Ryan Boudinot's Blueprints of the Afterlife is probably the strangest post-apocalyptic novel in ages, including a scale model of Manhattan built in the middle of Puget Sound. We talked to Boudinot about his bizarre story a while back, and now we're excited to give you an exclusive look at one chapter from the novel.
Blueprints of the Afterlife comes out in January.
Al Skinner, witness to the bloodiest wars forged by man's satanic imagination, presently feared forgetting his shoes. He kept his eye on them, brown Hush Puppies with Dr. Scholl's inserts, paired on the bedroom's spiral rag rug in his house in Scottsdale, Arizona. When you walked outside without your shoes in this neighborhood, you were on your way to assisted living. Sammy, a retired security contractor like Skinner, from two blocks over, had one morning walked without his shoes all the way to the combo Taco Bell/KFC. Later, at the country club, gray heads slowly shook and the mouth parts of those heads gummed the words, "They found him with no shoes on." Soon thereafter Sammy was ushered from this community of retired military personnel to a fortress of assisted living where one's brain wasn't expected to put on much of a show. Skinner didn't want to end up at one of those places, shoeless, separated from his wife, eating apple sauce and watching the Smiling People channel.
Her name, the wife's name, was Chiho Aoshima. Skinner watched Chiho move about the house and their life with precision and purpose. It had all culminated ridiculously in this house with two bedrooms, an upstairs and a downstairs, air-conditioning, and a glassed-in porch with a view of a sand trap and the seventh hole. She pressed oranges into juice in the morning and poured him glasses of strawberry soy milk at night. He opened the mail with a sword-shaped letter opener bearing the insignia of his company, the celebrated and bedeviled 83rd Section, aka a bunch of dirty muthafuckin newman-killing sunza bitches, aka the rats' a-holes, aka the only men he could claim to have ever loved. Love: it was something more ludicrously huge than the destruction of entire continents. Love: the only thing that atrophied the dick and balls of warfare. When he'd ofﬂoaded his worst memories he'd worried that some of the love he remembered would go with them, despite the technicians' assurances. Gone into data storage were the mutilated streets of former Chicago, legions of semirobotic Chinese marching in formation through polluted exurbs, millions of hectares of inhospitable wastes stretching across geography like the pustulent crust of a chemical burn, traces of human tissue in underground torture chambers as elaborate and equipped with amenities as a cruise ship. He'd chosen to forget these things. What worried him were the things he'd chosen to remember.
Chiho didn't appear to suffer from these worries. Even without enhancement she would have been in ﬁ ghting form. Walked ﬁve miles a day, swam on weekends, and could still pull out a jump shot when occasion called for it. She appeared far younger than her 170 years. As she'd aged she hadn't put on much weight, keeping her coat-rack frame. She still slithered into bed on top of him from time to time, tugged at the ﬂ esh of his jowls and rapped on his forehead like it was a door. He brought her a blanket or a cracker blobbed with cream cheese. She took care of the bills. He gave the most heartwarming toast on her 150th at the country club. Once a year she polished her sniper riﬂe. Chiho Aoshima: Al Skinner's will to live.
Today they were waiting for the hibernation crew to show up. Two guys and a truck. Outside in the driveway in 120 Fahrenheit their freshly washed RV, stocked with supplies for the summer, sparkled and appeared to sweat. Half of greater Phoenix had emptied by now and in another month only 5 percent of the population would remain, bunkered beneath the surface, suited up and equipped and tucked away for the season's punishing inferno, sticking around to tend to infrastructure.
"Do we have everything?" Skinner said as his wife's shape passed before him in the living room. How many times in the history of elderly-person road trips has that question been asked? Skinner spoke it ritualistically, not really minding when no answer came. Chiho whispered to herself, her bottom lip quivering with traces of speech. She was in her head again, probably plotting the logistics of their journey. By now it had become second nature, sixty years of migration, popping north before the sun landed its hammer blows on their gated community.
The hibernation technicians showed up at noon. A couple of young fellows with Latin America in their veins. While Chiho signed the paperwork, Skinner shufﬂed one last time around the house wondering if there was anything else he might toss into the RV. Ballpoint pen? He pocketed one just in case. Extra bottle of antacid? Can opener? He pulled open the top drawer of his ﬁle cabinet where he kept a stack of memory cards. They deserved to be hibernated. Come on, old man, just let them be. He put them in his breast pocket.
Back in the living room the tech guys were explaining their process, blurting it out perfunctorily, required by law to recite how the house would be sealed and ﬁlled with a proprietary, nonpolluting gas that, using a common ﬁeld generator, would be kept at a steady 72 degrees for the duration of their absence. Their house had passed inspection and was considered airtight but an additional nonpermeable membrane would engulf the structure and essentially shrink-wrap it. Chiho nodded, initialed, and signed. They grabbed their house keys and followed the techs outside. A great deal of tubing and rolls of the nonpermeable membrane were produced from the hibernation crew's truck. Soon Skinner and Chiho sat beside one another in the cockpit of the RV, watching the techs pump the proprietary nonpolluting gas into their home through a conduit designed speciﬁ cally for this purpose.
"You really want to stick around and watch the house get wrapped?" Chiho asked.
"We can go," Skinner said.
Chiho put the RV in gear and backed out of the driveway, then headed down Ironsides Avenue, through their mostly abandoned community. Up and down the block houses had been entombed until their owners returned in the fall. Once in a while stories surfaced about pets or occupants who accidentally stayed in their house during the hibernation process, to be discovered months later, perfectly preserved as if they'd died mere minutes before. The proprietary gas was that good. You could even leave food on the counter and it would still be edible upon your return, though this wasn't recommended. House condoms, Skinner called them. Soon they were on an arterial, then the stop-and-go highway, the exodus in full swing.
"I always miss Arizona," Chiho said.
"I miss Arizona even when I'm here," said Skinner.
Chiho had packed the RV as securely as she could but something still rattled in the back. Rattling noises hurt her teeth. Maybe it was a jar of marmalade jiggling in the pantry. Or the coffee pot. Skinner rode shotgun, lost in road signs. A hundred miles could pass like this.
"I brought some memory cards from home," Skinner said outside city limits. "I thought you should know."
"Well that'll be fun," said Chiho. She knew what I thought you should know meant. War memories. Would Skinner come out and say this? She gave him an opening. "We can pop in the memory of that camping trip when my shoes melted."
"I don't know if that one's in there." Skinner was quiet for two minutes by the dashboard clock. Then he said, "I brought a couple cards of war memories. I thought I'd share them with Carl. If he wants to."
"This is supposed to be a nice visit."
"I'm not asking you to approve. I've got some memories I need to go over with Carl. I promise to be on my best behavior."
The rattling. Maybe a spice bottle.
"You can do whatever you want with your own memories."
"So what are you asking of me?"
"I'm not asking you anything. I'm just telling you."
"You're asking me to wake you up when you resurrect those nightmares."
Skinner sipped his root beer, returned it to the cup holder. "We'll be careful. We'll stagger the memories, do it in doses, alternate innocuous memories from when I worked for the auto dealer or our trips to the Olympic Peninsula. We're not going to go too deep."
"Why is it that I forgot the same war but you insist on revisiting it?"
She had a point, and Skinner didn't have an answer. In their worst arguments over the years he'd insisted she had no way of possibly knowing what he'd seen, having spent the war gazing through the scope of her riﬂe or via remote cam. He'd witnessed it on the mud and the blood and the shit level, the severed heads and disembowelment level. The last time this line of reasoning trotted its diseased self in front of them he'd had a couple drinks.
"I promise I won't muck things up by drinking," Skinner said.
"You say that."
Up ahead on either side of the freeway, behind chain-link barricades and a few dozen riot cops in full gear, had coalesced two groups of that rare Arizona breed, pedestrians, bearing signage. A hundred or so total. Skinner and Chiho couldn't read the signs yet but knew what they were about. Trafﬁc slowed to a ten-mile-per-hour crawl as drivers passed angry human beings ﬁ ltering their frayed-voice accusations through staticky megaphones.
"It's worse than last year," Chiho said.
"These losers just need to get jobs," Skinner said. "Look at them. They're perfectly capable."
"I don't understand how they expect anyone to offer them a ride when they're behaving so poorly," Chiho said.
The messages on the signs came into view. An egg cracked on the RV's windshield. Skinner opened the glove compartment and located the Coca-Cola 9mm beneath a stack of expired insurance cards. It was an old ﬁrearm, an early model from when Coke, Nike, Sony, Verizon, and every other major conglomerate seemed to be rushing into the business of arming America. Coke eventually stopped manufacturing this model, returning somewhat sheepishly, post-FUS, to its core business of delicious sugared beverages. Skinner rubbed the faded red-and-white grip with the dynamic-ribbon logo.
"You're being overly dramatic," Chiho said. "Put that away."
"I just want them to see that I've got it," Skinner said, pulling the microphone out of the dash. He ﬂ icked the ON switch and his voice blasted out of two loudspeakers mounted on the roof. "Warning. We are retired security ofﬁcers who served in the Boeing militias. We are armed and won't hesitate to blow your fucking heads off."
A couple riot cops saluted or gave a thumbs-up. The crowds screamed anew and threw themselves at the barricades, their faces sore-covered and contorted. If they were lucky they'd get arrested and tossed into the air-conditioned underground clink. Maybe that was the whole point. Soon the trafﬁ c picked up and there was nothing but saguaros, prickly pear, and distant scorched hills. Occasionally they passed a lone hitchhiker waving pathetically or pointing frantically at a water jug, begging for a reﬁll. A man and a boy solemnly shoved their belongings along in a shopping cart. Skinner shook his head. What made it impossible for some people to prepare for the changing of the seasons?
Some memories were more painful than those forged in war. They'd once been a family of four sharing a home in Portland, Oregon, with a yard and a dog. Take a picture and upload it. Picnics, football games. Their son Waitimu Skinner was born ﬁrst, then , three years later, their daughter Roon Aoshima. Two handsome kids with good grades.
At nineteen Waitimu enlisted in the same ﬁrm his dad had served in and shipped out to Detroit during the lingering days of the FUS. Swiss-cheesed by roadside-bomb masonry screws during a routine security sweep. What remained of Waitimu was buried on Vancouver island.
Roon now lived in Seattle with her wife Dot, working in a vague capacity for one of the contractors transforming Bainbridge Island into Manhattan. Skinner and Chiho hadn't spoken to their daughter in ﬁve years and here's why: Thanksgiving, too much sake, money, politics, yelling, a broken heirloom candy dish.
These stories aren't uncommon—an older child dies and the younger one can never live up to her imagined legacy. Skinner and Chiho kept the Waitimu memory cards in a safety deposit box in Phoenix and avoided talking about their confounding, troublesome rift with Roon.
Maybe the rattling was a spatula.
* * *
America didn't used to look like this, Chiho thought from behind the windshield. There used to be people in all these houses. People shopping and walking their dogs. People yelling, "Hello, neighbor! Can I borrow a stick of butter?" San Diego scrolled beneath their tires, the ﬁrst of three urban dots one had to connect to experience coastal California. What remnants of old civilization lay between these points were scavenger-picked and surrendered to nature. Incredible how quickly trees invaded pavement, foundations crumbled, brambles engulfed cars. They saw crows appear to dismantle a motorcycle. Whenever they pulled off the highway to stretch their legs they tried to park near the ocean. Skinner wanted to see the beached aircraft carrier. A couple hundred miles south of San Francisco it lay jutting at a nutty angle on the beach, like a sunbathing skyscraper. They stopped in Oakland, in what was trying to become Little Boston. Fenway Park was half-ﬁnished, and a few blocks away there was a lackluster attempt at Harvard Yard. Skinner bought a Red Sox hat from a street vendor who promised it had been manufactured pre-FUS in Boston itself.
"Want to stop at Hearst Castle?" Chiho wanted to know.
Skinner shrugged. Might as well. They parked the RV at the visitors center and boarded the shuttle. A pleasant way to kill an afternoon. Skinner took a picture of his wife standing beside a statue of Poseidon by the grandest of the pools. The fact that one man had ever amassed this much wealth inconvenienced Skinner's sense of logic. That this magnitude of fortune paled in comparison to the wealth attained by certain pre-FUS oligarchs was almost metaphysically impossible to comprehend.
* * *
Carl and Hiroko Taylor lived outside Portland in an A-frame home amid thirty or so former suburban acres of new-growth cedar and hemlock. Carl was negotiating with a solar panel out front when Skinner and Chiho rolled up the driveway. He didn't look like a soldier anymore, just an old black dude with white hair wearing a plaid ﬂannel shirt and suspenders. Hiroko came out onto the porch clutching a mammoth mug of tea. Carl grabbed Skinner as soon as he had clambered out of the RV and the friends slammed their hands into each other's backs.
"You dirty old fossil," Carl laughed. When Carl laughed, his smile hung around on his face like the last guest at a party.
"Let me get some of this," Hiroko said, separating the men to embrace Skinner. Carl lifted Chiho off the ground and the four old friends stood laughing and grinning, anticipating rich, copious food and stories, late nights of movies and video games. Skinner knew that the presence of their friends would put a damper on his and Chiho's bickering. They were never as loving toward one another as when they were in the presence of friends. Spirits lifted, the four repaired to the kitchen where Hiroko zapped buffalo wings and Carl pulled out some blue potato chips with blue cheese dip. There were crudites and smoked salmon, huckleberry scones and homemade preserves, coffee.
"You're sabotaging your solar again," Skinner said.
"I might as well take a ball-peen hammer to it," said Carl.
"You're cursed. Put a machine in your hands and it takes itself apart."
Hiroko said to Chiho, "I was worried you guys wouldn't escape Phoenix this time."
Chiho replied, "We ran into some demonstrators on the way out, but we did ﬁ ne."
"Yeah, because I showed off my Coke," Skinner said. "There was a testosterone moment," Chiho nodded.
"We got out of there in one piece is all I'm saying."
"Those people just want to get out before it gets too hot," Hiroko said.
"Then they should move out altogether," Carl said. "I second that opinion," Skinner said. "Slide that dip on over here, if you please. There are relocation programs, right? They can move up to Canada."
"Or Alaska," Carl said.
"And live in a camp?" Hiroko asked. "I hear those places are foul."
"Some of them are," Chiho said. "They're improving, though. According to Reader's Digest, anyway."
The conversation was veering dangerously toward buzz-kill territory. They all seemed to recognize this, and with a collective breath moved on to other topics.
"School! How's teaching this semester?" Chiho asked Hiroko.
"Fabulous. I taught Theory of Counterinsurgency, FUS History with an emphasis on the New England theater, a couple intro freshman classes. I had incredible students this semester."
"Her students drove her to tears," Carl said.
Hiroko said, "Please tell us you're staying a couple weeks, at least. We've got a pantry full of food that'll go to waste otherwise."
"Football, barbecue, a little walk in the woods," Carl said.
"Our thoughts exactly," Skinner said. "I don't know how much longer we can hold out in the desert."
"You said that last year," Chiho said.
"Every year I mean it a little bit more. Putting a prophylactic on my house four months out of the year."
"Let me see your garden!" Chiho said. Hiroko did an embarrassed and proud little shrug and motioned for her to follow.
When the women were gone, Skinner and Carl looked at each other and shared a laugh.
"Jesus, we're still here," Skinner said.
"Still looking like shit, a day late and a dollar short."
"When you can live forever, all you're doing is postponing the inevitable. You're just going to die in some stupid accident."
"Could come any day."
"And a welcome day that'll be."
They laughed again, matching the cadence of their guffaws. Carl said, "Seriously. You bring the memories?"
"Right here." Skinner patted his breast pocket. "I told
Carl nodded. "I told Hiroko. We got into a ﬁght about it."
"But we gots to do what we gots to do."
"Sort through the bullshit."
"Get our past in order."
"I promised Chiho I wouldn't drink. You help me out on that?" Skinner asked.
"You got it. I'll not drink with you."
"You don't have to."
"You would for me."
"True. You make these buffalo wings?" "I wish I could take credit but they came out of a fuckin'
bag. Cooper died."
"Wait, who—Cooper? Shit, no."
"Lung cancer ﬁnally. One of those weird kinds of lung cancer that happen to people who don't smoke. So rare the Bionet doesn't have a reliable app to deal with it. He tried a cigarette when he was sixteen, puked his guts out, and never touched the stuff again, even when we were in combat. Now that's fuckin' willpower. I talked to him a month before he passed. He blamed the cancer on that one cigarette from ninety years ago. Cigarette smoke was the least of what ended up in our lungs."
"I can't say I ever got along with Cooper that well. God rest his soul."
"You barely got along with anyone. You were the crew's resident son of a bitch."
"But when the shit went down is what I'm saying."
"You don't even have to say it."
"I'm trying harder not to be a prick. I volunteer at the local pool. Hand out boogie boards to snot-nosed kids. Went door-to-door collecting toothbrushes for our church. Apparently they need toothbrushes in Alabama or someplace."
"Guy on his ﬁfth set of dentures collecting toothbrushes. That's a good one."
Skinner grinned. "How you keeping busy besides busting solar panels?"
"Dude, nothing much has changed since you were here last. I do my Tai Chi in the morning and my yoga at night. I reread all of Dickens and am back on a Melville jag. It's all about supporting the wife's career. She's working on a book about the FUS. Trying to spell out once and for all why it went down, who was responsible. Most of the time she's buried in books."
"How'd a dumbass like you marry a woman so smart?"
"My thoughts precisely. She could've just retired a long time ago but she's got unﬁnished business with the FUS. She thinks she did too little to prevent it is my theory. Like she was part of the whole propaganda apparatus that brought on the worst of it. It haunts her. I've been trying to tell her to give it a rest, what's past is past. But she's too much like you. Has to go over it and over it in her head."
"An incredible woman. They broke the mold et cetera, et cetera."
"Roon called here last week."
"She wants to get in touch with you and Chiho. I think she wants to make amends."
Skinner rubbed his face. Audible stubble. "I wasn't expecting that. Is she okay? Jesus, I'm a shitty father."
"She sounded good. I talked to her maybe ﬁve minutes. She says she doesn't have your new number. She wanted—I really should wait until Chiho is here to tell you this."
"Don't worry, man, it's nothing bad. Just wait for the ladies to come back from their little garden tour and all will be revealed."
Five minutes and five buffalo wings later Hiroko and Chiho came back indoors. Chiho beamed. "Did Carl tell you Roon called?"
"Yeah, he did, what's—"
Chiho knitted her ﬁngers together and held her hands to her chin. "Roon and Dot have a baby!"
Skinner opened his mouth to say something, stopped, looked to the others to ﬁgure out how he should be feeling. "A grandchild?" he said.
"A little boy," Hiroko said. "He's two now."
In this safe place, in the company of people who loved him, bewildered and unable to speak, Skinner found tears trembling at the corners of his eyes.
Now they'd have to see Roon. Their stay would be shadowed by expectation and shot through with giddiness that they'd ﬁ nally get to meet a grandchild. Skinner shook his head and gazed curiously at his open palms, as though he'd achieved grandfatherhood via some feat of manual labor. Carl suggested they go on a walk.
The path through the woods roughly followed where a sidewalk used to be. Here and there stood foundations of houses. If you kicked at the weeds or peeled back layers of fallen leaves, little artifacts of extinct Portlanders emerged. Bottles, cell phones, plastic toys partially covered in moss, the rusted whorls of a box-spring mattress. Trees had reclaimed the grid, reverting it to chaotic geometries determined by fallen seeds. Chiho loved the birds most, the wild ﬂ ocks that had replenished themselves post-FUS, blotting the sky in great concentrations of feather, cackle, and wing. A woodpecker smacked its beak against a snag, probing for grubs. Amid a copse of pines rose an old McDonald's golden arches sign, boasting of billions served. Billions! The husbands and wives walked paired down the path.
Skinner said to Hiroko, "Carl says you're working on a book."
"More like the book's working on me."
"So what's your angle on the FUS?"
"I'm considering it by way of a neurological metaphor," Hiroko said. "I stumbled on some research from the 1950s, two scientists named Olds and Milner who ﬁ rst identiﬁed the pleasure centers of the brain. I guess their most famous experiment was when they stimulated the pleasure centers of rats whenever the rats pressed a particular bar in their cage. It didn't take long for the rats to stimulate their pleasure centers to the point of exhaustion, to the point of not eating or taking care of their other physiological needs. My argument is that in the age of Fucked Up Shit, human beings became like those rats, whacking the bars that stimulated our pleasure centers even as those very bars were what triggered our doom. In the last few decades of the twentieth century, we started to understand the terms of our self-destruction. Our rational minds argued against using fossil fuels, against overeating and too much television, against accumulating too much wealth among too few, but a more powerful part of our brains kept pushing those bars. Push, push, push. The solutions, the ways we might avoid the FUS, were staring us right in the face. It was obvious and apparent: stop using oil, stop making plastic, control the growth of the population to a logical level so we could exist within the parameters of our ecology. If we didn't do these things, most of us would die. But we were willing to die because a more powerful part of our minds, the old mammalian limbic system, was busy pushing those bars. The more recent, less developed part of our brains, the neocortex, was waving its arms and screaming for us to stop our destructive behavior. In this war between the limbic system and the neocortex, the limbic system won, hence the FUS."
Carl picked up a stick to walk with. "So by the time we got tangled in the FUS, who were we ﬁghting for exactly?" he said.
"We were ﬁghting for Boeing," Skinner laughed.
"Yes, but more to the point, we were ﬁghting for the limbic system," Hiroko said. "We were ﬁghting to keep pushing those bars. When everything collapsed, there were few bars left to push. But now the earth's renewing itself. Look around us. There are a lot fewer people to make a mess of things. The qputers are undoing the damage."
"Still, Phoenix gets hotter every year," Skinner said.
"True," Hiroko said, "because not every place is recovering at the same rate. It's going to take some places a lot longer."
They came to an old intercity light-rail car covered in vines. Through the dirty windows they read advertisements for colonics and undergraduate degrees.
Skinner said, "So you're saying we fought on the wrong side, Hiroko?"
She shrugged. "In the FUS, everyone was on the wrong side. The very idea of sides was on the wrong side."
The nocturnal animals of the forest performed their ﬁ rst stirrings as light seeped out of the sky. The path widened and intersected with a hard-packed gravel road. Nearby leaned a bus-stop sign. In a few short minutes a bus arrived, a shambling, multihued contraption furnished with couches and love seats, a kitchenette in the back where a woman cooked a garlicky organic meal. A few other riders, swaddled in patchwork outﬁ ts of Gore-Tex and hemp, sat reading alternative weeklies, about them hanging the whiff of weed. The four friends crowded together on a couch across from a balding man in glasses who was absorbed in a battered copy of Benjamin's Illuminations, a scarf wrapped so many times around his neck that it appeared to be holding his head in place. The bus bumbled along the irregular road and the trees eventually gave way to deliberate landscaping and an actual paved arterial. Soon they were on Burnside through the vital guts of Portland. A block or two from Powell's City of Books they climbed off the bus and squeezed through an alley to Hiroko and Carl's favorite Thai place. As they approached the back entrance, a great wave of plates and cutlery crashed through the door and spilled out into the alley. Carried on this wave was a disheveled and quite stoned busboy, and close behind a chef rode a baking sheet like a surfboard, yelling obscenities at his young and now-ﬁ red employee.
"Asleep on the job!" the chef bellowed. "What kind of dishwasher are you!"
"Don't worry. The food's actually great," Hiroko said as they climbed over the dishes, trying not to slip on a rainbow of curries.
During appetizers, Chiho proclaimed, "We're so rude. We haven't even asked about Jadie."
Carl sighed. "She's had her troubles with the Bionet. Became some sick bastard's embodiment. We got her in a recovery center down here."
"Christ," Skinner said.
"It started out with dancing," Carl continued. "She'd go to parties where everyone tried out these illegal apps, give over her codes to a choreographer and they'd put her body through elaborate moves. Soon it turned into an everyday routine. She surrendered some of her basic functions, like what time she'd wake up, when she'd eat and use the bathroom. Her DJ was good to her at ﬁrst, they usually are, got her to make new friends—other embodiments—made her feel popular, put witty comments in her mouth when she was in social situations. She got a bit part in a TV show they ﬁlm up in Vancouver."
"Forensic Mindfuck," Hiroko said.
"The one about the detectives?" Chiho asked.
"The one where they travel back in time and use modern forensic methods to solve crimes of the past," Carl said. "Anyway. Around that time she dropped out of school, which we weren't too keen on, but it looked like she had a real career getting started."
"When did you ﬁnd out she was getting DJed?" Chiho said.
"We were clueless," Carl said. "We thought she was succeeding purely on her own merits. If we'd known, we'd have ﬂown up to Vancouver and tossed her ass in a recovery center straightaway."
"We knew something about her had changed when we visited," Hiroko said, "but we couldn't identify it. I thought it was the pressure and excitement of her new life. Sometimes her hands trembled like she'd had too much coffee."
Carl rubbed his stubble. "Her show got canceled and she was out of school and looking for work. That's when her DJ lost interest in her and set her on autopilot. He got her a job waitressing and wiped his hands of her, setting her loose on autogenerated subroutines. She described it as being like living the same boring day over and over again. She woke up exactly at 7:02 a.m., had the same cereal for breakfast, ran 4.2 miles on the treadmill, and went to the same stores and bought the same three items every day—a nail ﬁle from the drugstore, a copy of Nabokov's Lolita from the bookstore, and a set of shoelaces from a shoe repair shop. Then she'd go waitress at a greasy spoon that served only regulars who ordered the same things every day. After that she'd come home, watch a tape of the same stupid comedy, take a shower, and go to bed at 9:00 on the dot. And every night she had the same dream, in which she separated bottles for recycling behind the restaurant where she worked. Brown bottles, green bottles, clear bottles. The dream always seemed to last a couple hours, but got more detailed every night. She started to be able to read the labels, see the air bubbles in the glass, feel the texture of the glue on the bottles. Her dreams became so high-def that they started making her waking reality look foggy. Then she'd wake up and start all over again. Treadmill, shopping, work, home, movie, shower, bed, dream. It went on like this for months. Part of her remained aware of what was happening, a weak little section of her brain, and she started to suspect that the regulars at the cafe were embodiments, too, retired embodiments also on autopilot. She'd become this reliable little machine, a component that did its part to keep the companies that made the nail ﬁles and the shoelaces and the copies of Lolita in business, programmed to be a battery plugged into the economy. On her days off the routines automatically changed, and she'd send us an email and tell us how she was looking forward to enrolling in school again and ﬁnishing her degree. Very little variation to these messages. Hiroko and I kept trying to plan a trip up north and see her but stuff kept getting in the way. I broke my leg, Hiroko got a grant to write her book, all the usual we've-been-busy BS that keeps families from seeing each other. We were just happy to know she was planning to go back to school. So, ﬁnally, a couple months ago we got our act together and headed up to Vancouver. She kept trying to dissuade us from coming. I got suspicious. So we head on up there and found her new apartment, in some lousy part of town with people crazy and passed out, trash all over the place up and down the street. I ran up the steps to her door. We pounded on it and she told us to go away, so I knew something real foul was going down. The worst scenarios ran through my mind, you know how it is with a daughter. So I got all commando and broke down the fuckin' door. Really messed up my shoulder for the weekend, I might add. We found her looking completely normal, standing in the middle of her apartment. With a hundred ninety-seven copies of Lolita, a hundred ninety-seven packages of shoelaces, and a hundred ninety-seven nail ﬁles all piled up on the kitchen table. And she was standing there dressed, smiling, making the same repetitive motion with her arm, a little shufﬂe with her feet, waiting for the clock to strike 9:00 a.m. so she could go out and do her shopping. Her smile terriﬁed me. A smile a thousand miles from happiness. I just came out and asked her if she was an embodiment."
"Christ," Skinner said. "Did you ever catch the son of a bitch who did this to her?"
Carl shook his head. "The cops are still looking. They're about ﬁve years behind the technology, if you wanna know the sad truth. It's shocking. There's a whole underground economy driven by embodiments. People just set up to work at mindless jobs, to consume the same shit every day, punch in and punch out, keep products in production, services rendered, walking around numb and dumb and compliant, without an original thought in their damn heads."
"She's doing better," Hiroko said, "but it's a long recovery. The ego atrophies during the embodiment state. It has to be rebuilt little by little. It takes weeks for them to be able to introduce themselves or shake someone's hand."
Skinner said, "I remember holding her little hands. Giving her shells and sand dollars. Your story breaks my heart."
They moved on to discussions more germane to their surroundings. Skinner ﬁngered the memory cards in his pocket, wondering at the horrors preserved in their wafer-like forms. Why punish himself like this again? Other retired private contractors, sitting in their deck chairs ﬂipping channels and keeping their bowels operational with concoctions of herbs, didn't seem burdened by the same obsessive need to recontextualize their former lives. For Skinner's neighbors at the shrink-wrapped retirement community, the wars moldered. They were content to follow college football and steady their swing at the driving range. The FUS was to be actively avoided in conversation, not sought out. Skinner almost admired their ability to evade the terrors of their pasts. On his worst days he prayed for the strength to do the same. But his earlier life on battleﬁelds demanded accounting. This need was so consuming that the only way for Carl to remain his friend was to humor him and take part in the trip, to follow him down that ﬂaming hole of cunt-shit-molten-fuck. But now—this was a surprise—Skinner'd found some new psychic armor with which to fortify himself. He had a grandson.
Skinner took the cards out of his pocket and set them on the table. The other three regarded the cards with visible sadness as Skinner separated them into piles of innocuous memories and memories of war, the innocuous ones outnumbering the wartime ones three to one. Then, with the bottom of the pepper shaker, he smashed the war memories into pieces. When he was done, Skinner exhaled and ﬁngered his fortune cookie, reluctant to ﬁnd out what it revealed about his future.
"You did it, my friend," Carl said. "Good for you."
Chiho rubbed Skinner's shoulder and kissed his weathered hands. He swept the pieces of the memory cards into his palm and sprinkled them atop the remnants of his panang curry. All that remained now were memories of banal civilian life and the one memory from the war he refused to destroy, the one piece of unﬁnished business: the memory of the day he came back from the dead.
The next day after breakfast, the women left the men reclined on plush furniture beneath portraits of Carl's and Hiroko's ancestors that went back generations, to slaves and dynasties. On the coffee table were arrayed bottles of water and an Apple memory console, a black lump of elegant industrial design about the size and shape of a baseball, smashed in on one side.
"Sure you don't want to watch the NCAA semiﬁ nals instead?" Carl asked.
"Plug us in," Skinner said, closing his eyes.
Carl pushed the card into the slot. A little pinwheel icon on the display indicated that the console was recognizing and syncing with the whatzits embedded in their skulls. This reality hung on for a while—the books on the shelves, the red rug. The scene trembled a bit at the edges as the stored memory worked to displace their surroundings. At this in-between stage, inanimate objects asserted more emphatically what they truly were. The water in the bottles wanted desperately to escape the plastic, yearning to become lost again in oceans and clouds. Skinner drew a Pendleton blanket around his shoulders, listening to individual wool ﬁbers creak, snap, and whisper memories of ewes grazing in valleys. Carl reached out and took Skinner's hand, squeezed it to remind him he was there. A few minutes in, the living room went into rapid retreat. The effect was like looking at a department store window and not knowing what to focus on—the objects on display or the reﬂection of the street. Slowly their senses adjusted to perceive more acutely what lay beyond the pane. They were crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. A percussive frozen rain raked at them as clouds merged with plumes of smoke rising from all over the island.
"Carl?" Skinner said. He was trying to pivot his head but it was as if his neck was in a brace.
"I got you," Carl said behind him, or beside him, or both. A representation of Carl sidled up, his old-man face superimposed on his younger man's body, a weird bug in the software. "We're in, man."
"Jesus, the smell."
"It's always the smell that's the worst."
"I can smell the bodies."
Younger Carl spoke, his voice fuzzy. "At least the smell of bodies don't make you cough up your damn lungs. It's those other smells we got to be afraid of."
Up ahead in a pile of rags a baby cried beside its moth-er's detached bodily components. As Skinner veered toward the baby a greasy hand dug into his bicep and yanked him around. Malmides, his direct supervisor, barked into his face, "Keep moving, shitstain."
Skinner saw that he was in a vast video game of men that stretched back through Brooklyn, bristling with weaponry and trudging into death. He didn't march so much as let himself get carried along. He looked down and watched his legs ﬂop retardedly forward, unable to stop. Piles of refuse burned in the East River, decapitated bodies swung from the bridge supports like demented mobiles. He strained to take in the magniﬁ cent destruction ahead. Here, on the bridge, all was panorama, but soon those buildings would entangle him, a grid turning into an unforgiving labyrinth. Inexplicably, a herd of goats ran bleating past them, their hides scorched and speckled with boils. One of them sported an eyeball dangling from its socket. At the little park on the other side of the bridge he found himself in a congregation listening to the director of operations, a bull of a man with prosthetic eyes and a voice raspy from inhaling the particulate of decimated signature architecture. Castiliano was that bastard's name and this was his rallying moment, a little rhetorical propane to get the soldiers hard.
"We bring death today to those who claim to become God! We slaughter under the banner of Christ! We butcher the hordes who've come to rape our children! Root them out, grab a limb, rip it off! Coat your faces in their gore! Stomp harder on the rising lids of their rancid cofﬁns, Boeing army ﬁ ghters!"
A great cry went up and Skinner, queasy, broke off into a unit with Carl and ﬁve other sick motherfucks, as it were, guys with faces and names and homes that had been erased from Planet Earth. Supposedly they were to head west and root out a couple remaining pockets of newman resistance.
"I don't think I can do this," Skinner said in his memory.
"Fuck you, Skinner. You were born to do this," Carl said.
One of the other guys in the unit looked exactly like the pre-FUS comedic actor Will Ferrell. Another bug in the program. Apparently if you remembered a person as looking sort of like someone famous, the famous person tended to show up in your memory instead. "Guys?" Will Ferrell said, his voice cracking.
"Maybe we should just ﬁnd a Starbucks and get lattes? My treat? What do you say?"
Carl whispered in Skinner's ear, "Come on, dude, you're in command."
"Listen, you sick Homo sapiens," Skinner said. "The heavy lifting's been done. We're basically the janitors, scrubbing the newman shit from this godforsaken island. Let's quit fucking around and move!"
They passed through acrid manhole steam and subway entrances piled with rotting body parts swarmed by mutated, screeching larvae. Skinner glanced down to see a woman's shoe with the foot still in it, toenails painted lavender, sliced off at the ankle so cleanly it could have been done by a surgeon. It wasn't the enormity of it all that fucked you, it was little shit like this. A headless body slumped in a doorway beneath an advertisement for Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy II. An arm protruded from beneath a ﬂaming and overturned taxi. Everywhere burned the obscene carbon stench of manufactured goods and organic forms returning to the elements. Will Ferrell had begun to whimper comically, eyes darting left and right. Carl slapped him on the back of the head.
In the East Village they came to a cafe, still operational amid the rubble. Everything above the second ﬂoor of the building looked to have been vaporized. Within the ground-level walls baristas steamed milk and a sound system blasted fusion-era Miles. In a corner, under a painting of ﬂames, the scarred remnants of a company of mercenaries sat drinking. Seven guys speckled in concrete dust and dried blood, knocking back coffee spiked with scavenged liquors. Their eyes barely moved when Skinner and his crew arrived, stepping over dead laptops and brick chunks.
"We're the Boeing 83rd," Skinner said. "What company you all with?"
"Who wants to know?" said a man in the rear. Jet-black hair, glasses, untangling a Rubik's Cube.
"I'm Lieutenant Al Skinner."
Carl said, "They're the Pﬁzer 190th. The insignia on their gear."
"I thought Pﬁzer ran screaming from this shit," Skinner said.
"We are the shit," Rubik's Cube said.
Will Ferrell ordered a grande nonfat decaf mocha.
"This all that's left of your company?" Skinner asked.
Cube said, "You want to know the difference between a war and a war game? A game comes with a reset button. But the only way to access that button is to die. Want to test this theory?"
Skinner said nothing. Cube shrugged, asked his command, "Who would be willing to blow his fucking brains out to see if there's a reset button?"
A young, stone-faced soldier drinking a cappuccino unholstered his sidearm and pressed the barrel under his chin.
"You don't have to prove anything to me," Skinner said.
"This is the fuck and death party," Cube said. "You don't wanna see the death? How about some of the fuck? We've got a surprise downstairs. You fellows can help yourselves to the leftovers. We've had our ﬁll. Go on ahead, indulge."
"You don't have girls, do you?" Carl said, his face falling.
"No, man, we're following the code. We got 'droid pussy."
"Tell that idiot to holster his weapon," Skinner said.
Cube nodded. "Goldberg, we don't need you to hit the reset button just yet." He turned back to Skinner. "You look like you've been at this for a while, soldier. Tell me, do the newmans make any sense to you? Has killing them made it any easier to determine whether they're the human beings or if we're the ones who come out of factories?"
"I kill what I'm told to kill," Skinner said. "I don't give a fuck if it's got guts or chips."
"Good for you," Cube smiled and tossed his toy to Skinner. "Now mess this puzzle up and solve your way out of it."
An iron stairwell led to a basement. The stairs opened into a dim, low-ceilinged space that smelled of opium smoke and industrial-grade lubricants. A soldier elbowed past them on his way out, zipping his ﬂy. The 83rd turned on their beams and swept the ﬂoor with light. The room appeared littered with dissected mannequins. An arm crawled out of their way and hid under a sofa as they advanced. They followed the sound of sex groans to a curtained alcove. When Skinner swept aside the curtain they found a fat, naked man on his back on a couch. Skinner blinked, trying to ﬁgure out what exactly he was looking at. As best he could tell, it was the lower half of a male newman, the legs wearing ﬁshnet stockings, mounted on the fat man, rocking back and forth while the man stroked the thing's artiﬁcial cock. Where the torso should have been was a mess of organic newman technology, cords and sacs, severed tubes spurting clear ﬂuid. While this half of a newman got fucked, a severed newman head of indeterminate gender licked the fat man's balls.
"Hey! Can't a dude screw in peace around here?" the fat man complained.
"My God," Skinner said. (Decades later, in Carl's living room, Carl said, "Yeah, that shit was sick. And you don't even remember it as gross as I remember it.")
"Identify yourself," Skinner said.
"And you are?"
"My name is: I've got a loaded Cherry Coca-Cola and your dick is up a robot's ass."
"Name's Caponegra, senior regional manager of the Pﬁ zer 183rd."
Will Ferrell spoke up. "Guys? Is it considered a threeway if two of the participants used to be one person? Just wondering."
"Shut the fuck up, Ferrell," Carl said.
"We're sweeping the 'hood for insurgents," Skinner said, yanking the newman body half off Caponegra's lap. "And you're going to data dump all your intelligence on us."
"Dammit, ﬁne. Let me rub one out and I'll brief you upstairs."
Upstairs, over coffee at a table freckled with cigarette butts, Caponegra, now mostly clothed, told stories of raids, ambushes, casualties received and delivered. Skinner divvied the info into little piles, separating a soldier's braggadocio from strategically relevant data. Caponegra's blustery yarns did support the case that the newmans were in full retreat, escaping into the forests upstate where they were burying themselves under trees to hibernate.
"They're like bears," Caponegra said. "I got a report from a scout in the Glaxo-Wellcome 3rd infantry that they cornered four of them up near Saratoga Springs, all huddled in a hole in the ground, skin going pasty from lack of sun, eyes glowing red as they went into sleep mode. Interrogation revealed they had no power-up date. Meaning someone would have to come along, ﬁnd them, and manually turn them back on."
"We're sweeping west through Soho," Skinner said. "What can you tell us."
Caponegra rolled his eyes. "You guys got the easiest job in the world. There's no one left out there. We practically bleached the place."
"So what are you doing hanging around here?"
Caponegra gave him a look. "There's somewhere else?"
They came to a building halved vertically by an explosion. Looked like an NYU dorm, a cross section of what appeared to be, more or less, normal collegiate life, a couple dozen hive-like stories of beds, computers, desks, a Jules et Jim poster, microbiology and civics textbooks with passages highlighted in pink and yellow, the pillowy forms of bags of popped but uneaten microwaved popcorn. Paper drifted in the smoke. Here and there a ﬁre. In one of the exposed dorm rooms on the second ﬂoor, a girl sat hunched over her desk, head in hand, reviewing self-made ﬂ ash cards.
Carl consulted his handheld. "She's human."
"Hey you! Student!" Skinner shouted. "What are you still doing up there?"
Visibly annoyed, the girl called down, "Leave me alone! I'm studying! Midterms next week!"
"You need to evacuate asap!" Carl replied. "This ain't the time to study! Come on, we'll set you up in a library where you can study all you want!"
Somewhere on the island another building fell, rattling the earth beneath their feet and the teeth in their jaws. Helicopters in formation sliced across a sky too grimy and chemical-burned to be of any use to anybody.
Carl said to Skinner, "We got to get her out of there. She's in shock, obviously."
"Stupid bitch," Skinner said. "Let's save her ass."
Skinner put Will Ferrell in charge of the unit while he and Carl climbed over the rubble looking for an entrance. The comic actor called after them. "Guys? This is against protocol, you know? Shouldn't we all stick together?"
"Go fuck yourself, Ferrell," Skinner said. "We're getting this chick out of here."
(Years in the future, in the living room, Carl said, "Not exactly how we remember it."
"Yeah, but here it comes," Skinner said.)
Carl pushed aside a Foosball table, found the stairwell. Walls covered in anti-newman grafﬁ ti. Skinner doubted many of the students who'd screwed and crammed and gotten ripped in these dorms had made it off Manhattan alive. Riﬂ e drawn he kicked open the door to the second ﬂoor, exiting into a dark hallway where postpsychotherapy Metallica played faintly from ceiling-mounted speakers. In a corner beneath a ﬁ re extinguisher lay a wounded Christian American soldier. Looked like a contractor from Toys "R" Us. Hard to tell exactly where he'd been hit; his whole torso was caramelized in bloody goo. Carl bent over him with the handheld and got his vitals.
"Soldier, where you from?" Carl said.
"Huh?" the fallen man said. "Who the f-f-f-fuck are you?"
"We're the Boeing 83rd. We're going to ﬂy you out of this joint."
"The college chick—" the soldier said. "They're using her as bait."
"We got nooms up in this shit?" Carl said as a round pinged the ﬁre extinguisher over his head, unleashing a cloud of white vapor. Down the hall dorm rooms cracked open and out stumbled half-obliterated newmans wearing the collegiate T-shirts and hoodies of their victims. Carl's face assumed the intensity of a man assembling a particularly tricky piece of furniture as he raked the hall with ordnance. Skinner's head rolled to one side and he caught sight of a Mohawked, child-sized newman wearing a Led Zeppelin SwanSong T-shirt and nothing else, its crotch smooth and plastic with the absence of genitals, round after round perforating its jerking, humanoid form, an arm shot off in gouts of purplish lubricant, its cat-like eyes glowing yellow in the ﬁre-retardant haze.
("Here it comes," Skinner said in the living room.)
There it came, a round ripping through his chest plate, which put the kibosh on the velocity enough so that it lodged in his trunk without splattering out his back. Then another one to the leg, a kind of afterthought. He plunged into a pool of blood where all sound disappeared.
In Carl's memory he dragged Skinner by the leg down the hall, unloading at other newmans lurching out of dorm rooms. The memory fritzed out a second, ﬂipped perspectives, then Skinner had a close-up view of a busted iPod, its mysterious guts revealed. Rounds whanged off metal, the elevator doors. His eyes ﬂuttered and in the living room one hundred years later Carl squeezed his hand so hard it went numb. Here we go.