Technicolor in the Time of Nostalgia

Everything began with a crazy lady who landed her spaceship on Sam’s roof deck early one morning and said, “Oh, thank god. I was starting to think I’d never find the girl to fix this broken timeline.” Adjusting the neck of her blue silk cheongsam, she peered over her copper-wire spectacles at Sam. “You are Sam Wang, correct?”

“That depends,” said Sam, who’d been unpinning the laundry, and was now going to be late to work, thanks to this weird spaceship lady. “Are you here to steal my identity and/or murder me?”

“Of course not,” snapped the spaceship lady. “I’m Mei-Li. I’m here to–”

“– fix the broken timeline, yes, you already said.” Sam tossed a mostly-dry sundress over one shoulder, pausing to scratch at the scar on her ear, where she’d once caught the wrong end of a whip. “I don’t know that you’ll have much luck, Mei-Li. The timeline broke a long time ago.”

“Feh,” scoffed Mei-Li. “Am I a time traveler or aren’t I?”

“I’m guessing you mean that rhetorically.” Time travel explained the spaceship, at least. It was a pretty thing, pale and glowing, humming with faint blue light that lit up the grimy tiles of the roof deck. The colors on all Mei-Li’s trappings–the spaceship, the spectacles, the cheongsam–more than anything, were what tipped Sam off.

“One of the very last,” said Mei-Li.

“By which you mean one of two,” said Sam, folding the dress.

“You see why I have a need for you, then.”

“Not particularly.”

“I did anticipate that the only other time traveler left in the universe might be an asshole,” observed Mei-Li, wrinkling her nose. “Fine, then. You clearly aren’t the sort who jumps at the chance to make history. What do you want instead?”

“To get to work less than ten minutes late, so as to avoid another whipping.”

Mei-Li blinked several times behind her spectacles. “That sentence right there,” she said, “is everything broken about this timeline.”

“The Hands of Grey care very much about efficiency. Everything else is a distraction from orderliness. The whips are a means to an end, to prevent senseless deviations.”

“My word, you just had to make it worse, didn’t you? What was the last whipping for?”

“Traces of unauthorized dye in my frock.”

“And before that?”

“Singing under my breath at work.”

“Singing!”

Sam shrugged. “A silly song in an old language my mother taught me.” Even now, the half-forgotten strains of music ached beneath the phantom sting of the whip on her shoulders. “I should have known better, really.”

“This is no way to live.”

Sam knotted a hand around the comforting grey linen of the drying sundress, the blue properly bled from the fabric now, on its third washing. “You can get used to anything. It’s how human brains are wired.”

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” retorted Mei-Li, scowling ferociously at the formerly-blue frock. “Look, how’s this? Let’s just go back to the Walled City–”

“The Walled City!”

“Relax, I mean the summer before the city fell. I don’t expect you to battle the Hands of Grey. I just want you to meet someone.”

Sam hugged her elbows. “What about work?”

“I’ll compensate you for the day, how’s that? And, bonus, I’ll get you back here say, twenty-five minutes before we met, so you can finish folding the laundry and make it to your work with five minutes to spare. No worries about whips to be had. A good deal, isn’t it?”

It was a good deal. Sam, gnawing at her lip, considered that. “I stopped flying time travelers’ spaceships as a child. I’m not sure I remember how.”

“Silly girl,” cried Mei-Li, seizing Sam’s elbow. “Who do you think is going to be in the pilot’s seat of my own ship?”

Without quite deciding to, Sam tumbled after Mei-Li aboard the time-traveling spaceship, dragged into its blue-glowing depths. The sundress remained behind, half-folded upon the grey and grimy roof.

Claridge of the Klondike

London, 1898

The Solicitor took Father’s will from the hand of an automaton standing next to the desk. He waved the machine away and began reading. “To Euphemia Thorniwork, my Pheemie, my only daughter, I leave whatever money is in my bank account. She is of age, therefore she may receive the bequest without delay. It will contribute towards funding her intended mathematical study. Great things await her.”

Only Father had called me Pheemie. Tears pooled in my eyes at the sound of it spoken in another man’s voice.

The solicitor continued, “I have faith that she will devise a way of paying for the remainder. I also leave her one of my inventions that may facilitate the matter.” He looked up and removed his pince-nez. “That is all. Despite my urging, your father included no indication as to what that is.”

The following day, I tried to poach an egg for lunch. It appeared that, contrary to all Father had taught me about chemistry, it is possible to burn water. As I scraped the cinders into the bin, I was interrupted by a knock on the front door.

A figure stood outside, the shape and size of a man but constructed of bronze. It was dressed like a country gentleman, with a black band tied around the upper right arm. The face, with a slit for the mouth to enable the voice to project, was smooth. Engraved curlicues above its eyes imitated eyebrows. According to the copperplate letters engraved on its forehead in Father’s handwriting, its name was Claridge. Its green glass eyes fixed mine. “My master – your late father – required that I reside with you as your adviser.”

I took a step back. “Adviser? How can an automaton get me to Oxford University?”

“I have faith that we will devise a way of achieving it.”

My first instinct was to turn the thing away. I hesitated and the bronze man stuck its foot in the path of the door as I made to close it.

“My master created me to learn and grow from my surroundings.”

“I must consider this.”

“He also taught me to cook.”

“Can you poach an egg?”

“It is elementary.”

“Then come inside.” I shut the door behind it. “Where is your key?” I could not see the winding port situated in the head that all automatons required.

“I am powered by a form of battery.” It raised its shirt, revealing a glass panel in its abdomen, fitted with a small brass tap. Inside, two polished metal plates hung in clear liquid. It explained that its brain was a wax cylinder inside its head. “That is where my programming, which tells me how to see the world and how to react, is stored. All my knowledge, my learned behavior and my skills, are etched into logical circuits in the cylinder, ready to be accessed.”

I heard Father’s voice in my mind: “Pheemie! The beauty of numbers, the magic of the sphere!”

“Did my Father scratch science and mathematics into your cylinder?”

It was fortunate that no others would observe my engaging in chit chat with an automaton. Our neighbors were keen observers of social propriety.

It nodded. “After my master taught me literacy, he made me commit his library to memory.”

“All of it?”

“Yes. Of course, it includes many mathematical texts, but my preference is for chemistry. It is easiest to process.”

“I feel that his library connects me to him,” I blurted. “I know it is not in your programming to feel. I am sorry if I… the fact of the matter is that I am still…”

“A period of grieving is within logical parameters. I have computed that his passing was a loss to the world of science, and to you.”

While one could not hold discussions with machines, it might provide a useful method of retrieving information from the library. “You may stay.”

The Unfoundary

“Old man, what’s that up there?”

“The Unfoundary?”

“You call it that? What is it?”

I frown. It’s a broad gateway high on Thumb Hill. It’s made of tan stone, carved with shapes as old as the Thumb itself, flanked with squared-off pillars and wrapped in cords as wide as I am tall. The binding cords reach up, twined together at the tip of the gateway, and then on beyond our sight into the sky. We can see it from anywhere in the valley, Thumb Hill and the Unfoundary.

“What is it?” the young stranger repeats.

“We call it the Unfoundary,” I reply. “You must not be from around here.”

He shakes his head, which is covered in wavy brown hair. “I’m from the east. Trinlos.”

“Ah, a city. I’ve been there before.”

“You have?” Surprise, perhaps respect. “You traveled a long way, old man.”

“Us both. I hope you didn’t come to see the Unfoundary only, but we don’t have much anything else to see in our valley.”

“You have forests, and snow,” he says, glancing around past the edge of the village. “I’m traveling further south, but I like your village.”

“Fortune to you, then,” I say with a slight bow.

“Tell me, though, what is this Unfoundary? It must be as wide as your whole town!”

I can’t tell whether he means to compliment our scenery or insult our size. “I’d stay off the hillside, if I were you. The Unfoundary is an evil place.”

“What’s evil about it?”

“It’s a place where the dead go–where people sometimes go to die.”

His face shows interest, curiosity. “Trinlos is superstitious, but I didn’t think you westerners were as well.”

I shrug my shoulders. “We stay alive this way. And safe.”

The young man’s intrigued expression fades as he shifts his haversack and stamps his feet for warmth. “I’m not sure how much I believe of your superstition, but it’s interesting, to say the least. Good day to you, old one.”

I grunt. “Safe travels.” What I wouldn’t give some days to travel again. It’s been fifteen years since I so much as climbed the side of the valley.

The day is calm and white–early snowfall from a blank sky. Most of the village stays inside their huts, pungent smoke filtering out through fire holes and the occasional opened door. I see my friend Onór at the side of her hut watching the traveler go.

“You talked to him?” she asks me.

“Yes. He’s from Trinlos–did you know I went there once?”

“Where haven’t you gone?” Onór asks with a faint smile. “I think you’ve had too many years with not enough work to do.”

Perhaps she’s right–I’m five years older than anyone else in the village–forty-five older than most. Some of them have never left the valley. Most have never left sight of it, never seen a city or a sheer mountain or the sea. It’s strange to be the old one.

“Where’s he headed to now?”

“South,” I reply. “Probably looking for money.”

“There’s no riches worth leaving a safe warm hearth for this time of year.”

“Maybe.”

Onór sees my eyes following the traveler onto the forested slope of the valley. “Oh, did you want to go with him?” she asks dryly. “Poor old dog. I think your travels are done now.”

“Maybe,” I say again, with an idea shaping in my mind.

A God’s Song

It was a beautiful day when the priests invaded our home. Cloaked in prayer and singing hymns, they shaped our natural environment to suit their bodies. The clergy bent pieces of space-time into rock and water; they forced our bodies that were so used to existing as incorporeal concepts into something they could understand. They defined what we could be until it was what we were.

I remember raging with my family at the rudeness of it all. But, like the others, I calmed as the priests spoke.

They spoke of their home far away and the evil that plagued it. A place filled with fear, anger, hostility, and those who had given up. The priests begged anyone who would listen to go back with them—help them heal their sick and teach them how to care for those who had wandered from the faith. Even now, looking back on it, I’d have made the same decision. There was no way to know. No way to tell just how misguided and cruel they’d turn out to be.


The night before I left, my family and I sang and danced in the stellar fields above the place we called home. It was a song my mother had taught me when I was newly created. A simple four-note melody that echoed across space and filled me with the love and joy of fond memories. It was a reminder of where I’d come from and where I’d go. She told me to hum that song whenever I missed her and to sing with the glory of our pantheon if I ever needed them. “We’ll find you,” she told me, “and we’ll bring you back home.”

Dawn came and I left the undefined reality of home and crossed into the small pocket of physical space where the priests were waiting. They led me to their ship that was docked nearby (their bodies couldn’t yet handle the pressure of conceptual space).

They ushered me inside and sealed the outer walls. The priests gathered around me and filled the air with their echoing chant as they led me deeper into the bowels of the vessel. I felt my new body wrap around me, defining my form and twisting me into a new shape even as I fought against it.

I felt myself diminish with each step. I couldn’t hear the yawning cosmos or feel the subatomic explosions dance across my thoughts. I should have turned and fled. I should have sung my mother’s song and had my brothers and sisters tear this ship apart.

Sinkholes

Us, Spawns

“I guess this is not the right day for a sponge.”

“Is there a right day?”

“Must be. A rainy day won’t let me walk past the corner, makes me feel all fat and bloated. A sunny day will turn me into a raisin, old and used up. A windy day now-”

“Got it.”

Their room does not catch the sun, constantly washed in sterile, fluorescent light. Creased sheets, stranger-stained, on two single beds nailed together. As cheap as it gets. Ten euros an hour and twenty a night. The clock is ticking Coca Cola time on the beige wall.

The Lord of Dead Ends blows a perfect circle of smoke towards the ceiling. He cracks his fingers and cautiously leans back against the headboard.

“We need to get going,” says Sponge the Bright, fishing the last crisps from the bottom of the bag.

“You’ll smell like crisps for days,” the Lord of Dead Ends says and grabs the bag from his hands. The TV burps a tulip of purple steam as he turns it off; its cogs grunt and stop.

“Fine. And you get dressed. It takes ages to wrap you up and our first shift starts in an hour.”

“Right.” The Lord of Dead Ends unfolds his long limbs and stretches throwing his head back, hair tickling his waist. His padded full-body suit hangs limp on the coat rack, black. When he wears it he feels like it’s swallowing him up, every inch of his dazzling white skin. It still leaves the face uncovered, though. When you are made of porcelain, there are only so many precautions you can take. “You know this job won’t last either, so don’t keep your hopes up.” He zips the suit up, testing it for spots where the padding has thinned, it seems fine. “There is a reason I am called the Lord of Dead Ends.”

Sponge the Bright snorts and jumps around as he tries to squeeze his fluffy arms into the sleeves of his coat. “I really need to get a cloak next time,” he says, fumbling to button up and failing. The Lord of Dead Ends stifles a chuckle and stubs his cigarette in the astray.

“Shit,” he says, leaning towards the window, looking up. “You were right. It’s this fucking poisonous rain again. I’ll get the umbrellas.”

Office Hygiene

“Grrreg! Come in here.”

I hated how he rolled his Rs. It always made my skin crawl. This time it also made me chomp down on my tongue. Made it bleed.

I swallowed my blood with a wince. God, I hoped he couldn’t smell it. But I knew he could. He could smell everything. The worst thing about having a wolf for a boss, worse than the rolled Rs, worse than the trails of saliva down the corridors and in the break room, was his sense of smell. I learned early on, and learned the hard way, to forgo steaks for dinner, even on weekends. He’d always get a whiff of it the following day, and he’d be on me like…well, like a wolf.

My sense of smell, unfortunately, though not on par with a wolf’s, was still quite keen. I opened the door to his office and the stench churned my stomach. Don’t vomit again! Don’t vomit. Don’t vomit.

“Yes, Boss. What is it, Boss?”

“Congrrratulations.” His tongue swiped his teeth and gums as if lapping up the saliva-ladened syllables that dripped from his mouth.

I managed, quite convincingly, to contain my enthusiasm. I deserved that promotion. He wasn’t doing me any favors. “Thank you, Sir.”

“You’re going to be Simon’s right hand man.”

“Simon?” That incompetent suck up!

“Yes, Simon!” My boss’s tail rose from behind his chair, swished back and forth, and smacked the phone on his desk, knocking over the receiver. “Every good project manager needs an excellent project manager’s assistant.”

If, by good project manager, he meant an opportunistic buffoon whose only contribution was daily bison scraps, then yes, Simon did deserve the promotion. I bit down on my disappointment. “Thank you, Sir. Will there be anything else, Sir?”

“Yes. Don’t tell Simon until after lunch. I want to give him the good news myself.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Oh, and speaking of lunch. No more antelope. I’m sick of antelope. Order me elk. I have a craving for elk today.”

“Yes, Sir.” I turned to step out of his office, then like the ‘excellent assistant’ that I was, I turned back. “It’s just that…”

“It’s just, what?” His tail swiped the desk and sent some papers to the floor–my efficiency report!

“It’s just that they take so long to deliver elk. Perhaps I could…” I paused for dramatic effect and feigned to be intimidated by his beady black eyes.

“Perhaps you could what? Spit it out!”

“Perhaps I could put in the elk order for tomorrow. Then it’d be sure to arrive on time.”

His smile, if you could call it a smile, stretched behind his perked up ears. He showed me his fangs. His tongue flapped out of the side of his mouth, and he made no attempt to keep the saliva from dripping out. “Elk meat, today!”

“Yes, Sir. Will do, Sir.” I slipped out, shut the door behind me, and took a deep breath of slightly less repugnant air.


Quarter past one and the tension in the office was palpable. No one dared leave for lunch before the boss got his. I picked up my phone and made the call. “Listen, Simon. The boss needs to see you.”

I barely had the time to hang up the receiver before Simon came parading by my cubicle. He gave me a nod. I scrunched my nose and turned my head in rehearsed disgust. “P.U.!” I fanned my face. “Hell, Simon. What happened to you?”

He stopped dead in his tracks–might as well have been a deer in my headlights. “What? What do you mean?”

“I mean that smell.” I pinched my nose with one hand, with the other I pulled the flask out of my desk drawer and handed it to him. “Don’t go in there like that. Here, spray a bit of this on you first.”

He undid the cap and took a whiff–as if he could tell shit from Chanel!

“What is it?”

“It’s what you need.” I waved him away, my other hand still covering my nose. “Now hurry up before I get sick and the boss gets impatient.”

He sprayed his neck–Perfect spot. Good choice, Simon.–handed me back the flask with a smile, and headed for the boss’s office.

Elk urine had never smelled so sweet.

I put the flask back in the drawer, retrieved the other one–Cognac–and strutted down to Cindy’s cubicle. Her cubicle had a much better view of the boss’s office than mine–just off to the side of the glass partition. I passed yet another intern on the way. I smiled at him since I was, after all, glad to see him. Even though we hadn’t had a mauling in months, it’s always handy to have a few interns around just in case.

“What’s up?” asked Cindy.

I plopped myself on her desk and spun around so I could get a good view of the boss’s office. “How’s the new intern working out for you?” I asked.

“Not bad. Not bad.”

I opened the flask, took a sip, and handed it to Cindy.

“Says he enjoys the job and can’t wait to get his hands dirty,” she added.

I chuckled. Even though it was a shit job with a wolf for a boss, sometimes things seemed to work out for everyone–well, almost everyone.

“Thanks. What are we drinking to?”

“The sweet smell of success, Cindy. The sweet smell of success.”

Kami No Kariudo

The Amenonuhoko cut through the space between worlds like a blade through grass. Nichibotsu stood on the observation deck, staring out into the shifting darkness. Space folded in on itself, manipulated into an endless interstellar origami by the ship’s drive plates, lurching forward towards its final destination in an erratic series of jumps.
A crewman appeared at the top of the stairs and briskly approached.
“Well?” Nichibotsu enquired impatiently.
“We estimate planetfall in just over twenty minutes” the crewman replied in a voice that matched his Captain’s exactly.
Nichibotsu turned and stared into his reflection’s face, noting the proud stance.
“Good” he observed, “the ship will remain in orbit whilst I complete my task.”
The crewman bowed in acknowledgement and returned to his station. Nichibotsu surveyed the throng of doppelgangers working below. Blister clones had their uses he acknowledged. Not only had they removed the need to take on fresh crew during his centuries-long voyage, but more than once these curious biomimetics had saved his life, sacrificing themselves beneath the wrath of tempestuous gods. Eternals rarely went quietly when confronted with death, and most had chosen to take as many with them as possible when forced to relinquish their hold on reality.
Outside, stars slowly emerged from the blur of movement. Nichibotsu sensed the deceleration long before the deck began to shudder and by the time the Amenonuhoko dropped into orbit, he was striding purposefully across the flight deck towards the forward section.
His First Lieutenant appeared at his side, falling neatly into step as the two men descended through the bowels of the ship. ‘One’ was the most long-lived of his replicas and second in command, having been transcribed from Nichibotsu at a much younger age. The man’s handsome features were obscured though by a mesh of melted flesh which covered one side of his face and his shoulder; a parting gift from another vengeful God.
One eyed his Captain with a calm gaze that perfectly illustrated his understanding of the situation.
“I’ll be transporting down to the surface in a few moments,” Nichibotsu instructed. “If I do not return within the hour, you know what to do?”
The clone nodded his compliance and handed Nichibotsu a small pad.
“Core Imploders are primed and ready to launch, sir. Rift Incendiaries are also prepped, just in case the target attempts to leave the system.”
Nichibotsu smiled narrowly.
“Efficient as always.”
“Would you expect anything less, Sir?”
“Indeed I would not.”
The two men exchanged a brief salute, followed by a formal bow more befitting of their heritage before One took his leave and strode back towards the bridge.
Nichibotsu ran a practised eye across his armour and regalia, checking both were intact. His hand traced the carvings of his cuirass and came to rest atop the hilt of Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the larger of the two swords slung at his hip. The weapon was the last vestige of his heritage and he still felt the pull of the past whenever he laid a hand atop the accursed blade.
Nichibotsu remembered the first time he had drawn the sword from its scabbard: Susanoo’s gurgling cry of rage as he died, choking on his own blood and treachery. Nichibotsu could not outrun the shame of his betrayal, but at least with the storm god’s death, he had been assured that the accursed deity would join his murdered sister in Jigoku.
The strange properties of the blade continued to imbue him with near limitless longevity, but the truth which festered at his core would ensure he never outlived his guilt. Even now, with the end of his task at hand, the ancient Samurai could not escape the knowledge that he would forever be Ronin, cursed to wander the stars without master or honour.
Coolant gas hissed conspiratorially as he entered the transmission chamber, stepping briskly up onto the projector. The operator offered a grim salute before keying in the start-up program.
“Do not trouble yourself with thoughts of victory or defeat…” the technician announced solemnly, without looking up.
“… but instead plunge recklessly towards irrational death” Nichibotsu finished, acknowledging the proverb.
Thoughts of belief and subservience entwined like angry serpents as he reminded himself of the most important advantage which his stem-grown crew bestowed: that of blind obedience. An alternative band of hard-bitten organics or pre-assembled mercs would have looked up to him. Through numerous battles they would have learned to trust his judgment and his leadership. In time, they would have come to worship him and that, he could never allow.
Idolatry – the word made him sick, so symbolic of that which he sought to expunge. Faith was the double-edged sword which Nichibotsu now wielded. Though followers of any denomination needed their gods, so was the reverse also true. Nichibotsu had learned to see past the obscura of dogma and tenet to realise the true fragility which lay at the core of each god: that their power was entirely dependant upon the faith bestowed by their followers. Take an immortal’s allegiance, tear down the obsequious flesh of his disciples till he stood truly alone and you exposed the puny truth of his heart – a heart which could be punctured by any common blade and bled dry. The hatch snapped shut, leaving Nichibotsu alone in the mist of swirling gas to await transport.
For years he had hunted them – destroyed worlds as he sought to rob his prey of their defences. He had constructed vast weapons of destruction: orbital platforms and pan-dimensional atomics to wage his private vendetta, transgenic scout ships with which to scour the galaxy from one end to the other, watching his once omnipotent quarry scurry away. Some had gone quietly, unable to grasp the incumbent reality of their end. Others had stood their ground, hurling petty flame and brimstone in his path till the skies burned red and crackled with fire. Nichibotsu had not cared. He had robbed each of their essence, on their feet or their knees, drinking their dark power and growing stronger with each victory.

When Bloodwater Boils

Thirsty are the lips that taste the ocean. Sick is the belly that braves the stream. Dirty are the hands that bathe in bloodwater.

It had been one of his mother’s favorite things to say. What it meant would depend on the occasion. It could mean: you shouldn’t have drunk that, it’ll make you sick. Or: whatever trouble it is you’re in, you have only yourself to blame. She also could mean it literally. As in: don’t touch the bloodwater, it’ll dirty your hands.

But Nisean had weak arms, which meant he was no good for the mines. His sight was too poor for the rangers. He couldn’t read or write, and in any case, the shopkeepers had never liked the looks of him, with his filthy black hair and that scar from lip to chin where a horse had once kicked him. He looked like the sort that would rob them blind. And he might have, if it came down to it.

But there was money in bloodwater. Even for a boy with no skills.

It wouldn’t be the first time he’d ignored his mother’s advice.


The old man sniffed suspiciously at the day’s catch, which Nisean carefully laid out across his counter. He had wrapped them in his own undershirts, since he had no paper.

“What did you bring me?” the merchant demanded, though the answer was plain. They were fish, but not ordinary fish. Their scales sparkled green, with flashes of red when they caught the sun at the right angle.

“If you can name them,” the boy answered, “then you know your fish better than me. I’ve never seen the like.”

Nisean was thirteen. He was tall for his age, but his voice was still high and thin.

“Three coppers?” the man demanded skeptically, his eyes directed to the scales, as if the fish themselves might name their price.

“Six,” Nisean countered.

“Six!” the man repeated, “Six if they swallowed your mother’s pearls. What would you say to four?”

Nisean nodded hesitantly.

“You’ve robbed me!” the man cried with feigned bitterness. Then he dropped the coins onto the counter one at a time. They clattered noisily against the wood.

The boy smiled. He had no way of knowing the fish were worth five times that sum. He was on his own now, and he had to make do with what wits were left to him.

Lies About Your Better Self

I watched Amanda eat. Some celebrity chef had launched a high-end restaurant by her office, so she and some ad agency colleagues had gone to check out the opening.

Her food was amazing. She had this tic where she clenched the muscles up where her jaw met her ears. She only did that when she was eating something really good, like she was fighting to keep the flavor in her mouth.

I clicked my trackball, pausing the footage and freezing Amanda with a perfectly-balanced forkful of something green and frondy halfway to her mouth, already composing the caption in my head. People came to this job thinking they’d get a deeper appreciation of life, vicariously experiencing what they’d never have. They learned fast.

I strobed through Amanda’s afternoon. She had a campaign photoshoot, her first time at the helm of a major project. I swiped off stills and marked out clips of Amanda directing the models. She kept tucking her hair behind her ears — she did that when hiding nerves — but she looked authoritative, a natural. People would eat this up. Behind-the-scenes posts from Amanda’s job always got strong Attention Capture, especially when models were involved.

I grabbed my picks and assembled a photo collage, a few video montages for the weekly “Look Back”, and some hashtagged text-under-photo posts, then dropped them into the queue for publishing. Some clients insisted on approving everything we posted to their social feeds, but Amanda trusted us.

I was closing up when a fresh dataload hit my inbox. Every dataload was a melange of the unstructured digital detritus we crap out every day. Social posts, location data, streaming tracks, cat videos; everything we cram into our faces to make our existence a little more bearable. The YouPlus app on Amanda’s phone slurped up all of that for us. Like most YouPlus clients, she also wore a LifeCam, which grabbed stills and video at irregular intervals based on situationally-aware algorithms. A couple of times a day, I received a voyeur’s wet dream, a barely-filtered glimpse into the lives of half a dozen in-crowd clients.

At first, it was thrilling; deep access to the lives of people so far beyond me in the social pecking order –people who could afford to pay YouPlus more than my annual salary each month to optimize their online self-image.

The thrill faded fast. Seeing how the other half lived threw my life into sharper relief, and their obsession with sculpting the perfect online persona — not professionally, but to their friends — made me despair. The only thing that kept me here was Amanda.

The dataload was marked “high priority”. I was officially off the clock, but Amanda paid premium, and Zed would give me another chewing out if I sat on this until morning. I flicked through the material. It looked routine, not worth fast-tracking, until— There. Harvey, down on one knee, holding up a glittering rock big enough to brain a four-year-old. Video from Amanda’s POV, plus a side view from Harvey’s phone, carefully placed to capture the moment from a flattering angle.

I grinned. This had been a long time coming. I’d watched Harvey through Amanda’s lens long enough to have spotted the signs weeks ago, and I’d been looking forward to watching her kick the asshole to the curb. The worst of their fights, his gaslighting and psych-out manipulation never made the feeds, but, even in the narrative, their relationship had been up and down all year; it just needed a catalyst to get her to drop the bastard. I skipped over his speech, looking for the moneyshot.

She said yes.

I sat there, mouth open. Why would she say yes? She finally had the chance to be shot of him, a perfect trigger to kick out the man who made her so unhappy, and she said yes?

Amanda was the only one who still gave me hope. She was real, even through the repackaged self of the social media lens; there was a vulnerability at her heart that let me feel, deep down, that we weren’t that different. She wasn’t like the others, the Fauxialites who’d do anything for their dopamine hit of attention. They might as well have been another species. Homo Narcissus. That was why Amanda’s narrative worked so well — it had a real person at its heart. The Amanda I knew would never have said yes.

I hovered my hand over the trackball, flexing my fingers, thinking; waiting. I had more than enough material stored up. Ball and screen blurred as I pulled up half a dozen old dataloads, searching for the right pieces.

I could fix this.

Wanted

At fifteen, her heart got tired of wanting things. At least if you asked her to pinpoint when it all went down, that’s what she’d say. That year, Tad Gardner, Chance Philmont, and James Adams had dumped her, launching her into a string of hours spent locking the bathroom door and turning the sink up full-blast—tricks she’d inherited from ballet class. She’d snapped the curdled-milk pearl necklace her mother gave her and thrown the rocks so hard they’d plunked against the pink pastoral wallpaper in her living room like firing bullets. She’d glued her lips together with Elmer’s No Mess before school each morning and painted them jet. She’d shaved the thinning hair patches from her head and declared juvenile emancipation and tattooed two crooked lines above each knuckle of her right hand. Why two? Why lines? Why the right hand? Well, why the hell not. She’d blab about them representing something—siblings, boyfriends, spiritual conversions—later in life, as all good citizens with tattoos do, but, really, a crooked line is a crooked line. They didn’t mean anything.

But to say three middle-school boys stopped a beating heart seems irrational. Impossible, even, considering only ten percent know how to zip their flies and the other ninety percent equate their waists with their knees—pull up your pants, kid, please. In reality though, hope and wanting had begun to feel as dirty as kitchen sink water after a meat spaghetti dinner long before age fifteen. When did hoping, wanting ever do any good, really? As a child she’d wanted a lot of little things—soft caramel-chocolate bars suited in purple foil; the silver unicorn stuffed animal at that carnival; a ride on the cheetah at the zoo carousel. As she grew up she’d wanted a lot of big things, abstract things like love and beauty and friendship and even book smarts from time to time. But she never got anything. Three boys dumped her in a year. Some brat in a beret cried until she gave up her seat on the cheetah.

So when the doctor offered to remove her heart at age sixteen for a wad of cash, she said yeah, go for it. They took the bloody mass out and replaced it with some sort of metal cog thing—she couldn’t remember what it was called. And she hadn’t wanted anything since. Until now, that is. Now, she wanted something. She wanted out of this damn shit-pot of a circular prison.

She looked at her pointer finger, bitten to chunks of skin and blood. She pressed it against the stone and slid down, almost missing the scrap of long French-tipped nails. Nine hundred slashes of red caked the wall. One hundred more remained to be drawn. Then she would leave this place.

A guard stalked past, and the slat in the glass door grated open. A bowl clambered toward her, bouncing when it smacked the cracks in the cement. She scrambled forward, scooped it into her lap, and dipped her finger into the grey puddle. The blood on her finger salted the mush, and for a minute she could almost force herself to think it tasted good, a kind of low-quality good, you know, like canned sardines or cheap dried kale. Her butterfly lungs beat and fluttered. She choked out a cough.

She stared out the windowed wall at the watchtower that grew from the center of the panopticon. They were watching; she was sure of it, even though she couldn’t see them. God, they were always watching. They had probably watched her draw her mark on the wall and written it down—silent notes kept in a little book of her behaviors. You couldn’t get away with anything here. Her eyes glazed, blurring black rock and brown and windowpane, and she shoveled the grainy goop into her mouth, letting the liquid dribbles sting her chapped lips. When she got out of here, she was jetting to Paris and going to that pastry shop, that one in Marais with the lemon madeleines, warm as sunset and honey-buttered, and the mille feuilles that exploded chocolate and custard with each forkful—if you had the patience and politeness to use a fork, that is. She couldn’t remember the name of the place, but she’d find it. And then she’d sit at some restaurant, the priciest one around, and she’d eat mutton so soaked in cream it melted at the touch of your tongue like a sixteen-year old school boy.

Her teeth sank down into a phantom mutton morsel, accidentally clamping onto her finger instead. She wrenched it out, coughed, and spat pink-tinted spit.

She shouldn’t have killed him, she supposed. Then she wouldn’t be trapped suffocating in a two by four half-glass box. But she’d spent her life suffocated. She’d gotten tired of that doctor stalking after her for the past ten years. He’d taken out her heart, sure, but that didn’t give him the right to monitor her every action. Lord, she couldn’t even eat a jam sandwich without him noting her heart palpitations down in that damn yellow, blue-lined notepad. Pity he didn’t note the speed of her heart when she imagined smashing his glasses into his face every night as he watched her sleeping. Maybe then that frown of surprise wouldn’t have flashed on his face when she’d finally lost it. And now, they—the other doctors, the government, someone—had thrown her in here as punishment. Because there’s no better way to monitor your pet project than by throwing it in jail.

They were watching her now; she could feel the eyes piercing from the watchtower into her cell, into her body. She shook her head, crusted hair scratching her cheeks, and crawled into the corner as far from the tower as she could get. It didn’t matter how she got into this place. It was just another mistake, just a mangled body. All that mattered was one hundred more days. She leaned her head back to rest against the wall as the dank air crept into her lungs. Her throat throttled out another cough.

Her eyes fell shut; her mind unleashed itself to indulge in imaginings. In one hundred days she’d have a washing machine and a dryer and a queen-sized mattress and a toaster. In one hundred days she’d lie in the sun and feel its heat bite into her translucent skin while she poured strawberry margaritas down her throat. In one hundred days she’d walk into a fluorescent white-lit supermarket at midnight and she’d buy a bag of cheese-coated corn chips and a bottle of diet cola. And some cough medicine. The thought tickled at the metal, machine-filled cavity in her chest. If she had a heart, it’d be bloated with rushing blood and heat—hope, if you’d like to assign a word to the feeling.

She didn’t have the strength to smash the feeling down, to wrap her fingers around it and squeeze until it smothered down into the usual dull emptiness, angst, and overall eye-rolling boredom. Her eyes drifted to the ceiling a leg span from her head, and she thought about calling to whatever deity sat around up there. Maybe if she said thanks for putting me in here, it’d find a way to reduce her sentence. Maybe it’d sweep down and gather her up and take her to the clouds. She laughed. She coughed.

A scream raked her ears, sending prickling hot shivers down her arms. She crawled to the door and pressed her ear against the glass. Booted feet slapped against the floor outside on level two, the level below her cell. She couldn’t see them. They could see her from their tower, but she couldn’t see them. She could never see them. But she heard the scratch of coarse, swishing fabric—guards, off to regulate the cause of the shout. The feet stopped.

“Oh my god.”

“Do you . . . do you think? No, that’s not possible. Nah. It couldn’t be.”

“I don’t know. Looks like it to me.”

The voices dropped to a murmur, low and deep as a heartbeat. She pushed her cheek against the door and closed her eyes as if cutting off that worthless sense would improve her hearing. It didn’t. But her ears snagged one word—doctor. And then the boots shuffled away to some other side of the circle. A door slammed.

She slunk back into the shadowed corner. She’d known her fair share of doctors. When she was ten, she jumped from the top of the school monkey bars and crushed the edge of her foot. A doctor gave her crutches. When she was twelve, she danced on the top of a counter, slipped, and slit her jaw a pinkie fingertip deep. A doctor gave her stitches. And when she was sixteen, of course, a doctor cut out her heart. They’d called it a miracle. Somebody could live with a machine for a heart, yet remain human in most of the other ways—blood, nerves, broken bones. And maybe it was a miracle, though she hadn’t done it to be called miraculous; she did it for the thousand-dollar cash reward advertised by a monotone-voiced man on the radio. They’d wanted to manufacture more like her. Apparently machines last—live—longer than regular humans, and what’s a successful society if not a close to immortal one? God was immortal. We should be too. They’d failed though. She’d heard that people had died seizuring during the operation—the doctors couldn’t figure out what it was about her metal heart that made it stick, that made it compatible with all the rest of her humanness.

A door slammed. Feet shuffled. A cough. She crawled to the window-door. A silence thick as rye bread flooded the air.

“Well, is it?” a voice, a guard, asked.

She waited for the response, but heard nothing. The doctor was nodding, perhaps, or shaking his head.

“Oh god.”

The doctor had nodded, then. But about what?

“Oh god, oh god. This, no, but, but, I thought? What’s going to happen to us? What can we do about it?”

“Nothing. We can’t do anything about it,” the doctor said.

She ripped her head from the door and punched her knuckles into its surface. “What the hell is going on out there? What can’t we do anything about?”

No response. So they didn’t think she deserved to know? Like hell was she going to accept silence. She kept punching, wrists crunching, popping with each hit. The glass shook, but held firm. The hall vibrated with echoes deep as tribal war drums as the other inmates, each trapped in their hovel windowed hells, joined her song.

A guard rounded the corner. She stood, meeting his heavy-lidded eyes.

“Shut the hell up,” he said, “You’re causing problems. They saw you start this from the watchtower.”

“You shut the hell up. I wouldn’t have yelled if I hadn’t heard the panic below us. What’s going on down there?”

“An inmate died, that’s all.”

“You seriously expect me to believe that shit? One of you guards was having a panic attack, and somebody went for a doctor. What was all that for?”

“I told you. An inmate died.” The guard coughed. “That’s all.”

“Died of what?”

“People die here, that’s the nature of the institution. I would’ve thought you’d been in that box long enough to figure that out by now.”

“Yeah, I have been in this box long enough to figure that out. And I’m getting out soon enough, too.”

His chin tipped up as he laughed. He laughed and laughed and then coughed.

“What?”

“I can tell you one thing: you’re not leaving.”

“What?”

“You’re not leaving.”

“But my sentence is up in one hundred days! You can’t keep me here. By law you can’t make me stay here.”

He shook his head. “You’re not leaving. I’m not leaving. And we’ll be long dried up dead by one hundred days.”

She coughed.

He nodded. “Long dried up dead, I tell you. You think you’re so invincible, so much better than the rest of us with that little machine heart, but in a few days that machine heart will be the only thing left of you. The cough’s the beginning.”

“I don’t understand what the hell you’re talking about,” she said. “Is this about the inmate that died downstairs?”

He nodded.

A pit knotted in her stomach, she tried coughing it out like a hairball, but nothing could dislodge the squeezing sensation. “What did he die of? Are you going to tell me?”

“Tuberculosis.”

“That blood coughing disease that all those artists died from? They have medicine for that these days.”

“Not for this strain. It broke out last week in a village thirty miles north of here, the one where we get our milk. It wiped away the place in three days. Drugs did nothing.”

“And now it’s here,” she said, her mouth dry as honey oat granola.

“They’re putting the whole prison under quarantine. Nobody leaves or more of the world gets infected.”

“So we’re all just going to die here? You can’t do that! You can’t make me stay longer than one hundred days!”

“I already told you that you’ll be dead by then. You’re infected already. I can hear it in your breath.”

She swallowed gulps of air, fighting the pulsing cough creeping into her lungs. “No. I’m getting out. I’m getting out and going to Paris and eating pastries.”

“How do you think you’re getting out?”

“I’ll kill myself.”

“And we’ll stop you. We’ll see you.” He pointed to the watchtower. “You never know when they’re watching you, and so they’re always watching you.”

She stared at his steel grey eyes. “Don’t you want to get out? Don’t you have a family to go home to? You’ll never see them again.”

He blinked. “Sometimes we must lose the weak to become strong.”

She’d never been the weak one before. Never. She’d cut her heart out so that she would never be the weak one. Yet, here she was, stuck in a glass jail box. She looked up. “At least we’ll die together, the jailed and the jailor. Sounds like karma to me. You’ve heard the phrase. What goes around comes around.”

“Maybe. But at least I get a bed and three bowls of soup for dinner.”

He turned and walked away, disappearing down the circle’s edge. She coughed, and her hand swept to cover her mouth. She pulled her fingers away, staring at the bloodstained skeins of mucus coating her palm. And she knew that no amount of hope and wanting Parisian pastries could save her.


Two men stepped over a body.

“God, it’s creepy in here. There are skeletons everywhere. Are you sure it’s safe? We’re not going to catch anything?”

“It’s safe, I’m sure.”

The man looked at the watchtower. “I feel like someone’s watching us.”

“They’re all dead.”

“Fine. But let’s get out of here as soon as we can. Where was her cell?”

“Listen.”

The two men stopped. The stale air stank of mold and death. They listened. And then they heard it, the tick clink of a cog, a beating mechanical heart.

“Up there.”

They walked up the stairs and entered one of the glass boxes. A skeleton rotted into the floor, a metal box wrapped in its ribcage. One of the men reached down and picked the contraption up.

“Here it is. It’s still good. We’ll try putting it in someone else.”