Content warnings: This work discusses character death, loss of a pet, terminal illness, and a past sexual assault.

Inspired by dead letters by Elendraug.

after collapsing, what is there but dancing?
seeming

i.

On Alby's last day they took him to the park in the residential block of the Dämmerung where they had lived the past fifteen years. By then the cancer had metastasized beyond the reach of nanotreatment and left him too weak to stand on his own legs, but MOMO carried him in her arms along the paths they used to walk together, past the beds where he had muddied his white paws digging holes and the fields where he had chased environmental bugs through the simulated dusk, the way he'd chased them as a puppy in his first year on the Durandal, a lifetime ago, before the universe was small.

In the waiting room MOMO held him in her lap and stroked his thinning fur and scratched under his chin and whispered good boy, who's a good boy, you're my best baby boy and there'll never be another boy like you, biting back tears she thought she had already cried out the night before, wondering how long the smell of his coat would linger on her hands before she'd have to wash the last of him away.

On the morning of the next day, they buried his ashes in the park.

ii.

MOMO's body was her own now. She had designed it herself, ordered it built to her specifications from components chosen à la carte. A combat-model framework for self-defense and athletic endurance. An enhanced 102-Series observational interface, engineered from the ground up for seamless connectivity with the new network she had helped Scientia build. She was taller than her mother, less outwardly feminine than she had been in her youth: androgynous enough to make strangers look twice, assertive enough in her posture to make them fear looking at her the wrong way.

She cut her hair short in the back but wore it long in the front, the locks above her ears pinned back with mismatched clips, a silver barrette set with a pink gemstone on the left, a six-petaled golden flower on the right: her parting gifts from the Godwins. The bullet charm joined the piercings in her left earlobe, the way he had worn his earring. She had taken to dressing like him too, in high-collared jackets and sweeping trenchcoats that might conceal a holstered weapon or a pair of them. MOMO didn't need to arm herself, though. She was her own weapon.

No one touched her the way she didn't want to be touched. No one could reach into her mind, seize her heart, twist her vulnerabilities like a dagger to threaten her loved ones. No one could use her that way ever again. She was her own weapon--not a plaything, not a tool for someone else to use. She regretted forgiving the things she couldn't forget.

iii.

The universe was smaller and yet vaster and more alien than it had ever been. The planets she had known, the fixed stars that had guided the first half of her life, were gone, erased from the new maps.

Fifth Jerusalem, where she had spent a year with her mother in a lonely luxury flat that felt more like home every day. The First Business District, where Juli had taken her shopping for clothes and pretty things for her new bedroom and where she'd had her first iced matcha latte, at Café Stream. The botanical conservatory on the outskirts of the capital, where they had walked among specimens salvaged amid the exodus from Lost Jerusalem, preserved against extinction in synthetic symbiosis with bioengineered mycorrhizae. Now Fifth Jerusalem was lost, and there was a Sixth, but she had never been there.

Second Miltia had evacuated in time, its population spared by the foresight and compassion of Representative Helmer, who had become the de facto leader of a much smaller Federation. The people of Second Miltia had joined refugees from every galaxy and star system on the Dämmerung in the first years after the collapse. Those who had fled to Second Miltia during the Conflict joked about being two-time survivors of the end of the world. Most had since relocated, either to newly terraformed planets or to star systems rediscovered during the construction of Scientia's network. The ones who stayed had built a new city in another sector of the Dämmerung. Sometimes on her days off work, MOMO took the shuttle to Little Mitrei for dinner and drinks at Moby Dick's II. The porthole-shaped windows in the dining room weren't windows at all but screens displaying a holographic recording of Mitrei's skyline. The view at each table could be individually switched off or replaced with a network news feed or a sports stream or a video loop of a procedurally generated ocean at the patron's request, if it was still too painful to remember home.

They had never found the Foundation. In the first years after the collapse, MOMO had convinced herself it was out there, that it had survived by virtue of being everything its enemies (both Gnosis and human) weren't: a communal consciousness, a rejection of the impulse toward rejection that turned people into specters of salt. It was the first place MOMO remembered feeling as though she belonged, where no one stared at her or Ziggy or whispered ugly things they thought she couldn't hear. It was everything she had fought for, that Jr. and the others had fought for--and after all, what was worth saving in a universe without Sheila's meticulous hand-stitching tailored for bodies once condemned as freakish and unlovable, without Mina and Farouk and the bread they baked from scratch every morning, without King and the stray cats he had whisked from the streets into lives of luxury? Somewhere in the aftermath of the end of it all, Caito must be regaling a day-drinking crowd with the Iron Five's latest exploits (or maybe there were six now). Somewhere the tide still turned to the pull of artificial gravity and the waves still lapped the shoreline by the Seaside Café, where a plaque on the wall still bore a dedication to the sister she had never met, who had always wanted to see a real beach.

They'd find the Foundation, she told herself in the beginning, and that was why she had to build the network. They'd find the Foundation even though its fraternal pillars had fallen, one to the whims of a Saturnine father and the overriding hand of a demiurge, the other on a journey with no charted destination.

They were still building the network, long after her hope gave way to resignation. They never found the Foundation.

iv.

Her mother and Ziggy aged in different ways, but they were both getting older. MOMO didn't notice it in Juli unless she compared her observations of the present with those she had recorded years ago. The gradation of her hair from brown to grey, the deepening of the lines around her lips and the weariness in her eyes, her voice fraying to the friction of time. A few years ago, MOMO's sensors had noted the change in her mother's monthly cycle as it tapered into senescence. Juli's moods had been erratic and volatile then, and MOMO had caught her sobbing alone at her desk more than once. MOMO got used to consoling her the way Juli had comforted MOMO when they were younger, hugging her and patting her hair and rubbing her back until she stopped shaking. They were both relieved when it was over.

"Thank fuck you'll never have to worry about hot flashes," Juli said. It was true. MOMO had no intention of reproducing, so she had opted to exclude those functions from her new body. The families she had grown up admiring--Jr. and Gaignun and the Godwins, the Elsa crew, her own extended circle and its tangents--were patchwork assemblies of found and chosen connections, rhizomatic rafts of polycules and partnerships undefined by the presence or absence of progeny. None of her role models had fit into stock-photo frames or tidy genealogies, yet they had passed on their legacies in other ways, in ripples and in waves, through their labors, through their learning, through their love.

Ziggy's age was less apparent in some ways and more glaring in others. His organic body had been dead for almost a century and a half, its skin texture and muscle tone and pigmentation preserved in stasis even as the machines that kept him ambulatory and conscious began to falter and corrode. Ziggurat-series replacement parts had been difficult to obtain before the collapse; afterward, with the only remaining manufacturing centers stricken from existence, he had to rely on jury-rigged alternatives, adapting ill-fitting substitutes salvaged from scrapped Auto-Techs or spare parts intended for decommissioned service droids. Eventually, with lingering reluctance, he had allowed Miyuki to examine his body so she could reverse-engineer the components he needed. A few of her co-workers had balked at setting aside more crucial work to develop custom-fitted internal life-support equipment for the last known cyborg in the universe, but Miyuki was in charge of Scientia's R&D department now, and most of the staff knew better than to question her priorities, however eccentric or counterproductive they seemed.

He still underwent lifespan extension along with his regular maintenance, but no amount of biomedical intervention could postpone the inevitable forever. Sometimes he drifted, lost in the gloaming between past and future; sometimes he fell silent mid-sentence and didn't speak again for hours. Sometimes he called Juli "Sharon" or said "Melisse" when he meant Doctus. Sometimes his eyes lost focus and he stood very still and no amount of gentle jostling or pleading could snap him out of it. Most nights Juli sat with him in his chair and stayed with him during the initial phase of his upkeep routine, holding his hand and stroking his face and hair and murmuring affectionately until his consciousness cycled into sleep mode, and then she cried, releasing the tears she had withheld every time he forgot her name or where he was or what century he was in. Sometimes she cried herself to sleep against his inert form so he'd wake from his nightmares in her arms, so he'd have someone to hold after grasping at billows of ash and salt in the shapes of strangers he knew he had loved once, if he could just remember who they were.

Sometimes he called MOMO "Joaquin" and Alby "Nex," and she couldn't bring herself to correct him, because no matter who he thought she was, he loved her the same.

v.

Her first letter began with "Dear Jr." and the date of the Elsa's departure for Lost Jerusalem. It had been his suggestion, a way to keep in touch after the radio signals faded and before the new network could reach them, if it ever did. (It hadn't yet.)

"Tell you what," he'd said while Matthews and the crew ran through the pre-flight checks, after Jr. had hugged her for what they both knew was the last time, his voice still ragged when he cleared his throat, "how about you make a time capsule for when we meet again." MOMO hadn't known what a time capsule was, so Jr. had to explain. "You can make one every day if you feel like it. Just write a letter to me and the crew, tell us all about your day and all the cool shit you're doing, and put it somewhere safe."

"Like a message in a bottle?"

He had smiled in a way that made the grief in his eyes unbearable, the terror and uncertainty of their journey stretching before him like an abyss. His silence invoked the stilled second heart, the dormant voice forced back inside his head against his will, the landmines a lifetime of conflict had left buried in his psyche, the frozen fuse of a time bomb set to go off at twelve. She had known, even then, what it meant to set sail without an anchor, to embark without a failsafe, his lifeline severed from the comrade who had lived and died in his arms, with no record of their love but the names he and his partner had chosen for themselves as they'd chosen each other, over and over, every day for twenty-seven years: a dead man's name, an epitaph inscribed on an empty grave. "Yeah, sure. Like that."

So MOMO wrote him letters every day, on real stationery with a pen he had given her, copper-barreled with a satisfying heft, like a bullet, like a sword. She told him about the planning sessions for the network, the arguments and the all-night coding stints and the unexpected breakthroughs and the failures and false starts. At first she had filed the letters in the bottom drawer of her desk. When she ran out of paper, she had bought a journal from a specialty shop in Little Mitrei and kept writing, filling page after page of volume after volume, day after day, year after year. She told him about her first girlfriend, who worked in Third Division, and about her first breakup a few months later, when she could barely see the smudged ink on the page through her tears. She told him about the new series of observational Realians they were building, replacing the previous generation's anti-Gnosis capabilities with a broader range of functions and an operating system developed in tandem with the dual-domain integration infrastructure at the core of the network. She told him how much she missed her sisters, how relieved she had been to find out that a few other 100-Series were still alive, scattered across the star cluster and waiting for reconnection, how they were compiling a new database from the backup versions they had stored offline, how they couldn't wait to meet their new sisters in Series 101 and 102. The time capsule became a library, written and indexed in her own hand.

She told him about her new frame and how she got to design it herself. She told him about the little garden she had planted on the balcony outside their quarters in the residential block. She told him she still had the Bunnie doll he had bought for her on the Foundation (the one she had recognized as soon as she saw it, her memories insisting she used to have one just like it, although she had never had any toys of her own before she left the lab); the plush was thin and threadbare now, washed out to shades of grey, like the velveteen rabbit in one of the books he had given her (which she still couldn't read without crying, even as an adult, even after all these years, and wasn't that silly of her, wasn't that typical, that she couldn't help getting sentimental over a bunch of made-up playthings in a storybook for children?). She told him about Miyuki reverse-engineering Ziggy's life support and how Miyuki had been extra careful not to make him uncomfortable. She told him about Alby.

vi.

One year after Alby's last day, MOMO walked with Juli and Ziggy in the park in the residential block of the Dämmerung where she had lived for longer than she hadn't, longer than the first half of her life receding now like an impossible horizon, like vanished constellations mapped before the universe was small again.

23 February 2022

when the world is drowned in flame,
write something you can understand