The ultimate meal replacement - not in the sense of the perfect, but the last - was called Soyl. The first replacement to be nutritionally viable by itself for an indefinite period of time, if it had been closer to the former it would have made the entire history of human nutrition obsolete, but as it was Soyl was the limit of indignity that could be visited, even in those days, on a proletariat reduced to all but legal inhumanity. Where it was introduced in SEZs, refugee camps, slave compounds, prisons, there would inevitably be riots. It looked and tasted like shit - a rich, Earthy brown that led to its initial marketing as a healthy, New Age alternative to chemical slop like Protoplazm. The campaign, with its shady hedging on how exactly a compound never before seen in nature could be “natural” and “organic”, only reinforced suspicions about what was being repackaged. A high-minded TED Talk about “balancing the human food cycle” and “species self-sufficiency” didn’t sound so good when people couldn’t tell the difference between what was coming in and going out.
As for me, I never believed anything said in a TED Talk on principle, and had been pissbottling and poopsocking long enough to have almost no barriers around the scatological anyway. Not that I liked the stuff, but I could always keep my attention on something else while I downed it. The feeling of clogging my throat, the scent loitering in the back of my nostrils were no worse than another weird headache that felt like the skin of my forehead crawling, numb tingling in the ankle I’d left under my thigh for an hour, something rotting very slowly in the fridge of my body. All of which I felt less when I drank Soyl, for what it was worth.
Let it be known that fear of discomfort has nothing to do with why I never left that basement for thirty years.
When I shut myself in, the “rat race” of my parents’ generation had become a death match, brother against brother. The fact that I didn’t have any brothers - not even the high school pot corner acquaintances who let me stay in their basement as long as I paid for my own ‘food’ and pitched in on utilities - did nothing to change my discomfort with presenting myself for existential judgment against others. Wait, I said it wasn’t ‘discomfort’. Hmmm. There was also the question of physical security. ‘Terrorist’ was one of the best jobs going, and every religion and fandom had their own. The first tactical nukes had just been deployed against strikers and rioters. It was the part of “Climate Change 1.0” with the vampire bats.
I didn’t have anywhere to put one of the ‘lifetime supply kits’ Soyl was offering to survivalists but I wasn’t sure I wanted to live that long anyway. I could tell where things were going, there was certainly nothing left to kill for, so I dumped my college savings into a weekly subscription, understanding that when Soyl or the banking system or the electric collapsed, I would peacefully wither away, like something I hadn’t bothered to pick up around the room.
The delivery drones didn’t stop coming for forty years.
Eventually, as I had expected, I lost my internet connection. It came back on a few times, then went for good. The enormous library of games I’d downloaded after the first time lasted five years longer than I’d expected. Some of them I replayed dozens of times, but others I didn’t have the will to play through again. I resorted to my folder of classics of world literature. By candlelight or , through which I could see more and more animals, I wrote.
When I ran out of paper, I tore the wallpaper down in strips.
That was a desperation I had never expected. At that point I started wondering - if not now, when? Living in such an enclosed space and routine - even the window another screen, projecting dream-images within a single frame - felt like living in a cavity of a body or a compartment of a mind (that was mine but not my own). The spinal cramp I was developing, the leak breaking through the ceiling, the foot rotting in several places, the solar generator juddering, the dreams all felt like a single process of decay, and in some sense were. Only the characters I wrote were outside that world.
And then, when I could no longer rely on simple, natural processes to bring my death any more, it intervened abruptly.
I woke up and went to the delivery slot where the drones deposited my regular pack of Soyl.
There was nothing there.
If another came, it would be in a week.
And I was weak.
I estimated I had seventy pages or so to go on my latest novel, and ten pages a day was nothing, although I had trouble staying focused when I was even normally hungry or tired. I considered trying to finish it all in one sitting, using all my energy in one last burst. But that would mean ending my life cutting my story short - and I wouldn’t have cared if it didn’t now seem so deliberate.
It would have felt like the kind of death I had been trying to avoid in the first place.
And I hadn’t been scared of anything except death in so long…
The sky was a sickly yellow, but maybe that was just in comparison to the perfect almost-teal blues in visual novels. The trees in their tiny plots on the outside of the sidewalk had spread huge, dark-armoured and tropical, splitting low down their trunks into long dark limbs angled as if in mid-turn, carrying platters of leaves, like Tilt-A-Whirls. Two wild turkeys ran across the street, which was more a river of gravel, and bright white-flowered weeds (packed with conspicuous red flowers I had never seen in my life, my dreams, or even my novels). Half the houses had been wrecked by trees. Yet surprisingly, there was still a car parked several doors down the street. Something had been painted on it.
The horizon had become lacy with smaller trees, little fans for King Sun, growing from rooftops - spaced further apart than I would have suspected. But in the rightmost corner of my vision rose a dense cluster of spikes, three or four times the height of the tallest trees if I was judging their distance correctly. Scanning backwards from the startling array I noticed more of these pinnacles.
The houses were all so obviously empty I didn’t think to look for food in them, although I glanced through one window to see if there might be any miraculously preserved paper. The texture of the dark, with shafts of thin white light piercing it from two, three storeys above, hinting at the extent of pustules grey mushrooms and mold, was viscerally repulsive. My wrist swept a broken eggshell off the windowsill. The way black dirt got between strips of decaying paint, that was how everything got everywhere in there. Not dry enough to be sand, not wet enough to be soil; not dry enough to be a hollow, not wet enough to be a cave. Roots crossing over each other and around the room like wires in a closet.
Only the car looked like it had been used in the last twenty years. It didn’t have anything growing through it except sunlight.
It had been repainted several times, its hood now totally garish even under the symbols. Physically modified, too - it was tethered to the house with a long black rope attached to a pair of metal rings welded to the front.
The designs seemed to derive something from those forms of lettering that had been consistently recognizable as graffiti since the 1980s. If so, in thirty years twice as much stylistic evolution must have taken place as in the previous sixty to get to what I was looking at now. Some of the block-letters had incorporated the outward branching ornamentation I associated with metal band logos, and sometimes a formicating inward variant, or a more curvilinear sensibility.
How could anyone still use a car in a world like this? Of course I had seen Mad Max, but the difference between that arid world and this green one seemed relevant. Not just space to move around - the roads, however gravelly and brushy, were still there - but space in which they seemed appropriate.
But the strangest thing about it was the hood.
It was raised. So were two of the doors, like the ones on fancy cars I’d seen in rap videos, though they were geometrically blocky and clearly not meant to open this way. The underside of the hood had been decorated with a mosaic of reflective coloured glass. I was struck by the more-satirical-than-dreamlike quality of what appeared to be a corny public art project standing alone in a depopulated wasteland. I looked under the hood in the desperate hope that it might be drivable (had my housemates stockpiled gas? where would I go?), found cushioned reclining seats.
Something was laid across them, like a sleeping bag or… supplies? (I still couldn’t see well.) I reached out to touch it -
It lashed out and I jerked aside, almost falling over, stumbling several steps to the side as it pulled itself out of its rest position and drew itself up. First I thought ‘trap’ and then I thought ‘nightmare’. A kind of furry snake with a face like a dog, a body as thick around as my own (which wasn’t as thick as it had used to be). As soon as its eyes steadied on me I gave up running. This was the answer to my question of to be or not to be.
Until it exploded. Bronze-coloured and light-green stars spun past and towards my head. Bloody strips fell tangled with blue-green flame. Smoke hissing like a naked wire quickly drowned out by laughter.
“I thought you put repellent in the car!”
The word ‘repellent’ doused my hope that I had been transported to a fantasy world.
Though the humans perched in a window, jumping down to a branch across the street, wouldn’t have looked too out of place in one.
They always just seemed to speak the language the main character knew in fantasy worlds written by people tight for time. As for my own, I had all the time in the world, so I had invented a whole language and made my main character learn it from scratch.
They were young. Some clearly couldn’t have been older than their early teens, clustered behind the one who had shot the fireworks (from a kind of crossbow), a black man with dreadlocks the colours of a gas spill and a keffiyeh wrapped around his forehead. They were all beautiful: I could see almost everyone’s upper bodies, even the girls’, either bare or beneath transparent plastic ponchos. Some were wearing clothing I recognized underneath, others plastic or rubber or leather hot pants decorated with elaborate multicolour mosaics of similar materials, ventilated with tiny holes. Two or three of them, including the leader, had aluminum wings rising from behind their shoulders.
I remembered I was naked and had been for the past several years.
“I thought there was nobody around here.” The hero (the man with the crossbow; the word I hung on him desperately as I felt the worlds of imagination I had lived for blasted to fine sand by one scene) started, and his entourage allowed themselves to laugh in startled glee.
“I haven’t been… to the surface…”
“He is paler than a twelfth storey thot,” one of them marvelled. “He ain’t a leatherback.”
“What, you a moleman?”
“I’m from… the Hollow Earth…” The best novel I had ever written had a Hollow Earth setting. When I’d had the idea I had dreamed of starting a whole wave, reviving the century-dead genre of subterranean fiction. I had waited too long, but couldn’t possibly have done it justice then. I had finished it fifteen years when, and no one was reading any more. I had become far more confident in ranking my own work since I had stopped writing for an audience.
“Yo, moleman looks hungry.”
A skinny kid, white-pale and freckled but with African features and a long delicate scar from his forehead to the shadow of his let eye approached hesitantly and broke off half of a bundle of quinoa glued together with a sticky red-gold sauce I didn’t recognize, wrapped in what looked like a strangely veinless leaf. I bit in and tasted red pepper and bare slivers of chicken inside.
A back tooth crumbled instantly into the abyss, but I had chewed on enough things out of habit that my jaws still knew the feel of solid matter and how to manipulate it.
He wasn’t the most interested in me, or the most sympathetic. That was a pudgy tweenage child wearing something under their plastic not unlike Madonna’s metal bra. (One year, when the internet had still been running reliably, I had spent learning almost the entire history of capitalist pop culture to its origins in dime novels and broadsides.) “Where are we going?” I asked as she beckoned me into the trunk of the car (she and two skinny friends with ball-joint hips sat on the top of the interior flap) with a handful of grasses dipped in a sauce. In the trunk I found a kind of vest that didn’t really fit me but I put on to feel like I had tried; I didn’t touch the discarded bracelets. I felt like a Disney duck with no pants.
They reached back over to me as they hitched animals like reptilian horses to the front of the vehicle, and over and over again, one blade at a time, grinning so inexplicably cruelly I wondered if she noticed it, and poking at a scab on the rim of her ear. They asked if I knew where I was, and when I hesitated, cycling through definitions, they asked again in Spanish.
They asked again in French.
I, who had learned languages out of interest, not necessity, responded in Occitan.
They asked again in Italian.
I bullshat in Latin.
They said something in what sounded like Greek and I started to suspect they were onto my game.
I came back with Elvish.
They actually knew goddamn Elvish but asked the question again as if they hadn’t understood the first time.
I started waxing poetic in my own invented Hollow Earth language, and some of the original vocables stunned her to silence. I quickly followed.
“I can’t believe the rumours about new languages are actually true,” they groaned. “I was personally betting on the one about the Statue of Liberty being stolen by pirates before that.”
“What do you… bet with?” I had so many questions about whatever society had arisen on the surface (I thought of it as the surface? was I really a moleman?) I couldn’t put in order, I let just any random impulse determine where to start.
“Like I’m just gonna show you what to steal.”
“You don’t have… to show me. Tell me… what it’s called.”
“You take so long to say things,” she marvelled.
“My room… is it gonna die alone back there?”
“Your room’s a person?”
“Lanyi don’t listen to him he’s probably some cultist,” the hero growled. His voice had an edge of more personal concern; the two of them looked similar, carried themselves similarly, though the child’s skin was about half as dark.
“I’m a writer…” I smushed.
“If he says some crazy thing you just wanna believe because it’s cool, the next one will say some other crazy thing you’ll just wanna believe because it’s cool, and eventually you’ll believe a whole bunch of shit that’ll overlap and contradict each other and none of it will be cool any more it’ll just be stupid. He didn’t speak a language he was speaking in tongues.”
“Don’t that just mean languages?” they shot back.
“It means nonsense.”
“He knew as many as me.” “
“That… wasn’t nonsense… Just because you don’t want to learn!…”
“We’ve heard it all before,” someone I didn’t care to identify laughed. “There’s gonna be food where we’re going. So much food. Just shut up and wait for the food.”
“And don’t eat my lil bro while you wait!” the hero growled.
“At least you guys… still speak English…” Why was I surprised by this? It had only been 50 years. The language I had grown up with was roughly the same as the language 150 ago. Just because the rest of the world was so different? How different was it…?
Trails of smoke crossed the sky in the sliver of back window, lower and greyer than chemtrails.
Wooden walkways dangled between roofs.
The ostentatious corporate headquarters that as far as I knew had never been used to full capacity was our destination, now known as Lazytown. Its fantastic undulating facade, in that New Materialist style resembling solid CG that had become popular among the rich while I was alive, had largely been stripped of plastic and lighter metals, leaving an angelic skeleton transfixed by spears. The spears, the same ones I had seen on the skyline, were lightning rods. Spread throughout the city as well as concentrated on its tallest building, they were laid out according to a probabilistic pattern to catch as much as 90% of lightning that fell within the city limits (that year’s quota, currently on track, was 92%). Rainwater was also collected in vast quantities from retractable plastic covers extended over streets when the storms came (explaining the lack of plant life there), except where buildings had been levelled and overflowing forests seeded as carbon sinks and reserves for the wild Lamarcklings. Those were what the thing that had attacked me had been a breed of: ‘the all-purpose animal’, Lamarcklings had eliminated the need to copy exclusive and closely guarded genetic formulae by being extremely susceptible to controlled developmental factors. And, of course, uncontrolled ones, which was the reason they had been completely illegal and no one had dared to apply the same principle to humans.
“They haven’t been exterminated. No one here to do that anymore,” the old man next to me on the balcony grumbled. “They are the Locusts described in Revelation. Don’t let Lazytown fool you, we are still doomed.”
He wasn’t even that old. He was about my age, my generation. He dressed older, presumably by way of the influence of the people he was living with - almost everyone I had seen since they had left me here, ranging from two or three decades younger than me to on death’s door. I guess that's most of this complex, and especially of the still-inhabited houses with clambering wood-plaster-sheetmetal additions (the gently sloping roofs and sliding doors and piles of potted plants unmistakably South Korean, model of some of the world’s most liveable slums) or hitched trailers (the sunset colours of their gentle dappling of rust augmented with strange pointillist spray paint that gave the effect of light falling through the tree cover from several different-coloured suns).
But our three or four floors were equally bland and quiet, unfrequented by the squawking dinosaurs and messenger-birds. Technically, they were all the ‘Relocation Centre’.
“How long have you been here?”
“Do they still write Awakening novels?”
He grunted. “Haven’t heard of one in thirty years. Sure some guys still do, but don’t show em to anybody. But I don’t know the black market argots. I was just a farmer until my farm got collectivized by these fuckers.”
“I feel like I’m in one.”
The last, and according to online critics desperate to believe they weren’t amateurs, greatest of the literal-escapist web novel genres like isekai and reincarnation, was Awakening.
A retooling of the Rip Van Winkle narrative structure (while they all had their international followings, if isekai was distinctly Japanese and reincarnation essentially Chinese, Awakening was paradigmatically American), its heroes fell into comas, or were cryogenically frozen, or biochemically slowed down in experiments with exotic states of matter, or cursed to sleep by witches and awakened in the far future. I had never been a fan of the genre myself. As a worldbuilding otaku, I considered it creative laziness, abdication of the divine prerogative of the sub-creator (Tolkien!), to even start with existing cultures, histories, languages, laws of physics. More importantly, the simplistic, often politicized ways people extrapolated from the present made their worlds harder to believe, even on the off chance you agreed with their politics. My favourites were the ones indistinguishable from isekai, where the protagonist wakes up four thousand years later after an asteroid impact resonated with Earth’s subtle energy field and gave everyone magic powers, where no-one (not even, by my late period, the author) speaks English.
“It’s been like that for us too,” the old man reflected. “Most of us had been living day to day, hand to mouth, with no idea Lazytown existed or why our kids were coming home wearing all this recycled plastic.”
“They… recruit kids?”
“Got mine. Can’t even let em run two acres from your farm now without running into some patrol. They’d all got talking to some patrol and decided they wanted the farm to become part of this collective, and because they outvote me the guys from here came and dragged me up here because I wouldn’t go off and start somewhere else. Can’t even beat em any more. The kids, I mean. Did you hear, there’s a crazy guy up there, called Battery, wants to send patrols to chase you out of the city if your kid tells a patrol you hit em. I was just hoping things could just go back to nature. Just be natural again. Natural authority, all that shit.”
“I guess that wouldn’t have been so bad.”
“They do things backwards. Make adults obey kids. I got dragged up for weeks to teach Polish to Battery’s little brother. That brat needed a beating if anybody.”
“Brat, are you talking about…” it took me almost a minute to remember their name, I had always been bad at that. “Lanyi?”
“I don’t remember. I wiped his name from my memory. Like I should have the entire Polish language, but I can’t betray my ancestors. Jeszcze Polska nie Zginela.”
“The fattish kid who wears the Madonna thing?” I had never been able to determine their actual gender. “The one who brought me in, remember?”
“I wasn’t there when you were brought in, but there’s only one kid who’s learned every language that’s been spoken in the city in living memory, and it’s the one with the brother with the clout to rope people into teaching him. Evil name, Battery. I’ll never know my proper appointed death now. Evil as his namesake. I’ll never gamble on the Mercy of Nature again.”
He sounded like he probably belonged to the so-called ‘Gen Xtinction’, i.e. my generation, but I had withdrawn myself just before they outright started telling us to die off. I was tempted to needle him, find out if he’d stayed online long enough to see the leaks revealing how our Mute Prophet had been working for the system all along - a starving art student paid by mega-viral-advertisers Sleepy Red, themselves on a multimillion-dollar contract from an anonymous shell corporation.
“Mm-hmm, I read quite a few novels about that. Did you ever wear the horns of your biggest catch to show your prowess as a hunter and give girls rides on them, like in Forest Lord Herne?”
He gave me an utterly blank look. I remembered why I had given up not only on finding a job, but on leaving the house or even talking to its other inhabitants face to face.
I laughed artificially and tried another one: “When you crossed into another farming tribe’s territory, did the youngest marriageable daughter bathe you and extract a sample of your sperm so the witch doctors could judge whether you were fertile enough to marry one of their old maids?”
He stood up. “The Pretty Boy From The Bottom of the Lake?” I thought any guy my age would have read some of this stuff. Desperately, I pointed off the balcony. “What’s that?” I asked. The multicoloured smoke crawled further into view.
“They’re cloudmaking, up on the balconies. What they do whenever there’s a nice breeze.”
I sprang to my heels which cracked and the pain in my back was a pleasure, a signal. I ran. Elders of my age and younger shook their heads. I wanted to know what kind of life they had lived as farmers and hunter-gatherers - why hadn’t I just asked? I berated myself, why did I always feel like if I had to just ask I might as well not ask at all? - but it had certainly been a life, in a way mine hadn’t. I had learned, changed, maybe as one would on a psychedelic or shamanic trip, something deeper and stranger than aging, but not aged in that room. I didn’t belong with the old. I didn’t belong with the young, either, but they wanted what I wanted - civilization.
In the stairs I asked a person with straight yellow dyed hair, long and angular in the front, who was playing with a cat’s cradle, if they knew what floor the clouds were coming from. They said they thought it was the twenty-second, the same one I’d been dragged along with the scouts up to before they’d decided what to do with me.
My talkativeness in the car hadn’t simply been delirium. I hadn’t talked to anyone in so long that I no longer remembered the emotions that had built up for years and years around it. In fact, I had forgotten how to speak. When I opened my mouth I was writing dialogue. It wasn’t very good dialogue. When I wrote I could sit on it as long as I wanted, and edit afterwards; this was made up on the spot, and I wasn’t a freewriter. Nonetheless, there was a difference between free writing and talking. And I would never be able to talk again. I hadn’t reached this conclusion without regret. Even in my awkward youth, there had seemed to be a more predictable connection between my words and others’ reactions when I talked. I was used to writing dialogue knowing the other characters’ reactions already. Of course, they had to be complex and unpredictable and yet self-consistent! No-one I had ever read had embraced this ethos as far as I had, so I knew its limits. I knew they were hard, informational. I had concluded - yes, I had concluded and forgotten, twenty years ago! The green light through the skylight had given me the most distinct sense of travelling through the underworld -
“Am I allowed to go up there?”
I’d encountered this type of response in novels a million times before. There were three things it meant.
“Is that question… it’s obvious and nobody would ask weird, or nobody would ask that type of question weird, or you don’t understand one of the words?”
“You’re allowed, if they let you. People from down here don’t go up a lot.”
“…what …floor is this?”
“No way… I overshot by that much…”
“…yeah, even if you’re not looking at your feet, it should be hard to overshoot a number you can count on your hands.”
“I’m not using my hands for counting.” She held up the carefully constructed string figure.
I swallowed back the one about the ninja clan with the steel wire cat’s cradle-based jutsu that can also be used for bondage. “Isn’t it dangerous to be waking up and down all these stairs without your hands free?”
“Even more with my eyes occupied.” She broke eye contact with me. I noticed the large bubble-wrapped stone knife on her hip. “Why do you keep lecturing me, old man, and why is it such weird advice?”
Shit, she just lampshaded me… “Well, it’s no big deal if you don’t make eye contact. I prefer to talk without doing that actually.”
“What’s your name?”
“Alex. Hey, are there any people my age up there, like, doing things, or… ?”
“Huh? A few, I think, but that depends on the things you like doing.”
“Mostly writing, but I’ve been doing that nonstop for the last thirty years, so I kinda wanna just watch people and get ideas…” had watching people ever given me any ideas? It had been something I did a lot in high school, before becoming a shut-in, but mostly I’d do it instead of writing. Spending time in the cramped basement gaming salons we had instead of cafes, telling people I was ‘people watching’ if they asked why I wasn’t talking to anyone, could be more addictive than web novels or VNs. But when there was an interaction I’d want to put in something, I would always find myself missing some information crucial to how to use it. Where did it fit structurally in its larger story? What parameters had to be met, for it to be believable? How had the characters been introduced? How did they really feel about it? You couldn’t just observe without going through any of the other stages of asking questions, forming a hypothesis, testing. How did you even ask questions? That was where I should have started. That was where my protagonists always started. Reviewers noticed that my stories were always full of situations that weren’t what they seemed to be at first glance, which the protagonists quickly unravelled by asking (cool, laconic, affectionately superior in that VN male lead way Farzia had instantly picked up on) the right questions.
“Well, there’s a lot of people to watch do a lot of things, and I don’t even see half of them. But I work at the warehouse, which is a good place to get an idea of what kinds of things people from all over the tower are doing and need help with.”
I nodded. “What were you doing.” I ended the sentence as if with a period. But not an ellipsis! I did end it!
“Going to… the gym.” And she lifted and spun - still sheathed - the reason I assumed she had no fear of talking to me. Or maybe that was different here.
“I invented my own martial art for a book once.”
This had worked on Lanyi. Maybe I could connect with everyone this way?
She narrowed her eyes. “…really?”
I wasn’t one of those fitness NEETs, but it was one of the only ways I could exercise in there, and the doctors in the Relocation Centre had informed me that several of my muscle groups had atrophied anyway. I had also invented and practiced (for a different story) my own dance form. Not the particularly impressive movements of either.
We had reached a plateau on the stairs.
“Do you spar?” she asked.
“At” - I stuttered - “at my age?”
She had immediately paused on the landing between turns of the flight and assumed some sort of a stance - which I didn’t recognize either.
“O-on the stairs?”
This was a scenario I was familiar with too - I had written myself at least once before! A weak fighter from the past nonetheless triumphs over an expert from the future by simply moving in a way no-one had anticipated for generations. And while it hadn’t been hundreds of years like it tended to be in the novels, no-one had ever anticipated the ways of fighting I had developed, in this world…
I stepped forward and immediately into the slight sidestep of the first form, which I had derived from the waltz.
My arch collapsed. “Ow!”
“I didn’t mean here, there’s a gym for that. I’m a stairfighter and a treefighter by specialization, but I didn’t expect anyone your age to be. You thought I would though? That’s brave, I guess.”
I laughed, thinking of my previous humiliation to distract from this more present one, though neither felt quite real. “I guess.”
“I think the storehouse makes more sense for you.”
“The storehouse is… always there, then?”
“Never mind. Sorry if I’m being creepy or” -
“I wasn’t looking at you!” I laughed, and finally my friends Neither of us were looking at each other! How was I supposed to see you nod?”
“You said eye contact, not not looking at all.”
“Where did you think I was looking?! I mean -“
They had already turned towards a door. “Nice to meet you, old parts.”
My body wasn’t doing any of the things it had done when I was young and as overwhelmed as that. I supposed I had tired myself out - or forgotten how to produce those drowning sensations. Even moving this much was painful and exhilarating. There were no locks, no doors, and hardly any walls up here. I soon found I had no idea where to go as in all directions the spaces between girders were hung with multicoloured plastic tarps in places, maguey carpets. Glowing balloons - the lights somehow balanced inside them disclosed the hazy flicker and, to the touch, the heat of candles - bumped gently around the entrances and inside. There were no guards. The first tarp-tent I pushed back the entrance to was completely empty of people and of objects besides a couple of hookahs. In the next I was ignored for a minute and a half before a broad-shouldered man covered in impractical metal decorations, which couldn’t possibly have stayed on had they not been anchored into his flesh by hooks, turned from an animated and slang-ridden conversation to ask if I was looking for someone else.
I moved from the light translated through a swirling-dyed curtain into the light of the sunlight by a difference only of degree. The degrees multiplied as I gazed across the green, purple, robin’s egg blue, ochre-red clouds now settling (but never blending) into a carpet, as the last two cloud-makers swung their censers in increasingly dramatic arcs on their rubber ropes, making in instants an explosive vertical wheel, a sinuous cornflower trail winding around it on both sides.
The hero, Battery, lay back with his arms spread across a threadbare sofa from the world before.
Lanyi was pestering the maker of the wisteria serpent, pulling at the rainbow-coloured holographic strips hanging down from his heavy leather belt to indicate what ingredients they should mix next.
I sat down, didn’t move and when they put away their censer they turned and saw me.
“Hey!” they yelled. “Dogfood!”
I almost ran away. No-one else would have known I had been there. Instead I narrowed my eyes and asked: “How am I dogfood?”
“We saved you from the cute doggy, remember!”
“He already doesn’t remember,” a kid I didn’t recognize from that time (maybe I didn’t remember), two triangles of red and gold bandana jutting from the equally stark and angular black of his face, “he’s too old to remember anything.”
“You didn’t let the doggy eat?” another whined. “You’re so mean!”
“I was just saving him for this doggy!” Lanyi opened their arms and a Lamarckling that looked like a pillow flopped out, with no eyes, a tiny plaintive mouth, four rabbit-like ears and at least a dozen stubby legs, almost fins. It flounced and dilated towards me at a startling speed, rearing up to just above my knees and tackling me with an adult man’s weight, yipping.
“So wait, are you all joking, or do you call these dogs, like how cowboys call cows ‘dogies’?”
She gasped. “That language you were speaking in the car, was that cowboy language?”
“Lanyi…” the boy sighed.
“I knew it! I knew cowboys were real!”
“What about this old sack looks like a cowboy to you?” I grumbled.
“Why does he talk like that?” Somebody muttered.
“Can somebody record what I sound like?” I called, over the kids’ heads.
“I don’t know what my voice sounds like, outside my head.” Inside, it sounded like I’d made a programmable Vocaloid of myself.
The hero had turned his head when he saw, or heard, the pet moving (jingling bells were tied to the long turquoise tufts in its fur). “Oh. Aye.” He gestured opaquely, and a surge of awe rolled through my spirit. “What you doing up here?”
The hero’s face and tone were unflappably casual, but one of the cloud makers who had moved back to the couch beside him eyed me suspiciously. I noticed that the Lamarckling, in its effusive affections, had systematically probed my pockets and anywhere I might have concealed a weapon.
For all I had wondered whether or not I should come up here, whether it was allowed, whether it was right, I hadn’t prepared an answer to this question. Watching people. Sitting in the background. Not daring to ask, not choosing what to ask. The Relocation Centres had been great for that. That was all anyone did there. That was all, I gathered, anyone in my generation had ever done, including those who hadn’t committed to it as early and fully as myself. We the generation who had been expected, each of us, to grasp for the last scrap of food at a table of 10 billion. Those of us who did brazenly reach out were shot at through the windows.
But things weren’t like that here. That was what the hero’s voice told me. Nothing I had seen, nothing I had been told - merely the sound of the hero’s voice.
“I wanna know…” I spluttered, suddenly talking again, and it was agonizing, “what’s gonna happen to my house. I have a story written out there… I need to get that out somehow… if I’m gonna live here… I don’t want it to be stripped… or farmed, or anything… but I do wanna live here…”
“A story?” He shrugged. “Hey, wait here, the stars are gonna be out in a few hours.”
My throat dropped at the thought of laying out here under the whole night. I looked up helplessly as the light was sucked out from the top of the sky, where the clouds were thinnest, as if the tower was going to come apart and float up into it. I’d looked out the window at that night a few times; the stars were surprisingly bearable, almost sterile; that dark between them was as painful as staring into the sun. I swallowed a second time, and shivered with joy.
“How long you been in there?”
“Hah.” He bounced his shoulders and diaphragm and hair as if the sarcastic exhalation had been pushed through his whole body by some external force. “You been in there since you twelve?”
“Twenty-two.” Had it taken me that long to give in?
“Aywhoa! You don’t look sixty-something! What were you eating in there?”
Soyl hadn’t been designed to satisfy any kind of human need as subjectively experienced by humans, but it had been designed to feed healthy, productive and long-lived workers. Which were harder and harder to come by in those days, the prices of other food being what they were. In fact, I’d be willing to believe the health benefits of Soyl were comparable to those of the superfoods the capitalists themselves ate.
Along a shore of the Milky Way, a pink dot was bouncing back and forth. It moved like a shooting star, in momentary flashes along inexorable trajectories that curved but never wavered. These only changed direction by more than 180 degrees, maintaining the same speed and instantly switching to a new course. It would blink into view at a point further back in the direction it had been moving from, then somewhere a bit to the side of the furthest it had reached, back again less far, forward further (you almost couldn’t catch it now hidden in the crowded Milky Way) …“where’s the other one?” A cyan gash opened in the sky, the length of Orion’s Belt.
Now we could see them moving fluidly and unpredictably, fully aware they were not Lamarckling fireflies. Two of Lanyi’s friends came out from under a canopy wheeling a telescope.
“That pink… I think the Roland is that colour pink!”
“I heard the Roland crashed off California three years ago.”
“That’s some new shit,” the hero drawled, the obvious excitement adding no speed to his voice. “I remember the colours of the ones you’d see up when they had the Roland and all those. I never seen this colour before.”
“He’s so sensitive to colours, we call him ‘paint chip’!” Lanyi narrated with no hint of irony (besides her friends piping up in the background “…we do?”)
“Hey. What was your name again?”
“Tell us what’s going on up there. Tell us a story.”
I breathed in. I subdivided the next second into multitudes until I lost count, accepting any eternity agonizing enough to lose my stage fright in. Enough to notice and discard all the obvious, boring storylines that just translated some aspect of my situation into the romantic abyss of space, into the careless and obsessive minds of the men who had ruled the Earth then left it when we had built them enough machines to make machines to make everything they needed forever from raw elements floating in the asteroid belts. Up there they had changed as much as we had, adapting their genteel competition bound by a dry pragmatics of class solidarity (at our class’s expense) to life-or-death, one-on-one warfare bound by hot-blooded codes of honour. Like Iskios, the orphan of the two despicable bandits of the dark side of the moon who Randolph de Raytheon, pilot of the legendary mobile armour Roland, had cast into their own crater reservoir where they smelted the mobile armours of the slain into a lake of charged plasma instead of allowing the dead their ceremonial last journey into the Sun. Iskios had revived the last of their machines to build a haunted mobile armour for himself at ten years old. Its trails were the dim almost imperceptible white that “Paint Chip” himself was having trouble distinguishing in the telescope until it let loose a wave slash or corona blast on the scale of a ship’s cannon. His opponent, unfazed by both the mysterious Nameless Knight’s stealth and power, was none other than Dzhelik, pilot of the Orlando, a near-plagiarism of the legendary Roland whose pilot they had idolized, stalked, been laughed off by, been beaten up by, been spared by, and after his death, decided unilaterally to succeed. “Who are you? Identify yourself in the name of Raytheon!” “In the name of something you know less about than me? Stop yapping about the past like you take it seriously… fine, if you let me open a full data link I’ll show you who I am!” “All right, if that’s a trap I’ll walk straight into it, I think that’s what Randolph would have done!” “… no way, they actually did it!” “Wh-what are these? Data - no… spirits? S-so that’s what… a dead body smells like… that’s what a death rattle… sounds like… I’ve killed half a dozen people, but it’s the first time I’ve ever witnessed these things with my own senses… so it’s true, we really do fight in a dishonest way out here in space…” “What’s going on? He’s attacking me like crazy, I can’t get so much as a feint in.” “He’s holding back. Like I thought; he wasn’t even afraid of dying before, but now he doesn’t want to miss seeing me react to this. Which is good, because I don’t even have to think about my attacks, if I did I’d be dead, I gotta get a hold of myself… and if I do, but keep reacting like this, I can surprise him with a move that’s out of my rhythm…”
“… they’re gone.”
I looked up. The sky had lost a measure of its mystery. It was almost like the ceiling of that room in the dark. After all the room with everything in it, the one where the two pilots were still dancing at hundreds of miles away from each other, the one behind my eyelids which had been closed I couldn’t remember how long, was inside that room, wasn’t it?
“You were a bit out of sync. With what was going on up there.” The hero waved his hand. “We were all really into it, though.”
“Hey, he’s crying.”
I was. I wouldn’t have written it that way. And it didn’t feel like anything except hot water on my cheeks.
“D… Dzhelik was about to launch a directed energy beam he’d set to activate after a set time, and then a localized warp appeared and vanished them to the other side of the Sun. ‘Not him’, no one, not even the dead, heard Iskios gasp in the airtight silence of the cockpit…” I looked down until I got my bearings. “You say there are… other people who do this?”
“Almost everybody. Myself. Imma tell you a few of my favourites.” The hero’s face had lit up like a child’s.
The way his eyes were always covered gave me the sudden impression of an ancient blind poet, not an Achilles after all but a Homer. Where did this fit in with his colour sensitivity? One way or another there was something abnormal about his eyes, the way he carried them in his head, the way he looked at the stars as if it were no different from looking at the ground.
A few of the others listened for a while, though they were all familiar with the story. It wasn't what I would have called well-crafted but animated by an inexplicable energy, and I could catch and follow every detail out loud, something I had never been able to do even with stories told in old mnemonic modes, something I wasn’t sure everyone could do with mine. By the time it finished the others (mainly the kids) were talking in hushed private tones and playing with sparklers far away from us. Then he asked me to describe some of mine, and I found myself elaborating plots I hadn’t thought about in a decade, ones I hadn’t started. When I would describe how my hero rode a giant carp pennant animated by magic, he would jump in and ‘guess’ that the character would get drowned in a cliffhanger and saved by the pennant turning into a real carp. I’d have to tell him my own idea and he’d respond by elaborating his, and it almost felt like some esoteric spell battle. Lanyi slid up next to him in the midst of one of these, propping their face up on their wrists on the head of the “dog”. We talked until the darkness was wearing through, the pre-dawn haggard grey.
From then on I neither felt the need to, nor the fear of returning to that room. I started working in the storehouse, sifting through vast quantities of material brought in bulk from raids on the dump and the 40% of buildings in the city that had not been explored yet. On the third day I saw Lanyi again. On the fifth day I took in the first haul of paper stripped from the walls of my own basement. On the seventh I processed a shipment of Soyl, delivered to the same address. I refused to let Lanyi drink it, and beat five foolhardy warriors who had dared each other to see who could drink it the fastest. The drones had not even stopped functioning - the shipment had simply been shot down by some kid practicing firework archery. How to make fireworks, incidentally, was the first new skill Farzia taught me, one of the simple manufacturing tasks that were performed in the storehouse itself, like the twisting of certain fibres into string. When I asked about the quotas we were sent down of how much of each material to keep on hand in raw or processed forms I found myself offering less incidental help as a calculator and even computer troubleshooter, since most of Lazytown lacked the mathematical and technical education that had been baseline for my generation, and few others my age were inclined to help them. Meanwhile I was teaching Lanyi my invented language for an hour every second day. And on the way down from their floor (which wasn’t the same one they’d been blowing clouds from, but yet higher, a floor of glass mirrored ‘sunvents’ that directed light from the outside of the tower to crystal greenhouse-like chambers deep inside insulated from the weather and other dangers) I would step off different stairs at random floors and wander, trying to map and model the varied layouts, industries and leisures. Sometimes I would strike up conversations, usually in half-remembered prompts from interacting with NPCs in video games unless I was particularly inspired. Surely at some point I would find someone my age, was the motive I didn’t verbalize to myself, knowing I would feel pathetic if I did. Most of the elders I saw integrating into Lazytown were doing so through families, and outside the Relocation Centres I rarely saw any of them talk to each other. I supposed that was what I was doing, except the Hero and Lanyi were the only ones of their family here - the Hero’s parents had been neo-nomads and any relatives probably weren’t even in the city. He had run away from them at the very moment, he claimed, he first saw the tower, smitten by its beauty even when Lazytown was nothing but a scattering of encampments visible at night as a spiral staircase of embers, but spent the next four years without coming within five miles of it, taken in by a lone thirty-year-old huntress who bore him Lanyi when he was fourteen. She used Lanyi to try and tie him down and make him stay with her, but ruined it by raising a hand against them. I was not so much party to the intimacy of their kinship than the nebulous community of their large entourage. And I was part of other entourages too, like the warehouse and what was beginning to take shape as Lazytown’s intelligentsia. I still hadn’t met any full time writers, although I’d found one (1) library. I couldn’t tell if it was the personal taste of the collector or the whole culture but literary subjects inclined less to the prurient than in the subcultures I’d grown up in. Most common were hotblooded mecha dramas about our former betters in the sky, and dream-picaresques (the most reproduced work from the old world, painstakingly copied in several hands, was Alice In Wonderland). I had long since grown past pornographic interests myself, or rather, sublimated them into images so dreamlike I could hardly read the wonder-tales for fear of stumbling across some suppressed fetish and feeling like I’d dirtied it. The presence of other living human bodies of course now accumulated a sexual pressure in me, like the feeling before a thunderstorm, but it refused to attach itself to persons. Sometimes I’d jerk off on the floor in my new room, hung with my papers, and it would feel like a firework going off in a black hole.
Nor did it feel like I was living in an Awakening novel any more. Aging with your world wasn’t a thing that happened in those; there were Cursed Immortal novels, like I Am Become Death and The Wandering Scientologist, but the two genres barely overlapped… But just by stepping into that room and not coming out, I hadn’t stepped out of time; there was a broader and stranger river of time than I’d ever thought (which novel was that a quote from?) Everyone’s time moved differently; it had lacunae, interruptions; it was bent by the gravity not only of planets and stars but things like cities, towers. The others of my own generation had dropped out of civilized time in their own way. What did that mean to them? I wanted to ask someone. I still didn’t want to spend most of my time with… them. But I had to figure out how to narrate something like this to myself. I had started compiling, correcting one of my older works from what hadn’t rotted or faded off the paper. This wouldn’t fit in a New library but somebody had to still be nostalgic for these, somebody would connect…
At one point this insecurity compelled me to seek out all of Lanyi’s other tutors. Only twelve of them were “old parts” like myself, who he generally didn’t take a liking to; three were even other children. I went with the oldest of the regular Lazytown residents (just turned forty years old) first, not eager to go back to the Relocation Centre. I could now converse for about half an hour purely in the concepts and concerns of Lazytown, and had also learned that everyone loved when I asked questions. Everyone loved to explain the same basic few things about it, its agriculture and mechanics and ideal of a new civilization, in as many different ways as there were languages. (Had anyone ever thought to call it Tower of Babel?) The tutor was a fisherman who had kept more or less his same spot in the canal from before he had started trading with Lazytown and implementing their technologies (electric nets), and spoke Latin, and closed his eyes behind his glasses any time they weren’t focused on the river. I wanted to know everything he had learned about Lanyi and Battery, and (unstated) whether he still talked to them. I had been surreptitiously adding words to my conlang to keep teaching Lanyi, an innocent enough exercise that at first I had been doing anyway, just from seeing things in Lazytown I couldn’t have known to invent words for. The fisherman in fact only wanted to talk to me about this, about languages, and how much time I spent on the sound of words, weaving them into my phonetic and etymological schemes when, he said, I should just name things the first thing that comes into my head, because that was how people named things here where they actually had new things to name (“there’s a reason they call it Lazytown”, said the next tutor when I told him this, a scrubber-bearded Basque who was the strongest case for his own statement I had yet seen). It’s not as simple as that, I insisted, a word has to catch on, which means going through circles and circles of people with more distance on it, and sometimes people have to decide what word to use out of a number of candidates, but I wasn’t a linguist and were there any here? He had no idea. He was a crank. I didn’t like him. He hadn’t seen Battery or Lanyi since he had stopped tutoring, although Battery had liked him and was friendly when he came around the canal, he insisted proudly. Since when did I like and not like people, as if I had any choice? I got more out of another tutor who despite his slight twenty-five years looked like a skeleton or a zombie in both the structure and pallor of his face, wore a single strip of black tape across his nose, and had been compelled to teach Portuguese by the promise of first access to vintage vape juice finds. Lanyi had barely tolerated him and Battery had gotten in his face over him vaping in Lanyi’s room, but he had been valuable as one of Battery’s posse for a while. One of his comrades had also been a tutor in one of Lanyi’s favourite languages, Quiché. Lanyi had insisted on keeping him around for sentimental reasons, like a favourite stuffed animal.
Before I had gone through all of them, whatever that experiment was supposed to signify, Battery (the Hero; in his capacity as Hero) summoned me to a meeting. He didn't tell me a specific reason for meeting, just to be in a certain place (a lookout in the unnumbered, unfinished scaffolding near the very top of the tower) at a certain time with a certain weight. We were surrounded by candles and and jet-black artificial clouds that obscured the needle for an acre around. Apart from a few of his closest retainers, the others meeting there I hadn’t seen before, and some of them had the same bearing as him. There was even another my own age, a woman I had often seen in the Relocation Centre negotiating with younger authorities. They looked askance at the presence of Lanyi. “We’re doing this for them. Aren’t we? So they deserve to be here and know.” Each nodded in their own unique flavour of solemnity. “And they deserve to vote.” Shock again. “And what about him?” The heroes had finally noticed me. “This guy here’s a storyteller and not just any old storyteller,” Battery announced. “He’s an elder who’s been doing nothing but writing good shit for the past fifty years. Writing on walls and shit.”
Unimpressed nod: “He good?”
“Lemme put it this way: a real war ain’t gonna be cool or fun like the stories we all like to make up. It might be kind of boring. And we ain’t gonna wanna die with our stories having been boring, but we also ain’t gonna want nobody to know what actually happened. This guy, he can tell it like it is, without it being boring.”
Was that what I could do that the romancers here couldn’t? How had I learned that from twenty-two years of doing nothing followed by forty years of literally doing nothing? It was either the most or the least intuitive thing possible.
Lanyi turned me around. “I vote against you,” they beseeched. “Finish teaching me , please, and finish your book, grandpa.”
Had any of the other tutors been called ‘grandpa’? I searched my memory. I blanked, the way I often did when trying to make small talk, or when I got writers’ block.
But it had been… how long since I had told myself I could finish it in a week without food? And I was farther from finishing it, and might be farther still in another month or two. I alternated between waves of ideas too overwhelming to select from or process into words, and troughs of sheer dazed incapacity. I felt as if the end of it now would be the end of more than a novel, but I was too afraid to say of what.
We had been running out of higher quality metals. We had a model for a circuitboard, about as powerful as an iMac G3 (the one fully operational general purpose computer looked a bit like one, too, except the size of a tree) that could be built entirely with local materials, but it took months to make, and calculations were piling up. So was old waste material we didn’t have the resources in our smithies to melt down and reuse. If Lazytown kept growing, we would need at least one dedicated production facility. Even the most gung-ho and ambitious of Lazytown planners had been hesitant to reopen the scars of mass production, but a process for large-scale collective decision-making and a rigorous accounting system to ensure the reusability of all energy input within a reasonable timeframe (this would be possible to apply to our already operational agriculture with a permanently dedicated computer) had been agreed on more than a year ago. The best location for production was the former chemical and auto plants at the edge of the city. There were other buildings in that territory that could also be useful - warehouses, fully automated facilities even the old timers didn’t all remember. Nobody had lived near any of it for thirty years. It was occupied.
I hadn’t worried about writers’ block in thirty years. When I got writers’ block what I did was just stare at the rotting wall. The first time I’d do it I’d go into panics I can barely even explain now, but eventually I got bored of them, and I think that’s part of why I don’t freak out the way I used to when I talk to people. But the blankness never goes away. It lurks reality like some kind of autonomous cleaner. When it next came back it was writer’s block again, and I stared at the canopy of my tent until it went away, and the light was already changing.
I wear, for the first time, fully Lazytown clothing (not the handwoven harem pants and stoner mat that were common in the Relocation Centre): heavy rubber armour beautified by a coat of freshly melted plastic: a pink and yellow strap crossed my bare chest in an X, holding up a loose pair of long shorts bulging with clear plastic pockets sealed with zip-ties. I also have undecorated rubber armour strips on my shoulders, forearms and hands, but my feet are bare. Nobody in Lazytown knows how to run in shoes.
I sit at the back of the convoy’s first unit, among young warriors I’ve never met, conversations I can’t find a break in. Farzia is on the mission, even in our advance guard unit, but requested not to be seated with me because I would annoy her. I am fine with not being annoying, or annoyed. I bounce a crossbow between my knees, its pouch flopping open like a fish out of water against my pant leg. The trees out here have grown into unnatural shapes, like wooden letters strewn across a child’s floor, a sign that we have entered the undisputed territory of our enemy. Every now and then a flare goes off where one of our sentries shoots some dangerous Lamarckling that notices us. Old trap songs accompanied by bouzouki and box drum leak down from the canvas cover above. We have no hope of matching our enemy in stealth; our strategy is to lure them out into the open, and clear as much of that around us as possible. The corners of the carriage are mounted with chemical floodlights and flamethrowers.
But nothing approaches and soon the face of the factory looms up before us, bone-blue in the moonlight. It looks completely unaltered from how I suddenly remembered having been driven past it as a small child, my parents on the run from student debt collectors, reassuring each other in a frantic hush I couldn’t map to the few simple and honest emotions I knew then, which had coloured the whole memory with the woozy ambiguity of a dream. I had tried to imagine what might be behind the windowless facade vaster than anything I had ever contemplated as a single object; I pictured a shadowy jungle, a fractal playground, a deep pit filled with clouds and the tormented screams of giant birds. Now I feel truly outside of that room - on the verge of a vaster and older meaning of my life.
I tremble and my head lolls against the back of the seat watching the moon narrow, waiting for some vision from my childhood to phase out from the other side of the transitional darkness. Instead the darkness continues until we could hear the walls echoing far behind us, until we realized we are all experiencing the same tinnitus - and its gradual, almost imperceptible movements have the order of melody. We notice when it takes on a second note - or is it an infinite, uncountable chord? At that moment, the glowing eyes of the Artists, like sick stars, pierce the factory firmament, which begins to crawl.
End credits: Young Thug - “Killed Before”