Sometimes I pretend I have a metawomb inside me.
Things would grow there. Children, I mean. Dozens at a time. Girls and boys. I might not be able to stop. Iâ€™d populate my entire livingspace with pudgy pinkfaced versions of myself, and when I went to the recreation floor, strangers would come up and ask me how I managed to adopt so many. How strange, theyâ€™d remark. Some of them even look like you.
Iâ€™d never tell anyone. Iâ€™d just smile and watch those tumbly bright-eyed beings chase eachother from wall to wall.
At night, when I canâ€™t sleep, I press my hand to the soft space above my hips and think of my body filled with pink goo and hundreds of tiny, tiny people, growing like unspoken words.
Tsaro was the image, Tsaro was the shadow. During the hour-long commute into Osaka no less than seventeen people asked for his autograph, and when he transferred to a cab at the end of the line he could feel empty eyes squinting at him, searching for their reflections. An elderly lady congratulated him on his success right before Tsaro opened the door to the studio.
â€œThank you,â€ he said quietly. Tsaro was uncomfortable when people talked to him as the artist.
Inside the studio, Tsaro sat in front of the glowing mirror while a slender, apron-clad woman fidgeted over his face and hair. It didnâ€™t matter; heâ€™d be airbrushed out of recognition. They still needed a person as the shadow because a computer-generated image couldnâ€™t make live performances, but Tsaro had seen the wireframe of his face flicker across monitors in the maintenance chamber. One day, his face would be bars of light creating the illusion of three dimensions. One day, he wouldnâ€™t even be a shadow.
The woman nudged Tsaro out of the makeup chair and he shuffled slowly down the long hallway to the maintenance chamber. When the door slid open with a hydraulic hiss, the head technician glanced up from his control panel and smiled out of habit. Tsaro smiled back with the same polite vacancy as the halogen over the bluescreen gradually flickered to a solid white.
â€œReady?â€ the technician asked. Tsaro nodded. Around him, the eyes of seven other programmers lifted to judge his appearance, and a few nodded their approval. On the wall opposite the bluescreen, a large LCD display spooled the miles of code that made up the artist. Tsaro was not ready. Tsaro was never ready. He took his place behind the prop microphone and squinted until his eyes grew adjusted to the brightness.
The technicians had turned their attention back to the monitor, but Tsaro could feel the unseen eyes of millions of mislead fans. He closed his own to force them away, but they watched from the blackness behind his lids.
The first sound was thick with manufactured bass and the air in the room reverberated with a disembodied, re-embodied heartbeat. Beneath it, Tsaro could hear a symphony of keystrokes but he knew that none of the technicians were creating the sound. The sound belonged to the artist. In the maintenance chamber, everything belonged to the artist.
In the space between pristine code and his imperfect body, Tsaro did not open his eyes. His skin felt unusually heavy as he waited for the next chord to sweep across the room, and under the silence between the beats, Tsaro dreamed of the panels of light that would one day build a hollower, more perfect version of himself.
“Yesterday,” Jason said, “I killed Marilyn Monroe.”
“No, I mean it. I really did.”
“I believe you,” Thomas said, in a noncommittal tone. It worked like this: Jason was lying, or Jason was not lying. Lying /= not lying. He hadn’t been in the complex for long enough to understand the inadequacy of the equation.
“She’s better than in pictures,” he continued. “â€Not like you’d think, though. She has roots, dark brown ones. And she’s a little chunky. There was something about her, though. Something right.”
Something right, two things wrong. One minus two equals negative one thing right. Regardless, Thomas nodded. There was inadequate information. Jason = sane or insane. Until the first equation could be solved, its postulates were irrelevant.
Thomas had been born on a math farm. In some way, he understood this. His brain didn’t work in the same way that Jason’s brain worked. But Jason’s brain must have been altered, since he was in the complex. If he was randomly, uselessly broken, he would have been euthanized at birth.
“I didn’t want to do it,” Jason said. “but somebody had to.”
Thomas said nothing. Jason sat down on his foam mattress and began rocking.
“Do you ever wake up and know that something has to be a certain way? Like, if it’s not that way, the universe is out of order? History’s like that, for me. Someone has to make it right.”
“Chaos equals unpredictability. All things are predictable with numbers.”
Jason smiled thinly. “You’re a strange one, aren’t you?” He stood up and slipped his feet into the government issue blue slippers before heading to the door.
“Where are you going?”
“Seclusion. Oswald needs a little prodding.”
“Oswald?” Thomas asked. “Who’s Oswald?”
“You can’t have a ray gun,” Jolie said as she dragged her pen across Jake’s sheet. “They didn’t even exist back then.”
“My character invented the ray gun,” Jake clarified, and Tim snickered. “What? Somebody had to invent them.”
Above the terradome in Jolie’s mother’s living quarters, thousands of LCD crystals shimmered to give the illusion of a cloud passing over a digital sun. Jolie, newly sixteen, had moved to Io with her mother because the exchange rate inflated child support to nearly three times what her father paid. She hated the terradome, she hated Io, and she hated the circumstances that brought her there, but above all else, at this moment, she hated Jake. On Earth, people knew how to make character sheets.
“Besides, how do you know they didn’t exist? Were you there?”
Jolie sighed deeply. “On Earth they taught us something called history, Jake.”
“History is for pussies.”
Tim, ever the level-headed one, removed the pen from Jolie’s hand before she forced it through Jake’s cranium. “Why don’t you buy a revolver?” he asked his younger brother.
“He can’t have a revolver either. His character’s a Network Administrator, for Christ’s sake.”
“I’m a rogue Network Administrator.”
“Look,” Jolie said, “I’m not going to run a Microsoft game filled with ray guns and rogues. Either you learn the system or you find someone who wants to run Apple.”
“All I’m saying is that someone had to invent the ray gun, and I don’t see why it can’t be me.”
Jolie retrieved her pen and underscored the word NO several times.
“I thought you said this game was about imagining stuff.”
“It is. Imagine a world without ray guns.”
“That world sucks,” Jake said. He pushed his chair back and leaped up, heading for the door. Tim lifted his hand to stop him.
“Jake, just give it a chance. There was plenty of cool stuff back then, right?” he asked, looking to Jolie for verification. Jolie nodded enthusiastically, then considered the late twentieth century, then nodded again with slightly less force. “Like cars,” Tim continued. “Everyone had their own personal spaceship for the road.”
Jake hesitated before the door. “Can I have a car?” he asked.
“Cars ran on fossil fuels. They practically raped the environment. Plus, according to the sourcebook, traffic in Silicon Valley was…” her voice trailed off. “You’d know better, if you were from Earth,” she finished.
Jake smiled broadly and folded his arms across his puffed chest. “Well, I’m not from Earth,” he said proudly. “I’m imagining it.”
They are not awake.
They have been asleep for days, years. They lie sprawled across train platforms, clutching cellphones, notebooks, and mp3 players. Their hearts barely beat, drowsy with decreased metabolism. Their fingernails have grown long, curling under. They are pristine white from lack of use.
Dr. Sarah Rosencrantz had not expected this result.
Now, bored and alone in a city of sleep, Sarah walked down empty streets where the streetlights changed indifferently with an echoing thud. She no longer bleached her hair. In the summer, she often went without clothing, her skin gleaming white as she stood on Wall Street, knee-deep in a sea of business-suited bodies that inhaled and exhaled like the tide.
She continued her research, though she wasn’t sure why.
The generators continued to run. Water continued to flow. Everything was computerized, fueled by reserves that would last a hundred years. Worst-case scenario, they had said, pointing at color-coded maps as they stockpiled.
In a grocery store, a woman slept in the produce aisle, her hand folded around the blackened pit of a peach.
Trees continued to grow, and, unpruned, they arched over the sidewalks, nudging cement with timid roots. Sarah pondered, sometimes, what would happen when she died, when everyone died. The machines would remain awake, grumbling, until they too ran empty and the power ceased.
I95, streetlights blinking off one by one over the rusted carcasses of automobiles.
This war will destroy everyone, she had said when summoned to testify before the UN. She had meant to stop it. But not like this.