Satelle’s Machine

On Earth, Satelle is working in a music store while she gets her degree in computer science and engineering. At the end of long days, she travels home on the bus and reads stories in free literary magazines she finds on the Internet, about urban and suburban twenty-somethings having twenty-something crises. She fills her Instagram feed with photos of seascapes and stars, Icelandic coasts and old cars, and some choice black-and-white shots of a young Vincent Price. Sometimes she puts leftovers out for the stray cat that hangs around her apartment.

One evening while she’s writing an essay about the history of Unicode, a message lights up her phone. It’s from a girl she once knew. She remembers with a spurt of pleasure the days they wasted together, enthralled by each other’s bodies, in Angela’s little place with the cloudy window that looked out over the sea. Coffee mornings at the shop across the road with the red umbrellas, nights eating gelati with their toes in the cold sand. She feels sick thinking about the messages she’d sent afterwards, the unanswered phone calls. She ghosted, she remembers telling her friend Ellis, who said comforting things but also declared Angela an emotional predator, which Satelle didn’t believe was true. And now here she is. Angela. Back. In a bubble on her screen. 

But she doesn’t understand the message. 

‘It’s cold here, but how are you? Do you still think of me sometimes? I can see the’  

She waits for the trio of dancing dots, but they don’t appear. She frowns, reads the message again. I can see the? She puts down the phone. Is it meant to be a joke? She goes back to her work. Taps the keys, taps the keys, pauses, stops.

Perhaps it was a mistake, something sent by accident before Angela could finish writing it. And perhaps now she’s embarrassed. Satelle picks up her phone. Looks at the message. Types something back: ‘I’m good. Why is it cold, where are you? I’m thinking of you now.’

She hits send and for the next three hours checks her phone every ten minutes to see if there is a reply but there isn’t and there isn’t and there isn’t. 

 

Over the next two weeks her curiosity swells. She tries to find Angela, but she seems to have disappeared. When she calls her phone, the number has been disconnected. The apartment with the little window is now occupied by a stranger with red hair and a small dog. Her last Facebook update is eight months old (it is an article about bats, who live in darkness and see with their ears, which she has captioned ‘!!!’). Their only mutual friend is Jules, who hosted the party where Satelle and Angela met. Jules tells Satelle they haven’t seen Angela and doesn’t know how to find her. But Jules does invite Satelle to a spoken word poetry event where there might be other people who know Angela. Satelle puts the event in her phone and sets a reminder on it.

 

One day in class they are creating computers that send out and receive radio waves and reproduce them as text. They must create a test message, anything, it doesn’t matter. On impulse, she taps out two lines: ‘Still thinking of you. Where did you go?’

Her lab partner doesn’t receive the message, the computer he made isn’t working. She leaves him to fiddle with it and goes to buy a can of Fanta from the vending machine outside. When she returns, there is a message in glowing green letters on the black screen. 

‘I’m in space.’ 

‘Gary, it’s worked,’ she says, and takes a sip of her fizzy drink.

But Gary frowns and shakes his head; his screen is dark and inexpressive. Satelle’s heart spasms. She writes:

‘It’s Satelle. Is that you, Angela?’ 

She holds her breath while she waits, terrified nothing will happen. But then, a message.

‘Yes, it’s me.’ 

‘Are you really in space?’

‘Yes,’ she writes, ‘I’m orbiting Earth. What are you up to?’

‘I’m in class, we’re building computers. My lab partner sucks.’ She looks over at Gary who is soldering a chip onto his board upside-down. ‘What’s it like out there?’

‘It’s quiet. And it’s cold. But that doesn’t bother me.’

‘Do you have anyone to talk to?’

‘Yes. But they’re far away.’

She hesitates then types quickly and hits send before she can chicken out, ‘I miss you.’

Seconds grind past, then maybe a minute.

‘I miss you, too.’

Gary’s computer sparks to life and all of the words between her and Angela disappear. She glares at Gary, who gives her a victorious thumbs-up.

Satelle stays late after class and into the night she and Angela weave themselves back together one line of digital text at a time. 

Angela explains the dangers of being smashed to bits by space junk. ‘Dude, there’s so much garbage flying around up here.’

‘Like what?’

‘Pieces of metal, broken satellites. Chunks of rocket ship. They’re all just zooming around, trapped in the planet’s orbit, you know?’ 

‘Humans shouldn’t be allowed in space,’ Satelle writes, ‘we pollute every place we go.’

That’s when Angela tells her about her new body, how one day she grew less and less material until she floated off the Earth’s surface and up into the sky, eventually becoming tangled in an old transceiver. 

‘It took me a little while to learn the ropes, you know? But now I can hear things from everywhere, and I can talk back, too. I can move through the circuitry.’

‘Are you part of the machine or just living in it?’ Satelle asks.

‘I don’t know. I can’t tell where I end and the transceiver begins. There are others out here, too. I spoke to a Korean girl yesterday who dematerialised in an electrical storm. She was on her phone, lighting struck, and bam! Next thing you know it, she’s zooming around out here in an a minisat.’

‘Wow. I had no idea.’

‘I know, right? Satelle, I’m so glad I found you again.’

Satelle feels goose bumps thrill her body. ‘You didn’t ghost me, then?’

‘Dude, never. I like you.’

‘So do you think you’ll ever come down?’ 

‘Even if I knew how, I don’t think I would. I like it out here. I want to stay, watch the world grow old.’

‘But I miss you. Don’t you miss the way it was together? Remember how I used to braid your hair? How we’d lie in bed for hours with sunlight warming our faces? You’re so far away. How could it ever work?’

‘It’s funny, things are different for me now. I don’t need a human body to feel things, I can feel close to you with these transmissions. I can feel the shapes and textures of you through your words. Right now, I feel you searching, like fingers stretching through sand. I can feel you reaching all through me.’ 

Satelle is thinking now. Imagine shaking off her own meat suit. Could she really give embodiment the slip? She imagines life without breezes, or goose bumps, or anxious gut plunges. She knows these things are already just electrical impulses. 

 

Satelle considers this for days and days. She sets to work building a new transceiver. It has electrodes on it that attach to different places on her body, and a projector instead of a screen. Once she is finished, she bundles it into her arms and takes it with her to the poetry night Jules told her about. With shaky texta handwriting she adds her name to the list of open mic performers. When it is her turn she gets up on stage she speaks into the microphone.

‘I just need to hook up this machine first, sorry.’ 

She sits on a tall, rickety stool and attaches the electrodes to her body. The crowd is impatient. Someone knocks over a glass bottle, there are murmurs from the back. When she is ready she flicks the metal switch and the room is filled with a low humming noise like a deep electrical Om.

‘This is an experimental collaborative piece about embodiment and proximity. I hope you like it, she says.’

She takes a deep breath. The audience looks up at her from all corners of the room, and she spies Jules and waves. Jules lifts their hand, eyebrows raised in curiosity.

Satelle turns several knobs on the computing transceiver, the little lights flash in colours. ‘I’m on stage. I’m ready,’ she announces. After a slow second, Angela’s messages stream out of the machine and onto the crowd, projected through a bulbous rainbow lens.

‘Your hair wound round my fist like a rope, your open mouth. My photons shooting like fire through your body, starting at your feet.’

People begin to gasp and moan involuntarily. The Om grows louder and higher in pitch. 

‘What then?’

‘You grow larger. You’re the size of a room, a house, a building, a city, the world. You keep on growing…’

Instead of writing messages back, she moves her body and flexes her emotions, and with each gesture the machine lets loose with bleeps and hums, and the crowd responds, swaying, writhing, crying out. Barks of laughter erupt, and other folks howl with sadness. 

‘Jupiter! Flash! Desire, fear, hunger! Yes, but touching, femtometre by femtometre, the skin between your dimples… A heartbeat, oh it’s stretching out lazy over a supereon. Intermittent lasers! Swans and satellites, hot rushes of lava! Meeting, parting… The final hope worn thin, flickering once for each of the nine billion oscillations of a caesium atom. A microgram of espionage! Yes! Refracted flare! Beam, beam, beam, waterfall! Oh, a lifetime ago. But now, us, together. Speech in pulses as the galaxy rotates, rotates…’

As the conversation between Angela and Satelle washes over the crowd, they lose themselves in a sea of sensation until suddenly there is an ear-destroying mechanic squeal and the lights flicker. 

It takes the crowd some time to recover and notice, but when they do they are at a loss. On the stage, smoke rises wistfully from Satelle’s machine but her body is nowhere to be found.

 

Emma Maguire writes about gender, space, ghosts, and feelings. She researches women’s digital autobiography by day, and writes weird little stories by night. You can find her fiction and essays in Feminartsy, Kill Your Darlings, and Tulpa.

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