Bright Lights Flying Beneath the Ocean
by Anjali Patel
[Draft] (no subject) – 2:23 AM
My dearest Tasha, Moon bug, favorite sister…
How are you? I know it’s been a minute. I’m sure you’ve been busy. Probably doing all sorts of smart, lawyer things I don’t understand — litigating and adjourning. Protecting people. Being good. I believe in you, always have. You are the better sister. Things in Accra are good, by the way. I’m finishing my PhD, finally. I’ve made friends. It would be better, of course, if you were here.
I know you are still alive.
I am haunted by the fact that I am fine and you might not be. You are the last face I see before I fall asleep, the first person I imagine when I lie in a half-dream state where we still share a room, twin beds on opposite sides, separated by a few feet and the sticky, glowing stars we plastered across the ceiling. I think of those girls and I envy them for being able to fight and scratch and pull at each other’s hair and hug and scream as if they would not one day be separated by an ocean.
Wait for me. I am coming.
I’m not sure how much you know or what they’re telling you, and I have no idea what life looks like for you right now. No one has heard anything from anyone in almost half a decade. Nothing. The borders are clamped shut and it’s been declared a no-fly zone. Anyone who gets too close — air, land, sea — gets gunned down. Trust me, I’ve looked for ways. Many of us with people there have looked for ways. So if you see this email and not the others, just know I never stopped trying to reach you. Texts, letters, whispers to the wind, messages in bottles, shouting into storms; I have tried it all. And if you see this email and not the others, I want you to know — I found the way to get you out. I found it years ago, I just couldn’t say anything until I had more proof: It’s fiber optic cables.
Don’t laugh. I haven’t forgotten how you used to make fun of me for loving a Wrinkle in Time so hard that I spent every afternoon for a year trying to create a tesseract and compose my own dimensions. I thought if I ran fast enough, I could explode into light and cross the universe. Joke’s on you, because that’s how this nerd is going to save you. All it takes is matter to photons; two sisters to light.
So the cables. They’re glass tubes just the width of a hair that run beneath the ground all over the world, conducting pulses of light. In oversimplified terms, that’s one of the ways the internet works. Did you know that? When we used to Zoom our cousins in London, our images turned to radio signals that became binary flashes that blinked through subaquatic cables to get to them. Everyone thinks the internet is all clouds and satellites and magic when most of the time, it’s light beneath our feet. It’s… fucking elegance, it’s poetry. Even if you can no longer access the internet, even if they’ve knocked out all the ISP’s, they wouldn’t cut the cables. There are too many of them. We were once too well connected. There were ley lines exploding beneath us, even if we couldn’t feel it.
When two years had passed since I heard from you and it came time to propose my thesis, I thought: If we could send images of ourselves to our cousins through glass cables under the sea, why not something more? Why devote my life to physics if not to save you?
I mentioned the idea to a fellow physicist at the Imperial College and he laughed. Said no one would fund that kind of work out of an African university, that I could not compete with schools with the best equipment and best minds. What a small world to live in, to say something like that when I know for certain the best minds are here.
My proposal didn’t feel like a leap — converting energy to matter is elementary physics at this point, and though matter to energy is harder, the theories have existed for almost a century. All I had to do was stand on the shoulders of Breit, Wheeler, Oluseyi, Jackson — and find the funding.
Try as I might to stay humble, your sister is, as you know, brilliant and savvy… when I proposed my thesis, I proposed a conversion of matter to energy that could reconcile quantum mechanics and relativity. See, these used to be fundamentally incompatible fields, both with their own ideas of how the universe works. At one point the gulf between them was as wide as the one between you and me, but physics has been getting closer and closer to bridging them. My work nestles them together, exacting the point that reconciles the grand sweep of relativity with the foggy probability of quantum mechanics: the behavior of light. Boring, boring, boring, you think (it’s not), but here is an important part: Drawing on two fields means drawing on two pools of funding.
Oh Tasha, I try not to be someone motivated by spite, but when the board accepted the proposal and the grant funding started to roll in? It felt so, so sweet.
We started our work a year ago.
I think the last time I saw you was on our parents’ porch. I was taking in the Virginia air I had missed so much up in Michigan, thick with cicada chatter and day-end mugginess. You were sipping wine and looking guilty for laughing because we had just put mom and dad to rest the day before. I was trying hard to make you laugh. You wore a powder blue sweater and I wanted it because it was yours and told you I would steal it when you weren’t looking. Do you remember that? You took it off and handed it to me without a fight. That’s how I knew you were grieving.
I’m wearing the sweater now, by the way. Was that really the last time?
I can’t wait until you’re here, Tasha, you’re going to love it. My skin has never been better. I look in the mirror and I don’t know who I am, all lush and plump and lit up from the inside with year-round sun and humidity. It’s not perfect, and I’m still a foreigner in so many ways. But I walk through the store and no one follows me. I sit on the bus and no one tucks their purse farther under their arm. I didn’t realize how hardened I’d become to those little nicks. It’s like I came out this side of the Atlantic dripping in salt water, stinging with the hurt of it all but primed to heal. Dizzy with levity.
Shh. You know I be on my hotep bullshit sometimes.
I hate that I get this and you don’t.
I…fuck, Tasha. I miss you so fucking much. I’m scared for you.
Why didn’t you get a passport when I told you? There was plenty of room in the Homecoming Project. I know you weren’t ready to give up your citizenship, that we didn’t believe something like this could happen in our lifetime, even given our country’s bloody history. I don’t think you cared about that, though. I think you wanted to stay and make it better, to the very end. Even if it cost you your–
No. You’re still alive. And I’m close, Tasha, I’m so close. Today we transmitted a screw from one end of a cable to the other, can you believe it? It’s just a matter of time before my lab gets to organic matter and I can get to you. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything sooner, because until it happened, it was just wishful thinking and theories and you know how I latch onto ideas and get way too excited and who gets excited about fiber optic cables?
If you’re reading this, I hope you’re laughing. I hope you still laugh.
Tasha, when I figure this out, I will become light and flash through the cables to find you, and when I do, you will become light, too, and I’ll bring you back with me. For an infinitesimal fraction of time, we’ll both be bright lights flying beneath the ocean. Maybe our stolen foremothers who were cast overboard are down there. Maybe we can break free and soar with them and they will shimmer in our radiance, all of us together just flying and flying and flying. I’d like to think they’re singing to us, stirring up the waves and frothy salt water that reaches my feet when I stand in the sea and look to you.
Moon bug, I’m so sorry, but I can’t send this email. I need to keep it to myself for now. I haven’t told anyone what I plan to do with this work, and there’s too much risk of that being compromised. But I’m putting the energy out there. I will stand at what was once the point of no return for our great great greats and blow a kiss across the waves with my promise to you: I won’t rest until you’re safe home with me.
Have hope. I am coming.
by Brent C. Lambert
ANJALI PATEL has this to say about the story: “Earlier this year as I was preparing to interview for a new software engineering position, I realized I knew very little about how the internet works on a physical level. I fell down a rabbit hole reading about fiber optic cables and the network they form beneath the ocean. There was just something so poetic about us communicating through an underwater highway of flashing lights — I knew I had to explore it in a story. I had also been feeling ever-increasing dread over living in the US as a Black person. I am currently tethered by several things that would be difficult to move without significant planning (a job, my dog, the collection of books I’ve been toting around since childhood), but more than anything I am frozen in place by the guilt over who I would have to leave behind.”
This story resonated for me as someone who lives relatively far away from their family. It made me think about the costs of that distance even while knowing it was the best decision for me. And the search for reunion by any means necessary feels like something that exists at the core of the global Black experience.
There are so many of us who have had to separate ourselves; physically, spiritually, and emotionally for our greater good. But choosing the greater good doesn’t mean you don’t leave good things behind in the process. And there is the persistent fact that you just don’t know if your loved ones are fine in any given moment. There is a world of difference between living a few minutes away from your parents versus having a continent or ocean’s worth of space between you.
That distance produces a sort of helplessness which I think this story really does a great job of exploring. For those of us who do not live close to our loved ones, I would imagine that we all fantasize about ways to bring those loved ones to us. Or for us to get to them without having to sacrifice any part of our new lives. It’s a chronic case of wanting it all, but who can blame us?
Love shouldn’t have to be contained by borders.
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And our closing quotation this week is from Katherine Johnson, who said “Everything is physics and math.”
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About the Author
Anjali is a Black and South Asian computer whisperer and speculative fiction writer. She writes to explore queerness, agency, ancestral severance, convoluted mythologies of her own devising, and the stars. She lives with a grizzled dog who offered to teach her magic in exchange for free New York City rent. Find her at anjali.fyi or on Twitter @anjapatel.
About the Narrator
Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives and works in Houston as an oncology nurse. She is married and the mother to three brilliant artistic children. She writes because she loves to and also because she has a story (or two, or three…) to tell.