When we arrive at the airport and wait for our minibus, we tell stories about multi-headed goats standing in the crooks of trees. About plants twisting their limbs and leaves to mimic the DNA of viruses. About bodies, and how they are frail, and susceptible, and only ours until they belong to age, or science, or the millions of mundane accidents that can maim, reshape, melt, or destroy.
When we get in the vehicle we drive for hours. Through old borders of old countries. Through fields that have not grown crops for more than one hundred years. Through a town that is like a body whose mind had left, all the people emptied out to cities: larger bodies, better bodies, healthier bodies, or if not healthier, at least more inviting.
When we get to the checkpoint with the sign that reads
we sigh. Sit up straighter in our seats. Cup our hands against glass as we bump over ill-kept roads, the kinds too expensive to maintain, the kinds no one repairs because, who, in this day and age, cares about disaster’s memory?
We ask each other, can a relic be a novelty? And the answer, by consensus, is yes.
We listen to stories told by our tour guide. Grim tales of a warning we no longer need to heed. He says, we are lucky to have advanced. To have found new forms of energy. He says, people didn’t used to care, and we nod agreement. We listen to stories about bodies that wither. We listen to stories about stories: old television shows and movies that capitalized on (but informed about, too) catastrophe. We listen to stories about sarcophagi and instead of thinking about those who died, we imagine them alive. We imagine 4,000 people hefting with the inhuman strength of desperation the concrete and steel, and then pouring out from under it into the wilderness that had claimed this space.
The guide tells us, no more lives will have to be lost. He stresses the word have. He tells us, this is why we have robots, and we do not think of the programs and bodies who replace the sarcophagus. We think of the creatures in our homes: the dogs that don’t shit on lawns, the Kitchenmate that never burns the toast, the Laundrybot that even when it malfunctions, at least perfumes the house with a scent of our choosing. We nod our heads and agree that the value of human life has been appropriately calculated. Thank goodness we’ve evolved, we say.
When we exit the vehicle near the fence, the guide tells us the elephant’s foot—the remains of the reactor—is radioactive for 20,000 years. While we stand, and sit, and crouch, we try to find the best way of looking through the rows of thick, wire fence. We try to see the beyond, what normal-looking trees and foliage are hiding. We ask, what is the half-life of a sign, because it reads, in a language we subvocalize to our comms, DANGER> BANNED> RADIATION, and like the sarcophagus, it will need to be replaced, again, and again, and again. He tells us, laughing, that signs don’t have half-lives. He tells us the half-life of the metals comprising the sign are much longer than the 19,000 years we still need to wait out. He says, this sign will be here long afterwards, and we nod our heads.
We want to see more. We do not like the term exclusion zone, because exclusion carries too many connotations.
We press against the fence. One of us wiggles a finger through, and the fence takes it: cauterizes to the bone with us staring at a blackened joint. The guide says, this is as close as we dare.
But he is wrong. Afterall, he is just a robot.
This is as close as we dare, he repeats when one of us pulls a rope and hook from her backpack, throws the rubber coated claw upward, and begins to scale the fence.
He says, I wouldn’t do that, and we scoff. We hit him in the head with the rods we have hidden in our bags and watch his metal crack and bend. We watch something like plasma leak from exposed wires.
We travel the length of the fence, hackerchips on our fingertips. We place them at intervals and the bravest of us drops to the other side, where she lands, on hands and knees, on grass that cushions her fall and we smile.
As close as we dare, we mock, pulling our own ropes and hooks.
We say, when we get sick—when our bodies weaken in the ways science cannot yet repair—they will confuse what we’ve done with stupidity.
But when we are uploaded into new bodies, we will be able to carry this memory. We will travel on new legs and spread an old gospel. We know some will call us crazy, a cult, relics, but as we’ve already decided: a relic can be a novelty, and a novelty can be marketed, and to be marketed means to be visible, which is what this place is not, forgotten as it is, a blip on a map, foliage too dense even for drones.
When we are on stage, we will invite them all to come as close as they dare, to see the revolution of remembering. We will let them finger our sockets and peel back our skin. We will let them plug into our memories of sickness and slow decay. Some will be angry that they have died once—with us—and must now die again. But some will come to understand—when they put their palms on our chests and feel the emptiness inside, waiting for the thump thump thump that never comes—that there is always suffering, because the past is not the past, but simply the slow heartbeat of the future.
Gwendolyn Paradice is hearing impaired, queer, and a member of the Cherokee Nation. Her writing has earned nominations for both the Pushcart and Best American Essays, and her nonfiction, fiction, and poetry have appeared in Assay, Crab Orchard Review, Brevity, Fourth River, Booth, and others; her short story collection, More Enduring for Having Been Broken, was the 2019 Black Lawrence Press Husdon Prize winner, and is forthcoming January 2021. She retains a MA in Nonfiction from the University of North Texas, an MFA from Bennington College, and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Missouri, where she lives with her partner. When she’s not weightlifting, playing video games, or trying to read all the books she’s amassed, she writes speculative fiction, nontraditional nonfiction, and bends genre.