The Staging Area was full of purpose that morning. Everyone was excited about the Upload and we were all on task for Mission Success. I woke up full of glory and went down to Room A to calorie load, which was what we called breakfast. In the morning there were no wasted hours in the bathroom doing your make-up, or weighing yourself, or deciding whether or not to take a shower. We didn't wear make-up. Meals were nutritionally perfect so getting on the scale was vanity and we had rejected faulty sub-routines like vanity. Instead of showers we wiped down with Wet Naps and hand sanitizer every day at five. We buzzed our hair short so there was no need to blow it dry or brush it out. Our lives were engineered to be free from distractions, because we needed to remain focused and on task.
Three meals a day we ate Manna, a porridge that Messenger and Voyager Mihael had invented to deliver all the nutrients our vessels needed. It tasted horrible, but I was always proud to choke it down because it was one more sign that I wasn't bound to this physical world.
After calorie loading we performed Start Up Tasks. My Start Up Task was what Messenger called "Staging Area Policing and Waste Disposal," which was a fancy name for taking out the trash. Taking out the trash consisted of thirty-one steps, which had to be followed in precise order. The final step was dragging the four cans out to the street.
It was not even 7 AM, but the day was already hot and sticky. I stood at the end of the driveway and looked up at the blinding white sky and then a strange thought entered my head:
"This is the last time I'm ever going to take out the garbage."
Suddenly, I was losing the signal and getting a lot of noise, which is what we called thinking off subject. Everything looked important to me: the bright orange moving van down the street, the yellow "Armed Response" sign in the bushes next door, the green grass, the blue sky, the black asphalt. It all looked too real, like I had just taken off a pair of sunglasses that I'd been wearing all my life.
I tried to focus on the sprinklers hissing in the neighbor's front yard, I tried to calm down, but suddenly the clearest, most terrifying thought I'd had in three years bubbled to the surface of my brain:
"I don't want to die."
This was one of the Fifty-Five Errors and I ran inside to find a Navigator. I got Voyager Haniel to be my Check Partner and we found Navigator Remliel who was getting ready to lead ELOHEEM.
"Navigator," I said. "I need to speak with you."
"What is it?"
"I'm scared of Contact. The Uploading scares me. I was Managing Waste Disposal and suddenly my system was corrupted by this Error. It may interfere with my work or become a distraction to others. Help me."
"Voyager Sraosha, you are out of place and in Error. We will proceed to the practice of ELOHEEM. When ELOHEEM is finished there will be Tasks. After Tasks, and only after Tasks, if you still feel this Error, come find me."
I nodded. I was scared, but he was right. Tasks were important, especially today. The schedule had to be maintained. This was not a time to go Off Mission. I went in to ELOHEEM.
We performed Breath Control, Prana Awareness, Number Learning, Code Chant, Chi Testing, Failure Elimination, Mirror Check, Drumming Diagnostic, Crew Awareness, Static Analysis, Return to Rest. ELOHEEM took three hours, and it did make me feel better. I was looking forward to Tasks. Tasks would help me quiet the noise in my system. Before we began Tasks, Navigator Remliel asked me for a verbal status check.
And I started to cry.
What did I hope to achieve by demonstrating Corrupted Affect Display? I did not want to cry. My vessel was clearly malfunctioning. Navigator Remliel summoned Navigator Taharial and immediately they isolated me so I couldn't corrupt other Voyagers. They put me in the Contemplation Cell and gave me Number Learning. I wrote numbers over and over again for hours. I went through a ream of paper. My tears smudged the clean rows of numbers as fast as I wrote them.
Navigator Remliel and Navigator Taharial came into the Contemplation Cell and asked me to give them a verbal status check.
"I don't know what's happening to my vessel," I said. "I'm scared. Please help me get back on mission."
They were afraid that I might cause distraction and disruption to the Upload, so they went to get Messenger. When they opened the door I could hear the TV. The crew were watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, probably "The Inner Light," and that made me so sad because I had looked forward to viewing it one last time before Upload.
Then I forgot about being disappointed because Messenger entered the Cell.
"Voyager Sraosha," he said. "This is not On Mission. The entire Crew needs you. What can I do to help you purge these useless subroutines?"
To understand what I said next you have to understand how I joined the Transhuman Project. Before I met Messenger I was working in titty bars, tweaking all the time so I could stay skinny and dance extra shifts. I was dating two guys at once. I needed lots of attention, so I always found guys who paid too much attention to me. Too much was better than too little.
Both these guys I was dating liked to bounce me off walls. Getting banged around so much wasn't a problem with my dancing career because the big tippers liked their girls with a couple of bruises, cause that said I could take it and they liked to think about me taking it from them. But then one of my boyfriends found bruises on my neck that he didn't recognize.
"I never tried to strangle you!" he screamed, and I guess that was important to him because the next thing I knew I was out on the street with all my clothes in a garbage bag.
I hated everything. I hated working, I hated dancing, I hated men, I hated the other dancers, I hated politicians, I hated myself, I hated my skin, I hated this world, I hated my tits, I hated my hair and my face and my eyes that were too far apart and the way my thighs got fat and rubbed together if I ate anything at all, I hated money, I hated drugs, I hated Wal-Mart.
Then I met Messenger at a Starbucks. I felt like he was waiting for me to say something. So I told him about how sometimes I'd be dancing and I'd see myself from outside my body, and how stupid I thought I looked, how stupid all the people watching me looked, how stupid the entire thing looked, and for the rest of the night I wouldn't be able to sell any dances and I'd make shit for tips. It would be like my body was made of plastic and my soul couldn't fit inside. Messenger didn't say anything, he just kept looking at me and so I told him how much I hated everything. I went on for a while. When I was finished he said:
"You're simply noticing that this is a fallen world. The fact that you feel so much anger means that you have a soul. Do you believe that there is something greater than this cruel and painful world out there?"
This was the first time someone had suggested that maybe the problem wasn't with me, maybe the problem was with the world. I'd seen a college counselor in high school, a social worker in the ER, a cop who couldn't mind his own business in the bar, a minister back when I was a Jesus freak—and all of them had told me how I had to change, how I was wrong about everything, how I was the problem. None of them ever said that maybe it was the world that was wrong, not me.
Messenger looked me right in the eyes and he took me seriously and he spoke straight.
"I can train your True Soul," he said. "I can give you a chance to transcend the human vector."
And then he told me the truth about UFOs. That they're our souls, or what our souls could evolve into. That they exist in dimensions we can't even comprehend and that what we see is only a small part of them, the tip of the iceberg, and that they're beautiful, like multi-dimensional cathedrals made of ever-changing light. And Messenger told me that if I was willing to work hard, that if I was ready to sacrifice everything, that if I was willing to commit myself for the first time in my life, then I could leave all this behind and join them in the stars.
Find me someone who has all the answers. Find me someone who can prove 100% that Messenger was wrong. Find me someone who can show me that there wasn't even a 0.00000001% chance that Messenger was right. Find me that person and I'll say, "Okay, I made a bad decision." But unless you can find that person, don't judge me. Messenger was offering me the chance to be set free in a Universe containing true joy and infinite wonder. Earth was offering me fast food and men staring at my tits for money. That was no choice at all.
So there we were, three years later, on the last day of our grand project on Earth, finally ready to make Contact and Upload to a higher level of existence. All we had to do was abort our human minds and let the Transhuman Mind take over. It was called Discard and it was all that stood between us and transcendence. And I sat in that Cell and I spoke blasphemy.
"I don't want to die," I moaned.
"Examine yourself," Messenger said. "You know this isn't death, it's Discard. Then comes Upload followed by Contact. This is what we've worked towards for years: a chance to obtain peace that passeth human understanding."
"I know," I said.
"Why are you unwilling to embrace liberation?"
I wanted to be free so badly, I wanted liberation more than anything, I wanted to leave all this garbage behind but the fear I felt was something deep inside of me that I couldn't control. It was older than my brain, older than my DNA. It was cold and dark and it panicked me.
"I'm so scared," I said. "I know I'm ruining everything, but I'm so scared."
"Follow me," Messenger said, and we went into Room A.
"Voyagers," he said. "Be seated."
The Crew sat. With our cropped skulls and our long-sleeved shirts we all looked like one person. I loved the Crew. We had broken down so many barriers together, overcome so many Errors, rejected so much of this corrupt plane of existence—I loved them more than I loved myself.
"Plans are what humans make that cause the Universe to laugh," Messenger said. "Upload must be today. We have a schedule for Discard and we have carefully planned how it will take place. But a new challenge has been put in front of us. Voyager Sraosha has second thoughts. She does not want to Discard."
I didn't hear a single sound, except seventy-two irises dilating with surprise.
"Navigators, what are your thoughts?"
"The Crew must number thirty-six when we beam up," Navigator Taharial said.
"That's true," Messenger said. "We have no choice. We must all help Voyager Sraosha correct her Error. She must remember why we are Uploading."
They were right. I needed their help, and I knew they could help me. And so we worked for two hours. Everyone was attentive and focused: my fear was only a problem to be solved, a challenge to be overcome. We performed Crew Consciousness so that our selves fell away and we were one, and then we engaged in Drumming Diagnostic and brought our vessels up to the same frequency. When we finished, Messenger asked me to give him a status report. I wrote, "Systems back On Mission. Ready to proceed."
Messenger smiled and held up my status report, and everyone clapped and they were so happy for me. I felt a great peace. My vessel was calm and I felt ready. Navigator Remliel put a cloth band around my upper arm that read, "Away Team." Everyone was wearing the same armband. I had never been so happy.
"Welcome aboard, Voyager," Messenger said.
Voyagers Maion and Charoum set up a cot in the middle of the room, and Voyager Cassiel put a folded red square on it. It was one of our Departure Flags, the triangles of cloth that would be laid over our vessels by the Ready Team as each Voyager Discarded. Messenger guided me into the center of the room and had me sit down on the edge of the cot.
"Today the Universe made us divert our Schedule to bring a Voyager home," Messenger said. "It was the final challenge before Discard, and I believe that we all showed the first glimmerings of True Souls."
People were smiling, some had tears running down their cheeks. Navigator Taharial was standing behind Messenger with a bowl of Manna, and Voyager Cassiel was holding a clear glass of vodka.
"You will be the first Voyager to beam up," Messenger said. "You were lost, but now are found. Your light will lead us forward into the great darkness of space."
Then it had me by the throat again, as if the past two hours hadn't happened. I started shaking. They handed me the bowl of Manna and I dropped it on the carpet. My hands cramped into useless claws. I heard someone babbling from a long way away and then I realized that it was me.
"Not me," I was saying to Messenger. "Not me. Choose someone else. I can't do it. I don't want to die. I'm scared. I'm scared. I'm so scared."
I was crying again, and I saw the disappointment on everyone's faces and that made me cry harder. These were the first people to truly care about me and I had let them down.
"What do you want us to do?" Messenger asked.
"Let me live," I begged, because I couldn't help myself. "I'll do anything you say, but please let me live. I won't tell anyone. I promise."
"Nothing can compromise Discard," Navigator Remliel said.
"Yes," Messenger said. "We cannot afford Error in Upload. We must help Voyager Sraosha Discard."
Hands held my arms. Hands pressed down on my shoulders so I could not get up. Hands held my head. I thought I had been scared before, but now that I knew they were going to kill me, that just felt like practice fear.
"Voyager Sraosha," Messenger said. "Prepare for Discard."
A hand pinched my nose shut. I was hyperventilating and I needed to breathe so I opened my mouth and Voyager Cassiel started spooning Manna into it. The metal spoon clacked against my teeth and the Manna was bitter with the taste of crushed pills. I gagged.
"Stop it," someone said.
Then the hands weren't holding me anymore and Voyager Cassiel was on the floor with Manna all over her. Standing in front of me, facing the room, was Voyager Maion.
"She doesn't want to Discard," he said.
"Voyager Maion," Messenger said. "This is Great Error."
"You're making a worse Error," Voyager Maion said. "You can't force Voyager Sraosha to Discard when she's not ready."
"She is ready, she just doesn't know it yet."
"She's crying. She's begging you to let her leave. I won't let you make me a murderer."
"You put our Mission at risk," Messenger said.
"No," Maion said. "She's leaving."
I barely knew Voyager Maion. He'd renounced the world about a year ago. People said that he'd been jumped into a gang in Los Angeles when he was a kid and he'd been in and out of prison all his life. I guess he'd finally hit bottom, because he saw one of Messenger's YouTube lessons and drove down here that same night and begged to be allowed into the Transhuman Project. Messenger had agreed with reservations, since Maion and I were the only ones who'd never been to college and he wanted Crew who could hold high-class jobs like graphic design and HTML coding.
Voyager Maion had a narrow, ugly face, with deep acne scars. He rarely talked. We knew him as slow, stupid and silent. But now his face was dangerously blank.
"You okay?" he asked me over his shoulder.
"I don't know," I sobbed.
"Do you want to leave the Staging Area?" he asked me.
"No," I said. "I mean, yes. I mean, I don't know."
"You need to tell me," he said. "Do you want to leave? I have to know."
"Yes," I said.
He helped me up off the cot.
"Voyager Sraosha and I are leaving," he said to the room. "I'm sorry this happened. I want to Upload, but I can't have this on me. Not when she doesn't want to go."
"You're making an Error that will haunt you for the rest of your life," Messenger said.
He walked across Room A, pulling me along behind him. The Voyagers scrambled out of his way. Once, about five years ago, my car broke down on the highway in the middle of nowhere, and I had to walk for half a day along the shoulder of the road to the nearest gas station. The walk across Room A was a thousand miles longer but we made it. We were finally in the front hall.
"You can't do this," Navigator Remliel said. He was standing in front of the Staging Area exit access, holding a hammer with both hands.
"Please," Voyager Maion said. "Don't."
"I'm not going to let you compromise Discard," Navigator Remliel said.
"You can still Discard with thirty-four," Voyager Maion said.
"You're ruining everything we planned," Navigator Remliel said.
Then Maion stepped forward and I couldn't see what he did because he was blocking my view, but I heard two pencils break and then the hammer clattered to the tiles and Remliel slid down the door to sit on the floor. His face was white.
The Staging Area exit was locked.
"Where's the key?" Voyager Maion said. "Where is it?"
"We can delay Discard until the night cycle," Messenger said. "Let us address this Error together, Voyager Maion. Look what you've done to your Crewmate."
"Give me the key or I will put this desk through the front window and then the police are going to come."
"Maion," Messenger said. "Don't throw everything away."
The two of them looked at each other, and then Voyager Maion picked up one end of the desk in the hall.
"All right, all right," Navigator Izra'il said. He ran up to the Staging Area hatch, pulling a key ring out of his pocket.
"Izra'il?" Messenger said.
"We can still save Discard," Navigator Izra'il said. "Emergency Discard will be harder, but we can still do it. We can't lose everything. Not for these two."
He opened the exit and Voyager Maion dragged me out. The door closed behind us with a sound like the end of the world, and then we were walking down the path that led to the street.
We walked past the end of the driveway where I'd been standing just that morning. Then we were on the street. Maion made a left and dragged me with him.
"Don't look back," he said. "Keep moving. Follow me."
The asphalt was black, the sky was white, and we were walking away from salvation.
I don't know how we got to a motel that night. We sat on the twin beds and stared at nothing. We didn't even think to turn on the TV. I was empty. I dozed. At one point I woke up and I was still lying on top of the covers and I heard Maion crying in the dark. I got up and I sat on his bed.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Shannon," I said.
We made love. I can't say why I did it. Partly I was lost and he was someone to hold onto, partly it was gratitude, and partly it's that neither of us had had sex in years.
"You have to call me David now," he told me afterwards.
"You're Maion," I said. "That's still your name."
"I've lost my right to be called that," he said.
We stayed in the motel. We slept in separate beds. We talked. I got food out of the vending machines and it made us sick and I threw up in the toilet. We stopped eating. We drank water from the tap. We stared at the ceiling and the hours passed without us noticing. In the morning we did ELOHEEM but it was strange with just two of us. It wasn't until the third night that we decided to go outside, get something real to eat.
"Do you want to drink some alcohol?" David asked.
"Maybe it'll help me sleep," I said.
We went to a place down the street. A TV was on and I was hoping it was a Next Generation episode. Instead it was the news. There was a helicopter shot of the Staging Area. I almost didn't recognize it from that angle.
Discard had happened. Discard, Contact, Upload.
I watched as they flashed pictures on the screen. Then they showed video from inside the Staging Area. Cots were everywhere in Room A and Room B and from underneath the red Vessel Flags I could see everyone's black pants sticking out. I heard a noise behind me. David was on the floor, his arms wrapped around his head and he was crying.
I could barely drag him back to the motel. It was like his body had turned itself off. I got him upstairs and onto his bed and for three days I watched him. He pissed the sheets and I washed them in the shower. I fed him instant oatmeal. I made him drink water out of a baby bottle. I listened to him cry.
On the third day I woke up and he wasn't in his bed. There was water running in the bathroom. He came out clean and said that he was going to call his cousins. They had a place up in Inglewood. We moved there and got jobs. I had my daughter. I didn't wake up happy anymore.
I'm a waitress now. My thighs rub together. I recycle. I have a used car that needs a new transmission. When I see people lined up for some summer blockbuster dressed in costumes, I cross the street so I don't have to look at them.
Instead of Manna I get a 50% discount at all participating Denny's in Southern California. Instead of ELOHEEM I wake up and have a cigarette and a cup of coffee with skim milk, no sugar. I'm watching my weight. Instead of believing in the Conscious Universe, I believe in my daughter. I won't let this happen to her. I'll keep her safe. One day, she'll grow up and her life will look just like mine does now. And she'll have a daughter whose life will look like hers, and she'll have a daughter, and she'll have a daughter, and she'll have a daughter. The TV will be better, cars will get more mileage, computers will be faster, but the lives they lead will be the same. And they'll be safe from the craziness that swallowed me whole. That's good enough for me.
We used to think that the aliens would come down and rescue us from this broken world. But David threw all that away to save my life. He disappears for months at a time, and when he shows back up again I always let him in. No matter what he does, he can stay here. And when he screams and breaks things I know it's only because this world hurts him so much.
I wish he was a better man, I wish he was the father our daughter needs him to be, but I will not be the person who gives up on him. He will not be alone a day in his life as long as there is breath in my body. It's not the life I thought I'd have, but the UFOs aren't coming, there are no cathedrals of light to rescue people like me. So I will keep trying to hold him together and I will not abandon him.
I go to work. I punch the clock. I cash my paycheck. I pay my bills. I raise my daughter. I make my dinner. I save for a new transmission. Once, we took a vacation to Myrtle Beach.
This is some kind of a life. It's some kind of a salvation. It has to be enough. It's what I have.