Author Charles A. Gramlich weaves a twilight zone type science fiction tale set in a western town in a not to distant dystopian future.
They all looked up at the sound, the clink-clank-clunk of heavily laden saddlebags striking the door frame as the prospector stepped into the eatery. Their curious eyes registered both the prospector and his bags, but it was on those worn leather satchels that their gazes lingered, that of the bartender and the cook who had come out of the kitchen to talk, that of the waitress with her thin, angular body and her attractively regular features, that of the few customers: a father and his little one, a couple who were courting, an orbit-trucker who sat humped over his table with a cup of steaming black in front of him.
It was a negative ion sort of night, and business was slow at Memory’s Place.
Limping on what appeared to be two badly damaged feet, the prospector warped his way over to a table and sat down heavily. He seemed deliberately to choose a site in the middle of the room, as if he wanted everyone’s eyes upon him. He needn’t have worried. The punctuated thud of the saddlebags striking the floor beside him made sure he had all the attention anyone could wish.
The waitress, who had long ago cultivated a highly refined sense of boredom, suddenly developed a swift and animate sparkle in her gray orbs. It was perfectly logical to assume that the prospector had hit it big, and that meant the likelihood of a generous tip. She was standing beside the fellow’s table and offering him a menu disk before his chair even had time to cough up all its creaks and cracks. It almost offended her when he waved the proffered disk aside, but she quickly erased the semi-feeling as the prospector leaned back in his chair and began to recite a list of foods that had obviously become ritualized for him years ago.
It was a long and detailed list, but the waitress didn’t write it down. She had a near perfect memory and never needed to. But even if her memory had been awful she would not have forgotten this order.
The old foods, she breathed to herself. The old and very expensive foods.
She did not look in the direction of the bulging saddlebags, but she knew, as everyone else in the room knew, exactly where they were located. Then she turned away from the prospector’s sharp-planed face and went to put in his order, her precise mind clicking over T-bone steak and fried chicken, over griddle cakes, scrambled eggs and buttermilk biscuits, over strips of crisp bacon and long-link sausage, over blackberry cobbler and iced tea.
Iced tea, for Memory’s sake. When was the last time anyone ordered iced tea?
Of course, it was on the menu. All the foods were. And many more. Memory had kept them on because they were a link to a past that everyone needed to be reminded of occasionally. But no one ever ordered them. Or if they did it was for a lark, a little late night fun after a few too many quantum bourbons and neuron fizzes. The waitress had no desire to question the prospector’s choices, though. She wondered at them—when she wasn’t considering her potential tip—but all she did about it was recite the list to the cook as she went past him into the kitchen and began laying out the many ingredients from the store vault.
While he waited for his order to be readied, the prospector reached into a pocket and pulled out a gurgling silver flask that bore the scars of long use. The flask’s cap acted as a shot glass for the thick liquid he poured into it, a liquid as amber and viscous as new oil. The drink was a reward, a repayment for years of labor and deprivation. It went down far more smoothly than it looked.
The food was another repayment that the prospector wanted, and by the time he had savored his way through a second and a third shot of liquor the food began to arrive. The meal was just as he recalled, maybe better than he recalled, which surprised and frightened him a bit because of what it told him about his memory and the world it lived in.
Still, the forgetting didn’t really matter, because he soon began to learn the tastes again. Reconstituted or not, the steak was thick and dripping with juices. The chicken was crunchy crisp on the outside, puffy and air-light on the inside, like foam packing miracled into something delicious by all the spices of heaven. Best, though, were the biscuits. He could have written odes to their golden layers, though he preferred popping them buttered and whole into his mouth where they could be chopped into crumbs and washed down by sweet draughts of tea.
The prospector had thought that he remembered all his favorites among the old foods, but eating the bacon reminded him of fried ham, the sausage of jam-spread toast, the eggs of feta and parmesan cheese. And how could he have forgotten savory beef tacos and pan seared catfish and pork chops smothered in mushroom gravy? Or fried pickles and green bean casserole? In what kind of world had he lost the sense of spaghetti and meatballs?
He sent the waitress back for all the new/old things that came into his head, and he yelled after her for more iced tea, and for sour dough bread to sop up the juices. And then he moved into the rhythm of eating, knife-slicing with one hand and forking chunks of food into his mouth with the other. When he was finished attacking the main courses, he used the fork to punch in the top of the blackberry cobbler and drag out thick rafts of crust and berries, the size of the bites limited only by the width of his fork and the width of his mouth.
There came a moment, though, when the last berry went the way of the last scrap of buttered bread, and the prospector sank back in his chair with an audible thump. He swallowed a belch, then looked around the eatery. No one even pretended that they weren’t staring. They were watching him openly and with amazement, with what he knew to be a bit of disgust at his gluttony and choice of foods and table manners, but also a good bit of envy. And, of course, he knew why they were really watching him. They had to see how he was going to pay for his meal. They had to see what was in his bags. He made them wait just a moment longer.
The waitress had come to clean the table and now stood by expectantly. The two lovers had fallen silent as they snuggled close to each other, and the father and son leaned forward in their seats. The cook had abandoned the kitchen and the bartender had been polishing the same spot on the same glass over and over. Even the trucker looked up from his fourth cup of black.
Inwardly, the prospector smiled, though it didn’t show on his face. He stood, and hefted his bags. The table had been cleaned but he took a preliminary swipe across it with his arm to wipe away imaginary crumbs, and to heighten the tension. Then he upended the bags, first one and then the other, and the riches spilled out in a gleaming, glittering, clinking heap. The waitress gasped, and so did the others, and their eyes seemed held to that impossible pile as if grabbed by the juice in an electric socket.
The prospector rooted around in the imbroglio until he came up with a short rib-bone that he handed to the waitress for payment. It was more than enough. Then he tossed her a smoothed white knuckle as a tip and watched as she caught at the precious thing with both hands and still almost dropped it.
An entire skeleton, the young father who was watching thought to himself. An entire human skeleton. And it seemed new and fresh, not as if it had been dug up out of some long overlooked cemetery. He had never scanned so much raw piled wealth, not up close anyway. Of course, they had all seen vids of the national treasury, with its neat and overwhelming stacks of bones. But that was not like having the real thing poured out in front of you while you sat nibbling at your cation salad.
The other watchers seemed just as stunned, and all of them sat frozen while the prospector scooped up the remainder of his loot and waddled awkwardly to the door. Then they unfolded and reached for their things. The lovers were the first to leave, and the trucker took only as long as it required to drain the dregs of his polymer coffee before heading to his rig.
The father watched them go as he paid for his order with a few small bone coins. Then he walked over to where his son was standing beside the prospector’s empty chair. The young eyes were shuttered wide as if they could still see the jumbled tibias and femurs, the mandible and the ribs, the ilium, sacrum, radius, ulna, the carpals and metacarpals, the phalanges of the fingers.
“Did you see it, father?” the youth asked. “Did you?”
“Yes, son,” he said. “I saw it.
“A real human skeleton, father. Just like on the viddisks. It was incredible.”
“Yes, it was.”
“You know, 00101’s father says that there are still bio-humans out there. He says they’ve been hiding from us in the woods and swamps. He showed me a picture of footprints that someone found. And a blurry vid of something weird walking through the trees with its arms swinging like a human’s. Is it possible? Do you think?”
“No, son. Those stories have been around a long time, but we hunted down the last bio over thirty years ago now. They’re extinct.”
He reached out to pull his son close with steel-framed hands that could crush diamonds, but his touch was soft as a silkworm’s tongue. It seemed as if a nova of fizzing electrons had been loosed inside his co-processor, and a quick diagnostic could not tell him what was wrong. He wondered for a moment if it had been a mistake to kill all the humans. He wondered….
* * *
The prospector stopped for the night on a hill where he could watch the ribbon-shiny streets of the android town spread out before him. At this distance, the swiftly moving lines of transports looked like flowing jewelry, or maybe like the chasing lights that his wife used to string up on their Christmas tree every year. How she had loved decorating for the holidays. Christmas. Fourth of July. Easter. Thanksgiving. Even Halloween with its frightening costumes and its candle-eyed, pumpkin-fanged Jack-o’lanterns. Halloween had been his favorite, and he’d been playing at it now for thirty years.
Taking a chance, he built a fire, though it would be dangerously easy to spot by anything watching. No machine ever needed a campfire to keep itself warm on a cold night. But then, he wasn’t a machine. He slipped off his metallic gloves, unhinged the mask and body armor that hid his identity and dropped them to the ground. He groaned his way to a seated position before removing his plastisteel boots and luxuriating in being able to stretch his bare feet out to the crackling flames.
The revealed face and body and feet were all human, though it was strange that there were only three toes on each foot. Or maybe it wasn’t strange. In a world where human bones were the money that could keep a person alive, a few of his toes had been easy to spare.
But that was before, he thought, as he reached into his saddlebags and drew out the immaculate white skull that nestled there. Yes. That was before his wife had died and left him a rich man.
About Charles Gramlich
Charles Gramlich moved to the New Orleans area in 1986 to teach psychology at a local university. He’s since published four novels, two nonfiction books, two collections of short stories, and a chapbook of vampire haiku.