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Exquisite Corpse

Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold cloudy weather. She is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Asimov's, and Lightspeed, among other places. Her debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, has come out with Fairwood Press (August 2016). For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

Have you ever played that game--exquisite corpse--where someone draws a head, a second person adds a torso, and the last person draws the legs? Well, I took an art class at the community college and one of our assignments was like that. We were supposed to draw half a self-portrait and then pass the art to someone else. There'd be two faces, done in two different styles, neatly separated by a vertical line down the middle.
Faces are hard to draw, so I put the assignment off as long as possible. The night before the half-self-portrait was due, I had a little whiskey. Possibly a lot of whiskey. It didn't make me a better artist, but it did help me care less about my mistakes. I finished my side of the artwork at 11:45pm, which left me no prayer of getting anyone to draw the other half. Being somewhat less than sober, I had a brilliant idea: I made a new email account, wrote the address and password on a slip of paper, and sealed it in an envelope labeled "open in 2025."
I scanned my half-portrait and sent it to future-me with instructions to draw the other half and send it back, or--and this is the clever part--to keep forwarding the message into the future (by whatever means seemed most appropriate) until it reached someone who could send a response into the past.
In the morning, I checked my email and found nothing. I grabbed my half-self-portrait from the scanner bed of my printer, and noticed that there was a printout in the tray. It was my portrait, but the other half was filled with overlapping faces, as though hundreds of individuals were flowing out from the midline of my face.
Clearly someone had hacked my newly-created email, found some modern art online, and printed it on my printer. Because there was no possible way I was getting messages from the future. Right?
Our next assignment was the same, but with a cityscape instead of a portrait. You'd think that maybe I'd have learned my lesson about waiting until the last minute, but the night before the assignment was due, I only had half a cityscape: Chicago, from the Lake Point Tower to the John Hancock Building. So once again I scanned my half-finished assignment and sent it to my future self, adding a note of thanks for the previous drawing, and repeating my instructions to pass the image into the future if necessary.
I stared at my printer for a while, but eventually I gave up and went to bed. When I woke up, there was a completed cityscape in the tray of my printer. My half of Chicago was unchanged, but on the other side all of the buildings were partially collapsed and overgrown with vegetation. It wasn't clear what had happened, or when the sketch was from, but in that future time, Chicago was a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
In class that day, one of the other students turned in a picture similar to mine. Hers was done in watercolor paint, and one side showed the Toronto skyline. The other half, done in an amazing amount of detail, showed the city in ruins. We exchanged worried glances, and I knew that she was getting messages from the future too.
By the time I drew my third half-sketch--a crowd scene--reports of messages from the future were all over the news. People were getting email, text messages, sometimes entire ebooks that mysteriously appeared on their Kindles. The text was incomprehensible, even when it appeared to be in a language that was currently in use. A picture was worth at least a thousand garbled words.
I sketched carefully. Well, as carefully as I could, given that it was 1am on the day my assignment was due and I'd had a fair bit of whiskey to deal with the immense pressure of having to draw a picture that asked about the fate of humanity. I drew a group of people, faces obscured. Partly that was because faces are damned hard to draw, but mostly I didn't want this to be about specific people. I wanted the destiny of the entire species, a shred of hope to counteract the bleak pictures of destroyed cities from the last assignment.
A couple shots of whisky later I stared at my art and realized that there was no way anyone would know what I wanted based on my hastily sketched picture, so I spelled out exactly what I wanted in a rambling drunken email. Hopefully the message would be translated each time it was forwarded into the future, and the ones who eventually got it would understand my meaning.
This time the printer started as soon as I hit send. The crowd I'd drawn morphed across the midline of the page into forms that were only vaguely humanoid--mutants or aliens or maybe humans encased in exoskeletons. They were surrounded by machines, and behind them was a backdrop of stars. When the page dropped into the printer tray, complete, the printer didn't stop. There was another page, and another, showing creatures I did not recognize and technologies I had no way to comprehend. Page after page, until the printer ran out of ink, showing me a future that continued long after the cities fell.
I had no idea how we'd get out of the present and into those distant futures, but in the sketches that poured from my printer, I saw humanity's exquisite corpse, redrawn in ever stranger forms as time progressed.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

Author Comments

- Caroline M. Yoachim
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