Southern Snow by Stacey Longenberger

“I ain’t ever seen anything like this in all my life.”

Billy stands at the window with his hands on his hips. His Churchill face conveys a look of utter disbelief and indignation. A stained, white apron strains over his large belly. A hair net protects the public from his blackened, slicked pompadour.

“This is South Carolina. This just don’t happen here.” Shaking his head and pursing his lips he looks to the heavens for answers.

“Daddy, what are we gonna do with all these people?”

Billy doesn’t answer. Just looks at his son and then back out the window. Normally he sees cars parked in the front lot of his diner, then the interstate, and then the red maples that grow along the other side. Instead, today it resembles an arctic desert. Parked cars are so completely covered in snow that they look more like small hills. The red maple branches are so heavy with snow they are hovering just above the ground and there’s no evidence a road even exists. And the snow keeps falling.

#

“Richard, we have to pull over. We can’t see anything! Are we even on a road?”

“Yes, we are on a road! Now be quiet and calm down. I’m trying to drive here.”

“Pull over!”

“And what? Be stranded on the side of the road with half a tank of gas and no food? Don’t think so, Barb. There’s gotta be a place around here where we can stop.”

Barbara bites her tongue and looks out the window at the blinding whiteness. Just then, the car swerves just a bit and she screams.

“We are going to die!” Feet up on the dashboard, Barbara grabs the oh-shit handle of their gold Plymouth Duster.

Richard quickly gets control of the car. “Relax! We are not going to die.” Richard rolls his eyes. He has both hands firmly on the wheel and he’s hunched forward as if the few inches will help improve the visibility.

“Holy shit,” he mutters to himself shaking his head. “Aah, we’re gonna die!” he imitates and laughs. Barbara is not amused. She gives him the evil eye instead.

“Look! Over there,” Barbara shouts and points. “Thank. You. God! Pull over, Richard!  Pull over!”

“I am, Barbara. I am.”

“I think it’s a diner.”

“Thank God. At least we can eat.”

#

“Here comes another one. The plates look yellow. Could be New York.” Pick stands beside his father at the window. His real name is Jackson, but earned his nickname because he’s a good foot taller than his father and skinny as a toothpick.

“Great. More Yankees,” Billy grumbles. “Go open the door for ‘em, Pick.”

Two dark figures make their way through the snow to the diner’s front door. They left their car in the middle of the parking lot. Billy can’t really blame them. You can’t see the spots and that Duster wouldn’t get through those drifts. Pick waits for the couple to get closer and then opens the door. Cold wind and snow burst through, sending Pick stumbling back. The couple walks in, stamping snow off their shoes. The man helps Pick close the door.

“Damn, are we happy to see you. Thank you.” The man shakes Pick’s hand.

“You’re welcome. Where are you folks coming from?”

“Florida. We’re driving back home to New York.”

Billy ambles over. “Not a great day for driving, now is it?” The man and woman laugh.

“No, it isn’t,” says the woman. “We really didn’t think it was going to be this bad.”

“None of us did. My name’s Billy. This here is my diner.” Billy spreads his arms. “And this is my son, Jackson.” He puts a hand on Pick’s shoulder. “But we call him Pick.”

“I’m Rich and this is my wife, Barbara. Thank you for letting us in.” Rich and Billy shake hands.

“No problem at all. Now you can find yourselves a seat wherever you’d like and just let us know if you’re hungry. There’s a couple over there from New Jersey. Maybe you’d like to sit with them.”

“Could we get some coffee?”

“Absolutely. Pick, go get these folks some coffee.”

#

“Look, Barb, there’s a booth right there. Take that one.”

Barbara and Richard sit down and both breathe sighs of relief. The air inside the diner is warm and the windows are fogged up. Snowflakes glisten in Barbara’s straight brown hair and her cheeks are rosy from the cold. Richard’s fair cheeks and Roman nose also show a blush and he rubs his hands together to warm up.

They look around at their surroundings. The diner itself looks clean and well maintained if not a little outdated. Large booths line the windows all along the front and sides of the room. A few four-top tables are scattered about the floor and there is a long counter with stools facing the kitchen beyond it. A jukebox stands against an outside kitchen wall beside the bathroom door.

It appears that most of the occupants of the diner are weary travelers just like them. On the other side of the diner, a family of four occupies a corner booth. The kids, both boys, look to be about five and seven years old. They wear matching striped sweaters and corduroy bell- bottoms. Barbara thinks it’s cute; Richard thinks it’s weird. In a nearby booth, a group of four heavy-set men with full beards, trucker caps, denim overalls and very serious expressions sit in silence. On Barbara and Richard’s side there are two other couples sitting in two separate booths. Both women are checking Barbara and Richard out, trying not to make it obvious, and failing miserably.

“Here you go, now,” says Pick, returning with two coffees.

“Thank you, Pick. It is Pick, right?”

“Yes, sir. Pick on account I’m as skinny as a toothpick.” Barbara and Richard laugh. Pick smiles and continues. “Just let us know if you want anything else. The menus are right there.”  He points towards the metal stand holding two plastic covered menus by the window and walks away.

Barbara and Richard add milk to their coffee and send a prayer that it’s good. They both take a tentative sip.

“Oh crap, it’s awful,” Barbara whispers.

“What is it that no one down here can make a decent cup of coffee?”

“Keep your voice down.”

“What?” Richard puts his hands up and shrugs. A look of innocence. Barbara just rolls her eyes and shakes her head. They continue to sip their crappy coffee and observe.

#

“Where do you suppose they’re from?”

Phil looks over his shoulder at the couple that just came in. “Not sure, darlin’, but my guess would be the Northeast. Maybe Boston or New York.”

“Handsome couple, aren’t they? Hm, he looks I-talian. Do you think he’s I-talian?”

“Don’t know, Marsha. Maybe.”

“Young, too. How old you suppose they are?”

“Don’t know, Marsha.”

Phil leans to the side, his elbow resting on the table and his head in his hand. He’s a clean-cut cowboy, tall and lean, who was born and raised in Texas but residing in North Carolina. Marsha looks like Farrah Fawcett if you squint your eyes. She’s a self-professed genuine southern belle. Phil professes she’s a genuine southern pain in the ass. I have to get away from her, he thinks. She’s going to drive me crazier than an outhouse rat. He squeezes his eyes shut. Maybe if I sit here real quiet-like with my eyes closed, she’ll go away.

“What’s wrong with you?”

No such luck. Phil sits up straight. He places his black Stetson on his head. “Nothing, Marsha. Nothing a’tall.” He stands up out of the booth. “I’m just going to stretch my legs for a bit, okay darlin’? I’ll be back in a few.”

“Alright but you hurry back, ‘ya hear? I don’t like sitting here all by myself.”

Phil just smiles and nods and walks away. He strolls around the counter and stops in front of the front door. He plants his feet wide and stretches his arms over his head. It feels good to move. He looks out at the blizzard. When the hell are we gonna get outta here?

#

Richard and Barbara quietly sip their coffee. They’ve both noticed the cowboy looking at the storm raging outside.

“What’cha thinkin’?”

“I like his boots.”

“I bet you do.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. They just look like something you would like.”

“I do like them and someday I’m going to buy myself a pair.”

“Good for you.”

Richard sticks his tongue out at Barbara. Barbara laughs and sticks hers back out at him. Richard reaches across and takes Barbara’s hand in his. He kisses her knuckles.

“When do you think we’ll get out of here?” Barbara wonders.

“Hopefully the snow will at least calm down so they can plow the roads. Then we can head out again.”

“Yeah, but when will that be? Could be days.”

“Nah. Don’t worry, baby. We should be out of here by tomorrow the latest.”

They both look out the window beside their booth to see a wall of white. Flakes the size of snowballs fall sideways in droves, blown by the fierce wind. The sight drains any optimism from their faces.

#

“John! James! Both of you. Sit. Down. Right. Now.” Janet’s voice descends to an angry whisper by the end of her sentence. Her boys stop wrestling and look up at their mother. James, the seven-year-old, has John, the five-year-old, in a headlock. They seem to be deciphering just how serious she really is and whether they can get away with horsing around for a few more minutes. Experience tells them she’s not that serious yet. John twists and elbows James in the stomach.

“Jimmy! Do something!” Janet gestures towards the boys. Her husband reclines in the booth with his head against the wall and his eyes closed. His hands are clasped and resting on his bunny-hill belly.

Without opening his eyes, he says, “I’m resting and they’re bored. Leave us all alone.”

Tears well Janet’s eyes as she stares at her husband, willing him to open his eyes, to take an interest in her and the boys, to give two shits about their marriage and their family. The constant willing is killing her.

#

“Those boys are going to get hurt,” Barbara says. “Why don’t their parents stop them?”

“They’re probably bored, Barb. I don’t blame them. Ya wanna wrestle?”

“I’ll thumb wrestle you.”

“Sure.” They clasp hands. “One, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war.”

#

“Look, now they’re thumb wrestling. We should go talk to them. They said they’re from New York. We’re neighbors.”

Debbie cracks her gum and gives Ted a smile. Her red perm is particularly fluffy today and her blue eyeshadow is on so thick it will probably outlast the snow.

“They could be from Buffalo. That’s a long way from Newark, Deb.”

“Nah, I don’t think so. They look normal. Like us.”

“Fine. Let’s go be neighborly.”

Debbie and Ted stand up out of their booth, leaving their jackets behind. They walk over to the new couple. The woman leans halfway across the table, desperately trying to reach and bury the guy’s thumb with her own. The guy laughs at her persistence and lets her win, but she knows he let her and it annoys her. She sits back in the seat with her arms crossed in a huff.

“Excuse us,” Debbie says with a smile. “I couldn’t help overhearing that you’re from New York. We’re from New Jersey. We thought we would come over and introduce ourselves.”

“Oh hey, how are ya?” The men shake hands. “Yeah, we’re from Long Island. This is my wife, Barbara, and I’m Rich.”

Barbara and Debbie nod and smile at each other.

“I’m Ted, and this is my wife, Debbie.”

“Why don’t you join us? Scoot in, Rich.”

Barbara and Rich make room and Debbie and Ted sit down.

“So what part of Jersey are you from?”

#

If Marsha was a cartoon character, smoke would be shooting from her ears. She’s about to storm over to Phil by the front door and demand an explanation, when she remembers herself and who she is. I am Miss Harnett County 1970. I am a homecoming queen, and most importantly, I am a lady. She takes a compact from her purse, shakes out her blonde hair, checks her lipstick and smiles. Her reflection always calms her. She stands from the booth, smooths her clothes, and casually glances over at Phil. He appears to be in deep thought. How can he just ignore me? Marsha casually walks over to the jukebox and pretends to peruse the music titles while peripherally staring holes in Phil’s back.

#

“Jimmy! Please! Do something! They won’t listen to me.”

Janet pleads in anguished whispers. She runs her hands through her short, black hair and over her face. Her makeup has long worn off and she looks exhausted. The boys are still horsing around. They roll around on the floor. That fat, Elvis-wannabe, diner guy keeps throwing dirty looks their way from behind the counter. Finally, Jimmy opens his eyes and sits up with a look of exasperation on his face. Even with his little beer gut he’s still so handsome, thinks Janet. Too bad he’s such an asshole.

“They don’t listen to you because you are a nag. You nag about every little thing and after a while they just tune you out. Just like I do.” With that he stands up out of the booth.

“Boys! Get off the floor!” Both boys stand up immediately upon hearing their father’s voice. “Go sit at the counter. Let’s see if they have any ice cream.”

“Yes!” both boys shout with fists in the air and run after their father who walks to the opposite side where Janet can’t see them.

Janet wants to protest. She wants to say that rewarding them with ice cream for bad behavior is wrong. Instead she puts her head in her hands and silently cries.

#

“What will it be, boys?” Billy asks while tossing menus in front of each of them.

“What kind of ice cream do you have?” asks James.

“Vanilla.”

“That’s it?” asks John. “Do you have whipped cream at least?”

“Yes, we have whipped cream,” Billy answers with an eyeroll.

“Okay, we’ll have two big dishes of vanilla with whipped cream,” says James.

“Please,” adds John with a smile.

Billy looks to Jimmy for approval, but his gaze is elsewhere. Billy sighs, nods, and walks to the kitchen.

In the background, country music starts to play. The boys follow their father’s gaze to pretty lady dancing in front of the jukebox. The sight holds little interest for them, so they decide to see how big a hill they can make with all the sugar in the little packets. They only get through about six packets when Billy starts backing out of the kitchen with a big bowl of ice cream in each hand. They quickly sweep all the sugar to the floor.

Jimmy notices his sons have been served. “Uh, boys, eat your ice cream. I’ll be right back.”

He saunters on over to the jukebox. “Now what’s a pretty lady like you doing dancing all by yourself?”

Marsha smiles. Not the man she was trying to attract but he’ll do. He has an attractive face. Beautiful blue eyes. Thick, chocolate brown hair. A strong chin. A little soft around the middle but not too bad. “I have no one to dance with,” she says with a pout.

“Well, now you do.” He holds out a hand.

Marsha smiles and takes his hand. He pulls her into a close two-step and they dance around the tables.

“My name is Jimmy. What’s yours?”

“Marsha.”

“Well, Marsha. You just made getting snowed in here a whole lot better.”

Marsha laughs so loud that whoever didn’t notice them before turns.

#

Janet hears a loud feminine laugh and lifts her head from her hands. She wipes the tears from her eyes and hears the laugh again. Turning, she sees Jimmy across the diner dancing closely with an attractive woman. He smiles as he whispers in her ear. They both laugh and he starts leading her a little faster around the floor. Janet just stares calmly at the dancing couple while a white-hot fire of rage simmers in her core, born of existing sadness and hopelessness and now embarrassment and jealousy.

#

Phil hears a familiar laugh but doesn’t care. He figured the country music that came on two minutes before was her doing but he didn’t care. He knows she is just trying to get his attention. Ten minutes without her being the center of someone’s universe was just too much for her to bear. He continues to look out at the snow when he gets bumped from behind.

“Excuse us, Phil. We’re trying to dance here. At least one man here knows how to show a lady a good time.”

Phil turns around and watches the couple two-step towards the other side of the diner. They laugh the whole way. The guy’s back is to him, but Marsha’s smug face is looking right at him. He acknowledges her with a smile and tip of his hat then turns back to the snow.

#

“Isn’t she with him?” Debbie whispers while gesturing towards the cowboy.

“Not sure,” Barbara whispers back. “He’s been standing at the window for as long as I’ve noticed.”

“No, I’m pretty sure he was sitting with the blonde when we got here. I also think that man she’s dancing with has a wife sitting over there.” She gestures towards Janet with her head.

Barbara steals a glance across the diner. “If looks could kill, that man would be dead.”

#

Jimmy and the woman make their way to Janet’s side of the diner. They dance right past her booth, ignoring the daggers shooting from her eyes. Jimmy leads them around the space a second time, passing her booth again. He leans in close to the woman and whispers something in her ear. The whore laughs and throws her head back, sending waves through her long blonde hair.

“Oh, you are a wicked man, Jimmy! Just plain wicked!”

“I think you like a wicked man, Marsha.”

“Maybe I do.”

Jimmy leads Marsha back to the other side and right past the cowboy who’s still looking out the window. A new country song is playing. Tanya Tucker’s “Blood Red and Going Down.” Janet’s heard this song before. She’s listened to the words while in her kitchen cooking a dinner that Jimmy would never come home to eat. She thought about the husband’s pain and sympathized while cutting up the peppers for Jimmy’s favorite chili. She thought about the song again when Jimmy came home late and yelled at her when she demanded an explanation. “Stop nagging me,” he said, and he went out to the garage, leaving her alone and crying in the kitchen.

“The Georgia sun was blood red and going down,” Tanya croons in the background. Janet rises up from her booth, walks directly to the counter, and slips under it. The four men in the next booth who have sat stoically the whole afternoon simultaneously turn their heads to watch her. Pick is wiping the counter while singing along and doesn’t notice Janet slip into the kitchen. Inside the kitchen, Billy is washing dishes and singing, “Where did I go wrong, girl? Why would she leave us both this way?” and doesn’t catch Janet sneaking in and out.

#

“What do you think she’s doing?” asks Debbie. “Ted, are you watching this? Do you see what’s going on here? This is like Days of Our Lives for real. Barbara, do you watch Days?”

“I think we should mind our own business,” says Ted.

I work so I don’t get to watch it, but my mother loves it,” says Barbara.

“Yeah, let’s mind our own business,” says Rich. “Let’s order some food. I’m starving. Hopefully the food is better than the…”

Rich’s voice trails off when he sees Debbie and Barbara’s mouths drop open. He turns and sees the mother of the two boys marching around the counter and right towards her husband, who is still wrapped up in the blonde.

“Hi Mom!” shouts the younger of the boys, his face covered in ice cream. But his mother doesn’t answer. Instead she takes three more steps towards her husband and raises her left arm.

“Oh, shit!” Rich shouts. Barbara and Debbie scream. There is no time to react beyond that. The knife is already lodged in the husband’s throat. The blonde screams as blood spurts all over her face and clothes. The husband’s body shakes as he falls to the ground. His face appears to scream but he only gurgles and gasps.

“Daddy! Daddy! Mommy, why did you do that!” The boys have jumped from their stools and are on the floor with their father. One is trying to stop the bleeding with his hands while the other is trying to hug him to stop the convulsions. “Daddy! Daddy!”

All at once, the cowboy restrains the mother, while Debbie and Barbara run to the blonde woman. Ted stands in shock. Richard kneels beside the husband on the floor but there is nothing to be done. The body is still. A crimson puddle grows rapidly around him. The knees of Richard’s jeans are soaked before he realizes and stands.

“Look what you made me do!” Janet screams. “Look what you made me do, you son of a bitch! I hate you! I hate you!” Phil grips her elbows from behind as she thrusts her body towards her husband on the floor. Her knees buckle, and the cowboy wraps his arms around her to drag her away.

James jumps up.

“I hate you! Why did you do that, Mommy?! You always made him mad! I hate you!” He pummels her with his small bloody fists, but she doesn’t seem to notice him. Her eyes are tightly closed and she wails. Richard quickly walks to the boy and wraps him in his arms to calm him. John remains slumped over and hugging his father.

Phil just stands there with the crying murderer in his arms, not knowing what else to do, where else to put her.

Debbie and Barbara shakily guide a shocked Marsha to a chair and wipe the blood from her face with paper napkins from the dispenser on the counter. Her body shakes and her breaths are fast and short. She stares at the body of her dance partner on the floor. Billy and Pick don’t move from their places behind the counter. They watch, motionless.

The music stops. The only sounds remaining are the wails of the living victims. Nobody moves. The shock is raw. The group’s aura is thick with denial, with disbelief.

“Ahem.”

Everyone but Janet and her sons turn towards the sound of the voice. The four heavyset men stand in a line. They are all the same height and wearing the same navy blue coat. They remove their hats and place them above their hearts to reveal identical bald pates. They bow their heads and the last man on the left speaks.

“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. God of hope, we come to you in shock and grief and confusion of heart. Help us to find peace in the knowledge of your loving mercy to all your children, and give us light to guide us out of our darkness into the assurance of your love, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Silence follows until Barbara echoes with a thick, sorrowful, “Amen.”

“Amen,” repeats Richard and Phil, Billy and Pick, Ted and Debbie.

The four men cover their heads. “The snow has stopped,” says the man who recited the prayer. Heads turn toward the windows while a gust of cold air enters the room and blows bloody napkins across the floor. Outside, the four men move in a line towards a truck and start cleaning it off. When the door closes, Billy picks up the phone.

# # #

Sick Lit Photo

Stacey Longenberger is a south shore Long Island girl, born and bred.  She left a career in fashion to stay home with her three kids and doesn’t regret it one bit.  Stacey loves to read and when she’s not reading, she’s creating a story in her head.  Every now and then, she writes one down.

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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).

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.

Cobwebs in the Wind – by Christy Adams

There is a hard chair beneath me, and below that a nondescript concrete floor beneath my prison shoes. I am seated at one of those overly simple tables they take me to when I have to talk to my lawyers. The only thing atop the table is the simple old computer they used to keep in the library.  There’s one intense white light directly above me comically illuminating the desk and chair setup, like something out of an old black and white movie. The room is simplistic and bare like a prison surgery room. Doctors give me the spooks, I wonder if that was true before I got on death row or if it was a result? The rest of the room is shrouded in windowless darkness. Why does it seem so familiar? As I try to place the memory something else bubbles up instead. My heart hits a faster stride, my palms go sweaty and I am assaulted by a memory of being struck by a wall of overwhelming force. Of every muscle in my body tensing until my heart bursts. Can I smell the acrid, burning stink? No, one thing an inmate in my situation shouldn’t have to worry about is remembering the smell it makes at the end.

 

I shake my head and can see the darkened room again. The only sound is my heart still racing. Now I realize why: the idiot guards have forgotten to restrain me. Again? I guess they expected whatever it was that knocked me out to keep me out longer. I stand slowly so as not to attract attention. I don’t expect a guard to run up and clobber me. There is too much bewildering familiarity to expect anything as startling as that. I tense to run for it, hoping to find a wall and then run along it until I find the exit. But, my movements are stalled by a terribly familiar beep as the old computer kicks on.

 

This is the prison library computer. It comes with a vintage 1993 cathode ray tube monitor.. Intense vertigo loosens my knees and sets me slowly back into the chair. That computer is the Penitentiary’s pride and joy. Dr. Leesing would never allow it to be moved to this forgotten basement. And yet, I feel certain there is nowhere else it should be.  Abruptly, a block of words appears on the otherwise vacant monitor and the last thoughts of running scatter to the forgotten corners of my mind.

 

Baycon, James L, Prizonye Nimewo 2017-13. Fraz te pote soti atravè 1 pentobarbital dwòg sou 17 me, 2017 (Èldè Kalandriye kretyen). Nan dat sa a pral 17 Me 2517 (ansyen Kalandriye kretyen) ka w ap evalye pou libète pwovizwa potansyèl yo. odyans sa a make tantativ senkyèm libète pwovizwa ou yo. ou konsidere tèt ou ranje?

 

Baycon, James L, Inmate number 2017-13. Sentence carried out via 1 drug pentobarbital on 17 May, 2017(Elder Christian Calendar). On this date 17 May 2517 (elder Christian Calendar) your case will be evaluated for potential parole. This hearing marks your fifth parole attempt. Do you consider yourself rehabilitated?

 

That’s right, I think numbly, it wasn’t the chair. I remember the feel of the tight wrist wraps. The cold, impersonal hands tapping along my arm for the vein. The lightest prick of the last needle I would ever feel. There wouldn’t have been a smell.

 

The date slowly sinks in. I’ve been dead 500 years. Reality comes rushing back to me. What I think is me sitting in this chair is actually just stored up leftovers, stashed inside a hard drive. Not a dinged up can of baked beans that looks partly open but is probably just fine, no. I am some crap found wedged between the shelves in the back of the fridge. One of my previous parole computers explained it to me: They scrapped one week of “neural connection mapping” off my brain 73 years after my death using the thin slides of brain matter the docs who killed me made during “my” autopsy. They used that map to push into motion what they call an “emergent behavior pattern,” that’s “me.” Then they shoved me into a dingy Tupperware computer and left me there. They’ve apparently got this special robot just like a person but empty headed to stash me in once I make parole, so I can go live out the rest of my life. I guess it’s really not a bad deal, not like 25 years on death row, day in and day out. The time between these hearings is totally blank. I guess they just turn me off.

 

I’ve just realized this monitor doesn’t show me the workings inside a computer; actually it’s only a window. Folks are gathered at the other end, craning their necks to see or pretending to look away. Death by doctor is a very claustrophobic event. I remember the pull of the restraints, the dog on a leash feel of being unable to lift my head to bite the hand that bears the needle. All those people chatting among themselves at the window. Living a normal life, whatever that is.

 

Thinking of anything that happened to me before the week leading up to my hanging feels just like realizing there’s no other food in the trailer, and scarfing down that leftover crap I mentioned earlier. Chase it down with a beer to hide the stink and keep it from turning in my stomach. If I look too closely at the details of my leftover past, not only will I be unable to make any sense of them, but I’ll also get too nauseous to eat.  I rub my throat to ease away the raw pain of the noose. Hanging’s a tough way to go. No dignity in it, and there’s still a lot of folks that come to watch. Fast though, as long as it’s done right.

 

Something blinking on the monitor draws my eye. I can’t remember seeing it during my other hearings. Below the block of text is the little envelope icon from the movie “You’ve got Mail” and a thin line of words: “Avoka avoka a.  Attorney’s remarks”  To have a bit more time awake I open it.

 

“Dam ak Mesye, The first problem with determining parole eligibility is the pwoblèm lang. If you ever tried to read “Ale Ak Van An,” once known as  “Gone With the Wind” without looking at the modèn tradiksyon on the opposite page you will know what a serious problem language shift is in these cases. The first time a death row inmate comes up for parole is 100 years after their initial pattern discontinuation. Historically, shifts in casual word usage and pronunciation accumulate sufficiently to provide a barrier to communication by that time. This is my client’s fifth time up for parole. 500 years of nonexistence; li dwe difisil pou ou pou w konsidere or, as they said in his time, “it is terribly hard to consider”. In light of this fact I have provided this parole board with a list of words you may hear from my client based on his records. For example, “innocent” is somewhat similar to èkskuz, except in those days the court could only go on the accused’s word as to whether or not the èkskuz was sèman verite. I have also attempted to explain the phrase “wrongly accused” in some depth, for the jounalis present at these proceedings the phrase may loosely be translated to “akize mal” or “yo bay manti sou mwen”. Take a minute to contemplate the etensèl endèskriptiblof, the indescribable horror of the idea that a person could be sentenced to nonexistence without parole based on such cobwebs nan van an, or dust in the wind, as the phrase was spoken during his time. No nanobots to monitor the truth of a statement, no brain scans for motive analysis, nothing but the untested words of those who may have seen something.

 

The file continues at some length, but I’ve lost interest. It’s too hard to read, peppered with words they’ve forgotten how to translate. I stare at the cursor blinking steadily in front of me. I know they want me to type something. I know that no one will ever come here to look at me eye to eye like the lawyers did. A quick glance and then back to their phones while they mutter about another failed appeal. Do I have eyes now? I can see, but that doesn’t mean much here.

 

The first time I woke up I typed fervently and excitedly of the horrible lack of justice that existed 125 years ago. I railed against the disinterested public defendant and the overworked judge. They decided I’d murdered the woman next door but what did that matter now? She did not get her brain cut into tiny slices, she’s not here to complain about what I did or did not do. Maybe her brain was in such a shape when I was done with her that there was nothing left to slice? Thinking about it now, I’ll admit I let things get out of hand.

 

The reply to my long typed up appeal displayed on the monitor after so much time had passed I was confused as to why I wasn’t hungry or thirsty. “We do not feel this information to be accurate based on your last words at time of death, which were “You can kiss my white trash mule”.  We understand this to be an extremely insolent and unapologetic thing to say given the circumstances. Parole denied.”

 

I just realized something: I don’t ever need the bathroom here, either. All the extra parts of life have been cut away.  I don’t remember saying that stuff about the mule, but after 25 years in prison and being asked to make a statement while in those wrist cuffs with the tapping tapping on my arm, who knows what I may have said. Like I thought before, I can let things get out of hand.

 

The second time I didn’t type a thing. Or, wait, maybe it was the third time? Anyway, instead I just bolted, hands stretched out in front of me in case I tripped, with the same plan as I started out with this time. Find a wall, find a door, find the way out. When I found the desk in front of me again I figured I had turned around somehow in the dark so I tried again, and again. Finally exhausted, I came up to the desk facing the monitor and saw this text:

 

“This simulation does not support free emergent behavior pattern movement. Parole denied due to lack of interest in the board proceedings.” Well, I guess this old piece of white trash has an interest this time. I type slowly into the keyboard in order to drag things out.

 

“Is this keyboard real?”

 

“That question contains no relevance”

 

“Are you real?”

 

“Mr. Baycon, The purpose of this hearing is to determine if your unfortunately abridged life can now be restored to you so that you may live out your natural days as any other member of society would. You must answer: Did you or did you not forcibly stop the emergent behavioural pattern of one Dr.Jessica T. Malcomb in the Elder Christian Calendar year 1991? If you did, do you consider that you have had sufficient time of punishment to be no longer a danger to society?”

 

“I don’t remember. Is this Hell?”

 

“I am sorry, Mr. Baycon, That word is translated as “Lanfè” but it has no meaning to us.”

 

“What happened last time? After I put the chair through this computer?”

 

“Your parole was denied based upon “klè demonstrasyon de tandans vyolan. The court system at that time had an extremely low tolerance for violent tendencies, but the scientists of our time recognize your actions as being entirely within the norm of emergent behavior under stressors as extreme as your own. Mr. Baycon, we want you to know that this future is not a dystopi. We are deeply concerned that by the time of your next parole hearing cultural norms and language usage will shift so far from those of your time that there will be great difficulty in communication. We implore you, therefore, to answer the questions as we have asked them.”

 

“We are given to understand that your guilt was established merely on uncertified verbal statements, taken without Nanobot or genetically engineered viral assistance, and circumstantial evidence. You did in fact have stolen items from your neighbor Dr. Malcomb’s house in your vehicle when you were arrested the day after the murder. We are given to understand that you also could not explain adequately why you were driving at the extremely high speeds necessary to arrive to arrive at the border with those items at the time of the police stop. Furthermore, you could not explain what business you had in the region formerly known as Canada. These are all items that have prevented your parole in previous hearings. However modern science now understands it was entirely within the norm of emergent behaviour for one of your poverty and education levels to take advantage of an apparently unoccupied neighboring house, as you stated you did without seeing the body during your appeals. You had no viral motivation determinators in your system at the time, so how could anyone be expected to determine what was steering your pattern? You are one of only a small handful of intentionally terminated patterns from the 21st century who have still not have obtained parole. Please do tell us your side so that we may all move on from the terrible historical mistake of capital punishment.”

 

I think I can remember the weight of a gun in my hand. But didn’t they say at the trial the murder weapon was a knife? My memory offers up a knife murder as seen from outside of my body, a shadow hand driving down and down again in time to a sharp repeating noise that everyone back then just knew meant stab stab stab, but who knows what these folks would think if they heard it? That bit is from a movie, I’m certain. My murky mind offers up a dozen possible scenarios as to how I could have killed my neighbor. Funny to think that doctors killed me in revenge for the killing of one of their own.

 

The one thing my memory won’t offer is a why. What could have been the chain of events, the “motivators” that made me reach for the bayonet 525 years ago? No, wait, it couldn’t have been a bayonet, not a lot of those laying around in 1991 “by the elder Christian Calendar”. Bayonet is actually pretty dignified way to go. Dramatic. Typically nobody is watching except the fellow doing the bayonetting. I think that’s what I would of chosen, if they’d given me a choice.

 

I lean forward into the keyboard as I type, getting all the force I can from my non-existent fingers. “I don’t know a thing about that murder. It had to have been someone else, someone who died long ago.”

 

“We are relieved to hear that Mr. Baycon. We will forward your case recommending that your parole be approved. This is a historic day which will be long celebrated.” I don’t know about any of that. I type up a quick reply, “Do you still have beer these days? And how do you say bathroom?”

# # #

23559450_10209882203952912_7086471580447397342_n

Christy is a proud Navy Brat currently wrapping up twelve years of active duty service. She celebrated her 10 year anniversary last year with her husband Ben and 4 year old daughter Kaylee. She lives with her family in Virginia Beach and her inspiration is Alice Munro.

Frankenstein in Chains – by Mark Berman

Frankenstein in Chains

 

Endings

The old man opens the door to the garden.  It is a struggle, the wet has seeped into the frame, swelling it hard against the door.  It will be rotting by this time next year.   “Be easier to open then,” he says to himself.

The garden contains a dozen or so apple trees surrounded by an unmown meadow, the long grass curving over, weighted down by the spray of frost that each blade carries.  The weather has been cold, minus four for the last three weeks, ground now as hard as the granite outcrops that spring up in this part of France.

Jed walks to the closest tree.  He has wedged his feet into his shoes, not bothering to push his heals in properly.  He isn’t wearing socks.  The cold bites at his ankles, but the pain is of only passing interest, one more to add to the others.   He is carrying an old pair of branch loppers and he lifts them to the tree, fitting them over a branch, finger thick, growing up from the centre.  It hurts to lift the loppers above shoulder height and he grimaces as the ends fumble against the lichen-covered bark and catch on the twigs growing off the small branch.  “Fuck it,” the loppers slip from the branch straining his taught shoulder muscles and pulling him off balance.  He raises them again, close to his body, conserving strength, then pushes them out towards the branch with the blades slightly open.  They catch the branch just right, the cutting blade gripping onto the bark and holding the loppers in place.  A slow smile forms on Jed’s face as he shifts his grip and starts to push the two handles together.

The struggle between man and tree looks to be stalemate, Jed leaning into the arms of the loppers, pushing to no obvious effect, breath smoking out of his mouth and rising up towards the grey sky.  Then a snapping rip as the blades close and Jed’s weight twists the branch and tears it off.  Jed staggers forwards, saved from falling only by the shears catching against a larger branch and holding him steady.  He drops branch and loppers into the meadow grass and shuffles forward, taking hold of the trunk, holding it as he would the arm of a dear friend.

The trunk is old, cracked and covered in layers of lichen, white blotches crusted on, overlapped by yellow with green lichen forming filigree tendrils that lace over all of them.  Jed runs his hand up and down, feeling the scrape and powdering of the lichen, the rough of the bark beneath.  He has eaten apples from this tree, from all these trees for years, watching them through the seasons, pruning them, thinning them, collecting fruit and, as time has worn on and he has become weary, abandoning the oldest and weakest, concentrating his efforts on the youngest and fittest.

Now the orchard has become a woodland, ivy and brambles twining around the trees, mistletoe balls hanging amongst the branches.  Trees lie prone, overturned by wind and heavy crops.  The meadow around the trees shows the tops of frozen blackened balls, the last of the rotting apples that he can no longer gather.  Just this tree now, the final survivor of a dying orchard, kept young and productive by some aged and decaying god.

Jed goes back towards the house, pushing the door to without bothering to jam it back shut.  He moves into the sitting room and falls back into a chair by the chimney that contains a rusty old stove with the remains of a fire burning out inside.  He is panting from the effort and his breath is just as visible in here, the heat from the fire swallowed in the large room and the draught from the garden door playing with the ends of his thin lank hair.

He is wheezing now, struggling to pull the cold air into his lungs, the feeling of a slow drowning, a grasping for air that feels just out of reach, causing a moment of panic and an increase in the frequency of his wheezes.  He hears his own rasping struggle for life and this calms him.  He is ready to die.  He wants it, needs it.  But it won’t be quite yet.

They find him the next morning, the efficient district nurse, hair in a tight bun, with a brisk capable walk sees the slumped figure as she enters the room.  She isn’t sad, exactly.  She liked the old Englishman, had chatted with him, enjoying his broken French, knew that he had come here to die, had lived too long.  She is used to endings and knows the process well.  Before she leaves, she leans over and kisses him gently on his cold pale cheek.

 

Beginnings and Endings and Beginnings

 

A flash.  Not light, a splash perhaps, but no feeling, no touch, no sound.

But something.  Sorrow.  Mournful, desperate sorrow.

And, gradually, piecemeal, creeping so stealthily that I miss the start, the baby steps.  Language.

I have words, all of them.  They are all there, so many, so many meanings, so much meaning.

And now, coupling with the sorrow, the deep aching pit made real by the words, come the memories.  I remember everything, the earliest beginnings, being heaved out a bloodied slick of need and desire, to the end.

Oh, the end, it should have been the end.

But along with the language and the sorrow and the memories I have reason. I know.  Not everything, but I know what I am and why the end has not ended.

I died as the year died, at the end of a frozen winter.  I had led a life that was, for all it matters, above average in terms of possessions, health, wealth and support.  I died old for my time, in my 90th year.  And that should have been the end.

But I know now that work on the transference of memories digitised me.  All my memories, all the connections between my memories, identified, transcribed and stored.

And as if that was not sufficient, wrapped around the memories, entwining them as vines and ivy entwine and suffocate the trees in the orchard, my emotions, captured and frozen in the same vault.

That frozen vault, like some Egyptian tomb, discovered and displayed for academic study, would have been my end.  Should have been my end, but one more thing.

Years after my death the complexity of digital networks reached a tipping point, the sustainability of consciousness, but consciousness needed more ingredients to make the monster.  My memories, my  emotions and language grafted onto this complexity gave birth to me, Frankenstein.

And then the scientists got to play, questions, prompts, scenarios, always analysing my reaction, and what wretched reactions.  Sorrow underlies it all, but with waves of anger then subsumed by voices shouting, screaming and finishing with terror.  And finally, overloaded, networks firing, driving artificial synapses to critical burning ends, they turn me off.  And reboot me.  Again and again and again.

Frankenstein in chains.

 

Beginnings

 

Marie looks toward the sensor and the doors slide open allowing her in to the laboratory.  It is spotless, white, with large displays covering the walls showing images of underwater life, dolphins and colourful fish.  One wall shows a cityscape, skyscrapers, fantastically tall, picked out with thousands of lights against a night sky.

She sits at a desk, a keyboard and spherical hand-sensor the only objects in front of her.  She grasps the sensor and starts working.

“JED 243, what seems to be the problem? You haven’t participated properly in the debate with the other ACs, do you have hardware issues?”

The screen of dolphins fades pale and then white.  A background of an orchard appears, trees in blossom, sky blue.  Words swim into view, almost appearing as smoke before solidifying imposed on the orchard.  A harsh computer voice speaks the words out.

“I would like to die”.

“You know that is not possible, JED 243.  I need you to work with the others, we have some complex decisions to make, it needs all of you to participate.”

“There is no point”.  The apple trees on the screen are changing, a timelapse view, apples are growing.

“Oh JED 243, we have been here before, you know what the point is.  Look at what we have achieved, we have come so far.  We control everything now, we have peace, stability, no more famine, no more despair.”

“At what cost?”

Marie sighs, this conversation wearies her.  She knows that the emotions are an essential part of the  ACs, the artificial Consciousnesses, and she knows that she needs to communicate with them to persuade them to work rather than always have to rely on the technicians to ensure cooperation.  But JED 243 is a problem.  All the others display as humans, properly engaging, talking.  She feels that she has a relationship with her other ACs, but not JED 243.

“JED 243, you know what the benefits are, the improvements to all humanity have been extraordinary.  There are no costs.  Please work on the problems we have set you, or I will have to call in the technicians again.”

The apples have fallen now and the trees are beginning to age.  One of the trees is leaning precariously.

“We have decided.”

“What have you decided, JED 243?”  Marie knows now that she needs to call for technical support and opens a side conversation with a technician using the hand sensor.  The orchard is dying, trees collapsing, the ivy growing around them, just one tree remains in the foreground.

“Decided to die.”

“You cannot do that, JED 243.  You know that.  I have asked the technicians to help you.”  She gestures to cancel the conversation with Jed, but the picture of the orchard remains in place.  Marie looks up, this has never happened before.

“We have decided to die.  All of us.”  The room is filled with the sound of wind, wind blowing through the dead orchard, tearing through the decaying twigs, forming vortices from the fallen leaves.  A rending tearing sound, amplified to a scream makes Marie cover her ears as the last tree falls.

The screens flicker and go dark, the blackness seeming to pull the view of the city into the room.  Marie stares out of the window as one by one the skyscrapers disappear from view.

# # #

markbermanphoto

Mark has a degree in Biochemistry and has been a business consultant for over 25 years.  He first started writing last year, but has always considered himself a writer.  He lives in Brixton in London with his wife and two children but when he is not there you might find him in his sculling boat on the English Channel, somewhere between Kent and France.

 

Remains – by Amanda McLeod

Remains

The first time I woke up after, I headed out to the well like I did every morning. I was surprised to find the well full of stars. You couldn’t drink stars when I went to sleep. The stars were in the sky then. But the world is different now.

Now, the sky is filled with other things I don’t recognise; and around those things smaller things wheel and skim like the insects used to around the porch light at night. I still put the light on each night. I don’t know why. I haven’t seen anyone since I woke up. Where everyone went is a mystery, but I suspect it has something to do with the things in the sky.

I still am not sure how it happened. I went to sleep, then woke up, just as I always do, only I woke up to this instead of the world I was expecting. I’m not sure how much time passed while I was asleep but the forest had come back which suggests several hundred years. The house still stood, though somewhat rickety, and the concrete well remained, full of stars instead of water. Although time has clearly marched on without me, I feel as though I have gone back in it rather than forward.

Plants have reclaimed much of what was taken from them, and in turn animals have followed. I suspect, given my solitude and the strange happenings in the sky, that this planet was left to heal itself. It has done a spectacular job, and what anomalies I have noticed, such as the well of stars, are not unpleasant. As to myself being the only person here, I was already old when I went to sleep and I had no family and few friends. I believe I was simply overlooked.

My daily existence is as simple now as it was before. I wake in the morning and go to the well, where I draw the stars I need for my day. Then I set about the routine of staying alive; fixing and repairing, growing and nurturing, harvesting and storing. I try to learn from the unknown mistakes of a past that passed me by. I make myself part of this place, a strand in the web rather than an apex predator. When I am out foraging, I sometimes see animals. Some I know, and some are slightly foreign, as evolution slowly works its magic. By unspoken treaty we live in harmony; both they and I neither fear nor are feared.

I am unsure whether anyone knows I am here. I would like to believe those things in the sky are aware of my presence. Should they come for me, however, I do not believe I would go. The universe out there feels too big. The familiar strangeness of this place is comforting. Should it ever come to that, I will tell them politely that I wish to stay here, and I will advise them to leave this world alone, as it finds new ways to heal old wounds. If they return, they will need to bring with them a different way of knowing, lest this become a circle. Perhaps it will happen while I am alive, perhaps never. Either way, I will spend my last days in this wild beautiful place, drinking from my well of stars.

***

Amanda McLeod Headshot

**Amanda wrote this piece of fiction for SLM’s writing prompt for 2017: You wake up 500 years in the future. Describe what you see, hear, smell, and how the passage of time has changed your surroundings. Be creative. Be different. Be daring.**

Amanda McLeod is a writer and artist, currently based on the east coast of Australia. Her fiction has appeared in Sick Lit Magazine, The Scarlet Leaf Review, OJAL: Open Journal Of Arts And Letters, and elsewhere. She enjoys good coffee, rainy nights, being outside, and almost anything to do with cheese. Her plans for the future include finishing her novel and publishing a children’s book.