an aura. And no burns. He looks perfect.
I can barely speak from the shock of seeing him.
“Andrew . . . How . . . how are you here?”
He sits down across from me on the other side of the futon.
“I think we should focus on you and your situation,” he says, looking into me with his compassionate gaze. “The how isn’t important. I’m here to help. I understand the trauma you’re undergoing. You deserve consolation, but all I can offer is clarification.
“You and Kyle are polarized streams of evolution. Two opposites destined to collide. You’re both crucial parts of an intentional experiment.”
“Intentional experiment?” My mind races. “Intended by who? Who designed it?”
“Forces beyond our comprehension,” replies Andrew. “I don’t know more than you, Tommy. I’m just reading the patterns implicit in this situation. The sexual element of the experiment might seem to come from nowhere. But sex is at the cutting edge of evolution, so it shouldn’t be surprising that an evolutionary experiment is also a sexual one. And yet, you and Kyle are a paradox. Two males can’t pass on their genes to further evolution. Perhaps this impossibility may be what sets up a transformational possibility in you . . . a metamorphosis.”
“Metamorphosis?” The word reverberates strangely in my mind. “What do you mean? What sort of metamorphosis?”
“I don’t know exactly. But I can see that it’s already happening within you. Your relationship to time has altered, or we couldn’t be talking right now. You may be the seed crystal for a species metamorphosis. Possibly there are other survivors out there going through similar changes. Strange transformations can happen to a species threatened with extinction. But only you can live out this part of the experiment.”
“But I don’t want to live it out! It’s going to break me!”
Andrew’s eyes fill with tears. I feel the same understanding in him as I did in the treehouse.
“You’re right, Tommy. It will be deeply harmful. But you’re strong and adaptable. It doesn’t have to destroy you.”
His voice is soft, but his tone becomes urgent.
“Kyle’s energy is deeply tainted. I know my words are of little comfort, but it’s better to face it. Metamorphosis requires the painful destruction of earlier selves. The biosphere is a crucible of intense survival pressures needed for transformation. The pressure is on you because you are the one capable of metamorphosis, not Kyle. You’ll be able to influence him to a degree, but you can’t shift his fundamental nature. Stay vigilant to his dark energy and how it affects you, so it doesn’t distort your personality. Above all, don’t let your fear show. If Kyle gets a taste of sadistic pleasure victimizing you sexually, it will set up a death spiral for you and the biosphere.
“I wish I could do more, Tommy. None of us are in control of this experiment. Kyle thinks he is, but he’s wrong. All you can do is keep improvising . . . You’re much more than you think. . . You will survive this.”
Andrew bows his head.
“This is a map of where to find me,” he says. Then he stands and walks swiftly to the center of the Mushroom and disappears down the stem.
This is a map of where to find me.
The words echo in my mind as the Mushroom fades away, and I’m alone in a dark space. I’m within myself, still suspended from ordinary time.
Improvise. I tell myself. Just keep improvising.
I feel a tugging on my ankles. The moment has stretched as much as it can, and I must return to my body.
Suddenly I’m back, feeling the fabric of the black futon under me and Kyle above my exposed body as he slips my shorts past my feet. I’m back in the chaotic stream of events but in extreme slowtime, and I have an expanded moment before his next action to feel Kyle’s raw desire coming at me. Fear surges through me as I struggle to bring it under control.
He moves closer, fiery excitement radiating from him.
20 Looking Into the Unformed Darkness
Sorry. Reliving that moment made me sick, and I had to step away.
I let it happen.
And I let it happen again. And again. And again.
And over time, I learned to become an object, a source of pleasure for someone. An ever-more skillful sex worker, basically. But I don’t have sex with Kyle whenever he wants or in every way he wants. That would be as disastrous as denying him all together.
Even in surrendering myself, I realized I needed to set limits, both for my own sake and to keep Kyle engaged. But deciding when to resist, and when to give in, was its own exhausting work.
I do what seems necessary for the survival of the biosphere, but it’s wearing me down.
I’ve gotten better at disassociating from the trauma as it’s happening. I let the sex worker do his job while I disappear. But . . . disassociation is like a topical anesthetic that wears off quickly and leaves you hollow.
I’ve become a shell of the person I once was.
Allowing myself to be used brings dark feelings I can barely contain. Worthlessness, shame, failure, self-pity, confusion, doubt, rage, self-hate, despair—pretty much any dark feeling you can think of. During the day, when I’m busy working, I can usually block it out. Work is like my drug. I work almost fiercely and go into quicktime a lot. And fortunately, there’s a lot of work available. And I have another drug—running laps in the South Lung till I’m exhausted. That sounds weird, running in a lung, but it’s just a large circular building with a dome that can expand or contract to equalize air pressure. It’s an ugly, industrial-looking space you access through a long tunnel, but once I put on music and catch my rhythm, I go fast and tune out everything. It’s like my hamster wheel, one of the few things that keeps me from going crazy in here. But other times, especially when I’m alone at night or getting up in the morning, it hits me hard.
I’ve done all I can to hide this from Kyle, but it seeps out. I can feel it—I can feel myself slipping into the darkness. But I must contain it to maintain the fragile equilibrium of the biosphere. How I feel doesn’t matter so long as there’s some point to this whole biosphere experiment. But my hope that there is grows dimmer every day. When I try to look ahead, the path vanishes into unformed darkness.
And yet, as damaging as my life here is, I feel it’s leading somewhere. While part of me is pulled into darkness, other parts are growing. Having to continually adapt to captivity with a brilliant psychopath has furthered the metamorphosis Andrew spoke of. My mind’s been forced to expand. There are moments of lucidity when I have deeper insights than ever before.
My heart is beating fast as I write this, but my mind is oddly calm. It’s like my body feels the pain but I’m numbed out, like being under anesthesia while getting stitches.
“It’s disastrously unhealthy to repress feelings,” Dr. Rachel says.
I know that.
“Repressing your feelings might make life easier in the short term—”
I know all of that.
“But in the long term—“
There’s no choice!
I have to repress my feelings. Even though it threatens my sanity. In reality, Rachel isn’t here to help me with this. But even if she was, she couldn’t help me recover from trauma that’s still happening.
“Just take the pain, Tommy, and keep going. The biosphere can’t afford for you to have a useless meltdown.”
Another voice in my head said that, but it doesn’t have a specific personality attached to it.
Often, I feel like I’m just pretending to be someone. I don’t feel fully real anymore. I’m more like an actor putting on a Tommy performance. I can immerse myself in the roles when I need to, but there’s a terrible cost to it.
I feel hollow. All my energy goes into maintaining the illusion that things are working. And I can’t afford to mourn for who I was or might have been.
I’ve blocked myself from thinking about most of what happened that night. But there’s one part I can’t stop thinking about—Andrew.
The most rational interpretation is that Andrew was a hallucination created to help me adapt to a traumatic situation. Sometimes survival takes priority over sanity. I get all that.
What I had to do was such a catastrophic threat to my identity—perhaps I needed to create another male I respected to tell me it was OK.
Whatever Andrew is, I can’t stop thinking about him. I’m still trying to figure out the words he left me with both times,
This is a map of where to find me.
Are the treehouse and Mushroom encounters the map themselves? Both? If so, how do they connect? And how are they supposed to help find him?
I don’t get it.
There’s something I need to confess here. The way I’ve described the sexual trauma makes it sound like I’m—I don’t know—stronger than I really am.
When I’m around Kyle, the survivor kicks in, and I disassociate from my feelings. It’s been like a three-year-long chess match, with every move needing more calculation than the last. I keep it together till I’m back in my room, but then I have . . . meltdowns. Meltdowns I’m ashamed to write about.
“But you must, Tommy. You need to write about them,” says Rachel.
I don’t know, maybe she’s right. I don’t want to create a false impression to make me seem better than I am. Or to make any part of this seem OK . . .
22 Spiral Staircase
My meltdowns are terrifying. So dark and painful. I fear having one I won’t make it through. I fear losing my sanity.
It is lost when they’re happening. I lose my sense of self and all faith that my existence has value or purpose. I hate myself and my life, and I just want to disappear.
I think about hanging myself from the spiral staircase to my sleeping loft. A few times I’ve actually gone to the top of the stairs with an extension cord in my hand, but I couldn’t follow through.
What if I had just adamantly refused Kyle? What if the visions I saw were wrong? What if I just stood my ground—he couldn’t afford to kill me. I’ve betrayed The Friends by allowing this to happen to me.
23 Still a Chance
. . . I had to delete some stuff before I broke off. Some of my meltdown thoughts are too shameful. I just can’t let them be inscribed. I must not allow such thoughts ever again. They destroy my will to go on.
If it was just about me, I’d go back to the top of the stairs and end this. But it isn’t, at least I hope not. There’s still a chance the biosphere could one day help the world come back to life.
I’m ashamed of how close I’ve come to quitting.
24 Bad Day
Bad day. And then it took hours to get to sleep. I hate this life, but I’ve got to get better at containing the darkness in me. I’ve got to keep going.
25 Life of Leisure
Sorry, I couldn’t bring myself to write for a few days. But I’ve got to. It would be selfish to stop. If survivors find this journal, it might have value, even if it’s just warning them about Kyle. So, I’ll try to give you some idea of what’s happened for the last three years.
The night of radio silence set up the terms of my relationship with Kyle for the first year of enclosure. We had a tremendous workload getting everything in the biosphere dialed in during that time. But once we programed robotics to do more of the routine work, the pace slowed to a nine-hour workday. It was still seven days a week, but compared to the first ten months, it was almost a life of leisure.
But for me, leisure time is tormenting. When I run out of work, I dwell on the people I’ve lost. And the innocence I’ve lost.
Kyle has fewer technical challenges to solve. And that means his boredom has grown, and I’ve had to sacrifice more of myself to keep him satisfied.
I need to stop. I’ve lost the urge to write. Maybe I’ll try again tomorrow.
26 Not My Reflection
Nothing’s changed. It’s still hard for me to write about what’s happened since that night. Most of it’s a gray blur of monotonous labor, sex work, and waiting for a viable future to reveal itself. There are, however, a few episodes I must write about.
The first of these was the darkest, but despite that, it renewed some hope in me. Hope that there’s value to my continued existence. The episode also gave evidence of the metamorphosis altering me. It’s changing me in ways I don’t really understand.
It begins with what seems like a terrible nightmare. I should warn you—it was about a gruesome suicide attempt. The sensory and emotional impact was so intense it took me a while to realize I was no longer Tommy but someone else.
I’m standing in a bathroom—and it’s quiet. I’m overwhelmed with hatred of my life and myself. The pressure within me is unbearable. The only way to relieve it is to cut open my wrists and let the suffering pour out of me until I drain into oblivion.
I look at myself in the mirror with so much pain and self-hate it takes a moment to register—
That’s not my reflection.
I’m staring into the eyes of another kid about my age and size. It’s jarring.
But then, my Tommy self is pushed to the back of my awareness, and his emotions overpower mine completely. I am him.
I hold a razor blade tightly between the thumb and forefinger of my right hand. I’m hyperventilating—trying to summon the physical courage to slash into my left wrist. I need to be decisive and cut deep on the first try.
White light rips through me as I drag the blade. It shudders to red.
I stagger backward and drop the razor, my body trembling with shock. Instinctively, I clutch my left wrist, trying to stop the pain. Then I remember the whole point is to bleed out, so I let go of my wrist . . .
I slump to the floor, blood gushing out of me. I lie there, letting it happen, but the bleeding doesn’t release me from pain. It only fills me with fear and horror as my life drains away. I’m chilled and trembling, and I want the agony to stop, but now I’m too weak to save myself.
. . . I’m only half alive, curled in a fetal position on a cold tile floor. I smell the blood pooling around me. I become the blood running along the grout between the tiles, seeping through the cracks. I drip into a vast, dark space below, and fall through emptiness, a void between places, and there’s nothing to catch hold of. I no longer have a solid body. I expand in a terrible, thinning way when I reach out to stop falling.
There are no more chances or opportunities. I’m in the place you fall to after last chances are gone. I have no name. No identity. I’m the core of something that’s lost its parts but still feels pain.
In this terrible void, I hear thoughts, but I’m not sure whose they are.
I’ve nevered myself.
I will never make contact with anyone again.
I will never be anyone again.
I fall deeper into the sightless darkness like a corpse tied to cinderblocks, plummeting to the bottom of the ocean. Far below me are ravenously hungry, bottom-feeding creatures. They sense my glow falling toward them through the void. They’re a swarm of night-crawling shells waiting to devour what’s left of me.
Suddenly, a brilliant light erupts in the void and arrests my fall.
It’s me becoming aware of myself as Tommy again.
I’m with the dying boy but no longer within him. My glow is strong enough to surround him and stop his descent. I hold him close, and my energy revives him like wind blowing on a fading ember. I pull him upward, and we ascend like a flare rising through the darkness.
We separate as we breach the physical world again, and I float above his body.
He lies curled in a fetal position with blood all around him. His sightless pupils dilate with terminal shock. He’s on the edge of death, a few heartbeats from flatline.
I sense someone approaching and rise above the tar-shingled roof of the house to see a kid get out of his car headed toward the front door. His movements are awkward, and his eyes are only half-open like he’s really stoned.
Energy rushes from me and into the stoner kid, firing up his nervous system and hastening his steps. Without understanding the urgency propelling him, he hurries down the tight hallway and yanks open the bathroom door. My vision zooms in on his shocked face, and time freezes.
I see the scene before him reflected in the corneas of his eyes. The bloody razor pops out like a red hazard icon blinking SUICIDE on the dashboard of his mind.
Suddenly, I wake up, gasping for air, my mind a horror of confusion.
I can’t tell where I am until I look out the window and see the outline of the Catalina Mountains in the pale, pre-dawn light.
No, I’m not him, I’m Tommy. But where is the other boy? Is there still time to save him?
I was urging his stoned friend to help him, and now—there’s no trace of that reality at all. I’m in the biosphere, but I still feel his blood all around me and his life hanging by a thread.
I pull myself together. It’s too early for morning chores, but I get up anyway and shower as if I’m washing off blood. All day I’m haunted by the nightmare. It still feels so real.
I try to reason myself out of it. I’ve had suicidal moments, so maybe that caused a terrible nightmare to scare me out of hanging myself. That’s the only sensible explanation. But what makes sense isn’t always what’s true, and something tells me those two kids are real people, not dream characters. Only I don’t see how that’s possible. There was no sign of the pandemic in the nightmare. The boy lived in an ordinary house, and the stoner kid drove up in a battered, old car. It didn’t feel like the past—it felt so right NOW. I felt my energy getting the stoner boy to hurry into the house. Was this happening in a parallel reality or the pre-pandemic past?
How could I influence the past? And who was this boy I became? Why was I suddenly so connected to a total stranger? And what’s the point of the whole experience? Did I actually save that kid?
As much as I’d like to believe that, the situation looked terminal. Too much blood. He must’ve had only a few heartbeats left when his friend showed up. And this other kid didn’t look like the best person to handle a medical emergency.
All I could do is hope and pray it worked out. The experience left me shaken and perplexed. Of course, I didn’t discuss it with Kyle. I tell him as little of what’s going on in me as possible. And I knew he’d just laugh it off as a nightmare.
But then, three days later, I’m tending to the farm when I get a distinct sense of being watched. I look up at the cameras attached to the space frame since the logical assumption is that it’s Kyle monitoring me. But I sense that’s not it. A sudden feeling of shame ripples through me, and with it, a partial shift of self, like I’m casting another person’s shadow. It lasts a moment before I snap back into focus.
It’s that boy. He’s struggling somewhere.
He barely has any will to live, but he’s trying to recover, and my presence is helping. He recognizes my perseverance, despite the darkness I face, and it’s giving him hope for his own situation.
I do my best to stay open to his observation and focus on my work, harvesting vegetables. He passes in and out of my awareness most of the afternoon. By the time night falls, I’m alone again.
I know this all defies logic. And what I’m about to say will defy it even more. As dark and terrifying as the first part of the experience was, the encounter three days later renewed my feeling of purpose. No matter how hopeless my situation seems, other people in some future or past are connected to me. They’re depending on me. So, I must keep going, and I will keep writing this journal for you, whoever you are—the person who will one day find my words.
The strange encounter also renewed my hope of finding Andrew. If the metamorphosis allows me to influence someone separate from me in both time and space, there must be a way to reconnect with him.
If only I could understand the map of where to find him.
27 The Contest
I need to tell you about a night with Kyle when I felt my life hanging by a thread. But there are some things I should explain first.
From the perspective of his interests, Kyle acts logically. I realize that lowers the odds of him causing me serious injury or worse. He knows I’m irreplaceable. But if Kyle had ten Tommy clones on ice in the basement, I don’t think he’d hesitate to sacrifice this one to science. And I’d be lucky to get anesthesia before he began dissecting me piece by piece.
In his normal state of mind, Kyle’s not going to do something irreversible like that unless he’s sure it serves his purposes. But what if he’s so stressed and angry that he forgets his purposes?
I enraged him that night. And as it all unfolded, there were moments when I flashed back to a possible vision of the future I had—a vision where I looked up at Kyle and knew I was staring into the face of my killer. And since then, I’ve been living with a dread hanging over me. Every day I feel more certain that a violent outcome between us is inevitable.
That night, we were hanging out in the Mushroom as we often do in the evening. Kyle picks out a movie, but it takes only a few minutes to realize neither of us is into it. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to watch any film. They’re all pre-plague and so oblivious to what’s coming. Not that it’s their fault.
In this film, the two main characters meet in a glamorous nightclub, but my imagination keeps superimposing an abandoned post-plague nightclub on top of the actual set.
I still haven’t worked through grieving for the species and the world. Some nights, anything we watch seems like an eerie ghost story. Movies and shows about people who have no idea what’s coming can fill me with guilt and sadness. Kyle isn’t bothered by those feelings at all, which is even more disquieting. It’s impossible to grieve with someone who feels no grief.
I don’t know how the movie landed with Kyle, but I’m relieved when he loses interest as well and tells Gaia to stop playing the film. The Mushroom defaults to outside view mode, and the sudden shift to darkness and silence sends me into slowtime.
Kyle looks at me, sex burning at the surface of his mind. He’s lying motionless in the dark, scheming the best way to get me into bed.
I sense desperate boredom beneath his desire. Seducing me has become a mechanical routine, and if I go along with it, sex will become part of that boredom. It’s a terrifying recognition, like noticing cancerous lesions on someone you thought healthy. Boredom in someone as high energy as Kyle is not a passive state. Beneath it is a rageful chaos that could destroy me and the biosphere.
I’ve got to do something to snap him out of it immediately. I can think of only one move, but it’s infinitely risky. It will create far-reaching consequences I can’t foresee. He’s about to make a seduction move, and if he does, it’ll define anything I say after as either resistance or submission. I need to get him on another track, fast.
I turn to make strong eye contact.
“I’ve been hiding things from you,” I say in a low voice.
My admission catches him by surprise, and his eyes gleam at me with greedy curiosity.
“That night on the beach,” I continue, “we agreed to share our secrets, but I held many back. I told you about some of my paranormal experiences, but not all of them.”
With that single disclosure, I’ve become the least boring object in the biosphere. Fascination dances in Kyle’s eyes. In the dim light, the silvery gray of his irises are reflective rings around his dilated pupils.
Any secrets I sacrifice now will give him an edge and a greater degree of control, but it’s too late to back down.
This could be a fatal mistake, but I’ve got to roll the dice.
“On the night of the radio silence, I had visions about the biosphere’s future and what was necessary to make it work. Even now, it doesn’t feel right to tell you everything. So, I won’t.”
“Why do you think you need to hold things back?” asks Kyle, his eyes burning into me. The tiger is no longer bored—he’s stalking me. “Aren’t you the one who said honesty is part of respect?”
“I’ve always been truthful with you,” I reply, ready to spar. “But that doesn’t mean I have to tell you everything going on inside of me. You don’t tell me everything going on inside of you.”
“Fair enough,” says Kyle. “But I’m not asking you to tell me everything going on in you. You said you had visions about what was needed to make the biosphere work. That sounds crucial to disclose. Why hold that back?”
He’s turned on his trial-lawyer mode. His memory allows him to quote anything I’ve ever said word-for-word, and he’s brilliant at making whatever he wants seem like the only logical choice. But I don’t have to play his logic game.
“Because I had a strong intuition that holding certain things back was necessary for the biosphere’s survival,” I respond, “and I’ve learned to trust such feelings.”
Kyle doesn’t know what to say to that. He’s sizing me up, looking for a way in.
“What can you tell me?”
What can I? What’s safe and what’s necessary are two different things.
“The greatest danger to the biosphere is you getting bored.”
“Really?” says Kyle. “We were both told in the isolation training that boredom would be a major psychological hazard. So why is my getting bored the greatest danger?”
“You know why,” I say.
A moment of uncertainty plays across Kyle’s face before he leans forward to stare into my eyes.
“OK, OK, you’re right,” he says, dropping his trial-lawyer act. “Boredom is a huge problem for psychopaths. We thrive on challenge and risk. I’ve already dealt with the technical issues, and now I feel like a fucking maintenance worker. So yeah, I’m bored. What do you propose we do about it?”
Kyle ends his question with a leering smirk. It’s both offensive and frightening. It’s not that he’s showing me a dark side of his sexuality I don’t already know. But he usually has the control to keep from being grossly offensive. Boredom is making him reckless.
I’ve got to push back. Hard. I’ve got to show Kyle his dark side will get him nowhere.
“I’m not sure what the answer is,” I say. “But one change that definitely won’t work is allowing you to have sex with me anytime you want.”
Murderous rage flickers in Kyle’s eyes, but I hold his stare.
“You’re always gaming me, seeking control. And, yeah, I get it, that’s your nature, that’s what you do. But don’t you see? Suppose you gained total control over me—I’d become as boring to you as one of the maintenance robots. If I were under your control, you’d be alone in the biosphere. There’d be no one left to challenge you, and your boredom would become infinite. Isn’t that logical?”
I speak as assertively as I can. For a moment, I’m afraid he’s going to explode, but then something unexpected happens—he looks away in total confusion. It’s the first time I’ve knocked him off balance with logic. His mind is racing, desperately trying to make sense of the contradiction.
Seeking control is at the very core of his being, something he’s never questioned before. But I’ve exposed his will to dominate as a predictable nuisance I have to help him manage. I’ve successfully challenged him, but my attack might’ve been too strong. As much as I want to, I can’t afford to humiliate him—the consequences could be deadly.
“You raise some interesting points,” says Kyle after regaining his composure. His tone is thoughtful, like a college professor receptive to a promising student. He’s got it together enough to strike a dignified pose, but I sense his hesitation—he doesn’t know what move to make. Beneath his tight control is rage and confusion.
Damn it, I’ve gone too far. I’ve got to get him out of this fast, or he’ll feel humiliated.
“Look, here’s another way to think about it,” I say, quickly switching to a casual, just-brainstorming tone. “We both know you’re the undisputed champ at gaining control over people and situations.”
I freeze up, realizing it sounds like over-the-top flattery.
If he thinks I’m being condescending, he’ll make me pay for it. But I’ve got to keep talking.
“Look, the problem is there’s only two of us, and I don’t want control over anyone. I just don’t. It’s not how I was raised, it’s not how I think, it’s not who I am. I don’t seek power unless I need it to survive. So if we keep playing these roles, it’s only a matter of time before you figure out how to conquer my resistance. Just like I can’t win a physical fight with you, eventually, an endless power struggle will wear me down. So, here’s where our interests meet. You can’t afford to gain total control over me, either. We’d both lose. I’d lose my free will, and you’d become horribly bored.”
Kyle’s silvery stare is unreadable, so I keep going.
“I don’t think either of us can alter our fundamental nature. Seeking power is essential to who you are, so we need to work with that. That night on the beach, I realized I’ve got to keep challenging you. Tonight, I felt your boredom taking hold. I knew I had to do something. I don’t know if it was the right move, but I decided to bring this out in the open so we can work through it.”
“OK,” says Kyle. His face remains neutral, but his usual, overbearing confidence isn’t there. The implication is terrifying.
It’s only a matter of time before he makes me pay for this.
“Any ideas?” he asks.
“Well—” my mind races to think of something. “Off the top of my head, how about like in sports? When a player is too powerful, too strong for the competition, he accepts a handicap. If you were to accept enough of a handicap, I’d continue to be a challenge. To an extent, we already have a system like that.”
“How so?” asks Kyle.
“You’re a lethal martial artist. If you wanted, you could beat me senseless, and there’s no one to stop you. But you don’t use physical force to control me because it would have disastrous consequences. It’d be a defeat for both of us. A lose-lose outcome. Because you accept that handicap, I can safely challenge you at times, like I am right now. And that’s a win-win.”
“OK, so what other handicaps do you have in mind?”
I can think of a couple, but Kyle’s in a dangerous space, and it’s not the time to ask for concessions. Also, whatever I ask him to handicap will indicate an area where I feel vulnerable.
“I don’t have any in mind. You know yourself best, so maybe you can suggest your own handicaps.”
“No,” says Kyle adamantly. ”It’s your idea. You must’ve had something in mind.”
He’s testing me and defying him could trigger violence.
“OK, well, I guess I can think of a few handicaps,” I say. “One is not using misinformation to gain advantage. No outright lies. I was going to say no deception, but I think that’d set the bar too high. Subtle deception and misdirection are how you operate.”
Kyle maintains his poker face as he studies me. Cold sweat forms beneath my clothes.
I’m treading on the tiger’s tail, but there’s no going back. Before this evening, I’d subtly influenced Kyle without him realizing what I was up to. Now I’ve outed my most dangerous secret—I’ve been managing him all along. Under his composure, Kyle is seething with rage and resentment. He’s tightly containing it, but every cell in my body senses the inevitability of future punishment.
To cover my fear, I keep talking in a breezy, just-brainstorming tone.
“The other thing I thought of is not monitoring me through the cameras. I often feel you watching me. I don’t monitor you, and you probably learn stuff you can take advantage of by surveilling me.”
“No, I’m not agreeing to that,” says Kyle flatly. “Those systems were set up for safety and other practical purposes. I need to keep an eye on everything in the biosphere. That includes you.”
Sparks flash from the dark pupils of his eyes. His mind is spinning up something new.
“I think I’ve got a better idea on how to keep the challenge going,” he says. “Few activities have ever stimulated me as much as martial arts contests. I offered to continue your training but respected your wish to exercise solo. Maybe it’s time to bring back martial arts, but with a competitive setup. I’d train you into a more worthy opponent, and with the right handicaps, you’d have an equal or greater chance of winning.
“For example, we can set up contests so speed counts for more than strength. Let’s say we draw a large circle on the exercise floor. You win by evading me for two minutes. I win by forcing you out of the circle. We’ll adjust the rules by increasing or decreasing the time, or the circle’s diameter, so the odds are always stacked in your favor. If you’re not winning seventy-five percent of the rounds, we’ll make adjustments until you are. That way, I’ll always be challenged. And . . .” there’s another glint in Kyle’s eyes like he’s just thought of something.
“To keep the contests interesting, let’s up the stakes. What if I get to have sex with you when I win? But only on the days I win, so I’ll be sacrificing something too.”
His last suggestion takes me by surprise, and my thoughts become rapid-fire.
Sex as a prize is disgusting. Of course he’d think up something sick like that! But I can’t refuse him in his current state. He took my ideas seriously enough to suggest a system, and he is offering a sacrifice—no more cat-and-mouse games every night. But sex for a win reinforces it as a power game. But so what? It’s already a power game. If he holds to the agreement, I’ll be off-limits three out of four days. And it simplifies things. No more nerve-wracking decisions whether I can afford to say no or have to give in. Just a single two-minute contest a day. But . . . what if the contests get violent?
I flashback to the vision of Kyle punching me in the throat and crushing my trachea. This could be that moment. Not in the exercise room during a contest, but right here in the Mushroom. I need to give him a victory.
“You do,” Rachel interjects, “But you can’t let a psychopath’s violence and sex wires cross. Make sure the reward doesn’t come right after a win.”
“OK,” I reply to Kyle. “I’m not sure if I like the idea, but I’m willing to accept it with some conditions. You still have to treat me respectfully. I’m not agreeing to be a full-on sex slave the days you win. I can still say no to some things or everything if I feel you’re being disrespectful. And your reward won’t come till later in the day, here in the Mushroom. I don’t want to hear a word about sex in the contest space.”
“Deal,” says Kyle, shaking my hand. Then he puts his other hand on my thigh. “But the new system starts tomorrow.”
Something just happened that could destroy everything.
My normal routine with Kyle is to meet at 5PM in the exercise room for the daily contest. So when he calls me today at 4:30, so close to when we’d meet up anyway, I know something is off.
“Hey, Tommy, don’t be alarmed, there’s no cause for concern, but I discovered something anomalous in your blood tests I’d like to discuss with you. Can you meet me in the bio-medical lab?”
The anxiety I’d felt all day becomes a sharp spike of fear.
“I’ll be right there,” I reply.
There must be something seriously wrong. Kyle’s never called me in to discuss anything medical. Why’s he looking at my blood?
I realize it’s illogical, but it feels like he’s caught me doing something I’ll be punished for.
What if he knows I’m writing about him, that I’ve broken the blood oath? But why would he call me to the lab for that? Maybe it really is my bloodwork, and I’ve got a serious disease that will incapacitate me.
When I show up at the lab, Kyle gestures toward a chair across from him.
“I hope I didn’t alarm you. Like I said, no cause for concern.”
I get something like déjà vu as I move toward the chair. It’s like I’m shuffling through multiple versions of this moment. My body falls onto the seat like an accordion of cascading playing cards.
A black desk lamp that looks like a miniature construction crane spotlights the printed lab reports spread out between us. Kyle’s manner is smoothly professional, and his pose masks whatever might be on his mind. I look into his impersonal eyes, and my fear intensifies. He’s like a surgeon about to put me under the knife. I’ve stepped into a danger zone in which my choices are constricted. Fate is about to act, and I’ve gotta just let it happen.
“Absolutely nothing to worry about—as far as I can tell,” says Kyle in his cheerful airline pilot voice.
“Folks, the plane is definitely going to crash, but there’s up to a full minute to prepare, so no need for panic.”
“And it’s not something new,” he continues calmly. “It’s been in your blood work all along, but I never analyzed for it. I was actually focused on my own cell microscopy to look for any signs of accelerated aging. I’m sure you remember my frustration at not knowing what was in my father’s secret sauce— the specifics of how I was made and for what purpose?”
“Yeah, of course I remember,” I reply.
“You may also remember my concern about my lifespan. Without access to the secret sauce, I don’t know if I was engineered to age normally. Maybe I was designed to live an exceptionally long life. Or perhaps I came with a time fuse—cells engineered to auto-destruct when I reached a certain age. It’s a rather significant open question.
“So, earlier today, I went through my biometrics to check for any signs of accelerated aging. There are numerous age markers—I won’t bore you with the technical details. But I checked the length of my telomeres which predictably shorten with age. My results were in the normal range. Still, I wanted to make sure I was doing the measurements right, so for comparative purposes, I looked at your telomeres. That’s when I discovered a consistent anomaly. Their length hasn’t changed since you’ve been in the biosphere. So then I analyzed all your age markers, and—You’re not aging.”
Kyle’s last words reverberate ominously between us as if he’s delivered a terminal diagnosis.
“Not aging? You mean I have a growth disorder or something—like my hormones are off, and I’m not developing correctly? Is that why I’m small for my age?”
“No,” he says with an edge of impatience, “your development doesn’t look stunted by any disorder or pathology. Your size is on the low end of the spectrum, but it’s normal. What’s less normal is it remaining unchanged at an age when you should be growing. Every marker from every blood test says you’re not aging at all. That makes you unique in the whole of medical literature. And you’re unusual in other ways—in your various abilities and so forth. To the naked eye, you appear perfectly normal and healthy, if exceptional in your quickness and athleticism. But biologically, you’re an anomaly. You’re the only non-engineered person we know of with immunity. And now we find an even greater anomaly—you’re apparently in an ageless state.”
An image of Andrew flashes into my mind.
The metamorphosis. I needed to keep it secret, but these test results have given it away.
Kyle looks at me with deadly seriousness.
“Exactly how sure are you that you’re not engineered?”
My heart races. Kyle radiates paranoia as conspiracy theories shuffle in his mind.
“I’m pretty sure I’m not engineered, Kyle. I knew my mom very well. Nothing about her or what little I knew of my father suggested they were involved in genetic engineering. But—anything’s possible, I suppose. For all I know, my mom was abducted by aliens when she was pregnant with me, and they altered my genetics,” I reply, my voice edged with sarcasm.
I hate that he’s making me explain and defend myself, my family, my upbringing. His questioning feels like an autopsy saw coming at me. But for some reason, it’s no longer frightening. I’m just sick of him and the whole situation. If he’s going to kill me, I want to get it over with already.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” I demand. “What? Do you really think I made up my entire past, and this whole time, I’ve secretly known I was a lab-grown creature? If we had that in common, don’t you think it would be the first thing I’d want to discuss?”
“No,” replies Kyle evenly. “I just want you to consider it carefully. There’s a principle in logic—I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it—Occam’s Razor? Sometimes called the Law of Parsimony. Does that ring a bell?”
“It means,” he continues, “the simplest explanation that accounts for the facts is the one most likely to be true. And genetic engineering is the simplest explanation of your differences. The next most likely explanation is a spontaneous mutation, but that’s far less likely. When mutations occur, they’re mostly unfavorable, but every so often, a particular variation can be advantageous. Usually, it’ll be a single variant, like a skin pigmentation better suited to a climatic region. But what we see with you, much like what we see with me, is a whole series of trait variations that look purposefully enhanced. The odds against so many traits being mutated in a favorable direction happening by chance are close to nil. Of course, that’s based on our present understanding of genetic variability. Perhaps there’s a way of explaining such an occurrence as a leap of evolution. The point is, we’d need to speculate about a much more complex hypothesis if you aren’t genetically engineered. Did your mother have a normal pregnancy, as far as you know? Any talk of in-vitro fertilization related to your birth?”
“Nope,” I say quickly, feeling enraged. I don’t want him talking about my mom related to anything. “Normal pregnancy. I was born in what you call my hippie commune, not made in a laboratory.”
“OK,” says Kyle with studious calm. “For the sake of argument, let’s say I believe you. Let’s say you’re the first of an emergent subspecies coming into existence with a single specimen. And, conveniently or inconveniently, this spontaneous evolutionary shift just so happened to occur fifteen years before the species became extinct.”
Kyle delivers his last word like a Judo strike.
It’s a death blow to me, the biosphere, and humankind. Commitment to Biosphere 3 as crucial to the species’ future was my religion, the faith that kept me going. Even after three years of radio silence, neither of us had openly doubted it. Now with just one word, he’s made my whole existence feel pointless.
“If you are a spontaneous emergence of a new subspecies—and I’m seriously considering that possibility—then you must be aware of more unique aspects than you’ve let on.”
I feel cornered. Kyle hovers like a scalpel over my very being, ready to make the first exploratory cut.
“Yeah, well, what of it?” I counter. “The night you came up with the contest idea—I admitted to hiding things. I don’t have to tell you everything going on inside of me. So, yeah, sure, I sometimes have weird perceptions I don’t talk about. But they’re not unique, lots of people have had similar perceptions and it didn’t make them a new subspecies or whatever. It’s not like I can start fires with my eyes. I don’t have a diabolical master plan, Kyle. That’s your department.
“And I think you’re a little too sure of your Occam’s Razor or whatever. You said it couldn’t be chance that all my traits moved in a favorable direction. But they haven’t. How is my being undersized a favorable variation? If I’m not going to grow anymore, isn’t that unfavorable?”
“Yeah, if your goal was to be an NBA player,” Kyle replies smoothly. “But it’s not a deficit from an evolutionary point of view. In an age of robotics, we rarely need large and strong anymore. At our level of technological development, being small and light is mostly a practical advantage. For example, a smaller astronaut, or biospherian, needs less interior space, oxygen, and every other consumable. Size matters for some applications, but nowhere near as much as it used to. Not aging, however—well, that’s the god-damn holy grail of genetic variations. Perhaps the most sought-after thing in all of human history. The fountain of youth!”
His words echo in my mind—Not aging? Is that even possible? It must be an effect of the metamorphosis—but for what purpose, and why does it feel so ominous?
Envy and paranoia burn in Kyle’s eyes.
“Yeah, but I don’t feel like any holy grail, Kyle. Who cares if I’m not aging? Why would I want even a normal lifespan trapped inside this bubble? Were you serious when you said extinct?”
“Of course I was,” Kyle replies, “Don’t play stupid. I always described the belief in other survivors as a necessary working assumption. Does that phrasing sound hopeful to you? I just didn’t want you to do something dumb, like offing yourself. But it’s time to face the facts. Every day of radio silence makes our working assumption less workable. The highest likelihood is that the human species presently consists of two mutants, one the product of genetic engineering, and another the product of good-old Vermont-woods Mother Nature popping out an elf or whatever the fuck you are.”
“Yeah, well, sorry for being a freak of nature and not a genetically engineered psychopath or whatever the fuck you are,” I fire back.
“Nice, Tommy. I finally got the empath to show some real proto-emotion. Maybe there’s hope for you yet.”
He gives me this smirk like he’s won a huge battle by getting a rise out of me. I glare back. I’m acting recklessly, but so what? If we’re the only survivors, none of this matters anyway. I want to lash out again, but I won’t give him the satisfaction.
“Anyway,” he continues in his Dr. Calm pose, “Occam’s Razor would simply explain our survival as one artificial and one natural mutant having immunity in common. But I’m not quite as logical as you think. You’re not the only one with uncanny perceptions and intuitions. Catch up with me if you’re not there already. There’s a sense about this situation—you might call it destiny— I might call it orthogenesis—put whatever label you want on it. But it looks like we’re in some sort of unfinished evolutionary science experiment. You see that, right?”
Andrew used almost the same words—evolutionary experiment. But how did Kyle arrive there?
“I suppose that’s possible,” I say cautiously.
“Then why do you look surprised?” Kyle asks, raising an eyebrow.
“I thought you’d stick to a more orthodox scientific perspective.”
“Yeah, well, the patterning is too obvious to ignore,” Kyle replies. “The polarized symmetry of it—one artificial, one supposedly natural, one a psychopath, the other an empath—it looks too intentionally arranged. What could possibly lie behind such an intentional-looking arrangement, I’ve no clue. I also have no idea how to further it. It’s not like I have the biotechnology to clone genetically diverse variations of us, some male, some female, so we can continue the species by mating them. So what the fuck are we supposed to do?”
His calm is slipping. His frustrations are pouring into the open, giving me a deeper look into his private thoughts than ever before.
“And there better be something for us to do about this,” says Kyle giving me a menacing look. “I’m not going to maintain the biosphere just so I can be an aging, artificially engineered Lost Boy stuck with Peter Pan in Never-Neverland.”
“Oh, and you think I want to be Peter Pan stuck in Never-Never Land with a psychopathic Lost Boy for company?”
Kyle glares at me for a tense moment. Then he lets out a long breath like a steam vent off-gassing. It’s like it never occurred to him that I might be sick of his company . . .
“I take your point,” he says.
“OK,” I reply, “then let’s get on the same page with this. I want a solution as much as you do. So let’s put our heads together for a change and see if we can come up with an alternative.”
“Fine,” Kyle replies, staring at me as if I should already have an answer.
He drums his fingers impatiently on the test results in front of him.
“Well . . . is your empathic super-intuition whispering to you about possible solutions? I’m open to suggestions.”
“No. No whispers at the moment,” I reply. “I’ve been trying to keep up the old working assumption. But now that we’re aligned in searching for a new solution, maybe something will come to me. Just give me some time to use my super intuition before you blow up Never-Never Land.”
“OK. Fine. I’ll give you some time,” he says as if he’s being incredibly generous. “But my patience is limited.”
I sit back in the chair while Kyle organizes my medical files and stores them away.
My mind is riddled with fearful questions. Kyle is a bloodhound with my scent. He’s on to the metamorphosis and resents it. He knows I’m a mutant, but I don’t want him to find out how much I’m changing.
More immediately, I need a solution that will satisfy him.
As we walk from the medical lab to the exercise room for our daily contest, the silence between us crackles with electricity.
To explain the danger of what followed, I need to fill you in on how the contests have evolved.
They began with Kyle spray painting an eighteen-foot diameter circle on the rubberized floor of the exercise room. I remember the smell of fresh spray paint in the air during the first contest. For some odd reason, that sense memory persists. I smell it every time we enter the exercise room, even though the paint has long since dried.
The contests always begin with a buzzer from a countdown timer. Kyle has two minutes to throw or drag me out of the circle.
After the first couple of months, it became apparent there was a flaw in how Kyle had set up the contests. He wanted them to be a challenge with the odds stacked against him, so his design favored speed, agility, and evasion over everything else.
Initially, Kyle was winning about half the time. Although I was quicker, he was better at everything else—technique, strategy, and every advantage provided by size and strength. The rules prohibited him from causing serious injury, but not from being rough. So I got used to the temporary tattoos of dark purple bruises. By the time one was fading, another took its place. He’s even landed strikes on my face that caused me to bleed all over the mat. But unless the blood got in my eyes, I could still win.
At first, Kyle coached me to help move the odds in my favor. And I learned a few things myself. Wearing a shirt was a mistake because it was too easy to catch hold of. He recorded every contest and showed me my mistakes and how I could have evaded him.
For a while, we watched MMA videos every night, and he’d talk over them the whole time, pointing out various moves and types of strikes and holds. He was mostly just showing off what an expert MMA commentator he is, but given what was at stake in the contests, I paid close attention.
We improved. Kyle got quicker and more agile, but I got better at a faster rate, and soon the odds were three to one in my favor as originally intended. But I continued to improve, and his victories slowly dwindled to ten percent.
Pride has kept him from adjusting the contest to bring his odds back up, though I can tell he’s extremely frustrated by his losing streak.
Every day he spends considerable time training before and after our scheduled work. He’s always experimenting with new strategies. I don’t do much training, just my usual exercise routine, mostly running laps in the South Lung.
Kyle’s run of losses is making him more dangerous. But there’s nothing I can do about it. He might not be as quick as me, but his awareness of what’s happening in the ring is nearly total, and if I ever tried to compete at less than my best, he’d know. I’ve already outed my efforts to manage his moods, and he resents it. If he caught me throwing a contest, his rage could turn violent.
One day, frustrated by his slump, Kyle added a dangerous twist. I showed up at the exercise room to find a makeshift electrical apparatus with an attached cable that ended in a copper prong.
After I won, he silently walked off the mat, applied the prong to his arm, and gave himself an excruciating shock. Later he shared his theory that a body at risk of real harm will move quicker.
The shocks seem life-threatening. After that first day, I refused to watch. But then Kyle began upping the voltage. Now I’m scared he’s going to have a massive seizure or go into cardiac arrest. It’s forced me to stand by in case he needs emergency medical help. There’s an AED—an automated external defibrillator—in the exercise room. I’ve studied the manual and committed it to memory.
One day, Kyle shocked himself into a few seconds of convulsions. I threatened to stop participating in the contests if he continued, but his murderous look forced me to back down. He’s addicted to the contests like a drug, and you should never get between a psychopath and his vices.
As much as I detest them, Kyle’s addiction to the contests is an absolute I’m forced to accept. For me, they’re a daily dose of high-adrenaline poison I approach with dread. There can be painful injuries, even on the days I win. I’m keyed up and nervous beforehand, but as soon as the buzzer sounds, I’m in the zone, undistracted by thoughts or feelings.
Before today’s contest even began, I knew something was off.
As I wait for the game clock to countdown the five seconds before the start buzzer, my heart rate accelerates and quicktime kicks in. We haven’t even started and I’m already sweaty.
Good. I need to be slippery.
The buzzer hasn’t even finished, and Kyle launches himself at me with a flying knee, but I pull back in time. Speedy moves and countermoves flicker by.
Kyle’s envy of my blood test results is giving him a vicious edge. But his anger makes him more predictable.
He tries for a takedown, but I see it coming.
I know the cruel leverages his body is capable of all too well. I can’t let him cut off my escape routes and bring me down to the mat. If I can just stay on my feet, the odds are I’ll be able to stay in the circle for the next ninety seconds.
He looks for ways to close the distance between us, and though he’s lightning fast, I keep dancing out of range.
I sense his axe kick a split-second before he executes and sidestep. Fear jolts me. He’s playing dirty, throwing strikes that’d cause serious injury if they land.
He presses with a sweep kick, but I jump over.
He shoots in explosively with another attempted takedown, but his arms flail into empty space as I dodge backward. His rage focuses on me like a death ray.
He fires a series of vicious jabs, aiming for my face. But I’m too quick, bobbing in time to see his fists flash by. I counter with a knife hand strike to the side of his face. It’s not enough to slow him down, but knowing he’ll be the one with a bruise this time is satisfying.
I anticipate the roundhouse before his foot leaves the ground, rolling under his leg and ending up behind him. He whips around furiously, and we catch eyes just as I’m making it to my feet.
In his rage, he’s telegraphing every move.
I hear the thirty-second warning tone from the countdown clock, and a sudden, shocking realization flows through me.
It’s not Kyle who’s different—it’s me.
A new effect of the metamorphosis. I see Kyle’s moves before they happen.
He’ll never catch me now.
An explosive crescent kick flares toward my upper thigh, but I’m already slipping away from its arc.
Instead of relief that the contest is done, the silence reverberates with terror.
Kyle turns and marches with purpose over to his electrocution device, fuming with anger. Before he can “motivate” himself, I realize this is my chance to buy some time.
“Hey Kyle,” I say, pausing to catch my breath, “I’m getting an idea about a possible solution. Dinner’s already made—you just need to heat it up. I’m gonna go to my room and keep brainstorming, but I’ll fill you in as soon as I can.”
He waves me off, preoccupied. Before departing for the dorms, I linger in the hallway to make sure he doesn’t accidentally shock himself to death.
29 The Map
Passing the exercise room just now, I heard Kyle furiously striking the heavy bag in the contest room. With every thud of his fist, it felt like I was taking the blow. It’s only a matter of time before his frustration turns to violence.
I went to the kitchen to boil water for tea and had a vague feeling of Andrew watching me. It’s similar to the sensation I had when the suicidal boy visited me in the Agricultural Biome.
When I return, my fingers are drawn to the keyboard like it’s a Ouija board waiting to bring me messages.
I breathe in the scented steam rising from my tea. There’s a charged expectancy in the air, like the moment before a phone rings.
Faintly, as if from a great distance, I hear his voice.
Flickering images of him light up in my mind’s eye as his whisper resonates in the space between us.
His body stabilizes beside me in the room, and I can see his dark brown hair is now long like mine. Then the images shuffle apart again.
“Is it really you?”
His presence is vivid, just to the right of the computer terminal, but his image is unstable. My imagination is working to piece him together.
“I feel like I’m really me,” he says.
“Yeah, but—but you seem like . . .”
“Mostly imagination?” he asks.
I don’t say anything, but he reads my doubt.
“Well, I am, but not just your imagination. We’re collaborating so I can become more visible and audible. It’s like meeting on a bridge we’re creating—a shared space.”
I try to visualize us standing on a bridge, but it feels like a distraction.
“Not a literal bridge,” he says. “But something like that. A portal, perhaps?”
Andrew trails off. He seems as puzzled as I am. Our thoughts churn for a moment before I break the silence.
“Can you tell me a detail or two about your life before the car wreck—something I can look up and confirm? Some way to find you? What was the address where you lived with your parents?” I ask.
“New York—Manhattan, Andrew replies. “. . . an apartment . . . I can almost see it, but. . . I don’t know why it’s so vague. . . my memories are cloudy when I look back. Everything’s indistinct before the treehouse.”
“Where’ve you been since then?”
“I’m . . . with you. I’ve been with you . . . I . . . I guess I’m part of you now. I’ve been experiencing everything with you, watching from the background. . . I want to be helpful, but I must be a disappointment . . .”
“A disappointment?” I ask.
“I’m just a fragment of Andrew that remained within you after you merged with him at the treehouse. A splinter of him. I’d fall into the background again if you weren’t focusing on me. Calling me forward gives me the energy to speak. You’re imagining me into a greater existence, and I . . . I want to help you . . .”
The flickering cascade of Andrew images stabilizes again, holding long enough to see the empathic intelligence in his eyes.
We’re straining to stabilize him in my room when I have a better idea.
“Why don’t we meet in the treehouse? You’ve seen it before, and I built every part of it, so I can visualize it perfectly. We’ll be more equal in an imaginary place as imaginary versions of ourselves.”
I close my eyes, and the space inside of me shifts like the turning of a giant kaleidoscope.
Suddenly, we’re seated on the cedar deck of the treehouse, bathed in warm summer sunlight. Like our first encounter, I keep eye contact with Andrew to keep him more solidly present.
“Can you help me understand the last thing you said when we met here—”
“This is a map of where to find me?” Andrew asks.
“Yes,” I reply. “Did you say that?”
“No,” says Andrew. “I heard those words with you, but they didn’t come from me. I don’t think they came from the other Andrew either . . .”
“Wait, wait—” I say. “They didn’t come from either of you? I don’t get it. Who spoke them?”
“I think they came from a higher self that’s unbound by time and aware of larger patterns,” says Andrew.
I have trouble wrapping my mind around this. For years, I’d been so sure the Andrew I met at the treehouse said those words. But if this splinter Andrew is right, he may not have been aware of them at all.
“Well, what does it mean?” I ask.
“More than I can grasp,” he replies. “But I also have a hunch there’s a way to use the treehouse encounter as a practical, functional map. The interaction must contain specific information that will allow you to locate the original Andrew in time and space,” he says.
“I’ve tried,” I reply. “Many times. I searched our archives for any accidents on that date involving a boy about my age named Andrew in a car wreck with his parents. I limited the search to the fifty states because he seemed American. No matches. They could’ve been traveling in another country, so I made the search worldwide. Still nothing.”
“I’ve witnessed your searches,” Andrew replies. “But here’s another idea. The specific information in the encounter went both ways, right? You gave him your first name and told him you lived in Vermont in the Green Mountains. The treehouse is a precise detail. So are the exact words you said to each other.
“I may not have specific knowledge of the original Andrew, but I know he’s intellectual and literary, and would most likely write about such an unusual encounter. Unfortunately, I also sense he’s secretive. So, if he did write about it, there’s only a small chance he left it somewhere on the web where it could’ve been archived. But it’s worth a shot. Everything you said to him is part of the map too, so I suggest you try searching that way.”
The idea rings in my mind like a meditation bell. I feel stupid for not thinking of it myself.
The realization that I’m the other half of the map pulls my attention away, and the connection between us collapses. The splinter of Andrew and the treehouse flicker off, receding again to the dark background of my mind.
I open my eyes and slide my chair over to my terminal to access the archives. Instead of just entering Andrew’s details, I paste in the whole description of my encounter with him and let Gaia’s vast processing power go to work. It takes a couple minutes, an eternity in supercomputer time, before she comes back with a single search result—an untitled document in an obsolete format. When I look into the document’s properties, my heart sinks.
This document couldn’t possibly be written by the Andrew I met. It was created a few months before I was born.
I open it anyway and begin reading. What I find is both thrilling and bitterly disappointing.
It’s him. His words. Andrew is real. Or, I should say, he was real.
His journal is older than I am. Like with the suicidal boy, I’m apparently connecting with people from the past. Somehow, when Andrew separated from his body in the wreck, he must have traveled through time to find me.
After reading a little more of his journal, I look deeper into the document’s properties. It was originally stored in a publicly accessible cloud server. And yet, it has a visitor view count of zero.
That must be wrong.
But when I dig further, the journal almost seems like it was purposefully hidden. It’s not that it was encrypted or locked in any way—it was left unlabeled in an obscure place. I was only able to find it by entering everything I could remember of our encounter as a search entry.
There really was a map!
Now I finally have proof of what I’ve obsessed about for the last three years. Andrew is real, not a mirage.
But the Andrew I’ve found, a twenty-two-year-old, wrote his journal a few months before I was born, almost nineteen years ago. We’re separated by so much time. If he’s still alive—a near impossibility given the state of the world outside the biosphere—he’d be forty years old.
But . . . Andrew had to travel through time to find me at the treehouse. What happened once can happen again, right?
Maybe there’s another map hidden somewhere in his journal that could bring us back together. I’ll copy and paste it into mine to preserve it in the time capsule’s permanent record.
His journal is massive and may take all night to read through, but I need to explore the secrets it holds. I’m going to make some strong coffee and get on it. There’s no time to waste.
In case any survivors are reading this, goodbye for now. I promise to come back when I can.
>>>>CONTINUE TO BOOK TWO—FIRESKIN
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