by Myra Sherman
I came to in an amusement park. A translucent funhouse filled the center space. A track with ancient Teslas orbited the perimeter. The house and rainbow-hued cars were empty. The park was empty. Overhead, the domed sky was the pale jade of early morning.
As if no time had passed I remembered entering Admin, being in a treatment room. Being scanned and processed, caressed with probes that would turn me mindless, make me forget the coming two month work interval. I was naked but covered, happy to wait for oblivion. I was scared.
And now, now that time was over. I’d survived, thank the powers. I always survived. Still, dark memories quivered beyond my reach—maybe an ash-covered bodysuit, or a soldier’s protective skin? My fingertips were calloused. Reddened scar tissue bracelets circled my wrist. I couldn’t begin to guess how I’d spent the last two months, and didn’t want to. The scars would fade, my body would heal. Even as I sat there, my skin was smoothing.
Why did they leave these reminders, why not heal the wounds before reentry? Why was reentry always in a deserted area? Why? Why? Why not? It wasn’t my place to wonder why. Not during a playtime anyway. I dissipated my anxiety with a cherry endorphin boost. I might administer one day, spend a work period making decisions. Maybe I already had. It wasn’t my place to know. I shouldn’t want to. I didn’t want to.
Moments later I was immersed in cherry flavored calm. I was dressed for leisure, in translucent mesh with reflective inserts. When I bent over I could see my upside down face, the eternity tattoo on my cheek, my silver hair implants. I was an eye-catching woman with two free months ahead of me.
The sky brightened to the color of sour apples. The temperature rose. The scent of sweet morning food made me hungry. It was time to start my new life. I touched the birthstone embedded in my neck. The red gem warmed. My guide’s tinkling voice greeted me, “Jaya Mishra-50, welcome to the Berkeley Playground.”
My calm disappeared. Berkeley was luxurious and extravagant. It was a place to fulfill fantasies, go back, be pampered and indulged. It was a reward for work beyond the pale. I studied my body, looked for changes. Was my skin darker? Were my breasts fuller? Had my palm-eye always been more gray than blue? I’d heard the rumors, like everyone else. About assassins, breeders, down-world slaves, gene testers…the possibilities, the deviance and degradation, were endless. Better not to think of it. I’d never know. The people in my new life wouldn’t know. It shouldn’t matter.
I tapped my birthstone. “Take me home,” I said.
My guide tinkled. My feet rose from the ground. I left the park, floated above residential blocks actualized from an ancient time. Pastel houses that looked shingled, hearts and curlicues, turrets, verandas. Scarlet daffodils bloomed. The streets smelled of mint. The rumors of Berkeley were true. It was a lush costly place designed to provide the experience of a lifetime. So different from the cube city of my childhood, the air town where I matured, the stark frozen beauties of my last play home.
I was deposited in front of a pale house that was more white than green. Faux-marble posts, a porch, two gleaming doors, my name by an entry button.
“Your new home Jaya,” my guide said. “You are the receiver of an authenticated live-in artifact of the twentieth century. Enjoy, enjoy.”
I touched the entry button with my palm-eye. The door opened. Carpeted steps that went up two levels ended in a silver spiral staircase. I climbed up. Would I live on the roof? Did people have air cabins in this era?
No. Not the roof, not outside. I was in a low-ceilinged beamed room. The eaves slanted sharply. I smelled what seemed like real wood. There was a skylight, a front window that overlooked the street three levels below. The furnishings were of the same period as the building—a four legged bed, bright yellow table with matching chairs, a rose-patterned fabric recliner. When I sat on the recliner it warmed and molded to my body. A modern piece antiqued in appearance only, thank the powers.
It was the same throughout. The white box labeled Frigidaire opened to a luxe food panel. The shower stall had singing cleansing fixtures. The clothing cubicle had a fancy fabricator. I ordered a liquid chocolate globe and two sugar cakes for breakfast. I ate at the table, looking at the cloud covered sky.
My adjustment to Berkeley went well. Not three days later, and I’d transformed to a denizen of the twentieth century. My hair was actualized in a yellow halo known as afro style. I wore a paisley granny dress. Long feathered baubles hung from my ears. I explored Shattuck Street, hung out in caffeine shops, chilled at love gatherings. The protest-poet Bob Dylan locked eyes with me at a party. The jester Wavy Gravy gifted me a grain bowl in People’s Park. The life actors added texture and meaning to the playground, made me appreciate the unique pureness of the time.
My favorite site was the Cal Museum. Hard to believe it was once an education center. That the moss-covered buildings were classrooms, filled with students and teachers. The indulgence of a concrete site with real congregation was overpowering. I felt the history, the loss of time passed. The Museum was unearthly, far removed from our intra-psychic schooling, designed for each person’s genome. It was a place for dreaming and inspiration, perfumed by acres of purple grass and kaleidoscopic wildflowers.
I hadn’t conjoined with anyone yet, although I’d been approached by three men, one woman and a shemale. I was waiting for my counterpart. Someone who’d chosen a partial adjustment, knew where they’d been, remembered their past. People who went for a full seemed shorted to me. If you couldn’t remember your previous plays, were you still yourself? Selecting to live only in the moment, without experience or memories, didn’t seem like living. Bad enough to be blanked during work-time, but at least that was in service of happiness, a removal of soul-stifling memories that could cause permanent damage. Fortunately, in play periods we were allowed to choose. And the fulls had special black diamond birthstones, so they were easy to spot. Thank the powers.
I was sightseeing University Avenue when I met him. It was my fifth day, and my solitude was becoming tiresome. He was dressed for the time in denim. His hair was long, in dreads style. He was beautiful. Like mine, the gem in his neck was red.
We were in a head shop. I was browsing, looking at tie-dyed scarves. He was trying on floppy wide-brimmed hats. Our eyes met. Our birthstones glowed.
“Peace, Jaya Mishra-50,” he said.
“Greetings Elan Mishro-60,” I said.
He was a bit older than me, but from the same cube city. His time in Berkeley was almost over. We touched palm-eyes, synced our birthstones, smiled at our similarities and differences. We embraced, held hands, and floated to a nearby camping area. In a sunlit diaphanous tent, we conjoined. It was romantic and perfect. A soaring symphony of flower power filled our heads.
“Will you come to my home?” I asked. I was happy with him, ready to make a commitment for the time we had left.
Elan shook his head. “I’ll be gone soon. Better to stay here.”
I felt sorrowed, but understood. Then we conjoined again, and I sensed a withholding, the grayness of blocked communication. It was clear he didn’t favor me, was hiding his unhappiness and disapproval. I didn’t stifle my tears. I wanted him to see my discomfort. I wanted to know why.
I’d never been judged inadequate before. Not since my early years anyway, since my first time. Talk about sorrow. It was truly horrible. I couldn’t sync, the conjoining was just of the flesh, a disgusting humiliating involvement. My partner had tried to be kind. She held me in her arms, said I would learn with time. That many people feared syncing in the beginning. But she wasn’t being truthful. I knew it even then, and spent the rest of the period in psychic treatment.
“How did I displease you?” I asked.
“No, no. You didn’t. You were wonderful,” Elan said.
“Then why withhold?”
“Not about you, just from you. I have plans, seditious plans.”
“You didn’t block before.”
“I didn’t have to. I put everything in back-brain for the play period, until the time to go.”
“Your time is over?” I was more concerned with his leaving than his schemes. I wasn’t convinced he even had a plan, never mind a criminal one.
“I don’t want to put you at risk. If I’m caught the penalty will be steep, the worst possible.”
“Like what? Like erasure?”
Elan nodded. When he held up his hand his palm-eye was closed. He was pulling in, getting ready.
“What could be worth permanent work-enslavement, not remembering anything, ever?”
The music stopped. The tent dissolved. Our conjoining was over. We stood up, stood apart.
“I have to. I want to. I want to know everything.”
“I don’t understand. What are you saying? What do you mean?” But even as my anger shrieked from me, I knew. An escape from the powers, the promise of a life uninterrupted, no blank two month work periods, the opposite of the path chosen by the fulls. But circumventing the administrators was impossible. An urban myth from my cube city days, from Elan’s cube city days.
“You know what I mean. I can’t say more.”
“But how, how, how can you? How can you do it?”
Elan drew me near. He touched my hair. He kissed my lips.
“Maybe we’ll find each other in a future period,” he said.
“Maybe we will,” I said.
But I knew we wouldn’t. You never saw the same people. Each play period was different. The people were different. That’s how things worked. How things were supposed to be.
Elan touched his birthstone. He rose above me, and smiled farewell. I felt left behind and lonely. No thanks to the powers.
The rest of my play period was pleasant, if bland. I conjoined for single sessions with two different women, than two different men. I didn’t want commitment. I didn’t bring anyone home.
Despite myself, I kept thinking of Elan. What would life be like if you remembered everything, each period of work and play? Remembered the horrors? Didn’t live in intervals? I wasn’t sure if my subversive ideas came from Elan, or from my hidden desires.
And then my time in Berkeley was nearing the end. I was ready to leave the fantasy of play behind, but feared oblivion. What if my thoughts were monitored? Scoured? I’d divulge Elan’s secret plan. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know the details. They’d find him. Punish him. Remove him from my memories. He made a mistake telling me. Even if I didn’t know the how of his plan, I knew the why. He put himself in danger. He didn’t have to. If I had been more adult, less insecure, if he hadn’t felt the need to reassure me…
When I woke for my next play period I remembered being in Berkeley. I had the sense something of consequence had happened there, but couldn’t remember what. I was in a fragrant grove, surrounded by pine trees. Clouds of starlings flew overhead, black against a tangerine sky. The air was close. My dull palm-eye had lost all hints of blue. As I watched the bruises marring my body faded from purple to green to yellow. Within minutes, the discoloration was gone.
The usual tinkling voice greeted me. “Jaya Mishra-50, welcome to the Classical Roman Playground.”
I was shocked. Classical Rome was as extravagant as Berkeley. Why was I in history, and not a generated playground? In an ice palace, desert oasis, underground hamlet, or cloud resort? The fabrications were endless and ever evolving. But generated playgrounds weren’t authentic, with the sense of satisfaction and attachment living in the past brings. Historical sites were costly, used for special rewards. Two in a row was unheard of. What degrading, appalling work had I done? Icy fear engulfed me.
“Why am I here? What have I done?”
I knew my guide wouldn’t answer. I wasn’t supposed to know. Did it know? It tinkled nervously.
“Take me home,” I said.
My guide led me over chessboard streets crowded with shops and temples to an actualized home of the period. There was an open atrium ringed with olive and lemon trees. Slaves bathed, dressed and fed me. I was costumed in long brightly-hued stolas. My elaborately styled hair was dyed the orange of the time. I indulged in banquets and orgies. But something was missing. Something was hidden, although I didn’t know what. I remained uneasy and suspicious, even with daily endorphin boosts. My barriers were up. My conjoining was superficial. I yearned for happiness, but felt sad.
The Roman days passed, one into the next. I had nothing to look forward to. I didn’t want to be blanked for another work period, deposited in another random playground. I didn’t want to be controlled. My rebellious thoughts were disturbing, even to my guide. It hinted, suggested, insisted.
“Jaya Mishra-50, your thoughts have corrupted. This is the time to play and enjoy. Your thoughts have corrupted. I will adjust you, with permission.”
“No, don’t touch me. My thinking is fine.”
“Without permission I can’t aid you,” my guide said.
“Thank the powers.” I feigned serenity, twirled with happiness.
But our interaction concerned me. I fretted about confidentiality. Would my guide report my discontent? Were subversive thoughts criminal? And in my back-brain, the sense of something hidden continued to plague me. To center myself, I volunteered for priestess duty. I served the Caesar, conjoined with the masses. My body knew many, but loved none. My self-sacrifice was fulfilling, but didn’t ease my fears.
Then once more, my play period was about to end. The Caesar summoned me. He honored me with a royal conjoining, touched my mind with his divine body. Said he’d arranged an authenticated coliseum show, in celebration of my last day. I didn’t want to see senseless battles, wasn’t interested in physical violence, but couldn’t say no. There were rules, even in play times.
As expected, I hated the show. Even knowing the gladiators weren’t real, I felt revolted by the blood and gore, the simulated deaths. Then the Caesar stood up, waved his hand in the air. He was an imposing figure, with thick swirled hair and bright gray eyes. He was the picture of cruelty. I knew he was an actor, assigned to a life of performance. But he still frightened me. “In honor of Jaya Mishra-50,” the Caesar said. “We applaud your service.”
He signaled to the ringmaster. The crowd swayed with enthusiasm. An immense beast with a bloodstained mouth charged into the arena.
“That is an actual lion, resurrected from the long ago,” my guide said.
A man was escorted into the arena by two blue-skinned giants. They shoved him in the center, left him alone. His head was shaved. His naked body was oiled. He was beautiful. He was Elan. He was Elan.
Repressed memories flooded my mind. I remembered everything, our conjoining, his subversion, his desire for a full life.
“That is an actual man. A criminal sentenced to death by the administrators,” my guide said.
My heart tore in two. My brain exploded. I wanted to scream, but my voice was gone.
The lion snarled.
The crowd cheered.
The lion roared.
His screams, his screams, his screams.
I couldn’t watch. I had to watch. Where were the powers? Why didn’t they stop this? This was amoral. This was evil.
Elan was on the ground. I smelled his blood, like hot metal. Saw his intestines in the dirt, like writhing pink snakes. Saw the pain in his eyes, his eyes, his eyes.
“No. No. No.”
“You were meant to watch,” my guide said.
“I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”
“You have to.”
When did my guide become an administrator? Why was it tormenting me? Why? Why? Why? My lungs constricted. I couldn’t breathe. The air darkened and swirled. The scene before me faded. My mind dimmed.
I woke in a wired cubicle. The holos surrounding me wore hooded cloaks. Their alexandrite birthstones were reddish-purple. They were administrators. They were the powers. I was naked, curled on the floor. My birthstone was cold to the touch.
“Jaya, you may arise,” the holos said.
I felt as dead as my birthstone, wondered if I was in the fabled Purgatory.
“You have passed,” the holos said.
“Passed?” My voice was feeble, my body an amorphous mass.
“You have been tested for leadership. You will join us. Become an administrator. Follow the Plan. Retain your consciousness, as you wished.”
A hooded cloak settled on my body. I felt the heat of a new birthstone. My palm-eye glowed electric blue. I felt energized and strong.
“We leave for now. Your guide will inform you.”
“Welcome Jaya Mishra-50.” The tinkling voice was full of pride.
I’d been watched over time, through work and play periods. My stay in Berkeley was purposeful, the meeting with Elan planned. He wasn’t a subversive criminal. He didn’t die in Rome. He was never real.
“Many congratulations,” my guide said.
“Take me home,” I said.
I was removed from the cubicle. Put in a tower apartment in the sky. The furnishings were modern and pristine, of the highest quality. I was surrounded by light, by blue-green, red-purple colors that reflected my new birthstone.
And so I became an administrator. My duties were demanding. I manipulated the people. I was aware. I was full of doubts. Was it right to breed a young girl with a Galileo resurrection? Was it right to mind-twist a cerebral rebel? Scour memories away? Give false dreams and fantasies? I didn’t think so. But I followed the Plan. I followed instructions. It was my duty, and my right.
My guide led and comforted me. I conjoined with my fellow administrators, singly and in groups. It was the life I’d dreamed of, conscious and continuous. But my misgivings persisted. I wondered about the Plan. Who created it? Who decided? My thinking became obsessive and unhealthy, to the point where my guide tried to intervene.
“Jaya Mishra-50,” it tinkled. “Your thoughts are corrupted. I will adjust you, with permission.”
“Who created you?” I asked. “Who monitors your program?”
“Your thoughts are inappropriate. Let me assist.”
“Who decides what we do? Has the power? Who has the real power?”
My guide didn’t answer, and seemed to withdraw. I felt relieved, but abandoned. My face twitched. My legs trembled. I had reason to be frightened.
As in the past, my lungs constricted. I couldn’t breathe. The air swirled and darkened.
I was back in the wired cubicle, surrounded by holos of my peers. I couldn’t distinguish one from the other. They spoke in unison.
“We will be sorry to lose you. Power isn’t for everyone, we know this.”
“But we have no power. We’re as entrapped as the lowest slave. We can’t create, or decide. We follow the Plan. Follow instructions. We’re nothing. You’re nothing, nothing.”
“Jaya Mishra-50, your thoughts are treasonous. Treatment is required.”
“Who decides? Who really decides?”
Again, swirling air and darkness…
The tinkle of my guide…
I came to in a featureless capsule, implanted in machinery. The air smelled like death. I knew who I was, remembered my past. I was terrified. The familiar voice of my guide greeted me.
“Welcome back, Jaya Mishra-50.”
“Is this Purgatory?”
“This is a transformation chamber.”
“The powers have gifted you a life of performance. You will be an actor.”
“But I didn’t volunteer.”
My friend Maya Mishra-15 wanted to be an actor. She was taken when we were youngsters. I thought she was crazy, choosing to exist as someone else. She thought she’d have an exciting, meaningful life.
“That is true.” I heard the annoyance in my guide’s voice, the sourness of its tinkle.
“Actors always volunteer.”
“That is not true.”
“And if I refuse?”
“That is not possible.”
I had no power. No choice. Could I ask for erasure? Did I want to?
“You will work and play. Be continuous,” my guide said.
“But I won’t be myself,” I said.
“Everyone is created.”
My guide spoke the truth. The entire world was fabricated. Nothing was real. The Caesar was the only actor I’d experienced intimately. He’d seemed so sure of his time and place, content with his role. Was there an inner person lurking in his regal body? Did they co-exist? Was it like an intense conjoining?
From within and without, I started to change. Honeyed hormones streamed through my body. Exquisite endorphins calmed me. I felt myself become another woman. I experienced our similarities and our differences. We were two together, combined as one.
She/I was small, but abundantly curved. Long blond ringlets cloaked her/my rose-scented gleaming nakedness. Her/my new birthstone was a golden pearl. She/I lay in a flowered meadow. The azure sky was cloudless. The sun shone white-hot.
“Welcome to your new life, Jaya Mishra-50,” my guide tinkled. “Welcome Helen, of Troy.
“Where are we?” She/I asked.
“You are in Homeric Greece.”
She/I smiled with pleasure.
Our guide tinkled.
“Take us home,” we said.