At home, I inspected the No-D on my chest in the bathroom mirror. My first and only tattoo, a quick whistle left my lips. The thin plastic over the fresh ink formed creases, and the moisture cream made it look washed out.
From now on, I wouldn't be reanimated anymore if I needed to.
Over me on the ceiling and around the corners spread the ubiquitous grey mold found in all studios and rooms cleaned less than on a weekly basis.
Did my heart always feel that way? Wasn't it slightly out of rhythm?
I shook my head and pulled the shirt back down, smirking about my hypochondriac moment. Then I left my reflection in the mirror and entered the room of my studio apartment. The dim light and the wall screens turned on automatically and blanketed the little table and the chair in the kitchen corner and the shelves and the bed with its soft shadows. The battery next to the crosstrainer for my personal energy production read 37% charged. That would last me for tonight.
From one of the wall screens our old dog Lester watched me, his tongue sticking out in anticipation of a thrown stick or a treat, the bushy bobtail fur illuminated by the sun going down behind him. To the very day I believe that was the last year we saw the sun. I had just come back from my boarding kindergarten and my parents took us to the park. Now pets had become a rare sight, and the sun was gone.
The pristine contrasts of the picture frozen forever in all shades dissolved into a public service announcement: 'If life gets too much, let's get in touch!' This faded into a photo of my dad, he passed away shortly after mom, who died of a brain tumor. The following slide featured myself trying to sell me the Bawler screambag, my lethnet profile picture was animated and attached to a video of me walking recorded by a security camera on 13th. Mom was next.
My dad walked the plank, like his father, my grandfather, who took the opportunity to be one of the first 1000 heroes who walked the plank. A framed, fake silver plaque of him hung over my bed.
In total, eight screens showed silent slides or quiet video loops of loved ones and my past. All stored internally and on several memory canes—after the big internet crash, where all cloud storage, digital currencies and savings disappeared. Hardly anybody trusted the cloud anymore. Clouds vanish, they say, at least they used to.
Sometimes I wished the pictures would be in color, but colors were too expensive to produce digitally, let alone physically. For all the volts in the world, nobody could afford anything in colour anymore.
Last week, on a Sunday, right before I fell asleep, in a dreamlike state, I remembered vividly my first school day, and mom and dad being there, smiling, and I ripped my eyes open, when I realized, the scene, my memory played in black and white, although some of our clothes were old and still colourful, and there was grass, not the ubiquitous grey mud we have now.
Since that dream I wondered: What if all the black and white and grey pictures and clothes and houses, the entire world around me, what if my environment would cause my memories to lose their colors? What would a desaturated dream mean? A monochrome memory? Tomorrow I would ask Rastan, my neighbour, if he experienced the same, if he knew what I was talking about. We met once or twice a week, when both of us weren't too tired and exhausted from the gym.
My rumination ended with my stomach growling. The screens reflected in the dark window to the street five floors below me looked like a cold wall, sprinkled with the lights from the buildings across and the four giant outside screens asking one word each: 'Are'—'You'—'Done'—'Here?!'.
I went to the sink in the kitchen corner, took my bowl from the drying rack, held it under the tap and turned it open; guttural sounds of an ancient pipe system overburdened with modern technique saluted me before the chicken paste spurted out into my dish. This week: mango-flavored chicken.
I received the basic income package: free food from the tap, as much as I wanted, clothing, healthcare, my room and 69 volts per week. In exchange, I worked in the gym, producing clean muscle energy.
Spoon by spoon, I devoured the mango chicken, one of my favorites, cashew veggie the other. Both came about five times a year, fresh from the factory, pushed through the pipes at around 80 bar to every Single Home apartment complex in the downtown area.
Sitting at the table, I checked my device: the messages, application updates, game results—which continued online even when I was not actively playing—, my pulse, my blood sugar level and my mood.
«Seems like I don't have to be revived toda...», my whisper was interrupted by a knock on my door. I jerked together, usually I wasn't that jumpy, but it felt like somebody might have heard me talking to myself.
«Coming», I shoved the last spoon of chicken into my mouth and shuffled to the entrance.
: : :
Through the spyhole I saw my distorted neighbor Rastan. I opened the door, «Funny, I just thought of you.»
«My tap isn't working», he showed me his pewtery sprinkled bowl as proof.
«Yes.» His eight inch long mustache puffed out a bit, «And I heard yours through the wall, so…»
«So you're not a mind reader.»
I let him in, «Never mind. Did you send them the request?»
His stomach growled, he patted it and said with his cute voice, «It's all good, calm down, soon you get your treat», as if a pet would live in there, then he went straight for my sink, «I did.»
«What are you doing with your tap? This is like the tenth time this year.»
Rastan stood a foot taller than me, and he could have been athletic if he hadn't been so lazy, working only the least amount of hours at the gym. «I'm not doing anything with my tap, nothing, it's old.»
«Mine works fine.»
«So I heard, through the wall. We can apply for a room switch, then you are the one…»
«No, thank you.»
«There you see. Just bad luck.»
«Pah, the hedgers should invest into this building, redoing the plumbing.»
«That's not investing for them, they call that: sinking money», Rastan held his bowl underneath my tap, and bent forward until his vertebrae bulged under his recycled-white shirt. Nothing was really white, it was a very light grey. He cared about how he dressed. I didn't, it only had to be clean.
One hand kept his striped tie from dangling, «Hedge funds are not known for their care-taking skills.»
«But they do fix stuff.»
«Oh, come on. I checked. Two apartments, in our entire building, with 350 units. Over the last five years! Both cases fire damage. They are just waiting for my tap, so they can send their best team.»
Rastan's eyes rarely blinked, what made him look overly alert all the time, or hungry.
He blew his mustache to the side, «Your tap won't last much longer either when I hear those sounds. That's how it started with mine, that's how it started.»
He doubled what he said, the first symptom of Nanoism, a condition caused by metallic nanoparticles that entered the neural system.
I kept quiet, nothing we could do about it anyway.
He closed the tap, «The building is ancient, it was already outdated, when they turned it into a SMH.»
That happened in the last century: retirement homes grew empty, because the rich stayed in their mansions with a private nurse while the rest didn't have enough money to live in a home. A Hedge fund manager pitched the idea of Single Male Homes, Single Female Homes and Single Genderneutral Homes. City planners all over the world loved the concept, and the hedgers struck their deals with the governments.
Without those homes, unethical homelessness would be a thing again.
I liked my apartment, Rastan was the one who complained about everything: too small, too noisy, this squeaks, that's broken, anything.
Who knows what he was doing to his tap?
I nodded at his bowl, which he had filled to the rim, «You want a straw?»
«Haa-haaa! So what are you up to now?»
Here we go, he tries to settle in, so I said, «I'm tired. I was at the gym. You might've heard about it.»
«I hear you, man.»
Do you? «If your spoons are not washed, take one of mine from the drawer. You can slide it back through underneath the door tomorrow.»
«Thanks, I'm good», he fished a spoon out of his pants pocket.
He planned to stay for the evening.
Rastan asked, «Did you just sigh?»
Our devices simultaneously emitted the notification sound. He crossed the room, and I followed him to the window.
The yellow rain began to fall, a subdued, dull yellow descended from the murky night sky like snow in a classic Christmas flic. Black silhouettes filled the empty windows in the buildings across the street, nobody wanted to miss the spectacle.
Twice a year the rain turned yellow, tainted by the artificial pollen powder sprayed by the giant pollonator drones crossing the city and the land around it in order to make up for the lack of bees. Without the drones nothing would grow anywhere outside. Of course they didn't spray actually pollen, but a mix of fine seeds, GMOs, genetically manipulated organisms, that had overtaken nature years ago and weren't able to reproduce fertile seeds themselves—terminator seeds, suicide seeds. So they had to be re-sprayed twice a year.
The major attraction was the colour itself, this visual sensation, and like everybody else, we watched in silence the cascades of yellow running down the facades and how the water in the street took on the colour of the rain. Most people walked slower, others halted altogether, some stretching out their arms.
«You want to go out?», Rastan asked me.
«No, not today.»
: : :
The yellow rain lasted five minutes, then the city lost its colour again as if it stopped blushing, and one by one the gestalts behind the windows disappeared.
We remained at the window, continuing what could have been a surreal daydream. Rastan even had forgotten to eat, only now he took another spoon.
Whenever he was over at my place he tended to stay as long as he could—to talk. That's what happens, when you're not participating enough in life, in work: you are getting strange, stranger and stranger. In his boots, I'd go more often to the gym and take it from there.
He wanted to say something, but there was another knock, the knocking grew louder and into a rhythm.
On my way I looked over my shoulder at Rastan, «What the … who...? What's going on today? Is this a Goo office?»
As I turned the knob, the door was pushed in and I heard my other crazy neighbor with his German accent churning the 'th' in my name into an 's' «Arthur! Arthur!»
The Time Traveller marched in, his badly shaved face beaming at me, he acknowledged Rastan with a wink, and addressed me again, «Arthur! Arthur!»
He got his nickname from dreaming out loud he'd become a time traveller. As a matter of fact, he didn't talk about much else, so I braced myself for another barrage of broken dreams.
I closed the door, «What, what? Last time I heard my name that often, I made love.»
Rastan's mango-chicken exploded out of his mouth. His laughter subsided instantly to an inaudible chuckle.
I cleaned my cheek, «Table manners», and held the back of my hand up for him to see, «Did this exit your mouth or nose?»
«Moush, shorry.» His tie had become a glorified bib, from his mustache dripped mango-chicken to the floor.
I grabbed a towel and wiped it off the linoleum, «I can't tell through all the mess.»
Rastan didn't move, he stood there stiff, a dinner-gone-wrong statue.
Eventually I said, «What are you waiting for? You want me to hose you down? Washroom!»
«Sorry», he repeated himself, holding his bowl and spoon in the same frozen motion and inched in the right direction.
I chuckled, «You walk like… did it come out the other end, too?»
The Time Traveller laughed and grabbed the towel out of my hand to rub the mango-chicken off his sleeve, «He kinda took the wind out of my news.»
I pointed at his shoulder, where more sprinkles had landed, «Rastan can take the wind out of the weather.»
Trying to find the mush, the Time Traveller's face grimaced, wrinkles showed. He was the only person I knew in his 40s.
«What are your good news? Did you finally write a hit-song?», I asked hoping to steer the conversation into a more reality based realm. The entire floor knew about his musical attempts.
He slung the towel over the crosstrainer. «I go.» His excitement returned.
With no clue, what he was talking about, I said emotionless, «Hurray.»
«Arthur, my dream comes true!», he waited for a reaction, then he weighed every word, «I. Go. Back!»
«Back, back to wha… wait, wait!», it dawned on me: back! «No.»
«Nooo! Not possible.»
«Yes, I go back in time, they called me. I will be number three, the third time traveller ever.»
«Wha... when did they call?»
«A minute ago.»
«That is … congrats, man!», I hit his clean shoulder.
Rastan peered out of the washroom, «To what?»
«To making history. We have a real time traveller in our midst», I said.
Rastan came out, he had washed his face but his shirt still sported streaks from the collar down to the belt. He had taken off his tie, leaving its clean silhouette on the shirt, and his mustache glistened wet, «Congratulation, man!», he shook his hand.
«Thanks! Thank you guys.»
«Saturday, party at your place!», Rastan said.
He shook his head, «I leave tomorrow. They pick me up. First thing in the morning. I just came to say goodbye, guys.»
We exchanged glances, I let that sink in and said, «You did it, you made it, you will see the world, in color, the sun, the moon!»
«I know, I know», his hand ruffled through his hair, «I can hardly believe it.»
Rastan spread his arms, «Come on guys, group hug!»
The Time Traveller pulled a face and stepped back, I buried my hands in my pants looking at the ceiling.
: : :
We didn't sit down, we were all too excited. Rastan stood by the bathroom, alternating between cleaning mango-chicken stains off his shirt and gulping a spoon from the bowl.
Our Time Traveller said, «No, they didn't tell me, where I am going or to what time.»
«Will they tell you ahead of your departure», I asked.
«I hope so. Would be something if not.»
«Europe, best would be Paris, early1920s, or Berlin during that time.»
«Wow, sunny! The 20s last century, how come? Any connection? Still family there?»
«No, just interested.»
Raindrops hit the window. The slight wind had changed direction, and the drumming of the rain against the glass sounded like a group of cockroaches in slippers scrambling for shelter.
Rastan said, «Back then they spoke French there, and German.»
I asked, «How good are your old language skills? In Berlin you'd do okay, or?»
«Ja, I majored in German, as a child already, obviously, as a designated carrier of extinct languages. I did secondary major in General European languages. They taught me enough to get by, no matter where and when I land, I won't starve.»
«Well then, you are all set up.»
He was better prepared than I thought. His ramblings about going back in time had always sounded aloof. It turned out he followed a tight plan from early on. I had noticed his accent, but I never asked him. As a designated COEL, he had to display his language talent as a toddler, only those were chosen to be taught one or more of the extinct languages. In this light, dreaming of becoming a time traveller was not too far-fetched.
Rastan tromboned, «I would have taken Chinese.»
«You mean Mandarin?!», the Time Traveller corrected him.
«Sure», I said, «The guy that avoids work where he can.»
«How many watts did you produce last week?»
He stepped out of the bathroom, coiling his mustache with both hands and bending it to the side, «How does that look? Criminally sexy?»
«Criminally eccentric.» He had ignored my question.
Rastan turned to the Time Traveller, «What about your 'stache?»
«Gotta go, has to come off», he blew it up. His wasn't as long as Rastan's but still quite respectable.
Rastan pulled a face.
«Had to sign it in the contract. Grows back, when I come back.»
The Time Traveller clapped his hands, «Okay, folks, I have to go, packing.»
«What do you pack? For a time travel?», I asked.
«I don't know if I am allowed to tell, but … well, only a storage chip with one terabyte.»
«So pictures it is, no games, videos!?»
«No, just some music.»
Rastan said, «The Algorhythmares!?»
«Show the past how splendid music can be!»
«Will do. Gotta run now, guys, bye, and thanks for everything», we shook hands, and our Time Traveller left.
After the door closed shut I tried to remember my question for Rastan, but I couldn't, so I asked, «Hey, I wanted to ask you something.»
«No, earlier I mean.»
«What do I know what you wanted to ask me?»
«About... what we were talking about, remember?»
We blew our mustaches up.
«Can I have a refill?», he raised his empty bowl.
«Knock yourself out.»
He skipped to the sink.
«How come you're so hungry?», I asked.
«Dunno», the tap gargled, «You want to play a round of ZZ? I can get my…»
For a change, my device rang at the right time. Without checking who it was, I said, «I wish we could play, but sorry, video call, my little bro. Would you mind?»
When he finally looked at me, I nodded toward the door.
«Sure», he definitely wasn't happy about him having to leave.
He tapered off, carrying his bowl like some precious egg of an almost extinct species.
I wiped my 55 active, and the freeze frame of Berat lying in the hospital bed filled the screen.
: : :
I turned off the lights and wall screens, and by moving the artificial tea light closer to me, its pearl-coloured flame came alive. I leaned my device on it, looked into the camera and asked Berat, «Hey bro, how are you?»
«It's a good day today.»
His device laid in front of him on the bed, propped up on the blanket. The perspective emphasized his double chin, which had grown proportionally with the amount of pills and tinctures he had to take over the past year. His entire body had swollen, his cheekbones weren't noticeable anymore. He used to be lean, beating me four out of five months at the gym with his energy production.
«Did you get the pink pills?» I asked. After his last episode, the doctor prescribed him a brand-new drug. Since neither of us could remember the long name, he referred to them as the pink pills. The doctor told us, it could take a while for them to be shipped.
«Not yet, tomorrow is delivery day.»
«The doc hoped you would have your first dose by now!»
«What can you do.»
And we couldn't complain, his medicine, the doctor and the hospital stays were provided by public healthcare. Two years ago a doctor in a local walk-in clinic diagnosed Berat with the PDS syndrome, the Pregnancy Device Syndrome. Like so many others our mom had spent much of her pregnancy with her G17 on her tummy surfing the cloud, letting its waves penetrate the developing brain with the effect that its cells would deteriorate faster.
We both remembered mom and dad loving their old generation 17 device, she often rested it on her belly, and his device never left his hand during the entire time of the pregnancy with my little brother. We confirmed that in front of the doctor. For the following device generation, they fixed what they called “magnetic leakage”, and PDS became a thing of the past—except for Berat and his generation.
On a good day, Berat only had a nosebleed caused by the high blood pressure; on a bad day, he was bedridden with high fever and hallucinations. He lived far away from Lethbridge in the asylum City of Calgary, a place for people with mental and neurological illnesses. Two times I visited him this year.
«What are you playing these days?», I asked him.
«Tax Haven Invasion II.»
He coughed, the picture shook, and a dark spot landed on his camera lens, blood rushed down his lips. I heard his apology as he turned away from the screen.
Suddenly, it was eerily quiet in my apartment, especially after all the action with my neighbours. No sound came through the closed window, just the dim lights of all the other studio apartments from the building complex across the street kept staring at me, the waves of rain like a transparent curtain between us. A shadow moved behind an illuminated square.
With a blood-stained towel pressed to his face, he appeared again. Whatever he said was too muffled, and I couldn't understand him, I imagined he said «See you soon.»
He waved with the free hand, and I waved back. The next cough let his device tip over onto his blanket. Mostly dark, the video call continued, and everything trembled when Berat had his coughing fit.