The Bones of Tomorrow – by Michael Prihoda

The desert wind made katana slashes against the sides of the bus. The bus looked dead, or dying. Mechanical juices, long ago flowed from cracks in the metal, had coagulated into tough nubbins in the soil. The underside was a dark, twisted warzone, a battlefield riddled with trenches made of metal piping and sandbags represented in the rust peeling off.

The red ground sparkled bloody in the sun and the windows were coated thickly with dust. A skeleton sat crumpled in the driver’s seat, clothes deteriorated to tatters hung from the bone structure that once supported organs and veins and a brain that thought and reasoned.

Somehow the structure hung together, immobile, the sockets staring across a deteriorating desolation. Of leaning buildings, their interiors poking through shreds of wall, jagged windows, the same sightlessness staring in both directions, devoid of healing.

A vulture swooped from the sky and flapped to rest on the hood of the bus. The stench of diesel gasoline exploded like a fragmentary grenade in his nostrils.

“How do you stand it?” the vulture squawked.

“I don’t have a nose,” the skeleton said.

The vulture popped into the air like a smoothie shooting from an uncovered blender before settling back on the hood and eyeing the skeleton through the broken windshield.

“Come again?” the vulture said.

“Please.”

“Please what?” asked the vulture.

“Please stay with me. My friends left me behind.”

The skeleton stretched a creaky arm backward, inviting the vulture to scan the barren seats, torn from the crash, tumbling over each other like panda bears trying to use the same bamboo tree for lunch. No other skeletons occupied the seats behind him. His passengers deserted him, left him to die in the hot sun with a leaking fuselage and a broken windshield. How long had it been? He wasn’t sure. Not anymore, not when the view stopped changing, stopping dissolving into more unusable bits of metal, glass, and advertising.

“Skeletons don’t have friends. Look at me, I’m alive, and I don’t have any friends,” the vulture said. He crooked a yellow, fading eye at the skeleton and wondered which socket stared back, if either of them saw anything from the invisible depths of the afterlife.

“Where are you headed?” the skeleton asked.

“Why does it matter where I’m headed? You won’t be coming with me.”

“I’m interested,” the skeleton said.

“No,” the vulture shook his head, “you’re dead. That’s what you are. Dead. And that is not interesting.”

He launched himself into the violent sky as the sun set, shards of deathly light glancing off the jagged edges of the windshield where a body had been ejected. Small shreds of clothing clung to the glass, some of it stained red or tinged pink from the violence of the expulsion. The deepness of the colors gone rusty, flayed by the passage of too many suns, endless moons, not enough stars.

“Bastard,” the skeleton said.

He stared lifelessly into the atmosphere and waited for something new to rise.

 

A butterfly jounced past the bus windshield, roving about in the windless air. The skeleton saw nothing moving beyond, the butterfly losing focus as he tried to corral the city, its foundations awash in sands blown there centuries ago by the rumbling geological shifts that had predated his current predicament.

Tiny, shrill voices began chirruping, growing slightly louder, sounding the approach of a caterpillar brigade.

“Follow the queen!” the lead one shouted. They hupped and strutted in perfect formation, obviously pursuing the butterfly.

When the lead caterpillar noticed the looming curved edge of the bus hood he scooted to a halt, the pack accordioning behind him, forming a mess of legs and wriggling torsos.

“She’s out of reach,” one cooed. A voice of longing. Snuffed hope.

“We must away. About face,” the lead caterpillar said. They adjusted and began crawling back where they had come from, down a stretch of nasty looking metal. The skeleton watched the scooting green bodies until they were out of sight.

 

Memories. Did he have any? No. Only the empty present. An occasional breeze that brought dust to his sockets, the bowl of his pelvis, the crook of his clavicle. Until he was barely more than a weather receptacle.

 

Something moved in an upper window. No. Just a beam collapsing. Another thing sighing under the weight of years without an oasis. The slump of the upper story blew a cloud of dust, a ghostly exhalation. Like a top hat forcefully scrunched down on a weathered, vagabond head.

 

He raised an arm and realized he had never attempted such a thing before. He had never presumed movement. He ungripped the steering wheel with his other hand, mentally tested his lower half. His legs creaked but seemed willing to hold. How long had it been? Since what? Since he’d been this awake to risk.

His foot made a noise on the steps leading to the busted-out doors, both leaning crooked off their hinges as if pried outward by some atmospheric squid. The noise stopped him. What journey might this entail? The sand slid from its basins as he took another step down. It made a brief shushing noise as it struck the steps. Then all was quiet again.

He didn’t bother to look back, his bone structure leaving imprints in the untouched dust. No destination in mind. No arrival hoped for. Something brown and gangly floated in the sky. Wheeled. Flapped. The vulture. A flash of burnished knuckling, another directional shift. Gone somewhere else.

 

He moved through the city’s absence methodically. Never letting his gaze rest too long on any specific monument or gaping doorway half-blocked with debris and wreckage. Somehow he knew what he sought. Somewhere amidst that taller crumble of construction, where all those jagged mouths glinted during late sun.

Highways curved about his trajectory. Dried-up arteries. Clogged with rusted-out hulks, abandoned trailers. Cargo bursting like stuffing from ragged taxidermy.

His footsteps grew in confidence if not noise. Thought he saw a pair of hollow eyes peeking through some disheveled brickwork. Gone before he could verify. No scuffle to indicate a presence. Whatever tatters of clothing he’d carried had long since fallen away in the years since he’d left the bus. And how many had it been before that?

His only memory: something had gone through the windshield. A known shape. Unlike those shatterings high along the metal fingers that scraped the undersides of those transparent clouds. Where nothing distinct had done its work. Just the random passage. The ebb and further recede of time. The trickle of a clock running down.

 

A piece of rubble lodged itself between his toes and he realized he had been walking for a long time. Never sitting since he’d left the bus. He planted himself in a wavering patch of shade, just sitting, finally prying the hunk of stone loose. Setting it near him. Something else he might recall.

“What are you looking for?”

The vulture had returned. The skeleton creaked in the vulture’s direction. It had taken up a position atop a signpost that had been bent in half, the words scraped out, deep gouges scored across its surface. He balanced atop the angle, where the sign struck upward before bending in a nonsensical direction.

“Where are you headed?”

For answer, the skeleton rose, set off again, confident in his direction.

“Have it your way,” the vulture growled. Then he lifted off. Landed somewhere higher, paused briefly, and launched himself away from the towers.

 

There. Inside. Tucked among the massive obelisks. A smaller house. Dwarfed. Windows still shattered and one side of the roof caved in. The door, though striped with wounds, was somehow intact. He approached, put his hand on the knob, turned and pushed as if it was the most natural thing, as if he were coming home.

The first floor was empty. He tried not to be disappointed. His hips ground into his pelvis as he climbed the stairs, careful not to stick a foot through any of the major gaps, one hand always on the rail. He entered the single room that wasn’t obliterated by the roof’s half-collapse, hoping to see what had drawn him this far.

The room contained a spare, metal bed frame, a wardrobe dashed against its side, one door flapped open like a gutted fish. No other skeleton. No ragged body to match what had flown from the bus. How many years had it been? Could he be the only one left?

He noticed the butterfly on the bedpost nearest the window. Then saw a neat troop of caterpillars scooting across the floor, winding through the debris as though they were soldiers in no-man-land’s dodging barbed wire and other obstructions. He heard a puny voice shout, “The queen!” Ecstatic, blooming from the small creature like the first breath of spring.

The butterfly flapped once, twice, soared to the window, fluttered about the space the world had left behind, before disappearing. Up. Outward.

#  #  #

on-set-1

Michael Prihoda is a poet, editor, and teacher living in central Indiana. He is the editor of After the Pause, an experimental literary magazine and small press. In addition, he is the author of six poetry collections, the most recent of which is The Festival of Guns (A Wanton Text Production, 2017).

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Parker in 2518 – by Blaine Kaltman

“Jesus!” was the first word Parker muttered in five hundred years. But save for blurbs in sociology text books, Jesus had long been forgotten, replaced by new religions like the Church of Logic and New Ottoman Caliphate—the last vestige of monotheism, only kept alive by the Islamic population explosion 2020-2120 CE. There had been another boom in the early third millennium—the Hispanic Explosión Demográfica—but despite their overwhelmingly Catholic affiliation the religion had all but been abandoned. Crop failures, proxy wars, and the so-called “Legume Pandemic” had decimated the race. What remained turned away from God. God was no longer listening. But God is who children of the early 21st Century turned to—even atheist children—in times of utter doubt and confusion. And now, in the year 2518, as Parker stood at the tinted window gazing down through a ripple of hazy clouds he too turned to what had long been dismissed as mythology—the way 20th Century anthropologists had explained away Thor and Apollo—because reality was, at least for the moment, too difficult to process.

He felt vertigo and pressure in his ears. Indeed, he had never been this high outside of an airplane. Parker was on the 637th floor of the Deng Xiao Ping Memorial Hospital—40,000 feet above the ground. There was a hum coming from outside which had attracted him to the window. Parker had been awake for two days but had not moved. No one had come to see him. He had tubes in his arms and a catheter. The room he was in was barren tile. At one point the wall spoke—probably from some hidden screen. A gentle female voice said “Patient Beta five thousand eleven upsilon, relax. You are in the expert care of the award-winning Deng Xiao Ping Memorial Hospital staff. You are being provided sustaining nutrients intravenously. A member of our medical team will be with you shortly. To repeat this message in Levant, Chinese, or another language please say so. If you are experiencing an emergency that requires immediate human assistance, please say so now.”

The tubes in his body were long and retractable. Parker carefully pulled them out. Some blood flowed from his arm where the needle had been and, holding it, he made his way to the window and stared out at the world of the future. The sun was still shining—that was a good thing. The tint on the window gave everything a gold hue. Mini-helicopters of varying models and sizes filled the sky. Some carried people, some hauled items from chains, some broadcasted information across giant screens. Most were in Chinese but a few were in English. “BUY HETZGAM BUBBLE COLLAPSE INSURANCE”; “LIVE YOUR OWN LIFE NOW: Government incentives for non-breeding couples”; “TRANSITION ON MARS: Cost effective, safe reassignment surgery is only a week’s transit away.”

Parker stumbled backwards. He wasn’t sure if it was shock or just that he hadn’t used his legs in five centuries. He wobbled his way back to the bed and sat at the foot. Slowly he said the second word he had since awaking: “Help.”

It took forty minutes for a nurse to arrive. She was young and pretty but to Parker racially unidentifiable. Maybe a mix of Southeast Asian and Persian? A former Foreign Service Officer, Parker had traveled the world and enjoyed his fill of not only exotic places but exotic beauties. 500 years asleep hadn’t changed his appetites. Even though he was full of questions and still reeling from the realization he had clearly woken up in the future–or an alien planet–Parker played it cool.

“So,” he began, “the talking wall says I’m in a hospital, but can you tell me which city?”

The nurse replied: “You are in Tian Jing, it’s an edge city. But you’re about ten minutes flight from The Capital. Hold still please.” She leaned forward and scanned Parker with a small blinking device. “98.8. That’s good.”

“The Capital…” Parker said hesitantly. “Of…the United States?”

“No,” answered the nurse, “of the Shanghai special economic development zone. You were transferred here ten years ago. This hospital is well ranked for muscle atrophy reversal therapy.”

Parker felt that weakness in his knees again. Even though he was sitting down. Even though apparently his muscle atrophy had been given reversal therapy. Whatever the hell that was. He had so many questions he didn’t even know where to start. And his mind began to clutter. It made sense he was in Asia. The last thing he remembered was balancing on his desk to change a lightbulb in the US Embassy in Bangkok. But if he was in China, was this nurse representative of what the Chinese had become? Did the United States still exist? Why was Shanghai now the capital of China, or was it its own country? And…what the fuck is going on here? There are cars flying outside the window and we’re clearly having this conversation in the sky!

“The year is 2518,” the nurse said, clearly noticing the panic on his face. “You’ve been in a coma…”

“For five hundred years?!”

The nurse was quiet, watching Parker. He watched her back. He couldn’t help himself, he started to laugh. But quickly stopped. He didn’t want to appear insane. Although, how could he not? Imagine a Neanderthal waking up in 2018 Manhattan. Parker recalled once on a tour of duty in Sidney coming across an Australian aboriginal just outside the US Consulate. He had paint on his lips, a paper bag to huff out of in his sun-weathered hand. He looked so confused, so out of place. As if he’d been ripped from the Outback and had this new mechanized convoluted chemical world thrust upon him. And instead of making sense of it he’d turned to drugs and crime.

Parker wondered how long before the nurse decided he belonged doped up. And what constituted crime in the future.

“I know you have much to…digest,” the nurse said. For the first time he noticed her accent. It was different. Lyrical. Clearly English was not her first language. But at least some people still spoke it. Thank God for that. “But now that you are awake and medically fit you cannot remain here.”

Parker almost laughed again. “Um, okay,” he replied. “Where am I supposed to go?”

The nurse gave him an envelope containing two hundred yazhous– the official currency of Asia—and a temporary identification card, although she explained once his identity was properly established through enrollment in school, employment, or witnesses he would be identified by eye or finger scan or, in cases of interaction with law enforcement or employment requiring security clearance, sublingual swab. Parker just stared blankly at her, trying not to laugh which, in his mind, was the only reasonable response to such a ludicrous situation.

“I will have some clothes brought in for you as well,” the nurse said. “There is a sushe close to hear. They will provide a bed and facilities. You can take a sky che or you can walk. Right out of the building then left on Shi Chuan Street. The elevator is at the end of the hall.”

The weakness in Parker’s knees had turned to a cold twirling in his stomach. He didn’t know a soul. All his friends, his family, everything he had ever known was dust. In fact, the only person he knew at all in his current reality was this nurse who couldn’t seem to wait to be rid of him.

“Listen,” he said, “I don’t know…anyone.” He smiled and shrugged. “Do you think maybe we could…” The nurse waited for him to finish with professional coldness. “…maybe get a coffee sometime? I mean, do you guys have coffee?”

The nurse smiled thinly. “We do but it is very expensive. I can’t afford to drink it on my salary and you can’t afford to buy it with 200 yazhous.”

Parker wondered how the hell he would get up in the morning. He said: “Well that’s…disappointing. Any other horrible facts I should know about the year 2518?”

The smile faded from the nurse’s face. “I am not a history expert but I think the air and water is more polluted than during your time,” she said. “Some in the city have mutated because of it. The Tubianti. It used to be one in every three children had a birth defect. But now that number is indiscernible. Those most affected breed within their own community. They are more adaptable to the sun and un-ultra-filtered water. But you may find them…strange.”

The cold twirling in Parker’s stomach was crawling up his back and tingling his arms. Every hair on his body was standing on end. Humanity had evolved. And from what he could tell, it wasn’t into something pretty.

“Stay away from them if you can,” the nurse continued. “Some work and have normal jobs but many are recalcitrant and criminal minded. Society originally shunned them because they look different. Some say repulsive. But now it is a self-perpetuating cycle. The Tubianti can’t find work so they commit crime. Originally institutes would not hire them because of how they look. Now they won’t hire them because they are known for being criminals.”

Parker nodded. Even in the future there was…ism. He managed a smile. “Anything else?” he asked.

The nurse shook her head. “There are many problems right now in Shanghai. It will take some…”

A man walked into the room, also dressed in a white hospital uniform. He was young, unshaven—cool looking, by 2017 standards anyway—and undeniably Asian. Parker actually felt relief being able to immediately identify his ethnicity. It made the future seem oddly a modicum less confusing. He winked at Parker and Parker returned the smile.

“Ah,” the nurse said, “Ni dai le ta clothes ma?”

The man held up the package he was carrying. “Right here,” he said. He tossed the package to Parker. “You’ll look good in these. Wakame Nano. I wear this myself when I go piaor.”

The nurse covered her mouth and giggled. Parker smiled too. “What’s piaor?” he asked.

“Oh, see? His Chinese is good,” said the man. “It means to go drinking.”

“It means to chase girls,” corrected the nurse.

The man smiled boyishly. “Is there a difference?” He turned back to Parker. “You should come with me sometime. I know you’ve been asleep for many years but that’s all the more reason you need to feed.”

“I’d like that,” Parker responded. He stood up and pulled the clothes from the package. They looked and felt more normal than he had expected. Basic gray shirt with an open collar, soft black pants, underwear, black socks, and black shoes which had an almost leather quality to them. He started to pull the underwear up under his hospital gown. The nurse blushed and started for the door.

“I’ll leave you to it then.”

Parker glanced up just as she was exiting. “Hey, wait!” he called.

“Hey, forget about her,” said the male nurse. “She’s got a boyfriend anyway. And I know a place where you can meet much better girls.”

Parker was just pulling up his pants. The man approached him and extended his hand.

“I’m Tony,” he said. “Tony Wang.”

Parker shook his hand and smiled. “Parker.”

“Alright,” said Tony. “My first friend from a different century.”

“Yeah,” Parker replied. He felt his stomach unknotting. His hand felt warm in Tony’s firm grasp. “Me too.”

Tony let go and Parker finished getting dressed.

“Looks good,” said Tony. Parker smiled. “No really, see for yourself.” Tony pulled a small device from his jacket and scanned Parker. A moment later a hologram projected into the center of the room: a perfect three-dimensional image of Parker in his new clothes. “Well,” said Tony. “What do you think?”

Parker was surprised at how unsurprised he felt. Of course, the technology would have developed. Even the 21st century was part of a renaissance. But this was…neat. He could even check out how his own ass looked. And, perhaps even more important, now seeing himself for the first time since he woke up, he looked pretty good. Clearly the hospital staff had been cutting his hair. His beard too was trimmed and, although a little grayer than he remembered, it made him look dignified. And his new clothes, what was it, Wakame Nano? It showed off his still muscular arms and chest. Clearly the reverse muscular whatever therapy had worked its magic. Suddenly the situation wasn’t so bleak. He looked good, he felt good, he’d made a friend…Get ready 2518, he thought, you’re about to learn to party like it’s 1999.

Tony slapped Parker’s back. “Looks good, right?” Parker nodded. “Good,” said Tony. “Now, where are you going to stay?”

“The nurse suggested a place on Shi Chuan Street.”

“The sushi?” Tony snapped. “That place is a dump. I know a better place that’s just a few kuai more. I’ll take you there when…you know what? Why don’t you just stay with me?”

“Really?” Parker asked meekly. “I mean, I don’t want to impose…”

Tony waved his hand dismissively. “Not at all. I have big place. Listen, I finish in half an hour. Go downstairs and wait for me. We’ll go piaor and then go to my place. I know you must be hungry. Okay?”

Parker didn’t need to think. What the hell else was he going to do? “Yeah,” he said. “Sounds good. Thank you.”

Tony motioned to the door. “Elevator down the hall,” he said.

The elevator ride to the hospital lobby was a nauseating two-minute plummet. When the doors finally hissed open Parker had to grip the wall to keep from falling down.

The lobby was bustling with staff and patients, an international mix of races and social classes. Even in the future, Parker acknowledged, the less fortunate looked the part. Some were in shabby clothes, some had knotted hair. A little girl clutched a lifelike talking doll with prosthetic robot arms. Silent self-operated wheel chairs and even an empty self-guided gurney whizzed past. There was a gift shop selling impossibly colored flowers, talking balloons, and robot stuffed animals. Two police officers, easily identifiable by their blue body armor and helmets, stood guard near the sliding entrance doors. A loudspeaker paged doctors and made other announcements in Chinese, English, and Arabic.

Outside was even more chaotic. The first thing Parker noticed was the air—his first breath outdoors that he was conscious of in 500 hundred years. The air was thick. It smelled as if it had just rained even though the sun was just starting to set. The street was busy with silent motor scooters and people riding what appeared to be long self-propelled skate boards. Some had large rice paper sacks or metal containers teetering on their vehicle, some had their entire family balanced on one bike or board. They weaved through each other in the same direction like a thousand tiny magnets filling a cylindrical jar. Above was the hum of helicopter traffic. Rows and rows as far as Parker’s squinting eyes could see. The lowest row flying east, the row above south, above that rows flying west and then north and then east again. All with in the intersection. Beyond that- corridors formed by tightly grouped buildings—the tallest Parker had ever seen. Too tall to even begin to see the top no matter how far back he tilted his head. These giant glass and chrome structures just disappeared into the haze along with the higher-flying sky ches.

Something groped Parker’s neck. Something cold, inhuman. He jumped and turned. Behind him was a dark-skinned woman with one long arm—almost as long as her entire body. At the end of her arm were two long fingers—more pincer than hand—clawing at Parker’s shoulder.

Bang wo,” she pleaded, her voice raspy and full of mucus. “Give yazhous.”

Parker knew this must be one of the Tubiantis the nurse had warned him about. He also knew she was begging but he was in no financial position to help.

“I’m sorry,” he said. He backed away. She touched him again with her deformed claw hand and a shiver ran down his spine.

Yazhous,” she gurgled. Suddenly she snatched Parker’s shirt. He grabbed her wrist but it felt so alien—so wooden—he immediately let go. Her face was blotchy. Her lips curled back into a crooked toothed smile. And Parker felt something faint brush his leg.

He knocked her arm from his chest and whirled—too late—the pickpocket was getting away. A young boy with three legs, all running in unison, the two hundred yazhous the nurse had given him tightly clenched in his little fist. Parker was so horrified by the sight he froze—only for a second—then charged after him. He was vaguely aware of the woman grasping at his back as he fled. The boy dashed into the street. A scooter carrying a man and his daughter swerved to avoid him. Parker sprinted after him. He collided with a woman on a skateboard knocking her to the ground. Tires squealed on pavement. A scooter screeched to a halt. Another rammed it from behind. A bag of grains hit the street and burst creating a cloud of yellow dust. People were screaming in Chinese. Parker scanned the street. The boy was up ahead, rounding a corner between two massive building. Someone was grabbing Parker’s wrist. Another Tubianti– a man with eight fingers on each hand- maybe more. Parker didn’t have time to count. He wrenched free and plunged through the traffic. A man ditched his skateboard to avoid crashing into him. Two scooters jumped onto the sidewalk. Parker did too- he had cleared the street. He rounded the corner just in time to see the boy racing up an escalator. Parker sprinted after him. His legs were starting to tire. He pushed his way up the escalator. He could hear footsteps coming up quickly behind him. He tried to run faster. Someone shoved him out of the way and barreled past. It was Tony Wang.

Fang xia!” He bellowed. He was already at the top of the escalator. The boy dashed around another corner. Tony followed him, disappearing from view.

Breathing hard Parker made it to the top. There were a few shops and restaurants, all closed or just opening for the evening. He jogged around the corner and saw Tony, walking towards him, grinning boyishly. In his hand, 200 yazhous. All the money he had in the world.

“You should be more careful,” Tony said cheerfully. “The Tuguizi will rob you any chance they get. They are not people. They cannot be trusted.”

Parker struggled to catch his breath. “Thank you,” he said, his voice hoarse from the run. Tony returned him his money.

“You are lucky,” he said. “This time it was a woman and child. If it had been man Tuguizi…” He formed his fingers into a knife blade and drew it across his throat. “Two hundred is a lot of yazhous. More expensive than your life.”

Parker was recovering. He managed a smile. “I’d hate to sleep five hundred years just to wake up to get killed,” he wheezed.

“There are worse things in this time than death,” Tony said sternly. “Death is sleep. You’ve been dead for long time—you didn’t even notice. People—the Tubianti—for many of them sleep is the only time they are not hungry or in pain.” Parker started back at Tony. He was starting to feel the fear again. But Tony quickly changed the subject. He slapped Parker on the back and said, “Come on, we can talk about all of this over dinner. Do you like xishuai?” Parker shrugged. “It’s like—small crunchy animal. It’s good, you will like.”

It was at dinner in a noisy crowded food court in the belly of a giant skyscraper that Parker learned that xishuai, the primary protein source in the year 2518, was crickets. They were raised on giant robot managed caged farms outside of most major cities. Apparently, the noise was deafening. Seafood was a luxury only the very rich could afford not just because of its rarity but to eat it required a medical unit standing by. Toxicity poisoning, informally known as “shell shock,” was treatable but occurred in ten percent of seafood eating. Other meats were almost equally expensive and too had their array of problems. A form of chicken was genetically engineered in food labs and grown without a head or claws hanging from hooks. You could find it in the wet markets that still populated Tian Jing’s poorer neighborhoods.

Even though he only ate a little, after dinner Parker wasn’t hungry. He followed Tony to another building in the entertainment district, one that locals called “four hundred floors of whores.” In reality there were only 320 floors. This was a low-rise, relatively speaking. But every floor was packed with karaoke bars, bars, dance clubs, strip clubs, and brothels. Prostitution was still illegal in China but within the special economic development zones, like Shanghai, ignored by the police. There were even brothels and clubs catering to, and exclusively featuring, Tubianti. Despite his experience with the would-be pickpockets Parker felt guilty for being unable to imagine anything more horrifying.

“You’re thinking like a relic,” Tony said. “Some of these girls have more than three holes, if you know what I mean. You should try it!”

Parker felt nauseated. Over dinner Tony had explained “relic” was slang for anyone not born in the past eighty years. Evidently Parker wasn’t the only medically induced survivor of a forgotten age. There was even a dating application for “relics” which allowed you to search specific centuries for your match.

He walked behind Tony through the atrium. Above the building seemed to rise up into infinity. There were girls and patrons and Tubianti hanging over the chrome guard rails that lined the upper floors. Most were heavily painted, their faces thick with white makeup, their clothes metallic colored or see-though. Hexagonal lights flashed blue, pink, and green. Electronic drums washed together with symphonic swells and the cacophony of intoxicated voices.

They rode an elevator to the 50th floor and went in the Mu Li Flower Lounge which dominated the level. Inside: chaos. People drinking, dancing, topless girls fighting off customers. Some were snorting lines of powder off tables. Strobe lights pulsated to thundering rhythms under indiscernible melodies.

“Wait here,” Tony shouted over the music. He disappeared into the crowd.

Parker leaned against an empty table and tried to look inconspicuous. So this is the future, he thought. His friend Ernie would’ve loved this place. His friend Ernie who was long since dead.

Tony returned with four shot glasses and three girls. Beautiful girls. Racially identifiable.

One had blue eyes but Asian features. “So, you are the relic?” She slinked her way over to Parker and took his arm. “I’m Sammy,” she said.

Parker did what any man who had gotten laid in five centuries would do. He stuttered. “I…hi.”

“Sammy’s from Uighurstan,” Tony offered. “It borders China’s Northwest. Here.” He handed Parker the drink. “Gan bei!”

Gan bei!” cheered the girls. Everyone knocked back their shot. It was surprisingly sweet, artificial tasting. It left Parker’s lips tingling and he immediately felt a calming feeling of warmth wash over his body. Tony seemed to notice.

“Good stuff, right? Listen I’m going to go upstairs with these ladies. You stay here with Sammy and get to know each other.”

He turned and a girl on each arm retreated into the darkness. Sammy wrapped her arm seductively around his waist.

“I don’t want to wait here,” she said. “I want to go upstairs too.”

Parker wasn’t naïve. He’d spent enough time in the third world to know how things worked. And despite how alluring this girl was he had two hundred yazhous to last a lifetime. But it didn’t stop him from satisfying his curiosity.

“How much?” he asked.

“How much what?” answered Sammy. “Stairs?”

“No,” said Parker. “I mean…you know. If we go upstairs, what are we going to do?”

Sammy smiled with her eyes. She smiled with her entire body. Parker smiled in his pants.

“We won’t do anything you don’t want to do. And your friend Tony is taking care of it.” She gently took his hand. Even her fingers wrapping his palm was intoxicating. “Come.”

The private rooms were upstairs. Tiny capsules with a couch, table and voice activated karaoke screen embedded in the wall. Sammy sang a few songs which Parker had never heard and then one he had: “Let it be.” The Beatles had managed to survive half a millennium. When she finished she leaned in and kissed him. Her lips were soft and slick and he felt his head spinning with unbridled joy. He recalled a song lyric: “The future is so bright I’ve gotta wear shades.” He pulled this gorgeous vixen into his embrace and had trouble kissing because he couldn’t stop his mouth from twisting into a smile. Until the door kicked in.

Bang! The jolt ripped Sammy from his arms. Three burly men stormed into the room. One of them yelled in Chinese at Sammy. She retorted something he didn’t like and he threatened to slap her.

“Hey!” Parker yelled. He stood up but the other two men were already on him. They clutched his arms and pressed him against the wall.

Sammy yelled something in Chinese then turned to Parker. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I guess your friend can’t pay his debt.” She stood up and marched out of the room. The man who had threatened her looked over Parker. He reached out, carefully, and fondled the bottom of his shirt.

“Nice clothing,” he said.

Parker hesitated. “Thanks.” Then: “Its Wakame Nano.”

The man smiled. His goons did too. “Fang le ta.” They let Parker go and he sat back on the couch. The man stepped over the table and sat on its edge so he was facing Parker. “I’m Burt,” he said. “I’m the owner.”

“Oh,” answered Parker. He gave the room a perfunctory once over. “It’s a nice place.”

“I’m glad you like it,” said Burt. “Your friend Tony Wang likes it too. Unfortunately, he’s run up a large debt. I was hoping you could help pay it.”

Parker felt his stomach tightening. “I…how much does he owe?”

“Nine thousand yazhous.”

Parker stifled a laugh. “I don’t have that kind of money. I just woke up in this time. I have—”

“You’re a relic?” Burt cut in.

“Yeah.”

“From what year?”

“2018.”

Burt nodded with interest. “I’m a student of history,” he said. “This was the age of cyber development. And the start of human space exploration.”

“Yeah,” Parker said, somewhat impressed, “that’s right.” I mean, how intelligently could he have talked about Protestant Reformation?

Burt nodded pensively, as if lost in the annals of history, but a moment later snapped back to the issue at hand and demanded: “How much money do you have?”

“I told you,” Parker responded, “I just woke up. The nurse gave me two hundred dol-yazhous…but you know, I don’t even know Tony. I just met the guy a few hours ago.”

“But he’s your friend, right?”

“No…I mean, yeah. But not really. We just met and…”

The door kicked in again. It startled Parker but Burt and his goons didn’t even move. Another two goons walked in. Dragging Tony. They tossed him roughly and he crashed into the table and collapsed on the floor. Burt looked at him with indifference. He produced a knife from his jacket and jabbed it into the table so it stuck there, handle glinting in the dim illumination.

“OK.” Burt breathed. “You can go.” Parker started to stand. “Leave the two hundred.”

Parker glanced at the goons menacing above him. Reluctantly he deposited the money on the table. Suddenly one of the goons kicked Tony. Hard. In the gut. Tony belched and squirmed on the sticky floor. He placed a hand on the table to brace himself and stand. Burt lashed out and snatched his wrist. He yanked the knife out of the table with his other hand and swung it at Tony’s fingers.

“Stop!” Parker screamed. He hadn’t meant to. He had meant to just get the fuck out of there. But something inside him could not let this happen. Even if it meant consequences. Which it did.

Burt stabbed the knife into the table next to Tony’s hand. He peered up. “You want to save your friend?” he asked. Parker nodded. “Then you need to do something for me to clear his debt.”

In the 26th Century, as in the preceding five centuries, data was king. Information wars waged between companies, politicos, even nations. As encryptions and codes became increasingly complex so did cryptoanalysis and the skills of data miners. The third World War, touted to be feared by late 20th century world leaders, was never officially declared. It started without a single shot and was waged by militaries, militias, corporations, and independent actors of chaos all with one common weapon: the computer. It had lasted 500 years and had no foreseeable end in sight. One modern hack to thwart the hackers was mental information smuggling. Data was stored in the subconscious of humans so even the courier could not access it.

To square Tony’s debt, Parker was to be that courier. The loading process was simple—a device scanned his eye. Bert gave him directions, and he rode the elevator down to the atrium. Before leaving he was warned: “The information in your head is valuable. Don’t lose it.”

It hadn’t occurred to Parker how he could lose information stored in his own subconscious that even he could not identify. Until he was alone on a mist enshrouded street. And a man emerged from behind the corner. He didn’t jump. He appeared. So stealthy and unobtrusive Parker only had a split second to register. In that second, he saw the man was holding a samurai sword and a plastic container that didn’t look all that different than the cooler Parker used to use to carry beer to the beach. And then it occurred to him. This man planned to take his head.

Confirmation. The man slashed at Parker’s neck. Parker ducked. He could feel the wind as it arced over his head. The blade sliced into the wall causing blue sparks and concrete dust to fly. Then retracted. Parker dove into the man’s belly driving him back. They crashed to the pavement. The man flailed with both arms, snatching at Parker’s kidney, bashing his head with the sword’s handle. Parker went for the sword. He caught the man’s arm. The man wrenched free. He snatched it again, first the sleeve then the arm. He controlled the wrist. His face was being pummeled. Fist after fist. An elbow. He could taste blood. Sweat was burning his eyes. He drove his knee into the man’s crotch. The man howled and struggled more furiously. Parker clambered over him. Both hands on his wrist, he bashed his sword hand into the street. He dragged his knuckles against the pavement. Scraped them. It sounded like a broom on concrete. Blood was everywhere now. Spattered on the street. On his face. Bleeding from his face into the man’s mouth. The man was gurgling, digging his fingers into his kidney. Twisting. Parker let go of the arm and went for his eyes. Both thumbs jammed in deep. The man screamed. Parker did too.

“Help!” But no one was going to make it in time. The pain in his kidney was excruciating. His fingers were pushing through the sockets. He could feel something bursting. And wet. The sword clattered on the pavement. The man let go and now with both hands clawed at Parkers face. There were footsteps in the alley. Maybe the cops. Maybe another assailant. He couldn’t take the chance.

He dove off the man and scrambled for the sword. The man rolled free, kicking at him. Parker’s fingers brushed the sword handle but he was yanked back. The man was climbing over him. Parker lunged. His hand found the sword. He drove his elbow back. It crunched into the man’s nose. Again. Back. Crunch. And he was free. A hand was groping at his pants. He spun with the sword and buried it. In his head. Blade cracked through bone and sliced through brain matter. The man’s legs twitched violently, his boots thumping the ground. He almost stood up—the sword jutting from his face—and collapsed. Black blood gushed from his split skull. Parker scurried out of the way like a crab. He put his back to the wall. He became aware that the footsteps had stopped. Across the street a Tubianti man with three arms carrying a rice paper sack had stopped. Their eyes locked momentarily, and he continued on his way.

Parker did too. Through the alley. Down the street. All the way to the specified address. Where an older woman tended to his superficial wounds. But first she inserted a small tube into his outer-ear. It reminded him of having his temperature taken.

“Okay,” she said, removing the tube. “Your subconscious is clear.”

Parker laughed at her little joke. And realized his conscious was clear as well. He should’ve felt nervous about the killing, about the cops—surely forensic science had made vast improvements—yet he didn’t. Maybe it was the drink Tony had given him earlier. Maybe it was he had already dealt with waking up half a millennium in the future so what the hell else could you throw at him?

Back at the Mu Li Flower he found out. Tony was sitting with Bert and his goons having drinks. The final curve ball of the evening. Tony had scoped him at the hospital. He’d fattened him up for the kill. Even the Tubianti pickpockets had been arranged to help gain his trust. He had been in on it the whole time. And he didn’t owe Burt a thing. Burt was his cousin. And for him the hospital gig was just a front to recruit new blood.

The place was quiet now, just a few straggler patrons and a group of working girls playing cards. Parker made his way to the back table. He knew he had the right to be indignant, outraged…bloody pissed off. And yet, he was intrigued. And excited. And curious to see what happens next.

“Hey,” Tony said happily. “You passed. Welcome to the team.”

Out of nowhere Sammy came and took his arm. Parker shook his head. And smiled begrudgingly. In the past he was a diplomat and statesman. In 2518 he’d been awake less than twelve hours and was already a mental information smuggler. And a murderer. Someone wise once said if you invite your past into your present you risk fucking up your future. For Parker the future was the present.

Tony slid an envelope stuffed with yazhous across the table. “An EU pharmaceutical company is looking to break into the Asian market,” he said.

Indeed, for Parker his adventure was just beginning.

#  #  #

Kaltman_pic1

Blaine Kaltman is the author of Under the Heel of the Dragon: Islam, Racism, Crime, and the Uighur in China and lesson articles in Guitar World Magazine. A former meritorious honor award winning Foreign Service Officer, he is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and holds a PhD in Sociology. Blaine is also the guitar player for Stone Mob and writer, director, and editor of a music video in which the band uses their instruments as weapons to battle aliens.

Sleeping Beauty – by M.E. Proctor

Shawna felt remarkably good. Better than she could remember having ever felt, frankly. That was before she opened her eyes. She thought she might have finally mastered the relaxation routine that kept stumping her at yoga class. Close your eyes, control your breathing, focus on your toes, that kind of thing. The main problem was work of course. She had to rush out of the office, jump in the car, and battle traffic to get to the class on time. By the time she got to the gym she was so brimming with nervous energy she probably glowed in the dark. When she finally managed to cool down, she tended to fall asleep on the mat.

She was fully awake, not in that in-between state where you could still grab the tail end of an interesting dream. She had gotten better at catching those lately and the dreams had gotten better too, in full color, with all senses in full gear, including touch which was a really interesting improvement. All right, maybe she should open her eyes and get up. She was starting to feel tension in her back; she had been laying in the same position for too long. A light breeze caressed her arms and legs. She must have been sleeping on top of the sheets and left the bedroom window open last night. Oh well, the screens kept the bugs out, no worries.

Shawna opened her eyes and nothing made sense. Unless she was still asleep after all and this was the most ass-kicking dream she ever had. She said: “Wait a minute,” and heard her own voice very clearly, no freaky echo or deep-into-a-barrel reverb effect. She sat up; she was not in bed, there were no sheets, no blankets, no bedroom walls or screened windows. She was in an open field and her hands were flat on the ground, blades of grass shooting between her fingers, the sun at midday right above her head. She got on her feet, a trifle unsteady. How much did she have to drink last night; did she blackout? She was dressed – thank heavens for small favors – but not wearing anything she had in her wardrobe. It looked like a lab coat. She worked as an account exec in an ad agency, she hadn’t worn a lab coat since high school. “This is ridiculous,” she muttered. She was barefoot, but her feet were clean. How did she get to this field? There was no house in sight, no landmark of any kind. It had to be a joke, a silly prank; somebody was having a ton of fun at her expense. There had to be a camera hidden somewhere, or a drone flying high above, and her friends were having a side-splitting moment. She screamed: “Okay, enough already, come and get me, you idiots!”

Sure enough, there was a drone overhead. Unlike any she had ever seen, but she hadn’t seen that many and the technology was moving too fast to keep up with anyway. It was an interesting contraption, this one. Like a soap bubble or a Christmas ornament. She had an ornament like that. A glass ball that she always packed carefully, on top of the crate, afraid it would get crushed. She couldn’t remember where she got it. Maybe it had been in that box of old decorations, with the little coffeepot and the glass deer that always went on the tree first, in the best spots. Her parents didn’t leave her much, but hey, it was the small things that mattered, right? That drone was special. She couldn’t see any machinery inside and it appeared to be completely see-through. It had to be an optical illusion, with mirrors cleverly angled. She waved at the drone – Smile, you’re on camera! – and shouted, “What do you want me to do now? Where’s the car?”

The drone floated above her head for a while longer, then drifted away slowly. Shawna followed it. What else could she do, what else was she expected to do? The thing stayed ahead of her, moving at a steady pace, stopping when she did, like a patient guide. She crossed a line of trees and a deep valley spread in front of her. The view was stunning. Forests and grass fields all the way to the horizon, and a river the color of blue silver at the bottom of the valley, snaking lazily. So perfect. “Where am I?” she said. She expected a village in the bend of the river, a hamlet clustered around a church spire, a road at least, but there was nothing except that perfect and luscious nature. A completely silent nature. That was so strange. Birds were most active at daybreak, less noisy during the warmest part of the day, but to hear none at all was unnerving. She had never tried drugs, but she knew this was not some wicked hallucination. The ground felt springy under her feet and she smelled crushed grass and the sweet scent of wildflowers.  Besides, could your stomach rumble if you were hallucinating? “I’m hungry,” she said, “and really thirsty.” The glass drone did a little somersault and a thin ray of green light shot out of it. It pointed right and Shawna turned that way, instinctively. She chuckled. It was funny, in a way, talking to a drone and following its instructions. “Guys,” she said, “I know you’re watching me. I’ll be a good sport and go along with the game for now, but you better lead me somewhere. Good treasure hunts always end with a prize. Get your bubble to flash or something if you get the message.” Obediently, the drone did a little hop and Shawna laughed. Communications were established. “We’re making progress,” she said. “Good.”

Following the drone, she went through another clump of trees and the view changed. The river was still there, the same silvery ribbon, but there was a construction on the right bank. As she approached the building, the structure changed. It grew turrets and slate roofs, a drawbridge and crenelated walls. It turned into a castle! And not just any castle, but something very similar to that logo from the Disney movies. Was it Disneyland or Disney World? She could never remember which was which. The castle seemed to morph as she was watching – a new turret appeared, the roof color changed, the drawbridge turned into a stone bridge complete with balustrade.

“Cool special effects. Congrats. You guys must have been planning this for months. What’s the occasion? It’s not my birthday,” she said to the drone that had stopped at the same time as she did. There was an answer, not in words alas, but as a short burst of blue light. Given enough time, she might manage to decode these visual prompts. “That is stupid,” she said. “I’m not planning to be in this make-believe place for that long.” How long exactly? She shrugged the thought away and walked down the hill, the drone leading the way.

The bridge that hadn’t been there ten minutes ago was a solid construction and the arch leading to the castle’s courtyard looked ancient, with grey moss – or was it algae? – spotting the walls. This thing had to be centuries old, yet she was certain it hadn’t been there before she reached the top of the hill. It reminded her of a friend who loved video games and gushed about VR – You’re really there, Shawna! I swear! You have to try it! – “Well, buddy, I don’t want to spoil your fun but this beats anything you ever showed me, because there’s no doubt in my mind, I am really here!” And the castle was really there too. How was that even possible?

The courtyard was similar to many she had seen during European vacations. Irregular cobblestones with weeds growing wherever they could find a foothold. She looked up and there was the main tower, complete with mullioned windows. She knew enough about architecture to realize this castle was a historical hodgepodge, as many were. Successive generations and owners added their touch to the original plan. “I bet this place has modern plumbing and hot showers,” she said. She didn’t see any power lines but those could be underground.

“Let’s find the kitchen,” she said. The drone blinked green, the universal symbol for ‘go ahead, proceed.’ In this case it also meant ‘follow me.’

The castle was impeccably clean, the marble floors were glossy, there were no cobwebs on the curtains, and not a speck of dust on the heavy wood furniture. It smelled faintly of cloves and cinnamon. There wasn’t anybody around. “It must be Sleeping Beauty’s castle,” Shawna said, amazed. The drone blinked blue. Was it pleased, did it take that as a compliment? She talked to it directly. “It’s my favorite fairy tale; how did you know that? But you have the story wrong. The castle wasn’t deserted, it was asleep. The guards were sleeping standing up, leaning on their halberds, the cooks and the kitchen helpers were snoring, holding spoons and plates, a scullery maid had dropped next to a bucket with a rag in hand, all of them were struck senseless in the middle of the job. If you want an illusion to be realistic, you have to pay attention to details.” She knew what she was talking about; her job was to sell fantasy after all, even if it was built around frozen dinners or over-the-counter meds. The drone blinked blue again and led her further down the hall. And there they were, the guards and the servants, asleep as she had just described them. “Wow!” she said, impressed. “How did you do that? It was super fast. What happens if I pinch them?” But she knew the answer already. Nothing would happen. You don’t break a curse by pinching people. She poked one of the sleeping guards anyway. It wasn’t a wax figure or a stuffed dummy. The man was breathing and at room temperature. “Bubble,” she said, “I feel I know you well enough now to name you. Bubble, that is freaky good. Is there a sleeping princess upstairs, in this seriously over-engineered Magical Kingdom? I’m not into girls usually but if it’s a choice between waking her up or letting her sleep till the end of time, I’ll sure give her a kiss to remember.” The drone flashed purple. She chuckled. “Are you timid, Bubble? Too bad, because I’m starting to enjoy this big time.” That was a lie, but considering there wasn’t a way out right now, she might as well make the best of it. And there was no denying she found the game interesting. She was curious to see what else her friends had cooked up.

The drone was going to the right but she ignored it and walked to the massive staircase. She was still hungry but that could wait. There was a princess to wake up!

The drone zoomed over her head and positioned itself on the first landing. It was sending off flashes of pink and orange. “Are you angry, Bubble?” Shawna said. “You haven’t finished decorating the upstairs yet? What should I do if you turn red, run for my life?” She went up the stairs, closing the distance with the drone. She reached out to touch it and the drone retreated, an arm’s length away. As she went up, the staircase got narrower, darker, and turned into a tight spiral. “I know what you’re doing, Bubble,” she said. “You want me to give up. You don’t know me. I’m a stubborn girl.”

The drone must have got over its show of temper because it flashed blue again, and light poured into the stairwell. Shawna saw a small landing ahead and a closed door. It was a normal size door, not one of these Alice In Wonderland variable geometry entrances. “Logical,” she said. “We are staying in the story.” The drone moved aside to clear the way, still carefully staying out of reach.

It was a plain wooden door, no cabalistic symbols, no sculptures or decorations of any kind, just solid oak. Shawna took a deep breath and reached for the black door handle. It felt cold to the touch.

#

“What does this prove?” the head technician said. “The subject is compliant. We expected her to be. The environment is non-threatening.”

“A lot of work has gone into making the environment familiar, Eta. The subject’s reactions confirm the excellent job done by the design team. We had little to work with – fragmentary images, literary descriptions, a few biological samples. A setting can be believable when you describe it and still feel completely off in real life. Her thoughts supplement our data nicely. She has a rich imagination.”

Eta shrugged. “I think we would get more relevant information if we interviewed her directly. We dedicated significant resources to this project, Chi; we have to show actionable results. Management won’t be satisfied with a more accurate fairy tale. Real events from the Summer of 2018. That’s what we’re after. You know how important it is.”

“We will interview her, absolutely,” Chi said, “but we have to proceed carefully. Her brain cannot absorb a massive data dump. How would you feel if you were told that five hundred years went by since you last had lunch, and everything you knew didn’t exist anymore?”

“I would scream my head off,” Eta conceded.

“We want her fully aware and feeling safe. We put her in a simple natural environment and she didn’t panic; she’s displaying curiosity which is the best we could hope for. Remember the other attempts. We never got that far.”

Eta stared at the large mission screen. “She’s a good subject, granted.”

“Her name is Shawna,” Chi said.

Eta smiled. “What about your directive? Never name them. Are you breaking your own rules?”

Chi thought that Shawna had said it best when she named the drone. He felt he knew her now. None of the other subjects had lasted long enough to be on a first name basis. Eta might understand but he wouldn’t care, and he wouldn’t respond kindly to an evaluation that didn’t fit neatly in an equation. Although you could fit anything in an equation, providing you conjured up enough parameters and unknown values. Shawna had been an unknown of the first-order. Finding her, perfectly preserved, in that collapsed primitive hospital was a complete impossibility. All the other subjects were at least two hundred years younger. Shawna came from a time period that had not perfected the slumber technology. Yet they had been able to wake her up and she was functioning, apparently intact.

“She’s an oddity,” Chi said. Maybe that made her more likely to withstand the truth. He hoped so. He had grown fond of her.

“How are you going to get her out of that fairy tale and into the real world?” Eta said.

“In small increments,” Chi said. “Shawna is entering the castle’s bedroom now and we’re going to flip the story. She will become Sleeping Beauty. We’ll put her back to sleep and when she wakes up she’ll be in a twenty-first century hospital room. We’ll tell her she was in a car accident. Our scripts are realistic and we can replicate the correct speech patterns.” It would take time but he was confident they could transition her successfully. He wasn’t that confident when they brought her body to the orbital station. They all thought she was a bizarre archeological artifact. Now she was something close to a miracle.

Even if Chi would never dream of using that word.

# # #

mep500

M.E. Proctor has been telling and writing stories for as long as she can remember. After forays into SF, she’s currently working on a contemporary detective novel.

She lives in Livingston, Texas, with her husband Jim, also a writer, and her cat Margot, a keyboard artist in her own right.