Perhaps, the pounding in my eardrums seems to settle in my stomach.
Perhaps, I’m mistaken.
I feel my brain dance into mush and shoot my eyes wide open, grasping for air with one loud, sharp intake of breath. Barely recovering from what appeared to be a case of suffocation, my vision gradually began to focus.
A sea of darkness blinked back at me like a black squid doing conga.
Limbs stiff and hands frozen, I willed my body to straighten as I found myself lying on the cold, barren ground. I let myself wander the unfamiliar space as the sound of something dripping loomed.
No wonder the floor was freezing—it was wet with a strange liquid that huffed and puffed an even stranger gas. My tattered brown coat was dripping with the murky puddle I previously swam unintentionally in.
I was addled and quietly panicking, for fear that a single squeak might bring me harm, having no idea where I was and what I was doing. So, I ran. My footsteps broke the uncanny silence of the dimly lit aisle as I took a hesitant jog after another.
But, it was too quiet that it gave me an eerie feeling that I was being watched. I sprinted harder aimlessly, skewing turns to nooks here and there, sometimes ending up with a dead end.
Until I saw a metal fence that wasn’t there before, oddly flickering hope inside me. I don’t know why it did. Maybe because running without direction made me feel trapped, the centaur in the maze, so any sign of escape loosened the noose.
It was a painstaking process, climbing up the fence, only when I reached the other side that I realized it was a door—and it was open. Letting out a sigh of disbelief mixed with regret, I held my hurting sides.
A good few meters from the fence and the road became less narrow. The walls didn’t look like ruins of brick anymore. Looted, bankrupt, soulless convenience stores were nowhere to be seen.
I gave myself a mental pat on the back for finding the way out. Or so it seemed to be.
Merely peeking from my place, I feasted my eyes on neon signs and skyscrapers. I took a brave step into the outside and immediately decided it was a bad idea. Bustling bodies whooshed past me, whispering incoherent words loudly, squeezing with each other in a competition of who gets through first.
Once I broke free from the pressed crowd, I absorbed with great attempt what glory I was seeing. Everything seemed so otherworldly.
The source of the honking and beeping were invisible up ‘til I craned my neck and retreated quickly after as vehicle zoomed above me. The hairs on my arms rose as I was momentarily scared that it would have plucked my head off, when I saw cars, buses, motorcycles, and scooters were suspended in the air, away from any head-chopping happening.
I was dazzled, amazed, and in absolute ecstasy that I was left unmanned speechless. There were no words to string a sentence to describe this sight. The corners of my mouth were constantly up and my cheeks were hurting from smiling too much as everywhere I looked was mind-boggling.
The people I previously wrestled my arms with just to pass were all walking with such practiced pace, conjuring in and out of the sleek buildings with a memorized purpose.
“I want mini rockets attached to my stilettos as soon as I super sensor my body cells at the Howling Hooligans’.”
“Let’s just drop the kid at Mackenzie Marsian then we can get a grub or something by the Exosphere Resto.”
“Can I get a new AI assistant?”
“I’m getting a new package of braincells attached, you know, can’t afford to fail a wiretapping test again.”
“My phone keeps spitting out dogs of the wrong breed that I don’t even want! Like, I’m not even gonna take care of the slobby thing myself!”
I had an influx of emotions, and every organ in my body was overwhelmed with stimuli. The stuff everyone else was saying didn’t make sense but it was still fantastic. I thought I had grown seeds in my foot and got rooted to the ground when I unconsciously started to dart to the front of shops and stores with incredible displays.
A suit that absorbed oxygen, anti-gravity helmets and jackets, magnetic make-up, tiny boxes that could cool an area of 14,587 square meters, DIY build-yourself portals with manuals, and…humans?
I squinted my eyes to see if I was seeing it right. Yes, humans doing party tricks in window displays.
One was dancing and vacuuming at the same time, the other one was on its head cooking salami and sushi, and the one between them was creating pixels out of nothing, and then eventually assembling a large screen, playing clips and video games.
I brushed through the mob, still confused. Without thinking, I suddenly spoke aloud, “Why are there people being sold? Isn’t that against the law?”
In a snap, those nearby who heard me turned their heads towards me, all wearing the same expression. Disapproval.
My heart pounced and I nearly jumped when I was snatched far away from the human displays or soon to be slaves.
“You don’t go around doing that,” a tight voice told me. I turned to see a small boy in the similar attire I wore, but the holes on his dusty pants were bigger, no coat, just a sleeveless brown cloth, and he smelled of singed skin.
“Unless you don’t want to go back to the Down Under.”
He pulled me further away from the splendor of it all and we walked without a word spoken, my mind blank, and a question I’ve been itching to blurt out.
When the dwarf-like lad halted, I grabbed the chance and asked, “What’s the Down Under? Why are they selling slaves? What kind of place was that, what is it called? And where in the world are we?”
His puny figure turned to me and shot me a furtive glance before dragging me again until he found a place suitable to talk.
I pursed my lips and stifled a cough, expecting him to answer me.
“Are you retarded or just plain dumb?”
I coughed and sniffed, covering my mouth and wiped my hands on my untidy shirt under my long coat.
The cocky young dude morphed into worry. He took my hands and glimpsed at my palms covered in the bog-like substance from earlier. He looked away from it, appeared to be rattled, and started talking.
“The Down Under is where they keep the sound minds. The ones who protested, the ones they claim hindered real progress, whom they call SITP, which stands for Stuck in the Past.”
I furrowed my eyebrows.
“Those weren’t slaves, old woman, those were AI robots. Artificial Intelligence. They’re sold in the same market of guns and war jets, revolutionary technology. You just swooped by the capital center of it. Also, what do you mean by where in the world?”
“Wait a second, robots? But, they didn’t look like robots.”
He was perplexed, his tongue was tied up. The boy scuffed the edges of his naked, muddy feet, shrugging.
“Young lad, I meant what country or city, surely, you’d know. You speak the same language as I do.”
I coughed another sick load, and he laughed. I wondered if he thought my ill condition was funny.
“There’s no such thing! Countries disappeared a long time ago, long before I was born, even before you maybe. We have one continent, the Pangaea, and it’s year 2050, 8:36 in the morning.”
It was as if time stopped ticking. Day was night, night was day. Everything zeroed in on me. I caught a sight of my reflection in a broken mirror on the ground. Liver spots, gray hair, balding, and broken teeth.
“And everyone above the Down Under is not themselves.”
Perhaps, I have been ignorant, unknowing, and clueless of the impending doom that has arrived.
Perhaps, everyone else is, too.