Category Archives: Science Fiction

A Brief Justification for a Small Nuclear Holocaust

It works perfectly because I’m the last person on Earth anyone would suspect of possessing a nuclear weapon. I am a little worried though that I’ve gone past my sense of altruism and am now simply fascinated with killing that many people all at once. Like a mass evacuation from a wildfire that all emergency services completely lost control of, only no one will be sleeping in a YMCA.

The original spark of an idea came from when I read Watchmen. Okay, well, watched the movie, I never actually read the comic. I guess the comics had some weird psychic space squid kill a bunch of people. I can’t blame them from changing that to the movie. A mass nuclear explosion feels far more real. But it wasn’t the atomic explosion itself that inspired my new endeavour. Rather, why the true hero of the book, Ozymandias, decided that many people had to die.

Acquiring a nuclear weapons is remarkably easy. Well, if you watch the right documentaries, it’s remarkably easy. I watched a documentary on the Vice website and they were following some Middle Eastern arms dealers around, getting their stories and showing their relatable human side. Once such arms dealer was going to sell Osama bin Laden a nuclear bomb. Bin Laden went into hiding, and subsequently died, while this dealer was holding the bomb for him. He buried it in the garden of his back yard. He still had it when I emailed him.

The nice thing about working in information technology is that if it exists on the internet, I know how to find it. You average Netflix gawking and free porn wanking internet user wouldn’t have been able to find this guy’s contact information. Despite his appearance on the Vice documentary, I feel more comfortable giving this guy an alias. Let’s call him Walter. So, normal Google searches would never turn up Walter’s email address. But, there are a ton of websites that Google searches can’t reach. Most people call it the Dark Web and treat it like this ominous presence where only the strangest and most depraved content exists. Frankly, it’s mostly made up of conversation forums. Sure, those forums trade around some fucked up shit that either no one wants to see or will land you in jail. Otherwise, it’s pretty boring and most people who download an onion browser get bored within about thirty minutes.

Amongst the fucked up shit being traded around on some of these forums are quite sophisticated weapons. A lot of people speculate that this is how some independent research firms make extra side cash when military contracts aren’t paying enough. They also speculate that this is how said arms manufacturers dispose of weapon prototypes that their military contractors didn’t want. Speculation aside, with the right Tor browser and a few carefully placed keywords and I was balls deep in the world of international illegal arms deals.

Knowing that Walter was Arabic, I searched only Arabic forums. A buddy of mine developed a translator software that makes the Google translate app look like a Speak-and-Spell. He wouldn’t tell me how exactly he wrote it. All he would say is that it involved a lot of pirated copies of Rosetta Stone. However he put it together, it worked like a charm and the Arabic arms forums were easy to read and respond to. Everyone on the forums has a username that is 99.9 per cent of the time, not their actual names, so it’s not as if I could just search Walter’s name on the forum to find his contact info. I needed to entice him. I knew that some fundamentalist jargon would come off like an undercover cop, and mentioning bin Laden would only arise more suspicion in me. Knowing that the NSA or any other policing and security agency would never be able to trace these posts back to me, I decided just to go for it straight-ahead.

Wanted: Nuclear Weapons

That was my entire post. Anyone who saw it and had something to offer me could see my forum handle Thompson2929 (yes, I am part of the 0.1 per cent who decided to use part of his real name, but when you have a seriously common name like Thompson, there isn’t a ton to worry about not to mention it’s a name that doesn’t arise a lot of suspicion without it being a dumb name like Boneshredder6969). If you clicked my username, it would bring you to a profile page which included some secure contact information using onion email servers and encrypted messaging apps.

The forum had a few commenters making fun of my post and telling me my search is pointless and that cops like me needed to learn how to work forums better. Two days passed before I got a message from a scrambled number. The message said, “How do I know you’re not CIA?” I thought about all the cop shows I watched where the undercover had to snort a line of coke to prove to the gangsters he wasn’t a cop. That assumption that a cop would never do drugs if he was undercover always seemed so dumb to me. But it’s an assumption that creeps into the real world.

“Send me something that no cop would ever possess,” the message continued.

I’m still not proud of what I did, but I knew being this deep in I had to go all the way. I hopped back on the onion browser, found a kiddie porn forum, used some bitcoin to buy a few photos, and I sent them to Walter. The fact that it took me all of three minutes to buy those photos isn’t what disturbs me so much. It’s how many people were on those forums. Thousands, all exchanging different photos and videos. I won’t go into what I bought and sent over, but it was enough that it made me want to buy a few more nukes.

Walter bought that I wasn’t a cop. The photos did the trick and I did what I could to try and drive the image of them out of my brain. Nothing has worked to help me forget yet. We got messaging back and forth about what I wanted and he asked me if I saw the Vice documentary. I told him yes and he told me how he still has the same nuke and he’s eager to get it off of his hands.

“One million.”

I didn’t doubt the bomb was worth that much, but even on my six-figure salary I couldn’t afford that. I tried negotiating him down, but he was firm on the price.

“One million,” he wrote again. “I won’t take any less than one million dinar.”

Dinar is the Iraqi currency and even with the American dollar tanking as bad as it was, it was still worth a lot more than the dinar. A quick Google search showed me that one million dinar would be around $900. Suddenly, I felt bad, like I was ripping him off because he didn’t know any better. I even sent him a message telling him I did the calculation and asking why he didn’t want more. In short, he told me with his original buyer dead and no one else really wanting one, it was completely useless to him and was just taking up space. It was more of a burden to him now and he wanted it off his hands. Feeling bad, I sent him an even thousand in bitcoins. He was grateful and asked me for a postage address.

“Wait, you’re going to mail it?” I messaged. “How are you going to mail it?”

“What, you think there’s no post offices in Iraq?”

“No, I know there are post offices. But it’s a nuclear weapon. How do you mail one of those?”

“Just trust me. It’s a powerful weapon, but it’s actually not that big. I’ve mailed bigger.”

I wasn’t even thinking about the size of the package. I looked around at my studio apartment and down at my Fiat and panicked trying to figure out where I was going to put a nuclear bomb once it was here. I messaged Walter back asking how a package from Iraq to America was going to get through without thorough inspections. He told me he has friends all over and that he would mail it to one friend, who would then mail it to another friend, and so on until it arrived. It all has to do with safe mailing zones.

He wouldn’t give me the exact locations, but basically a package from Iraq can go to Lebanon, who can then send it to Greece, who then send it to Switzerland, who then send it to England, who then send it to the States. The distances are so short that they don’t get inspected as thoroughly and each of the previous countries are considered enough of an ally that the worry level is low. It took about four months, but the package arrived to the post office two towns over. I bought a P.O. Box there for this very package and any subsequent questionable package I might order.

Walter was right about one thing, it wasn’t that big. The box was about the size and weight of a fridge. All over, fragile stickers were pasted until there was barely any brown cardboard left. I thought for a moment about what would have happened if even a single mail carrier decided not to read the warnings.

It was pointless to bring it back to my apartment. I couldn’t imagine trying to carry it up the stairs to my studio. So I had myself already packed for my trip south. The package fit perfectly into the back of my Fiat. I had to put down the back seats, I could barely see through my back window, and I could feel the shocks on my back wheels drop, but it was in there comfortably.

In Watchmen, Ozymandias sets off his destruction in New York City. In a lot of comics, New York City seems like the centre of the universe. It just seemed too easy to me. Plus the city has such a massive population and it’s such a big city, I felt like the destruction just wouldn’t be felt as much. I even think the 9-11 attacks might have been more impactful if it hit a smaller town. Three thousand people is the entire populations of some towns in the south, and those are some of the bigger towns. New York was just too obvious.

San Antonio Texas is about 745 square miles. One megaton of nuclear explosion will have a blast radius of around eight square miles. The nuclear fallout will run for a few more miles outward depending on the wind, so I will definitely want to be completely out of the city once the blast goes off. Thankfully the bomb in the back of my car has a timer so I’ll be able to set it for long enough ahead that I’ll be out of the state before the explosion. I won’t be able to get completely home, it’s about a thirteen hour drive from my apartment to San Antonio, but I’ll be far enough out that nothing should affect me.

Is it odd that my entire thirteen hour drive I wasn’t once worried about my cargo? I mean, I was worried about being rear-ended and having the bomb go off prematurely. But the highways between states were quiet and the regular check-stops were quick to get through. I’m white, so the military patrol didn’t stop me. I’m not considered a threat to national security. I got the odd question about what was in the back of my car and I would tell them it was a refrigerator and that I bought it on a really good deal during an out of state shopping trip. Without a second question or any further inspection, I was free to go. There were plenty of cars that had been pulled out and torn apart by the military patrol. Families handcuffed with their faces in the dirt, kids with rifle barrels pressed against the sides of their heads. A few years back, there would have been outrage and protests and social media posts with graphic photos and videos. Now, it’s just Tuesday.

I slept in my car once I made it to San Antonio. I had one cop knock on my window and ask me why I was sleeping in my car. I explained to him I just had a long drive and needed some shut eye before I kept going. He asked why I didn’t stay in a hotel and I frankly I was honest with him. I told him I didn’t want to spend the money. It’s not as if I don’t have money, I just don’t like spending it. He seemed to understand. He asked about the giant box in the back of the car and I gave him the fridge story. He told me he was happy that I pulled over to sleep and that he had seen a lot of accidents from people falling asleep at the wheel. I liked this cop for a few moments. After I dropped off the bomb and I was driving out of the city, I saw the same cop with about a dozen others beating on a group of people in the middle of the street. He was using his night stick to beat on a woman and used his free hand to grab at her hijab. I don’t know if he was able to rip it off.

I picked San Antonio for a couple of reasons. It’s fairly well populated, like the seventh most populated city in America, it’s the closest major Texas city to the Mexican border and just a few miles up Highway 35 from Laredo where one of the most brutal detention centres across the Mexican border wall still sits, but the city also has one of the most emotionally charged American monuments and that’s exactly where I left the giant box in the back of my car.

The Alamo didn’t have a parking lot. But, there was some underground parking a few blocks away. I figured it would be close enough to get my points across. There was also a car rental shop just a couple blocks from where I parked my car. It was perfect. I said goodbye to my Fiat, which I did love but would eventually report as stolen and the wreckage from the blast site was so vast that nothing was recognizable, let alone a sub-compact car left in a parkade. I would get enough from my insurance from it being stolen that I could afford to buy another without dipping too much into my back account. But I did love that car.

From one car to another, I got a Volks Wagon Bug from the rental shop, left San Antonio, and drove west rather than the North that would take me home. I set enough time on the bomb that I would be far enough away by the time the blast happened. I followed Highway 10 and stopped in El Paso, eight hours exact before the bomb went off. I was sitting on the patio of a small cafe when the explosion happened. I imagined it would come on the TV news, but all I had to do was look east and I could see the mushroom could climbing upwards into the sky. I measured the bomb, based on its size, at about one megaton. It turned out to be one-hundred megatons. 800 square miles, gone in a flash. San Antonio was completely wiped off the map.

Towards the end of Watchmen, Ozymandias gives Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl, and Silver Spectre an explanation as to why he wanted to kill so many people in New York City. Ozymanias wasn’t an evil person, in fact he was the smartest person on Earth in the comic. In the story, America and the Soviet Union come extremely close to complete nuclear war. A war, Ozymandias knew, would cost billions of people their lives. The two countries were perfect ideological enemies and with every inch closer they came to nuclear war, Ozymandias knew he had to make a tough decision that no one else would be brave enough to make or smart enough to conceive. He made a new enemy. An enemy that both warring sides could agree to fight against. A uniting force in the most common base language humans can understand: mass violence. That’s why San Antonio isn’t on the map anymore.

One country was attempting to marginalize and abuse people who make up a very large chunk of the world’s population. It’s not even one religion or one region’s immigrant population that they completely demonized. So many people were falling under the fist of an unjust martial law in this country and it was only a matter of time before all of these countries that America named as enemies would band together and perpetrate acts of war much worse than what I did. I made sure that none of these countries could be blamed for what happened in San Antonio. I made sure a whole new enemy was created that could unite more people together. But, as I watched the mushroom cloud in the distance, I had my first pang of doubt. What if this would create a witch hunt? What if someone tried to claim responsibility? What would media report on? What would government officials accept as truth? These were all questions I should have been asking myself before I bought a nuclear weapon. But it was too late. However history would play out from here was out of my control, but I also had to own it. I didn’t have to own it for anyone else. But I needed to own it for myself.

I’d be lying if I said I haven’t watched the footage on repeat for hours on end. I would watch and wonder how many of those people who died were murderers, rapists, child killers, pedophiles, drug dealers, crooked cops, corrupt politicians, or greedy businessmen who would make sure to take the jewelry off of their dead mother before calling an ambulance. There’s something satisfying about knowing I wiped off that percentage of people off of the Earth in one fell swoop, even if it is only 0.014 per cent of the global population. It felt good, like when you eat an entire pizza all in one sitting. Just full and complete. It’s an amazing feeling. Until I remember how many decent people died right along with the horrible ones. I try to keep the thought out of my head. It kills my buzz.

To go along with my nuclear explosion, I wrote a manifesto and put it online and shared it through plenty of anonymous social media channels. It outlined that I destroy and kill for no ideology or political gain, that I merely like to watch the world burn. I am driven by nothing else but my own evil intentions and enjoy the suffering and fear of millions. People bought it fast. Within days, it had over a million hits. My onion email started receiving offers from Google Adwords it was gaining hits so fast. I made myself an invisible enemy that the world over can target. They’ll stop aiming at each other and start aiming at me.

I wrote this explanation for when they finally figure out I was behind it all. I figured that someone deserved the real story behind what happened in Texas. If whoever finds this is smart, you’ll hide it. If you’re even smarter, you’ll know when’s the right time to release this and correct the history books. As much as this needed to happen and its reasons needed to be kept on that supervillain level, there are still a lot of good people in the world who deserve a real explanation as to why so many died that day. I’m sure there’ll be a right time to tell the truth without undoing any good that would have come of this.

If you’re reading this, chances are I’m dead now. Given the same Seal Team Six treatment that bin Laden got. As innocuous and invisible someone like me tends to be, I’ll make a mistake somewhere.

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Coupland

They pulled me out and all I could think about was my wife. The sweat dripping down my face burned my eyes and I could feel my sticking along my forehead. But I didn’t remember having hair. I had just shaved my head. My hairline was receding so my wife convinced me to shave it all off, saying a bald man looked better than a balding man. Her words convincing me to shave my head and the first time she helped me with the razor cleaning off what was left of my hair gripped my mind as I pushed the rogue strands of hair away from my face.

“Coupland,” I heard a man say. “Coupland, are you with us?”

“His brain’s still submerged,” a woman’s voice said. “We pulled him out too fast.”

Everything was a blur. Like the sun was pulled out of the sky and sitting in front of my face. A glaring light blared into my eyes and it took a few moments before I could make out any shapes.

“Coupland,” the man’s voice repeated. “Coupland, focus on my voice, Coupland.”

“Who’s Coupland?” I mustered enough focus and strength to grit out between my teeth.

“You’re Coupland,” the man’s voice continued. “Coupland Wilson. That’s your name. Is that familiar to you?”

The name was ringing something in my mind. But I was also trying to hold onto the image of my wife. It was slipping. I was losing some of her features. I couldn’t remember her eye colour.

“Where’s my wife?” it was becoming easier to speak.

“Coupland, you don’t have a wife,” the man’s voice said.

“Yes, I do!” I shouted back. “We’ve been married for thirty years! We have two kids together and a grandchild on the way!”

“What’s your wife’s name?” the man’s voice asked.

I didn’t have an answer. My wife’s name, my kids’ names, even the names we were considering for our first grandchild. Or was it our second? It was all slipping. Like waking from a vivid dream and trying to remember all the small details. I was losing more and more of her every second.

My eyes adjusted to the light and I focused in on the two people standing in the room with me. One man and one woman. The man was balding but let the salt and pepper hair on the sides grow out a little. I immediately thought about my hair but couldn’t remember if I let it grow out or kept it shaved. The woman was older, maybe in her 40s, but at that point I could have sworn I was in my sixties. She was holding a clipboard. I recognized them both.

“His pupils are dilating properly,” she shined a bright light into my eyes. “He’s focussing as well. I think he’s finally fully out of submersion.”

“Coupland,” the man knelt down beside where I sitting. “Do you know where you are?”

The name came to me fast, like every important name I was losing was being replaced with the names of what I wanted to forget. “Delton Rec Labs,” I answered.

“That’s right,” the man said. I remembered his name. Michael Gartner. He was the salesperson who sold me the package. I looked to the woman and she busily scribbled notes on her clipboard. I remembered her name too. Doctor Vanessa Taryn. We were introduced just before I went in. She was the staff neurologist. She was there to make sure I came back to reality okay.

“Okay, Coupland,” Gartner continued. “Try to stand up and walk. There is a physician here if you can’t feel your legs. That’s quite common. You’ve been submerged for a while.”

“How long?” I asked.

“Just over…” Gartner’s voice trailed off as he looked at the screens hovering above me. “Three hours.”

Three hours. That’s how much time I actually spent with her. It felt like a lifetime. Dating, living together, marriage, kids growing up, her parents dying, my parents dying. I think she got sick too. Cancer was it? I remember sitting at the hospital with her. Holding her hand. I remember holding her and crying when the doctor told us she was better. I don’t remember what the doctor looked like. All I can pull from my memory is a white lab coat. Three hours. That’s all I actually had with her.

“Not the longest we’ve ever had,” Gartner smiled. “But, we’re hoping the longest without any long-term side-effects.”

Side effects. That’s how I was able to get this package. Virtual vacations were usually reserved for the exceptionally rich. I was far from any kind of wealth. But they offered free vacations for anyone willing to risk being an experiment. They could only improve and enhance the services with human subjects. Rats and dogs didn’t exactly react to the stimuli the same way humans did.

The more that came back to me, the less I wanted any of it and the more I wanted to go back to my wife.

Gartner and Dr. Taryn unhooked all of the medical readout instruments that were strapped to me and I stood up, losing my balance at first and falling to my knees. After a couple more tries, I was able to stand on my feet and I was slowly led out of the room and into another room with a single table and two chairs, one on either side.

Dr. Taryn ran through some questions with me about my life. While she spoke, I remembered filling out a questionnaire with all of the same questions. All questions about my life, where I live, who my parents were. It was all back and I could answer the questions, but some took me a while to find the answer. I had to dig through my memory, figure out what was real and what I was remembering from the vacation. A lot of it was muddling together. The more we talked, the easier it was to place what was real and what wasn’t. But there were definite moments when my real life and my virtual life became indistinguishable.

Because the experiment was a success, they gave me an honorarium. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough that I didn’t have to worry about hustling for a few weeks. I looked around the streets outside of Delton Rec Labs and tried to remember which way was my apartment. I remembered it was a short walk and I recognized a few of the alleys I would sell pills near. After about twenty minutes of wandering, I found my building. It was dark out and one of storefront windows in the building reflected back at me. I didn’t recognize my reflection at first, the dark hair hanging along my forehead, the stubble all around my face, even my eyes looked weird to me. I thought they were blue. But they looked more green to me in that reflection.

There were a lot of cards in my wallet, but the only one I wanted was my keycard to get into the building. I sorted through the credit cards, gym membership card, buyers club cards for the grocery store and IKEA and GameStop, and I found the keycard into the building. It was behind my employee ID. I worked at Delton Rec Lab. That must have been how I heard they needed test subjects. Probably posted over the urinals at the office. This is where the confusion really hit. If I worked at Delton Rec Labs, why was I selling pills?

The answer came when I got into my apartment. They forgot to warn me about the nausea. I got through the front door and instinctively ran to the bathroom, where I didn’t even make it to the toilet before I was throwing up. Most of it got into the sink and I checked the cabinet behind the mirror to see if I had anything that would help this feeling that the room was spinning and my stomach was turning itself inside out. I found nine prescription bottles. Each one was for something different: diazepam, thorazine, fluvoxamine, trazodone, lorazepam, nizatidine, cimetidine, Percocet, and morphine. There was no way I could be taking all of these. I wondered which I was selling.

After cleaning up the bathroom, I wandered around the apartment, remembering where I left everything. I didn’t have a TV, but I thought I did. Most people didn’t own TVs anymore, so I don’t know why I thought I would have had one. Maybe me in the vacation simulation had a TV. I checked out the fridge only to find bottles of beer, a Chinese food takeout box that smelled awful, and some moldy pizza. I felt like I didn’t usually let my fridge, or any part of my apartment, get this bad. Could I have been submerged a little longer than they were letting on? My coffee table had a thick layer of dust, my closet didn’t have a lot of clothes in it, I didn’t even notice a toothbrush when I was in the bathroom.

My pocket vibrated and I pulled out my phone. The call display said Sofia. I couldn’t remember if I knew anyone named Sofia. “Hello?” I answered the phone.

“Are you done playing lab rat?” a shrill voice came over phone.

“Yeah,” I answered. “Sorry, who is this?”

“The fuck?” her voice climbed high. “Did using that virtual vacation shit fuck with your brain? It’s Sofia. You’re fucking girlfriend,” she annunciated slowly. “Where are you?”

“My apartment?” I answered.

“What the fuck are you doing there?” she spat out fast enough that it could have been one word. “You haven’t been there in weeks. Your stash run dry?”

“Yeah,” I played, trying to understand what was going on. It didn’t take long to surmise she meant my pill stash. I guess I just used this place to store my overstock. “Just grabbing a couple of refills.”

“Can you grab some extra thorazine and Percocet?” she asked. “I got some eager buyers.”

Wandering again through the streets, I slowly pieced together which way was Sofia’s apartment. It wasn’t too far from my apartment, but the neighbourhood seemed drastically different. The Delton Rec Labs and my apartment building was in a downtown, urbanized area. There were tall buildings all around and neon lights glowing and LED screens blaring out advertisements for deodorant and tampons and condoms. But those few blocks to Sofia’s apartment was like crossing into a whole other continent. I felt unsafe and it worried me. My memories slowly recollected and I knew I had been here hundreds of times and that I slept more often here than I did at my own place. This time, though, was different. The broken out windows and boarded up doors along the buildings spray-painted with bright coloured tags looked completely foreign to me. The smell of human waste in the alleyways and sounds of snoring and groaning homeless only added to my unease. I thought that I wanted to be anywhere else in the world at that moment.

Sofia’s apartment had thicker layers of dust on all her surfaces than my apartment did. There were empty bottles on the dining room table and all along the kitchen countertops. A baseball bat leaned next to the front door. A thick stench of smoke and body odour hung all around. “What took you so long?” she said as I came in through the doorway.

“Had some problems remembering how to get here,” I said.

“That shit really fucked with your brain, didn’t it?” she continued. “You make more money selling pills than you do working at that place. I don’t know why you don’t just quit, stop playing lab rat for those fucks, and hustle full time. It’s easy.”

I immediately felt repulsed by her. It wasn’t her looks, she was pretty. Her attitude, her aura, her energy, all that new-agey bullshit I never thought I would trust is what bothered me. As more memories and moments flooded back to me, I realized I was less her boyfriend and more her supplier. I had been realizing that, even before I submerged. Maybe that’s why I volunteered. A chance to get away from all of it, even if only for three hours.

“I can’t quit,” I said. “I quit, I lose my benefits, which means we lose our stash. And I don’t think either of us wants to start paying the pharmacist for these pills. Cuts into that profit margin.”

She popped open a yellow bottle and popped a couple of pills and swallowed them dry. “Right,” she said after she finished swallowing. “Definitely need that. It’s too bad. We could fuck all day and hustle all night.”

“Right, romantic,” I said, reaching into my pocket and handing her the pills she asked for.

“What the fuck’s gotten into you?” she took the bottles. “If I suggested that yesterday, or fuck, even this morning, you would have been all over that and trying to rip my clothes off.”

A sudden urge to ask something I had never asked anyone before suddenly came over me. “Do you want to go to the beach?”

“The beach? Are you fucking kidding?” she chuckled. “There’s no beaches around here. I can’t even name where there is a single beach. Who the fuck are you? Are you still fucking dreaming or something?”

No beaches. Somewhere in me, I could still smell the salt water in the air, feel the sun on my bare arms, hear waves running up along the shore. Had I never actually been to the beach before? I looked outside the window and watched the neon lights flicker against the grey sky and wet concrete. These signs never turned off. All night the glow of advertisements breaking through the window, waking people up to enticement of cheap sex, bad food, and useless junk that would be collecting dust or at the bottom of a landfill in just a few days. I didn’t want any of this. I wanted the beach.

My phone rang and I saw the name Gartner on the call display. “Hey, Coupland,” Gartner began. “We noticed some very interesting things on your brain scan and we’d like you to come back for some further experiments. I know this is sudden and unexpected, but we can schedule these tests whenever works best for you.”

I took another look around the apartment, at Sofia, the pills in her hands, I played with the bottle of pills still in my pocket. “How about right now?” I asked.

“Are you sure?” Gartner replied. “I mean, this is highly irregular. Typically we need a week between submersions. But your scans are showing no long term defects or hazards, so we won’t say no so long as you’re sure.”

“Completely sure,” I said, hanging up the phone. I reached into my pocket and threw Sofia my keys and the other bottle of pills. “It’s all yours,” I said. “I don’t want this anymore.”

“You’re breaking up with me?” her eyes didn’t show sadness. They showed anger. We had no emotional connection. I was her hook up. She was my physical outlet. I didn’t like that anymore. I didn’t want that.

“Something like that,” I said, walking to the door. “Take whatever you want from the apartment.”

“What, you’re abandoning it?”

“I guess so,” the truth was, I didn’t want her finding me after this. Whatever would come after my next submersion, I wanted to make sure I didn’t go back to this life. It showed me something. I could be something else. I may have once wanted this kind of life and revelled in it, but something awoke and I knew I needed to find something else.

“So you’ll just live in your fantasy world forever now?”

“Yeah,” I said, walking through the doorway. “Something like that.”

I took a brief physical before sitting back into the chair. The same medical monitoring devices were hooked up to me. I thought that maybe the last time I did this, I would have been nervous. But this time, I was relaxed. I was excited. I was happy.

“So, are we uploading the same program file for my submersion?” I asked.

Gartner smiled. “I was hoping you would ask that,” he said. “There was no program in your submersion. We didn’t simulate or implant anything. That’s what the real experiment was. We wanted to see what would happen if we stimulated your own mind to create what should have been your vacation. In your case, from what it sounded like, you created a whole new life for yourself. That was especially interesting to us. We had never seen that before. Everything you experienced was from your own mind.”

I open my eyes and we’re lying on a beach. The warm sand under my back and scrunched between my toes tells me it’s morning. We fell asleep here. I sit up and watch the water for a moment. Its calm and the waves are slow. The smell of salt water fills the warm air and the sun is beaming down on us.

She rustles a bit and opens here eyes and the peer directly at me. She smiles and I smile back, and we both yawn, stretching our arms still sticky with sweat and caked with sand.

“I can’t believe we slept here all night,” she says. And she’s perfect. Everything about her is absolutely perfect.

“Are you even real?” I ask. “How can someone so… perfect, be real?”

Her eyebrow raises and she chuckles. “What’s that supposed to mean? You think you’re dreaming? Or I’m a figment of your imagination?”

“No…” I trail off, staring at the water again. “I don’t know. Just a weird feeling I guess.”

I lie back down and she rests beside me. Her head nestles in her favourite spot, right where my arm meets my shoulder. “Reassure me this isn’t a dream,” I say. “What’s your name?”

She sits up and looks at me. “What?” she’s smiling. It’s like she never isn’t smiling and I never want her to stop smiling. “You are so weird sometimes.”

“Just humour me,” I continue. “Tell me your name.”

She leans in and kisses me on the check. And, into my ear, she gently whispers her name.

 

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I’m Fat Chris

So, apparently I’m fat Chris. I don’t even mean amongst the group of people I know. This isn’t a nickname to help distinguish me from the multitudes of other Chrises who were all born in the ’80s apparently (seriously, if you were born in the ’80s and grew up in the ’90s and ’00s, chances you are know like a thousand Chrises; we’re fucking everywhere). No, being fat Chris is distinguishing me from the multitudes of different versions of me throughout the multi-verse. Seriously, there are an infinite number of me from all different universes with slightly different histories around them, and I am literally the only one who’s fat. Fuck my life.

I found this out from physicist Chris. Yes, apparently in one alternate history from an alternate universe, I become a physicist who solves the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. There’s also engineer Chris who met physicist Chris and they worked together to build a machine that somehow transcends time and space and allows them to travel between versions of the universe. I keep asking them how it works, but they keep insisting I won’t get it. They’re not even trying to explain it to me and giving an advisory at the start that this is going to be difficult for me to understand. They just flat out shrug and tell me I won’t get it. Really snarky and condescending like too. I have to wonder if this is how I come off when someone doesn’t know how to make a verb and a noun agree in proper English.

“So, ok, you won’t tell me how this works,” I say. “Tell me this, at least, why travel through alternate realities to meet different versions of yourself. Or, myself, I guess.”

You would think with this line of questioning I would be journalist Chris. After all, I have had a pretty decent career as a freelance writer for a few local magazines on top of my public relations job at a not for profit. But, journalist Chris is apparently a Pulitzer Prize winner who became famous for exposing a few political fundraising scandals. I’m not even public relations Chris. He runs a multi-million dollar firm that represents a lot of major political players and earned an reputation as being the master of burial after he helped these major political players cover up their fundraising scandals. Funny how the multi-verse works. In one reality, I’m exposing the criminals. In another, I’m helping them and making a fortune off of them. Funny indeed.

“Why?” physicist Chris looks at me. “Why do we do most things in science? Downright curiosity. I mean, what better way to experiment with a discovery like this than to basically look at yourself and see what you could have become?”

Engineer Chris and physicist Chris are tinkering with the machine that opens the passageway between the dimensions. The machine kind of looks like a mix between a car battery with a laptop plugged into it and what would have happened if Doc Brown’s Flux Capacitor had a baby with a microwave. They argue back and forth a little about readings and measurements before the portal opens up again and another Chris walks through into my world. Well, into my garage, but it’s the garage that’s in my world. And this is like the twelfth Chris they brought into my garage in my world. I don’t know why engineer Chris and physicist Chris chose my garage as the multi-universal Chris convention space. But here they were. I’m actually kind of worried about my neighbours having a lot of questions about what’s going on.

This new Chris that has stepped in looks fairly normal. I mean, in comparison to the other Chrises. They all look really good with their shirts tucked into their pants, and you can actually see their belts around their waists, and none of their shirt buttons are pulling and ready to pop off. But each Chris that has stepped through has had something very visibly special about them. There’s no tattoos Chris who was actually able to afford his university education without student loans. There’s Chris who can actually grow a real beard. There’s Chris who was charged with bestiality. There’s receding hairline Chris. There’s military fighter pilot Chris (who just had to come over in his pilot’s uniform, like that’s all that pilots ever wear and they never wear normal clothes). There’s astronaut Chris (that guy came in a space suit solely so that we all knew he was an astronaut). Even physicist Chris and engineer Chris were in lab coats. And yes, out of all the Chrises here, I was the only fat one.

“Which Chris is this?” I ask as the seemingly most normal Chris walks through my garage.

“This is Chris who owned a Kia Soul first,” engineer Chris says. Everyone in my garage must have heard him, because they all gave off a long “ooooooooo” at the idea that somewhere, Chris owned a Kia Soul before my wife Gillian did.

“Yeah, we’re all pretty jealous of Chris who owned a Kia Soul first,” physicist Chris says.

“Wait, so in every version of our existence that you encountered so far, we’re all still married to Gill?” I ask.

“So far, yes,” physicist Chris says. “It’s like the one constant we’ve been experiencing throughout this experiment.”

“And Gillian has owned a Kia Soul before we have in every instance,” I point to the newest Chris in the garage, “except this one?”

“Pretty much,” engineer Chris nods.

“And she reminds all of you that she owned a Kia Soul before you?” I ask to the audience of Chrises.

They all nod in unison.

“Well, do you pick on Gillian because you owned a Soul first then?” I ask the only Chris this would be relevant to.

“I mean,” he smiles and blushes a little bit. “You know, relationships shouldn’t be a competition. But let’s be real. Sometimes relationships are straight up competitions.”

All the Chrises start nodding and muttering small agreements.

“Have there been any universes where Gillian and I, or us I guess, don’t really work out?” I ask.

“Kind of,” physicist Chris says. “There are quite a number of dysfunctional marriage Chrises. Usually a substance abuse problem on our end. Booze, meth, cannibal pig swill.”

“What’s cannibal pig swill?” I ask.

“If you don’t know,” engineer Chris chimes in. “You don’t want to know.

“We should get this meet and greet moving,” physicist Chris stands up and walks to the middle of the garage. “Everyone, in case you haven’t figured it out. This,” he points at me. “Is fat Chris.”

“I kind of resent that,” I snap back. “I mean, fat Chris? It’s not like my entire physical being is made up of lipids.”

“Shut up Chris!” physicist Chris chuckles a little bit. “You know what I mean. Even Chris who is entirely made up of lipids isn’t as fat as you are.”

I look down and see a gelatinous mass wearing thick rimmed glasses and with facial hair I could only guess is trying make a chin strap beard. He waves an appendage at me, I could only guess it was supposed to be an arm, and he calls out a cartoonish, “Hellooooo.” I don’t know how I missed that one coming into my garage.

It’s this moment I realize physicist Chris is kind of a dick. I mean, a pretty big dick actually. I decide he’s the Chris I hate the most. He made me face the fact that in all of the universes that could possibly exist, I am the only fat version of me. That’s hard to accept. Especially because I’ve been a big guy all of my life. I’d been bullied for my size by anyone who saw an open shot to take at me. And now that I’m a somewhat functioning adult who shouldn’t have to deal with this shit anymore, he’s making sure I keep dealing with it. Maybe physicist Chris was fat all his life too and he somehow found the time to start working out more and eating better while working toward his PhD. And maybe physicist Chris is still a little insecure about the fact he was fat and now that he sees me, the Chris who is still fat, he feels like if he doesn’t take those open shots, then he has to deal with being fat again too. Maybe that’s what all of these Chrises are dealing with.

The Chris I hate the second most is Chris who owned a Kia Soul first. Fuck that guy.

“You know what, fuck it,” I say. “I dig being fat Chris. I’m owning that shit. Every one you mother fuckers are just skinny Chrises with different jobs or odd criminal records. I’m the multi-verse’s only fat Chris and if I wasn’t here, all the Chrises would just be skinny Chrises. So fuck you, I’m fat Chris.”

“OK, Chris,” physicist Chris sighs. “Whatever helps you rationalize that bag of Doritos you’ve been working on since we got here.”

I start sucking the powdered cheese off my fingers as I tell all the Chrises that the tour of my garage is over. The mass of Chrises all start moving towards the inter-dimensional doorway. While I watch them leave, I feel a tug at my leg. I look down to see Chris who is entirely made of lipids looking up at me and smiling.

“Way to tell those jerks off,” he says in his inexplicably cartoonish voice. “You show those skinny motherfuckers who’s boss. Now, you gonna hook me up with some of them Doritos?”

I start dropping chips down into his mouth and decide of all the Chrises I’ve met, I like this Chris best.

“Hey dude,” I say. “You want to hang around for a bit? There’s a pretty killer taco place not too far from here we can check out.”

Chris who’s made entirely of lipids smiles even bigger as he chews his Doritos. “Fuck yeah, bro. Let’s hit it up.”

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Meth Mouth

“You know, there’s only one way to really appreciate this marvel of modern science,” he said, smiling through his crooked yellow teeth. I never realized how bad his teeth were until that moment. There’s a nickname for the way his mouth looks: meth-mouth. His gums have deteriorated exposing a good chunk of the few teeth he had left lining the front of his mouth. The teeth that were missing either left gaping black hole embedded into his gums or were broken at the root, leaving a small nub of a tooth still sticking out of his rotting gumline. I was so fascinated by how bad his mouth looked I completely forgot his name. To this day, I can only refer to him as Meth-Mouth. If he knew this is how I still refer to him, he’s either laugh heartily and agree with me, or stab me. More likely the latter. After all, he didn’t wind up with meth-mouth because of gingivitis and loss of enamel. It was meth. Meth’s fucking gross.

At this moment, though, he wasn’t offering me meth. In the name of total honesty and transparency, yes, I’ve done meth. Once. And I hated it. I dug drugs that mellowed me out. Relaxed me and helped me sleep or made sex feel better. Meth didn’t do any of those things. The high reminded me closer to the one time I did crack. Again, just one time, never again. But that weird buzz like you just swallowed twenty shots of ultra concentrated espresso just wasn’t fun to me. That wasn’t an experience that opened up my mind and helped me reflect on my own existence or helped me appreciate how awesome Pink Floyd or Salvador Dali is. It wasn’t my bag and I always tried to make sure Meth-Mouth knew that. So whenever I went to buy LSD or Molly from him and he tried to introduce me to something new, I asked a lot of questions about what he was telling me to snort or shoot or drop or smoke. And he always fed me that fucking line about modern science. Fuck modern science.

“Don’t give me that shit,” I told Meth-Mouth. “Seriously, what the fuck is that shit? What kind of high does it give you?”

“It’s your bag man, I swear,” Meth-Mouth nodded, his greasy hair brushing back and forth along his shoulders. The weird sores on the top of his head started to gross me out too. I swear one was open and pussing out while I was talking to him. At this point, I decided it was best to finish this conversation without looking at him. I looked over my shoulder, back and forth, and tried to make it look like I was looking out for cops. No cops every came through this neighbourhood, though. I had no idea if Meth-Mouth knew that, but he didn’t seem to pick up on that I thought his face was fucking disgusting. Someone really needed to take a shovel to that fucking face. Would have done it some good.

“Yeah, sure,” I said. “That’s what you said about the fentanyl. I was in the hospital for a week after that shit.”

“You can’t deny it was a good high,” he said. “And that shit was your bag, man. I bet you never slept better than you did when you took the fentanyl.”

“That’s cause I was in a fucking coma,” I spat back. “I’m surprised no one’s tried fucking ending you for selling off that shit as a mellow stimulant.”

Clicking. Around some of the buildings we were standing in front of I heard clicking. In this part of town, that’s the last sound you want to hear. The clicks come from the doors. Lookouts. They watch over the pusher in case there’s an unruly customer. You hear the clicking, you knew that doors were unlocking and being opened a crack. That was your first warning. Your second warning is the red laser dot, usually on your shirt. Sometimes on your forehead. Sometimes on your arm if they want to make you suffer. I had a red dot on me once. I got the message really quickly. I haven’t had a red dot on me in a long time now.

“Alright, anyways,” I mellowed out, making sure that the lookouts knew that no red dots were required. “What’s this new stuff do?”

“Buddy, you want to talk about mind expanding?” Meth-Mouth started to get excited. “You’re going to see shit you never knew existed. I swear to god, one guy told me he saw a colour he had never seen before. Couldn’t even described it to me. Said it wasn’t on the colour spectrum. I had no idea what the fucking guy was talking about. But he seemed to love it. He’s like you, into all that weird shit. The books and fucking shit.”

The flicking of a cheap lighter told me Meth-Mouth was lighting a cigarette. This was the procedure Meth-Mouth went through. Every time. Step by step. You asked for your PCP or H or whatever, he tells you about what new product he has, gets you interested, lights a cigarette, then tells you the price. Every time.

“Alright, how much?” I asked.

“For you?” he blew out a cloud of smoke that danced past me like a stripper looking for a dollar. “First hit’s free. You’re a repeat customer, I knew you’ll be back for some other product, even if you’re not into this new shit, I like you, and really, you’re probably right about the fentanyl. It was a dick move. You got off easy, though. Had a few kids OD on that shit. Damn shame. They bought a lot of grass. High markup too.”

Meth-Mouth never gave anything away for free. Somehow, this shit was different. He was acting different. I should have said no, I didn’t know anything about this shit. But it’s hard to say no when it’s free.

“What’s the shit called?” I asked.

“Dalek,” he said.

“What the fuck does that mean?” I asked.

“No clue,” he said. “Some people said it’s some combination of letters from the periodic table. The mix of chems or whatever. Some people said it was some sci-fi shit. With all the books you read I figured you would know.”

“Nah,” I said. “Don’t really like sci-fi. Not believable. No metaphors.”

“That just means you read shitty sci-fi,” he said.

“And what fucking sci-fi have you read?” I asked. “You don’t come off like the book reading type.”

“You’d be shocked,” he said. “I was super into Dune during the ’80s. Loved the idea of the spice. Control the spice, control the world. Or whatever the fucking line is. It’s a pusher’s mantra.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t figure dalek’s from Dune,” I said. “Anyways, how do you take this shit? Do I need a sober person to watch over me?”

“Nah,” he said. “Do it in a room by yourself. Preferably an empty room. Not even any furniture around. Totally empty room, place one dalek on your tongue. Close your eyes. And you’ll be in a totally different world.”

Following the advice from a guy dubbed Meth-Mouth might seem insane. Well, typically it is. You’re literally taking advice on how to best get high on something you’ve never tried before and you have no idea what’s going to happen to you or your body when you take it. But, at least when it comes to getting high, Meth-Mouth is pretty trustworthy. He explained to me one time that if he screwed over his customer, gave him a bad high or caused him to OD really bad, it would be bad for business. Either the customer would be pissed and not buy from him ever again (and frankly, would probably try to beat the shit out of him, he only ever had protection when he was pushing; the rest of the time, he was as fair game as anyone else), or they would be dead and wouldn’t be buying anymore. So it was in his best interest to give good highs. I honestly believe he didn’t mean to give me a bad high with the fentanyl. But still, the damage was done and I was apprehensive.

“OK, I’ll take one tonight and let you know how it is,” I said. “I hope this shit doesn’t kill me.”

“No kill guarantee,” he said, smiling. I looked back over to his face and it was even worse than I remembered it those few moments ago when I looked away. He was in his 40s, or so he said. But he looked closer to 60. Meth will do that to a person. “I can one hundred per cent say no one who has tried it has died yet. As harmless as a joint.”

Back at my apartment, I didn’t exactly follow Meth-Mouth’s advice to the fullest. I moved all the furniture out of a room, but I wasn’t alone.

Earlier that day, I got the last voicemail I would ever get from, well, I’m not going to use her name. In the case of Meth-Mouth, I honestly don’t remember his name. In her case, though, she doesn’t deserve to have her name written or spoken or thought or anything. As far as I’m concerned, this is her fault. If she didn’t leave that voicemail, I wouldn’t have been willing to try something from Meth-Mouth that he was giving out for free.

“Curtis,” the voicemail said. “This is the last time I’m going to try and get a hold of you. You’re avoiding my calls, but you knew this was coming. This weird perpetually 22 years old thing you have going on isn’t healthy. And you refuse to see that or try to grow or see things any other way. You can’t be in a relationship, a real serious relationship, if this is how you’re going to act. Especially at your age. You throw away so much, so many opportunities, and why? I don’t know. You don’t think it’s legit? Or something? I don’t know. But I don’t want to be around it anymore. I’m changing my number after this call. I’m moving to a friend’s place for a while. I’m not saying who. I’m not giving you my new number. You and those gross people you hang out with and buy drugs from scare me. I don’t want this. I’m done. Goodbye, Curtis. Deep down you’re a decent person. And maybe one day when you realize that and you grow up a bit, maybe then you can have a really great relationship with someone. I know you’re better than this. And that’s why I’m done. Goodbye.”

That last part hurt the worst. It’s her way of trying to make me feel good or motivate me to do something she wants me to do while still driving in there’s no fucking hope for us anymore. Whatever. Fuck her. I’m not changing for her. Never will.

Which brings us back to the room. No, I’m not alone in there. And no, her dead body isn’t lying in the room with me while I get high. I’m not a completely sick fuck. Though, it might make for a more interesting story. But no, she’s alive and well. As far as I know at least. Couldn’t tell you if she’s been hit by a bus or anything like that. One can only hope, though.

I had a few extra bucks after I scored from Meth-Mouth. And, well, narcotics aren’t the only thing that’s easy to find in that part of town. I mean, I already mentioned that the drugs I take make sex far better. If this new thing Meth-Mouth gave me was going to be my thing, then a few hours (full disclosure, probably more like minutes) with a hooker would be magical and help get rid of all my troubles. Or at least forget them for a bit.

Though she wasn’t keen on leaving her part of town. With good reason. Once you left this little slice of criminal heaven, every street corner for the next hundred kilometres in every direction had CCTV cameras set up. Wonderful selective security surveillance. Can’t say it doesn’t work. Pretty much all the crime stays in one area now. The one area with no video feeds to law enforcement and government agencies. Easier for everyone to manage.

Can’t say I remember much about the hooker. Teased bleached blonde hair. I remember that much. I think she had sunglasses on too. Probably coming down from her own decent high. I knew she needed the money for her next fix. She had track marks all along her arms. Fresh ones too. She was a regular user and would be easy to drag out of the shady area of town and back to my place. I was only ten blocks away. And the amount I walked in and out of that part of town, I still haven’t been questioned or arrested for anything. No one’s paying attention to me and no one’s about to. She finally shut the fuck up and followed me back to my place.

She wasn’t too sure while she watched me move all the furniture out of my bedroom. I didn’t have much in there, a bed and a bookcase. But she watched me with a constant expression that read, “What is this fucking weirdo doing? What the fuck is he into? What the fuck did I get myself into?”

We’re lying on my floor and I’m working my pants open. She told me it’s extra for her to take her clothes off. I figure I don’t need her to go that far. All I really wanted was a blowjob anyway. I’m lying on my back and she’s sitting up, leaning to one side and watching me get my pants open and pulled down. I tell to her to wait a second while I popped the dalek. It was a small pink pill, but it wasn’t grainy like ecstasy. It was really smooth and I could see through it, like a round pink ibuprofen. I popped it on my tongue and waited for it to melt.

I closed my eyes, waiting for her to start working me so I could find out what the body sensation was like. My limbs started feeling dumb, like when I take PCP. And the ground felt like it dissolved from under me, and I was floating in mid air. Then, like when you have a dream that you’re falling, I felt a sudden drop and the shock through my body when you have that sleeping sensation. Only I’m not waking up. The shock keeps running through my body and all I can think about is how fucking Meth-Mouth fucked me over again with another bad high. I couldn’t even feel the hooker. It was a total waste. I thought I might have been convulsing.

But I’ve had seizures before and I know you’re not cognizant enough to wonder if you’re having a seizure when you’re having a seizure. This was something else. For a moment, I thought I might actually have been falling, like the hooker threw my doped up body out my window so she could rob me. But there was nothing around me. No room, no light, nothing. Just black and falling.

“And… and I think he’s coming around,” I heard a voice say. “DK112 is coming to. Mark that on the charts at 3:08 a.m. He’s been out for a while.”

Shit was blurry. I couldn’t make out where I was. I knew I was lying down still. But I definitely wasn’t in the same room I started out in. And the hooker definitely wasn’t around either. My vision started to clear up and I saw two guys in white coats, each of them holding a clipboard and writing things down on them. Beside me were medical machinery. I recognized some of the same machines from having my tonsils out when I was a kid. None of that weirded me out; it must have been a pretty bad high. Maybe the hooker called an ambulance when she noticed something wrong. All of that would have made sense, except for one small detail. Well, pretty big detail. I was in completely different clothes. It wasn’t even as if I was in a hospital gown or even something else I recognized from my closet. I was in completely different clothes. I was in a fucking tuxedo. I’ve never worn a tuxedo in my life. Not even at my high school grad (mainly because I didn’t go). What the fuck was I doing in a tux lying in what I could only assume was a hospital bed?

“What day is it?” were the first words to finally escape out of my mouth. I don’t know why I asked that. I knew the time, it was around three in the morning (the one guy in the white coat just said that). But asking what day it was just seemed like the right thing to ask. Like it was the first step to figuring out why I was in a tux.

“Thursday,” the one guy in the white coat said and smiled. Perfect white teeth. This guy probably never even had a cigarette before in his life. He was clean shaven, his dusty brown hair hug just over his eyebrows, his glasses were a thin wire frame. The guy must be a doctor or something, I figured.

“Thursday?” I blurted out. “I bought that shit on Monday. Holy fuck, I lost three days!”

“Oh, you want to know in relativity to how long you’ve been, well…” he stuttered and shrugged. “Well, put it this way, it’s August now.”

I bought that shit in May. “Three months!?” I screeched. “I lost fucking three months?! How the fuck does that even happen?!”

The doctor guy put down his clipboard and walked over to me. “Ok, I know this seems scary, but I can explain and it will all make sense soon,” he said. I didn’t really believe him. I knew he wasn’t lying, but the way he told me he could explain I didn’t believe. He said it like everything was about to make perfect sense. Nothing about losing three months of your life will ever make any sense.

“So, you’re familiar with the drug’s name, right?” he asked.

This was the first point when I realized that the dalek I took and this guy were somehow deeply connected. I realized I wasn’t in a hospital, but a lab. I realized I wasn’t a patient; I was an experiment. “Wait, you made that shit!?” I spat. “What the fuck was that shit? What did it do to me?”

“I know you have a lot of questions,” he continued. “But, again, I have to ask. Do you know the name of the drug you took?”

“Dalek,” I answered.

“Right,” the doctor smiled. “Do you know what a Dalek is?”

“No,” I shook my head

“Well, Daleks, the drug’s namesake, aren’t real,” he explained. “Have you ever watched Doctor Who?”

“What the fuck is that?” I asked.

“Longest running science fiction show in history,” he said. “Been on the BBC in some form or another since the 1960s. Anyways, I wasn’t expecting you to know this reference, so far none of the subjects have. In short, Daleks are one of the main bad guys in the show. The show’s namesake is a time traveller, he comes from a race of time travellers, and one of the only other races in the show that are known to time travel are the Daleks. Please, bear in mind, this is a very gross over-simplification of a very sophisticated show.”

“Uh huh,” I grunted. “So, why the fuck is the shit I took called dalek then?”

“I’m getting to that,” he said. “So, well, we developed a drug that works within the brain’s pineal gland to actually stimulate a whole other gland that we didn’t even know existed. We don’t even have a name of it yet. With any luck, we’ll call it the dalek gland. Anyways, when stimulated, different people do vastly different things. The typical reaction to this gland being stimulated is seeing things that aren’t particularly there. It’s why when we released it to public commercialization, we marketed it as a hallucinogenic –”

“Released it for commercialization?” I sat up. “You gave it to some drug pushes. You’re using junkies as guinea pigs. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“I know this can seem very bad,” he stammered. “But believe me, we’re on the path to something really fantastic. The next stage in human evolution. I know this all seems quite trite, but believe me, you got to be a part of something very important. Especially because your reaction to dalek was categorized in the anomaly group.”

“How am I a fucking anomaly?” I grunted.

“Of our one hundred-fifty international subjects, so far only one per cent have exhibited your same reaction,” he said. “Transcendence of time and space.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” I scowled.

“It means, you travelled in time and through dimensions,” he said, smiling. “Like a fucking dalek.”

It sounded like some shitty sci-fi b-movie, but there was something in this guy’s voice that told me he wasn’t messing around. I just lost three months of my life and I needed to know where the fuck they went and what happened to me in those months. Things around me made less and less sense and I didn’t know whether to believe this guy or whether to chock this up to a bad trip I would wake up from soon. But I wasn’t about to wake up from anything. I was stone cold sober at that point. All I could do while lying on that bed was keep asking questions to try and make sense why all of this was happening and how I fit into it.

“So, uh…” I had no idea how to ask this. I just went for it. “So, where did I go?”

“What do you mean?” the doctor asked me.

“Well, if I travelled through time and in like other dimensions over the past three months, I obviously went somewhere,” I said. “Where did I go?”

“Oh…” the doctor stammered. “Oh, I see, well…”

“You kind of just wound up here,” the other guy in the lab said. He was a lot bigger than the doctor that first spoke to me. He was tall, big all around, had a bushy beard, thick glasses, and a hooked nose. I got the impression that this guy wouldn’t be as polite or excited as the first guy to talk to me. He seemed more annoyed that I was in his lab. “Typically, our one per cent of experiment subjects remember where they wind up when they travel in time and space. The fact you just woke up screaming about losing three months tells me you just jumped from whenever you dropped dalek right to here. Which is odd.”

So all I did was jump three months into the future. I think. They didn’t exactly specify any actual year or anything. Now that I think about it, I probably should have asked that. I probably should have asked a lot of things while lying there. Your brain does odd things when it tries to process things like… well, however the fuck you would categorize this. Shit you never knew was real, I guess? I guess this is what they mean when people talk about having your mind blown. But I never imagined there would be this much panic to go along with that feeling as well.

“So,” I tried to get my next question in order. I had a lot on my mind. I decided to try and keep my questions simple, knowing there won’t be a single simple answer. “Where am I?”

“Our lab, of course,” the first doctor said to me.

“Obviously,” the second guy said.

“OK,” I nodded. “But where is your lab? What city am I in? What country? And who are you guys?”

“Ah,” the skinnier guy hopped up. “All very good questions. All great pieces of information that my associate and I tend to forget to tell people who wind up here, even though they’re probably the most basic building blocks to understanding everything going on around you. I’m Doctor Douglas, and my associate here is Doctor Ericson.”

“I figured you both for doctors,” I said.

“Why?” Doctor Douglas asked.

“The lab coats, I guess,” I shrugged.

“What an odd thing to assume,” Doctor Douglas said. “I’ve had this same lab coat since I was an undergraduate, years from my doctorate.”

“Mine’s pretty new,” Doctor Ericson shrugged. “And I do feel more doctory in it.”

Doctor Douglas gave a long sigh. “Anyways, to pull us back from our tangents, you are in our lab. Our lab is located in Hammerfest, Norway.”

“Where the fuck’s Norway?” I asked.

“Seriously?” Doctor Douglas’ eyebrow shot up. “Northern Europe. The Scandinavian region. Next to Sweden and Finland.”

I had no idea where the fuck this was. I could put together what generally this country was probably like, log cabins and giant beer steins and bar wenches with giant tits. Neither of these guys seemed to be the types to wear those goofy yodeller outfits. “None of you guys have accents,” I said. “Why here?”

“Killer research grants for one,” Doctor Ericson chimed in. “And Hammerfest sounds totally metal.”

“But mainly the research grants,” Doctor Douglas interrupted. “Plus it only has a population of around seven-thousand, which means our cabin laboratory on the mountain remains quite undisturbed.”

“OK,” this, sadly, was about as normal as our conversation would get. “You said, only one per cent of people who take dalek actually travel through time. What happens to the other ninety-nine percent?”

“Mainly they just see stuff,” Doctor Ericson said.

“Not just stuff,” Doctor Douglas piped up. “They see things not of this dimension. You see, the pineal gland that dalek stimulates actually helps the brain to perceive a sort of doorway to other dimensions. Or, more simply, they see into that other dimension. I haven’t heard of anyone seeing beings or creatures or anything like that. Most just talk about all the colours they see and how they can’t really describe them. Which is why most people chock up dalek to being just a strong halluncinogenic. But, those rare and wonderful people like you, can actually walk through it. And once you enter in, time actually flows differently for you. It’s quite marvelous in fact. It’s like being next to a black hole. All of relativity becomes completely warped. It’s just fantastic!”

“But most people who fall into this category actually remember walking through it,” continued Doctor Ericson. “Either it was so traumatic for you that you don’t remember a thing or, and this is the more likely answer and remains my quasi hypothesis about you, you actually walked straight through from wherever you took dalek to our lab. Which, like I said, is odd.”

“Does everyone who takes dalek wind up here?” I asked.

“Yes and no,” Doctor Douglas answered. “For the ninety-nine per cent, we just monitor the online chatter. You’d be shocked at the number of social media groups already forming to talk about what it was like to take dalek. With no consideration for putting all over the internet that they’ve been taking illicit and, from what they can tell, hallucinogenic drugs. Humans are fascinating, aren’t they?

“But, the one per cent-ers,” Douglas continued. “Well, we didn’t discover dalek first. The first thing we discovered, which spurred all of this research, was that.”

Douglas pointed to a door. It looked like a completely normal wooden door. But as I looked at it I realized that the door was in the middle of the door. I could see either side of the door. By my own eyes I could see that the door kind of went to nowhere. But just looking at the thing made me uneasy. Like I was staring at a face that had all been rearranged. It just wasn’t right. My brain kept trying to put it together and make sense of it. But it just wasn’t right.

“What’s through there?” I asked.

“We have no idea,” Douglas said. “Not exactly. I’m part of the ninety-nine per cent group. But Doctor Ericson here is part of that majestic one per cent. He’s walked through that doorway. If I tried to walk through that doorway, even if I was on dalek, I would just walk through. When Doctor Ericson, and evidently when you walk through, you wind up somewhere else.”

“What did you see when you went in?” I asked Doctor Ericson.

“Just colours, actually,” he said. “Blinking colours. But not normal colours. And not just random blinking either. Every colour blinked in a succession of prime numbers. One, two, three, five, seven, eleven, thirteen, and so on. Those are all very specific numbers. It wasn’t happening by accident.”

“We think the colours blinking are a form of communication,” Doctor Douglas continued. “It’s a bit of a pie-in-the-sky guess on our parts, but right now it’s our best guess. Whatever exists on the other side of that doorway may not be a physical form like we understand it. We have five sense to perceive our surroundings and communicate with each other. This other dimension may not actually exist in a physical space the way you and I understand physical space. Doctor Ericson even talked about how he wasn’t even sure his body was wherever the doorway took him to. And when the dalek wore off, he was back in the lab.”

“So why out dalek out on the streets then if you just want to figure out what’s in that doorway?” I asked.

“So we can get more people to walk through it,” Doctor Douglas answered, shaking his head like I just asked a dumb question. “Why do you think we’re telling you all this? Seems like a pretty big dump of information if all we wanted to do was get you kind of high, don’t you think? Obviously we want you to go through there and let us know if your experience in any different from the others.”

The others. The idea of there being others was suddenly all I could think about. I looked all around the room, got up from the table and started wandering around, looking everywhere I could. It was only three of us in the lab. The entire lab was only a one room cabin, rounded in shape with the freestanding door in the middle of the room. I could see through every window to outside, where all I could see was snow.

“You said there were others,” I said. “Where are they?”

The two doctors looked at one another. Neither spoke. Neither blinked. It was as if they were playing a mental game of paper-rock-scissors to see who would continue the conversation.

“They walked through the doorway,” Doctor Douglas said. “And they didn’t come back.”

My mind raced to try and keep up with the information being thrown at me. I thought about how if dalek makes you travel through time and space, then how do you walk through a doorway after you take it? I thought back to my experience taking dalek, that feeling of weightlessness that started to take over and was the last thing I remembered before ending up in that lab. Were those few moments of the drug taking effect enough time to walk through that doorway and enter another dimension? Or were these two simply playing with something they had no clue about and were just throwing as many guinea pigs into the hole that they could find just to see what would happen?

This is when I decided I would perform my own experiment. I wasn’t about to be some lab rat for a couple of mad scientists. But I had to make sure they thought I was going along with everything.

Doctor Douglas dropped another dalek into my palm, but this one was blue. I asked if there was any difference between this blue one and the pink one I dropped before. Doctor Ericson laughed as he stood by the doorway, saying something about how I took some of the old stock and that this new batch was a lot more potent.

“Really gets that pineal gland moving,” he said, as he typed a few things on his laptop. He was standing by one of those ergonomic stand-up desks, peering up occasionally to look at the door they were expecting me to walk through.

I took stock of the room as I prepared to drop some of this new batch of dalek. My eyes peered between all the pieces of lab equipment, the computers and monitors all showing graphs and stats and wavy lines. Finally, I spot it. It was right behind me on the far side of the lab. Another door. The only other door I’ve seen. The way out.

I popped the dalek into my mouth, and then I turned and ran for the door out of the cabin, away from the door into the other dimension containing who knows what kind of nightmares for me. I could hear both doctors shouting at me, though I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I was just running for that door.

Then the door swung open. Someone was coming in. All I saw on the other side though was a mirror. I caught a quick glimpse of my reflection as I started to feel that weightless feeling again. The dalek was kicking in. And it was in those couple of moments I realized that my reflection looked shabbier, beaten down like he had been lost in the woods for weeks. I thought this may have been what I looked like now, seeing as I was missing at least three months of my life. But my reflection wasn’t running either. He stood there, and stared at me. He was watching me run. And it felt like I was a single step away from his face when my surroundings all around me completely changed.

It was quicker than a blink. Like a camera cutting from one scene in a movie to another. My brain adjusted to the surroundings and immediately, simply processing that now I was standing by a creek on a sunny and warm afternoon. Part of my brain knows I was just in a cabin in the middle of Norway with nothing but snow outside. But now, I was watching the water flow past through a few smooth rocks and listening to birds chirping and the wind rustling through leaves as if I had always been standing right in this spot.

Running alongside the creek was a trail. Dust floated in the air as if someone had just walked across it. I wasn’t sure if these were my own forgotten footsteps, for all I knew I had wandering around these woods for hours and only just now started really perceiving and understanding my surroundings. Or, was this dust kicked up by someone else who just walked past or away from me? I looked in either direction down the trail and decided to follow the trail to the right, where the dust was still dancing highest.

The sound of my own footsteps drowned out any footsteps I may have heard ahead of me. I kept looking all over, peering between the trees and staring across the creek, trying to find any semblance of another person who may be nearby. As I continued walking, I noticed the trees were changing. Changing colour? I think so. Were they getting darker? Maybe. It’s hard to piece together what I was seeing. I know the trees weren’t the typical spring green I remembered from walking through woods when I was a kid. I stared at the trees, tried to give a name to the colour I was looking at. I thought back to the wooded area behind the house where I grew up, where I would walk on my own for hours on end, thinking constantly because there was no one else to talk to. I could grasp what colour those trees from my childhood were. That bright popping green. Fresh and alive looking. These trees? The ones in this new woods I found myself in, following a trail next to a creek. I wish I could say what colour they were.

“Hurry up!” a voice echoed out. I couldn’t tell from what direction. I looked back out across the creek and noticed the water was moving differently. It was flowing in the opposite direction now. Before, the water flowed in the same direction as the path I was walking down. But now it rushed the other way. It looked like it was rushing harder and faster too. Like the water was panicking and running back where it came from before it was too late.

“Come on! Keep going!” the voice echoed out again. It still had no direction. It was like it was being dropped directly over top of me and surrounding me all over. I didn’t know which way to look to follow the sound and I just kept looking all over as the trees and the grass continually changed colours around me. All colours I had never seen before.

“Curtis, let’s go!” I heard her voice. It was coming from directly in front of me. Suddenly, the forest was gone and I was in her apartment. She was staring at me. No, glaring at me. That look she gave, when I was thinking about something and she just wanted me to say something or go somewhere or do something, that look that told me how little patience she really had for me, that was the look. It was definitely a glare.

She was wearing a dress. A black slip. I remembered the last time she wore it. I remembered how her freckles looked along her shoulders, sticking out between the black straps. I remembered the cut she had on her shoulder from the glass vase that fell off the top of her fridge and broke on her. She was trying to get it from the shelves above the fridge and it slipped out of her hands. She was too short to reach it. I was tall enough, but didn’t bother offering to help. She was lucky that the cut on her shoulder was all that she got. It could have been so much worse.

As I stared at her glaring back at me, looking at her dress and thinking about that last time, I saw the cut on her shoulder. The same cut. Still fresh. Not bandaged, it had healed up enough to leave open. But still as red as her hair. I wasn’t remembering the last time she wore this dress, this was the last time she wore that dress. I was reliving it.

“What were you thinking about?” she said. “Whenever you get lost like that you’re always thinking about something. What was it?”

“I… uh…” I tried to remember what I would have answered then. And whether it was the right thing to say. And if I could fix it. And how if maybe I said the right thing now I maybe could have saved whatever we had. Maybe then she wouldn’t have left me with only a voicemail. Maybe this time, she’d have the decency to leave me after a face to face conversation.

“Are you high again?” she said. I realized that I was thinking about this for way too long. “I thought you were done that shit!”

I don’t remember if I was high during this situation. This second time around, I knew I was high. I was still reeling from the effects of the dalek. Part of me wanted to tell her I wasn’t high, I was just thinking, that’s all. But I would have been lying. In either case, or point in time, or time this happened, or however the fuck you rationalize living out the same moment again only on a different drug this time. And maybe lying was the worst thing I could have done at this moment.

“Yeah, I am,” I said. “I’m really sorry.”

“No you’re not,” she said. Her tone dropped. Monotone and defeated. “Whatever, let’s just get going. Try to act fucking normal. This is important to me.”

I don’t remember where we were going. This was important to her. But apparently it wasn’t that important to me. At that moment, I never felt more like a shitty person.

We walked to the door and it wasn’t the same door I remembered in her apartment before. Her door was white with a peephole too high for her to see through. It had a chrome handle that she hung a vintage cafe sign from. I loved that sign. We found it together at a small town antique shop. I don’t remember what town or if we bought anything else from the shop. But I always remembered that sign. And it wasn’t there.

The door was plain and wooden. At least, my brain registered it as wooden. It wasn’t the colour of wood I had ever seen before, at least not since I took dalek. And as we walked closer, I recognized this door. It was the door from the lab. The one that Dr. Ericson walked through to that other dimension. The one where so many other people on dalek walked through and didn’t come back from. I wasn’t about to go through at door.

“Why are you stopping?” she asked. “Seriously, are you having a bad trip? Today, of all days?”

I stood petrified, not moving and not speaking and I don’t even think I was breathing. All I knew was I wasn’t about to walk through that door.

“Seriously, what’s wrong?” she said. But she wasn’t her anymore. And as I looked to her to try and answer, I saw that she wasn’t her. But brain tried to hold on to the idea that it was her. But it wasn’t. It was my mom now. And we were sitting at my family’s kitchen table. Like we always used to. For family dinner. I locked eyes with my mother, her eyes were so light blue they almost looked silver. She shook her head as she spun the spaghetti around her fork. “You’ve been staring off into nothing since you sat down. What’s going on inside that head of yours?”

She’s smoking still. She hadn’t lost all of her hair yet to the chemo. She even had her wedding band on still. This must have been a really long time ago. Judging by the giant black box of a TV I could see while I peered into the living room, I’m guessing this was back when I was still in high school. Or maybe earlier. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to where in time the dalek was taking me.

My best guess was that it had something to do with whatever thought came across my mind at any given time. When I was back to that time I was stoned and about to go out to that very important thing that I still can’t remember, I was thinking about my mom and how her nagging kind of reminded me of her. And then there was the voice that voice calling out to me in that forest. The voice sounded like her voice. But I was having trouble placing where that forest was. Where in my timeline was that forest? When would I have been wandering around the woods like that? I’m not exactly a nature loving type. I tried to think about what I was thinking about while I tried to run out of that research cabin. I remembered seeing myself. And how odd it felt to look at yourself. Not a reflection, but another version of you, stepping in front of you and staring into your eyes. It feels incredibly weird.

“Curtis, I swear to god!” my mom belted out. “Are you stoned? You’re staring out into nothing like you’ve never seen your own damn kitchen before! What’s gotten into you?”

I was getting really sick of people asking, or rather accusing, me of being stoned. I mean, I was stoned, I had no idea how long the dalek was going to run through my system for, so I guess it was fair to ask or accuse me of being stoned. But it didn’t feel great. People always judge that kind of shit. They need to shut the fuck up. It’s no worse than eating shitty food or not exercising.

“No, I’m fine,” I finally answered. “Sorry, just a long day I guess.”

“Hm,” she grunted as her attention moved away from me and back down to her plate of spaghetti. As she rolled some noodles around her fork, I continued trying to place that forest. It started to feel like somewhere important. Like I should have known it. Like when you watch a cartoon that you saw when you were a kid. Part of you remembers seeing it, and you start to remember the house you grew up in and the couch that was in the living room and even what the spoons were like when you ate cereal on Saturday mornings. Everything around it comes back, but the specific thing that brought on all these memories and emotions kind of eludes you. The cartoon itself isn’t very important, you’ll probably forget about it again by next week. But everything around it feels so right.

“Hey mom,” I decided to break the silence. If anyone would remember something happening in a forest, it would be her. “Did we ever visit a forest while I was growing up? Like for a picnic or something?”

She continued spinning her spaghetti. Like she didn’t hear me. Like I wasn’t even in the room anymore. Just kept spinning and spinning.

“Mom,” I barked over to her. “Hey, Earth to mom. Over here.”

Part of me thought she was trying to teach me a lesson about zoning out by zoning out herself. But then I looked at her fork. The wad of spaghetti wasn’t getting any thicker. By now it should have been huge. It started to remind me of a CD skipping. My mom’s head nodded as the noodles wound around her fork, in a perfect hypnotizing rhythm. But it was just the same motion over and over again. Like an endless loop of a single insignificant moment.

I looked down at my own plate and noticed that most of my noodles were being eaten by maggots. They crawled all over my plate, squirming in the sauce and I could have almost sworn I heard them making noises. Not just the noises of their movements. But almost like cries or screams. The sound filled my ears and made me nauseous and I was ready to puke right there. I covered my ears and closed my eyes tight, almost feeling like I was screaming too.

Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I opened my eyes and there was Meth-Mouth. Looking more like a rotted corpse than ever before. Standing in the same alleyway he always stood in. By the same windows he always stood by. He looked at me, but it almost seemed like only one eye was moving or looking at me. The other floated, staring off into nothingness.

“You okay pretty boy?” he asked, chuckling at his occasional nickname for me. “Coming down from a good time?”

“That shit you sold me,” I said. “That new stuff. It’s really fucking me up.”

“Which?” he crooked his head. “The fenatyl? I haven’t even sold it to you yet.”

“No, no,” I shook my head. “That other stuff. That dalek stuff. It’s got me all whacked out. I think I’m time travelling.”

He chuckled a little bit more. “Maybe I shouldn’t sell you the fenatyl,” he said. “Looks like you’re right fucked up already. I don’t think you need it.”

“Seriously,” I snapped back. I waited a moment, for me to calm down and to make sure no red dots were about to appear anywhere on me. It seemed ok, Meth-Mouth looked more worried about me than he did scared or angry at me. Odd, a dope slinger with a conscience. “The last time I saw you. You sold me something called dalek. It was something new. A psychedelic or stimulant or something. You said it was new and that I would like it.”

“Did I?” Meth-Mouth scratched his head. “Never heard of anything called dalek. You sure it was me? You sure you’re not buying from anyone else? If so, I’d be real sad about that. Loyalty means a lot to me, y’know.”

Loyalty meant a lot to Meth-Mouth. I may not still be able to remember his name, but if I know anything about this pusher, it’s that loyalty is important. He doesn’t like competition, mainly because he’s convinced everyone he sells to are his friends. And if his friends are buying from other people, in his eyes he sees it as the buyer not taking the friendship seriously. Which Meth-Mouth takes personally.

I nervously shook my head and repeated over and over, “No, man, I’m not buying from anyone else, I promise. I swear man.” Meth-Mouth wasn’t hearing it though. He raised two fingers, like he was giving the building behind him the peace sign. Then two red dots appeared on my chest. Just before I took the two slugs to the chest, I wondered if my changing how this simple drug deal went would change how all the rest of these things turned out. I know things seem like they started when I tried the dalek, but really they started when I bought the fentanyl. That’s when I lost control. That’s when she left me. That’s when I went back to tell off Meth-Mouth about the fentanyl, ultimately leading me to trying dalek. Maybe these two slugs to the chest would be the best thing that ever happened to me.

Despite how traumatizing it probably is to be shot, I don’t remember what the bullets felt like. I remember feeling like I got pushed back, hard. Like a hard shove right in the centre of my body. I kind of always imagined bullets burning as they tear through your skin. I don’t remember feeling that. I remember feeling pushed, falling back, and landing on the concrete. I only had a second to process lying on the concrete before I blinked and found myself lying in some overgrown grass.

Sitting up felt good, like I just had a long nap in the sun. The fresh air that hung around me was cool and the smell of dew wafted through my nostrils. I was back in that same forest. The same one I was in when I first ran through that door out of the lab.

The creek was directly in front of me. It was rushing in one direction. No more changing and flowing every which way. Just smooth elegant, flowing like how nature intended it. I stood and walked to the creek to get a closer look. What I saw told me exactly what I needed to know about where I was. Where in time, at least. That the reason I don’t remember ever being here before is because I never was. This is the first time I stepped through to the future. What would will be, or had will be, and would should be, or something like that. But some iteration of my future, whether I had taken the dalek or not.

How did I know this was the future? Because she was there. She was in the creek. Bobbing, somewhere just below the surface of the water. Her eyes were open, but they weren’t looking at anything. They were frozen open, constantly staring in one direction. This was her body, but she wasn’t there anymore.

I don’t know if I just didn’t see her in the creek the last time I went through the forest or if me taking those two slugs in the chest somehow changed this future moment, leading to what I can only assume is me killing her and dumping her into the creek. Either way, despite what I might think of her since she decided I wasn’t worth the effort anymore, she didn’t deserve this. And I needed to change this.

Without even me blinking, I felt the icy wind blow past me and I was in the middle of a snowy field, with nothing but white all around me for as far as I could see. In the distance I could see the side of the mountain and a small brown spot. I walked toward that small brown spot. I knew what it was and that’s where I wanted to be.

The wind blew harder and it cut through me and I felt sharp pains all through my body. I couldn’t stand this cold anymore and so I ran as fast and my freezing legs would take me through the snow. My body wanted to collapse but I pushed it as hard as I could. My back seized and my arms stiffened, but I kept pushing. I knew there was a better future for her and I wanted to give it to her.

The brown spot grew larger and larger and finally I could tell it was the same cabin I was in before. I finally made it to the door and threw it open and caught a glimpse of my own face. It was the me that first took the new strain of dalek. And as quickly as he was there, he was gone again. But it wasn’t just him that was gone.

Stepping into the cabin wasn’t what I was expecting. I expected the machines and equipment and the two doctors still working and possibly curious and excited about my arrival. But they weren’t there. No one was there. Nothing was in that cabin. Nothing except for the door. It was still standing in the middle of the room. I walked around it, looking at it from both sides. Everything about it told me it was a simple door. But there was a reason why it was the only thing that was left in this room. And it scared me.

I had a second thought about going through the door. I looked around the room to find anything I could bring in with me. Just in case. Just to have some piece of the reality I know in my hands while I walked, or floated, or existed, or whatever it was I was about to when I went through that door. As I looked around, I noticed that the door I walked through to get back into the cabin, the from door that led outside to the frozen mountains, was gone. As I thought about my hesitation, I realized my choices that this point were either go through the door or spend an eternity sitting in this room, alone, until I died. Or if I ever died. For all I know, those rules around existence and reality had totally changed.

But then I thought about her. I thought about her face under the water in the creek. Her eyes staring off into nothing. And how wrong it felt to see that. And how she deserved better. And how maybe my no longer existing in this plane of reality would help her to live a normal and fulfilling life. Something she almost completely lost being with me and something I know I can never have anymore. Not after taking dalek. Not after all that I had been through since taking it.

I stepped up to the door, grabbed the handle, and twisted it. The door swung away from me to open. It looked only black inside. I wanted to stop and look in before I took my first step, but it was as if my legs were reacting to a reflex I never knew I had. I immediately stepped forward into the darkness. And I could have sworn, for a moment, I could see stars.

“You know, there’s only one way to really appreciate this marvel of modern science,” I heard a voice say before I knew where I was. And I immediately knew. It was even the exact same smile as he was giving me before. Seeing his crooked yellow teeth. Having that moment of realization as to how bad his teeth were. Everything about this moment was the exact same. Even as I didn’t answer him and just stared at him, not knowing what to do next, like a perfectly timed script, he continued. “It’s your bag man, I swear.”

The same alleyway, the same drug deal, the same crooked yellow and rotting smile. I wondered for how long I was going to be repeating these points in time. I wondered when the dalek was going to finally wear off.

 

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The North

The only people more powerful than those who have been elected to the World Council of Governments, those politicians writing and passing the laws that keep the world in working order, are those who buy each of those elected seats and ensuring the right person is sitting in the right seat, passing the right laws. It’s amazing how once, millions and millions of dollars were spent into lobbying, trying to keep things legal, without any clue as to how much more value you add when something becomes illegal. Take cigarettes. Once, a pack of cigarettes were ten dollars. And that was a pack of twenty-five cigarettes. Ten dollars. You can’t buy a drag from a cigarette anymore for ten dollars. The cigarette manufacturers are happy. They produce less and make more money while at it. And who was it that pushed to see cigarettes banned by the World Council of Governments? Well, a health organization of course. A health organization who receives a great deal of charitable funds from generous philanthropists. Never mind where the philanthropists’ money comes from. It went into something important. It changed the world. Cigarettes are illegal now. People are healthier than ever now, right? And everyone keeps making money.

Shortly after the World Council of Governments banned cigarettes, they looked into the issue of human cloning. It was a hot button issue at the time. The technology and the means were readily available, but an order to halt any research into human cloning came down from the World Council. There were ethical issues to look at. Were we devaluing human life? Did a life mean less because we could replace it with an exact genetic copy?

The fearful rhetoric was written in all the right ways to get public opinion fearful of genetic cloning. Even I was worried. This was the direction genetics research was headed, what was to become of my career if human cloning was banned across the World Union? But anyone who understood how human cloning would actually work knew the rhetoric was coming from a place of ignorance. The clones are exact genetic copies but they’re still their own person. They don’t carry the memories and experiences of the original person. And we don’t even guarantee that they’ll be physically or mentally similar in any way at all. All we can guarantee is that the genetics will be the same. Which begs the question, how much do our genetics dictate our lives?

In my experience, a great deal. In fact, I’ve had a ninety-five per cent success rate with my clones. The exact genetic copies begin thinking and acting like their source human within years of life. For only guaranteeing genetic accuracy, it’s impressive that so many become the very person they’re a copy of. It’s good for business.

Very early on into my business, I was assured that the World Council’s bill to ban human cloning across the World Union was going to be a good thing for me. “Think about cigarettes,” my first client said. I knew what he was saying. I set my price. No one has ever tried to negotiate it down.

Sure, I still run my own genetics health clinic. We’re subsidized by the World Union and provide genetic mapping to patients so they can plan their healthy futures. People are healthier than ever. Living longer than ever. Even the clones have nice, long lives. They grow and age the exact same as any other person. But like all people, they still die. Everyone still dies.

My clients know they’re going to die. They have invested interests in billions and billions of dollars’ worth of assets across the World Union. They don’t want to leave it to just anyone after they die. Good successors are hard to find. They can’t even trust their own children. Most were raised spoiled and left stupid anyways, no amount of education could save those invalids. Like my five per cent of failed clones, those children head to the north once they become adults and they realize that nothing is going to be left to them once their father dies. And it’s always a father. Always an old man with white hair and a belly hanging over their belt in their suit whose jacket can’t quite close. In all my years of cloning, I’ve never had a woman want to copy herself to take over her business. It’s always men.

I’m thinking about opening a second clinic. Keep it in the south where my current clinic is. The weather here is so nice. Great golf courses. Business is great.

*****

The guy lying next to me isn’t breathing. There’s no steam coming out of his mouth. The steam from my mouth hangs in front of me, assures me I’m still alive and I’m still sitting on the cold concrete. I can’t even feel my ass anymore I’ve been sitting here for so long, trying not to freeze to death.

I tap the guy’s shoulder, hoping he just stopped breathing for a second while sleeping. He just toppled over, smacking his head against the frozen concrete. The cold got to him. He was getting old, too. Not a lot of people around this far north with that much grey hair. This was the first time I had ever seen this guy too. I just sat next to him, hoping to get a couple of hours of shut eye. He didn’t look like the type who would try to rob or grope me while I was asleep. You can tell those types really quick. Especially if you’ve been in the north for as long as I have.

It wouldn’t have been the first time I slept next to a dead guy, but for some reason this guy’s really bothering me. Something about the way he was coughing when I sat next to him, then the way he stopped breathing and just toppled over when I tapped him felt off. It didn’t sit right and I didn’t want to keep sitting.

I stand and brush the bit of snow and dust that’s clinging to my pants before reaching down and grabbing my backpack. I step out of the alleyway and back onto the sidewalk and look back and forth, trying to figure out which way is my best route to try and find somewhere to sleep tonight. The nights out here have been bitter cold lately, colder than I ever remember nights here being. I see a couple of people walking together on the other side of the road and duck into another alleyway. There aren’t any tank treads across the road which means they haven’t driven down here while on patrol for a while but might be heading this way soon. They usually don’t bother any of us, but if we’re standing in the middle of the road, they don’t slow down.

The tank’s rumbling can usually be heard for a few blocks and there isn’t a sound around all through the empty streets where I’m standing. I walk across the street and poke into the alleyway, looking around for whoever just ducked in. You never know what kind of people are hanging in the alleyways at night, but one thing’s for sure, everyone right now is looking for warmth and comfort, and if that’s where these two are headed I want to know where that is.

The alleyway looks like most other alleyways. It’s a narrow space between two red-brick buildings about five stories high each. The sides of the walkway are littered with abandoned blankets and the walls are stained with blood. You can’t see the blood so much on the red bricks but the smears are clear when you look at the grey cement between the bricks. Security forces are supposed to prevent violent attacks, that’s why they patrol in tanks, but they don’t do anything to keep anyone around any safer. We would be safer without the patrol. One fewer thing to worry about when you’re running for your life.

I hear whispering behind a dumpster and what sounds to me like a muffled whimper. I peek around the dumpster and see two men holding down a woman, one of the men is holding a knife, and the other is saying something about keeping warm tonight. The woman’s eyes fix on me and the two men notice she’s looking at something. They look in my direction and immediately spot me. The one holding the knife smiles and moves his knife away from the side of her neck and points it at me.

“Looks like we’re both keeping warm tonight,” he says. The other starts laughing and the woman tries to scream, but her mouth is still covered by his hand. They’ve both done this before, I can tell by how confident they are. I fix my eyes on the man with the knife. He’s looking up, not noticing me drop my extendable cattle prod from out of my sleeve. I flick my wrist and it extends, automatically turning on with a couple of crackles coming from the charged tip. He barely has a chance to look down and see it before I hit him in the hip with it. He screams and twitches in pain while I reach back and swing the side of the cattle prod across his head. He drops to the ground like a bag full of body parts. My eyes move from him to the man still holding the woman down.

He stands and starts raising his fists, getting ready to fight. I press my cattle prod against the knocked out man, letting the electric current run through his body, cooking him from the inside out. The man still standing got the message. He turns tail and runs to the back end of the alleyway, I assume back out into the streets.

That’s when my cattle prod died. The crackling of the electric current through the man’s body suddenly stopped. He’s not convulsing anymore and he groans in pain. He’s still alive and I don’t know if these are his last breaths or if he’s about to get back up. I decide not to gamble on that and start walking back out of the alley the way I came in.

“Wait!” a voice from behind me calls out. It’s the woman I helped. Her voice sounds shaky, like she’s terrified to move from behind that dumpster. “Thank you,” she mutters.

I don’t have the heart to tell her I wasn’t trying to save her. If those two didn’t spot me, I would have just left. All I was trying to do was make sure I could get out of this alleyway and find somewhere to sleep. She just happened to be there.

Ignoring her, I keep walking back out into the cold streets. The alleyway is a bit warmer, but if that guy comes back, he won’t be alone. And I need new batteries for my cattle prod. God knows where I’m going to find those.

A hand grabs my arm and I turn, ready to kill whoever’s touching me. It’s the woman. She won’t catch the hint that I’m not here to save her, that I’m not her friend, and that this is where we part ways. I’m not sure how to make it clearer.

“Where did you get that?” she asks.

“I stole it,” I answer. “Patrolman wasn’t looking. Probably still has no clue it’s gone. Probably would have killed me on the spot if he did notice. It’s dead now, though. Totally useless.”

“You hit that guy pretty hard with it,” she says.

“Not hard enough,” I reply and try to walk away. She grips my arm even harder.

“Wait,” she whines. “Wait, you look… You look so familiar.”

She hasn’t notice that we’re standing in front of a darkened window. The lights of the street security lights are reflecting against the darkened window, turning it into a mirror. I’ve noticed, and I know why she thinks I look so familiar. I look exactly like she does.

######

Rumsfeld Hadderton walks into the clinic. Before I see him and before I hear him, I smell him. His smell is incredibly distinct. He wears half a bottle of cologne to try and mask his body odour. But the man sweats profusely and constantly. So the smell he gives off is a mix between sweat, musk, and whatever sweets or pastries he was just stuffing into his mouth. The way he sweats, the way he eats, and how much weight he carries while he walks must mean his resting heart rate is at 170 beats per minute. He can’t walk five feet without being out of breath.

“I want to see the doctor!” he yells before hacking all over my receptionist. “And now! You little bitch!”

“Rumsfeld!” I call from the entrance to the back of the clinic. I tilt my head, motioning to him to follow me. He glares at my receptionist for a moment before waddling over to me. We walk through the hallway, past all the private patient rooms, and into the back room reserved for these special cases. Neither of us say a word before we’re in the room.

He tries to get a word out, pointing his pudgy sausage finger at me, but I grab him by the shirt with both hands and slam him against the wall. I can feel the blubber giggle as his body’s inertia starts to rest against this wall.

“You never talk to my staff like that again you fat fucking piece of shit,” I say between clenched teeth. “Or so help me god, your next clone will have a heart defect that you’ll know nothing about until he drops dead and your estate will be left to you next of kin.” I let go of his shirt and walk to the sink to wash the sweat and leftover food off of my hands. “How is your son, by the way?”

“Fuck you, Doc,” Rumsfeld says as he plops down onto a chair and pulls a napkin from his pocket, wiping the sweat off of his forehead. “You damn well know he’s in the north. Hopefully fucking froze to death, the useless piece of shit.”

“And I’m sure we want to keep it that way,” I continue. “So, what brings you by, Rumsfeld?”

“I’m checking to see how my next properties are coming along,” he says. “I want to make sure you’re not going to fuck this one up like you did all the others. I have a lot invested in this and it has to be completely right or it’s worthless to me.”

I have a ninety-five per cent success rate with my clones. Rumsfeld makes up most of that last five per cent that haven’t worked out. The clones come out as perfectly fine humans, completely genetically exact to Rumsfeld. But he always finds something wrong. Now he wants to babysit me while I work.

“It’s coming along fine, Rumsfeld,” I explain. “The synthetic-uterine process is exactly on schedule. Your new property, as you put it, should be birthed within a few weeks.”

“Are we running into any of the same problems we’ve run into before?” he asks.

“Impossible to tell,” I answer. “Too early in the growth phase. But we’re monitoring it.”

“Doc, I want you to monitor it very closely,” Rumsfeld pipes up. “And the minute we run into any of these same problems, I want you to genetically modify it so it comes out right. I don’t have the time to deal with these mistakes of yours anymore.”

“Genetic altering while in the synthetic-uterine device is very tricky,” I explain. “I’ve done it before but it carries a massive risk. I have to charge extra for that service.”

Rumsfeld’s face turns even more red and the sweat dripping from his forehead starts pouring. He grips the arms of the chair he’s sitting on and leans forward. “You fucking piece of shit!” he screams. “It was my influence with the World Council of Governments that helped keep human cloning illegal and helped you build your business to what it is today. Your money, your practice, your more than comfortable lifestyle is thanks to me. How dare you speak to me like I’m one of your common genetic mapping clients off of the streets!”

“Don’t give me that shit, Rumsfeld,” I quip. “You kept it illegal to ensure it would be as exclusive of a service as possible. After all, you didn’t want just anyone cloning themselves, right? These common people, as you put it, don’t deserve what you can get. And if you ever dare act like I owe my practice and my research to you ever again, I’ll make sure any clone you walk away with has genetic defects that won’t show until you have one foot in the grave. Then the World Council will have to find your son in the north to take over your business. Is that what you want?”

Rumsfeld got really quiet then leaned back in the chair again, patting the sweat off of his forehead and running his tissue along his face, wiping all the excess moisture. “How much extra,” he says, in a very quiet and low voice.

“We can negotiate prices later,” I say. “For now, just know your successor is in good hands and I’ll make sure he’s perfect this time.”

*****

“Do you have a name?” she asks. She’s trailing a few paces behind me, looking around for any signs of patrols while I keep my eye out for anywhere we can hunker down for the night. It’s only getting colder and the winds are picking up, cutting through the thin jacket and ripped jeans I’m wearing. I can only imagine how she feels. I wrapped her in one of the blankets back in the alleyways where I found her. Most of her clothes are still ripped open. She’d freeze to death without the blanket.

“No,” I tell her. She shouldn’t question that too much. A lot of the people in the north tend not to have names. Sometimes they do have names but don’t tell them to anyone. Sometimes they were left in the north to fend for themselves and whoever they bunked with never gave them a name. I decide she doesn’t need to know my name. I hold back my teeth chattering. I don’t want her to know how cold I am. “How about you?”

“Um,” she stutters. “I get called Blondie a lot. Probably because of my hair colour. I guess that doesn’t help you much. We have the same colour hair.”

I don’t know if she saw what I saw in our reflections. I heard rumours before about this kind of thing. People running into themselves. On the outside at least. Inside, they’re their own people. They grew up in different parts of the north, have been part of different tribes and groups, sometimes even have different voices or scars. But the faces. The faces are always the exact same.

“You’re hair’s a little darker than mine,” Blondie points out. “Mine’s kind of pale, but yours is really pretty and bold. Like gold.”

“Call me Goldie, then,” I say.

“Okay,” she says. I look back and see her smile.

We come up to an intersection in the road and on one of the street corners is an old church with a long cross with one of its arms on the side broken in half. It points high into the grey sky, like a beacon to follow. I know this area. I spent a lot of time in this area. We should be safe here.

“Wait,” Blondie says, holding my arm. “This is tribal territory. I think the ones who paint their faces white with all the black lines live around here. They won’t let us pass through.”

“Yes they will,” I reply. “And we can stay here tonight. We’ll be safe. I promise.”

A low rumble echoes out in the direction we’re heading. I know this rumble all too well. From the look on Blondie’s face, she knows it too. Patrolmen. I rush ahead stop by the church, keeping my back against its outside walls as I slowly start to creep over, looking in the direction the tribe is where we heard the rumbles.

There are patrolmen standing around, talking to one another. I see three tanks and behind that there are a few fires, bigger than any trashcan fire people sometimes light to try and keep warm. Then there are two patrolmen carrying the body of one of the tribesmen. He throws the body on the fire. I understand what I’m looking at now. This is a full on raid. There have been some rumours about patrolmen trying to eliminate all the tribes and groups. I didn’t believe it at first. The tribes tended to have a lot of people in them, more than there are every any patrolmen in the north at any time. The patrols always seemed to avoid the tribes, knowing how outnumbered they always were. I guess they started seeing the tribes as enough of a threat to finally start getting rid of them.

“Can you believe how much extra pay we’re getting for this?” I hear one patrolman say to another. “I might have enough for a clone. Can you believe it?”

“Clone, you know those are illegal,” another patrolman says.

“Sure, but you can still get them, you just need to know where to find them,” the first says.

“And what are you going to do with a clone?” the other continues.

“Teach him baseball,” the first laughs. “I lost a huge scholarship after blowing out my knee. It’s like it’s going to be my second chance. Imagine, all the skill I used to have in baseball and young again. It’s brilliant. I don’t know why cloning is kept illegal. It’s just so brilliant.”

I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s Blondie.

“What’s a clone?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I say.

“Yeah, can you imagine two of our appetites kicking around on this world?” a third patrolman says. “We would literally have two of you running around. We would run out of food. The south is already predicting food shortages because we have to feed these northern animals. Last thing we need to feed is another one of you.”

The three men laugh, and the meaning of that word starts to come to me. Clone. It’s a copy of a person. It’s why Blondie and I have the exact same face. Are we copies of each other? Copies of another person? For the first time I’m feeling a need to know my own identity. Before my only concern was just surviving. Learning as much as I could so I could be smarter and better than anyone coming after me. Now, I want to know why I’m here. How did I get here? How did Blondie get here? Who are we?

I feel another tug at my arm. “We can’t stay here,” Blondie says. “Where are we going to go?”

“South,” I answer.

#####

I’m grateful Rumsfeld didn’t get a chance to look at his next potential protégé before I finally kicked him out of my office. It’s growing fine, almost already looks like a human. But I always check the readouts whenever I go into the room where the new humans are growing. These readouts didn’t look great, especially for what Rumsfeld wanted.

The readouts show me all the copied genetic code as it forms into a new human. I check it to make sure no genetic defects or mistakes wind up getting copied into the new human. No one wants a defective human and I’m already losing enough money because of this asshole. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to recopy his genetics and try to grow his successor. I feel like I’ve been trying and failing with this guy for decades.

The readouts tell me this new human is running into the same problems all the other ones had. I don’t know how or why, but the cloning process keeps copying an extra X chromosome. This makes no sense because the cloning process involves copying everything, right down to mapping the two chromosomes and ensuring they’re an exact match in the new human. Every time it misses the Y chromosome and copies an extra X.

I finally decide to review Rumsfeld’s mapped genome. Thousands upon thousands of genes I’m reading through, trying to figure out what’s going wrong and how can I fix it to stop this from ever happening again. I’ve had my failures with other clients and the mistakes were sent to the north like they always are, but I can usually spot my mistake right away and adjust it. Somewhere in these more than 20,000 genes mapped out that make up Mr. Rumsfeld Hadderton is the answer as to why his clones never turn out exactly as he wants.

And then I spot it. It’s as clear as day why his chromosomes aren’t cloning right. And it puts into perspective so much about this man. He paid for the extra genetic monitoring and it’s too late to adjust the chromosomes in this new human. She’ll go to the north, like the rest. And I have some bad news for Rumsfeld. Something that was never in his original agreement with me. Something I can charge a lot extra for.

*****

All you have to do is face the south to feel its warmth against your face. The frozen north has its icy tingle that clings to your face, but all you have to do is face south to be reminded that it’s warm somewhere. And we’re going where it’s warm. Even if it kills us.

Blondie is behind me as we approach the border. She did a good job keeping quiet as we snuck around the buildings and streets that make up the north. I’m proud of her. There were some close calls, but we made it through without any patrol noticing us. But the border won’t be so easy.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen the border. When people in the north are arrested, they bring them to the south for a public execution. I’ve never seen one, but I’ve heard the patrolmen talk about it. They laugh about how the northerner they caught squirmed and tried to scream as they were hung. Members of my tribe were taken to the south. I never heard about their execution, but I followed them to the border when they were arrested, hoping there was something I could do to stop it and free the people who raised me and fed me and taught me to survive. I don’t know if I could stand hearing about it. Knowing that ours death gives them entertainment makes me hate them so much more. But it always feels like I can never do anything about it. Maybe making it to the south will change all that.

The border looks the same as it did when they took my tribe. A large stone wall with guard towers lines the border for as far as I can see. Armed patrolmen and their large dogs stand around and keep watch, one hand always on their rifles. Openings small enough for single vehicles to pass through break up bits of the wall and are blocked by thick steel doors that need to be opened by two people. I got us this far but I have no idea how we’re going to pass through here.

Blondie taps me on the shoulder and says, “I think you need this a lot more than I do. I think you have some sort of plan or something and I want you to succeed. You saved my life. It’s time I pay you back.”

I don’t even get a word out when Blondie runs out, both arms waving yelling at the guards. I don’t hear what she says but she has the guards’ attentions. And they’re all smiling. I’m terrified to think what’s going to happen to her, but I don’t want to let her diving out into danger like that to go in vain. Once I see the guard at the nearest gateway run toward Blondie, I sneak out and run and I don’t look back and I don’t look anywhere around me. I’m just gunning for that gate. And I’m praying Blondie’s going to be ok.

#####

Rumsfeld came into my office with his face beat red already and sweat pooling under the thick fleshy fold around his face. He wasn’t even sitting when I finally came into my office. He was pacing back and forth and it felt like every step he took hit the floor harder than the last.

“This better be fucking important,” he spat. “I don’t know why you called me here, but it better be fucking important.”

“Are you familiar with Klinefelter syndrome?” I asked.

“Why the fuck would I know what that is?” Rumsfeld drooled down his chin and quickly wiped it with his hand. “You’re the fucking doctor. What, does one of my products have it or something?”

“Not quite,” I answered. “Actually, you have it.”

“What do you mean I have it?” he furled his brow. “You gave me every fucking medical test known to man before we started this goddamn song and dance. Wouldn’t you have spotted it then?”

“We don’t test for it,” I said. “Since selective genetics came into fashion, it’s become extremely rare. Hell, before selective genetics it was a one in five-hundred chance of being born with it. It wasn’t exactly common before and it’s virtually unheard of now.”

“So how the fuck did I wind up with it?” he slammed his fist onto my desk.

“Your parents must have missed it when they were reviewing your genetics before you were born,” I said. “Even I missed it. Again, this shouldn’t exist anymore.”

“So, how do I get rid of it?” Rumsfeld began pacing again. “You said it yourself, it’s virtually non-existent now. What’s the cure?”

“It doesn’t exactly work like that,” I sighed knowing this would be nearly impossible to explain to a simpleton of this magnitude. “It’s an error in your genetics. Most people have two chromosomes, women have two X chromosomes, men have an X and a Y chromosome –”

“Yeah, old news,” Rumsfeld blurted. “Get to the part where we fix this.”

“There is no fix,” I tell him. “It should have been corrected before you were born, while your genes were still be edited. It should have been easy to spot. It would have come up when the doctor who worked with your parents figured out what sex you are. You’re a man and you should have an X and a Y chromosome. Instead, you have two X chromosomes and a Y chromosome.”

“And that’s affecting my clones?”he asked.

“It’s duplicating both of your X chromosomes,” I explained. “Now that we’ve spotted this, the next one will finally be perfect.”

“I don’t have time for this shit!” Rumsfeld screamed. “Just kill the fucking bitch in the test tube and get the next one going already!”

He turned to leave my office, but before he could leave I called back out to him.

“There are a few other things you should know about your condition,” I said.

“Like what?” he stood in my doorway.

“One symptom is being an insufferable prick,” I felt the corner of my mouth peak into a smirk. “The other major symptom is sterility. I was wondering why it was so easy for you to send your kid to the North.”

“Well, like you just pointed out,” he said. “The bastard isn’t even my fucking kid. So fuck him. I hope he freezes to death and the savages up there use his body for food and warmth. It’s the only good that human waste will ever do anyone. Now get to work. I’m not paying you to tell me how fucked up my life is. I know that already.”

*****

I feel the temperature difference as soon as I cross into the South. It’s warm, like there’s a constant fire going all around and there’s space for everyone to stand next to it.

I’m still shocked as to how easy it was to cross into the South. I ran through the gateway and to the other side without any plan for what I would do once I got across. I didn’t even know what was waiting for me on the other side. It could have been a hundred more guards or patrolling troops. But there’s nothing. It feels emptier than the North does. But I feel the warmth and it draws me in.

There isn’t any frost on the ground and I don’t see any concrete. The grass is trampled though and there is more dirt beneath my feet than there is any plant life. The sky is still grey, just like the North, but there are breaks in the clouds in front of me. It looks close enough to touch but part of me knows it will be hours or even days of walking before I stand underneath where the clouds actually brake.

A single jeep rolls up next to me while I’m walking away from the North. There is a single guard inside, driving the same direction that I’m walking. My first instinct is to run, but I can tell by the way he looks at me he isn’t interested in bringing me back.

“Heading South?” he asks through his smile.

I nod slowly, waiting for him to open his pants or order me to take off my top. But he does neither. He just opens his door and invites me into the jeep. He smiles as I crawled in and that’s when I noticed his smile, his yellowed and chipped teeth, and the blonde stubble growing around his face. The guards never had any facial hair and their teeth were always perfect and as white as the frost that covers the windows of the buildings around the North. He’s not a guard.

“How did you get out?” he asks. I look over to him but didn’t answer. I don’t know how to answer. I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about Blondie yet and what she did. I feel like if I talk about it, I’d want to turn back and try to find her. “Not a complicated question,” he smiles as I realize how long I have been sitting in silence. “For example, I was able to kill a guard and steal his uniform and his jeep. I’m one of the few Northern residents who knows how to drive, I was born a Southerner after all. One of my daddy’s staff taught me to drive. And ever since I’ve been helping folks who’ve escaped the North find their ways to the South. There’s a small shelter accepting Northerners, giving them food and new clothes and place to sleep before folks can start heading further South and making their way in that part of the world –”

“I don’t want to go there,” I interrupt him.

“Go where?”

“The shelter, I don’t want to go there.”

“Where are you headed then?”

I hand him the sheet of paper I found. He smiles and nods. “I know this place well enough,” he says. “You might not like what you see. I know I didn’t. Keeps me away from that place. My father too. Been wanting to kill that son of a bitch for a long time now. But that clinic freaks me out.”

“I have to,” I say. “I have to go to this place. It might explain…” I hesitate to continue. I look over and find him staring at me intently, barely keeping an eye on the road. “What is it?”

“Nothing,” he answers. “You just look familiar, that’s all. Funny enough, we very well could be related. Especially if this is where you’re headed, there’s a very good chance of that.”

#####

Getting past Rumsfeld’s little problem is a pretty nasty challenge. I’ve never had to deal with anything like this before. I’ve never doubted myself like this either. I’d be willing to tell him that it’s impossible and turn him away and instead focus on clients I know will be easier money. But he’s paid me already. He’s paid me a lot. And I’m not in any position to pay back that much money. I just have to keep working at it until it’s right.

The sound of gunfire rings out in the clinic’s lobby as I check Rumsfeld’s newest copy. My first thought is that the old bastard has lost his mind and he’s out for blood now. I always knew he was unstable. My gut told me not to take him on as a client the first day I met him. He was so off that day and he hasn’t acted any better since. He’s only been more and more unbearable. I remember him almost being twitchy. He bounced his knee while he sat in my office, drumming against his legs and looking all over the room, like a little boy waiting for his Christmas presents. Only little boys sit in anxious joy and happiness. Rumsfeld sneered the whole time he was in my office. Like he was ready to fight while having a panic attack. To this day I’ve never dealt with anyone like him. Most of my clients are calm and assertive professionals who know what they want and how they intend to get it. Rumsfeld knows what he wants and he’s ready to punch anyone in the face to get it.

My attention stays fixed on my specimen while I hear more shots ringing out, louder this time. He’s getting closer. I better have some good news for him. I can’t afford to have a bullet in me, not while I have this much work to do.

I check all the vitals and everything seems normal. I take a deep breath before I read the gender. I’ve never been this worried reading one of my specimens before. Even my first wasn’t this nerve wracking. And with a long exhale, I read the gender.

Another girl. My mind goes directly to the fact I need to get a hold of my contact for transport to the North and I barely register how loud the shots are getting.

And that’s when the door to my office finally opens.

*****

The jeep pulls up to a building with lights coming out of the windows, which haven’t been boarded up or marked as territory by anyone. The driver smiles at me again, looks at me in a way I haven’t been looked at since my tribe were still alive. It feels good. I can trust him.

“Are you sure you want to go in there?” he asks.

“I think I’m sure,” I answer. “I don’t know what I’m going to do when I go in. I don’t even really know what I’m looking for. I just know that whatever reason I exist is in this place. And I need to know what it is.”

He nods slowly, like he’s appreciating what I’m saying. He might not understand it, I don’t know if he has a tribe or if he knows where he came from or if he’s just sure enough of himself that he just doesn’t need to know any more about himself. “Alright, but don’t go in empty handed,” he says as he hands me a pistol. It feels heavy in my hands. The cold metal tingles through my fingers and I get a shiver along my arms. Like I forgot what one of these feels like.”You ever use one of these things before?”

“My tribe had one,” I say. “It looked different though. It was smaller. I learned how to shoot on it. I shot more can than anyone else in my tribe.”

“Well, this one will probably have some extra kick the one you used before didn’t have,” he says. “But it’s generally the same principals. I think you’ll handle it well.”

“What should I do with it?” I ask. “I mean, is there anyone who I shouldn’t shoot?”

“In my humble opinion,” he smiles. “No. Take it from someone who grew up in the South and was sent to the North against his will. No one in the South deserves to live. They don’t understand what people like you and me have had to go through in the North. And no one down here appreciates anything they have. They throw away food and never know what it’s like to starve. They’ve never felt the cold and the desperation to keep a fire going. They know nothing, especially about the North. They don’t deserve to keep going.”

I let his words absorb into me, like they were made of liquid and seeped into my skin. I feel his words travelling through me, and then they become part of me. My heart races and my hands shake. For the first time in a very long time, I smile.

“Will you be here once I’m done?” I ask.

“I have something to tend to,” he says. “I have a sweaty fat bastard to take care of. But I’ll be back. And I’ll take you back to the camp, you’ll meet some of your fellow escaped Northerners, and we’ll prepare to take the South.”

I get out of the jeep and walk towards the door. I look back one last time, for one last boost of confidence. He isn’t looking at me. He’s driving away already.

#####

I can’t say I would have ever seen this coming. She has blonde hair and her skin is cracked and creased, but she’s not old. These aren’t wrinkles. It’s frost burn deeply embedded into her skin. She stares at me, both of her hands are wrapped around the gun’s handle. It’s pointed directly at me. She’s silent for a long while. I stay frozen in place.

“Who am I?” she finally breaks the silence.

“I don’t know,” I say.

“Yes you do!” she shouts. “I know you do. Just because I’m from the North doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I know what you do. I saw another girl who looks exactly like me. She’s dead now. She died so I could get here and find you and find out who I am. Now, who am I?”

“Looks exactly like you?” I smile. “Only one? I’m surprised. Your eyes, your nose, your cheekbones, everything about you is him. It’s uncanny. Even your temper apparently.”

“Who?” she snaps.

“A client who’s been far more trouble than he’s worth,” I explain. “A real fucking nightmare.”

“You don’t know nightmares,” she says, her hands start shaking. “You get to wake up from them. Mine’s never ended.”

“How would you know?” I ask. “I mean, I imagine you don’t know any other life than the North. I know I sent you there even before your incubation was complete. I’m shocked you lived. God knows how many died from the cold –”

“Shut up!” she screams. “How many of me are there? How many times was I cloned?”

“Technically, you weren’t cloned,” I explain. “You are the clone. Guessing by your age, probably one of the first. The first in a long stream of mistakes.”

“Why were we all mistakes?” she asks, tears streaming down her face.

“What’s the one common denominator here?” I say. “You, the other girl who you saw, and, well, I guess this is your sister. I mean, you have a lot in common. But the main thing is that your, well, kind of father but more of a root genetic sample, he wanted a man.”

She looks at the specimen. “What’s going to happen to her?”

“Well, my client thinks you’re all dead, that I kill you once the gender is identified and you’re no good anymore,” I say. “But I don’t kill you. I send you to the North. I let nature take its toll. If you survive, well done. If not, well, you were never really meant for this world.”

The tears streaming down her face drench her cheeks. I’m hoping to keep her distracted enough to make a run for it. I know she’s not interested in any of my equipment, she wouldn’t know what to do with any of it with her savage and primitive brain. If I break her, make her hate herself enough that she’s no longer paying attention to me, I know I’ll be safe.

“Give her to me,” she says.

“I can’t do that,” I say. “She won’t live. She’s incubating still.”

“Then you’ll stay until she’s ready to be born,” she says.

“Ready to be born?” I laugh out loud. “Stop pretending this is a human. It’s human-error.”

Then she opens fire.

*****

I hold onto her tight as I sneak outside. The sun is down now, but it’s still far warmer than any day in the North. The jar that she’s in is hard to grip with only one hand. I drop the gun, I’m out of bullets anyways, and I look up and I see no one waiting for me. The dark streets are empty in front of me and it starts looking like the North all around me.

I wrap both of my arms around her as I continue walking. I feel my body shaking but I hold it in my chest and try not to let my arms shake. My legs can barely hold me up as I keep trying to walk forward. I trip and fall, but use one of my hands to stop me from falling all the way and my other hand holds onto her tight.

I don’t know how far I walk before I feel my legs give out again. I fall on my side, still holding her and trying to protect her. The concrete feels comfortable and I roll onto my back and I feel myself start to drift off.

The sun’s glare wakes me up. As soon as the light cracks from between my eyelids, I shoot awake and check on her. I’m still holding her. She’s still the same as she was last night: tiny and floating in place. I stare at her and start to make out her features: I see her eyes and they’re closed tight like she’s in a deep sleep. I make out her small mouth. Her arms are bunched up around her. She looks comfortable. She looks safe.

“Holy fuck, you’re alive,” I hear a man’s voice. I recognize it. Only it’s not making me feel comfortable or safe this time. “I seriously thought local police would have shot you as soon as you walked out of the building. You didn’t wait at all to start shooting.”

He’s standing outside of the jeep with his arms folded and a smirk across his face. “I’m glad you served your part. I don’t think things could have gone better for me.”

“Why weren’t you there?” I ask.

“Because you were supposed to be dead,” he chuckles. “Do I have to spell it out for you? You were supposed to keep the authorities busy while I took care of my business. You see, I was sent to the North, but it was technically an illegal transfer. The fat prick who called himself my dad paid a few people to take me to the North. I’m still a citizen of the South. And because my transfer was illegal it was easy for me to get past that big scary wall and waltz back to my home. But crime in the South is sparse. One gunshot and the entire local force would be on you before your sweat could run down your cheek. Multiple gunshots, though, like the little party you had? Police would have been so distracted with you that no one would have noticed me popping a few into that tub of lard.”

“But…”  I stutter trying to find my words. “But the camp.”

“Doesn’t exist,” he smirks. “No one’s ever escaped the North.”

My stomach twists and I feel like I’m about to throw up. I look down at her and back up to him again. “How did you know I would come out and find you and want to go to that place?”

“Believe it or not, I was lucky,” he says. “I didn’t set anything up. Running into you was a pure fluke. I put the plan together on the fly as soon as you climbed into the jeep and showed me that clinic’s brochure. Honestly, I would have been happy to find anyone and improvised it any which way. I never targeted you hun. You’re simply not that special.”

I stand up and glance behind me and my eyesight draws a path I’ll be walking down, away from him. “Well, it was worth it,” I say as I look down at her. “It was worth it for her.”

“Did you really disconnect that from its life support?” he chuckles. “Hun, I don’t know how to tell you this, but that thing died the minute you grabbed it and walked out of that clinic. You didn’t save anything.”

I don’t believe him. I know she still has to be in there. I know she’s still growing and getting ready to enter the world. My heart beats faster than it did when I was holding the gun. My palms start to sweat and I struggle to keep holding on to her. The tears run down my face and I can’t control them.

“Sorry I had to be the bearer of bad news,” he says. “I know it’s nice to think you’re a hero. But you’re nothing but another piece of human error that should have died in the North.”

I keel over as I start to wretch and I feel my empty stomach push up against me with each heave that escapes my body. I keep holding onto her, though. I’ll die before I drop her.

“Why?!” I cry out.

“Are you actually asking me?” he answers. “Sadly, I wish I had some grand explanation. I almost wish the resistance I convinced you exists was real. It was money. The old piece of shit dies, I get his money and his company. I’ll sell the company, never work again, live the easy life, and never think about any of this again.” I can hear him laugh. “You know, it’s funny. I’m not even actually his son, and I’m more like him than you are and you’re an exact genetic duplicate of him. You have to admit, that’s funny.”

#####

My hand if covered in blood when I wake up. I have two bullet holes in me and I’m bleeding profusely. I lift my shirt and inspect the wounds. Falling asleep is the worst thing I could have done, even if it was involuntary. The wounds have been open for too long. There’s no quick repair. And no paramedic will get here in time. If they haven’t got here yet, they’re not coming. I have to get ready.

I try to stand but it hurts so incredibly much. I’m actually looking forward to finishing out and being done with this shit. But I can’t go quite yet. I have one last thing I need to do.

Pulling myself  across the floor, I reach the back of my lab, to my restricted office. I barely reach the door handle, but I open it and crawl in. The four cryogenic chambers have frost covering the outside. But it won’t take long to thaw one. I reach the control of the first one I find and enter the passcode to unlock it. It starts heating up rapidly, and then the airlock releases and the hatch opens. I forgot how awkward I looked when I was this young. Tall, skinny, and the cryogenic chamber hasn’t done much for my skin. Or I guess his skin.

He walks out and the sudden look of horror on his face takes over as he spots my wounds. “You’re hurt!” he says.

“Don’t fucking bother,” I say. “Just save whatever tissue you can and start up the replacement.”

There have always been four in the cryogenic chambers and four in stasis in incubators on the other side of my restricted office. He has the same look on his face as I did when I came out of my cryogenic chamber. Part fear, part exhilaration, part impatience waiting for the old model to finally die. He has that same look on his face. Part of me is glad this will be the last thing I see. Knowing that my work isn’t finished, but the best possible candidate will continue it.

He kneels down next to me, inspects the wounds, and then smiles. “I guess I got some work to do.”

I said the same thing when I came out.

 

 

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The Europa Virus

Subject number 03198 was administered water about two hours before the adverse effects started to surface. This was the longest stretch of time yet without any sign of symptoms and Dr. Norton was feeling confident about this one. She hoped that she finally made water safe to drink again. But just as her hopes were rising, so was Subject 03198’s fever.

The subject was in a padded room with a large observation window. All the subject saw was his own reflection but Dr. Norton could see right into the room. Around Dr. Norton were a collection of different machines all reading different data: body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, brain activity, all the essentials when you’re fairly convinced that you’re watching a person die. Dr. Norton was in the room alone when Subject 03198 started showing symptoms. She reached down and turned off the communication microphones and speakers between her and the subject. She never liked hearing their screams.

She often thought it was cruel that the subjects had a mirror in the room with them. As the symptoms got worse, the subjects watched themselves more. They would first start looking into the mirror to see the sweat dripping off their faces as the fever got worse. Look up every once in a while when they start coughing. The first time they noticed the blood on their hands, they always look up at the mirror, as if they’re looking through and staring directly at whoever was in the booth, asking, “What the fuck did you do to me?” The first time they vomit they look into the mirror to see if any if left on their faces on got onto their clothes.

When the vomit turns to blood, it’s like they don’t stop looking into the mirror. As the blood vomit gets out of control, they only ever seem to stare at the floor. The vomit stopping is the worst sign and Dr. Norton almost wishes the vomit wouldn’t stop until they’re dead. But every time the vomit stops, the subject looks into the mirror, and their eyes start to throb. They last thing they see is their own reflection as their eyes pulsate more violently and finally pop like week-old zits. The screaming is always worst by this point. Sometimes they scream for hours. Sometimes they scream right up until their bodies finally give and they die lying on the floor. And that’s why Dr. Norton always turns off the microphones and speakers.

Subject 03198 was no different. All the same symptoms, all the same reactions, and the same end result. Another dead person lying in the observation room.

Dr. Norton didn’t even have time to pull her eyes away from the window when Dr. Edwards came into the room. “Jesus Christ!” he blurted out. “Not another one! I thought we had this one figured out. What happened?”

“Same symptoms,” Dr. Norton said. “Same order, same reactions, just started a lot later. This one didn’t show fever until two hours after introduction to the water sample. We are making some sort of progress with this –”

“Christ on a fucking stick!” Dr. Edwards interrupted. “How the fuck is it being delayed? It’s a virus. It shouldn’t be delaying. It either goes or it doesn’t. How is it delaying?”

Dr. Norton took a minute to review the notes she made while watching the subject before answering Edwards, whose fuming temper was warming the room hotter than the subject’s fevers. “It could be that there were fewer virus cells in the sample. That could delay the reaction. But judging by the symptoms and how quickly Subject 03198 is currently decomposing, the virus replicates at an enormous rate once introduced to the human digestive system. This shoots down any theory that humans could have an immunity to a small number of cells. It’s not the number of cells, it’s the virus itself.”

Dr. Edward and Dr. Norton both looked into the observation room and saw that Subject 03198’s decomposition was like all the rest: a week’s worth of rotting and stench in a matter of minutes. Dr. Norton looked down at the body temperature readouts and saw they were just as high as all the rest. Like the bodies were so hot inside that it was melting the flesh right off their bones and speeding up all the bacteria responsible for decomposition. Like leaving meat out in the sun on a hot summer day.

“In any other case, most bodies drop temperature once all life signs cease,” Dr. Norton pointed out. “This virus is completely different. Like the other samples, subject 03198’s fever temperature is persisting post-mortem. Almost 110 degrees. Hottest still was 112, I don’t think anything will break that record. But still, it’s inhumanly hot. It must have felt like they were being boiled from the inside out.”

“They probably pray for death,” Dr. Edwards said. “I know I fucking would. There are fates worse than death and any kind of pain like we’re seeing from this virus for any longer than a few minutes and they should drop dead just to stop the agony. Funny, because of how quick most subjects die after symptoms begin, this may be the most humane virus there is. It’s agony, but at least it’s quick. Funny how that works.”

Dr. Norton knew there was nothing humane about this virus. Dr. Edwards rarely stayed while any subject was in the observation room. He never had to hear the screams and see the agony in people’s faces. He never looked into their eyes before they exploded in their sockets.

“Any progress in eliminating all virus cells from the water samples?” Dr. Edwards asked.

Dr. Norton shook her head. “The virus doesn’t react the same way to conventional sanitation and decontamination methods. Fluoride and chlorine do nothing to the virus cells, electromagnetic radiation only makes the virus replicate faster, even when we try to distil the water, the virus cells latch on to the hydrogen and oxygen molecules during vaporization. I’ve never seen anything act like this before.”

“So we can’t altogether get rid of the virus,” Dr. Edwards began. “And the human body can’t withstand any exposure to it. Our investors aren’t going to be happy about this.”

Billions of dollars had been poured into what was being called Operation Europa. With the deterioration of the Earth’s atmosphere, weather patterns became more erratic, then altogether stopped existing. Cloud formations became minimal and the total precipitation on Earth over the past few years had been equal to a single spring in Arizona. Water was depleting fast and it was Operation Europa’s job to find a suitable substitute for the naturally occurring water that used to fall from the sky and that all life on Earth still needs to survive.

The biggest investor was Albert MacFarlane, who was a billionaire philanthropist constantly giving to every needy charity on the planet. At least, that was his public persona. When a person gives that much money to help stop the spread of Ebola in developing countries and provide winter jackets to homeless people living through harsh winters in northern climates, you tend not to question where the money came from to begin with. Everyone working on Operation Europa was under strict orders to not question where MacFarlane’s money came from, but be grateful it was coming in.

“When’s the next shuttle set to launch?” Dr. Norton asked.

Dr. Edwards looked around briefly, and then spotted a computer sitting on a table. He leaned over and started typing and scrolling. “Next week,” he answered. “They’re planning on extracting twice as much water on this mission as the last. According t schedule, we should have made the water safe by now.”

“We’re just going to have to tell MacFarlane that the water won’t be ready for public consumption,” Dr. Norton said. “We just need more time to better understand the virus in the water and how best to treat it.”

“Which one of us will be explaining this to Mr. MacFarlane?” Dr. Edwards asked.

*****

Albert MacFarlane’s age was showing more and more every day. Murmurs were that the stress of trying to fund Operation Europa was putting deep creases into his botoxed face. His temper was getting shorter and shorter the more he heard about the water contamination. Like a child who wasn’t getting what he wanted right away and his tantrums were getting louder and more violent.

“Ms. Norton,” MacFarlane began. “You do understand that the public unveiling is in a matter of weeks. The next trip to Europa is meant to fill the glasses of all the investors and all the politicians behind Operation Europa. Fresh, clean water for the world. I don’t understand how water, simple water, can be killing so many people.”

Dr. Norton shook where she stood. She looked down at her pale, frail hands and realized that she was in the room alone with Albert MacFarlane. She knew his reputation of violent eruptions. She was terrified as to how drastically he would explode at the prospect of cancelling the cocktail party where the operation he heavily funded would save the world.

She tried to speak, but MacFarlane leaned forward and put his index finger in front of his mouth, shushing her before she could get a full word out. “Please, keep in mind Ms. Norton –”

“Dr. Norton,” she blurted out.

“My apologies,” MacFarlane smiled. “Please keep in mind, Doctor Norton, I’m not a sciency kind of guy. So try to explain this to me in a way that I can understand.”

Dr. Norton took a deep breath, trying to slow down her jackhammering heart, and began. “All water has microbes and small organisms in it. They’re not bad for us, in fact a lot of the microscopic life in water is essential for humans. The water we’re extracting from Europa is similar in that way, only the microscopic life in the water from there is killing whoever drinks it.”

MacFarlane squinted, his hand on his chin. Dr. Norton could tell that he was listening, but couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “Well, why would this micro-whatever in water that usually helps us live kill us now?”

“We think it’s because the water is coming from a different planetary source altogether,” Dr. Norton continued. “Europa formed around Jupiter, and Jupiter is a mass of gas almost entirely composed of hydrogen with some helium and sulfur. Where Earth has a lot of carbon, and all life on Earth is carbon based. We think that the microscopic life in the water from Europa is evolved from hydrogen, or even sulfur, rather than carbon, and so when it’s introduced to our bodies, our bodies completely reject it, like an abomination. Things mix that shouldn’t mix and create a chemical reaction that heat the body from the inside out and completely destroy it.”

MacFarlane leaned back in his chair. “And there’s absolutely no way to destroy this virus? No cure? No medicine? How am I supposed to tell all the people who invested billions of dollars into this and all the big players passing bills to support this that it’s all a waste now?”

“It hasn’t been a total waste,” Dr. Norton replied. “Life forms evolving from anything other than carbon was completely theoretical up to this point. This is actually a huge discovery if we’re correct –”

“It doesn’t mean shit unless I have water to sell!” MacFarlane screamed. “I’m not funding this for the sciency mumbo-jumbo bullshit! I’m funding this to get some water back on this planet, sell it to everyone, and get my name down in history as the guy who saved the fucking world! And I’ll tell you what I’m starting to think. I think that you’re making these results up and pretending this water is making people sick so that the lab can stay open, you can Edwards and keep your jobs and keep playing scientists with my money!”

“Sir, I can assure you,” Norton’s voice was shaking, her hands were trembling, and she was holding back tears for the sake of staying professional looking. “The biological threat that this water is imposing—”

“Threat nothing!” MacFarlane screamed. “I’m serving this goddamn water at the party straight from the fucking plant and without any of your science-bullshit! And when you see everyone drink it fine, you’ll be fired and I’ll sue you for every paycheque of yours that I signed!”

*****

The worst part has always been watching people die. Norton knew that was obvious. If it ever got to the point where they could talk about the experiments and how people had been reacting to Europa’s water, the first thing she always knew she would say would be that watching people die was the worst.

The second worst was always the clean up. The funders behind Operation Europa were more than happy to supply the lab with a bio-waste disposal suit. Its metal armour and mechanical gears moving every joint in sync with its pilot’s body was built for cleaning out massive waste deposits on warfields. It could lift twenty human carcasses at a time and still be able to walk as if it was carrying a bag of groceries. Norton knew a bio-waste disposal suit like this was overkill for such a small lab. She heard that the team even had some difficulty getting it into the building at first. The suit was already in its place by the observation room by the time she was hired to be part of the research and experimentation team. She asked Edwards about the suit and why the heavy precaution. Edwards explained that the investors were worried about airborne pathogens coming out of whatever virus was infecting the test subject. The bio-waste disposal suit was the best tool for such a messy and dangerous job.

Norton climbed into the suit, slid her arms and legs into the padded opening through each of the suit’s limbs, used the suit’s arms to close the chest plate and fasten the safety mask and helmet. Norton adjusted the smell blockers, an addition she made to the suit after the smell of cleaning the subjects’ remains became too unbearable, and walked into the room smeared with fluids. Norton could have sworn the walls were still vibrating with the sounds of subject 03198’s screams.

Inside each of the arms of the suit were a set of control, small notches and buttons for each of the suit’s sanitation functions. It took Norton some time to get used to all the controls and remembers which function could be found with what. But she was a fast learner.

She moved through the room, mapping out how would be best and most efficient to clean what was left of subject 03198. She moved her right arm inside of the padded tube, found the switch to turn on the hot water power-spray, and started soaking the room. The tiny red bits of person smeared on the walls and along the floor moved easily. Nothing would settle on the coated walls and floors specifically designed to withstand the kind of mess drinking Europa’s water causes.

She soaked the room and moved all of the human remains into a single pile in the middle of the floor and thought about how all these small bits of mess make a human. A complete human laid in front of her, all the pieces were there.

*****

Norton and Edwards continued the experiments as scheduled, hoping to god they find something before the cocktail party when the psychopathic philanthropist pours the toxic water in hopes to out-gustoing their research. The weeks passed with no progress made. They watched the shuttle launch knowing that it was the shuttle that would bring the deaths of a few hundred people. They watched the shuttle return like the four horsemen come to bring the end. And still, they found nothing to slow down the virus that lives in the ice found on the moon Europa.

The cocktail party was held in the same facility as where all of Operation Europa was conducted. The shuttle and exploration teams used the upper floors, the science and research departments were in the underground floors, and the main floor was reserved for the massive reception area with water fountains, gold plated steps, and a reception hall.

Norton and Edwards both attended the party in full formal wear. They looked around hesitantly, not sure if they’re more terrified to watch a room full of people die, or see them live and know that every penny they will ever make from that moment forward will go right back to Albert MacFarlane. They knew their science was solid, but MacFarlane was ruthless. Norton half expected that MacFarlane would fill everyone’s glasses with the last of the Earth’s water, just to prove a point and save face.

They watched the servers hand out the crystal glasses of water. The guests all held their glasses by the dainty tips of their fingers. MacFarlane stood up to the podium and started making a speech. Norton wasn’t listening. She was watching the guests.

“Did we ever test a subject without any pre-emptive sanitation process?” Norton asked Edwards.

“The first ones, yeah,” he answered. “All the same results. We burned the bodies right away because we were afraid of contamination.”

“What do you mean you burned the bodies?” Norton asked. “They completely decompose in minutes. What’s left to cremate?”

Edwards stared out silent for a minute. Then answered, “Those ones didn’t decompose right away. We didn’t wait long enough to see what would happen. We were so scared about contamination, we just burned the bodies within minutes. Do you think we missed something?”

“We’re about to find out.”

MacFarlane finished his speech and everyone applauded. He held up his crystal glass and took a long drink of water. As he finished swallowing, he stared out and locked eyes with Norton.

Norton held her gaze in MacFarlane’s eyes for a moment, then looked out into the crowd, to catch everyone just as they swallowed. The sounds of joyous amazement filled the room, like a crowd who just witnessed a magician pull off an amazing trick. They smiled and laughed and mingled amongst themselves. Norton and Edwards kept staring out, observing and wondering what was going to happen next.

There were a few moments where it almost looked like MacFarlane might have actually filled everyone’s glasses with Earth water. The mingling kept going, MacFarlane’s icy cold stare jabbed at Norton and Edwards every time they looked in his direction. Norton wondered if he would have gone that far just to make them look bad and himself look good.

The first person at the party started vomiting about five minutes after the toast. It was an older man in a pinstripe suit. He tried covering his mouth and running out of the room. But his insides were spilling on the floor before he could make it anywhere near the hall’s exit. People were shocked, they stared at him with disgust. Then the second person started vomiting, this time an older woman in a golden gown. She keeled over, holding her stomach, and spilled herself right where she was standing. She didn’t even bother trying to move, like she knew there was no point.

One by one, all the guests were getting more and more sick. All except MacFarlane who stood on the stage looking down with wide eyes at everyone dying in front of him. He exhibited no signs. Norton knew right away that every guest had water from Europa, but MacFarlane gave himself Earth water. He was too much of a coward to drink it himself.

The shrill screams of everyone in the hall all dying at once filled the room like a television tuned to white noise. “Why are you just standing there!” someone screamed at Norton and Edwards. There was nothing anyone could do to help these people, and Norton and Edwards knew that. So they continued to observe, because there would no other good that could come of this situation except for maybe a better understanding of how the virus progresses in people. This was no longer a banquet and these people no longer had any hope. They were simply the next batch of subjects in this ongoing experiment.

A hand grabbed Norton by the shoulder and she looked back to see MacFarlane with a frantic and panicked look on his face. Beads of sweat dripped from his forehead, leaving long streaks of fear along his face. “Why didn’t you tell me the water was this dangerous!” his voice screeched through his teeth.

“We did tell you,” Norton answered. “You didn’t listen.”

The putrid smell of rot was already filling the room. It was no different from the other subjects. All the same symptoms in the same order and the same reaction from everyone suffering from the virus. It was a quick death, but the pain and anguish that accompanied it must have made it feel like a thousand years of suffering.

“I’ll call for sanitation and clean up,” Edwards said.

“No, wait,” Norton stopped Edwards. “You said you destroyed the bodies almost immediately last time someone was administered completely untreated water? I want to see what the bodies are like after an hour. I want to see if untreated water acts differently post-mortem than treated water.”

“Why?” Edwards asked.

“The virus acts the same in a living host, but what if treating the water actually does make a change, but the change isn’t prevalent until after the body dies?”

“What will that prove?”

“That the treatments are doing something. That all of our efforts didn’t leave us empty handed. And if it acts differently post-mortem, then there has to be a point where the virus acts differently while the host is still alive.”

Norton knew where her brain was heading with this idea, but she wasn’t sure if Edwards saw it too. He stared at her in silence, barely blinking, like his brain was trying to process what he just heard but couldn’t come to any sort of logical reasoning of his own. He was lost in Norton’s idea and completely froze trying to get it to make sense.

“Trust me,” she tried to assure him. “This will bring some progress.”

The acrid smell of rotting flesh started to bother Norton. She coughed into her sleeve, trying to keep down the contents of her stomach. Her instincts told her to get out of that room before she becomes violently ill. But she knew she couldn’t miss any minute. This was crucial.

Forty-five minutes passed and the bodies were almost completely liquid. Even the bone melted with the flesh and all that was left of the banquet guests was a puddle of human remains. Norton pulled her phone from her pocket and started taking photographs. She looked around as she was snapping photos and noticed that MacFarlane was nowhere to be seen. The sounds of screaming echoed through the hall and caught the attentions of both Norton and Edwards. It sounded like MacFarlane’s shrill, panicking voice.

Edwards tried stepping in the direction the sound came from and stepped directly into the liquefied human. The hiss of a burning acid sang out from under his foot and steam rose up, reeking of burning hair and melting rubber. He quickly jumped back and pulled his shoe off and threw it to the ground. The hissing and steaming continued as the shoe completely dissolve in front of them.

Edwards slipped off his other shoe and touched the gelatinous mass that once was a room full of people. The hissing rose up again and his other shoe dissolved as quickly as the first. He threw it to the ground and examined the bit of ash left.

“Corrosive,” he said. “Extremely corrosive. Some of Jupiter’s sulphuric atmosphere must be in this water as well. It’s mixing with the hydrogen of the water and the carbon and oxygen in the people. The pH levels are probably comparable to sulphuric acid, but this is like a much stronger dose.”

“Why isn’t it dissolving the floor?” Norton asked.

“These floors have the same coating as in the observation rooms,” Edwards explained. “A synthetic poly-ethylene plastic coating. Whatever this bit of mess is, it must only damage organic cells.”

Norton noticed that the mass of liquid corrosive human was crawling along the floor, spreading out like a droplet of water on a table going through osmosis. She tapped Edwards on the shoulder and pointed to the crawling threat and the two walked out of the room and headed back down into the lab.

*****

The first thing that Edwards ran to once the two made it into the lab were the binders of research notes. “If that keeps spreading,” he said. “It could coat the whole facility and burn up every piece of organic material in here. We’ve worked too hard to understand this much of it so far. There’s too much else left to learn about it and there’s no time to backtrack. Save every piece of record you can. If it’s paper, grab it and keep it safe.”

There were notes all over the lab. Norton grabbed for everything that she could see. From the scribbled covered notebooks to the small post-it notes stuck to the walls, she moved in a fury to grab everything she could. She handed a massive handful of notebooks and loose paper to Edwards, who looked at the pile from Norton and looked at everything he had gathered thus far.

“We need to start moving this out,” he said. “There was plenty of floor space left upstairs, and the mass was moving slowly when we came down to the lab. Stay down here and keep collecting everything you can and keep it in a single pile. I’m going to run this stack outside and into my car. It will be safe in there until we can get the rest out.”

Before Norton could get a syllable of objection out from between her lips, Edwards was already out of sight. She darted form one side of the lab to the other, picking up every sheet of paper she could see. She opened drawers, stood on chairs to reach top shelves, scoured every hidden space in the lab for anything. Once she gathered what she believed to be every sheet of paper in the lab, she noticed that Edwards still wasn’t back. She checked the clock on the wall and saw he had been gone for almost an hour.

She walked through the lab’s hallways and found the stairwell that led back up to the main floor. She called out for Edwards with only her voice echoing up the stairwell being her response. She stood still and waited, waited for Edwards to reappear for the next set of paper to carry upstairs. But there was nothing.

Then, a small drip started pouring off the top step. Norton watched it with curiosity. Not sure of what she was looking at, she grabbed a post-it note with a message that read “Call Mom,” and reach up with it to the top step. The paper touched the small drip trickling down and started smoking and hissing.

In a panic, she dropped the paper into the small puddle that was gathering on the next step. The paper burst into flame and was reduced to ash in a second. A heavy section of the mass then toppled over the top step as the corrosive human remains started pouring rapidly over, like a tower made of champagne glasses.

She ran back into the observation room and rummaged through the papers. She tried to read the notes as quickly as she could, trying to prioritize what would be most important to save. But she knew she was running out of time before she would have nowhere she could move to. She threw down all the papers back onto the desk and peeked out into the hallway to see the mass crawling its way down to the observation room.

She looked around for a window, an air vent, anything she could crawl through to get to safety. All there was around her were grey walls and fluorescent lights. She knew the stairs were her only exit, but there was no way she would get through the hallway now. She walked forward and touched her toe lightly to mass and her shoe instantly burned up. She kicked off both shoes and moved back to the observation room.

Standing just beside the doorway was the bio-waste disposal unit. It moved slowly. She never tried to walk up stairs with it before. But the metal armour was coated with the same poly-ethylene plastic to protect it from bacteria growing on it. She would at least be safe in the basement if she couldn’t get up the stairs.

The suit was already open and Norton just had to climb in, secure her limbs, and close the chest plate and helmet. Once secure, she began walking through the mass. Each slow, thudding step dispersed the mass under its heavy foot. The mechanical sounds of each limb moving as she walked along seemed louder than any time she cleaned out the observation room.

She made it to the steps, which were now soaked with corrosive human remains. The liquid poured along like a never ending fountain. She lifted her foot and stepped onto the first step. She could feel the foot slipping from under her. She tried to steady herself, but she was quickly losing control. The foot finally slipped out from under her and she fell back in the bio-waste disposal unit and landed directly on her back.

Her body seized up. The pain of the landing shot through her whole body, which refused to move despite any command coming from her brain. She laid flattened, staring at the ceiling through the helmet. She could see the liquid dripping out of the vents and through the fluorescent light fixtures. It dripped slowly down and landed on the helmet’s view screen, clouding Norton’s sight.

The fog from her breath condensed inside of the helmet, leaving it wet and smelling like rotting food. Her limbs began responding her commands and she tried moving the suit to stand back up. Gravity was not on her side as she began feeling like a turtle turned upside down on its shell. She was able to move the mechanical arm and wipe away the accumulating mass clouding her vision. She looked around and noticed on the far side of the lab from the observation room a small window. Small, but just big enough to crawl through.

Unable to get up still, Norton began kicking out her legs and flailing her arms, pushing the suit across the floor towards the window. She grabbed onto walls and kicked at corners, moving the massive metal body across the floor. After some hard pushes, she finally made it to the window.

The walls around the window still had no liquid on it. She knew she pull herself up through the window and pivot herself against the wall to get out of the facility. But she had to get up to reach the window first.

She opened the chest plate and helmet to the suit. She pushed one of the doors to the chest plate as far open as the hinges would allow, then pushed it further to pop the hinge and let the door swing from the other side. She stood up with her feet inside the suit where he back usually is and stepped out onto the open door and pushed herself up the wall and through the window.

Once outside, she walked directly to where Edward’s car is usually parked. There was no sign of Edwards or his car anywhere. All there was in the parking spot where his car usually is was a single piece of paper. An observation that she wrote during 03198’s brief time as a subject. She didn’t even remember scribbling down “this is hopeless” on the paper, but it’s how she felt while watching 03198.

She looked back to the facility and saw the liquid seeping through the doors. It crawled along the concrete and into the grassy area. Smoke billowed up to the sky and the sound of its hiss was louder than the traffic on the nearby highway.

She watched the grass burn and pictured what it would do to the trees, forests, jungles, how it would spread all over, burning up every piece of organic material on the planet. She wondered if Europa was once a forest moon, full of life and growth and potential. Until someone drank the water.

Stack Three

The lab’s airlock pops open and Dr. Curtis walks through the doorway, each step harder than the last. His arms swing while he moves forward in perfect rhythm with his walk. He stares down Hunter through his thick brow and heavy eyebrows, snearing out of the side of his mouth.

“Hunter, what the fuck is happening here?” he barks out.

“Air-exhaust three is malfunctioning, Dr. Curtis,” Hunter replies. “I think there’s something clogged in the vent.”

“Well, whatever it is, get it the fuck out,” the high pitch raspiness of Curtis’ voice came out.

Hunter knows that glare and snarl all too well. His first week in the lab he mixed up Petri dishes and wound up cloning ten-thousand extra stocks of celery when he was supposed to be cloning oranges. Curtis’ snear went high and his brow drooped over his eyes, like the madder he got the more that brow dropped down.

“What are we going to do with all this extra celery?” his voice was like blocks of compressed snow rubbing against each other that day. Made Hunter cringe every time Curtis opened his mouth. He got used to the raspy snear and whine over time, but that first week Hunter couldn’t believe what he got himself into taking this lab job and prayed to God it would finally rain.

The air exhausts are located at south-west side of the complex, the opposite side from where the food is grown against the east wall. Hunter, who was by the computers monitoring the air exhausts that ran along the north wall of the lab, starts his jog, the equivalent of five city blocks from where he was standing. Ait exhaust three was the furthest south and furthest west of the seven erect tubes in two rows: air exhausts four to seven ran along the outside wall on the south-west that ran diagonally along, giving the complex a triangular shape. Air exhausts one to three ran between exhausts four to seven, like soup cans stacked on their sides to make a pyramid.

When an air exhaust, or stack as their sometimes called, has a clog, there’s no computer algorithm to fix it – it has to be done manually. The air travelled from the three-cloning plantation through thick vents with fans to push the air out. Each stack also had a side airlock door on them in case anything was to fall into them. The best way to fix a clog is to cut off the air flow to the stack, climb in, reach into the vent and find what got stuck. This had to be done quickly, the Last Continent depended on all seven stacks for its air production, to lose one stack for even an hour would completely throw off the Last Continent’s air mass and pressure, enough of a change and people would start exploding. Their bodies were used to a certain air pressure. Any sudden changes in that air pressure, like losing stack three, and people would simply combust, and the more people die the more the Complex Corporation loses money.

Cloning plants for air and food didn’t come cheap. People bought fruits and vegetables each week and paid a monthly air-fee, it took up most people’s paycheques. Work was becoming scarce on the Last Continent. Most people used to work in the Nuclear Corporation facilities, but those weren’t on where the Last Continent sits now. Technically, where those sat isn’t anywhere now. Nuclear Corporations mostly made bombs. One day, they all went off. Poof went everything, except for the Last Continent, at the time called Australia. All those other countries gave up on nuclear disarmament, figuring one of them would eventually want the others’ non-renewable resources. And besides, there was big money in big fear and big weapons.

The Nuclear Corporations didn’t like that Australia wasn’t manufacturing weapons like they all were. To see a country take a pacifist’s approach was bad for business. So, they did what any major corporation would do if someone threatened it business; they tried to sue Australia, and when that didn’t work, they increased their production. So much so they needed to hire new people. Unfortunately, inexperienced people. One woopsie – and boom, goodbye everywhere.

Australia was far enough away that none of the blasts affected it, until the radiation started travelling and killed all the plant life. Before all the naturally occurring plants died off, a few scientists saved a few plants and started cloning them. They cloned enough to sustain the air mass and some food once the last bush had withered and stopped reproducing cells. Australia was mostly desert terrain to begin with, so the plants didn’t take long to die, but at the same time, people were used to not having a lot of trees around. You noticed a huge difference towards the coastline, those certain parts of the country that had forests filled with cute animals like koala bears (now completely extinct except for the few kept in the Complex Corporation’s lab to study how a lack of animals affects plant life), so most of the population began moving inland, where it was most dry but also where the Complex Corporation lab had been built. Seemed like a smart idea, be next to where the air is coming from.

A few years later, Australia renamed itself the Last Continent, as a reminder about how smart it was not to join the nuclear production fad. Most people worked normal jobs, opened stores and fixed people’s houses. Complex Corporation started buying all those jobs, and then fired everyone who worked them. Some people were outraged but knew there wasn’t much they could do: after all, Complex owned the means to let them live.

Hunter was lucky to get a job as a stack-technician, basically someone who makes sure all the stacks are working right, and when they aren’t, to fix them before anyone explodes.

It took all that exposition for Hunter to finally reach stack three. The airlock door pops open and he reaches into the main air vent, hoping he doesn’t have to climb in to find what he’s looking for. The vents are about two feet off the ground and four feet in diameter, so it’s no problem for a person to crawl in. Take some guts though, you can’t have claustrophobia and you have to not mind winding up with wind-tunnel hair.

Thankfully, Hunter was able to find what he was looking for at arm’s length in the vent. Whatever it was, it was soft, still a little warm, and heavy to pull out. Hunter has to reach with both arms, grab a handful of fabric that surrounded the soft warm thing, and push back with his foot to finally pull out what was lodged in there. It only moved in a small crawl until it reached the end of the vent, when it popped out like a champagne cork, pushing Hunter and causing him to fall on his back.

It takes a second for Hunter to realize the stuck thing landed on top of him. The t-shirt it was wearing tore and Hunter still had a bunch of the fabric in his hands. It was lying on his face and Hunter turns it over to find out it’s a person that was stuck in stack three. But that wasn’t the disturbing part.

The person lay with his arms around himself, like he was hugging himself while he crawled through. But what he was holding against himself was a bit of a tree. Hunter doesn’t recognize the breed of the tree, it’s not one that’s in the lab, so there’s no way this person broke in, stole the plant, and crawled through the vent to stack three as an escape.

Hunter picks up the plant and examines it. It’s strange, because it has prickles instead of leaves, but it isn’t a cactus, like what used to grow in the deserts. He and the corpse have to get out of the stack quick and turn back on the airflow, so Hunter drags the body by the underarm and around his shoulder, tosses him out the side door, thumping against the ground and tossing up the dust around it.

*****

Curtis paces around his office in a huff, trying to put his arms around his back like a great genius thinking about the great conundrums of existence, only his arms don’t reach all around. His arms flop to his side as he plops down into his chair and swivels back and forth breathing hard.

“Alright Hunter, no one can know about what you found,” Curtis barks out.

“People get stuck in those stacks all of the time,” Hunter replies, and he’s right. A small group of neo-environmentalists, similar to the ones that surfaced in the ’90s (who, in turn, were just imitating the ones that come out of the ’60s (so I guess these would be neo-neo-environmentalists or post-neo-environmentalists)) began protesting the Complex Corporation, saying that the plants should be liberated and growing naturally. They didn’t realize that the only decent soil that could grow plants to begin with became so radioactive that nothing would ever grow in it, let alone something that humans would want to eat from or breathe. Post-neo-meta-environmentalists have never been much for facts, just yammering garbage about the energies and mother earth – little did they know that mother earth left us all orphaned.

“I know, and the public usually never has any problem when we tell them we pulled another dead hippie from a vent,” Curtis continues. “But none of them have ever been pulled out holding a plant we’ve never seen before. Who knows where he got that from? I want a full investigation but keep your goddamn mouth shut.”

*****

Hunter remembers the first time he heard about the environmentalists. He was young, doesn’t remember exactly how young, but young enough that he wasn’t sure what to make of these people trying to say that the people who his dad worked for were evil people.

This world, with the Complex Corporation, constant desert everywhere, life constantly manufactured and synthesized by a single entity, was the only world he knew.

His parents talked about the days before the Last Continent. They both wanted to travel but never got the opportunity to. He’d listen to his parents talk back and forth about magazines they’d buy, looking at faraway lands and imagining themselves walking through exotic forests, romantic cobblestone streets, and dining at restaurants where they couldn’t read the menus. They’d talk, they’d laugh, but then mother would start crying. She missed the world. In a sense, Hunter missed the world too. He missed a world he never knew every time his mother cried. He wondered what he was missing out on.

It wasn’t long before his mother vanished. One morning, Hunter got out of bed and walked into his parents’ room and found nothing. He stood, alone, in a room he used to find so much comfort walking into. He wondered if this was how his mother felt when she thought about before the Last Continent.

He wandered through the house and found his father at the kitchen table, holding a piece of paper, crumpling the ends between his fingers and breathing heavily. He crushed the paper into a ball and threw it against the ground before storming out of the room. He’d stand on the front deck for the rest of the day, just staring out, not saying a word.

Hunter picked up the paper and uncrumpled it and tried to decipher what was on it. He was still too young to read but recognized his mother’s handwriting. Hunter never asked his father what the note said.

To this day, he still doesn’t know.

*****

The tree perplexes Hunter. He tires studying the strange, prickly plant that he found held by the corpse in the vent, but he doesn’t even know where to start. He had already studied its cell structure: rigid walls just like the other plants the factory grew. He inspected its thorns and found them to contain collagen, just the same as the factory cloned plants. Finally, he experimented with its ability to photosynthesize energy and food for itself. Again, much the same to the other plants in the factory.

Hunter becomes curious about how the strange plant will be affected by seasonal changes. He uses some of the cells in the plant to clone a full tree, small in stature, but mature enough to exhibit all the signs of any tree that would have been found in the wild.

The seasonal simulator is a long, cylindrical glass tube with an air locked section that rises to place vegetation inside of it and test the effects seasonal changes. This device came in handy when the Complex Corporation first started cloning trees for air and food, deciding what plants were most resilient and how to manipulate their genetic code while cloning to create vegetation so resilient that seasonal changes would not cause them to wilt or hibernate.

The tests begin and the plant is subjected to a rapid changing of seasons in a contained environment that tricks the plants cells into thinking that the seasons are changing normally. Spring to summer to fall to winter to spring again saw little change to the strange plant. None of its prickles fell, it never changed colour, it never wilted or hibernated. Exploring the original source plant again, Hunter found no dramatic genetic changes, no chemical boosters, no synthetic collagen to prevent the plant’s seasonal life cycle. It simply endured. Naturally endured.

******

There’s a bar that Complex Corporation employees go to once their shifts are over. Only the low level employees go there, in fact, none of the employees know anything about the board or the upper managers, or at least, who they assume are a board and upper managers. Fact of the matter, they don’t even know how the hierarchy at Complex works. The person above them hires them – and that’s about it.

The bar has the usual drinks, your cheap cloned water, the pricey natural water that Complex produced but didn’t give a discount to any employee (after all, almost everyone was a Complex employee, how did they expect to make any money giving out discounts?) and for the excessive indulgent, the bar serves cans of pure oxygen.

Hunter sits at a table towards the back. The waitress with long straight black hair and wearing a tight black tank-top with the Complex Corporation’s circular logo across her chest comes by and lets him know there’s an oxygen special on today. Just great, Hunter thought, in about half an hour everyone in this bar is going to be high enough to try and crawl through some of the stack’s vents themselves. All Hunter wants is a cloned water. He throws his few Complex dollars onto the table and asks for a tall glass of the cloned stuff. The waitress shrugs, like she’s surprised he didn’t take her up on the oxygen deal, grabs the money with the swipe of her hand and walks off to the front.

Looking around the bar, Hunter sees people talking, laughing, spilling water and sucking on cans so hard they collapse before the person stops to exhale. They usually cough and laugh once they let that breath out. The sound around him is like a wall, encasing him and leaving him feeling deaf. He tries to listen in on conversations, but it all comes out as noise. He has no idea what anyone is talking about, but judging by the way people suck on cans and spill water, he figures it’s nothing important.

A body drops in the chair in front of Hunter and starts talking. He’s talking loudly but Hunter pays no attention until this new being slaps the table hard and yells, “Hey buddy, do ya hear me there?!”

Hunter looks at the man and figures he’s had at least a dozen cans of oxygen. His smile causes his eyes to squint hard to where it looks like the upper half of his face is collapsing, like if you grabbed the top of a can and slowly rolled it on itself.

“No, sorry friend, I must have missed that,” Hunter finally lets out, not even sure why he’s talking back.

“I heard you’re on that case! The fuckin’ hippy dippy in stack three!” He slaps the table again and starts laughing, his chest bouncing as he heaves and gasps for air. “Did you fuckin’ know he ain’t even the first?!”

“Of course,” Hunter replies. “This has been happening for years, but…”

“And I know why this one’s so fuckin’ special!” he screams out. “You think he’s been the first found with a fuckin’ plant in his arms?! The only reason why you’re investigating this is that you should have never found him! Ha! Never should have found that fuckin’ hippy. Now Complex needs to keep you busy, make you think you’re finding something new! They’ve known for fuckin’ years!”

“So what? I’m on some kind of goose chase then?” The waitress comes by and places Hunter’s water in front of him. Hunter watches her walk away.

“Ah. You like that piece of tail, don’t ya?!” His high man’s black hair falls in front of his face, covering his forehead and hanging a bit of his eye, dripping with sweat, obviously from the euphoric excitement. “I’ll tell you what, I bet Complex is paying her to listen in to our little talk here friend.”

“What makes you figure that?”

“Cause I’m supposed to be the guy watching you and making sure you don’t get any smart ideas about that new plant. Hell, they’re considering offing you already for that unauthorized experiment you did in the season-simulator. I had to talk them out of it. Take this as a warning pal, quit nosing around. Come up inconclusive with your findings, forget you ever saw that prickly-fuckin’-thing, and go back to work. The more you shut up the better it is for you.”

Hunter can’t tell if this guy in front of him is so high that he’s making up all this garbage, or if he’s so high he just blew his own cover. A dozen cans of oxygen do funny things to a guy.

*****

The bar’s closed but Hunter stands outside by the back entrance. His hands are in his pocket and he leans against the wall next to the door, staring out into the night sky watching the stacks pump out air. He breathes deep and wonders what it was like before the Last Continent, before Complex, and wonders where his mother is.

The waitress comes through the door and walks to opposite way from Hunter. He runs up behind her and catches up, grabbing her arm gently at the elbow. She turns quickly.

“Who the f.. oh,” she begins. “My only cloned water of the night, and he didn’t even tip. Look, I don’t know why you hung around or what you were expecting, but I’m not that kind of waitress. Complex doesn’t pay me enough for that kind of shit.”

“Were you listening in on my conversation?” Hunter asks.

“What the fuck are you…”

“I need to know. If Complex is looking to kill me then I ought to know everyone who’s watching my every move.”

“Listen pal, I’m not part of your paranoid delusion or the O-2 case’s euphoric fantasy…”

“Just answer the question.”

She stares at Hunter for a minute and breathes slow. Her head spins left and right before she grabs Hunter’s hand and walks him around the corner and down a dark street.

“Where are you taking me?” he asks.

She stops in front of Hunter’s apartment building. Hunter looks up the steps and then back down at her. “So, you know where I live. Paranoid delusion, right?”

“Shut up for a second,” she blurts back. She stares at the doorway, then grabs Hunter’s arm again. “Run.”

Before Hunter has a chance to react, the door bursts open, splinters fly past his face, and Hunter starts running closely behind the waitress. Hunter can hear heavy steps running up behind him, but he doesn’t look back. Just keeps running forward, trying to stay ahead.

The two come across a bus at the end of the block. “Get in,” she commands.

Hunter hops in the side door, the waitress hops through shortly after, and a voice from the front yells “Hold on!” before the van takes off with guns shots coming from behind them, shattering the back windshield.

Hunter tries to catch his breath, and looks at the waitress. “Paranoid delusions.”

*****

The van suddenly stops and Hunter realizes he fell asleep on the drive out. He looks through the broken glass of the back windshield to see the city’s lights glowing in the distance. The side door opens and standing in front of the old warehouse the van’s parked in front of is a face with sweaty black hair hanging over his forehead, just covering his eye.

“Bet ya missed me,” he says, smiling wide.

“Should you have been driving after all that oxygen?” Hunter asks as he crawls out of the van.

“Had you going there, didn’t I? My best performance yet,” he replies, putting out his hand. “Name’s Leo, and no I don’t actually work for Complex, and no I’m not here to watch your every move.”

“But Complex is trying to kill me.”

“The big bad business isn’t the only one with spies kicking around.”

This shocks Hunter because he’s always been told no one has ever infiltrated the environmentalists. But at this point, he wonders why he’s taking anything Complex has told him seriously. “Spies, huh. That’s how you guys figure things out?”

“Well, living spies for the low level stuff,” continues Leo. “It’s easy to get an entry level job and report back basic findings. You know, lab techs, waitresses, easy stuff. The good stuff comes from those who are no longer with us.”

This is the point that Hunter realizes that both sides have been setting him up. “The guy in stack three. What you had a tracer on him? I was always supposed to find his body? Who was he?”

“Well, kind of, um…”

“The reason he had a plant in his arms was that he was a Complex spy,” the waitress steps in. “When we figured it out, we planted him with a mic and tracer and let him grab the plant and run off. He was crawling through the vent to get in and report back.”

“Why didn’t he…”

“What? Walk through the front door?” the waitress interrupts. “Number one, he was dressed like one of us. And secondly, because low-level guys like you aren’t supposed to know about these little operations. Hell, if the public found out,” she shakes her head. “People are ok with being controlled so long as it’s not in their faces and obnoxious. They’re okay with paying for air but spies are apparently still going too far.”

The waitress starts to walk towards the warehouse when Hunter grabs her elbow again. “Wait, thanks for helping me back there.”

She nods slowly. “My name’s Annabelle.”

“I guess you already know my name,” Hunter responds. “But why help the guy who got your bug into Complex? I served my purpose in your plan, didn’t I?”

“Let’s just say there’s something I like about your eyes,” Annabelle responds.

******

Hunter notices a few scratches along his face while he stares into a mirror. The men’s bathroom is on the opposite end to the front entrance of the warehouse. Hunter walked through taking in the hoards of people, standing around and talking. No one wore a uniform from Complex, in fact, Hunter only just notices he’s still wearing his as he stares into the mirror. He wipes some dust and wood fragment’s from under his collar and runs his fingers along the embroidered Complex logo over his heart. He pulls his pocket comb from his back pocket and combs back the dark hair that was sticking up every which way now. Part on the right, comb to the side, still keeping to Complex standards.

Hunter steps out of the bathroom back into the large open room that housed those who don’t believe in paying for the air that Complex provides them. They don’t realize that the only reason they’re alive is because of Complex and that they should be grateful for what they have. He hears conversations about what some other countries were like, the kind of food they made and all the exotic places they explored before the Last Continent. Always looking back and never looking to the future or paying attention to what’s happening now. Hunter starts to wish that he just went home and was killed already so he didn’t have to stand among these useless, post-neo-meta-hippie-environmentalists. If they didn’t exist to begin with then none of this would have happened. There would have been no issue with stack three, there would have been no unfamiliar plant, and Hunter would be sitting in his apartment right now huffing oxygen and staring at his walls like he did most evenings. That’s what everyone did in the evening. Was that so bad?

Hunter wasn’t about to give up his life for some flakey ideals. Through a window back where the front entrance is Hunter could see the city’s lights and knew it wouldn’t be a far walk back. With one step forward he tries to make his march back to his old life. Two steps in he looks to the side and sees a face, wrinkles setting in and frames by dark hair hinting to silver. Her eyes look over and Hunter stops mid step feeling his heart stop and his stomach climb. She smiles and tears fill Hunter’s eyes. She walks towards him, smiling still, her green eyes fixed without blinking.

“I was hoping you’d find us,” she says in almost a sing-song voice that Hunter remembers from his lullabies as a child.

*****

Hunter’s father worked the same job that Hunter works now; in case you forgot, Hunter monitors the stacks and makes sure that everything runs smooth and nothing’s blocking the air. There was never any doubt in anyone’s mind that Hunter would wind up working the same job that his father did. Hunter wasn’t very good at many things, but then again most children weren’t. They city’s children were bred to eventually work for Complex, be it in the factories or building and fixing the buildings and houses that Complex owns. One parent’s pride and joy was Complex’s future employee investment. People were given food and allowed to breathe so that Complex could continue making money for generations.

Most boys ended up with their fathers’ jobs, but rarely did their fathers ever move up in Complex. Promotions were scarce and only employees that demonstrated a unique skill or a higher than average intelligence ever moved anywhere. Hunter’s father was intelligent but he never flaunted it. At home Hunter’s father would read books that he’d kept from before the Last Continent and he’d create large mathematical puzzles for himself to solve.

When Hunter started training for his position, he asked Curtis what he thought of his father. “He did what he did,” the supervisor replied. “Not very bright, I could tell that. He didn’t talk much and was always modest about his skill set. He would just stare at the stacks’ readings, clean something out if he had to, and went home. Nope, not very bright at all, because I can tell bright people, and your dad wasn’t one of them.”

Hunter wondered if Curtis’ supervisor said the same thing about his father.

*****

“How long have you been here?” Hunter asks.

“I left a little after you turned five,” she replies.

“I know that,” Hunter interrupts. “But, I mean, how long have you been associating with these kind of people.”

“That gets a little complicated,” she continues, staring at the concrete ground and swinging her arm. She stares up, through her shaggy bangs and smiles. “I’ve always loved your green eyes. So bright and vibrant.”

“Don’t change the subject,” Hunter barks. “These people ruin everything, we have it so good back in the city, why are you here? Why do you want to ruin everything?”

“I’m not trying to ruin everything, I’m trying to save everything,” she barks back harder and louder. “You don’t know the world that I knew. You never got to hike through the Amazon or explore the African Jungles. You never got to see snow covered mountains or feel a tropical rain. None of these things I’m saying means anything to you and yet even when I say them I remember the smells, the tastes and I miss it so much, Hunter.”

“I used to miss it too, but then I missed you.”

“I’m sorry I left, and I wish I could have brought you along, but I didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t know what I was doing, I just had to leave and find… something. Anything that wasn’t cloned or manufactured.”

“So when did you wind up here?”

She looks around the warehouse and stares up at the scaffolding overhead. She smiles as she stares into the fluorescent lights overhead and stretches out her arms like she’s introducing Hunter to the world. “I found this place.”

People from all around started walking close and sitting down, staring up at her as she continues her story.

“I wandered out of the city, it was early still, I left before sunrise to make sure I still had time to write a note. I walked through our front door and I walked and just walked until I was out of the city and then I walked some more. I thought that if I didn’t find anything out here, that it was all barren waste, that at least I would suffocate and die out here. I wouldn’t have to die in that city. I walked for hours and I kept breathing, but the air felt so different. Like it wasn’t just chemicals I was breathing in, like it was simply life. Before the Last Continent, before Complex, we used to have real food that was grown from the ground, not in labs. Breathing that air felt like tasting that food again.”

She takes Hunter by the hand and walks him towards the door opposite from where he came in. It swings open and they step outside. Hunter feels his blood slow down and feels himself take a deep breath as he stares out into the field where hundreds of trees, all with the prickly leaves that he hadn’t seen until what he found in stack three, scattered out and growing from the ground, looking stronger, thicker, and greener than anything he had seen in the lab before.

Hunter takes another deep breath and holds it like he would with a can of oxygen at the bar. He feels the pressure pushing out from his lungs as he holds the breath, but he still holds it like he never wants to let it go, like he may never breathe again. She puts her hand on his diaphragm and he exhales slowly, feeling the blood move through his veins, like he was just born and this was the first breath he ever took.

“The Earth always finds a way,” she says, looking to the sky.

A smell hangs past Hunter’s nose, like the smell that arose when he put the plants through their photosynthesis cycle, but it was like if a thousand plants were all being put through the cycle at once. So potent and strong.

The air swings by Hunter’s face and he wipes the sweat from his brow with his hand, only his sweat is cold. That’s when he hears the plink plink plink around him. He looks up and sees tiny droplets of water falling from the sky.

“Complex never wanted us to know about this,” she says, Hunter barely listening as he feels the water against his face and his arms. “It’s why the city stopped expanding. They knew years ago. They only wanted to start doing something about it now.”

Hunter walks around the warehouse’s perimeter and finds himself looking back in the direction of the city. The lights of the building glow leaving a yellow ring surrounding the arc the city creates in the distance. Hunter can almost see his apartment building from where he’s standing. He thinks about his job, his couch, his television set, all the Complex run programming that would be on at that moment, the food that’s left in his fridge distributed to him by Complex, and who’s at the bar still and if the special on oxygen is still on.

Even as he stands, soaking wet and breathing deep breaths, he still feels an urge to take a step forward and start walking back.

Limited Space

There are so many small specks of light in front of me that I can’t stand back far enough to hold a complete picture. Millions and millions specks of light, so many unexplored, so many only leaving questions, so many whose existence can’t even be confirmed by looking at them. Their very presence is deceitful as time and light move at different intervals and the distance of these specks of light is immeasurable by conventional units used to gauge length of time. It disturbs me that I’ll never be able to touch each of these lights. To explore their mysteries and give each a name. But I still have to try.

The ship is the size of a relatively large apartment. When it was built, it was recommended that no more than three or four people travel in it for any extent of time. They warned of the enclosed limited space that the ship offered coupled with a lack of privacy and personal space could lead to significant conflict and possibly even a lapse in sanity.

There are two sleeping quarters on the ship. Our crew of four took turns on shift piloting the craft and analyzing data gathered from systems we passed through: two were on shift while two rested. The sleeping quarters are located toward the back of the ship and are next to the two bathing waste disposal facilities. The front of the ship is the main hull, an open space with three large windshields: one in the front and one on either side. The main pilot’s seat is situated in the middle of the hull. It’s a single seat with computer navigation systems in front. The pilot needs to see out the windshields and use the navigation computer to properly steer the ship.

The analyst’s computer is to the left of the pilot’s seat. It consists of a desk, chair, and onboard computer system with three large monitors: one that assists with navigation and direction, one that gives planetary read outs, and one that constantly analyzes the solar system the ship is in for any sudden changes or immediate threats.

Each member of the crew were trained for both piloting and analyzing, this way tasks during shifts can be changed to keep things fresh in the crew members’ minds. When someone does the same task for too long, it becomes automatic and they stop paying attention. When you’re in a crew of four, you’re thousands of galaxies away from your home planet, and there’s no guarantee of civilized life (let alone habitable planets), paying attention to everything is of the utmost importance.

I don’t know what happened in the last galaxy we travelled into. It seemed like a normal enough system: it had a star at its centre that acted as its sun and had five planets orbiting around it. The two furthest planets from the sun were gas giants and the two closest were inhabitable because of the immense heat and radiation from being so close to the star. But the planet in the middle showed signs of water and vegetation. It was the first planet that we encountered similar to our home world. We had been travelling for four years, which meant that if there were no established or intelligent civilizations on this planet, it could be colonized, our planet’s population and pollution issues could be resolved, and the crew on this ship could finally go home.

We approached this new planet, but stayed out of its atmosphere. We had no know what the plants were breathing before we could risk the ship and ourselves. I was manning the analytics at the time. Preston was piloting. We got up to wake up Daniels and Mackenzie to show them the planet.

“Roberts! Roberts!” Preston yelled out as he escorted Daniels and Mackenzie into the hull. “Tell them what you just told me! Show them the analytics!” Preston was smiling, but he was sweating too. He put his arms around Mackenzie and Daniels, smiling and talking about how we’re finally struck gold. Preston wasn’t blinking. His eyes were beat red like they were just blasted with sand.

“The planet definitely shows signs of water and vegetation,” I said. “But we still don’t have an atmosphere or planetary gas read. For all we know, as of now, this planet has a minimal atmosphere and the water and vegetation are feeding on radioactivity. I’m going to need a couple of hours for a full read out before we can even enter the atmosphere, let alone land and explore.”

Letting Preston know that it will be a while before we know if our mission is complete hadn’t hindered his excitement. We passed through what felt like hundreds of different galaxies, analyzed planets with surfaces too cold to sustain life, radioactivity that could melt a human in seconds, and surfaces submerged in liquids with PH levels of hydrochloric acid. No life, no growth, no habitation, just rocks and gas-balls floating in nothing, sustaining nothing, and revolving around nothing.

“Seriously, Roberts,” Daniels said as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “What do you figure are the chances that this rock is the rock we can land on and eventually haul half of our planet over to?”

The data readouts looked promising. I had only been monitoring them for a few minutes. Protocol read that we had to wait at least two hours before we were allowed to land. There was an incident where another crew found a planet with some of the most promising readouts in the history of our organization. It was almost four months before we found their transport ship, still floating just outside of the planets near damn-perfect atmosphere.

The crew took their miniature transport off to the planet. Once the crew landed, they immediately started sending signals back to their main transport to record their landing and exploration. The recordings from the ship told a story of the crew noticing something funny about the rock they landed on. It was soft. Almost like a sponge.

You could hear the crew start to panic when their miniature transport started sinking into the ground they landed on. The dirt and grass swallowed that transport like a headache pill. When the rescue excavated the crew’s main transport, the readouts showed that while the air had the right mix of nitrogen and oxygen and the atmosphere held off enough of the close-by star’s radiation so that the rock wasn’t a floating nuclear reactor in space. Unfortunately, they didn’t wait enough to read the planet’s air pressure and ground density. It was like a brick landing in pudding and then pulled under like it was being drug to hell.

“So far so good,” I replied back to Daniels. “We have another hour and a bit before we can load up and land. I’ll keep an eye on the readouts. If anything funny comes up, I’ll holler.”

“Stuck in the middle of nothing and we have to rely on silence for reassurance,” Daniels said.

Daniels and Mackenzie made their way back to the sleep quarters and passed Preston who was making his way back to the navigation chair.

“This is it, this is it, I know it!” Preston rambled on.

I kept my eye on the readouts, looking for even the slightest off readout that would make trying to habitat this planet difficult. Nothing. I even faked the time readout and got an extra half-hour of readouts. Nothing. Preston was still sitting in the navigation seat, rambling on and on and on.

“So, what’s the word, Roberts?” Preston asked. “Are we packing up and dropping down?”

I kept staring at that screen. It was a perfect planet. Every other planet we encountered had some flaw or some reason that it wasn’t quite right. I looked out the main navigation window and stared at the perfect planet. Not a thing wrong. Like god was handing it over to us in a silver platter. Even though we’d been travelling for so long and working so hard to find a planet like this, now it almost seemed too easy. Too perfect.

“I guess it looks alright,” I replied. “Still doesn’t feel right though.”

“It doesn’t feel right because we’re not down there yet,” Preston laughed. “Just think about it. Think about how many people we could fit on that rock. All the things we could build. The cities we could develop. I bet there’s some amazing tropical islands, untouched by people. No pollution or over-population like what happened in the Caribbean and Hawaiian islands. You’ll actually be able to get a spot on the beach and be able to lay out your towel comfortably. Shit, I don’t think those beaches have been that clean since the twentieth century, or even earlier.”

I remembered going to those beaches as a kid and wondering why so many people flocked to them. All along the horizon, you could barely see the sun or the sky or even the water. Just people and umbrellas and beer vendors everywhere. I felt like I didn’t have room to breathe. I was scared that every time I moved my arms I would hit someone I was walking past. I was scared that the people around me were feeling as enclosed as I was, they would be mad that my arm hit them when I walked by. I didn’t know how they would react. I was scared all the people around me. Even in this ship with only three other people around me, I was scared of getting in their space. God knows how someone with such limited space would react if you got into their personal bubble.

Preston was still staring off, probably imagining all the things we could do with a blank slate of a planet, when we heard the screeching from the sleeping quarters. It was like screaming and choking and vomiting all at once. Preston and I ran back to the sleeping quarters to see Mackenzie on top of Daniels. Mackenzie’s arms were pulsating to where we could see the veins clearer than we could see the pigments of his skin, his jaw was shattering, the sweat was pouring off of his head, and the drool was slipping off of the side of his mouth and dripping onto Daniels.

Nothing Mackenzie said made any sense. He gritted his teeth and growled out at Daniels while he pushed down against his throat. Daniels was kicking his feet, trying to throw Mackenzie off of his body. Daniels’ face was turning blue by the time Preston and I got into the room.

Preston and I pounced on Mackenzie and pulled off of Daniels and drug him onto the floor. Mackenzie kept fighting, swinging at us and clocking me across my jaw before Preston finally thrust his fist down into the middle of Mackenzie’s forehead. Mackenzie’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and he stopped struggling. Daniels behind us was still coughing and throwing up.

“Did you kill him?” I asked while rubbing my sore jaw.

“I don’t know,” Preston answered. “If he isn’t dead he’s probably concussed pretty good. He won’t be getting up anytime soon.”

Preston checked Mackenzie’s pulse, looked up to me and nodded. “He’s still alive. Barely. We better figure out something to do with him before, or if, he wakes up.”

Preston and I drug Mackenzie into the bathroom and latched the door from the outside so if he woke up he wasn’t getting out. Daniels was sitting up on his bed, still coughing a bit and wiping sweat off of his head.

“I don’t,” Daniels coughed. “I don’t know what the fuck happened there. I was sleeping. I wake up and Mackenzie is on top of me. I don’t know what the fuck happened.”

Mackenzie was fairly quiet this entire mission. He shone brightest while he was reading reports. He was very logically minded and loved reading through numbers and understanding data. You could tell he was most in his element while he was running data. He seemed like he was actually relaxing while he was running data. Everywhere else you could see how tense his shoulders were. We could all tell he wasn’t comfortable being with other people this close all of the time, but he never complained and he was never aggressive before. He was always polite but brief.

Preston started pacing the floor, wondering what we should do if Mackenzie woke up. Preston knew that we couldn’t land with one member of our crew losing his mind for seemingly no reason. This was probably sending Preston even more over edge. I wasn’t sure how long he could hold his anticipation for landing.

“You know, we could always leave him while we head down,” Preston suggested.

“We can’t do that,” Daniels replied. “If he’s hurt really bad, we need to help him. If he’s ok and wakes up and figures out we all left him alone on this ship, who knows how he’ll react. It could send him even worse over the edge. He could fly the ship off and leave us on this planet. And god knows how long we’ll last if he leaves us…”

“You’re wrong!” Preston barked out. “We’d be fine down there! We could probably last years until the rescue finds us. You have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about!”

“Calm down, Preston,” I stood up. “We’ll get down there soon enough. Don’t worry. We just need to know what to do about Mackenzie first.”

Preston turned and marched over to the bathroom where Mackenzie was locked. He opened the door and looked down at Mackenzie. “He won’t be waking up. He’s not our problem. Taking care of him isn’t our mission. Finding that planet is our mission. And the sooner we get down there, the sooner we can head home and start developing. If this piece of shit is the only thing stopping us I’ll make sure he’s out of the way.”

Preston lifted his boot and stomped down onto Mackenzie’s head. With a single stomp, Preston’s foot made its way through Mackenzie entirely and landed back on the tiled floor. A piece of Mackenzie’s skull rolled out of the bathroom and slid across the floor, landing in front of my foot.

Preston’s face was soaked, either in sweat or in tears or in both.  “What the fuck happened? How did I do that? That wasn’t supposed to happen. What the fuck happened?”

Preston stumbled out of the bathroom. I put my arms out to him, trying to get him to sit down. He shoved me back and I fell onto the data readout controls, crushing some of the circuitry underneath me. Preston paced, heaving heavily and wiping sweat from his mouth and off of his face.

“Get packing, we’re fucking landing,” he said through clenched teeth. “Be ready in one hour. You hear me? One fucking hour and we land on this mother fucker.”

Preston marched off to the sleeping quarters. Daniels was standing next to me, help me back to my feet and checking the damaged controls. “Asshole’s lost his mind,” Daniels said. “We gotta get him to calm down. And if he doesn’t calm down, we need to tie him down or something. If this planet’s no good, our mission is already fucked, we can’t read shit anymore. We deal with Preston first, clean up…” he swallowed hard and his lip trembled. “We clean up Mackenzie, and we figure out a best course home. We’re useless out here now.”

The door to the sleeping quarters flung open and Preston came marching out, his eyes fixated on Daniels. “Is that what you think?” he gritted his teeth and his face burned red. “You think we’re just going to turn this puppy around with its tail between its legs? Is that what you think mother fucker?”

“Preston, calm down,” Daniels tried to reason. “We’re still going to land, we’re still going to explore. You just need to mellow out a bit man, you’re acting crazy.”

“You know what’s crazy?” Preston spat out. “You assholes don’t want to succeed. You obviously don’t. Otherwise we would have landed the minute we found this place. God just handed the Garden of Eden to us on a silver platter and you assholes don’t even want to land. All of our planet’s problems can be solved with this rock. Why the fuck are we still sitting here?”

“Because you goddamn just murdered Mackenzie, that’s why!” Daniels yelled back. “Mackenzie just needed a few minutes to calm down. The anxiety of this place was probably just getting to him. You had no fucking right to…”

“That asshole was probably a vegetable after we had to fight him off of you,” Preston stepped to Daniels, staring him down like a dog fighting for territory. “Keep in mind, you’d probably still be gasping for air and turning blue if we hadn’t fought him off of you. We did what we had to do. He was compromising the crew and the mission.”

“He was part of the crew!” Daniels yelled.

“He stopped being crew and became a liability the minute he snapped,” Preston yelled back.

“If Mackenzie was a liability, what’s our contingency plan then with you?” Daniels stared back and buffed his chest like he was ready for a fist fight.

“The only contingency plan here is surviving and making it back home with something to report,” I piped up. “Our controls are destroyed and we’re going to kill each other if things don’t calm down. None of us are in our right minds right now. We should all just rest for half an hour, do something with Mackenzie’s body, then try to land.”

Preston looked to me and with a complete straight face and monotone voice, he said, “Let fucking Mackenzie rot where he is.”

Without a second breath, Daniels reached back and smoked Preston across the jaw, sending Preston toppling to the floor. Preston wiped the blood from his mouth and tackled Daniels, both landing on the navigation chair, damaging the controls. The ship started moving while the two kept fighting. I tried to fix the navigations and get the ship to stop, but it had already set its course and none of the override controls were working. I looked over to see Daniels on top of Preston, both hands around his throat and pushing down just like Mackenzie had been only minutes earlier. Preston reached beside himself and found a piece of a broken computer and lodged it into the side of Daniels’ head.

A blank stare immediately overcame Daniels’ face, like he was seeing the light to the afterlife glowing in front of his face. Daniels then fell over, stopped breathing and bled across the floor.

Preston sat up breathing heavily, brushing dust off of his t-shirt. “Well, two down,” he said staring up at me. “Do you want to make it three, Roberts? Or are you going to shut the fuck up and get us on that planet?”

I looked over to the navigation controls and looked back to him. “You broke both the data readouts and the navigation controls. Nothing works anymore. There are no overrides. The only thing still functioning is the autopilot with a destination.”

“Well where the fuck are we going then?”

“This galaxy’s star.”

Preston huffed and stared up out the window. “You gotta be fucking kidding me.”

“I’m not. In about twenty minutes, this ship will fry.”

“What about the transport? Does it still work?”

“Probably.”

“Well why don’t we get the fuck in there and save our sorry asses?”

“And land where!?” I yelled. “Onto that perfect planet!? That has no pollution. No ozone depletion. No man made problems killing every living thing on that world. You want to land there and start all over again? And just keep doing the same old shit? Fuck you, Preston!” I walked over to the hatch leading to the transport and slammed the emergency launch, sending the transport floating off into nothingness, with nothing inside and direction set.

Preston shook his head. “You fucking idiot. You worthless fucking idiot. We were so close. So fucking close.” Preston stood up and walked into the sleeping quarters. He didn’t close the door when he pulled out a revolver from underneath the bed. He looked out at me and held the gun to his head, splattering what was left of his mind all over the bedding and the walls.

He toppled to the ground, his legs crumbling beneath him like a marionette whose strings were dropped. I walked into his room and all I could think about was how surprised I was that no one had gone for the gun earlier. I guess we all still tried to be professionals. That got us far.

I still don’t know what got into Mackenzie. It won’t matter though, I’m sure the outcome would have been the same one way or another.

I wanted to name all of the stars I saw when I looked outside. Touch each of those lights in the sky. But I realize that the universe doesn’t want us. Nor, do we deserve it.

Kidneys

Tim read through the pamphlet for the fifth time, trying to fully understand all of the benefits this procedure will have on his body. His eyes glazed over the pictures of the smiling senior citizens and the diagrams showing where exactly what was being inserted and how. He read all of the side-effects, including the one about what to do if your body rejected the implants, who to contact, what conditions to look for, and how it sometimes cause extreme abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, the development of or enlarging of breasts and other hormonal anomalies, and in some cases death.

“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” Karen rubbed Tim’s shoulders like she would while they lay in bed together; Tim would be having his stomach cramps and couldn’t sleep at night.

“I don’t have much choice outside of this, do I?” Time replied. “With all the time we spent talking about it, I might have, what? Three months? There’s nothing else.”

“What if it doesn’t work?” she asked.

“At this point, so what? What worse could happen?”

Tim’s stomach cramped up and he clenched his side. His abdomen was throbbing, as if Tim could feel his kidneys slowing dissolving as he sat there.

Doctor Richards came out and sat down with Tim and Karen, asking them what they thought about the procedure. Karen pressed about waiting for a donor, giving Tim new living tissue rather than some piece of machinery that has been on the market barely a month.

“I told you, Ms. Fowler,” Doctor Richards began. “Tim has a rare condition. One we barely ever see. I had to find my medical textbooks from college just to diagnose him. Living tissue would only last a short while. Maybe give him a week to a month extra. I know it seems bizarre to…”

“I’ll do it,” Tim blurted out. “I’m so sick of this. I’m sick of never sleeping and being in pain all of the time. Even if I die on the operating table, it’s better than living like this. If I’m going to die, might as well die trying.”

Doctor Richards advised Tim not to think about it as how he’s going to die and pointed out how positive thinking can help patients pull through even the worst of situations. Tim glared at the doctor. “Just give me the fucking forms, doc,” Tim snarled.

Tim handed the brochure to Karen and clicked the pen as he read through the form. His knees were pouncing and he started clicking the pen repeatedly, in a steady but rapid rhythm. Karen placed her hand on Tim’s shoulder, and he stopped fidgeting, and started filling out the form, while Karen pulled out her chequebook, started writing the cheque and calculating to make sure they could still pay the rent and afford groceries. It would be tight, but it would be worth it.

*****

The security scanner beeped and the airport security officer motioned for Tim to step aside.

“Any knives, guns, or other weapons currently on your person, sir?” the security officer asked. Tim could see the hole beneath his lip where his piercing had once been and could see the scars along his neck from where he used to be tattooed.

“No,” Tim replied.

“Any enhancements?” the security officer asked.

“Just my kidneys,” Tim answered.

“Nice man, vital organs are totally in right now,” the security officer commented. “Just had my spleen replaced with an E12. Purifies my piss so I can distill it and make booze. What model are your kidneys?”

“Um, E1, I guess?” Tim looked down as if he could see his kidneys through his jacket and shirt and read the model printed along the side.

“E1? And they’re still running? You’re crazy bro!” the security officer slapped his knee. “I was barely alive when they started making E1s! You gotta upgrade. Gotta upgrade.”

“They’ve been working great for twenty years, haven’t had a problem with them at all, why do I need an upgrade?” Tim asked.

“The specs man, the specs on the newer Es are so much better. Man, I got a second job and I’m pulling overtime here to afford replacing my arm,” the security guard slapped his shoulder. “This one here. My good arm. Gonna join an enhanced arm wrestling league.”

“That’s cool kid,” Tim reached for his bags coming out of the x-ray. “Cool talking with you, I got to catch my flight though. Good luck with the arm.”

“Thanks buddy,” the security guard giggled. “Like I said, get an upgrade.”

As Time walked toward his flight gate, he could hear the kid ask the next person in line, “Any enhancements?”

*****

The flight was over Ontario when Tim woke up. He left the TV set embedded into the head of the seat in front of him on the channel showing the flight path. He wiped the drool hanging from the side of his mouth and looked over at the seat next his’ TV set to see what other people were watching. The man sitting next to Tim was staring down at a small screen embedded into his forearm and had headphones plugged into his wrist. The man caught Tim staring and unplugged a headphone.

“It’s a new model,” he said. “Full digital media capabilities. DME12. I’d say I can’t leave home without it, but people would probably be staring even worse if I was missing an arm.” He chuckled.

“No kidding, look at that,” Tim leaned in staring at the screen. “My TV at home isn’t that sharp.”

“Do you have any enhancements?” he asked.

“Just my kidneys,” Tim answered.

“Oh, what do you use those for?” he asked.

“Heh, I used them to live,” Tim answered. “About twenty years ago my kidneys decided to take a holiday and not warn me first. If I didn’t fork out the fortune to replace them I would have been dead within a few months.”

“No kiddin’,” the man replied. “None of the enhancements do that anymore. Well, except the old models. What are you running in there?”

“E1,” Tim answered. “And for the love of god, don’t tell me I should upgrade.”

The man laughed. “You got that young kid in the security line too? Too many people upgrade for no reason. I mean, I’m constantly travelling, so having all of my media on me like this just makes sense. When I run or hit the gym, I can just plug in and all my music is right here. None of the tissue on here is living, so it doesn’t sweat, but the rubber faux skin around it is still water proof so I can swim and if my sweat drips down, no damage. Just makes sense.”

Tim wanted to avoid any obligatory airplane talk, but he had to know who better who was sitting beside him. “So, what do you do then that requires the travelling and the rigorous workout schedule?”

“I’m a major league hockey coach,” he answered and the put out his non enhanced-hand. “Stan Davis.”

They shook hands. “Tim Fowler. I’m retired.”

“You don’t look old enough to be retired,” Stan smiled.

“Thanks for the flattery, but I unfortunately am that old,” Tim answered.

“Well, what did you used to do?” Stan asked.

“Nothing special, sold insurance for a while. Spent a few years running the admin work for a construction company. You know, this and that.”

Cool, cool,” Stan stopped and stared out, looking like he was trying to find a conversation somewhere in front of him. “Are you stopping off in Hamilton?”

“Heading right through to Calgary.”

“Oh, well,” the silence again. Stan started to place the headphone back into his year. “It was nice to meet you.”

*****

By the baggage claim, a six-foot illuminated sign with a map advertised the airport’s new enhancement-application. It listed off everything passengers could do with their enhancements: buy flight tickets, check for cancelled or delayed flights, check in, weight baggage, order in-flight peanuts, it seemed like everything could be done off someone’s body part. Tim laughed a bit staring at the ad, thinking about how far along technology has come, yet sitting beside him on a plane was someone who made a living assembling a team of people who hit a hunk of rubber with a stick.

The conveyor belts kicked on and bags began dropping. People standing around the conveyor belt pointed their fingers or their palms towards the bags that passed by. Tim caught a glimpse of his black suitcase, patched-together with the same luggage tag he’s used for forty years or more. He reached down and picked up his suitcase, and someone standing beside him tapped his shoulder.

“You didn’t scan that bag,” he said.

“Sorry?” Tim began. “What do you mean scanned? What are you talking about?”

“You didn’t scan the bag with any of your enhancements,” the man continued. “How do you know if the bag is yours?”

Tim turned over the luggage tag and the man saw the scribbled note with Tim’s name and address along the white piece of paper, laminated and hanging off the bag’s handle.

“What is that?” the man squinted and leaned in. “It looks like my grandfather’s luggage.”

“Was he on this flight?” Tim asked.

“No,” he replied.

“Then you know the bag’s mine,” Tim pushed his way past the man. “Excuse me.”

It was raining in Calgary when Tim stepped outside to hail a cab. The bright lights guiding the cabs along the dark roads leading up to the airport’s main doors reflected off the wet concrete, hurting Tim’s eyes a bit. Tim never thought he would want sunglasses in the middle of the night so bad. He man from the carousel stepped outside and he held his hand in front of his face, shielding from the glare off the road. He stepped up beside Tim when he finally dropped his arm. Tim looked over and saw the man’s eyes had turned completely black. Tim stared for a short while. The man laughed.

“Yeah, should guess that you’ve never seen these before,” the man pointed to his eyes. “It’s new. It adjusts your eyes to levels of brightness so that you can see everything better in all conditions.”

“Like transitions lenses,” Tim said.

“Like what?” the man asked.

“Something we had when I was younger,” Tim explained. “They were glasses whose tinting would adjust as the light around you changed. It was a brilliant invention. Saved a lot of lives probably with all the issues people have with night driving. Those eye enhancements of yours are actually a very good addition. I am impressed.”

“You think that’s cool,” he continued. “Had a little less-than-legal addition to these bad boys too. Full x-ray capabilities. Expensive addition, sure. But in the long run, I’m saving a lot of money from not having to buy porn anymore.”

Tim said nothing and hailed the first cab that pulled up.

*****

The diner was dimly lit and by this time of night only two kind of people were hanging around: lonely insomniacs and drunken kids who had nowhere else to go once the bars kicked them out. The kids hung out in the booths at the far end of the diner where the waitress would only visit occasionally, “After all,” Tim remembers one waitress telling him one late night when he was hanging around, “once they order their food, they only have their drinks filled maybe once after that. They’re not actually here for food or service. They’re here because they don’t want to be home yet.” The insomniacs sat at the front of the diner along the bar, hoping each other would start a conversation though none of them could muster up the right words to start talking. So they sat quiet, stared at their black coffee and stale fries and barely moved.

“Haven’t seen you in a long while,” a waitress with dark hair tied back said as soon as Tim found his stool at the front of the diner bar. Time couldn’t remember her name. He never knew any of the diner’s staff’s names. “Where ya been there old timer?”

“Visiting the east coast,” Tim answered. “Had a check up on an old procedure I had, well, years ago. You were probably in grade school.”

The waitress blushed while she poured a cup of coffee. “Procedure? What do you mean by that? Like surgery?”

Tim grabbed a newspaper from in front of an empty spot along the bar. “Yeah, a surgery. My kidneys decided to pack up and leave without telling me. Nearly wound up in an early grave. Those enhancements saved my goddamn life.”

The waitress looked over to the table of young kids all staring at their arms, some with headphones in their ears, occasionally talking to one another and showing each other the screens on different parts of their bodies. “I never understood those enhancements,” she said. “Just more crap for us all to spend money on that doesn’t actually make any of our lives better.” She topped up Tim’s coffee. “I’ve seen kids downright obsessed with those things. One kid who came here nearly had every part of his body replaced with some piece of machinery, just to brag about how much of his body are enhancements. All the most recent models. All the top brands. After I saw that kid, I swore I would never have one of those things. Tried to save up for a while, but pay here barely covers my rent and food. No point, I’m just fine without it.”

Tim looked down at his watch and smiled, “I understand that, believe me, if I had real kidneys, I wouldn’t have a single piece of machinery in my body. You know, I’m really glad you don’t have any enhancements. I like you and wouldn’t want you to go through this.”

“Go through what?” she asked.

The sound of plates crashing and cups toppling over sang from the booth with all the kids. “What the hell’s going on with my arm?” one yells out. Another was screaming, “My god, I think he’s dead! His liver must be malfunctioning!” Tim wondered how other people were reacting to the same situation.

*****

After Tim’s surgery, Karen visited him every day that he was recovering in the hospital. They had to keep him there for a month to monitor how his body was adjusting to the new kidneys. He was resting comfortably but could feel the machines in his body working. Though it was unsettling at the time, Tim got used to the feeling of machines in his body before he left the hospital.

“I’m just worried,” Karen said through building tears.

“Don’t be,” Tim reassured her. “That’s why the doctors are keeping me here. I’m going to be fine. If anything goes wrong, they know something went wrong and they can fix…”

“Not that,” she said as the tears streamed. “I’m worried that you’re less than human now. You’re missing something and you replaced it with some gadget. What point do you stop being a human?”

“When I become more obsessed with the gadgets than my own humanity,” Tim replied.

*****

“I’m no luddite,” Tim said as the waitress scrambled looking for her phone. “I think most technology we developed over the last century or so has been really helpful. Made our live easier and allowed us to progress in other ways. But these things, are fucking useless. It’s for the better, believe me.”

The waitress discovered that all the phone lines were dead only after she found her cell phone and tried to call 911. “Did you do this?” she drops her cell phone.

“The cell phone signals were an unintended side effect,” Tim explained. “Enhancements run on the same satellites as the cell phones do, after all, most enhancements have been replacing cell phones.”

“No the cell phone lines!” she yelled. “That!” she pointed to the booth of kids, some dead, some with non-functioning limbs, some comatose but possibly still breathing.

“Well, as in did I somehow shut down all enhancement signals causing all of them to shut down? No,” Tim shook his head while he sipped his coffee. “But, did I do something that wound up with the ripple effect of all these useless gadgets finally shutting down? Yeah, that was me.”

The waitress started crying, putting out her arm to balance herself against the counter and knocking over the coffee pot, letting it crash against the floor. “Why?”

“A beautiful woman once asked me when do we stop being human,” Tim explained. “I said it was when we become more obsessed with the gadgets than our own humanity. I owed this to her.”

*****

Tim did all the research on gallbladder surgery before Karen went in for her procedure. The number of death during this procedure, even for older populations, was negligible. The hospital offered Karen an enhancement to replace her gallbladder, talked about all the benefits of a mechanical gallbladder and tried to sell her on the top high-end brands for enhancements. Karen had integrity, and Tim really admired that, and she refused any enhancement, saying she only wanted the simple procedure. Karen went her whole life without any enhancements. She never needed them, never found any use, and was perfectly happy with skin and bone.

The waiting room Tim sat in while Karen went in for surgery had posters all over advertising for the newest enhancements, covered in infographics showing what each enhancement does and brand name logos competing for the impulse buy of a designer arm or finger or toe or pelvis or neck.

The screaming could be heard all throughout the waiting room. Everyone lowered their arms and unplugged their headphones to stare up and all wonder the same thing: where did that scream come from?

The screaming went on for a couple of minutes before a doctor finally came out and called for Timothy Fowler.

The doctor explained that one of the surgeon’s arm enhancements started playing an Internet video. Something hit something the wrong way as surgeon’s entertainment enhancements were all supposed to be deactivated during procedures. The signal playing the video interfered with the medial equipment. The medical scalpel went haywire, cutting up Karen’s insides. Doctor said she was dead within second of the arteries around her heart being cut open.

Another doctor come out of the surgery room and Tim peered over. The doctor was drenched in blood. Tim caught a glimpse of the inside of the surgery room. It looked like a bloodbath that Bathory would have found excessive.

The hospital managers soon entered the conversation, offering their apologies and trying to compensate for Tim’s loss by paying for all of Karen’s funeral arrangements and offering Tim some new free enhancements.

*****

“Your kidneys,” the waitress said. “How are you not dead? Your kidneys!”

“First model, they never went online with enhancements on first models,” Tim sipped his coffee. “My kidneys don’t need to watch videos of celebrities naked in order for them to do their job. They run on some of the same technology, though. They’ll be shutting down soon enough.”

“So, why are you here then?” the waitress asked. “Why did you come here? Did you have something against those kids? Did you have it out for one of the other waitresses? Why here?”

Tim shrugged. He thought about the man going blind while looking through a woman’s blouse. He thought about the hockey coach losing the function of his arm while swimming. He thought about the arm wrestler having his spleen suddenly shut down while on a drinking binge. “I have nothing else, and I’m about to die. Figured I go drinking the only coffee in this city I can get at this hour.”

The waitress looked at the TV resting on the end of the counter behind the bar. She was a news report that showed a building on fire, with a caption that said, “Enhancement Manufacturing and Control Building Currently on Fire.” Around the building engulfed in flames, little balls of fire were falling from the sky. The news reported said something about them being satellites and the broadcast may be interrupted.

She heard a coffee cup fall and shatter and looked to see Tim toppled over on the bar, still sitting on his stool. The sound of white noise filled the diner as the TV broadcast went dead. She could hear sirens outside in the distance and wondered what kind of enhancements the EMTs had. She wondered about all the doctors’ enhancements. She wondered about all the police’s enhancements. The politicians’ enhancements, the CEOs’ enhancements, her friends’ enhancements. She couldn’t figure out how the world was better off now.

Jon Woke up to a Normal Day

Humans don’t normally stand up and walk away for seemingly no reason. There is always a purpose to the forward locomotive motion that humans produce: seeking other devices to communicate with other humans, finding nourishment to consume, finding an apparatus to excrete waste, these were reasons humans produced locomotive motions. It was part of the expectations of others. Anything else would disrupt the expectations of others and cause thoughts about potential purposes for creating the locomotive motions in question. Humans can be cruel when they think and it was of the utmost importance to never give humans a reason to think about a specific human.

It was a completely normal day for Jon. He woke up in his chamber, specifically designed for human rest and sleep for many hours at a time. He rested well and, from his own analysis, spent quite a few hours in the rapid-eye-movement state of sleep. He walked through his single-capacity dwelling, altering the electrical currents throughout to activate the artificial light sources before inspecting the contents of his artificial food preservation device. He selected his liquefied protein supplement and his processed grain assemblage to consume as part of his daily nutrient intake. He then stepped into his heater-water bathing apparatus, rinsed his mouth with an alcohol-fluoride-bleach chemical concoction and dressed himself in the approved apparel designated by his employer.

The white buttons fit through the small slits in a perfect, uniformed line and slipped his cravat through the appropriate slits around his neck. He inspected his apparel for any signs of remnants of misplaced nourishment. Once Jon decided that his colleagues, employers, peers and community would deem his apparel appropriate, he lifted his synthetic animal-hide satchel and left his single-capacity dwelling.

There was a mobile vehicle that Jon travelled in through the circuitry of concrete slabs that line the city. The internal combustion engine that required large amounts of natural non-renewal resources to run, and in turn emitted a substance that was fatal to humans if breathed in too heavily, started and began combusting resources at a normal rate in order for Jon to travel across the circuitry to the glass behemoth that housed hundreds of humans during the daylight hours.

Hundreds of humans were travelling through the concrete circuitry at the same time Jon was. They negotiated speeds and spaces to ensure that all who were travelling through the concrete circuitry arrived to their points of destination in as efficiently of a manner as possible.

Jon arrived to his point of destination at the exact time his employer would have deemed appropriate to arrive at. His employer was always pleased when Jon arrived promptly and in a punctual manner, sending digital communications praising Jon for his punctuality. Jon found his way to his specifically designated quarters for employment, activated his digital information communicator and began responding to what seemed like thousands of bits of information, incoming and outgoing constantly. Words moved faster than any of the vehicles across the concrete circuitry Jon had to negotiate with earlier that morning and digital messages would be inputted and promptly delivered to the digital communications devices of others faster than the water pouring out of Jon’s bathing apparatus.

There was no noise coming from Jon’s designated employment quarters; neither was there any noise from any of the other employment quarters that surrounded Jon’s quarters. Thousands upon thousands of digital messages were sent between hundreds and hundreds of machines and not a single word was spoken all throughout the employment establishment as if everyone was worried that if even the slightest bit of sound broke through, and those sound waves cutting through the air travelled to any of the glass walls that surrounded the specifically designated employment quarters, the glass would shatter and the entire establishment would crumble while thousands of digital messages would remain unanswered and thousands of humans would discuss amongst themselves the purpose of the establishment crumbling.

As the digital messages were inputted and exported, for what felt like hours, Jon suddenly stopped.

Jon stopped and he sat perfectly still as more and more digital messages began to occupy his digital communications device. He wasn’t necessarily staring at the messages as they began to flood in, thousands at a time. It was almost as if he was staring through all the messages, his eyes glazing over and his ears ringing with silence. This was the first time Jon noticed the silence. He tapped the illuminated screen of his digital communications device twice, simply to hear what it would sound like, echoing through the lonely room filled with hundreds and hundreds of humans.

Tap, tap.

That’s when the digital messages stopped flowing in, like someone quickly turned the tap to the hot-water bathing apparatus. There was a second of complete stillness in the digital communications devices. Then, like someone turned the tap the other way again, messages began flooding in again.

“I think I’m done,” Jon said, his voice booming through the room, echoing off the glass walls and carrying across all the designated employment quarters like a strong wind blowing throughout and attracting everyone’s attention. The digital messages stopped once again and people began to peek out of their designated employment quarters, over and around the walls curiously trying to spot what just made that noise.

Jon stood up and walked out of his designated employment quarter and started walking through the long hallway, passing all of the other designated employment quarters. People stared and leaned out, some leaned out so far that they fell over, and when they landed they shattered across the floor like a porcelain doll dropped from a rooftop.

Shattered pieces of the people scattered across the ground, banging so loud that the glass walls surrounding the designated employment quarters began cracking and splintering. Jon looked down at some of the shattered people and looked directly into their open bodies and saw there was nothing in their insides. Just a hollow piece of porcelain shattered across the floor.

As Jon continued walking across, more people stood up and walked beside him. Some tripped and fell along the way, shattering across the floor. The glass walls continued to crack and pieces fell landing on some of the people. Some shattered under the weight of the glass that fell. Some shattered as the thin shards cut through their delicate hollow shells. Some slipped on the loose glass on the floor and fell and shattered. Those who shattered did for different reasons, but they all shattered.

Jon and the last few people who didn’t shatter made it outside of the glass behemoth and watched the cracks along the glass become wider and longer, until the whole complex collapsed and shattered along the concrete circuitry, disrupting the flow of mobile vehicles who then tried to negotiate space with the shattered glass along the concrete circuitry.

Jon stared at the remnants of the complex, pieces of the glass structure scattered all along Jon’s peripheral vision. He saw the complex was hollow inside.