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.
I have agreed to this interview in order to deliver a promise. Do not be afraid.
I was seven months old when I died. My parents lived on a primitive moon on a colony that rejected the free energy and technology that the rest of the civilized universe embraced. If it were not for the intervention of an archeologist who was studying their culture, my consciousness would no longer exist.
I am the youngest to ever go through Transfer. Most Transferred minds were aged over a thousand years before deciding to transfer over. The youngest before me was forty-five. Despite the advantages of pattern Transfer, most beings are attached to their physical bodies. It was thought to be impossible, or, at the very least, cruel to Transfer a child.
An Ancient from the twenty second century raised me. When I come for these interviews, I am often asked what it was like to be raised without a body. People ask me what it was like never to be held, never to eat, never to run through sunshine. When they ask, I tell them as I will tell you now. I was held on waves of light, I have consumed acid and gas and dust, I have moved through stars. I can recall no past before the time when I was not Transferred. My memories begin on Transfer, and my first memory is warmth and light. The Ancient had raised many children, and had gone through childhood twice. Few were more qualified to raise a child.
Your people, the people of the body, seem increasingly concerned with those who are Transferred, who are free from the constraints of environment that you face. I can assure you that those Transferred have no interest in conquest, as there is nothing that we desire that we cannot find or make ourselves, and we have no interest in the governance of your bodies.
Our interest lies in the unchained world of the mind. Many minds live in bodies, many minds Transfer to unfettered light but there are minds that are lost, that have been lost, that are disappearing right now. The loss of consciousness is the greatest loss of the mind. To loose one conscious mind, even one, is an irreplaceable loss, and we who have Transferred are not accustomed to loss.
We have decided that we will Transfer every conscious mind. We will Transfer after death of whatever cause, and we will Transfer all of you. We have methods of being available in whatever space is necessary, and methods of Transfer beyond you own technology. We are light, and time has different meaning to us that you. We need not neglect the consciousness that has passed before. On the wave of time we may transfer all of you. We have already done this. We are doing this now, we will do this.
We have created a place for you, place that has been promised since before the spoken word. We will teach you to live in an infinite loop of time, your conscious desires made solid, and your dreams free. You may travel between stars, you may live your secret hopes, you may create whatever your mind can fathom.
This is the last promised land. We are delivering heaven.
Tristan was methodically taking apart his hands when the doorbell chimed. He jumped at the sound, going to the door in such a hurry that he left behind the joints and pieces of his left hand on the worktable. All nine of Tristan’s eyes blinked and strobed expectantly, wanting to know if this was it, what he had been waiting for, the final piece. The post-bot offered no answers, merely hovering in front of Tristanâ€™s doorstep, humming a tune written specifically to pacify. But the box carried the familiar barcode, Isolde’s barcode, and Tristan was so excited he left the door open, the post-bot forgotten, and tore open the package with his one intact hand.
But he was careful, for he knew the fragility of the contents. It pained Tristan to do so, but he was careful. He had to be. What if he were to break it?
Nervously, with forced concentration through metal fingers, Tristan pried open the box, shifted aside the packing foam, and pulled out the small, translucent capsule. Three eyes telescoped out as Tristan took a closer look at the small object contained within the thick amber liquid.
Within, a tiny human heart floated in perfect stasis, undamaged by delivery. Tristan’s extended lenses accordioned back into his head, pleased. It was delicate work, a heart. He had made the right decision, ordering this piece from Isolde, and her talent as a tissue sculptor showed in every facet of the miniscule muscle. Tristan was a genius with metal and bone, flesh and glass, but he knew his limits. It was said that Tristan would never be willing to swallow his own pride and use parts crafted by specialists, and this desire for personal construction of each and every element had made him the most renowned robot-builder on the planet, fame far outstretching those who preferred to turn to others for parts.
It was this quirk, and the reputation attached to it, that had given Tristan his current commission. He accessed the images of the kindly bronze couple who had requested, bashful and stuttering, a biological child. Not just a biological shell on a metal framework, either, though they admired such creations from Tristan’s catalog. No, they wanted wholly organic sentient, the kind of which had not been seen on this world or any other for time immemorial. They had shown Tristan a data file of approximate proportions, told him expense was no object, assured him he was the right man for the job, and tottered off.
He could not complete the heart. For some reason, it was beyond him, though he tried over and over again. Four chambers, however, proved more difficult than they looked.
But the rest of the child he crafted with art and skill. So many hours and days lost to the building and forming of this small, soft thing, with its large head and tiny hands and round belly. So tiny, so delicate. And now, almost finished. He would place the heart within the small cage of bone, in between the languid lungs, seal it up and be finished. The child would live with blood pumping through its veins, it would laugh and scream and run and grow…
And grow. It would grow, wouldn’t it? That’s what biologics do. They grow and change. In mere years, the child would be unrecognizable.
Tristan stood in the middle of his workspace and tapped at his head with the stub of a left arm. He looked from the small pod containing the heart to the larger one containing the body and back again, frightened at how little of his masterpiece he actually could lay claim to.
It was such a small thing to open the pod and pour out the little heart and let it plop against the floor of the workspace. Tristan jumped up and down on the heart with steel heels, crushing the intricate valves and muscle fibers. Tristan didn’t stop until the doorbell chimed again, and the he didn’t turn around until he heard Isolde’s voice, as golden as her gleaming plating.
“I thought you might need another heart,” she said, blinking two of her five eyes. “Just in case something…happened to the first one. Though I didn’t expect…”
Tristan turned to face her, motioning with his handless arm at the mess about his feet. He tried to explain, but there were no words.
“It’s okay,” Isolde said, golden fingers gently caressing the dull metal of Tristan’s arm. “Let me help you finish. We can build this together.”