“The stream of knowledge is heading toward a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.” —Sir James Jeans, The Mysterious Universe, 1930
The sun has long set on what could be her last day in human form, but Maya doesn’t notice. She is submerged in darkness, alone at her kitchen table, toying with a metallic capsule the size of a grain of rice. It bounces from her fingers with a tinny ping, the sound of a pinhead in an empty airplane hangar, and it boggles Maya’s mind that in this small capsule exists all the knowledge in the world. Even more astounding to her is the silence that allows her to hear it: Before the Great Shift, her Washington Heights apartment throbbed with bachata and the rapid-fire braggadocio of the Dominican roosters who spent restless nights in lawn chairs downing forties as gypsy cabs cruised the block. They are all gone. And if Maya slides the metallic capsule under her tongue, she will be gone, too. It is 10:01 p.m. She has less than two hours to decide.
It is the longest Maya has ever spent alone. She doesn’t know if she can do it. Her stomach roils, acidic and dull. There is an uneasy knowing in her that no matter what she chooses, she will be eternally alone, in a white box of her own thoughts. As she ruminates, the hum in Maya’s head shifts frequency, as it did during state-issued updates. But those are over. The final update, the one that will transfer her consciousness online, is contained in the metallic capsule. In less than a year, the vexing human condition of having a body has been solved. No pain, no growing old, no anxiety about the world ending in a virus or a meteor or a carbon-fueled eco disaster. Here instead is infinite life, programmed according to search history and sponsored by Nasdaq. Maya’s capsule is imprinted with her serial number: 0101101001111010. It is through these serial numbers that the government can confidently assert that, as of today, three hundred thirty-two million, three hundred thirty thousand citizens successfully transitioned, leaving Maya among the ten thousand left behind.
“It’ll be good company!” Shep crowed last month, back when he thought she was just being a pain in the ass. Maya’s fiancé wrote music and dabbled in Stoicism and picked up his capsule the day it was announced. “Seriously, Maya. Flat Earth people. Fugitives. There are people living in the woods right now who don’t know the Vietnam War is over. Is that what you have in mind?”
“There will be others—”
“Where, in Alaska? You can’t fly a plane, and gas will run out. Where will you go? Europe is already gone. So is China. They updated everyone by mandate last month.”
“That’s not what I read.” Maya jutted out her chin and mulled the aberrations she had seen online. Scattered among postcards from utopia appeared frenzied warnings that were swiftly taken down (by whom? And why?) Knowledge is the fall, one wrote. Now I see.
She had her fill of knowledge after the first update, the one that moved the web from screen to mind via a drab metal object worn around the neck. That day she merged consciousness with Charles Manson and saw war through his rabid-wide eyes. To break free she became a dragonfly, skimming low over a pond before landing in a Coca-Cola ad somewhere in Haiti. Maybe she is too sensitive and too dark. Maybe her mind is an untamed foal, unfit for such bombardments of information. Maya felt lost in the deluge, one with everything, but not in a good way. When she finally ripped off the necklace, her lifeforce returned and she heard a still voice inside of her say:
As the weeks passed and it became clear that Maya was not just being a pain in the ass, Shep grew tremulant. His six-string had lain silent ever since the time of great fear, and so too the wordless communication that bonded the pair. When the depths of Shep’s soul flowed into his riffs, Maya found herself suspended in time. But that was all lost as they drifted further into the echo chamber of their own worlds.
“Maya Maya Maya Maya,” he pleaded. “Baby. Til death do us part. You’re choosing death.”
“I’m not choosing anything yet. All I’m saying is things don’t make sense.”
“What’s the other option? There will be nothing left. I need you. We need each other, baby, this is not how things are supposed to turn out.” Shep’s curls fell across a wrinkled brow as his face scrunched up infantlike, and in one pure instant he heaved a soundless cry. Then a storm passed through him and his eyes flashed with violence she did not recognize. “Maya Maya. You selfish cunt.” And with that, he pitched the capsule in his mouth and disappeared.
She felt nothing. During the time of great fear, she anesthetized her heart, because it was all too much. The yearning for safety was more powerful than the yearning for freedom. It was safe to think; it was not safe to feel.
There is another way, Maya considers.
She knows Shep will not spend eternity on his guitar but in the company of the women who love him for it. And this will be his apocalypse, the search for approval that never fulfills, the storylines that spring from an ever-aching wound. Apocalypse is personal; it is as distinctive as each serial number, an endless quest for the answer to whatever plagues the soul. It is a cosmic sweater unraveling, and that is the great paradox: You will never find it if you look, and the more you try to connect the more disconnected you will be.
The agitation in Maya’s body propels her from her apartment and into the night. It is four blocks to the West Side Highway, and soon Maya’s footsteps are echoing on drizzle-slick asphalt, its golden lines garish in flickering pools of streetlights. An electrical storm is brewing; they are a constant these days, and growing in intensity, as more and more energy alchemises into air. Behind anemic clouds, the sky shifts pallor. It is the color of roadside carnivals, of too much tequila, of afternoon fever. If Maya felt real, she would be afraid. But she has long experienced the world as a dream and the haze as evidence of her diminishing presence in it. When she holds up her hands, she sees through them. Other humans are a jumbled collection of parts, foreign and grotesque. A nose, a mouth—she registers them as “human,” but where there should be a sense of kinship there is a void instead. Ahead on the overpass, a wild-haired man in a ripped ski parka stares her down. Maya hurries past him, chin in chest. She is one of them but apprehensive of them, those who remain, for even though she considers herself sane, anyone else left in this wasteland certainly isn’t.
The billboards burn bright as usual. She misses the twenty-foot faces of personal injury lawyers and the giant Fairway meat specials and Jay Leno’s truck-sized chin. Now the billboards promote the update campaign and its ubiquitous logo: a red heart intersected by the symbol for infinity, the lemniscate forming a locket meant to convey security in immortal life. For Maya, the symbol is a chain instead. Lock it, she thinks. Lock it up tight, that heart of yours, lock it away so it can never be hurt and never truly live. That mass of pulsing feelings in your chest is a liability, dear girl, but it is also the only thing that makes you real.
She is numb, so she is not real. This is not a life, this dysphoric existence she moves through with bones, but neither is the disembodied solitude created out of a state-monitored mind. Lightning flashes in front of her as Maya steps onto the George Washington Bridge, and in a moment of recklessness, she kicks off her shoes. A metal bridge in the midst of a thunderstorm is the losing option she hasn’t considered.
The lonesome wail of an air raid siren pierces the air. If ever there is a sound that embodies doomsday, it is this. In other lifetimes, Maya must have cowered under rubble as planes razed low, or inhaled the musty confines of a Cold War fallout shelter, for it ignites in her an animalistic fear held deep in her gut. She has been expecting this moment. It is 11:11. It is the final warning. Now or never: the unknown, or the unknown. In bunkers, the remaining officials transition. America is once again wild.
She has reached the middle of the bridge. Her feet are clammy on cold planks, and she stretches on tiptoes to lean over the rail. It is surreal how Manhattan looks exactly like it always does, shimmering with hope and possibility and a glamorous life no one ever fully attains. Beneath her the river is an inkwell, fluid and deep. She watches the undulations and extracts the metallic capsule from her pocket. It is an anvil in her hand. She grips it tight.
Maya hopes her Gram is in a field of larkspur, arranging them in delicate bouquets like she loves to do. Her Gram, whose only interaction with the internet involved her shouting at the screen to bring back Bobby Kennedy. Where is Gram and where is Shep and where is Bobby Kennedy since he does exist, in present tense, in the web of knowledge beyond time? Where is the little girl whose mind made castles from piles of stone and where is the woman called Maya who sees beyond her own illusion?
In a sudden, ragged breath, Maya feels the past three years quake inside of her. They rise like lava in bursts of grief, fall in rivulets of dread and despair, coagulate with rejection and pride and the black bitterness of blame, and there, at the crest of the wave, is a glimmer of joy, liberated from the muscles that held it tight. Maya’s feet begin to pulse. Her thighs tremble with heat. Up her spine a current travels, wildfire in a hurricane, until a sharp pain causes Maya to snap open her palm. The metallic capsule is black.
Its singed remains fall to the water below.
And Maya breathes.
The bridge comes into focus. Her head is quiet. Maya feels her skin, her precious, soft, perishable skin, and beneath it a hard-scrabble heart that can be demolished by words. It begins to rain. She lets down her hair. With light in her eyes, she turns to the west and starts to run.