So you’re the young lady who knows everything?
Madame tapped Sophie sharply on the back, calling the young girl’s attention back to the well-dressed man standing in front of her. “Sophie, it isn’t polite to ignore a financier’s questions,” she scolded. She smiled at the well-dressed man. “I apologize, Mister Galveston, the procedure hasn’t quite taken hold yet. Her mind is prone to drifting.”
Mr. Galveston smiled, waving the thought away with his hand. “That’s only to be expected,” he said. “An extremely risky ‘memory-enhancement’ procedure is much for a child to handle; even if she is, arguably, the most important child on Earth.” He gave Sophie a sly wink beneath the charming smile he held for Madame’s sake.
Madame’s posture straightened, a wide smile spreading over her full, red lips. “Why, thank you, Mister Galveston,” she said. “Sophie, wasn’t that nice of Mister Galveston to say?”
Sophie nodded politely. “Yes, Madame,” she said. She smiled up at Mr. Galveston, folding her arms behind the back of her yellow party dress. “Thank you, sir.”
Mr. Galveston chuckled and reached his hand down to pat her on top of her thick brown curls. “No need to be thanking me, Miss,” he said. “However, if you could do me a favor and explain to Mister Yates precisely why I am correct to believe the European economy…” He turned and waved at a group of men gathered on another side of the room. “Yates, come here,” he called, “the child is going to solve that old debate once and for all!”
Shadowed faces loomed over Sophie as she lay back in a cold padded leather chair too big for her small figure. Her brown locks lay strewn in tangles across the floor, tubes and wires poking from the pale skin of her shaven head. They criss-crossed over her body, feeding into buzzing, beeping machines on either side of the chair. Her toes curled as goose bumps ran over her skin, the rest of her body held stiff and motionless beneath thick leather restraints. The paper-thin robe she wore did little to provide comfort.
The shadow-men poked at her, opened her head and prodded her parts. Stacks of wafer-thin metal on small surgical tables disappeared as they were slid, one by one, into the soft gray matter and strung together by cables smaller than she could see. Though she was curtained in a haze of anesthetic, she could feel them going in. They were cold, like ice in the warmth of her mind.
A woman with false kindness in her eyes sat in front of Sophie, holding colorful cards over her face and asking questions. Sophie obliged, repeating the objects and colors out loud in her small, sleepy voice. Above her, the shadow-men murmured to each other. “Slowly as we proceed into the prefrontal cortex” … “tapping into long term memory storage” … “devices on-line” … “initiating information download”.
Sophie screamed as it burned.
Sophie shivered, despite the light warmth that blanketed the inside of her skull. Night air wafted through the doors that stood open to a star-bathed terrace, ruffling the long white curtains and the skirts of ladies gathered nearby. Sophie tightened her hold on Madame’s thick skirts as she inched herself further into their folds.
Madame nudged her away and ran a hand over the back of Sophie’s hair. “We’re really very impressed with the success of the project,” she said, continuing a conversation begun nearly an hour before with Mr. Yates, Mr. Galveston, and a finely dressed young couple named Grant that had joined them. “Considering the results of the first fourteen attempts, our Sophie is really quite extraordinary.”
“And you’ve done so well; she’s such a little darling!” Mrs. Grant cooed, folding her hands under her chin. “You are so lucky to have gotten this one!”
“Don’t be silly, Lily, she’s not done anything,” Mr. Grant said. “Congratulations is due to the hardy young girl.” He turned his gaze down to Sophie, smiling at her in the way adults do to inspire trust or confidence that is otherwise undeserved. “Let’s hear from the girl herself. What have you to say, dear?”
Sophie smoothed her hands over the skirt of her yellow party dress. “I’ve nothing to say, Sir,” she said without looking up at the adults gathered around her.
They laughed as if they had heard a peasant joke.
Sophie’s voice was so soft and delicate, she often had this reaction when speaking to adults. It was silly, she thought, considering how much more intelligent she was than they. Her fingers tightened around a fistful of her dress. She didn’t particularly feel more intelligent. Yet, she was told again and again that she was. That she was the most intelligent individual on the Earth.
“Now, Sophie, that’s not polite,” Madame scolded. “Go on, tell our fine financiers something you know.”
Sophie sighed, pulled up a sweet smile, and for the next quarter of an hour politely demonstrated several highly complex theories of differential mathematics that left the politicians and businessmen surrounding her astonished and silent.
The shadow-men left Sophie lying uncomfortably in a recovery bed. She was never entirely alone; there was always a man in a coat nearby, scribbling on a pad of paper as he examined the interfaces of each machine left connected to Sophie, to her mind. Madame came to sit with her once or twice, but she never spoke directly to Sophie and soon grew bored of the girl’s inability to provide entertainment and left.
Sophie’s head buzzed, filled with an eternal warmth. It felt so heavy, she couldn’t imagine being able to lift it until the restraints were pulled away from her and she rose to dress herself and leave. They had told her it would feel different, but nothing like this. She hadn’t known it would feel as if she’d never rest her mind again.
Madame was to be her caretaker, she had been told when they’d brought her there—like a mother, “but not your mother,” Madame clarified—when the first of the shadow-men had visited her at the orphanage. Even without the harsh surgical lights overhead, she could never recall their faces.
“You could live a much better life, a much more important life,” they had told her. “You could know everything there is, be the hero that saves the knowledge of all the Earth. Even you must know the danger we are in of destroying ourselves. You know there are other people in outer space; people we’ve made friends with, made families with, and they want to help us.” They slid a stack of paper before her, disregarding her inability to read such big words. “You can be a hero, Sophie, like the princesses in your picture books. You’ll be Earth’s hero princess, and all you have to do is sign a few letters, just your name, on a few papers and promise, promise, not to tell anyone where you’re going. You can come with us and you can be important, Sophie. You can be a hero.” They said more words, too big and serious for her to understand, explaining to a little child a big, big decision.
And so she signed her little name in her broken script across their few papers and agreed to let them experiment on her head.
Having politely named off the capital cities of every minor country one of the young diplomats at the party could recall, Sophie was granted a moment to slip away from the crowd. “The doctors warn we must still be careful not to over-stimulate her,” she could hear Madame explaining as she retreated. “It will take some time yet for her body to fully accept the operation.”
Sophie maintained a steady and well-mannered stride until she breached the open doorway onto the mansion’s terrace. The moment the heat of the party was behind her, she broke into a run, the curtains in the doorway waving in her wake. She ran, her little white shoes clicking on the stone pathways as she weaved through the moonlit estate gardens. It was the home of the lead financier, who also happened to be the director of Sophie’s project.
Short on breath, Sophie came at last to a short marble wall at the edge of a hill in the gardens. Several feet to either side of her extended elegant marble staircases that met in a single stone path at the base of the hill. The path cut through the gardens toward a pier that reached into the calm waters of a little bay kissed with moonlight.
At the end of the pier rose the massive figure of a sleek white shuttle, shining as it towered in the light of the moon.
It was beautiful, even to a little girl who knew everything about beauty. Sophie leaned on the wall, resting her chin in the palm of her hand. The hard drive in her head warmed the natural tissue around it as Sophie ran through lists of shuttle parts and procedures for taking off and landing. She couldn’t stop; the information whirred through her mind like a list speeding in front of her mind’s eye. She had stumbled into the history of the Russian space program when a devestating crack broke her attention.
Sophie spun back toward the mansion, her gazed fixing on the sky in the distance illuminated in a dizzying explosion of light.
“A little girl entrusted with the knowledge of the human race,” Sir said. He stood in front of a tall mirror, adjusting a burgundy tie around his neck. “To think, all those candidates and they choose a little girl.”
Madame sighed as she pressed another curl into Sophie’s thick brown hair. It was the same remark she had heard time over time since Sophie came to be with them. “Children have a higher capacity for memory storage,” she said. “You’re well aware of that, Richard.” She pinned back a strand of Sophie’s hair, the pin grazing the tiny metal tubes still lodged in her skull from the operation. Her hand paused, frozen with the pin clutched between her fingers. It lasted only a moment; she shifted her hand ever so slightly and continued. “Besides… With the state of things, there wasn’t much time to waste searching for another candidate.”
“Yes, yes, threat of worldwide nuclear war and all that,” he said. “Still, I can only imagine how much easier it would have been to look after someone more…I don’t know, mature.”
A frown tugged at the edges of Sophie’s mouth. She bit her lip and held the little ragdoll she’d had since she could remember to her chest. She longed for the grassy gardens of the orphanage where she could hide away and daydream until one of the older boys came and shooed her back into the house. It had been months since the operation, months of social gatherings and parties much like the one they were preparing to attend tonight where financiers and wealthy diplomats wanted to see more of the little girl who knew everything. As if she were a circus act and not the final component in the last grand scheme of the Earth.
“Nonsense,” Madame said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better candidate.” She gave a sharp pull at Sophie’s hair to force it where she wanted it to go. “You know I’ve always wanted a little girl.”
“Mama,” Sophie whimpered as Madame shoved pins and clips into her hair.
Madame spun Sophie around, pressing both hands over her shoulders. “Now, Miss Sophie, you know you’re not to call me that,” she said. “I’m not your mama.”
“Yes, exactly,” Sir said, taking an elegant stride toward them. “She’ll never be your daughter, Claire.” He rested a hand on Madame’s waist, concern in his eyes. “I worry you’ll grow so attached I won’t know what to do with you when we have to let her go.”
Madame moved a few strands of Sophie’s hair and reached down to smooth the soft yellow party dress she wore. “There,” she said at last. “You look lovely, Sophie.”
“Yes, yes, we all look lovely,” Sir said. He pulled Madame close and kissed her lightly on the cheek. “Come, now, or we’ll be late.”
Sophie ran through the open terrace doors, back into the party. The heat that had blanketed the festivities in sleepy merriment had washed away, replaced with a tight, suffocating silence. The boisterous conversations and laughter had split into smaller pods of whispers and questions. Madame and Sir gathered around a television set into the wall, accompanied by Mr. Galveston and the Grants.
“There have been several attacks, resulting in the near demolition of three of the country’s major cities…”
Madame pressed a delicate hand to her red lips, Sir holding an arm around her waist, as they watched what unfolded on the television screen. Sophie didn’t need to watch to know what had happened. They were hundreds of miles from the city, but close enough to see the aftermath of nuclear warfare streaking through the sky.
“It is assumed that what may follow the bombing of the nation’s metropolises is only nuclear—”
The television flashed off, followed by the lights that had bathed the party in a soft, ethereal glow only minutes earlier. In the next moment, raid sirens erupted in the night, blasting through the open terrace doors.
Partygoers screamed and shoved each other aside as they hurried in a panic toward the door to the extensive fallout shelter built beneath the estate. Madame and Sir searched the frantic crowd for Sophie’s face, running toward her as they caught sight of her pretty yellow dress. Alongside them hurried a man Sophie knew all too well: Jefferson Watt, the lead financier and head of Sophie’s project.
Madame grabbed Sophie by the hand, dragging her along as they ran out the terrace door. Explosions rocked the night as the city in the distance was blown to pieces. Sophie stumbled on the slick stone pathway, dirtying her pretty yellow dress and skinning her knees. Sir scooped her up, holding her in his arms as they followed the pathway Sophie had taken not long before. However, now they did not stop at the marble wall to admire the grounds; their panic carried them down the marble staircase: toward the pier, toward the shuttle.
Mr. Watt wrenched Sophie from Sir’s arms as they approached. “Miss Sophie,” he shouted over the road of planes flying overhead, coming from an airfield on the other side of the bay. “You recall your training?”
It was a useless question; of course she knew every minuscule detail of the procedure as soon as it had been downloaded into her head. Even so, she responded, “Yes.” Mr. Watt gave no acknowledgment that he had heard her, though it didn’t make much difference. If she hadn’t had her training, it would be too late now.
They stopped at thick metal gates that separated the long pier in half, preventing anyone unauthorized from coming too close to the launch site. Mr. Watt handed Sophie back to Sir while he disappeared into a small shed jutting off from the pier. Sir set Sophie down and Madame yanked the yellow party dress over her head. Mr. Watt returned with a small form-fitting flight suit into which the trio slid Sophie.
“You won’t be coming any further,” Mr. Watt shouted to Madame and Sir as he keyed a code into the interface beside the gates. “I suggest you make for the shelter.”
Madame, teary-eyed, pulled Sophie into a suffocating embrace, pressing her face into the brown curls she had spent so long meticulously adjusting. “I know I haven’t been the best moth—caretaker,” she said, “but I am so very proud of you, Sophie.”
Sir knelt beside them, resting a hand on Sophie’s shoulder. “Here,” he said once Madame released her. He handed Sophie the little ragdoll that Madame had insisted was inappropriate to bring along to this sort of function, and demanded she left behind in the car. “Something to remember us by.”
Mr. Watt grabbed Sophie by the wrist and dragged her through the gates, letting the metal clang shut behind them. “Come, Sophie,” he yelled as the launch area began to rumble. “We don’t have much time.”
Only Sir looked back as he and Madame raced away.
“Richard, the Watt estate is the other way,” Madame said as their long black car pulled onto a winding country road that Sophie knew well – even before the operation.
“Stunning observation, Claire,” Sir said as he navigated the dark twists and turns that led to a grand white farmhouse with the words ‘Claymont Orphanage’ painted in script on a sign out front.
“Richard, we’ll be late,” Madame said, turning in her seat to peer at the highway disappearing into the distance behind them. “This is an important gathering, at Jefferson Watt’s estate—”
Sir glanced back at Sophie sitting quietly with her hands folded in her lap – just as Madame had instructed her – in the back seat. “It’s only a short detour, Claire,” he said with a wink at Sophie.
They pulled into the makeshift dirt parking lot beside the house, and were greeted at the door by the elderly couple, the Smiths, that were the night caretakers at Claymont. All the children that had been around long enough to remember Sophie were seated – by choice or instruction, Sophie wasn’t sure – in the small sitting room at the front of the house.
The adults disappeared into the kitchen, Madame after much prodding by Sir, and left Sophie with the only people she had ever been able to call a family. Only now, she didn’t feel like the odd little sister she had once been. She felt on display, stared at as if she were the grand spectacle of a freak show.
Only one of the children, a girl younger than Sophie who arrived at Claymont only a few weeks before Sophie had been whisked away, spoke directly to her. After studying Sophie intently for several minutes she pulled her thumb out of her mouth and spoke. “So you’re going to see the aliens? You’re an alien, aren’t you?”
“She’s not an alien. And they’re not called aliens anymore, dummy,” a boy a year or so older than Sophie said. “Not since the astronauts started going out there and seeing ‘em, and people started living with ‘em.” A self-assured smile spread across his face. “And that started a hundred years ago. Now we do stuff with ‘em like they live on Earth with us.” He paused and crossed his arms proudly over his chest. “See, she’s not the only one who knows everything.”
Another boy jumped up from where he sat on a couch and stood beside the first, mimicking his crossed-arm superiority. “I bet she doesn’t really know anything at all,” he said. “She’s not even human anymore. She’s just a robot with little computer chips in her head.” He laughed and grabbed the little thumb-sucking girl by the shoulders and pushed her toward Sophie. “Careful Emily, the robot’s going to get you!”
The little girl, Emily, screamed and ran from the room as the rest of the children laughed. They pointed at Sophie, chanting “robot” in a chorus of screams and mocking giggles. Sophie backed away from her ex-family, tears welling in her eyes, only to bump into Sir’s legs as he, Madame, and the Smiths came into the doorway. “Are we all getting along?” Mrs. Smith asked, a fake smile on her wrinkled face.
An elevator sped upward, carrying Sophie to the top of the shuttle. She watched through a small window as the tiny figures of Madame and Sir ran back through the gardens toward the estate where they would join the other partygoers in the shelter.
Explosions dotted the night sky with cracks of light as if there was simply a lighting storm dancing above the estate, and not an oncoming nuclear war.
Mr. Watt had stayed at the bottom of the rocket only a moment longer than the others, keying access codes into the database in the small control room below to set the launch sequence before running back to the shelter himself.
Inside the rocket was small; big enough for Sophie to strap herself into a chair and wait for the shuttle to rocket itself on its designated course out of the Milky Way where she would be met and instructed on the next phase of the mission.
Sophie set her ragdoll on the chair, but pulled herself up to a window that looked down to the Earth below. The explosions were almost on the estate now, and she wondered if they knew where she was. Whoever, exactly, they were. She knew it could be anyone; any world power could have initiated this. It didn’t matter who, it only mattered when, and Sophie wasn’t sure she was ready for this to be then.
She watched the small black figure of Mr. Watt reach those open terrace doors as a small explosive – too insignificantly little to be packed with nuclear power – detonate just above the rooftop. The estate shattered into pieces. A countdown played over a speaker in the shuttle.
“Launch sequence initiated. Takeoff in five…”
Planes flew overhead, but kept their bellies closed as they doubled back over the estate toward the city. The streaks of light faded into the night as the bombs dissipated. Her mind turned, running through names and faces and memories stored inside her like a database. As a side effect of the procedure, even her own memories were saved, word for word, inside her. “She is, arguably, the most important child on Earth.”
Sophie could feel her pulse in her wrists, her ankles, as she held onto the metal piping below the window. The flight suit was too tight. She had grown since the last time she’d worn it. It was too small. Too small. The star-streaked sky was silent; the bombs were gone, but so were the people. Every individual on the Earth who had known of her existence, of the project, had been in that mansion. And now they were gone. “Go on, tell our fine financiers something you know.”
Pins dug into her scalp. Sophie yanked at them, pulling all the little bows and barrettes out of her hair and letting them drop back into the shuttle. Her long brown hair fell over her shoulders. She glanced to a large monitor embedded in a control panel on the other side of the cockpit. A message blinked on the hazy gray screen: rendezvous contact failed. Who would find her now? “To think, all those candidates and they choose a little girl.”
She looked back to the window, her chest tightening as a breeze pushed the smoke and dust debris away from the estate. Nothing remained. The inside of her head itched. It was too warm, the metal too unnatural inside her. Her natural tissue had accepted it, but it was too warm. She could feel it. “She’s not even human anymore. She’s just a robot with little computer chips in her head.”
Planes flew over the estate, kicking up winds along the winding drive that lead to the estate, carrying fire from the burning remains of the mansion to the fields of tall grass that surrounded the grand acreage. The planes roared over the garden, shaking the trees and bushes. She longed to hide away in the tall grass of the gardens at Claymont. When boys would tease her and chase her inside, when the girls invited her to tea parties and puppet shows. “Are we all getting along?”
The shuttle rumbled and shook as the ignition system began and the rocket rose from the launch zone. Sophie clung to the piping below the window, holding herself there, desperately wanting to watch the ruined estate as it fell away below her. She clutched the little ragdoll in the crook of her arm and watched the Earth fall away below her. The white spacesuit was too tight around her; her head was too warm.
All around her, the sky was dark and silent. No one was coming. The Earth was not ending. Nothing was as they said it would be. Her reflection shone at her in the window, fogging over under her breath. “You’re an alien, aren’t you?” her memory rang as the earth faded below her.