Exhibit K

Exhibit K”

By Nadia Afifi

The dead woman opened her eyes to a veil of light. She blinked several times, focusing on the sand-colored surface only inches from her face. Walls surrounded her from all sides, a narrow, glowing tomb. 

She peered down over her chin, noting exposed breasts, followed by the hills of her knees, slightly bent. Her mouth felt dry, her head heavy. A trio of dark lines ran across her upper-right arm, a tattoo she had no recollection of getting.

Her neck itched, but when she reached up to scratch it, her arms remained at her sides. Similar attempts to move her legs, feet, toes proved equally fruitless – she was immobile except for her head. Her breath quickened, the first stages of panic setting in.   

Before she could test her lungs, a voice cut through the silence.

“Please remain calm.” The disembodied voice was female, reassuring. “Do not struggle, and you will be released shortly.”

The frozen woman did not know her own name or how she came to be there, but whoever she was, she distrusted voices without an owner, promises conjured from air. Panic choked her, burning her throat. She rammed her head, the only part of her she could move, from side to side.

In the throes of panic, a memory surfaced. She had been trapped in the center of a crowd, pushed and jostled in every direction. The stream of bodies passed through a gap in a wall crowned with barbed wire, the sky thick with smoke. A voice rang in her ear, a distant warning. Don’t turn around. Keep moving. She strained to look back in the voice’s direction, but the crowd pressed forward in a current of fear and sweat, carrying her away. She screamed.    

“Please remain calm,” the voice repeated, and a needle emerged from the side of the chamber, advancing towards her neck. Its bite was sharp.

She awoke strapped to a chair. Cold air filled her nostrils, the sterile smell of a hospital ward. Shapes darted around her, faster than her eyes could focus. Voices followed, speaking in garbled English. Her body tensed. Her relief at regaining motion was tempered by the fact that she remained bound by unknown captors. A white dressing gown, soft like sand, covered her thighs. 

Her hand moved reflexively to her side, closing around something sharp. A syringe, which she gripped with practiced confidence. The weapon triggered a new memory, of a foggy marsh where grass reached her neck. A rifle hung across her shoulders, its wooden handle etched with signatures, imprints of forgotten names. At some point in the past, she had fought. Had she killed?

She found her first target, an old man in a lab coat, standing across the room. Their eyes met and the man’s mouth twitched in an intimate, conspiratorial smile she did not return. Though dizzy, she leaned forward, tubes tugging at her wrists.

Another burst of light flooded her senses. The wall behind the man opened, parting to reveal an applauding audience.

The old man turned to her with a broad smile.

“Ladies and gentlefolk, give warm greetings to Lt. Selma Carmichael!”

The crowd cheered. Her hand loosened its grip, the syringe clattering to the ground.

Behind her, a screen flashed, displaying a montage of news footage and still images. Music swelled from every direction, blasting a soaring, triumphant melody. At the center, the words “Exhibit K: Voices from the Past” appeared.

The applause died down. A light shone on the center of the hospital room, now a stage.

Her head ached. The woman suddenly realized that a strange, glowing device had been secured around her neck. A staff member fastened her wrists to the chair, capitalizing on her shock. An orange substance snaked down the clear tube, burning as it found her vein. She jerked back angrily, but her hands remained bound to the armrests.

Selma – assuming that was her real name – scanned the audience for a familiar face, an anchor in her mental fog, but only found strangers, faces alight with matched fascination. Several eyes lit up in the dark like the flash of a camera bulb.

Who are these people? she thought. The crowd stared at her hungrily, the air thick with anticipation while she struggled against her bindings.

The old man leaned forward with a sympathetic expression. The music faded.

“As you can see, ladies and gentlefolk, it’s a jarring experience for those who awaken,” he said in a clear, booming voice. “They come out of freezing with limited physical and cognitive functioning. Part of the joy of the Exhibit Series, nonetheless, is seeing our heroic subjects remember who they were, and discover what lies ahead.”

Know your terrain. The phrase came to Selma in a chiding voice, an old lesson with new meaning. Understand the battlefield before the first strike.

As a thousand eyes stared and the orange liquid warmed her temples, Selma took a deep breath and pieced threads of information together. Her name was Lt. Selma Carmichael. The first name, she was born with, the last name acquired, the title earned. She had said that to someone long ago; she could even recall the appreciative laughter that followed. She had fought in a war. Now she sat strapped to a chair, an object of fascination on a stage. Was she a prisoner?

“Where am I?” she asked, her voice hoarse. The old man turned to her, surprised, and the crowd hummed excitedly.

“As I stated before, your name is Lt. Selma Carmichael,” the man said. “You died of cancer in the year 2108, after consenting to be placed in a cryonic state. My name is Dr. Hugh, and I successfully revived you today. It is now 2354, and much has happened in between. Welcome back.”

The room spun. She closed her eyes, the ensuing applause drowned by the pounding in her ears.

The man’s words, perhaps combined with the device pulsing against her head, unleashed memories, slivers of time and moments and people she loved. A life, in its entirety.

She had left Turkey during the first wave of droughts, before the border closed. At a checkpoint, one of the militias pulled her father aside, forcing him to sit with a group of male prisoners. He had told her not to look back, even as she struggled against the crowd. Whether he was recruited into a militia, tortured or killed, Selma never learned. In that first year in the Camp from Hell, she lost herself in the world of dark potentials, imagining how her father died, how much pain and fear he felt in his final moments. She didn’t have to imagine her mother’s death, spending a week wiping back sweat and vomit and shit until her mother succumbed to dysentery.

Not until the People’s Army came did Selma abandon the past and learn to live again. From that point on, she fought for the displaced, for clean water, land and safety, all the things she once took for granted.

She remembered dying. Her end came slowly, not in a remote jungle battleground but an outpatient clinic in Mecca, California, a man at her side. She remembered the top of his head resting on the foot of the bed. His presence had comforted her but also weighed her down, making her feel complicit somehow, sharing her pain without weakening its power. She had searched for words of comfort, some witty comment to show that it was alright, she was ready, but found nothing to say. Outside the window, the sky had been bright and cloudless, a single Joshua tree visible behind the parking lot. The truck arrived early in preparation, the words “Anubis Cryonics” slanted across its side. She was thirty-seven.

“Who are these people?” she asked. “Why am I here?”

“You paid for a second chance, and you got one,” Dr. Hugh said with a smile. “And you are special. We don’t revive everyone, for assorted reasons. But there was no question that you deserved another chance at life, and in the process, we will help you understand your old one.”

She looked down at her body again, strong and healthy, without the sallow hue and jutting bones that marked her final months in the outpatient clinic.

“The body is on permanent loan to you,” he said, as though reading her mind. “You only came to us with your lovely head. We attached the rest. You may have noticed an itch in your neck, which I assure will pass soon.”

Selma wondered if Dr. Hugh could in fact read her mind, but decided not to ask. She did not wish to know the body’s origins. The skin tone perfectly matched her own, the color of clouded coffee. Her stomach knotted painfully. 

The show continued. Selma followed her own life summary on the screen, while Dr. Hugh narrated.

“Welcome to another series of “History Reborn,” where the past comes to life,” Dr. Hugh announced. Subtitles ran across the screen. “As you’ll be aware from the previews, Exhibit K will focus on the infamous Climate Wars, a time of upheaval when seas rose and nations fell. In our interactive immersion, you’ll meet the key players of the conflict, ask them the questions we all want to know and best of all, experience a firsthand, all-senses recreation of one of the most seminal battles of the war – the Battle of Three Rivers.”

“Our heroine – born Selma Kavak in a humble Turkish village – became an iconic symbol of those displaced in the Climate Wars when a photograph of her went viral in 2097, days before the Battle of Three Rivers.”

And there she was, smiling back from the screen. Selma had endured years of combat by the time that image was taken, but her face retained a youthful energy, her eyes shining despite days without sleep. She wore her hair in a long side braid, looking over her shoulder at the camera. Her olive-green shirt left her arms exposed, revealing a fresh tattoo of three vertical lines (which, Selma realized with a glance at her arm, someone must have applied to her new body), along with a hint of cleavage – undoubtedly a factor in the image’s immediate popularity. At the time, women in combat remained a novelty in her part of the world.

Ignoring the audience and Dr. Hugh, Selma stared at her younger self, separated by time and death and all that she didn’t yet know. In that moment over two centuries ago, Selma had been ready to die. So many had gone before her, she had not expected to survive the war. But still, she smiled, because she was alive at that moment and had so many, living and dead, to fight for.   

Instead, Selma survived. She had met Connor, her eventual widower, after the war. He came from a temperate place with rolling, green hills, unscathed by conflict (at least in that century), and he might as well have been a mythical creature from a parallel world. Sheltered, she pronounced him when they met, with equal parts envy and wonder, that they walked the Earth at the same time but experienced it so differently. She wanted to resent him, but it was hard to begrudge a good person a good life. They retreated to the California desert, which resembled the world as it should be – quiet, free, unmolested.

Five years later, Selma began coughing up blood. Lung cancer, a doctor in Loma Linda pronounced, no doubt caused by inhaling several lifetimes of chemical weapons during the Climate Wars. She sat in silence on the drive home, watching the sun dissolve into the mountains and wondering how many sunsets she had left. For the first time, she feared death – truly feared it, beyond animal adrenaline. More accurately, she feared losing her happiness just when she found it. She feared never experiencing the future so many had sacrificed for.

Selma had never believed the clergymen of her childhood in Turkey, the monks of Asia or the corporate shamans of the west, all promising a life beyond life. She had seen enough death to accept its finality, but perhaps science, stronger than ever after the Climate Wars, could provide a loophole in nature’s contract. They had sat together in Anubis Cryonics’ Los Angeles office, she and Connor, holding hands under the table. Her wrists were already weak by that point, but she signed the requisite forms, relinquishing her head and one fourth of her neck to a freezing facility in Tempe, Arizona. A final, desperate hope for a second chance.

Connor. Selma tore away from the screen back to Dr. Hugh, who was now taking questions from the audience.

“Where’s my husband?” she asked, her voice clearer than before. “Was he revived?”

Dr. Hugh nodded subtly to the camera, as if the interruption had been planned.

“Selma, we will tell you everything in a more private setting,” he said. “Trust me, you would prefer that. But before we end the opener, we have another character from the Climate Wars to welcome back to life.”

Another wall parted, revealing a middle-aged man slumped in a similar chair. His mouth hung slightly open as his head lolled to one side, his blue eyes vacant. An attendant pushed him closer, revealing a distinct crew cut and blunt features. Selma gasped. Dr. Hugh nodded approvingly.

“Our heroine’s antagonist is Martin Axelrod,” he said with a flourish, while the audience dutifully hissed. “The infamous CEO of Atlas Enterprises, the conglomerate responsible for the industrial overexpansion that fueled the Climate Wars, and which later provided the mercenary units that fought for Industry in the Asian and South American arenas.”

A familiar current of anger ran through Selma’s tiring limbs. Axelrod hid in Atlas headquarters in Laos at the time of the Three Rivers battle. Despite her best efforts, she failed to kill him. He retreated to China at the war’s end, outliving her and countless others.

And there he sat, though he gave no recognition of an enemy only feet away. A dense glob of saliva leaked from the corner of his mouth. Martin Axelrod had not revived as successfully as Selma, Dr. Hugh conceded, but he vowed that Axelrod would improve enough to answer for his crimes. With that final remark, he bowed before the applauding audience and the walls closed in.

The Exhibit K production team placed Selma in her own room, which they assured her was not a prison, although she must remain there for her own safety. The world had changed beyond her comprehension in the last century, they warned, and she would not function well outside of the exhibit’s walls. She understood them when they spoke to her, but their own conversations were harder to follow, though not impossible – she assumed that the staff had learned the dialect from her own time to communicate effectively. The Exhibit show itself had also been comprehensible, perhaps a courtesy for her.

The room could only be described as minimalist, with bare walls, a matching desk and bookshelf, a clean bed and a corner filled with exercise equipment. Connor used to tease her about her hatred of exercise, before reassuring that she never needed it. He would wake up before dawn to run, evading the desert heat. A staff member gestured her towards a small platform suspended inches above the floor – a treadmill.

She searched for a means of escape that first night. Her room was large but confined, the only open side walled with a dense, glasslike substance, which resisted all her attempts to break through. The glass wall revealed a long hallway with adjacent rooms, where Selma assumed Axelrod also waited.

A single, narrow slit of a window sat ten feet high on the back wall, the only source of natural light in the room. It was night – stars blinked through the cloudy sky, but the opening did not reveal any buildings or clues to her location. She dragged a chair underneath it, preparing to jump up.

“Are you planning to shrink to the size of a mouse and squeeze through?” a voice inquired behind her.

Dr. Hugh stood on the other side of the glass wall, hands folded behind his back. He gestured politely at a chair. Instead, Selma walked to the glass, meeting his calm, grey eyes.

“I’ll keep trying until I get answers,” she said. “What is this place and where’s my husband?”

“Connor Carmichael has not yet been revived,” Dr. Hugh said. “Unfortunately, the process to unfreeze someone from your era is not a simple one. We need to get the right permissions.”

“What do you mean the right –?” Selma began, but Dr. Hugh raised his hand in a gesture of surrender.

“I realize that he was the reason you underwent the procedure in the first place,” he said in a kind voice that did nothing to stop Selma’s heart from pounding. “And if you are cooperative and demonstrate an ability to adapt, I will do everything in my power to make it happen. But you must understand – you come from a more primitive time, and many are reluctant to open the floodgates to everyone who wanted to live again.”

“It’s wrong,” Selma said. “We signed a contract.”

“Think about it this way, my dear – if you could bring back people from Medieval times, when wars were as common as rain and people were burned alive for interpreting the Bible differently – would you want those people walking among you? Would they even be able to cope in modern times, with electricity and free thinking?”

“I’d like to talk to some of them,” Selma countered. “Da Vinci, Copernicus.”

“Exactly! The famous, the movers and shakers, those who mattered. That is the entire purpose of the Exhibit series. Though you never planned to be, Selma, you mattered. You were the right person at the right time. Sadly, your husband did not make the history books, which makes his case harder.”

Selma lay awake all night. Dr. Hugh, and presumably others like him, deemed the Climate Wars era as primitive and dangerous. She couldn’t disagree, but from what she had seen, had humanity really improved in 2354? She had awoken to a society that turned her and others into zoological exhibits, complete with glass cages. Her husband was deemed unworthy of a second life, yet Martin Axelrod, a war criminal, lay drooling somewhere within the Exhibit walls.

The right person at the right time. What had Selma done that was more important, more significant, than others in the war? She was not special. She was famous for a picture.

Selma feared sleep, even more so after her death. In the past, sleep marked the time when she was most vulnerable to ambush and capture. Now, sleep had become a temporary return to nothingness. The time between her passing in California to waking up in the chamber elapsed without a tunnel of light or an afterlife, but it also had not been completely instantaneous. She recalled a slow, elastic stretch of time – not two hundred years-worth, but a sense of sinking backwards into peaceful darkness. The experience frightened her more than if no time had passed at all, if she had simply blinked and come alive again.

The tattoo on her right arm, so carefully replicated, commemorated the three weeks she spent lost in Cambodia, separated from her company. She had traveled by night and slept under dense branches during the day, evading predators in all forms. Wounded in a skirmish and dizzy with dehydration, she eventually found herself in fields of tiger grass, a plant known for its healing properties, which she placed over her many injuries. When she reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh, rested and reunited with her unit, she found a tattoo parlor and had three blades of grass inked onto her arm.

Against all odds, she had survived. She cheated death until the very end, and then cheated it again by being regenerated in this strange place, where she’d never felt more helpless or alone.

Selma found a routine in the following weeks. An hour on the treadmill before breakfast, followed by weights and another hour of reading classic novels from the bookshelf. Connor would be proud.

After lunch, Selma sat in her glass prison while visitors to the Exhibit passed by. Some simply stared at her, whispering amongst themselves and taking pictures, while others questioned her in their garbled, fractured version of English. She responded with silence. A few greeted her in Turkish, prompting flickers of a smile. The smiles were rare – Selma veered between periods of frustration and heavy sadness, a fog that sapped her will to eat, speak or show interest in the endless stream of intruders.

Dr. Hugh assessed her at the end of each day, asking about her memory and overall well-being, but continued to evade the topic of Connor’s revival. Cooperate, he reassured her, and I’ll fight to make it happen. Selma complied in the hope that the alleged doctor would keep his promise. Without it, she would exist in limbo, everyone she had ever cared for long dead.

Others came to visit Selma with more specific purpose. Academics, historians, reporters interested in the Climate Wars, to confirm facts or gain new insight. A pair of college students, who shared the easy familiarity of a couple, scheduled frequent, private interviews to learn about Selma’s life before and after the war.

“What was it like to live in houses without SP – without smart programming?” the young woman asked her during their first interview. She reminded Selma of an exotic doll, with her delicate features, dyed silver hair and henna that ran up her arms.

“It was just the way it was,” Selma said, recalling how her grandmother used to say similar things before a bus explosion scattered her across the streets of Ankara. “If we were cold, we tried to make ourselves warm. If we needed light, we turned it on ourselves, or used flashlights and candles when the electricity gave out, which happened frequently during the war.”

They took feverish notes without looking down, their thoughts transcribing on thin tablets. They had many conveniences in this strange future – “smart rooms” that adjusted light, temperature and appliances to a person’s mental command, virtual sports leagues, fantasy simulations and classrooms. Meeting Selma in person, they told her, was a rare treat outside of virtual reality, a fact confirmed by their pallid complexions, white like old bones.

“Tell me more about the Asteroid Belt colony,” Selma said, recalling a snippet of conversation from their last meeting. “How big are the stations? What are they shaped like?”

The man smiled cautiously. Undoubtedly coached by Dr. Hugh, they hesitated at describing too much of the world beyond the Exhibit walls, but Selma encouraged them with a rare smile.

“They’re circular, to support internal gravity, but only carry around 100,000 people each,” the man said. Though halting, he spoke in perfect archaic English, as they referred to Selma’s speech. “It’s rustic living, more so than Mars and Luna. Probably closer to life in your time.”

Instead of taking notes, Selma sketched as they talked. Elaborate stations, round domes on faraway planets, a world (or more accurately, worlds) that once seemed impossible. After the couple left, she would add herself and Connor to the drawings. During lulls between battles, Selma had always sketched her surroundings, no matter how terrible the landscape. Drawing it made everything permanent somehow, in a place where nothing and no one lasted long.   

Selma thanked them, providing more details about showering in unregulated water. They followed this pattern each meeting, exchanging knowledge that left both parties satisfied. From an early age, Selma learned that life was a series of transactions, some fairer than others.

“Capitalistic, neo-liberal drivel,”Connor used to tell her when she spoke that way. “Not everything’s a transaction. You and I are not a transaction.”

Connor had always tried to lure Selma into political debates, which she humored for a brief time before ceding defeat. The Climate Wars had ended, the struggle of her lifetime won. What else was there to argue about?

The meetings gave Selma temporary relief from her lapses of despair, but Connor’s absence gnawed at her like a constant hunger. She stared at her drawings, tempted by the idea of escape to those remote places where she might find a semblance of a life. But to leave would be to abandon Connor, whose buried consciousness Dr. Hugh dangled as bait. As the days progressed, however, the walls around her felt closer, her prison more and more like a second tomb. If she were to escape, she reasoned, it would be to find Connor, wherever they kept him, and find a way to demand his unfreezing. She had survived worse odds.

Several nights later, opportunity struck. Only one attendant brought her dinner, the other sick with flu. Selma dimmed the lights, feigning rest. She moved quietly, a small free weight in hand, while the attendant lowered the meal onto her table.

Focusing on the back of the man’s head, Selma hesitated. There was no honor in attacking someone with their back turned, an unsuspecting civilian. Then again, an employee at Exhibit K was also a jailer, confining Selma and others against their will.

Selma brought the weight down in a swift motion. The man let out a soft gasp before crumpling to the floor. She checked for a pulse – faint, but regular. She found a badge in his pocket, swiped the door open and stepped outside.

Selma ran down the hallway, her bare feet light against the cool floor. She clutched the small weight, silently hoping there were no cameras overhead. She needed to be fast, and merciless if necessary.

The adjacent rooms bore the same size and structure to her own, filled with interactive exhibits of the Climate Wars – old battle footage, interviews with the Chinese president, and samples of “archaic” weapons. She glanced through each window as she ran down the hallway but didn’t linger.

In the last exhibit room before the exit door, she found Martin Axelrod.

The mercenary had improved since his debut on the Exhibit stage, but not by much. His skin, already pale, had the appearance of melted wax. Even his hair seemed drained of color. He stared blankly ahead, muttering under his breath. Selma approached the window and his pale eyes widened with recognition. She turned on the speaker, as she had seen Dr. Hugh and countless others do.

“That’s right,” Selma whispered, anger swelling in her chest. “You remember me, don’t you? We never met, but you knew my picture and what I said about you after the war. How my greatest regret was not killing you in Laos.”

Selma looked down at the crude weapon in hand, her arm tensing with purpose. Without his imposing, trademark body armor and retinue of henchmen, Axelrod never looked more vulnerable than now, a lame animal begging to be put down. Through the glass, Axelrod eyed Selma’s clenched fist, his face flickering with that old calculation.

“You thought you were better than me?” Axelrod asked. His voice croaked as hers had done. “You ecoterrorists would have flattened that city and anyone you suspected of collaborating with us. All for trees and flowers.”

“For our lives,” she retorted, voice rising until it echoed across the hushed corridor. “You can say what you like, but you fought for profit. You killed for the people destroying our world. And look around you – the history books chose the winning side.”

Axelrod’s laughter dissolved into a fit of coughing.

“Some future, isn’t it?” he said between gasps. “I’d say neither side won in the end.”

Before she could respond, light came on at the far end of the hallway and Selma’s heart sank. She sprinted through the exit door.

Selma stumbled into the mezzanine level of an expansive, empty atrium. The shops and restaurants bordering the central walkway were boarded up for the evening, but an elaborate fountain continued to run in the center. At first, it appeared no different than a typical museum, until a burst of motion drew Selma’s eyes upward.

An enormous screen covered the domed ceiling, relaying a montage of three-dimensional images, words, sounds with such staggering intensity, Selma had to steady herself against the railing. The unmistakable sights of a battle projected from the screen, bodies falling through crumbling debris and mud. The Siege of Istanbul. She was there.

An explosion struck a car in the upper-right section of the dome, and Selma felt the rush of heat against her skin, the smell of charred metal. This was her memory, on the screen, in all its hideous detail. Shocked, she inched slowly downstairs to the main floor, training her eyes on the ground.

Another flash of movement caught her eye and she spun around to face two guards. She raised the weight, still secure in her sweaty fist, but one of the men held a device of his own, a silver baton. A pulse emanated from its center and a cold, numbing sensation spread from Selma’s chest out to the rest of her body. She collapsed on the floor, a pair of boots blocking her way to the front door, before everything went dark.

Selma opened her eyes, the blurred outline of Dr. Hugh coming into focus across the room. For the first time, he sat on the same side of the glass wall, his face etched in dismay.

“You were doing so well,” he said, ignoring Selma as she vomited over the side of the bed. “Participating in the Exhibit, educating people. They need educating. Everyone wants to look ahead, for the new gadget or the latest scandal. It’s hard to make people see how far they’ve come. That’s how you help, Selma, and make our world better.”

“I don’t care about your world,” Selma said, pulling herself upright with a shudder. “I want a real life, with Connor. I want a family, a chance to start again. If I’d known I’d exist as an animal in a cage –”

Unable to finish the thought, Selma stood up and threw a chair against the glass wall. It bounced off harmlessly, the surface as smooth and unflinching as Dr. Hugh, who watched her without reaction.

“Life is always preferable to death,” the old man said, a dark shadow passing over his face. “That is a value humanity has learned the hard way, although people of your time were different, happy to kill themselves for invisible gods and other intangibles. You are not the first in the Exhibit to express a desire to return to nothingness, even knowing that it is indeed nothing that awaits you. But why? Why not seize the opportunities we give you?”

“I did,” Selma said with a bitter smile, nodding towards the far exit. Dr. Hugh shook his head and stood up.

“As a concession to you, I will have the interactive stage of our Exhibit moved ahead of schedule,” he said. “It will give you a chance to get out of this room and remember who your real enemies are. You’ll even get the chance to change the course of history, in a way. Believe it or not, Selma, I want to help you. I know your story better than anyone else living. Play your part well, and we’ll honor our bargain to revive your husband.”

Selma hesitated. The doctor wore many faces – showman, educator, therapist, overseer, reluctant ally – none of which she trusted. However, she had nothing left to lose. Either he would uphold his promise, or she would find a way to end her existence a second and final time.

She nodded.

“What do you mean interactive?” Selma asked as he opened the door.

“Did you not listen on opening day?” he asked with a thin smile. “We’re going to war.”

The Battle of the Three Rivers carried a deceptively dramatic name into the history books – there was only one major river, the Mekong, and two nearby tributaries, where the carnage unfolded. Axelrod’s mercenaries and the Chinese army occupied Vientiane, while the Displaced People’s Army attacked from the north and west.

The battle lasted nine days and ten nights, the longest recorded during the Climate Wars. With robotic infantry not yet adopted in Asia, combat was largely hand-to-hand, aided by tanks and electromagnetic weapons. Simple, brutal, human.

Selma joined the first wave crossing the Mekong. Atlas fighters defended their posts along the muddy banks of the city’s outskirts, raining bullets and stunners onto the advancing riverboats. She jumped out with the rest of her unit before the boat reached the shore, deflecting and returning fire. The ground, drowning in days of rain, slid underneath her boots as her feet found land.

It all felt real – the smell of the river water, the rising smoke over the city. The explosions, the dense thud of bodies falling around her. The adrenaline, keeping her moving through devastation and death. But then a camera would flash along the shore, figures pointing and hands raising devices to record the scene. Some merely watched. Others had paid to be participants, although when shot, they simply fell to the ground, a red “X” spreading across their chests. They laughed as their game ended, helped each other up and following Selma’s advance into the city.

They had dressed her in the same outfit from her iconic picture, her hair braided to one side. Her new body was young and responsive, allowing her to leap and zigzag around huts and battered buildings with relative ease.

A bullet whistled past her ear, making her heart spasm. She spun around to find a team of fighters in Atlas uniform, human and virtual. Both looked identical, but when she unloaded her semi-automatic, some evaporated into air while others fell unharmed, marked with an “X.”

A golden temple loomed several blocks away. The sunlight danced across its shining domes, a beacon through the smoke. Martin Axelrod had set up Atlas headquarters in a warehouse where children used to make tennis shoes. In the real battle, Selma never made it that far. An explosion had ripped through an intersection three blocks from the temple, and command summoned all troops to the east, to finish off the Chinese units.

In the end, they won, but Axelrod escaped before the People’s Army took the airport. This time, Selma had no commands to obey.

Selma crossed the intersection before the explosion hit, dodging bullets and debris. The streets of Vientiane, recreated with astonishing detail, had become a game board in which she knew all the rules and plays in advance. She advanced with confidence and purpose. Either revenge and Connor awaited her, or the game was rigged to begin with, and her suffering would end.

The warehouse faced the temple, sun-bleached and lifeless in its shadow. No sign marked Atlas headquarters, but the formidable presence of masked gunmen told Selma she had found the right place. She gestured to a virtual soldier behind her, mouthing for a hand grenade – to her surprise, he obliged.

The grenade reached the entrance before the Atlas men could react, sending heat and flesh into the air before the limbs evaporated like hot steam. The survivors returned fire.

Selma jerked back, feeling a familiar burning sensation through her right arm. A trail of blood ran down her shoulder, over the tattooed blades of tiger grass.

Her suspicions confirmed, Selma almost laughed. I’m playing by different rules, she thought. I can get hurt, and so can Axelrod.

She ran across the street to an overturned car, firing along the way. Others in her unit joined the attack, taking down the remaining guards. The coast clear, she ran into the warehouse.

She found him on the third level. Axelrod’s office overlooked the river, where the battle continued. A desk near the window was nearly invisible under layers of clutter, a small, sputtering fan scattering papers onto the floor. A radio perched on the windowsill played Christmas songs, even though it was June.

Behind the desk, Martin Axelrod faced the window. Selma spun his chair around, but he looked at her without seeing. His military fatigues emphasized strong shoulders and a fighter’s body, but his face was lined and tired, like her own. 

He held a small picture in his hand, a framed photo of a woman and small child. His head jerked in the direction of Selma’s gun.

“Get it over with,” he said.

Selma’s fingers tightened around the gun, but she hesitated.

“Your family,” she said. “They went into freezing, didn’t they?”

Axelrod laughed bitterly, his cold blue eyes meeting hers directly, for the first and last time.

“You don’t realize it yet,” he said softly. “They won’t revive them, our families. They thawed out the heads long ago. Incinerated them. I heard the guards, but I suspected it once I realized where I was. Contracts mean nothing to these people. There’s only us left. So finish it, and there’ll only be you.” 

Selma swayed where she stood. She opened her mouth to speak, but there was nothing else to be said. She knew it was true. Dr. Hugh had lied and would never revive Connor, just as Axelrod would not live beyond his purpose as a spectacle, a symbol of retroactive justice. Both were merely characters, walking like ghosts through a world that had ended long ago.

Selma bent over the desk, struggling for air. Others had joined them in the office, men and women in strange clothes, taking pictures through their hungry eyes and recording the scene on small devices. Several cameras lined the room, perhaps broadcasting the battle’s climax on some distance stage. Selma imagined the walls parting again, the heat of the city giving way to an air-conditioned stadium, where Dr. Hugh would ask her how it felt, to kill an enemy at last.

She dropped the gun. The spectators closed in, circling and whispering together. A young man darted between Selma and Axelrod, posing for a picture.

Selma lurched forward, as though pushed by an invisible hand. She leaped across the desk in a single, almost graceful motion, and out through the open window. The radio played “Jingle Bells” through the alarmed screams and clamors of battle, and soft rain dusted her face as the ground drew near.

Selma opened her eyes, gasping as hideous, throbbing pain greeted her lower body. In front of her, her legs were lifted apart by straps, both encased in glowing casts. Blood pounded in her ears, an echo of the fall. After several deep breaths, she recognized the green-tinged lighting and sterile air of the medical ward, where she was first paraded before an audience.

Dr. Hugh sat to her right, free of his former warmth. Her pulse slowing, Selma sighed.

“We can eliminate the pain,” Dr. Hugh said. “But you don’t seem willing to accept our help, no matter how much we try.”

“So you can send me back into that… circus?”

“It’s the price, Selma,” he said. “For being alive. Why did you jump?”

“Connor’s dead,” she said.

“For hundreds of years, Selma.”

“You know what I mean,” Selma said, noting the dullness in her voice. The pain felt reassuring as she spoke, affirming the cold ache in her chest. “He’s gone for good. You never planned to revive him.”

Dr. Hugh opened his mouth to speak, but retreated under Selma’s gaze. He nodded.

“You can’t have the life you once did,” Dr. Hugh said, his gentle tone returning. “It’s not the same world you left. But it is life all the same, and once you recover, you will go back to the Three Rivers, you will fight, and show the world why you deserve to be here. You will live.”

“No more fighting,” Selma said simply. “I won’t be an actor in your sick theater, and if you place me there – ”

“You will fight!” Dr. Hugh bellowed.

“I’ll jump,” she said. “And I’ll jump again, each time at the end, until even you can’t bring me back.”

The museum hours closed at seven p.m., but the lights remained on in the Archive ward. Exhibit L had premiered the week before: an immersive, interactive display of the Robot and Non-Humanoid Rights Movement at the start of the twenty-second century.

Selma spent each day on the exhibit floor, posing for pictures and answering questions with a smile. It’s true, the sea crept over coastal cities and heat killed the crops in the world’s dry, poor places. No, I never regretted joining the People’s Army. Yes, I’m grateful for each day.

Her uniform covered the hideous bruise along her side, but Dr. Hugh had removed the casts on both of her legs. His anger over her jump, her refusal to play the game, waned when the ratings came in, along with the public outcry on Selma’s behalf. The two college students had visited Selma during her recovery, sharing articles that praised Selma’s statement as an act of resistance, a naming of her true enemy. Other commentators just enjoyed the unexpected twist in the battle.

The nights belonged to Selma. This was her bargain with Dr. Hugh. She returned to her ward each night, the glass doors swinging open on her command. Some nights, the ward became a forest, the air cool and crisp with the smell of pine. When she felt sentimental, the walls and floors shifted to a small village in central Turkey, before the soil had turned dry like chalk.

Most nights, she returned to Mecca. Even now, looking out at the palm trees framing the lake, still as statues, she forgot about the Exhibit.

Connor sat beside her. Dr. Hugh kept the fine lines around his face without the sadness of those last few days at the hospital.

He was not quite Connor, but he was enough. He told the same jokes, recalled the same stories, responded as Connor would. They even had the same fights – perfection would shatter the illusion.

Selma grabbed a beer. She turned to find Connor behind her, raising his own bottle in a toast. The drinks met, hers going directly through his hand. 

“I feel like going to the sea today,” she said. “That’s the only thing about Mecca. There’s a lake, but it’s not the same – no waves, no breeze.”

The Pacific stretched out before them. The smell of ocean water permeated the air, and she closed her eyes to the pleasant, rushing sound of the waves, the shivering of palm trees in the wind. North of their quiet beach, the lights of the highway trailed off into the distance.

“Do you ever think of leaving this place?” Selma asked.

“The ocean?” Connor asked.

“You know what I mean.” But Selma’s voice trailed away. She pushed aside thoughts of the Exhibit, of escape. It was the perfect beach, on a perfect night. Other nights would be less perfect, nights when she would despair and regret, plan escape or a final exit. For now, she was alive, and only the moment mattered. In that sense, it was real.

________________

Nadia Afifi grew up in the Middle East (Bahrain and Saudi Arabia), but currently resides in Denver, Colorado, where she struggles to keep warm in the winter. She is represented by literary agent Naomi Davis at Bookends Literary Agency and hopes to have a full-length science fiction novel sold this year. Her short fiction has previously appeared in The Write Launch. When she isn’t writing, she runs, goes stand-up paddleboarding, and travels as much as possible.

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