This story has two beginnings. The first is on an overcast day in August 2031, at five o’clock in the evening. The second is in August 2010, when, one morning in a maternity ward, someone who was to be known eventually as Caesar was cut from his mother’s womb. As Caesar’s belly button was formed with one final, confident scissor snip, everybody in the artificially lit birthing unit was thinking about him and making their minds up about what kind of person he was going to grow up to be. These expectations would follow Caesar, like dirty breezes or a recurring ant infestation, across those boundaries erected by puberty and the Gregorian calendar, and into adulthood. Certainly, without those expectations, Caesar might have taken a different path to himself. On the day of his birth it had been cloudy too.
In August 2031, Caesar was leaving his shift at a fast-food eatery on the second floor of a mall called the Golden Triangle. Twenty years of digital markets and the dominance of blockchain ledgers had left the Triangle in a state of hollow, off-white dilapidation. You couldn’t even call it kitsch, Caesar thought, gazing upward at yellowing monstera leaves and the faded faces of models as he descended on one of the building’s few functioning escalators. The mall’s faint hum was broken at this time of day by the chorus of roller shutters pulled to closure. The retailers couldn’t even make it to six.
Caesar left the Triangle through its guts, the shallow labyrinth of passageways that connected the stores to the loading bays and skips out back. He usually left through the ground floor’s main exit, but he’d decided recently that the extra minute it took to go this way was a waste of time. Caesar didn’t realise it, but more and more these days he was forcing himself to do things he preferred to avoid. It was the dust and dirtiness of the corridors, which he observed again now, that made him want to steer clear. It was the fluorescent strip lights hanging lifeless from the ceilings, the trolleys with their half-cracked plastic bins and the cynicism of no one (at least, not the Triangle’s management) caring that the labyrinth was so dismal, given it was out of public view.
Silly. Why would this broke mall put money into cleaning up a functional area that hardly anyone sees? Although, Caesar thought, as he leaned on the crash bar of a door and let himself out into the grey of the early evening, Cleo wouldn’t find it silly that he wanted it to be clean, or at least that he didn’t like it being dirty. She wouldn’t find it silly either that the overcast skies unnerved him, made him feel claustrophobic. In this moment, the new and hardened edge of his mind that told him to be rational weakened a little, and he let himself be warmed by the knowledge that Cleo took him seriously.
On his walk home, Caesar thought more about Cleo. He spent a lot of his time thinking about Cleo, especially on Wednesdays and Thursdays, which was when they worked together. He thought about how today he’d gone into the back office while Cleo had been on her break (which he always did if he could) and said something to her that had made her laugh so hard she’d spilled water from the glass she’d been holding onto her work shirt. It had taken her a while to notice, and then she’d laughed even harder, thumping him on the back as he grinned.
“Oh my fucking god,” she’d said, her eyes still pinched up, the hand not holding the glass waving and threatening to make contact with his face. “The fuck, man, I’m gonna choke!”
Cleo liked to swear. Caesar’s mother, whose migration from the working class into the lower middle had induced in her a conservatism which included embarrassment around swearing, had discouraged her son from taking up the habit. As a result, Caesar still flinched sometimes when he heard Cleo talk, especially when they were in earshot of customers. When they messaged, though, Caesar kept up with her—and how they shot the shit. They discussed the Los Angeles streamers who broadcast themselves patching THC and doxing cops, arguing over which ones they thought did a good job and which ones were kinda fucking trash, honestly, according to each’s rubric. They DDoSed online fascist collectives who were trying to disrupt their state’s carbon collection schemes, joking on voice-calls as they did so and reaching such levels of exhilarated self-satisfaction it made Caesar light-headed. And they talked about sex.
Cleo liked to fuck—boys, girls and nonnies. She would tell him about her liaisons, complaining mostly about the men. “They’re so fucking stupid, Caesar,” she would say at work as they placed mycoprotein hot dogs on top of the mechanised rods that would keep them turning under heat lamps. “When you first meet, they tell you you’re magical, you’re funny, you’re blowing their mind. Then when you’ve fucked so many times, they ask how are you and they ignore your reply and start talking about themselves, random boring shit or telling you how horny they are, but they can’t even follow through with a fucking sext.” And then she would apologise for complaining about them, because Caesar was a man too, wasn’t he?
Caesar would respond in turn when he could. He didn’t like to admit it, but he knew he wouldn’t have tried it on with so many girls if he hadn’t wanted to prove himself to Cleo. There was good in this, too, though—after each failure of a connection, the girls leaving, disoriented by his refusal to let them undress him, or suddenly vacant as they registered his need to communicate, to process each small thing, he would shake the self-hatred off and open the necessary apps again, because he needed more content to give Cleo. He needed to be able to tell her how nice it was to touch the girls he liked in the places they both revered, the places where the girls got wet, or hard, or both. And the telling was almost better than the real thing, because—
Caesar stopped. There was one road left between him and his apartment building. He had seen something, a thing which had now disappeared behind one of the houses on the corner to his right. He had glimpsed dark limbs bent at an awkward angle, a body low to the ground, and a suggestion of swaying, or reverberation, though the motion had been precise. Caesar stood still for a moment, clenching and unclenching his right fist as his stomach continued to jolt. Then, conscious of two construction workers looking at him as they passed a joint between them on their smoko, he hurried the short distance home.
The next morning, the sky promising no let-up from the greyness, Caesar inspected his chin in the mirror. He was looking for hairs, not pimples—Caesar had just started growing facial hair. In high school he had envied the senior boys their stubble, each trying to outdo the other until they were finally sent home with a note, coming back the next day clean-shaven but smirking. The muscle on the arm of the worker the day before, as he’d stretched it out to offer the cigarette to the other tradie—that’d been another thing Caesar had seen on those teenage bodies. Muscle was something Caesar knew he’d probably never be able to fully build up, but the physical laziness he’d seen in the high school boys—not their actual levels of fitness but their appearance of doing things in a minimal number of movements—that, he had worked hard at perfecting. And now he had four—no, five—hairs on his chin to be proud of. Caesar sighed.
The day followed its usual pattern. It was Cleo’s turn to make Caesar laugh, to double over until he nearly burnt the egg replacer he was cooking on the grill. Alexi, their boss, had appeared then as a pair of frowning eyebrows behind the office window, making them both sober up. The new, logical Caesar reminded himself that he was lucky to work where he did. Most fast-food chains were delivery exclusive, and of the few storefronts still in operation, the majority were fully automated. Cleo and Caesar’s boss could only afford to employ them because he worked an extra eight hours a week as a server moderator. Whenever they asked him about this job, Alexi would shrug and say that he didn’t mind being a mod. Caesar would have believed him but for the strange blankness he’d occasionally catch stealing over Alexi’s face. Maybe it came from the knowledge of the in-jokes commenters used to get away with gleeful threats to rape political candidates and murder their children. Maybe it had always been there, making Alexi suited to the job of cutting into those gluey layers of irony, those sticky things that went so deep their creators didn’t know where they began or ended.
“So fucking delicious. They shape them, the falafels, and then drop them into these big things of oil to fry. And the hummus, too—way better than what we have here.”
“Make it different from how it’s made here, huh.”
“Yeah. And not so much of the fake meat shit.”
Cleo was telling Caesar about Jordanian food, the food from ‘back home’, and he was closing up his till. After saying goodbye to her and lifting a palm in Alexi’s direction, Caesar made his way out across the food court, down the escalator, through the labyrinth and onto the footpath outside. Daydreaming of Cleo again and trying to think of what he knew about Jordan, and how it might be different from where he and Cleo lived, he didn’t stop walking until the thing was almost right in front of him, and then he did.
The thing. It was what he had seen yesterday, without a doubt. The thing was meant to be a dog. He knew this because on the steel nub of its head he saw engraved the letters D-O-G TMPD. This did not prevent Caesar’s brain from screaming at him that the thing was not a dog and should not be able to call itself a dog. It came up to his waist, a box of metal, plastic and navy-coloured enamel, supported by four legs bent at right angles and ending in track-patterned rubber loops. Caesar realised, as he took the thing in, that yesterday wasn’t the first time he’d seen it. These bitches, they’re in hiding. Hadn’t he heard that, watching a stream with Cleo, several months ago? They’re bringing in these quadrupeds, creepy shit like they wanted to use in Iraq, or some shit. They’re scared. They’re fucking scared.
The dog had halted when Caesar had nearly crashed into it, but now it took a few steps forward. And there it was again, that smoothness of motion that was somehow also jagged and abrupt. It set his teeth on edge, made him ball his fists up and cut his nails into his palms. Caesar was having a revelation. He hated the dog. He hated it and it had to—he couldn’t let it—
Caesar looked around. There was a pile of rubble at the edge of the construction site he had noticed yesterday, the tradies themselves now gone. Caesar found himself running, darting between EVs and reaching out his arm for a hand-sized shard of rock lying next to a traffic cone. He was panting, making his way back across the road, already bleeding from where he had scraped his knuckles on the concrete. Then, Caesar was drawing that same arm down, the D-O-G curiously motionless before him. In his first contact with that thing of the undead, Caesar was aware of all the sensations he had felt since becoming a teenager, or maybe since childhood, or even August 2010, curling outward like electric eels from his heart and slipping into his right humerus, and then the radius and ulna, buzzing with hunger through the keratin of his fingernails and into the calcium and silicates of the rock, and seething, finally, into the D-O-G. Again and again, he brought the rock down onto the head, wrapping his left arm and legs around one of the limbs to secure himself. But the D-O-G, that fucking dog, had been created with more or less exactly what Caesar was doing in mind. An arm, tucked away in the torso, began to unfold itself towards him. Noticing this, Caesar switched targets, bashing the arm at its joint. It was only then that, in panicked realisation, he saw the tiny camera mounted atop the dog’s back. Too late. There was a sting from somewhere below his neck. He felt a fire alighting in the skin of his ribcage. As the steel outline of the thing blurred and tilted away from him, a low pain sounded at the back of his skull.
When Caesar opened his eyes, he saw Cleo. The first thing he thought was that he was responsible for her being there. Everything he had poured out into the dog as he’d struck its metal and plastic had included his feelings for her, and some she had sensed it and known, and had come for him. He grinned.
“You fucking idiot, Caesar. You fucking idiot.”
“Is it gone?” He coughed and tried to spit, but his mouth was dry.
“It’s gone. You fucking—it’s gone for now, but it recorded you. They’ll be here, they’ll come now—”
“I know.” He coughed again. His head had started to throb. “Why are you here? Did you…”
It seemed silly to say what he was really thinking. Cleo’s lip was curling.
“You forgot your Juul.”
Despite the pain, Caesar laughed. But the laugh curdled when he noticed Cleo’s hand, dark against the paler tan of the rectangle of chest he could see through the tear in his work polo.
“Oh, it burned through your shirt.”
Cleo did not remove her hand. Caesar saw her fingers move, tracing past the burn to the line of scar tissue below his nipple.
“Cleo—I wanted to tell you about it—”
“Shut up, Caesar! Just—God, I can’t believe you’d think I care about—what the fuck is it with you men! I mean, you know, right, that—I mean, don’t you? That I’ve always—”
“I know, Cleo.”
As the sound of sirens wound their way around corners to the two of them, Caesar let all the muscles in his body relax. Turning his neck, he leaned his head back into the rise and fall of Cleo’s breathing. He began to cry. For maybe the first time, Caesar noticed that the prick of shame which always followed tears was absent. With her other hand, Cleo reached down and touched the lips of his smile.
Featured illustration courtesy of author.