by Eric Kent Edstrom
Join post-humans, Zee and Dox, and their Marktwain guide as they explore the history of the human race as pieced together from the remains of Earth’s debris field.
The sign over the door read: Welcome to Earthworld.
Smaller arrow shaped signs pointed left and right.
“Ooh, let’s go see the gift shop!” Zee said, grabbing Dox’s arm and pulling him toward the left corridor.
Dox shivered and pulled his arm away. “Not now, Zee. You spent too much time in the shower.”
Zee giggled as she followed after him. “I know. The water is so sensual!”
Dox had opted not to take the shower. It was bad enough having these strange clothes touching his body. He shook is arms as if he could fling off all the sense-data coming through them.
Both of them wore loose pants and flowing blouses. Zee had chosen purple, saying that it was the most authentically female color ever. Dox wore black.
They followed the corridor to the observation atrium. Wide windows gave a marvelous view of the amusement planet of Earthworld. The “blue marble”, as the marketing feed had called it.
An Artificial stood waiting, human-formed with a shock of white hair and a bushy white mustache.
“He’s wearing a suit,” Zee said, voice thrilling with excitement. “It’s so authentic.”
Dox some doubts about that. The truth was nobody knew much of anything about Earth, and less about the humans who had once lived on it.
“So who are you supposed to be?” Dox asked the Artificial.
“I’m your Marktwain, your personal Earthworld guide and chaperone.”
Dox looked around. “Where is everybody else?”
“Oh! Didn’t I tell you, Dox?” Zee said. “I ordered the private tour. We’ve got him all to ourselves.”
Dox sighed. That was going to cost a fortune in reputation units. The Marktwain motioned them through a hatch. “Step into the airtram and we’ll descend.”
They followed him into a standard orbit-to-surface shuttle. Dox had rarely taken on physical form during his long life, preferring to keep his persona afloat in a probability wave matrix. He’d certainly never been on a planet before. An odd buzz seemed to fill his limbs and abdomen. Fear, he supposed.
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But he hadn’t come all of these light years and gone through the hassle of incorporating into a physical body to back out now. He wished he had opted for a narrower range of emotions, though.
Zee didn’t seem worried at all. She took her seat, hands brushing over the fabric of the cushioned armrest. “What do you call this?” she asked the Marktwain.
“That is an exact replica of a human armchair, and it’s a great conversation starter for our discussion during our short trip to the surface.”
The airtram started its descent and the Marktwain began what was obviously a scripted lecture. “The posties destroyed the earth 40,000 earth years ago, following a long debate about what to do with humans.”
“He called us posties, Dox,” Zee said. “It’s so quaint.”
The Marktwain nodded, smiling. “Everything on Earthworld is presented from the human point of view. I hope you won’t be offended.”
“No, No,” Zee said. “Quite the opposite. I’m crazy about humans.”
The Marktwain continued. “All of what we know about Earth is based upon what our historians have been able to piece together. And when I say, ‘piece together’, I mean that literally. The attractions you’re about to experience are the result of thousands of years of painstaking effort to sift through Earth’s debris field around Sol.”
Zee clapped. “Sol. What a beautiful name.”
The Marktwain laughed. “Interestingly, historians believe Sol is an acronym: S.O.L. Sadly, we have not yet discovered what it stands for.”
Dox didn’t find the guide’s spiel very convincing. “What about human EMF litter?” Dox asked, determined to cut through the nonsense. “Surely there’s a wealth of signal out there waiting to be harvested.”
“That’s a great question,” the Marktwain said. “Unfortunately, by the time posthumans developed even the slightest interest in learning about their ancestors, the last of human broadcast signals were nearly 40,000 light years away. Even if posthumans had wanted to listen in, it would have taken them at least 20,000 years to get out ahead of the last EMF signals, and then another 17,000 of realtime listening. It just wasn’t a practical project. Remember that Earthworld is a for-reputation organization, not a charity.”
Dox appreciated that. Reputation didn’t grow in nebulas, after all. It had to be earned through painstaking effort, like creating ideas or inventions of great social value. Unfortunately, Dox wasn’t very good at such activities. Just scraping enough rep to come to Earthworld had taken forty Ig years of leaving cheerful comments on the holovid boards.
“Where are we going to first?” Zee asked.
“To the Dawn of Humankind.” The Marktwain waved his hand to the window as they approached the Southernmost continent. “Behold, the cradle of the human species: Antarctica.”
Something in Dox’s chest throbbed as he stepped out of the airtram and onto the surface of a planet. His heart.
He took a deep breath and scanned the view. Much of the expected geography was present: snow-capped mountains, trees, a river running through a valley below. The Marktwain handed each of them a pair of binoculars and a loop of string with a short black cylinder attached.
“These are your emergency radios,” he said as led them down a gravel path. “You wear them around your neck. If we should get separated you can use them to call for help. Just press the button on the bottom.”
Dox put his on and tucked the cylinder inside his shirt. They passed into a little glen, and Dox listened with half an ear as the Marktwain blathered on about emergency phrases.
Dox marveled at the smells entering his nose, not all of which were pleasant. Earthworld smelled . . . earthy. His only frame of reference was azhe, one of the scores of senses he’d adopted when not incorporated. Fortunately, this physical incarnation included a language module, which told him the most prominent odor was “piney.”
They came to an opening among the trees and looked out into the valley. White-barked trees covered the slopes, green crowns waving in a strong breeze. Far to the right, a waterfall tumbled from rocky cliff, sending up a cloud of mist. A silvery ribbon of river wound through the valley.
A collection of huts stood directly below Dox’s lookout. Small figures walked among them. Dox lifted his binoculars. Wide-mouthed, bipedal beings with short arms hopped about, turning their head in jerks. Their bodies were feathered, and bulging eyes stood out on either side of their narrow heads.
Zee lowered her binoculars and gasped. Then she jumped up and down and hugged Dox. “Those are saurians! ”
“I see you’ve been studying,” the Marktwain said. “From everything we can determine, the saurians were the first intelligent life on Earth. Related to birds, they developed over millions of years into an advanced culture, on the verge of being able to forge metals into tools. During that time, they domesticated and tamed the proto-humans. You’ll see one over there working in the mill.”
Dox scanned his binoculars to the left. He spotted it. “Great gravity!” The creature stood at least twice as tall as the saurians and was covered with fur. “What a brute.”
“What are they called?” Zee asked, fascinated.
“Sasquatches. It is believed that within 5,000 years of their domestication, their numbers exceeded the saurians by two to one.”
“But they’re just animals. How did they rise above their masters?” Zee asked.
“Ah, they were very intelligent, capable of speech and abstract thought. One leading theory is that they were organized by a rebellious faction of saurians to conduct war, and once they defeated the saurians, they turned on their masters, destroyed them, and took control of the Earth.”
Dox and Zee stood side by side, looking out over the scene, awestruck. Dox imagined the sheer power of the creature’s body. It had to be very dangerous.
Zee turned to him. “Do you know what I’m thinking?”
Unfortunately, he did.
Zee harbored a fantasy that they would endure a human marriage ritual while on Earthworld. He didn’t see the point, since they had already been together for thousands of Earth years. He had reluctantly agreed, though, provided she didn’t tell anyone once they returned to the matrices. For his part, he was not going to tell anyone he’d even come to Earthworld. It was such a cliché.
Still, he wanted to experience humanness for himself. Zee had her ideas about what that meant. Dox had another, perhaps more romantic notion.
Zee clasped her hands to her chest. “We’ll have this little village as a backdrop. The Marktwain can conduct the ceremony. Isn’t that right?”
“That is correct,” the Marktwain said. “I have conducted thousands of marriages since Earthworld opened.”
Dox peered through the binoculars and watched the sasquatch pushing a huge wooden wheel round and round. As its path carried it back around it glanced up, and stared right at him. It stopped pushing and left its post. “It’s coming toward us.”
It moved fast, arms swinging in huge arcs. A saurian squawked at it, but the sasquatch ignored it.
“That’s unusual,” the Marktwain said. “Perhaps we should return to the airtram.”
Zee folder her arms across her chest and frowned. “But what about the wedding?”
Dox lowered his binoculars as the sasquatch disappeared into the trees below him. He turned to Zee. “Maybe we should look around a little bit more. It’d be a shame to get married here, only to discover the next stop was an even better location.”
“We can always return,” said the Marktwain. “This way, please.” He started down the path toward the airtram.
They followed, though Zee dragged her feet.
“Does a marriage cost extra?” Dox asked the Marktwain.
Zee huffed and caught up to him. “Why do you have to be such a reputation hoarder?”
“Rep hoarder? Have you seen my accounts?”
The Marktwain assured Dox that Earthworld offered marriage ceremonies for every budget. “Lets move along.” He lifted his own emergency radio and mumbled something into it.
A sudden crash in the forest made Marktwain spin. “Uh oh.”
Dox sighed and turned. Just as he’d expected, it was time for a corny, staged encounter with the sasquatch.
The Marktwain pretended to be nervous. “Hurry. We must get back to the airtram.” He started to run.
The monster emerged onto the path behind him. It roared at the sight of him, muscles flexing and teeth flashing in the sunlight.
He had to hand it to the Earthworld cast, they really knew how to lay it on. Even knowing it was a show, some instinct programmed into Dox’s body made tiny bumps raise all over his skin.
The creature lumbered toward him, huge hairy hands raised over its head. The sound emanating from its gaping, slavering maw seemed to hit him with physical force, causing him to cringe.
Without thought, Dox hefted his binoculars and threw them at the beast, striking it in the forehead. The sasquatch howled.
“What have you done?” the Marktwain shouted from somewhere far behind Dox. “Throwing objects at Artificials is strictly forbidden by Earthworld policy. You risk being ejected!”
But Dox didn’t care. Even though he knew it was all an act, the creature’s howls terrified and fascinated him. He imagined the sasquatches great hands around his neck, how they might squeeze, how they might grasp his limbs and pull.
The creature charged him.
“Dox!” Zee cried. “This is too authentic!”
The Martwain appeared beside Dox. “Get to the airtram!” He put himself in between the sasquatch and the two visitors.
Zee screamed and fled, but her screams seemed to egg the sasquatch on. It roared and pounded its chest.
Dox appreciated how well choreographed the whole routine was. He could barely control the fear that urged him to flee.
“Go!” the Marktwain cried at Dox.
Dox didn’t move, though he wanted to.
How would it feel to have those hands around his neck? he wondered.
The sasquatch took another step forward and swung its hand toward the Marktwain. The guide tried to deflect it, but the blow knocked him onto his back. The sasquatch followed after, jumped high into the air, and came down on the Marktwain’s head, crushing it into the dirt. The Marktwain’s limbs twitched and went still.
Dox stared in fascination at the dead Artificial. What had that head-crushing moment felt like? What was the Marktwain thinking now that his brain was mashed to jelly?
He didn’t have any more time to consider it, for the sasquatch leapt at him and swung. The creature’s claw grazed Dox’s cheek, and fiery pain bloomed on his face. Dox spun away, suddenly realizing that he was in actual danger. Before he knew it, he was running towards Zee, his hands failing in the air over his head. A strange high-pitched noise came out of his mouth. Zee echoed it, and together they ran to the airtram. The hatch slammed shut behind them.
The tram rocked as the sasquatch rammed into it. Booms roared in Dox’s ears as the beast’s fists impacted the hull. Dox backed against the far bulkhead, away from the hatch, and stared through its tiny round window. The sasquatch pressed its face to it, huge eye staring at Dox for a moment before disappearing.
The pounding stopped.
“It wanted to eat me,” Dox said, not sure if he was offended or thrilled. He and Zee crept to the window and peered out in time to see the sasquatch pull one of the Marktwain’s arms off. It stripped off the suit sleeve and started to munch contentedly on the flesh.
Zee wailed and fumbled with her emergency radio. “Emergency, emergency!”
A voice came through hidden speakers in the air tram: “Is something wrong?”
“Yes. Our Marktwain was just killed and eaten by a sasquatch in Antarctica.”
“Please wait,” the voice replied.
Dox’s mouth went dry as he watched the sasquatch consume the Marktwain.
“We will continue with your tour,” said the voice. “Please stay in the airtram at the next stop. A new Marktwain will be joining you soon.”
The air tram lifted off. Dox sat in the armchair and tried to catch his breath. He rubbed the wound on his cheek, very impressed with the detail the Earthworld proprietors had put into his body. “Great nebula! This place is real right down to the pain.”
Though his stomach roiled, he marveled at the twisting horror that his human forebearers had been forced to endure their entire lives.
Prior to this, that horror had been a mere abstraction.
That’s what he’d come here for, though he hadn’t realized what it truly meant until that moment. He’d come to get in touch with his human ancestry, to have an authentic human experience.
For Zee that meant getting married.
For Dox, it meant dying.
The airtram lifted off and the continent of Antarctica shrank away below them.
“The next stop is ancient St. Petersburg,” the tram said.
They flew over blue oceans, pausing to watch a synchronized performance of dolphins jumping through flaming rings and bouncing inflated spheres on their noses. The grand finale was a larger fish, easily ten times the size of a dolphin, jumping up through their circle, flipping, and landing head first into the water.
Zee clapped, but Dox could barely pay attention. He was still thinking about the encounter with the sasquatch. Death had been very close in that moment. Annihilation. Utter blackness. Forever.
Dox couldn’t conceive of the idea.
The tram swung low over ground divided into regular patches of green. Flowering plants grew in rows, and Artificials walked between them, pulling hoses, and spraying a mist onto the leaves.
In the distance rose vast structures still under construction. “Look,” Zee said, pointing, “the Great Pyramids. I wish our Marktwain was still here. I’m dying to know about the people who built them.”
“Maybe the tram knows something,” Dox said and looked at the ceiling. He wasn’t exactly sure where the intelligence was located on the vehicle.
The voice they heard earlier chimed in. “Historians believe the Great Pyramids of Giza were built by cossacks, one of the most successful cultures in human history. Famous cossacks include Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare, and Tiny Tim.”
They circled the construction zone and Dox studied the construction process. There were no lift vehicles, nothing powered by anything other than human effort.
The cossacks were huge, nearly as large as the Sasquatch. In teams of four or five, they lifted great blocks onto their shoulders and carried them to a pyramid where another cossack troweled beige mortar on blocks already in place.
“It doesn’t look like the casino is open,” Zee said, obviously disappointed.
Dox kept his mouth shut though he felt great relief. He hated the idea of Zee gambling, since she clearly didn’t understand the value of reputation.
“What is that over there?” he asked to distract her, pointing to a long low structure that had a stone roof supported by carved columns.
Somehow the tram knew what he was pointing at. “That is the Temple of Jah. The St. Petersburgian Marleys were a very powerful sect among the cossacks. They preached a religion of peace and love.”
As soon as the final words were out of the tram’s speaker, Dox covered his face. Why did it have to say peace and love?
Zee jumped up and put an arm around Dox’s shoulders and shook him. “That’s it! We’ll get married there.”
He groaned, but couldn’t think of any reason to refuse. Another thought occurred to him, that maybe he could salvage some entertainment from the experience. “It’s a temple you say? Is there any chance we might witness a funeral?”
“I’m sorry,” the tram said. “No funerals are planned for today.”
“But what about that Marktwain the Sasquatch killed?”
There was a momentary pause while the airtram considered this. “It appears we cannot recover any of the corpse of the Marktwain, as it was consumed entirely by the Sasquatch.”
Zee patted Dox’s shoulder. “I’m sure there will be another opportunity for a funeral. Let’s focus on the wedding.” She looked at the ceiling and spoke to the tram. “Land next to the temple.”
“Open the hatch.”
It didn’t comply. “You must remain in the tram until a replacement Marktwain arrives.”
Dox smacked a fist on the hatch. This was the kind of thing he hated. Overprotective technology that thought everyone was an idiot. “Open up. It is my wish.”
No Earthworld tech could deny such a request, lest they invalidate their slogan. Earthworld. Everything you wish . . . and more!
The hatched opened. They climbed out and strode into the Temple of Jah. A lone Marley stood in the middle of a wide open area surrounded by columns. He carried a strange weapon. It had a wooden handle as long as his forearm. It ended in a wide hoop framing a coarse mesh of crisscrossing strings.
Dox paused in the doorway, watching the Marley expertly bounce a spherical yellow projectile on the strings. He wondered how accurate the priest was with it.
“Stay behind me, Zee,” he said. “The Marley is armed.”
They took cautious steps into the temple, stopping when the Marley noticed them. He looked at them with dark eyes, and then in a display of his prowess, smacked the projectile. It sizzled through the air, hit one of the columns and bounced back to him. He struck it again with his weapon and it bounced off another column. He repeated this feat until he had hit every column in the temple.
On the final bounce, he caught the ball in one hand and turned to face Dox, weapon raised over his head. “Welcome to the Temple of Jah. Did you shoot the deputy? For I did not.”
Dox had no idea what the Marley was talking about. He decided it was some sort of ritual greeting. “Uh. No. I did not shoot the deputy either.”
The Marley nodded in satisfaction and lowered the weapon.
Given the Marley’s accuracy with the ball, Dox decided he’d have killed them already if he’d wanted to. Dox felt a tinge of disappointment, for part of him yearned to know what it would be like to have that yellow ball flying at his face.
As he and Zee stepped into the light, the Marley’s eyes grew wide. He fell to the floor and bowed to them. “Great ones,” he said. “Gods of the sky!”
“He’ so hospitable!” Zee said. She turned a slow circle, obviously decorating the place in her mind for a wedding.
The Marley leapt up and waved to them. “Follow me. I must take you to the Pharaoh.”
“We just want to get married,” Zee said. “We were hoping you could perform the ceremony here.”
He struck his own head with the criss-crossed strings of his weapon, and it bounced off. “No, no, no. It wouldn’t be right. The Pharaoh would have my head. If anyone is to marry you, it should be her or perhaps another of the gods.” He waved for them to follow and strode out the door.
They found that all of the cossacks had stopped their labors and stood on either side of a stone-paved path leading to a palace in the distance. As Zee and Dox passed, the Artificials threw flower petals in the air and sang warbling songs.
“It’s so euphonic!” Zee cried.
“Yes. But the smell are ruining it for me,” Dox complained, waving his hands in front of his nose. “These sweating Artificials need to be doused in something . . . piney.”
The Marley led them into the palace and through glittering hallways to an audience chamber. The Pharaoh sat upon a glittering crystal throne, reading a book. The Marley bowed to her and intoned: “Oh, Pharaoh Elizabeth. I bring you these two godlings who have requested to be married.”
“Godlings?” the pharaoh asked disinterestedly and looked up from her book. When she saw Dox and Zee she sprang from her seat and stalked toward them.
She wore flowing robes of red, orange and purple. She had an instrument–an electric guitar–strapped to her back, and as she stepped down the stairs, she swung it around, thrust her inch long fingernails across metal strings, causing a roar and squeal to blast from hidden speakers.
“It is a sign,” Pharaoh Elizabeth said, her voice also amplified through the speakers. “These godlings come to witness my ascension to goddesshood.” She struck the strings again, her left hand wriggling over the neck to produced a fast run of notes, ending with a scooping dive bomb as she pressed a lever at the base of the instrument.
“I declare this a feast day. All workers shall enjoy a walleye fish fry with potato pancakes.”
A cheer went up, and from openings in the ceiling, monkeys dressed in polka dot suits swung down bearing trays of fragrant food and tiny glass pitchers of syrup.
“Marley!” the pharaoh shouted, “bring me the Sword of Ascension!”
The Marley darted behind a column and returned bearing a shining blade with a begemmed pommel.
Pharaoh Elizabeth exchanged her guitar for the sword. “I command all subjects to witness my ascension to goddesshood.” She held the sword out, reversed her grip, then plunged the blade into her gut. Her eyes went wide and blood dribbled from the corner of her mouth. “I can see it,” she said, “I see the throne among the clouds.”
She collapsed onto her side, and with a final exhalation, perished.
Dox gaped at her, simultaneously appalled and intrigued.
Zee threw her hands up in the air. “Now what are we going to do? We’ll never get married.”
The Marley pulled the sword from the Pharaoh’s stomach, taking great care to catch the dribbles of blood from the blade in a silver chalice. “I will save that for later,” he said to himself and handed the cup to a monkey.
Expression solemn, he approached Dox and Zee and extended the sword. “Godlings, it is your turn. Sacrifice yourselves and complete the rite.”
Zee backpedaled, jaw dropping and lips pulling back. “But it’s so bloody!”
Dox suppressed his own hygienic qualms and reached out with trembling hands to grasp the sword. He held the blade close to his eyes, enraptured by the keenness of its edge and the efficiency with which it had dispatched the Pharaoh. He imagined what it might feel like to plunge it into his own gut.
He reversed his grip and brought the point to his belly. He applied gentle pressure, just enough to poke himself.
He dropped the blade and pulled up his shirt. A tiny droplet of blood welled up and dribbled into his navel.
“Zee! I think I killed myself!”
“That’s nothing,” the Marley said. “Just a wound. You must drive it in deep.” He picked up the sword and inspected it for dents before holding it out to Dox.
Dox stared at the blade, but was unable to bring himself to take it. How had Pharaoh done it? he wondered. Humans must have had incredible willpower to exert such amazing control over their bodies and their fear.
He backed away, mortified, but also relieved. “I can’t do it.”
“But you must.”
“We won’t,” Dox said. He grabbed Zee’s hand and turned to go. “Thank you for offering the meal, but we have to go to the next attraction.”
“Don’t let them escape!” the Marley shouted, and suddenly one hundred Artificials gave chased as Zee and Dox ran past the crystal throne and out a back door. They wound through endless corridors, turning at random.
“There has to be a doorway for the cast members,” Zee said. “I read about it somewhere.”
The mob screamed behind them, and more Artificials appeared in the corridor before them, forcing them to stop.
“The emergency transponders!” Dox said.
He pulled his from his shirt and pressed the button. “Check one, two, three, check. Testing, testing.”
They waited. Nothing happened. The artificials approached from both directions. Some were armed with candlesticks, others carried long wooden clubs. The Marley led them all, swinging the blade in front of him, his eyes ablaze.
“I think the one you said is for minor emergencies,” Zee said.
He clicked his transmitter again. “Houston, we have a problem.”
He waited, expecting a Marktwain or some other Earthworld staff member to appear. None did.
Zee met his gaze. “You don’t think–?”
“Yes, this is a full on emergency.” Dox clicked his transmitter and shouted: “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”
Seconds later, a figure swung through a window on a rope, landed, rolled, and sprang up. A Marktwain, dressed all in black. In a blur of hands, he threw dozens of bladed metal disks at the approaching Artificials, striking them in the forehead, the knee caps, the groins. They fell over and soon lost interest in attacking Zee and Dox.
“Get back to work,” the Marktwain shouted at them. “The casino was supposed to open last week.”
They shuffled off sullenly to returned to their chores.
“Let’s go back to the airtram,” Dox said. “I’ve had it with St. Petersburg.”
The Marktwain nodded sagely. “You should have gone to Tampa.”
“How accurate is this body?” Dox asked the Marktwain as airtram lifted away from St. Petersburg.
“I believe you selected the most authentic model,” Marktwain said. “Which means it is accurate to the cellular level.”
“So pain and emotions?” Dox asked. “All the same as what humans felt all those eons ago?”
The Marktwain nodded.
“By the ten rings of Ig, what an appalling existence.” But Dox couldn’t keep the broad smile from his face. Such exhilaration! That business in the Pharoah’s palace had been better than the sasquatch attack.
His mood soured some as he remembered his failure with the sword. The Pharoah had made it look so easy. “I suppose the Artificials are modified to feel no fear or pain.”
“Quite the contrary,” the Marktwain said. “Our first cast of Artificials were programmed that way, but we lost nearly the entire crop to war.”
“They’re so well trained,” Zee said. “I believed that Marley really was going to kill us.”
Dox glowered at her. “Of course he was going to kill us! That’s part of the Earthworld value proposition. That it’s real.”
In the entire course of Dox’s long life, he had never experienced anything so real before. He had spent most of his time in one simulated reality or another. And though it was difficult to tell that this Earthworld experience was different, the one give-away was fear.
Fear, like most other emotions, had been edited out of the posthuman experience. “Did you ever wonder why they called us posthumans?” Dox asked Zee, though he was really asking himself.
“No,” she said. “Not once.”
“It seems like a silly name,” Dox said. “Why didn’t they name us something else to mark our departure from our biological origins?” He held out his hands. “Look at this. Five fingers. I’ve never had five fingers before. I don’t know what to do with all of them.”
“They were used for typing,” the Marktwain said.
Dox ignored the guide. “And these feet . . .” He lifted one and shook it. “We haven’t had feet for eons. There’s no need for them unless you are going to walk about on a planet surface.”
Zee looked down at her own feet. “I think they are divine.”
“I’m not criticizing the feet,” Dox said, irritated. “I’m just pointing out that we’ve moved entirely beyond what it meant to be human.”
“And you think that’s all it means?” Zee asked. “To have hands and feet?”
“Well, of course not. I’m just saying that to be a human, to be locked in this meat suit, is so–”
“Sensual,” Zee said with a giggle.
“I was going to say vulnerable.”
They stared at each other. Dox’s body made a weird sound that came from his abdomen.
“Good, great Nebula, what now?” he said, lifting his shirt to look at his naval again. The tiny sword prick had scabbed over.
“You’re starving,” the Marktwain said. He patted his own stomach. “I could use some food as well.”
“Is there food at the next stop?”
“Unfortunately, you didn’t order the meal plan with your Earthworld package.”
“What? That’s outrageous!” He cast an accusing eye at Zee.
She met his irritated gaze with a flat stare. “So now you’re willing to spend reputation units? How was I supposed to know hunger would be so uncomfortable.”
Dox grumbled and finally sighed. “I suppose we’ll have to upgrade our package.”
“Noted,” the Marktwain said. “And good news! Our next stop is the Age of the Furries. There is a great food court there.”
The airtram sped over mountains and lakes then swung in a wide loop over a city.
“This was a city known as Hollywood,” the Marktwain said. “It was host to one of the most famous ages in human history.”
Zee clapped her hands. “Furries! I love Furries!”
Dox hadn’t read up on it, but everyone knew the age of the Furries was the final act before the rise of the posthumans. “I didn’t bring a costume.”
“Never fear,” the Marktwain said. “We’ll be stopping at Kiki’s Costumery before we go out into the open.”
“Dox,” Zee said. “Do you think this will be it? It seems to be the perfect place.”
“I suppose so,” he said. If it would get Zee to shut up, he would marry her in the airtram. But even as he thought it, he knew it wasn’t right. Zee deserved better.
And in truth, after spending a rep fortune to get to Earthworld, it would be stupid to get married in a conveyance.
The airtram landed and they exited into the courtyard of a large pink building. A woman dressed in a short skirt and a headpiece with tall pink ears greeted them.
“This way, please,” she said and lead them through bright sunshine and into a warehouse filled with racks of costumes. A woman in a slim-fitting suit and a long tail bowed to them.
“That’s Kiki,” Zee whispered to Dox. She squeezed her hands together and hopped up and down.
“We’ve read your dossiers,” Kiki said. “I have selected outfits to suit your personalities and interests. Zee, put this on.”
Zee slipped on the suit, which was green and had a long tail that dragged along the floor. She put on the head, and her face peeped from inside an elongated snout with large white teeth. The creature had huge glistening eyes.
“What is it?” Dox asked.
“It’s a dinosaur!” Zee said. She spun, making the tail whip around until it slapped Dox on the bottom.
Kiki smiled indulgently then turned to Dox. “For you, this.”
He slid his legs into orange legs that ended in huge floppy three-toed feet. His arms went into sleeves that had no hands in the ends, not even slots for fingers. Kiki zipped him up, then she slid the headpiece over his face.
“Take a look,” Kiki demanded, turning him toward a mirror.
He had a beak. And feathers.
“It’s a chicken!” Zee cried. “It’s perfect, Dox.”
He admired his outfit while the Marktwain put on his suit, a purple dog-like thing. The whole body of Dox’s costume was resplendent with yellow feathers.
“It’s magnificent,” he said.
The Marktwain led them through a wide door and they stepped out onto a street. Many other Furries roamed around, but even more Artificials walked without suits on.
“I don’t understand,” Zee said. “Why are they naked?”
Dox flapped his wings irritably. “They’re not naked, Zee.”
“You know what I mean. They’re not in a costume!”
The Marktwain bumped into Dox then sidestepped to get in front of them. “Our best research shows that there were many humans whose job it was to walk around and have their pictures taken with the Furries.”
Zee clapped her claws together. “Ooh, let’s have our picture taken with some of them, Dox.”
Dox didn’t object. But something about being dressed up and walking in this friendly environment bothered him.
Where was the danger?
They stopped in front of a huge white building with a pointy roof. It seemed stupid to Dox to have a roof so narrow and pointy.
“That’s an interesting building,” Zee said. “Let’s get married in front of it. It’s so picturesque.”
Dox waved a dismissive wing at it. “It’s stupid.”
“That building is called a church,” the Marktwain said. “The pointy top is still not understood by historians, but it is believed to represent the sword used in ritual suicide that would elevate individuals to a supposed god-hood. As you saw with the Pharaoh Elizabeth.”
“That’s so interesting,” Zee said.
Dox thought it was ridiculous. He didn’t want to think about the sword anymore. “Let’s move on.”
They followed the street past ice cream parlors and barbershops offering costume trims and shampoos. In the distance, bisecting the street, stood an immense building with dozens of pointy towers.
“What is that?” Zee asked, awed.
“That is the Princess’s Castle,” the Marktwain said. “Historians believe they were very rare.”
“It’s the perfect backdrop for our wedding,” Zee said. “Perfect. It is perfection.”
As they drew closer, Dox had to admit it was quite an impressive structure, even though it seemed nearly as impractical as the church. The idea of getting married in front of it bothered him though. It seemed too beautiful to be sincerely ironic.
After all, he did have to face his friends when he returned from this trip. If he showed pictures of himself dressed so formally, and standing in front of such of a magnificent building, his friends would rib him ceaselessly.
“No, no, no, this doesn’t feel right,” he said.
Zee spun away, her tail lashing against his rubber feet, and she marched away.
“Zee? Where are you going?”
She didn’t answer. The Marktwain looked paralyzed, not sure if he should follow Zee or stay with Dox.
Dox tried to catch up with her but it was hard to move quickly in his outfit. “Are you going to the food court?”
Zee spun on him and raised her claw to point in his face. “You don’t want to get married, do you?” she asked, eyes glistening in the depths of her costume mouth. “You didn’t want to get married in front of the sasquatch. You didn’t want to get married during Pharaoh Lizzie’s party. And now you don’t want to get married in front of this beautiful Princess’s Castle. I’m not so dumb that I can’t recognize a pattern!”
She started to cry then. “We came all this way to have an authentic human experience, and you’re nothing but a party pooper.”
“You’re right, Zee. I don’t really want to get married.”
Zee sobbed and covered her dino mouth with her claws to hide her face. A group of uncostumed Artificials rushed up, hoping to get their picture taken with the giggling dino.
Dox flapped them away. “But I do want an authentic human experience,” he said to Zee. “The problem is that I’m too scared. It’s this damn body I’m in.” He stomped his foot and a feather flew off and helicoptered to the ground. “It’s making it too hard.”
“Too hard to do what?” Zee asked, peeping from between two huge foam claw fingers.
Dox looked down shyly, suddenly embarrassed. “We can get married, Zee. Anywhere you want. It’s just that for me, that isn’t an authentic human experience.”
“Then what is?”
“I want to die,” he said. When he chanced to look up at her, he discover she’d pulled off her dinosaur head. Tears flowed down her cheeks and out of her nose.
Dox swallowed and got down on one, rubber covered knee. He held out his wings to her and waited for her to come to him.
She stepped toward him and then took his wingtips in her claws.
He could barely speak for lack of breath, though he didn’t understand why. After a moment he cleared his throat. “Zee. Will you die with me?”
Zee tackled him, wrapped her short forearms around him and squeezed him close. “Oh, Dox,” she said. “That’s so romantic.”
The Marktwain unzipped the front of his dog suit and pulled a piece of paper from an inside pocket. He handed it to Dox. “This is a brochure of all the death packages we offer.”
Dox started to scan down the list but Zee snatched it from him. “I’ve always wanted to touch paper. It’s so tactile!”
She read down the list. “Let’s see. Death by thirst in the desert. Oh, but I’ve heard that takes too long. We’ve got to be back home by Thursday. There’s drowning. That might be too quick.”
Dox crowded next to Zee to peer over her shoulder. “I’d rather it be quicker than that. You know, so I wouldn’t feel anything.”
He could tell Zee was about to argue but he cut her off. “You see the faster it is, the more likely we’ll die at the exact same moment.”
Her eyes widened and she smiled at him. “You’re right, of course.” She giggled at the Marktwain. “Isn’t he romantic?”
The Marktwain shrugged and zipped up his dog suit.
“There’s an interesting one,” Dox said pointing to the last item on the list. “The Apocalypse of the Posthuman Expedient.” He frowned at the Marktwain. “But surely you’re not going to destroy all of Earthworld just to provide a death package for two posthumans.”
“The impact is real. Although it’s not a 500 kilometer long asteroid. You’ll wear overdisplay lenses so that the scope of the experience matches the real event. For you, the final apocalypse will be as devastating as the real thing.”
“Have you done many of these before?” Dox asked.
“Actually, no. We thought they would be a hot sellers when we conceived the theme planet, but you are the first to opt for any of our death packages.”
“That’s because everyone is so shallow these days,” Zee said. “Dox is a deep thinker.”
Dox felt a warmth in his chest and put his wing around Zee. She understood him, even though he often didn’t understand her.
He felt suddenly that he needed to offer her something more than the death package. “Marktwain,” he said, growing very serious. “This is what I’d like to do. And I’ll use every last reputation point in my account. I want a wedding. And I want it timed to end with the impact of the asteroid.”
The Marktwain smiled. “We can arrange that.”
Zee hugged Dox. “It will be so dramatic!”
Dox and Zee stood in a field of wild flowers on a mountain meadow somewhere on the continent of Canada. Dox eyed the tree line, nervous about the possibility of sasquatches roaming around.
Dox had removed his chicken suit, choosing instead to stand there naked like the original humans. The Marktwain wore his white suit and tie, and Zee wore a wedding gown which she referred to as a gunny sack. It looked to Dox like a large pillowcase with armholes and a head hole cut into it.
A shadow fell over them.
“It begins,” said the Marktwain. “I’ve prepared a ceremony that combines both the final moments of Earth with the secret vows of a typical human marriage ceremony.”
The Marktwain removed a book from his pocket and flipped through a few pages. He nodded when he found the one he wanted. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. We are gathered here today to witness the joining of Dox and Zee in marriage.”
Zee wiped at her eyes. Dox felt a pain in his throat and wondered if he was coming down with an illness.
“Do you Dox agree to a merger with Zee to create a new entity, henceforth known as Zee and Dox, and to assign your individual reputation points into a single account controlled by the Zee and Dox entity? And furthermore, do you agree that you waive all rights to say ‘hey, I didn’t agree to that’ in the future?”
Dox swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. The whole thing seemed terribly informal to him given how important it was. Zee stared at him with wide, glistening eyes.
Dox cleared his throat. “Yes. I do.”
“And Zee, do you ditto that?” Marktwain asked.
Zee sniffled. “Of course I do.”
More of the land was in shadow now. Birds burst from the trees, and animals ran across the meadow. A furry red fox darted between Zee and Dox, shouting, “Flee! Flee for your lives!”
Dox glanced up at the approaching blackness as the Marktwain continued. “And in the final days of Earth, the posthumans hurled a great asteroid called Alice Cooper at the planet in order to destroy the human species. No one knows why they did it because your ancestors deleted the history of the human race and the reasons for its destruction from your collective memories. Whatever the reason, something important was lost. And that’s why we at Earthworld strive to recreate Earth: so that posthumans can have an authentic experience to better understand their own nature.” He put the book away and held his hands wide. “And what better way to remember that than to experience the final moments of the human race. Please join hands.”
Zee and Dox took each others hands, and they stared into each others eyes. “Do you have anything to say to each other before the end?” the Marktwain asked.
Zee smiled despite her tears. “I just want to say that I love you, Dox. I always have and I always will.”
“And you Dox?” the Marktwain asked.
“I don’t know about love,” Dox said. “But I know that I don’t ever want to be parted from you, Zee. I can honestly say there is no one I would rather die with.”
Zee hugged him then and then they kissed in the human fashion, nose to nose. It seemed fairly unsanitary to Dox, but fortunately, their immune systems had been programmed to be quite hardy. He also supposed that in the remaining few seconds of his life as a human, he wouldn’t come down with anything serious.
Together, they looked up at the blackness covering half the sky. A chill wind blew across his naked skin. He hadn’t wanted to be rent limb from limb by a sasquatch, and he’d been unable to thrust the sword through his gut. But standing here beneath the falling rock felt right. There was no escape no matter how fast he ran.
He sighed and was filled with a sudden sense of peace. “It’s inevitable,” he said.
“We have approximately ten seconds left,” the Marktwain said. “I have a final question for you. Would you like this death to be permanent or temporary?”
Dox glanced at Zee and they nodded in agreement.
“Temporary,” Zee said.
They looked up at the sky. “It wouldn’t mean anything if it was permanent,” Dox said.
He didn’t feel the impact.
Dox held Zee’s hand as they stared from of the observation window of the orbital Welcome Center circling Earthworld.
“What you’re seeing is a simulation of course,” the Marktwain said from behind them. “Let me know if you want me to turn the window overlay off.”
The overlay showed them a recording of the final moments of Earth. The rock tumbled as it hurtled toward the blue planet. Dox knew he could request to see footage of the real rock that had killed him and Zee in the meadow. He decided not to, figuring it would be anticlimactic, since it was a ten meter block of granite dropped from from an airtram a few thousand feet above.
“Can we get this recording?” Zee asked.
“Of course,” the Marktwain had said. “It’s included in your death package.”
“Such a waste,” Zee said as the asteroid drew nearer to the planet. “I can’t believe we did that to them.”
“Maybe it was for the best,” Dox said. “Imagine the agony they endured their whole lives, knowing they were going to die. I think it’s quite likely we did this as a favor to them.”
“But think of the culture we lost,” Zee said.
He had to agree. Now that he had been reincorporated into a new human body, he itched to be back in his chicken suit. “There was something very sophisticated about how they lived,” he admitted.
The asteroid crashed into the Earth’s atmosphere, sending up gouts of fire behind it. Soon the entire planet surface disappeared behind a shroud of smoke and debris, vast molten chunks flying away into space.
“It’s so kinetic,” Zee said softly.
“You’ll be decorporating soon,” the Marktwain said. “If you want anything from the gift shop, now’s the time.”
They watched earth fall apart for a few more moments, then Zee dropped Dox’s hand and turned. “We have to get to going, I suppose.” Her eyes scanned the gift shop shelves. “Now where was that cheesehead hat I saw earlier?”
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“Welcome to Earthworld” is Copyright © 2013 by Eric Kent Edstrom ALL RIGHTS RESERVED