By Erik Goldsmith
“Poor little thing, I try tell him, but he don’t listen. You know how it is, he just don’t listen! You’re not gonna hurt him now, are you? They’s a time and a place. Poor little thing. He didn’t mean nothing by it. Just a time and a place, that’s all.”
The master lowered his knife and listened to the old woman grovel beneath him. Others watched beyond the perimeter of torchlight, peeking out from the darkness.
“I told him, don’t run. I said, don’t you run, but they’s a time and a place for everything. I told him that and now, it’s just…look at you.”
Her bloody son writhed in agony underneath the master’s foot. She wormed over to his side and stretched over his body like a blanket, steady flinching against the unknown.
“Don’t you worry about a thing.” She screamed over him. “I’m gonna make your favorite tonight. You ‘member those beets, you was eyin? They sho looked good! That’s your favorite. I’ll put em in a stew for you, and maybe old Jamphua might pick up the fiddle, cut the slip and quick, our feet’ll be turned out just like that. Why, you couldn’t ask fo more!”
The master cringed under the torchlight and kicked her in the face. The impact turned her head, but her large body remained draped over him.
“No, no, no, no, please, he didn’t mean it! Where’s it come from? There’s a time and a place, sir, but not this, not this right here, not thi-”
He motioned for the overseer to lift her off the boy and stabbed the torch into the ground. A struggle ensued. The overseer grabbed the old woman’s ankles, and tried to pull her free, but she wouldn’t budge.
“No! Get off me, no, no…sir…No, get off me. Can you hear me? He didn’t mean it! No…NO!”
She clung to the boy like a skin, ripping and tearing the wet cloth as he pulled, opening his wound further and further. The overseer switched tactics and attempted to unclench the old woman’s calloused fingers from the cotton shirt, but it was the boy’s screams that finally pried her hands loose. She let go and the overseer threw her into the dirt. She wailed, realizing her mistake and tried to crawl back, but the overseer got between them and her head bumped into his shins. She looked up at him, saw his grinning face and made to crawl around him, but he danced with her, giggling and scooting just ahead of her clumsy maneuvers until she started begging him, reaching for him, but it did nothing and he laughed the devil’s counterpoint turning her cries into a single word of screeched molasses.
“You ever heard a please sincere as that, boss?”
The master motioned for the rope. Behind them, some of the children were told to go inside, others were made to watch. The old woman learned something new. No was what she said.
The word became a memory. She became newborn.
The overseer unhitched the rope from the tree and let the body fall to the ground. It hit wrong and no became everything. Others bravely stepped from the shadows and wrapped their arms around what was left, urging her back into the darkness. She didn’t move, her old coiled body, dried of will like a stump, lay in the dirt, a slow twist. They took her by the hands, lifted her to her feet, and miraculously, she began to let. One of them grinned relief. The master saw it and spit on the ground like a gun shot. It triggered their eyes and they moved even faster, pressing their pittance and their knowing quiet and their brutalized hands against her old body. They pushed her inch by inch, until they knew their skin had become indistinguishable from the shadows around them.
The master pulled his torch from the earth and saw white flash in the distance. He held the torch higher, peering into the dark. Someone began to clap. Another laughed. An out of tune fiddle hopped out of the silence and began bouncing around the screams sounding no jollier than crickets. They were all smiling now. He began to hyperventilate and his torch hand slacked.
“Oh God, there they go again.” Said the overseer and set to work on the body.
They started to dance, though they lit no fire, and willed themselves to move under the trees in and out like black ripples across a dead pond. Their anonymity, the one advantage of their skin, propelled their feet faster and faster like they might soon cast off the dark.
The master watched them from a distance, his shoulders heaving, torch in hand. He let the flame draw nearer and nearer to his eyes until the orange and red had licked every drop of night from his skin. Then, he put his face fully in the fire and made no noise within the torches’ flames. Her screams could still be heard over the fiddle and a cold wind swept across it all.
“What you want me to put this, boss?”
The master removed his face from the fire and threw the torch on the ground. He looked up at his overseer. The man asked a second time and bounced the body on his shoulder for emphasis.
“Just put him down.”
He grinned and let the body fall from his shoulders.
“Let ‘em see if they know what’s good for the-.” The overseer could not finish his sentence, because the master slit his throat. Gouts of blood spewed out of his nec-
Suddenly, everything washed away except for Dewitt Cuffy. He uncurled his fingers from the digital knife, sat up, stretched, and unplugged.
A smiling face appeared behind a white monitor across from Cuffy’s haptic lounge chair. The young man’s eyes were wide with question. “So, What’d you think, Cuff?”
He said nothing.
On school nights mostly, twice a week, sometimes three, he would come to the holo-store and sit with this one particular program, “The Runaway.” He and Bill had been adjusting it for a year, but it’d be hard to tell they changed anything from its original programming. For all intents and purposes, it was still the same story they’d started with; a Virtual Reality movie shot from the point of view of the slave master. The script remained the same. The boy is caught by the overseer and is brought before the master. The master stabs him. The mother pleads. The master lynches the boy. The mother wails. The slaves pull her away and dance in the darkness. The master and the overseer laugh. Repeat.
VR was a movie. However, these new holo-tapes allowed you to interact deviate from the script and trigger the AI reactions. Every deviation that he embarked on was recoded into the program, refreshing it with information, the AI were now gaining faster and faster responses to anything Cuffy could do. In fact, the characters were starting to improvise.
VR used to be just a movie, but it was becoming something else.
Bill rolled his chair from behind his monitor. “Seriously, what’d you think?”
“They were smiling, Bill. Did you see see that?”
“Who the overseer?”
Cuffy shook his head. “No…no. The slave helping the old woman. He smiled when she got up. He looked relieved.”
“You didn’t code that?”
“And the others,” Cuffy stretched in the chair and sat up, “others in the darkness. I could see their teeth. You didn’t-”
“Nope. And how did you see them anyway? Their AI isn’t supposed to function unless they are within the torchlight.”
Cuffy said nothing.
“Anyway, why’d you kill the overseer, man?”
Again, Cuffy didn’t answer and wiped something from his face. The young technician bent a little from behind his desk, trying to get into Cuffy’s eye line.
“You didn’t get to see the overseer’s new dance at the en-”
“Did you re-write the old woman’s dialogue?”
“You liked that?”
“What’s wrong with beets?”
Cuffy shook his head. “I told you. Stick to core motivation and memory. Emotional responses triggering generalized belief and value contradictions. Don’t write their dialogue word for word.”
“What’s wrong with beets?” asked Bill, thinly concealing a smile.
Cuffy showed him his palms.
“She was just wondering about dinner.”
Two women walked between them and disrupted their gaze. Cuffy rubbed his head and stood up watching them plug into a console on the other side of the room. One of them looked back at him, then quickly turned away.
Bill frowned and began tapping his finger against his console. “Hey man? What’s a matter, you liked what the old woman said before?”
“I could change it back-Aww, what is it?”
Cuffy made a face at him.
“I was trying to get psychological, Cuff. I thought that’s what you wanted. Under extreme stress, this lady starts talking about dinner, trying to find some safe, normal thing to think about. You know, something comforting.”
“So, it was intentional?”
“Exactly. And I even thought a step farther, like, what if she was trying to throw you off, confuse the master with the beet talk, you know what I’m saying? Did it work?”
Cuffy shook his head and grabbed his back pack from the floor. “No matter how complexly you write the dialogue, it will not sound as sincere as improvisation coming from their emotional matrices. Manipulate that, not the dialogue.”
Bill sighed. Bill was older than Cuffy, graduating the year before from Templeton Private. They’d met in History class. Cuffy had done all his homework in school, and Bill let him use the holo store free. At first, Cuffy simply loaded up one of the countless slave narratives in the database, until Bill showed him the interactive one he’d coded on his time. Bill asked his opinion, Cuffy gave it. They’d been working on it for six months.
“I was actually thinking we could show it to my boss this time, “ Bill leaned over trying to put himself into Cuffy’s eye line again. “Finally, put it into the holo-store’s international rotation, let the public start buying it. Get those royalties, son!” Cuffy said nothing. Bill shifted gears. “I’m afraid our windows closing. I’m checking the databases all the time to see if anyone’s beat us to it.” Bill watched Cuffy gather himself to leave. “It’s becoming an obsession of mine, Cuff. I saw a school shooting go up last week, prisoner execution the week before that. You know there’s already several rape ones. It’s only a matter of time before someone else publishes the first fully interactive slave narrative. So far we’ve been lucky, but the longer we wait-”
“It’s not ready, Bill. But, it’s your IP. You coded it. Do with it what you want.”
“That’s not fair, Cuff. You know I wouldn’t do that, but I think it’s good as is. And, don’t you need the money anyway? I mean-”
Cuffy’s face immediately changed into something different than it was before. Bill stopped talking and looked at the ground.
After a moment, Cuffy spoke, “I won’t put my name on it. At least not yet.”
“C’mon, that’s it?” Bill stood up. “I thought we could hang out or something, you know like-.”
“Nah, I got to get home. Catch you later.”
“Pssh, all right. Later, Cuff.”
Cuffy allowed the young man’s hand to wrap around his and left the holo-store.
Outside, Cuffy paused on the stoop of the metallic building and watched a group of suits stampede down the sidewalk, chattering into their phones. Cuffy listened to their words garble over each other, but they continued, trusting their phone’s advanced programming to filter out everything but their own voice. Some of them gave Cuffy a look, veering slightly away, putting an extra distance between themselves and the young man as they passed. Most didn’t even notice him.
Cuffy waited for them to walk by and scanned up the metallic environment around him. Immaculate silver buildings loomed, stretching upward, curving inward, blocking out the setting sun. The pale light of eclipse glowed behind them, and Cuffy held his hand to it, creating contrast with Manhattan.
“Hello. Dewitt. Cuffy. We see that you have not registered to vote.”
Cuffy dropped his hand and waved away the ad-drone that had snuck up behind him. The motion didn’t register.
“As an…18 year old-”
He turned around and made the gesture obvious to the drone’s sensor.
“Of course,” it said. He watched it zoom off to bother someone else and took out his phone.
The image of a man in a black pin stripe suit floated up, gathering pixels from the air like dust. The man was standing on a podium gesticulating wildly in front of a large banner that read “ZEPHIE/NIX FOR PRESIDENT – 2500. The Change You Want to See!” An image for sound appeared beside it with a question mark, but Cuffy shook his head. The question mark disintegrated, and he watched the man silently wave his arms around for another moment before swiping it off the screen, making way for the next advertisement.
“Home,” he said to his phone.
Nothing happened. Sometimes, his old phone did not recognize voice commands.
Cuffy brought the phone closer to his mouth to speak his destination louder, but before he could, his own face materialized in front of him…into him. He jerked backward, dodging the holo-projection and nearly knocking over the trashcan behind him. A small shudder ran down his spine and he looked around him, but he was alone with himself.
The letters “ISC – 2500” appeared above his face chiseled into a block of white marble. A question mark appeared beside his head. He nodded.
“Only five weeks left until the 50th annual International Sculpture Competition kicks off right here in Central Park! Twenty world renowned sculptors have been selected to compete this year including New York City’s own urban wonder, Dewitt Cuffy!”
A spinning photo of his previous sculpture, Gargoyle, appeared beside the image of his face. A 10 foot imploding diamond, captured mid-crush, forever breaking, never completely shattering. It had won him some acclaim.
“Home!” He shouted. The ad continued.
“He swept New York’s state competition with his amazing sculpture, Gargoyle. Now, we’ll see how our homegrown hero can compete against the world’s finest.”
The image of his face begin to change. The edges of his mouth were being tilted up into a smile, as if he were happy about the whole thing, as if he were grateful. Cuffy shoulders began to heave.
“The stakes are high, especially for young Cuffy and his mother-”
“HOME!” He screamed.
The sound shut off and his face swept away into nothing. “50. Dollars.” said the phone.
Cuffy sighed. “Fine.”
A transport beam picked him up and put him in his mother’s kitchen in the south side of Brooklyn.
“I told you we don’t have the money for that, Dewey.”
Cuffy rolled his eyes. “I was on the other side of town, Mom. There was no way I was going to make it back in time for dinner.”
“The other side of town? How much that cost?”
“Bullshit, it cost 35. How much it cost?”
“It ain’t nothing, all right. I’ll pay you back.” He made to leave, but she stood in his way. She was still wearing her bus uniform, her name tag still clipped to the pocket of her shirt.
“Where were you?” She asked.
“You still got your id badge on.” He said.
She removed it hastily and asked again. “Where were you?”
“I sure as hell know you ain’t spending my money at that damn-”
“Nah.” He shook his head and set his pockets on the counter. “I told you, It’s free.”
“It’s not fully responsive AI,” he said. “Not yet.”
She waited, expecting more, but he offered nothing else.
“And what’d you see at the holo-store this time?”
“It’s just a pre-program. My friend Bill works there.”
“Wasn’t another one of those sex things, was it?”
“You know I found that drive in your room a few weeks ago.” She said. “Plugged it into the TV. Saw the whole filthy thing.”
His eyes glanced left.
“You looking at girls, Dewey?”
He shook his head and studied the floor.
“Mmm hmm.” She put her hand on his chin, lifted his head. She smiled at him. “How’s the statue coming?”
He showed her his teeth and twisted away from her hand. “Sculpture…It’s good.” he said, adding. “I’m almost done with it.”
“Yeah? I didn’t think it’d ever be done.” she said, bending down to check the food in the grower. “Can I see it?”
“No.” He said to her back.
“You haven’t had to submit public photos yet?”
“Well, can I see it anyway?” She asked again, sprinkling generic protein into the cloner.
“Nah, let me finish it.”
“It’s that good, huh?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “I’m still working on it.”
“You damn well better win that big competition money, so you can pay me back for all these transport bills you keep gettin.” She said, straightening, wiping her hands off her pants.
He clicked his tongue at her and backed into his bedroom.
“Dinner’ll be ready in ten, Dewey!”
“Okay.” He yelled back and shut the door.
Along with Cuffy’s holo-store activities with slave programs, he was also a sculptor. From a very young age, he exhibited an almost preternatural talent for the art. Maybe in other times, in other worlds, his gift might’ve gone unnoticed, but the advent of the Trans-shift modeling software made the art of sculpture internationally ubiquitous, especially in schools.
As soon as Cuffy had control of the material, strange and utterly compelling sculptures emerged from his efforts, winning competition after competition, garnering attention, and finally winning a scholarship to the most prestigious private high school in New York.
Since they knew it was his passion, Templeton Private had given Dewitt Cuffy a state-of-the-art Trans-Shift room to work with behind the gymnasium. And because he was a senior with an immaculate academic record and many more credits than he needed to graduate, they let him have the final class period of the day all to himself. Or so they said. There was some speculation.
It seemed a big coincidence the Trans-Shift corporation just so happened to grant the state-of-the-art room to Templeton Private the very same year Cuffy had been admitted via full scholarship. And mere chance, the specs for that room had found their way into Cuffy’s locker, day one. And when it came time for the ISC committee to announce the 20 people selected to participate in the competition, it seemed odd when Cuffy’s name appeared alongside the other 19 world famous sculptors. Their names, all of them, intellectuals, respected figures of culture, people of renown, written next to his own simple Dewitt Cuffy. It didn’t make sense. Again, there was some speculation, but no one said anything to his face.
He unlocked the door and stepped inside. Usually, the lights came on automatically, but something was wrong. Everything was dark. He fumbled a hand against the wall and flicked the manual switch. The lights blinked, and from the contrast came his statue.
A 25 foot wide black ball appeared. 20 black poles extended from it in all directions, filling up the room like rays of sun. At the end of each black pole, affixed to the small of their back, were 20 enormous photorealistic black humans performing 20 different things:
Swimming, dancing, laughing, playing basketball, hanging from a rope, reading, giving a speech, pushing a broom, blowing bubbles, praying, writing, singing, crying, looking through a folder, stealing a purse, running, pointing a gun, giving birth, picking cotton.
Each of them, though larger than life, looked real; right down to the molecular level, all of them, appeared inscrutably human. Coat after coat of microscopic textures applied to their shiny black surface had created the appearance of living breathing sentience.
Cuffy walked around it, again and again, re-familiarizing himself with the space. He opened his phone, accessing the Trans-Shift interface, and sifted through the programming dimensions. He paused on one of the figures, looked at the reality, and made a decision. He shifted some numbers around and altered the symmetry of the sweeper’s face. He looked up and watched the sweeper’s left eye droop.
“Audio file – Notes.”
A pixelated speaker materialized above his phone.
“Friday, 2:46 p.m. October 23, 2499. Dropped the sweeper’s left eye 1.5 millimeter’s, disrupting the symmetry.” He said, studying the change, bringing his face closer and closer to the giant old man’s stooped attention.
He stood on his tip toes and ran his fingers across the sweeper’s wide neck, feeling the man’s shave bumps. He touched his own, then smoothed the lingering tingles on his fingerprints with a thumb.
“Yeah. End audio file.” He said. The speaker disappeared and Cuffy took a few steps back and craned his neck.
The twentieth figure stood at the top of his statue, 50 feet in the air, an enormous young boy in a hoody balanced on one leg. The other nineteen figures faced outward toward the viewer, but the boy looked down, back into his pole, into the sphere. He was not smiling.
“Room. Up 49 feet.”
A white beam lifted Cuffy 49 feet in the air.
“Forward 25 feet.”
The white beam moved him forward 25 feet until he was right in front of the boy standing on one foot.
“I’m changing it back. ” He whispered.
Cuffy held his arm next to the boy’s black face, looking at his own skin, back and forth, measuring them together under the same light.
“Room. Display Spectrum.”
An enormous rainbow of color appeared before him out of thin air.
“Only Browns.” He said.
The hologram zoomed in without losing size and every conceivable shade of brown spread before him like a fan wheel. He cut his finger down the center of the spectrum, splitting it in half, sending all the lighter browns away. He floated there, 50 feet in the air, studying the subtle gradation.
“Room – Whole sculpture – Ready color shift.”
After a moment of stillness, a glaze of electricity rippled across the statue’s surface, temporarily galvanizing its reflective texture, preparing itself to be completely changed.
He held up the back of his hand against the remaining colors in front of him and pointed at one. The entire statue changed color. His held his hand to the boy’s face again, chose another one. Again, the entire statue changed color.
Cuffy did this for an hour until his skin and the surface of the statue were indistinguishable.
Since the statue’s inception, when it was just a 50 foot block of telegraphic steel, Cuffy had flipped back and forth between the purest jet black and some vague shade of brown, but never his own.
“Room – Down.”
The beam of light set him on the ground. He looked up at his creation and put his hands in his perception again, measuring the progress he’d made. The statue loomed before him like a planet.
At work, Cuffy didn’t talk much. He told the other fast food workers he preferred cleaning tables, rather than working the food processors, so they just left him alone. Behind the counter, his fellow employees, laughed and joked, made friends with each other in between taking orders, but Cuffy stayed away. Sometimes, they would try to include him in their nonsense, but he’d just tell them they played too much and get back to his tables.
He’d walk in between the customers, and listen to their conversations, their voices, lingering here and there, quickly washing tables when they noticed him.
That evening, the final customer walked out of the restaurant and he set the auto-lock function. Unlike their cleaning system, the restaurant’s expensive security apparatus was fully automated except for the one who pressed the on/off switch.
He watched the steel plates descend over the windows and lock into place with energy shadows. They sparked in clean arcs across the bottom matrix, then vanished, leaving behind an ambient glow in the air. Cuffy crouched and put his face close to it, inhaling the ozone.
He hastily corrected his posture, took up his sponge, and began scrubbing off the last few tables.
“Hey, what’s up?”
The girl tilted her head to the side and gave him a few moments to accept her presence. She’d been working at the restaurant a few weeks, much smaller than him, but a little older though. Cuffy didn’t know her name. Sometimes, Cuffy would catch her eying him, like some of the rich girls did at the private school downtown. He didn’t look at her and scrubbed the table.
“You’re too skinny.” She said, finally.
“I know that.” He said.
She leaned over the side of the booth, trying to get into his eye line. “I heard you’ll be at the sculpture competition in a few weeks.”
“People are talking about it. I heard you’re the youngest ever.” She watched him wring out his sponge into a bucket. “That’s big, huh?”
“Relative to what?” He asked.
She ignored him. “You attend that fancy school downtown?”
“You get a scholarship there?”
“My cousin tried to get a scholarship there. He had straight A’s.” Her eyes flashed. “They didn’t let him in.”
Cuffy scrubbed harder.
“I did sculpture when I was a kid.”
“So did everyone else.”
“I came in second place at my school.”
“You smart, Cuffy?” She asked.
He stopped scrubbing, stood up, and moved toward her. She backed into the wall, smiling. He followed and pushed into her space, made her look up at him. At 6’4, Cuffy was taller than everyone.
“Am I smart?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you know?” He asked her. She glanced at an old man mopping the floor behind him, caught him looking.
“I heard you won all those competitions when you were younger.”
He put his hands on the wall and leaned into her. “You like sculpture?”
“I like money.”
“Why?” He whispered.
Her eyes ticked back and forth, then settled on his face. She opened her mouth slightly, waiting for him to give her more information, but he offered nothing else.
She snapped. “What you mean, why?”
He smiled and pushed off the wall. Her eyes followed him. “They gonna be prize money?” She asked. “If you win?”
He nodded and picked up his sponge again.
“Enough to go to college?”
“That’s what they say.”
“Hmm…I bet you gonna win.”
“How do you know?” he asked. “You haven’t even seen it.”
“You always win. My girlfriend said you been winning at stuff like that since you were in elementary.”
“This isn’t the same,” he said, “I’m not going against little kids this time.”
“So? You’ll get some kind of scholarship even if you don’t win.”
Cuffy said nothing and continued wiping the table. The girl watched him from the wall, smirking.
“Why you work so hard?” She asked.
“It’s my job, isn’t it?”
“The boss ain’t here.”
Cuffy straightened up and nodded at her. “I don’t care if he is here.” He pointed the sponge at the girl. “His eyes ain’t my eyes, so… why should I care what he sees?”
She frowned. “His eyes ain’t your eyes, what you talking about?”
Cuffy shrugged and kept scrubbing. “I don’t know. His eyes ain’t my eyes.” He said quietly.
She moved on. “So, how big is it?”
The old man had cycled back with his mop and was now near them again. He shook his head at both of them.
“50 by 50.”
“50 what? Inches?”
Her face scrunched into incomprehension. “50 feet? How you making something 50 feet tall?”
Her eyes widened. “You have a Trans-Shift Room?”
He nodded. “The school does.”
“I’ve only heard about those on TV. Like, you can just float around the room…changing anything you want?”
“If I wanted.” He admitted and began sopping up a spill off a leather seat.
She maneuvered around him to the other side of the stall and watched him drain spilled Kale juice from his sponge into a bucket. This went on for a few moments, before Cuffy asked.
“Look, what do you want?”
“I just wanted to talk to you,” she said, “wanted to hear you talk…Listen.”
“That where this is coming from?”
“My girlfriend told me the news, people from all over the world, everybody gonna be there next week.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“What’s it called?”
“What’s what called?” He finished scrubbing the last table.
He held up a fist and threw the sponge in the bucket.
“You’re cheesy.” She said and got out her phone. Tiny pink images flickered across her eyes and a blue orb rose into the air above her phone like a balloon. She shook her head and it disappeared.
“What’s that?” He asked.
“None of your business.” She said without looking up.
Cuffy clicked his tongue, put his hands on the small of his back and stretched. Behind the counter, he could see the rest of the employees making moves to leave. From outside, he heard the bright gulp of a transport beam take Stephanie home.
“You want me to take care a that bucket for you?” It was the old man.
He said no, I got it and the old man said, time and a place for everything.
“What’d you say?”
The old man jumped.
“What did you say?” He asked it again.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You said there’s a time and a place.”
“It’s time, and that bucket goes somewhere I’m going. That’s all I said, you know? That’s all I said.” He repeated and retreated into the kitchen.
Cuffy’s chest heaved, his shoulders trembled. The girl put her phone down. The lights turned off.
“You okay?” She asked.
“Yeah.” He muttered and carried the bucket out back and remained there long after everyone else left, looking at the squalor around him.
“I think it’s ready, Cuff. I’m going to show it to my boss this weekend.”
“Nah, that was just something…nah, try it again.
Cuffy sat in the holo chair and plugged himself in.
“Wait, wait, wait.” Said Bill.
“Try not deviating too much from the script the first time through so you can see the narrative without triggering the AI reactions…It’ll run more smoothly.”
Bill looked into his monitor and punched a few buttons. “Okay, got it. Go ahead, Cuff.”
“Man, I told you that was-”
He was looking at the stars. A comet was flying across the sky. He was the master. He was the controller. He looked down and saw a torch in his hand. Glints of white flashed beyond the pale. He heard a disagreement behind him. He was the master. He turned and pulled out his knife.
“You got it wrong. You got it wrong. I was getting them frogs out there. I know’s I ain’t supposed to, but…”
“Shut up.” Said the overseer and pushed him towards the master. “Caught this one trying to run.”
The boy looked between the two men, couldn’t help but look at the knife. Inevitability crept into his voice.
“No,” he said. “You’s…you’s gots it wrong, I was out…”
“You calling me a liar, boy!”
He turned to the overseer. “No…No sir, I’s just…I’s just trying to say-”
The master pushed the knife into the boy’s side and held it there, watching the incomprehension slither across his face. Behind the boy’s eyes, something fouled and he slid off the knife and hit the ground. A scream erupted from the darkness and a fat woman ran into the light, started telling the master all the things, telling him about where it comes from, about the time and the place.
This was the moment that it truly began for the master. A moment that held potential.
He didn’t kick her when she stretched across her son. But instead, crouched beside her as she begged and touched her thick wooly hair. She didn’t acknowledge it, she didn’t acknowledge him, and the overseer grinned at the master’s cruelty.
The master looked up at the overseer and then at his own knife. The woman screamed and when he motioned for the overseer to lift her off, she struggled, still pleading for her son’s life. The overseer, unable to drag her off, started working her calloused hands, finger by finger, but her grip was too tight. She held on to her boy until she realized it was hurting him and let go.
The master turned from it and set his torch in the ground. He felt his breathing quicken and shut his eyes, opened them, closed them, and found little difference between. He opened them again and saw something different near the edge of darkness. All the others out there beyond the torchlight, seemed like ghosts, outlines of gray ash under a sickly moon, but here, sticking out from the curtain of shadow, fully lit, were a tiny pair of feet. He had never seen them before.
The master left behind the scuffle, depriving it of his observation, and walked towards the toes. He stopped before them and kneeled. They didn’t move. He set his knife on the ground and touched the small toes with his old fingers.
“What are you doing, Cuff? I told you not to deviat-”
The child stepped forward. It was a boy, younger than the screaming youth behind him. His face was stoic and long and he looked down at the master without curiosity.
“Hey, boss what you doi-”
“Disable overseer AI.”
A large hand came out of the shadows and placed itself onto the boy’s shoulders. It was a man. The master stood up.
“Speak.” He said.
The man looked at him, but said nothing.
“Speak.” He said again.
The man opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He closed his mouth, his eyes twitched. A fiddle began dancing in the darkness off cue, and both father and son turned to join it, but the master stopped them. Fireflies blinked in the distance and a cold wind swept across all of them.
The boy, understanding nothing, rubbed his cheek against his father’s hand and the master smiled. The man smiled too and the master slit his throat. Blood sprayed across him and the boy, but the boy did nothing, so the master killed him too. They fell the same way, twitched the same way, and died the same way. They lay upon the ground the same way, one before the other, father and son, almost spooning, their arms and legs bent at exactly the same angles, their faces caught in the same geometric rictus, lips parted to the same degree of separation.
The master, holding his stomach, returned to the scuffle, which at this point had found itself within a loop. Begging, then laughter, begging, then laughter. As he approached, the woman slid free of the loop and issued a single worded slur. The overseer, free to hear it, delivered his line.
“You ever heard a please sincere as that, boss?”
Cuffy unplugged as fast as he could and rushed out of the holo-store. He hunkered over a trash can by the door and waited for it to come. Passers-by, familiar with the posture, gave him a wide berth, but none offered support.
“Hello. Dewitt. Cuffy. We see that you have not registered to vote. As an…18 year old. It is your civic duty to participate in the upcoming presidential election on November 8th and choose the candidate that is right for America.”
Cuffy looked up at the ad-drone floating in front of him. He tried to wave it away without letting go of the trashcan, but the machine didn’t pick up his hobbled gesture.
“Stewart Zephie has your best interests in mind…for…college loan reforms and has also made significant bi-partisan efforts to…increase the minimum wage and decrease costs for…low income hou-”
“NO THANK YOU.” yelled a voice behind him.
“Of course.” And the machine flew away.
Bill stood in the doorway of the holo-store, hesitating to move.
“Didn’t register the motion, huh? Sometimes you got to scream to get em to leave.”
Cuffy rested his head against the rim of the trash can and stamped a foot.
“You okay, Cuffy?”
“What’s it look like, Bill?”
Bill let the door close behind him and stepped to Cuffy’s side.
“What were you doing in there, Cuff?”
“We just…nothing.” He answered.
Bill put a tender hand on Cuffy’s back and glanced into the trashcan. There was nothing there.
In Applied Quantum Physics, Cuffy found the day’s topic interesting and baited the teacher into ignoring everyone else.
“What do you mean, Dewitt?”
After 15 minutes, the other students in the class could but watch as he and the teacher collapsed into their familiar short hand. It had happened before. Usually, Cuffy sat in the back of the class quietly drawing in his notebook, but sometimes the boy would come alive. No one questioned his motive, possibly because it was so fascinating to watch.
Their dialogue seemed to electrocute meaning, blistering with metaphors and hypotheticals, rudely interrupting each other, like dogs, barking out clarifications atop one another, at times laughing, and then other times pausing, leaving some grand potential hanging in the air like the unspoken importance of parable. A few students tried to take notes, but most simply pulled out their phones and ignored the whole thing.
Today’s topic was event horizons.
“No, Dewitt, it’s ahh…it’s a barrier to which there is no escape…So, you have to see both perspectives at the same time, the pull and the push as it were, and what we’re talking about is if the singularity-”
“Doesn’t the whole thing imply an absence of perspective?”
The teacher paused. Cuffy continued.
“No observer…no, I don’t think you’re loo–”
“Okay, okay, let me say it a different way. The outside observer cannot perceive light if it originates within the event horizon, correct?”
“I have trouble with the word, originates, but okay.”
“So, what is to say that light within the event horizon…some phenomenon, does not exist, even if we understand it to?”
“Why would it not exist?”
“Does it? I mean if what you’re saying is true that the gravity of it is such that-”
“Stop it, you’re leading yourself into-”
“The singularity inside the event horizon. A unique phenomenon originates-”
“I told you that the word is problematic-”
“Why does it exist, and if it does, what are we defining as existing if it cannot affect an observer and if the singular phenomenon is conscious within it, a person…” Cuffy hesitated, then continued anyway. “If the…light…is conscious…and cannot be seen by an outside observer…does that mean that it never existed…?”
“I really don’t understand.”
“That’s my point, but if it doesn’t exist, at least not in any form in space time, and if the observer is within the event horizon, does that mean that the light would then exist in some form that we understand it?”
“You’re saying if you were in a black hole and you turned on a flashlight, could you see it.”
“No, I’m asking if I’m in a black hole, can I perform any action that would not be seen by an outside observer as some reaction to the black hole, beyond its pull…or does simply being within its pull obliterate existence, no process of degeneration or dissolution, but a true eschatological void that…” Cuffy trailed off.
The teacher put his hands on his desk. Some of the other students glanced up from their phones.
“Dewitt, nothing…nothing you’re saying speaks to an understanding of this topic.”
All of the students looked at Cuffy. Cuffy smiled. “Light can’t reach the eye of the outside observer, correct?”
“From the event horizon of a black hole, correct.”
“And what would happen if the observer was inside the black hole?”
The teacher held out a stolid hand. “Then, he would not be an outside observer.”
“They would still exist, their perception, the wave lengths of-”
“Technically, we don’t know what would happen, because no one has eve-”
“So, can a phenomenon exist within a black hole for any space of time, observed from within or without, originating not as a reaction from the black hole, but originating from within the observer?”
The teacher took his hands from his desk. Those students who were smiling at Cuffy stopped. “It’s hard to-”
There was a knock at the door. “Excuse me.”
Everyone turned and saw the school’s vice-principal standing in the doorway.
“Hello, I’m sorry to interrupt, could I steal Dewitt for a few moments, I need to talk to him about something.”
Dewitt stood up. The teacher smiled at him, then told the class to take out their books and turn to the section on Ergospheres. Cuffy flipped open his book to that section, studied the page for a few moments, then walked into the hallway. The vice-principal shut the door behind him.
“Learning how to build black hole generators?”
“We were about to get into that I think.”
“Oh yeah? When, I was in school they had just started theorizing the idea, and now, 15 years later the station’s set up and we’re teaching it to teenagers.”
Cuffy looked at the ground.
The vice-principal leaned a bit trying to find the boy’s eye line. “It’s just interesting.” He continued. “How fast it’s all progressing these days.”
Cuffy nodded and shuffled his feet.
“So.” Said the vice-principal, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Is it finished?”
“I walked over there, yesterday. Got up close and personal with it. Looks good.” He paused, then added. “Impressive.”
“Its a great, big day coming, Dewitt.”
“Yeah, I know, I kno-”
“A big, big day, Mr. Cuffy.”
The vice-principal smiled. “The Trans-Shift people called me yesterday and I assured them that you were utilizing their technology to it’s fullest extent. I mean, the level of detail you put into it is simply astonishing.”
Cuffy said nothing.
“I know, I’ve said this to you before, but when they gave us that room, they gave us the specs for it too…” He made a large space between his thumb and pointer finger. “Like that. I have not read it, to be honest, because I cannot read 1200 pages of science specific data.” He laughed. “I tried to load the program onto my phone and I couldn’t even do that right.” He pulled out his phone to show him what he was talking about. “Simple thing, I suppose, but you…you took to it like a duck to water.”
“A duck to water.” Cuffy muttered.
“What’s that?” He asked, putting his phone back into his pocket.
“The inescapable environment of a duck.” said Cuffy without looking at the vice-principal.
“Right, well…the Trans-Shift people told me that they wanted the message of empowerment to be obvious, and yes, I know, that seems…like a strange request, but-”
Cuffy bobbed his head back and forth and moved in closer to the vice-principal.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what that means.”
“Well” said the vice-principal, taking a casual step backward, “they just wanted something obvious, nothing abstract. I mean, since they’re going to be sponsoring you, specifically the man who invented Trans-Shift, Turner Dessaline, since you and he are of the same…well, he just wants it to be about your…shared experience, the specific perspective and he wants that to be competing against these other people, I mean, the stage of this competition, the scope of it, well, it’s staggering, I have to say. And he just wants you to be…”
“I thought I did that. What’s the problem?” Cuffy shook his head. “If he’s so interested in it, why doesn’t he just come here and change it back himself?”
The vice-principal nodded and put his hands back in his pockets. “Mr. Dessaline is a busy man. I sent him the preliminary pictures of it, and he said he liked it, which Principal McTaggert says is high praise coming from him. He just seemed interested in how you planned on presenting it.”
Cuffy shrugged. “As is.”
“As is, meaning no more last minute changes?”
“Man, why doesn’t he just put himself in the competition? Everyone’s going to be using Trans-Shift to make their sculptures anyway, who knows better than he does?”
“I think, he sees it as a conflict of interest, since he’s on the committee, and besides that, he’s not an artist, he’s a scientist, an inventor…You know that.”
Cuffy frowned and looked through the classroom door at his teacher, pontificating about something fascinating.
“Listen, I was trying to be understanding with him. It was a strange conversation, to tell the truth. It seemed difficult for him to explain his intentions on the matter, but he told me his thoughts on some demographical, shall we say, concerns about society and he just hopes your statue will be reflective of that intent.”
“Creative freedom has been on my mind a lot lately.” Said Cuffy and took another step towards the vice-principal. “Ya feel me?”
The vice-principal nodded happily and took a step back. “Sure, and you know, it’s all a matter of perspective anyway, right?”
Cuffy looked at the ground.
“Art is relative as they say, but I doubt he’s going to be disappointed.” The vice-principal widened his eyes. “I mean, I remember your last Trans-Shift statue…the uhhh, the uhh…”
“Yeah, man.” He bent towards Cuffy, hands still in his pockets. “Incredible. Garnered a lot of great press for this school last year.” He straightened up. “I’ve got a picture of it right here, somewhere-” He began fidgeting through his pockets.
“That’s all right.”
“I just thought I had it here…”
“It’s all right.”
“Well, anyway,” He stopped searching and cleaned his glasses. “Look, other than that stuff about the Trans-Shift people, I just wanted to go over some particulars for Saturday and Sunday.”
Cuffy nodded and brushed a wrinkle from his shirt.
“First of all, what’s the title of it?”
“Black Power? Hmm. Well, Good! And you said you’re finished?”
“Great,” The vice principal nodded a few times, then whispered, “Hey, I’m sorry for coming on all strong like that, it’s just the principal’s been breathing down my neck about this, that, and the other, but I’ve tried to shield you from it a little, cuz I know he’s talked to you about it too, but…We rely on Trans-Shift’s donations beyond just the room and we also want this statue to be a testament of our commitment to diversity. We’ve received some blowback in recent years about our admission practices.” He paused.
“And look, it’s not something you really need to worry about, okay? Just do your best and have fun, all right?” He nodded a few more times then continued normally. “Now, logistics. logistics. logistics.” The repetition seemed to swing him into his purpose. “Right, okay. This Saturday, I’ll need you here around 8 p.m. to manage the presentation when we set it up. We’ll pay for the transport beam of course, or Trans-Shift will I guess, but you’ll need to tell the stage team how to set it up.”
“Also, the morning of, you’ll need to be standing with your statue at 9 a.m. because they tell me there’s some protocols the judges want to go over with you. You’ll have a handler, okay? A person who will guide you through the necessary press junkets. Please, as said to you before, please, please, please mention Templeton at some point in the interviews you’ll be doing.”
The vice-principal narrowed his eyes at the young man. “You do understand what this is, Dewitt…Right?”
“I mean, I think so…”
“This is not the state competition and this not any of those local things you breezed through when you were in elementary. This is an international event. Interstellar even, I heard there were even going to be people coming from the colonies. Do you understand? The words “return on our investment” comes to mind, Dewitt.”
Cuffy looked out the window.
“Now, look, I don’t want to put pressure on you here, but-” The vice-principal stopped as a young man holding an orange restroom pass walked by, not hiding his stares at Cuffy. He disappeared around a corner and the vice principal began simulating seismic subduction with his hands. “I need to know you understand the gravity of the situation.”
Dewitt couldn’t stop watching the process.
The vice-principal’s hands stopped. “What?”
“Why do I need to understand the gravity of the situation?”
“What do you mean?”
Cuffy sighed. “How’s it going to help me do better, if I understand the “gravity?”
“Are you actually asking me, Dewitt?”
Cuffy showed him his palms.
“Well, you might have better posture for one, if you knew what this was. You might stop stooping you shoulders, stop pretending this isn’t all about presentation, how other people see you, how other people perceive what your…Okay, I’m going to speak to you like an adult, all right?”
“You were selected to participate, selected, Mr. Cuffy. An even better word would probably be allowed, to express a particular perspective here, so I think, Mr, Dessaline, the principal, myself, your school, your community, all of us, are expecting you to act accordingly. The world’s eyes are going to be on you, and if there’s any clarification to this man’s interest in your work, it might be a little concern for how you present yourself. You are representing a lot more than just yourself.”
“I know that.”
“Do you? You don’t seem that interested in participating, let alone winning. The least you could do is act like you have some regard for the people your performance reflects on.”
Cuffy rolled his eyes, and the vice-principal, a short man by all accounts, began inching towards him, backing him up.
“A lot of people are going to be looking to you as their voice, Dewitt. This idea you’re “espousing,” I guess would be the word, hasn’t been brought up in a long time, and for whatever reason, there’s just not that many people, like you, who get this opportunity and I want to make sure it’s addressed tastefully, because, well…” Cuffy hit the wall. “You know you’re going to be the only-”
“Yes, I know.” Interrupted Cuffy.
“You know. Well, it’s just a big year…” He glanced around, seeming to take stock of their proximity and took a step back. “A…A big year for the school and if you place, I mean, we’re talking scholarships, interviews.” The vice-principal head popped right with a thought. “Job opportunities. But, you know that, don’t you?”
“All right. And, I just have to say, that I’m excited to see someone like…You’re going to be empowering millions with your work and I’m just, I’m happy that we’re enabling you to do it. That’s all.” He said, nodding, like his head was caught between magnets.
“Dewey. Come here.”
“I’m going to be late for work, Mom.”
“No, come here. I want to talk to you a minute.”
“You’re going to be mad when I have to use that transport beam.”
Her lips shuffled themselves into a frown. He looked away.
Cuffy walked over to the couch and sat beside his mom. She clapped a few times, muted the TV, and moved her food tray.
“Okay, Cuffy. I just wanted to tell you that I saw it, the public photos, and-” She began to tear up. “I love it, Cuffy. I love it.”
“No, I’m just so proud of you.” She hugged him and his face tightened into a pit. It fixed itself when she released him. He smiled at her.
“And you know, it’s such a positive message. Black. Power.”
Cuffy looked at the TV. Red, white, and blue balloons were cascading around a man, his arms stretched out, embracing thousands. A woman and three smiling children, mostly obscured by the balloons, clapped beside him.
“I wish my mom could’ve seen it. It’s like we can do anything, we can be anything.”
“As long as it’s black.”
“What?” She stopped smiling. “What do you mean, Dewey?”
She looked at him for a moment, saw his eyes looking at the TV and turned it off. “Look at me. I’m telling you that what you did; what you did is important to me. And I bet you’re going to win it too, you always win, but even if you don’t, no, look at me, Dewey…Even if you don’t, I still want you to know, I’m proud of you.”
She searched his eyes. He met them. She smiled.
“To be honest, I didn’t expect you to create something like that.” She wiped a tear away. “The way you talk and all. The way you dress. I didn’t think it, well, I didn’t think you cared about the struggle, and I’m not saying that to be mean, you know I’m not, I just, well, I just-You know what I’m saying.”
Cuffy started breathing hard. She didn’t notice.
“Oh, Dewey, the doctor is so amazing, the one with the lab coat and the folder. How’d you get it to look so realistic?”
His shoulders heaved. A time and a place. “I wanted it to look like a person.”
“Where it’s all coming from, that big powerful black ball, ooooooh, I don’t even-”
“I got to go Mom.”
“Okay, okay, I just…”
“I love you, Mom.”
“I know, baby. I love you too.”
Cuffy stepped off his porch and itched his arm. He itched it again and looked up. The sun was about to disappear.
He pulled out his phone. President Zephie, surrounded by thousands of balloons, grinned at him. A question mark appeared. He shook his head and swiped the screen.
“You almost landed on top of me.” She said.
“Not my fault.”
“I would’ve blamed you, though.”
“I’m sure you would have.”
“How you afford beamin anyway?” she asked, “Only person I see beamin is you and that retarded girl, Stephanie.”
“Stephanie’s aphasic…not retarded.”
The girl frowned. “I don’t know what she is, I just know they don’t hire people like her where she come from.”
He shrugged. “Maybe, I’m retarded.”
“You ain’t retarded.” she said.
Some customers walked between them to their old electric car. Streaks of rust ran along the trim just like it did on all the buildings this side of town. Cuffy wrapped his apron around himself and tied it. She watched him.
“It’s this weekend, isn’t it?” she asked.
“I believe it is.”
“I saw a picture of it online.”
He looked up at her, “And?”
“I like it.”
“It was acceptable to you?” He finished his knot and started walking towards the entrance.
She frowned at him and shook her head, “Why you talk like that?”
“Like what?” He held the door for her.
“No, no. Cuff. I can’t today. Sorry, man.”
Cuffy stopped a few paces from the entrance. Bill rose tentatively from his desk and started walking over to him.
“Yeah, sorry man, I wish you would’ve called. I can’t let you plug in today.”
Cuffy let his backpack slink off his shoulder and then shrugged it back on. “What’s going on, Bill?” Some of the other technicians looked up from their monitors. Bill eyed them and led Cuffy outside.
Two ad-drones converged on the-
“NO, THANK YOU!” shouted Bill.
Cuffy watched them zip into a vertical and separate, zooming off in different directions. Cuffy adjusted the straps of his backpack and waited for Bill to say something, but he didn’t.
“You know I work at a Bever’s, right?” said Cuffy, “Fast food restaurant way, way, way on the south side. I never see ad-drones over there.”
Bill looked up at him, confused. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” Cuffy said. “Just an observation.” Cuffy watched him nudge something with his foot. “Bill?”
“My boss found out that I was letting you play for free.”
Cuffy closed one eye and snaked his thumbs through the straps of his backpack, “Well, I mean-”
“But it’s not just that.”
“I have money.”
“I showed the runaway to the boss, Cuffy. I wanted him to help us publish it.”
Cuffy clicked his tongue. “Okay.”
“He didn’t say anything while he watched it until, I don’t know. He must’ve seen you in the news or something…about that competition you’re in. When he saw your name in the program logs, he flipped.”
“He was so angry. Said we couldn’t work on it here anymore. Were we doing something wrong, Cuff?”
“I don’t kno-”
“He got way mad at me, man. He started asking me all these questions. I was like, no, this is what Cuffy wanted, and…It’s just weird. Like, I load up murder programs all the time, so does he, for people, for parties, it’s just not that big of a deal, you know?”
Cuffy said nothing.
“He told me I’m too stupid to fire and then didn’t speak to me after that; told me you weren’t allowed in the store anymore.”
Bill shook his hands at him. “I know! I don’t fucking understand, Cuff. Like, fire me or whatever, but like, he threatened to go public with it if I tried to publish it anywhere else, which…” He shook his head. “I-?” And said nothing else, aborting the question.
Cuffy nodded and looked at the ground. Bill waited for Cuffy to give him more, but nothing came out.
“Why would the press care?” Bill asked.
“They wouldn’t, but they’d talk about it. They’d talk about ducks and water and they’d get their views and-”
“What the fuck are you talking about Cuff?”
Cuffy looked into his friend’s confused face, saw something there or nothing at all, and shook his head, “I’m so sorry, Bill.”
“He told me to delete the file.”
Bill sighed. “Not the back up, but you’ve got to help out with this one, bro. I don’t understand.”
“I can’t, Bill.”
“What? Why n-” He stopped himself. An old woman walked into the store. The door closed. “Why not?”
“Does he look like me?”
“No, he’s old as shit.” answered Bill, but the question continued ricocheting across Bill’s comprehension until he spit it out again. “What does that have to do with it?”
Cuffy said nothing more and hugged his friend. Bill tensed, then fell into it. Cuffy squeezed harder. “Don’t worry about it, man. You know how old people are.” Bill hugged him back and they let each other go.
“Look, there’s other holo-stores you could go to,” said Bill, shrugging. “I can give you the program and let you keep fixing it somewhere else if you want for like personal shit or something.”
“You’d give it to me?”
“Yeah, I mean, you practically wrote it.”
“Just the AI motivations, you programmed every other inch of it.”
“Just the surfaces.”
Cuffy looked down. Bill regarded the action and leaned over to get in his eye line.
“Do you want it?” asked Bill again.
Cuffy nodded. “All right.”
“Good, give me a second.”
Bill went inside the store and came back out with the small silver drive. He stared at it in his own open hand, then with the smallest hesitation, put it in Cuffy’s.
“Tell the technician to load it centrally or you won’t get first person agency,” said Bill, his eyes still on the drive in Cuffy’s hands. “If you load it as is, it’ll just run from the master’s POV. The scripts runs on loops, micro and macro.”
“The AI programming we made is in there.” He said, before ripping his eyes from the drive in Cuffy’s hand. “I mean, it’s there already, but it won’t show up if you just watch it. You’ll have to tell them you like deviating from the script, so they’ll give you that storage space. The AI should load automatically if they do it right, and it’ll be expensive, but otherwise, you’ll just be trapped inside the loop watching the script, unable to participate.”
“I know you know, but they’ll just operate on their assumptions, so you’ve got to tell them, Cuff. Zero Point Improv Storage works best.”
Cuffy nodded at him and put it in his pocket. “You have other slave programs?” He asked.
“Yeah, but none like that one. None that I put more time into…detail. Every time you came in, it just kept getting better and better, more reactive. I couldn’t just delete it.”
“You’ll make something else.”
A moment passed between them and Cuffy started to back up.
“Hey Cuff, why didn’t you tell me the ISC committee selected you? I had no idea you were that good.”
“Pride,” said Cuff, “the pride of humility.”
Bill held up his phone. “I saw your sculpture.”
“It’s amazing man, huge. Congratulations.”
Cuffy smiled at him, “I’m handling the Earth, son!”
Bill laughed, “Those people on spikes?”
Cuffy seemed to think about the suggestion, then shook his head. “Nah, they’re just people…coming from the same place.”
“Oh,” he said. “I didn’t get a good look. What’s it called again?”
Bill nodded. “Cool name. I wish you would’ve told me, I’m into sculpture myself,” said Bill, opening the door to the holo-store. “We could’ve talked about it, but hey, good luck tomorrow, I got to get back inside.”
“Sure, see you later, Bill.”
“Okay. Yeah, see you.”
Cuffy watched the doors shut behind him and pulled the tiny drive from his pocket. He rolled it between his fingers and brought it close to his face, examining it. The metallic surface caught the sunlight and bounced a spot onto the mirrored wall of the holo-store. Cuffy looked at it a moment, then began tilting the thing, back and forth, playing with the angles, watching the spot quiver from his own imprecision. Behind him, he heard the whispered hum of an another ad-drone descending towards him.
“No, thank you,” he called, but he’d said it too soon. It was not yet upon him.
“Hey Dewey, it’s 7:45, don’t you got to get going?”
“Yeah, I’m just thinking about something.”
His mom leaned against the doorway of his room. “What you thinking about?”
“Gravity? Why you thinking about gravity?”
“Something to do with your statue?”
Cuffy pulled the blanket over his head. “Yup.”
“The school called. Told me you’re supposed to be there in 15 minutes to help the movers. What are you doing here?”
She walked over to his bed and ripped off the blanket. “This ain’t no time to be playing around, Dewey. Get out of here.”
“You’re right.” he said and swung his legs over the side of his bed.
“I know I’m right.”
Cuffy grabbed his backpack and began to walk past her, but she put a hand on his shoulder.
“Hey, I love you Dewey.”
He regarded the hand on his shoulder and rubbed his cheek against it. His mom pulled it away and walked into the living room.
“Good luck.” she called.
When Cuffy stepped into the room, three men were already there, orbiting his statue. One of them called to him.
“You Dewitt Cuffy?”
The man walked over and pulled out a folder.
“All right.” he said. “We got to move this over to Central Park. I have the coordinates logged, the satellites are in route…You know how much it weighs?”
“It’s solid steel. Tons, I imagine.”
The man whistled and gazed at it.
Cuffy looked at it too. “That gonna be a problem?”
“Hmm? No, we’ll be able to get the specifications right.” He walked over to the ball and put a hand on it’s dark surface. “This the way it needs to sit. Just like this?”
Cuffy told the three men exactly how it should face, exactly how it should be. They listened intently and clarified a few points here and there.
“What time will they move it?” he asked.
“Soon as the satellites line up.” The man checked the folder, found what he was looking for. “Sometime around 5 in the morning, should be.” He scratched his chin and looked at the ceiling. “Somewhere’s around there anyway…You okay if we lose the roof? Probably, be easier if we don’t have to phase through it.”
Cuffy nodded and watched the three men detach the roof from the room. The glass panels above flipped, sectioned into four triangles and slid into the hollow walls. The stars were out.
Cuffy leaned against the wall and watched the men, fumble with the energy locks on the corners of the room. The man turned a key and a green box lit up near the entrance and metal against metal could be heard through the walls, latching the rigging in place.
“That should about do it. When you leave, this’ll all close up.” said the man, waving a finger at heaven. “You know how expensive it is to transport a couple tons of steel?” he asked Cuffy without looking at him, his eyes glazed with stars. “Let alone phase it through a ceiling.”
“Yeah, you got it. It’s a lot.” He let his eyes fall back to Earth. “Luckily, Trans-Shift’s footing the bill, right?” He raised a hand and waved to the two men trying to get his attention from the exit. They nodded back and left, leaving Cuffy and the man alone with it.
“You know, I used to do some sculpture in my day?”
“Little bit,” the man admitted. “Little bit, but nothing like this though.”
Cuffy followed the man’s eyes up his statue.
“Nothing like this. They look just like real people.”
The man made a noise and asked, “What’s it all about?”
Cuffy regarded the man, then turned back to the statue. “I’ve started thinking about the direction of it though…which way’s it pulling.”
If the man was confused, he didn’t show it. “It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?”
Cuffy nodded. “I guess so. Hey, if I wanted, could I I still use the Trans-Shift activators, even if the ceiling’s open?”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah, should be able to.” The man held up a flat hand and ran a finger along the edge of it. “Beams are arranged horizontally, planes of…You see, the fibers run along-” He dropped his hands, and shrugged. “Yeah, it’ll be fine. Nothing important in the ceiling. You going to change something?”
The next day, Cuffy sat on stage with the other contestants and famous guest judges and listened to the corporate propaganda of Trans-Shift. Turner Dessaline, the CEO of Trans-Shift, expounded that although art and entertainment were essential to the functioning of a well rounded society, they were also part and parcel to new innovation and technology. Cuffy could barely keep his eyes open.
“Trans-Shift’s 3-D modeling capabilities, on display here, show the unbridled potential for this technology. The only obstacles we have yet to clear are the limitations of our own imaginations.”
Some applause here and there from the thousands of people swamped around the stage. He continued.
“Trans-Shift started with the beams we now use to travel instantly around the world, but 10 years ago, I thought…we can do more. This light that infuses with matter, FILLING IT UP, letting us fly from Tokyo to New York in mere seconds. It was indeed incredible, but I thought to myself, I thought, why couldn’t it also manipulate that matter, instead of just infusing it? I asked myself why couldn’t we manipulate matter as easily as we…”
Cuffy dozed off. The applause woke him.
“…Thank you. Yes, the future deserves to experience the outer reaches of their own creativity, not just in some protracted digital space, but in physical reality. Not blunted by electrical appendages, but truly seen. And here, we have the technology to materialize it, unplugged. Size, weight, shape, color, 10 years ago I believed that, eventually, none of…”
The applause woke him again. Cuffy sat up in his seat.
“For 50 years, this international sculpture competition has been the showcase for today’s newest technology, but I am proud to say that, today, on the eve of the year 2500, all 20 sculptures have been built using Trans-Shift.”
Lighter applause. Cuffy shuffled his feet. His mom waved at him. He showed her his teeth.
“Some of the older folks up here may remember when sculptures were not “in” as they say. I know many of you can’t even imagine it, but this ancient art used to be relegated only to museums, to hotel lobbies, and to petty ornaments in gardens. Of course, nowadays, it has become the international skill. Everyday, all over the world, children’s fingers become caked with clay, working and beating out their own unique forms of grand-”
He hesitated, flipping to the next page.
“…Grandeur. Making from themselves, masters of their own imagination. Sociologists speculate why sculpture rose to a place of prominence in our society these past 100 odd years, but the answer seems obvious to me, and the other members of the ISC committee. Sculpture is about “the still.” The ageless. The ardent guard of time and place. More than books, music, movies, plays, even paintings, sculpture exists within a space of our immediate perception, daring us not to forget the hands that forged it. And in today’s fast paced world, sculpture’s-”
He paused as if searching for the word.
“…permanence has provided a stark contrast to a world innovating at light speed, and here, at a competition designed to highlight the beauty of stillness, we must recognize that art’s fundamental gift is to shake us free from context, and perceive new possibilities.”
He stopped, expecting applause. None came. He continued.
“Since coming out with Trans-Shift technology, we’ve seen massive leaps forward as industry after industry utilizes its potential for the betterment of mankind. Think of what is possible now that we have the ability to craft LITERALLY ANYTHING. Think of every life that might be enriched, might be enhanced, might be saved if one could design and build anything. Then go a step beyond what you can even imagine and you’re truly at the door step. The medical benefits alone are staggering. Just last week, I had an exciting talk with Insta-Karma’s CEO about the possibility of creating the world’s first artificial nervous system, ready for transplant. Imagine it. The subtle fibers of our very experience crafted, individuated, and realized for altruistic purpose. And with the imminent dawn of AI, who knows how far Trans-Shift might take us!”
“Get on with it!” Shouted someone from the crowd. Light laughter. Light applause. Turner Dessaline did not acknowledge it, but he did seem to flip a few pages forward.
“And…And so, at the doorway of untold vistas of new possibility…”
He flipped to another page.
“Okay.Anton Chekov, a once famous writer, once wrote:“I am afraid of those who look for a tendency between the lines, who are determined to regard me solely in particulars…I should like to be a free artist and nothing more, and I regret that God has not given me the power to be one.” He was a man, same as all of us, who cried out for an end to limitation, and now, 700 years later. It has arrived, not from God, but from ourselves. Here-”
He stretched a hand toward the sky.
“…are 20 sculptures: solid testaments, to our ingenuity, our creativity, and our courage that show that we are more than just apes on this Earth. We are creators!”
Applause, applause. Cuffy rubbed his eyes and looked at the other 20 people on stage with him. He was the only one not clapping. Floating drone-cameras swirled around him like curious flies trying to find his eyeline. He looked at his shoes.
“Now, before we begin, I’d like to congratulate president Zephie for his historic win, and hope that he ushers in a time of peace and unification for our great country.”
Quiet applause. Cuffy sees that girl from his job standing alone some distance from the crowd leaning against a tree. She smiles.
“So, without further ado, I present to you, the 50th annual International Sculpture Competition!”
Fireworks, though it was day time, sparked across the sky, black for contrast, black for posterity and initiated the event.
Behind the stage, 20 transport beams lifted 20 gigantic white sheets off 20 gigantic sculptures arranged across Central Park, including Cuffy’s.
Applause, applause, and more applause and the crowd flooded toward the statues to get selfies. Cuffy jumped from the stage and his mom rushed at him, hugged him.
“This is so exciting!” She shrieked and shook him.
Some drones pulled up along side and strobed camera flashes at them. She pulled away from him quickly, and fashioned a quick pose. Flash. Flash. Flash. When the drones flew away, still smiling, she glanced at Cuffy, found him staring at her.
After the commencement, the judges: actors and actresses, politicians, scientists, artists, past winners, and athletes, carried aloft by transport-beams of their own, flew around the park observing and commenting into their audio recorders about each statue. Cuffy watched them soar overhead as he walked around the park, speaking into their devices, conferring with each other mid-air. Occasionally, his eyes would linger on one buzzing around his own on the far side of the park, before turning away.
The statues were arranged in such a way, that you could walk along the jogging trail and see each one in turn. Therefore, a large herd of spectators found themselves mobbing, lock step, piece by piece, while others, more accustomed to their own pace, lingered on some, while rushed through others. Cuffy strolled along the path just ahead of them regarding the other statues in the competition. None of them seemed to illicit a response from Cuffy, until he saw the tenth one.
The 100 foot tall statue by famous Dutch sculptor, Jan Broucke, defied physics as many of the other sculptures did, but this one struck him, or appeared to at least, and he lingered with it long after the mob had passed by.
The texture of it looked ceramic, like the purest white, cutting close to the sheer edge of the spectrum. It was blinding. His phone rang. He turned it off. The thing was grounded by two gigantic 30 foot hands and its long fingers clutched the earth like it was desperately trying to hold on. From the hands, two massive arms stretched into the sky, tapering smaller and smaller, until they became the shoulders of a normal 5’8”person. Just a human figure, ambiguously sexed, attached to those hundred foot arms and those 30 foot hands on the ground. The small owner of the enormous white hands dangled in the sky, floating way up there among the clouds like a little human kite.
Cuffy walked around it, again and again, continuously wiping tears from his eyes, trying not to be seen by other people, circling. He noticed a ring on one finger. He crouched, put his own hand to it, felt the density of it; the hum of its constituent parts. Some people walked up behind him and Cuffy stood up, wiping something from his face.
“Is he trying to wrench himself free from his own arms or does he merely walk with his hands?” Asked someone.
“I think it’s symbolic.” Answered someone else.
“Well of course it’s symbolic, but I’m trying to figure out its literal form first, before I try to-”
Cuffy walked away from them and continued down the path. He’d seen 10 of the other statues, but none of them had been given so much of his time.
He looked across the park and saw the lock step crowd form around his statue. He cut a jag across the green and made to join them, but right as he walked up, Turner Dessaline, cane in hand, descended upon him, and wasted no time.
“YOU CHANGED IT!” he cried.
“Minimally,” responded Cuffy.
“Exponentially, I’d say. The color-” He pointed to Cuffy’s statue. “The colors, they’re all different now.”
Cuffy looked up at the colors, his compromise. The ball in the center remained jet black like the pictures he’d published, but along the poles, the black gradated outward, lighter and lighter, into 20 brown figures. His brown.
“It’s a gradient.” He said.
“Yes, I’m aware, but it wasn’t in the picture I saw before today.” Turner said definitively.
“Nothing in the rules says I can’t change it.”
Turner regarded the crowd around him. Some of them were staring up at the top most boy. He pointed his cane at it. “You changed him too, didn’t you?”
One of the sleeves of the boy’s black hoody hung loose and his brown hands were tugging against the pole holding him to the black sphere below. His face was warped with effort.
“Nothing in the rules says I can’t-”
“I didn’t say it was a bad thing,” interrupted Turner. “Just that the judges might not like it, especially this little number.” He tapped the floating placard next to the statue with his cane, “The Event Horizon of Black Power?’ What happened to just “Black Power?”
Cuffy looked at the boy tugging against the pole. “Too simple.”
“Hmmm. Too simple. So, better to veer into the pretentious than embrace subtlety, Mr. Cuffy?”
“What would you name it?”
Turner looked at the boy beside him, “We haven’t formally met, have we?”
Cuffy put out his hand, and Turner Dessaline shook it. White flashes strobed out toward them from all angles, then disappeared. Cuffy let go of the man.
“An unfortunate picture.” said Turner. “Was hoping to avoid it, but, oh well.” He leaned toward Cuffy. “I hope your school didn’t put too much pressure on you, but I was worried that we wouldn’t have some kind of representation here, as we don’t much anywhere else, do we?”
Cuffy laughed, then started backing away from the man, but a quick arm wrapped around his shoulder.
“The Event Horizon of Black Power. You know I’ve been thinking about that title, the turning point for us, if you will, that boy at the top there, trying to pull the others up, that’s me, isn’t it?”
Cuffy opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out.
“Oh, that’s all right, it goes without saying, doesn’t it. The sheer power of it. Black power, creating the doctor, the politician, and yes, the social ills, the thief, the criminal, all of it stemming from this same pool of potential, connecting us, binding us. It is simply a masterwork, Mr. Cuffy.”
Cuffy’s shoulders heaved. He tried wiggling out of the man’s grip, but the arm felt like steel against his neck.
“You know, when I was your age, I was busy inventing light plates; you know what those are? I guess they’ve become obsolete at this point, but can you imagine, 18, me, creating a patent for something that would soon be sold in stores, participating in the process! Nowadays, of course, I don’t just have a singular product, but a goddamn utility, but back then, Mr. Dewitt, I felt so excited. I immediately moved my parents out of their apartment, and put them in the best neighborhood…You live in East Brooklyn, don’t you?”
Cuffy put a hand to his stomach and looked across the park toward the white hands in the distance, the small figure flying above it.
“Rough, well, no matter, you won’t be living there for long, I heard some of the judges talking about the raw emotional power of your statue, an expression of community one of them said. They all sounded very impressed.”
He got close to Cuffy’s ear and whispered, “You and I know, it’s more complicated than that, but let them assume. They see what they see, don’t they. They hear what they hear, but in the end, it all comes back to this, doesn’t it. No matter what it is I do, or how powerful I become, it’s still…well, here it is.”
Turner pulled him close. “You captured the essence. DON’T LOOK AT THE ACTION, LOOK AT THE SOURCE!”
He laughed and removed his arm from Cuffy’s neck.
“Let this be a lesson for you, Mr. Cuffy. Never disillusion an assumption.”
“Why!? Because…Excuse me a moment.” Turner pulled out his phone. “Yes, I’ll be right there. I’m sorry, Mr. Dewitt, I have to go. Good job on the sculpture. It speaks worlds.”
Cuffy watched him fly away like an ad-drone and threw up on the ground. The crowd around him backed away and he leaned against his runner. He closed his eyes. Camera drones, pre-programmed to capture noteworthy behavior, flashed around him and all his insides became public. Someone offered him some water, but he refused it, and ran.
Tree to tree, he picked his route carefully, keeping just outside the lines of flashing cameras and crowds, glued to their phones, watching him vomit over and over again. He stopped under an oak tree on the far side of the park and watched the sun move across the sky and behind some clouds. The shadows glided along the green, making it difficult to tell where the shadows of his tree ended and the shadows of the clouds began. He took a nap and dreamed. His eyes fidgeted beneath his eyelids and he tossed and turned for hours. At dusk, after hours of avoiding consciousness, Cuffy awoke and found himself beside the twentieth statue.
Not many people remained. Most had decided to go home after making their initial rounds within the first hour. The judges had already done their final aerials around the park and flew to a secret location to make their final deliberations. They would reveal the winner on a special broadcast later that evening.
When he approached the statue, a few people saw him, recognizable as he was, and glanced back and forth from their phones to him, whispering, smiling, sympathetic, then drifting away. With the exception of a few vague eyes, Cuffy was alone with it.
Floating lights illuminated the sculpture and made an artificial day of its form. Cuffy circled around it once, twice. Seemingly, unsure of what he was seeing, unsure what he had found. The lights flickered, brightened, and as the sun disappeared, Cuffy grabbed his own throat, not aggressively, but gently, gripping it, squeezing it, tenderly. He rubbed it, then stretched his finger out and penetrated a hole in the statue, a small letter “P” near the middle. He took his hand away and peered within, saw the nose, the eyes, looking back. More letters within, shapes, squiggles, colors. Form. He felt his phone vibrate. When he picked it up, he saw he had 100 missed calls.
“Hello?” he answered, still looking at the statue.
“Dewey, where are you?” It was his mother. “I had newsmen wanting to interview us all day, but I couldn’t find you anywhere. Weren’t you supposed to stay with your handler?”
Cuffy cursed. He hadn’t attended to any of the day’s protocols. He’d been up all night.
“Nah, I had to take care of something.”
“Well, I hope you have a ride, because I’m already home and you should be too, Dewey, they’re going to announce the winner in an hour. Hurry up!”
She hung up on him and a blue balloon with the words “AGGRESSION” floated up at him. He shook his head and the cologne advertisement dissolved.
“Cuffy! Hold up!”
He turned and saw the girl run up to him.
“You’re lucky my phone’s cheap.” he said, studying her. “You’re different without your apron.”
She smiled and regarded her outfit, “Thank you.”
“I’m about to go home.”
“Yeah, don’t go yet.”
“I wanted to talk to you.”
“I like talking to you.”
“Nah, I gotta get-”
“Please,” she insisted.
Cuffy exhaled. The giant blob of letters stood beside them, listening. He pointed to it. “You see the man in there?” He asked.
“Look,” he pointed through the “P”.
“She’s not a man.”
“That’s a woman in there.”
Cuffy looked again. “How do you know?”
She pointed to the floating placard next to the statue. It read, “The Provocation.”
“So?” he asked.
“Wait for it,” she said.
After a few seconds, it changed and revealed a woman’s face, the name Jemmy Deslondes appeared below it.
Cuffy smiled. “Doesn’t mean it’s not a man.”
“I can just tell.”
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I told you. I was looking for you.”
She bit her lip and shrugged, “I don’t know. Why you ask so many questions?”
He didn’t know.
“Come on.” she said and took his hand.
They walked around the park and Cuffy listened to her discuss everything inside her: school, her ailing grandmother, her job, their boss. He listened to all of it without a word. The only thing that made Cuffy respond was when she told him statue 14 was her favorite. She apologized to him, but said she thought it was cool. He regarded it as they walked by, 75 feet of a woman’s hair, no face, thousands of individual strands curling around an invisible ear, draping across invisible shoulders. It’s interesting he admitted.
When they reached his statue, he told her he had to go, but she put a hand on his chest and told him to stay. He neared her, but she backed away.
He showed her his palms, but she ignored them.
“What is this about?” she asked.
“I don’t know, you tell me?”
“No, I mean, the statue,” she turned to it, “What’s it about?”
“I crafted my response for both possibilities.” he said.
“I don’t get it.”
Cuffy sighed. The floating lights merely slicked the surface of his statue, and the realism of each figure dimmed in the surrounding darkness. “I don’t know.” He saw his face in the floating placard before it returned to the title.
“I don’t know,” he repeated.
“That boy up there, pulling on the pole, he trying to get away?”
“That a black hole?”
“They can’t escape?”
“No, they’re already inside, this is all we see,” he admitted, “All that’s left.”
“I figured,” she put a hand on his shoulder, “Don’t worry, Cuffy, they ain’t black, yet.”
He laughed, “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, you know,” she smiled at him. He moved in to kiss her, but she backed away.
“What is goi-” He was about to say, but his phone buzzed.
“Hello?” He looked at the girl. She looked at him.
“Come home, Dewey.”
“Come home, Dewey.”
She hung up.
He ran a slow finger over the blank screen, hesitating, “I gotta get home.” he said finally, “My Mom wants to watch the announcement with me.”
“You know my name, Cuffy?”
He shook his head.
“Did you ask?”
“Look, I didn’t kno-”
“You smart, Cuffy?”
He shook his head and hit a button on his phone.
“I wanted to-”
A transport beam lifted him through the night and placed him in his kitchen.
“What is this?” his mother asked quietly. She was holding a small silver drive.
His mom grabbed his arm and pulled him next to her, “What is this, Dewey?”
He struggled against her arm, but she wouldn’t let go. “It’s nothing.” He leaned away, but she yanked him closer.
“What is this, Dewey?!”
“It’s something I was helping my friend Bill with.”
She let go of his arm, “You’re friend, Bill?”
“How does this” She held up the drive. “help Bill?” She shoved it into his hand. “Explain it to me.”
“It’s for class.”
“For history class.”
She started breathing hard. He put his hand on her shoulder. “Mom?” but she shook off his hand. “Don’t touch me, Dewey! I know when you’re lying.” She sat down at the dining table. “Just tell me why.”
“I told you, it’s for class.”
Her shoulders heaved up and down. She searched his eyes, but he kept them steady.
“For class?” She asked again, quieter. Behind her, the TV showed Turner Dessaline standing before a podium, the judges seated behind him. Cuffy couldn’t hear the words. It was on mute.
“For class? Okay. For class.” She stood up and turned to him, stabilizing herself against the back of the kitchen chair. “I’ve never seen anything like that before, Dewey.”
“In my worst nightmares, I’ve never seen anything like that. Why would you want to look at that?” He took a step towards his room and looked at the TV.
“They’re about to announce the winner.”
She gripped his face in her hand and turned him towards her, “Why do you hate yourself, Dewey?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Jan Van Broucke’s giant white hands had won. He ripped himself from her hand.
“Pssh, I don’t fucking hate myself.”
She slapped him hard. “Don’t you curse at me, Dewey!” He glanced at the TV again. It showed an image of an 125 foot David standing on its head, paunch sagging. Second Place. “Why do you hate yourself?”
“It’s not like that!”
“Then, what’s it like?”
“It’s like nothing.”
“Then help me, Dewey?” She leaned into his eye line. “Just help me, okay? Tell me why.” He maneuvered to the side. He saw his statue. He’d come in third place. She stepped in front of him.
“I got 3rd place, Mom.”
She started sobbing, “I don’t even care, Dewey. Just tell me…give me something.”
“Mom.” He looked at the TV. It showed a picture of him vomiting, stuck in that pose, beside his statue, forever.
“It’s not me.” he said. His shoulders started to heave, but he closed his eyes and became still. “It’s not me.”
“What?” she barked.
“Do you enjoy it?”
“Yeah, sometimes, some of it…other parts, other times, I didn’t…I don’t know…enjoys the wrong word, the wrong question, the wrong everything. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to do whatever I want?”
“Oh Dewey,” she shook her head.
“Why can’t I!?”
“I just don’t know, do I?”
“Why can’t I.”
“Do I know you?” she asked quietly. “I thought I did, but this…For class?”
He straightened up, pulled back his shoulders, and nodded at her.
“Okay, Dewey. For class.” She walked past him. “We’ll talk about this later, I guess. Go to your room.”
That night, in front of his computer, he watched a recording of the announcement ceremony, listened to them say his name, show his face to the world. He watched every news report show him throwing up, listened to their speculation, and heard their disagreements on the ethics of showing the photo, their commentary on his statue, fell asleep.
The next morning his mom asked him why again, but he had nothing to say. When she left, he made himself some food in the tele-grower, ate it, and loaded the drive into the TV.
He watched, first person, as the master, speaking with Cuffy’s voice, did what he did. A time and a place. A time and a place. Bill hadn’t changed a thing. As it played, he began scribbling notes on a pad of yellow paper beside him. When he filled up the page, he immediately crumpled it up, and threw it away. He began writing on a new piece of paper and the video played again. And again. And again. And again. No where else for it to go, just looping forever on repeat. The boy got stabbed, the overseer wrestled with the mother, the hanging, the dance, and it would continue to do so, all of it, over and over, forever, if he wasn’t within it, choosing to deviate from the scripted path.
“What you want me to put this, boss?”
The master looked up at his overseer. The man asked a second time and bounced the body on his shoulder for emphasis.
“Just put him down.”
He grinned and let the body fall from his shoulders.
“Let ‘em see if they know what’s good for them.”
Cuffy watched the point of view walk to the overseer and pat his cheek. The overseer grinned at the approval, turned and began dancing along with the invisible fiddle gibbering hope from the darkness. The man pounded his clumsy boots into the dirt, spewing clouds with each step, laughing. He circled the torch, kicking up his heels with happy abandon, mocking the function of the noise, the music, darkness itself, obscuring more than it possibly could. A pretend game, an illustration, a trick of the light, shorn of meaning.
The overseer seemed like he could dance forever and the master’s hands came into view, began clapping along and then it all looked up into the night sky as a comet passed far overhead and the video started again, returning to that single inescapable point.
By Nicole Tanquary
Amelia woke up in fits and starts with a cat curled in the small of her back. In a practiced motion, she peeled off the net of Recorder sensors from her head. Her scalp itched from a night’s hair growth; she would need to shave sometime during the day, or the dreams the Recorder tracked during her next shift wouldn’t be worth a damn. No one wanted a blurry camera lens when they watched a movie, and the same principle applied to dreams.
Schmutz had come awake at her first stirrings, and now he stretched out his front legs, his orange tabby stripes shifting along bands of muscles as he moved. Then he sat and stared, waiting for her to get up and get him something to eat.
First, though, Jeff would need a description of the night’s work. Amelia reached with the tips of her fingers to the junk pile beneath her bed, then, after a moment of rummaging, pulled out an electric pen and booklet. The booklet was a worn thing from her college days, rainbow cracks glimmering from where she had once stepped on it while coming in from a drunk night out, but even so it worked fine. And Amelia didn’t see the need to replace things that worked fine.
Was in this place like an indoor town center – lots of touristy antique shops, food booths, etc. Visiting with Mom, being dragged along. Went window-shopping through places with an African theme to them, lots of faux-Kente cloth dresses around.
Then became embroiled in a plot that swept through the center; there were these evil warlock types who had been about to use this magic stone, a spherical one, black with a garnet-red shine, to take over the world. But it’d been stolen from them and hidden in one of the thousands of shops in the center. I started running around looking for it …
Her fingers scritching against the screen, Amelia stood and walked barefoot into the kitchen, Schmutz following behind her with his tail cricked in a question-mark. The writing paused long enough to fill his food bowl, then to pour herself a cup of coffee. Then she resumed; she had had a couple of dreams last night, and each one needed to be catalogued.
For half an hour, the house was silent except for her sipping and Schmutz’s snacking.
When the entries were at last done, she scribbled the tags Adventure – Fantasy – Powers, then closed the journal and sat staring straight ahead as she waited for the caffeine to filter into her brain. From her position at the counter, she had a good view of the kitchen window and the garden that lay beyond. Just by the window was a redbud tree, a pretty, shrubby thing that never got too high to block her view. It did send out too many seedlings, though; with the onset of summer, it was starting to choke out the flowers a bit. She needed to get her spade from the garage and dig them all out … and Schmutz needed a vet appointment to check his teeth … and the Recorder needed to be recharged and dusted … her head needed shaving, of course … groceries needed to be bought, carpet needed to be vacuumed, laundry needed to be done. And she needed to make more coffee.
If she worked at it, Amelia usually could think of enough to keep her busy until nightfall.
The worst days were when there was nothing to do, where she sat on the couch and stared at a blank T.V. screen, waiting for whatever was going to happen next.
But today was going to be a good day. She would make sure of that.
Her boss – a heavy, balding man who insisted that his underlings call him “Jeff” – always sent replies a few minutes after Amelia uploaded her dreams to the company vault. Sure enough, the day’s text came as she was drinking the last of her coffee: Sounds eccentric. You sure it’s good?
Amelia pursed her lips as she answered: Just watch it. The details really bring it to life. I can’t put all that down in a summary, it’d take hours. Besides, adventure fantasies are popular.
She could almost see him hemming and hawing, rubbing a hand along his double-chin. You’re a best-seller, Amelia, you know that. It’s a lot of pressure. You sure you haven’t taken anything to make things, you know, more vivid?
Mind-altering drugs had been declared strictly off-limits for anyone who sold their dreams for a living … kept the whole process more organic, or so they said. Amelia had even been forced off her anti-depressants when she first signed the contract.
Jeff, my dreams have always been like this.
I know. That’s why I hired you. It’s damn interesting stuff. Strange, but interesting.
There, the conversation ended, and Amelia went back to her breakfast of coffee and leftover couscous. Schmutz head-butted her leg, and she let him sniff a spoonful to prove that he wouldn’t like what she was eating, after all.
There was a fresh issue of Scientific American on the counter, and she turned the pages as she ate, eventually glancing at an article that listed the “Ten Most Important Advances in STEM Fields in the Past Decade.” Recorders, of course, made it into the list’s top five. She watched the photograph as light moved along the Recorder strands in smooth, liquid shines. The filaments were splayed outwards in a web, roughly oval-shaped and adjustable to a person’s head size. On the next page, alongside a diagram, was a description of how the filaments rested against a person’s scalp and dug in just a little – painless as acupuncture – to get at the detailed chemical-electrical activity happening within a brain as it slept. Each Recorder was highly individualized, since everyone’s experiences of the world were unique. It took weeks’ worth of scans to get a Recorder fully adjusted to it subject, able to translate individuals’ brain-patterns into images and sensations that could, in turn, be replicated for others in an all-encompassing sensory experience. Sounds, smells, tastes, touches, emotions … A well-synced Recorder could collect just about anything.
The article, aiming for its usual scientific objectivity, went into discussion of the public pushback as well. As dream recordings had become a currency of entertainment, after all, everyone from politicians to ranting bloggers voiced the privacy issues and moral questions that they felt needed asking. The whole business got pretty muddled, even slowed down the commercialization of the field for a bit … but over the course of several years, private firms were able to hire public relations teams that rewrote the popular consciousness of the subject.
Nowadays, Recorder dreams were not the most extreme privacy violation imaginable, but instead represented a mutually-consenting capture of imagination in its purest form. Dreams, after all, were not inherently designed for widespread consumption like books or movies. Dreams represented actual ideas at their most elemental and meaningful. So the public began to believe, at least.
For her part, Amelia had entered the Recording field on a whim. She had applied to a work-study gig at her university’s neuroscience program as one of the early Recorder-testers. She had gone in for a screening and had come out with one of the first models, a clunky, helmet-like thing that had the unpleasant texture of Velcro. The sensors on those early Recorders always dug in a little too deep, leaving rows of dimples in her scalp by the time she woke up the next morning. Still, she could not complain; it was good money, and the stuff it recorded made a name for herself in the world of neuroscience.
Four years later, and with some vigorous product placement from the private firms that had bought the rights to Recorders and their users, Amelia was a consistent and well-known best-seller who had used the extra income to pay her way through school.
It still struck her as funny, sometimes. If someone had gone back to the Amelia of five years ago and explained out her future career path, she would have laughed and said, Uh-uh, no way. No way anyone would actually want to see what’s going on in my head. It’s a place you don’t want to get lost in, trust me.
Then again, money could change a person’s attitude on just about anything.
Now it was noon, and Amelia had come off her caffeine high with the dishwasher unloaded, the laundry sorted and put away, and Schmutz’s fur brushed clean. He liked to go outside when it was warm, and all kinds of burrs and dead leaves would catch in his long fur, particularly on the underside of his belly. From where she stood, she could see him lounging on the front porch, fluffy with the fresh brushing, his tail still twitching in annoyance. He did not particularly like being brushed. Amelia had a feeling that the bristles pulled at his skin, and he was a sensitive cat. In his life before Amelia, he had been stuffed into a cardboard box and left out on the side of a highway to roast in the sun. Amelia did not blame him for being touchy sometimes.
She was thinking dim thoughts concerning lunch (she had seen an ad for a new seafood restaurant on Thompson and was wondering if she was in the mood for fried shrimp) when she raised her eyes from Schmutz and saw the man standing at the foot of the driveway.
The sun was out, noon-bright and burning, but it was almost as if the man’s body had a mask drawn over it; there were no discernable details at all. The only thing she could make out clearly was the shape of a suit and tie.
Still. There was something familiar about him. Familiar in an inkling way.
Amelia had been holding a water glass, and she lowered it to the counter. The clink as the glass touched down woke her up a bit, and it seemed to wake up the man, too. As she watched, he tucked his hands into his pockets and strolled out of her line of sight. Schmutz, who had been grooming his paw, set it down and followed the man’s movement with his eyes. “He’s just a walker, Schmutzy,” she said, mostly to herself. “Just some guy.”
Ten minutes later, when she left the house en route to Doug’s Fish Fry, she paused long enough to double-check the locks. There was a deadbolt on the front door, a rusty thing she had never touched before. She studied it for a moment before turning it into place with her key, wincing when it let out a sound like grinding teeth.
Amelia left Doug’s Fish Fry feeling faintly sick, the shrimp no more than a greasy lump in her stomach. She had brought her tablet with her to the restaurant to browse the internet as she waited for her food, pretending to be a ‘working student’ to keep people from staring at her. It had been a family restaurant, and she had been the only diner sitting alone.
Usually things like that didn’t bother her. It took her more effort than most people to hold and sustain a conversation, not to mention come off with the appropriate amount of confidence, wit, and humor. When she was alone at least she did ’t have to figure out how to entertain anybody.
Sometimes, though, the quiet of being alone would leak inside her head. Everything around her … everything in her … would fade, all her colors going gray and dim.
Days like those, she missed being able to take her anti-depressants. Those pills were not an easy cure, exactly, but at least they staved off the dimness a little.
Hoisting her purse across one shoulder, Amelia left her car in the driveway, went to the front door and popped the key into the lock. The double-bolt stuck. By now she had forgotten about the dark man, and she let out a grunt of annoyance, hoping the key would not break as she twisted it harder. At last the door popped open, and Schmutz ran out to twine around her legs, rubbing his head against the tops of her sandals. “You act like I haven’t fed you in weeks,” she said. “Christ, I just fed you two hours ago.”
Schmutz, at least, was one answer to the loneliness. Another one was to go out with friends, the old high school remnants who hadn’t minded her quiet moments. She knew Sky and Kat both had the evening off. Maybe it’d be nice to suggest a meet-up. What was playing in the movie theaters lately? Anything besides early-summer blockbusters?
Amelia felt at her pocket, then remembered that the phone was on the kitchen counter, on top of the travel memoir she had been idly reading through for the past month. Side-stepping around the cat, she made her way into the kitchen, snatched up the phone and began the group message: Hey guys, I was wondering…
Absently, fingers clicking away at the screen, she wandered into the living room. It was more of a sunroom, really, with a wall-full of windows that opened onto her strip of backyard, full of renegade redbuds and flowers leading up to the dark woods beyond, looming in its wall of twisting leaves.
Finally, she reached the end of the message and pressed the little ‘send’ button.
When she looked up, the dark man was standing with his face pressed to the window glass.
Every muscle in her body clenched down, and a thin, high sound blew through her lips – a scream, she supposed, though it did not sound much like one. The dark man’s face was indeed dark. Expressionless, colorless black cloth had been pulled over the mouth, the nose, even the eyes. Just a weird skiing mask, her mind sang, Just a weirdo!
After a minute of silence – Amelia staring at where his eyes should have been, if his face had been clear – she became aware of the phone still in her hands, clenched and shaking. She did not dare move, did not trust her own two legs to hold her up if movement was required, but at least she had the phone.
Slowly, her eyes not leaving the man’s covered face, she pressed the ‘call’ icon with her thumb and keyed in ‘9-1-1.’
After seeing the police officer to the door, Amelia wandered back into the living room, not thinking much and not doing much. Mostly she circled around the house and checked the locks on the windows. She could not remember the last time she even looked at most of them, but now all openings into the house filled her with an itching anxiety.
The trance finally lifted when her phone began to vibrate. Damned thing, she thought, her lip curling back in a grimace. She wasn’t in the mood for talking. The only thing she was in the mood for was the bottle of Nouveau waiting for her in the wine cabinet.
Ignoring the phone, she went into the kitchen, found the Nouveau and popped off the stopper, pouring herself a glass-full of thick red wine. The first gulp hit her tongue and left her throat glowing.
The phone rang again, and this time she answered it, glaring straight ahead as she pressed it to her ear. “What d’ you want, Jeff? This isn’t a good time.”
“Yeah, hey, are you all right? I heard about the stalker at your house.” Her eyebrows raised a little.
“Where’d you hear it from? The police only just left.”
The answer came quickly, as if he had been expecting her to ask that: “Got a friend in law enforcement. Asked him to keep his ears open for anything about my kids.” A grimace came and went across her face. Amelia and the other dream recorders were mostly young, right in that sweet-spot between child and mature adult. Being middle-aged himself, Jeff always referred to his contracted recorders as his ‘kids.’ It was something she hated but never brought up to his face.
“Yeah, I’m fine. No thanks to the police.” She rubbed one hand against her forearm, biting her tongue to keep in the laugh that would’ve come barking out otherwise. “The guy ran off way before anyone showed up. And the police-”
“What did they do?”
“Nothing. That’s the point. They took me seriously enough at first, but when they started asking questions, they wanted to know what I did for a living, and when I told them, they started … patronizing me. Said that maybe I’d brought my work with me when I woke up and ‘imagined’ the whole thing.”
There was an explosive sigh on the other end. “How many times do I have to tell those goddam reporters, Recorders don’t do that! They just record what’s going on in someone’s head, there’s no hallucinations before OR afterwards! Motherfucking idiots!” Amelia thought she could almost hear the tendons in Jeff’s jaw clench. “Goddam … Listen, ‘melia, I have a friend who might be able to help you out. He’s a private contractor type, NOT a useless cop. I can get him to send someone to your house and keep watch until your stalker is caught, maybe even help catch the bastard.”
Amelia’s teeth chewed at the edge of her lip. The inside of her mouth felt dry, very dry, and she poured herself another bloody glass of Nouveau to wet it down with. “Sorry, Jeff, thanks but no thanks.”
“C’mon, ‘melia. This guy’s probably dangerous, and I don’t want to take any chances-”
“I’m not asking you to.” She clipped off his retort by ending the call, then powered down the phone before he could start flooding her voicemail, as he sometimes did.
Half of her fresh glass of wine was already gone. She didn’t remember drinking that much, but so it was.
Wine glasses never lied, even if people did.
A cold, wet nose pressed into her forehead, just below the front-most strands of the Recorder. Amelia’s eyes opened to find Schmutz staring down in an unflinching yellow gaze.
When their eyes met, he promptly butted her head and meowed for breakfast. And no wonder, Amelia thought, her eyes drifting to the beside clock: it was already eleven. She couldn’t remember the last time she had slept in so late.
With a groan, she pulled herself out from under the covers and plodded into the kitchen, staying just long enough to set out Schmutz’s meal. Then she went back in the bedroom, sat on the bed, and held her head in her hands. Her nails touched against the Recorder and she peeled it off, flinging it aside like it was something nasty growing in a trash can.
She still had to write the report, though; no way around that. With a sour expression, she got out the electronic booklet and sat there for a while, rubbing one hand along her jaw. It was sore; she must’ve been grinding her teeth through the night. The habit had started in high school, and she wouldn’t have known anything about it except that her dentist had had a small fit after seeing the state of her molars.
Funny, though. She had thought she had gotten over the teeth-grinding after sophomore year of college. Guess it’s true when they say that you never really get over anything … it goes away for a while, but it always comes back. She pursed her lips down at the booklet. Well, that’s a happy thought, isn’t it?
What else could she expect, though, after a dream like that?
After of lots of stopping-and-starting, she finally began to put a description together for the dream database:
Started in a jungle. Dark place, lots of noises, I couldn’t see anything at first. Something had tied me to a tree … no, chained me, metal chain. The chain was around my left wrist. The something was coming back, and I was going to die, and I knew it, so I was panicking.
I leaned over without really thinking about it and started chewing at my arm. It hurt, and blood was pouring out, but I couldn’t stop. Too scared.
When the thing had almost come back, I finally chewed through and left my arm behind in the chain, and I started running. But I wasn’t fast enough. He caught me, and he had a man’s shape but he wasn’t really a man, don’t know what he was, he just WAS. He held me so I wouldn’t run off and looked at the stub where my arm had been. “Now look what you’ve done,” he said. And then-
“He ripped off my other arm,” Amelia mouthed, then realized that she hadn’t written it down. She did so in a scribble, muttering dark curses under her breath. The staff who processed dream manuscripts usually wanted tags for filing purposes, but screw them, if they really wanted to label this thing they could do it themselves.
Amelia sent off the dream with a click, then went back into the kitchen. Her whole body ached way down to the deep muscle. Maybe she was getting her period ahead of schedule – that was sort of what it felt like, anyways. Hell, more blood, just what I need, she thought, and started pouring herself some coffee.
It was somewhere like four in the afternoon when her doorbell rang. Schmutz, who had been stretched out on her lap, folded his ears back and fixed his gaze on the doorknob.
Amelia was sitting with him on the couch, a drink in her hand and her head swimming in a daze. She leaned back a bit so she could glance out the window … her stupid front door didn’t have a peephole, and she wasn’t going to open it without knowing who was there first … and pulled back the curtain just enough to see the visitor.
Catching the movement in the curtain, a man in a suit grinned at her and waved. She let out a groan – Why didn’t I just pretend I wasn’t home? – then got to her feet, unlocked the door, and opened it to a hair’s width. Looked like a salesman, or maybe a Jehovah’s Witness; talking to him would be the only way to get rid of him now, and the sooner the better.
The man outside was about her age but had a perpetual, smiling boyishness that left impressions of someone much younger. His hair, somewhere between dark blonde and brown, hung long against his forehead. His eyes were very dark and his build narrow, like a runner’s.
Before he could speak, Amelia started with, “Listen, I’m sorry, but I’m not interested in signing up for anything right now. I’d really prefer to be left alone.” For a moment the man’s boyish face looked perplexed.
“Huh?” He blinked, thought about what she had said for a moment, and then came to a realization. His face was one that was easy to read … she could follow each change in his thoughts just by looking at him. “Oh, no, I’m not a salesman. I’m one of Emilio’s guys. My name’s Evan, Evan Fleischer. I’m assuming Mr. Jeff told you I was coming over … or, not,” he said, his grin fading as he read Amelia’s expression.
“I told him I didn’t need a babysitter. Or a bodyguard. Whatever you are.” Her grip on the doorknob tightened. “If he won’t listen to me, then you can go tell him yourself.”
She leaned her shoulder forward an inch, about to use her weight to swing the door shut when he spoke again. “Jeff watched the dream manuscript you sent in today. It was …” A frown collected around Evan’s eyebrows. “Well, safe to say he’s worried about you. He wants to have someone to watch your back, set you at ease and all.”
Amelia was suddenly aware of the jacket covering the front of the man’s body. She knew, with a certainty that was almost frightening, that he had a gun tucked away in there somewhere.
She surprised herself with a laugh that made her eyes glitter. “Jeff makes money by selling my dreams. Of course he’s concerned. I can’t dream best-sellers if my subconscious is scared, can I? Still, if he thinks I’m going to let a complete stranger into my home …”
A stranger who knows how to use a gun, maybe even knows how to drive away the dark man in the mask, the shadow-mask that smooths away his mouth and nose and eyes and yet you can feel, you KNOW he’s staring at you, staring and THINKING ABOUT HOW HE’S GONNA MAKE YOU SUFFER …
” … Then he must know me better than I do,” she ended, in a mutter. The bemused look came back into Evan’s face. Amelia had a feeling he wore that look often.
She turned away from him, firmly, and propped open the door with her foot to let him in.
The spaces in the house were open, the furniture modest, but all the colors had been washed out in shadow tones. The curtains are closed, she could see Evan thinking to himself, with a pointed glance at the windows. Even though it’s a nice sunny day outside.
Schmutz stared at him from his spot on the couch, ears flattened back and tail lashing. As Evan turned to look at him, there was a faint rustle, and Schmutz disappeared in a streak of orange. Evan jumped, his hand flinching towards his concealed gun before he got a hold of himself. “Shoot, sorry,” he said, tucking the hand back into a pocket. “Didn’t mean to scare it.”
“It’s not you personally, he just doesn’t like strangers.” Neither do I, for that matter.
Amelia’s shoulders sagged a little, and when she motioned towards the kitchen, the gesture was limp and without feeling. “There’s liquor, if you want. Wine, too. Take whatever you feel like.” For a moment the look on Evan’s face was so bemused that Amelia expected him to say, Sorry, ma’am, but I’m not old enough to drink!
Instead he said, “I can’t. Not while I’m on duty.”
After that the two of them stood in silence. An antique clock on the kitchen wall ticked and tocked in the quiet. He didn’t take the drink – what am I supposed to do with him now? thought Amelia. It occurred to her that she had never invited a man into her house before. Mom would be so proud.
That thought burned with the aftertaste of acid, and she clenched down on it, forcing it back into the pit of her stomach. She was on her own now, she was a happy and self-sustaining adult. She didn’t need to think about her mom, or her family, or all the things that came with it …
Evan shrugged out of his jacket and draped it on a chair, pushed neatly back into a table. “You know, I don’t watch all that many dreams. Usually I’m doing work, and I gotta be awake and alert and all that. Still,” and now he smiled a little, “When Emilio brought up your pen-name, I knew it right away. Sometimes I watch them over dinner, you know? Makes Ramen a lot more exciting. I like yours especially, since they’re always so …” He flexed his fingers, searching for the right word. “… visceral. Yeah. Like those ones where you’re flying? You actually feel the air sliding around you. It’s amazing.”
Amelia kept her eyes to the floor, a frown coming into her eyebrows. In her head she muttered a curse at Jeff. What was the point of the pen-name if he gave it away to people she didn’t know?
Reading her face, Evan added, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to the press to reveal your name to anyone. We’re dealing with one stalker here, not trying to make more of them. And if they knew your name-”
“They could probably figure out my house address.” The smile she gave him was a bleary one, pinched at the corners. “Doesn’t help to lecture me on safety precautions. I already know the spiel.”
Evan’s face darkened a little. “Still, is there anyone close to you that maybe knows-”
“I’ve never seen this guy before in my life. Haven’t even gotten a good look at him yet. Whenever I see him, his face is all … dark.” There was a lock of hair hanging against Evan’s forehead, thick and faintly curled – what were those called again? Cowlicks? She realized she was staring at it and turned her head away, faint blush coming in along her cheekbones. “If you don’t want a drink, that’s fine, but you’re gonna have to figure out a way to entertain yourself. Frankly, I’m not in the mood.” She left him and went into the kitchen, rummaging around for a half-finished book and a glass of wine.
“Sure, no problem,” he said, the grin returning. “My fault for popping in on you like this. And while you’re shaken up, too.” He stretched his arms into the air and bent backwards, getting the cracks out of his spine. “Where do you want me posted? I have a car outside for surveillance, which is what I usually do, but I can also stay here in the living room if you’re really-”
“Stay with me in the house.” The suddenness of the reply surprised both of them, and she swallowed once to remove a lump from her throat. “I mean … if this guy sneaks in, I want you right here, you know? So you can put a bullet through his head.”
Evan’s grin changed to a frown. If she looked, Amelia thought she could see a sharper thing glinting through the boyishness; a professional. “I’m not allowed to use lethal force unless your life is in imminent danger.”
“And who says it isn’t?” There was the damned book she was looking for; it was underneath a stacked pile of already-read Smithsonian magazines, two years’ worth and then some, if you bothered to flip through and count them all up. What even was this? Amelia squinted at the cover, registering it as one of her mother’s old anthropology books. Age and Gender in Rural Zambia. Yes, this was good. It would get her out of this place to somewhere new, a place of dry yellow ground flooded with sunshine.
When she reached her bedroom, she found Schmutz huddled beneath the bed, shooting her a glare full of accusation. “He’ll only be here a little while,” she murmured, then bent forward to arrange the pillows against the headboard so she could sit up comfortably. Sure, it was only afternoon, too early for bed – but the bedroom was her place, where she got work done. And with Evan posted outside in the living room, the dark man wouldn’t be able to sneak in.
Her shoulders relaxed in increments, and she bent open the book and let the words wash over her in grayed, academic waves.
There were woods, thick deep green, full of birds. They made all this noise, it was too loud, they wouldn’t shut up even when I threw rocks at them. Then their voices changed, and they were little babies, all of them crying their eyes out. They started falling out of the branches like dead fruit. They’d been dead for a while, their skins were rotten and split open when they fell, their arms and legs still kicking.
I heard a voice say, “Now look what you’ve done,” and he was there, blurry at the edges but there, right in my head, and I couldn’t run from him because it was my fault, I threw rocks at them at first and then hadn’t done enough to try to save them, and he had me, he was holding me and biting through my neck like it was a tether –
Amelia woke with a scream bubbling out of her throat like fresh blood, tearing off the Recorder with a jerk of her hand and letting it clatter to the floor. There were hard, fast footsteps. The door burst open, and Evan appeared, silhouetted against a hallway light. “What happened? Are you okay?” There was a brightness in his eyes that Amelia had not seen there before.
“Fuck off!” she spat, trying to catch her breath. Evan didn’t answer, and she felt a hollow thud of regret somewhere inside her chest. It hadn’t been his fault. She shouldn’t have yelled at him. Well, too late now.
She threw off her sheet to let her skin breathe, then swung her legs over the side of the bed. She felt as though she was drowning in her own sweat. At the same time, the air inside her room felt too cold, almost icy when it touched against her skin.
She ran a hand over her bare scalp and then stood, pushing past Evan so she could get into the kitchen. Her usual treatment for a nightmare was a mug of hot tea … there was a box of herbal Chamomile in the cupboard by the sink for just that purpose. She found the box and picked at it with her fingernails, sliding out a tea bag and dropping it into a mug-full of water.
“Another nightmare?” came Evan’s voice from behind. Amelia blinked for a moment, surprised. She thought telling him to ‘fuck off’ would’ve driven him back to the living room and ended any possibility of conversation, but apparently not.
” … yeah.” A sigh left her lips before she could think to hold it in. “Jeff won’t be happy about it. Nightmares don’t sell as well as regular dreams. For, you know, obvious reasons.”
Evan’s nose wrinkled a little. “I don’t think that’s his main concern right now. It shouldn’t be yours, either.” The microwave beeped, and Amelia retrieved her mug, the heated pottery warm against her palm.
“Of course that’s his main concern. He’s a businessman.” She swirled the tea for a bit, watching the steam rise from the surface in soft pillows. “Maybe it won’t be all bad, though. I read an article somewhere about Homeland Security buying exclusive access to some of the nightmares. The really bad shit, you know, the paralysis-inducing stuff. It’s useful for torture. Doesn’t scar the body at all, so you won’t be able to prove that it happened afterwards. People’ll just think you’re crazy.”
Evan gave her a steady look. “That’s not true. Dreams leave marks … just depends on how close you look.” He tapped a finger against the corner of his eye, his mouth breaking into a grin.
Now that he was looking at her, Amelia could see his eyes, his whole face, even, still held that gleam she had noticed before. He looked … alive. In the same way the dark man looked dead.
Yes, that was it; that was what was so awful about it all. The dark man looked like something that had been dead and buried for a long, long time. But now it had opened its eyes and woken up, scratched its way out of its grave with finger-claws that gnawed away at soil and hard-packed stone-
And that dead face was staring at her through the kitchen window.
She felt him before she saw him, a heaviness in her chest that raised fresh fever-sweat along her neck. She could see nothing clearly, just the dark cloth pulled over all his features, but she swore, she swore the bastard was grinning at her.
All at once anger seethed up from her stomach, and a slow breath hissed out from between her teeth. She shoved aside the tea and ripped open one of the drawers where her steak knives were neatly filed away. “What’re you-” Evan said, but her hand had already gripped a handle, any would do, and she was dodging around the kitchen counter and running, no, sprinting at the back door-
Her fingers were undoing the locks when a hand closed around her wrist. A shriek came out of her, muffled by her lips, which clenched in a grimace at the touch.
It was Evan. At some point he had slid the gun out, and it was not impressive at all but old, almost clunky. Still, it fit in Evan’s hand in a reassuringly solid way; like the two of them belonged together. “Did you see him?” he asked, his voice low.
When Amelia did not answer, he nudged her out of the way with a surprising gentleness. Then he slipped out through the door and onto the back lawn. She watched through the door window as he panned across every inch of backyard, the gun always pointed along his line of sight. He searched through the lawn; ducked into the trees that began where her backyard ended; peered into the hedges in front; looked briefly in the neighbors’ yards.
Then he was back, latching the deadbolt behind him. “No one there,” he said, in that same low voice. “Not anymore.”
Amelia’s heart beat fast in her chest, and she rubbed a hand along her neck, where she could feel her pulse straining in the arteries running to her head. “Of course not. He always disappears when other people go looking for him. Same thing happened with the policemen.” There was a crack in her voice that she could both hear and feel.
A moment later and she was sitting on the couch in the living room, rubbing a hand absently across her scalp. She had shaved it earlier in the day, and the skin was shiny-smooth and soft. Some dream recorders looked odd without hair, college-aged monks-in-training wearing sweatshirts instead of robes. But her, it suited her fine. Her father had a little Chickasaw Indian in his blood, and she had inherited his high cheek bones …
And other things. Slight chemical imbalances in the brain. Overactive neurons that gave her the depressive symptoms hand-in-hand with the dreams, so thick and real you could bite down and taste them. But then his bit back, she thought, his dreams bit back, and when they did they bit down hard.
“Amelia?” came Evan’s voice, and even though he stood right in front of her it sounded like he was far away. A warm pair of hands settled on her shoulders, and then at least he seemed closer. There was a reassuring solidity in the grip that made her raise her head.
He stared steadily into her face, tallying up the bloodless cheeks and the dark bags beneath her eyes. “Listen, you’re okay. I won’t let him hurt you. You understand?”
“But he …” She couldn’t keep up the eye contact and let her gaze drop.
“He’s ALREADY hurt me,” came the answer, in a burst of anger that burned as it left her tongue. “He’s hurt me twice now. And if I fall back asleep, he’ll hurt me again. Maybe even kill me.” She rested her face against her hands, stinging, exhausted tears welling up at the edges of her eyelids. “You people, you all say ‘It’s so wonderful to have such realistic dreams,’ but it’s not wonderful, it hurts, it hurts to have things be so real and sharp all the time …”
The tips of her fingers were shaking. She had inherited that from her dad, too, and he from her grandma. The shaking would get bad when she was cold, or tired. Like her brain would give up on trying to keep her muscles steady. Why can’t things ever keep steady?
Except, her hands were steady – Evan was holding them still. His hands were large, and rough, calluses built up on each of the knuckles. These were the hands of someone who had been in a lot of fights. Strange, she thought. They didn’t match his boyish face at all.
“I never said dreams like that were easy,” he said.
No. They weren’t. But then, most things weren’t. Life, dreams … families. That was a big one right there. If only families could stay easy to get along with, sweetly stereotypical with a happy mom and happy dad and happy little children, but one person or another would always start to crumble and before long the whole edifice would come crashing down around their heads.
She and her mom, they had been so worried in the beginning. Amelia was in college when the troubles with dad began, so she and mom always talked and talked about it over long distance phone calls, endless streams of arrangements passing between them, I can drive down and visit his apartment this weekend, I’m free Wednesday night, I’ve been calling him but he’s not answering …
In the end, it hadn’t mattered how much they tried to reach out. They were still bystanders, standing off to the side as they watched the mental avalanche come down the mountain. Before they knew it, he was completely and utterly-
“Buried,” she murmured, then gave a little start when she realized she had spoken aloud. “Shit, sorry, I-”
“No, that’s good. I was gonna ask you to start talking it out anyways.” Evan sat down in the chair across from her, folding one leg over the other, hands in his lap. Beneath the cowlick, his eyes had gotten a sort of bright intensity to them … an understanding that she knew more about this stalker than she was saying.
Amelia opened her mouth to say, ‘What’re you talking about? You’re a bodyguard, so why start playing therapist? Who the Hell do you think you are?’
But the words never quite made it out. Her throat was dry, coated in dust. She wanted another glass of wine to wash it away. She wanted to find Schmutz, who was hiding in the bedroom still, and scoop him up so she could bury her face in his fur.
She wanted to be able to open all the living room windows and breathe in fresh night air, cold and wet with the next morning’s dew, open those windows and not have to worry about a dark hand tearing through the screen mesh to snatch her wrist in a death grip.
“It’s nothing,” she muttered, finally answering the question playing across Evan’s face. “Nothing much. This guy just … I don’t know. He reminds me of my dad a little. But he can’t be my dad,” and the mutter was getting quieter, “Because my dad’s dead.”
Evan said nothing. Amelia knit her fingers together and started cracking her knuckles, each one going with a little pop. Her eyes had the distant, plastic look of someone being forced to remember a bad dream. That last night in his apartment, when he wouldn’t stop shrieking. That was the REAL nightmare.
And with the memories came the familiar burn of rage. She bit her lip to keep it in, the boil in her stomach and chest that wouldn’t go away. She had her Recorder job, she had her dreams. She didn’t want to be coming apart at the seams now, when everything was going so well.
Wasn’t it going well? Wasn’t she okay?
Amelia flexed her knuckles again, but everything had already been cracked. She tried for a while anyways, knitting her fingers together and twisting first one way and then the other. Goddamn, she was tired. Everything in her felt drained out, as if she was nothing more than a hollow skin-puppet being shuffled along on its strings. It wasn’t doing her any good, staying up this late.
Back to bed. Yeah. That was the only thing left to do.
Standing up, she fumbled towards the counter until she found the mug of Chamomile tea. She had thought that only a few minutes had passed, but the pottery handle was already cold to the touch.
“Going to sleep?” said Evan, from where he perched in his chair. Amelia nodded. Somewhere, on a deeper, wordless level of thinking, it occurred to her that Evan didn’t look tired at all. He must’ve been on watch in her living room for hours and hours now – with his job, he probably didn’t get much sleep in the first place. Amelia couldn’t imagine it. Just living exhausted her by the time night came around.
She turned and followed the hall to her room, where the door still stood open. The sheets were almost torn off the bed, draped partway onto the floor. Schmutz stood guard by the closet door with his tail lashing. At the noise of Amelia coming in, his shoulders tensed up, and a moment later he was an orange shadow slinking back underneath the bed. “Come on, he’s not that bad,” she muttered, setting her tea on the bedside table.
True enough. But then, was it even Evan he was hiding from anymore?
She lay on her bed, the mattress a creaking, groaning thing underneath her, soft and warm as living tissue. She fought off the blanket and rolled out, landing hard, almost in a crouch. The carpet was a viscous liquid that stuck to the pads of her feet when she stood up.
Something had torn away the door. Jags of wood remained around the hinges, but the rest had been ripped off and tossed into the hallway. She could just barely see it smoldering there, could smell where it had burned at the dark man’s touch.
Her eyes couldn’t stay in one place. It was still her bedroom, but the walls had curdled, shadows wouldn’t sit flat against them but bulged out instead, curved sickle-fingers that reached into the open air like thorns on a rosebush.
“Now look what you’ve done,” said a corner of the room, and there stood the dark man, building himself out of shadows the way a sculptor molds clay, raw black clay dragged from the deep rivers of the mind. He was her father and not her father, a shadow that had twisted and rotted into something new, something bad. “Now look what you’ve done,” it whined again, and the whine twisted as it slunk along the walls.
And what had she done? That last night, at her father’s place?
She’d done nothing. That was the whole point. The whole fucking point.
A smile twitched at the face under the black cloth, So, you’ve let yourself remember now, and the cloth her father’s monster was wearing was a funeral shroud, how had she not seen that before? It was her funeral shroud, and he had come all this way from the grave to wrap it around her like a baby swaddled in cloth-
A moment passed, the dark man came forward, and everything disappeared from her sight. She could feel the black shroud on her head, circling tighter and tighter in layers of suffocating skin. It’s like my panic attacks, she thought, air choking in her throat. My panic attacks, the ones I’d get after his funeral. She tried to rip the shroud off, but the material slid silkily under her fingernails–
And it wasn’t a dream, she could feel every molecule of air against her face, every hair standing up on her arms, every beat of her heart-drum pushing blood through her arteries and it wasn’t a dream it wasn’t a dream IT WASN’T A DREAM–
The walls pulsed in ripples of black shadow, culminating in the figure before her in inky waves. His smile cut through the cloth over her eyes, wide white teeth that gleamed as his arms held the cloth over her face, tighter, tighter. She made desperate sucking sounds for air, and his smile only widened. How does it feel? How does it feel, Amelia? Not so fun from the inside, is it?
There were footsteps, and all at once the shadows ripped open with a fantastic, golden bang. The dark man jerked backwards, dragging the shroud in his wake. Amelia floundered part-way out and gasped in deep breaths, the air feeling sharp and sweet in her lungs. Evan stood in the jagged doorway, a silhouette against the hallway light. Even so, his eyes were full of burning. Not just his eyes; where before the gun had been dull black, it was yellow now, the blinding yellow of sunlight that wakes you from a deep sleep.
Huh, she thought, her mind moving in dizzy circles as she tried to push off the rest of the dark man’s shroud. From this angle, Evan looked a bit like her father.
Not the pitiful, neurotic shadow he had become in her teenage years. Not the one that had looked up at her from his cut-open wrists and said in a gasping whine, “Now look what you’ve done!”
No. Right then, Evan looked like the father she had known when she was a little girl – a baby, even. The strong man with the cowlick and the grin, with the big, rough hands who would hold her in warm hugs, who would make funny faces at her from across the room, who would act like a big goofy child to get mom’s eyes to roll and make Amelia giggle.
That was the father who, even when he was tired and sleepless, would comfort her after a nightmare and convince her there weren’t monsters under the bed, after all. And even if that turned out to be a lie, even if there WERE monsters under there, he’d always be there to chase them away – and poor baby Amelia had believed him.
Amelia refocused on the scene in front of her and realized, in a slow crawl of thought, that Evan’s bullet had gone through the dark man’s forehead. Right between the eyes, in fact, leaving a hole that dripped thick, inky blood. Amelia watched, unmoving, as drips of it ran down the man’s face and onto the front of his suit. “NOW look what you’ve done,” the man shrieked, and the eyes flushed black. You’re not getting away, Amelia. You’re never getting away.
There came a lunge of movement, and the shadow’s grip latched back onto Amelia’s body, spinning her around as a shield between her and Evan. Amelia jerked out of her daze, her whole body thrashing instinctively, one leg coming up to kick the man viciously in the knees. Her foot encountered no resistance … or, if there was, it was like a clammy touch of mist. Nothing more than that.
The darkness made an angry sound, a sort of vibration more felt than heard, one that sent her almost screaming from the way it rattled in her bones. There was a lash, and smooth silk-shrouded hands gave way to claws, claws that buried in the meat of her right arm.
Then a streak of orange came through the corner of her eye, and suddenly the dark man was not the only thing with claws: Schmutz had left the safety of the bed and was standing at her feet, his back arched and every strand of his fur standing on end. Wait, Schmutz, I can’t touch him, you won’t be able to touch him either- she thought, but before she could say a word Schmutz had lunged at the dark man’s leg. Claws came out and slashed deep gouges into the darkness, and ink-blood spurted out across the floor.
There was a howl, and the dark man kicked out, his foot connecting with Schmutz’s side and throwing him into the far corner of the room. Still, the distraction was enough; he had turned, exposing his body to Evan, still standing at the door.
And Evan didn’t waste the chance. A series of three quick bangs sounded out from Evan’s gun. Wide holes burst open on the dark man’s chest, holes that leaked out shadow.
Running forward, Evan grabbed Amelia’s wrist and yanked her out of the dark man’s hold, Schmutz following just behind them. Now that she looked down at the cat, through bleary and water-dazed eyes, Schmutz’s fur was no longer orange so much as gold – it had the same sun-glow as Evan and his gun.
Separated from Amelia and riddled with bullet holes, pieces of the dark man began to come apart, falling to the floor and splattering like wet scraps of clay from a potter’s wheel. The glowing bullets almost seemed to writhe underneath his skin, living things that pushed tissue out of their way as they burrowed and brought light to every dark corner. His head was pointed down, watching the pieces come off. Something in his stance seemed confused.
“But … look …” he started, but Evan cut him off with a final shot from the gun.
Amelia was holding onto Evan’s shoulder. Her arm was warm and wet with her own blood, but there was no pain yet; the adrenaline kept it away, for the time being. Her gaze fixed on what was left of the dark man as he fell to the floor.
Then she felt her face start to twist. Her eyes narrowed to thin slits, and her cheeks pulled back, the lips parting to let out deep, soundless sobs. Tears ran down her cheeks, not in trickles but in slow, all-encompassing pools. This wasn’t something she could handle. This wasn’t something anyone could handle. GOD DAMN IT, she thought, but that didn’t stop the tears from flowing up and out from some deep well in her chest.
And what were they for? Despair? Relief? The room was, after all, a room again, made of flat planes and docile shadows. Schmutz’s fur no longer glowed, and neither did Evan or his gun. Everything was as it had been.
She could feel callous-rough hands lead her to bed. Evan said something aloud, but Amelia couldn’t understand him. Her head hurt too much. She fell into the bed still crying, curling into a fetal position as she bunched the sheets around her head to cover her eyes.
As the minutes passed, the hitching breaths smoothed and slowed, and her hands went limp on the sheets. The danger had passed, and her brain, confused and overwhelmed, had initiated a shutdown.
In the silence Evan touched her cheeks with the edge of his finger. The skin was wet and hot to the touch. But it was okay. These were healing tears.
Straightening up, he smiled down at her, then tucked the gun back into his jacket after double-checking the safety. As he did so, Schmutz leapt onto the bed and went to stand by Amelia’s head, his tail resting protectively across her chest. His gold eyes never left Evan’s.
Evan raised his hands in a gesture of peace. “I get it, I get it. You got it covered from here.”
Still, he felt himself lingering in the room for a moment. He had never felt quite so solid in his life; in Amelia’s life, rather. He stemmed from her, daughter to father, brought alive from the energy she put into her dreams until he, the ghost that he was, was solidified in place and space.
And the feelings he was born from … well, those feelings were complicated. Amelia loved her father; Amelia hated her father. She had buried him deep in her heart, hoping to drown out the feeling of her own guilt, even as her inner child sobbed and begged for her daddy to come back home and keep her safe from the monsters.
Still, no matter how much time she put into them, dreams didn’t offer resolution.
Not on their own.
When Amelia woke up – barely, just enough to be able to twitch her fingers – her eyes filled with a vision of orange fur. Schmutz had curled around her head during the night, like a mother cat keeping a kitten warm. The moment she shifted her head a little, a purr rumbled out of the warmth, loud enough to feel through her face. “Hey, Schmutz,” she murmured, raising a hand to scratch his ears a little. The purr vibrated louder and louder until her head was buzzing with the sound.
Her head … Amelia reached to her scalp and brushed her fingers along the skin. No Recorder. Had she really slept through the night without it? Usually she couldn’t fall asleep unless it was on, her head felt so bare and exposed …
And then she remembered.
Feeling her shoulders tense up, Schmutz’s purring broke its rhythm, and a pair of gold eyes opened from somewhere inside the fur to see what was wrong. Amelia reached out to scratch his head again and winced; that’s right, her arm had gotten injured last night, hadn’t it?
She shifted a little and held her forearm up to the light to get a better look. The gash had mostly scabbed over, but there were drips of dried blood running along the skin, spots of it on the sheet where her arm had rested in place during the night.
In her mind’s eye she could see the dark man’s hooked claws tearing in, trying to dig their way down to the bone, down to where the hurt would never heal … But it had not quite gotten there. Evan the bodyguard had shot and killed him. But how could bullets work on the thing? And how was Evan so damn calm about seeing something like that just appear in my bedroom? There had been a sort of familiarity in the way he had treated the dark man, a familiarity she couldn’t dismiss, no matter how much she tried to think it through. Not to worry, miss, I deal with monsters like this for a living. Didn’t you see my special glowing gun?
Amelia sat up, dislodging Schmutz from his place around her head. Glancing at her bedside table, she saw a white box propped against her lamp – the little first-aid kit she kept in the kitchen bathroom. On top of that was a note, written on a paper scrap. Amelia picked it up and stared at it for a while. It took a minute or two before her mind woke up enough to read the words.
I don’t think that cut will need stitches, but you should clean it out and disinfect it when you wake up.
Once she got to the end, Amelia read it over again, opening and closing her eyes in a slow blink. Her eyes locked onto the name at the bottom, and a glimmer of a thought sounded in the back of her head: Evan. That was my father’s middle name. I only saw it in his official signatures, but it was Evan, wasn’t it …
Schmutz leaned his whole body into a face-rub across her shoulder, glancing pointedly at the bedroom door. “Okay,” said Amelia, swinging her legs over the side of the bed to get up. After a pause, she grabbed the note and brought it with her into the kitchen, Schmutz trotting behind her in a soft orange cloud.
She made herself wait long enough to set down his bowl of dry food and to pour herself a cup of coffee. Then she reached for her phone and keyed in Jeff’s number, raising it to her ear. He picked up on the second ring. “Hey, ‘melia. What’s up?”
The corners of her mouth twisted into a grimace. “‘What’s up’? That’s all you have to say?” There was a pause on the other end.
” … am I supposed to say something else?”
“Well, you could start by explaining that guy you sent to my house last night. Evan Fleischer, right? What the Hell kind of organization does he even work for?” There was an inhalation of breath on the other end of the line, followed by a tenseness that she could almost feel radiating out of the receiver.
“Okay … the Hell are you talking about?! I don’t know anyone named ‘Evan Fleischer,’ and I sure as HELL wouldn’t give away your home address away to anybody without your permission! We don’t want a stalking situation on our hands again, not after what happened last December with one of my kids …”
“Don’t call us your ‘kids,’ Jeff. It’s pretentious.” Most of the strength had left her voice now, leaving behind a faint monotone. Jeff kept talking, as if he hadn’t heard her, or maybe just pretending he hadn’t heard her.
“You’re saying a guy came to your house last night, saying I’d sent him? ‘Evan Fleischer,’ right.” There was a flurry of sound on the other end of the line as Jeff dug through his desk to find a notebook and pen to write down incriminating notes. “You just give me a physical description, Amelia, and I’ll get it right to the police. What’d he do once he showed up at your door? Tell me you didn’t let him in-”
“Jeff, it’s fine. Drop it.”
“What?! Are you kidding me? You can’t call me up with something like this and just expect me to-”
There was a moment of silence, in which Amelia could almost feel him sweating on the other end. She didn’t bring out her loaded voice very often. This was the first time she had used it on him, too. “… okay. Fine. If that’s what you want. But promise me something. If this guy shows up at your door again, I am the FIRST person you call. You got that?”
The thought was an automatic one, but it was enough to trigger an immediate ache somewhere in the gray area between her chest and stomach. It had been a long time since her dad had come to her thoughts, even in passing.
Before the pause went on for too long, Amelia answered, “Yeah. Got it.” She had a feeling that Jeff wanted to ask more questions, so she lowered the phone and ended the call with the click of a button. There. Those were all the answers she was willing to give this morning. If he wanted to give her grief about the lack of a dream manuscript from last night, he could at least wait until after breakfast.
Amelia knocked back a mouthful of coffee like it was hard liquor. Something bumped into her shin, and she looked down to see Schmutz rubbing his way back and forth against her leg. There was a touch of morning light in the room, filtering in through the windows and lighting up his back in a faint golden sheen. Smiling despite herself, Amelia reached down and scratched at his ears.
A plan for the day began to come together in her head: she’d collapse on the couch, plant Schmutz in her lap, and cuddle him while watching whatever movies were available on her living room TV. Cuddling on the couch was his favorite thing, and he deserved a reward for helping to fight off her monster last night.
And Hell, she needed a reward, too.
By Benjamin Sonnek
Yesterday: July the 10th, 2025. The first recorded fatality was tagged in a suburb outside of Kiev. The victim was a technician at a research facility soon to be disavowed by every proximate authority. In the months to follow, no cases of survival were ever reported.
Today: July 9th, 2301. She rose every morning at 7:10 a.m., grudgingly allowing her snooze button some purpose and herself a little more rest.
Yesterday: according to data model estimates, the disease thoroughly permeated the entire Asian and European landmass in twenty-eight days, a domain that included Africa, Oceana, and Australia only four days later due to the movements of refugees.
Today: the approximate measurements of the trousers were 32 long with a 28 waist, solid black slim fit to accentuate her unbreakable stature. They were fairly standard trousers, the versatile type promoted throughout the community after the prohibition of skirts.
Yesterday: despite all travel sanctions, it did not take long for the illness to stretch its poisoned progeny into the Western Hemisphere. By then, though, the swiftest had already begun a quarantine of their own—that is, a quarantine of themselves. The westward-running population encountered whole buildings sealed up and armored, connected by passages and ducts that kept the filtered air flowing and pure.
Today: both her feet and her upper body were more or less dressed the same way—a layer of yielding recycled cotton under a stiffer, more protective layer of synthetics. The shirt was much different from the socks, of course, and the shoes were pointier and of a more solid build than the jacket. The latter item fit her well enough to neither sag nor wrinkle when she pinned on her hierarchical ID badge—the only Level Three in the community. It never got tangled in her hair, which only came down to her jawline anyway.
Yesterday: confinement did not stop innovation; even after the last airlock closed, the cities kept building on, discovering and implementing ways to construct chambers and pods free of the contagion. Town structures became taller and more complex, interconnecting multi-level conglomerates of chambers connected by tube-like passages. Some towns could self-rearrange, shifting the chambers and passages into different configurations. Internal greenhouses thrived on excess carbon dioxide. Ministerial governing bodies were established. Personal devices moved from people’s hands into implants directly in the arms. Sub-cranial tags could ensure the health and safety of each individual citizen. Trade was made possible by specialized vehicles. And, through purifying procedures, water could be taken in and minerals mined from the earth. Only living things could not be permitted, especially humans. Every human outside was infected. But soon after that, the outside humans ceased to be a problem. The towns were all that remained—base camps for the arrivals on a new, hostile world.
Today: breakfast comes first, but business can happen at the same time. Activating the tabletop, she opened a window next to her plate of cereal, checking on the town’s minor events that warranted her attention. Everything in San Maria was privy to her inspection: trade manifests, scout reports, court rulings—if a corridor could take her there, it was her business. And it looked like the usual business today.
San Maria: approximately 5000 citizens by the cranial-tag count. One of the most advanced cities on the western coast. A veritable jungle gym of hundreds of units connected by the web-strands of modular passages, stacking upon each other into a squat tangle, a human tube farm. Every piece could move, rearranging at but the command, and all of it was under her control.
Five minutes until eight. Plenty of time to reach the head offices. The town relied on efficiency and punctuality, and she was the town.
There were always a few minutes that could be spared for the view, not that there was much of a view to be spared. Morning; the sky was an old yellowy eye with a sharp iris of blue. San Maria wasn’t tall enough to peek over the valley walls—except for its communications tower placed up on the ridge, of course—so the view was limited to rusty rocks carved up by a trickling river, an ancient dam nervously hiding behind a faraway bend. Over there on the ground, that was probably a fat rodent scuttling from the bush to the burnt grove. Not much had changed, especially not—
Her wrist lit up and tickled with a buzzy voice. “Chairman Quall! I’m on my way, ma’am!”
—especially not the timing of her secretary.
Donald Venici, a Level One citizen with a much loftier level of height, fell through the door in a whirl of skinny clothes. Nothing new with the view; Wanda turned away from the window’s panorama and descended into her desk chair. Time for the morning ritual of reassuring this fellow that he wasn’t fired yet.
Jerking himself up into a fuzzy-topped rod, Donald dusted off his jacket. “Good morning, Chairman—ready for this morning’s council, I pray—is there anything you need, coffee, a snack, a few minutes, an amusing recording from the Youtube archive?”
Wanda bobbed her head with a light smile. Years ago she’d decided the title “chairman” was less patriarchal institutionalism and more delectable irony. “I had my breakfast before coming to work, Mr. Venici, thank you,” she replied with the normal ominous softness. “And I see you’re still in the middle of yours.”
The secretary flicked an errant strand of shredded wheat from his jacket to the floor. “Uh—yes. Sorry, ma’am, busy night and all, I—”
“Don’t worry, I do not require the details. But I do need to know my schedule for today, Mr. Venici; when is the council supposed to arrive?”
With a mouth-twitch that threatened a smile, Donald gestured towards the double doors to his right. “But Chairman Quall, they’re already here.”
Wanda opened her eyes again—without their careless glow.
“Apparently there’s some pretty urgent goings-on, ma’am. Some of those bosses look pretty peaked. So…do you need a few minutes?”
She rose, wafting around the desk. “No,” she said, half to the secretary. “Of course not. If it’s that urgent, I can deal with it all the sooner. Make sure the rest of my morning stays open, Mr. Venici—just in case some work comes up that the council can’t do themselves.”
“You’ve got it, Miss Chairman!” Still not fired, Donald spun about-face and swept out towards his desk. Wanda, instead, pushed the council chamber’s double doors open with both hands.
Like any typical council, it was mostly made up of white guys in black suits. Not much to show here in San Maria for earth’s once terrifying ethnical diversity. A bunch of well-to-do Level Two citizens. All of them had some rather oblong feature about them, be it a paunch or a nose or drooping eye-bags, as though something in their bodies just had to mimic the shape of the meeting room’s table. Every eye looked like it had just been woken from a pleasant nap, blinking from the light filtering in from the lengthwise window. The only standing gentleman, Mr. Wharton, hovered over them all as he pointedly looked up from the time on his wrist. Wanda didn’t have to look; five minutes past eight. Former Chairman Quall, her father, had never really liked Wharton.
“Miss Quall. Good morning; glad you could make it.” No Chairman or ma’am.
“And I’m glad you could all make it earlier for a change,” she replied while seating herself at the head of the table. “Start of a new trend, I hope.”
The councilmen rumbled a little as Wharton’s face twisted. “Perhaps,” he politely conceded, “but today we something a little more urgent on our hands. There’s been a su—”
Wanda waved her hand, slicing his words off in midair. “No no, sir. Reports first. If we got caught up in every town emergency, when would we ever get around to actually running this place?”
What? They’d obviously waited until the morning to get the news up here, and then done some more waiting in this room to try to pressure her. If they wanted to wait that much, they could wait some more.
“Mr. Wharton.” Wanda gestured to his vacant seat. “Please. First, our population reports.”
Wharton finally reclined on his cushion as willingly as he would have upon a barbeque grill. The Minister of the People, after making sure that everyone in the room was still alive, checked his arm’s panel and transferred its data to the tabletop display. He was an average man, reporting the average of the population.
“Erm, Miss Chairman…as we can all see here, San Maria’s numbers are holding more-or-less steady. Three new citizens were born, one on Level Two layer and two on Level One. According to their cranial implants, they’re all healthy and in good condition.”
Wanda folded her hands. “Any births in Level Zero?”
“The Basement, ma’am? No, no births down there.”
“I don’t recall there being any new citizens being recorded down there for some time.”
The Minister checked his arm data. “No, it’s…actually been a rather long time. Months.”
“Interesting. Right, I say we give it a week before sending detachments from the Ministries of Law and Future down there to check. Anything else?”
“Hm. One new citizen came of age for his forearm display implant,” the Minister of the People recited from the report, “name of Gideon. And…two Level One citizens have expired. Their implants were salvaged, and the usual ten percent of the organic remains were sent off for cremation while the rest proceeded to fuel rod processing. That is all.” He sat back while the rest of the council nodded in respect for the deceased.
“Next?” Wanda looked towards the Minister of the Law.
The councilman shrugged, flicking an empty report to the table. “Nothing new to report, Miss Chairman. No lawbreakers captured on any levels, and no prisoners condemned to terrestrial exile or otherwise.”
“Maybe it’s ‘cause the Basement-dwellers aren’t making any more lawbreakers to send off.”
Nobody owned up to that comment, and Wanda chose to ignore it. “Thank you, Minister,” she nodded. “And next?”
The Minister of Engineering’s file was much more convoluted—it was, after all, the structure of the town. “No hull breaches, power and utilities all flowing stable, no interior contamination detected,” he droned. “We did recently recycle a redundant Level Two corridor that was falling out of use—all components were purified and stored. The expansion to our greenhouse pods has gone without complication, and the new vegetation is coming in nicely. And in regards to the city’s reinforcement project; Miss Chairman, if I may…”
That sentence was waxing interrogative. “Yes?” Wanda asked.
“Why shore up the unit connections in Level Zero and its passages to Level One? Yes, they’re getting corroded and the servos can’t effectively slide the halls around anymore, but they’re sturdy enough and we haven’t needed to restructure the Basement in ages. It will be fine if we don’t rearrange it, and the man-hours would be better spent working on an inspection of San Maria’s foundations.”
The woman Chairman straightened in her seat. “Call it a difference in priorities, Minister; I don’t want the upper levels to crush the Basement, and corroded corridors won’t hold us up here for long. Double the speed of your repairs if you must, then we can attend to the foundations. How long until you estimate that will happen?”
“About…one month.” The Minister slumped back.
“Thank you.” With that little burst of excitement over, Wanda retrieved a pen from her jacket and twiddled it with her fingers. “Next?”
It was the Minister of the Exterior, whose business lay outside the city. “Nothing new to report in the valley ma’am,” he commented, “no new plants or migratory paths or anything.”
“And how about our inter-city relations?” Wanda placed the pen on the table and kept spinning it there.
“The situation with Batterhahn just got a little more intense, ma’am. We might’ve pushed them over the edge this time, expanding our greenhouses and animal breeding pods, cutting down our trade reliance. They’ve let us know—multiple times—that this violates our commercial agreement, and they might make good on their threats of violence this time. Now they’ve cut off communications.”
“No contact. Preparing for attack, no doubt,” the Minister of the Law grumbled. The pen kept spinning.
“That’s what I believe,” the Minister of the Exterior agreed, “but this time it’s a little…stranger. None of our messages seem to be getting received, either.”
Wanda gripped her pen with her thumb, quickly making eye contact with the Minister. “No reception?”
“Nothing, ma’am. Not even a bounce-back. It’s as though their communications tower was destroyed or…moved a couple hundred miles or something. It’s not just Batterhahn, either. Haverty, Vathrornstoe—there’s less and less contact down towards the southeast. Batterhahn is the most recent; if something is taking the towns, it’s moving towards us. We’re next.”
The sounds of breathing got shakier; each unspoken theory was filling minds with darkness. Both the Ministers of Engineering and Law shared a glance; even in an ordinary inter-town coup, they’d leave the signal array standing. Those were expensive and nigh-vital to life itself. Whatever this could be, it wasn’t…reasonable.
Carefully laying down the pen again, Wanda began a slower, deliberate spin. Not only Batterhahn…“That is ominous. Could be careless attacks, or perhaps natural causes and malfunctions; Earth has always had her surprising moments. Send a message through the relay outposts, double-check and see if we can’t establish contact with town further south and east than Batterhahn is—or was. Also send another burst to the town’s location, and see if that doesn’t pick up anything, like a military transmitter.” She slowly exhaled. There was no more news—she knew there was no more news. But one more report just had to be made; another pointless ceremony. “Minister of the Future,” she mechanically acknowledged.
The height of the man in question barely changed as he stood. “Still no cure for the virus, ma’am,” he flatly delivered. “And, as the Minister of the Law said, no criminals. So no new test subjects, either.” Of course.
Another expected disappointment; Wanda’s breathing was slow. “I think…we’re finished with business. Mr. Wharton; what did you wish to bring before the council?”
The skipped Minister of Entertainment looked offended for a moment, but remembering he had no news of his own, he subsided his glare; Wharton had stood up again.
“It’s not exactly for the council, Miss Quall.” Instead of activating his wrist panel, he tossed a dirty envelope across the table. It slid to a stop right before it could fall into Wanda’s lap.
“It’s for you.”
Wanda flipped it over. Yes, it was the pair of hands, one open and one curled into a fist, both framed by two nesting rectangles. The Undercouncil’s request; Hades calling on Olympus. Sur Dromman had a business report of his own to make.
Sliding the envelope flap open, she removed a crinkly wad of dusty paper. “It was passed through the vent into Level One,” Wharton explained as he prowled around the room’s perimeter. “Took the liberty of reading it, just to be sure—”
“Naturally you had to,” Wanda muttered dismissively, flattening out the paper to read.
Wharton saw her eyebrow arch. “And that’s why this meeting is so urgent, Miss Quall,” he said more for the council’s benefit. “Sur Dromman isn’t coming up here. He wants you to come to him. He says he knows why the towns are silent.”
Everybody in the room shifted. Except Wanda.
Studying the note for a few moments, she re-folded it in roughly the same shape. She put it away again, got up from her chair, and opened her wrist panel’s intercom. “Mr. Venici.”
“Get my coat—the long grey one with the sun-hood. Bring it to my office immediately; I’ve got something to attend to in town today.”
“Right away, ma’am!”
Wanda lowered her arm, and the whole council began twittering in concern. Wharton spoke the loudest; “You’re leaving right now?”
Wanda shrugged sideways. “You were right, sir, about that item being urgent. We’ve spent enough time on business, so I think this needs to be handled at once, don’t you?”
“Well…perhaps a small guard detachment is in order, then.”
“The envelope has always been protection enough, both for Dromman and Chairman. This may be a rather sensitive issue if he wishes to meet in his domain, in private.” Without looking, she snagged her coat from Venici’s hand. “I’m going to rearrange some of the level passages so it’s a straight path down there, that should cut out some distance. Don’t look so upset, now; if I’m not back by three pm, you have my personal permission to storm the Basement until you find me or my remains. There, see? I believe you’ve cheered up already.”
San Maria stirs—heh, ready the way of her master. Make straight her paths. Go kick some arses out of bed, the message has already arrived…get them to their stations, quietly as you can now. You know the signal, now move.
From above the darkened ceilings, a thunderstorm of groaning creaks reverberated in the gloom. Two heads leaned back into the canyon of stacked storage crates as disturbed dust motes came raining down.
With a final crunch, the passages completed the re-orienting process; the town had locked into its new configuration. Wanda deactivated the holographic display of San Maria, shrouded herself in the grey coat, and left the office. She didn’t even nod at Venici as she passed his desk and went down the first flight of stairs.
There wasn’t much difference between Levels Two and Three, considering Level Three was but a small annex for the incumbent Chairman. Both levels were smooth and white, but a white of such polish and sheen that passing colors melted into the curved panels, glowing with the light strips’ reflected radiance; a faint glassy aura seemed to float off every surface. Doors, curved to fit the walls, were only discernable by their access panels and carved seams. The transitions between hall passages and main chamber hubs were smooth, tight, and solid. The major difference between Levels Two and Three, then, was a difference in size, a distinction made more obvious when one entered the Central Park Annex.
Wanda walked quickly through the garden’s path, arcing her path only to go around the statue of her father, the previous Chairman. Someday it would have to be melted down so that her successor could look upon Wanda’s image when he made his rounds. Hopefully that melting process would not have to happen, say, tomorrow…
Mental images of the white dome splitting and cracking, joining Batterhahn’s debris spread across the land…
The still living Chairman checked her ID with the guard, who opened the hatch leading to a downward staircase.
Level One reminded Wanda of archival images showing the interiors of former townhouses—basic paint with a trim of some kind. The wooden doors were far more obvious; at times you could see the locking bolts between the door and the frame. She had to swerve quietly, unnoticed, around some of the people going about their Level One business, mostly moving towards the market in the Core Tower. The place had a well-earned name, for one could see that Level One was actually composed of three levels. Stacked on top of each other, merchants sold their crafted wares, repair services, and foodstuffs; the latter business was booming since the new greenhouses and animal breed-pods had been established. Food and steam and imperfectly washed people. The Chairman breathed it in deep—Level One was the place where all the smells began, and that wasn’t such a bad thing. Taking the spiral stairs gave a descending, 360-degree view of the lived on this level. So many people trading and bargaining. Worn but colorful—these people matched their clothes.
South-eastern villages vanishing, silent forever…Wanda shook her head, avoiding looking at the milling citizens. She couldn’t afford to meet their eyes. At the bottom layer, down another passage, she reached the next guard. He rolled up a metal shutter and ushered his superior onto a skeletal lift.
Descending into Level Zero, the contrast became incalculable. There was a smell, but it was the dingy old-metal scent that shrank the nostrils. In the shadows, the mind could not estimate the size of the chambers, so it involuntarily settled on a mythical proportion. The colors revealed by working lightbulbs were dull and earthy. The lift settled down with a clatter; Wanda gingerly took one step, and then another. Lightly scuffing her shoe on the floor, she caught a glimpse of the old whiteness, but its harshness was that of an old reawakened spirit—she looked up and moved along. The Central Annex down here was a labyrinth of stacked storage crates, storing things that needed forgetting. In the middle, isolated by a beam of light, was etched the double hands inside double rectangles. The meeting point. Wanda slowly wandered onto the symbol, taking a deep breath to call out for—
At the whistle, a thousand cries rang out at once—hundreds of bodies came spilling out of the shady cracks, somersaulting onto the floor and running, flailing around the oasis of light. Sharp-edged objects waved over the chaos of dirty, ragged cloth; Wanda flipped a pistol out of her sleeve, pointing it randomly towards whichever shriek was loudest.
“Kee-yaa!” “Aaaiooooo!” “Wheehee!” “Whosay ‘whee’? Harr, Aaiiyaaaa!” “Haa ha haaaii!” “Gotcha, gotcha!”
The command boomed out from above; automatically the frenzy shuddered to a stop. Waving makeshift weapons lowered and pointed towards the middle of the ring. Aside from a few shifting legs under waist-cloths, the Chairman was hemmed in by a solid wall. Then the strangely articulate voice spoke again.
“Miss Quall. How prompt.”
A section of the ring folded away, allowing a taller figure to step into the glow. He could have been carrying weapons under his long robe. Long bangs cast a shadow over his face. His tunic was fresh and he had no beard. Wanda didn’t lower the pistol; this wasn’t the man she was here to see.
“I’m here to see Sur Dromman.”
The stacks of containers hollowly repeated her request.
Putting his hands together, the robed figure spoke again. “Maybe you should listen to your population reports more carefully, Miss Chairman. My father has passed. I oversee the Basement now. I—”
“Maxo Dromman!” the mob chanted in unison.
The figure blew a sigh out his nose. “Yes. Like I was about to say, I am Maxo Dromman—”
Maxo glared into the ring, directly at his Aide Bitty, who bit his lip and sank behind the wall of straggly people. Wanda raised an eyebrow and lowered the gun.
“My condolences. So…what is the meaning of this display?” she inquired, indicating the ring around them. “Your father only ever called me down here once, and even then he maintained some…decorum in the meeting.”
“That’s exactly why you’re here, Miss Chairman,” Maxo Dromman beckoned her to follow. “I want you to know that my father is no longer in command. You are here to find out what that means.”
Tittering and whooping, the surrounding Basement-dwellers filtered away between the stacks of containers, dismissed by the nod of their leader. With Bitty the aide following her close behind—with her confiscated pistol, naturally—Wanda was forced to keep up with Maxo’s rapid pace through the Stygian maze. Apart from the starved amount of elbow-room, not much of sight or scent changed during the trip away from the Central Annex.
But after a double-duck through a narrow hatchway (Bitty was short—no ducking for him), Wanda had to blink from the light. It wasn’t that bright a light, mind; just a pasty glow flowing in through films of dirty plastic. But, after the aisles of shadows and metallic smells, she was punched back a pace by the glow and the vegetable aroma, plants both living and feeding the living. A greenhouse. The Basement-Level greenhouses were the primary sources of green food not too long ago. Gave the people down here a job. Now there were more of these facilities up around Level One.
A jab in the back—either Bitty or his new toy. Wanda could sense some frustration in the atmosphere alongside the stench of decomposing matter.
It would probably take Wharton’s men about three minutes to get down here.
Ignoring the urge to access her wrist panel, Wanda kept right behind Maxo as they trekked deeper into the tangle of older and older vegetation. Branches got intrusive and hostile, poking and scraping the processional trio. Maxo was aiming for the densest knot of trees…and the leaves suddenly receded into a clearing. An entire room had been woven out of live branches, nooks and crannies holding up papers, pictures, many books, and old-generation screens and devices. The little blinks of blue reminded Wanda that she hadn’t seen these kinds of lights since this morning; for expense reasons approved by a bygone council (and supported by current membership), there wasn’t a single panel implanted into any of the Basement-dwellers. Not even into their bosses, including the one who’d just settled into a woven seat and was gesturing for his guest to find one of her own. She did so, keeping at an angle from the host. Bitty stayed in the “doorway” and watched.
Wanda took advantage of the brief silence, speaking first. “Sur Dromman never took me to this little dwelling before. A sign of favor?”
Maxo flicked a leaf off his armrest. “A statement of confidence. I do not hide in this forgotten level like my father; that is the first change I bring.”
Something chirruped and rattled in Bitty’s garments—his bony hands swarmed through the pockets until he retrieved the antique walkie-talkie. Holding down its button, the aide talked back to it in a less electric but just as garbled voice.
“Bitty’ere. Ya? Nonononowho? Whospear? Nomakkamarkonnaspear? Iknow, Isee. Holdem!” The radio disappeared as Bitty turned to his master, holding out his new gun apologetically.
Without even blinking, Maxo held out his hand. “Yes, go and take care of it. Gonow. Gimmegun.”
“Rightaway, Maxo!” Slapping the weapon into the open hand and scuttling away. Maxo resumed guard duty over Wanda, who’d chosen to mentally celebrate the lackey’s departure and ignore whatever it was he’d said.
“So…I’ve noticed that there have been no births down here for a while.” She sat straighter, like a schoolteacher. “Deaths, but no births.”
Maxo’s brow got solid. “Glad you noticed. And glad you brought it up. We’ll get to that soon enough, but here is the first thing that you need to see.”
Reaching into a harder-to-spot hollow, he retrieved an old handheld panel-device. A phone or something. But considering the walkie-talkie toting minion, old tech couldn’t have been that big a deal here. Using his free hand, Maxo swiped the phone’s surface until he found what he was looking for.
“One of my men tried to smuggle himself on an All-Terrain Cargo Transport towards Haverty, a settlement east of Batterhahn, one week ago,” he explained darkly. “Two days later, and he came back on a returning ATCT, since on the way to Haverty—he’d glanced out the window.”
He extended the phone beyond the muzzle of the gun. Wanda took it for herself and looked.
Dust flecks inside the vehicle’s starboard windowpane. Miles and miles of barren dirt and rock. And one big smudge, human-shaped, thin, grasping, and bent into a hungry angle.
“And this is?” Wanda replied without emotion. “A ghost?”
“A human,” Maxo replied, “but not a human. My man Jogor swears it was so. He said it looked…harder. Leaner. Had bones or claws extending beyond its fingertips. And it moved with a mind somewhere between a man and an animal. Jogor said it tried to chase down his transport, but the vehicle got to Haverty first. But that wasn’t the last he saw of that thing…swipe over.”
Wanda swiped over. The phone’s other picture looked nearly the same as the last one, except the town of Haverty was partially in the way. Behind it, on the horizon, was a larger, longer, yet more indistinct smudge.
“That’s why Jogor came back,” Maxo declared. “There were more of them. An army. He said they were moving towards the town. Quickly. Easily hundreds of them. Jogor is of a sober mind and disposition; there’s no reason to doubt his evidence or testimony.”
Not much to see from the pictures—Wanda handed back the phone. “And so, after the story of a single excited individual, what’s your conclusion?” she inquired. “A zombie apocalypse?”
Maxo was neither swayed nor amused. “Glad you’re entertained, Miss Chairman. So why don’t we talk about Batterhahn itself? Heard any good jokes from them lately?”
Wanda didn’t say anything.
“Tried talking to any other towns in the area? Can’t wait to see the communications report on your desk when you’re done here, I’ll bet. Got to be sure those towns are still there.”
She started to frown as well. “What are you getting at? You think a bunch of those supposed almost-humans can tear whole towns to shreds? We both know that no human is able to survive out there.”
“I know,” her captor replied. “Not without help, anyway. Which is why I also want to talk about the prisoners that the town releases—that you release.”
He saw her stiffen; that made his mouth ruefully prick up. “You have a Ministry of Law with prisoners, and a Ministry of the Future that needs test subjects. One doesn’t need a calculator to do the math. And don’t even try denying it—my father knew it was happening. Sounds like some test subjects survived, Miss Chairman. Quite a lot of subjects. And in spite of whatever adaptations they may have acquired, they still know enough about being a human, and being rejected by humans, to hate us and every one of our towns. Maybe their mutations allow them to tear down town chambers, rip up foundations…destroy radio towers.”
Not meeting his eyes, Wanda played with her fingers. “Is this meeting a warning, then? A threat?” She glanced at the gun. “Revenge?”
Maxo rose up in front of her. “You and your upper class have had their chance, and all we’ve gotten is failure. Miserable failure. If we just straight-up told the upper levels about those creatures out there, you’d all abandon San Maria like it was a radioactive garbage dump! Down here, in the town’s heart, we have grown strong; you’ve seen what a surprise we can be…” His voice stretched into a strangled scream; “Tomorrow we rise to the top, and we’ll run San Maria. We’ll be the ones to fix up this town for attack!”
“And what will you do?” Wanda leaped to her feet as well. “You think you know the first thing about running a whole town? All its people? You think your half-baked daydreams will stand a chance if—”
Her world stung and spun—Maxo towered over her again, fist clenched, while his screams cracked through her aching head. “YOU TELL ME ABOUT RUNNING A TOWN? We have no future down here with your kind in charge, you’re killing us all! What happens if a newborn has an implant sewn into his head, just to get tossed back into this filth, no aid, no medical assistance? I know! I’ve seen! The suture becomes infected; I’ve watched countless infants melt away, oozing pus and blood into their mothers’ laps! But what if we don’t install cranial implants? The whole family is taken prisoner—to be experimented on, and released out there to become…animals! You accuse me of not being able to run a city, when YOU are slaughtering my people without so much as a glance!”
He stuck the gun in his belt, kneeling to shake Wanda by the shoulders. “Do you know what the mothers do to their babies here? Whether or not we have them implanted at birth, the babies will die, and there’s only one thing they can do to keep them out of your hands. They throw them out of the town themselves, out with the garbage, so that their children, for a few moments, are theirs and not YOURS! YOU! DON’T! TELL! ME! HOW! TO! RUN! A! TOWN!”
Bitty came rushing through the grove, several armed Basement-dwellers right behind him. Maxo released the Chairman and got up; his aide gave him a look of concern. Wanda got herself to her feet as well, her bruised face still…blank.
The master of the Basement drew himself together with a deep breath. “Go. Get back to your level and surrender quietly. Whether you like it or not, I’ll be sitting in your office tomorrow.” He yanked out the gun, smacked out the clip, and handed over the empty weapon. “You might want this back, Miss Chairman. Our next meeting might not be so civil.”
The trip back up to Level Three didn’t really seem to happen; everything just bounced off of the Chairman’s blank, quietly throbbing face. The guards automatically got a glance of her ID, the people barely saw a grey cloak pass through their midst, Venici only had five faraway words directed at him—“Cancel my schedule for today”—before his boss was gone again.
Behind the doors of her office, Wanda’s face remained blank. Blank as she wandered over to sit at her desk. Blank as she checked the report displaying the lack of contact with any of the southeastern towns. Blank as she drifted open a narrow drawer, bringing out an old puzzle toy: a clear plastic box, into which a variety of cubic shapes could only fit if arranged a certain way. Blank as she dumped it out, watched the parts scatter out over the desk like—
A cataclysmic shudder rattled every bone in her frame, squeezing a tear from each eye. The Infants. Of course it was. Impossible, but it had to be.
Pushing the scattered puzzle pieces to the side, she accessed the desk’s interface again. User: Chairman Wanda Valerie Quall. Password: t1Y@LbRnh. The office doors locked, the lights dimmed, and shutters ratcheted shut outside the window. That alone wrapped Wanda back into herself somewhat; nothing feels strong when it’s completely transparent.
The view changed. Instead of the glowing midafternoon landscape, the window lit up with a projection of a topographic map. Icons of the surrounding towns blinked into their places; activating her wrist panel, Wanda made a few adjustments to the display’s parameters.
San Maria lit up in green. To the southeast, a crowd of little green dots. A little over a hundred dots—her dots; not enough to be an army, but enough to be in an army. The map refreshed—the dots all moved a pixel closer to the town. The subjects…they hadn’t stopped at Batterhahn. The dots were obeying their own mass directive, not hers, following the transport paths and destroying the radio towers on the way. It was only supposed to be Batterhahn…
Leaving the display online, Wanda swept up the pieces of the cube-puzzle. The pieces were stiff, solid while she turned them over with her fingers, fitting with measured precision as they were stacked and rearranged in an attempt to form a perfect shape. The control over the pieces was reassuring; Wanda basked in the plastic clicks as she tried to reassemble her own mind.
If you can’t think straight, the city is lost, grumbled the memory of her father.
The puzzle always helped her think, and she needed the help—the puzzle outside was falling apart. The army was coming. The reinforcements for the Basement weren’t ready. There wasn’t any more time.
The iris of the sky dimmed; hours later, and the outside world was as dark as the inside.
Up until this point, it had always seemed like the levels of this town directly corresponded to how much their respective citizens truly knew. Wanda closed her eyes, trying to breathe; today, it was not the case. Level Zero did know more than Levels One or Two. But still not enough.
July 10th, 2301.
ATTENTION, ALL CITIZENS OF SAN MARIA.
THE TOWN IS BEING RECONFIGURED IN RESPONSE TO AN UNANTICIPATED NATURAL EVENT.
PLEASE IMMEDIATELY RETURN TO YOUR LIVING CHAMBERS; THE HATCHES AND WINDOWS ARE SOON TO BE SEALED.
ASSUME YOUR NATURAL DISASTER SAFETY POSITIONS, AND REMAIN CALM; THE SITUATION IS UNDER CONTROL.
ATTENTION, ALL CITIZENS OF SAN MARIA…
Heavy forms smashed the tangled brush—Maxo’s dream flushed away to a whirlpool of blurry reality. He couldn’t bring his hands to wipe the sleep from his eyes…his shoulders ached where the heavy gloves gripped. Pulling. They ripped him out through a fresh hole in the clearing, not bothering to let him get his feet under him.
Maxo tried to find leverage to struggle, but had no time. The soldiers’ powerful headlamps lit up a rapidly moving, rusty, unfamiliar world—his world, thought Maxo—it was only temporarily illuminated before the kidnapping passed by. His head cleared some more, becoming cognizant of the noise. Creaks, groans, resonating rumbles, but a thousand more than he’d ever heard before, as though San Maria was revealing its true nature as an ancient Talos—about to stand up. And a voice, repeating a message over and over. Attention. Reconfigured. Immediately. Disaster. Attention.
He was shoved into an elevator; Maxo lunged to get back out, back into his Basement, but he bounced off the soldiers as the platform shot upwards. The announcement and the noises were more distinct now—it was definitely a town restructuring on an unprecedented scale. The elevator clattered to a stop; Maxo and the soldiers stumbled into a small crowd, led by a frizzed skinny fellow who was waving his arms.
“Get moving! Five minutes until the bulkheads seal—need more Basement-ers up, quick!”
“Mr. Venici, sir!”
Acknowledging the man, the abduction squad rushed onward. The stairs didn’t stop as they rose through the Level One tiers—and still onward, into the glowing whiteness of Level Two. Managing to at least stumble along with his guards, Maxo wasn’t sure if the shuddering was him or the town; they were moving towards a set of doors.
“Level Three” embossed across them. Only his father had ever—
The support stopped—the Leader of the Basement collapsed onto his hands and knees, slipping on the brushed steel floor. Voices rang out over his head…
“Extraction complete, Miss Chairman!”
“As you ordered, Miss Chairman, no complications!”
“Well done. As you were—contact Mr. Venici, let him know he’s got two minutes before we seal.” Something clanged on the floor, making a crabby hiss as it slid right under Maxo’s nose. An empty gun.
That voice. He looked up.
Besides the guards that he knew were still behind him, only two other people stood in the office chamber. One was a short yet oblong man in suit pants and shirtsleeves, clearly neither ready nor willing to be there. The other person was behind a desk that definitely belonged to her. Her attention was divided at the moment; half manipulating a holographic pattern floating over the desk’s projectors—the town’s structure, Maxo realized—and half attending a large datapad while glancing sharply out of the giant window. Short of the gun that just she’d tossed, Wanda no longer seemed to be paying Maxo any attention. He picked up the weapon shell.
Something was scattered on one edge of the desk.
“Maxo Dromman. Glad you could make it.” She still wasn’t looking at him. “You brought the bullets for that gun?”
Rising, Maxo stowed the weapon in his belt. “What if I had?” he counter-questioned. “You broke into my home, and heaven knows what you’re doing to the town now. You want me to shoot you?”
Turning to the window, the Chairman spoke over her shoulder. “You’re here for the view, Maxo. I’m here to tell you why I’m saving the town.” She beckoned him over with a wave.
He didn’t move—until a guard knocked him between the shoulderblades. That propelled him across the room; he regretted hiding the gun’s clip in his home’s foliage last night. At any rate, in a few strides Maxo found himself next to the Chairman.
“Look!” she gripped his bruising shoulder, directing his eyes.
Maxo saw…the ridge. Moving. The ridge was boiling. No…something was coming down. Many things. An army of sand-colored beings were spilling over the edge of the valley, rolling and tumbling down towards the level ground. A scrambled mess of steel was already lying broken at the bottom.
“Take a look at your rejected children, Maxo Dromman,” Wanda spoke close to his ear. “Your man wasn’t dreaming. They took Haverty, Batterhahn, and now our own radio tower has fallen; Look at the race of monsters coming back to destroy us!”
Pressing closer to the window, Maxo shook his head. “No, no…it’s not them, the virus—”
“—has moved on!” Wanda released his shoulder with a firm push—it turned him towards her. “It has evolved. Instead of gutting and killing its hosts, the virus is strengthening it. You’ve been feeding the virus with infants, the most moldable humans possible, and look what it has done to them. Look!”
“Have you gone mad?” he took a step away from the raving woman. “This, is, not, possible! The virus kills, it always has!”
The datapad beeped—Wanda attended it with a staccato of taps. “Minister of the Future!” she commanded the man in shirtsleeves. “Go on. Tell him what you know.”
The Minister could not take two bosses staring him down, no matter if they were confused or angry. He cleared his throat. “Well…ah…Mister Dromman, sir…what our Chairman suggests is actually…most likely.”
He carried on, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “It’s not much of a secret, our experiments on the prisoners we release. It was started about the same time as the punishment, about the last seventy years, and we used a process…” Wanda shot him an impatient glance. “Right. We planned to test out potential anti-viral formulae to see if we could develop a serum. Um, the first prisoner released was the control—no serum, only a radio and an advanced state-of-the-art receptor plate attached to his cranial implant to more accurately monitor his condition.”
The Minister’s feet started faintly shuffling. “That subject…didn’t die. According to his implant, his vitals were operational—but morphing. He was suffering trauma, but becoming stronger from it. His communications got less understandable. Before a week had passed, he’d, well…eaten his radio.”
Outside, the forms had reached the ground—those not interested in the smashed radio tower began a charge. They were definitely something humanoid…
“He was still being monitored; his higher functions had…critically deteriorated. That was when we found out we could use signals directed to his implant to steer the subject. We could influence his path, control his movements. So we—the Chairman, I mean—not Miss Quall—oh, I mean—”
There was no need for him to finish the thought. “You found out you could control them,” Maxo growled. “And with their advanced implants, you made them into an army.”
The Chairman swiped something on the pad. “I do not condone my predecessor’s actions, but I understand them, and I do not reject their results.”
“Your predecessor? Your father! You! The virus was twisting people, and you never told us?”
The Minister of the Future took the opportunity to slink back into his corner.
“And what would you have done?” Wanda barked back at him. “You think your people wouldn’t have leapt to take even the slightest chance at survival out there, no matter what the cost?”
But something else had struck Maxo—“You attacked Batterhahn! And Haverty! Those were both your doing!”
“No!” she yelled louder. “Batterhahn threatened us first. It wasn’t supposed to be that way!”
“And now,” Maxo was livid, “you’ve lost control; they’re attacking us!” The most strident cries of the oncoming mob were audible. The town’s shifting structure locked into place, the tightest cube possible.
“I never lost control, Dromman. Those are your people coming for San Maria—no advanced implants, no control! Your infanticide is becoming genocide. My army, my test subjects—” Wanda pointed out the window, farther up the valley—“are doing their work up there.”
Up the river. The dam. A gentle roll of faded blue was starting to come through the cracking stone wall already…
Swiveling over to her desk, Wanda definitively flicked some controls; lights went from green to red. Then she pressed an intercom. “All citizens of San Maria—the bulkheads are closing. Assume your—”
Maxo tackled her from the side, pummeling her on the ground. “You demon!” he screamed. “You soulless, gutless, stinking bitch! My people, my home! It’ll crumble when the wave hits! The connections between the levels are weak and failing—the Basement will be torn away! All my people will die! You’ve killed us all you damned, conniving, worthless sack of—”
The soldiers tried to pull him off, but his grip was too hard; Wanda took the breathing space to scream at her attacker—her eyes streaming.
“I ran out of time, can’t you see?” she wailed. “There’s nothing I can do! I RAN OUT OF TIME!”
On the desk, the puzzle was scattered. Unfinished.
The monsters, baying, sprinting, flexing their claws, were within fifty yards of San Maria’s foundations—and the deluge slammed everything aside. The roaring floodtide crushed the horde and threw its embrace at the town, claiming it and tearing it apart in a thousand groans. Some of the lowest-level reinforcements held, but much of the Basement was pulled asunder like a sick, gutted carcass. The shrieks of metal, people, and attacking mutants drowned in a blur of rumbling bubbles; a churning avalanche ripped the seam of the land. The entire valley filled with water, mud, silt, and debris, a violent wind to sweep away everything that was.
Chairman Wharton sat uneasily. All the remaining council members sat uneasily nowadays; after these harsh few months, the rounded edges had been filed off the members’ bodies, and the eyes had gotten sharpened as well. Also, the council chamber’s former window now served as their floor—the scenery had changed to a view of San Maria’s shadow as it fell down, down through miles of water and shifting, swimming shapes. Nothing feels strong when it’s completely transparent.
“Minister of the People,” Wharton ordered solemnly.
The Minister stood. “Population levels rising again, sir,” he reported. “Five new births within the past twenty-four hours, and one death. The intermixing of the former level classes has reached full saturation; it shouldn’t be long before we re-attain the town’s full population.”
Wharton dismissed him with a wave. “Good to hear. Minister of the Law?”
“Like the Minister of the People said, sir, full saturation of the classes. The decline in status-related violence has been steady. Heh, it’s getting difficult even for me to tell which ones were upper crust and which were recovered Basement-dwellers.” He shrugged—at least he found that amusing.
The Chairman rubbed his eyes. “Also good. Minister of Engineering?”
Rubbing his hands together, the called man took his turn. “We righted a few more organic units in Greenhouse Seven this morning,” he announced, “So at least the plants will be growing the right way up again. The animal pods are experiencing a rise in population too; just in time for our growing numbers.”
“How are the Chunks holding up?”
The Minister glanced at the wall that used to be the floor. “We had to detach one of them today—the seawater was making its damages too much to maintain, so we got everyone out and let it go. Only used to be a Basement storage wing, so not much of a loss, thank goodness. That’s all I’ve got.” He sat down again.
“Right. Minister of the Exterior.”
This councilman had waited too long for his report; with a faint flutter in his voice, he announced, “There’s an island. Good size, well vegetated, appears uninhabited. The current is taking us up right towards it. My crew and I estimate that we should run aground about twenty-one hundred hours tonight!”
A ripple of energy flowed through the room, a few people glancing down as though the floor-window as though a beach were already visible. Mr. Wharton leaned forward. “And is our test subject ready to go?”
“Yes she is, sir. She hasn’t changed her mind.”
The excitement turned to nods of approval. At his end of the table, Mr. Venici sighed.
“Good to hear. But…Minister of the Future?”
“Time and saltwater have done their job, sir—exterior contaminant levels are practically nonexistent. It looks like we might have a very strong chance out there.” He inhaled deeply, as though he could burst the chamber open with his little chest.
“Excellent, thank you,” Wharton nodded his way. “And finally, Minister of Entertainment?”
“After centuries in a desert, sir, we’re surrounded by fish. I haven’t done a thing in months.”
Maxo found Wanda Quall crouched by the ventilator shaft in the Central Annex Chunk. She barely turned to acknowledge his presence.
“So this was how you and your father listened in on all the council meetings.”
“Not here.” Maxo crouched on a disused crate. “The VIP section was nearer to the greenhouse—handier location and better acoustics. The water does muffle things a little, though.”
They rested in the silence for a while. A passageway warped and chirred under the water pressure.
“An island,” Wanda murmured.
“Twenty-one hundred. I figure they’ll send me out in the morning with a radio.”
“You’ll have to swim for it. This tangle won’t get close to shore before hitting the slope.”
“I think they’ll provide me with some kind of makeshift boat and oars. Hopefully.”
Quiet again for a minute.
“The monsters, Batterhahn, the dam, the saltwater bath…did you plan it all like this?” Maxo finally looked directly at her.
Wanda shrugged a little. “Almost. The monsters were a tool. Batterhahn was a threat. The whole town was to be strengthened before the dam’s destruction. So yes. But not like this. Wasn’t supposed to be…quite this way.”
“Who else knew?”
“My father. The Minister of the Future, to some extent. But the rest of the council was comfortable in the desert. Would you have told them a plan like mine, before it looked possible?”
“You may have saved this town and some of my people, Wanda. But many I knew died. You have neither my hatred nor my respect. Whether you live or die out there doesn’t bother me.”
Maxo straightened up and walked away—Bitty detached himself from a nearby crate’s shadow to fall in behind. Wanda remained at the ventilation shaft, staring at the gate that led to nearly every chamber of San Maria. A loud shout would definitely carry up to the council chamber, maybe everywhere in the town. Would they hear an explanation, an excuse? Would they shout back, and if so, what? Who would understand?
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. But it is.
Inside one of the few remaining fragments of the former Basement, far away from her former station, Wanda breathed in the air and accepted its dust in her lungs. Weights hung upon her shoulders as they always had: the responsibility for her miscalculated plan, the expectations for her exile onto the island. But the one weight she’d shed on July 10th outweighed them all; she was no longer the town. No longer bound in silence. Most of San Maria would probably be glad to kill her on sight—but then again, she’d always been cloaked in their midst. Maybe she could drop the rest of her weights on the shore of the island. A new, uncontaminated, limitless world.
October 26th, 2301. The first human foot stepped onto the Island of San Maria.