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Some Of These Stars Might Already Be Gone

Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in the south of Spain, and now lives in Ottawa, Canada. His work appears in numerous Year's Best anthologies and has been translated into Chinese, Vietnamese, Polish, French, and Italian. Annex, his debut novel and first book of The Violet Wars trilogy, comes out in July 2018 from Orbit Books. Tomorrow Factory, his debut collection, follows in October 2018 from Talos Press. Besides writing, he enjoys traveling, learning languages, playing soccer, watching basketball, shooting pool, and dancing salsa and kizomba. Find more at patreon.com/richlarson.

"Come on, Bea. I said I was sorry. Can't we just roll back?"
Bea is sitting on the couch with one hand clenched between her knees, the other propping up her head. She is staring straight ahead, but her Stream is shielded so Tyus can't tell if she's watching a show or messaging her sister or just staring straight ahead.
"We rolled back last week," she says, looking up at him at last. Her eyes are dry but still shot through with pink.
Tyus sinks carefully onto the cushion beside her and accesses his FreezeFeel data. "Ten days."
"Ten days ago," Tyus says. "That's not bad. Some people are rolling back every other day, you know?" He worms her hand out from between her knees and holds it in his, rubbing small circles with his thumb. Her skin is cold. "Come on. You can pick the memory."
She takes the shield off her Stream and Tyus sees her pulling up their shared FreezeFeel stack. The luminous column of memories extends back to even before they were dating: a 2010s retroparty where everyone brought black plastic slabs and pretended they were phones, an afternoon of bouldering with mutual friends. Then the memories come thick and fast: a rush of electric evenings, sex and dancing and midnight conversations. Lazy morning-afters, watching procedurally generated cartoons stoned in bed, making pancakes with peanut butter and jelly.
Tyus tries not to notice how few new ones have appeared in the past three months. The important thing is that the best and brightest FreezeFeel entries are still there, still pristine, and that they are more than archaic audiovisual data. Each one is accompanied by a neural map that will send sparks through the same synapses, trigger the same hormone loops, the same dopamine release. Each one can roll them back to the way they felt right then.
For those perfect things that never last long enough: FreezeFeel.
Bea takes her time selecting the memory, scrolling up and down the stack, and for the first time Tyus feels the bite of paranoia: maybe she is scrolling slowly to show him that there are more entries on his side than on hers. He knows that, even if he's resisted the urge to count.
Then she picks stargazing, from last November, and Tyus can breathe easy. They've used it before. It's one of his personal favorites and lately one of hers, too.
"Do it in sync?" Tyus asks.
She smiles, nods, both small. "Yeah."
Tyus sits back on the couch, still holding her hand, and shuts his eyes. "Three, two, one...."
He's back in the memory. It's late November and another hack takes down half the city's power grid; they take advantage of it by ordering a ride up northside, past the stalled-out refineries, all the way out to frozen farmland.
Neither of them has ever seen constellations before and Bea is excited for it. She looked up all sorts of things, including how eyes needed a half hour to adjust to the dark, so whenever they see the lights of other cars or autotrucks on the road they cover their eyes and curse and laugh.
When they arrive at the Maps-approved viewpoint, they spill out of the car onto hardpacked snow, breathing plumes of steam into the night air. They crunch across the field with thermoses of hot chocolate, exchanging nods with a few other star seekers who braved the cold. He wraps his arms around her from behind; she pushes her numb lips against his cheek.
Up in the sky, the constellations bloom bright.
"Some of these stars might already be gone," Bea says. "Isn't that wild? They're gone, like, burned out, but we're still seeing them."
"Wild," Tyus says, and she pushed her head back against his chest, against his heartbeat.
Outside the memory, Tyus realizes he can't feel Bea's hand. Anxiety slices through his recycled happiness and he stops the FreezeFeel. Opens his eyes. Bea is not on the couch. He feels for her Stream on instinct, because maybe she only went to the bathroom, or something, and he sees a long message waiting for him. All he needs to see is the first word: sorry.
He can hear her at the door, the small scuffing sounds of her putting her shoes on. He lurches to his feet. If he goes now, if he says the right thing, if they pick the right memory and play it all the way through....
Tyus stands there frozen until the door thuds shut. He sinks slowly back down to the couch and reopens the FreezeFeel.
They stamp and shiver in the snow, holding each other tight, heads craned back to see the countless sparking stars, each one a possibility.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, June 5th, 2018
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