This is how it ends, with a target lock on Isabel’s ship and her sister screaming through the radio.
“Sargent Fernandez, you have been ordered to cease and desist. Sargent, cease and desist your current course.”
But Isabel’s not listening. She’s acquiring her own target lock, making her own choices. She doesn’t plan to desist. She plans to destroy, to zero in on the epicenter of it all and blast it to smithereens.
“Sargent Fernandez, you are in restricted airspace. Respond immediately or you will be fired upon.”
Isabel’s lips are pursed and her heart hammers, but her breath comes steady. In this she’s sure, or at least as sure as she’s been of anything in her life. She barrels toward this terminus like cannon fodder. But Isabel lit the fuse and crawled inside the barrel.
She made this decision freely, in defense of everything she loves.
Her sister’s voice comes over the radio again, softer this time.
“Isabel…. don’t do this.”
It was a Sunday when the Haze first arrived.
[Is that why so many people thought it was an act of God?]
Sophie was studying for her officer’s exam.
Isabel was drag racing down the middle of campus in Sophie’s car, whooping as the wind jerked rough fingers through her thick head of curls. Squinting at the raw horizon, Isabel didn’t notice when her competitor fell away. Or when the violet cloud bloomed over the teeth of the Rockies. All she cared about was the main gate, the finish line, the man holding up his Air Force T-shirt like a flag of surrender.
He didn’t wave it as she blew past him.
Sophie’s car skidded off the road, spinning in a full circle and coming to rest in a cloud of sand. Isabel didn’t bother with the door, leaping over the convertible’s bulwark like a sailor landing on a foreign beach.
“Bryan? Didn’t you notice? I won!”
But he wasn’t looking at her. Rather, he was looking past her, through her, toward the bullseye of the sunset.
She spun, her smile undimmed.
It froze on her face.
The orb of the sun kissing the horizon was stained a fluffy, cloudy purple, a heliotrope dandelion in the act of being blown.
At that moment, the alarms began to wail.
“Isabel, do not fire, I repeat, do not fire!”
Isabel’s jaw is clenched, her helmet strapped chokingly tight. She’s flying a hypersonic SR-72 Azazel with laser-lock railguns and dual-mode ramjet engines. Brand new, probably illegal, totally off-the-books. Its stealth tech protects her from ground defense but not her sister’s eyes. Isabel soars over the desert like a falcon, but instead of corkscrew nostrils it’s her hair that could open wine. The joystick is clutched in her fingers like a life rope. The heat shields glow coal-red.
“God damnit, Isabel, answer me!”
A knot of quantum energy? A spectral fungus? An infection of the collective human consciousness? A Russian attack? All they knew at first was that its spread could not be stopped. Before the Air Force even launched their jets, that lavender tint in the sky had exploded, dispersed, and then touched down in a million silent lightning bolts. People screamed. Cities shut down. Every road from Texas to New York was gridlocked for almost twenty-four hours. Emergency Rooms around the nation were forced to set up blockades to triage the influx of people with magenta stains in their eyes, in their brain matter, treated by doctors with the very same symptoms. By the next morning, the World Health Organization was calling it a pandemic. By that afternoon, China had snapped its borders shut.
The United States mobilized quickly around the strike zone, the virulent flare-up Isabel had missed. And the Generals [like their father] knew what to do. Military protocol clearly outlined the reactive procedures, should a flex of extraterrestrial muscle ever endanger humankind. Deep in the missile silos of some undisclosed location, a bomb was prepped, its trajectory calculated. The technicians in charge of launch waited just long enough for the blast radius to be evacuated.
They never fired.
At that point, news reports had begun to filter in, obsessively covering the strange question spreading like a dogma through the citizens of Earth. Scientists convened in borderless web conferences. Major politicians got on the phone.
[If you’d been watching the news that day, it would have felt like the world was waking from a nightmare.]
The real cascade started when the President filmed a live TV address, meeting the camera’s eye with a cautious smile and a purple tint in his sclera.
“What if it’s not an attack?” he asked the people of this planet. “What if it’s an invitation?”
At that point, no one had to ask what he meant.
[An argument for: Did you know that there have been no acts of mass violence since the arrival of the Haze? Of course, there have been murders, gunshot wounds, wives beaten and husbands stabbed. But no one has attacked a building or held a school hostage. Up to 80% of children surveyed the month after impact said they want to be scientists. 68% of adults have given up their self-labeled ‘frivolous hobbies’. And despite the existential angst rooted in the last two decades, anxiety rates are dropping. Nations are shaking hands. Because we know where we’re going now. We have a North Star.
That star is Isabel’s target.]
“You can’t do this! You don’t have the authority!”
Beneath the flight mask, Isabel’s lips are pursed. Her eyes narrow, this time with chilling focus. In the distance she can see that mauve miasma, the nexus, the Haze. Her navigation instruments are beginning to fail.
But she’s been trained not to rely on them.
“Listen to me,” Sophie says, her voice harsh with static. “I know it’s scary. I’m scared too. But this is the next step in our evolution. It’s going to solve everything.”
Isabel’s voice, when it comes, is little more than a growl.
“Humanity doesn’t need to be solved.”
Sophie’s voice crackles now, a whip-snap of frustration.
“Damnit, Isabel, think about your son! Think about our parents!”
Her knuckles are white. The crater comes into view, pulsing like a heart.
Years ago, before that portentous asteroid had even entered our solar system, these two sisters once sat around a dinner table. The oldest in a fine uniform, fresh and pressed and adorned with a shiny new Major’s star. The other in combat boots and jeans.
[I’m sure you can guess which was which.]
“We’re so proud of you, Sophie,” said Mrs. Fernandez, still wearing her cocktail dress from the ceremony.
“Yes, well done.” Their father, the illustrious General Fernandez, offered Sophie one of his rare smiles, a gift that anyone in the Air Force would have killed for.
But everyone’s nerves were as tight as piano wire. Because despite the steak dinner with mushrooms and wine, ordered in honor of their promoted Field Officer, it was the other daughter’s presence that tugged on their thoughts. It was the words General Fernandez had spat three weeks ago that still rung clearer than his congratulations.
“Fernandez daughters don’t stay grunts.”
Because that’s what Isabel was, a grunt, an airman, given the title of Sargent because of a family name she didn’t earn. And yet she grinned at her sister with no envy, no admiration beyond the joy for a sibling. Sophie might be sitting ramrod straight beside her boyfriend of five years with the pleasing heft of duty on her shoulders, flush with the fulfillment of a calculated accomplishment.
But Isabel laughed the loudest, toasting with water to protect the illegitimate child growing in her belly.
[An argument against: there’s an experimental theatre on base that used to host eccentric concerts and fringe-art performances. It was Isabel’s favorite building in their desert oasis. Despite the rigor of life in the Air Force — not that she was ever very rigorous — this was her nest of disorder. A beautiful something molded out of dry sands and obligations. Wild, unbridled, sometimes bordering on insane, no one walked away from that theatre unchanged. No one could deny its power, even if they spent the whole evening squirming in their seats.
That theatre is shut down now. After all, there are more important matters at hand than art.]
Inside the Haze is perfect order. Even the dust motes organize themselves in mandala patterns, moving with awareness and acknowledgement of everything around them. As if the air particles themselves are awake.
Isabel is the only thing in here that flouts the rules.
[Does it know she’s coming? Does whatever intelligence that pounds those distant drums sense her intention?]
Sophie’s target lock doesn’t blink, waiting for permission to incinerate the other jet. Isabel knows this, just as she knows that her sister’s hands are shaking. But Sophie can’t shoot, not without endangering what Isabel has come to destroy.
[Are there other reasons she holds back?]
Sophie tries again with reason.
“Isabel, listen to me. All this, it’s a miracle. It’s shown us we’re not alone. You saw the announcement. The major world economies have agreed to combine their resources. Imagine what that will do for our future. If we work together —”
Isabel’s laugh is the harsh edge of a serrated knife.
“Human beings aren’t made to work together. Not like this.”
“But if we embrace what’s happening —”
“If we embrace this,” Isabel says calmly as her ship booms forward, “then we destroy ourselves.”
“Please.” Sophie’s voice is choked and desperate. “Don’t make me kill you.”
General and Mrs. Fernandez refused to visit, but Sophie came.
Isabel’s laugh was a warm answer. Content in a way Sophie couldn’t understand. With one hip cocked and arms folded over a swollen belly, the airman out of uniform grinned at her handiwork, at her own technicolor chaos splattered on the nursery wall in vivid paint.
“Don’t you think it’s a bit much?” Sophie asked, examining the way three streaks crashed together and then exploded apart. “You know, for a baby?”
“It’ll give him something to think about,” Isabel said, stepping up beside her sister. “Besides, it’s not the whole room. There are three other walls.”
“Still, it seems kind of… overwhelming.”
Isabel winked. “Life is overwhelming.”
But Sophie didn’t smile back. Her thin fingers were trailing over the antique wooden bassinet that her sister had found at a flea market and painted a bright, gender-neutral orange.
“You still haven’t told the father?”
Isabel shrugged. “Don’t know who he is.”
“And you won’t try to find him?”
“Nope.” Isabel’s eyebrows pulled together, pinching in the middle. “Why do you care? Odds are you wouldn’t have liked him.”
“I…” Words were failing Sophie, thinning like snow runoff at the end of spring.
Isabel leaned closer, touching her straight-backed sister on the arm.
“Don’t feel sorry for me, really. I want this. I’m excited for it. Maybe it was a mistake, but good things come from the strangest of places. Don’t you think?”
The soft afternoon light was transmuting the streaks of tears on Sophie’s face into gold.
[A sort of alchemy, perhaps?]
Isabel leaned forward, her nascent maternal instincts picking up on the stink of human pain. “Soph? What is it?”
Sophie blinked, straightened, lifted her chin.
“Mike and I have been trying.” Those narrow harpist fingers tightened on the wood, on the padded crevasse that will one day hold a baby. She swallowed hard. “They say it’s not going to happen.”
“It’s fine,” she snaps, scrubbing her cheeks. “We’ll be fine.”
[It’s the arrival of the Haze, more than anything, that will make her fine.]
Isabel can see her target now, approaching at a mile per second over the crest of the Earth. And even weak, even held back by the dam of Isabel’s resistance, the voices in the back of her purple-streaked brain hiss their welcoming whispers [or warnings?]. It’s the same susurrating murmur that has seduced everyone else. They aren’t words, not really. More like the magnetic pole a compass points to, only the needle is the human mind.
“Isabel, how can you be so fucking selfish?” Sophie’s voice is rising to a scream now, desperately trying to shout over Isabel’s certainty. “Just because you’ve never followed a goddamn order in your life doesn’t mean you get to choose for everyone!”
The Dyson Sphere [it’s probably less simple than that] was always there, or at least as long as humans were looking. In fact, a scientist in Sweden had seen signs of it two years ago, although he interpreted the strange warble of light around that distant star as a cosmic dust cloud. But with the combined cerebral forces of the world’s most brilliant minds and the Pied Piper leadership of the Haze, they solved the puzzle in less than three months. Some called it Babylon. Some called it a new Mecca.
The politicians called it a goal.
This is how it started, with a little girl sitting tall as a kind-faced nurse handed her a swaddled, screaming infant. This child barely out of toddlerhood looked to her mother for comfort, but it was her father who spoke first.
“That’s your baby sister, Sophie. Careful for her head.”
The little girl accepted the fresh loaf of human with shaking hands, staring down at her opposite. Still pink and squirming against the confines of the tightly-wrapped blanket, little Isabel already had matted curls, eyes screwed tight against the limitations the world had put on her. The infant wriggled like a caterpillar trying to get free.
“She’s loud,” Sophie said to no one in particular, watching her new sister’s face grow ruddy with frustration.
“Babies are loud, honey,” Mrs. Fernandez whispered, slumping exhaustedly into the nest of her sheets.
As General Fernandez met his wife’s gaze, Sophie gazed solemnly down. In her youthful mind, she hoped they would be friends. The Air Force base was a lonely place for a child to grow up, and Sophie was already tired of reminding the boys that she can knock them down as easily as they can call her names. And besides, in her developing existential schema it was proper to have a sister. Sophie planned to teach Isabel the way of things, the order she was just beginning to understand.
But this affectionate ambition was made to be broken, because little Sophie would soon find that little Isabel wasn’t made to color in the lines or put stuffed animals neatly to bed. When Sophie would arrange their dollhouse with meticulous care, Isabel would gleefully crash her plastic dinosaur through its halls, leaving miniature havoc in her wake. Sophie grew used to [and disgusted with] the paint smears on the playroom and the dirt that always snuck into Isabel’s bed, no matter how many times their cleaning lady washed her sheets.
[Is that why she requested Isabel in her squadron? Because the yearning to civilize her baby sister never really went away?]
“Sargent Fernandez, I am authorized to fire. You have ten seconds to alter course or —”
“Remember that dance I dragged you to?” Isabel’s eyes flick up, as if she can see her sister in the jet’s nonexistent rear-view mirror. “Bachata night?”
“What does that have anything to —”
“You didn’t want to go. It took everything I had to get you to put on that stupid skirt. Remember? Even though it’s a part of our heritage, your heritage, you wanted nothing to do with it.”
“Isabel, that doesn’t —”
“You were so sad that you hadn’t discovered it earlier. I hear you still go with Mike.” Isabel’s breath is raspy, panic and precision thrumming like a tuning fork in her chest. “But you haven’t gone since the impact, have you?”
“Don’t be stupid, we’ve had more important things to worry about.”
Isabel’s eyes narrow, a human target lock.
“Bachata night, Sophie. That’s what the Haze is trying to erase. That’s what we’ll lose.”
Isabel can’t know it [or maybe she does], but far behind her, in the other jet shrieking through the unnatural atmosphere, Sophie’s conviction stutters.
It wasn’t the first time Major Fernandez had bailed her sister out of trouble, but it certainly was the most dramatic. And in their own headquarters, no less. The officer on guard let Sophie in without question, accepting the silent order to remain back so that his commanding officer could have a word with the detainee. Alone.
Her shoes clicked up to Isabel’s cell. The motion-sensor lights bubbled on.
“Jesus,” Sophie muttered as she took in Isabel’s black eye and split lip.
Isabel straightened, curling the un-swollen side of her mouth. “Nothing I didn’t dish right back.”
“You just couldn’t stay out of it, could you?”
Isabel’s smile tightened.
“Embarrassed by your little sister?”
“I’m embarrassed for you.” Sophie shook her head. “And for your son.”
“My son will be proud, when he’s old enough to understand. If he gets the chance.”
“Is that what this is about?” Sophie’s face puckered into a scowl. “You’re so afraid of something telling you what to do that you’re willing to march against our future?”
Isabel shoved to her feet, shoulders bunched.
“Did you really expect me to just stand back and watch our free will get flushed down the goddamn toilet?”
Sophie rolled her eyes. “No one’s taking away your free will —”
“If you believe that,” Isabel said. “Then you’re not paying attention.”
A crash split the silence as Sophie’s hand slammed into the bars, rattling the cage. The sound stretched and warped in the murky air between them until it seemed to come from everywhere, from history itself. Sophie didn’t speak, but Isabel was never one to be intimidated. She drifted fearlessly into her sister’s furious space.
“I’m sorry. Really. But someone has to stand against this.”
“Stand against what? Progress?” Sophie lifted her head. “We’re reaching for the next level. That’s what the physicists are saying. This is the next stage of existence. We have the chance to join something bigger.”
Isabel’s eyes might have softened, but her fists remained clenched at her sides.
“Do you really want to join like this? As cogs in someone else’s machine? Don’t you get it, Sophie? They’re making us into them.”
“What if they’re better than we are?”
Isabel’s smile was tragic, full of something Sophie had never bothered to learn.
“What if they’re not?”
Some of the more rational minds in the intellectual community have insisted on reminding whoever will listen that we don’t know that there’s a greater consciousness out there welcoming us to join it. It could be an alien trap, a way to weaken the planet by pouring all our assets into an interstellar mission with no guarantees. Or worse, the Haze could be a base predator, offering a carrot light-years away to distract us all as it munches on humanity’s creative disorder.
But then that inventor in South Africa showcased his Scavenger Engine and everything changed.
At that point, fusion was a fringe technology, hopeful but flawed, always twenty years away. The problem of fuel limitations lingered with such stubborn persistence that the aerospace industry had moved on to solar sails and generation ships. But the Scavenger was something new. Augmented by the same heat shield that’s currently protecting Isabel from vaporization, this new engine was designed to pick up the particles it found on the way and utilize deep-space gasses for power. The closer the ship got to its intended target, the more energy-dense vapors it would find. Now our ships could forage food in the dark, energy in the emptiness.
With that fulcrum problem washed away [and the world sinking gladly into the quicksand of someone else’s plan] even the rational minds ran out of things to say.
Except Isabel, of course.
There was this tree that Sophie used to climb as a teenager. Thin and bristly and hardened by desert life [like Sophie, you could say], it was barely enough to conceal her. But if she climbed high and no one looked closely, she could hide there for hours.
That’s where Isabel found her on the night Sophie’s acceptance letter to Stanford came in.
“This bark is going to rip my skin off,” Isabel joked as she lifted herself into the scrubby leaves.
Sophie didn’t respond. So Isabel made herself comfortable, sprawling between two branches as if there was a hammock there and not ten feet of lethal nothing.
“Would you be careful,” Sophie snapped at last, unable to contain herself.
“Talk to me then.”
“There’s nothing to say.”
“Of course there is.” Isabel swung her legs through the empty air, tantalizingly precarious. “You got into Stanford.”
“I’m not going.”
“You know why.”
But there was a fire in Isabel’s eyes that would not be ignored, an umbrella of rebelliousness that she was determined to share.
“Sophie, you’ve gotta stand up for yourself. Screw Mom and Dad, do what you want. Who cares what they think?”
“Obviously you don’t.”
“Not really, no.”
From her perch in the palm of the tree, protected [or caged?] by a web of thick branches, Sophie glowered at her sister, this untamed force she’d lived with for almost fifteen years and still didn’t understand at all.
“How can you say that? How can you ignore everything they want from you?”
Of course, Isabel grinned.
“Practice,” was her only answer.
“Sophie,” Isabel pleads now. “Hear me out for a second, just this once. I know what they’ve told you, but it’s wrong. They’re wrong.”
“What would you know about what they’re telling me?” Sophie snarls. “You’ve never listened to anyone in your life.”
“But I am listening. I’m listening to the people no one is paying attention to. I’m listening to you. Tell me, Sophie, do you really want to exist like this? Do you really want to lose the things that give us meaning?”
“We have a goal —”
“We both know that’s not the same.”
“Then let’s go back and talk about this like fucking Americans.” There’s a quaver in Sophie’s voice, the terror that she’ll have to be the monster they sent. “Either that or I shoot you down as a traitor.”
Isabel pauses, long enough for the scrubby ground below her jet to thicken with streaks of pulsing magenta. When she finally speaks, her words are raw and filled with their shared past.
“Go ahead. If you really think the world is better off without me, then press that button.”
But the seconds shriek by with hypersonic velocity and still the missile doesn’t come.
[If you’re wondering how someone like Isabel managed to snag an Azazel in a time of jacked-up security and endless protests, then look no further than Airman David Thomas. She’ll never know it, but the Vermont-born pilot is the father of her son, the second player in her greatest happiness. Of course, Thomas doesn’t know it either. Both are loose in their habits, messy in their trajectories. They spend their lives like casino chips, toasting to the gamble.
But as the grunts like to joke, they smile a lot more than Major Fernandez does.]
Surprisingly, it was David who reached out to Isabel. She’d been exiled from base after a blurry photograph caught her leading a march against the Haze. Her father hadn’t spoken to her since. Little Benny, only two and already smearing paint on the walls, didn’t know or care why grandpa stopped coming to visit. After all, General Fernandez wasn’t known for his skills with children.
Isabel tried not to let it bother her.
One clear-sky afternoon, Isabel was out gardening with Benny on her hip, tickling his face with a California poppy blossom. And then, as sudden and unexpected as the arrival of the Haze, David pulled up in that rusty old pick-up he loved more than his F-22 Raptor.
“Hey,” he said as the door slammed behind him and he stepped onto her flagstone path.
Isabel straightened, shifting Benny to her other hip.
“How are things at base?” The accusation was clear in her aquiline eyes.
David winced. “I’m sorry about that. I wasn’t… I wasn’t sure, you know? I couldn’t risk it.”
She turned away from him, staring instead at the jagged horizon that had always been a more reliable parent than either of the ones she was born with.
Until it turned purple, of course.
She sighed. What was the point of cruelty?
“Don’t worry about it,” she said at last, adjusting the mass of toddler. “I was asking a lot.”
“Well.” David shifted his weight, hands in the pockets of his civilian jeans. “That’s actually why I’m here.”
She waited, giving him the space to stretch his thoughts. Taking a deep breath, David scanned her house, as if the squat, one-story rambler could offer him a piece of her assurance.
“I used to keep this dream journal in college,” David began, not meeting her gaze. “It started for a class, but it became kind of fun, you know? And boy did I write down some weird shit once I started paying attention. There was this one dream where the sky would kind of warp down and I could climb this road up into another world where everything flew and the clouds were…” He swallowed, his fists bunching and relaxing like lungs. “It doesn’t matter. What I mean is that I loved my dreams, no matter how wacky they got.” His eyes flicked up, snagging hers, pleading for something she couldn’t offer. “I haven’t had dreams like that since the impact.”
Isabel didn’t respond, her lips pursed as Benny mumbled happy nonsense in her ear.
“Maybe you don’t feel it as much, since you never leaned in.” He chuckled mirthlessly. “I bet it’s not even in your cerebellum yet. But it’s in mine, and now my dreams are just like real life. I get up, brush my teeth, go to work. And worse, they’re filled with that… longing. It’s like I can’t think of anything else. Like I’ve been given this rigid backbone that all my thoughts have to be structured around, you know?”
“I do.” Isabel’s voice betrayed nothing, leaving the silence between them blank and bare. But David’s face held that naked desperation she had come to recognize at protests, the regret that radiated from the ones who hadn’t been strong in the beginning, who hadn’t resisted. And now, the scrabbling terror of the ones losing ground.
“I miss dreaming, Isabel. I miss the way some things didn’t have to make sense. I miss walking to the grocery store and suddenly wondering what would happen if the sidewalk turned to Jell-O. It sounds stupid, but sometimes it feels like I’ve lost my sense of smell and everyone’s acting like that’s no big deal, but what if it is?” He scrubbed one hand over the bristles on his scalp. “What if you’ve been right all along?”
Benny made a grab for Isabel’s wild curls, tugging on a brown coil with the insistence of an ignored child. She reached up and gently took his fist in hers, her eyes never leaving David’s face.
“What are you saying?”
“Well, it’s got me wondering if there’s a way to stop it.” A ghost of his old self wandered across his face. “And if there was, what I could maybe do… to help.”
Isabel took a step toward his truck [toward the bench of a back seat where they’d drunkenly fucked and forgotten].
“Are you sure?”
The question, taut with all the pieces of their training and the jumbled puzzles of their minds, is a handshake. A lifeline.
He looks at her. “Do you have a way to stop it?”
She holds Benny tight.
“I think I might.”
Once the dust had settled [figuratively as well], researchers gathered around the Haze like insects on a rotting carcass. Accompanied by a whole squadron of Marines, those inquisitive men and women hauled in their best technology, equipping themselves to the teeth with machines for sending, sampling, reading EM waves, tracing quantum pulses. They charged bravely through that gossamer border with the best weapons science had to offer.
All of it failed the moment they crossed inside.
But that wasn’t the end. Because those brilliant minds were heavy with more than just knowledge. They carried Atlas’s burden of our global hopes, our cosmic fears. So they marched back in, supplied instead with old polaroid cameras and their minds.
Over the next few weeks, the coverage of their discoveries was as all-absorbing as the tug on everyone’s soul.
It turned out that the Haze had a glowing violet core precisely at its center [a heart, if you want to call it that] made of an unidentifiable substance that somehow disrupted subatomic fields without being magnetic or electrical itself. It was physical but also not, existing in the liminal realm of quarks and bosons but also there for us to see, touch, prod. Even with the terror of endangering the ten billion minds attached to this benign invader [but is it really benign?], they tried to chip off a piece. Bring back a souvenir.
No matter what they did, they couldn’t damage this husk of nothing and node of everything. That is, until a frustrated Russian physicist tried to lite his smuggled cigarette.
Fire, it turns out, is liminal too.
Using microscopic welding torches, the scientists carved off the smallest piece imaginable, a sliver of pure plumb. They followed every protocol, took every precaution they could think of. In the moment before the piece fell into the tiny, sterile vial [could they hear it hit the bottom?] the scientists almost glowed, their own excitement resonating and reverberating like an echo gaining force, like constructive interference.
But when that tiny piece lost contact with the whole, it went dark.
The scientists didn’t — couldn’t — know until they left the Haze the next day that their microscopic surgery had detached fourteen million minds. Fourteen million humans suddenly floating, suddenly free.
[Did they end up at Isabel’s protests?]
A paper was published [perhaps unwisely] detailing the notion that the heart of the Haze could be destroyed with the proper incendiary technique. And if it was, all the accompanying threads in brains around the world would go dark. The whispers would stop. Our compass needle would spin again, looking for a new target.
That paper was the seed of Isabel’s plan.
[ You see, she never leaned in. Not once. The temptation was there, of course. It was for everyone. And oh, how the human mind is perfectly structured to fall for it. Even with the riotous Isabels in our midst, most of us love to be soldiers. To let someone — something? — else instruct us, claim us, lead us. So when that wordless directive was injected into our supple, hungry consciousness, there was barely any resistance. Philosophers ruminated fanatically on its meaning. Professors and tech giants consumed every bit of data they could find. Politicians spoke of nothing else. And all the while those violet tendrils compounded like mental habits, fed by our curious — but no longer muddled — souls.
Unless you resisted. Unless you ignored them.
Unless you were Isabel.]
In seconds, she’ll be close enough to drop the guided missile with its nose full of thermite, the pyro-bomb that David stole. It’s small, contained, designed to kill a single person in a crowded market. An antidote to the anarchy of war.
[Earth’s weapons are rarely used the way they were intended.]
“Isabel, please,” Sophie’s voice is choked and bleeding now. Isabel can imagine her sister’s hands shaking, finger bumping against that blood-red button but unable to press down. “Please. Don’t make me choose.”
Isabel’s eyes are softer than they were before. Sadder. They’re the eyes of a mother who’s watched her son skin his knee and fall off his bike and done nothing. The eyes of a sister who knows what she asks.
“But you have to. That’s why I’m here.” Isabel taps out a command and in the shell beneath her feet, the thermite ignites. “Because we either choose to be a slave or we choose to be a mess. It’s still our decision though. No matter what those morons in Washington say, this thing is not some easy answer to existence.”
Through the close-range radio, Sophie coughs. Isabel can’t tell if it’s a laugh or a sob.
“I used to wish you’d never been born, you know,” Sophie says quietly.
“Do you still?”
There’s no response.
A yellow light blinks on Isabel’s panel. She’s almost in range. The warning of Sophie’s target lock is a claxon in her cockpit.
“Well, I have no regrets,” Isabel says. “I know we’ve never agreed on anything, but I wouldn’t wish it any other way.”
She thinks of Benny, of how motherleness looms over his crib like a grim reaper. She thinks of David and wonders if he’ll ever get his dreams back.
She thinks of her sister.
Two things are milliseconds away from being annihilated.
[Which heart will stop beating first?]
“Sophie?” Isabel says, perhaps too sharply.
The yellow light on her dashboard turns green. The target-lock warning continues to wail.
“Goodspeed,” Sophie whispers.
The warning falls silent.
And then she’s drag racing again, pulling ahead as her opponent falls behind [and maybe she’s missing something, maybe there’s another cataclysm in the works that she doesn’t see, doesn’t notice]. But unlike her sister, Isabel’s fingers don’t stutter. Her aim is true and fierce.
“We’ll figure this out,” Isabel says with a laugh on her voice. “And we’ll do it as goddamn human beings.”
The indigo webs in her eyes are throbbing as if in panicked desperation. But the threads aren’t deep enough, their control less than absolute. The Haze can’t stop Isabel as she releases her payload.
[Maybe it never could.]
Together at the end of the world [or is this a beginning?], the two sisters who at once have loved and hated one another watch the black streak drop out of the sky like a guillotine, like a signature. The Haze congeals around it [to understand? To hinder?]. But the pyro-bomb obeys the predictable physics of matter. It made of hard logic and the reality we know.
[Maybe the Haze was never strong enough to fight the true solidity of Earth.]
The thermite hits in a burst of red, a boil of lava, a single California poppy about to bloom.
And finally, between one blink and the next, that glowing purple heart goes dark.
Isabel whoops. Sophie sobs. Their planes warble in a sudden, screaming wind of celestial power as the veil of the Haze is ripped away [How many panicked minds scramble madly for the cause?]. A bright yellow sun sweeps its arms over the landscape, over the sawtooth mountains that both sisters have always adored. Over the concave depression in the sands with its black and smoldering center.
“Well,” Sophie says on her tattered exhale. “I think we’re both in for some deep shit.”
“I’m used to deep shit,” Isabel says, tilting her stolen Azazel into a long, low arc. Even with the mask on, it’s clear that she’s smiling. And why not? Her accomplishment is more than duty, more than orders. This dream was all her own.
Humanity is free again.
[If you’re wondering if that’s a happy ending, I suppose that time will tell.]