The Conditions for Blooming by Nadine Aurora Tabing
February & April 2023 | Utopia Science Fiction Magazine
Luni remembered the moment she was born: the seal cracking like an egg, the hiss of air, the gelatinous tide of amniotic fluid, her limbs unspooling and cooling underneath headlamps round and bright as moons. She kept this story tucked inside and told it only once: to another self of hers, the first she’d ever met, who reacted not with a swell of rapport, but horror.
“Do…you not remember?” Luni’s voice creaked. When she was worried, the complexities of her half-meat throat fluttered and clenched, smothering her words.
“No,” her other-self said. “I’ve never heard it from another of us, either.”
They’d crossed gazes by happenstance on the street. Other-her’s gaze jerked left and right; then she dragged Luni to a secluded plaza, already glowing putrid ochre with morning light. A sliver of knife-sharp light fell across Luni’s arm, and Luni screamed, jerked her arm back — but other-her held her, fingers screeching as they tightened.
“How old are you? Have you done your measurements?”
Luni’s throat was clenched; she shook her head.
“Good. Don’t ever tell anyone what you just told me.” Other-her’s voice was a hiss, more caustic than sunlight. “Some weird psychological bug like that…it won’t matter what your final percentage is.”
You’ll be marked as sub-sufficient.
Luni had been too stunned then to ask the questions she’d been stockpiling for the moment she’d meet another self: What is your life like? What should I expect? What foods do I like other than strawberries? What should I do for my throat? The reminder of her upcoming measurements, the possibility of failure, sobered her. She crammed herself into her studies. When her throat spasmed she excused herself to take her deep breaths privately, so no one would suspect her of being unsound. She no longer offered anyone to hold their head to her chest or to touch her wrist; mulling over pulses and breaths at recess, guessing each other’s percentages like estimating beans in a jar, became sickening. Whenever her eyes fell across the posters at the school entrance, the words carved themselves deeper into her chest.
Your responsibility is to the future of humanity.
On evaluation day, her throat ached more than ever. In line she shifted her weight from foot to foot, left right left right left right, and then stopped, because the cap of her left knee was popping and everyone else here, she realized, had legs that looked mostly meat. In paper gowns, features normally hidden beneath long sleeves and capes and sunglasses were obvious. Someone, an Oliver, glanced at Luni with a pupil as bright blue as photos of the daytime sky, with no trace of muddy oxidation. Someone else, an Evelyn, had long hair as richly dark as a moonless night. No one spoke. It was so quiet Luni was sure she heard, alongside the air conditioners, the high whine of everyone’s motors, including her own, and silently she begged it to not skip or jag until measurements were done.
It didn’t help that more people were emerging from the measuring room in tears than with smiles of relief. Luni tried to distract herself by staring at the plants decorating the corridor. But closer examination revealed that the larger-leaved ones were wired-up, poorly-dyed polyester; and the smaller plants, real succulents whose fleshy leaves were stippled with neon violet and cyan, were placed too far from the windows.
She huffed. Didn’t anyone think of where sunlight would be for these plants during the day? Luni stood on tiptoes to move one planter to a windowsill, and then stopped, because people were staring. She fisted her hands, felt her carnesilicate arm and left calf growing heavier as she shuffled to the line’s front, where she found the examination officer was another of her selves.
Her throat clicked as it locked up. Their eyes met, and then traced in unison their common elements: their short height and brown skin and oil-black hair, their harelip mended over with silvery grafting. That was characteristic of their sub-branch, a badge of honor; it presented alongside an above-average liver. This other-her had their line’s other typical phenotypes too: the gap of fingers and half-leg that required use of prosthetics, though Luni’s own was donation, chipped dull white and loose. He wore his hair short, and called himself Loone, and he smiled as he ushered her toward a threadbare folding chair beside the looming scanner.
Luni opened her mouth, but only a squeak emerged. Loone laughed.
“I have that throat bug too. Acted up a lot more when I was your age. Don’t worry, our line is strong.”
He held her good hand in his to help her into the scanner’s cylinder. He must have seen through her, or maybe he remembered what it was like when it was him with unforgiving lights striping his skin, enumerating units of meat and carnesilica. Anything the machine’s lasers didn’t permeate blipped on a monitor, all black against hazy pulsing red: dark shapes in a sea of healthy viscera, as numerous as continents. As the scanner’s feed churned out numbers he murmured, “Good. Great! Very good preservation.”
So, it was a shock when it took only ten minutes to sum her up, and a horror when her number rendered: 79.26%. An entire 0.74% below threshold for propagation.
I am sub-sufficient.
Her legs wobbled. She collapsed, and it wasn’t her carnesilicate leg that gave out this time, but the other one, the limb she’d once known as my good leg that was now my not-good-enough leg. Though her tear ducts weren’t formed enough to cry she sobbed all the same, her entire body wracked and rattling. Just last year the laws had changed, allowing individuals to have their physical evaluation at sixteen years rather than ten, and though she did have more visible carnesilicate than average, she’d allowed herself some hope, thinking that by sixteen her flesh would definitely grow over threshold. But those extra years of maturation and anti-UV umbrellas and exercise and carefully measured protein slurries had come to nothing. She’d failed. What was the point of her now?
Luni scrambled to her feet, started to flee, stumbled. Loone hefted her up, held her against him.
“Luni, don’t cry. Listen. Listen. I was physically sub-sufficient too, 87.35%, back when the threshold was a full 95%. But I was still selected to propagate. You can too — listen, listen.”
Her hands shook too hard to take the pen he offered, so he wrote it for her, on a notepad from his uniform pocket.
“Nursing,” he said. “We’re naturally nurturing — that’s why our line was established. Go to Sta. Marinel’s, they accept a lot of us. Specialize in Williams and Jennifers. Those are high-percentage lines, and helping the right one can make you look good, very useful. Things aren’t hopeless. Trust me. All you need to do is make yourself indispensable.”
He took off his glove to push a strand of her hair behind her ear with his warm, good palm. It felt soft, comforting. He folded the paper into her trembling hand and smiled when she fisted it against her chest.
“I’ll recommend you for a second eval. You’ll have time to grow more and get a comprehensive — that’s another physical exam, more detailed. But anything else you can do to prove your usefulness will help.” Loone’s voice was steady, without a hint of a creak. “Think. Is there anything you like? Some hobby you could utilize?”
Luni sucked in a breath. Her throat was untwisting. Her voice emerged as a wheeze.
“Plants? Like farming? That’s great. That’s very useful.”
“N-no.” Her throat resisted every syllable. “Like…pretty ones. Indoors. Houseplants.”
He considered. “Oh — I’m sure there’s something to work with there. Herbs, maybe.”
It sounded like he didn’t share this interest generally, which wasn’t unexpected — there was always variation between selves. Still, Luni felt reassured. The corners of his mouth seemed to meet all the lines on his face as he smiled. His skin was well-matured, without much carnesilicate freckling; wrinkles eddied around his eyes, his skin aged not from scorched code but thanks to the gentler wake of one day passing after another after another. If it weren’t for the gloss of his fingers and the splinter of steel in his iris, she’d have guessed he was ninety percent meat, at least. But he’d been less, and still been chosen to do his part, to participate in the one meaningful act left to them as a fading species. And now here were his rewards: calmness, serenity, sufficiency.
She sniffed. He was her. She could propagate too. Luni took a deep, hard breath to uncrinkle her throat. “Thank you.”
“Of course.” He knuckled her shoulder. “You can do this. We can’t let ourselves die out. Who else is going to look out for us?”
You can do this.
He was so much like how she imagined their original-self had been: sure, strong, full of hope. The first Luningning had fought to prove herself and her descendants worthy, had survived every irradiated day and the first propagation trials, fighting for a future she’d never see herself. If propagation was what she wanted, then it was what Luni wanted too.
I won’t let us die out.
She taped Loone’s note to the darkest corner of her room, where the ink was safe from a slot of indirect sunlight. The list on it was short: Sta. Marinel’s nursing (spec. William/Jennifer). Comprehensive physical exam. Utilize hobby.
Sta. Marinel’s accepted her near-instantly, and on campus she acted perfectly. She buried herself in her studies. She soothed her throat with mint tea only in her apartment and stuffed her worries so far down in her chest, there was no chance of them clotting her up during study groups, which included many other-hers with whom she did not have to explain her determination: We won’t let us die out.
This mantra steadied her when conversations drooped into dimmer topics. Commissary stock — surprise windfalls of beans, or flour that hadn’t been seen in months. Newsfeeds — varicose with line charts of temperature reports, stock market readings. By the second year, the study group size had diminished from illness, or being unsuited to the course load — Luni didn’t ask. She didn’t want to think too much about where her other-selves had gone or how slim the chances for propagation would be with a dropout smearing your record. She had her own problems, most related to her deep realization that whatever valuable natural ability her original-self had for nursing, Luni lacked completely. Other bodies made her nauseous, made her own feel strangely fuzzy and weak, and she could keep up only by guzzling coffee and re-oiling her dry eyes, practicing sutures and welds until morning. She sat through classes describing, with somewhat more maturity, concepts she remembered whispering about with other children when adults weren’t present: the secret of reproduction.
The monitor in front of their class displayed a clean lab where a wild variety of people milled, each one different, most of them clearly computer-generated. In the foreground, a William turned away from a workbench, face bright, one hand holding a plant swirling in a borosilicate beaker. Propagation, said a calm voiceover, is how we can preserve what genetic data we have left. Regrowing wholes from fragments, like plants — the tiniest biological crossover, to preserve what few dozen lines of humanity remained. With propagation technology, the genetic loss between generations could be less than 4% — as long as they took care to avoid the sun.
On the monitor, the William reached out — and from off-screen, an identical hand reached back. The miracle of life: a cheek scraping, liquid carnesilica, an infusion of synthesized cytoplasm to catalyze plant-like totipotency, water, and a firm whisk.
That day, Luni found herself on her favorite path home, the longest but easiest trail, where gravel smoothed over the giant gnarled roots that could snag her carnesilicate leg. The ground was rainbowed from streetlights filtering through the variegated plants that loomed above, monstera creaky on arm-thick vines and dappled with magenta, conifers whose teal plumes bobbed and hushed. The same sun that could deteriorate a human from the marrow out made plants huge and myriad, kaleidoscopic, yielding fistfuls of silky blooms in whorls and extravagant billows. Sometimes, when she was especially worn out, she would wait for the morning to come in earnest, sitting knees-up and quiet, risking the gnawing sunlight on her fingertips, the fringe of bluing sky sweeter than cake and coconut jam.
She had only a few line memories, faint enough that they were more like muddy dreams: vaguenesses of strolling, eating outside during lunch, running after something on the beach, all activities drenched in sunlight, back when it wasn’t poison. She wished she had more, at least as many as William lines had, their high percentages that somehow seemed to preserve cultural memories of kingships and velvet; but memory was more fragile than genetic data, and preserved between generations even worse. Every bit of data lost, whether flesh or memory, was gone forever, and humanity did not have another millennium to randomly generate more of it. Sometimes, when emergencies had her in the school clinic patching bodies until morning, it seemed humanity did not have even another twenty years.
Thoughts like that weighed her more heavily than the 20.74% of her that was not muscle and blood and bone but instead scrap metal and motor and sticky rubber. She shut her eyes.
I won’t let us die out.
Numbed by caffeine and exhaustion, she mastered Williams, and Jennifers, and Changmings too. Then, to make herself look a little better, she acquired a certificate for squashing twitchy bugs, the kind that led to unusual palpitations or unwanted internal voice leakage. Maybe she had some innate nursing ability after all. She could do this, she excelled, despite only four hours of sleep. If her final measurements were low, all this utility could still convince them. Just look at how many more lines she knew: Evelyns, Vinays. She had a knack for Georges too, a line whose selves were often in the upper 90s but delicate and therefore perfect, her instructors said, for the dexterous and steady hand of a Filipino caretaking line like hers — they were always in clinics for fractures, pneumonias. But two years before Luni’s graduation, there was a mutation. Some sun-seared warp in one George that made them vulnerable to a particularly vehement gastroenteritis that turned them inside out, and spread, like lightning. And then, just like that, one of the last lines of humanity, the culmination of some centuries of art and science and miraculous coincidence, was gone.
At Sta. Marinel’s, the silence smothered. They could learn bodies and meat and material code front and back, but as individuals, and as a species, they had their limits. They were no longer masters of this world, or even favored children: just ants, desperate to escape the crisping sunlight and, increasingly, not making it to safety. Technology couldn’t stem this; how could a single human hope to? They would all die, one by one. I won’t let us die out, Luni chanted, I won’t, I won’t. But that day she stayed out at a subterranean bar until almost noon and drank water until it poured out of her eyes, sluicing out much of her rattling sorrow, and still not enough of it.
Soon, the propagation threshold lowered again, to 75%. And, the posters in the streets and stations changed. They were steeped in ink, like windows, almost purely black.
Your responsibility, they still said, is to the future of humanity.
But now there were photos of stars, and ships.
The Earth, it was decided, was true home no longer to anything but plants. The future of humanity was elsewhere and would be granted to those above 70% — though word at Sta. Marinel was that they’d probably still take other things into account, like one’s holistic value on a new planet. But Luni could not bring herself to schedule her next exam, not while there was still time for her numbers to look better, for her resume to be fuller. She lived only an hour’s train to a ship, and so she applied for early graduation and rushed into shifts for construction support, padding her calf with bandages for the long hours on her legs.
Over the next years the Destino’s skeleton rose above the skyscrapers, alongside floodlights on imperious stems, washing out the stars the ship aimed for. The work started when the sky was still blistery pink with sunset, and Luni scurried through molded plastic corridors, tightening joints, wrapping bruises and cuts and sunburns, tying and re-filling intravenous hydropacks. During lunch everyone sprawled along the scaffolding like birds, trading fruit and cured meat and boiled eggs to pinch into thumbed-apart pan de sal, sandwiches, burritos. They conspired, wistfully, on how to make sure all of them made it to the ship — secret vents, to hide in no matter their final measurements, leading from the farm racks straight to the bow suites they knew would be the roost of Williams and Jennifers. Who would stop them? What could a handful of supra-90-percenters do against a horde of sub-70s? Luni couldn’t stop herself from laughing, had to cover her face when the supervisors waved fists furiously up at them and yelled at them to get down.
One day, an Oliver gave her a strawberry for free, because he’d heard she liked them, and then one hour later he missed his footing, and though Luni dragged herself as fast as she could, her calf denting on the last leap to the ground, she could not put him back together. All that studying, all that supposed superlative genetic caretaking ability — useless.
What was the point?
What was the point, of any of this?
I won’t let us die out, she told herself, and then she curled up in a newly-laminated closet on the Destino’s bottom floor, shoved aside nutritional guidance and found alcohol to drink until the tears that brimmed out of her were sticky and stung her eyes. When the sky purpled, she stumbled away — not home, but to the shore.
So many of her limited line memories involved the sea. Presently, it was low tide. The sand was strewn with things the ocean had abandoned in its hasty retreat, items haloed with humming flies and stinking creases of seaweed: sharks, old femurs with snails winking from their joints like clots of blood, hollowed crabs, a barnacled ear. It was here that Luni found a pot, slightly chipped, cradled by an arm that still had two fingers trailing in the contents like a hand combing out a tangle of hair. Coiled in the pot was a yellowed vine, kinked out from a desiccated knot of soil as hard as a stone, like a retinal nerve trailing from an eyeball. It looked like someone had once tried to hold onto it. She clutched it, determined, her fingernails still stained with blood and oil.
She brought it home, plunked it down on a table after swiping aside her pile of Destino brochures and newspapers varicose with line charts of weekly temperature reports and stock market readings. The plant had only two leaves left green and unscarred by salt. She spooned dirt up from beneath a stone outside her apartment; she soaked the stiff soil. By the end of the next month the plant had ventured forth two more leaves, close together, like hands clasped in gratitude.
At least that was one thing she could do.
A square of sunlight, a weekly mug of water saved from her bath — the plant needed nothing more than that to thrive. Soon its leaves rose almost up to Loone’s old note, to the tail of the y in hobby.
Though Luni was a failure at humans, whatever genes she’d inherited turned out to be more than adequate to maintain greenery; she began hauling them in by the armful. They clotted her shelves and walls.
She knew a little about plant caretaking; and then, she knew a lot. It was easy — they were simple — and though she should have found some way to utilize them, they wanted only to live, and she wanted that for them too, and neither minded where or how they did it. Each morning back from the Destino she found them taller. They extended their blooms to her like how she imagined children might to a parent, gathering the trust to meet her face for the first time — shy white spider plant flowers, hoya with domes of pink, the tiny blossoms from three types of marantha. The plants were small and pale until their rotation beside her window, where daylight turned their leaves and petals kaleidoscopic, voluminous.
The only plant that didn’t look back at her was that very first she’d scooped from the shore: pothos. It was only after an afternoon of poring through an old book that she discovered it was not a plant that bloomed at all.
Or, allowed the book, the conditions under which it blooms have not yet been discovered.
Soon, her room had no space left to procrastinate with. There was no space, either, for the herbs Loone once advised her to find. She sat in the center of her room, swallowing a judder in her throat, a throb she fought to keep down. She could not put off final measurements any longer, and yet she did, another year, and another, and again, until she no longer had work exhaustion as an excuse. The Destino was almost complete now, with crew conscription underway, and her measurement date scheduled for her, arrived in a stamped letter.
By now the threshold was roughly 60%, but she knew the Destino’s capacity, as well as how many people would be vying for a spot. In the week leading up to her exam, she stayed indoors, gulping scavenged raw vegetables and fruits and protein, exercising, watering, stretching. She was optimistic, and maybe all of that was because of this, her chamber of green, useful or not. As she left, leaves brushed her shoulders, clinging, as if asking her not to leave; and, for just five more minutes, she indulged them all and herself.
There was no simple scanner this time, but an entire gauntlet of whirring, squeezing, poking machines. Luni sat, straight and silent and serene, as she was summed once more: blood pressure, bone density, the iron levels of her blood and the number of cells of every organ that used it. It took a week; and then, she was summoned back for one last round of measurements. In the lobby, she swallowed, carefully, resisting the urge to hum and test the slackness of her throat. As she waited, she poured a capful of water from her bottle into the pot of a sagging rubber plant.
“She’ll be here soon, Miss…” the evaluator trailed off. Luni looked up, and because the evaluator was a James, she guessed what he was going to say next, and pre-empted him: “‘Luni’ for short.”
“No,” he said, “say it. I’ll give it my best shot.”
She knew this part was coming too. “Luningning branch ce789d8.”
He nodded gamely. “Lu…ning…”
“Luningning branch 7000d9,” said a voice at the door. “‘Ning’ for short.”
It had been some time since Luni had met a new self of hers. Ning was younger — maybe the same age Luni had been at Sta. Marinel’s. Their eyes met, and then traced in unison their common elements: their height and skin and hair color, their silvery mended harelip. They even had the same hair length, though Ning wore her hair draped in a fishtail braid interwoven with a ribbon, whereas Luni’s hair was in the same tight ponytail she’d had for as long as she could remember. As they both entered the next room, Luni cleared her throat.
To Luni’s surprise, Ning laughed. “Yeah!” There was no evidence of tension in her throat. Luni smiled, faintly.
“Me too. But our line is strong.”
As the evaluator pecked their full names into a terminal to display their official information, Luni and Ning exchanged introductions: pronouns, hometown, education. Ning had yet to choose a university, and Luni opened her mouth, and then stopped, because what would happen to Sta. Marinel’s after the ships left? Professors and doctors would fill the cabins, and as for the other seats, only the best and most whole. Only one of the two of them.
Luni massaged her throat. Seeing it, Ning offered a cough drop from her bag, which Luni wanted to decline but accepted.
“L…adies,” called the evaluator. “Sit here, please.”
The chairs were side by side. Luni noticed that she filled up more of hers. They gazed into machines, blinked away the green echo of the scanning light. They stuck their arms into pressure sleeves, looked away as the evaluator drew their blood, smiled nervously as they passed each other nodes and wires. As the feed worked, Luni performed her own calculations.
Ning’s hand prosthetic was much smaller, replacing only two fingers, and her muscles were more pronounced. She didn’t have a single memory of Georges or Olivers haunting her at night, nor many coping mechanisms to speak of, which might account for how she looked more well-rested in general. Happy. She had an eye for how to dress; her cape somehow looked close-fitting, fashionable. Ning also seemed to have that nurturing instinct Luni had always felt she lacked: she chatted with the evaluator while Luni managed only to mumble.
Despite the obvious differences, one by one, their measurements came out mostly equal. What Ning’s left kidney lacked she had instead in appendix — a revelation that caused Ning to sigh dramatically.
“Thank God. What would I have done with a sub-par appendix?”
Similarly, what Luni lost in dermis she made up for in retina, which caused Ning to cry, “Fuck!” In a way that made both Luni and the evaluator spit out a laugh.
Finally, there was one last thing to measure. By now, the air that had been heavy and still had become almost light and easy somehow — No, not “somehow,” Luni thought. It’s because of Ning. She had personality, kindness, humor. When the evaluator handed them electrical nodes, Ning took them and rubbed them in her hands, blew on them like they were dice.
“Fingers crossed,” she said, passing one node to Luni. Luni stickered it over her left breast. It was warm, from Ning’s palms. Together, they watched the monitor fill out, the pounding in Luni’s chest reduced to a patchy, unforgiving black-and-white silhouette.
It took only ten minutes to sum them up: Luni’s heart was 65.04% meat. And Ning’s, 98.78%.
The evaluator gasped aloud; Luni’s throat, trembling, did not allow even that. Her heart stumbled, and then she felt as if it were flooding with a maelstrom of grief and awe, one as sharp as the other, emulsifying into an exquisite swell in her chest. From Sta. Marinel’s she knew hearts rarely exceeded 87% meat, and almost never ninety. Ning blinked at them, bewildered, completely unaware.
Before Luni could explain, the evaluator leaned forward. He asked, in a breath.
Ning blinked; and then she smiled, confused but gracious, and nodded to Luni too, and Luni realized that she too was reaching out. The evaluator turned off all the machines in the room, including the air conditioning and the humming old fluorescent lights clotted with fly carcasses, until the only sound was the ringing in their ears, and the ever-present whine of subcutaneous motors bolted gently to the interior of their sternums. Luni and the evaluator each rested their fingertips on the underside of one of Ning’s soft wrists, and when the ringing and whining too faded into the background, Luni felt it — a deeper, persistent, steady pulse. The punch of flesh and organic electricity, relentless, sure. As if it had some place to go; as if it knew it would get there.
Luni’s eyes began to sting, desperate to shed tears. Not in the quietest hour of the night, palm full flat against her chest, did she feel something like this. Ning was the self that deserved this, propagation and distant planet both.
“Are you alright?” Ning asked, when they were back in the lobby.
“Yes,” Luni answered. And then, because she knew Ning would appreciate it: “I’m happy for you. I’m glad that we get to go out there, into space. It’s what we’ve always wanted.”
Ning was quiet. For a moment Luni thought she might not say anything, but then Ning blurted: “But it’s not us going. It’s just me.”
Luni blinked; Ning continued, face red.
“This isn’t fair. My sum — my heart — that’s totally random. The one that propagated me couldn’t have had a heart like that, it would have been in the news. Both of us are alive, aren’t we? And you’ve already done so much! They can’t just — draw a line like that. Say that one of us deserves it and not the other.”
They can, Luni thought. They have.
Aloud, Luni recited, “It’s for the good of all of us. Our future. We can’t let ourselves die out. Our responsibility is to the future of humanity.”
“What humanity? We’ve been like this as long as any of us can remember! I don’t think that it ever existed, some world where everyone was perfect and flawless and nothing else. Even with propagation, we’re always changing.” Ning raised her hands, splayed her fingers, fisted them; then bit her lip. “At least, mostly we’re changing. I’m sure that you still know…a lot that I should know. There’s so much I always wanted to ask, once I met another me.”
She didn’t continue; her throat had locked. Luni smiled, soothingly. She brushed Ning’s hair behind her ear, and then knuckled her shoulder.
“I don’t have much to tell you, I think. You’ll live a different life than me.”
A better one, I hope.
She invited Ning to her apartment. They ate together, pan de sal with fried eggs, and a strawberry halved between them, the taste of which made Ning’s eyes light, but not as much as Luni’s stories of the Destino construction, their lunchtime dreams of mutiny. Finally, because Ning’s eyes wandered to it, Luni clipped a stem from her pothos, rubber-banded its root inside a plastic bag with wet paper.
Ning stroked a leaf, enchanted. “Are you sure it’ll be alright up there?”
“I’m sure it will. It’s hardy. It doesn’t need that much light. Maybe,” Luni said, “it’ll even bloom up there.”
The letter came the next day. Luni opened it, with a jab of stubborn hope that wilted to shame as her rejection was made official.
Nothing she’d done had been enough.
For a while she thought that she wouldn’t watch Destino’s departure, but then she gathered, with everyone else, on the highest place they could find: an old park on a hill, long overgrown. They stamped down the leaves and roots. Luni held unfolded rusted chairs for the eldest among them to use. She herself slumped onto the earth.
The Destino looked as large as a mountain. It was dwarfed only by the gouts of flame and vapor that obscured it as it launched. The air kicked up, gusting sand into their hair and eyes and respiratories as the Destino rose, glinting scarlet in the dawn light, then lavender, then nothing — it was gone.
The sky paled into a soft and surprising color, an endless blue streaked with white clouds like ragged fabric. It was quiet. There was only the noise of the sub-sufficient, left alone to their sub-sufficient planet, left to do — whatever. Some left; but most, and Luni, stayed, fighting the impulse to flee into the shadows as the sun rose, as they were steadily illuminated. What was the point, anymore, of persevering? Preserving?
As light crept forward, Luni shone. Even in her line memories her body didn’t look like this: the lamé of her skin glowed where it was meat and glittered where carnesilicate freckled it all over. Both of her legs gleamed, neither good nor bad anymore, but simply hers. After all this time, she thought the sun would hurt a little more, like holding your hand to a flame. But maybe that was the danger the whole time, that sunlight would pare away your humanity and it would feel wonderful, that you would not care anymore about your percentages, or your usefulness, or the need of a distant William you had never ended up meeting once. She stayed out all day. At night, someone ripped the floral overgrowth off an old firepit, and they stewed whatever they could find: pork, corn, beans, onions. Then she stayed out all night too.
She was aware that her days were numbered, that there were fewer with every sunlit hour. Every day, her throat throbbed a little more, probably from the thoughts she could no longer suppress with hard work and desperate aspiration. As the week progressed there were bouts of creaky weeping, and sometimes the person doing it was her. She found other-hers, Olivers, even Jameses and Jennifers that never thought they’d have this fate. They embraced her, and when it was her turn sheembraced them too, murmured things she wished she herself could believe.
We did it. We won’t die, not really. The ones that are going — there’s no way they could have made it without us. This is what we wanted the whole time. Humanity will survive. She didn’t say the things she knew were no relief: Ning’s words, beating in her chest as if they were Luni’s own. This isn’t fair.
Maybe “Luningning” wouldn’t die, technically; but the price had been Luni’s entire life. She didn’t deserve the years of posters and tests, her inherited desperation to mean something to herself, to humanity, to anyone — a threshold she never could have met, a responsibility to a future of humanity that decided it didn’t need her. She knew now what it was she craved: not to measure up, but just to live, no matter her shape, no matter where or how she did it, and for that to be sufficient.
What happened next, she remembered, and retold, as many times as she could.
Her body, hot with sunlight and fury, shook. Her throat constricted and didn’t loosen. People crowded her as she struggled, clawing at her neck, and they called out: Are you alright? Luni, what’s happening? Someone pried open her jaw, with a crack and a hiss of air as she gasped; someone else poured water down her throat, a tide that spilled over as she struggled to gulp. Her knotted limbs unspooled under eyes as round and bright as suns. They helped her — they held her hands — but Luni shook them off, and spasmed, and coughed, and from between her teeth spilled flowers, like nothing anyone had ever seen before. When they helped her up, they found even more of them: there were bumps of buds in her hair and brows. Kaleidoscopic. Voluminous. She shouted, with a plume of petals, and as she rose and started to run on meat and carnesilica and burgeoning roots, they realized it wasn’t just her, but the other-hers too, and Olivers, Evelyns, everyone.
And as the sun rose again, they bloomed, and bloomed, and bloomed.
Originally published in the February (part 1) and April (part 2) 2023 issue of Utopia Science Fiction Magazine.
About the Author:
Nadine Aurora Tabing is a writer, designer, artist, and shiba inu enthusiast in the Pacific Northwest. Her writing has appeared in Strange Horizons and Reckoning. She can be found online at nadinetabing.com, on Twitter as @suchnadine, and on Mastodon via @firstname.lastname@example.org.