The back of the postcard says “please don’t give up.”
She lives on the seven hundred and thirtieth floor. The elevator takes nineteen minutes to reach the livingfloor, when there is no one else getting on it, which has only happened twice. Otherwise, it takes an extra twenty four seconds at each floor, plus three seconds to resume its maximum speed. Today, it takes twenty seven minutes. She does not mind. She watches the red numbers of the digital clock count off milliseconds.
There are clocks everywhere, so she always knows the time.
The city is an ancient forest of metal and cement, with thick trunks made sooty with exhaust, windows blackened. No one lives on the bottom level, of course. The air down there is toxic. She had been there once, on a field trip, with heavy breathing equipment that gasped and wheezed oxygen into the helmet of the protective suit. You needed a flashlight down there, even in the daytime. If you stood on the surface and looked up, you couldn’t see the first livingfloor, much less the current one.
The current one is the eighth, she knows.
Today she sits on a metal bench in the park, staring down through the Plexiglas shield to the seventh livingfloor. It is hazy in the grey fog. Above her, the levibots are working on the ninth, which will be completed in four years.
The levibots are not operated by people. People do not operate anything anymore.
There is no one else in the park. There never is, really. People do not move as much. Their rooms are small and white. They can touch the walls with two hands outstretched, usually. If they stretch the other way, their fingers reach the keyboard, which can be pulled onto their lap. The richer people have windows, but windows are seldom necessary. The sky is always dark, this high up. The sun glitters in a puddle of navy blue. The atmosphere is thin. It gets thinner every year. Every foot of altitude. They are climbing to the point where the air disappears.
She finds the postcard between the metal slats of the bench. On the front, there is a picture of a lake that stretched to the horizon, sky smeared with rust as the wide flame of the sun dips into the orange and blue water.
This must be the ocean, she thinks.
Please don’t give up.
She ponders the scrawl, thick smooth swirl of blue ink. Ink, from a pen and not a printer, letters curved and organic. She loves the way that the letter E’s each look different, the way they slip up as the line thins and then vanishes, reappearing at the start of the next word with a fresh fury.
She glances around, but the park is still empty.
She hesitates before climbing to the top of the bench, balancing on the backrest as she reaches over the seven-foot plastic shield and lets the postcard slip from her fingers. It spins, past her face and past her torso and past her feet, down past the livingfloor and into the thick soupy grayness, still falling and falling.
She wonders how long it will take the card to reach the hard surface. She wonders if there is wind down there, tearing through ancient roadways, catching the thick paper and floating it, like a prayer, to some great ocean where the sun still sets.
The way she lets her hair flow in the wind keeps me breathless. She twists and turns as the leaves blow past; an endless dance to an endless life. They say itâ€™s the season for wisdom, heralding a season of death to come. That season has long since past and Iâ€™m watching her dance in her tattered dress in the middle of a vacant park. Still, I find myself hesitating at my duty.
Some might say what I do is heartless, but they donâ€™t get to appreciate beauty like I do. They donâ€™t understand what life is until they kill something that shouldnâ€™t be living. They might call up more laws to stop me from doing what Iâ€™m doing, but in the end they know a higher power agrees with me. It just reminds me of how they are all just little insects that will never leave their moral homes. Iâ€™m the hunter, and I am the artist. Right now, sheâ€™s become my muse and my prey. I am beside myself.
Yet, Iâ€™m still watching her. I could sit here all day upwind from her and watch her live out whatâ€™s left inside of her. Some scientists call it mental twitches, but I know itâ€™s deeper than that. My eyes canâ€™t blink because Iâ€™m afraid she might see me and the dance will be over. Iâ€™m afraid because I want that beauty in her to last forever even though a part of me knows it wonâ€™t. It never does.
Everything is a mix of brown, red and yellow. Itâ€™s a miasma of a bitter rainbow but it makes her stand out amongst the color of flames. She might have burned with the rest, but Iâ€™m just too happy to be spying on her this moment. Most of them would have stopped by now, smelled the air and realized they werenâ€™t alone. Itâ€™s tough to say what they smell like, but I know from experience that itâ€™s not a good scent.
The wind picks up, and now I can see her face. Itâ€™s still pretty, still untainted by her affliction and for a moment I am doubtful of my duty. For a second I can loosen my grip on the deadly tool in my grasp. It is only that brief passing of time that I allow myself a semblance of peace, and maybe Iâ€™ll pray someday that they all make it back and that this will all be a bad dream. Someday just isnâ€™t today.
Sheâ€™s wavering now, something I tend to get nervous over. This one is so pretty, so very gorgeous and I wonder if maybe I would have liked her, if maybe before things went sour if Iâ€™d had the chance to take her out for coffee and made love to her in a satin-sheeted bed. Her faltering ruins that. Itâ€™s the way her step hesitates, the look of that particularly rigid kind of stance that they make just before they go vile. Yes, I can feel the sting of salty tears because I know if this were any other place, any other time; Iâ€™d go to hell for doing such a thing.
I have to keep one thought in mind as I tug back the mechanism to load the Remington. This is hell. This is the reckoning. They arenâ€™t alive, and I canâ€™t go back. No, I canâ€™t make her dance again like she did before. The only thing I can doâ€¦ is put her down and all the others just like her.
â€œSex complicates things.â€ Professor Dawkins looked at Joe, whose broad shoulders nearly touched the sides of his tiny book-lined office. Joe was from one of the Midwestern public schools that concentrated on test scores, leaving students with a broad range of knowledge, but little depth. â€œSex adds an extra element to the process of reproduction, and although that allows for greater variance, simplistic asexual reproduction is still the most popular model.â€
Joe squirmed in his seat. â€œSo there arenâ€™t any animals that take the best DNA from many individuals in the population to make the best offspring?â€
Dawkins wondered what Joe had been reading. â€œBest DNA? â€œBestâ€ really isnâ€™t a concept that we use. Would adding more organisms, more genetic variety, increase fitness?â€ Joe scrunched his forehead and rubbed his brow, a motion which reminded Dawkins of his wife. â€œNature favors incremental change. Any major mutations are likely to kill an individual.â€
Joe pushed up his glasses. â€œWhat if there was a major mutation that was very favorable?â€
Dawkins sat on his desk facing Joe and smiled. â€œIâ€™m not saying thatâ€™s impossible Joe, just highly improbable. There are no examples of such an event. Animals are an interactive whole; any major change is likely to have a detrimental effect on that whole.â€
â€œSo humans just couldnâ€™t learn to fly or anything.â€
Dawkins loosened his collar; the office had become quite warm. â€œWell, if what you mean is that they couldnâ€™t develop, say, functional wings for flight in a generation, then that is true. In the case of wings, humans might have to develop lighter bones for flight and every change towards lighter bones would have to increase reproductive viability. Each step is a final product in itself.â€
Joe ran a hand though his short black hair and bit his lip.â€ What about on other planets?â€
Dawkins blushed, feeling suddenly aroused. â€œOther planets? I’m not sure I understand your question.â€
â€œWould evolution work the same on other planets?â€ The office was very hot.
â€œWell, since we havenâ€™t been to any other planets with life itâ€™s hard to draw any conclusions. Personally, I would speculate that our model of natural selection, variability and heritability would likely be similar for other planets. We recognize evolution as a logical process which separates the chaotic forces of the universe and translates them into the obvious order of an organism. There are several examples of different organs evolving similar structures independently, for example, the eye has evolved independently several times. Light sensitive cells to a concave surface to a lens, each step helping to give an organism a reproductive advantage itâ€™s a good logical design that follows basic rules. â€œ
The book on Joes lap slid onto the floor, but neither of them noticed. â€œProfessor Dawkins, I think youâ€™re just about the smartest man I ever met.â€
Dawkins laughed. â€œWhat about your friend Jerry. Heâ€™s a clever boy, donâ€™t you think?â€
Joe blushed. â€œEr, yes, clever, but thatâ€™s different than smart.â€
Joeâ€™s hair was soft and short, and it felt lovely between Dawkins fingers. Joe pulled Dawkins toward him, and Dawkins leaned into his touch.
â€œI think.â€ Joe said, his cool breath on Dawkins lips â€œThat species on other planets might do things differently.â€ Joes tongue shot into Dawkins mouth, the buds on his tongue sharp, breaking the skin on the inside of Dawkin’s cheek. Dawkins moaned in a lustful stupor and put a hand on Joeâ€™s broad chest, his ribs like segmented scales.
â€œThey say there is no God in the outer planets! Those who say this clearly do not have any understanding of the Lord and his teachings! They clearly have not been here!â€
From deep within in the control deck of â€œThe Lazâ€™rus,â€ high in standard orbit, Anastasia allowed herself a grin. Reverend Horseshoe was an old-fashioned man in most respects, and his preaching was no different. Whereas most men in his line of work liked to open their revivals with holographics and pyrotechnics, Horseshoe did it the old-fashioned way. That is to say, he yelled his ass off.
â€œWho among you could dare say where God is not, on this world or any other? I say his spirit is everywhere, and I have yet to see evidence that this is not the truth! I even carry the notion that His love and His grace is more here than anywhere else in the cosmos!â€
Not that the Reverend didnâ€™t make use of current theatrical technology to its utmost: the larger-than-life holographic crucified Jesus with the laser-beam eyes was a personal favorite of his. The laser-beams had been the brainchild of Rojhaz, the ground manager. But despite Rojhazâ€™s urgings, Horseshoe never started his show with such things. Even the robot gospel choir stayed silent while Horseshoe was opening.
â€œNow, I know some of my colleagues say I do not preach enough fire! That I do you poor folk a disservice by not bellowing about how you are damned souls who need to change your sinful ways! But I know better than that! I am here as a representativeâ€”no! Not a representative, but a servant! A servant of the Lord! And as a servant I come not as a judge! But as a beacon!â€
Anastasia was proud of the robot choir. She had added a pre- and post-show dialogue loop, allowing the chubby androids to convincingly chew the fat as the audience filed in and out of the tent. It added a verisimilitude that she felt that were lacking in all the other garish ideas Rojhaz had cooked up. It was show business, she understood that. But Anastasia felt that they owed their audience a little more.
â€œA beacon of the Lord! Of His love! Of His grace! And, most importantly, of His hope! I am a beacon of hope!â€
At that cue, Anastasia flipped the switch, and the electro-luminescent material of the Reverend Horseshoeâ€™s containment suit glowed with a brilliance that rivaled the sun. Indeed, it even rivaled the laser beams that came from Jesusâ€™s eyes.
â€œWhatâ€™s the crowd look like, Rojhaz?â€ Anastaia said into her earpiece. The robot choir had just started; she didnâ€™t have another cue for a few minutes. â€œHow long have they got?â€
â€œThey seem pretty into it, Iâ€™ll bet theyâ€™ll stay in the tent the whole three hours,â€ came the slightly muffled response.
â€œNo, I mean, how long do they have?â€
There was a strange noise as Rohjaz suddenly became very aware of his own containment suit and adjusted it. â€œWeeks. If that. The plagueâ€™s hit this town pretty hard.â€ His voice lightened. â€œTheyâ€™re engaged though, even the blind ones. Weâ€™ll get a powerful haul out of this one. Most of their livestockâ€™s already succumbed, so weâ€™re talking heirloom pieces, furniture. Definitely stuff we can get real dosh for.â€
â€œYou think it ever bothers Horseshoe, fleecing these people before theyâ€™re about to die?â€
â€œGirl, do you even listen to what the Reverend says? Heâ€™s giving these people hope. Theyâ€™ll get a fair more use out of that than great-grandmaâ€™s silver these next few weeks.â€ Behind his voice, Anastasia could hear the robot choir finishing out the opening number. â€œBesides, how much would you pay for hope?â€
Anastasia couldn’t answer. She just sat there, high in orbit, as the robot choir reached their crescendo.
“Amazing grace,” they sang. “How sweet, the sound…”
The dream: Jennie Smith woke up in a desert, standing in the center of an endless, cracked sheet of dirt so hard you could scrape your knees on it if you fell down. Above her, the sky was even blacker than her grandmother’s skin, and the moon seemed like a hole carved into its clay.
Several feet away, an ibis scratched at the soil with long and skinny legs, forcing its narrow beak into the grooves where the surface had split while drying. The ibis stopped, sensing her presence.
“What are you doing here?” it asked.
The ibis didn’t speak English. It was a different language, something Jennie Smith had never heard before, but the syllables still rang with meaning. “This is my dream,” she told the ibis. Her mouth couldn’t form the bird’s strange sounds, so she spoke in the language she used at school.
The ibis cackled, stamped at the broken ground. “Filthy,” it spat. The long beak again disappeared into a crack.
“What are YOU doing here?” Jennie asked.
When Jennie woke up the next morning she tried to hold onto the dream, tried to file the strange sounds away beside their English counterparts. She showered, got dressed, and ate breakfast with her mother and father and grandmother and grandfather and aunts and uncles and everyone else on their floor of the Center for Indigenous Transition.
“I had a strange dream last night,” she said, and began relating the events. At first, only her mother was listening, but gradually the others fell silent and before long, the length of the table was filled with closed mouths and wide eyes watching the girl’s gestures. “It asked me what I was doing here,” Jennie said. “But it didn’t say that, it didn’t say what are you doing here, instead, it said…” she closed her eyes and concentrated, testing the unfamiliar movements in the space where her tongue met the roof of her mouth. They felt foreign but fluid, and when she gave voice to them she was surprised by the ease with which they fell from her lips.
No one said anything, for several seconds. Her parents exchanged meaningful looks, her aunts and uncles exchanged meaningful looks, and get grandparents exchanged meaningful looks. After the silence in the room became nearly unbearable, it was broken by the sharp snap of Jennie’s grandmother’s palm against her cheek. “Ow!” Jennie yelled.
“Don’t you ever use that language again,” she said furiously.
“It was just a dream!” Jennie argued as she pressed her hand against the warm skin of her face.
“It’s a dead language,” the old woman continued with slightly less force. “It’s filthy. Don’t you ever let anyone hear you use that language again.”
Jennie put down her fork and stared at her plate, still rubbing her cheek with her other hand. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
“We use English now,” her grandmother said, then returned to her seat. Jennie watched the table, full of dark faces with darker eyes silently focusing on fingers, napkins, plates, anything but Jennie and her Grandmother. The old woman picked up her fork and scraped up the final remnants of her egg. “We use English,” she repeated. “Only English.”
Iâ€™m floating. Well, it seems like Iâ€™m more submerged at the moment. It takes me a moment to realize where I am and that still doesnâ€™t make sense. Everything is dark, my body feels weightless but it is not peaceful. My lungs begin to realize; Iâ€™m not breathing. Suddenly, itâ€™s panic. Arms start flailing; my mouth shuts hard and contains what oxygen I have left for some reason unknown to me.
This is when Iâ€™m looking around, blurs of the moments through corporeal space of matter filtering into my mind; the moments that may be my last. I stop to realize it for what it is; my last moments. No, I tell myself unable to accept what it might be for reality. The key is not to panic. My eyes start focusing as best as they can and I start pulling up the metaphorical anchor thatâ€™s tugging me down further.
Up, the only way out is up. My arms stop flailing and they start acting methodical. Iâ€™m swimming, I believe. Pulling myself from floating, I can see the edges of my vision blurring in darkness and my head begins to spin inside. Thinking of what I have to live for, it has to keep me going after all. Mother, Father, and my future come to mind. Particularly the future Iâ€™ve squandered, the future I refused to act on. Never applied to those colleges, never went to Australia, and never got to see what I thought I was destined to be witness to. I am getting older and I havenâ€™t yet made a move forward. How old was I now and my dreams were still the same distance away from me?
The focus was keeping me awake enough to push myself through the liquid. I can see something just beyond the surface. I canâ€™t die like this! It canâ€™t end this way! Itâ€™s getting darker, but I can see light. Itâ€™s getting much darker, but I know with that last strain of strength that I can break the surface.
â€œWelcome to re-life, Abe.â€ The next thing I can hear is the doctor saying this to me. My eyes are focusing again and Iâ€™m hardly panting for air now. The off-white allure of an office, the sterile scent of medicine, itâ€™s all coming to me very slowly. My parents are here, smiling proudly. They have tears in their eyes; tears of worry. What just happened? What accident was I in?
â€œYou passed the test; you get to go home now.â€ Iâ€™m confused. I donâ€™t understand and Iâ€™m looking towards my mother and father for guidance. This isnâ€™t real, is it? What is real anymore? The doctor is handing me a plastic card. Sitting up, I start to read it.
Certified to Live
Issue Date: 10/25/2050
It was then that I realized, life will be better from here on out.