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Starbright Over and Out
The story of Bella and Juan
Starbright Over and Out
The story of Bella and Juan
“How did they meet?” asks the documentarian.
“They met line dancing!” yells one of the older ladies and they all cackle.
“… at Starbright’s Roadhouse near the gas station there next to the highway!” adds another one.
The woman in the wheelchair, Emma, says:
“Of course, Bella couldn’t put one foot in front of the other even if you’d held her foot and moved it! She had absolutely no sense of pacing and rhythm whatsoever!
“How do you know?” asks the documentarian.
More laughter spreads among the five women and two of them stand up and begin a line dance routine. They move well to the soundless music and keep dancing for a while to show a few complicated dance movements.
“We were the ones who tried to teach her to dance! God how we tried! She would show up every Thursday and of course, like everyone else…” and all the ladies speak at the same time “… she wanted to dance with Juan!”
“Everyone wanted to dance with Juan! Emma, didn’t you two win a prize or something in Cooling? A stuffed elk head, wasn’t it?” The laughter continues.
“Yup! We tossed a coin for the elk head and Juan won it! He put it in his parents’ living room and all! Yeah, we did dance competitions. I was the only one who could keep up with him!” Emma smiles and rubs the wheels of the wheelchair.
“So how did they connect if she was such a horrible dancer?” asks the documentarian.
Mia explains: “Oh they connected alright! Juan took one look at her legs and those rhinestone boots she had to reorder three times before they fit, and he was gone. It didn’t matter that she kept stepping on his feet and turning the wrong way or falling behind. What she couldn’t do dancing she made up for with being. Simply being!”
Olivia rolled her eyes.
“You have to understand, Starbright is a small town. Nobody who’s anybody lives here. This was our thing, on Thursdays it was line dancing and Juan would show up and, well frankly, we all felt like he was our boyfriend somehow! Funny thing, and we talked about it later on too with the girls, he was the only guy who left his cellphone home or in his car or wherever he left it when he came to dance. It was Juan, his hat, his — God, you remember his black jeans? — his dancing boots with the gold toes that the others would tease him about every single time, and us. Yeah, there were tons of others but they vanished, we didn’t notice them as much. This was our Thursday, until she showed up. Bella.”
“Tell me about Bella.” The documentarian looks at the lineup of women. They are around 65 or so and life has marked them all in various ways.
Jayden speaks up:
“She came here as a travel nurse and they liked her so much that she stayed. She originally came from a town in California, Santa Ynez I think it was. She’d talk about it being the wine country. Yeah, so she worked as a nurse and then she rented Grandma Olive’s cottage there on 5th street. In her spare time she made homemade candles in old recycled bottles that she cut in half. She sold them on Etsy and around Christmas everyone loved the pine scented ones that she sold at the Christmas Market. She liked sparkly, shiny things, and her place always smelled like a broken but nice perfume bottle! Juan called it the Wunderbaum Grotto! You know, like those trees they hang in the cars.”
“What did Bella love about Juan? What made them a couple?”
“Bella always said it was love at first sight for her, and Juan said Bella came blowing in like a whirlwind and swept him off his feet. I always thought that didn’t sound like him but hey, that’s what he said. Maybe he was drunk or something. We all think he thought she was the hottest thing he’d ever seen and he couldn’t believe she’d go for him. That’s what we thought, right?” Mia looks at the others and Emma looks out the rain-soaked window and thinks for a bit before she adds:
“They didn’t meet line dancing.” Everyone stops and looks at her.
The documentarian asks: “What do you mean?”
Mia continues with a calm voice:
“Juan rescued her in a snowstorm.”
“What?” “When?” “I’ve never heard that story before!” Everyone looks at Mia for more.
“Juan rescued her in a snowstorm, only he didn’t know it was her. You remember that storm in ‘33? Well, Bella had rented a car to drive from Lincoln to Denver or something, I think for a travel nurse gig, and this clueless California girl thought it would be a good idea to head out on the road. She probably didn’t even look at the weather app.
So, her car gets stuck right there on the ridge. The rest of the town is already hunkered down and Bella would’ve frozen to death if Juan wasn’t by chance on his way home. He had forgotten to pick up something, maybe something his mom needed, and had turned around back into town. He drove that gigantic truck, remember, that made him look like an ant. Well, he was bundled up and when he saw the car stuck in the snowbank, he almost didn’t stop. Idiots that stupid don’t deserve help. But that wasn’t Juan.
So he wrapped his scarf five times around his head and put a hat on top, and pulled the car out of the pile. He had no clue that was Bella. He just talked about some idiot woman with Arizona plates. You know how all rental cars used to have Arizona plates?”
“Wait, wait, hold up!” Emma holds up her hands. “You’re telling me Bella was here way before she was here? How come we didn’t see her? Where did you hear this story?”
Mia produces a dry smile.
“Wait ‘til you hear this. So, Bella was stuck in her car in the middle of nowhere with no cellphone connection. It was already getting dark, and the blizzard was pounding. She was trapped. Now, you know she didn’t get scared easily, but this was a bit different. This was probably as close to death as she’s ever been up to then.
So, when this guy shows up out of nowhere and pulls her out of the snow pile, something happens to her. She saw only his eyes, the rest was bundled up. So was she for that matter. She had put on two winter parkas, a large scarf, huge winter hat and gloves and could barely move.
He had no idea what she looked like except she was a bundled up woman. But this was to her like a knight had appeared to rescue a lady in some Medieval story. I think you can safely say she became obsessed or possessed or whatever of him. Seriously so.”
The documentarian skims through his notes on the screen and looks up:
“How come none of this has ever been mentioned before? If this happened, why hasn’t it been included in all the stories about Bella and Juan? Is this fake, you think?”
Mia shakes her head.
“No it’s true. There’s more. I guess it’s OK if I tell it now, since it’s been a while since… since everything came to pass. Bella was rescued, Juan went home, and everyone survived and the blizzard was over the next morning. End of story. Except it wasn’t. As soon as Bella came to Denver she could only think of one thing. How to get to Starbright to find her knight!”
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“OK, Mia, seriously, why haven’t you told us this before? Are you making this up?” Emma and the rest look at her. Envy flashes across their eyes.
“Wait, keep listening. It took Bella about a year, but a year later she got a job here in Starbright as a travel nurse, and that’s when we all met her. She had figured out who owned a bright blue truck in Starbright, and narrowed it down to Juan and what’s his name, the potato farmer — Brendan!
She found Juan online, stalked him for a lack of a better term, and moved here to be with him. And Juan had no clue. Actually he never had a clue it was Bella he’d pulled out of the snow that day. Bella told me this…”
“This is getting creepy!” Emma looks at Jayden and they both shake their heads.
“Bella told me this the first time she and Juan had broken up. It was the only time I saw her livid. She realized that she’d blurted out the truth and made me swear I’d never tell anyone. I didn’t, until now.”
“So, Bella was a creepy stalker and Juan had no idea. Great. This explains a lot!” Emma looks at the documentarian and chuckles. “You had no idea it was going to get this interesting, did you?”
The documentarian twists his face a little while scrolling through his questions. Everything has been turned up-side-down.
“So, someone, tell me when Juan decided to get the smartbrain.”
“That’s pretty well known. That was after the accident. There was nothing they could do, they had to amputate both his legs. He didn’t rehabilitate well. Bella was actually amazing toward him during that time, but Juan was destroyed. In a way, his legs had been his defining element. He loved to move around, walk, dance, never stood still. But the depression hit him hard.
When the smartbrain came out with a wider distribution, he sold a lot of what he owned and got it. He was much better after that. At least he appeared better. Don’t you think?”
Emma looks around for affirmation and a few of the ladies nod in agreement. But the room is void of the initial energy. They’re all in deep thought.
The documentarian sees the balloon has deflated and is trying to pump it up again.
“Would you say Bella and Juan loved each other less or more after he got the smartbrain?”
“Let’s put it this way…” Mia says “… Juan loved himself more and Bella loved the attention more and herself less. Juan? I think the smartbrain made him love Bella less, but he was smart enough to hide it. He needed her. I mean, they had to put up with a lot, you know, and to remain together like that, with all the attention… I don’t know how they did it. Do any of you know how they did it?”
“Well, they got paid a lot,” the documentarian has lost a bit of his objective front and hopes this will add fuel to the fire.
“I sometimes wonder if that’s what pushed Bella over the brink, you know?” says Jayden. Olivia nods and says:
“Me too, and at the same time, why didn’t she ever get a smartbrain? At some point they had enough money to have two. I don’t know how to explain it, but it always felt like Bella thought Juan was not quite human anymore. She was sort of, put off, maybe, by him or something? You know? Bella loved being a human, does that sound silly? She loved Juan because he had stepped into her life and literally rescued her human body. Are you getting the same vibe?”
“Definitely. Once Juan got the prosthetics and could walk again, they had that party at Starbright’s Roadhouse. I have to say, it was the best party I’ve ever been to! I think it was the last time I had fun, like ever. I’m a bit ashamed to say it, but I think we all felt that way. For a few hours we forgot everything and just danced. Juan, gosh, he must have programmed the heck out of his legs because he was smooth! Bella with her rhinestone boots, hopping and skipping as if the floor was electric, and all of us laughing and just — enjoying life!”
They laugh. The laughs die down pretty quickly.
“No cellphones or AI hookups were permitted of course, except that blue dot in the corner above the bar that recorded everything. I think Emma was the first one to get doxxed by some idiot fans that were watching Juan’s channel 24/7. And Emma, correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t that the reason that you ended up in a wheelchair?”
Emma purses her lips and sighs out:
“Yup, they chased me on the stretch between Big and Little Lake, and I struck a moose. Who the hell strikes a moose in Nebraska?”
“So by now Juan’s smartbrain channel is the most popular in the world. He spends 12 hours “silent” and 12 hours “active” from a non-smartbrain perspective. He figures out a way to activate part of his brain while resting another. Talking becomes less and less interesting to him. He gets frustrated with English and Spanish, and tries to teach people around him some algorithmic language no one understands. He claims it gives everything a clearer meaning.
Bella, well you saw what happened. It was played again and again on all screens and glasses and retina implants across the world. Other smartbrain members hooked up to it and experienced it again and again. The last time they spoke to each other in English and — at that point some neurotracers were able to define emotions so it could detect a statistically significant level of what we call love — the last time they said they loved each other was December 31, 2039.”
“What happened after that?” asks the documentarian.
“An offer was made to Juan. At this point he was the most famous person on Earth. Ridiculous, I know. A line dancer and fireman from Starbright, Nebraska. Starbright didn’t use to look the way it does now. Once the restrictions came everything calmed down, but for a year or so Starbright was the hottest little town to visit. There was nothing here to do or see, but everyone who had anything to sell or rent made tons of money. That finally dwindled down.
Juan never met any of these people in person. They’d already built the compound up on the ridge by then, and no one could get in. They tried. And failed. Anyway, an offer was made to him. The offer was to go full in, all in, or whatever they called it then. Linked up. Mind uploading.”
“Was Bella instrumental in this decision making process?” The documentarian scans them all in turn with his eyes.
“If you look at all the interviews with her from those days, you see that she knows it’s all over. He’s going to do it no matter what she says. I remember that one interview they did with them on Greenland during their World Tour. Remember how that was a thing, where the ultra-famous would do World Tours? They’re sitting on a patch of moss on Greenland, and get asked about how they met.
Now keep in mind, she never told him about the first meeting in the blizzard. But she says something like: “All I could see were his eyes, and I knew this is the man I will love forever.” I had never heard her say anything like that before. It was the most human thing. She was explaining what it meant to be — well, human. Didn’t Benny and the Jetzz make a song called “All I could see were his eyes”?
When it was Juan’s turn to answer he smiled and held up his screen. It was covered in strange symbols and one English word: legs. I mean, what the heck was that even? A week later the news broke that Juan was going ‘full mind upload’.”
Mia pauses to take a drink of water.
“Tell me about the full mind upload day.”
“Jayden, why don’t you take this one?” says Emma “I can’t, I can’t do it.”
Jayden sighs and leans forward to the edge of her seat:
“Full mind upload, as you know, is fairly unpredictable. We’ve seen what happened to Gwen and Let. Juan was the first famous person to go full tech. The Organization guaranteed it would be smooth and that many successful tests had already been made. So what do you do when a human basically wants to un-human themselves and upload their entire brain to a machine? What does that ritual look like?
Juan chose to have this ceremony in the forest behind the compound. It took three days for the tech and med crew with their equipment to figure out the logistics, but when it was all set up it looked — it looked like an open casket burial except the person was not dead. Yet.”
“Where was Bella during all this?” the documentarian asks even if he already knows the answer.
“Bella was in California in a clinic, heavily sedated, and very much asleep. She stayed that way for about a month. That was the way she wanted it, and to be honest, I wish I had done the same.
So, the rest of us did attend the ceremony. It’s the only full mind upload I have ever witnessed so I can’t tell if it was usual or not, but Juan greeted us while seating in a beautiful large chair. Almost like a throne. He was wearing loose fitting clothes and lots of wires and metallic buttons were of course covering his head and skin everywhere. He said very little and looked very happy and alive. Almost like when he was a teenager! Same smile, same giddy gleam in his eyes.
Next to him was the screen. That would be where he would end up. So bizarre, huh, to think that you can grab your brain and put it on the screen. The last thing I heard Juan say before he lay down was: “Yes, I’m OK.”
After a while the head researcher from the Organization spoke, but I can’t remember any of it. I was silently freaking out like everyone else there. Then Juan lay down on the bed or altar or whatever you call it, and while quiet music played the tech and med crew began emptying his brain. Downloading it, copying it. Whatever.
They had a massive amount of monitors nearby and little by little something began to appear on the screen. Almost like a dust devil. A swirl. A moving rotation of something. An electronic whirlwind. It changed form and suddenly became a wave. It remained a wave for a long time. Then it became a swirl again and pulsated. That’s when they turned on the sound.”
All the ladies reach out and hold hands. Jayden continues:
“The screen laughed. Not with Juan’s laughter, but with something else. Something much larger. Something that can hold something so large you cannot grasp it. The forest felt cold. The trees felt like spikes that would hit us. I can’t remember how many there were of us, maybe fifteen? Everyone, and I mean, everyone jumped up and took a step backward.
The screen laughed again, and screamed: ‘I’m here now! I’m here! I can see everything! Starbright! Over and out!’ Then the screen went dark, and all our phones and devices fried. One of the tech crew members sagged to the ground and didn’t move.
Juan’s body was covered up and lifted into a car. We walked back to the compound. Stumbled was more like it. Juan’s mother was trembling so much she had to be held by two men on each side.
No one really knows how a full mind upload works. Juan didn’t come back on screen for a year. When he returned he said he’d been far away, and that he could only stay a minute before ‘they’ would come and get him.
Bella was there and tried to say a few words but you know how it is, what can you say to a screen? She didn’t want a smartbrain. And who can blame her? Most of the smartbrain people fried on the day when Juan uploaded.”
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