turnaround0101 t1_j9ut1hl wrote

I got the idea watching Chev. He was dancing and making a real fool of himself, but that was nothing new. Through a careful process of trial and error, double blind studies, random extemporaneous scientific bullshit (we knew all the words by that point, if not necessarily how to use them) I’d determined Chev was basically the dumbest boy alive. Take a box of rocks, smash ‘em all together, remove the three or four biggest chunks, then toss the rest into the gutter. That was Chev. Dumb as shit, but he was onto something.

“Naw,” he’d said, “that ain’t it. Keeneetaa’s not some big science thing. It’s a dance.”

Then he’d just up and started. Gyrating. His hips did this thing that made them look halfway broken, but it got two of the girls watching, Analise and Jen, and because they were watching now the boys had to and so on. Just to make fun of him, you understand. Bunch of urchins gathered on the corner, dirty as sin between the rains, and there’s Chev thrusting air. Waving his hands all woo-woo. Jumping like we’d tossed him in hot coals. Which we’d done before, so that’s probably where he got it. Probably.

And there I was with my idea.

It was a good idea. For months now all anyone’d been able to talk about was ‘keeneetaa.’ Just what happens when a couple dickhead Godlings up and fall out of the sky, spouting stuff about sentience and the like. Little bastards too, wouldn’t make it half a minute on the streets without their drones and power armor. Those laser things they wear over their fingers like so much spun gold, got all the girls drooling after them, these pretty little ringlets that’ll kill you. Saw a program once, real-like, spliced into a matrix terminal by a gas station off the 5, where they talked about all the things keeneetaa might and might not be. Not the drones or armor or the magic, kill-you-from-a-dozen rings. Not skin color, ours or theirs. Not religion, but maybe philosophy, not science but maybe art.

Not money, but it worked just like it. We needed keeneetaa to make our way, and didn’t have it, couldn’t grok it, so really this great big off-blue shithole of a planet was really one big urchin. Like the President and me were squatting over the same pot, talking about the winds and rains.

Shit. So it was on our minds, and when Chev just thought to lie about it, easy as you please, and start dancing like a loon, I thought, ‘Ike Green, you can do that too.’

“Naw,” I said, “that ain’t keeneetaa either. Kids like you wouldn’t get it.”

And of course, that got them looking. It was the way I said it, smooth-like, like those men behind the men glass drinking whiskey, closing their eyes for a second like they just get it—the it being immaterial because fuck it, I got whiskey. I said it like that, and when all of them looked over, I was looking somewhere in particular. At Cristabel, who was my age, really, they all were, but who had this shy way about her that made her seem a little younger, a little fragile, maybe not quite made for this world—though she made it seem like a good thing, the only thing, the best thing.

“What is it, then?” she asked. And I harrumphed like I knew what I was doing. Took a long, meaningful look around at everyone that wasn’t her. Turned.

My heart was in my fucking throat.

Fuck you though, I didn’t look back.

Ok, I did, but still. Fuck you.

When I looked back Chev was still there, dancing. I could just make out in the firelight, flames guttering in old beat up oil drums, painting tall shadows on the wall and in the hollows of our eyes. And of course there were more hollows, half of starving including me and Cristabel, with rib cages like Death’s own bony fingers reaching to clasp our waists. In the firelight I saw Cristabel look left, look right. Her friends, Analise and Jen were still watching Chev do his thing. The others had mostly turned back to him, but that was fine, that’s what I wanted. I laid the seeds carefully, with just my eyes. Something Chev would never learn, that sometimes, less is more. Why dance, burning calories, when your eyes will do?

When I looked away, Cristabel was already coming.

And then for a little bit it was bare footsteps slapping on cold concrete. Trains running on the bridge above my head, rattling the world.

It was an idea, just that. Everything, every little bit of what I had.

I fetched up against a rotten bridge pier, and waited.

“Hey!” Cristabel said a minute later. “You don’t actually know what keeneetaa is, do you?”

Don’t smile.

“’Course I do,” I said. “It’s simple.”

“No it isn’t,” she said. “If it was simple the scientists would have figured it out already.”

“Bells,” I said, “they ain’t figured it out precisely because it’s simple. Like when new-folk hit the streets in the last recession, and they was freezing to death because they didn’t know how to insulate and the like. They was scientists and bankers, that kinda shit, but it still took folk like us to tell ‘em.”

Cristabel looked away. In the half-dark of the bridge piers I saw her bite her lip again and nod. She’d been one of them that hit the streets in the last recession. High-born parents and the like. Analise and Jen, with some help from Chev and me, had gotten her all situated.

And I still remembered the color of her hair under all that mud.

“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, ok. Then what is it? Tell me, Ike.”

“Why you want to know?”

She laughed then. It spiraled off and I lost it in the rattling bridge as another train passed over. “Doesn’t everyone?” she asked. “It would be nice to feel like a sentient again. Or at least a human being.”

My pulse quickened up. My skin heated, burning calories.

“Step closer,” I said.

She hesitated, then did.

“Closer,” I said again.

And now she was within arms reach. Scarecrow limbs. Hair and eyes like the fires that we’d left behind.

“Close your eyes,” I told her.


“It’s fine, you can trust me. Just close ‘em.”

She closed her eyes. Breathing. I guess that’s what she did then. It’s a fascinating thing to watch a girl breathe.

“Ike?” she said.

“It’s a thing they do with their lips. The aliens. Like this…”

And then I kissed her. Just like that. Soft and gentle, though it took everything I had not to grab at her. She’d gone stiff on me, stiff and scared, and didn’t soften till I stepped away, my hands pinned against my sides.

“Oh,” she said.

“What?” I said. “You thought that this was something else?”

“Maybe,” she said. Biting at her lip again.

“But was it nice? Did you feel like…”

“Like what?”

“Like a human?”

A moment passed. Back there Chev was probably still dancing. Idiot, but he'd been on to something. I’d thought about this since last winter, and hadn’t been brave enough to do it.

She whispered: “Yes.”

I whispered: “I’ve got a little food. Not much, just a bite. I’ll bring it to you, you don’t have to do anything.”

Keeneetaa me again first,” she said.

I did.

And when we got back Chev was still there, dancing. The firelight brushed up against him, painted ecstasies across brick walls. He was smiling, I hadn’t noticed that before. Cristabel was too.

And me.

“Thanks, Chev,” I told him.

The night passed, and Chev danced on. In the morning, blessedly, it rained.



turnaround0101 t1_j7ugxs7 wrote

There was a man when the world was quite young. There was a woman. Sometimes it seems like all the stories start like this. Sometimes they do. But this time youth was no mere trick of light, sunrise filtering through the blinds just so to illuminate the room as she entered, because the world really was young once. I forget that. Do you? Before cities sprouted on the hills or smeared themselves across the riverbanks in a haze of steel and smoke.

Though there was smoke that night, whispering into the half-dark sky as night began to fall.

The man’s name has been forgotten. The woman’s. This is not to be considered. The world was young, and they lived in a succession of passing moments. Had not yet worried that such things as names might last.

The man builds up the campfire. Darkness gathers. There is no moon tonight, there are no stars. They’ve gone a distance away from the others, inadvisable on the savanna, but neither of them had to insist. One wandered off and then the other, and now their kinfolks’ singing is scattered across the near horizon, as the darkness presses down upon all things.

She speaks and he responds. He speaks and she smiles. Turns away as the full weight of night begins to settle. The fire leaps between them, casting shadows on her face and shoulders, the play of sinews in her thighs. We would say that she is sixteen, and he is nineteen, and there are circles torn beneath her eyes from waking late at night to the laughing sounds of the hyenas, a distant roar of lions, thunder, lightning, monsoons. Her black skin is calloused, laced by scars in intricate, intentional designs, and by an uncaring rake of claws received the year before from some predator or another, be it beast or bird or man. Her hair is no liquid tumble, no fast water at night. It does not spill across her shoulders. She’s hacked it short with a stone knife. Used the same knife just yesterday to skin his kill.

The man builds up the campfire. His axe and spear are close at hand. He has killed; mostly recently another man, when they passed a group of grizzled, half-mad wanderers on a hunt at the beginning of the season. Night brings those thoughts out in him, leaves him with a vague feeling of disquiet that often takes some hours to dispel. Not tonight. Tonight he is wasting wood to push back against the darkness for other reasons. He builds the fire up again, and she looks at him, at the night, with a curious expression, because she doesn’t understand what it is he sees.

Here is what he sees across the dancing flames:

Beauty, softened by the play of shadows, a blackness that breathes another meaning into night. Whimsy, ease, daring. She didn’t have to come with him. She did. They are too far from the others, these things are not safe. This was a time before we courted danger, before risks became exciting, and yet that thought stirs within him the most curious feeling. Building up the fire, the man sees the impulse that will, one day, lead to sprawling cities, hilltop fortresses, temples, tombs, and poetry. He does not yet have these. Is a part of their beginning, nothing more.

What he does have, staring at her, wishing that this moment could last, that dawn would hold off just this one night with its hunts and raids and headlong flights—

Is the stars.

He glances up, just a glance, he cannot bring himself to look away from her. He does not speak or gesture. Could not yet put this thought into words. He simply wishes in this moment when everything is youth and fire, that the two of them could be preserved. Or her. He’d settle for just her. His knees have begun hurting lately, and in the rainy season the old wounds along his hip and back ache. He’s turned half to dust already, but her.

He smiles, thinking that. She notices. Asks him what’s so funny.

“Nothing at all,” says the man, who goes back to tinkering with the fire, playing tender shadows across her bruised, calloused, scarred—supple—skin, before a passing breath across the world fades them into hazy memory.

There was a man when the world was quite young. There was woman. Sometimes it seems like all the stories start like this. Many have, and will, and do.

Lay back tonight. Find a patch of grass if you are able, away from all the lights. Listen to the gentling pulse of your heartbeat as the sun falls and darkness gathers. Watch, in astonished silence, as an infinity of campfires spreads across the sky. If you are very quick, or very daring, or very much at ease, perhaps you’ll see it—theirs, the first—before you blink the night away, and call them simply stars.

Lay back tonight, as they did.

There was a man. There was a woman.

Stories start like this.



turnaround0101 t1_j2vbgce wrote

The man walks south on High Street, his duster jacket painted in a thousand competing shades of red by the advertisements that line the street. Half the signs are in simplified Chinese or the phonetic bastard English that’s grown more popular these last few years, the other half just scream at you; sometimes they scream through words, other times through flesh. Tonight it’s flesh, and so when the man looks from side to side he finds himself cringing away from pictures of his ex. Her name was Mandy, not short for Amanda, and by dint of a two year relationship their pictures have become forever linked. The advertisements scan the viewer's face, search the Internet for weaknesses in his economic armor—points of purchase, Mandy used to call them—and use them to worm their way into his head. Mandy’s smiling face stares out at him from twenty different screens, sipping New Coke through a neon straw, or posing in oversized men’s shirts, hair mussed like she’s just picked them off his floor.

The man’s name is Jonah, and he was on his way to a bar downtown, but there were cops outside it, two officers and a cloud of blinking police aerostats, so now he’s drifting. It’s a cold night in early autumn; if there were trees their leaves would have started to turn colors. But there aren’t trees. Just like there aren’t cats or dogs or squirrels. Like how the bugs have been replaced by aerostats, miniature mechanical drones that flit across the night sky like stardust, like some child’s misplaced dream. The animals have all been jettisoned, the South has even solved kudzu. And Jonah, drifting through it all, is thinking about the Franchise.

At twenty-three, Jonah doesn’t have it. He’s not a citizen of these New United States, or of the Middle Kingdom’s Exclaves, or any of the other small, independent phyles that have sprouted up around the this part of the world. He is chronically undernourished, underpaid, and overworked. And he is sterile.

A few weeks ago Mandy won her Franchise in a lottery. Jonah has been over it a thousand times, and a part of him is grateful. He thinks now that he didn't really like her, just like she didn’t really like him. They were placeholders in each other’s lives, a thing you did because that’s what you were supposed to do. Because over however many millions of years the human animal was programmed to search out another human animal and pick lice out of her hair or something. So he’s free and feeling it, but he’s also sad. The advertisements are proof that it still bothers him, Coca-Cola’s marketing departing knows you better than you know yourself after all, so she must still have some kind of hold over him.

Jonah ducks into the first that doesn’t advertise her face at him. He buys a PBR from a shirtless bartender who’s sold all the skin on his chest to Playboy to hock magazines. It’s just an address, obscenity laws and all that, but the address spirals around the man’s pale chest hypnotically, and before he can look away it has reformed into Mandy’s face. Smiling. Sketched out on the bartender’s bare skin. He even recognizes the photograph.

Jonah finishes his PBR, tosses the can into the recycling bin, and stumbles back into the street.

In the ten minutes that he was away the advertisements have gone somehow more red. Chinese characters dance across the corners of his vision. Mandy’s face contorts around half a dozen photoshopped expressions. Jonah tries to think about the Franchise. He needs a plan, some way to get it, to get ahead, to make his life have meaning, but all he can think about is that the planet is full up. There’s ten billion souls and Mother Earth has had enough. We’ve scoured the rainforests, the highest mountain valleys, the deepest oceans, eliminated all the biomass we can, and still. Somewhere along the way humanity hit the carrying capacity of the planet, and from Challenger Deep all the way up to the fucking clouds, everything said “No.”

Jonah mulls this over on a street corner, waiting for the light to change. It has started to rain, and pedestrians are scattering into the bars and late night tea shops. He hears music, the high keening sound of feverbeat, which has gotten popular lately. Genres spring up overnight these days, and die out just as quick. Like a passing fever, Jonah thinks, and he smiles. He turns towards home, giving up on the night, and there, beneath another one of Mandy’s pictures, he sees a real life, honest-to-god human holding an old fashioned sign. Jonah squints, thinking his eyes are playing tricks on him, but the man waves the sign. He shouts, trying Mandarin first, but when Jonah shakes his head the man switches seamlessly to English.

“You look lost, friend!” he shouts. “Are you lost?”

“No,” Jonah shouts back, confused. “I live here!”

“Not that kind of lost!” And the man puts down his sign, which says, as best as Jonah can read the crabbed handwriting, Mr. Lun’s Ersatz Tomorrow.

The man steps into a shop nearby, and swaying to the frantic tempo of the feverbeat, Jonah steps in after him.

Inside, it is chaos. The shop is small and very cramped, and when the old man, Mr. Lun presumably, turns the lights on they spark and flicker, and he has to hit the unprotected bulb with a length of PVC tubing to make it work right.

Mr. Lun is a short man, stooped, whose threadbare hair is turning gray like the color leaching out of a well-worn sweater. He wears a thin blue windbreaker and grubby jeans. His hands are small and very fine, always moving. Grease-stained fingertips brush against his bulbous nose, the cluttered counter. As the light inside Mr. Lun’s shop stabilizes, Jonah sees patches of synthetic fur mounted for display. Half constructed cats peer up at him, and a mechanical dog darts out from behind a beaded curtain to fetch a tatty length of rope. When the dog picks it up, Mr. Lun has to spring forward and take the rope from him. The dog has snagged half a dozen electrical wires in the process. There are so many wires sketched across the floor that Jonah doesn’t know where to put his feet.

“Come in, come in,” Mr. Lun says. “I could tell that you were lost the moment that I saw you. It’s like an aura, gray waves coming off your skin. My mother would have seen them, but me? No, I just have my intuition.”

“What’s your intuition telling you, specifically?” Jonah asks.

“That you’re a man without a Franchise!”

“Me and half the world,” Jonah says.

“Lucky for you,” Mr Lun says, “I have just the thing.”

“A lottery ticket?”

“Better. An android.”

“You sell mechanical pets.”

“Oh yes,” says Mr. Lun. “Entirely artificial, no penalty against the biological maximum. Would you like a parakeet? They are quite popular. Parakeets and parrots and whole flocks of pigeons. I do cheshires, sphynxes and Maine Coons. Half a dozen breeds of dog. And for a price I can make you—”

“Ever do a human?” Jonah asks suddenly.

The salesman blinks. “Excuse me?”

“A human,” Jonah says again, “you ever make one?”

“Perhaps,” Mr. Lun says carefully. “Though if you’re interested in such fare there is a bordello down the street.”

Jonah hears himself speaking now. He’s moving without any conscious thought. He’s sad. He’s tired. He wishes that he’d had more to drink. “I’m not like…that,” he says. “Not an adult. A child, have you ever made child? I want…”

“Ah,” Mr. Lun says. “Ah. That would be…expensive.”

“I’ll figure it out,” Jonah says. “Could you make--damnit.”

Mandy’s face is in front of him now. He’s turned to look out the dirty window, and the advertisements across the street are screaming her at him. Did he love her? Maybe. Jonah asks himself the question. Asks it again. Wants to scream. Right now, somewhere across the country, she’s staring into a future that he will never have. There will be houses with white picket fences, vacations to exotic destinations, a family and children. And now, he’s decided, just now, thinking about that, maybe he did love her. At least a little. As much as he’s ever loved anyone, and maybe, Jonah thinks, that’s enough.

“Yes?” Mr. Lun says.

“Could you make it look like me?” Jonah asks. “Like it was my child with a particular person?”

“Very expensive,” Mr. Lun says. There’s a smile in his eyes. The dog curls at his feet and wags its skeletal tail. Besides the unfinished tail it’s very lifelike; you could look it straight in the eyes every morning and believe that it’s alive.

“I’ll manage,” Jonah says, and across the street the advertisements begin to change.



turnaround0101 t1_j24twxj wrote

I have a habit. My habit is perfectly sane, utterly normal, as are all customs a man might have that pertain to lunch. Every day at noon, not 11:59, not 12:01, but directly on the dot of noon, I fold my jacket on my chair, put my overworked computer to sleep, and step out into the street with my lunchbox in my left hand.

Left. Left hand and a left turn and objects fuzzing out into left field as my perfectly sane habit begins to dissolve. At 12:05—what would be 12:05, if the clocks had not stopped—I sit on the edge of a fountain in the nearby square and watch the water as it goes still. And then, only then, after the currents are done eddying, do I unpack my tuna sandwich and look out at what has become of the world.

It is 12:08, and this is what I see:

A thin line of smoke trails through the open window of a food truck selling wood-fired pizzas to haze a couple arguing beneath the window, their faces like hastily sketched lines; a child running too close to a public art exhibit has fallen and scraped his knee, instead of crying he stares down at the torn skin and imagines, very bravely, that he is a soldier; a man seated on a telescoping stool plays the soprano saxophone, his eyes all squeezed up with what I can only assume is love; fat pigeons crowd around an old woman’s frayed skirts; dogs fight; red streetlights gleam like omens; a plane flying far above us has its landing gear stuck only partially retracted, the black specks of tires slung beneath its bole like rotten fruit; men watch women; women eye those same men carefully, and frozen as they are they look like rabbits in a field, standing still in case the stalking cat has not yet seen them.

By 12:42 I have finished my sandwich, crackers, and half a diet coke. The world has narrowed to a pair of slits. I think—I always think—that I have been forgotten. That all this world around me is a product of someone else’s imagination, some dreamer lingering in bed somewhere, a young woman, beautiful, with no imagination left over to finish sketching me, and that this is why it all seems so foreign. Why every little detail makes me feel so shocked.

By 12:50 I’ve settled on a person. The old woman with pigeons. She has kind eyes, and the birds seem to like her—birds have instincts, they know a thing or two.

I approach her at 12:51, and her edges all begin to shimmer. She wavers. Becomes indistinct. It’s like a breeze is passing through the world, fluttering her body and not just her skirts, until she is nothing more than a haze of linear motion.

I touch her face at 12:52 and watch as it erupts into discreet particles. Dissolves away from me. I touch the pigeons and they rupture too. Touch the couple arguing outside the food truck, the fighting dogs, the boy who dreams he is a soldier, and the whole goddamn world erupts.

At 12:55 I walk back to the office.

Put the jacket on. Button up my shirt.

At 1:00, not 12:59, not 1:01, I hit any key to continue, and my perfectly sane lunch hour comes to a sudden end.

Jack walks by, and Miriam. Alexei, Imran, and Kennedy, and none of us say a word.

And I wonder for the thousandth time if any of this shit can possibly be real.



turnaround0101 t1_j1roodk wrote

Death was a diminutive woman in an oversized band tee, a battered leather jacket over the plush arm of her chair. She had a cup of coffee in her hands, and the steam wreathed her pale face like the fog that coiled over the river. Death had piercings and gauged ears, fake freckles scattered across high cheekbones. She was smiling sadly and I thought, for a moment, that she might reach out and take my hand. Around us was a coffee shop half overrun with vines and flowers, faceless people living out the small contusions of their lives. I felt at ease, but somehow I knew I shouldn’t.

“Oh no, honey,” Death said. “This is just the worst part of the job, but hey, at least you’re already sitting down. I’ll say it: this isn’t heaven, this is hell.”

I nodded. A specter floated by and handed me a London Fog. The tea was excellent, just sweet enough. I nodded again, her words sinking in.

“I guess I wasn’t as good as I thought.”

“Most people aren’t,” she said. “But don’t worry, this isn’t forever. Just for a little while, until you figure out what you did and feel properly contrite. Though I must say, even down here this is a little…unusual.”

She sipped her coffee, I sipped my tea. A couple blustered in out of the cold and I saw the river framed behind them, that lazy flow. The couple were both wearing Christmas sweaters and big colorful socks, matching pairs, and they shivered against each other for a moment as they took in their surroundings. Their faces were completely blank, two beige discs moving this way and that, before settling on each other.

“Unusual how?” I asked.

Death considered me. “Well, you know that cliché about beauty being in the eye of the beholder? Pain is that way too. Most things are, but pain is singular. Hit me and I’ll cry, hit a boxer and they’ll blink. Get used to a specific brand of pain and it becomes an echo. And yet, everyone has, at their core, something that hurts them the most.”

She gestured to the door. “If you could go out there and walk down the river for a while, you’d find a billion variations of this cell. Oh, you have all the classical imagery, torturers and whatnot, others that are simple isolation, simulated drownings, a breakup frozen in time forever--or until the lesson starts to sink in. But regardless of their differences there's a person in each one, trapped in their own individual hell.”

Death sipped her coffee again. Giggled into the steam. “Yours is the only Hell I’ve ever seen with flowers.”

“Ah,” I said. I looked down into my teacup and found it empty. Cold. I told her that I understood.

“Then explain it to me,” Death said. “What could be so bad about a coffee shop?”

Another specter drifted forward, drifted back. I cradled fresh warmth in my hands and cleared my throat. In life, I had never been very used to speaking.

“It exists,” I said. “It’s normal. All these people with all these lives, taking so much pleasure in something so simple as a cup of coffee.”

“And then there’s you with your tea,” she said.

“Exactly. It’s all the things I never understood. I used to come here sometimes, just to remind myself of that. Sit in this chair and watch the world go by.”

There was Death’s sad smile again. No teeth, just a gesture of the lips and a painful warmth behind her eyes.

“And me?” she asked. “I look different to every person. Who’s this girl to you?”

“No one,” I said.

“Bullshit,” Death said.

I drank my tea. Watched the doors open and close. Shapes moved along the river, came up out of the fog. From time to time a scream cut through the cafe’s quiet murmur, but that was all, and that was all there ever would be.

“Who am I?” Death asked again.

And I shrugged. “One of the baristas. Just someone who was kind.”

When I looked back Death was gone, and in her place sat a faceless girl. The same band tee and leather jacket, the same vanilla latte steaming in her lap. Like a charcoal sketch brushed out.

I took her hand, and we passed a thousand years.