We climbed the slippery bank to the now defunct railroad tracks and headed south. The steel from the tracks and spikes gone, torn up for scrap metal long ago before any war. The path dissimilar; doubled, tripled…cloned and yet incomparable. Variables emerged; some noted; other’s banished to the empty where exhaustion ruled.
Crossing the trestle or the creek was not an option, not that I would ever want to with all manner of cadavers and calamities lurking in its dark depths.
Pollutants surrounded us. I smelled the sharp bite of chemicals in the air that blunted responses and poisoned a more normal body. The runoff from the surrounding hilltop mines worsened once the bombs began dropping. West Virginia became a wasteland of contamination. Not much from what it had been prior to the country and the world unraveling around us. Long forgotten was the beauty she used to be: the rolling green mountains, the fresh crystal clear springs, the brilliant blues and pinks and yellows of wildflowers teeming with bees—all now gone.
They were quiet as we walked. I felt their thoughts, the sting of their questions with each step, pulsating aggressively into mine. I brushed them away; they kept returning—an unintended pun that evoked few crumbs leftover. Fresh in their minds, dropped on them like blocks of hail, the memories clobbered them. Losses suffered: husbands, wives, children, friends, family—all dead; liberties long gone. Their children and partners conscripted, sent off to parts unknown, never to return. Aunt and Uncle and mom—all elderly—erased in the first days of the purge—baby boomers, amongst the first, exterminated since they weren’t needed anymore and a drain on the system that fed the wealthy oligarchs that now owned our government, the country, the world.
I watched them as they moved. They were slow. There was little hope there.
If only they knew.
A line from a George Michael tune floated through my mind: Hanging on to hope, when there is no hope to speak of. This was not an original thought. It rolled again towards another of the many.
How can you see, Reese asked. With my eyes, I replied. Jay, always the smartass, he mumbled. Lots of things changed; very few never do, I told them. Another pun. I was on a roll.
I felt his eyes bleed all over my body. His thoughts bullied through the air towards me; words hurled before. I pulled them in, embraced them, and used them to feed my impetus, ultimately ignoring the ugliness behind them. Instinct proved to be arbitrary. Each echo altered by tweaks or inclinations born of flashes or fused memories, none of which he seized. The bluntness became ritual and ritual became norm.
Walking steadily, silent the entire time, several hours go by before I stopped them for the night. We made camp outside a long familiar dead town. They gathered what dry wood they could without words or thoughts.
We briefly stopped at the old house—what was left of it. A glance at the remains showed very little; stripped of parts, withered in the elements, it collapsed long ago down the hill like a lazy landslide.
I sparked the wood creating a flash and the fire burned to a warm harsh glow blunting reflections around the dirty smog. I saw the awe and felt the unasked questions leap at me wrapped in condemnation and apprehension. Who knew creating fire in the 21st century would bring such sanctimonious disapproval.
I excused myself to step outside the circle of light to reconnect with control. Opening a gate on my armband, the air in front of me undulated black matte. I walked through emerging in command. Two synthetics stood waiting for my report. Their black bodies covered in indigo blue uniforms merged into the flat black helm of the ship. Dancing pale pink, orange, and blue lights bounced off their eyes as they shuffled them back and forth in the air: words and symbols. Translations reached my brain. Since they were not aimed at me, I waited for them to complete their scan.
This plan sucks, I told them. Your doubts have been noted, they replied. This won’t work. Haven’t we proven that yet. A terse no was their answer. I continued to challenge them: How do you know it will work without the context? I was skeptical of anything and everything. This will provide insight into our hypotheses, Tinta stated cryptically. You break the laws of physics on a daily basis and you can’t do… I trailed off. They stopped what they were doing and looked at me. Their silence armed and intimidating, I swallowed realizing I offended them. I tried to lighten the mood: Too disingenuous, I suggested aiming it at them but also mocking my own inability to come to terms with this little experiment. They said nothing still staring. I sighed and told them I understood. Glancing around command: Where’s Niko, I asked.
The pale greys and whites of dim light from the arena-like display lent to an ambient glow over her face as her body moved slowly reminiscent of tai chi, but far more… poignant. Her body—as tall and athletic as she was—seemed small against the backdrop of the planet. No longer blue, it looked like a grungy grey soccer ball with enormous swaths of dull white swirls. The large blue marble was no more. In its place was this broken hole of a planet wasting away as what people were left, fleeting, crawled across it defeated and abandoned.
I shook off bleak thoughts and focused on the woman in front me. Flexible and elegant, she was currently as graceful as a ballet dancer for someone one hundred fifty-some years old. The body I now occupied—born off the 3D biological printing production line by a fortnight—was altered and definitely not as irrefutable as hers, but then I’ve seen her sublimely human—wasted and blundering from one philosophical thought to another like a stoned adolescent. Regardless, this consciousness was old, old, old. And tired. Age was relative though in this universe and a fortnight wasn’t really a fortnight, was it?
This time feels different, I told her. She continued to move. Nanite adjustment, she replied. A sweeping arch of her body and hands towards the immense window and a final flourish to a breathless stop. I expect this will be the last trip. I laughed sarcastically at that. You said that last time. I paused for a deep breath then continued. Are they worthy of your sacrifice, I asked her.
The long silent stare between crackled with emptiness. She was remarkably sober presently; regardless, picking her mind came naturally to me. I realized that the question was callous and obtuse. No, but neither are you, she replied as blandly as she could. I laughed at her apathy. You are the catalyst in this realm. I defer to you and your team’s tactical brilliance. I am merely a pawn. A mediocre one at that, I told her. My gang was even worse. I didn’t say it; she heard it though.
As taciturn as usual: Yes. She stood still for a beat before continuing. This isn’t about you or them… or me. It’s about… history. It’s about… survival. It’s about… humanity. Empathy. She began again with those movements, so fluid and alluring. The highlights from the planet emphasized her dark skin and sharp edges. History is not linear. It is cyclical. It rhymes, she breathes in and out parroting the same phrase she had previously.
Couldn’t virtual reality do what you’re doing or wanting to do, I asked her. She said nothing, such words blasphemy to her cause, and continued with her moves. Was this penance as much as it was a lesson? Our punishment and hers as well? Her entertainment was our misery? Pain stalked her; history challenged her; she was a scientist that violated rules; an outcast; an addict that had broken time’s boundaries and swam against the current. This I gleaned from one of our many altered philosophical confabulations.
I didn’t want to go back and sleep on the ground. I knew she wouldn’t let me stay. I asked anyway: Can I…No, she affirmed before I finished.
I left after a long sigh of irritation and an inarticulate fuss that she ignored while continuing to do her thing. I returned back through the gate and made my way towards the campfire. Faint steady breathing from the men indicated they slept. Nat, awake, stared into the flames. I sat across the fire from her arranging my pack as a back pillow trying to get comfortable and cursing Niko and her arbitrary rules.
I wasn’t sleepy. Nat wasn’t either.
I experienced death. I felt my body blown apart, she revealed, her voice soft and settled. Vacant, her face highlighted in the flare of the fire, Natalie, haunted by the past, lived in that memory over and over again. It wasn’t the death of her husband or four sons as she wasn’t with them when they perished; it was her own demise. Seared into her memory like a scar: the flash of fire, the pinch of heat, the scent of burning flesh, the tearing of skin and muscle and bone as the blast ripped her apart, then nothing; blackness. Repeatedly, in slow motion, she floundered in that memory like a fish out of water gasping for breath. I could pull her from it, but that would do her a disservice. She needed to find her own way out. I couldn’t help her. Okay, maybe I could help her. Did I wanna? I wanted to call her selfish. I wanted her to wallow in it, obsess over it. I wanted to hate her. Since that fateful day so long ago long before the war, I really, really wanted to hate her. Alas, my compassion rose from the ashes of this barren land like a phoenix and planted itself in front of me. I grumbled incoherently at it, then sent a blast of mercy towards her.
Don’t obsess on it. It only makes it worse, I told her. That dead-eyed vacant stare leveled on me and I sighed. Focus on something else. Replace the memories with a good memory. Even if it’s a fake memory. That’s how you’ll survive. I don’t want to survive. I want to die. I was dead. Till you, she accused.
The anger in her tone caused me to chuckle. I felt nothing in response, but humor—a dark rambling exhausted humor. I wasted all the rage years ago. Along with the hurt. Both dried up, like my desiccated corpse somewhere rotting and long forgotten on this disintegrating heap. Now, there was only indifference. For her, for the rest of the family—and those like them. They no longer made my blood blister with antagonism. They were just sad and flustered and unawares, almost absurdly so. Always avoiding instead of confronting. Even now. I rolled over and went to sleep.
© 2018-2019 Pamela Gay Mullins