Cooper, Sheldon L., designation number 11192.
I live in the inner-hub of the City, Physika. I am not a native. My family were born Faiths, and still live there. They speak with that drawl, the one that sits somewhere still on my own tongue, but hidden now.
I mention them because my sister, Cooper, Melissa M., designation number 11191, has disappeared.
If you find this tape, tell my mother I know why, and I'm sorry.
Tell her I'm coming back.
Davidson, Penny S., designation number 11250, places the cassette onto the benchtop. She looks out through the glass, at her reflection, and past the third layer, to the yellow sky. A black shape drones silently by, a commuter hub, linked like insects wings. Damn him, she thinks. He had to do it. She'd given him about seventy reason not to, but there was a stubborn creature inside that analytical, maddening scientist, and last night, he'd stood there, listened to her talk, and had not said a word. She remembered leaving him, pulling the sheets over her body, and hearing the thud of draws in the den of his study. Then, silence. She'd fallen asleep, with no notion if he'd joined her.
The answer being no, he hadn't.
Stupid, stubborn Cooper, with the beautiful, stubborn twin sister. Penny turns back, picking up the cassette, and rubs a thumb over the switch. It's still warm.
“Tell her I've got his back,” she says, “and I'm going in too.”
The transportation room is empty. The platform shimmers a cool gold in its sleep state. She steps inside.
“Destinate,” says the robotic voice. Lights from the control port flash over her body, scanning.
“Destinate trail,” Penny says. “Cooper, 11192.”
“Safe trip, Penny,” the voice says, tone switching to warmth. The platform shakes beneath her feet. She sees the light of the yellow sky, and then she's gone.
A scooter drone is the first thing she sees. That, and the pouring rain. It beeps wildly at her, swerving past.
“Hey! Watch it!”
She hates this part, the moment just after teleportation. She always has. Where a single step spans two worlds. How are you supposed to ever reconcile to that? It's not real. Penny clings to reality as a young child would to the security blanket given to it by its nanny robot. This is where Sheldon would look at her, one arched eyebrow perfectly communicating the mixture of exasperation and love that says I don't know, Penny, you just do. He would tell her it's illogical, it's not as it she hasn't grown up with the technology. Why fear what's over in the blink of an eye, what can't even be properly measured in time?
Except he's not here now, only Penny. She's doing this one alone.
She takes a breath and scoots under a nearby awning to try and escape the rain. Shaking a little, she arches her neck, trying to get a fixture on where she is. It takes a moment, and then she sees a building that looks familiar. This is the tourist strip, the part of the City where the natives rarely go, except those wanting to scam a tab or two from the unsuspecting strays, in from the docks and transports by the harbor. Why would she be here, Sheldon?
There's an answer to that, of course. There always is. It's why he left so suddenly, why he didn't listen to her argument. She knew part of him had thought she'd been defending his sister's behavior. Cooper, Melissa M. Born first so received the designation one digit lower than her brother, Missy and Sheldon were about as opposite as siblings could be, even taking into account the much analyzed (over-analyzed, in Sheldon's opinion) bond that supposedly exists between twins. Missy would be the first one to acknowledge that, even though it was pretty much an insult, no matter how tactfully put. But there was something unspoken, despite their differences. Missy, with her deeply set morals, was an activist for anything, any person, any idea without the voice or means of defence; and Sheldon, with his research into dark matter, life outside the world they knew, had been a target even from childhood. And while Missy played havoc with the officials, with every law in the city, she kept her brother to one side, argued with him in a different way. These days, she respects Penny for loving him, once claiming if there was anything she missed herself, it was love. She gives so much to the causes that landed her in such constant trouble, that she hadn't much left to offer another crazy human being.
“Good evening, 11250,” says a voice. Penny whips around with a start. A service drone stands there, hands open in the universal sign of welcome. The red laser between its eyes flashes over Penny's forehead, and she feels the implant responding with its familiar tingle. She waves the drone away.
“No, thank you,” she says. She looks back at the street. It's getting dark. Great, Sheldon, this is just great. What a fantastic plan. She bites her lip in frustration.
The drone doesn't move. She can feel it hovering behind her, feels the vibration of its core through the endless din of the rain. It beeps quietly, doesn't stop beeping, and with a sigh, Penny turns back.
But she stops. The camera in its left eye blinks, turns in on itself, and closes. “Good evening, 11250,” it repeats. “This message is for you.”
“This message is for you, Davidson, Penny S.” And now, in a different voice: “Penny? Penny? Penny?”
“Thank God,” she says. “Where are you?”
But he's still talking, like the drone, not stopping, not listening. “Penny, you have to go back. It isn't safe. Missy—”
And then nothing. The camera switches back, whirrs, watching Penny. “Good evening, 11250,” it says. “Taxi cab? Fine Hotel? I am here to assist. Destinate, and I will assist.”
“Yeah,” Penny says. Anger makes a fist in her stomach, and she steps back, into the rain. “Take me to the person who programmed you.”
The thing is, she figures that Sheldon will have thought this through, and spur-of-the-moment as it feels, she knows that to have programmed a service drone to seek out her designation, be waiting at the right place and time in the seediest part of the city, means he anticipated her persistence, how she would get angry at a demand to leave. Because she did, and still is.
So when she's lead through the maze of streets, made to dodge scooters and hawkers on the sidewalk (they see a female walking alone; they don't see the drone in front of her, and to be leered at by dozens of undesignates is creepy, and makes the anger inside her bubble so that she nearly draws the attention of the rulemakers on their motorcycles when she almost hits one in the jaw—Penny fists her hand by her side, ducks her head and walks on, ignoring the taunts that follow). And when they finally end up at another teleport hub, she swears beneath her breath and says, “You're kidding me, right?”
The drone looks at her. It doesn't speak. It hasn't spoken since she gave her last order.
She steps onto the pad. “Are you coming?” She's not sure if she's talking to a robot, or to Sheldon. Or to Missy, for that matter. She might as well be.
“No?” She waits for an answer, knowing none will come. “Well, okay.”
Penny waits. There is a click, and the hub changes color. She waits some more, for the voice.
“Destinate trail, continuation,” she murmurs, hoping, maybe, it doesn't hear her. “Cooper, 11192.”
By the door, the drone watches, red light flashing, one, two, three—
Penny looks at her feet.
This isn't Physika.
Her toes sink into sand. Her shoes have disappeared.
This isn't Physika. This is—she searches for the right word—a beach. She's lived underground all her life, with an artificial sky, a manmade river. Lived among robots and synthetic organisms, learnt to forget the things that are whispered among children who are taught to trust technology, distrust nature.
Except not Missy. Missy believes things that Sheldon doesn't, can't believe. Still doesn't, for all Penny knows, but no, that's the twin thing again.
Penny closes her eyes, because the sun is painful. Looking at it brings pain. Thinking of it, realising it exists, it's there, brings another sort of pain. She wants to cry. Her feet are sinking into the sand. She tries to walk, and stumbles, but she keeps going, eyes half-open, watching through her eyelashes as her toes leave neat, round shapes that disappear in seconds.
Why here, Missy, designate 11191? Why this place? If you found it, you should have kept it a secret. They'll be all over you now.
Penny wants to cry, so she does. She stops almost immediately, but feels better. It's unexplainable. She almost can't remember the last time she cried. Tears of anger, sure; tears of breath-held desire as she comes twice in the space of a single minute, hands on Sheldon's shoulders in a darkened room. Tears in the hum of blue light, standing in the infirmary ward as her sister cradled Penny's only niece, designate 12998. But sadness, it's a cruel emotion, she'd rather forget than acknowledge it.
She reaches the water's edge, keeps walking. She tries not to look at the shape the waves make as they curl into the wet sand, curl forwards, retreat again. The part of her that misses the rage and dark of the city, it isn't yet ready.
When at first she thinks she sees them, it's two indistinct shapes, one tall, one very, very small. And then she sees them, properly, and has no real thought at all.
“God damn you, God damn you.” His arms are around her, tight, and he keeps repeating the words.
“Sheldon...what did she do?”
His lips move, near her cheek, and his breath is warm. She can't make it out when he speaks, so she pulls away, holding him with a firm grip; she has to, because it feels like he would fold beneath her. “What did she do?” Penny repeats, and she can hear her mother in the tone of her voice. Tell me, it will be okay, I promise. At their feet, Missy's hair fans out, darker than the sand, and her eyes are wild and open and stare past everything. He had tried to move her. It would take their combined effort to do it properly.
“She swam,” he says.
They step from the platform together.
“Designate 11192, designate 11250,” comes the smooth, disembodied voice. “Welcome home.”
The cassette is still on the benchtop, white light blinking from her last recorded message. She looks down at it, once, before leaning against Sheldon, pressing her lips to the back of his neck. “I'm sorry,” Penny says. “I'll erase it—”
“Don't.” He reaches out, takes it and slips it into his pocket. For a moment he's quiet, and then he turns to face her. His voice is unsteady; she helps him by making no reaction except curiosity, and patience. “Penny, I neglected to ask. The teleport. Were you—I mean, did you...?”
“I was okay, Sheldon. I tried not to think if it.”
“You have to understand, it's nothing but matter. There are remnants of us in every conceivable place, many we can't even know about. You don't feel the realignment. Even Missy knew that.”
She takes his hands between hers. “She did,” Penny says. “She knew everything. She was too good.”
Cooper, Sheldon L., designation number 11192.
I live in the inner-hub of the City, Physika. I am not a native. My family were born Faiths, and still live there. They have asked that this message be recorded and kept safe. They trust me to compete that task.
I mention them because my sister, Cooper, Melissa M., designation number 11191, recorded disappeared October 16, 2855, was found October 17, away from the known boundaries of our home. She wanted something that didn't exist in this place. She saw it.
If you find this tape, don't think on it too much. We don't have to analyze every little thing.
Tell Missy while I couldn't follow her in, it's not over. Designates 11250 and 11192, we'll still be looking.