Junction

A Cyber-Slow-Down short story, by Rio Wulfmare

Jacked from any sleep or rest, bleary and wet eyed, the engineer scampered down the tunnel until he fell into the frigid, pale light of a hollow dome. Wide eyes glimpsed a dark thing, a kind of fractured column, standing at the dome’s middle on a plinth. All else was green and rubble: an Old-World, backwater supermarket of gomi. Future rubbish.

He glanced up. Clouds rolled in, stopping the late-Spring sun. From the dark the engineer leapt, cowering from the great shafts of light. Glass from the dome’s roof crunched as he landed, echoing over and over, up and out through what was left of the dome’s top. Glass, beads of glass, rainbow-coloured late-morning gleaming glass, all the glass glittered along the bridge to the dome’s centre. On the far side, a right bridge ran away from the Eyes of the Austro-Japonic New World. The left was less than shattered boulders, limp like upended fists of stone. 

Flickering light through the forest’s canopy fell through the arches on that far side. Bejewelled emerald darkness. The engineer smelt grass and cloying, sickly kusunoki trees burning under the Eyes, out in the bordering lands. Something machine groaned, far away. The engineer sucked on the chilly air sharply, about to run along the bridge.

A shadow. Some bird screeched, a rave of wild rasping. The shriek rang down the arched tunnel, one of hundreds haloing the dome’s edge. The engineer turned and caught a puddle of dark on the floor. A fuss of feathers rustled above. Then, over the floor, the shadow blistered, straight to the engineer. They moved to the bridge’s edge. The shadow flew down the bridge and disappeared over one of the mirror lagoons that lurked between the bridges. The real bird watched from the roof.

In those wide pools was another dome betrayed, forming a sphere blasted by shafts of light. For the engineer, the lights swung as the clouds moved. Roving lights. Spotlights. He danced back to the tunnel, hesitated, then sidled back along the bridge’s edge, towards the dome’s centre, though much slower.

In front, shadows bled into the black arches on the dome’s far side. Something glinted there, by the dome’s exit. A pale sphere, smooth and well-polished. The forehead grew a face. The face sprouted a body. Stepping from the darkness appeared a robot, with a straw hat and a daisy-chain crown wrapped around its top. And seven pairs of brilliant red LEDs for eyes, half-formed, uncanny in the gloam. 

It stepped slowly, thick metal legs wheezing as it lifted each foot. Its pistons hissed. A tall, narrow silhouette, leaving a series of hourglass-shaped depressions that served as robotic footprints. Yet, the closer the robot walked to the dark thing at the dome’s centre, the taller the centre thing grew. And more human, too. The engineer glanced backwards, blinking into the dark of the tunnel. A fantastic pair of Eyes watched from the border of shadows, watched his passage, watched the sweat bead on his forehead. Then he turned and approached the black figure on its plinth with caution.

“Did you ever sketch buildings like this? Doodles, I imagine, in your free time?”

The engineer gasped, glaring at the mouthless robot. Its speaker crackled; a kind of dialect based on the lingo of old-tech modems. He mouthed many words, a long question, but his tongue stopped. Mouth open, he looked back at the dark arches, where the Eyes might have lurked, then back at the robot. “Sure … Planetariums. Atria. Greenhouses. Just not so … ”

“Empty?” asked the robot.

“Full. Not quite so full.” 

The gomi, lightly dusted in kusunoki and oakwood ash, lined the edges of the bridges. Mounds of decomposing plastic slumped like little hills for the grass and green weeds to weasel through to the surface. Gomi built up the frames of the glass ceiling, gomi spilled over the edge. A skirling cry—gusts of wind pushed gomi and ash from the rest of the glass panels, beetling through the air and glittering in the narrow shafts of noon light, down, down to the floor. Some rained into a small puddle just beside the engineer.

Something crashed, a great metal clangour. The dome moaned. The engineer whipped around, hands to the back of their head. “I need to cross,” they muttered. “I need to cross. Eyes. Eyes. Eyes everywhere.”

“I never thought of designing buildings. I lost my art drive somewhere in the forest gomi.”

The engineer purchased a narrow cartridge, fissured down the middle. In the dull green hum of the dome, there erupted a piercing pink hologram of a broken holo-sculpture: a mother, cradling or shielding a girl, a ring on her fourth finger, and with a neat line of missiles pointing from her vertebrae. “Art is all I have left,” he said. The missiles grew little beady red eyes, like the red beads of glass over the bridges catching the sun through clouds. He shoved the thing in his pocket and swallowed a sob, biting the inside of his mouth.

The robot gazed at the black figure, perhaps three metres high, and with a cape of grass rolled up on its shoulders. Quiet ensued. The engineer stepped into the centre, but the robot stood at the front of the right bridge. The left was uncrossable. The right was blocked.

*

The engineer frowned at the robot’s face, two lines of red LEDs. A face full of eyes. “Yes, I need to cross. Eyes everywhere. Big hurry.” He stood still, looking at his feet. Globes of glass glanced up from the ground, amidst the ash and dust and grime and the finest layer of local gomi, carried on the wind. Some giant gazed down at him, the hovering remains of the webbed glass up above like a broken cornea, with cataract clouds overtaking its overcast-coloured iris. Dullness. The air thickened, and the smell of ash and kusunoki sap grew. Yet he looked for a long time at how, as he stalked the bridge’s edge, the black figure seemed to grow, like a product of AJNW-brand psychedelic transfusion, like a product of non-Euclidean architecture, or something. 

*

Eventually the fine mist faded, overhead, and the myopic mirrors cleared, allowing afternoon light to bounce throughout the dome. The day was dying. Sunlight betrayed a mannequin at the dome’s centre, its wooden joints fixed by fingers of climbing ivy into a foetal spiral on its plinth—as though Dante the thinker let his head sag for a moment, hiding behind his knees. The engineer marvelled at the polished ball-and-socket shoulders. The robot traced the green trains with its hand.

“Does it speak our language? Or any language?” the robot mumbled.

“Who? The mannequin?”

“What sorry?” The robot tilted its head in the engineer’s direction, though its gaze was fixed on the mannequin.

The engineer frowned, sighing. “Does who speak what language?” He looked at his exit and the robot in his way: it mirrored his crossed arms, so he shrugged his hands into his pockets. But it had a distinctly lean build, both tall and thin, almost like the engineer’s own body.

“I don’t know. Does anything?” The robot made a soft noise, like a baby’s coo, as if it had tried to smile.

The engineer walked closer to the robot and followed its gaze. Standing at the foot of the right bridge, the engineer saw that a lone flower sprouted between the mannequin’s shoulder blades. Piercing yellow, like the yellow of the crown around the robot’s straw hat. It whipped lazily back and forth, speaking a kind of leafy semaphore. Then he gazed back at the Green Man that considered the lone shoulder-blades-flower, and he smiled, too. The engineer wiped the wind’s air-gomi from his eyes and looked for a long time at the flower, the mannequin, and the curious robot in silence.

*

Evening arrived, and to the engineer’s ears, the distant machines’ whining lessened. Silence eddied between the three figures, standing together and staring at one another, kind of. 

One spoke. “I have been thinking hard about this. Frankly, you make no sense.”

“Is that because I look too much like one of you, or not like you enough?”

Looking at the mannequin, then at the other, the first said, “Actually, I guess I don’t make much sense either. This one’s the most normal of them all.” Both looked at the mannequin, then sat down onto the cold stone floor among the beads and shards of glass and powdered gomi, the deluge like soft cushions.

The mannequin had no eyes, and only the vaguest of nose shapes. And no mouth, too. But it sucked its thumb, fused to its face, paralysed in wooden sleep. The robot tried the same, but then soon stopped trying to lodge its thumb through its face. The engineer’s thumb had the salty twinge of gomi, which soon became the forgotten stuff around their seats on the floor.

*

Sitting with the robot and the mannequin, the engineer noticed that quiet never really came. The birds never really quietened; the engineer still caught their shrill skirling, but ever further away. He shrugged, tapping his foot, searching for words. Above, some ceiling still hovered, less like a giant’s iris now, but more like a cobweb-coloured satellite. “I think it’s a language thing.” 

The engineer walked his fingers towards the robot, then shivered with a cold shock from the metal on his skin. 

“I like it here.”

He took the robot’s hand, first wrapping a finger around its smallest, then purchasing a firm grip. Limp, cold metal. A slightly-rusted metacarpal joint.

It squeezed the engineer’s hand.

“Sorry about the state of things.”

*

A long silence. Then, “Thank you,” said the engineer to the clinging darkness of sunset. A fantastic black slash of shadow from the arch-halo crossed over the mannequin, the rolled-up cape of grass now orange in the evening. “Now, I really must start away. The Eyes are closed, and I am drowsy with satisfaction, but deadlines don’t sleep.” Looking to the bridge behind the robot, there rested a long trail of hourglass-shaped footprints, winding into the darkness. “I think I know what my next one will look like.” He looked at the robot, but it did not meet his gaze.

Night, descending. The sky blazed like a surreal vaporwave of blue wisps and strips of horsetail pink cloud, framed nearer the horizon by a pale yellowish-white. A mauve mist gathered in the stone arches, ebbing over the railings and into the dome. Purpleness dusted the boulders of stone. 

“There isn’t a lot to say, is there, friend?”

“No, I suppose—” But the robot had spoken to the mannequin. The mannequin creaked, as though an inner bird had chimed from its spot on its own little armchair between two plastic lungs.

Then the robot’s neck wheezed as it spun, slowly on its unoiled ball bearing. “What’s the hurry?” it said, looking at the engineer. “Our friend is taking some time, and … well, the figure isn’t too crumbled. Not like the rest of … of everything, really. I will show you the way out later. But first … ” It put an arm back, rocked, then stood upwards, its joints clinking. The engineer watched the kneecaps and shoulder plates, where his own logo appeared in the dying rays of sun. Two red, painted fists, crossed to make an ‘X’.

“But I need to go.”

“What’s wrong with this? Two adults having an adult conversation about the language of a mannequin? Nevermind. I wonder what else our laconic friend has to say.” The robot cupped the mannequin’s cheeks with both hands. 

The cape became a carpet of grass, unrolling. A bird shrieked. The mannequin’s knees and head tipped forwards. The engineer leapt, arms outspread. The robot stood, watching. 

After the grass, all became tasteless and soundless and thoughtless. “What’s wrong with this?” came an echo, somewhere outside of dream-country.

*

A mad squawking. Something fluttered above. Blinking awake, rubbing the gum around his eyes, the engineer found what might have been the mannequin, split into several parts. And night. A dull weight rested beside the engineer, a gnarled, thick-shouldered thing.

He sat up, and sight returned: the endless arches around the dome emerged, like open mouths with tongues of purple-black mist rolling through the engineer’s dome, through the air, and into the dome underneath through lagoons of mirror. From the engineer’s spot on the floor, the right bridge looked different: the robot’s trail of footprints disappeared.

The engineer looked back. His own tunnel was still dark, but the machine whining had started up again. Above, through the horsetail wisps of cloud, a shower of stars like white eyes blinked away their drowsiness, now glancing through the rest of the dome’s glass roof. Then the engineer turned to the mannequin, looking at its empty plinth with a ring of flowers’ buds at its edge, then the empty bridge to the right.

“Good night, for now,” he said to the right bridge, bowing. “I understand. I can see.”

The engineer placed a wrinkled palm flat against the floor and shoved. The small beads of glass—smoothed by the wind and relentless enzymes in the gomi—prickled his calloused hand. The third bridge was still an impassable mess of broken concrete.

“I am going to find the morning in its little, unseen hiding spot. Right then. Wish me luck.” Blending with the dark tunnels, among the echoes of night-creatures and kusunoki trees burning, he stood up and put his back to the mannequin, turning left.

Thank you very much for reading my first finalised attempt at this kind of during-apocalypse, slow-cyberpunk, McCarthy-esque short story! To follow the progression and evolution of my Cyber-Slow-Down collection project, or if you are an avid fan of all things science-fiction and fantasy—from prose to poetry and even re-creative writing—then definitely check out my writing and reviewing Instagram account @rio_wulfmare, or search for my other short story I have published through Rebel Media Essex, ‘Doze,’ another story within the Cyber-Slow-Down project.

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