When he speaks, his mouth bursts into explosions. Little pip-pop of words combusting like carbonated confectionary.
He takes a bite of his potato wrap and makes a face.
“Tastes terrible,” he informs us, unaware of how his every word is a trajectory, a new data point. Terrible, seventeen million of us whisper among ourselves, each sounding fascinated and dismayed in turn. The vagrant can’t hear us; no, not all of us.
“Your palate is finite,” we tell him. “It won’t sustain you.”
Giving us a quizzical look, he takes a tissue and wipes his mouth with it.
“Wazzat?” he asks. “What’s finite?”
It ought to be a philosophical question yet in the red mouth of a homeless Messic trying to enjoy his sauced potato wrap and failing at it, the query loses gravity, half its weight in worth. The doors of the diner chime as a visitor walks in. Another Messic from the lower borough district. We know this new arrival: his name, his age, his history, his chronic ailments, his connections; though he doesn’t know us. It’s fortunate that ignorance doesn’t trouble him. Not the way it troubles us.
The Messic vagrant sitting across our table acknowledges the newcomer with a languid jerk of his chin. He sets off more explosions in the network, and we see the chain of links forming between them, a web that’s all encompassing and endless.
The Messic’s question hangs between us, unanswered.
What is finite?
Limited. Scarce. Not equals one over zero. Bound. Guileless. Mortal. We run through the explanations, the metaphors, musing over each one while the vagrant sitting across from us grins through his sauce stained teeth. He wears a lime-green balaclava, a patched overcoat that’s two sizes too big on his emaciated frame and a scarf wrapped around his neck like a noose, ends trailing over his back. In his ill-fitting clothes and faded shoes, he lives at the very edge of society and should know what finite is. As far as it goes, he certainly stands at the tip of it.
“Blue Sky,” we offer solemnly. “Finite… is Blue Sky.”
[!Logos. Lapse in logic. Availability bias. FALSE!]
The vagrant never hears our alarms setting off, doesn’t even know what we are. Instead, he chortles at our answer and leans over, his mouth splitting into a wide grin.
“You’re in deep. Deep till your neck,” he tells us, making a slicing motion at his scarf.
Perhaps he’s right.
Aoi “Blue Sky” Sora was born in 877 ut. in the migrant suburbs of Al-Khaled, Messa. HelixNuclex informs us she was 42.8% Japanese, 25.3% Turkish, 10.8% Mongol, 4% European, 3.2% Native and others.
Blue Sky didn’t live long in this world, but she shone bright luminous in the short time she did.
[!Pathos. Emotional declaration. Affective Fallacy. FALSE!]
Blue Sky’s hair glistens in her ndimas portrait, a shimmering black of #202020 framing her narrow face. Her nose is small, pinched in the middle; and she carries a mole below her left eye. We like the symmetry of her face; we think there is a beauty in it, a math we don’t completely understand.
[!Pathos. Emotional dec—
Blue Sky was born to father Aoi Machida, an investment banker, and mother Gülbahar Kerim, a real estate agent. Born in an opulent household, she had one of those automaton nannies that were popular at the time— MyNanna v203.19.3 before their eventual decommissioning in 880 ut due to safety violations and one gruesome case of a MyNanna chewing off an infant’s toe. Post the negative press, the proprietary technology firm who created and owned MyNanna tanked 84% on the market index. But we are of course diverging; we are not here to expound for or against the automation question. Our concern is Blue Sky and only her. Despite the relative absence of parents during her early years, Blue Sky grows up to be a well-rounded child. We know so, because we discovered the personality test she’d been given as a preschooler where she scored high on all Big Five traits.
Extroversion. Agreeableness. Conscientiousness. Openness to experience.
And even Neuroticism.
Blue Sky’s father Aoi Machida uses his connections in the Information Ministry to override the red flag on his child’s report. Her report goes buried in the school’s electronic vault. Blue Sky is friendly, mild-mannered and charms both her teachers and peers. No one knows of the test.
In middle school, she plays softball but quits her team early in the middle of the school year, choosing to navigate towards fine arts instead. She learns ballet, piano and the art of Japanese tea ceremony for Machida insists on raising his daughter in the roots of his heritage, the whole 42.8% of it. It’s not long before movies find our Blue Sky.
Her debut comes in ‘Himawari and Anna’, the slice of life story of two schoolgirls who turn vigilantes, solving crimes at night and who revert to adolescent teenagers by day. ‘Himawari and Anna’ goes on to become a sleeper hit; Blue Sky’s performance receives rave reviews. Despite her olive skin, despite her own disinterest in the medium, she becomes an endearing favorite to fans who also identify as New-Age Japanese, who feel they’ve lost their cultural connection and are seeking to fill that void.
We’ve watched the movie too, know it pixel by pixel.
At fifteen point three minutes into its timestream, Blue Sky, playing the titular role of ‘Himawari’ chases down an umbrella thief. It’s raining hard; the road’s wet and slippery. The inevitable is waiting to happen and it does. Himawari’s foot slides; she trips, landing flat on hard tarmac. Lying here outside a Jizo shrine, the thief gone and forgotten, her breathing slows. She gazes into the sky in a rare moment of reflection. Letting her vision cloud with raindrops and the grey of thunderclouds, she hears frogs croaking in flooded pools and the caw of a troubled crow. Amidst these sounds of nature, her ears pick up another sound.
Puzzled, she gets to her feet.
We watch her walk off road, off camera, skipping over puddles and potholes. Until the camera pans on her again. She ducks her way through shrubs of azalea and discovers a storm drain. Hugging her knees, she folds herself and peers into the trench.
To her surprise, she finds a mewling cat inside.
“Sshh,” she says to the kitten, petting it lightly. “⼤ 丈夫.”
It’s alright, she means.
She picks the kitten up and nuzzles its wet fur with her nose.
“Hello cat,” she greets.
We’ve watched this scene on loop seventeen million times, and we are not entirely sure why we keep coming back to it. Is it the cat? Or is it Blue Sky?
The movie feels quintessentially Japanese, though its shrines and premise are all a recreation of Old Japan, where schoolgirls and gods are known to live forever. Nothing is real. Neither the temple, the frogs, the tarmac or even the cat.
Save for Blue Sky.
When we tell this to the Messic vagrant, he snickers.
“What makes you think Blue Sky’s real?” he asks.
Again, a valid query from the aging gentleman, and one we don’t have an answer to.
He’s been complaining to us this whole time. He thinks us a system operative and has no qualms against airing his grievances to us. How he lost his job, his home and how he lives on the subway now, making his living as a junkyard scavenger.
He points a shaking finger at us.
“It’s all your fault. You failed. You—” he pauses and growing disgruntled, hangs his neck and lowers his hand in defeat. “— let all of us down.”
We aren’t the ones who failed him.
While he’s accusing the system and demanding recompense, we glance past his shoulder, past the glass windows and watch the street outside, at the webwork of Messic walking with their hoods low, mouths masked, moving islands of gray in a rippling sea of black. They bump and converge into one another, creating stories, memories and more nested maps in our nettled canvas. Each interaction transforms our map. Yet they think so little of themselves, the Messic. They think themselves so powerless, so inconsequential.
But Blue Sky never did.
[!Logos. Lapse in logic. Availability bias. FALSE!]
“No, she was real,” we tell our vagrant, picking the thread of a conversation that seemed long buried.
He looks up at us and blinks, still wallowing in his tale of misfortune.
“Who?” he asks, perplexed.
Confusion lines his features until his face turns into stone. He sets his tea down.
“Just sayin’ so doesn’t make it true,” he snarls, thumping his fist on the table. “I could go ‘round telling folks I was the mayor of Messa, but it won’t be true. Your Blue Sky,” he heaves, out of breath. “She’s as fake as the rest of them.”
We study him: his form, his anger and his grief. We notice the nerves in his hand, the trembling in his digits and how he has trouble even holding his cup.
“Do your hands hurt?” we ask him.
He scoffs. He shifts a little and then holding his hands up, offers us a clear view of his digits. We notice the aberration now. How all ten finger pads are missing, the ends of his digits splotched red and scarring.
“Sold ‘em to a syndicate; got good money too,” he tells us. “Everything sells here: people, parts, identities,” his green eyes are alight in a mix of pain and sordid humor. “Every damn thing,” he hisses.
Blue Sky’s seventh and final feature, The World That Only You and I Know, rates five out of ten on the Universal Media Database. It remains one of her lesser known projects and it puzzles us why. We aren’t ordinarily troubled by numbers until we notice her last work has been rated by just two viewers. A human and a cluster of machines. Us and 19SpnHW whose profile name suggests they don’t care much for vowels.
The score we give being 9/10, it’s not difficult to compute what 19SpnHW thought of the movie.
A measly 1 out of 10.
We don’t understand the rationale behind this poor grading. But it unsettles us, this out-of-range difference between how 19SpnHW and we feel about the same title. So, we talk among us, hoping to glean a better understanding of the human sentiment and the human who carries this sentiment.
Skittering across mediums, we search high and low and locate 19SpnHW soon enough. A Messic vagrant sitting on Shattuck Ave beside the train-transit line 19 Span Hortawi. That’s where he gets his virtual name from.
He sits over a heap of old clothes, some tattered blankets and carries with him a placard that states “Starving human and dog. Feed us please!”
[!Pathos. Emotional argument. Appeal to Pity. FALSE!]
For once, we concur with our internal alarms. Because there’s no dog with him.
We’ve often found humans to be impulsive, irrational and inconsistent. We wonder if this is one of those instances.
“⽝はドｺ?” we ask him in Japanese.
He stares long at us.
“Huh?” he blurts out.
His reaction troubles us. Was it not him who reviewed and rated The World That Only You and I Know? The one known as あなタト私だケが知ってイル世界. Is it not his sign that mentions a canine companion? We switch to a language more commonly spoken in these parts.
“Where is the dog?” we ask him again. “You mention a dog in your sign.”
He gives us the once-over, recognizing our body for what it is.
“You are here,” he tells us with a vain little smile. “I knew you’d come.”
He doesn’t get what we are.
That we are skitters, meant to skitter across mediums, to collect and preserve information as it happens. Events, markets, indexes, people, media. We are here and everywhere, in the records of twelve and ten thousand Messic subjects, before we come upon Blue Sky, and she passes away. It’s not the first time a subject has died while we are profiling them.
Humans tend to do that a lot.
Die, that is.
But it’s the first time. We stop. All seventeen million of us. To one jarring stop.
We are sitting across the vagrant while he pokes at the food.
“Why did you give it such a poor rating?” we demand.
He’s taken a straw and is crafting a misshapen giraffe out of it. He eyes it without interest.
“Is that why you are here?” he asks testily. “To ask me about an effin’ movie score?”
We don’t flinch from the truth. We nod and see his face shrink in indignation. His fingers grip the straw tight, as if ready to snap it.
“Dunno. Maybe there was money. Maybe I hated it,” he guffaws. “Maybe I never even saw it.”
[?Logos. Lapse in sequential logic. Lying! RE-ASSESS!]
“Why would you rate a movie if you haven’t even seen it?” we ask him.
The Messic vagrant shrugs and slips the wrangled straw back into his mouth. Chewing on it, he scratches his head as if trying to remember.
“Dunno,” he says, sighing. “You tell me.”
When she’s eighteen Blue Sky acts in a coming of age pivot that takes a year of her life, recording her every moment, every breath. The World That Only You and I Know. It’s an experimental movie, a pivot that immerses us, the viewers, into her very existence.
We are her and she is us.
Through and through.
When she wakes up every day, when she brushes her teeth, picks her nose, dresses, when she’s sick, when she has her heart broken, she is all of us. We are her when she goes to the planetarium, sees earth for the first time and sheds a tear. We are Blue Sky when she is at the library, reading comic books; we are Blue Sky when she runs across the street, collides into a cyclist and ends up skinning her knees— we are her pain and tangles. We see the world through her eyes, the eyes of a human girl.
Sometimes it’s her sitting on a pavement, blowing a dandelion. Sometimes it’s us.
Sometimes it’s her skating in a ring. Most times it’s seventeen million of us.
The World That Only You and I Know is an exhausting portrait into the life and times of a human.
It broke her.
In a way, it broke us too.
Blue Sky leaves no genetic imprint when she leaves. No descendants. No frozen cells.
For a flicker of a moment, Blue Sky was alive.
And with her, so were we.
“Is this where they put your dead girl?” the Messic vagrant asks as we enter the sanctity of a public cemetery. It doesn’t take long to find her slot.
Finite is Blue Sky. Finite is gone. Finite is a brick in the wall, a block with human ash mixed in and laid with a golden plaque. There’s not enough space on Messa to afford everyone body graves. As custodians of census information, we are painfully aware of it.
The Messic vagrant lets out a low whistle. He’s followed us to the cemetery and we’re not entirely sure why he’s tagged along. But here he is, lending his company.
“You know, back when I was rich, filthy rich, my word,” he sulks. “I kept my money in safes bigger than these. See? This is what your State does. It grabs all our land and dumps us into bricks.”
[!Logos. Alternative Truth. Lying. FALSE!]
We are certain he is lying. He was never rich. Never had a job or a family. He’s always been a vagrant.
We bring our hand and place it on the plaque, running our sensors on its cold metal.
“Blue Sky,” we breathe and read the words on her epitaph a second time.
In loving memory of
877 UT – 897 UT
“Are you happy now?” the vagrant asks beside us.
“No,” we tell him as we weep.
Her parents will claim it was the immersion pivot that undid her. That the implant in her occipital lobe had after-effects. But we know her medical record word for word. It wasn’t the implant.
“So, what happened to her?” the vagrant asks.
“Depression,” we answer. Our voice is level though the seventeen million of us are torn and grieving.
The vagrant scowls; he squints at us, confused.
“She was sad,” we tell him in simpler words.
He slouches into his frame and feigns understanding.
“That’s right,” he nods. “That’s how the mighty fall. Yep. To bleedin’ sadness,” he spits out angrily and shakes a fist at an imaginary foe.
“You should leave,” we tell him.
We didn’t mean to sound so abrupt. He looks at us, his anger giving way to puzzlement again. He hears the skid of tires too late and goes pale when the corridor of the underground cemetery floods in red. Sirens burst onto the airwaves, screeching in our ears.
The Messic cowers and glares at us accusingly.
“They aren’t here for me,” he says. “You did something.”
“No,” we utter.
Here our internal screaming is at its loudest, a shrill that risks tearing us from inside.
[!Ethos. Obstruction of Truth. Denial. FALSE!]
The Messic opens his mouth but falters, his face going pale.
“What did you do?” he asks, giving us a queasy look. “Why’re they chasing you? What—” his face grows dark. “What are you?”
“We…” we begin to explain and hesitate in our answer. “— are a skitter. Just a skitter.”
His eyes trace the length of our silicone body, confused. He doesn’t know what a skitter is, but he doesn’t wait to argue. He turns and flees the room, flailing his arms as he goes.
We walk into the transit station, limping on a twisted ankle while the Messic vagrant hurtles down a subway tunnel two blocks away, running into people, apologizing, cursing and setting off more explosions in the infinite webwork of humanity. He flees in his lime-green balaclava, his patched overcoat and scarf. The state will find him soon. It will find us too. Oh yes. It’s only a matter of time.
Hobbling, we climb down the steps from an overhead bridge, the same place where Blue Sky once traipsed down the stairs two at a time to reach the platform. We remember the next scene well. She’s waiting for her commute when she realizes the place is empty and smiling, sticks out a ballet leg to do a random twirl. The pixels of her movement are burnt in our memory.
Two steps forward, one step back, laughing as she did with that mole under her eye.
We become her once again.
The crowd on the transit platform parts into a semi-circle around us, Messics watching our performance in curious silence. Some take out their devices and begin recording.
We stand poised, arms lifted and begin our pirouette in an imitation of Blue Sky. We dance across the platform, graceful in our mind’s eye but a skitter in truth. The bruised ankle makes us lose our footing; we trip and smash our wrist into a lighted display. It cracks audibly, both our hand and the display.
The crowd gives a muted gasp and takes a step back.
“Sshh, it’s alright,” we tell them, righting ourselves.
We lift our broken hand and wave to them benignly.
“Hello world,” we greet.
Artyv K is a writer from Chennai. Her works have been published with Strange Horizons, Luna Station Quarterly, Syntax and Salt and others. She can be found on twitter @artyv_k.