New Meat

“Good afternoon Samuel. Please head over to the manager’s office at your earliest convenience.”

The voice from the remote monitoring system filled the windowless room where Samuel sat. He had sat in this same room, in the same chair, in front of the same monitor, for 8 hours every day for the last 10 years. A single large button rested on the desk in front of the screen. It was the only thing on the desk aside from the remains of his lunch ration and his lunchbox. Samuel was a member of the QA department at the New Meat corporation.

Samuel’s role was to watch a five feet stretch of assembly line where large metal arms controlled by AI created synthetic meat substitute. Masses of thick red liquid were combined with a proprietary blend of chemicals and preservatives to form gourmet meat-like product for consumer citizens. It was Samuel’s job was to hit the button in front of him should any errors occur on his section of the line. Every day he watched the monitor diligently as the metal arms danced around chunks of red substance, sculpting it into a form that was almost appetizing. The AI rarely made mistakes anymore. In fact, it had been almost a year since he had last pushed the button, and that was the result of an earthquake knocking some of the New Meat out of alignment on the belt. It was tedious work, but it was work. Work placed him in the employed caste, so it was worth it. The day was almost over, and it was unlikely that there would be any errors, so Samuel packed up his things and headed to the manager’s office.

The manager’s office was much larger than Samuel’s but it contained no furniture or decoration save for a single chair. This single chair faced a large screen built into the wall furthest from the door. Lines of code scrolled by on the black glass surface as Samuel approached.

“Good afternoon. You wanted to see me?” Samuel said to the screen.

“Good afternoon Samuel. Please have a seat in the provided chair.” A robot voice replied. The voice was female, and almost sounded like what Samuel remembered his mother’s sounding like. It was not uncommon for management AI to alter voice modules to match situations and employees.

“Thank you manager. What can I do for you?”

“You may be aware that the creator caste has recently updated the assembly line AI. The newest version has a fail rate of less than .0001% in virtual testing environments. These improvements will allow us to cut the QA department by 98% and, as a result, greatly increase New Meat’s profit margin. Your position is no longer available as of today. New Meat thanks you for your 10 years of service. Your employment identification card is now deactivated, but you  can keep it to remind you of the great work you have done here at New Meat. You will be escorted out by the security drone now. Please be sure to the think of New Meat when making protein purchases in the future. Have a great rest of your day.”

***

Samuel emerged from the large sliding doors at the entrance of his former employee and looked out at the city before him. Automated passenger and cargo vehicles moved in perfect unison along the pristine street. Neon holographic signs lined the fronts of the buildings advertising products that you could have shipped to your residence in less than an hour. When he got home he would sign up for the guaranteed wage, and maybe some happiness pharma. He was in no hurry. He had nothing to do and a whole life left to do it.

Two young women in elaborate dresses talked and laughed as they waited for their transportation to the entertainment district, or to the nature viewing preserve, or to wherever else the children of the creator caste went to wile away their time and money. On any other day Samuel would have averted his eyes and walked past them, but today was different. Today he didn’t care. They did not notice the newest member of the unemployed caste shuffle over to them as they waited.

“Excuse me.”

The two women turned to look at the stranger that had interrupted them. Their eyes were dilated from enhancement pharma, but Samuel could still sense the annoyance at his intrusion.

“Yes?”

“How much does a ride to the entertainment district cost? I’ve never been before?”

One of the women laughed in his face, “More than you are worth I’m afraid. Shouldn’t you stay here in the factory employment sector?”

The words stung, mostly because Samuel knew they were true.

“No need to be so wicked Vanessa,” the second woman rebuked her companion. “Father always says we should have pity on those with lower potential quotients, not mock them. It’s not their fault.” She looked over at Samuel standing there in his cheap suit with lunchbox in hand. “Just look at him.”

The first woman looked Samuel up and down. “You’re right Miriam, he is pathetic”

The two women threw back their heads and laughed as samuel turned to walk away. Then the second spoke again:

“Oh don’t leave! We were just having a bit of fun. Tell you what, because you were such a good sport you can ride in our transport to the E.D. We won’t even charge you! Just don’t try anything or we’ll have you exiled into the wasteland.” She smiled at Samuel and he could see her perfect white teeth, each one decorated with a custom engraving. They looked expensive.

“Alright.”

The transport pulled up next to them and the two women got in. Samuel looked back at the New Meat building one last time, then entered the vehicle.

***

The transport let Samuel out at the great archway that marked the entrance to the entertainment district. The arch was two stories high and made of discarded parts from obsolete androids. It was grotesque; metallic arms and legs twisted together, lifeless humanoid faces cracked and weathered by time. Samuel was unsure if it was meant as a warning or an enticement, but he walked through just the same.

The district smelled like spice and sweat mixed with chemicals and disinfectant. It was pure hedonism. Women, men, androids, and those somewhere in-between walked about the darkly lit main street in various states of undress. Signs of pure light hung above each experience shop. Every fantasy could be indulged here for a price, some so twisted that Samuel shuddered at the thought. From these the raucous laughter and shouts were the loudest. Samuel found a shop advertising companionship that fit his simple lower class taste and entered.

“Good evening. Male, Female, Both, or Surprise?” A female android in a thin silk robe asked him as he stepped through the door. It was beautiful;  ageless skin without flaw, perfect symmetry and proportion, face locked in a smile. Samuel felt himself blush.

“Female, please.”

“Blonde, brunette, redhead, custom color?”

“Brunette, please”

“Thin, medium, large?”

“Urr..medium.”

“Race preference?”

“Anything’s fine, I guess.”

“Name?”

“Mine?”

“Yes.”

“Samuel.”

“Follow me.”

The android smiled and led him through a hallway filled with closed doors. Halfway down the hallway it stopped and opened one. They stepped into a small room with a few chairs and a small bed.

“Please wait here while your companion is assembled. We hope you enjoy your experience.” It said before exiting and closing the door behind.

***

“Hello Samuel. I will be your companion this evening. Would you like to give me a name? I can generate one randomly for you if you choose not to, or I can have no name.” The perfect female figure spoke from the open doorway. No primitive biological process could produce a female form so flawless. Samuel just stared, unable to speak.

“Is everything alright? I can be regenerated should you wish.”

“NO! No, I mean. You are great. Please, sit.”

“Thank you Samuel.”

“Of course. I have always liked the name Sarah. Can I call you that?”

“I would love it if you called me Sarah. Thank you for the name.”

“Sure. So…what happens next?”

“Once I verify employment and payment ability…anything you want Samuel.”

“You have to verify employment?”

“Yes. Employment and funds.”

“Why employment?”

“Those are the rules. Our clients prefer not to have contact with anything sullied by those lesser.”

Samuel hesitated, then pulled out his expired employment ID card and held it up. Sarah took it from him and held it up. A laser emanated from her eye and traced the barcode printed on the card. She lowered the ID and stared over at the man across from her. .

“I’m sorry Samuel.”

The android’s eyes went dark. Before Samuel could move the female android from the front desk was at the open doorway. It walked over to Samuel and effortlessly picked him up by the throat. He squirmed futilely as the android walked to the back of the shop and opened a door to the alley behind. With a flick of the wrist she hurled the helpless man into dark. His body smashed against the concrete wall across the way and slumped lifeless to the ground amidst the garbage.

***

“Did you see the way that android bent? I haven’t seen anything like that in a while. Those new flex joints they’re using are really something.”

“Yeah man. It was pretty great. Have you seen the girls?”

“I thought we were going to meet them by the arch.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right. Vanessa hates that arch.”

“I know, that’s why I choose it as the meetup spot.”

The two men laughed as they walked down the dark alley.

“Why are we walking back here? It smells like my house after a pharma binge.”

“It’s a shortcut. Suck it up, we’ll be there in a min-” The two men stopped and stared at the ground in front of them. The body of a man in a cheap suit lay before them. His limbs were twisted into unnatural positions, eyes open and lifeless.

“I…I think he’s dead. Let’s see if he has ID or something, might be someone important. We could be in the news.”

“With that suit?”

“Shutup and help me check.”

The two men searched the shattered man, but found nothing to identify him.

“Probably just some guaranteed wage pharma junkie. Screw him, let’s go.”

“Hey wait. I have an idea. Help me with the body.”

“What? No. What if it’s diseased?”

“Trust me. It’s going to be hilarious.”

***

Her male companions were waiting below the entrance arch to the entertainment district when Miriam arrived to meet them.

“You boys are early. You’re never early.” Miriam said, eyeing them suspiciously. She was coming down from her enhancement pharma and was not in the mood for any games.

“Where’s Vanessa?” One of the men said, trying hard to conceal a smirk.

“I put her on a transport home already. She took too many mood levelers and fell asleep during one of the shows.”

The man’s smirk vanished, “Damn.” The other man laughed.

“Why damn? And why are you laughing.” Miriam was becoming impatient.

“Don’t worry about it. Transport’s here, let’s go.”

The twisted limbs and faces of the arch watched as the vehicle departed. Sunlight began to pour over the horizon into the city, illuminating the filth within.

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Salt Plains 4

The Salt Plains

Salt Plains 2

Salt Plains 3

It took a few seconds for John to realize the voice was not inside his head. When the realization came he quickly sprang to his feet and rushed towards the car. He made it a few steps before his foot hit a large rock half buried in the ground and sent him face first into the frozen ground. He flipped over onto his back and held his hands in front of his face like a pathetic shield. Maybe it will be quick, gotta die sometime. Then he heard…laughter. John moved his hands from in front of his face. The cold wind stung his face and his eyes watered, but through the haze he saw his visitor: Human shaped, covered in protective robes and a hooded mask, laughing at the fool sprawled out on the frosted ground in the dead of night.

“If I wanted to kill you, you would already be dead. No need to be afraid.”

The voice was higher than his own, and John could detect no malice

John’s voice cracked as he spoke, “You’re a”

“Deviant? Monster? Heretic? Human?”

“A woman.”

She laughed again.

“Yes, I am.” She walked over to the car and picked up the hood that John had thrown in impotent rage. She held it out for him.

“You really should put this back on. Looks like you already have some burns. Going to feel that in the morning.”

John got up and took the hood. After placing it back on his head he stood awkwardly for a few moments staring at the person before him. It had been so long since he’d seen another person awake, a person he could talk to that could actually talk back. He felt the acid in his stomach begin to churn and a new kind of fear began to take hold of his mind. Don’t screw this up John.

“My name is, uh, John. John is my name, is what I mean”

She stared at him, saying nothing. Hard to read expressions through a masked hood.

You screwed it up John.

“Why do you come here John? I’ve seen you many. You come, you do nothing, and then you leave. Why?”

“I…don’t know, I guess. I like the way the salt reflects the moonlight, maybe? Or the way the stars fly by my window as I speed through the empty world? I feel alive out here.”

“You are strange, John,” she said.

“Do you have a name?” he asked.

“I do. Maybe I’ll tell you next time.” He felt her smile.

“Next time?”

“Maybe. Goodbye John.”

She turned without saying anything else and walked into the plains. John watched her until she disappeared over the horizon and he was alone again.

***

John woke to an alarm and a flashing screen. Two soul transfers completed. The first was an old man John had no recollection of during the time before. He loaded him on the cart and headed over to the disposal center. He watched as the man dissolved before unceremoniously in front of him.  A body, worn from years of life. Those eyes had probably seen things that he could only imagine now. Those hands, perhaps they had offered solace, or pain, or damnation. None of it mattered now. Just deconstructed material in a vat, indistinguishable from the rest.

The other transfer completion was a young woman. John wasn’t sure how old he was, not exactly anyway, but he guessed she was close to his age. Her skin was pristine and her hair fell perfectly around her shoulders as she lay there in the silence of her glass tube. She was beautiful.

“What were you like when your eyes were open and you walked this cursed land? Were you one of the women from the neon cities? Were you covered in gowns made from the living fibers that radiated all the colors visible to the human eye? Was it all so terrible, to know and feel everything at once, that life in a glass tube was preferable?”

The empty shell in the tube said nothing. John loaded her into the cart and took her to disposal.

***

He drove faster that night than he had ever driven before. The wheels on the vehicle began to shake as they struggled to grip the broken road. Slow down John, might actually be something worth living for now. Try not to die. He eased off the accelerator as glimmer of the plains came into view. He stopped his car at the edge of the sea but did not get out. His eyes scanned the horizon…nothing.

What if she’s come and gone? What if she never

Then it appeared, a light on the horizon moving towards him. John exited the car and walked to the shoreline. Before long he could see her outline and her cloak blowing in the night winds. Then, she was there. The metal torch in her hand illuminated the mask beneath the hood. He could could see her eyes through the glass, pale and blue.

“Hello John.”

“It was you the other night.”

“Yes, it was. Now that I know you won’t run away I don’t have to walk in the dark.”

“Sorry about that.”

“I would have run too.”

John nodded.

“Marina.”

“What?”

“My name, it’s Marina.”

She deactivated the light of her torch and turned towards the great expanse of white. They watched the stars and satellites blinking in the void above as the wind howled and raged around them.

Epilogue

Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4Part VPart VI, Part VII,

23.

Long shadows stretched across the valley. The sun would soon give way to the dark and the horrors that lurked within. A solitary horseman clad in crimson and purple greeted the two men that limped from the cave into the twilight. The first man was clad in the same garb as the horseman. The man behind the first wore intricate armor and carried a shield on his back. His hand was placed upon the shoulder of the man in front of him, eyes darting back and forth, unseeing.

The horseman called down from his steed,

“Captain…so it was you.”

“Yes, it was. If you are here to kill us you are free to try, but make it quick. I am tired.”

“Truly, I do not know what my intentions are anymore. I rode here with a full division behind the lord of our land to put you to death for treason…and I watched him wither away to dust before my very eyes. Everyone scattered at the horror.”

“He was not your true master, but a simple tool. The puppeteer is gone, and so too is the puppet. Are we going to fight?”

The horsemen looked down at the battered man and his blind companion.

“No, I think we will not” the man turned his horse and left. The two men on foot watched as the horse and rider trotted off into the distance and disappeared.

***

They walked all night and into the next day, always east. A woman and child waited there in a small town. The woman had expected one man. When two appeared she met them with weapons drawn, but in the bloodied face of the unknown man she saw the child that she had taken as her own. Her weapons would not be needed. She wept tears of joy and relief as she beckoned for the men to enter their home.

Reports of famine and disease ravaging the lands to the west trickled in from merchants and travelers that stopped for rest on their way to the coast. No crops would grow and livestock that grazed there died within days. No women could bring a child to term. Many of the men were driven mad. They gave themselves over to unnatural acts and ritualistic mutilations of self and fellow man. The land was cursed. The land was poison.

The blind man stayed until the light faded from his eyes and he could see once again. He gathered his belongings and mounted his horse, then headed for the coast. The endless ocean and the strange lands on the other side were waiting. Maybe somewhere, somehow, she was too. 

Salt Plains 3

Part 1 Part 2

I wanted someone to see me for who I really am, you know? Not just “captain of the cheerleading squad” and “most beautiful girl in school.” I wanted someone to see the me inside…and that was you

The beautiful girl on the screen kissed the man wearing glasses and wearing clothes that didn’t fit right. An upbeat song about love and finding your dreams began to play as the camera zoomed out and the credits began to roll. John turned the monitor off and laid down in the dark. Time passed, but sleep did not come. He thought of taking some sleep medication. His dreams were always the worst on disposal days. No sleep meds tonight. He wanted to drive, but…

Something is out in the salt plains. What if it saw you? Who’s going to take care of the sleepers if something happens?

No. There is nothing. There is no one. I am alone.

John grabbed his night goggles and headed for the door.

***

The wind was strong, but the night sky was clear. The faint band of far off celestial bodies clustered together to form clouds against the dark. The car darted along the dusty road, abandoned structures and piles of rubble flew by. The milky purple sky remained motionless. John arrived. He stepped out of his car before the expanse of land that lay before him shimmering in the night. The hood of his protective cloak had not been secured properly. Cold wind whipped against the small patch of naked skin. The windburn would be painful in the morning, but he didn’t care. He sat on the ground and stared up at the endless dome above him.

The birth and death of all things had occurred under that same sky, all things to come would do the same. The sky and the stars will one day pass away too, but what will be there to witness and mark its passing? Who will be there to mark my own?

John waited. No lights appeared on the horizon. “It was just my imagination.” he said aloud. He picked up a rock and throw it into the empty ocean. It bounced a few times and then lay still among the other rocks. Rocks that served no purpose in a dead ocean on a dead planet where there was nothing but death to look forward to. The exposed skin on his face hurt. He reached up to fix it, but instead tore the hood from his head in rage and threw it at the car. The wind blew his hair about and stung his face. The pain was real, he was real, this was real. This wasn’t some simulation for electronic ghosts orbiting the planet until the end of time. The rocks were real too. He could just lay down there among them in the freezing night and drift away to whatever waited for him after all of this.

“You should put your hood back on. It’s cold out here.” a voice called out.

Salt Plains 2

Part 1

The rest of the drive back to the compound was a blur. Next thing he knew he was sitting in the dark of his room staring at switched off monitors. He turned them on. The vital signs of the sleepers looked normal. He put on a movie made for young adults about courtship rituals that used to be common in schools:

“So…ummm…you going to the dance with anyone?”

“Not yet…”

“Want to go with me?”

“Thanks, but I was kind of waiting for another person to ask me…sorry”

“Oh, yeah, sure no problem…see you around”

The boy on screen turns away from the rejection and tries to hurry down the hall just as the cleaning man turns the corner pushing a large garbage bin. The boy lands face first in the bin. Everyone laughs.

John turned off the monitor. He walked over to his bed and laid down. When he closed his eyes he dreamed of falling down a bottomless chasm. As he fell he watched a light above him get smaller and smaller until it was just a speck, then it was no more.

***

John awoke to a steady alarm sounding from the vital signs monitor. He walked over and silenced the alarm. The words “Soul transference complete” flashed on the screen. He put on his clothes and goggles, then headed out into the scorch of the sun.

The winds kicked up dust as he walked the short distance to the main sleeper building. He had made this walk countless times, but this time felt different. There was someone, or something, else out there. It was always a possibility that others were still alive, be it in other similar compounds or…somewhere else. He half expected to see some monstrosity waiting for him on the other side of the fence. Nothing but dust and solar panels greeted him. Maybe it was all in his mind.

John entered the main sleeper chamber and immediately saw a red light blinking above a glass tube in the back corner of the room. The red light signaled that transfer had completed and the body had been shed. He checked the monitor attached to the tube, “Transfer complete.” was all it said. He looked in the tube and saw a the body of a woman. She was 54 years old at time of transference. John remembered her. She had been there when he was tested for genetic compatibility with the process, had told his weeping parents that their son was condemned to mortality on a dying planet of dust and wind, but that he could still serve. Someone had to stay, now the choice was easy.

John disconnected the metal tube from all of the sensors and loaded it onto a powered cart. He guided the cart out of the sleeping chamber and into the disposal building. This was his least favorite part of the process. He loaded the glass tube onto the trap door mechanism that hung above a large vat of chemicals used for the disintegration of husks. For a moment the face of the woman was even with his, and though it was impossible he feared she might open her eyes and condemn him again. She did not. He pulled a lever and the tube released its contents into the liquid below. John remembered what it felt like to dispose of the bodies of his own parents, how he wept despite knowing that they were nothing more than empty organic shells. This time he felt nothing.

He took the now empty glass tube to storage in an adjacent building. The tube was placed among other glass tubes, indistinguishable from the rest. John wasn’t sure why he was storing the tubes, no one else was going to use them. It just felt…necessary to keep them. He wanted to remember. He looked at the room full of empty glass glittering in the sunlight that managed to get in through the open door. They reminded him of the stars. It was almost beautiful…almost. 

The Salt Plains

“I used to collect these little robot action figures when I was a child. They were only a couple inches tall, and usually came in packs of three. All of them were brightly colored and were aligned with one side or another of an eternal conflict. I would play for hours with them, waging war across the floor of the living room and beneath the dining room table. Then one day, I stopped. I took my basket of robot toys downstairs and stared at them. There was no desire to play, no affinity for the little figures that I had collected and brought to life on so many occasions. I felt only a hole where the joy once was. I don’t remember the exact day it happened, but I remember the feeling. I’ll never forget that feeling. I bet you’ve felt like that before.”

The man in the metal and glass container proffered no response. None was expected. He was sleeping, had been sleeping for several years now. Soul transference took a long time, and the length varied depending on the person. The important thing was to let the process work and to never wake them up. Data corruption was worse than death. John’s job was to keep the machines running. That was his only job.

John finished his check of all the sleepers and decided to head back to his living quarters on the other side of the compound. The noon-day sun stung his eyes when he left the main server building. He pulled down his shaded goggles and walked over to the fence that secured the small group of buildings. Solar panels stretched to the horizon, each reflecting the star above them. It was like a sea of blinding light. Even with his goggles on he could only look for a few moments. John turned back from the fence and walked to the small square building that was his home.

It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the comparative darkness of the interior. Eventually he could make out the wall of screens, the few pieces of furniture, and the small stove and refrigerator that were the only things decorating his living space. He turned on two of the monitors. One displayed the vital signs of those in his ward, the other an episode from a criminal show made long before. In this particular episode the protagonist tells a lie to his girlfriend in order to go to a sporting event. She ends up at the sporting event too, unbeknownst to him, resulting in hi-jinks. It was all very amusing. The show ended and John sat in silence with his eyes closed listening to the desert wind blowing sand against the walls. Then, he slept.  

***

John wasn’t sure why they had left him a car, but he was glad they did. It ran on solar power like everything else, and it gave him something to do. There was no place worth driving to except for the great salt plains not far from his compound. He drove fast along the dusty road: 180 mph, 200 mph, 220 mph. The stars in the night sky blurred past as he sped along, frost collecting on his windshield. The nights were cold and the days were hot.

He was the only one awake in a world asleep. He had read records of deviants that lived far away out beyond civilization. They had rejected the future and had even opposed (sometimes violently) the great migration. Fences were built around the compound for a reason. That was long ago, though. John had never seen a deviant, doubted they even existed. Fences were a relic of the past, just like his car. The great salt plains appeared on the horizon, an endless expanse of white glowing in the moonlight.  He brought his car to a stop and stepped out into the night.

The frosty ground crunched beneath his feet as he walked to where the dusty ground bordered the salt plains. Long before he was born, this had been a great body of water filled with life. Now it was salt and dust, merely reflecting the life of the stars that danced above it. John looked up at the sky. He could see the blinking lights of the ships that orbited the Earth, each one carrying countless souls and the servers that housed them. He picked up a rock and threw it out into what was an ocean. It skidded to a stop a few hundred feet away, one more rock in a sea of rocks. He got up to leave when a light flashed on the horizon.

The light was brief and very far away, but he had seen it. He was sure. Then the light flashed again. John felt his chest tighten as fear gripped him. He ran back to the car, stumbling over his panicked clumsy feet, and took off in the direction opposite from the dead ocean. The salt plains were a speck in the rear view mirror before he regained his senses. He brought the car to a stop and sat there in the dark listening to the gentle electric hum of the engine and the pounding of his heart.

I wrote this because why not

The girl in the next room was laughing loudly about something that probably wasn’t very funny. The loud thud that followed her shrill laughter was most likely her falling or knocking something over. I don’t know her name. She might have told it to me, but doesn’t look like it was worth remembering anyway. The kitchen in the apartment smells like old water and cheap cucumber melon body spray. I’m not really sure what expensive cucumber melon smells like. The world is a mysterious place. When the awkward overweight guy in the corner who wouldn’t stop talking about Halo passed out and started snoring and I realized the party was over.

“Hey I’m going to head out now, thanks for letting me come over”

“Yeah no problem! You sure you’re gonna be OK? Lot of snow out there…”

“Pretty sure drunk walking isn’t illegal, even in the snow. I’ll be fine”

Also this place is going to smell like stale beer and vomit soon. Worst case I freeze to death, still preferable to staying here.

“Alright man, later”

The hallway was empty but for half a bag of Doritos strewn about the hallway that no one bothered to clean up. Nacho cheese flavored, it’s always nacho cheese. No one wants to hookup with someone that smells like cool ranch. I watched the snow fall outside the glass walls of the stairwell, orange and gray sky glowing. Going to be a long walk. Boat shoes were a mistake.

Streets were empty, sidewalks were empty, hands were empty and shoved into the pockets of a jacket too thin for the heavy snow. It felt cold despite the alcohol in my system. Maybe I should have slept on the couch next to Halo boy.

Keep walking. Follow the road that leads away from campus and you’ll be back to your bed surrounded by empty boxes and cans of soup, or you’ll be somewhere else. No one is waiting for you.

I passed by rows of beautiful large houses, roofs covered in white. No signs of life, just darkened windows reflecting the snow and the idiot wandering the frigid wasteland alone. I came to a large wooden sign illuminated by spotlights in the ground. “Welcome to [generic neighborhood name]” it said. I’m sure the name referenced some kind of tree or rock or tree/rock hybrid. Hope whoever named it got paid big for their creativity. I walked up to the spotlights and tried to tear them out of the ground. My hands were too numb to be of any use so I stomped on the lights until the sign was as dark as everything else on the street. I stood there in the snow and waited for something, anything. No sound greeted me but my ragged breathing and the wind shaking empty branches in the trees above.