The courtroom flickered over her face. Blue light. Pale. Calming.
Frightening. It washed out everything, made the judge look inhuman, made its eyes look as distant as an empty sky. “Ms. Ling,” said the avatar. Its fingers flexed down on the sensor, rapping down like a gavel. “I hereby find you guilty of theft. As this is your second conviction, I sentence you to one year of solitary, starting immediately.”
And the world shattered around her.
“No,” she whispered. The light died from her retinas. She was looking at the grey walls of her cell again, the courtroom an afterburn on her eyelids. Now she screamed. “No!” But the sound bounced back at her from the walls, clanging hollowly like a bell. She spun wildly, looking for her lawyer, but he was already gone, his suit dissolving into the air. Shadows.
Somewhere, in some time, in some other dimension, he was probably reappearing. His next appointment. The next line-up. The next farce. She had always been the only real person in this courtroom, her cell, but now she felt the knowledge of it it slam into her.
And the next moment, the she felt the sentence begin.
Aladrea had never known what her links felt like. It was like understanding how your mouth felt on your own face, or your nose, or your eyes. They were just there, existing. She didn’t think about how they pulsed, thick with blood, how nutrients came and went, how cells mindlessly span and webbed and worked together to make the world that she was alive. It was like understanding breathing, really feeling it, the way that something in you pushed out, created a vacuum, and then your lungs moved and swelled into that space, and then everything was reset, and…
And then somebody cut off her air.
Aladrea screamed. The links tore. It was as if somebody had fastened nails to her brain and then pulled them out, as if someone had poured acid into her skull. She only knew that she fell because of the sudden sense of vertigo, of looking over a mountain’s edge and suddenly falling, falling, falling…
… hitting the bottom….
And then she was all alone.
She woke up with a sour taste in her mouth, like fried wires. She opened her eyes and saw grey walls staring back at her. Instinctively, sluggishly, she tried to throw up a screen, a display, a feed. Anything.
She felt unplugged, like a coil of loose cables. They trailed around her like weights as she paced the floor. Funny. Her room at home was about this size. The office she’d worked in, too. She’d spent hours there without worry. But now… this was different.
Too many thoughts. All alone. Nothing to get distracted by. But she didn’t think about what she’d done. She didn’t think the judge had thought about what she’d done, that anyone had at all.
Theft. What was theft when a billion beings were connected, when a billion billion bits of information flew between them every second? She hugged herself and tried to think of which one had landed her here. What movie. What book. What story. What article. She couldn’t think without feeling those lost links. Like amputations. Yes. This was theft. Of everything.
Aladrea had always politely disliked her own company, like a distant cousin who everybody discreetly avoided at family dinners. So she wasn’t surprised when she started figuratively plucking at her scabs. The broken link to her mother. The dead link between her and Kristen, that felt as heavy as a body. Even the phantom link to her father, the one that hadn’t existed for thirteen years. She couldn’t stop herself. It was like licking a loose tooth, again and again. She got to understand the shape of their absences keenly, got to know their edges and taste.
After two months, she decided that she missed her grandmother the most. That link had always felt distant but warm, like the promise of sun in a harsh winter. She missed the stories, even if they were the same ones over and over again. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine it. The hawker stall in Kuala Lumpur, yes. The people brushing by plastic chairs, heads jammed into the latest news feeding into their retinas as they slurped down beef broth and handmade noodles. Yes. And that wrinkled old hand over her own, and the dry voice echoing in her skull, because her grandmother could never be bothered raising her voice when she could just use the link. She liked it too. More intimate, she said. Like laying a finger on a pulse.
“We never die, like this,” she would say. “Like when I was a girl and we sent smoke up to our ancestors.” She would smile that papery smile. “Don’t look that way, Allie. The only difference is that now, we carry around each others’ ghosts while we’re still alive.”
She had thought that was so poetic, when she’d been a teenager and every day had been like diving from a plane. She closed her eyes and could almost remember those links now, the way they burned over her skin like phantoms. Old friends. Old boys. They had seemed so important then.
Yes, she had thought that poetic. It was only now, when she was older herself, wiser, that she realised how horrifying it was.
Water came from a tap in the corner. She turned it on sometimes just to hear the sound of something beside her own breathing, her own sweat, the feeling of each second of her life vaporising off her skin and leaving her older. Drier. She’d stopped crying after the first month. At least she thought it had been the first month. She’d gone to sleep thirty times. When she’d woken up, nothing had changed. The same walls stared back at her, the same empty screen, the same comforting slide into madness.
She scratched poetry into the walls. For her grandmother, for herself. Plath. I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. Dickinson. Parting is all we know of heaven / and all we need of hell. She felt parted, not whole. She had never realized how much of her had depended on those links, on everyone else that she leaned upon. On the stupid conversations on the toilet, on the effortless sharing of lives. This is what I’m doing today, how are you going? I feel sick, must have been something I ate. I wish we could stop. We should catch up. We are catching up. I love this movie. Me too. She paused for a moment in her tracings, frightened. The walls gave nothing back. It was like she didn’t exist. Like she had never existed.
She drank water. She ate the food dispensed from the panel in the ceiling, shrink-wrapped and machine-sliced and never touched by a human being. When she ran out of everything she had, she traced her own words in there, to remind herself. I am alive. I am.
In the fourth month she prayed. But if God existed, God did not exist in this room with her. There was no answer. There was just the four walls, and herself, and that was when she realized that she was in hell.
It was almost comforting, that realization. She stopped fighting. She spilled her body across the floor and felt it breathe, felt it tremble and flex against the metal, felt the year pour over her like a lake and sink her down to the bottom until the seconds felt like sucking mud. She waited and quietly went mad underneath the surface. Went mad as she stayed in herself, a ghost trapped by four limbs and a body, by four walls and a court order.
But she felt the moment her sentence ended.
Oh, she felt it.
It would be another hour before they opened her cell, before they brought her shaking, shrivelled bag of flesh and bone out into the world. But in the meantime her links came alive. And if her links breaking had felt like acid, then this felt like standing in the sun as it rose, an immolation. For a brief moment she was a body in the sea, a corpse that had opened its eyes from drowning and seen only the endless blue sky above and screamed in recognition. She glimpsed the naked corner of the network, the one stretching out over billions of humans, across stars, across galaxies, and her mind stretched and snapped and became human again.
Weeping with gratitude, Aladrea hugged her links and thought, Hello.
And the ghosts of everyone answered her.