Before becoming the first human to cross the Atlantic on foot, he was the first to see a snail crawl along the stalk of a plant. He watched it while about to begin his voyage. That wasn’t the worst of Reu’s voyages—the ship and the plank had been lonelier, and the rock had been scarier, but none took longer than the crossing of every last iota of the Atlantic on foot.
He hadn’t planned on doing so, it’s just that the sea had devoured the earth and the trash had devoured the sea, so he commenced walking till he reached the end of dry land and then kept on walking across the solid crust and by the end of the day he could no longer see the ruins behind him—the humongous ruins of the United States embassy, the angular ruins of the Chinese embassy, the monumental ruins of the Nicaraguan embassy—and that was when he decided there was no turning back.
He walked for two years across the putrid surface of the solid crust: he learned how not to die by gnawing on it and how not to dissolve in its salt at night; he healed his own bones when the wind whipped him through the air like a rag and flung him onto the stiff waves.
He was perpetually dazzled by the glare, but every once in a while he glimpsed shadows beneath the crust, brooding their bodies from one side to another and bashing themselves against the surface.
Once he caught sight of an old man, inexplicably gleeful, jigging from one little plastic islet to the next. They waved at each other, arms aloft; he managed to make out the other man’s silhouette, stretched tall against the glare of the crust, and at that precise moment an enormous, jagged mouth rose up around the old man’s feet and carried him down to the depths of that filthy chowder.
He met one of those monsters himself after chancing upon the last human beings he’d come across before reaching the far side of the ocean. A small colony of the lost, who’d ended up banding together as the currents thrust them toward the vortex in which they now dwelled. They spent their miserable waking hours patching cracks in the scab, but they’d learned to fish for those tiny-eyed beasts whose maws took up half their bodies. They used their hard, sinewy flesh for food, their stiff whiskers to sew, and their fangs to make spears.
They told Reu he could stay with them and they were willing to share, but theirs was a will with no bone to it, he knew his kind. The time would come when they were shoving one another out of the way to keep from being bit. Even if they offered company, it was still human company, which is good only for short spells.
He arrived in time to slip onto the last ship. Its destination was a rock nearing the outer edge of the solar system. If they managed to land on it, they’d be taken who knew where, but that was the least of it.
Either some visionary or someone truly terrified had come up with the idea of overhauling asteroids for space travel. It had taken generations, but once it had been imagined, they inevitably ended up pulling it off. It was claimed they’d built stations from which spaceships set off in search of another rock: it was said that at those stations there were ships—much larger, much faster ships—that could take them to a hospitable place; there was talk of planets on which one could almost live well, and even of rocks on which plants and animals lived.
He persuaded the last of the stevedores—last one to last one—to let him hide in the cargo hold. He had no window from which to watch the scum of chemical elements in which he’d begun his time in the universe shrinking away. He knew they’d abandoned Earth when boxes began to bob a few iotas up into the iotas of available space, as though celebrating.
Then cold and consternation, until they hauled him from the hold and hurled him into a cavern in the rock. Though the cavern was packed, the danger lay not in being crushed to death, no: People fought viciously in an exceedingly slow battle to get close to the ducts spewing food and oxygen. The rock’s inhabitants strangled one another anemically, scratching flesh more with hatred than severity; they pulled one another’s hair and slowly broke one another’s bones. Then, with sickening efficiency, the detritus was pushed toward a hatch, where it was sucked up and sent out into space.
They floated in that mist of bodies for what on Earth might have been weeks, and finally they reached the station. It really did exist.
It was a platform topped with a dome. And it was pressurized, but a glass panel running from the floor to the ceiling separated new arrivals from those already there. Reu surveyed the space from his side, a rectangle of darkness illuminated every so often by enormous ships (they really did exist) taking off from the dome’s ring.
The side where the first ones waited slowly emptied, as the last ones watched ships take off one after another, until they were the only ones left. Before departing, the first ones lined up on their side a series of small plank-ships on which only one person could fit, lying down and facing front. One of them approached the glass and explained how they worked: the planks pulsated; between one interval and the next, each occupant would be in suspended animation; they had enough energy for the initial thrust that would launch them from the deck, plus a bit more that could be used to change direction, so better use it wisely.
“With a little luck, someone will find you out there,” he said, forcing himself to act like he believed his own words. “It has been known to happen.”
He opened the hatch separating the two sides of the dome and before the last ones had time to take note of their newly acquired solitude, he climbed into his ship and took off.
There were no fights over who got the plank-ships, for the majority decided to stay put. This couldn’t be the end, they thought. That was what he thought too, but he opted to think it while embarking on his firefly voyage.
One single shifting light in the abyss. So slowly did it shift that he was unsure what it was until he saw it approach his plank-ship. A metal-covered cetacean, black, crude, with a bubble of light in its belly.
As he got closer, Reu saw that inside the bubble was a person, pedaling.
He used what fuel he had left to turn his plank toward the cetacean, but there wasn’t enough. It was going to pass him by. Then the cetacean changed direction, positioned itself in front of his plank, and opened a hatch that swallowed him up.
As soon as he’d unstiffened, Reu exited the plank-ship and began walking down rusty-smelling corridors and up creaky stairwells. He found the bubble at the back of the ship and for a moment could discern nothing, so blinding was its light, but finally he was able to see that the pedaler was a woman. Her body was slightly tensed with the mechanical movement but her face indicated no effort at all; she stared at an instrument panel before her. When finally she looked at Reu, she did so as though he provoked no curiosity.
“Anyone else with you?” she asked.
Reu shook his head. She turned back to the instrument panel.
“Not good,” she went on. “That means I’ll have to eat you.”
She pedaled some more. Then turned to look at him and smiled.
“After we finish off all the food,” she added. “I’ve got plenty.”
It had been so long since anyone had made a joke that for a moment he thought she was insane. Then, almost as a vestigial reflex, he too smiled.
Her name was Pel. She explained that pedaling was the only way to amass energy. She’d used some of it to alter her position in the infinite quadrant a few iotas in order to reach him, so now they’d have to work to replace it.
Pel asked him where he was hoping to go.
“I just want to keep moving.”
Pel nodded and her pupils dilated as though she was going to say something terrible. But instead what she said had a different precision:
“You don’t smell like metal.”
She got off the stationary bike, put her nose to Reu’s neck, and slid her hand behind his head. And then she reconned the bony peaks of his spine and he slipped his hands under her sweaty T-shirt; and they confirmed and confirmed and confirmed and confirmed the fact they were still made of water, and that flesh was still holding its own in the universe.
The last memory he had of anything like that from Earth was one of that afternoon in the gullet of an embassy in ruins. He’d taken refuge there shortly before he began his walk across the Atlantic and had discovered that a microclimate spiked with trees had been preserved. Discovered it as if it had just rolled out before him, but in reality nothing was moving, everything was still and silent, though it wasn’t a dead stillness: he could feel the afternoon taking place. Not things slipping by but the time in between the things. Then he saw something else moving, a snail making its way along a stalk as if the world’s collapse was of no concern to it at all.
That was how it felt in the space the ship traversed as he and Pel relived the beast with two backs. What planet could possibly beat that one? What need was there to beat it?
But a few million iotas later she said:
“We’re almost there.”
Reu was pedaling at the time and stopped to turn and look at her, uncomprehending.
“The station,” Pel went on. “There’s another one.” She paused and continued.
“But bodies depart from this one.”
The first ones knew of the existence of hospitable planets, but they were too distant to be reachable by ship, so they devised a way to deotafy the body and then send it, iota by iota, until the machine found a world where it could be reotafied: for an immeasurable time, which the body conceived only as a jolt of quasars. Pel wasn’t sure how many people had managed to travel this way, only that after one or two generations the system collapsed and the deotafication stations rusted over or floated off into space and disappeared.
But she knew where one was.
Soon they sighted the station, and as Pel steered the cetacean toward it, Reu began to wonder whether he really wanted to be with other humans again.
Pel didn’t wonder.
“We’re going to make it,” she said. It was a fragile and beautiful plural.
Rather than a dome, this platform had an exceedingly long chimney, far longer than a hundred times the length of the cetacean. They docked. They put on their suits and entered.
There were two rows of cabins facing each other and a control panel at the back. Pel confirmed that she knew how it worked and began testing it while he inspected the cabins to check for any obvious defects.
Suddenly he felt the energy source kick in and the platform began to rattle; the chimney pressurized, its ancient materials active once more, creaky but alert. Pel kept operating the controls and two cabins lit up, one on each side, and began in sync to change shape, like a second hand, with each second corresponding to a different-shaped human.
“It has to be now,” Pel said, heading for one of the cabins.
“What if we end up on opposite ends of the universe?”
Pel looked at him like he’d said something absurd. She turned and entered her cabin. Before the door closed she said something he couldn’t hear, though he saw her lips move.
Reu entered his cabin and from within watched as Pel’s cabin adjusted itself more precisely to her body with every second. Just before it molded to her body like a black peapod, Reu realized that Pel had said:
“We’re always on opposite ends of the universe.”
He thought she’d said it as if she were talking about something that could be remedied, the way overturning a cup on the tablecloth would have been, in another age.
And every little iota in his body began covering the endless iotas along the way.
This story will appear in Yuri Herrera's Ten Planets, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in March 2023.