There is nothing to burn. Modern life is plasticine, cheap and mutable and easily manufactured. Wooden furniture is the stuff of history textbooks and Better Homes and Gardens pinups, the pictures affixed to smooth synthetic walls with reused sticky-tack. Pinup is a misnomer; pins have no purchase in plastic.
The poor live in dingy cubes of space stacked on top of each other like ice cube trays, twelve stories high even in the slums. Oil is a thing of the past, hoarded by the elite and unheard of by the ordinary. Coal is a fiction in the lower city, a dream that children are chided for to protect them from the inevitable disappointment. There is nothing to burn. Even the telephone poles are polyurethane. Snow is praised as an insulator in the country, building up over low, squat houses and keeping their residents alive for as long as they’ve stockpiled food, but here in the city there is no such thing as snow. The heat of humanity melts it before it ever hits the ground.
Winter is the new population control, and the means of survival serve a double purpose. There is nothing to burn, so they burn their own, the stiff frozen twists of the unfortunate packed into thermoset stoves and lit with the dried dead fur of a squirrel or mouse. The vinyl clothing is carefully cut away before lighting the inferno, melted down by the heat of its previous owner and reused for the survivors. Bodies never rot. They are too valuable to be left so long.
Thick black smoke spews from the dingy acrylic chimneys, blanketing the slums in a charnel haze. Poor workers plod through the streets with heads down, trying not to breathe in their brethren. There is nothing to burn. They no longer notice the smell.
No one saw the meteor coming. It was faster than any meteor yet recorded. It didn’t so much as break the speed of light as it did beat its face in, set it on fire and sleep with its girlfriend. No one saw it coming when it smashed into what once was the Pacific Ocean, and a century later, not a single person survived.
They came from the corners of the globe, dressed to kill in their own odd ways. Mankind forgot ancient myths and made up their own legends. Fathers passed it onto sons and mothers would nurse their daughters on what it was to be what they were. It was a chance to start over for the parents after the meteor crashed down, but no one could have guessed it would end like this.
If you could call America a desert at that point, then it was safe to say you’d lost the idea of what humidity really meant. From the east came the heavy shoulder pads, the pronounced foreheads counting every ridge as a badge of honor despite their origin as radiation-induced bone growths. The tribe gathered shrapnel from wreckages and sharpened the pieces into their own homebrewed mix of jagged death.
These deformed figures all stood tall and bulky and they had no question as to why they were here today. Each one carried a weapon, and each one knew how to use it.
The other tribe came from the west. These shadowy figures began as shadows on the horizon, looking far healthier than the mutated easterners. Their humans faces were still intact and they dressed in nothing but free-flowing cloth that became a robe wrapped snugly around their figures. Each of these men and women also had a weapon of destruction latched neatly onto their belts. Though at first glance these weapons seemed like nothing but bludgeoning tools, there was a distinctly scientific look to them that held more back than it presented. Each of these “weapons” had at least one button on it looking as if they had been crafted from gutted scientific laboratories in the west. Silicon Valley might have been to blame.
Within sight of each other, they stood in a single row facing their opponents for control over the aftermath of the apocalypse. This was no longer America to them. For each it held a different, unpronounceable name with no Latin origin to be found.
With deformed sharp teeth and darkened, rigid skin, the easterners raised their oddly shaped metal weapons in unison and cried out, “Heghlu’meH QaQ jajvam!”
Robed and without emotion, without fear, the westerners slowly removed the small metal cylinders from their belts. The man in the center stared at the angry mob before him and spoke in a soft, elegant tone: “There must be balance.” Behind him, the other members of the tribe pressed the buttons on their devices and thin rods of light burst from the cylinders, ready and waiting to be used.
The words had been said and on this day the ultimate showdown began.
It was a week before opening night and Bub was still flubbing his lines.
â€œI donâ€™t understand,â€ said Bub, â€œWhy canâ€™t I have a feed? Why do we have to memorize our lines?â€
â€œYou have to memorize your lines,â€ said Daven, clenching his hands into fists â€œbecause that is the way actors in the old days did things.
â€œBut no one will know!â€ complained Bub. â€œNo one will know that I donâ€™t have a feed inside my head! I could download the entire script and have it running behind my eyes. Iâ€™ve done it that way for every other performance Iâ€™ve ever been in. I did that at Cambridge!â€
â€œWell, this is not Cambridge.â€ said Daven.
Bub threw up his hands dramatically. â€œDavan, I understand what you are going for here. I mean, the cloth costumes, that makes sense, and the painted sets look very rustic, very historical. I get the feel you want, but I donâ€™t understand why it matters what is going on in my head!â€
Daven climbed up onto the stage. â€œIt matters because Iâ€™ll know Bub, and more importantly, you will know. You will know that this performance isnâ€™t authentic to the old twentieth century style of acting. The only way it can be authentic is if you struggle just like they struggled, learn just like they learned. Now, get over your cheap self and take it from the top.â€
Bub sighed. Daven was a method man, and you could never argue with one of them. â€œNow is the winter of our discontentâ€ he said. â€œMade glorious summer by this sun of York. . .â€
Innocence may be a commodity, but it’s easily emulatable. I get it in thin aluminum cans from the drugstore downtown, the kind that energy drinks come in. They’re kept behind the counter; innocence isn’t a controlled substance, but like condoms and suppositories, it’s kept out of reach to deter the easily embarrassed. Our society needs a moral compass, after all.
Me, I take pride in asking for a can. I keep my eyes languid and my tone casual, and I watch with a slightly widening smirk as the clerk’s smile fades to uncomfortability. I make no effort to hide it from the people in line. They’re all silent, watching me with individually tailored levels of outrage or disgust.
The clerk rings me up with thin lips, thanking me tonelessly for the purchase and handing me my plastic bag. As I leave, he wonders what kind of person would need to purchase innocence. He imagines what I’m trying to hide. He worries that this town isn’t safe with me in it. He wonders if I’m using it on a date with his daughter tonight.
“I’m leaving.” Viktor said as he pulled the duffel back over his shoulder and made for the door. He’d had enough of the quarantine, and he had a hankering for Luna stew that needed some satiation.
“You can’t do that, Vik! They’ve got every spaceport in the continent under lockdown. Something big is going on, and I need you here!” Cynthia reached out to tug Viktor’s arm, which only earned her a blue-eyed glare from her partner.
He grumbled and turned around. “You think I don’t know about the population issue? They want to keep people here because it’ll mean more consumers on Earth.”
“It’s not that” she sighed and glanced up to him, pleading with her eyes, “People are dying and no one is being born. They’re blaming it on people leaving but they won’t tell us why. Haven’t you noticed the lack of children, Vik? Haven’t you seen that they are closing the borders and keeping us in because they physicallyâ€¦ spiritually need us?”
Viktor stared at her for a good long while before he dropped the bag and clasped his hands over both her shoulders, “Cynthiaâ€¦ what you’re talking about is madness. You need some sleep. It’ll be good for the baby.” His hand dropped down to gently rub against her stomach.
Her head lowered she turned her gaze to the side because she could not look at him, “I’m not pregnant, Vik.”
“Whatâ€¦ what did you just say? Did you lie to me!? How the fuck could you-” Rage began to rise in his eyes.
“Viktor, wait! I didn’t lie. I was pregnant and thenâ€¦ it was gone.” She looked up to him, her eyes slick with tears.
The man’s expression soon turned to sorrow as he let go of her shoulders. Walking over to the couch, he slumped into it and stared out over the blue skies and the cityscape they had always dreamed of seeing from their home window.
“When did you miscarry?” he asked.
“Iâ€¦I didn’t. When I went in for the second trimester ultrasound, there was nothing there. The doctor said it was like I had never been pregnant at all.”
Shutting his eyes, he dreamed of never dying of always being there for Cynthia. He hoped that she would forgive him and yet he ignored her very presence. Finally he spoke up just as he re-opened his eyes, “I’mâ€¦ sorry. Maybe you’re right about the environment here. Mars and the orbital stations are showing increased birth rates. It has to be a government thingâ€¦ we’ll fix it honey. We’ll fix it.”
Viktor turned his eyes away, letting the impossibility weigh down the air like a lie. Both knew the futility of the theories but, no one knew the truth.
Somewhere on Mars, a woman sat in a pristine doctor’s office, staring at her positive results and wondering how it was possible.
It’s my first time at the Persomod. Tann, who’s been my best friend since my family moved to Set, took me as a surprise gift for my birthday. We planned it carefully; Mom and Dad are traditionalists, static to the core. Let their only daughter get a personality graft? No, thank you.
I sliced through the snooper circuits on the security system and snuck my way out into the communal garden across the street. Tann was waiting for me, smiling as she perched on her aquamarine bike, the color clashing horribly with the deep red of Setian skin. “Ready for the new you?” she asked with that mischievous smile I had quickly come to associate with my friend.
Personality additives developed about a century ago, but it wasn’t until the last twenty years or so that the technology really became safe. Back then, unbuffered transplants got slapped directly into the mind, an instant fuse. Sometimes it worked. But other times, people just shut down. Or they went crazy. You know, messy stuff.
Inside the pristinely white store, I wander around aimlessly, trying not to feel lost as I study the clear plastic display units that each heralded the qualities of the personalities within. I can’t quite control my excitementâ€”a small smile keeps sneaking onto my face as I browse, almost like being in a toy store as a child.
Today, templates are used for personality grafts. People choose their dummy personality, an artificial construct specifically designed for the grafting process. The dummies are safe to useâ€”they have no memories so no one goes crazy. It’s a lot better.
“This one.” Tann stated definitively, her finger lingering on a display. She smiled at me. “It’s perfect for you.”
“Are you sure?”
The girl’s smile didn’t waver. “This one’s good. Trust me.”
I do trust Tann. She’s an expert on grafts and had her first when she was twelve. Since then, she’s had a lot more, maybe six or seven, I’m not quite sure. I asked her once what she was like before but Tann just smiled and shook her head. It didn’t matter, she said.
Everyone says you’re a lot happier with the grafts. You can be what you want. Who you want. And it’s still you, only better. Tann thinks I’m too shy, that I don’t make enough friends. She says this will help. I agree; I wouldn’t mind being better.
Tann handles the credits while the technician leads me into the grafting chamber. I sit in the soft white chair, my hands pressed flatly against my thighs. I’m not scared. Just nervous. The technician nods to me and leaves the room. I wait.
There’s a vibration in my head. It’s faint and annoying, like a small hover engine. It grows louder and louder. Is this what’s supposed to happen? My hands clench tightly. I’m having trouble thinking.
A bright light flashes.
When I wake up, Tann is standing in front of me. “Well?” she asks softly, her face leaning directly into my field of view. “How do you feel?”
I smile back without hesitation. I know that something in my smile echoes something in Tann’s. I’m different now. I know it. “Better.”