TW: pandemic, COVID-19, grief
n this dusty world, I crave only one thing: an otherhood of trees. Where canopies of manganous ions resist ionizing radiation, and photosynthetic beads, like diamonds, redirect beams of light internally. Where roots dig deep into rich, damp soil and talk, talk, talk… Between its earth and sky, this otherhood shows us ways to fight erosion, erasure, and the fade of memory.
Eaze zones in, fingers and eyes locked on the phone, irises so black they remind me of craters I saw once in a tree. I sit on my bed, thirsty. Eaze is probably ten years older than me, with their aura of parent but relatability of friend. It’s hard to tell these days. Everyone ages fast now.
Eaze hands it back. “Hunt the dump again.” They point to the phone.
“Had this for barely two years.” My fingers fumble with the scratched metal.
I laugh. “Everything is old! How you gonna get new tech? Undo the solar storms of 2043? Rob a dome?”
“Yunno what I mean—a newer old phone.” They get up and pull their solar suit on. The reflective layer slides and flashes like iridescent snakeskin. “These 2018 models gave people brain tumours. Makes me think a lil ’bout you, chabwino.”
“Aliens came twice to this apartment,” I say. “Last time, they left something.” I pick at the inside of my wrist where a scabbing rash has taken on a resemblance to aspen bark.
“Others would report you for infective thinking.” They snap on goggles as the outside air crackles.
“Wait out the storm.”
“Gotta finish the app update tonight. Otherwise, more people will go missing.” They blow through their mask. A breath of red dust billows out, quiet as a floating veil that parachutes down across my carpet. I poke at an itch under my own mask.
“You wear that all the time or only when I’m here?” Eaze asks. “Afraid I’m gonna give you something?”
“They did experiments. I wish you’d believe me.”
“If you said it was humans, sure. By the way, I installed a background app on your phone that records audio. Nothing saves locally, but my servers will get the logs.” They step through the inner door. “I’ll let you know if aliens are touching you.” They push open the outer door and a blade of white, hot light slices me head to toe.
Eaze turns around. “Word of the day?” they ask. “Gimme two. Might not see you for a while.”
“Sống: living. Sóng: wave.”
“Alright, some Chinyanja. Moyo: life. Kumbukirani: remember.”
“Don’t get caught,” I say.
Eaze nods. Their goggles glint pink and gold against the red dirt. I wouldn’t recognize Eaze, or anyone, out on the street, everyone a silver astronaut heaving through a respirator.
The demagnetized sky undulates with cyan hues. Behind the solar flares is the abyss of space. Nighttime. I tuck myself into bed and flick through my phone apps and settings. There’s no trace of the app. No wonder Eaze’s team has been able to protect people from the immortalists.
On the first intrusion, there was no sign aliens had broken into my apartment. They appeared holographic, a shimmer, moving silently in strange bodies—tall cones with a dark band around the pointed tip, possibly for eyes. Immediately, there came a sharp, deep bite into the side of my chest, like a large-bore needle pushing between ribs.
Eaze thinks extraterrestrial when I say aliens. But I think of aliens as alien. As the removed affect. The distance between recognition and detachment. The lack of human.
I post an update to our underground followers: Latest rescue: van of 19 sedated humans ear-tagged for organ sequestering; all over 40. We end the immortalists on Domes Day. Prepare to storm the domes!
Two years ago, Eaze and I joined the Anti-I Crusade to stay alive. To protect ourselves and the rebellion, we never know each other’s details—what apps Eaze’s team is developing, the retrievers’ rescue plans, or how I, social fueller and data keeper, protect and preserve our history and intelligence.
I leak the rescue video along with a message to Veracity, the biggest news channel on the globe: Supply van was headed for the domes. Anyone 40+—anyone who has lived through the Covid-19 pandemic—is a target. Can send evidence that dome people are applying Dr. Marcoh’s research seriously.
We will unmake you. Organs and all.
A three-second silence, then I get the same response, seemingly from Veracity as the previous two times: These rats. I think nothing of it and do my seeding work for the day—planting thoughts of anti-dome insurrection in different digi-communities and nudging insight on the recent organ harvests—when a new message looms on the screen. My breaths shrink as I read it three times. We will unmake you. Organs and all.
Run. But to where? They’d overpower me easily with their supplies. Staying means I’d be a particle of sand in a dune—identifying me would be trickier. I reconsider. Both messages are direct replies to my package, but neither trace back to Veracity. Meaning, a third party intercepted the photons, broke quantum key distribution, and the message still sent, which is physically impossible… They want me to understand they can find me. A scare tactic? I sweat. Then shake. My lungs breathe stiffer than usual.
If they do come for me here, they’ll extract Anti-I information from me in ways I don’t want to imagine. If I could outstep them till Domes Day, I could flip this entire situation. But Domes Day failure would put more than my life at stake. Our evidence, history, and revolt would be erased… I press a palm against my throbbing rash that now extends up my inner arm. I need to run, not to hide, but to hide our knowledge.
I back up our data and encrypt it. Then I rip apart my station. Every scrap of metal and plastic is dismantled into the smallest units and shattered with an axe. Three data disks glow in my hand as though tiny blue flames burn inside their translucent, rectangular bellies. The disks go into a bag I buckle across my chest. I don my full solar suit and strap on a pack with three days’ worth of food and water. I try not to think whether I’m ready to die. If I don’t make it to this place, I can at least bury the disks, and myself, in the billion grains of blood-red sand. It’s a desperate kind of consolation.
Red sand thrashes my aluminized mylar shell. In the distance, radioactive dunes burn Cherenkov neon beneath the electrical crackling of a solar storm. Five people are out—a lot for an afternoon. Thirty days have passed since I’ve last been outside, and everywhere, debris continues eroding to dust. Streets are deserts of garbage. Solar beams whittle away sinking buildings overcrowded with the starved, thirsty, and ill.
In the glistening microclimate domes, miniature societies (with the land space typical for what used to be an average metropolis) thrive on 600 square kilometres of clean space, mono-cloned greenery, humidity control, extended radiation protection, stocked pharmacies, on-call doctors, staffed operating rooms rotating heatedly through organ transplants, and dispensaries selling real food—food that requires chewing. I don’t care to join the dome people, nor do I have the right genetic makeup, family history, wealth, or fame to do so.
Far off in the distance, green sifts through the smog. I tighten my pack and begin my sixteen-hour trek to one of the last old forests. When the geomagnetic poles began to reverse fifteen years ago, I doubt anyone wished their bodies were stitched with solar-resistant, high-symmetry manganous ions, the trait that has allowed some trees to survive, and soon, beyond humans.
As my failing lungs retain air the way a leaking boat retains water, I will drown on land, bloated with fluid, inflated with air.
My suit turns sticky with sweat. Even with radiation-proof goggles, my eyes twitch from the strain of squinting. A headache ensues and I thirst. Trekking through sand is demanding on the body, on its heart and lungs—what unfortunate coincidence.
I was ten when the Echo-50 pandemic hit. A decade later, this enterovirus shows me just how intimate it’s been with my heart and lungs. Fluids stagnate in my lungs and elephantize my legs. A higher dose of meds is more than unaffordable; it’s impossible. More than half the population is withering away from the same affliction. As my failing lungs retain air the way a leaking boat retains water, I will drown on land, bloated with fluid, inflated with air. Unless this powdery rash spreading onto my torso turns me more plant than human, first.
On the second intrusion, the aliens cored out a sample of my body through an incision below my right rib. Afterwards, I could feel the wound but saw nothing, except for a glass vial rolling along the floor, shushing with rusty sawdust. The vial’s unremarkable appearance unsettled me. Too unremarkable to be extraterrestrial.
The sun fuses with the horizon. I slip the suit off my sweat-slick body and the heat slams. Everything slows. The towel clings as I wipe off the drench. My tongue hurts as I suck on a tube of corn paste. Without its compression molding, the respirator carves bleeding brackets around my mouth and nose. Chịu khó: to endure suffering, be hardworking. Khó chịu: to be disagreeable, irritable. Encoded in my ancestors’ language was one choice: accept pain.
I collect my urine in the emptied corn tube and check its colour under a light. Kidneys are going, too. Which death? Swollen and choking, emaciated from cancer, or lost in radiation delirium? I zip up my suit and drop across the sand for a sleep. At least it won’t be from a mauling or a lethal bite. Animals are extinct. Insects, soon to be.
A heady stench blows across the sand. By an unnatural lake, bodies bubble with decay. Death by heavy metals, radioactive waste, bacterial toxins, or Echo-50 organ failure? For a less brief life, one must learn to live with thirst. I gag through my breaths and push on, the dunes darkening. I can’t spend energy burying them, yet.
Chinyanja: language of the lake. Kumbukirani: remember.
I read a story once on old paper that I can’t forget.
Two hundred years ago, aliens rounded up 20,000 people, who weren’t spared a moment to put on shoes. Herded into camps, shot if they fled, left to disease, slow starvation, and violence of every kind. Once weakened, they were forced to march through the summer heat and the winter freeze. Half would die.
Ðừng có quên: don’t forget.
In the last hour, the distant green has disappeared. The North Star remains invisible. A compass is useless within a weakened geomagnetic field. For GPS, you must hack a satellite. Eaze would know. My phone pulses a bead of blood, warning me of 13% battery life.
Imrtalists abduct covid19 survivors bc their organs r diffrnt
Dr M splices tree dna into them bam organs nvr age
Take it easy
Four water bulbs, two fluid pills left.
Why am I out here? Is this radiation amn—
I can’t remember.
Two years after the Echo-50 pandemic, I’d gone this way with Bố to find food. There were quaking aspens, water birches, arroyo willows, and small mammals. We hunted hares and camped carefully to avoid the rare snake. Checked our shoes for wolf spiders and black widows. Should’ve been more careful with the plants.
After my Vietnamese lessons one night, Bố asked what I wanted to do.
“Study how plants and animals coexist,” I said, laying in the dirt.
My twelve-year-old self stared up at a sky that no longer held stars. The dirt became my body.
“Ecologist,” he said and rubbed his face. “You have a dream because you’re a person. Ðừng có quên. Even if they make you forget.”
My twelve-year-old self stared up at a sky that no longer held stars. The dirt became my body. A soft itch from a day-old scratch on my wrist creeped into my lungs.
He turned sick out here. I tell myself it was the river water. That the water tablets had failed to protect him, like so many things back then. His stomach hurt, then his bones. He wouldn’t stop vomiting. His skin sloughed off in patches. Headaches. Blindness. Fits.
Near the end, I dropped to my knees, and he pulled me close, his sour breath giving away the rot in his gut. “Nhớ và sống.”
Alone, I made it to the forest and saw a tall Sequoyah marred by two deep cuts. I touched the tree, then touched my heart. Cried, because I had buried him without leaving a marker in the dirt. Cried, because the resin came away crimson. Why wound a tree?
U didn’t post anti-i’s memo
Ppl 40+ in low supply Imrtalists injecting ppl w covid19
Evry1 an organ target
Dropoff supplies yours in few
U in chabwino
There are people I’m protecting—but why? Why am I out here? Where am I going?
In every direction, the red sand blazes, sifts through a crack in my boot, my toes scalded and chafed raw. My swollen tongue clings to my dry palate. A vinegar sting in my throat with every breath. I dig through my pack, finding one bulb left. I bite the clear membrane and suck the liquid slowly.
Bố told me about cigarettes once. How he missed grinding the stubs into a smouldering heap. Missed the first-time burn in his throat, the smoke off his fingertips, the soot scattering at his feet. Missed knowing when something could kill him.
Through that winter, aliens forced the Aniyunwiya to migrate 1,300 kilometres away from their homeland, a place rich in gold. The corn meal and salt pork didn’t prevent them from rotting with sickness or exhaustion as the remains of their homes ashed their throats.
Trail of Tears. Things we remember as our minds lose us.
“Eight years,” Bố says behind me. He walks, kicking sand against the legs of my suit. “Let it go.” I try to remember whether living is sóng or sống when I miss his voice, that deep heartbeat hum under the earth. I push drunkenly through the dunes, wasting energy with every climb. A living wave is a song, is a song.
“You’re going in circles,” he yells. “There’s nothing out here. You’ll die!”
The air flickers, weirdly cool, and I see it. I skid down the other side. He stands beside me, beyond my peripheral vision. I throw off my suit and claw at the sand, yelping from the scorching heat. My nails snag on an arm. The blistered skin sucked tight against the bone. I yank it out. The teeth remain, the cheekbones sharp. A patch of hair on the crown of the skull. Not him.
“It won’t bring me back,” he says into my left ear.
“You didn’t fool me!” I scream.
“Is that what you’re doing here? Finding a way to die?”
My legs buckle and I fall forward. My lower back aches. My right lung hurts. The skin on my knuckles won’t heal, cracking over and over into rivulets of pus. The rash has become a stiff sponge. “I’m dying,” I cry. “I can’t even nhớ why I’m out here.”
“Stand up and get your suit on.”
“I killed you.”
“Stand up!” his voice ricochets across the desert. The sand crunches beneath his knees. “I held on. Even as I lost my mind, I held on.” He pulls the suit over my head. The instant coolness shocks me. “They need to remember we’re still here. Another step, another breath. Ðừng có quên.”
Sequoyah invented for his people a syllabary, 86 symbols that gave the Aniyunwiya a voice in the alien world. They learned quickly. The Aniyunwiya started their own newspaper, built a new capital, demanded protection against state intrusions, spoke out against unlawful arrests, and wrote their own Constitution. There’s nothing more threatening than collective memory and agency.
I remember. The otherhood of trees, the ways of fighting erosion, erasure, and the fade of memory.
Kumbukirani moyo. Sóng sống… Nhớ…
I remember. The otherhood of trees, the ways of fighting erosion, erasure, and the fade of memory. Sequoyah’s Forest.
Stuff in your logs Who U talking 2
Where R U
He hums a song beneath the sand.
I push myself up. The smallest steps begin everything.
Sequoyah’s Forest encloses me quickly. The wind is a stilled breath between giant canopies of coniferous green. The earth damper than the heart of a cave. I pluck my boots off and press my bloodied feet into soil. I can’t believe it. After all this suffering, a gift. And I give, in return, our memory from the bag strapped across my chest into the body of tree. As it is done, I feel my roots stretch deep into the earth. Home.
In the heart of the forest, the sky flaps and folds to green and black. I slip my suit off as cold metal slams my left temple. Branches veining across the sky break mosaic. I fall to the forest floor, gazing up.
If things go oyipa today know that our friendship has kept me alive
Miss U Kumbukirani
Take it easy
My eyes rove. The Sequoyahs are riddled with pockmarks as though human-sized beetles have feasted. Not just the lone Sequoyah from eight years ago, but a forest of them cored and sampled. They cry to me with their open wounds.
Old paper had memory. If you creased then unfolded it, the paper would keep a wrinkle of the violence committed. Paper’s memory comes from fibres nourished by vessels carrying sugar, water, and nutrients from a community of trees. Every signal—pain, reproductive strategies, conjuring rain—is shared among them. Through their roots, trees share an existence.
Their resistance includes a history of viruses wed into their genetic makeup. An immunity that comes from resisting viral strains humans could succumb to. Scientists have wondered whether plants could ever transmit viruses to humans.
Like the Sequoyahs, my body has been drilled into and cored out. A soft buzzing at my left ear, and the old pain below my right ribs returns. The aliens emerge in their glowing, conical forms, faint as gasps. Their eye-like bands gleaming.
Without disturbing the air, they approach and search my body. They wait for me to scare myself into speaking, but I realize their alienness was a becoming. As they dissected affect from intellect, diminished the chasm between people and product, and elevated themselves from surviving to god-like, they became alien to their own humanity.
History is written and shared through our roots. Our existences have never been quietly singular.
I know this as I know The Trail of Tears, the Anti-I Crusade, Eaze’s language of the lake, Bố, my Vietnamese, and the lives gone extinct. The world will know of them, too. History is written and shared through our roots. Our existences have never been quietly singular.
It wasn’t the river water that killed Bố but a plant virus. In me, it has been an indolent disease, and in him, a cruel killer in days. The dome people will be decimated, if not by Anti-I, then by this virus I’ve been carrying for eight years soon to be introduced into their domes through the procurement of my organs.
I laugh as the cool earth hums beneath my spine. My roots reach down. Bố is singing.