The advertisements for Metro Futurology featured a cavernous lobby full of glass and metal in a building that resembled the Tower of Babel stretched too thinly toward the sky. The sleek videos boasted finely appointed rooms with climate control, memory foam mattresses on the bed, and enough square footage to do a simple home workout. Blurbs from previous customers extolled the unmatched comfort and unparalleled service of what was supposedly Raleigh-Durham’s premier synthetic shelving facility.
Welcome to Flashes from the Verse, a sampling of unedited, unrevised, and often out-of-context scratch writing that takes place in the Vinestead Universe. Somewhere in these interconnected ramblings is the next Vinestead novel, so keep your eyes peeled and enjoy!
What Hutch found when he arrived more closely resembled the ancient motels of Atlantic Beach, the last resort options of desperate families who’d arrived at the beach without booking their lodging in advance. Instead of a conic tower, Metro was a mere three floors worth of chipped evercrete and grimy brown windows. A faded sign hung over the front doors; the black background had faded to almost the same shade as the gray lettering, making it hard to read. Inside, the post-modern lobby from the ads was nowhere to be seen. The walls felt too close together, as if they were reaching for each other. By the time he’d walked the fifteen steps from the doors to the reception desk, he swore the walls had come in by at least three feet on each side.
A young man with neon-laced tattoos covering the right side of his face and neck looked up from a palette behind the desk. There was something vacant in his eyes, as if he were under the influence of some synth drug. Then, like a flash of lightning in his pupils, recognition took hold. He stood abruptly and smiled.
“Checking in or picking up?” he asked cordially.
For a moment, Hutch didn’t know how to respond, or if he even wanted to respond. There was a still a chance for him to turn around and walk away. Except, he couldn’t. There was no apartment to run home to, no car to drive there in, and no job to go to the next day. It had taken weeks to put every external part of his life on pause; hitting the resume button would take equally as long. Even if he walked out without saying a word, he’d just be headed for an equally dingy hotel somewhere in the city, something his meager liquid assets could afford.
“Checking in?” he said, not meaning the words to come out as a question.
The man behind the counter tapped a dormant metal sliver on his polo; yellow letters illuminated, spelling out his name.
“I’m Thad,” he said. “Welcome to Metro Futurology. Could I have the name on the reservation?”
Thad looked down at his palette and typed with one hand. The other went reflexively to his hair and routed the stringy locks over his ear. Silver augments dotted his earlobe—street-tech not typically found in stores.
“Thank you, Mr. Hutchins. I’ve got your reservation right here. Looks like you’ve got a room in the Marigold wing. Ten years on the shelf, is that right?”
Thad nodded approvingly. “That’s the way to do it. Fast forward far enough so it’s a whole new world when you wake up.”
“That’s the plan,” said Hutch.
It wasn’t the plan, but then Hutch had no intention of sharing his reasons for wanting to go on the shelf or what he was hoping to get out of it. All he wanted from Thad was to be shown to his room so he could power down.
“Well, it looks like everything’s in order. You already filled out all of the paperwork, so I’ll just show you to the Marigold wing and let you get set up. It’s right this way.”
Thad gestured with an outstretched arm and led Hutch down a connecting hallway to a small elevator. A rusted gate of thin lattice covered the open elevator car; Thad pulled it back without any regard for trapping his fingers in the folding metal.
Hutch noticed the controls were physical buttons, not a vidscreen like a modern building. There weren’t even any numbers on the buttons; their surfaces had been worn down by years of use.
“Is this your first time going on the shelf?” asked Thad.
There wasn’t a synthetic alive who hadn’t done some skipping in the privacy of their own home, turning off temporarily to pass the time when they couldn’t do anything else.
“Well, ten minutes or ten years, it’s all the same,” said Thad. “My residents say it’s as easy as blinking. Your eyelids go down in 2042 and come up in 2052. It’s pretty amazing. If I can ever afford to go synthetic, that’s all I’d do, just keep skipping into the future.”
Again, Hutch nodded but said nothing. The idea of skipping into the distant future sounded great on paper, but evidently Thad had never picked up a copy of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and read about what happens to the human race after it destroys itself and reverts to primitive civilization. Even in 2042, humanity was already firmly entrenched on that path, having fractured into two classes: mortal organics and immortal synthetics. And though there had been no major clashing of the two, it was only a matter of time.
They stepped off the elevator on the third floor into a dim and eerily quiet hallway. Hutch was used to hearing muffled noises when he walked into a hotel—televisions turned up too loud, people talking on the phone, people having sex—but there was absolute silence in the so-called Marigold wing. Even their footsteps were swallowed up by the stained carpeting on the floor.
Every door on the third floor was closed. In the center where a window might have been was a vidscreen that illuminated as they passed. Young, synthetic faces appeared, along with a guest ID number and a timer ticking down. Hutch didn’t recognize any of the other residents, and for a moment he considered how his own face would appear on his door—a thirty-something with short brown hair and a square jaw he’d picked right out of a catalogue.
“We can turn that off if you’re worried about privacy,” said Thad.
“Then here we are.” He stopped in front a door with a green vidscreen; white text in the center spelled out vacancy.
The door swung out into the hall, which Hutch found strange until he saw inside the room. The space was smaller than the elevator, with just enough room for two grown men to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. On the wall to the left was a vidscreen in landscape orientation; a looping promotional video played, showing the same computer-generated imagery from Metro Futurology’s impressive ads. To the right, a harness had been built into the wall, with various clamp-like hands reaching out of it as if mechanical demons were trying to push their way into the real world.
Despite the claustrophobic size, the room looked clean and almost modern. Hutch had expected stained wallpaper, but every surface was covered in a polished metal, including the floor. In the ceiling, a small white vent looked like it had been recently wiped down.
“Everyone has the same reaction,” said Thad. “You know this building used to be a hotel? It’s been in the owner’s family since the 80’s. They’ve kept everything pretty much the same except for the rooms. That’s how we keep costs down.” He beamed. Evidently, he’d given the same speech before many times.
“It’s nice,” admitted Hutch. “Not Hilton Cloud, but nice.”
Thad shook his head. “You don’t want to waste your money there. Who needs windows when your eyes will be closed the whole time?” He reached into the cubicle—Hutch could no longer think of it as a room—and tapped the vidscreen. A menu of buttons appeared over a large digital clock. “You’ve got some basic info here, curated news that you can read up on when you wake up if you want. Big blue button there calls the attendant on duty. Might not be me, but…” He shrugged.
“Maybe you’ll have made the leap by then.”
Thad’s eyes went wide. He held up his crossed fingers.
“So do I just…?”
“Yeah,” said Thad, gesturing to the open door. “Just stand against the harness and hit the LOAD button. It’ll grab you and keep you steady while you’re off. There’s a pseudo in the vidscreen, so you can just give it voice commands, tell it to turn off the lights, whatever. If you don’t, I’ll turn them off later.”
Hutch stepped into the cubicle. He had the urge to set his wallet and keys down, but he wasn’t carrying anything in his pockets. Even his clothes were barebones—just a t-shirt and jeans and some old sneakers. A friend had suggested bringing a full-body hazmat suit so he didn’t get dusty as the years passed, but the ads for Metro Futurology had mentioned full climate and air quality control. Still, he couldn’t help but imagine coughing out a lung full of dust when he woke up.
He tapped the LOAD button, and the harness closed around his body, holding him firmly around each limb. A soft whirring came from the wall as the clamps moved into their final positions. When they were done, a green check mark appeared on the vidscreen.
“You’re good to go, Mr. Hutchins. See you in ten.”
“Thanks, I…” said Hutch, but Thad was already closing the door.
As the lock clicked into place, the lights in the ceiling dimmed automatically.
Just a blink, thought Hutch. Just a single blink and it’ll be 2052.
He took a deep breath, held it for a moment, and then closed his eyes.
His body grew heavy and stiff, as if he had suddenly turned to stone.
When Hutch opened his eyes again, the lights in the cubicle were down, and the only illumination came from the backlight bleed on the vidscreen.
“Hello?” coughed Hutch, clearing some foul taste from his mouth.
The vidscreen lit up; a microphone appeared in the corner with the word listening below it.
“Help,” said Hutch.
“How can I assist you?” asked a digitized voice.
“I can’t move my body. It feels…” He searched his brain for the word, found something near it. “Petrified.”
“Your release harness is currently engaged. To release it, simply say release harness.”
The clamps around his arms, legs, and waist released. He started to fall, but got his hands up on the opposite wall just in time to keep his face from smashing into the vidscreen.
He groaned. “Thad. Get me Thad.”
“Please restate your request.”
“Attendant!” he snapped.
A tone sounded in the cubicle. The vidscreen flashed to a video feed of the reception desk. Thad leaned into frame, his longer hair now swaying with the movement. The side of his face that had once been unblemished skin now sported a metallic, almost pearlescent scorpion tattoo.
“Mr. Hutchins? What’re you doing up?”
“Up?” asked Hutch. “You just put me…”
His eyes jumped to the clock at the bottom of the vidscreen.
13 May 2049. 1339 EST.
It was just like the brochure had said. Seven years had passed in an instant.
“Is it really 2049?” he asked.
Thad nodded. “Yup. You’re about three years too early. Got tired of waiting?”
“No, I… I set the timer for ten years. Something must have woken me.”
“Hmm.” Thad sat down in the chair facing the camera and lifted his palette. “Not likely. We don’t have any protocols that would…” He trailed off, his eyes quickly scanning his palette.
“What?” asked Hutch.
“We didn’t wake you up. You did.” He turned the palette around, but the resolution was too grainy to read it.
“What does it say?”
“It looks like you put in some wake exceptions before you shelved. Couple names here, but one company—Onyx Security?”
“That’s where I work, worked.”
Thad nodded. “Yeah, that’s where the message came from. It just says failure to ping. Any idea what that means?”
A pit opened in Hutch’s stomach. He tried to flex his muscles against it, but they resisted. The stony feeling was still very much with him, and he wanted nothing more than to get out of the cubicle and stretch.
Still leaning against the wall, he fumbled for the doorknob but found none.
“How do I open the door?” he asked.
“Really?” asked Thad. “You’re paid up through 2052. I don’t think my manager’s gonna give you a refund—”
“Yes, Mr. Hutchins?”
“Come open my door… right fucking now.”
“Right away, Mr. Hutchins.”
The vidscreen returned to the Metro Futurology promo reel.
Hutch flashed on the message Thad had read to him.
Failure to ping.
Coming from work, the message could only mean a few things, and none of them were good.
Original artwork by a talented artist I found on DeviantArt years ago but can no longer remember the name of.