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by Miracle Jones
Right after he got his diagnosis, Steven bought the drone copter skull from some Beijing toy company conglomerate.
The drone copter skull was a top result on Alibaba. He didn’t want a thousand of them, but he got the model number and bought it direct from the manufacturer.
“A plan beats no plan,” his mom always said.
The company that sold the drone copter skull had a few different models: there was one that looked like the skull of an evil stainless-steel future robot and there was also a drone copter that was the severed (artfully decaying) head of Adolph Hitler, but Steven bought the one that was the most like a real skull. The rotors were hidden laterally inside: air was sucked in through the fontanelle and moved down below the jaw. It was only possible to tell that the skull was hollow by looking at the copter from directly above or below.
The next step: he got the body from one of those pop-up Halloween stores that was trying to hemorrhage all their post-holiday stock, meaning he was able to acquire the plastic skeleton body basically “at cost.” There had been a low-quality “Spooky Halloween” skeleton skull originally attached to the body as well, but he snapped it off with pruning loppers he borrowed from the super. The cut was clean.
He added the rest of the skeleton’s body himself, drilling big holes in the clavicle of the injection molded plastic and threading steel rings through the openings, soldering the links to attach the dangling body to the drone copter skull’s base.
The body was the same faded old wedding dress color as the drone copter skull, but he painted the body and skull with a coat of all-weather lacquer anyway, just to be safe.
The next step after attaching the body was to add the cameras and make the eye sockets glow. Soft white fiber optic lights resulted in less glare. He thought about using red lights or even blue lights, but he decided this was too lame. He liked the effect of the white lights. The warmth of it.
He was worried that the weight of the skeleton would unbalance the drone copter and it wouldn’t be able to get off the ground. His first trial run confirmed this. The copter kept falling over backwards, just as he had feared. After a lot of experimentation, he was able to balance the weight by drilling lead slugs into the forehead of the skull, and then closing up these holes with spackle.
Finally: success! The full drone skeleton now moved smoothly, albeit with a bit of lag and some kludginess in the controls. It was worth it. The body dangled from the skull in a way that was more upsetting than Steven was expecting. The skull itself moved in angry jolts: up and down, left and right, as precise and frantic as a mouse cursor. The body swept along merrily underneath. The shoulders twisted as the skull twisted like a suit on a rack. As the floating skull found new points in the air, the body arranged beneath it, shivering as it settled.
There was something very aggressive in the overall effect: a head with total mobility animating a body that was utterly dominated by this dexterity. The overall effect was horrible, but suitably hypnotic.
As soon as he got everything right, he went down into the empty shared courtyard of The Alexander Hamilton and tested the skull’s range. He made it dangle in the sky above the apartment building like some kind of sinister omen: SOON HERE THERE WILL BE DEATH.
His big sister Viviana was depressed as fuck. Clinically and all. Had done time in institutions, though she was technically his legal guardian. She came down to the courtyard and sat on one of the steel benches, watching him send the drone skull all around the tops of the buildings. The trick was to make sure that it didn’t drift too far out of sight. He was surprised by how well it handled the wind. He supposed it was too heavy to get buffeted around too much. It was just a brick floating in the air.
He sat down next to Viviana on the bench and offered her the controls, but she was more interested in the cigarette she was smoking.
“That didn’t take you very long,” she said.
“Is it too fucked up?” he asked her.
“No, it’s just right,” she said. “I like the way it just hangs there in the air. Is it a boy or a girl? Does it have a name yet?”
“No name yet,” he said. “Anyway, it isn’t done.”
“It isn’t done?” she asked.
“No, this is just the drone part,” he said.
There was a middle brother once, Gordon, big fat Gordo, who had been heavy and had a weird smile and an even weirder sense of humor. He had overdosed on their mom’s pill stash, which they hadn’t bothered to throw away after the cancer. Brain death or whatever for big fat Gordo. But that was awhile back.
“You gonna glue an assault rifle in its hands?” she asked. “Go shoot up your school?”
“Come on,” he said.
“Somebody’s gonna do it someday,” she said, getting up to toss the cigarette butt in an old dry bird fountain. “Somebody is definitely gonna shoot up a school with a drone like that. Maybe not one so CREATIVE, though.”
“A compliment!” said Steven. “I’ll take it!”
Steven’s next job was to connect up the skeleton to EEG sunglasses so that the skeleton would respond to his emotions and also follow him around everywhere. This wasn’t so hard. There was “out of the box” software for this already and it was just a matter of doing the hard work of syncing it to his high waves and low waves, also making it recognize the specific spikes of his prearranged mental commands.
He was in their apartment sitting at the kitchen table and Viviana was watching a cooking show in the living room when he figured out how to get it to hover in “default mode” a foot behind him and a little above, like a flag on a pole sticking out of his back.
“Engage,” he subvocalized. The EEG sunglasses picked up the sound and now his tongue was the controller, or more specifically, the brain waves that represented his tongue. The skeleton jetted forward, headed for the flatscreen.
“DAMMIT STEVEN,” shrieked Viviana.
“DISENGAGE,” he subvocalized, a bit too late, making the skeleton abruptly stop its forward motion. The legs danged from the skull, banging up against the bottom of the screen. That was the worst of it. No damage.
“Dammit Steven,” said Viviana.
“I made it do that. With my mind.”
“Maybe only do that outside?” she asked.
He relaxed until his thoughts returned to “baseline normal.” The skeleton slowly returned to where he sat at the kitchen table, pushing past him to hover behind his head.
“This thing is gonna go with me EVERYWHERE,” he said.
“As if people need another reason to make fun of you,” she said.
“I added a hinge to the jaw and transferred all my deck data to the drone computer. Watch this.”
He thought about pulling on a rope over and over again, as if he were a medieval bell ringer. The skeleton shook behind him. Jostled its limbs to signify that it was ready for his next command.
“Call Viviana,” he said.
In the back bedroom, Viviana’s deck began to ring. She looked at him and then got to her feet. She answered her phone, walking back into the living room with the deck up to her ear.
“Hello?” she said.
Her voice came out of the skeleton’s mouth. Amplified; clear. The skeleton’s jaw opened once and then snapped shut.
“Neat,” she snorted. “Though—obviously—messed up.”
The skeleton’s mouth continued to clack open and shut as she spoke.
“YOU ARE QUITE THE MESSED UP LITTLE GENTLEMAN,” said Viviana.
Viviana hung up.
“Pretty unsettling,” she said.
“It is proper black magic,” said Steven. “In black magic, you can contact anybody you want from anywhere in the world or even BEYOND THE GRAVE if you have a fresh proper skeleton, right? I can use it to run temporaries. And check this out.”
He thought of pulling the bell rope again. The skeleton shook behind him.
“Take me to Seven Eleven,” he said.
The skeleton pushed past him. He took a step forward and the skeleton moved toward the front door.
“If I just follow behind, it will take me there, no problem,” he said.
“How else would you possibly get to Seven Eleven?” said Viviana.
“It will also find other people for me, like a bound incubus, based on their decks. Watch.”
Steven cleared his mind and then pulled the bell rope again.
“Take me to Viviana,” he said. The skeleton zipped in front of him, straining toward Viviana. She moved her deck from side to side and the skeleton followed it like a cat with a laser pointer, fixing it with its dead-eyed gaze.
Steven writes code that lets him “park” the skeleton outside restaurants and so on. When he goes places where he can’t see the skeleton outside, he sends it to the roof to keep it from getting stolen.
He is able take the skeleton most places that other people couldn’t on account of his diagnosis. When cops bother him about bringing a drone down into the subway, he just gives them his medical card and they scan it. Then they get embarrassed and try to tell them about friends who had the same thing; who beat it thanks to kelp, or meditation, or Jesus, or whatever.
He sets up a deal at the stuffed animal store in SoHo. It’s a pretty grungy operation: there are three graphic designers with 3D CAD machines vaping in back. You bring in a gif or a snap of whatever you want them to make and they will turn it into a plush for you in real time, any size. There are stairs to the basement where machines are running and kids are yelling at each other and listening to speedpop at ear-splitting levels, stuffing the plushes at custom volumes and custom colors and custom materials.
“Hey,” says Steven. “I’m here to see Felicia.”
“Oh,” says one of the CAD dudes. “Hold on.”
The CAD dude walks to the stairs and screams.
There is a pause, and then:
“WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
“SOME GUY HERE TO SEE YOU.”
“OKAY, COMING UP.”
A squat, grinning, buzz-cut lady clomps up the stairs. She looks up and sees Steven.
“Oh yeah,” she says. “That was today. You are the guy. Step outside for a sec.”
He follows her out the door and down the street to an alley.
“Okay, let’s do this,” she says. “You got THE DRUGS?”
“Discrete,” says Steven.
He hands her a Sun Chips bag rolled up and rubber-banded and she hands him a wad of cash.
“Cool,” she says. “Doin deals.” And then: “I love your drone.”
“Thanks,” he says.
“Where did you get it?”
“I made it myself,” he says.
“Whoa,” she says. “Perfect design. You should think about doing that for a living. You’ve got skillzzzzzzz.”
“The plus side of my situation," he says, smiling, "Is that I don't have to worry much about future employment."
“Oh yeah, right, sorry, I forgot,” she says. “You don’t…you know…look sick. Didn’t mean to…”
“No way, don’t worry about it,” says Steven. “I am glad I don’t look sick. Shit this good, though, you gotta be almost dead to get it. Enjoy your DRUGS. How much does it cost for a custom plush, anyhow?”
“Five hundred dollars is the minimum,” she says. “There are cheaper places, though. This is some SoHo bullshit. I can get you a good rate though…I get a discount.”
“Whoa,” he says. “Five hundred…for a plush.”
Felicia laughs and goes back inside. He counts the money. It is twenty bucks more than they agreed upon but he doesn’t tell her; he just keeps it.
“You really need to tell your family,” says his doctor, an extraordinarily handsome fellow named Dr. Roderigo Castigliano.
“Gotta respect my secrets,” says Steven.”
“I am telling you: it will be worse for THEM if you don’t. You have to tell them.”
“My medical information is private intel,” says Steven.
“So they are going to be the last ones to know? When it is already too late?”
“Are you going to refill my prescription or not?”
“You are going through these pills pretty fast, kid,” he says.
“So no?” he says. “You won’t do it? I just gotta be in pain then?”
Dr. Roderigo Castigliano sighs.
“Okay kid,” he says. He writes out the scrip and tears it off his pad and then staples a hologram authenticity chip to it that he fishes out of his coat pocket.
“What’s the skeleton all about, kid?” asks Dr. Roderigo Castigliano. It hovers by the examination table, recording everything. “Some kind of art project?”
“Kinda like that,” says Steven.
“Not bad art,” says the doctor, lifting one of its legs and inspecting it. “Kind of cheap, but pretty good. I mean, it is pretty authentic for a Halloween store kind of thing. Seems like it would be too heavy to fly though. It defies logic.”
“Nah, I definitely did all the math. It REPRESENTS logic.”
“There are too many ribs, though,” says the doctor. “Fake skeletons always have too many ribs. Also, that is not how elbows attach at all.”
“You know where I can get a better one?”
The doctor laughs.
“I’m actually serious,” says Steven. “For real.”
“They make really light ones out of graphene that are a hundred percent accurate for medical schools and doctor’s offices and so on. You can order them out of medical supply catalogs.”
“Do you have one?” asks Steven.
The doctor laughs again.
“I miiiiiiiiight have a catalog,” he says. “But those graphene skeletons are really expensive, kid. Thousands of dollars.”
“I just want to look,” says Steven.
“Sure, I’ll go check my office,” says the doctor.
He stands up.
“Only, one thing, kid,” says the doctor. “You’ve got to tell your family. Next time you come in, I want to see your sister here with you. I don’t care how DEPRESSED she is. I want her sitting right there beside you, or I am not signing any more prescriptions. You’ll have to go somewhere else.”
“It’s a deal,” says Steven.
The doctor nods firmly and steps out of the room. He returns with a thick medical supply catalog and hands it to Steven. They flip through the pages together for a few moments, grinning.
As if this guy is the only doctor he sees. As if this guy is the only doctor writing him prescriptions.
The lightness of the graphene skeleton means he can add a pouch to it. He can put pills in there and send it out on deliveries.
He positions the skeleton in an alley near where he is supposed to meet Danny Antoniak for lunch. Danny is about fifteen minutes late. Steven spends the time hanging out in the alley with the skeleton, watching the rats play. Danny Antoniak buzzes him and the skeleton’s eyes glow as it reads his text message out loud. Steven crosses the street to the restaurant, leaving the skeleton behind.
“SHHHHHHHHHHIIIIIIIITTTTTTTT,” says Danny Antoniak as Steven slides in across from him in the booth. “You look terrible. I mean it: you really look like shit.”
“Heh,” says Steven, staring at the salt shaker and the pepper shaker and the little bottle of hot sauce and the tiny dish of green sauce with a silver spoon sticking out of it.
Danny Antoniak flips open the menu and runs his finger down it.
“Fuckin enchiladas!” he says. “Aw yeah.”
He tosses the menu aside. It spins in a circle and lands on the table. He leans back in the booth and checks something on his deck. He looks up and squints at Steven.
“Whoa,” he says, leaning forward. “Those aren’t just sunglasses.”
“Yeah, I use them to control this weird drone I made,” says Steven. “I’ll show you after we eat. I want your opinion.”
“That is cool as fuck. You are always doing really cool things. Dude, someday, we are all gonna be working for you.”
“Yeah,” says Steven. “Someday. In the future of my long life. Hey, I wanted to ask you something.”
“Yeah man,” says Danny Antoniak. “Wait up: hold on, let’s get these enchiladas going.”
They put in their orders and Danny Antoniak stuffs his mouth with some complimentary crispy tortilla chips.
“ASK YOUR QUESTION YOU SHIT-LOOKING SHADES-WEARING HIPSTER SCUM,” says Danny Antoniak through a mouthful of chips.
“It’s a serious question,” says Steven.
“Okay,” says Danny Antoniak, putting his hands in his lap, squaring his shoulders, getting serious.
“What do you think happens after you die?” asks Steven. “I mean, are you scared about it?”
“Oh man,” says Danny Antoniak. “That is not a ‘before enchiladas’ question. That is definitely an ‘after enchiladas’ question.”
“Seriously though,” says Steven.
“Honestly, since you ask, I also get terrified about it,” says Danny Antoniak. “You remember that guy who used to date my mom? The guy with the really deep voice and all the tattoos who was always trying to teach us how to cover up a murder? How he said people never use enough bleach?”
“Your mom was with that dude for AWHILE,” says Steven.
“Yeah, he was fucking terrible,” says Danny Antoniak. “I remember I came home from YOUR HOUSE and I was high as fuck…and he could tell, and I was certain he was going to tell my mom about it…so I was sitting on the couch with him and watching soccer…because of course he fucking LOOOOOOOOVED soccer…and he tried to freak me out by talking about death. He was seriously trying to induce a weed panic in me.”
“Did it work?” asks Steven, his mouth going dry. He closes his eyes.
“He was all like: ‘I USED to be afraid of death. Used to think about it all the time, back when I was your age. Used to just stay up all night worrying about it. And then I got to a point where I got peace of mind. I realized it didn’t matter, he said. I accepted that the thing that happens when you die is ‘the worst thing.’ Whatever the worst thing is to you, he said, is what happens.”
Steven thinks about this for a minute.
“That is fucking awful,” he says. “I wish I hadn’t asked.”
“Yeah,” says Danny Antoniak.
“What do you think the worst thing would be though?” asks Steven.
“Maybe your whole body turning into one giant canker sore. Like: every pore a canker sore, like the ones that fester up inside your mouth. Every single pore. What about you? What’s the worst possible thing for you?”
“No enchiladas,” says Steven. “A realm with no enchiladas. Everywhere you turn there are no enchiladas.”
“That’s probably what happens,” says Danny Antoniak.
“Okay,” says Steven. “I have another question for you. And I KNOW you know the answer. Who would I talk to if I wanted to buy a temporary? A few of them?”
Steven meets Danny Antoniak’s connection Leila waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay out in Queens, so far out in Flushing that it feels lawless and forgotten. He is able to relax out here; he feels mysteriously comfortable. NYC is only for assholes now: but there are real people out here in this lawless, forgotten part of Queens. He can feel real people livin’ real lives out here. Sayin’ real things about mediocre TV shows.
He tries the door on the address Danny gave him, a commercial glass storefront with Chinese characters all over it. The door is magically open, even though there are no people on the street and every other business here is closed.
He slips down into the basement. “All the way in the back,” Danny Antoniak told him. “You are going to think you are in the wrong place, but just keep going all the way in the back and you’ll see it.”
The basement turns out to be a hidden, tiny mall. An old-fashioned shopping-mall-style mall, except in miniature. The stores are each like luxury-size coffins, all right next to each other in rows. You don’t go in the shops: the shopkeeper stands inside and you buy whatever you point to. This late at night though, all the shops are closed.
Mesh cages are pulled down around the shopping booths. Even with the muted night-time half-light, the vibrant colors of each little miniature “shopping world” are mightily seductive. He wants to go from box to box, peering at all the wonderful insane crap to buy / crap he will never buy. Maybe he will come back here during the day.
He keeps going. All the way in the back. It actually isn’t that far: he almost runs over a hunched man wringing out a towel into a dirty bucket. Bullshit new age music is playing. He looks to the right and left and sees people splayed out on divans. GOOD FOOT MASSAGE an ancient sign says, dot matrix printer holes peeking through cracked yellow laminate.
This is “the place” or whatever.
He peeks his head into one of the rooms. Nobody acknowledges him. He rounds the corner and then doubles back, nearly tripping over a woman with thick tattooed forearms who has crept up behind him. She is probably from the Philippines. He figured she would be Chinese.
“We are closed,” she says, pushing him back toward the empty mall hallway.
“Wait, wait,” he says. “I have a meeting with Leila. Uh, a meeting about buying some…computers.”
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wad of thigh-temperature soft sweaty cash. He straightens the bills, smoothing them out on the wall and then holding them out to her.
“For the temporaries. I think Danny said twenty a piece?”
She stares at him.
“You are a kid,” she says. “You are a nice kid. Look at your eyes. You have friendly baby eyes.”
“Man, I am just trying to break the law a bit here for profit and gain,” he says. “Don’t gotta say I have baby eyes.”
“Where is your leverage, though? You do not inspire fear. You should bring a friend with you. A big man with a knife who studies wars.”
“I got a skeleton drone,” he says. “Parked right outside.”
This is a weird thing to say. It is so weird and he is so confident about it that she assumes it is some kind of answer.
“Listen, my friend Danny said it would be okay,” he says. “He said you were…”
“Yes, yes, it is okay…I know Danny, he is a good boy, wants to be a lawyer, says he will help me sue the landlord, get what he owes me on account of the black mold.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” he says.
“Don’t go exploring,” she says. “Don’t move from RIGHT HERE.”
She returns after a few moments with a ziplock bag full of thumb drives. Each one is in the shape of a centipede.
“These are good?” asks Steven. “Top?”
“Top,” says the woman. “My son makes them. He goes to computer school in Iceland.”
“I’ll take ten,” says Steven.
She trades him the centipedes for the handful of bills.
“They are top,” she says. “You’ll see. Top quality.”
If they don’t work, what is he even going to do about it? Go on a GOOD FOOT MASSAGE punching rampage?
“I trust you,” he says. “Your son makes them. He goes to computer school in Iceland.”
A rainy fall day rolls around.
Steven doesn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. He feels bad, but also so calm and relaxed on this rainy fall day.
The rain is so peaceful that Steven decides that he absolutely must die on a rainy fall day like this one.
He takes a few pills and studies the code on the temporaries he bought.
The temporaries are themed; not unusual in such a glutted market. They are based on De Plancy’s “Diccionaire Infernal.” Some online reviews rate them definitely top. Leila’s mysterious son probably didn’t write them…he wonders if she even has a son. These temporaries originate in Rome…the computer science department of some Roman university.
When you ask a question, you are presented with one of the 66 lords of hell depending on the nature of what you ask: Ronwe will show up if you are trying to translate something, for instance, but you’ll get Andras if you are trying to assassinate an enemy. If you have a question about how to make a shitload of cash in a weekend to pay your rent, you’ll get Mammon.
Steven fires one of the single-use flash drives up. At the prompt, he asks:
“Is there anything I should do before I die?”
Nothing like a good vague, open-ended, unanswerable question to test the quality of a temporary.
Now artificial brains will coalesce out of the cloud for about three to five minutes before self-destructing, dissolving before the governments and permanents swoop in, before a temporary becomes destructive to all the local IT infrastructure, as it tries to get loose, tries to get a body.
The demon that shows up is called Zaebos, a grand-count of hell according to the Diccionaire. He “has the form of a good soldier mounted on a crocodile; his head is covered by a ducal crown. He is sweet of character.”
Zaebos’ advice actually turns out to be pretty good, albeit sort of…obvious.
8. Snow Leopard
“What’s the occasion,” says Viviana.
“No occasion,” says Steven.
Steven just wishes she would make up her mind about where she wants to go.
She has started wearing an old wedding dress, minus the veil, to work at the oyster bar beneath Grand Central. She wears eyeliner so thick that she looks like a bomb exploded in her face. Her boss has told her she is going to be fired soon on account of the oyster bar getting absorbed by some redevelopment scheme.
“I got something for you,” he says.
He goes to his room and returns with a big brown paper sack.
She stares at him. Almost smiles. She opens the sack. Inside are big plush gravestones, each one as big as a torso. One has their mother’s name and dates, the other one has Gordon’s.
“You can hug them when you are sad,” he says. “Or punch them, I guess.”
“Awww,” she says. “These look expensive.”
He doesn’t tell her there is one more, waiting in his bedroom closet.
“I figured out what I want,” says Viviana. “Steaks. Big juicy steaks. Let’s go get some big cheap shitty steaks. And cheese fries.”
Steven sits in a middle pew at St. Patrick’s cathedral. His personal skeleton drone writhes behind him. Security here has been watching him, but they scanned his medical card and all. On account of his condition, and because of how his drone is now classified, he is allowed to bring it in with him, this pet, this mechanical Lazarus.
The graphene bones of the new model skeleton click and creak as the temperature differentials cause the new filling, the unsettling new marrow, to move around, to adjust with his mood and the temperature.
He sits there in the pew and tries to pray but it isn’t working. He turns around in the pew and watches the skeleton writhe. He almost prays; almost feels something Big out there.
Someone clears their throat and he turns to look. It is a priest. A sweet-looking gay man with thick spectacles and bad razorburn.
“Oh hey,” he says. “Uh….”
“You are fine,” says the priest. “You can stay as long as you want. I just thought…I thought you might want to TALK. We have set hours for confession, ordinarily, but, well, I asked about you actually, and one of the security guards told me about your situation, your uh…physical HEALTH. It’s supposed to be private…but…well…we see a lot of people here in similar circumstances, I’m afraid.”
“My family doesn’t even know.”
“You haven’t told your family? You really should.”
“Not yet,” says Steven. “Listen, I’m not really Catholic, I gotta say. I am just trying a bunch of junk, seeing if anything does it for me.”
The priest doesn’t say anything.
“Your drone is quite STRIKING,” says the priest. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“I made it myself,” says Steven. “I have refined it a bunch. The organic component is new.”
“What do you mean?” asks the priest.
“Well, it’s a little weird,” says Steven.
“A new link on the great chain of being?” the priest chuckles.
“Yeah,” says Steven. “Right out of science fiction.”
“I am actually a tremendous science fiction FAN,” says the priest. “Believe it or not. It’s all quite humanist, really. Belief in the future and all that. Some might say that the first piece of TRULY GREAT science fiction is the Bible. Though, not COMPLETELY fiction, ha ha, one might say, to some of us. Science fiction wrestles with tomorrow’s moral quandaries, doesn’t it? For instance, the question of life itself. We need to perhaps consider TOGETHER whether creating life, even artificial life, and the terminating of this life, is a moral act, no matter how useful and no matter how short the duration of the existence of this life.”
“That’s definitely more your field than mine. I just like making stuff.”
“How does your drone stay in the air, I am wondering?”
“The skeleton is made from graphene so it is particularly light. Weighs almost nothing.”
“And the organic component you were talking about?”
“The bones are hollow. So I got a bunch of sensors, right, and I put them all in the bones at intervals. The tricky part was finding a food source, but I found this nutrient paste online, this uh…this ‘rapidly decaying’ blue algae they use in labs. I was all like: great, this will last for years and by then…well, it won’t matter. I won’t last for years, so it doesn’t matter. But that’s what it eats.”
“Hold on,” says the priest. “What do you mean, ‘that’s what it eats?’”
“Slime mold,” says Steven. “The bones of the skeleton are filled with a bright yellow slime mold called Fuligo septica, or ‘dog’s vomit’ slime mold. The fluid dynamics of the skeleton, and the way in which the slime mold seeks light and darkness creates subtle weight differentials and makes the skeleton move the way you are seeing it move right now. The sensors also help determine the mood of the dog’s vomit and animate the skeleton. Watch, we can check the levels.”
Steven thinks really hard about bouncing a basketball, clearing his mind of all other preoccupations. The skeleton’s dangling arms and legs rotate in opposite directions, twirling at unnatural angles that would snap apart the tendons of a real skeleton, if flesh were attached. Steven continues to think about bouncing the basketball, until finally bright yellow ooze wells up in the skeleton’s eye sockets. This is a feature he added, like a dipstick, to see whether the slime mold is growing or shrinking.
“Whoops,” says Steven, wiping away a blot of yellow slime with the sleeve of his jacket that drips down the skeleton’s face like a tear and lands on the wooden pew instead of getting sucked down inside the skeleton’s face. The slime mold is thriving.
“The slime mold lets me classify the skeleton as a ‘comfort animal,’” says Steven. “Which means I can take it inside buildings, churches, and so on: not just the subway and stuff.”
“I think I need to go,” says the priest.
“What about AI? Weren’t we going to talk about the morality of it? About how AI has a right to life?”
“Yes, well, I would point you to some of the studies,” the priest says distractedly. “There’s a whole field of inquiry, vitalics and so on, about the dignity and ensoulment of machines. But…but…I think perhaps another time.”
“I was wondering…I mean…I am very sick,” says Steven. “I know I don’t look it, but I am. Quite sick. And I’ve heard that people feel better, sometimes, even uh…agnostics even…doing some kind of confession before they die.”
“Yes, it is very therapeutic,” says the priest. “Puts you in a state of grace and so forth.”
The priest pulls a missalette from the pew and hands it to him, turning his back.
“The hours for confession are right there on the front,” he says.
10. Mountain Lion
Danny Antoniak comes over to hang out with Steven and his sister.
Smelling the food cooking in the pot…the lentils and leeks and onions simmering in a boiling bath of cumin and paprika…Steven throws up in the back bathroom.
Danny Antoniak and Viviana are too busy flirting to notice.
“You are too HARD on yourself,” says Danny Antoniak. “You look incredible. Nobody looks at a depressed lady and is like: oh look out, she is too sad, no thank you. They just see like an attractive woman with low self-esteem who will probably be good at sex.”
“What a vile opinion,” says Viviana affectionately.
What if? He wonders. What if, the two of them…after he is gone? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Danny Antoniak and Viv…sittin’ around, remembering how great he was, comforting each other, just having the best time. He walks out of the bathroom, feeling a little bit better and retakes his seat.
“You guys hear about the thing they are doing at the history museum?” asks Danny Antoniak. “Where you can talk to Mars?”
“What are you on about?” asks Viviana.
“It’s for real,” says Danny Antoniak. “The last lander busted a tread and fell into a ravine…right…so it can’t go anywhere. It is solar powered though and has a printer to make new parts for it, so it will last forever. NASA is all like: shit, people are going to be mad at the space program. But they’ve turned it around into a thing. They are letting people go into this booth at the museum and talk to Mars through the lander’s speaker. Whatever you say travels through space and then comes right out of the speaker like mission control. They just started doing it. You have to make an appointment online. Pretty insane, right? I want to do it. You guys want to go?”
“Seems like a waste of time,” says Viviana. “Like screaming into a pillow.”
“How do you even know you are really getting through to Mars?” says Steven. “I mean, there is no way to corroborate this. It would be a good way for the government to get more data on people. Convincing people to tell their secrets to Mars.”
“You are so cynical,” says Danny Antoniak.
When the food is ready, they all gather around the table and dig in. Steven’s skeleton drone hovers behind him, doing its slime mold dance, leaning first one way and then another as the ooze flows through its bones.
“Viviana,” Steven asks. “What do you think would be the worst possible thing to happen after you die?”
“How are we even related?” asks Viviana. “Nothing happens after you die. Nothing.”
Viviana grabs her plate of food and takes it into her bedroom, shutting the door, but not without one last smirk at Danny Antoniak.
“What do you want to do tonight, anyway?” asks Danny Antoniak. “You want to go out? Or do you just want to play some Trenches or something?”
“Whatever you want to do,” says Steven. “I just want to have a great, memorable, rewarding, representative time.”
He is in the Trader Joe’s. He is buying toothpaste and beans. Walking the aisles.
His skeleton trails behind him, its bony feet grazing the ground. The skeleton seems listless. The dog vomit slime mold inside it seems inert and uninspired. Maybe it is all the fluorescents in here? He keeps looking over his shoulder at the skeleton, hoping it will cheer him up, but it doesn’t.
It is midday and there aren’t many customers here. The employees have grown used to his skeleton drone over the months and nobody bothers him about it. Perversely, this lack of conflict only contributes to his darkening mood.
He wanders over to the condor section and peers in the window at all the rotting and spoiled food, all massively discounted, basically free, for all the marginal fuckers who have done the government-sponsored “total interior efflorescence." When Viviana gets fired, will she have to buy her food from the condor section?
He stops in the ice cream aisle at the cold cases and runs his eyes along the pint containers, trying to figure out which ice cream he wants. Fuck, should he just get ten of them? He can’t make up his mind which ice cream is the right ice cream.
He picks out ten and puts them in his basket: cherry and chocolate, obviously, but then also pistachio, cantaloupe, Fortune Cookie, cookies and cream, orange sherbet, pecan praline, mint chocolate chip, green tea, and dulce du leche. He hefts them into his basket, trying to get them all to stack, and then he whirls around and accidentally bangs into the cart of a tall guy with a ponytail.
“Shit, sorry,” he says.
“This your drone?” says the tall guy. “It’s blocking the whole aisle.”
Steven stares at the ground, embarrassed, hugging the pints of iced cream to him and trying not to make eye contact. The tall man wanders off, muttering to himself. His ponytail is greasy, but overall the man is nice looking with an appropriate amount of stubble and muscles.
Steven marches toward him, hefting the ice cream. He bangs into the man’s cart again, defiantly this time. He sends the skeleton up a few feet in the air to tower over him like a totem. The man frowns and walks away. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t engage.
This is UNSATISFACTIORY. Steven is filled for a moment with a near-blinding rage, a joyful rage that makes him giddy. He puts the pints of ice cream down at his feet and looks around for something to break, his eyes wild.
Steven sends the drone at a display stand for Entenmann’s cakes, knocking the whole thing over. Cakes go flying, bursting from their cardboard shells. The tall man with the ponytail basically runs out of the store, leaving his purchases behind, not wanting any part of all this.
“I’m sorry,” says Steven when the manager comes over. “I’ll pay for all of them. Let me buy all these, even the ones that didn’t get smooshed. I’m sorry. Here, just ring me up for this ice cream and a hundred dollars worth of cakes or whatever. You take credit, right?”
He shows up way early for his appointment. In the meantime, he wanders around the museum, waiting for his turn in the box.
The museum is relatively empty. It is a weekday and not nice enough weather for tourists to be in the park. He wanders through the Hall of Biodiversity and into the Hall of Ocean Life, pausing to look up at the massive hanging blue whale. The lights flicker.
He didn’t rent the augmented reality glasses that would make it like you’re actually underwater. He is happy enough with the old drawings and jellyfish dioramas on the wall. He stands there for awhile, trying to imagine how dark it must be at the bottom of the ocean. How dark and huge.
His skeleton buzzes behind him and he walks briskly back to the cube at the end of the Cosmic Pathway, inside the giant Hayden Sphere, where the NASA scientists have set up their studio. For his donation to NASA, he will get a private ten minute audience with Mars.
The NASA scientists both have glasses and extremely chapped lips. They are grinning at him as he walks over.
“This is pretty neat, huh?” says one of the ladies, sensing a kindred technophile.
“Pretty neat,” he agrees.
“You get ten minutes and you can say whatever you want,” the other scientist assures him. She has brown hair, which might even be red if it were clean. “At the end of it, we will email a recording to your deck and you can have it forever.”
“Okay great,” says Steven.
“We are sealing you in,” she says. “See you in ten minutes!”
“Wait hold on,” asks Steven. “I was wondering: will you guys be listening to everything I say in there?”
“Well, all transmissions between here and Mars are of course recorded...” she says uncertainly.
“What if I just want to talk to Mars alone?” he asks. “Just me and Mars.”
“Well, we won’t listen,” says the other scientist. “I mean us personally.”
“Whatever you gotta say is between you and Mars,” her partner agrees.
“I guess that is comforting,” he says. “Got some things I want to get off my chest.”
But when he gets in the booth and they turn on the mic and he sits there with the static hum in his ears, he can’t find any words. He sits there for five minutes, six minutes, seven. Finally, he leans into the microphone and just says: “Fuck you, Mars.”
He sits with it awhile. Eight minutes. Nine. And then he leans forward again.
And mutters: “Thank you for a pretty good life.”
But he is just hedging his bets; doesn’t really mean it.
13. El Capitan
It is raining outside. Raining hard. Cold-front rain. The temperature inside is: room temperature. Human body temperature. He feels utterly, utterly peaceful. He has never felt more at peace with himself, with the world, with every single goddamn thing.
As he suspected, the rain has done the impossible: it has induced one of those rare moments when he doesn’t much care or notice his body, his condition, his diagnosis. Everything seems “all how it is supposed to be.” It doesn’t matter much. It isn’t so bad.
He decides to do something dramatic. He goes and stands outside in the rain for awhile, letting it soak through his clothes. Then he takes his clothes off and has a shower. One last shower?
He dries off and sits at the kitchen table in the dark, warming up. He takes out the bottle of pills and puts them in front of him on the table so he can reckon with them.
His sister is at work. He is all alone with the rain. And his skeleton.
He holds the bottle of pills for a long time…an hour almost…and then he puts the bottle in a drawer.
Instead, he goes into the back bedroom, the one he used to share with Gordon, and he gets the big plush tombstone with his dates on it and he hugs it close and listens to the rain.
Not today. Not yet. Definitely before he ends up in a hospital with everybody weeping all around him and “trying to be brave,” but not yet, not today. Soon, but not yet.
His skeleton floats behind him, making shapes out of slime mold.
back to tomorrowland
(c) Miracle Jones 2015