First it was the blacks. That one was easy, like a warm-up. Theyâ€™re a cinch to pick out after all. Then it was the commies. They were harder, but with such catchy slogans, who could pass it up? Then came the terrorists. That one must have been fun. I mean, when you think about it, who isnâ€™t a terrorist? But that one blew over too. Then came the gays, but we all expected that. I mean, really, they were asking for it. I didnâ€™t care one way or the other, but I knew they had it coming.
Then there was a while when they didnâ€™t go after anybody. That was our finest hour. It took two thousand years, but finally everyone believed that the fisherman was right: we really could live in peace. For us, it was Heaven. For them, it was Hell. Peace was bad for business.
Now itâ€™s the preachers. Not the way it used to be, when one set of preachers went after anotherâ€”priests, lamas, rabbis, gurus, whateverâ€”but in the new way, where anyone who admits to a higher power is punished. We were asking for it, too, I guess. Itâ€™s ironic, but then, irony has always been Godâ€™s purview in my mind.
Now we meet in basements, back alleys, fields, or barns in the middle of nowhere to muffle the noise. All the symbols are lit up inside with Christmas lights from before Christmas was forbidden. Itâ€™s a celebration paying homage to something greater than ourselves, something that flows inside of us and canâ€™t be stopped. I watch from the edge of the room, sitting cross-legged on an old crate and feeling straw poke through my habit. The dance is a circle of laughter, warm and fluid, more beautiful than any sermon I have ever heard or given. No one argues over whether they get to dance with the cross, the star, or the moon; theyâ€™re just glad to have something to show that they care. We donâ€™t bother to call Him by names anymore.
Tsaro was the image, Tsaro was the shadow. During the hour-long commute into Osaka no less than seventeen people asked for his autograph, and when he transferred to a cab at the end of the line he could feel empty eyes squinting at him, searching for their reflections. An elderly lady congratulated him on his success right before Tsaro opened the door to the studio.
â€œThank you,â€ he said quietly. Tsaro was uncomfortable when people talked to him as the artist.
Inside the studio, Tsaro sat in front of the glowing mirror while a slender, apron-clad woman fidgeted over his face and hair. It didnâ€™t matter; heâ€™d be airbrushed out of recognition. They still needed a person as the shadow because a computer-generated image couldnâ€™t make live performances, but Tsaro had seen the wireframe of his face flicker across monitors in the maintenance chamber. One day, his face would be bars of light creating the illusion of three dimensions. One day, he wouldnâ€™t even be a shadow.
The woman nudged Tsaro out of the makeup chair and he shuffled slowly down the long hallway to the maintenance chamber. When the door slid open with a hydraulic hiss, the head technician glanced up from his control panel and smiled out of habit. Tsaro smiled back with the same polite vacancy as the halogen over the bluescreen gradually flickered to a solid white.
â€œReady?â€ the technician asked. Tsaro nodded. Around him, the eyes of seven other programmers lifted to judge his appearance, and a few nodded their approval. On the wall opposite the bluescreen, a large LCD display spooled the miles of code that made up the artist. Tsaro was not ready. Tsaro was never ready. He took his place behind the prop microphone and squinted until his eyes grew adjusted to the brightness.
The technicians had turned their attention back to the monitor, but Tsaro could feel the unseen eyes of millions of mislead fans. He closed his own to force them away, but they watched from the blackness behind his lids.
The first sound was thick with manufactured bass and the air in the room reverberated with a disembodied, re-embodied heartbeat. Beneath it, Tsaro could hear a symphony of keystrokes but he knew that none of the technicians were creating the sound. The sound belonged to the artist. In the maintenance chamber, everything belonged to the artist.
In the space between pristine code and his imperfect body, Tsaro did not open his eyes. His skin felt unusually heavy as he waited for the next chord to sweep across the room, and under the silence between the beats, Tsaro dreamed of the panels of light that would one day build a hollower, more perfect version of himself.
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.
â€œThis place is a dump,â€ Headley muttered, for what must have been the thousandth time. Foxworth rolled her eyes.
â€œOf course itâ€™s a dump. Itâ€™s our job. If it wasnâ€™t a dump, we wouldnâ€™t be here.â€
â€œYeah, I know,â€ Headley replied, â€œBut look at this place. I mean, really look at it. One guy canâ€™t make buildings rot like that, even if he is a zapper.â€
Foxworthâ€™s eyes took in the crumbling foundations, the sagging walls, the rust, the dirt, the mess. Her hand drifted to the triple-cycling proton gun in her side holster. It was there for her protection, but how could she protect herself against time?
â€œWell, this is a class 15 if I ever saw one. Definitely uninhabitable. No clue where anybody could be hiding in all this mess, though. Even zappers gotta eat.â€
Foxworth nodded her silent agreement. Sometimes a mutant like this would turn tail and run off after it had killed so many people, attacked by some parody of conscience. Theyâ€™d have to file a pink form, and while Foxworth hated that, it was better than sticking around this dump any longer.
â€œAll right,â€ she said at last, turning towards Headley. â€œLetâ€™s pack up and get out ofâ€”â€
â€œWhat are you doing here?â€
Both partners turned towards the new voice, wide-eyed. Foxworthâ€™s hand went immediately to her gun, though she noticed that Headleyâ€™s did not. He frowned instead, kneeling down to speak to the boy, no more than seven or eight, who faced them solemnly from the rubble.
â€œWeâ€™re here to help,â€ Headley assured him. â€œAre you hurt? Did you lose your parents?â€
A cat meowed and Foxworth jumped back, her hand clenching around her gun before she registered the source of the noise. The animal drifted out from behind the pile of debris, making it only the second living thing theyâ€™d seen today, and rubbed against the boyâ€™s legs. He picked it up, still frowning at the two government workers.
â€œYou shouldnâ€™t be here. Go away.â€
â€œWe just want to make sure youâ€™re okay,â€ Headley told the boy in that maddeningly reasonable tone, the one that adults used on children and men used on women when they were feeling particularly superior.
â€œGo away,â€ the boy repeated, holding the cat close to his chest.
â€œLook, kid, youâ€™re gonna have to come with us.â€ Hadley was frowning now. He didnâ€™t like being contradicted or disobeyed.
â€œI said go away!â€ The childâ€™s face contorted at the same instant that the cat hissed, flattening its ears back against the top of its head. The veins in Headleyâ€™s forehead exploded like overripe grapes, spattering blood everywhere, just like the rest of the corpses theyâ€™d seen in this wreckage. He barely had time for a yell of pain before he collapsed, lifeless.
Foxworth was frozen solid. She knew she should be drawing her gun, yelling, crying, running away, doing anything but standing dumbly in the rubble, but she couldnâ€™t bring herself to move.
â€œCome on, Bugaboo.â€ The child held out his arms and the cat, after a last look at Foxworth, ambled back and jumped into them. The child frowned at her. â€œGo away,â€ he repeated. â€œDonâ€™t ever come back here again.â€ Then he turned away.
The catâ€™s green eyes were mesmerizing, and Foxworth caught her breath. For one irrational moment she thought she could get lost in those eyes, like a labyrinth, and never come out.
Foolishly, my people thought the alien ships were asteroids on a collision course. We launched our most deadly weapons into the sky, which exploded harmlessly off the liquid hull of the invaders, raining poison onto our world. Dust flakes on my head as I walked to the sacred ground.
During the ceremony, my younger siblings held me underwater in the pool of our temple, that blue chalice just big enough to immerse my adolescent body. I was arrogant in my new development, confident that I was ready to become an adult. Then, as I let out the last of my held breath, I began to panic; nothing had happened, no painful change, no sudden epiphany, no realization of adulthood, I wasnâ€™t ready, I was going to drown.
There, in the water, hands pressing down on my head my head and flailing limbs, I met death for the first time. I was a frightened child, drinking and choking on water, weakened, desperate, ashamed, tearing and helpless. Hope lost, I stopped, just stopped, and let myself die, lay still, peaceful under the web of my brothersâ€™ hands. It was then I felt the closed slits in my side softly open and I became the water, not breathing with my mouth but with my body, my whole self suffused. I looked up through the shining pool to my siblings, and they were crying, dropping tears of worry and hope into the water, and each droplet spread on the surface, a rippling miracle.
Two days later, the little insectoid robots came, crawled into my home and sawed through the flesh of my family. My uncle, who slept at the doorway, was already dead when I woke up, his vocal cords severed. My father, though, screamed and thrashed, filling his bed with blood as my mother tried to tear the silver bugs off his skin, her fingers severed by their tiny metal blades.
In the pool, gazing up through the water, the faces of my siblings became like stars against the open sky, and in that moment I believed in everything. I lay there, in wonder, my body water, my eyes the open night.
Four days later the stink of blood and dust had us all covering our heads with wet scarves, debris slashing our eyes, the water toxic, the air polluted. Our schools were piles of rubble, mass graves for dead children. My mother held her surviving children in the remains of her bleeding fingers and told us that our lives were coming to an end. We fled, like ants on a hill, scurrying from our homes and schools, but nowhere was safe, and nowhere we could go was better than where they were.
Later, we were blamed for our resistance. If we had just waited, listened calmly while strange shaped ships plummeted from the sky spewing garbled language of conquest. If we had just laid down in the streets, if we had never picked up anything that could have been interpreted to the invaders as a weapon, then the metal bugs would not have crawled into them and tore them apart from the inside. If my people had not built such strange schools, they would not have been mistaken for military barracks, if we had not fought wars amidst ourselves, we would not need to be ruled.
Since the day my siblings lifted me out of the pool, I have never again felt trust so complete. Do not ask again, why I go armed to speak to you. Do not tell me that my people should surrender. Do not accuse me of being irrational till all your own family lay dead, and till your culture is beaten, erased, and chained.
Do not question me, for I know death well, and I will send him to you.
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.”