The Night of Lights celebration began at sundown in Summerhill and Synthia was prepared. She rode the elevator to the first floor, accompanied by other celebrants, all dressed in the traditional black robe with high collars bordering their exuberant faces. No words were shared; no one wanted to spoil the energy with words.
The elevator door opened, and they spilled into the condo lobby then out into the streets. Synthia blinked and her eyes turned yellow, matching the hue radiated by the inside of her robe. The others around her did the same, surrounding her with reds, blues, greens, and almost all the colors of the spectrum. While the others paired off, Synthia strolled the Summerhill streets alone. She was new to the neighborhood and had yet to make friends. It was only a matter of time. There were only so many of them in Atlanta, and there was safety in numbers.
She turned and her eyebrows rose. Bryan forced a smile to his face as he approached.
"I thought that was you," he said. "You've changed . . ."
"Everything," she finished for him. "What are you doing here? I thought you hated synths."
"I do . . . I mean I don't, at least not you. You're not a synth."
"I am, Bryan."
"No, you're not!" Bryan blurted. "Not inside."
Synthia placed her hand on her younger brother's shoulder then smiled when he flinched.
"Who sent you?" she asked.
"We took a vote. I lost."
"So why are you here?"
Bryan's eyes glistened. "It's baba. He's dying. He asked for you. But . . ."
Synthia waited for Bryan to answer.
"I don't think he'll want to see you like this."
"Is that what baba thinks, or you?"
"I'm just the messenger," Bryan said. "Do what you want."
"I'll think about it."
Bryan turned then marched away.
"Don't think too long. He doesn't have much time. Not all of us choose to live forever."
Synthia watched him walk away. She should just let him go and be done with it, but she couldn’t.
She trotted up to him then grabbed his arm.
“How did you get here?” she asked.
“I took the shuttle from Valdosta,” he replied without turning.
“You must be hungry. Tired, too.”
Bryan turned his head just enough for her to see the side of his face.
“I am, actually. Hungry, that is.”
“Come with me,” she said as she tugged his arm.
“Where are you taking me?”
“To my favorite restaurant.”
He turned to face her.
“You still eat food? Real food?”
Synthia laughed at his ignorant question.
“Yes, I do. Now come with me.”
She tried to take Bryan’s hand but he pulled away. She started to say something sarcastic, but decided not to. They were inseparable growing up, only one year apart. People thought they were twins.
They weaved through the growing crowd of lighted revelers. Bryan was making a huge effort not to bump into anyone. His noticeable avoidance drew laughs and scowls.
Synthia was relieved when they finally reached Shay’s Ramen Shack.
“Let’s eat outside,’ she said. “It’s such a pleasant night.”
Bryan followed her to the nearest empty table. A server appeared seconds later, his voluminous afro strobing from red, to black, to green then back to red.
“Hey, Synthia!” he said. “Who’s your friend?”
“Tay, meet Bryan, my baby brother. Bryan, Tay.”
Bryan struggle to smile. “Nice meeting you, Tay.”
“Same here,” Tay replied. “So, what’ll you and the virgin have?”
“The usual for me,” Synthia replied. “Bryan?”
Bryan squinted as he read the menu. “I have no idea. I’ve never had ramen before.”
Tay stood beside Bryan, and Synthia dropped her head when Bryan leaned away.
“You like spicy?” Tay asked.
“A little,” Bryan replied.
“Let’s start you off with the Dan Dan Manzeman,” he said. “I guess since you’re a South Georgia boy you ain’t afraid of pork.”
Bryan grinned. “From the rooter to the tooter.”
Tay laughed and his hair color sequence quickened. Bryan’s mouth fell open.
“I know, right?” Tay said. “It gets everybody.”
Tay took their menus.
“I’ll be back with water and edamame.”
Bryan stared at Tay until he entered the restaurant.
“This is crazy,” he said.
“You get used to it,” Synthia replied. “I had to adjust. It’s nothing like home.”
“You can say that again,” Bryan agreed. “Why would he do that?”
Synthia shrugged. “Why not? If you’re buying a new model, you might as well go all out.”
“I’m from South Georgia.”
Tay returned with their waters and a bowl of edamame. Synthia took one of the salted soybeans then popped it into her mouth. Bryan took one from the bowl then studied it before he did the same.
“This is good,” he said.
“Yep,” Synthia replied.
“Is this real food,” Bryan asked.
“No, it’s synthetic.”
Bryan grabbed his throat and Synthia laughed.
“It’s real,” she said. “You’ll be shitting it out in a few hours.”
“Your sense of humor hasn’t changed,” Bryan said.
“Why should it?”
Bryan ate more edamame. “I don’t know.”
Synthia reached out and took his hand. This time he didn’t pull away.
“It’s the same me, Bryan. Nothing’s change.”
Bryan folded his arms as he leaned back in his chair.
“Well, nothing important has changed.”
Bryan was opening mouth to reply when Tay appeared with their bowls. He placed Synthia’s down first, then gave Bryan his plate.
“Thank you,” Bryan said.
“I love Southern folks,” Tay said. “So polite. Now eat up.”
Bryan scooped up a spoonful then ate.
“Wow. This is delicious!” he said with a full mouth.
“My job is done here,” Tay said. He winked at Synthia. “Enjoy!”
Synthia began eating her ramen.
“Is he synth?” Bryan asked.
“We all are,” Synthia replied.
“No, I mean is he one hundred percent synth?”
“Does it matter?”
Bryan fell silent. Synthia watched him eat, expecting him to continue.
“I guess it doesn’t matter here,” he finally said.
“It doesn’t matter anywhere, except in South Georgia.”
“There are other places,” Bryan said.
“The list gets shorter every day,” Synthia said. “Japan is 100% synth. China’s not far behind. Europe’s up to 40%, and Africa and South America are around 50%.”
“What about Atlanta?” Bryan asked.
“Around 60%,” Synthia answered. She picked up her bowl then slurped down the remaining broth.
“Hurry up and finish,” she said. “I got a great pastry shop I want to show you.”
Bryan finished his ramen. Tay came, took their bowls then scanned Synthia’s wrist for payment.
The crowd was thick, synths and reals mingled together. Synthia could sense Bryan’s mood easing and it made her smile. She was still big sister, looking out for baby brother. They got separated for a few minutes; when she found him a cute petite woman with glowing turquoise eyes that matched her robe lights had him pinned against the wall, talking so fast she didn’t give him any room to reply.
“There you are!” she exclaimed. She grabbed his hand then dragged him away, the woman scowling at her as she waved.
“Thank you!” Bryan said.
“You’re welcomed,” Synthia replied. “Although she was kinda cute.”
Bryan looked embarrassed. “Yes, she was. Except for her eyes. They were creepy.”
“You mean like this?”
Synthia’s eyes went from subtle to glaring yellow. Bryan shaded his face.
“Stop that, please!”
Synthia almost laughed until she detected the tone of his voice. He was terrified.
The sound of bongos and bass broke the tension. Synthia grabbed Bryan’s hand.
“Come on! It’s starting!”
The entire crowd surged in the same direction, the music louder as they neared the outdoor stage. The band was deep into an amapiano vibe, their holoimages flanking their performance. Synthia and Bryan pushed their way close to the stage. Synthia warmed inside when she saw the genuine smile on her brother’s face.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s show them how the Robinsons get down!”
There were two things Bryan and Synthia loved more than anything else; music and dancing. They cleared a space with their flamboyant moves, drawing an audience that cheered them on. Other dancers joined them and soon it was a true celebration. They danced until the band and DJ gave up the stage to a jazz trio.
“I haven’t danced like that in a long time,” Bryan said as they sauntered away from the outdoor stadium.”
“I don’t believe that,” Synthia said. “Not Mr. Partyman himself.”
“Hasn’t been much partying in Moultrie,” Bryan replied. “Everyone is preparing for Transition.”
“I can imagine,” Synthia said. She glanced up to the near invisible dome that covered the Metro ATL. The United Cities passed the Human Separation Act thirty years ago and construction of the domes began immediately afterwards. Now that the cities and the domes were also most complete, the hard part was beginning. Synthia’s life wouldn’t change much; she’d been living in the city for three years and her lifestyle fit the new normal. But it would be hard for people like Bryan and the other members of her family.
“Are you coming to ATL?” she asked.
“No. Jacksonville,” Bryan replied. “It’s closer, plus it’s near the ocean. You know how I love the beach.”
Synthia hooked her arm around Bryan’s.
“You’re staying with me tonight,” she said.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. I need to get back to mama and baba.”
“Call mama,” she said. “Let me talk to her.”
Bryan took out his phone.
“Mama . . . How’s baba . . . Yes, I found her. She wants to speak to you.”
Bryan extended the phone to Synthia. She hesitated before taking it.
“Oh Lordy! Hey baby!”
The tears came before she could stop them.
“I’m sorry I haven’t called.”
“It’s alright Cyndy. We’re talking now.”
“Bryan’s going to spend the night with me. Is that okay?”
“Of course! Me and your baba will be fine.”
Synthia moved the phone closer to her mouth.
“Can I talk to baba?”
“He’s asleep, baby. Why don’t you give him a call tomorrow? I know he’d love to speak to you.”
“Okay mama, I will. Bye. Love you.”
“Love you, too, sweety.”
Synthia gave the phone back the Bryan.
“You heard mama. You’re spending the night with me.”
“I’m a grown ass man,” Bryan said.
“Who’s spending the night with his big sister.”
Bryan looked like he was trying to keep a bee in his mouth when a smile finally burst on his face.
“Good! Now that that’s settled, let’s go get a JuicyPop.”
“Only the best popsicle known to humankind.”
Synthia grabbed his hand and they ran toward the restaurant district.
* * *
Synthia’s apartment occupied a corner on the 14th floor of a complex overlooking Hank Aaron Boulevard. She sat at her balcony table, sipping rum and white liquor while gazing at the construction drones working on the final phase of the dome. In a few more years humans would cut themselves off from Mother Earth in hopes that She would be able to heal without their presence. It was a first; the first time a virus quarantined itself from its host.
The glass door slid open and Bryan stepped out. He grinned then sat at the table.
“What you looking at?”
Synthia pointed into the sky.
“It’s really happening,” he said.
“Doesn’t seem right,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Synthia said. “It’s happening.”
“Why did you do it?” Bryan said.
Synthia sighed. “Because I wanted to. And because I didn’t have a choice.”
“There’s always a choice,” Bryan replied. “At least that’s what you always told me.”
Synthia turned to face Bryan.
“If I tell you something, you have to promise not to tell mama and baba.”
Synthia swallowed then looked into the night sky.
“Five years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer,” she said. Bryan sat up in his chair.
“Synthia! Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I didn’t want to worry anybody, especially baba,” Synthia said. “It was advanced. My doctor told me I had two options. I could fight it with radiation, but chances were slim that I would win. Or I could do this.”
She swept her hand across her body. “Both were just as risky, but if I pulled through synth transition, I’d never have to worry about cancer again.”
Bryan settled back into his chair. “That wasn’t much of a choice.”
“Tell me about it.”
Bryan sipped his drink. “I wish you would have at least told me.”
“Back then you were the last person I would have told,” Synthia said. “I’m still surprised you came looking for me.”
“I did that for baba,” Bryan said as he looked away.
“You could have texted. My number hasn’t changed.”
Bryan looked up; his eyes intense.
“My plan was to talk you into reversal,” he said. “I read somewhere that a person’s body was kept in cryo for three months after transition just in case the central nervous system and the synth host didn’t mesh. But I see that was no option for you.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Synthia replied. “Not that it would have made a difference.”
“You saying you would have done it anyway?”
“Yeah, one day down the road,” she admitted. “You still hate me?”
“I never hated you,” Bryan answered. “I never could. I just didn’t understand why.”
“What’s there to understand?” Synthia said.
“You’re going to outlive us all,” he said. “We’re going to die, and you’re going to be alone.”
“You don’t think I didn’t think about that?” Synthia replied. “I did. I still do. Every day.”
“But I still don’t . . .”
“Bryan, do you love me?” Synthia asked.
“Of course, I do,” he replied.
“Then let’s just go with that,” Synthia said. “Let’s just sit here, drink, and look at the stars.”
Synthia took out her phone then turned on her playlist. Jazz wafted from her stereo on the patio and the two of them listened until the sun sent scattered beams of light between the high rises and woke them. Synthia stretched and yawned.
“You hungry?” she asked.
“Yes,” Bryan replied. “What you got inside?”
“Nothing. Let’s go get something then we’ll catch the shuttle home.”
“Yeah, I’m going with you.”
Bryan’s eyes widened and he smiled.
“Mama and baba will be so happy!”
“Calm down,” Synthia said. “I’m not coming for good.”
Bryan’s shoulders slumped.
“I can’t. This is home now. But I’ll make you a promise. I’ll stay as long as baba wants me to. Okay?”
Bryan’s smile returned. “Okay.”
Synthia stood. “I’m going to wash up then we’ll get some grub.”
“You don’t need to eat, do you?” Bryan asked.
“No, but I’m going to,” she said. “Can’t let my baby brother pig out alone.”
“You were right,” Bryan said. “You are the same.”
“Of course I am,” Synthia replied. “What I changed out here, didn’t change who I am in here.”
She placed her palm on her chest as she stood.
“Now let’s freshen up and get going. Those cinnamon rolls at Big Tarts don’t wait for anyone.”
Bryan jumped from his chair then hurried inside. Synthia watched him go, then followed, closing the sliding door behind her.