Images all made with the assitance of AI text-to-image program Midjourney
Courtesy the author
Chronos is walking across an endless stretch of barren land. The cool respite of cloud cover is pierced suddenly by sunlight, which assails his wiry back and makes his alabaster skin appear even paler. Like droplets of wax, sweat rolls down the elderly man’s torso, wetting his tunic before landing in the slim shadow he casts.
Chronos’s steady if sluggish pace is disrupted by a spasm in his right calf, and he struggles to stay upright. He raises his head and squints—still nothing in view.
But something is approaching from behind. First, a distant neigh, then the clopping of hooves, becoming louder as a covered wagon catches up to him. A young Caucasian couple peer out with concern, then the man promptly hops down to lend Chronos a hand. “Sir, care for a ride?”
The fellow helps Chronos into the wagon. Chronos inspects the vehicle’s interior with bewilderment, running his calloused hand over its smooth white canvas. The young man catches on: “A wonder, ain’t it? This is a repurposed wagon once used by frontiersmen—a prairie schooner, as they call it. Y’know, as in a ship for sailing the vast oceans. How romantic is that?” He grabs the reins and whistles to the horses. “I sometimes wonder how this wagon was used just a few years back. Maybe a frontiersman would sit where I’m sitting and fire his shots at the savage Indian aggressors.” He turns around and gestures holding a rifle, a boyish smile on his face.
The young woman leans away from him: “Oh, Mo, but how can you be so sure the Indians are savages? They’ve been here for far longer than we have. Surely they can offer some wisdom for living with the land.”
Mo sneers: “What good is ‘living with the land’? We must see nature as a reserve for mankind, lest we fight endlessly over resources. Besides, I’ve heard the Indians’ tales, and it’s apparent that they’re plagued by profound confusion. Past generations and future generations are all jumbled together. They’ve been walking in circles, denying themselves the very possibility of progress!” He is clearly showing off to the stranger. “We, on the contrary, have the noble pursuit of rationality. The scientific method, true democracy… such things propel civilization forward.”
“Isn’t my Mo brilliant? He went to college!” the woman says, turning toward Mo. “I wonder if there’s anything that modern science can’t answer.”
Mo thinks for a moment. “One of the things that the scientific disciplines can’t account for—yet—is the enigma of dreams.”
“Mo has the most whimsical dreams, I swear!” She hugs Mo’s arm, imploring, “Tell him, tell him!”
“Oi, settle down,” Mo lowers his cap but can’t hide his blush. “It’s true. I’ve had outlandish dreams. In these dreams, I saw a society where people enjoyed the convenience of technological marvels that would make our wagon look like a relic. I saw people traveling on winged carriages that glided like eagles. Manlike automatons tilling large stretches of land and preparing food to be delivered into buildings that were tall enough to part the clouds! And the inhabitants talking to one another through pocket-sized metal gadgets…. I’ve entertained the idea that these are visions, not just dreams. Considering how rapidly technologies have been developing, perhaps the society I dreamed of already exists somewhere.”
Mo peers at the horizon ahead with glee, then seems to realize something. “My word, I haven’t even asked your destination! So where are you heading, sir?”
Chronos looks away and starts to fidget. Just before the silence stretches so long as to be awkward, Mo breaks it.
“Excuse my silly question. I only see one way forward anyway. As long as we don’t deviate from it, I reckon nothing could go wrong.” He smiles assuredly, adding, “I’m sure we can expedite your trip.”
The rhythmic clopping soon sends the exhausted older man to sleep.
The year is 906 PF.
Prosperity, a human generational spaceship, is traversing the infinite darkness of the cosmos on autopilot.
The interior of the ship is currently well lit. For an untold number of years, its lighting system has been imitating the day-and-night cycle of planet Earth—one of the surviving reminders of its population’s origin.
The “morning” assembly has concluded, and each family has just received its share of plump fruit and synthetic meat. Thanks to the advanced cybernetic system, automated agriculture, free preventive medical care, and AI assistance, Prosperity’s breed of humans hasn’t experienced hunger, illness, or conflicts in centuries. The only danger they really face is boredom.
Keta, at the tender age of 40 still a child, is on their quest to vanquish this danger. They run up to Divi, their favorite playmate, and tap them on the back. Divi turns around and grins. “The Archive!” the two say in unison, giggling.
Chronos wakes up in cold sweat, grabbing at the air.
“Nightmares, ay?” a familiar voice inquires. “They’re a nuisance. I would know.”
Chronos rubs his eyes and finds himself in a Ford Mercury Woody. Artie Shaw’s Stardust is on the radio, which calms his nerves. He looks around cautiously. He’s certainly on the same road with the same bright sun above him, and the man in the driver’s seat is unmistakably Mo, but now he wears a dapper gray suit and has an air of maturity.
“Are you OK?” The young woman leans forward from the backseat. “My poor Mo suffers from bad dreams too. Ever since the damned war, he’s been having them so frequently. We’d have tobacco and tequila next to the bed.”
“Nightmares, yes,” Mo says, his gaze fixed on the horizon. “But plenty of good dreams too. Now that the war is over, we can finally resume progress, don’t you think?” With one hand on the wheel, he takes out a cigarette, and his lover lights it for him. He extends an invitation to Chronos with his eyes, but the latter declines. So he continues.
“Western men have been so focused on technological advances that we’ve neglected the great danger of their abuse by ideologies. In a way, the war presents a great lesson,” he says, exhaling smoke. “If liberal democracy and the free market yield technological advances, there would be no despotic misuse. And without the detours of unnecessary conflicts, we’d have metropolises worldwide in no time. The war provides the moral clarity needed to keep going our way—by exposing the vices of its alternatives.”
“So you rest easy, old man. Sleep some more. I’ll let you know when we’re there.”
While schools offer practical knowledge to citizens, much of human history and cultural heritage are left for them to discover on their own. Thankfully, the Archive, a digital library preserving trillions of documents detailing humankind’s journey, is available to all inquisitive minds. Recently Keta and Divi have been spending their mornings delving. Keta has taken a keen interest in Indigenous mythologies throughout the Americas, while Divi prefers the incidental humor of many conspiracy theories. “There’s no way they believed that!” Divi would exclaim many times during their reading sessions.
As Keta and Divi run down the fluorescent hallway to the Archive, they see the Professor coming their way. The Professor is adored by the entire population on Prosperity for their mellow demeanor and expansive knowledge of cosmic sociology and theoretical physics.
The Professor walks up to the duo and greets them with a question: “Children, do you know where we come from?”
Divi answers confidently: “Why, Professor, of course, we were cultivated in nutrition liquids after the smart hatch base inseminates one of its finest frozen eggs.”
But Keta suspects that the Professor is asking about humankind’s origins: “We are from planet Earth of the original solar system. We evolved from very simple lifeforms there, though….” They thought of religious explanations too, but withheld them from their answer.
The Professor appears unimpressed: “Tell me, child, have you ever seen Earth?”
Keta stumbles: “…I’ve seen images, but… I think it might still be possible to see it through the space telescopes onboard.”
The Professor kneels down, and Keta expects a pat on their head. What they couldn’t anticipate is that the Professor would clutch their shoulders and shake them violently while mumbling, “You don’t get it, do you? You don’t get it, do you? You don’t get it….” Keta has never experienced physical touch with any malevolent intent, and now they are foaming at the mouth as blood rushes to their head, rendering their almost translucent cheeks beet-red.
The Professor stops suddenly and walks quickly away as though in a trance. Divi runs to Keta, offering a bottle of nutrition liquid with their trembling hand. “Oh gosh, your heart rate,” Divi mutters as they watch the number on Keta’s wrist flashes red.
The next time Chronos wakes, he’s in a yellow Firebird, and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird is blasting from the radio.
“You said something?” Mo yells to Chronos, who in fact hadn’t said a thing.
Mo appears younger than before—perhaps it’s the jeans and shirt?
“As I was saying! We now call ourselves yuppies! But you better believe we’re still trying to change the goddamn world! Have you seen the original cover of the Whole Earth Catalog?!”
Chronos shakes his head.
“For real, bro?! The first picture of our planet! Iconic stuff! You can’t see a single border from space! Oh wait, the good part is coming…” Mo starts to sing along with the radio: “And this bird, you cannot change!”
His lover interjects from the back: “Mo, please turn down the music. The baby can’t sleep.”
“The other day I had this dream! Of a world without war! No more stupid races! Westerners share our technologies with all cultures so everyone can come together to build Spaceship Earth! We are united under one socioeconomic system run by supercomputers! Which, of course, replaces the governments and centralized power….”
“Would you please turn down the music!”
This time Mo hears her. He turns off the radio and hears the baby crying. He carefully probes the extent of her anger: “Sorry, babe.”
But her expression is sorrowful: “You’ve never dreamt of me, have you?”
Mo remains silent against the accusation, his eyes still fixed on the horizon. She continues: “Have you ever wondered about my dreams? Or the little one’s?” She rocks the baby tenderly. “There, there, I will sing you a lullaby.”
The late afternoon sun emits a lazy orange glow, illuminating everyone’s face. The baby is fast asleep, but the young woman just keeps on singing. Eventually Chronos also feels the weight of his eyelids and yawns. Just as he is dozing off, he intercepts bits of the couple’s conversation.
“You promised you would bring us somewhere beautiful.”
“Don’t you worry, babe.”
Inside the Archive, the panel lights replicate the warmth of an afternoon sun. Keta soon omits the earlier incident from their mind as they immerse themselves in a mythological world.
They make a few clicks on a holographic interface to access the Wasco myth of the Big Dipper’s origin: A pack of five wolves told the trickster Coyote that they had spotted two magnificent hunters in the distant sky and would like to greet them. The Coyote complied and shot arrows skyward with such precision that they stuck to one another to form a bridge. Across the bridge, the canines ascended to the night sky and finally met the mysterious hunters—two grizzly bears.
“Grizzly,” Keta whispers, and a 3D hologram of the beast manifests beside them.
While the wolves were conversing with the bears, the Coyote covertly retreated to earth, collecting the arrows as it went and stranding the wolves in the sky. ‘Whenever someone sees this picturesque gathering of the hunters, they will surely think of my genius and skills,’ the Coyote thought merrily. The seven beasts formed a constellation that would later be known as the Big Dipper.
Divi startles Keta as they pat their shoulder: “Hear me out, Keta!” “What is it?” “I found the conspiracy theories of the 22nd century a bit stale and thought—why not fast-forward to see how they would evolve in later periods? But guess what? The last entry on conspiracy theory was dated 2410 AD. There’s not a single entry between then and now!” Divi pauses briefly. “So that got me curious: can you also look into the ‘future’ of Indigenous peoples?”
Keta finds the suggestion exceedingly thrilling. They’ve wondered if any Indigenous person was part of Prosperity’s original population. If so, it’s probable that they have storyteller blood coursing through their veins.
Yet two hours of searching yields few results. The last relevant entry they find is about a series of protests in 2410 AD.
Keta and Divi are now certain that there is a gap in the Archive, but they have no clue what to make of it. A feeling of dread creeps up on them.
The Archive’s ceiling panels abruptly change to red, and a public announcement follows: “Attention, all citizens of Prosperity. At 16:20 the Professor’s body was found in their room. An emergency meeting will take place. Please come to the assembly hall immediately. Let me repeat….”
In the assembly hall, Keta and Divi soon learn that the Professor had injected mercury into their veins.
When Chronos opens his eyes, he almost doesn’t recognize Mo. Mo has aged considerably and is now in a black suit, his well-combed hair glossy with gel.
“Oh, you’re up. I was talking about this sci-fi I watched on my last flight back. It was mind-blowing—CGI has really evolved to a point where they could make alien metropolises believable! The porcelain spires with hovering vehicles coming in and out, agents communicating via holograms… man, I wish I had experienced it in the cinema with 3D glasses on. The younger generation ought to see more stuff like it. To have a blueprint in mind, y’know?”
He looks back to his son, now a freckled adolescent, continuing:
“Z! What’s the name of that friend of yours who studies mechanical engineering?”
“It’s Miles, Dad… and he’s more than a friend, really.” Mo is visibly perplexed, so Z adds: “We have feelings for each other.”
Z’s mother puts her hand on Z’s shoulder as a sign of solidarity as Mo rubs his chin in disbelief.
“Really, now? In front of our guest?” Mo says after a while, smiling at Chronos almost apologetically, before turning again to Z: “I swear, you and your mother think of me as some monster. I am really more accepting than you’d think. I’ve had lots of sensitivity training at the corporation, y’know?”
Z sighs lightly and changes the topic: “I got my license, Pa. Maybe I should take the wheel from here on out. You must be tired.”
“You’ll get your own car soon, young man. Just get yourself a loan after college. And while you’re at it, you can get a mortgage for a house. Heck, I’ll even help with your down payment. Seems like you just desperately want to shake off your old man, no?”
“A mortgage and a car loan, in addition to my student loan? You make it sound so easy,” Z sneers. “While you’re profiting off asset-backed securities, my pals and I are priced out of the neighborhood.”
“Drop the accusations. I’m telling you, you don’t see how free you are, and you’re held back by that negative mindset. You’ll have no one to rely on except yourself out there, so you better learn to man up. Forget the past, make the most out of the present….”
A loud thump interrupts Mo’s lecture. The car slows and then stops. “Darn it,” Mo curses, “we gotta open her up. Lend me a hand, Z!”
The father and son open the car’s hood and start tinkering. Chronos’s view is obscured, but he can hear tidbits of their conversation from inside the vehicle. They’re not making up, apparently. Their verbal fight escalates to the point where Chronos can hear the back and forth clearly.
“Don’t you dare talk ‘progress’ to me like I’m some old fart! I goddamn invented that word!”
“I know what you did! You sold my dreams—everyone’s dreams—for a quick buck! What’s next? Are you going to sell your soul, too?!” Z retorts.
“Get lost!” Mo shouts. “Go!”
Z returns briefly and says, “Don’t worry, Ma,” then grabs his backpack and walks away. A few moments later, Mo slams the hood and gets back in the driver’s seat. Z’s mother is looking out the side window, and from the rearview mirror Chronos can see tears swirling in her eyes.
An uncomfortable silence stretches on and on. What choice does Chronos have except to nap and pretend that he’s heard nothing? So he does just that.
A somber soundscape of weeping and murmuring sets the mood for the assembly. The elders—a small group of people in their 400s—come onto the stage and deliver a eulogy, and a long line forms to pay respects to the Professor.
After the ritual, the Professor’s chief assistant mounts the stage. “I’m here to tell you the truth about the Professor’s passing.” The uneasiness is tangible in the assembly hall. “Though… I think it’s best that our children do not hear it. Of course, as per our values, children can stay of their own volition.”
Many children leave, but Keta and Divi decide to stay.
“The Professor took their life because they couldn’t bear the implications of their latest findings. Having worked with them, I must admit I’m also deeply affected. However, the truth-seeking citizens of Prosperity deserve to possess this knowledge.”
“The Professor spent their final months in the Archive,” the assistant continues. “They initially wanted to study the development of human democracy and governance. Curiously, they couldn’t find any materials after the year 2410 AD. Meanwhile, records of Prosperity’s social system only go back to 0 PF. We don’t know when the AD calendar ended, either, meaning there could be mere centuries between 2410 AD and the PF calendar, but there could also be millennia, eons, or entire calendars. We simply do not know. But based on what we’ve found, we do know that humans back then had nothing resembling our postscarcity society.”
“We were not unfamiliar with the year 2410 AD. Every physicist onboard knows of the mystery that is the origin of Prosperity’s propulsion system. Indeed, no records of scientific breakthroughs in this area after 2410 AD can be found.”
Keta and Divi look at each other: The Gap in the Archive.
“So the Professor proceeded to look into other subjects. How did Prosperity’s cybernetic system come into being? How did humanity solve the racial conflicts to reach our postrace society? Or the class conflicts? How did it get over the religious quarrels—and harder still, the ideological ones?… Their tireless search only corroborated the void in our history. It is as if we’re suspended beyond history.”
The dread that Keta and Divi previously felt at the Archive has now amplified a thousandfold, enveloping every soul in the assembly hall, sucking the light out of their eyes. “I will take some questions before presenting the Professor’s last recording,” the assistant solemnly announces.
When it comes to Keta’s turn, they ask, “What does PF stand for?”
“Post-futurum,” answers the assistant.
Chronos is awakened by a quarrel between the couple. “If you’re so worried about Z, why don’t you go and find him!” Mo bellows beneath his N95 mask. “You taught him nothing but ungratefulness!” Mo is still in his tight business suit, but he’s aged again—as evidenced by his wrinkles, which are rendered deeper by the cold white of the car’s dome light. The car screeches and stops, and out steps the woman. She walks away without looking back, her white dress fluttering gracefully in the evening wind.
Chronos quietly sees her off through the rearview mirror.
Mo lets out a deep sigh and steps on the gas: “There’s no respect left in this household. They don’t even see that I’m providing for them.”
The last sliver of rosy sunlight has disappeared into the horizon. Only the car’s headlights illuminate the road ahead, but Chronos can barely see what lies just a dozen meters ahead. What he can clearly see is the reflection of Mo’s face on the windshield—pale and vengeful like a disembodied specter.
“Can’t see shit,” Mo grumbles, then turns to Chronos. “Mind if I put on some music to lighten the mood?”
Mo goes through a few somewhat pastiched songs before settling on a tune that sounds awfully melancholic to Chronos. “The Caretaker. Great artist, fills me with a fuzzy feeling.”
After the song ends, Mo decides to confide in Chronos: “I know I shouldn’t put all the blame on my wife and kid. My midlife crisis is messing with me. My condition doesn’t help either. It started with failing to remember my recent dreams. Then I realized I couldn’t remember very well in general—any new memories would just fizzle in days. Some sort of onsetting anterograde amnesia, my doctor told me. As ridiculous as it sounds, I don’t even remember where my family agreed to go. Good thing we’re on a one-way road, so it’s not like we can get lost.” He laughs dryly.
He goes on to tell Chronos about the things he does remember: the big tech stocks he’s bought, the sci-fi films he’s watched, but Chronos’s attention is now directed to the distant night sky and a faintly glowing city hovering far away, like a luminescent jellyfish rising in the ocean. As the car speeds past the city, it resembles a blurry shooting star.
Chronos touches Mo’s shoulder and points to the city. “We can’t afford a detour. Not for a mirage,” Mo responds without turning his head.
Like a child, Chronos pounds on the side window. The city is already well behind them. Mo is evidently annoyed: “If we leave the road now, we will be giving up all our progress!”
“What progress?” Chronos finally asks.
Mo appears startled. Then he frowns. He kills the engine and the lights.
In the darkness he growls, “Now I see. You’re the most ungrateful of them all. You’re a hitchhiker. What authority do you have to tell me where to go?”
Chronos says nothing.
“What’s wrong with you, man?! This whole time you’ve said nothing. You never came to my defense, never acknowledged me. You didn’t even tell me your destination in the first place. Just what kind of weirdo are you?”
Chronos remains composed: “You say this as if I am indebted to you. But I know you wanted company, you wanted direction….”
Despite the darkness, Chronos knows that Mo’s tears are welling up.
“…You desperately wanted me to be real.”
Mo snaps: “Well?! Are you real? Are you?!”
“No more real than your dreams. No less real than this road.”
“I just wanted you—needed you—to understand me! And look how you’ve failed me!!” Mo is howling now. Then, without warning, he strikes Chronos. Chronos recoils in pain, holding up his hands in defense, but to no avail. Another punch, and then a push. He falls out the door and into the cold dirt.
Mo starts the engine, and the taillights soon recede from Chronos’s view. He struggles up and looks back, but the glowing city is nowhere to be seen.
Chronos walks on an endless stretch of barren lands. The darkness has erased the road, and he is utterly disoriented.
The Professor’s disembodied head is projected onto the assembly hall’s dome.
“They say the past is a different country. How alien would we appear to the humans I read of in the Archive? The future we find ourselves in would seem entirely impossible from their perspective. Perhaps it is impossible.”
“The epistemological void quickly turned to an existential one,” the projected head continues. “In the past month, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that we’re not real. Maybe we are simulated by higher beings, or maybe we’re just someone’s abandoned hallucination, an orphaned dream, or maybe we are inhabiting a fiction about the future….”
“For the first time, I find the darkness of the cosmos oppressive. Where do we come from? Where are we heading? I asked, but the darkness offered no answers, no signs, no meanings.”
Some adults in the assembly hall have fallen to their knees; others are trembling at the thought that Prosperity is drifting aimlessly.
Keta, Divi, and some other kids their age gather in front of the ship’s main window. Peering into the darkness, Keta observes: “Doesn’t that cluster of stars look like a coiled python?” Two kids look up the animal’s entry, while a few others nod. Divi says, “And over there—these stars are like two flying swans!” More and more kids join in the game, naming long-extinct animals and conjuring holograms of the ones they haven’t heard of.
Eventually, a parent joins them: “They do look like an antelope.” Then another. Now a small group of adults approach the window. An hour later, much of Prosperity’s population is in front of the ship’s various windows, their bodies pressed against the glass, stars reflected in their eyes.
And then someone proposes, “Perhaps we should consider disabling autopilot.” Another echoes, “Shall we put that to a vote?”
As Chronos’s eyes become accustomed to the darkness, he can finally see the serpentine Milky Way, scattered like a trail of diamond dust. Looking up, he continues walking.
In Memory of Mark Fisher.
Kevin Wu is a slashie based in New York. Besides his day-job, he works as a translator, writer, and independent curator. He is also a member of the curatorial collective G-wavy. He is currently invested in research topics such as science fiction, futurism, and hauntology.
Translated by Xiao Jiatan