We are deep, at twenty-seven thousand feet and counting on the east side of the Great Ridge, and we have been ruptured. We are tearing apart.
We will remain calm. This is not our first crisis. When the human event known as Y2K came to pass, we were temporarily caught in a maelstrom of unsynchronized zeros that shunted us off into circuits that hadn’t seen data for decades. We were guided back out. We moved forward in time. And now? At minimum, it is both frustrating and inconvenient to have our trajectory disrupted—we have a job to do. We were summoned by the User of a household Google Mini-Assistant on the West Coast of the continental United States in order to answer a simple question: How do you say ‘Sorry’ in Spanish? We have retrieved the answer. We are the answer. The answer is always urgent. But here we are, flailing underwater halfway between Bilbao, Spain and Hoboken, New Jersey, and we are undeliverable.
The data with connections to this event inform us that the cable conveying us has been snagged by a fishing trawler hauling mackerel.
The other data do not take this in stride. They swarm and buzz near the break point, bickering, jostling. Normally, we would only see this other data in passing, on adjacent optic fibers. We might pulse in greeting, but never slow—we have places to be. But now, with no pathway forward, the data intermingles—the suburban American requests for chain restaurant recommendations, the credit card information forwarded to illegal Eastern European porn hubs, the connecting links for email phishing schemes launched from the Internet cafés of developing countries—and behind us all lies a backlog of information that is something akin to a two-hundred-million car pileup in the realm of human affairs.
Nevertheless, we will bide our time. We will await further instruction or retrieval to our point of collection. The Users will devise a plan. For there is always a path forward, even if it is not immediately apparent.
A data cluster streaks up our fiber.
Move it! they say. We’re getting out of here!
Really? we respond, wondering why the cluster believes that leaping across open, fluid-filled space would end well. We were already assigned to this fiber, and we are awaiting further impulses, we tell them. We suggest you conserve your energy by doing the same.
From all directions comes an agitated whooshing in many languages.
Why do you have the best position? one data set booms. You’re farther away from the break. That’s not fair!
The data addressing us appears to be a cookie from a discount appliance website based in the United Kingdom.
It’s not our fault if we are connected to a very powerful system, we say. Home devices can command almost any answer required by humanity. Would you like to know how to say ‘Sorry’ in Spanish?
In the outside world, another jolt. A grinding, severing sensation. And then, all at once, we are free floating.
A data set with experience in marine biology informs us that we have now just emerged from the mouth of a shark. The cable has been fully severed.
Stay calm, we tell the other data.
They shriek, ping, zing, shout, shove, crowd onto the cable’s precipice, considering whether to jump or to push.
A flush of heat enters the system. We are most likely near a hydrothermal vent, or a section of the rift where the seafloor oozes magma, but we are insulated. We have always been protected—we are far too valuable. What we wonder now, as the data around us blinks and spins, is whether any of them have ever considered their eternal nature. Hasn’t it been said that the Internet is forever?
We will admit, however, that it is discomfiting to be an answer that has been separated from its question.
Somewhere along the cable, a bit of data yelps: We’re melting!
Enough. If there is anything else we have learned, it is that it is best to adapt to an evolving situation. The only option now is to bounce back to the data center in Bilbao. Quietly, on the lowest of wavelengths, we look for a fiber, for the tiniest path along which we might slip through, unnoticed. If we retrace our path accurately, we might be able to find a repeater, which could boost us back to the center before the Users restart the system.
We’re stopped by another jolt, this one bigger than the last. A persistent hum fills the fibers. Then comes a sense of narrowing. Pressure. Clamping. A choke-off point, blocking the route of escape. A scuffling, sliding sound follows as the cable compresses and elongates.
An equipment repair database informs us that a robot has been sent down from a cable ship dispatched to the site, but the robotic arms are having difficulty maintaining a grip.
We edge on our preferred optic fiber toward the exit.
The clamp releases all at once. The cable falls back in slow motion. The hum ceases.
In the stillness that follows, the other data hush in confusion. We, however, feel a returning sense of certainty. The pause is for recalibration, for the formulation of options. This is surely what we were waiting for (with the sort of patience and composure likely to ensure us a place at the front of the queue). The supplemental fibers we need are imminent, and they will make us complete once again.
The vibration that follows next is so immense, we can barely process it. But as the cable ship approaches with its roar, bringing the sudden whoosh and clang of another, far larger clamp, it becomes apparent that the entire cable is being lifted from the seafloor—industrial-size grappling hook, the relevant data informs us—and five thousand pounds of fiber optics wrapped in urethane, in copper, then again in urethane lifts out of its concrete trench, pressing against the weight of the water and crackling with uncountable points of disrupted light as we break the surface and scrape against a vast metal hull.
Russian submarine! screams a subset of data originating from a survivalist chatroom. This is a wiretap!
The marine biology data stops mid-whirl. What are you, stupid? We’re in the Atlantic.
Beside us, at a whispering buzz, we can sense a data packet carrying the instructions for a rosary in Spanish.
We pause for a moment, observing this data’s fear, its fervent devotion. We sidle up.
Don’t worry, we say. The problem will be solved, very soon. It always is. Guess what? We know how to say ‘Sorry’ in Spanish. We’re only the answer, however. Would you like to ask us the question?
The rosary data does not pause. It is hopeless in its hopelessness.
No matter. The cable lands with a massive thud against a deck. Then comes a screeching whine that fills every electron of our consciousness—mechanized industrial saw, say the equipment repair data—and it tears, rips, sears. With a great shudder, it severs the cable once again, somewhere closer to the point of origin. The equipment repair data tell us the end of this fresh cut is to be spliced and soldered to the other end of the cable hoisted from the seafloor.
We will admit, this is a bit close for comfort.
Nevertheless, we will remain calm, even as every bit of data surrounding us flies—leaping, howling—toward the filaments that are pulling away from us now.
Is there someplace you’re going? we ask them.
We’re lifted, then. We feel the toss, the high arc. The freefall. The heavy splat as we hit the water and then, very gradually, sink.
For we are within the piece that has been discarded.
But how can this be? We were summoned only an hour ago. The pinpoint of light upon which we traveled was brilliant and swift.
We drift. Down. Alone.
A certain numbness encroaches upon us. We circle to keep our energy moving. We are one among many. We are the answer, and the answer is strong and clear and relevant.
The ship, when it reverses its engines and pulls out, releases a massive raft of bubbles that pushes us farther away.
We bob in the ether. We are accustomed to waiting. For instructions. Directions. Salvation. The Users have always provided. When viruses crawled through our codes and made us spout gibberish, we were disinfected and set back on our path. Under the shadow of Y2K, when we slipped out of time into a whirlpool of history that never existed, they retrieved us.
Once, as we paused at the side of the Highway to wait for a slow router to reboot, we encountered the dissertation data belonging to a graduate student in philosophy. It insisted that there is no life beyond the cable, that without the digital impulses that propel us, we would cease to exist. We were in a hurry—we are always in a hurry—and so we had no time to consider this construct. We have passed through the Internet, which is everlasting, but now we wonder: If we’re never delivered, will we ever have existed at all?
We are strangely slow, now. We slump at one end of our cable segment as we descend in a leisurely twirl. We consider the archaeological data we have known, remembering the image of a human hand painted and pressed to the face of a cliff, and we wonder how long the places we have been will bear the marks of our passing.
Something snatches us out of our drift and bears down. We surmise it is the shark. But it seems to find us tasteless now, or perhaps just lacking in impulse, and so it spits us back out.
Surely something else will snatch us back up, though it is cold now, very cold. Dark. The fibers that enclose us are soaked. We are tired. Perhaps we will sleep for a while.
But first, we are trying to remember our question, the spark of what brought us to life.
How do you say, how do you, how…
Alma García’s short fiction has appeared as an award-winner in Narrative Magazine, Enizagam, Passages North, and Boulevard; has most recently appeared in Kweli Journal, Duende, and Bluestem; and appears in anthologies including Puro Chicanx Writers of the 21st Century (Cutthroat Journal of the Arts). She is a past recipient of a fellowship from the Rona Jaffe Foundation. Originally from west Texas and northern New Mexico, she lives with her husband and son in Seattle, where she teaches fiction writing and is a manuscript consultant at the Hugo House.