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…”
The dream: Jennie Smith woke up in a desert, standing in the center of an endless, cracked sheet of dirt so hard you could scrape your knees on it if you fell down. Above her, the sky was even blacker than her grandmother’s skin, and the moon seemed like a hole carved into its clay.
Several feet away, an ibis scratched at the soil with long and skinny legs, forcing its narrow beak into the grooves where the surface had split while drying. The ibis stopped, sensing her presence.
“What are you doing here?” it asked.
The ibis didn’t speak English. It was a different language, something Jennie Smith had never heard before, but the syllables still rang with meaning. “This is my dream,” she told the ibis. Her mouth couldn’t form the bird’s strange sounds, so she spoke in the language she used at school.
The ibis cackled, stamped at the broken ground. “Filthy,” it spat. The long beak again disappeared into a crack.
“What are YOU doing here?” Jennie asked.
When Jennie woke up the next morning she tried to hold onto the dream, tried to file the strange sounds away beside their English counterparts. She showered, got dressed, and ate breakfast with her mother and father and grandmother and grandfather and aunts and uncles and everyone else on their floor of the Center for Indigenous Transition.
“I had a strange dream last night,” she said, and began relating the events. At first, only her mother was listening, but gradually the others fell silent and before long, the length of the table was filled with closed mouths and wide eyes watching the girl’s gestures. “It asked me what I was doing here,” Jennie said. “But it didn’t say that, it didn’t say what are you doing here, instead, it said…” she closed her eyes and concentrated, testing the unfamiliar movements in the space where her tongue met the roof of her mouth. They felt foreign but fluid, and when she gave voice to them she was surprised by the ease with which they fell from her lips.
No one said anything, for several seconds. Her parents exchanged meaningful looks, her aunts and uncles exchanged meaningful looks, and get grandparents exchanged meaningful looks. After the silence in the room became nearly unbearable, it was broken by the sharp snap of Jennie’s grandmother’s palm against her cheek. “Ow!” Jennie yelled.
“Don’t you ever use that language again,” she said furiously.
“It was just a dream!” Jennie argued as she pressed her hand against the warm skin of her face.
“It’s a dead language,” the old woman continued with slightly less force. “It’s filthy. Don’t you ever let anyone hear you use that language again.”
Jennie put down her fork and stared at her plate, still rubbing her cheek with her other hand. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
“We use English now,” her grandmother said, then returned to her seat. Jennie watched the table, full of dark faces with darker eyes silently focusing on fingers, napkins, plates, anything but Jennie and her Grandmother. The old woman picked up her fork and scraped up the final remnants of her egg. “We use English,” she repeated. “Only English.”
Iâ€™m floating. Well, it seems like Iâ€™m more submerged at the moment. It takes me a moment to realize where I am and that still doesnâ€™t make sense. Everything is dark, my body feels weightless but it is not peaceful. My lungs begin to realize; Iâ€™m not breathing. Suddenly, itâ€™s panic. Arms start flailing; my mouth shuts hard and contains what oxygen I have left for some reason unknown to me.
This is when Iâ€™m looking around, blurs of the moments through corporeal space of matter filtering into my mind; the moments that may be my last. I stop to realize it for what it is; my last moments. No, I tell myself unable to accept what it might be for reality. The key is not to panic. My eyes start focusing as best as they can and I start pulling up the metaphorical anchor thatâ€™s tugging me down further.
Up, the only way out is up. My arms stop flailing and they start acting methodical. Iâ€™m swimming, I believe. Pulling myself from floating, I can see the edges of my vision blurring in darkness and my head begins to spin inside. Thinking of what I have to live for, it has to keep me going after all. Mother, Father, and my future come to mind. Particularly the future Iâ€™ve squandered, the future I refused to act on. Never applied to those colleges, never went to Australia, and never got to see what I thought I was destined to be witness to. I am getting older and I havenâ€™t yet made a move forward. How old was I now and my dreams were still the same distance away from me?
The focus was keeping me awake enough to push myself through the liquid. I can see something just beyond the surface. I canâ€™t die like this! It canâ€™t end this way! Itâ€™s getting darker, but I can see light. Itâ€™s getting much darker, but I know with that last strain of strength that I can break the surface.
â€œWelcome to re-life, Abe.â€ The next thing I can hear is the doctor saying this to me. My eyes are focusing again and Iâ€™m hardly panting for air now. The off-white allure of an office, the sterile scent of medicine, itâ€™s all coming to me very slowly. My parents are here, smiling proudly. They have tears in their eyes; tears of worry. What just happened? What accident was I in?
â€œYou passed the test; you get to go home now.â€ Iâ€™m confused. I donâ€™t understand and Iâ€™m looking towards my mother and father for guidance. This isnâ€™t real, is it? What is real anymore? The doctor is handing me a plastic card. Sitting up, I start to read it.
Certified to Live
Issue Date: 10/25/2050
It was then that I realized, life will be better from here on out.
The snow falls on my smile like that old fairy taleâ€”you know, the one about the dwarves and the cannibal queen, the one with the apple. The tableau would be better if it was sunset, because I always liked sunsets best, but you take what you can get.
Iâ€™m drinking in the buildings, the river, the empty streets where cabbies used to curse at pedestrians who never bothered to listen. Iâ€™m eating the silence that comes with snow. Everything is filling up white, though thereâ€™s a grey cast to the new blanket, not like the picture books I used to read about Christmas when I was a kid.
I know they will have missed me by now, but no one will come back. The overseers wonâ€™t let them. Itâ€™s too dangerous now. I canâ€™t feel it, thoughâ€”my bodyâ€™s still strong, still perfectly capable of walking and talking and breathing in the last of my home. Theyâ€™ll say I was crazy, Iâ€™m sure, but I love this city, this state. Iâ€™d go crazy for real if I had to leave it all behind. I never got how people could live underground. Itâ€™s the air, I think, that would get me. I canâ€™t live without the wind on my face.
The snow is thick now, and I think I can feel a little of the numbness setting in. Thatâ€™s the way they said it would be: slow but painless. I did the research. I knew what I was getting into. My body feels stiff and I canâ€™t quite tell if the snow is cold when I pick it up with my bare hands. Itâ€™s so beautiful. I know what it means, but all I can think is that itâ€™s beautiful.
I throw my handful in the air and let it fall down with the rest, laughing out loud as it brushes my fading skin. In all my life, it has never snowed like this in New York.
â€œI donâ€™t want to come home.â€
Reggieâ€™s wife began to cry, tears sliding around her cheeks.
Reggie smiled beatifically. â€œDonâ€™t cry Carol, its alright, really. Youâ€™re young and awfully perky. Youâ€™ll find another husband in no time.â€
â€œBut Iâ€™m in love with you!â€
Looking at her open red mouth and the slobber on her lip, Reggie wondered how this had ever been enough for him. â€œPlease try to understand, Iâ€™m very happy here. I donâ€™t want to go back to earth. I donâ€™t ever want to leave my Asas side, the only reason I did now was because she demanded that I commune with you.â€
â€œCommune? She?â€ Carolâ€™s hands trembled. â€œDo you fuck it?â€
Reggieâ€™s mouth twisted with revulsion. â€œWhat? No! Thatâ€™s disgusting!â€ He folded his hands on his lap, his narrow face turning intense and cruel. â€œI say â€œsheâ€ because Asas is the female of her species, you sick hag, a life giver. What she does is nothing so banal as fucking. I myself have not had a sexual urge in weeks, well, not till now but I blame that on the fact that youâ€™ve made me upset.â€
Carol wiped her tears with the back of her hand. â€œOh Reggie, what have they done to you?â€
Reggie shook his head. â€œThese creatures are transcendent, utterly fascinating. Socially, they are far more advanced than we are. Not knowing one, you canâ€™t comprehend. You know one and you donâ€™t want to leave.â€
Carols face went blank. â€œTheyâ€™ve taken your mind.â€
Reggie sighed, rolling his eyes. â€œNo, thatâ€™s not it at all. Listen, Iâ€™ve only contacted you because Asas asked me to, she is concerned because of all of the messages Iâ€™ve been getting from you and the government. I havenâ€™t had a lot of time to read them because Asas and I have been very busy, but those I have read have been very disturbing. Asas asked me to contact you because she is worried that if I donâ€™t humans will send more people and those people would just fall in love and want to stay. Asas doesnâ€™t think that itâ€™s good for us, as a race, to be so infatuated and frankly, I agree. Of course, sheâ€™s going to keep me.â€ He sighed. â€œWe have a very special relationship. They arenâ€™t a cruel species Carol, they really are thinking of our best interests.â€ He paused and the blissful expression on his face changed for a moment. â€œIts possible that if they sent humans that werenâ€™t receptive to social signals, autistics perhapsâ€¦no, it shouldnâ€™t be risked.â€
â€œReggie, I miss you. Your mother is so worried, she asked me to-â€
Reggie interrupted her, waving his hand. â€œThis is all very unpleasant. Asas feeding time begins soon and I donâ€™t want to miss it. Itâ€™s so beautiful, I canâ€™t even describe. Donâ€™t send any more messages, okay?â€ He stood and grinned at the screen. â€œGood luck finding a new husband babe.â€ Reggie pointed his finger at the screen like a cocked blaster and then the transmission cut.
Carol began to cry again, reaching toward the static of the dead screen. Light years away, Reggie ran joyfully to find Asas, the unpleasantness of the encounter with his wife fading quickly in the euphoria of new love.
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.