It wasn’t until the subway stopped at Union Square that Alba noticed the difference in time.
I’ve been on this train for hours, she realized. Before the conductor’s announcement, she’d been lost in the newness of her amplified intelligence, rolling her mind around foreign concepts like a child rolls his tongue around a piece of candy. She didn’t notice time passing, though she was acutely aware of her surroundings. Now, with the implant, nothing escaped her perception.
When she glanced at her watch, seven minutes had passed. Seven?
The thought was quickly discarded as a reflection in a window launched her into an analysis of Plato, but it was resumed again, three minutes later, at 8th street. Three minutes later?
The implant had come highly recommended, although it was still in an early phase of development. She’d managed to get on the list of volunteers through university connections, and it had been surprisingly painless. A mild hangover, then nothing. Her mind raced, cross-referencing books she was certain she’d never opened, but the sensation wasn’t disorienting. Alba was lucid. Wholly lucid.
It took weeks to get to Canal street, by which point she’d developed a detailed understanding of number theory. Her watch said that seven more minutes had passed.
A fly landed on her still hand, and she watched it probe her skin with its mouth. After months, it flew away. A fly’s lifespan must seem so short, she thought, or so long. It must depend on the fly’s speed of processing information.
It took nearly a year to reach her house, by which point, Alba had aged almost twenty minutes.
Firanel felt the first stirrings at the age of thirteen. For her, it started in her temple, a slow but pervasive ache that soon spread to her jaw. By the time she told the Elders, Firanel could barely talk, but her soft voice brought praise and exultation. She had been chosen; she would become complete. Her time of change was approaching.
In the growing months, Firanel lost her speech entirely. The thin web of metal that had sprouted on her face, glittering and spiderlike, took as its root the jawbone that had prompted her to seek the Elders when the change began. She was moved to the temple, where anointed Complete Ones saw to her needs and murmured quiet prayers under their breath when she passed. Sometimes she missed being able to talk, but the Complete Ones sensed this and assured her that her other half would provide.
Each anointed one was different, their changes manifesting in different ways. Sister Daael’s right arm was entirely composed of smooth silver metal. Brother Sikvit’s eyes had atrophied entirely, replaced by glowing ocular cameras that the other half had created in his smooth sockets. Brother Mahe had to wear altered robes to accommodate his gleaming steel prehensile tail. Firanel had doubts sometimesâ€”they were all so devoted, so serene; how could she have been chosen to be among these worthies, to have an other half? The Complete Ones all knew her thoughts. They gave her secret smiles, and each told her that she would understand soon.
The metal spread down Firanel’s throat, growing and blossoming into a lattice that soon reached her lungs. For three weeks she was sick, moaning in her pallet, soft clicking sounds issuing from her metal-filled mouth as she moved. The Complete Ones cared for her, making cold compresses for her forehead and feeding her through soft plastic tubes. At last, her other half completed the meld with her stomach, and she was able to eat again, the food broken down and digested by the new metal parts of her body. The anointed ones congratulated her, telling her it was not long now, not long.
When her time was near, Firanel went into hibernation, the only way for her other half to complete the final changes. The anointed ones placed her in the temple and held watch for her in shifts, praying over her silent body. The metal web covered the right side of her face, whirring and glittering in the soft temple light. Its arms spread across her pale skin and into her mouth, down her neck and into it, the visible portions only a small fraction of her other half’s presence within her body. When she was ready to wake, all of the Complete Ones knew. The signal traveled on airwaves particular to the chosen, calling them together, linking them for the birth of one of their own.
Firanel was aware of the link as soon as she woke. Her smile clinked when she opened her eyes, the metal bars and threads that filled her mouth brushing together to make the sound. She sat up, gazing in wonder at her new partners, her new friends. They all turned expectantly to her, waiting, ready to experience the uniqueness of the newest Complete One.
Exultant, Firanel turned to face her brothers and sisters, gazing at their half-flesh, half-metal forms. She opened her mouth, jaw unhinging, the clicking, leglike rods of segmented metal reaching outwards, welcoming her brethren through her lips. Firanel’s throat thrummed and vibrated, and from the slick metal legs inside, her new voice emerged.
Mikael downed the last shot of whiskey and made a hiss through his teeth. The empty plate before him stunk of what used to be near-raw steak from an underfed cow, poorly cooked and coated with nothing but a thin layer of oil.
The bartender came up to him, flipping on the air filter after coughing once or twice. The bar had begun to fill with dust again. The fallouts were always bad this time of year. “That’s your meal, slim. Time to pay up.”
Tired and sore, the man was dissatisfied with shitty food, but he still shelled out the three 9mm bullets onto the bar and tipped his hat. “Before I go, gent, mind if I could have some of your delightful bread back there? You knowâ€¦ for the road?”
Snatching up the bullets before the other ruffians at the bar got greedy, the greasy bartender sneered and went into the back, leaving Mikael out there all by his lonesome with a bar full of semi-empty guns.
Mikael was smart, though. Smarter than these guys anyway. He could feel the glares on his back and he knew they all wanted a piece of that ammo he’d brought in. Few people afforded Guss’ Steak and a shot of whiskey, let alone a block of carbo-bread for the road.
He began licking the edge of the shot glass and glancing around him for available exits. The fellow to his left, who was nursing a well paid-for beverage, smirked when their eyes met.
“Something on your mind?” Mikael asked.
The old fellow tipped his hat to the stranger and spoke up, “Just fancying your choice of payment, son. Was wonderin’ if I might offer you a deal.”
“Yeah? Well hurry up, my bread’ll be done compressin’ soon enough.”
With a rub of his chin the old fellow leaned over, “I gots me a skimmer outside; beautiful as can be and runs great. You’d be able to get by a ride from here to Union City on just three, maybe four of them there bullets you’re packin’.”
“Aw shucks. For you? I’ll let it go for ehâ€¦” The guy hesitated and Mikael knew he was going to try and skim him before he spoke up. “Four 12 gauge slugs and that there knife on your boot.”
The scoff from Mikael as the bartender came out with his bread was enough to let the guy know he wasn’t falling for it. “No thanks, mister.” He dropped a shell on the bar and nodded to the tender as he snatched up his bread. “Keep the change.”
At night, the wind howled over the tent like an angry djinn, forcing its sandy fingers through tears and clumsy folds. “Tonight is the Aisra’s,” they’d whisper in nearby towns as the wind fought to erode the frictionless forcewalls, but if the Aisra caused the storm it was indifferent to it, curled drowsily upon a succulent-floss pillow as its tail flicked in response. There were no pilgrims on nights like this, but Saika tended to the candle as if the sky were clear and the dunes carved sharply by moonlight. Even an unseen compass knows how to find the north. As she was taught as a young child, she left the tent four times an hour, scarf pulled tight against the endless and violent desert. Always, the flame burned in its glass case, leading strangers to their unexpected home.
In the moments between her duties, Saika stroked the sacred creature, her fingers brushing lightly against the softest fur. Legend said that the Aisra wove the dreams of the people, that it carried nightmares away from children and released them into the swirling sand. Saika was the Aisrakeeper, and by extension, a silent monk. The tent was always silent: words weren’t of the dream world, and they would distract the Aisra from her duties. When people came to worship, they said nothing as they kneeled before the small creature and asked to be protected from dreams. The desert caused dreams. The light-years between the colonists and their ancestral home causes dreams.
Tonight is the Aisra’s, Saika thought as her fingers pressed gently into the back of the creature. Keep dreaming, she told it. Let the desert carry it away.
The people here smelled nice, Guss thought, dragging the huge tub behind him through the grass towards the receptacle. Everything was fragrant in that sort of way that made you think it was all genuine. Heâ€™d never known what a â€˜realâ€™ smell was like. Heâ€™d worked artificially since the day he could crawl.
Tipping his hat to a few of the natives, he dropped the metal rim of the hose down to his side and looked over behind one of the trees in this park area. People here had wondered why things had gotten colder and why the plants were all dying. Guss knew, but he was under specific contract not to tell a living soul. So what did he do? He went on with business as usual, whistling the day away.
Once his hands found the hollow compartment he reached in his belt for a socket diffuser and began cranking away. These were the kind of skills Guss knew werenâ€™t taught at the academic institutions. No, sir. The things he knew came from experience and hard work, work that heâ€™d done to make the world a better place. Well, actually it was to make worlds–but he wouldnâ€™t tell anyone.
With a clunk and a little compression sound, the panel came loose enough to be pried away by mortal hands. Guss took good care to pull it off gently and lay it on the park bench next to the tree. He lifted up the hose and hefted it towards the tree, locking it into place the same way a man would unzip his fly to take a piss. Oh, yes; Guss was an artist.
Soon, he wagered, the good smell of the place would come back online and only he would be able to detect the sour undertones. The hose pumped in tons after precious tons of Texas Tea, its buzz and hum filling his mind with a bit of serenity. To onlookers it just seemed as if he was dozing off. Maybe he was thinking of a better job, or maybe even a cleaner place than the artificial globes.
Even as the thick crude was gulped down by the receptacle, Guss knew volcanoes and fissures around the planet would be going off, steaming and smoking like Armageddon was upon them. He would never tell a soul. Why ruin the environment? These people paid taxes so they could keep on living.
Unlocking the hose, Guss gave it a few swift tugs before it retracted towards the hovercraft tankard in the sky. He tipped his hat to a woman jogging, who gave him a strange look as he set the panel back where it came from. All in a dayâ€™s work, Guss thought, and on he went to make sure another world went â€˜round.
Three Elvises walk into a bar.
You may laugh, but I was there, it’s true. Three Elvises. Elvii. Whatever. First strode in the bishop: big as life and twice as wide, identified as he was by his high-collared cape, resplendent in rhinestones and the golden sunglasses of his office. Behind him swaggered a priest, her jumpsuit less ornate, her belt-buckle smaller, her cape shorter. Last was a neonate, still in training but wearing the blue suede shoes of one who was near priest-hood. Now, he didn’t have the broad steps of the other two, wasn’t much more than a boy, but he held his pompadour just as proudly
“Whatâ€™s your poison, preacher?” the bartender asked, not sure what else to do once the bishop had maneuvered his mighty, blessed girth onto the stool.
“Fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, currently. But as for what me and my compatriots will have to drink, Pepsi-Cola iffin you got it, water if you don’t.” Now some say Elvises sweat extra hard in the memory of their savior, and the bishop clearly subscribed to this form of worship. He wiped the outside’s sweat and grit from his face, and gave each bushy sideburn a quick comb with his fingers. “I wonder if I might trouble all you fellas for a word about the man who gave his life for your sins, our lord and savior Elvis Presley.”
As hard as it was for all the patrons of that shithole speakeasy that night to believe, it was true: The Holy Missionaries of the Church of Elvis were in their midst, preaching the gospel. And I’ll say this, that bishop had a powerful set of pipes.
“For his love is a burning love, a hunka, hunka burning love that will melt away all your sins should you accept him in your heart. But your love for him must be tender, it must be true.” Unsurprisingly, not every drunkard wanted to hear the wisdom in loving tender. A half-full pint glass was rocketed to the bishop’s head. It was caught before contact by the priest, who, in her skill caused not a single drop of warmed-over beer touched the bishop’s immaculate pompadour.
“Truth is like the sun,” the preist said. “You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away.”
Was about then, the whole bar rose as one to pound those three missionaries into the floor. Not me, I was under the table. But the whole group tried to take those holier-than-us-ers down for the count. What we hadn’t reckoned on was the fact they were a great deal less drunk–and therefore, more mobile, even the bishop–and that all Elvises are trained in kung-fu.
‘Least I think it was kung-fu. All I know is even that boy threw a mean karate chop. Not that I felt it. I was under the table. Swear on my life.
It was in the remains of this fight, this battle, this ever-lovin’ crusade that the three Elvii–unharmed, if dirty–opened their mouths as one and sang. And let me tell you, brother, you ain’t heard shit unless you’ve heard “In the Ghetto” done in three-part harmony. If there was a dry eye in the bar, I sure didn’t see it. As unlikely as it sounds, those Elvises did do some conversions that day, and I’m sure several patrons woke up the next day with hangovers around their foreheads and silk scarves around their necks wondering what happened. But a few of them–more than a few, come to think of it– swore off the drink entirely. They felt the burning love within, and purified them without.
So they tell me, leastways.
As the Elvises turned to leave, I found strength in my own voice to call out to them, and I asked them, I won’t lie, I asked them how a fellow like me could sing like that.
The bishop and priest turned to the boy, who looked bashful at the attention. He slid he gaze upwards and when it came down it was the most serene thing I had ever seen.
“My voice is God’s will, not mine,” he said. And then they were gone, a trail of hound dogs and suspicious minds, teddy bears and puppets on strings and devils in disguise behind them, all of us were all shook up. They’ve been always on my mind ever since.