Northern Cross

There was no way to tell where it came from.  Sometimes the pillars descended from above; sometimes they rose from beneath the earth.  They rarely stayed in one place for long. “It isn’t the one,” said Joel.

Illustration by Nathan Fredette

I heard Joel’s voice from the bow near the anchor line.  “You remember that trip we took on Lyrical?”

His dad’s first boat.  “Sure,” I said. Joel always wanted to know if I remembered this or that from before.  As usual, he didn’t follow up the question.

He switched on a masthead light—only one, to save power. “Anchor’s set.  Did you choose a song for tonight, buddy?”

“We could do more than one,” I said.  “Lots of sun today. The battery overfloweth.”

“I’d rather not bend the rules.”

He was right—better to save for a rainy day.  All our power had to come from the solar charger.  The engine could charge the battery too, but it was stupid to waste methanol when an empty tank meant days ashore foraging and distilling more.  And any time spent on land could turn into a chance encounter with scavengers. We didn’t have a gun.

I pressed play and plucked an air guitar.

“I feel like I recognize this,” said Joel.

“Dude.  Crosby, Stills and Nash, ‘Southern Cross.’  To honor our passage into the Southern Hemisphere.”

The song twanged to its end, and Stills sang the part about finding a new love who’d help him forget.  Joel turned his gaze over the prow, and I found myself looking in the opposite direction.

It was a song about starting fresh—something we both needed. I kept hoping some landmark along our southern journey would feel like a fresh start.  I guess crossing the Equator wasn’t the one.

Pretty much every night, one or the other of us found occasion to be sad.  Tonight it was Joel’s turn.

“Do you remember when I was deciding whether to get a vasectomy?  We talked about it at the time, didn’t we?”

“I remember.”

“You remember what I told Karen?  ‘What if you die, and I end up remarried to someone who wants children?’”  He was crying.

“She’s not dead, buddy.  None of them are.”

“How do you know that?”

“Why would the posthumans want to kill anyone?  They take people up to join with them. There’s no other explanation.  She’s one of them now.”

Ellie too.  I thought of the green-lit fog billowing down to engulf her.  The way her extremities faded first—ears, fingers and feet.

“They’ll outlive us both,” I said.

The stars came out, and we found the constellation from the song—Crux, the Southern Cross.  Four bright stars in the eponymous cross shape, with a fifth one hanging off to the side because constellations could never look too much like their names.

Joel turned to the compass.  He tapped it with his finger, making a confused sound.  “Look at this,” he said. “It’s the Northern Cross now.”

The letter ‘N’ on the compass was pointing straight toward Crux.

“It must’ve flipped sometime after we anchored,” I said.  We watched the thing compulsively whenever we were underway.

“It’s a nice nautical compass,” he said.  “It can’t have just broken.”

“No, it’s working.  I think it’s detected a monopole.”

“Monopole?”  In the old days, Joel was a boardgame publisher.

“A magnet with no south pole.  We used to theorize about how to build them.  The posthumans must know how.” I grabbed the binoculars and peered through them, in the direction the compass said was North.  “We must be near a pillar.”

There was nothing visible, at least as far as the horizon.  I passed the binoculars to Joel.

“We’ll find one,” I said, “if we keep going that way.”

After a day at sail, the tip of the pillar appeared on the horizon.  Joel and I traded the binoculars back and forth until nightfall. We’d only seen a pillar once before, when our wives and Joel’s sons were taken up.

It was polished white, splitting near the top into a clump of turrets like closely-bunched fingers.  At irregular intervals a pinpoint of green light flashed near the splitting point.

There was no way to tell where it came from.  Sometimes the pillars descended from above; sometimes they rose from beneath the earth.  They rarely stayed in one place for long.

“It isn’t the one,” said Joel.  The one that took them up, he meant.  Taller, that one had been, without the finger-like structure up top.

“They all communicate.  That’s the theory. The same collection of minds inhabits all of them together.”

When the stars came out that night, Crux shone above the green-blinking tip of the pillar.

“I keep waiting for you to say something about it,” he said.

“It’s not like I’m pretending it didn’t happen.  We talk about it all the time.”

“I mean say something important.  Something profound, professor.”

“Come on.  When have I ever said anything profound?”

“That night I got high—”

“Oh man.  ‘Is this happening in real time?’”

“Yes.  That night.  You told me about spacetime, and how the past is still out there, and the future already is.  It was profound.”

“Only because you were high,” I said.

“No, I’ve thought about it many times.”

“Something profound about the Singularity.”  I sighed. “Give me some time to think about it.  Profundity can’t be rushed.”

I got up to piss over the edge.  Joel went to bed below. I stayed on deck awhile, taking out the binoculars.  With each flash of green light, I was given a glimpse of the pillar. We’d reach it tomorrow, probably.

I went below and took a trazodone.  How would I ever sleep, once they ran out?  No one made medicine anymore.

Thank God Joel turned down my offer to share them.  I could already hear snoring from his cabin. He was, I realized, the sanest and most well-adjusted friend I’d ever had.

Up close, the pillar looked too smooth to be real.  It was silent, aside from the little waves lapping against it.

We grew silent too, as we approached the hulking thing.  Both of us were afraid to try communicating, I think, even though we had no other reason to come near it.

We looked at each other, and Joel nodded to me.  I was supposed to be the profound one.

I cupped my hands on either side of my face.  “Ellie!”

“Karen!” Joel yelled.

We endured a few more minutes of silence.

“Ellie!” She used to quote from a relationship self-help book, about how you should never ignore your partner’s bids for attention.

There had to be some way to make them listen.  We were nearly close enough to touch the pillar.  I picked up an oar and swung it. It clunked against the pillar’s wall, a muted sound, although the impact felt solid.

“I’ll die out here!” I cried.  “You know that? We’ll be together forever if you let me in.  God damn it!”

I swung the oar again, harder.  As it thumped once more against the pillar, I felt my balance shift forward—too far.  Too late, I let go of the oar. I pitched head over heels into the water.

I forced my head up.  Joel’s voice came from above.  “Grab the oar!” He appeared at the bow with the life ring.

He dragged me back on deck.  “Jesus,” he said. “Be more careful.  When I thought of you drowning…”

“You’d die out here.”

“I’d lose my best friend.”

I hugged him.  After a moment I was shaking with sobs.

“Maybe they can’t hear us,” he said.

“You think they’d design them so they can’t hear what’s outside?  They heard everything.” I squeezed my eyes shut, wishing I could forget all this.  “We’re ants. We were ants before, but at least we didn’t have them to remind us.”

An image I can’t forget: Ellie with a lean black cat in her arms, head down to kiss the animal’s forehead.  “Don’t you love this tiny meow?”

“I love you.”  My stock answer.

“Someday you’re going to love her.”

“I’m allergic to her, honey.”  Another stock answer, this one less faithful to the truth.  I was allergic, but there was another reason I didn’t love the cat.

“She didn’t have a mind,” I told Joel.  “Not the way humans do. I liked her fine.  But some people have it in them to love lower animals, and I don’t.  Everyone draws the line somewhere. Even Ellie did. Could you love a bug?  A virus?”

I looked up at the pillar, unchanged and quiet.  “We’re below that line now, for them.”

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