Watching

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You spend the minutes before your death thinking about fishing.
There was a stream behind the farm where you grew up, and you used to spend hours down there, splashing around and trying to catch the tiny silver fish that lived inside. The funny thing about catching fish by hand, you discovered, is that it’s very hard to do when being observed. You tried doing it to impress your brother, and then again with a girl you liked, but every time their eyes ended up on you, you’d end up panicking and moving too fast or too slow or thinking you had a good grip only to realise the thing was suddenly somewhere else instead of caught between your hands. Your brother found the whole thing hilarious, even more so when you started shouting at him and blaming him for your failures. “Don’t watch me! I can’t do it if you watch me!”
Maybe the ship is having the same problem, you think, watching the walls begin to crack and an unbearably bright, pulsing light begin to fill the cabin. This operation is too delicate, too difficult, too personal for anyone else to see. You can’t expect the secrets of the universe to reveal themselves while you’re watching.
You are in the hold of a creaking metal can, halfway between the Earth and Mars, at the end of a collision course with a tiny hole in the fabric of space. Your brother is back on earth, with a million miles of space and six feet of earth between you and him. He died in the camp just six months after the programme was announced, which was four years after the farm was burned down and you and your neighbours - but not all of them - were forced by smiling soldiers with large guns to move into a muddy enclosure and given a sheet of tarpaulin to live under.
The staff from the programme assured you time and time again that the hole in space had been tested and you would be fine. There had been signals. There had been probes. There had even been a woman, Zhang Yuhong, who went to a different universe and came back and filled the TV coverage for months afterwards. You are not having the same luck. The moment you hit the hole, the air inside the hold began to ripple and the walls started to make an ominous crunching sound. Everyone in the hold seemed to gasp simultaneously, and a few children started to cry as the pressure on your eardrums began increasing rapidly.
Six months before your mother died, you and five thousand other unwanted humans were offered a new home in a new universe by the smiling shadows who gave you the tarpaulin tent. Now, three years later, you and five thousand other unwanted humans are being shot through a hole in space to see where you come out. You are pretty sure at this stage that whatever position you end up in, things are not going to turn out well.
Maybe it can’t be done while you’re watching.
So, you close your eyes. Suddenly you are back on your parents’ farm, before the smell of charcoal and melted plastic took over, running through the fields except this time as the adult you’ve become and not the child you were. You’re also on a disintegrating spaceship between universes. You are watching smiling soldiers chatting and smoking on the other side of the fence. You are trying to scream but the air around you has turned hard and immovable. You are waking up to find your brother cold and staring into nothing. The pressure of the woman huddled beside you suddenly eases and you suspect she is literally melting away, as the sound and the smell and the feel of living between mud and tarpaulin and metal and void fill your senses until the whole thing is utterly unbearable --
And then the creaking stops. The world goes silent. Suddenly, there’s another place to be.
You are sitting on the back porch of the farm hunched over a textbook, doing your homework.
You are at school with your neighbours - all of them, not just the ones who went with you - and you are learning about magnets, and forces, and electrons, and wave-particle duality and all about the double slit experiment: that little proton saying “I can’t do it if you watch me!”
You go to the creek at weekends and sometimes you go with your neighbours - all of them, but not all at once – and show them your skills. Though you still do your best fishing when you’re alone.
Ten years later, you are still studying those particles and the universe they make, and planning those weekend fishing trips, when another team in your research institute discovers a hole in space, halfway between Earth and Mars, and you spend another five years helping design a probe to shoot through the hole and see where it ends up.
(Somewhere, someone else on your planet is watching their farm burn and burying their brother and living between tarpaulin and mud for years, and you feel terrible about that when you remember. But it isn’t you.)
And now at last, the moment of arrival! You hold your breath - you have to hold your breath, there’s no air to breathe any more, and your lungs are exploding out from inside your chest, but that doesn’t hurt as much when you remember how excited you were for this day to come - and take a look at the screen that will give you the first glimpse of this incredible phenomenon.
You open your eyes, and everything comes into focus. In the moment before your body bursts and the atoms that used to be your home disperse into the background of this new universe, you see yourself looking at you.
But then, you can’t do it when they’re watching.