by Andy Dudak
In its traveling configuration, the ancient peephole theater resembles a two-wheeled rickshaw–but with the cabinet-like peephole box where the passenger seat should be–and that is how the old raree showman pulls it: his mummified hands grip poles extending from either side of the chassis, his sunken chest braced against a padded cross-spar. He moves slowly, creakingly, beside a river of shattered concrete from another age. He stares at the ground immediately before him. The immense silence of a cold, grey waste rolls by unnoticed.
For longer than he can reckon, he has fled an expanding empire and made his daily bread entertaining refugees. He remembers when the Forbidden City was a museum. He dimly recalls a time before the Uyghur Dynasty, but he has to perform his stories to keep the memories alive.
A distant cry brings him out of his walking trance: a bird perhaps, or a woman or child. He lifts his gaze to the horizon and sees something familiar, an outbreak of desperate humanity beneath a tangle of 21st-century overpass highways. He thinks he’s been here before, but as he gets closer, the filthy, swollen-bellied children stare at him–and his raree box–with incomprehension. They should be ecstatic. It’s always the children that hail his return visits first. He remembers television, movies, the internet, but these children certainly don’t. He’s as close as they’ll come to such entertainment in their short lives.
Perhaps he’s been to this camp before, but a new tide of the displaced has swept in to occupy it. He knows he’s somewhere in Eastern Europe, though the Eurasians gathering to watch his approach are racially vague, and the babel of Turkic and Slavic tongues that rings through the camp might place him anywhere from Prague to Kyrgyzstan.
It’s been weeks since he’s met a soul. The rank but comforting stench of fellow humans draws him into the blue shadows beneath the overpasses. Several men–dangerous scarecrows, eyes vibrant with hunger–query him in English, Mandarin, and Uyghur. Though he understands all three, he prefers to set up in the camp market before uttering a word. It’s difficult to explain what he has to trade to those who haven’t enjoyed it before. He’s accustomed to chilly first contact situations. He’s a strange sight: older than Uyghurstan, weathered beyond racial identity, his rickety peephole box older still. People have trouble deciding what to gawk at, him or the sun-faded garishness of the box. Old people are rare in this brutal world of refugees, but the box is a true curiosity.
He proceeds through the camp, amid the whispered imprecations and warding gestures, until he arrives in the central clearing that he finds in most such communities. Here a tenuous micro-economy stumbles along. Water, petrol, emaciated camels, solar and hydrogen cells, and precious tubes of synthetic avocado change hands. Here also are thieves, prostitutes, shamans, demagogues, and mercenary adventurers. Religion and sex are touted side by side, while pretentious ronin stroll the market with their improvised guns displayed.
The old man parks his little theater near the poisonous reek of a hydrocarbon still. He learned long ago that drunks are usually willing to tender what few commodities they have for entertainment. A small mob besieges the still, drawn to the fermentation of what was once garbage–the wanton, organics-rich waste of the 21st century–and later became the flatulent sludge known as Type One Precursor. The garbage well has long since dried up, and most of the Type One has continued its biochemical journey toward food, but here and there small amounts come to a recreational end.
The old man slides the rickshaw poles out of the chassis and uses them to prop the theater on an even keel. People gather as he places a small drum kit atop the peephole box, then unfolds a billboard.
The box began its career in 19th-century Beijing, and the billboard advertises one of its first stories: Journey to the West, starring the Monkey King. The marquee shows the Monkey King aloft on a cloud in his classic gongfu pose. Above the scene are the Chinese characters for the multi-faceted art the old man practices: 拉洋片, LaYangPian, or “pulling picture cards.” This refers to the mechanism inside the box, a series of painted scenes the showman pulls up, and out of peephole range, as a story progresses.
Other scenes are painted on the box itself, advertising a few of the many stories in the old man’s repertoire. Some are from the box’s original line-up, old Beijing favorites like The Sacking of the Summer Palace by Foreign Devils. Others are based on American movies the old man saw in his distant childhood, strange tales from a golden age of exuberance with titles like Pretty Woman, Batman, and Toy Story. He painted the picture cards for these from memory.
He stands beside the box and tests the strings that control the drum kit: one each for the pivot sticks beneath two hide drums and a cymbal. Pulling expertly, he conjures a beat that evokes impossible depths of time, a beat that echoed in the hutongs of Beijing before the storms of communism, capitalism, and the Uyghur.
He tests the picture card strings. Each set is labeled, but he knows them like the erogenous zones of an old lover. He drops the cards for Coyote Juggles His Eyeballs, a lighthearted trickster tale from some forgotten tribe of the earth–always a good appetizer.
The crowd thickens. Drunkards from the still come right up to the box, frowning and peering. They try the peepholes, but these are shuttered.
The old man picks up the beat, and sings his pitch in a pidgin of Uyghur and English:
“Step up and peek at days of yore,
worlds long gone and forbidden lore.
Give a gift, I’ll open the door
to my box of what’s gone before.”
Children have surged forward among the legs of their elders. They jostle each other to glance in the dark peepholes. Grinning, the old man flicks on the interior diode, and pulling a bundle of strings, opens all the peepholes at once.
Seven lucky children and one shameless drunk are suddenly staring at Old Man Coyote, the trickster god: a bipedal canine creature wandering through a forest of twisted spooky-carbon girders.
The rest of the crowd is intrigued. Drunks shove children out of the way for a peek.
The old man picks up the beat again and spins his tale of Coyote’s hubris. He employs the old cadences and wandering melodies of Beijing LaYangPian, with surprising ejaculations of rap, and a dash of Mongolian throat singing.
He reveals the cards with perfect timing: Coyote meeting Rat the Eye Juggler, Rat’s warning not to toss one’s eyes too high, Coyote’s inevitable disregard of that advice while showing off for a bevy of young women, the Crow brothers’ theft of Coyote’s eyes, and the trickster’s blind, bungling hunt for them.
The crowd swells as the unfamiliar sound of laughter does the old man’s advertising for him. The struggle for peephole time grows pitched. Coyote takes to borrowing eyes from other creatures, but they’re never the right size. The audience is rapt, even though most of them can’t reach the peepholes: the story has possessed the old man. His voice and expression transform wildly for each new character. He capers and dances and contorts, but he’s hardly aware of the story. Instead, he’s back in the ruins of Pudong, fifty years ago, and a dying nursery AI introduces him to the canon of Old Man Coyote, along with the works of Dr. Seuss and Beatrix Potter.
He returns to the present and his cheering audience. He knows he must have finished the story, and people are shouting for more. Time to get down to business. “Next up,” he croaks, “The Fall of the West, an epic romantic tragedy, a tale of excess and betrayal!” He points to a panel on the theater showing a mushroom cloud. It blooms incongruously between a panel of Bugs Bunny and one of lesbian lovers. “A plug of synth-av or cup of filtered, folks. Step right up!”
He drops the cards as the crowd scrambles to come up with fees. “Easy now! There’ll be multiple runs of each story!” The still master, a hulking, keen-eyed remnant of a soldier breeding program, wordlessly hands the old man a shot of Precursor-spirit and sits down at a peephole. The old man throws back the shot and fights to keep it down. The struggle leaves him buoyant and eager to launch into his quasi-historical tale of collapse. He can no longer differentiate his mythical additions from what might have happened, but he remembers drafting the tale to please Uyghur Centurions in the mutant-haunted Qinghai wastes.
His larder fills as he runs through The Fall of the West three times. He grows drunk on Precursor-spirit and applause and memory. The shadows in the marketplace lengthen, and he moves on to Snow White and Shrek to lighten the mood. By now the majority of the camp has packed itself into the marketplace. Most won’t get a turn at the peepholes, but they’re content to watch the old man perform. He gives them Hamlet, Die Hard, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and by the time he concludes a second showing of Some Like It Hot, night has fallen and the old man’s head swims with a resurrected century.
He lived through the Great Reshuffling. When he was a child–before the retrovirals doubled his lifespan–few humans had heard of the Uyghur, an oppressed Muslim minority in what was then Xinjiang Province, China. Nobody wandering the sandblasted alleyways of Kashgar could have imagined the natives of this ancient Silk Road town as the future masters of the globe.
He can’t remember how it started. Maybe he hasn’t told the right story yet, and maybe it doesn’t matter. He supposes all empires must be traceable back to unlikely tribes. What matters is that, like the Mongols and Manchus before them, the Uyghur seized the helm of China from the Han. By then they were barely human, let alone Muslim.
The crowd wants pornography, now that the children are falling asleep. It’s the same in every camp. The old man scans their haggard, torch-lit faces. What are they running from, these refugees? Not death exactly. Not subjugation either. The Uyghur Empire is different from all those that came before it. The old man tries to remember how, but nothing comes, so he drops the cards for Their Own Devices and prepares to bring more of himself to life. He painted these cards long ago, using the harem of a Gansu warlord as models. The project was one of the few commissions of the old man’s career. The story involves little dialogue, so he’s free to just pull cards and weave beats and remember:
The warlord had long mustaches and many pretensions. He fancied himself a patron of the arts, a warrior-poet and philosopher. One night in his mall-fortress he expounded something called Continuity Theory to his courtiers. The Uyghur claimed to have proven that consciousness is a series of disconnected network states, like the picture cards in a peephole box. The warlord and his fellow rebels disagreed. What about the observer looking through the peephole? The Uyghur argued that this observer is himself a series of cards. The rebels believed conscious experience required continuity. The Uyghur called this mysticism.
Now the old man wonders how such an obscurely academic conflict led first to rebellion–which failed, of course–and then to the greatest refugee movements in history. There must be more to it. He remembers remembering this before, but can’t remember what he remembered. He is a refugee himself. So, what is he running from?
He drops more erotica and contemplates empire. Are the Uyghur making room for themselves by driving out native populations? Yes, that seems right. In that way at least they’re like preceding conquerors. But what are they doing with the displaced? Relocating them? In a sense. Yes, the old man feels a twinge of familiar dread. But relocating them where? To what marginal wasteland? It must be a desolate prison indeed to turn hundreds of millions into fleeing animals. How could any place, even the Glass Deserts of Persia, be worse than perpetual flight?
The old man wants to stop performing and ask someone, but he’s embarrassed. Maybe his next performance will activate a key memory.
A moment later–during the next discrete picture card of his conscious experience–shrieks of terror resound through the camp. The old man’s rhythm falters as men turn away from the carnal delights of the peepholes to cast about. A weird energy unsettles the crowd like a field disturbance, and many flee. Then the camp erupts in panic.
The old man has grown used to lagging behind others. He endures a familiar nagging sensation as he waits resignedly for the revelation that has animated the camp. Not, he thinks, that it will do him much good. The marketplace empties around him.
And the Uyghur drones fall silently from the pink night sky, vague intricacies blurred and protected by folded spacetime.
The old man has seen them before, but never this close. He stands frozen beside his peephole box. The drones swarm beneath the overpasses and dive among the fleeing refugees. Beams of spacetime distortion issue from them and engulf their human prey and seem to annihilate them in moments, leaving nothing behind but pink mists that swirl in curdled spacetime wake.
The old man’s weird doubt persists in the face of this horror. Are these drones really killers? Are the people vanishing all around him truly dead? Regardless, he can’t escape. He is too old now, too slow, and doesn’t bother trying. He could never leave behind his theater anyway. So he watches and waits, and in the meantime drops the cards for Journey to the West and goes through the motions of a performance. He sings and drums and pulls cards amid the mayhem. A nearby ronin finds himself trapped between several drones, and opens up on one with his ancient rifle. The bullets seem to pass right through the machine, rerouted through its spacetime fold.
Like predators of the Old Biome, the drones take no interest in the old man because he’s not fleeing. Memories bubble up in his footworn mind, old lovers and paradigms long gone to carbon, but the true nature of the drones remains hidden. He has begun to doubt his own doubt and accept that they are mere killers after all, when one of them hovers to rest before him. At such proximity he can see more of the structure inside its spacetime cloak: something like a great, black, fractal snowflake.
To his surprise, a distortedly human voice issues from the thing: “Grandfather, do you not fear encoding?”
Encoding. The word brings with it a strange vertigo. The old man retains enough of his faculties to wonder if the drone is intelligent, or puppeted by a Uyghur Centurion.
“You’re old, grandfather,” it continues. “If you’re amenable to the paradise we offer, you could have reported to a coding station long ago.”
The old man stands shivering and gripping his La strings. The Monkey King’s adventure has frozen near the Dragon King’s palace. Instead of answering the drone, the old man pulls the card and chants:
“Immortal Monkey in Death’s Domain,
demanded the list of mortal names,
and heedless of the gods incensed,
struck himself from transience.”
Resurrecting this verse that he penned long ago, he knows once again the world the Uyghur are making. He knows he will be torn apart in the process.
“I see that you’re a treasure trove of experience and lore,” the drone says. “How can we leave you… indeed anyone… to the vagaries of physicality? We love creation too much. Do you understand?”
“I do,” the old man says, “perhaps better than you think.”
“So you are one of these deluded wretches after all… merely too frail to run.”
The old man says nothing more. There is little time left, and he doesn’t want to spend it locked in the same decades-old argument. If he and the refugees are mistaken, then he’ll wake and receive a virtuality of his own choosing. If he’s right, he’ll die, sacrificed to a copy of himself.
“It is regrettable that the process of encoding means physical dissolution,” the drone says. “We wish there was another way. But I promise it will not hurt, and when all of lesser humanity has been saved, we will follow.”
The old man is all too familiar with this convenient mantra. Mere genocide isn’t enough for the Uyghur. They must insult their victims with ludicrous self-justification.
“The discontinuity between your current awareness and the one to come is no different than that between two thoughts. Don’t you see?”
The old man sees instead a planet cleared for the Uyghur. That, and a kind of peephole box for them to peer into when they miss the billions they’ve murdered. And so the old man pulls the next card. If he is to die, he wants as much of his life to flash before his eyes as possible.
When the beam begins to tear him apart, he is singing of the Monkey King.
Andy Dudak has sold stories to Ray Gun Revival and Nine. His fiction has appeared in Anotherealm, M-Brane, Schlock Magazine, and Jersey Devil Press. His graphic novel The Assemblers has been published by Transfuzion.