…eyes bobbing above the waves, mouth half-open, swallowing saltwater. I was in a stilled ocean, swimming toward a city-sized wooden boat, circled by boats rowed by hundreds of men. I climbed on board and wandered into a movie theater bathroom, vintage tilework everywhere.
Rainn Wilson stood next to one urinal. “One, two, three,” he said aloud, moving a finger like an abacus in his palm. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m counting my sperm to make sure I’m still fertile,” he said. I wasn’t sure if it was Rainn or Dwight Schrute. I laughed and left the bathroom.
What I found outside was less cheerful. The city-boat’s streets were bronzed with rusted dust, its structures becoming more technologically complex as I neared the center of the boat–towering walkways, frozen mechanical sidewalks, and enormous glass tubes entwined like plant life choking itself.
I knew there was a park somewhere—an isolated greenbelt where people sold wares in an open-air market—but I wound up a claustrophobic stairway and entered a seemingly dead-ended room. A crowd appeared around me. “There’s no way out!” a woman said, her panic feeling 1940s. “We’re going to die in here!” a man yelled.
I looked around at the surprise room. Its walls were opaque glass rounded at the edges and tinted in an unusually rich shade of deep alder and smoke. Inside was what looked to be a small lab: limited furniture, a long table, machines, bookshelves.
The crowd gathered ratlike on the furniture and seemed to disappear. I remained calm and investigated the objects. There was something exceptionally unusual on the lab table—a slimy, blackened skin, rotting away; it gave off no smell. To its left was small device: a glass marble mounted on the end of a delicate mechanical arm. Further down the table were two additional machines. The larger one was boxy—like a computer—and had a small box attached to it by a cord—like a mouse. I searched for an on switch and tapped the smaller box, but nothing happened.
I turned back to the arm and studied it. A civilization of golden works spiraled down its length, as if forged by ants in thrall to a god of greater order. As I tried to comprehend the device’s operation, a hologram appeared.
It was David Bowie. Not Ziggy Stardust nor the Thin White Duke nor any of his quirky incarnations—just Bowie as he appeared in his final photos. Suit and tie, hair slicked back. He lifted his right arm out at his side and flexed it slowly, like a mime, into an upward angle, as if halfway to hand waving. Reaching over with his left hand, he pointed to his right wrist. “Emit tuoba s’ti,” he said, and vanished.
I thought for a moment, transfixed on the gesture. What operated with the right hand? I looked at the mouse and this time, instead of tapping it, pressed my wrist against the end closest to me, and the computer turned on.
There weren’t many files on it. Opening one revealed a still image of the blackened skin. I tried using the mouse to discover additional controls, but it did nothing. As I examined the photo, I realized the point of view came from the mechanical arm’s marble.
I turned to the marble and touched it, trying to see if there were some optic cables underneath, and the screen changed: a man briefly appeared then blinked out. I moved the marble again, and the screen changed again—the blackened skin twitched in the image, rising ever so slightly.
An idea struck me. I started rolling the marble. The skin continued to change, and then I knew: the marble was a camera, and the image was a time-lapse recording.
I continued rolling the marble, and the skin gradually filled, regaining color, rising into a familiar shape—it was a banana.
And there, written on its side in color-coded ink, was the key code to escape the room.
Geoff Wallace is a 55-year-old trapped in the body of an 18-year-old. His twin selves are at work on many projects at once. He likes shelving picture books at Powell’s in Portland, Oregon.