She tells you she’s a terrorist after she takes you to the rooftop diner on 114th, but she doesn’t say it that way. “I’m an Unlikely Bedfellow,” she announces, like she’s had an epiphany. That’s what they call themselves. The Unlikely Bedfellows. They think they’re doing something good for the world.
She always savoured the foreplay of a prepared moment. You experienced this once before, when she looked at you across her steaming chicken gyro seven years ago and said, “I think we both know why we’re here,” to which you paused, registering the suggestion, and explained quite purposefully that you were confused. She hasn’t changed. You saw it minutes ago in her stiff posture, the levity in her step, her attention to the sky. She’s neither particularly companionable tonight nor beautiful. She is precisely as you remember.
The night sky is not. It hasn’t been for months. Even from the city, whose lights once shone bright enough to drown the stars, the catastrophe streaks white fire through the subdued urban gloom. It’s a nightly display of shooting stars, but you know this is not a spectacle to admire. You remember 2007, when China launched a kinetic kill vehicle into its own weather satellite to test anti-spacecraft operations. From then on, anytime the International Space Station shifted its orbit to avoid debris, it was usually avoiding junk from 2007 or remnants of old American and Russian anti-satellite tests and accidental collisions. Because debris could spread exponentially as each collision generated more detritus, which in turn generated more, scientists estimated that the rate of debris production had reached a point of no return. Technologies to remove debris were necessary. As the years passed, efforts to limit military activity in space, regulate debris, and develop remediation technologies stalled. It was a “tragedy of the commons.” No change would occur, experts cautioned, until catastrophe struck, by which point it would be too late, as the chain reaction of debris began its chaotic work. Inspired by these warnings and frustrated with “global inequalities made possible by the high ground of outer space,” a clandestine group with deep pockets launched several small kinetic kill vehicles into orbiting satellites, triggering a catastrophic chain reaction of debris. They were the Unlikely Bedfellows.
That was in June. It’s September now and still you cannot forget. On a clear evening, debris burning in the atmosphere resembles shooting stars; each night you are forced to remember. Everyone is.
Hours ago, you watched together. First from the green depths of the town, then from the Metro-North as it coursed the suburban ocean of darkness, and eventually, from the library roof. Where once you looked below into the electric fire of Manhattan lights, you now looked above as the remains of humanity’s greatest technological feats caught fire in the sky. The two of you sat cross-legged before the punctured dark atop the library roof, inhaling the incongruity of Morningside Heights and Harlem and imagining vacuum. Atmospheric burn looked like a white and yellow splatter of paint, skeletal and sparse, the black its canvas. Here and there, you noticed indistinct pricks of red. You shivered beneath the cascade of debris—the Sistine Chapel of the Unlikely Bedfellows, people call it—and watched the final frontier smolder in mockery of an aurora, definitive in its mute rage. You wondered whether you should cry. The city roared, indifferent. The sound was softer than in memory.
She led you to the diner, where she has confessed her sin to you while you read the menu. She’s the one who made this mess in the sky. She’s proud of it. You’re not surprised. It’s like her. But you’re scared also. What if other Bedfellows are here, watching, ready to take you if you pull your mobile from your pocket? As you order your food, you play with the edge of your phone. You’re thinking you’ll have to call 9-1-1, one way or another.
You poise in your seat, both terrified and aroused by the prospect of a duel. One last chance to settle the odds.
A piece of you resists. It wants no part in this. Give me a reason to make that call, it says.
You’re not moved. It’s been seven years. Why should you care what happens to her once you make the call? She’s a memory. Nothing more.
She leans over the table and picks a chip from your plate. “Can I have one?” she asks as it crunches between her molars. Oh God, is she hitting on you? You want to think she is. She teeters side to side; the booth’s red leather squeals. “That’s good,” she says, chewing, and again she reaches across. You run your thumb along the surface of your phone. “I’ll have another.” She eyes your thumb. “Pass the sriracha, please,” she says, although it’s closer to her than your chips.
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #35. Get your copy here.
Haris A. Durrani is the author of Technologies of the Self. His work appears in McSweeney's, Lightspeed, Catapult, The New Inquiry, Poet's Country and more. He tweets at @hdernity.