The mule died of thirst before I reached the border, not long after I started the final leg, traveling south west from Ol Negolat. It was cheaper to ship mule embryos to distant worlds than parts to repair floaters and other vehicles, so most people used mules. Now I didn’t have even that. I walked the last eighteen kilometers through the night to avoid the sun’s heat, the air so clear the stars rode my shoulders. I reached the outskirts of the town of Shroun as dawn pinked the sky.
The two-hundred-meter-high wall loomed over the town. A black line cutting through the desert east to west on the southern side of the little community. I hunched my shoulders and ducked my head as if it watched me and I needed to hide. For all I knew, guards there tracked all heat signatures within a few kilometers, so perhaps they were watching. It didn’t matter. I needed to cross, so they’d see me soon enough. I prayed Jackson had gotten the message I’d sent through diplomatic channels and would be waiting for me on the other side.
I prayed I’d make it to the other side.
I drank from a small fountain in the square in front of a closed bar, a flickering fluorescent beer sign painting the street crimson. When I had my fill of dirty water—better than no water at all—I walked to the border station and rested with my back against the cool, concrete wall until the sun rose and brought the day’s heat.
Nine o’clock came and went, the time told by the bells ringing from a small prayer chapel down the street. I waited as people trickled passed, glancing at me with as much interest as they would a bush or a rock. I was patient because I had to be. The border officials would come when they wanted, not in a rush to open at this or that hour, despite the schedule posted next to the door. The pace was languid here, measured in easy breaths and slow strides.
A little girl walked past with long, black hair. She wore a clean, white dress and held her mother’s hand. She flashed shy smiles up at the sun of her world, the way Sophie would smile at me.
I opened her favorite bedtime book and sat on the bed. My weight wrinkled the blue blanket covering her tiny body.
“Are there white rabbits, mommy?” she’d ask, eyes wide.
“Of course,” I’d say, and kissed her forehead. “If you’re lucky, you can follow them down into a magic hole as well, but you must be fast to catch them.”
The emigration office opened as noon bells rang. A small man with a fat belly pushing a white shirt out over his trousers glanced over and waved me in. In the building he pointed at a metal chair where I might sit. He sat behind the counter and picked up a fan, waved it in front of his face. The ceiling fan above didn’t move. A door marked the wall to the counter’s right.
They let me wait for a few hours in the stifling reception area. I spent the time staring through the dirty window at the landscape north, blue-red mountains dotting the horizon, and recited The Three Musketeers silently until the fat man rose and opened the other door to speak to someone. When the conversation ended, he turned and looked at me. He jerked his thumb at the door. I stood and tucked my bedroll under my arm, reassured myself the rod remained inside, the fabric wound tightly around it like a swaddled child.
He led me into a small office outfitted with a chair and desk, an old vidphone half-buried beneath a pile of folders and papers. A man sat behind it, bright eyed and clean shaven.
“A vu kushoy?” he said, nodding at another chair across from him. The fat man closed the door as he left, and I sat.
“Your name?” he asked, switching to my language from Koshian.
“You wish to cross the border,” he said. Not a question but a statement.
He held a piece of paper, fingers bruised and calloused. “It says here you came to Kosh nine years ago seeking asylum.”
“Nine years, three months, seven days.” They’d known me before I’d entered.
“The scanners ran facial and retinal patterns when you entered,” he said, as if he read my thoughts. Maybe they did that, too. “We are not so simple a station as you might have preferred.”
“I did not say you were simple.”
“But you cross here instead of the city of Ambooyo. Why?”
I shrugged. “It was closer.”
He grunted, seemed to think for a few moments. “The real question is why are you heading south again?”
“My brother has been ill. I’m going to visit him.”
He looked at me with watery brown eyes and scratched the stubble on his chin. “You know if you go in you might not be let back, do you understand?”
“So, I am wondering why you would seek asylum in Kosh and now return south. Things have gotten very bad there you know.”
“My brother is ill,” I repeated. We had practiced this, over and over, Gabriel and I, until the lie became smooth, easily repeated. I said it so often it had become the truth by way of repetition. My brother is ill. I received an official notice through diplomatic channels, per the inter-colonial agreement on family separation. I’m going to be with him as he recovers. I wish to see my family.
“Now repeat it,” Gabriel said each time I told the lie. He held my hand and peered into my eyes as he asked, and I repeated. Again, and again. Until I was satisfied with my memory of it and the time had come.
He pressed the rod into my hands. “Go on. You gain nothing more by waiting.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. It hurt when I looked at him. It hurt he did not understand why I had chosen to leave. Sophie was not his, but he had loved her as I had. He’d loved me.
“The longer you wait, the more I wish you would change your mind,” he said.
“I know,” I said. “But they need our help. They have daughters, too.”
Sophie smiled and held the book up when I came in to say goodnight. “Read, mommy.”
I turned to the page and read. “There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea.”
I tell myself the truth again.
The man stared at me as though he waited for a new reply. I said nothing. I held my bed roll in my lap and he glanced at it and nodded. “What is that?”
“My bedroll.” I kept my hands still.
“Let me see,” he said, reaching over the desk. My heart beat faster. I’m going to be with my brother. I handed him the cloth bundle.
He undid the old leather belts holding it closed and unrolled it, spreading the contents across the desk. A few articles of clothing; a small plastic baggie containing beef jerky and salt pork; a vial of nutrient supplements; my empty water bottle. The metal rod clattered onto the desk and rolled off the edge, banging against the floor.
I wish to go see my brother.
He bent over, grunting as he took it from where it rested against the wall. He turned the silver rod over, noting the markings on it. Crude numbers near one end; a horizontal slash, finer than a single hair, that ran around its circumference near the midpoint. So thin it was almost invisible. You could only see it if it caught the light just so.
“What is this? A club? A weapon?”
“I use it to hold a tarp up when it rains, like a tent pole.” I said. My brother has been ill. Hidden sensors monitored my respiration, my heart rate. They would smell the lie if I did not bury myself in the truth of it.
He waited to see if I would flinch, show my nervousness, blink too often, twitch my lips. I sat stoic. The rod meant nothing to me.
“I think perhaps I will keep it.” Again, his eyes played over my face. I shrugged.
He turned it, flicked a blackened fingernail across the numbers written near the end as though he could erase it. The marks were molecular lasing. They looked like chalk in this case, as though someone had crudely marked the rod for use in a project. You couldn’t erase them with a fingernail. “What are these figures?”
I shrugged again. “I don’t know. Construction markings maybe.” More lies, repeated as often as the lie about my brother, to trip off my tongue when needed. I think they are construction marks. The rod is a tent pole. My brother is ill.
“You stole this from a construction site?”
“I took it from a vacant building that had fallen down,” I explained. “I didn’t think anyone would miss it.”
“You could use this as a weapon,” he said, swinging it, air whooshing in its wake.
“Yes,” I said, nodding.
“We can perform forensics, make sure you haven’t hit anyone on the head with it,” he said, placing it on the desk. “Maybe you’re a thief and you stole from them?”
I shrugged once more. “You may. I am grateful I’ve not had to use it that way.”
“The roads are safe these days,” he said, “at least on this side of the wall. Are you sure you do not want to stay here?”
“I miss my family,” I said. “My father and mother are gone; Jackson is all I have left.” I held my father in my memories. A picture taken a few minutes before he died. He stood on a metal beam high above the ground, the unfinished wall stretching to the right, scaffolding and cranes to the left. My mother first showed it to me when I was six and I had many questions about him.
“Keep it in your thoughts,” mother told me. “Memories are truth, even false ones.”
“Good night, mommy,” Sophie said.
“Good night, my bunny.”
I held onto my father’s image along with Sophie’s. His death. Her with her book.
“I am very sorry for what happened to your father,” he said, nodding at the computer screen. He knew all of me. “Many workers died because their colonial government didn’t care about safety, all they cared about was turning in on themselves, isolated behind a vast, black faraday wall so no one could reach them. But the wages were good; who could turn them down? I lost two cousins in three years, and only one was returned to his family for burial. We never learned where they buried the other.”
I nodded my thanks for understanding, the drip of one tear running down my face. All the better to help the illusion. No, the truth.
He sat back. “You know how bad it is now, do you?”
I nodded. “Still,” I said, and shrugged. “What choice do I have?”
“Some towns, they don’t even allow women to work, that’s how bad. They censor literature. They are word eaters. No books they say. No vids. They wear sack cloth and ashes and claim they are holy.”
I shrugged again. “I don’t want to go, but I want to see him and make sure he’s alright. Please. He’s all that’s left of my family.”
He drummed the desk, watching my face. Then he slapped his keypad. Out in the front room something whirred. “I have been directed to allow humanitarian passes.” He smiled sadly. “We are not without compassion, Ms. Martin. I have granted your travel request, as well as provided authorization to return should you wish.”
Should they let you was what he meant. They might not even let me through. They might kill me.
“You will be required to declare any fruits or vegetables,” he continued, “any books or other contraband, when you enter. If you fail to declare these items and they are found on you, you will be arrested, tried. Maybe hung. I hope you will reconsider your plans.”
“I have no such contraband as you have seen. Thank you.”
He waved away my words. “Do not thank me unless you are able to return. I do not think I’m doing you any favors by letting you cross. But family is family.”
A dirt road led to the wall’s entrance, flanked by concrete barricades. Duproalium fencing stood behind the barricades, topped with silver barbed wire. Squat guard towers flanked the entry, and men with rifles watched as I walked into the cool shadow beneath the massive metal barrier. They wore black uniforms and helmets, their eyes covered with goggles, as though they wished to hide from words they might see.
I passed through a small door. A corridor led forward, closed doors on either side, fluorescent lights illuminating sterile, white walls. Other refugees lined up in front of a window where a scrawny man with pimples and too-white teeth waited for us behind scratched glass. I got in line, waiting. Patient again. Clutching the bedroll to my breast, the precious rod hidden inside.
When my turn came, I stepped to the yellow line and handed him my authorization.
He stared at the screen. “Do you have anything to declare? Are you carrying any contraband or illegal goods?”
“Any books, movies, digital media, music, tapes, magazines, tracts, images, microfilm, subdermal storage, memory implants, or other restricted items?”
“You are aware that all contraband, including but not limited to books, music, movies, must be declared and examined?”
“Where are you going?”
“I am going to Sascaloon to see my brother, he’s been ill,” I answered.
“Father’s name?” he asked, though he had it on the screen and the papers in front of him.
“James Adisa,” I said.
He scanned the readout. “Illegally immigrated here in 2137 on a colony freighter, married into his citizenship. Interracial marriage, Reformation Catholic, one mulatto kid.” He looked at me for the first time and shrugged. “Guess that’s you.”
I flinched. “He was a legal immigrant. He had an access chip. He married a citizen. A New Baptist.”
He tapped the screen, leaned closer. “Not legal after the Citizen Pride act passed. You’re lucky your mother was a full citizen back three generations, or you’d have all been expelled and not allowed a return access card.”
I said nothing. I held my father’s picture in my memory, the truth of him. Standing on the wall, smiling. Why would he come where he wasn’t wanted? The same reason as me perhaps.
“Why did she go down the hole?” Sophie asked. Her eyes closed and she lay her head on the pillow. She’d be asleep in a moment.
“Because she had to,” I said. “It was an adventure.” I pulled the blanket higher and tucked it under her chin. The sparse bedroom, with its exposed slats and the framed picture of a unicorn, had grown cold. I shut the window on the night beyond, the landscape lost in deepening shadows.
“Where’s your daughter?”
I blinked and realized he’d had to ask me twice. I opened my mouth, but there were no words. I shook my head, unable to force the admittance through my clenched jaw. Sophie. My bunny. My brother is ill, my brother is ill, my brother is ill.
He watched me until the terminal beeped, then glanced at the screen. “She’s dead? Well, that’s what happens when you go live someplace with poor health services, lady. You probably deserved it.” His voice held no malice. He stated facts, the truth of his lie. Never mind the knife twisting my heart that I could not save her. That all I had left was this trip.
He stamped my paper and waved me to go through the door. “Step off.” He turned to the next person in line. That was my dismissal.
I followed the others to where guards waited. My fear surged, but the place stank of fear, so no one noticed. There were a dozen other crossers, and each had the same wide-eyed look, the same bloodless faces, like they were all one with the same parents. They took our packs, our bundles of old clothing, whatever we’d been carrying. They stripped us to our skin, pushed us into a single room together.
I thought of the distant past as we curled our bodies up, alone in our togetherness, each trying to hide their naked shame. I thought of nudity forced on supplicants by a country eager to purge its people of prurient thinking. I thought of showers, and gas chambers, and dead bodies, until the water ran.
Sophie in the tub, playing with a rubber duckie. “Do rabbits swim, mommy?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know, bunny. Do you think they swim?”
She thought about it as she pulled the duck under the water, released it, giggling when it popped back to the surface. “They must swim,” she said at last. “How else can they escape?”
The other travelers shivered as they wrapped their arms around their nakedness. I watched them, blinking back the water. Then I stood and let it wash over me, taking away the dust and filth. I spread my arms and tilted my head back, my eyes closed, and let the water cleanse me.
The guards looked at me with strange expressions when we walked from the showers. They’d seen my display and it marked me in some way that upset them. I covered my breasts with one arm, put my hand over my crotch, trying to match the other emigrants’ frightened modesty. My moment of rebellion gone, shattered like a looking glass smashed against an unyielding surface. I should not have let myself stand out.
They took us to separate small rooms with no doors. No windows either. One shelf attached to the wall held folded clothing. Not my clothing. “Where are my things?” I asked the faces peering through the opening at my body.
“We’ll dispose of your clothing,” one guard said, unemotional. “It stank like you’d never showered. Koshians are disgusting. You can pick up the rest of your items at the exit.”
I said nothing. My heart thrummed with desperation as I dressed in the outfit they’d provided. A heavy, gray, ankle-length skirt. Undershirt, long-sleeved blouse to go over it, buttoned to the neck. A white skull cap. I had trouble pulling it down over my thick curls.
“Wait a minute,” another guard said. He stalked into my room as the first guard watched. Both men were young, scowling at me for slights I’d never committed. He took my chin, turning my head back and forth. “Your hair is too long,” he said, and took electric shears from a clip on his belt. They scratched along my scalp, the tickle of tight, black curls brushing against my neck as they fell. He twisted my head back and forth until he finished.
Sophie’s hair ran long down her back, thick like mine, but straight. “Will it hurt?” she asked, watching the sheers.
I placed it in her little fingers and curled them around the cold metal. “No, of course not, bunny. Your hair is just hair; it doesn’t feel pain like your skin does.”
“Rabbits don’t feel pain,” she said, sticking out her chin. She held the stuffed bunny close to her chest. “You can cut it.”
“There, now you’re a citizen again,” the guard said. “You should consider a skin bleach to improve your color. You’re too dark. Come with us.”
I followed them into the hall, where the others waited. The women dressed as me, the men wearing dungarees and checkered shirts. I bit back questions about my bedroll, the rod. The guards would wonder, and they would grow suspicious. Sweat trickled down my sides, but I said nothing. I’m going to be with my brother. He’s been ill.
The guard who had cut my hair took me by the shoulder and elbow. My mind wandered, worried about my things. They’d probably scanned the rod. Found it a solid metal bar, no more extraordinary than that. But what if they kept it? What if they’d found something more? What if they knew? I forced my thoughts to repeat my truths.
Lying in bed next to Gabriel, naked, warm, arms wrapped around me. The tickle of lips pressed to my forehead. “Repeat,” he said, brushing away my tears. “You must repeat. If you are going to go, I want to make sure you get there.”
“I am going to see my brother who is ill. He’s all I have left of my family.”
Another kiss. “Repeat.”
“Why?” I didn’t want to play this game anymore. I wanted to remember Sophie. I wanted to cry. I wanted to tuck her in and read a story, her favorite story. The book waited for me on the nightstand.
He kissed me. “Because if I cannot have you here, I need to know you live.” He stopped talking, gave a watery smile. “Your brother needs you. All the other Sophie’s need you. Now, repeat.” I need you, too, his eyes said. He told his lie instead.
“I am going down the rabbit hole. I am going to see the red queen.”
The guard handed me my water bottle and the bedroll. I had to choke back my sob of relief as I tucked it under my arm. He opened a door and pushed me through it. I blinked, blinded by light, staggering as the door thumped closed behind me, the ringing sound of metal slamming metal. I reached forward and took a step, felt a metal bar against my hands, and clung to it until I could see it was a railing.
I squinted until my eyes adjusted, took a long, shuddering breath. I stood on a platform, fifty feet above the ground, a steep stairway leading down to a gravel lot. A road passed close by, and a short way north rose the tiny town of Soone. I came through the hole to the here and now. I’d lost Gabriel. Lost Sophie. The emptiness overwhelmed me, and I stood, unmoving.
Sophie held the metal bar and turned it over. “It’s so heavy,” she said.
“It tells a whole story,” I said, taking it from her. “Many stories.”
She squinted at me. “How does it tell a story?”
“Through potions and magic,” I said, smiling. “Drink me.” I tickled her, marveling at the beauty of a young girl’s laughter, the way she squirmed on the tatty sofa.
I forced myself down the steps, holding the rail tightly. Trash lay strewn around the wall’s base, pieces of food wrappers and cans, plastic bags, blown there by the wind. I felt alone beneath the gray dividing line.
I sobbed and wrapped my fingers together, a moment to pray. To give thanks. I crossed the hard, baked ground to the asphalt roadway and walked towards Soone.
“I am going to see my brother who’s been ill.”
“They won’t let you go back,” Jackson said. “They never let people leave any more.”
He’d picked me up before I made it to the first home on the south side of Soone. He drove a thirty-year-old floater with no air conditioning, so we kept the windows down as we drove south. I held the bonnet in my lap, letting the moving air caress my scalp beneath the stubble of my curls.
“Why did you decide to do this?” he asked. “I didn’t think you’d want to leave Sophie.”
I’d been expecting the question. I thought about it for a while. The Unifiers had come to me after Jackson’s message passed through channels and they’d offered me a chance to help them as a smuggler. But that wasn’t the reason. Try as I would the truth wouldn’t come. The words on my tongue were the lies I’d been speaking for the last six months. I’d open my mouth and they would come forth, marching from my lips like the dead rising from a grave.
Sophie was dead. I’d never see Gabriel again. My brother is ill.
“You look well enough,” I said instead.
“I’m getting better. Lots of people contracted the Haemorrhagia and died. But I’m a doctor, so they took good care of me.”
I nodded. “I’m glad.”
He hadn’t got my messages, or he would have known. The Koshians relayed messages about his illness, but my own colony hadn’t told him his niece had died. They are word eaters, the border official had said. I decided not to burden him.
He took me to a lab, hidden in the mountains near Skall. The road passed through town, and turned up Dead Mule valley. I laughed to keep from crying, and when he looked at me, I said, “The journey through the looking glass begins and ends with a dead mule.”
I shook my head. “Not important.”
They’d hidden the lab beneath a cabin up a steep dirt track that wound its way through a narrow canyon. He parked the floater behind the building and led me inside an empty room, through the trapdoor in the floor. Below they’d built sterile corridors and fluorescent lights, technicians prepping machines. A lump clutched at my throat. It reminded me of the wall. My skin crawled with goosebumps.
He glanced at me as we waited, then took my hand. “Jen, you won’t ever see her again.”
I squeezed my brother’s hand and tried to smile. “She’s better where she is.” I couldn’t tell him what had happened. Those words—Sophie is dead—was a truth I carried for myself. It was the only truth I had left.
“What about Gabriel?”
I didn’t answer. “Are they ready?” I asked. He will be by her side, and will read to her every night before bedtime as she clutches her stuffed rabbit to her chest.
He looked through a window into the sterile room beyond, white walls and stainless-steel equipment, and nodded. “They’ve got the measurements from the bar and have entered them into the system.”
The rod floated in a chamber, held at each end by slender fingers made of diamonds, their points finer than a human hair. The same type of fingers that had held it when the mark had been etched into its surface. The technician checked the temperature, humidity, the magnetic field intensity, the laser measuring system’s position, the mass. He compared values with the numbers on the metal bar, etched into its molecules.
“We’re ready,” he said, and pressed his tablet.
The lights dimmed, and the laser pulsed. “Tenth significant,” the tech said. “Rising. The encryption mark is at zero point five plus.”
The decimal point ran out like an endless train, unspooling as the laser measured the exact percentage of the rod to the right of the hairline mark. One hundred thousand places, a million, four million.
“Translation?” Jackson asked, turning to look at a screen on the wall beside the window, his muscles tensed.
“Coming in now,” the technician said. “Computer confirms recovery.”
Jackson relaxed, and he breathed a long sigh. “We’ll get the pub system warmed up. Once we’ve cleaned up the texts, we’ll get them ready for distribution. Digital readers, PQ files, comp audio, subdermal implant chips. Even print copies.”
Every three decimal points a character, upper case or lower case, a punctuation mark, a line return. Millions of decimals points became words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters. The first lines displayed for us to read. I hardly noticed the tears that ran down my cheeks as I held Jackson’s arm.
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank. . .
“I miss you, mommy,” Sophie said, as I tucked her frail body beneath the sheets.
Jeff Reynolds is a writer from Maryland who works for Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, home of New Horizons and Parker Solar Probe. He’s only a software licensing analyst, though, and doesn’t do any of the fun stuff like building space probes or meeting Brian May. His work has previously appeared in Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, and Andromeda Spaceways Magazine. You can find him on twitter @trollbreath42.
Author of “The Truth of a Lie”
What inspired you to write this story/poem?
It started with an article I read about encoding messages using fractions. I wanted to use that idea, so I thought about neighboring countries separated by deep political and cultural differences and the wall dividing them. Then 2015 came and someone started talking about building a wall, and the half-completed story languished for a few years. But Jenneck had developed into a character whose story I had to finish. Changing the setting to colonies on a distant planet helped create enough of a buffer from our current climate that I could complete it.
What do you hope readers take from this story/poem?
That those we have lost are never far from us. They inform us, guide us, lend us their strength, remind us of who we really are despite the lies we feel we must tell. And though there is a great deal of pain in our memories of them, there can also be so much beauty in that heartache.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story/poem has been through?
It was started in 2014. First draft was finished in late 2017. It went through roughly five major rounds of editing, including two rounds with critique groups. Submitted fourteen times, six personal rejections, held twice before finally being sold.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
2 quick hits!
One: please look up the story, A Good Mother, by E. I. Richardson (Endria’s story is amazing and heartbreaking and beautiful);
Two: McMansion Hell (Kate Wagner does wonderful educational and witty architectural criticism, deconstructing the McMansions of our culture as well as discussing detailed architectural history topics).