by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne
First published 2019, in Horizons Beyond (Goodreads link)
It was when the riot began that Jordan noticed that his arms were missing. The other students, of course, never noticed: they screamed, they charged, and when the dust settled, their bodies lay scattered across the ground, knocked down like so many bowling pins. He tried to count them. One. Two. Thirty. A hundred.
He could have sworn there was a tank here. There always was a tank.
Jordan’s arms decided to flicker back into existence. He raised them instinctively as the police officers bore down on him, truncheons flashing. The tank reappeared, occupying the square like some ugly grey hellspawn. And then there was darkness.
“Anything useful?” said the old woman as he unplugged himself from the Simulator. As always, she was sitting by his shoulder, her dirt-stained rags making her one with the rocks she sat on. She had set up the sniper rifle, and it was very carefully pointing into the distance.
“Nothing,” said Jordan, peering at the rusted buttons and the cracked screen. He coughed. “I think we’re out of juice.”
He pressed a button, slapped the device a few times, and a little diamond-hard cartridge popped out. On it, in a hasty scrawl, was written M/CIT/STUDENT RIOTS, 2081. The old woman watched him. Her face was a thin white dagger in the firelight, scarred and pitted and burned.
“If I were you, boy,” she said at last, “I’d use that thing to go back to when the world was a better place. Grass. Sand. Music. Cheap steaks ’n strip clubs. You ever seen a strip club?”
“Only from a distance,” said Jordan. The cough grew stronger, as it always did, like some burning fist ripping out his lungs. She held his shoulder as he hacked and heaved. When the fit passed, he said weakly, “The riots always happen outside. But I’m close to putting the story together. We know it started with the student riots.”
She turned to him. One eye was gone, burned out by raiders that had taken her by surprise. A camera sat in its socket, a black obscura with no hint of compassion or mercy. The remaining eye looked at him with pity.
“Don’t you want to know how the war happened?”
“Do I?” she made a sound, halfway between weariness and disdain. “Goddamn idiots on all sides, with their slogans and their fascists and their bloody religions. Jackasses who all thought the other side was going to hell. I don’t need to know how they started it.”
Movement, outside, a pale shadow at a distance. They both tensed. The woman peered through the scope of her rifle.
“Just a wolf.” Click. The scope turning off. “It’s got cubs.”
“Anyway, it’s pointless,” Jordan said, the weight of disappointment bowing his shoulders. “Battery’s gone.”
“Go out and look up,” she said. “Breathe a little. Don’t worry, you’re covered.”
Jordan half-staggered, half-crawled to the mouth of the cave, fighting the cough. Outside, the landscape stretched on for what seemed like forever: a blighted moor with the ruins of a city in the distance. And above it, a midnight dome dusted with stars.
“You couldn’t see them before the Fall,” the old woman said. “Too much light pollution.” She pointed to a red star winking back at them. “That’s where all the rich people went. Mars. And there’s Orion. You see the belt of stars?”
“There’s no point to studying the past anymore,” she said. “It’s best if you enjoy what you can. Before—”
Before the cancer kills you, the unspoken words. They both knew he didn’t have long now.
“I have to try,” he said sadly.
It began, as far as he could make out, with a protest. There was no one enemy, just people who had drifted apart over generations, until one day they woke up and found they were too different to sit at the same table together. The protests started with unions, and then students, and then entire communities were on the streets, shaking their fists against those who surveyed them from great palaces hundreds of feet in the air.
The old woman had told him about something called the French revolution. There, those who lived in the palaces were cast down, the country molded into a new form. The will of the people. But the powerful had no intention of giving way to the people this time, and so they sent forth their servants—the courts, and their guns, and their tanks, and their drones, until cities burned and children melted in their mothers’ arms.
Who launched the nukes, then? The old woman thought the Powerful had overreached a bit and played their final card. Jordan thought it was the protesters—whoever was left alive, anyway. One last act, born of desperation. One final middle finger, well extended. He knew that feeling: the cancer had taught it to him, whispering into his bones every waking day.
In the end, it all boiled down the two of them: her with her one cybernetic eye and the sniper rifle, and him with his books and his Simulator and the hot lead in his bones, trudging through the dust to the next city. The sun rose and fell, turning the poisoned landscape crimson. The days folded into each other like pieces of paper. Their boots stamped mud, dust, gravel, bones, garbage. The only sound was the howl of the wind and the clicking of the Geiger counter and their breath above that. They avoided the big streets and main roads, sticking to back alleys.
He collected things as they passed. Books, mostly, because they were the only thing that worked.
“Look,” he said eagerly one day, his cough forgotten in his excitement. He read from the scrap of paper, “‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’ “
“Huh. Sounds like us,” she said. “Where’s the rest of it?”
They turned the paper over and kicked about the garbage pile a bit, but there was nothing. He walked away, disappointed.
Another time they found a shoe store. Shoe stores were always useful; shoes always wore out. He saw his name hanging in the sign at the front. A metal statue of a man, arms and legs spread like a five-pointed star.
“Good shoes,” she said, crunching in. “You can’t find them anymore, though. Pick something that’ll last. Here.”
She tossed him something. It was a little solar battery, with charging cables attached. “For the Simulator,” she said. “But don’t try it now. We need to find water first.”
The water was sometimes radioactive, sometimes not. This time it was radioactive: a puddle in the middle of a great square, gushing from a pipe connected to a tank on the horizon. There were people camped around the puddle. They had taken dead vehicles from the roads and arranged them around their camp in a makeshift wall. As always, his job was to go in while the old woman covered him from afar. He knocked on a bus. A starved and cracked face opened the door and glared at him.
“Water,” he said.
He was allowed to come into the bus and out through a hole in the other side. There must have been thirty, maybe forty people there. They were dying, the lot of them, and the stench was terrible. The Geiger counter screamed. He fled the way he’d come, gagging and coughing.
The old woman tried hard not to look disappointed. She failed. “Nothing?”
He shook his head. “Radioactive.”
“Poor fools, then,” she said, with one last look at the camp. “Come on, let’s go. The next town’s thirty miles away.”
“At least we can charge the Simulator,” he said, stringing the battery over his back.
“Good for you,” she said sourly. “Let’s blow this sugar shack.”
They walked on, clanking gently, leaving that place of death behind.
That night, when they stopped to rest, he checked the charge on the battery. Just over half capacity, hopefully enough to run the Simulator again. He plugged in the cables, grinned foolishly when the cracked screen lit up and began to draw out the complex arrangement of wires that had to fit into the jacks at the back of his head.
“More history?” the old woman said disdainfully.
“Poetry, this time,” he replied, slotting in an old cartridge he’d never quite gotten around. He pressed the button.
A desert stretched before him. He was a drone, maybe an eagle; he looked down upon the sand, and watched words write themselves on the dunes:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
He swooped in closer, using muscles he’d never had before.
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
And there was the pedestal, with its vast and trunkless legs, and a shattered briefcase next to them, and on it, carved in the stone:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
The ruin of a great stone head in the dust, attached to a neck in a collar and a tie. Pitiless, proud eyes scorned him, telling him of billions of dollars and millions of employees of factories that stretched across continents. Behind it, nothing remained. The lone and level sands stretched far away.
Something about the face nagged him. It seemed awfully familiar. He circled, once, twice, thrice, trying to get a fix on what it was, but nothing came to mind. Eventually the battery ran out again, and the stone pedestal flickered and went out.
The next day they hit the road again, clanking gently. The old woman was visibly flagging.
“There’ll be water up ahead,” he said, trying to sound as if he meant it.
She coughed and spat blood. “Yeah, right. You know, I remember when all this used to be green.” She saw his disbelief, and added, “No, I’m not making it up. This is history right here. And there was water nearby; there was always water. And shops. And people.”
“Wow,” he said, to fill up the silence that followed. “We really had it good, didn’t we?”
“Yeah, kid,” she said. “We really did.”
“You think we’ll have it back?”
She looked up at the night sky. “No,” she said, almost to herself. “Not in a million years.”
That night, she died. Jordan wept. It took him a day to dig a hole deep enough to bury her—he had to stop and cough, and on more than one occasion he, too, spat blood. But eventually he managed to carry her to the edge of the grave and roll her in, gently. The cybernetic eye, unblinking even in death, stared at him accusingly.
He took her gun. And her boots. And he walked, alone and afraid, under the indifferent stars, the tears drying on his face, until the first of the smokestacks and the ruined buildings came into sight. He walked until the sky went from black to blue to grey and the first streaks of rose and gold spread out from the horizon like blood dissipating in water.
And then, coughing, Jordan sat down. His feet were raw and the tears had started again. In the distance, the skeletons of buildings stood in silhouette against the first light of the sun.
“Well,” he said, and shot himself.
SIMULATION END: USER TERMINATION.
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Jordan Clark, the President of the Allied States, trembled in his Simulator chair, feeling the dust in his mouth and the pain in his feet and spine. A lone tear, for a woman who never existed, spilled unbidden and trickled down his cheek.
“Sir?” said the voice of the doctor, concerned. “Sir, are you all right?”
He held out a hand to prevent the man from touching him. “Water,” he said. “Just get me water.”
He drank greedily and coughed. The doctor and his personal security detail watched anxiously. The President looked as if he had aged a thousand years. Eventually, he felt he had control enough to straighten his tie and stand up on feet that were perfectly healthy, despite feeling like they’d walked across an endless apocalyptic wasteland.
“Call the Joint Command,” President Clark said. “I’ve made my decision. No nukes. Let’s go talk to the Rebels.”
His chief of staff, fingernails bitten to the quick, edged closer. “Sir, our policy is not to negotiate with terrorists—”
The President cut him off with a hand. “We will negotiate, Rubin,” he said sharply. “Or soon there will be nothing left to negotiate.”
“Sir,” said Rubin, gesturing for the security detail to do their jobs. As the black-suited guards closed ranks around him, Jordan looked back, one more time.
It was just a chair. Wires ran into and out of it, complex spaghetti connecting to the massive computer behind—the one that had, for what felt like seven whole days, fooled every single one of his senses into living the Apocalypse Scenario.
It was just a chair. But for an instant, he felt the dry heat of the desert, heard the shuffle of boots on broken roads, and saw the old woman, her single eye regarding him with pity, and judging him.
“We really have it good, don’t we?” he said to her.
“Yeah, kid,” she said. “You really do.”
Note: This story was written for Horizons Beyond, an anthology organized by the folks over at the KeyStroke Medium podcast. At the time of writing, I was thinking about protests – both in the United States, where most of the KSM folk live – and in my native Sri Lanka, and about greed, ambition and the swinging of the political pendulum, and how so much could be avoided if our leaders would just shut up, for once, and listened. Of course Shelley fit like a glove on the proverbial hand.