So, last week was the first Monday of the month, which means that Cait Gordon did her monthly flash fiction draw writing prompt. If you’re not familiar, this is where she draws one card each from three suits of cards, specifying a genre, setting, and an object that must be included in the story. Participants have a week to write a 1,000-word story incorporating those three elements.
This month’s draw? A western, set in a museum, including a cracked pot.
OK, no complicated preamble this month because I’m getting this in almost at the last minute. Also, I’m way over the word count. This is no surprise.
Anyway, without further ado:
Marcus has come to the museum again to see the simulation about the cowboy. He has to change transports two times in order to reach the transition station where the orbital tether takes him up. The trip eats up most of his allotted free time per work cycle, but he doesn’t think twice about it. The cowboy’s worth it.
The ticket taker doesn’t give any indication of recognition when she scans Marcus’s ident. He usually arrives at the same time—his schedule is rigorously monotonous—and she’s always staffing the ticket counter when he visits. But she just waves his ident over the scanner and hands it back to him, saying, “Old West North America, Earth Wing, up three flights and to your left. Enjoy your visit.” She doesn’t even look up from her display as she says it.
The lift takes seven seconds to whisk him up to the Sol level. When the barrier dissolves, he exits and turns left, past the pre-Columbian indigenous civilizations experience —he makes note of the cracked and broken pottery at the entrance only as a landmark. He’s wondered if the broken pot is real—why replicate a piece in a broken state? But surely there wouldn’t be an original artifact here, all the way from Earth, even a broken one. Broken like Earth is, has been for centuries.
Regardless, it means he’s close now, close to the cowboy.
A docent stands near the entrance to the Old West experience. It’s someone he hasn’t seen before, but she nods as Marcus approaches and gestures him inside.
“The experience is ready when you are,” she says.
A thrill rushes up his spine at the thought that he might be the only one with a ticket for this reservation time. He hurries inside and finds that, yes, it’s just him.
Marcus stands in the middle of the projection chamber and holds still while the emitters pattern him and project a period skin over him. He looks down toward his feet and sees dust-covered boots, threadbare tan trousers, a belt with a tarnished buckle, a faded blue shirt. His heart’s beating faster as he glances around, waiting for the town to materialize, waiting for the only man he’s ever really cared about to appear in front of him.
The chamber darkens for a moment before filling with a soft, diffuse light that quickly resolves into the town. A dusty rectangle of ground is lined by wooden buildings on two sides with plank sidewalks running between the buildings. Light from a bright yellow star beats down on the baked earth beneath his feet and bleaches the boards that side the buildings. People move between the buildings, spending as little time as possible outside in the heat, but he lingers in it, letting it warm his skin. It won’t burn him like the sun might have in reality.
The town is basically two perpendicular streets, one of which parallels the railroad tracks. The other dead-ends at the cemetery, which is behind him. In a few moments, the cowboy’s horse will enter the scene from the right, appearing from behind the corner saloon. He hooks his thumbs through the belt loops of his trousers and tries to ignore the inflating feeling in his chest, as if his heart’s a balloon.
The horse is never in much of a hurry. It ambles around the corner like it has all the time in the universe, like it hasn’t been dust and memories for five hundred years, if it ever really existed. It may simply be a creation of the programmer’s imagination, an idea of what a horse must have looked like in the flesh.
The cowboy, he thinks, could be the same, an amalgam of 2D moving images, pictures, and stories. Even though he has a name in the simulation—Randall Potter; he knows, because he asked—it’s probably made up. He searched the data banks (using more of his precious time and creds) but came up with no records from the time frame.
And what difference would it make, anyway, since even if he were real, Randall hasn’t been alive since the 19th century on the old calendar.
The horse turns the corner and comes down the street toward him, and Randall tilts his hat back. He smiles down from his saddle and gives a polite nod. The way his face heats up, which has nothing to do with the sunshine, makes Marcus certain he’s blushing. He looks down.
“You’re back,” Randall says. His voice is deep, a hint of gravel in it. The first time Marcus heard that voice, it sent a shiver racing along his spine, the same way it does now.
“Just passing through,” Marcus says, walking alongside the horse as the cowboy guides it toward the hitching post outside the general store.
“Just my luck you’re always passing through when I come into town,” Randall says, swinging down from the saddle and hooking a lead rope to the horse’s halter. As he ties the rope to the post, he adds, “Or maybe it’s not luck?”
Marcus frowns. The shift in tone is subtle, but it’s different from the five other times they’ve spoken. “Excuse me?”
“You spend a lot of time in this town,” the cowboy says, taking time with the knot, “but you don’t live here. Do you wish you could live here?”
Randall has never asked him questions like this. “I… I don’t know. Maybe, a little.”
The cowboy doesn’t look up from his work. “Why?”
Marcus stammers a moment. He doesn’t want to say “I don’t know” again, which would also be a lie. He keeps coming back because he has to look up to meet Randall’s gaze, and because of the hint of gravel in his voice, which goes with the pattern of stubble on his face, framing a set of lips that are almost delicate by comparison.
“Why do you keep coming here?” Marcus asks, turning the question back on Randall. The cowboy rests his arm on the hitching post and looks off into the distance.
“I guess because I always wanted to be a cowboy, but there’s not really much call for that on this station Or down planetside, for that matter. I mean, no cows, no need for cowboys.”
This is the strangest conversation Marcus has ever had with a hologram. It’s as if he’s speaking to the program itself.
Or maybe to the programmer.
“Who are you?”
The cowboy meets his gaze now. “You really want to know?”
Marcus doesn’t trust his voice to remain steady. He nods.
“Go back out, turn left toward the service lift, take it up two flights, and when you get off turn left. Last door on the right.”
A couple minutes later, Marcus stands outside a blank white door in a nondescript hallway. His heart is racing the way it might if he’d climbed two flights of stairs to get up here rather than taking the lift. He pauses with his fist raised to knock on the door. Maybe this isn’t a good idea.
The door slides open before he can reconsider. The room beyond is dim, a waft of cool air making him shiver.
“Come on in.” A hint of gravel. Marcus steps through the doorway.
It’s not a big room. A bank of holographic displays runs along one wall in front of a single workstation. The person seated in front of it has their back to him, so Marcus can only see their hands on the controls and the back of their head.
The chair swivels around. Sitting in it is the cowboy.
Except, not the cowboy. Yes, the face is the same, but it’s clean shaven, and his hair, instead of dark brown, is lighter, almost blond. The shape of the lips, though, is identical.
The cowboy stands up. “I take it you like the simulation.”
Marcus looks down toward the floor and nods. “It’s very… realistic.”
“What’s your favorite part?”
The question makes him look up. The non-cowboy is smiling at him, almost smirking. Is this guy messing with him? “I think you can probably figure out the answer to that.”
“Fair enough. I guess what I’m really asking is whether you have a thing for cowboys in general or, or this cowboy in particular.”
It’s then that Marcus detects the note of nervousness in the man’s voice. “I take it you’re the programmer.” He nods. Marcus continues. “And you decided to make the main character look exactly like yourself.”
“The stubble’s a nice touch.”
Even in the room’s dim light, the man’s face brightens. “You think so? I wasn’t sure if… never mind.”
Marcus steps a little closer, as if he didn’t hear the man right. “Wasn’t sure if what?”
The man takes a deep breath. “Wasn’t sure if you’d like it.”
For a moment, all Marcus hears over the whir of the ventilation is the man’s breathing. At the same time, things whir in Marcus’s head, and he starts to get a clearer, if different, picture.
“This was for my benefit?”
The man shakes his head. “Not at first. I noticed you on your first visit, but didn’t really think much about it after that. It’s sort of… happened before. But then you came back, and Old West was the only simulation you visited. So, after that, I started… improving things. Tweaking the storyline in case you came back. Augmenting Randall’s appearance based on things the biometric scanners said you responded to—”
“Nothing invasive. Elevated heart rate, respiration, that sort of thing. Not a lot more than what I could tell just by standing in the same room as you… which is not something I expected would happen.”
Another silence, both of them looking down at the floor. When Marcus looks up, the man who looks like a cowboy but isn’t a cowboy is staring at him expectantly, almost hopefully, his earnestness nothing like the casual swagger of the cowboy simulacrum with the stubble and the wide-brimmed hat. He’s waiting, clearly, for Marcus to speak. To confirm either a hope or a disappointment. And now Marcus has to figure out what he wants.
He wants to know something, he decides. “Randall’s not your name too, is it?”
The man shakes his head. “Randall Potter was a real person, just not a cowboy.”
“And not on nineteenth-century Earth, I’m guessing. In that case, you are?”
Marcus extends his hand. The other man looks at it, his expression not exactly calculating, but deciding. A moment later he takes Marcus’s hand. His grip is warm. “Mika.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
“So, now what?”
Mika puts his hands in his pockets. “My shift is over in a couple hours. Dinner after that?”
Marcus does a few mental calculations. It probably means he’ll have to catch the overnight back home, and he’ll be half asleep at work tomorrow, but hopefully it’ll be worth it.