By Todd Easton Mills
A deeply tanned young man in a captain’s hat looked irritated: “That’s not how it works. Not everything can be turned into a yacht. You want a nice boat, get me some steel. My drones can pick it up. What’s that? A windmill? Now you’re talking? How many can you get?”
“I’m here to pick up my boat,” I said, interrupting. “Where’s Harry?”
“Roger, right? I need thirty more minutes for the varnish to dry.”
On the wall-screen an age-reversed surfer was explaining the danger of drowning and being dragged out to sea by a riptide. “If I drown out there, I’m dead if my body isn’t revived in nine hours—”
Ten minutes later a tone rang. “It’s ready.”
“That was fast,” I said.
“My motto is over-deliver, under-promise. Let’s see—the bill comes to two hundred ten thousand credits.”
“Harry said one hundred fifty thousand.”
“Sorry, those decks were a bear. We had to bring on an extra bot. Everyone wants what you have. Solid wood decks. Tongue in groove. Where did you find that beautiful wood?”
“What are you going to call her?”
In San Diego people believe the Weather Bureau is seeding the sunsets. Every night they sequence a different color. That night it was lipstick orange with golden horsetails and something that made the sun sparkle for a moment before it sunk into the ocean.
John and Aryana lived on the twenty-first floor of the Marina 9 Building. The guests were on the balcony. Aryana greeted me with a kiss on both cheeks. I paused to admire the long, wooden dining room table in the middle of the Great Room.
John was holding a martini glass. “Help yourself, Roger. That’s real liquor.”
It was crowded even though CONFIGURE had extended the balcony for the guests. I grabbed a metal shaker and announced: “Vodka martini, olives up,” and waited. Nothing happened.
“Some things are still old school,” said John, handing me a bottle of Grey Goose.
I hung out on the balcony until it got chilly. Inside a group of people were talking about John’s recent work. In a lighted recess stood a bronze reminiscent of Henry Moore’s faceless Reclining Nude. It had been combined with the giant hands from Rodin’s Burghers of Calais.
“I love it, Aryana. It looks like a mermaid. Are the hands meant to be flippers?” I said.
“Hands across the ocean,” she said.
“Hands across the sea,” I said, acknowledging the reference.
Aryana had long, black hair and was dressed in a translucent bodysuit. “My new collection of children’s stories is coming out next week. I’m very excited about it. Kansas City is publishing it.”
“The biggest publishing house in the business,” said Billy Barty.
“How has John been?” I asked.
“Not good. He’s been depressed for a long time.”
“He puts on a good face.”
John stepped forward. “I heard that remark. It’s true, I’m not happy. I haven’t been for years. My talent is no longer needed!”
“You’re too hard on yourself,” said Aryana.
“Even if you’re right, Aryana, I’m afraid I’ve become lazy. A sculptor merely needs to be a lucid dreamer. AI transforms my nightmares into works of art. I dream and a little maquette appears on my bedside table.”
Aryana laughed. “John has sexy dreams. Museums around the world collect his bronzes. Have you seen the Secret of Life series?”
“What is the secret of life, John?” I asked.
Aryana answered for him: “That lovers bite.”
“And tear each other apart,” said John. “She’s referring to what I learned in Bhutan. I was shown a room Westerners are not allowed to see. My rimpoche said he thought I would understand the figures.”
“When John was in Bhutan, it was a hermetic kingdom. They love sex,” Aryana giggled.
On the screen John’s bronzes were animating, moving slowly at first. On a pedestal stood a tall, well-built male figure with sideburns and curly hair combed back. A female stood on a pedestal beside him. She was pale, slender, wearing a transparent tunic. He grabbed her by the neck and pulled her tight, testing her strength. Then, ripping off her tunic, he scratched a deep line into her back with the fingernail of his middle finger sharpened to a point. Blood ran in slow motion. She struggled, biting his face, his lip, under his eye and neck. He pushed her down and bent her over. Slowly other figures on pedestals began to move…men with fierce erections, women masturbating themselves. The scene dissolved and a pack of hyenas chased down a male lion, ripping the king’s flesh, strip by strip…scorpions poured out of a hole of a spiny desert tree…cut to the rape…cut to flying saucer with aliens showing their cocks through silver portholes.
“It’s a living,” said John.
“Except no one needs to work,” said Barty. “Universal income makes everyone rich.”
“And everyone’s worthless,” said John.
“It’s true,” said Aryana. “AI writes better than I do. It reproduces my style perfectly. It creates such lovely scenes. Children love my new work.”
“Who does the illustrations?” I asked.
“I do…well, the black-and-white monochromes. AI does the coloring, backgrounds, formats the text.” Her eyes looked tired.
“Roger, do you still grow Floribunda?” asked Billy Barty, who liked to show off his recently acquired erudition.
“My Jerusalem Roses—not for many years. I don’t have time for it. I have been learning to sail. I’ve taken navigation classes.”
“John told us about the bowling alley,” said Barty. “Strange choice.”
“It’s hard to find real wood these days,” I said. “I found the lanes at a wrecking yard. I thought they were laminate—turned out to be hardwood. We used twelve for my upper deck and six for below.”
Barty looked bored. “I wanted to be a sailor but I’m a flibbertigibbet. I got chipped and bought all the apps. I do everything! I’m a Level 7 gymnast…I can do giant swings. Hard to do for a man as tall as I am. I speak ten languages. Oh, I know, everybody does.”
“Not me,” I said.
“Too many enthusiasms,” said Porter. His first career had been as an astronomer. “Do you celestial navigate, Roger? You’re chipped, I assume?”
“I’ve read a few books,” I said.
“Fuck all the geniuses. It means nothing!” said John.
“Don’t be bitter, John,” said Aryana.
“Nothing matters. It just goes on.”
“I matter,” said Aryana. “I’m real.”
“You’re an eighty-year-old who looks twenty-two. How is that real?”
“I’m real because I love you.”
“Look at me, Aryana.” John stripped off his shirt. “Look at my arms, my skin is like paper. Look at my chest—just ribs.”
“You’re scaring everyone, John. Did you know John when he was an actor?”
Barty answered for Roger. “I worked on a show with John years ago.”
“I remember—an art film with freaks,” said Aryana.
“I need another drink,” I said.
“Inside!” said an excited voice. “Hurry!” As the balcony retracted, two stragglers ran inside. I watched as the bar disappeared, leaving a gap in the railing.
In the kitchen Billy Barty was holding court. Three women biologically twenty-something were unimpressed by his wit.
“Canned chatter,” said the first under her breath.
“Boneless sardines,” said the second.
Barty heard the remark and his face turned red. He was losing his audience but had a trick up his sleeve. “Would you like to be fascinated?” he asked.
“You mean FASCINATION the app?” said the first.
“Fascination the ass,” said the second.
“Watch this,” said Barty. He touched the center of his forehead, and the word MIRA appeared in stacked letters under his skin.
“Nice try. But my name is Mithra,” said the first.
“Not according to SILO,” said Barty lamely.
“You checked the wrong bio, funny man.”
“Aren’t we a bunch of hosers?” said Derek, who had been watching.
“Posers I would say,” Aryana laughed.
“Right on the noser,” said the beautiful woman who just arrived. She was dressed in a tight-fitting angora sweater, sprayed stockings, and vicuna-skin boots.
“Is somebody going to close the hole on the balcony? It’s getting windy,” said Mithra.
“Did somebody fart?” John said, looking sour.
A soft tone sounded and dining chairs emerged from the floor.
“It’s cold, John. Can you close the hole?” said Aryana.
“I’ll help you,” I volunteered.
“I will too,” said the young woman in turquoise.
“The hole isn’t closing,” I said.
“Never mind,” said John.
We stood together in the corner. “My name is IM,” she said.
“I’m Roger,” I said.
“Do you like word games?”
“Okay, follow me. I’m IM.”
“Are you IM in the AM?” I ventured.
“I’m IM both AM and PM.”
“A Prime Minister…but only in the morning?”
“Head of State. Head on a stake.”
“I’m a sailor I am,” I said.
“Nice to meet you, Popeye!”
Aryana came over. “Are you two having fun? Dinner is about to start. There’re two places at the foot of the table. Would you like another drink, Roger?”
IM didn’t touch her food. Through the hole of the balcony, I could see a rose sky. Just before the sun disappeared, there was a green flash.
“Did you see it?” asked IM.
“The Green Moment. You see it when you are sailing.” I folded my napkin in my lap. “John is about to toast.”
John’s gray ponytail was striking—he was the only man at the party who wasn’t age-reversed. He looked around to see if everyone had come:
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there… I do not sleep.
I am the thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond glints on snow.
The guests applauded: “Hear, hear!”
“Soppy,” said Barty.
I devoured my roasted guinea pig and wanted more. It was rare for me to eat real meat. “John doesn’t look good. I haven’t seen him like this.”
“He’s been sick for a long time.”
“Are you his nurse?”
“His nurse, his assistant.”
“I haven’t seen John for months. We were very close.”
“I know. He talks about you. Tell me about your boat?”
“It’s a three-master, twenty-five meters. Replicated here. Composites from a big windmill in Palm Springs…and the deck is from a bowling alley I acquired.”
“You tilt windmills, Don Quixote. Ingenious gentleman.”
“Please stop. Let’s just talk. How do you know about my boat?”
“I saw you dock.”
“From all the way up here?”
“It’s a big boat.”
“Not really. You’re not eating. Try the cuy. It’s from Peru. They’re famous for their spices.”
“Lima is the capital.”
“Of Peru. I would like to sail there,” she said.
“You haven’t touched your salad.”
“I’m not hungry.”
I ate another cuy. I closed my eyes to savor it.
“Gone,” she said.
“Amazingly good,” I said.
“You were blissed out.”
“I have a young body and an old brain. Food is a great pleasure.”
“I like reading,” she said.
“What do you read?”
“I read everything,” she said.
“I retired from teaching sixty-four years ago. After that I tried immersing.”
“I guess so.”
“I tried Buccaneers, do you know it? I wanted to be a pirate. I didn’t know it was so brutal. You need to kill Englishmen and rape women to end the game. Some people get stuck for hundreds of years.”
“Syn years,” I said.
“They feel real.”
“I had to stop immersing. I went cold turkey. It hollows you out.”
“Just like John,” she said.
“When I met John he was living as a natural and had decided not to fight his illness. When did you meet them?”
“At a costume party. I design clothing. I made the hats for this party. The wizard hat that John is wearing and the fez on Billy Barty. I made my outfit. Do you like it?”
There was another tone. “Stand back while the room is reassembling.”
“John likes things his way,” I said. “He indulges his obsessions. He’s stubborn, unbalanced. He’s been going full bore for eighty-seven years.”
“I help him. Whatever he wants, I do.”
John was relaxing on the blue velvet divan. His smoking jacket was a classic design, made by a tailor before replicator clothing came in. IM brought his slippers, Aryana his drink. Images appeared of John as a young man, his poet father, graduation at Trinity College, clips of John on stage, a video of a fight he had with Aryana and violent sex to make up. On a small, round table was John’s martini and gun. He picked up the glass and drank it halfway down.
“Enough!” he said. “The rest goes here!” He poured it on the floor. Then he raised the gun to his head.
I jumped up. “Stop him! Not like this, John.”
John grinned with yellow teeth.
“Let him be,” said IM, raising her voice. She put her hand on my shoulder. “It’s what he wants. Let him do it. He wants to show how easy it is.”
“No, John!” I shouted.
IM’s hand gripped me hard. I tried to pull away. Her eyes turned dark. John pulled the trigger and the bullet went through his head and pierced the screen. An image of Rodin’s Thinker appeared, bleeding from the head. Flames rushed up, trees caught on fire, and cars burned in the parking lot. When the fire died down, the Thinker’s head had melted off.
Somebody yelled: “John killed himself!”
“I loaded the pistol,” said IM. Tears were in her eyes.
“The police are going to come. They will have questions about the gun,” I said.
“Look at the guests,” said IM.
They stood in shock around the divan and now moved silently, as if directed, to the foreshortened balcony. On the screen was Rodin’s masterpiece The Burghers of Calais. Six men condemned to beheading by the king: one resolved, one brave, one holding his head in his hands, one argumentative, one gesturing to the sky.
“Who do you think—” she said.
“I’m sorry, IM, not now.”
“Who do you think will go next?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I think Derek will be next. Not Mirtha, not Porter. I think it will be Derek, he’s clinically depressed.”
“The police will be here soon,” I said.
“Roger, do you have something to live for?”
“I don’t know. I want to sail my boat. After that—”
“Rough seas make you feel alive,” she said. “I want that too. I’ll be your first mate. You need crew. I know how to tack against the wind. Trim the sails, ease the backstay.”
I saw John’s brains on the sofa. I couldn’t think.
“John wanted me to go with you.” Her eyes didn’t blink. “Look! Derek is getting up. He’s walking to the opening. Mithra is behind him. Aryana, Porter, then Billy Barty.”
“Billy Barty looks smaller for someone so tall,” I said.
“He’s stooping. It happens when you fear death.”
“How do you know so much about everything?”
“Never ask a girl that,” she laughed. “Hello, Popeye. I’m IM, I am.”
About the author: Todd Easton Mills is a short story writer and futurist. He co-wrote the critically acclaimed film Timothy Leary’s Dead. His work has appeared in Alabama Literary Review, Caveat Lector, Evening Street Review, Euphony, Rougarou, Entropy Magazine, Fogged Clarity, The Alembic, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Griffin, The Legendary, ONTHEBUS, Voices, The Coe Review, Yellow Silk, AUSB Odyssey, Sage Trail, riverSedge, OxMag, Collage, Forge Antiochracy, Jet Fuel Review, New Plains Review, The Nonconformist Magazine, Crack the Spine, Storgy, Serving House Journal, Barely South Review, Santa Monica Review, The Penmen Review, Voices de la Luna, and in the anthology Poets on 9-11
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