“Playa” by Judith Skillman
The Machinery sings itself to life at opening time again. Automated hinges framing long broken windows tremble and twitch, trying to light up the empty displays along the street, to open the wooden royal-blue double-doors, to let in the waiting customers to fill the stools and couches and unsteady chairs. But the doors aren’t there anymore. There’s nobody outside. Somewhere behind the counter, an old voice calls out the last instructions in its memory, words that weren’t meant for animatronic cooks.
Beneath a soft layer of dust, long black burns pattern the white marble.
The paint on the walls has outlasted everything else. A dull, permeating yellow, brushstrokes of the sun reach out, wrapping the room in a warm embrace that curls around to the entrance to the kitchen. There are shadows on these walls, and on the tiled black and grey floors. The snow-angel outlines of people who were pressed into the old bricks long ago. There’s one, over by what was once the dish bins, where dirty plates were carelessly tossed by exiting patrons. It has one arm raised up, just above its face, like it’s waving to something outside, where once there’d been a bright light, but no more.
The machines of the fully automated bistro are doing their best. They are powered by a central city grid that has survived neglect and violence and decay. The grid is deep into the earth, converting power from the molten core beneath. It will last until the world falls apart. There are no shadows behind the counter or the bar. The machines could do everything themselves, even the cooking.
The final orders travel through the microphone by the counter. The payments, once automatically scanned for the convenience of the customer through dna-checking and logged permanently in the system to be able to check against complaints or miscalculation in payment, have never gone through. The machines are still stuck, always trying to process that last day.
Outside, nature has begun to take back the streets as radiation fades. Moss and shoots are growing through the cracks. The cursive yellow letters that still stand hanging from the bricks along the windows, welcoming the patrons in from the cold or the snow, have been adorned with flowers, purple and blue droplets spreading slowly to take in a spring that is soon coming. The words cannot be seen.
But inside, words still hang above the fake fireplace – its digital flames signaling that the heater has been switched on – and flicker to life as the sun goes down, a light in the darkness.
The tacky yellow writing has faded. Only one legible word is left standing, a signal. Another shadow stands next to the word, its arms are raised, as if reaching out for the writing on the wall. The word is: Futures.
At six in the afternoon Eastern Standard Time, there’s a howl of wind from the ruins outside, and Server, a holographic representative of the kitchen systems, appears by the door. Today, Server is the shape of the former 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald “Jack” Kennedy. Algorithms had confirmed the average Canadian would have been more likely to recognise a famous American historical figure than one of their own.
“Welcome to Futures,” Jack says to the wind, and the ghosts on the yellow walls.
The ship touches down at the corner of Bloor and Avenue Road, what had once been a major intersection, violent with cars and life. The skeleton of a museum is standing there waiting for them.
The ship leaves a hiss of thin smoke in its wake, like the shadow of old smoke that has long since faded into the sky. Where does the ship come from? It originates from the Moon, hanging in the chilly night, and the people who live there.
Three figures emerge, vacuum sealed, bodies hidden behind white clouds of suits equipped with oxygen tanks and reflective visors. They move slowly, alien to their world of origin, a world they have only ever watched as a light in the sky. They move in formation, the first leading down the street, two flanking on each sidewalk. They are the ship’s captain, the ship’s engineer, and a cultural historian.
Where do they come from? They come from the world beneath their feet and above their heads, from the fringe societies built on the oceans and in the bunkers in orbit, that have survived the end of history, and waited for everything to become safe again. They had left Earth for the dream of a good life. They are coming back for the same.
They keep their radiation suits, cobbled together memories of the uniforms of early space explorers, sealed tight. They are waiting for their ship’s close-range sensors to confirm or deny that the world around them is safe once more to breathe, to touch. Their computer is not like the one that’s waiting ahead for them. Their computer understands.
They already know how long the radiation check will take. They already know the details of each other’s work and research. They all know Engineer’s grandfather came from Toronto before the fallout. They all know this is the Captain’s twenty-second exploration into regions that were deemed uninhabitable. They know the world is always silent to the Historian, whose visor subtitles the words of her companions, just as the other two’s visors translate the signs her hands make in soft, quick movements that are almost dancing.
They speak just to fill the silence that has lingered over most major cities for over two hundred years.
There’s a scream when Jack appears – muted by the speakers of the radiation suit, audible as only a trembling. To the Historian, it registers as closed captions in her visors reader.
“Welcome to Futures!” says America’s 35th President, his smile just as composed and knowing as it was in film reels of black and white, long since lost.
The Engineer, close enough to the doors of the diner to activate its sensors, steps back. She’s still screaming. The Captain holds up a long, thin silver instrument, that curves through the air out in front of her, she presses a trigger on the top, and a hot, orange beam of light erupts from the tip. She fires her weapon out of fear. She fires out of surprise. If Jack had been real, he would have been killed all over again. But the beam passes through, harming nothing. It cuts through the wall beyond, and is no more.
The Historian does nothing. She doesn’t understand. All she saw was a person, and she saw them smiling, and breathing without pain. She doesn’t realise her mistake, the unreality of Jack, until after her visor has slid up, and exposed her face to the quiet evening. But she can breathe anyway. The world has made itself ready for more than cockroaches again.
“Welcome to the Future!” Jack says again. “A table for three?”
What can they say? Slowly, with hesitation and confusion, they are brought inside, where the shadows are waiting.
Their helmets are set on an empty table, their heavy white suits draped over crooked chairs. There’s no need to wait for the all-clear anymore. Movement upsets the dust. Movement brings the world back to life. Is there music playing somewhere? It’s hard to tell. The computer has scanned its new patrons. They are unhappy. They are confused. It is trying to create a better world for them. Speakers have long since rusted over. Old songs are long forgotten. Nothing comes.
A voice asks if they are ready to place their orders. Nothing happens. A timer is set. They will be asked again, after having time to think. The three explorers sit in their undersuits, breathing in air that had long ago been damned away from them. The Captain speaks first.
“How is this place still here?” she asks.
“Just luck,” says the Engineer. She’s looking at something only she can see. Her eyes are full of lights. Her own computers are trying to understand. “The initial structure must have survived the blasts by pure luck. As to how it’s still running…” She tilts her head downwards, looking deep into the floor. “God. The generators are geothermal. This building, this whole city, has enough power to go on forever.”
Geothermal? signs the Historian.
“Directly from the core of the Earth, though it’s hard to imagine how that was achieved. Some glitch, or malfunction has left this place on, while the rest of the city has depowered.”
The Historian looks like she wants to throw up. The Captain is perturbed. The shadows on the walls are waving, unseen. Three glasses of water are poured into the only remaining red glasses, and sent along to the table, deposited by a conveyor. The Engineer stares into the glasses. The captain doesn’t wait. She picks one up. She sips before she can be stopped.
“It’s just water,” she says.
The Engineer drinks. Systems inside of her run diagnostics and display contents.
“There are no traces of radiation,” The Engineer says. Her voice trembles. “It’s clean.”
The Captain begins to shake. In the beginning, she cries. In the end, she laughs. “We did it,” she says over, and over again.
“We did it, we did it. We can come home.”
The Historian has picked up a menu. Her eyes wander down the list of items long since gone. The computer waits and waits. Eager to help, not knowing its fridges are empty.
The Historian shakes her head. She looks unwell. They ask. She signs I’m not sure.
The Captain and the Engineer are arm in arm. This is their celebration. They are pioneers. They have rediscovered the world. They sit facing the window, looking onto the grassy, messy street. At one point, the Captain begins singing. It isn’t a song the others know.
The Historian sits facing the inside of the restaurant. She observes the cracked glass of the still clock. She watches the play in movement put on by the digital fire in the fireplace. She watches the shadows on the walls. One of them is waving at her, arms raised high. Her companions are formulating a plan. They want to contact the colony. They want to tell people to come home again. Very slowly, humanity could begin to spill out from the few pockets in which they have survived for the long years, and return to the world they left behind.
No, she signs to them. I want to wait.
They look at her, their lips wet, their mouths curled into frowns. They don’t understand. She hides her face from them a moment. She replaces it with a mask of her face. The mask is like the computer, with its mask of President Jack. The masks smile, meaning nothing.
I want to learn more, she signs, and there’s no tremble or change in the fluttering of her hands as they speak for her. Before we leave, and others come. Please.
The Engineer and the Captain, comfortably numbed revelries, lean back, satisfied. They believe that they know all they need to. They believe the Historian is in it for the money, for the esteem of her research, for the exaltation and praise of her peers.
The three pioneers, flesh bodies in the land of shadows, agree to stay the night. The Historian is going to learn what she can from the computer restaurant. Perhaps together, they can understand.
Two are lying down to sleep. They’d spent a long night awake in the ship. One is sitting in the kitchen. Two are closing their eyes, safe and happy as heroes. One is considering the computer’s history, and finding videos, and finding information. Two are being watched by the shadows, and still, they have not seen them. One is learning who the shadows on the walls once were. She’s learning about the world that once was.
She is crying.
It’s just after two in the morning. The late hour does not bother the old diner. It doesn’t ask its unexpected guests to leave. Closing time has not yet come.
There’s the short, brutal hum of a weapon’s discharge, then an explosion, its source only eleven minutes’ walk from the always open front doors. The two occupants of Future’s Bistro are ripped into waking by the nightmare of fire and poison. Neither scream. Their hair and clothes press against them. The sprinklers, still working, go off in fright. The water washed away the dust.
The two explorers stumble outside to look at the sky. Low hanging clouds glow in orange and red hues of a sunset; the blackness of a moonless night has come to life with the light vapours of fuel cells, now vanishing into the air, leaving only smoke. The two triumphant pioneers watch as their ship burns on the blackening horizon. Inside, the waters finally cease. Water drips a quiet rhythm to the floor.
The Captain runs towards the smoke. The Engineer calls for her to wait, a voice unheard, their communications still disconnected, sitting uselessly on empty tables, pooling cool water. She’s left standing with President Jack. President Jack apologises to the Engineer for the unexpected rain, and offers her a choice of drinks, on the house. The Engineer doesn’t hear.
She hears a scream. She hears a second hum of plasma fire. In the light, the Engineer watches the form of a woman burn up in in bright orange, her arms raised, and scatter. She leaves behind only ashes.
There’s silence again.
The Engineer watches as another woman emerges from the smoke of the night in the dead city. The Historian is dressed only in the undersuit that helps to separate the explorers from their protective shells, hair tied back into a tight ponytail. With one hand, she holds the Captain’s long, silver instrument of death, taken in the small hours while the Captain and the Engineer slept. The other hand moves quickly through the air.
I’m sorry, she signs, I’m sorry.
“Why?” The Engineer asks.
Let’s go back inside, the Historian signs. We can talk.
The tracks of tears have made lines down the Historian’s cheeks, but she no longer cries.
The Engineer reenters first, turning her back on the blackness of the post-burnt streets. The Historian follows, the gun still raised. As the old sensors feel the movement once again, Jack changes shape, a new face, to greet new faces.
“Hi!” the face says. Neither women react. They don’t know who the painted face is supposed to be. “Welcome to the future!” Ziggy Stardust says, smiling through mismatched eyes.
Closing time is coming. It won’t be long now. Two women are sitting at a table. One clock has stopped. The other beats steadily forwards. The lights of the restaurant are the only lights anywhere.
“You destroyed our ship,” one says with sound.
I did, the other says with fingers. I couldn’t let us signal the colonies. We would have brought people back here.
“You killed Captain Cohen.”
She wouldn’t have understood, sir. She was the only one with a communicator implant.
“Why haven’t you killed me?”
You can’t communicate with the colonies without the ship. I’m hoping I can make you understand.
The Engineer is older than the Historian. She considers that younger face. She sees what she does not understand. The computer is watching them. It takes in the words of the Engineer as orders, not knowing what to do with them. It cannot learn the signs of the Historian. Somewhere along the way, that understanding has been lost. The shadows are watching too. They don’t see anything.
The Engineer shakes her head. She does her best not to look at the gun.
“I can’t understand murder,” she says.
If the computer could, it would start playing music. Music was always a gentle way to end the night. But a speaker has fallen into disrepair. Its two customers sit in silence.
If we allow people to return, and try to rebuild the Earth that was, we will kill millions. Maybe we’d be killing our whole species, I don’t know.
The Historian’s degree is not formal. There were no exams, no tests of her qualifications. Her knowledge is from the books of her childhood, and the mere fact she can read. Not everyone can. She did the best she could, to rediscover a past that had been burned away. She’s done her best.
I have seen the records of the kind of place this was. She signs. Do you know what happened when they automated this city?
“No,” the Engineer says. “I didn’t think about it.”
They fired four and a half million people. The signs come slowly, with caution yet confidence. Her fingers moved with the need to be understood. At the time, Toronto was home to almost six million people. Nobody found anything else for those millions to do. They found no new work, they were given no help. Those few who became rich took everything and left nothing. Nobody needed the poor anymore. There were the rich, and the homeless. There was nobody in between.
“You can’t know that,” The Engineer says.
I can. The computer remembers. It showed me everything last night, while you slept. You were lying on a graveyard, sir. Didn’t you know that? You slept on corpse-dust. If you’d looked carefully at the menus, you would have noticed that you could order long-pig. The poor became so desperate to save their families that they sold their own bodies as food, so the rich could try something new and exciting for dinner. They didn’t even see people as people any more.
“People would never be so cruel to each other again,” the Engineer says. She’s still watching the gun. “We have learned.”
We have learned nothing, the Historian signs. You don’t even see them.
She’s speaking about the shadows. They do not change when noticed. They keep their arms raised.
The Engineer says nothing. She is beginning to understand what will happen, though she doesn’t understand why.
The off-world programs are only just starting. The new, habitable planet, is seven light years away. Where there’s one, there must be more. We can’t come back to this world, and these systems. Everything will just end up the way it was before. We need to leave it behind, we need to forget all this. Already there are city-ship programs being designed that could carry people across space by the thousands. The city-ships could take us out to worlds where we could really try again.
“But the City-Ships might not be ready for hundreds of years!” the Engineer says.
News of our failure will delay another North American expedition for at least twenty, the Historian signs. Her mask is beginning to crumble. Behind the mask is death. Twenty is all I can give them to change their minds about the Earth. There’s nothing here for us but pain.
“But we don’t have any room left!” The Historian cries. “The Atlantis colony and the Lunar City are full. The city limits can’t be stretched any further, our resources are dwindling. Our people need more room to live right now. They can’t wait to get to a new world.”
They’ll have to, the Historian signs. They’ll have to.
“You’re a historian,” the Engineer reasons. “You must know, whatever broken records you’ve found here, they cannot be conclusive. The only histories we have are myths. You can’t apply that to our future.”
The Future can be just as much a myth as the past, sir.
The Computer has started its final countdown for closing. It will bring its guests a last cup of coffee. Decaf, in consideration of their nerves. It doesn’t know it can only make hot water.
The Historian moves first. The Engineer doesn’t have time to scream.
There are two low hums, and two flashes of orange light. There are no bullets fired. There are no bullets needed. Two new shadows have appeared where two women once had been. Each has their arms outstretched. They are here to stay. The silver gun lies below the hand of the fresher shadow, still smoking.
The lights go out at closing time, but nothing rests. The broken doors cannot shut. The computer cannot sleep. The computer is still straining to fulfill its orders with empty kitchen.
There’s a rustling outside. A small cat, black and white and orange, appears from the undergrowth of the broken city. It climbs into the warmth of the ancient, abandoned bistro. There’s nothing the restaurant can do about it. The cat settles down inside a white helmet that sits resting by the bar, never to be used again, and goes to sleep. It’s slow, small breaths are the only movement, and the only sound.
The computer will keep on going past closing time. It doesn’t understand what to do with the end of history. Its shadows on the walls are all waving, or covering their faces, or reaching out to each other. Two of them are blacker and newer than the rest. They do not see what the others saw. They see only each other. The others all point towards the doors.
There was a bright light there once. But no more.
Ben Berman Ghan is an author and editor from Toronto, finishing an HBA with a major in English Literature, and minors in Philosophy, and Writing and Rhetoric at The University of Toronto. His next book What We See in the Smoke occurs in the place where the ideas of classic science fiction meet the interpersonal concerns of all literature.
This story will be featured as a chapter in Ben Berman Ghan’s upcoming book What We See in the Smoke from Crowsnest Books.
Judith Skillman is interested in feelings engendered by the natural world. Her medium is oil on canvas and oil on board; her works range from representational to abstract. Her art has appeared in Minerva Rising, Cirque, The Penn Review, The Remembered Arts, and elsewhere. She has studied at the Pratt Fine Arts Center and the Seattle Artist’s League under the mentorship of Ruthie V. Shows include The Pratt and Galvanize. Visit jkpaintings.com