He spoke to Akane only once before parting ways.
“Thanks,” she had said, sheepishly, and they both knew that there was more to be said about it than just one word.
He thinks it’s almost funny, that they spent those long stressful years on the moon researching and planning and predicting every route that fate could lead them down to reach the exact moment they needed. It’s almost funny, those sleepless nights they spent together, exhausted and restless with the AB Project looming over their heads. Days and nights of supporting each other and learning about each other, of tolerating annoying habits and discussing the Project as if it was actually code for something else.
But she says “thanks” like maybe she means it to be: “Thank you for willing to die over and over again for the sake of this convoluted plot I thought up.” Or maybe she means: “Thank you for sacrificing yourself for humanity and only mildly complaining about it.” It could even be: “Thanks for spending all those lonely years on the moon with me making sure neither of us went too crazy.”
But what she probably means is: “Thanks for buzzing me into your apartment.”
And what he really means is, “No problem, glad you could stop by.”
At first Sigma had been very into the whole “tracking down a possibly-maybe future terrorist” idea. But then he remembered just how many people there are on earth, and exactly how these timeline shenanigans work. And he thinks he’s had enough of trying to direct the future for one lifetime.
Maybe it was the remains of whatever drive had been instilled in him during those forty five years on the moon, but he had been completely ready to throw himself headfirst into the next crazy project that Akane thought up. It was how his life had been for a very long time, and the thought wasn’t unusual at all.
She asks him to join the Crash Keys to help search for terrorist that may or may not exist and for a moment he was tempted. Phi had joined, but Diana had not. Maybe it would give him some purpose back in his life.
But then he catches the pity in her voice, and realizes that she’s all she’s really offering is a way for him to pretend to be useful again. She says it the same way one might suggest placing their elderly parents in a nursing home.
And for a blind moment, he opened his mouth to say yes anyway, to blurt out: absolutely, whatever you need. Forty five years or just a few minutes, I’ll learn programming and robotics and cloning from scratch and I’ll learn how long you like your tea to seep and just how much I can tease you about Tenmyouji before you try to break my hand, and--
But then he looks in her eyes again, and he remembers that this Akane is not his Akane, so she can only pretend to understand.
Anyway, he’s not that desperate yet. He doesn’t have to rely on Akane to get some sense of normalcy back in this new timeline.
And so he says, “No thank you,” just a bit too coldly, and she had called him “Dr. Klim” when she left. Maybe she could tell his Kurashiki Bullshit Contract had just expired, or maybe this is the answer she had foreseen all along and was just being polite.
But she says “Dr. Klim” like maybe she meant it to be a gentle reminder, some sort of inside joke. Or maybe she wanted to bring a sense of cohesion to this mess, a sense of closure and finality to the events that scrambled his consciousness through time and space. But all it had done was make something sharp and frustrated roll around inside him for a long time after.
And then she closed the door behind her, cutting off all those years in which they knew each other but don’t anymore and after everything, quietly steps out of his life.
The silence she leaves is unnerving. He doesn’t like the way it sticks to his skin, so he turns on the TV to block it all out.
"What a fantastic sight!" The news anchor says with false cheer. What she doesn’t say is: "It’s a good thing none of us will contract radical six and shoot ourselves in the head on live television! Back to you, Ted."
None of them know. And if all goes well, no one will ever had to.
"You're welcome," Sigma says, too loud in the empty apartment. His voice crashes off the walls and reminds him just how empty the place is on a Thursday afternoon. But he doesn’t know what he was expecting. A response, maybe? A pat on the back for escaping the bad timeline and avoiding the apocalypse? Good job, Sigma!
What does he do with all this information inside his head? Things that had once been so vital to the survival of the human race now mean nothing. Everything he had spent so long planning doesn’t even exist anymore. What now? Write a sci-fi novel? Become a New York Times best seller?
No. Who would read something like that? And he isn’t too articulate, anyway. He had opened his laptop last week just to try, but then the thought had flashed through his head, Termites are natural architects, and their mounds are both structurally sound, and make excellent use of space.
He closed the laptop.
(We may be building some structure so perfect and elegant we can’t even perceive it.)
Aloe Vera, good for sunburns. Water every two to three weeks.
Not that he’s planning on starting a garden any time soon. Diana has very limited balcony space as it is, and he’s not going to take up more space in her life than what’s necessary. And besides, he should at least ask her before making impulse purchases.
He’s not going to start a garden. He just happens to find himself in the Home Depot parking lot because he doesn’t really know what to do with himself and Diana woke him up when she left for work. She has an early shift and it’s not his fault that he’s a bit of an insomniac.
Two hours of reciting robotics facts in his head counts as sleeping as long as his eyes were closed, right?
He isn’t tired but his eyes are bloodshot anyway, and he frowns back at his own reflection and watches the way his eyes move. No, he’s not going to start a garden. But it’s 4:24 in the morning and if he leaves now he only has to sit in the parking lot for two and a half hours before Home Depot opens. That’s better than sitting in the apartment, right?
Of course. Of course it is. Anything would be better than watching TV and making instant coffee and bizarrely missing the rations he used to eat on the moon. Anything would be better than sitting on this creaking couch watching the sunlight pass through the walls until Diana comes home and it’s time to stare at the ceiling for another night.
The moon is still out. He sees it as he drives. It’s good that the roads are clear because he’s pretty sure he’s forgotten how to do it.
Red means go, green means stop, merging into traffic means you can pull the steering wheel and crash into your neighbor if you’re not careful. A glance down at your phone and you could accidentally end it all right there in a fiery smoking wreck on the side of the road before the sun rises and nobody will even know until the morning rush hits a few hours later.
They won’t even know. He could die right now and it wouldn’t even matter. After all the crazy sci-fi shit that happened in order to bring him here, and he could run a stop sign and ruin it all.
But the roads are empty so he has no one to crash into, even if he is tempted. The roads are empty and he is driving too slow like the 67 year old man he truly is, creeping down the highway.
There’s the movie theaters. There’s the Trader Joe’s that Diana spends too much time in. There’s the Costco that reminds him of another warehouse he once spent his life in. And finally Home Depot. With its all caps orange lettering and it’s tendency to ruin small businesses. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing here, only that he parked crookedly and was the first person inside the store when it finally opened.
He doesn’t really know how he finds himself in front of the gardening aisle, or how he finds himself scanning the assortment of potted plants and succulents they have. Just one wouldn’t hurt, right? It would give him a hobby, something to do.
Aloe Vera is good for sun burns. It seems like a good place to start.
Diana doesn’t notice the plant when she gets home. That’s probably because it’s late in the afternoon and her long shifts at the hospital are kind of draining. But that’s okay. He didn’t expect her to. The plant is on the window by the kitchen and neither of them really go in there for anything other than coffee.
She doesn’t say anything, just closes her clear blue eyes and leans into his touch as he massages her back. She’s always stiff around the shoulders and he remembers doing this for her many times on the moon before she died. He’s handy for getting rid of all kind of tension. (The only stiffness he can’t get rid of is rigor mortis.)
He winces at the thought, but Diana doesn’t notice. Her skin is warm and soft beneath his hands and this would be almost sexy if his bloodshot eyes didn’t make him look like a crazy person.
“Take out tonight?” he asks, and his deep voice rumbles in late afternoon. She hums in response, as if that was an answer by itself, and he loves that he knows that it is.
She hums again, which means he gets to choose. He thinks that one of them should learn how to cook, and maybe that’s what he should be doing with all his free time.
He’s tired. His eyes hurt when he blinks. But this body is unaccustomed to his insomniac tendencies even if his mind is always awake and used to it by now.
But it’s nice, having her here.
Get up. Get up, Sigma. You have work to do. Go do it. You only have so much time and you’re wasting it, what are you doing? You’re going to be late! Get up, get up, go go go!
He gets up. It’s three in the morning. He has nothing to do because the AB project is over and done with and he’s lived a long life and all of his projects are finished and he’s only twenty two.
Still, this shrill alarm in his head is still ringing, screaming in his ear of all the time he’s wasting and all that he still has to do. Study cloning, work on robots, think of puns for Lagomorph! Build the entire fucking facility full of puzzles and make sure they all work properly! One hair out of place could send an entire timeline haywire, and that won’t do at all. Are you forgetting something? Are you forgetting something?
I’m not, he tells himself, shut up.
But he gets up anyway. He still has so much to do. He feels tired, not because of the time. It’s something inside him that feels old. In his head he can recall sixty years worth of memories. But his body can only remember twenty two.
In another world, he lived on the moon and studied and invented and created things, he was the star in his field because he was the only one in his field, and when Akane was away he could call himself the smartest person on the planet. And now all he has are student loans that are gathering interest. And he’ll have to pay them back. He finally had to call his parents last month to stop them from worrying and reporting him missing.
He went from a dickish, pseudo frat boy to a stern, slow talking 67 year old man. He tells them he has a cold, as if that explains it. They accept it, of course, just like they accept that he’s taking some time off from school and not to worry, he’s just going through some things.
“Okay sweetie,” his mom had said, carefully. “Just call us if you need anything, okay? We love you.”
Here’s where he should have said he loved her back. But his throat had closed up and he was struck with the guilt that he couldn’t believe he forgot what his mother’s voice sounded like. He opened his mouth to say something. The line is quiet because she’s waiting for him. But he couldn’t get the words out. He had just hung up silently, and hated himself for it. For the rest of the day, he had tried to get the words out, but they never quite made it.
I love you too, Mom. But it had been impossible. All the things he’s seen have taken him farther away from her than he’s ever been, and he knows he can never go back.
His next plant is named Luisa. He practices talking to it on the windowsill, Hello, how are you, lovely weather we’re having, isn’t it? Are you having a good day? I miss you.
Luisa doesn’t say anything because she’s a plant. But he imagines what his mother would have said if he could say any of this to her, and it is almost enough.
Next to the Gardenias are a burst of yellow carnations. The plant is named Victor, after his father. The color is bright, but he read online that it can sometimes mean disappointment and rejection in the language of flowers. He had thought it was fitting, in a slightly morbid way. He doesn’t have anything to say to Victor, but he had thought that it would be unfair to have a plant for one parent and not the other.
He had to get the soil tested for Luisa. Gardenias don’t like high pH soils because it prevents their roots from absorbing minerals such as iron and magnesium. He knows all of this because the only things running through his mind are plant facts. Carnations need slightly alkaline soil and about five hours of full sunlight a day. Platycerium Bifuractum needs filtered light, but Bromeliaceae Guzmania will be fine on their own as long as they aren’t exposed to direct sun too much.
With plant facts like these, who needs a social life? At least this is giving him something to do, something to focus on. He’s good at collecting useless information. It’s the only thing he’s good at. Screw customer service or fixing a flat tire, he knows how to absorb facts and learn. It might not be a marketable skill, but it’s all he has now. He knows how to study. He knows how to throw himself into a task. And he knows that bamboo can grow thirty five inches in a day.
This not because he’s forgotten how to have a conversation with human beings. He’s just good at science and he likes his plants. What’s wrong with that?
He likes caring for them and spending time with them, and they don’t ask him what he’s doing all day by himself and why he doesn’t respond to text messages. They don’t make comments about how he doesn’t answers emails or has cut himself off from the group. They don’t even mind when he calls them by their scientific name rather than the more common one.
It’s nice. This is the only part he liked about being on the moon, not having to talk to anyone. It’s something he’s used to, something he knows intrinsically. He falls back into the habit without even realizing it, but he doesn’t mind. It’s safe. It’s reliable. And it isn’t hurting anyone, so what problem is there?
There’s something wrong with Diana.
She’s laying there so still. It’s wrong, but it’s also very familiar.
She rolls her head to look at him, but there’s something different. He props her up, and he hears himself talking to her, asking her what’s wrong. This is familiar. Is it a memory?
Diana isn’t speaking. He says her name again, and that’s when it happens.
He almost doesn’t notice it, the way something seems to change in her skin. It’s when her face starts to part that Sigma is met with a sudden repulsion and nausea. Diana blinks up at him as her skin melts away, and Sigma isn’t sure whether he wants there to be machinery underneath or not.
Luna had been talking when this had happened to her, but Diana doesn’t say anything, just looks at him with her big blue eyes. He can hear himself talking frantically, but it sounds muffled and far away, and none of his words can do anything for the growing sense of horror and dread in his chest.
Diana coughs, weakly. She’s dying and he knows this because he’s seen it before. But it wasn’t like this last time. There’s something wrong. Something harsh and heavy pounds in his skull and that’s when Diana’s expression changes, morphs into pain and fear as her back arcs in response.
And then she screams, clawing away from his grasp and spasming in pain. She was suffering and she was dying and it was his fault because he brought her here. He did this to her. She struggles, hysterical, trying to get away from him, weeping and twitching and hears Akane’s old whisper of a voice in his head telling him that this was all meant to happen.
He hears it from all directions but he can’t tell where the sound is coming from. He lifts his head and he’s sitting differently, he’s in a dark room. He’s awake and he can feel it but the dream must still be going on, because he can hear Diana screaming.
Then it finally clicks, and he stumbles into her room with the memory of the dream fresh in his mind. Every scream brings him back the way her pale face had twisted in agony and he fights to remind himself that it’s not real, this is a different timeline and it will never happen like that.
“No, no, no,” Diana gasps, her feet tangling the sheets and her hand flying out to grab at an invisible foe.
She freezes at if caught by an invisible string and her eyes snap open. She breathes heavily for a moment watching him with wild eyes, and he wonders who she’s really seeing as he catches his breath. He hangs in the doorway, looking at her as she looks at him, and he sees that though her face is pale, his dream is just a dream.
“Don’t call me mom,” she begs, and it’s then he understands.
He turns on the lamp by her bedside with shaking hands. He should say something here, let her hear his voice and remember how different it sounds compared to Delta’s, how he looks nothing like him in the light and everything that had happened is over and has been over.
He should say something. He really should.
She reaches out to him instinctively and he climbs onto the bed next to her and pulls her into his arms. He can feel her shirt sticking to her back and he can feel her shaking and breathing heavily even as she rests her head against his heartbeat.
He remembers this timeline, too. But he doesn’t really know what happened after getting shot in the chest. Diana seems to remember more, and he knows because this is a nightmare she’s had and explained to him over and over again.
He makes low shushing noises, and hums a nondescript tune because he knows that she likes to hear the vibration of his voice in his chest. She still clings to him, but eventually her sobs quiet and her breathing settles. Sigma sighs into the low light, stretching his legs out the best he can. The image of her coughing and writhing in pain enters his mind again, but he knows now that it isn’t actually happening. Still, he tightens his embrace, and she leans in closer in response.
No one says anything, but Sigma knows she is awake. His hand drifts over to hers and he rests a loose grip on her pulse, feeling it pound beneath her skin. She listens to his breathing and he keeps track of her heartbeat, and they lay there in the darkness with the reassurance that they are both still alive to keep them through the night.
The next plant is named Luna. He doesn’t really have much to say to her, though. Her plant is Zinnia, and he had bought them because they looked pretty instead of because they had any particular meaning.
He imagines that it’s an apology, but it’s not nearly enough. He doesn’t really know who the plant is really meant for. Luna, to keep her memory with him in this new timeline? Diana, to remind him not to take her for granted? Or maybe it’s for himself, for getting a bit to neurotic about all these plants?
The solution here is to stop buying plants. And he will. He announces this to Diana and she smiles thinly and nods without saying anything.
“It reminds me of B Garden,” is the first thing Phi says when she opens the door.
“It’s nice to see you too,” he says, pointedly as she moves to sweep a hand over the Dryopteris Erythrosora hanging from the window.
“What kind of plants are you growing, old man?” She casts a bored look out to the crowded balcony.
“Weed,” he says, just to ruin her joke.
She rolls her eyes. “Looks like a cactus to me.”
He moves to inspect the plant she had been fondling, making sure she hasn’t bent any leaves or stems without knowing any better. “Parodia Tenuicylindrica,” he identifies without looking to check.
He can feel her staring at him, but if she has anything to say, she doesn’t get to it before Diana pokes her head out of the kitchen.
“Phi, can you come help me chop vegetables?”
Phi seems more than willing to leave the room, and he has the acute sense that they’re talking about him, but he’s quickly distracted by Ctenanthe by the window. He moves the plant away from it’s perch, worried that the sunlight will dull it’s leaves. It needs sun to show it’s patterns, but he knows they’ll fade with too much exposure.
He hears his name in the other room, in a hushed whisper. He belatedly wishes that he could bring himself to care.
“You could stay at home,” Diana offers, as she passes him a plate to dry off, “Clean and cook and all that.”
“I can’t cook,” he replies, running the towel over the dish in quick circular motions. In the other room, Phi snorts, as if in agreement. Aside from 45 years of rations on the moon, before that he had been a college student. A sleep deprived, vaguely alcoholic grad student with a high metabolism and a penchant for ramen noodles. Needless to say, he never found the time for a cooking class.
“You can learn,” Diana tosses back, and she is so playful and sweet and amazing and how did any of this even happen to him? Any snarky comments shrink in the back of his head when he sees the way her blue eyes sparkle.
You’re sixty seven years old, the voice in his head whispers.
“I can learn,” he echoes back.
He moves Ctenanthe back towards the window. He’d rather risk seeing it’s colors than to have it live in the shadows right?
Maybe a part of him had panicked without the structure of his old timeline. He had a plan there, a sequence of steps to follow that were sure to work. But the need to gather facts and memorize information had followed him here. It was familiar, and he had fallen back on his ability to store information away rather than deal with the idea that for once in his life he doesn’t know what to do next.
He tells Diana this. She tells him that he doesn’t have to do anything, for once. She means it to be reassuring, but all it does is keep him awake all night.
He finds himself missing his old timeline on the moon. It was quiet and nice and the only thing he had to look forward too was dying of old age. Now he’s twenty two again and he has taxes to pay and errands to run and his life needs to have a purpose again. Everything is spiraling off into a new path that he can’t plan for, and it’s terrifying, actually.
He feels so old. He’s twenty two.
“It smells nice in here,” Diana says, casually as she locks the door behind her.
He nods, distracted as he ties a knot. After a moment of silence he realizes she probably wasn’t looking at him and so he says, “Mm-hmmm.”
He can feel her eyes on him but he’s just trying to finish this net. Tillandsia are easy to grow indoors because they don’t need soil and that’s good, because soil is expensive and he keeps tracking it onto the rug.
Diana is vacuuming something. He can hear it humming through the walls.
Epiphytes only need to be misted with water once a week to be healthy, which is why he has the spray bottle at easy access. His head is filled with a constant rotating schedule, which plants need to go outside and which ones are about to have too much sun, which ones need to be watered frequently and which ones will be fine for weeks with no contact.
He feels Diana’s warm hands on his, making him stop his worried movements. He looks up at her, but he’s really looking at Dryopteris Erythrosora perched on the bookshelf behind her. It’s too close to the edge for his liking, he must have put it there without thinking. He’ll have to move it as soon as Diana stops looking at him like that.
“Are we going to talk about this?” She asks, and her voice sounds like wind chimes and her hands are so small on top of his.
“Talk about what,” he echoes, looking at the cloud of freckles across her small nose and how her eyes are so, so blue, and how is he even here to see all this?
Diana frowns, “The plants, Sigma,” she says, patiently. She moves to sit beside him, and waits until he gets the memo to look back at her instead of continuing his knots.
He blinks at her. “The plants?” He is a reflective surface instead of a human being and does not have any original thoughts to voice.
Diana twists a lock of hair. “I’m worried,” she says, “You don’t really talk about what happened in Dcom, but I know you must be thinking about it. That’s what this is really about.”
Diana is so calm and kind and sweet and amazing and how is it that she’s really here right now?
“I think about it sometimes,” he lies. Already he can feel the waves of panic and dread turning inside his stomach. “I just don’t see the point in dwelling on it.”
Diana is still frowning. He hates the look on her face.
“Well,” she starts, “I know you haven’t been sleeping. Have you been having nightmares?”
“No,” he lies again. He doesn’t really know why he isn’t being honest. It’s not like it would solve his problems.
And besides, what’s the worse thing that’s happened in the past few weeks? He picked up a new hobby and pulled a few all nighters? That isn’t so bad. Compared to his time on the Rhizome, it even sounds pretty nice in comparison.
Diana leans against him, and he feels a flash of guilt when he feels her warm weight at his side. Instinctively he moves to wrap his arm around her, and is pleased when she tucks herself into his shoulder.
“I think about it,” she murmurs. “I’ve been seeing a therapist for a while now. Mostly to discuss the restraining order, but I slip in other things as well.”
The restraining order. He pulls away in a bolt of panic. “The restraining order,” he remembers, “Shit, we talked about that, right?”
Diana takes a long time to respond. “Yes,” she answers, slowly, “You said you were going to come with me to the courthouse next week.”
Next week? (Who’s going to take care of his plants?) Next week? He’s going to the courthouse next week? But he knew that. The order is for her ex-husband, of course. They’ve talked about this, but he knows this by context clues rather than actually remembering the conversation.
Diana watches him with guarded eyes, “Are you okay?” she asks, worried by his sudden change in behavior.
“I’m fine,” he assures her, willing it to be true, “I’m fine. I just. Forgot. Really, I did.”
She frowns thoughtfully. “Oh,” she says, “But we spoke about it just this morning.”
She looks at him again before reaching up and pulling him back towards her. He doesn’t resist, instead slumping against the couch and watching the Epipremnum Aureum hang off the top of the television and dangle in front of the dark screen.
“Sorry,” he says, as the afternoon light catches on the plant’s curved leaves. “Sorry. I must have been distracted.”
Diana rests a hand on the crook of his elbow, “That’s what I wanted to talk about,” she starts, “you’ve been kind of distant lately.”
Guilt surges within him. “Sorry,” he says again. “I went a bit overboard with all this, didn’t I?”
“I’ve been pretty busy too,” she reminds him, “But it would be nice to spend some time with you.”
She smiles softly at him. Something heavy inside him lifts at the sight, and he smiles back.
That night, he dreams about starving to death. It’s both a dream and a memory at once. He watches a maggot on the floor, watches it’s pale, fleshy body squirm in front of his unfocused eyes.
“Diana,” he’s saying, urgently, “Diana, you have two hours before rigor mortis sets in.”
She’s crying. She’s turned away but he can still hear it. His weak voice somehow manages to reach her and he wishes he had strength enough to at least hold her hand in the time he has left.
“I’m not going to do that,” she chokes out.
“It’s not like I’ll feel it,” he tries to reason with her, “I’ll be dead.”
There’s a baby crying somewhere. He sits up.
No, there isn’t. He’s hearing things. He rubs his eyes and thankfully, the noise goes away. He thinks that maybe he should see someone about this lack of sleep thing.
He walks down the hallway and it seems to take a lot longer to get to the living room than it should. In fact, the hallway is a lot darker than he remembers it to be. Do they need to replace a few light bulbs? Diana should have said something, if that were the case. He’d be more than happy to go back to Home Depot.
Where is Diana? Did she leave for work already? Is that why it’s so quiet in here?
He starts running down the list of plants that need to be watered today as he keeps walking, thinking distantly that this hallway is too long. But when he reaches the living room, he wishes the the hallway had gone on forever instead.
His stomach bottoms out at the sight, and any coherent thought he might have had is lost to a wave of static and fear. He stares at the scene, morbidly fascinated but still not comprehending. This can’t be real. There must be something wrong. He takes another step in. He can’t breathe. He can’t take a breath. There’s something screaming inside him but it seems far away, almost underwater. He takes a pillow off the chair. It feels real. It looks real.
The lounge looks exactly the same.
He supposes he should be a bit more freaked out about this, and by the way his pulse is hammering in his head almost makes up for how eerily silent it is. But he holds the pillow and thinks, it feels real, is it real?
Well, he can’t say he hasn’t thought that this might happen.
He’s alone. He wonders why that is. Where are Diana and Phi? Did something happen to them that he doesn’t remember? Or is this before the Decision game even started? Why isn’t he freaking out about this?
There’s the Force-Quit box on the table, waiting for him. He wonders if he should do something to it. He wonders how he got here. Maybe a stronger version of himself shifted early and got lucky with the timelines. And maybe his consciousness was forced-swapped and now he’s back again somehow.
It’s a shame. He had really liked the timeline he was in. It was the only one where he and Diana got to be together. He hopes whoever replaced him knows enough to blend in. He walks further into the lounge, taking in it’s gray walls and lack of windows. If he threw something at it, would the scene change? He almost wants to try it. Where’s the X-door? Did he pass it already? He doesn’t know the passwords.
As he cranes his head to check, something brushes against his leg and shatters on the floor. He flinches back at the sound, looking down to find a pile of ceramic at his feet. His stomach turns, but he can’t stop looking at it.
Something’s wrong. That wasn’t supposed to happen. That wasn’t supposed to happen.
Is he going to get in trouble for it? Is his bracelet going to activate and pump him full of tubocurarine? He looks down at his wrist just to check, as if he could see the needles prepare themselves.
There’s no bracelet.
There’s nothing. His wrist is bare. What? Why is the room so empty? Where is everyone? He’s in danger, he feels it. Zero must be watching somewhere, just to see what he would do. Of course. Of course. This is a test. Why does his chest hurt like that? He looks at the dark, loamy soil splashed onto the ground, coated onto his foot. Shouldn’t he be wearing shoes?
He looks at the plant. It’s glossy leaves are splayed out limply on the cold floor, a shock of green against a cloudy backdrop.
Philodendron Xanadu his mind supplies.
He looks up. He’s standing in the living room in the early morning. It’s quiet but there are birds singing outside. The grey light fills the room and shows him at every angle that no, this isn’t the lounge at Dcom, this is the apartment he shares with Diana.
He isn’t back at Dcom. He can see the sun rising through the window. Something about it makes him want to cry.
He buys another plant. He deserves it, and also he needed to get out of the apartment. He takes care of his plants and doesn’t say a word all day. It’s just not a day for talking. Diana doesn’t seem to mind. She fills the silence in his head with her chatter and he tries to find the words for how grateful he is for her and how relieved he is to be here at all.
He takes her hand as she passes. She looks down at him softly. Somehow, it means everything he wants it to mean. It’s almost enough to make the feeling in his chest spill over. Almost.
That night it’s more of a choice not to sleep. He’s not quite in the mood for another nightmare, so instead he stays up reading about plants until the laptop light burns his eyes. No one stops him. Diana sleeps quietly in the room next to him. She had gone out with a few friends today, and had told him about talking to Akane on the phone and filled him in with all the new details in Akane’s life.
Not that he cares. He guesses this is just a thing people do. He remembers Diana telling him that everyone had asked about him, where he’s been and what he’s up to. They were probably just being polite, but Diana had told them he had taken an interest in gardening. She didn’t really mention just how much it had taken over his life.
The few people that know him wonder where he’s been and why he doesn’t respond to emails. The people that don’t know him want to meet him and he doesn’t know how to tell them that he can’t do that either.
It’s not that he doesn’t like Diana’s friends, even if he isn’t their biggest fan. It’s just that he’s reminded now more than ever of all those years he spent in isolation, and just what a handicap it is. He knows plenty about robots and computers and genetics, but that doesn’t make for the best small talk. He can recite a biology textbook cover to cover, but he can’t buy groceries or order coffee or even tell his mother he loves her.
The robots were easier. They only said what he programmed them to. Real people are different. They’re unpredictable and impatient and they don’t get how sometimes he doesn’t have the words to describe everything that’s happening in his head. Social situations make him feel like he has a gag over his mouth but no one can tell.
What is he afraid of? That Diana’s nurse friends won’t like him? That they’ll take one look at his brooding face and his large frame and his silence and disapprove? He doesn’t need their approval. In fact, he doesn’t see the point in embarrassing himself like that.
He can code robots and raise plants and build machines. But there’s no guide to memorize on how to be a human being. It’s just something else the AB project needed him to forget.
But that’s fine. It can work like this. He doesn’t need other people in his life. And he could totally have a normal conversation if he needed to.
It could go like this:
Person: Lovely weather we’re having, isn’t it?
Sigma: Yes. Good for the plants.
Person: That’s true. Are you a gardener? I don’t think I could do that with my allergies, haha.
Sigma: Acalypha hispida doesn’t release that much pollen.
Person: I’ll have to look into it. What else do you do?
He doesn’t sleep that night and it’s fine. He remembers to go to the courthouse with Diana and everything works out nicely so he takes her out to dinner. Not to celebrate per say, but just because he feels like this day should be special and she’s more than happy to oblige.
He takes her to her favorite Greek restaurant and they get seated beneath the hanging Cissus Rhombifolia, which is a nice touch. He can see that a few of it’s leaves have started to spot, and he wonders if any of the employees have noticed yet. Should he say something?
He opens his mouth to say something to Diana before realizing that she’s in the middle of a story. She’s saying something about her ex-husband and he listens patiently, but the guilt churning in his stomach doesn’t fade for the rest of the night. Even though he makes an effort to pay attention from that moment on, there’s still something hanging in the air between them that he can’t quite name. Whatever it is, it’s something he can’t get back.
He apologized when they get home. Diana nods but doesn’t say anything, and all it does it make him feel worse. He goes to bed and stares at the wall and thinks about plants until it makes him want to do anything just to stop thinking about plants.
His mind won’t stop. It’s like his brain is caught on loop, and every thought he has routes back to these goddamn plants, he can’t stop ruminating on it, and everything he knows plays back in his head, almost like it’s taunting him.
He needs his brain to shut up. He needs to get this caught phrase out of his head and he needs to sleep. He presses his palms into his eyes and thinks, Cissus anisophylla of the family Vitaceae has hairless stems and broad leaves. Flowers are green, about 5 millimeters in diameter, borne in compound cymes up to 6 centimeters across.
Cymes: a flower cluster with a central stem bearing a single terminal flower that develops first, the other flowers in the cluster developing as terminal buds of lateral stems.
He just wants to sleep.
He spends the next day in a haze and he doesn’t really remember anything about it other than his eyes hurt and his tongue feels too big for his mouth, so when he opens his mouth to say something nothing comes out. He finds himself in the kitchen and he has no clue what time it is other than the fact that the sky is a dusty blue and the sun is behind the buildings somewhere, so it must be morning.
He closes the refrigerator door. It’s the middle of the night.
Kyle sits down in B Garden next to him. I’m sorry , Sigma wants to say, but the words get stuck in his throat. So he does what he always does. He says nothing.
Kyle stares blankly ahead.
He’s in Home Depot again. This stretch of insomnia means that all the color has been seeped out of his world and he didn’t even notice. The Home Depot sign is just big where it should have been orange, too. Everything about this new world he’s in seems off.
“Good morning, Sigma,” The cashier greets as she swipes his purchase through the scanner, “How’s your garden coming along?”
“It’s fine,” he says curtly, reminding himself that she’s paid to be friendly to customers. The words pull out like shards of ice in his throat, slicing at his esophagus. The cashier smiles politely and tells him to have a nice day. He wants to tell her to have one too, but he’s worried that blood will pour out of his mouth if he opens it.
He drives home quietly, like he always does. His driving skills have gotten better with all this practice, but he still can’t find himself enjoying the task.
He’s tired. When he gets home, Diana is taking a nap on the couch and he wonders what it’s like to fall asleep whenever you want. He thought that it would get easier, but he hasn’t had a full night’s sleep in a long time. He takes a moment to look at her, trying to memorize the curve of her nose and how her eyelashes look against her cheek. He tries to remember the placement of every freckle, and how her voice tilts when she’s about to laugh.
She deserves so much more than he can give her. The plant is heavy in his hand and he knows exactly what to call it. It wasn’t like he had been putting it off, but he had thought that maybe if he didn’t think about it the guilt would go away.
He glances at his reflection in the mirror when he passes and sees that the purple smears under his eyes haven’t changed. The way he scowls and the way his red eyes dart around with the lack of sleep is the same as it has been when he bought his first plant. He stares at himself but the fog doesn’t lift.
He thinks his plants are dying, but he can’t be sure. He doesn’t remember which ones get sun and which ones don’t, which ones need to be watered every day or once a month or not at all, and which ones use the spray bottle and what their names are, they all look the same, they’re green and tall and watching him from every corner.
He thinks his plants are dying. He thinks that he might be dying. But then again, he isn’t really sure.
“Excuse me,” he says, his voice dragging along the dusty carpet behind him, “I need to get out to the balcony. Kyle needs eight hours of sunlight a day.”
Phi arcs a carefully trimmed eyebrow. “Kyle?”
He stares at her. Her eyebrows are red, like her mother's, and he takes a moment to think that they look a little weird with her dyed white hair before her words catch up to him.
He blinks. “Sansevieria Trifasciata,” he slurs, motioning to the plant in his arms, “I read that they thrive on being ignored. I thought it was fitting.”
“Are you kidding me?” Phi frowns at him, incredulous and maybe a bit worried. But he brushes past her and squeezes out onto the balcony. There isn’t enough room for her to follow, so she hangs back in the doorway, peering out at him.
“That’s awful,” she calls to him, “That’s an awful plant name.”
“I never said I was the best at naming children, Phi,” he says dryly, with his back turned.
The mention of Kyle has brought back things he had been trying not to think about, but why shouldn’t he? All the guilt in the world isn’t going to make up for the things he actually did (or didn’t do). And whatever Phi’s saying right now, she’s probably right. Naming a plant after him doesn’t change anything, and it doesn’t even make him feel better.
Phi is still talking and her voice has gone sharp the way it does when she’s berating him. This is probably a conversation he should be paying attention to, but if feels like if he doesn’t turn to look at her this won’t really be happening.
With his back turned he can pretend that it isn’t really him talking, like some sort of ventriloquist act and that he’s sitting in the audience for, watching as the man on stage that looks like him and talks with his voice says things he wouldn’t say. He turns and looks at Phi with dull eyes. Every night he hasn’t slept is weighing down on him and the only thing to tell him he’s alive at all is the way he breathes, calmly through it all.
Phi stares at him, her eyes hardened. She blocks the doorway and doesn’t say anything, and he looks at her and wonders if the pain of having his eyes fall out of his head would match the sting of exhaustion he’s feeling in them right now.
“Are you going to let me in?” The ventriloquist makes Sigma ask. He can feel his mouth moving and hear the words come out, except that can’t be him because he doesn’t sound like that.
Phi keeps staring at him. She’s probably taking in the way his hair is knotted and wild and greasy the way his left eye twitches and how both of them stare back at her with the same paranoid glare.
“Are you doing okay?” she ventures, cautiously, but doesn’t move from the doorway.
“Just fine,” he bleats, and the way the sun feels on his back doesn’t match the burning sensation in his chest. He could probably use the vitamin D, but he wants Phi to move anyway.
“Do you think this will make it up to him?” She finally asks, gesturing vaguely and he hates that pensive look on her face, like he’s just some anagram for her to puzzle out. What’s Anna say this time?
“No,” he says though the cotton blocking his throat and his voice sounds like he died yesterday and his eyes feel like shards of glass when he blinks and he wonders what they would looked like scooped out and deflated on the floor, rolling around on the balcony and into the alley below, landing on tin trash cans like rain drops. Gross.
“-coping mechanism,” Phi says, and he can feel his heartbeat in his head where his brain used to be and he doesn’t really feel like he’s here right now. Maybe all of this is just some dream, or a memory from a timeline he isn’t apart of, filled with people he doesn’t know and don’t know him.
“-igma,” Phi says, and he can hear the impatience in her voice. It’s funny, he can see her mouth moving too, but the words just don’t come out on time, they only catch up to him a few seconds later. It’s like his brain is lagging, like he doesn’t have the energy to hear things and comprehend them at the same time.
“You know what?” Phi snaps, tersely, “Forget it.”
She turns to leave and he lets her go. He feels like he should say something here, maybe apologize or get her to stay, but his brain is too sluggish and cloudy to react in time. She closes the door loudly. It echoes in the empty apartment, but he doesn’t know what to say.
Diana runs a tongue along her chapped lips before speaking. “Sigma?”
“Yes?” Look how fast he responded, it’s almost like he’s a human being.
She sits down. “What are you doing?”
“Watching TV.” Isn’t it obvious?
Diana doesn’t say anything, but that’s fine because he’s busy. He’s watching something.
“The TV is off, Sigma.”
He knew that. He knew that, of course he did. He looks at her, and sees that her hair is very, very red. Have they had this conversation before? Was her hair always this red? This is all so surreal, especially the way her freckles move on her face. He’s pretty sure that isn’t supposed to be happening.
She puts a hand on his arm. He doesn’t feel it. “I’m worried about you.”
That’s nice of her. He wants to say as much, but he can’t open his mouth. So he just keeps staring at her.
Diana is unperturbed. “I might not know all the details. But I do recognize this behavior. I am a nurse.”
Yes, you are, he wants to say, you are an amazing nurse, good for you. You’re so smart, Diana.
But he looks at her, numb and mute because there’s a cloud of static at the corner of his vision, and when he moves his eyes he can see splotches of colors move in response, and isn’t it neat how the ceiling fan spins and spins like that? If he focuses, he can almost see a face on each of the whirling blades as they pass. It looks stretched and elongated like that one painting by Van Gogh. What was it, Starry Night?
That’s right, Diana was trying to say something. He blinks down at her and she’s chewing on her lip the way she does when she’s worried about something. Don’t worry, he wants to assure her, just because he doesn’t like the look on her face.
Isn’t it weird how her hair is so red but the rest of the world doesn’t have any color at all? He’s never been more exhausted in his life. Diana opens her mouth, and closes it again.
“Let’s talk about this tomorrow,” she finally manages, “I think you need to sleep.”
That sounds good. He can’t remember when the last time he slept was. He wobbles like a drunkard when he stands and she gives him some little blue pill and tells him to swallow it so he does. It tastes weird in his mouth and he wants to say as much, but he can’t find the words. Should she be giving him pills like this? She’s a nurse, so it’s okay, right?
He feels sleep pulling on his eyelids, “Sorry,” he mumbles, as he sinks into the mattress, “I’ll do better next time. We need the AB Project to succeed, right?”
He feels someone take his hand. But if they have anything to say to that, he’s asleep before he can hear it.
He wakes up in his bed. When was the last time that happened? For a moment, all he can do is look at the ceiling and blink a few times just to feel how painless it is. His eyes are crusted but don’t feel like they’re falling out of his head, and his body is heavy instead of being wound tight, and his head is empty for the first time in a long time.
He almost doesn’t want to think at all, for the risk of a stray thought getting lodged in there and replaying in his mind all day. His head is pounding, but otherwise, it isn’t that bad. But he rolls out of bed and feels like he’s forgetting something important.
Diana. That’s right. She had been trying to tell him something. He doesn’t really remember much of the past few weeks. He should go and find her.
He walks quietly down the hallways. The walk is just as short as it always is, and the living room isn’t the lounge in Dcom, and it isn’t the Rhizome 9 either. It’s just the apartment that he lives in, and that’s it.
Diana is fluttering about when he finds her, a watering can in one hand and the leaves of one of his plants in the other. He doesn’t really remember the name of this one off the top of his head and he isn’t sure he wants to.
Diana smiles brightly when she catches him looking. “I didn’t want them to dry up,” she explains, “I didn’t know which ones needed to be watered so I just put a little in all of them. I hope that’s okay.”
She doesn’t want to mess this up, he realizes. She’s looking at him with those big blue eyes because she’s worried about him, and what had he been doing? He blinks at her, feeling the way each breath fills his lungs. It doesn’t feel like water is filling them with each inhale. It’s just air.
“Sorry.” Is all he says.
Diana waves a hand, “Don’t be,” she says, and he wonders if he should clarify that he’s not talking about the plants. Before he can say anything, her expression brightens again with forced cheer and she says, “But look at you! Eighteen hours of sleep! How does it feel?”
Eighteen hours? Good for him. He opens his mouth. “Good,” he croaks.
She raises an eyebrow, “Looks like you needed it,” she notes, passing him swiftly. “It’s been a weird couple of weeks, hasn’t it?
He looks around the living room. Where did all these plants come from? Did he buy them all?
She leads him over to the couch. There are some papers on the coffee table but he doesn’t want to look at them.
“Sleep deprivation,” she states, “Is insomnia normal for you?”
“Uh,” he says, “I think so. Looks like it.”
She shuffles the papers, “Looks like it,” she echoes, “we’re gonna go see a doctor later, by the way.”
He takes another breath. Does he have health insurance? He can’t remember. The weird headspace he had been in seems far away, almost like a dream, but if he focuses he can remember exactly how it had felt, and how the days had been. He rubs a hand across his face as if to pull the stress from his skin. He feels his chest rise and fall in another deep breath.
“There’s a bunch of other things we’ll go over,” Diana says, “but I’ve done a lot of reading in the past few weeks.”
“Wow,” he finally sighs, “This is a lot. Did I really buy all these plants? I don’t really remember it.”
Diana nods. “I don’t really know much about it,” she admits, “I spoke to Akane a few times about you, but she could only help so much. But from what she could remember from the other timeline, the one you came from, this sort of behavior isn’t abnormal.”
He squints at her. “Akane told you all that?”
Diana waves a hand, “Well, what she actually said was that your original timeline was very hard for her to reach because it was so far away, but she did know that you had very limited human contact on the moon and had to learn all this science from the ground up. But’s it’s the same thing, really.”
“Anyway,” Diana shuffles the papers, “it makes perfect sense. You have almost fifty years of obsessive tendencies, so of course that’s what you fall back to now.”
She hands him a paper and he looks at it without really reading.
She nods, proud of herself, “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she assures him, “I just wish you would have said something.”
He reads the paper again. It says something about anxiety and unfamiliar environments.
“I don’t know,” he tries, “I think that’s just how my brain is now.”
Diana nods, encouragingly, “Exactly. And that’s okay,” she says, handing him another paper, “The fact that you can recognize the cycle is good.”
“That’s not what I mean,” he argues, “If it’s not plants, it’s something else. Here there’s just too many variables I can’t account for.”
He looks at the paper she handed him. Neurotic habits are automatic or ritualized patterns of overt behavior that people engage in to alleviate anxiety and provide a sense of familiar security.
Diana takes his hand gently, and he hadn’t noticed it was shaking until she covers it with her own. “That’s why you distract yourself with the research and studying.”
“We can start small,” she continues, before he can say anything, “Like, for example, all my friends want to meet you, but you don’t have to meet them all at once. We can go out for lunch with Rebecca one of these days, and I can help you through it.”
He blanches, “She’s not going to like me,” he says, “She’s not going to like me, and I won’t know what to say.”
“What’s the worse that can happen?”
He blinks at her. “She’ll hate me and make you realize that you deserve better.”
Diana shakes her head. Something in her expression darkens for a moment, but she forces the thought away and leans in closer to rest her head against his shoulder.
“I think we both know my experience with dating,” she says, carefully, “And I know Rebecca will want to protect me. But I also know that she’ll see what kind of man you are. You’re a good person, Sigma.”
“I’m not.” The words stick in his throat. “I’m really not. You said it yourself, the person I was in the other timeline is still me now.”
She picks her head up and it’s then he realizes that he had been leaning away from her touch. She waits, but he can’t find the words to match the sudden rush of dread.
“Phi mentioned something to me,” Diana says, “She said you named one of your plants Kyle?”
There it is. He had gotten there before her, but the words arranged themselves out of order in his head.
“A clone,” he stares blankly at the floor, “I was supposed to raise him as my son, but I didn’t really raise him. All I did was continue my research. I hardly thought about him more than what was necessary. I didn’t even think about what the Rhizome would be like for a child with no real human interaction.”
Diana looks down at her lap, thoughtful. But when she doesn’t say anything, he presses on.
“I got to go back and have a second chance at my life. But for Kyle, his childhood on the Rhizome is the only one he’ll ever have, and I made sure it was a lonely one.”
He doesn’t want Diana to try and contradict him and he’s glad when she doesn’t.
“Like you said,” she starts, “you don’t get to go back and make it up to him. But don’t make the same mistake with the people in your life now.”
Epipremnum Aureum hangs in front of the television, it’s vines dangling off the sides of the pot. Plants versus child neglect doesn’t feel like a fair comparison, and he tells her as much.
“I’m just saying,” she tries again, “Don’t spend so much time thinking about a timeline you can’t go back to. But I’m not the authority on chronesthesia, so I might not know what I’m talking about.”
He chews the inside of his cheek and pushes the thoughts aside. “So, what do we do now?”
She falls back heavily on the couch. “Fix your sleep sleep schedule,” she lists, “turn your phone back on and actually text back when Phi messages you. Find a good therapist. Come with me to meet Rebecca, maybe get a part time job, think about if you want to go back to school in the fall and keep working on your PhD?”
She raises a hand at his alarmed expression, “Eventually, Not right away,” she soothes, “Just to start you out, how about the next time Carlos tries to get everyone together, you can stop by for a few minutes and say hello to everyone?”
“It’s a lot,” he sighs, moving to put an arm around her. She smiles at the contact.
“Sure,” she agrees, “But it’s all just practice. And really, the fun part is you don’t have to do it all at once. We have the rest of our lives to work on it.”
He thinks about it. It’s true. He has another forty five years to spend on earth that he has no plan for. But he doesn’t have to follow the same path that he had in the other timeline. He get let all the information he’s stockpiled fade away without being recorded. It will feel like a waste, all that time and effort spent memorizing things that mean nothing now, but isn’t that by itself something to be celebrated rather than mourned?
“I guess a part of it was me, too,” she says, and he opens his mouth to argue, but she keeps going, “I enabled it, I didn’t say anything about all these plants, or how you haven’t been eating or sleeping. I should have said something sooner. Or even just passed on a few ambiens here and there.”
He shrugs, “If taking a pill could solve all my problems, I’d get my PhD in pharmaceuticals instead.”
He looks down at the top of her head. She is so small and warm and her hand fits perfectly in his, and he is once again overwhelmed with affection when he looks at her.
“I should apologize, too,” he says, “you were getting the restraining order finalized and I wasn’t really present for it when I should have been.”
“I did a lot of it on my own before I met you,” Diana says, her gaze distant, “we just need to make sure we talk more in the future.”
The future. The future that is going to happen, and the one he gets to spend with Diana. The one that had only been a possibility, a distant thought, now is real and tangible in front of him. It’s equal parts terrifying and comforting, just how unpredictable and inevitable the future is. He doesn’t really want to think about it. But with Diana at his side, he feels like he could.
“I know it’s scary,” Diana says, “But I’ll be with you the whole way.”
The whole way. The rest of their lives. It’s sparks something hopeful inside in amidst the sea of dread and he clings to it. He can get back everything he had lost. He can learn it all again, just how to be one of the people on this overcrowded planet instead of just a tired old man on the moon.
Diana’s phone vibrates in her pocket. He looks around the room. “Do any of your friends like plants?”
Aloe Vera, good for sunburns. Vera means true in Latin, but that’s irrelevant.
This one goes to Tenmyouji. He grumbles about it but accepts the gift anyway. Akane mentions that he should name it Quark and he tells her that it’s a weird name, especially for a plant.
Luna’s zinnia as well as the gardenia he named after his mother go to Phi, because he knows that he can trust her with his family. She calls him a sentimental old man, but he can see the relief in her eyes, and can hear it in her voice when she asks if he’s done ignoring her phone calls. He would have given her the carnations as well, but he had left them out in the sun and they had dried up in response. Oops.
The rest of the plants are dispersed to the group, and Diana takes a few of the easier ones to the hospital to give to the receptionists and to spread around her friend group. Even the plant he named after Kyle is given away, but that’s fine too. He can get a better plant, if he needs to, one that isn’t known for it’s tolerance of being ignored.
And it isn’t easy, but it’s something. After a while, the apartment stops looking like a miniature greenhouse and more like a place for people to live in.
It rains that weekend, so they spend it inside watching movies because neither of them have any real work to do. He always manages to forget that it rains on earth, despite how he’s been back long enough to have seen it before. Somehow, he manages to stay focused on the movie for the entire two hours, and his mind stays in his head the whole time.
Diana’s hand is warm in his and they talk and talk for long after the credits run, until he runs out of things to say other than the wall of plant facts crowding his throat. Diana talks about one of her coworkers instead, telling a story he thinks he’s heard before. It’s nice to finally talk with her. He can’t remember the last time they did this.
Her eyes glow when he looks at her, so he thanks her again for being with him.
“You’re welcome.” Diana smiles, and it finally feels like enough.