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Anno Domini

By Kristine Ong Muslim From Issue No. 4

A familiar routine unfolds in and around the museum in the desert. It is a Tuesday, eleven years after the fireball of methane bubbles in the thawed Siberian permafrost.

Museum visitors who prefer a more circuitous route than the sleek walkway installed for their convenience enter the building by circumnavigating a construction site shielded from view by one-way Slip™ panels. They can hear the voice of the ailing Mr. Cash through that one-way shielding. In the concealed construction site, the ailing Mr. Cash is still calling out about something, something terribly important, something about how everyone he knows goes away in the end. As usual, many in this group of museum visitors cannot hear Mr. Cash over the noise of the power drill and the idle talk of Silent Ray, who will not shut up, cutting across the lull of the wasteland’s sweltering desert heat. Meanwhile those museum visitors who are more conditioned by the lack of immediacy of the times with which they are made to thrive enter the building by taking the motorized guided walkway.

Both groups of museum visitors are directed into a spacious, well-lit, sparsely decorated lobby. A glass dome, a customized ISO class 1 cleanroom, squats low in the middle of that space. Inside the dome is Damien Hurtz, kept conscious yet immobile by drugs for twenty-nine years as of this count. Understandably, Hurtz has been propped up to mimic the pose of the shark he used for one of his art exhibits. It will not be long before yet another playful kid attempts to bash the unbreakable glass enclosure.

Directly beyond the full reconstruction of the Library of Alexandria and south of the vast museum interior is a lead-lined booth. Outside this booth is a man seated on an uncomfortable stool. His facial features are plain, forgettable. The same can be said for his real name. In the museum, he is nicknamed the Lone Operator, a moniker once intended as a slur. His job entails two things: accept a token coin and never refuse entry—not for any reason. The lead-lined booth is an assisted suicide chamber of sorts. The patron pays a token coin, enters the booth, selects from the menu of predestined places and times, then pulls the lever to get conveyed to that chosen time and place. All patrons know the drill. The knowledge is hard-coded within everyone, pretty much the same way spiders know instinctively how to spin webs. A three-minute window is available for anyone who wishes to change their mind. One can still safely return intact during this three-minute period, which is chimed every thirty seconds by a trusty cesium-133 clock. At the end of three minutes, the physical body disintegrates as it is no longer synced with the present. Nobody has ever come back alive, except for one woman in 2017. Interestingly, the top-selling place and time in the Lone Operator’s booth is Wembley Stadium on July 12, 1986, a few paces in front of the stage where Freddie Mercury, wearing a yellow jacket, is doing improvised vocalizations before performing ‘Under Pressure’.

Among these museum regulars is a spindly stranger—yet another spindly stranger scrutinizing Jürgan Temnaut’s painting The Bass Player in the Fifth Circle of Hell. A much stranger-looking stranger walks among these museum regulars. He has a lesion on his upper left arm, a once-necrotic lesion exposing part of the bone and the ravages of flesh permanently marred by Krokodil. No one can see the manifold disfigurements in this man’s body but it does not mean they are not there. This stranger-looking stranger is likely to join the people huddled in the corner where the candied head of the last emperor is displayed. Almost all the people in that part of the museum chuckle as they speak ill of the dead.

The regular museum hours are not complete without the spectacle of an elderly being wheeled before a Picasso, where he will cry out, either due to frustration or senility, variations of “What has changed since the last time we were here?” The museum also has to play host to an occasional child, molded in the same destructive behavior as his parents, staring with that telltale glaze-eyed gaze at the huge aquariums of the last surviving specimens of freshwater fish. This child will ask his mother, “Why do the fish move like that? Are they excited because they can see us?” His mother, molded in the same destructive behavior as her parents, will say, “No, that’s because the fish have gone crazy. All sentient animals are driven insane by captivity.” Delighted by the idea of inflicting suffering, mother and child will laugh just like the generation preceding them.

Outside the museum and out there in the world: the perpetual heatwave. In the nearby construction site shielded from view by one-way Slip™ panels, the voice of Mr. Cash is still drowned out by the noise of the power drill and the idle talk of Silent Ray, who will not shut up. The hammering and the yammering of mechanical jaws disturbing the earth cuts across the lull of the wasteland’s sweltering desert heat. Inside the museum: the visitors, most of them damaged goods, remain past their expiration date and linger all cut up and irreparably broken. They have long been broken inside, and inside is where repair becomes close to impossible.

About Kristine Ong Muslim More From Issue No. 4