Image US Department of Defense, Colorized by Cole Webber
“Step right this way now children, hurry.” The mechanical nanny’s voice echoed through our ears, echoed through the tin can tram as it hurdled to the park’s entrance. We had come for a vacation, though we used to live right here… or, our parents did, they used to say. Our parents were not with us today. They were attending to more important matters that they weren’t needed to attend to: business, real estate, renovations. It was just me and my sister Helena, and Fran the fried-wired nanny. She was old now but looked impeccably young. She had been recycled through multiple generations of children, yet looked twenty one. Why twenty one? Wouldn’t the daddies want an older nanny? (The child wasn’t old enough to presuppose the real answer). The fleeting scenery clawed at the window, trying to get in from the vacuum.
“Will it be busy at the park today, Fran?”
“Oh no, no. There will be lots of people there, sure, but it is so big it will feel like we’re all on our own. And, your parents have booked for you the private tour.”
“Who’s that with?”
“A park expert, all about the history of the park and how it came to be. So you can have fun and then, too, learn about what it was like back here. You know, your parents used to live here, yes?”
“We know,” I rolled my eyes at Helena. Her eyes were darting furiously under her brown bangs, trying to catch the outside rolling by. The tram rumbled to a stop. “We’re here!” The nanny grinned with glee.
We exited the tram and went to the park entrance. It was a pure circle of admissions booths and small cubicle shelters. Simple concrete boxes of buildings, with bright signs advertising the wonders to await: Japanland. Korealand. Europaland. And of course, the more fabulous and yet standard inventions: Adventure Cove. Light Park.
“This is the only part added to, not themed exactly as it was or should be. This is the only part that will break the immersion.” The nanny announced triumphantly, leading the children to the turnstile and ticket booth. Another mechanical being rumbled to life behind it, this one only animated from the waist up, in fact being bolted to the table. It was an old, friendly man with a greying moustache — painted fresh with dust, perhaps, every morning.
“Good morning kids,” it was hard to tell whether it was on a loop, or if it recognized them. Surely there were just children coming here, and recognition rights were expensive. Too expensive for a man with no legs. “At the park for the day, eh?”
“Can we stay longer than the day?” I pleaded with my eyes at the grandpa and the nanny. I didn’t know what it was yet, quite, but it looked promising. And anything like this certainly was better than home. Than small white-walled claustrophobic impossibly polished home. It was small even where it was big.
The grandpa security guard, bolted to the table, shot a look to the nanny. Why do they look at each other? I wondered: Why can’t they just interface? Radio telepath or whatever it would be if they are machines that were never alive in the first place.
The security man chuckled and sighed happily, “Well, um, no. It wouldn’t be safe for two tots like yourself to stay for longer than a day without your… parents! But have fun, uh,”
“Bradley,” I said, speaking slow and clear so the voice register would pick it up. These older models for limited interaction did not always have the good conversational detection of the help models.
“Bradrey,” he smiled, “have fun!” He waved us through with a hand on stilts and wires.
I looked back to watch him behind my shoulder. His teeth were sputtering, and his eyelids — though I knew they were fake — had little knicks in their silicone skin, like something was eating them away. He gave off an odd and twisted, throaty rumble, like his tape was scratching out on itself and running down. But now it was all digital. It must simply be overuse. Our nanny rushed us along, patting us continually on the back.
As we exited the circle of concrete cubes, we came to a small porch and awning. A woman was waiting for us. She walked over like our nanny: too perfectly, with no struggle to balance on tight perched heels, with no flexing of muscles under smooth plastic skin. Her harsh and dark eyes squinted under luxurious black hair, pinned up under a Pan Am sort of headdress.
“Bradley? Helena?” Her face was animated and bright, but her expressions did not crunkle her smooth porcelain white cheeks, “I’m your tour guide, Asaka. What would you like to see today?”
“Ummm,” I looked around, beyond the porch and awning at the expanse of what must be the park. I saw no people, and only a few buildings speckled in what seemed to be a large desert. An endless desert. A map, etched in plastic and extended on metal poles, lay at the railing on the far end of the porch. I rushed to look at it. Americatown, USA: that seemed to be where we were looking out from. My eyes darted around the vast expanse of other areas, rendered in delicate and exaggerated matte painting on the map and yet chipping away.
“What do you think?” I called to Helena.
She looked to the woman perched above her, “What do you think?”
“Well, why don’t we start with Japanland, my original home,” she smiled. If you mean you were manufactured there, I thought. Why did they seem to look so different than us? The mechanical beings were supposed to duplicate us to interact with us, weren’t they? You’d think they’d have gotten better by now.
My sister must have sensed my thoughts through my scrunched up brow, “You’re always more comfortable with Fran than mom and dad, aren’t you?” It was true. But mom and dad were just off-putting. Most other people were.
Asaka led us into another train, which rocketed off holding only us for the next station. My sister again tried to scratch her focus to fit whatever else was flying by outside the window. I turned to talk to the ladies, both sitting identically.
“Who built the park?”
“It was made by many people. No undertaking this large could be accomplished by just one individual.”
That seemed like a dumb answer to me. I shrugged and turned my attention back to the windows. She was supposed to be an expert.
“Are there any rides in Japanland?”
“A few. It’s one of the lesser developed areas of the park… after opening.” She smiled, delicately, as if now to brush me off. I returned to the window again. The train rolled over flat water, causing ripples behind it, then pulled in among modelled skyscrapers and skylines.
“Here!” The doors opened and Asaka ushered us out of them. The great steam engine beast throttled up and took off on a further loop. “Another will be here in five minutes.” She nodded.
We descended the steps of the train station.
“What’s this?” Helena was looking down. She was always looking down or across or afar, at the tips of her shoes or a leaf teetering off a twig. Never at anything good. I rolled my eyes, gazing up to the gleaming spires around us. But I had to look when her incessant tugging of my shirt tuft and poking at my side would not cease. “What?”
I looked down.
“It’s just my shadow.” I turned to move away, but my shadow did not. I swayed side to side on my feet; the black spot did not move. I waddled down the steps, and saw its end — its footprints. I patted mine against them; we did not tap dance together. I looked up the steps that we were marching down, further, and saw more: silhouettes of people, posing, walking, sitting, laughing, outlined and cast like a bad black and white image.
“What are these?” But Asaka continued walking. Helena rushed down after her and pulled on her short skirt.
“Oh, those. Well, that’s a long story. How bout I tell you on the way back?”
My sister and I shrugged at each other, tumbling down and after her to a better attraction.
“This is the Godzilla ride. I think you’ll both really like it.”
“What’s a Godzilla?”
“It was very popular before even your parents were born,” the woman nodded with eyes too young to match the programmed wisdom in her voice. “They are great films, stories and comics. They are about an enormous dinosaur-monster who is created from radiation, that then wreaks havoc on the large Japanese cities. Come this way,” we descended a subway entrance to the lower basement of a towering concrete building. It was so empty it looked to be a parkade. Arcane snaking iron chains formed a queue than no one was in. “We have it all to ourselves,” Asaka nodded with a reassuring smile, as if this was pleasantly unusual, “A whole world of attractions,” and led us through the maze and into the entrance area. This was empty too, of even a false friendly face bolted to a table. Everything was ambiguously animated; a new boat pulled up to our waiting feet, and we dropped in. When we were all seated, it began to move. The light of the entrance tunnel disappeared behind us. We were eaten by blackness. The only sense I could get anything from was my ears, just the echoing black water sloshing around. It was like we were in a sewer pipe. “You kids have been to an amusement park before?” Asaka whispered, her head knelt between our two sets of shoulders, to not interrupt the mood. We both shook our heads. Somehow she saw it. “This is a dark ride. It remains dark to allow for special effects.”
Just then an enormous and terrible light blinded the room. A crack like lightning split our ears, and pops and sizzles like a firework above, inside our very heads went off. The clear and pure white fizzled out, and we were left to see a towering cloud sucking itself in. A snake of smoke eating itself, going up and up and up. It was projected on a screen, but seemed very real. “That is the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb,” Asaka whispered to us as Japanese music and narration played hazily from speakers mounted in the tunnel. Through sharp beats, bullet-pings of static. Our parents had said something like that too. We again plunged into darkness.
A reptilian scream tore through the tube. Godzilla was afoot. I smiled to myself invisibly in the dark, bolting my head and eyes around. A red eye opened next to us, nearly the height of Fran. She should have jumped, but she was now powered down to conserve energy. It’s slit pupil darted and seemed to focus on us. Its eye shut, and another roar rumbled until we were in a further room, where the beast towered over us. It lunged at us with huge robot arms covered in rubber skin. I knew it was all fake, but still, I loved it. I smiled to myself and nearly clapped. I could sense a smile from Asaka, lovingly looking on from behind us. Even if it was fake it was what you needed sometimes.
After a few more scenes of the robotically replicated reptile stomping houses and throwing skyscrapers like javelins, we were back at the loading dock.
Fran’s eyes shimmered in the dark as she instinctively rebooted. Her shoulders whirred a bit as she hummed back into place, back into functions, back into tune. I tugged at Asaka’s skirt. “Is there much else to do in Americatown?”
My sister rolled her eyes, turned back her braids and shouted: “We were just there! You don’t want to go back? There’s so much else to see!”
Asaka, unfazed, dutifully nodded: “Lots still to see in Americatown. We can never see the whole park in one day. I can take you and guide you wherever you want to see.”
My sister sighed under her breath, “Ugh. You and your Western movies.”
“You would like to see a Western town?”
I nodded, hairs bounding, up at Asaka. She took my hand and we walked back to the train station. “About the…” There was a story here, but Helena had already forgotten, and I was too excited to delay a return to the Wild West.
Like most amusement park rides, the train only went in one direction. It took considerably longer to ride the loop the rest of the way round and back to Americatown. “Faster than the Pony Express,” Fran joked. I laughed slightly, not knowing what she meant. This time we pulled into a different station aside from the one at the entrance, and I found myself smack dab in the middle of the expanding desert, with old wood rotting buildings sinking down into the sand and wind all around. I hungered down the steps, past the steam train’s (fake) chimney, blowing and whistling. I threw myself into the sand. I picked it up; it ran through my fingers. We didn’t have this at home. It was bleached white. “This sand is lighter than the ones in my movies!” I exclaimed. The women smiled back at me.
I didn’t need to be asked what I wanted to do or to be led anywhere. What I wanted the most now was just to explore just like a cowboy. It really was so big: I could see all the way to the… what was it called?… horizon: where the sun loomed big and the sky curved behind like a window. The sky curved behind, that was a new feeling. “Don’t go too far,” Fran’s sing-song autotuned voice called after me as I fumbled between buildings. It was so real. The grooves on each piece of wood were different from each other, like fingertips. I traced mine down them for a half an hour, it seemed. And little splinters came off! Little bits of wood! All the wood at our house was polished, with all the same patterns.
Helena tapped her toes in the sand, yards back, sitting on rickety wooden steps down from the train tracks with the other women. “Can I take you anywhere, hun?” Fran offered.
“I haven’t seen a single other person here today,” Helena lamented. At first she thought it would be a good thing, but now, “I sure would like another kid to play with. There’s never any kids up at home.”
“Well, I can play with you?” Asaka offered, and Fran was behind her with the same micro-tuned expression and pleading, doe like eyes. It made Helena sick. She kicked the sand further into the wind, which was picking up.
“Are there any rides around here?”
“Not many. More will be added soon.” Asaka put a hand on her back. It wasn’t cold it was… empty. It was an odd feeling: that of a human hand, with no temperature of its own. A piece of the environment that still moved like a man. Helena shrugged it off and sat in the warm sand. It was light, lighter than the movies. Lighter than photos, than memories, than all the rest. She picked it up in her little fingers and let it sift through and down like an imprecise hourglass. Why would they go to all the trouble of making all this sand, loose, not fixed, not bolted down to the ground, but make it all too light? It was white, like snow. Like an oppressive, gritty, forever snow. Monumental shapes and craters loomed in the distance, like the old boxy Utah ornaments, but bulbed and carved smoother. Grey clouds began to peak over them, with a deep glow behind them.
Bradley was parading triumphantly, holding tight to an invisible handle and kicking off of a two foot tall bucking bronco. When thrown off, he dove into the sand, and went back up in a mere instant. He was past the grooves of the few buildings, now, lingering between the ones at the edge in that sand dune alleyway. Why not go inside?
He expected the doors to creak, or to rock back and forth at his explosive entrance like a saloon’s, but to his surprise there was no door. There was no room inside of the house. What he saw on the outside: white or black stained rotted wood, bleached, sunken boards — this was all there was on the inside too. At times, there were stranger shapes of this arrangement. A table, it looked like, that had been smashed and blown over. There was sand drifting in all of the cracks of the house. In all the fingertip forests of the grooved wood. Each piece had bubbles, notches, ashen scars stripping away. A house? He couldn’t tell. It was some sort of a building, but there were no specific features about it. All the buildings were the same sunken strewn boxes. And the ground washing up over it.
He went out of the building, thrusting himself out of a window on the far side and down into the sand. He imagined himself escaping in a daring shootout, sugarglass crashing over his head. He clicked fake pistol tips, clutched in the air of his toddler fingers.
Another character loomed at the edge of his presence. A man with gleaming hair, perched standing near a sand dune. “Hey mister!” He had on a hat and a suit unlike anything Bradley had seen in his own lifetime. He must be a theme park employee, more likely a robot. Still, it was something for him to play with. A real life cowboy? Or, close enough, Bradley corrected himself.
And yet a charred skull watched Bradley unknowingly from the window he had escaped. It did not move. It only let the wind move through it. Through the eyelids, breaking off small pieces of charred bone dust as it whistled, slightly, through the intricate cavities. Wearing them down to nothing like a river on a stone.
“Mister?” Maybe it was voice activated. He sifted through his memories of the spaghetti movies, “There’s a new sheriff in town!” He erupted, striking a new pose in the sand dunes. But they were all that moved; that forever snow tracing over his feet in a licking wind, clinging to him mercilessly. It will take forever to get out, he thought, and then wondered why they were told to wear clothes they did not care much about for today’s trip. He would have loved to wear his cowboy hat, if he could. Bradley paced over further. A step closer, a step more.
This character was so real. Fran, Asaka, up home more of them: their faces were always plastic, and their arms and legs a bad fibreglass. As he walked nearer he could see tracings of veins, of hairs, of knicks, cuts and bruises carved into each of the muscles like canyons. The cells had a weight; the skin had a translucence, a delicate whimper like paper that was missing from those reinforced replicas. He couldn’t see his face, but could still see his blonde-bleached hair. That was bad, was missing. They had not done a good job on his hair: it seemed fused into the skin. It bled at its ends into grooved pink fleshy material, shiny like plastic. But it was too imperfect. The fibres on the suit were torn, were fused in small entanglements of pipes. They had turned plastic too. His skin seemed to twist into them. The man wasn’t standing in the sand, he was pinned in it. Leaning like his legs had given up, the bones given way from them in an instant. “Mister…” but even now Bradley’s voice was trailing off. He could sense the coldness of the air. Wind from farther places was stirring as the child approached this missing man. “Mister…” He knew now that something was wrong, and perhaps it was that he knew that he continued. He had felt a deep wrong the whole day, a metal taste in his mouth, a pin pricking at his eyes. But he was now, finally, aware of it. If not for the man, he would have walked away imagining the fantasy. Only that he suspected did he need to know. He crept around to touch the man’s arm, taught and spider like, melting into a screen suit. His next thought was lost, was from somewhere where he was not himself: /Maybe touching it will activate the cowboy/. He knew that was not what it was. He had never seen anything like that, like this figure twisted and ground into the sand. He had no reason to truly believe it. Yet he reached out a trembling finger, because he knew he did not know.
The man evaporated. the small skeleton twisted backwards and fell into the air. For a moment his face was shown; eaten away by light and warmth and shock and time. It was bits of disfigured delineation, of what might be called human, and the skull peaking through it all, charred and burned and ashen. It all fell; it all blew into the wind just the same thinness, to the bone or flesh or cartilage or skin. A bleached white acid, ashes, particles like dandelion tufts, now lost forever from that brief vaporized formation. It melted with the sand. The clothes were all that was left, still twisted in bits of tan: all melted together.
Bradley’s scream erupted through the turns of the town; through all the same buildings made to be destroyed, and now sinking into their rotting and fated foundations. They were already looking for him. The scream drew them nearer, reeled them straight to him like a long and taught line. “We must go,” Asaka was calm but Fran was feeling, “A storm on the horizon.” Clouds with a green rot behind them burned through the sky. Lapped at the horizon feverishly, feastingly. Helena was drug along behind them, confused. Fran too looked confused. Asaka said, “Radiation,” but neither of the children really knew what it meant. Fran nodded, leading them to their waiting craft. They were whisked away all too fast for the complaining to begin, for the reality or the knowledge to set in. They only saw they had left when they were seated in the padded orb, rocketing to the sky, Asaka waving underneath and being disposably swept to deep clouds. Those clouds, the white dunes, the massive glistening glassen craters drifted into a haze behind them. Into a blue dot, growing smaller in space. Overtaken by dust and stars.
“Why did we have to go?”
“It’s not safe for people like you, anymore,” Fran patted Bradley on the back with empty hands. Hands that could be interchanged.
“Can we go back?”
“In three weeks’ time,” she said calmly. It seemed arbitrary to the children, though it was anything but.
“We have to wait up here for a while.”
Their white ship docked with the white orbiting gyroscope of concentric circles. The blue sphere glimmered below them, a grey one above. They were caught in the stars for now.
“Your mommy and daddy will be missing you,” Fran smiled, the plastic at her lips already beginning to fizzle away. When the airlock opened they would be sprayed. She could be cleaned and parts even replaced.
“But they used to live there? Can’t we go back?”
“Maybe someday. Maybe someday you can take your children, too.”