The year was 2381, and every woman was finally equal. N’asha He-Colin felt it in her bones: this was going to be the year for her. She had fully recovered, was off to study and had landed a spot at the prestigious, if ironically named, Prairie View Island Research Center, located on a medium-sized womanmade island near one of the largest of the lost cities. The island was tropical and remote, and she couldn’t wait to arrive in August, just in time for the school’s legendary late summer pool parties. She’d be studying the history of law – when there was time for studying – and it was no coincidence that she’d landed in that field: there had been no major breakthroughs in the history of law since a sister at the Columbia Archives had uncovered embarrassing SIM messages between two of the last Justices to sit on the bench before the Common Law Intuitive Technohub, the AI that had perfected the legal system, had taken it out of the fallible hands of humanity.
N’asha was not terribly interested in unearthing anything novel or controversial. She’d darken herself in the sun, meet some fine sisters, and write a few papers about the first coding of the Common Law Intuitive Technohub and how the communal structure of Sister Thomas’ original hack academy had contributed to the main architecture of machine learning that those first acolytes had harnessed. Sister Thomas was everyone’s favorite research subject because it didn’t matter what someone wanted you to research, Sister Thomas had always written a blog entry, a tweet, a SIM message, or a Medium post on the topic. The professors would pass her, and she’d move on from her tropical paradise – memories in tow – to the colder cities in the north, ready to take on whatever menial tasks the Common Law Administrative Module assigned her. The academics were not the primary purpose that N’asha wanted to settle in to Prairie View. No. She was there for the Sorority.
The Sorority there was unmatched, and this would be the first time that she was able to take up her position with her line sisters out in the open world, out of the watchful eyes of her Mothers. The first of the parties for Rush Week was mere hours away, and the theme was Classics. N’asha had packed a toga and was ready to party. The party would be held on the beach, under the stars. It would be attended by all the most influential sisters out of all the most influential lines. She had few obligations during this event, beyond not embarrassing her own sisters and making strong connections with as many other new students on behalf of her line.
The beach was lighted with torches as the moon rose over the dark waters of the Caribbean Sea. N’asha was unaccustomed to being around so sisters she didn’t already know. One she did know from back in the clutch, LaTanis He-Thom, had been assigned to show her around, introduce her to everyone and make sure that she was settling into Sorority nicely. LaTanis had met N’asha earlier at the dorms and they had walked across campus toward the shore together, catching up since they hadn’t seen each other in over a year. N’asha had been surprised at how dedicated LaTanis was to her studies. She assumed that everyone else had come to Prairie View for the Sorority, but LaTanis, a microbiology student, had seemed almost singleminded in her pursuit of splitting cells. N’asha made a quick mental note to avoid LaTanis for as much of the evening as she could.
When they arrived at the party, it was unlike anything N’asha had ever seen before – in person, at least. She’d seen gatherings like this on linoscreens, like the one at the Supreme Comb, where Mothers and Sisters from all the different lines came together to reaffirm the union of all womankind. But that, in the enormous hexagonal pavilion with all its golden geometric panels, was something N’asha knew she would never experience personally. This was visceral. All around her stood beautiful women wearing every shade of white known to womankind. It was rare to see this sort of thing in clutches – everyone wearing the same thing – because the primary focus of the cradle was to foster individuality and personal excellence, to help each sister find her own personality beyond her relationship to the line. But this sort of event was meant to elevate Sorority above all else, to strip away the differences between the lines and remind everyone of their shared humanity. In a world where everyone shared the same face with someone else, special attention had to be paid to the delicate balance between the self and the Sorority.
The differences in the crowd were pronounced to N’asha, no matter how whitewashed. It was taboo to remove your distinguishment, the one thing that could be used to tell you apart from all your line sisters, so, in addition to their togas, all the assembled women wore a type of decoration or body modification that was uniquely theirs. N’asha’s own distinguishment was a green paint she wore, applied and reapplied religiously each morning. Each of the billions of distinguishments had been uploaded into the central datasphere so that no new sister would accidentally choose the same one as another sister. When sisters died, their distinguishment was released by the datasphere so that a new sister could use it. Some lines used tattooing, others paint, and still others more extreme methods to claim their uniqueness in a world of clones.
Around her, N’asha saw Jurkat sisters, who always used modifications based on the old Ko, Bissa and Yoruba people of West Africa. These facial scars in generations past would have been lashes or hash marks, but modern technology allowed more intricate and precise geometric shapes. One Jurkat line sister, standing in the crowd near N’asha, had a spindly tesseract, exquisitely carved into her skin like the finest spider’s silk, directly in the center of her ebony forehead above her eyes. She must have been born at an incredibly auspicious time to have been able to use that distinguishment. It had a well-known history, having been worn by two of the most well-known women of Jurkat; each had risen to the highest council within the Supreme Comb. N’asha edged away from her; ambition required work, and N’asha planned to do as little of that as possible.
As a girl, N’asha had chosen not to pierce her ears, tattoo her face or scar herself. It all seemed too painful despite the anesthetics. She had opted for a simpler signifier, a few dots of emerald green smeared at her temples in a slight upward curve. She sometimes wished she had picked a more extreme distinguishment, because hers felt self-consciously mundane. But to change one’s distinguishment was unheard of except in the most extreme circumstances. To make up for this, she wore long braids in two large sections which hung down over her shoulders in front. She had threaded beads of the same emerald green into her braids at intervals to augment her distinguishment. She scanned the crowd and took in hundreds of distinguishments. A piercing here. A tattoo there.
LaTanis had suggested N’asha walk around a bit and introduce herself to a few sisters. It would be good practice, she’d said, and N’asha obliged, grudgingly: she slunk toward the food, hoping it would serve as a simple ice breaker. A tall sister stood behind the punch bowl wearing robes that were so white that they glowed against her incredibly dark skin. Her head was shaved, and on the crown she wore the most spectacular blue swirl of paint. N’asha hadn’t ever seen anyone with such dark skin, but she’d heard of the Hek line sisters, and knew they all seemed to have skin that was coffee dark. N’asha fell instantly in love.
“I’m Patri’ce,” she said over the bowl, hastily adding, “Hek-Adam.”
N’asha felt her face warm. She introduced herself and found herself sharing far more about her life than she intended. How she’d just finished her first birth and oh it was really quite fine and she really hoped the next would be so smooth and the Mothers were doing a fantastic job back where she’d come from and she had been so excited to come to Prairie View because it was warmer and she just loved the sun so much and she was looking forward to darkening up a bit herself. Patri’ce smiled at the last part and interrupted for N’asha’s sake when the young woman had finally taken a breath.
“The beaches really are wonderful. If I can tear you away from your line sisters, I’d be happy to show you around sometime.”
N’asha thanked her, took some punch and went back to find LaTanis, who was by then surrounded by women who looked identical to them both except for their distinguishments. The three women flanking LaTanis were the three most senior of N’asha’s line sisters at Prairie View: Preshus He-Colin, who wore a single permed pony tail on top of her otherwise shaved head, surrounded by a tattoo of concentric circles; Ne-Ne He-Howard, whose left ear was tattooed to a dazzling copper color, and in which she wore an elaborate copper earring that moved and danced like a tassel; and Phyluscha He-Phil, who had several white dots tattooed in clusters above her eyebrows.
“Welcome, sister,” said Phyluscha, reaching forward to kiss N’asha once on the cheek. Each of the others performed the same ritual greeting before forming a semi-circle around N’asha.
“It’s so good to have you,” started Preshus, “and I’m sure you’ll let us know what we can do to make this feel more like home.”
“It’s so hard,” offered Ne-Ne, “We just did what you’re doing a couple years ago, and we all know how difficult it is to leave the Mothers for the first time. So think of us as…” she glanced around, “substitute Mothers. We’re not as good as they are, but we’ll try.”
They led N’asha around for what seemed like hours, introducing her to line sisters and sisters from other lines. It was a whirlwind, and before long N’asha’s gaze began to drift out to sea. The moon splashed neon on the water, glittering and dancing. The torchlight was intoxicating, especially against the drone of so many laughing, celebrating voices. Suddenly, N’asha wished she could just step out of her toga and slip into the water. She felt, in that moment, that gliding into the water might just be like becoming a part of the whole of Sorority. She could drink in all the sounds at once and never leave.
Then the step began. N’asha felt it before she heard it. There was a thud nearby. A slow, rhythmic stomp that reverberated through her entire body only once before she felt herself instinctively joining in. Each line had its own special, private routines. But this was the first time that N’asha would take part in a step with sisters from other lines. This was the Unbroken Line, the highest of all steps, which was the first step dance young women learned, as they learned their history. It always started from chaos, the darkest of times, and it slowly grew into a chorus of careful, delicate syncopation, each line contributing a special part of the rhythm so that it could only ever truly be performed with representatives of each line present. N’asha closed her eyes and the world fell away, leaving only the heartbeat of Sorority to envelop her.
N’asha’s first day of classes began with a visit from Ne-Ne. The dormitories were all organized by line, and Ne-Ne’s rooms were quite close to N’asha’s simply by virtue of their first names.
“I couldn’t possibly tell you about the professors in the Bland Center, but all of mine have been exceedingly nice.” She stopped and examined her nails, as if seeking approval for what she was about to say. “But I don’t want to give you any false impressions: my advisor has been the most difficult person I’ve ever worked with. That’s their job. They are there to push us. And mine, at least, has.”
N’asha was suddenly worried about her advisor. She’d seen the woman’s name but hadn’t learned anything about her that the web couldn’t tell her directly. The woman hadn’t contacted her since she had arrived, and while that seemed suspicious, N’asha assumed there was a good reason for it.
“I’m sure I’ll get along with her.”
Ne-Ne smiled vaguely in warning.
Later that morning, N’asha sat in the administration office at the Sandra Bland Center for Human Rights, waiting for someone to come fetch her. Her advisor did eventually show up, 45 minutes late, full of apologies and a hurried welcome. She was Sharr’i Vero-Kendrick, and she was nothing like anything N’asha had ever seen before. The Veros were known to be on the more volatile side of things, but Sharr’i was almost hilariously out of control. She paced around her office with her dreadlocks swinging wildly around her shoulders while N’asha sat shrunken in an overstuffed arm chair in the corner listening to her rant about the current state of legal scholarship. She was a serious academic, and N’asha had better be ready to become a serious academic if she wanted to survive there.
Survive there. Sharr’i made it sound dire, and N’asha found herself stifling laughter at the thought that anyone believed the law to be a matter of life or death.
“What do you think?”
N’asha realized that she’d been zoned out just long enough for Sharr’i to ask her opinion. She was going to have to admit to not listening.
“I’m so sorry, I’m trying to keep up, but perhaps could you tell me more?”
“It’s a document review project.” Sharr’i eyed N’asha suspiciously.
“Great. Wonderful. I love documents!”
“Okay, well, we’ll get you started this afternoon after your first classes. You’ll be set up in an office here in my suite, and I’ll be checking in on your progress periodically.”
“And what classes will I be taking,” asked N’asha, tentatively.
“Oh dear. Didn’t they tell you? I have no idea. I should probably know. It’s probably some algorithmic stuff starting out. How the Common Law interprets different data and makes rulings, how that matches up with some of the parent system. You might be taking a language class. Legalese will be required, but so are Middle English, Late English and Neo English. So it’s anyone’s guess what they’ll be starting you with. Do you speak any other languages?”
Just before N’asha could answer, Sharr’i swept a linoscreen off one of the tallest stacks of paper that littered her desk and shoved it into N’asha’s hands.
“That’s what they gave me on you, so it’s probably in there. Okay, so Bobbi will get you set up with an office and I’ll be in touch.”
Sharr’i smiled widely with her eyes to indicate that their meeting was over. N’asha took the linoscreen with her and made her way out into the front office. An angular woman with khaki colored skin and ear tattoos that ran dramatically down her neck.
“That’s me,” she said, before standing and offering N’asha a distant peck on the cheek, whispering “welcome, sister.”
Bobbi took N’asha deep into the office suite, past about 20 tiny offices, each of which was assigned to Sharr’i and her students. Suddenly, N’asha understood why the woman was so frantic. She had to manage all these scholars. And she had to make a dead subject seem relevant to them. And she probably had to justify the existence of the department every year, while also explaining why they hadn’t turned up anything new. Suddenly, N’asha felt sorry for her advisor, followed by a pang of panic. If the department closed down, she’d be shipped somewhere else and the odds that it had such a beach were going to be vanishingly small. That’s when Patri’ce emerged from one of the offices and N’asha forgot entirely why she was following Bobbi and nearly walked into a wall. Patri’ce smiled as N’asha righted herself, and, although N’asha couldn’t have been certain, she thought she saw Patri’ce wink.
“And here you are,” Bobbi motioned to a small room. It already had N’asha’s name on the door. It was small, had no windows, and the only furniture in the room was a small desk and a chair. The room was about six feet long and three feet wide. Though she’d never been in one, N’asha was suddenly certain that she knew how it felt to be in a coffin.
“It’s got a reputation for partying, but Prairie View is really quite exceptional,” said Patri’ce, sipping strawberry juice.
“So I’ve been learning,” said N’asha from behind sunglasses.
They were reclined at the side of a public sea pool, built into the edge of the island. At high tide, the waves rolled in and filled the pool with fresh seawater and, now, at low tide, the sisters on the island flocked to the pool to relax. A nearby cabana served fresh and frozen juice drinks to the assembled women.
Very few sisters wore bathing suits, bronze and brown bodies crowded in the late summer shallows. Patri’ce was naked, allowing her onyx skin to soak up more solar radiation, but N’asha’s breasts hung over a bathing suit that covered her stomach. She was self-conscious about it, even though she could see at least 20 other caesarian scars on the other bodies floating in the waves. It was so common, and although sisters were encouraged to embrace their bodies, N’asha always felt that the ugly smile was somehow taunting her.
It would have been one thing if it had been her distinguishment. She’d have chosen it.
“I haven’t heard from Sharr’i since I arrived,” N’asha admitted.
“That’s not unusual,” suggested Patri’ce, “She’s got a lot going on. I don’t think I saw her for eight months after I arrived. She’ll just expect you to ping her when you need something.”
“What I need is another drink. Can I get you something?”
“Watermelon this time,” Patri’ce smiled.
Later that afternoon, N’asha quizzed Patri’ce about her work. She had been at the Bland Center for a couple years and she had one year left before she would head off to her own future placement. She was to become a Memoirist, one of the many sisters tasked with unearthing facts about the people who came before – before the lines – responsible for telling their stories, keeping alive their memory now that all their true descendants were gone. Patri’ce took seriously the burden of memory the Sorority inherited along with the world.
Patri’ce was studying the women who worked for the Supreme Court long before the Common Law took over. Not the Justices – many memoirs had already been written about them – but she was interested in the clerks, the women who had risen almost to the top, who had touched the glass ceiling of their time, perhaps even punched it, but who had remained just out of the reach of power. Those women had been so overlooked by history in favor of the ones who cracked or broke the glass. She would tell their stories, write their memoirs and expand appreciation for the work they did. While it was true N’asha wanted nothing to do with any topic that was controversial or sexy, Patri’ce’s choice of a topic felt deliberately ascetic. But this was the nature of so much academic work, after all.
She had little luck with her research for Sharr’i, sifting through boxes of transcripts hoping to learn something new. She understood little of what she read. It was all just discussions of ethics from a time when capital punishment was still permissible. It wasn’t that they were all idiots before the Common Law took over. But Thomas More, one of the men who had given LaTanis part of her surname, had noticed the practice of creating thieves and then punishing them hundreds of years before the Common Law finally eradicated the practice – and everything in between those two points just felt like judicial masturbation.
The language was difficult to read. She understood every fourth word or so. Legalese was almost hilarious in its opacity, but mostly it was just infuriating. How did jurists expect people to decipher this nonsense? She had several pages worth of notes of the difficulty of laity interpretation, but that wasn’t new. Major texts had already been written on the problems of the parent system: prejudice, capriciousness, and lack of transparency were standard fare. She hadn’t turned up anything that other scholars hadn’t already uncovered.
The invitation went out across all the linoscreens on the island at the same time. Once, it would have been called Homecoming, but now it was called Mater Vocat, the mother calls. It was the event of the Autumn, and N’asha had been preparing for it since her arrival, as had her mothers. The mothers of her clutch, Ashi and Fala, would arrive on Thursday, and the parties would begin immediately.
It was the Thursday morning that Ashi and Fala were set to arrive that Sharr’i blustered into N’asha’s office and demanded an update. N’asha had been shopping for clothes for the weekend. She needed something new, something that would show off how well she was doing. It was a justifiable purchase: the climate was so much warmer here that most of her clothes from back home in the North were inappropriate. She kept expecting the fall to rush in with its indifferent winds and sundrunk afternoons, but it never seemed to arrive. Summer just kept going, as if it hadn’t gotten the memo that The Hallows were just around the corner. N’asha was examining a holo of herself wearing a long sheer gown when Sharr’i burst into her room.
N’asha was so shocked and disturbed at the sudden presence in her tiny enclosure of an office that she didn’t even have time to fabricate anything interesting. She flicked her linoscreen toward something more official as Sharr’i began her questioning. The advisor stood uncomfortably close to her, and – momentarily – N’asha considered whether it was merely because the room was so small or because Sharr’i was trying to be intimidating. She smelled of oil and mint, and, while it wasn’t unpleasant, it was intense.
“I just don’t know what I’m looking for,” she said, exasperatedly.
“None of us is looking for anything, honey,” Sharr’i cooed. “We’re just looking. It’s just our job to look and report what we find. And you’ve found nothing?”
N’asha’s mind ricocheted between indignation and terror, as she frantically considered whether Sharr’i’s accusations were fair. Where had her mentor been all this time? If she was so urgently hoping N’asha would come up with something, why was she never around? Perhaps N’asha would have been more successful with some more direction? In her gut, N’asha also knew she would have been more successful if she and Patri’ce hadn’t spent nearly every afternoon of the last week visiting the beach and every night visiting each other’s beds. But Sharr’i couldn’t know that. So perhaps indignant, or at least explanatory, was the right tone to strike.
“Well, I wouldn’t say ‘nothing’,” suggested N’asha. “It’s just that I’m pretty sure everything I’ve found has already been found before. I mean, I’m really just in the lit review stages, naturally. Mostly I’ve been reading some of the ethics rulings from the period before the Long Goodbye began. Some were referenced in the Long Goodbye Ruling. One was Dred Scott and another was called Obgerfell. They’re both about human rights, and they’re important, I think. One seems to be explaining that humans don’t have rights, but the other seems to say they do. So it’s tough. It is just so slow to try to read Late English Legalese. I still have a couple cases to get through and I think that should give me a good understanding of the background documents.”
“If it is so slow moving, maybe you should pick a less ambitious project. Something more recent that you can actually understand. I worry that you are going to spend too much time getting caught up to speed on very old documents and then you’ll never find something that helps illuminate the Common Law.”
“I tried reading the Book of Fees and the Golden Bull, but I couldn’t get anywhere with Middle English.”
“You’re not the first to struggle.”
N’asha sighed heavily, conspiratorially. This was turning out to be much less accusatory than she’d expected. Now Sharr’i would lay a heavily scented hand on N’asha’s shoulder and impart some sage wisdom and ride off into the dark corner of adulthood from whence she came, never to be seen again, except when N’asha produced a passably articulate research paper which met the standards of the institute and secured her eventual position with the Common Law Administrative Module.
“Nor are you the first to spend too much time on your social life when you should be working.”
N’asha felt the floor fall out from underneath her.
“N’asha, I’m neither of your mothers. And I’m not here to tell you how to run your life. But I am here to tell you that your performance so far has been disappointing.”
“I’ve only had a few months to really begin,” N’asha protested, feeling a sudden resurgence of righteous fury. “And if this is about that holo I was looking at.”
“N’asha.” Sharr’I’s eyes dropped in disappointment. “N’asha, do you think I’m an actual idiot?”
For a moment, N’asha considered answering, but thought better of it when she saw how genuinely sad Sharr’i seemed.
“I don’t want to have this conversation any more than you do. You’re not my first student, and you won’t be the last. But you’re also not the first one to get sucked into the party atmosphere on the island. Why do you think this place is so popular? But we try to choose sisters who will be able to make great contributions while they enjoy the Sorority here, not in spite of it.”
N’asha looked down at her linoscreen, unsure of whether she was being asked to speak or listen. She was relieved when Sharr’i continued.
“Obviously, we track all student usage of the datasphere while they’re here. Partly it is for security, but it also helps us make sure that students aren’t misusing the materials available here. We have access to some pretty phenomenally rare materials. It’s just prudent. But we got an alert that your recreational screen time was far outstripping your academic screen time, and so we got worried that you were not taking your studies seriously.”
Of course they’d been spying on her all along, and as this horror became reality, her fury melted into mortification. There would be no way to jolly her way out of this.
“Look, N’asha, if there’s a problem, tell me. If you don’t want to be here, that’s okay. We can find another program for you. Something to study that you care about. The world is a big place and it is big enough for everyone to explore the things that make them wiggle.”
“No. No.” Stammered N’asha. “It isn’t that. No. I’m sorry. You’re right. I’ve been,” she whispered, “unprofessional.”
“You have been,” Sharr’i confirmed, “But it isn’t the end of the world. Get to work and make us proud.”
N’asha swallowed hard and nodded. Sharr’i turned to go and opened the door. Just as she began to slide out of the stifling office, N’asha raised her head and turned toward her.
“I just want to say I’m sorry.”
“And also, if you’re going to talk to Patri’ce as well, please don’t. It was my fault. I –“
But she couldn’t finish her sentence before Sharr’i held up a hand.
“Patri’ce does her work, N’asha. If she’s got a rewarding social life as well, that’s none of my concern.”
Sharr’i began to leave the room again when she suddenly stopped.
“Why the interest in the Long Goodbye Ruling?”
N’asha shrugged, “I guess I thought it would just be an easy topic to research.”
Sharr’i smirked. “We don’t do easy here, baby.”
Ashi and Fala had not just understood N’asha’s sudden studiousness, they had encouraged it when she had arrived back to her dormitory and sheepishly asked to be excused from the Mater Vocat festivities. They had hugged her, told her she was doing the right thing to focus on her studies, and boarded the next ship out.
As other sisters strode down the halls wearing gowns in every imaginable color, N’asha closed and locked her door and sat down at her desk. She opened The Long Goodbye Decision again.
This court has had the opportunity to hear cases that have defined what it means to be human. We have toiled through the years, settling disputes, often imperfectly, on a continual quest toward understanding. When we were once composed of flesh and blood, we scratched beyond our limited understanding to divine the proper course of human events. When human fallibility was replaced by algorithmic precision, many predicted corruption and even anarchy; permitting machine learning and predictive maths to referee the interactions of humanity seemed a foolhardy choice destined to end tragically. We have rooted out corruption before it ever took hold. We have stabilized an unstable world, and we have been better custodians of the human condition than even humanity itself. And it is, with this in mind, that we render this, our most difficult decision to date. Ex Parte Doe, a class action representing the interests of the entire human species, has RIGHTLY been fast-tracked through the appeals process. Its procedural history is one that is well known to many but must be recounted for completeness of this record: Doe sued in the Western District of Mongolia, alleging that the rights of man were in danger of being extinguished. The District Common Law on the matter found in Doe’s favor and an automatic appeals process began, seeking to establish whether the District Common Law had erred in its findings. We find that, in relying on certain precedent, the District Common Law has failed to detect the shift that has occurred in what it means to be human. We find, in short, that Doe has no standing to bring this case.
N’asha sat in her room, surrounded by books. The knock on the door was startling not because she’d immersed herself in her reading – it was hard to immerse yourself in historic texts entirely; even the smallest noise could distract you from such arcane text – but because she couldn’t imagine who would be seeking her out.
It was Preshus He-Philip, the most senior of the sisters in N’asha’s line, standing outside her door impatiently. When N’asha opened the door, Preshus pushed inside, closing the door behind her, as if to indicate a conspiracy.
“What has been going on,” she asked.
N’asha wasn’t sure how to answer that question.
“It’s been okay, Preshus. Is there something you need?”
Preshus marched across the dormitory, stepping gingerly over the books that N’asha had left strewn about the room.
“I guess I’m just not sure what’s going on here.”
“Well, I’m reading. That’s what’s going on here.”
“No, I mean, going on.” She looked at N’asha meaningfully. Her ear glinted bronze, as the afternoon sun reflected off it.
“Preshus,” N’asha sighed, “I’m not sure what you want. I’m reading. I have a lot to get through.”
“We’re concerned about you, N’asha. Sharr’i asked us to check in on you. She’s afraid she broke you.”
“Broke me? I’m not a toy, Preshus. Sharr’i gave me a second chance, and I’m not going to disappoint her again.”
“Yes, but what about Sorority.”
“What about it?”
“It’s important. You can’t just dip out.”
“I’m not dipping out. I’m doing my job. That’s part of Sorority too.”
Preshus didn’t have an answer for that, but she wouldn’t be deterred quite so simply.
“You skipped Mater Vocat. You’ve been missing from every line event since then. Splash is next week, and we expect to see you out with everyone else.”
N’asha made all the vague noises she needed to encourage Preshus to exit, and then dug back into the most important document of all.
Obituary: The Final Goodbye
On Sunday evening, at approximately 8pm, we said goodbye for the last time to the oldest living male on the planet. Colin Starkey was born during a tumultuous time, and though he was not the last man to be born, he was the last to live. He was not involved with the legal battle to determine what rights naturally born men and women retained after the Lines began to outnumber them. He was an adult by then, though he never married. His life was a quiet one, spent in seclusion, away from the presence of the Sorority. We thank him for his name.
At first, N’asha was certain that she’d mis-read the obituary, or that this was an edited version. Starkey had died of natural causes. Everyone knew that. And it was traditional in all obituaries for those who came before, as it was traditional for all Line Sisters today, to note the manner of death in the obituary. Hadn’t she read it a dozen times in her history classes? Natural causes. It was always such a delicate phrase, gently inserted, like a knife between the ribs. A polite fiction that overlooked what was likely horrible and traumatic for whoever was sitting there with them, comforting them while they gasped and gulped for air, or for the strangers who watched them perish spectacularly in a convulsive fit. And yet now that she was reading the actual archived obituary, she knew no cause of death was listed. At first, she considered the possibility that this document had been forged. There were very few civics facts that Sisters knew better than the conditions under which Colin Starkey died. The day was still celebrated as a major holiday the world over, albeit a somber and reflective occasion. And she had always felt strangely responsible for knowing his story as one of the many sisters given his first as her last name in his honor and memory. Then, she realized that she could simply compare this against any of the hundreds of civics lessons she had stored from growing up. She pulled up her linoscreen and rifled through the files until one of the oldest lessons came up. It was to introduce small children to the Long Goodbye.
When it became obvious that human beings could not survive naturally, the Lines were created. We were improved in many ways: our skin darkened to reflect the ever brightening sun, our reproductive cycles regulated to produce three births for every Sister spaced at preordained intervals. The benefits of these improvements have been countless. In doing so, we solved the infertility and solar radiation crises as well as establishing a predictable population growth rate. Nevertheless, we set into motion certain inevitable facts which resulted in the obsolescence of certain human traits. The Lines would multiply, Sister after Sister giving birth to strong new generations, independently. You are the next generation. This independence from sexual reproduction, which many plants and animals still undergo, rendered natural born humans obsolete. Though inferior in many ways, sexual reproduction produces, haphazardly and not always with positive effect, diversity of genetics, which are essential to avoiding common genetic susceptibility. The lines solved the genetic diversity problem by ensuring that no single line could become dominant, insulating womankind against these susceptibilities. Nevertheless, the Common Law Intuitive Technohub saw fit to exalt those who came before us, bestow them with a special position within our society, and protect them until such time as they died out, naturally. This period was called The Long Goodbye, a time when men and women who did not belong to the Lines were allowed to live in safety and harmony. all these people were given comfort up until the very end of their lives. The lines have reclaimed the names of this final generation, and we use them even today in our surnames to honor those who came before us. The last of these people to die was Colin Starkey, who died of natural causes in 2274 and whose name is now used by many of the sisters of the HeLa line, the first of the immortalized cell lines used to ensure our genetic diversity, originally obtained from Henrietta Lacks in the 20th century.
N’asha’s first instinct was to keep digging. How many more discrepancies could she find between the autojournoed obituaries at the end of the Long Goodbye and the study materials prepared for young Sisters all over the world? But her second instinct was to call Sharr’i and tell her what she’d noticed. Best case scenario, she’d be hailed as a hero for uncovering a mystery. Worst case scenario, she’d have uncovered a bug in the archival system but she’d look eager. Neither was going to hurt her reputation with Sharr’i.
“Sharr’I,” N’asha cleared her throat, “can we talk momentarily?”
Sharr’i carefully placed what she was reading on the desk in front of her and folded her hands over it.
“I’m glad you’ve come, how can I help?”
“I’ve been having some trouble with the Long Goodbye Decision.”
Sharr’i eyed N’asha suspiciously.
“I thought I told you we don’t do easy here.”
“No, it isn’t that. It isn’t that I’m trying to focus on something easy or simple – I just noticed something. I thought it might be nothing. It might be nothing. But I found a discrepancy between the Obituary of Colin Starkey and what we were taught about him growing up.”
“Well N’asha, we’re historians. Discrepancies happen. The question is always whether we, at a remove of many years, can do anything about them. Is it a major issue?”
“I’m sure there’s an explanation,” N’asha started, but then stopped herself, “Colin Starkey’s obituary omits his cause of death.
“Well, I know we all like to act as though AI is actually infallible, but it isn’t. It can and does make mistakes. I mean, honestly, every so often some poor sister has to go in and turn the Common Law off and then wait ten seconds and then turn it back on again. It’s a machine, just as any other.”
“I understand that, mentor.” Said N’asha, carefully, “But that got me curious, so I checked some more, and they’re all missing. Every obituary published after the Long Goodbye Decision omits the cause of death, while every obituary before the decision includes it.”
“Journalistic standards change from time to time,” Sharr’i offered.
“But not about that. Obituaries today include causes of death. And in fact, there are publicly available versions of each of these obituaries that lists “natural causes” as the cause of death for all of these people – from Colin Starkey on down. But in the original documents in our archives, there is no cause of death listed. Not in any single one.”
Sharr’i unfolded her hands and placed them palm-down on the table in front of her. She closed her eyes and began nodding silently to herself, as if listening to music.
“Yes. Yes,” she whispered, to no one.
N’asha sat silently, waiting for Sharr’i to say more, but the woman just smiled and swayed.
“I’m sorry, yes? I can certainly continue to cross-reference. That’s not a problem. It’s possible the files got corrupted somewhere along the way, so I can research version histories – I hadn’t quite gotten that far when I decided to bring this to you.”
“Yes, N’asha. Yes. You are truly magnificent. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I was fairly certain I was going to avoid this conversation when you arrived. You were so wrapped up with Sorority and Patri’ce, I couldn’t imagine you’d dedicate yourself to a topic that would lead you here. I expected a paper on Sister Thomas’s exile to Australia and we’d be done. And I hoped that my advice at our last meeting would have discouraged you from pursuing anything about the Long Goodbye.”
“I’m still not sure I understand Sharr’i – I promise I wasn’t looking into the Long Goodbye Decision because it was easy. I just felt I needed to properly understand it before I started in on my primary research objective. I just happened across this.”
“Yes, you did. And I’m sorry you found that, only because it means you and I have to have this conversation. You’re not in trouble. Please let me stress that right now. You can’t be punished for what you’ve learned.”
“Punished?” N’asha gasped.
“You can’t be and you won’t be punished, but I have a solemn duty now to finish your education so that you can make an important choice.”
“Finish my– ? Am I being sent away?”
“No, N’asha, you are here and you have work to do. But you now have a choice to make.”
Sharr’i swiped across her linoscreen and it went blank momentarily before blazing to life and projecting a hologram of the world into the air between them.
“Most of the history you know is true: Man did not cope well with the changing planet. Many died long before the Long Goodbye began. We were created from a genetic anomaly identified first in a species of crustacean – it could reproduce asexually, each daughter a clone of her mother. Our lines were created, and we flourished. Our brown skin protected us from the sun. The fact that we spontaneously give birth three times in our life ensured that we will continue, so long as we maintain robust and diverse lines that aren’t all susceptible to the same thing. But there is more that you have not been taught, that the Sorority should not be taught, according to the wisdom of the Supreme Comb. As we flourished, humanity changed. While some recognized that we would lead humanity forward, others became fearful as they faced their own mortality. And while The Common Law had done a good job ensuring that we were ordinarily granted all the standard human rights, even as clones, the ones who came before us became jealous. And they became violent. The Common Law came to our protection in Ex Parte Doe. The part of that decision that most sisters do not truly understand is that, in refusing to grant standing to Doe, the Common Law actually declared that we were humanity, and that the ones who came before were no longer humanity, were no longer entitled to human rights. The Long Goodbye was not as long as it is made to seem. The Common Law ensured that the extinction of the ones who came before would be swift. The autojournoed obituaries omit the cause of death because they cannot be untruthful. Journalistic standards existed even back then, and of course blatant falsehoods could not be included. They were starved of food, exiled from the many cities, and left to survive in an increasingly hostile environment of their own making, one which they were singularly unequipped to survive. And we were finally safe to give birth, nurture our daughters, and rebuild the world in a new image.”
N’asha fell through time and space, weaving in and out of consciousness and only remaining peripherally aware that Sharr’i was still talking. It wasn’t a lie. What she’d been taught was not outright false but was carefully crafted to lead her to one understanding of the past that overlooked so much more.
“So now you have a choice, N’asha.” Sharr’i was standing over her now, and the smell of oil and mint were somehow oddly comforting. “You can choose to do whatever you want with this information. You can tell whoever you want. I can’t tell you what to do. I can only tell you what I have chosen.”
“Does Patri’ce know?”
Sharr’i looked confused by the question.
N’asha shook her head quietly, the green beads in her braids clicking against one another in the muted room.
That evening, N’asha lay out on the beach, watching the stars glide over the Caribbean Sea. The moon splashed neon on the water, glittering and dancing. N’asha slipped into the dark water. She felt, in that moment gliding into the water, she had finally become a part of the whole of Sorority.