â€œThey say there is no God in the outer planets! Those who say this clearly do not have any understanding of the Lord and his teachings! They clearly have not been here!â€
From deep within in the control deck of â€œThe Lazâ€™rus,â€ high in standard orbit, Anastasia allowed herself a grin. Reverend Horseshoe was an old-fashioned man in most respects, and his preaching was no different. Whereas most men in his line of work liked to open their revivals with holographics and pyrotechnics, Horseshoe did it the old-fashioned way. That is to say, he yelled his ass off.
â€œWho among you could dare say where God is not, on this world or any other? I say his spirit is everywhere, and I have yet to see evidence that this is not the truth! I even carry the notion that His love and His grace is more here than anywhere else in the cosmos!â€
Not that the Reverend didnâ€™t make use of current theatrical technology to its utmost: the larger-than-life holographic crucified Jesus with the laser-beam eyes was a personal favorite of his. The laser-beams had been the brainchild of Rojhaz, the ground manager. But despite Rojhazâ€™s urgings, Horseshoe never started his show with such things. Even the robot gospel choir stayed silent while Horseshoe was opening.
â€œNow, I know some of my colleagues say I do not preach enough fire! That I do you poor folk a disservice by not bellowing about how you are damned souls who need to change your sinful ways! But I know better than that! I am here as a representativeâ€”no! Not a representative, but a servant! A servant of the Lord! And as a servant I come not as a judge! But as a beacon!â€
Anastasia was proud of the robot choir. She had added a pre- and post-show dialogue loop, allowing the chubby androids to convincingly chew the fat as the audience filed in and out of the tent. It added a verisimilitude that she felt that were lacking in all the other garish ideas Rojhaz had cooked up. It was show business, she understood that. But Anastasia felt that they owed their audience a little more.
â€œA beacon of the Lord! Of His love! Of His grace! And, most importantly, of His hope! I am a beacon of hope!â€
At that cue, Anastasia flipped the switch, and the electro-luminescent material of the Reverend Horseshoeâ€™s containment suit glowed with a brilliance that rivaled the sun. Indeed, it even rivaled the laser beams that came from Jesusâ€™s eyes.
â€œWhatâ€™s the crowd look like, Rojhaz?â€ Anastaia said into her earpiece. The robot choir had just started; she didnâ€™t have another cue for a few minutes. â€œHow long have they got?â€
â€œThey seem pretty into it, Iâ€™ll bet theyâ€™ll stay in the tent the whole three hours,â€ came the slightly muffled response.
â€œNo, I mean, how long do they have?â€
There was a strange noise as Rohjaz suddenly became very aware of his own containment suit and adjusted it. â€œWeeks. If that. The plagueâ€™s hit this town pretty hard.â€ His voice lightened. â€œTheyâ€™re engaged though, even the blind ones. Weâ€™ll get a powerful haul out of this one. Most of their livestockâ€™s already succumbed, so weâ€™re talking heirloom pieces, furniture. Definitely stuff we can get real dosh for.â€
â€œYou think it ever bothers Horseshoe, fleecing these people before theyâ€™re about to die?â€
â€œGirl, do you even listen to what the Reverend says? Heâ€™s giving these people hope. Theyâ€™ll get a fair more use out of that than great-grandmaâ€™s silver these next few weeks.â€ Behind his voice, Anastasia could hear the robot choir finishing out the opening number. â€œBesides, how much would you pay for hope?â€
Anastasia couldn’t answer. She just sat there, high in orbit, as the robot choir reached their crescendo.
“Amazing grace,” they sang. “How sweet, the sound…”
Jack Strap didnâ€™t bother burying the men. Buzzardsâ€™ gotta eat, he thought. Same as worms. A man makes his own funeral. You wander in the Desert, youâ€™ll go the same way all Desert creatures do. In the belly of something else.
Buzzards werenâ€™t gonna do a thing with the corpseâ€™s shooting irons, so Jack took that scavenging upon himself. Turned out not to be worth the effort; damn pieces might as well be wood for the good theyâ€™d be. Cursing, Jack tossed them aside. No wonder heâ€™d plugged them so easily. You couldnâ€™t hit a broadside with those things, corroded as they were.
These men were amateurs. Wouldnâ€™t have lasted long, not out here, not if they didn’t know how to protect their weapons. If they hadnâ€™t caught up with him so quickly, the Desert would have chewed them up the same way. The Desert was eating away at him, too, Jack knew that. He was not a young man, and what skill heâ€™d once had was now little more than luck. If it wasnâ€™t men like these, out for the price on his head, it would be a night when the campfire that kept the spiders at bay would blow out. Or he wouldn’t treat a cut properly, and would collapse, his blood turning to powder. Or the caustic sand would get into his eyes, and he wouldn’t be a predator anymore, just prey. Or it would be one of a million other deaths the Desert had in wait, and his bones would bleach and crumble same way these fellas’ would.
That which is built on sand is destined to fall, the saying goes.
Jack wasted no time going through their pockets, tossing out the paper money that was already crumbling and pocketing the coins. But it was the bigger of the two that had what he was really after: a satellite link-up. No bounty hunter traveled without them now, not in the Desert. A GPS signal was your best hope of getting out once you were in, and even that was no guarantee. There it was, in a inside pocket, its plastic protective case already being eaten away. The small red LED on top slowly pulsing, signaling the connection was solid. Jack opened it and thumbed an orbital view. It had been months since the Desert had gotten to the last one he took. He was comforted by the little lights that represented the cities. What was left of the cities.
It had been a long time since he had seen an orbital view, but even Jack could tell there were fewer lights.
Jack Strap placed the link-up in the pouch on his belt where the old one used to stay, and was surprised at how much space was left. â€œThings keep getting smaller,â€ he said, to no one in particular, and left his would-be arrestors to the belly of the Desert.
Purby Stolafson took a deep breath and regarded the man and woman across his desk. He recognized the womanâ€”with her luxurious blond hair, hourglass figure and delicate features, she was unmistakably one of his. He still didnâ€™t know what to make of the man, other than he wanted him out of his office.
â€œIâ€™m sorry,â€ Purby said, reshuffling the papers on his desk. â€œWhat was the problem with her?â€
â€œHer breathing. She breathes. She doesnâ€™t stop.â€
â€œMost of our customers appreciate the breathing.â€
Purby sagged a bit in his chair. He knew where this was going. â€œIs that all? Just the breathing?â€
â€œNo! Itâ€™s not just the breathing! Itâ€™s everything! I can feel her pulse. I can hear her stomach gurgling. She eats! Itâ€™s disgusting!â€
Purby sighed. He looked at the woman, at her blank, forward stare. â€œSo, if Iâ€™m understanding you correctly, your problem with the X-3â€”you are an X-3, right?â€ She nodded. â€œYour problem with the X-3 model is that sheâ€™s too life-like.â€
â€œExactly! If I want a woman, I can go get one.â€
â€œIâ€™m sure you can, sir.â€
â€œAnd theyâ€™re a fair sight cheaper than this squishy monstrosity youâ€™ve saddled me with. Donâ€™t you have anything in chrome?â€
â€œWe donâ€™t do chrome, sir.â€
â€œExposed piston-joints, then. Blinking lights. An atomic power source. Gimme something! For Godâ€™s sake, man, youâ€™re supposed to be building robots! Is it too much to ask for them to look like it?â€ The man was on the verge of leaping out of the chair. Purby, by contrast, was sinking deeper into his.
â€œYouâ€™re not the first person to come to us with this complaint,â€ Purby said, removing a small brown business card and a voucher from his desk drawer. â€œThis is an antiques dealer down in Old Town. Heâ€™s got a machinist on staff. Iâ€™m sure they have something that meets your needs. And tell the girl out front to give you a full X-3 refund.â€
The manâ€™s attitude instantly reversed. â€œOh, thank you, Mr. Stolafson! I do appreciate it!â€ Fortunately, the man wasted no time leaving Purbyâ€™s office.
Purby relaxed and turned his attention to the woman. Her expression had not changed. â€œWell, what do you make of all this?â€
â€œTo be honest,â€ the woman said. â€œIâ€™m quite relieved.â€
Donâ€™t believe that bullshit they told you in orientation, kid. Itâ€™s always an easy sell. This is a new economy weâ€™re dealing with. Trust the product. You trust the product, itâ€™s an easy sell.
You ever been to Lagos, kid? In Lagos, thereâ€™s these big bastards, carry around hyenas like pets. I shit you not. Fucking hyenas. I was dealing with Samson, who was head of a tribe of Hyena Men there. Brother had Lagos in the palm of his hand, but it wasnâ€™t enough. Couldnâ€™t have been, or I wouldnâ€™t have been there, you know what I mean?
So weâ€™re at the restaurant–swank place, very swank–and hereâ€™s this man-mountain, Samson, and heâ€™s got this gigantic mongrel right there at the table. Itâ€™s the size of a Saint Bernard because of all the growth hormones Samson pumped into it, and itâ€™s right there at table, giggling and drooling, in a place that wouldnâ€™t let in a Welsh corgi.
I start off smoothâ€”always start off smooth. â€œLet me ask you a question, Samson. Are the Hyena Men respected? Or are they feared?â€
Youâ€™ll notice I went off the script, got to the point. You should stick to the script. Later, when you know it, then you can pull whatever you want out of your ass thatâ€™ll get you sales. Until then, stick to the script.
So Samson likes that I got right to the point and smiles like only an eight-foot tall bastard who regularly reams an entire city up the ass can. â€œYou tell me,â€ he says. â€œYou tell me, do you respect or fear me?â€
â€œHonestly?â€ I said right then. â€œNeither.â€
And then, BAM! That goddamn 300 pound beast is all up on me, like out of nowhere! Now, the Hyena Men train their mongrels to go for the jugular, and I could feel the fuckerâ€™s teeth scraping up against my neck. Naturally, everyone in the restaurant pretends not to notice. And Samson, Samson cannot wait to gloat over this.
â€œWhat now, my friend? Do you feel fear, or respect?â€ Goddamn smug bastard.
Iâ€™m not going to press my luck too far, not with that beast on my neck. So I say, â€œIâ€™m afraid of this furry fucker, I wonâ€™t lie to you. But the funny thing about fear, Samson, is that it can disappear pretty quickly.â€ And then I disintegrate the goddamn hyena. Now who has the respect?
This is why I love the fact that the demo models they give us now have that one live shot. I mean, you had no idea how hard it was to demonstrate proper destruction with a handful of blanks. You probably noticed how tiny the demo model is. Makes it good for dramatic situations. You know, after youâ€™ve learned the script.
Samsonâ€™s now aware of the destructive power of the X-J23, and heâ€™s this close to ordering a gross of ray guns for all his other little Hyena Men, but heâ€™s balking.
So I mention the bigger models. That lights up his eyes, tout suite. But not quite enough. So I mention Mantari, the head of a tribe of Hyena Men up in Cape Town, and how he had wanted the larger models, had his eyes on â€˜em. So I give him The Line. The Line always works. You should stick to the script, but let me tell you, The Line always works.
â€œMantari wanted some, but he couldnâ€™t pay. Not properly. Some people just arenâ€™t prepared for the new economy.â€
Samson grins real big, talks about how he is prepared, and buys damn near the entire catalogue with fucking gold bars. A week later, I donâ€™t even have to say shit, Mantari in Cape Town does the same.
Easy sell, kid. Theyâ€™re all easy sells, long as you trust the product.
The yard sale was one of those haphazard affairs, full of the kind of junk that no one in their right mind would actually take, damaged or torn or merely out of the realms of taste altogether. This is a powerful camouflage for the good stuff, and any experienced bargain hunter will tell you that the larger a morass of hand-me-downs and chipped Formica, the better a prize underneath.
I once found an a James Deakin and Sons egg timer amongst some horribly tarnished flatware; it clocked in at three minutes and forty five seconds, which says something about how long it took to boil an egg in 1903. Another such garage sale earned me a Railroad-approved BW Rageon pocket watch, which only took a bit of polish to look the same way it did in 1927. So when I unearthed the device from under a seriously disturbing collection of polyester sweaters, I knew it was something to treasure. I just didn’t know what.
“It’s a time machine.” A portly fellow in dark socks and sandals noticed me handling the thing, careful not to nudge the knobs. “It requires six ‘D’ batteries.”
“Pull the other one,” I said. It didn’t look like a time machine, but it didn’t look like anything else, either.
“No, seriously. It’s a time machine. I built it. Used it, even.”
“Oh? Whatâ€™s the future like?”
The man laughed and regarded me like a retarded child. “You can’t go into the future! It hasn’t happened yet! Just the past. But you can go in the past all you want.”
“Hold up. You can go in the past with this? Change what’s happened? Isn’t that, I dunno, dangerous? Kill a butterfly, change the world, that sort of thing?”
The man huffed. “Nonsense. The universe is not so poorly designed. If you go back in time with the intention of changing things, one of two things is going to happen. One, you’ll be totally ineffectual, and people won’t notice you or heed you, and it won’t make a damn bit of difference whether you were there or not.”
“What’s the other?”
The man’s eyes and voice suddenly went cold. “People do notice you. And you end up being the cause of the very thing you were trying to prevent. You end up destroying the one you meant to save.” He was quiet, and reached out to touch the device in my hand, but thought better of it. “I’ve failed too many times. It doesn’t make any difference. This cost me thousands of dollars and years of my life, but I’ll give it to you for five bucks if you if you just take it away and never bring it back.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
He looked up at me, his face flushed. He motioned blindly to his yard, strewn with trivial remnants from a life, someone’s life, priced at a bargain. “I’m selling everything else that reminds me of her. They never belonged to me, anyway. I shouldn’t keep what isn’t mine. The universe won’t let me. Five dollars on that there time machine, my final offer.”
I took it, as well as 1951 “Cort” model Seth Thomas with an alarm that still worked. On the drive home, I thought about the man’s words when I asked him one more time whether or not you could use his machine to change events.
“The present is unavoidable,” he said. “It’s best not to think about it.”