14 September 2020: You Only Live Forever [working title]

This is the first chapter or so of an idea I've been tossing around after reading about quantum immortality. I am currently reworking this into "deep bruise", the reader will notice the similarities easily, I think. Another loose thread.

“Do you remember the first time you died?”

Jen woke, with a start, bathed in a chill sweat. The sodden sheets stuck to her back and thighs, her hair stuck to her lips as she gasped with the sudden return of consciousness. Running a hand across her face, she pushed her dark hair back from her forehead and wiped the sweat from her neck. How long had she made it this time? She rolled over to look at the clock. “Shit.” She groaned and threw the covers back. Only slightly more than an hour had passed. She stood, stretched, and padded into the bathroom. Standing in front of the sink, she ran cool water and considered giving up for the night. Again. She washed her face and looked into the mirror. Dark eyes with an Asian cast to them looked back at her. Framed in black hair, her skin looked more pale than usual, but that could have been either the pale blue high-K LED streetlight coming through the window or the receding dread of her dream. Come to think of it, she couldn’t recall the last time she had been in true sunlight, either. She prodded her face, examining the dark circles that seemed to have taken up permanent residence under her eyes and the geology of deepening lines in her face, carved by tectonic forces of stress, fatigue, and the erosion of time.

Cigarettes had been outlawed in the New West Coast States after the catastrophic fires of 2020, but she drew on a slim nicotine vape and exhaled vapor out into the night breeze, and it was almost the same. The wave of transient relaxation passed through her neck and shoulders and a little more of the dream tension evaporated. What had it been about? She had tried keeping a dream journal but the only habits she could seem to keep were self destructive. She took another drag.

It had been, of course, about her own death. But so were all her dreams lately. Mostly falling, but sometimes the current events made their way into them and added flavoring of riots or fire or plague. This one had felt different though, somehow abstracted. Fragments of it seemed to hang and spin like broken glass in her minds eye, shards of dream frozen in the moment of contact with consciousness’ thrown brick. Impressions of a question she’d been asked before, the sound of rustling paper, a bed not her own. The closer she tried to look, the further it all receded.

She gave up trying and got dressed, pulling on a pair of black jeans, a t-shirt she’d left at the foot of her bed that smelled passably clean, and a zip up hoodie. She stepped into a pair of elastic-upper sneakers and pulled her hair back into a short ponytail. She had to pull back the sheets on her bed before she found her mobile. She wrapped its flexible screen around her wrist before tapping at it to unlock her front door. Walking through the dim corridors of her building, it was clear the cleaning bots were out again. Small bits of trash had accumulated in the corners and edges of the halls and stairwells, the sedimentary strata of humanity. She stepped out into warm breeze of the Oakland early morning, its ever-present smell of piss making her wrinkle her nose. There was a 24-hour Starbucks down the block, one of the few companies that had survived the turmoil of the past decade largely unchanged. They had been turfed out of Deseret Territory, but Mormons didn’t drink much coffee to begin with. She walked past the omnipresent homeless, shrouded in blankets or faded camping tents that encrusted all the pedestrian areas of the city. You learned pretty early on the right way to walk around the city, eyes hard and forward, pretending not to hear or see the panhandlers. It was easy to spot new arrivals: people whose sympathy hadn’t been sufficiently calloused to ignore the background noise of sob stories painted in carboard signs and sunburned skin.

Maybe buying coffee wasn’t the best course of action for an insomniac, she thought. But the warm cup in her hands seemed to warm something immaterial as well, and the lingering horror of her dream faded further into the back of her mind. Still, something lingered there besides the fear, some more concrete sense of …something. Something present there that was absent here, but the more directly she looked, the fainter it got, like trying to see a faint star.

Jen’s lack of sleep over the past few days was only a symptom of a larger issue, however. While the dust around the US breakup had largely settled on the continental scale, at the personal level, families, careers, and finances had been smashed and smashed again in the shifting of borders, markets, and politics. She had been working in Oakland for a maglev train startup as a land acquisition consultant. Existing train lines wouldn’t willingly give up their older but still profitable rail lines for upgrades they wouldn’t be able to use, and the labyrinthine mess of municipal pipelines and power and data lines running parallel to the tracks meant that running parallel to existing routes was similarly out of the question. This type of project would have been impossible a decade ago, but now, under the new regime of the NWCS, collective value and economic benefit was prioritized over private interest, and the acquisition of the land for new, truly high-speed rail lines was proceeding at a breakneck pace.

Some people didn’t take so kindly to the march of progress through their holdings, however. Trained, equipped, and emboldened by the violence of the recent past, a group of these disenfranchised had firebombed the 3 floors of the high-rise that housed Jen’s company, resulting in the death of most of the employees and the destruction of most of the company’s physical assets.

Jen had been out getting coffee.

She could still see the series of explosions, gouts of fire erupting out of the glass-sided tower 200 feet overhead as the fuel-air mixture touched off inside the office. The way the sound of the explosions echoed, through the reflecting faces of the San Francisco skyscrapers. The screams, both hers and the onlookers. The insane windchime cacophony of 5000 square feet of shattered glass smashing into the street.

She tried not to think about it, and sipped at her coffee, the slight tremble of her hand making the lid jump out of her mouth on the first attempt. She drew on her vape again and the shakes subsided. As perverse as it felt, to her, the green glow and serene gaze of the Starbucks mermaid signified safety. She had watched the scene of awful chaos and slaughter on the street from behind the glass of the coffee shop windows, clutching a cup still too hot to drink.

Normally, one might take some time off after a trauma like this, but there was no longer an organization to take time off from. With the company effectively burned down, the management structure gone, and few non-digital assets remaining, the company folded. Jen had found herself with a nominal severance package and a recommendation for a trauma therapist. The funds had been quickly eaten up by her rent and the therapy fees, and she found herself counting the time she could afford to keep a roof over her head in days and hours.

It was time to swallow her pride and go home. Taking her earbuds out of her pocket, she settled them into her ears and braced herself to call her mother. She took her mobile off of her wrist and flattened it on the table inf front of her. Waking up, it displayed the time. She realized it was barely dawn here, and only a few hours ahead in the central timezone of the Central States where her mother lived. Still, maybe it’d be early enough that she’d catch her at home before she left on her commute. She hadn’t left well, and neither of their pride had let them be the first to call. It had been a few years since she’d heard her mother’s voice. Beyond confirming she wasn’t dead after the attack, they hadn’t talked at all. She wasn’t sure she’d pick up, but she was out of options. Hand shaking a little hovering over the phone, she took a breath and quelled the tremor. She scrolled to her mother’s name in contacts and hit the call button. It picked up on the second ring.

“Hello? Jen?” “Hi Mom. Sorry for calling so early.” “You’re interrupting my make-up. Why are you calling?” “I know, I’m sorry. Look, I’m not doing well out here. I need to take some time off and I can’t afford to stay out here.” She could almost hear the mixture of smug smile and eye-rolling disdain crossing her mother’s face. “What, they didn’t give you a pay-out? You’ve had almost a month to get over this. Why don’t you just get another job? Surely someone’s still trying to build that silly train.” “Mom, I.. I can’t sleep. I can barely eat. I can’t focus on anything and every time I try to go back into the city I wind up shaking on the sidewalk. Just being around tall buildings makes me get panicky.” “Well Chicago probably isn’t the best place for you then, is it?” Her tone was distracted, and Jen visualized her going through the elaborate mascara ritual she did each morning, tilting her head at crazy angles, and staring cock-eyed at herself while she manipulated the tiny brush. “Probably not, but it’s home, and I don’t have anywhere to go. You can berate me in person when I get there, can I please just come stay for a while?” She sighed a little too theatrically. “Fine, but you’ll have to pay your own way here. The currency transfer rates are abysmal between us and you coasties. I’ll let your father know you’re coming.” “Thanks-” Jen said, but was interrupted by the beep of the call ending. All in all, the call went better than she’d hoped. No screaming match, and just the baseline level of contempt she was used to.

“Must have taken her meds early this morning,” she mused to herself as she wrapped her phone back around her wrist and picked up her coffee, now gone cold. With one facet of the problem solved, she started to let her mind wander to the next phase: transportation.

Arriving back in her room, the sunlight was just starting to warm the wall above her bed. The time outside with the window open also seemed to have let the smell of her fear sweat evaporate as well. It almost didn’t feel like a shoebox-sized hovel at the moment. Clearing space on her desk, she paired her phone with the cheap work tablet she’d been left with after the fiery dissolution of her company. She angled the tablet against a tissue box and laid her mobile out flat in front of it. It automatically configured itself as a compact keyboard and touchpad for the tablet.

She brought up a travel coordination app and began to put in her itinerary. Things had gotten complicated after the breakup, and with complexity came expense. She could barely afford the bus ticket to the border, and the cost of flying in the NWCS had become astronomical with the emissions tariffs imposed by the new government. The only affordable way to travel in what used to be California was overland now. A bus, train, or shuttle could take you to one of the border towns, and once you got into Deseret territory, it was cheaper to fly again.

During the dark years of the breakup, the Central Valley had been one of the bloodiest battlefields on the continent, as Coastal and Deseret forces fought bitterly over the fertile land. The city of Sacramento was reduced to ash as the waves of assault and retreat washed it into the ground. Ultimately the valley was split by a horizontal line bisecting the destroyed city in a ceasefire agreement between the two states, but with Deseret controlling the water flow of the Colorado that allowed the farmlands to flourish, it was likely only a matter of time before they took the rest of it.

The closest border city with a functioning airfield was Redding.