Cover art by Erik Elliott
A short story, about 3500 words.
Donte is a veteran and a colonist on a struggling new world under a hot young flare star. For most of the colonists, the struggle is in coaxing crops out of the alien soil and avoiding the radiation of the flares. But for Donte, he must also deal with the lingering trauma of war — and a body that feels skinned alive without the armor he once wore in the army.
Where to find it:
The preview, about 30% or 1100 words:
Donte Barnes pilots the tractor through long shadows as the blue sun lowers itself toward the horizon. His hands are gloved even though the day is hot; they itch incessantly. He grinds his teeth and resists the urge to scratch. Every day is an endless series of resistances like this one. Experience tells him that scratching will only make the pain worse, so he carries on, finishes plowing the row he was working on and pulls up to the farmhouse.
The farm is a co-op, huge and sprawling and subdivided into thirty plots for thirty different crops. The homes of ambitiously-named First City, more of a village, stretch around it in a narrow ring. If you were to see it from the air—and Donte had, when he first arrived—you’d swear it was about to break.
Jorgen Samuelssen ventures out onto the covered porch to meet Donte as he comes in from the tractor. Jobs normally rotate in the co-op, but Jorgen is always in the kitchen. Yes, cooking is what he does best, but he is also safest inside, out of the punishing deluge of ultraviolet Sapphire pours down upon Cradle. Jorgen is the only person other than Donte on the south side of First City who covers himself completely when he goes outside, and unlike Jorgen, Donte insists upon working outside—the unofficial uniform of the colony is tank top, shorts, and dark skin, the darker the better. Pale-skinned applicants like Jorgen are discouraged from immigrating, to minimize casualties from sunburn and skin cancer.
But Cradle is not a popular destination, and Jorgen was the first qualified chef to apply, and it took only a little convincing for the colony managers to clear him to immigrate. Standing on the porch, Jorgen wears the same covering as a conservative Islamic woman might, but his head covering thrown back in the shelter of the porch.
Donte wears the same covering, day and night, out and in; the sun is not why he goes covered. Covered, he itches; uncovered, the pain demands so much medication he might as well never leave his bed.
“In for the day?” Jorgen asks, holding a bottle of local banana beer out to Donte.
“No,” Donte says, but he takes the beer. “Got one more row left. But the itching…” he lets his voice trail off and takes a sip of the beer. It’s cool and light; the way they brew it hardly develops enough alcohol content to notice. It also doesn’t demand much more than bananas and water to make, two things the colony has in abundance.
“Itching’s bad today?”
“Driving me crazy.”
“As long as it’s still driving and you haven’t got there yet,” Jorgen says, and opens his own beer. Donte looks over at him, frowning, but the other man is sipping his beer and doesn’t notice. He probably didn’t mean anything by it, Donte thinks. But I’m so damn tired of the crazy war vet stereotype.
What makes it so annoying to Donte is that the stereotype almost fits. The itching does drive him crazy sometimes; there are days he doesn’t leave his house, but instead stays in and takes enough medication to reduce himself to a stupor. His Veterans Administration paperwork declares him disabled, but the frequent appearance therein of the word ‘psychosomatic’ follows him like a doom, a curse that barred him from the many colony worlds he’d have chosen over this one. Cradle is undermanned, desperate for people; five years out of the six it has existed, its population growth has lagged sorely behind projections. Few people want to go to a young planet circling a young star, to deal with heavy UV and vulcanism and flares. There are nicer worlds to break ground on. The very fact that Cradle was and is unpopular, however, had made them willing to take a chance on a crazy vet with phantom pain syndrome, yet no amputations.
“No, I haven’t gotten there yet, Jorgen,” Donte says with a sigh, and drains half the remaining beer in a gulp. “You’re safe from me.”
“You know I didn’t mean it like that, Donte,” Jorgen says. “In fact, I was hoping you’d talk about your troubles a bit. Talking about anything makes bearing it a little easier.”
“What’s to talk about?” Donte says. “I damn near lived in my armor for two years in the war. And when I was wounded, they took it from me. When I developed this phantom pain thing, they wouldn’t give it back.” He dangles the beer bottle over the side of the porch rail by its neck, wondering if it would break if he dropped it on the hard earth.
“And so you feel as if you’ve been skinned, all these years.”
“All these years.” The two men finish their beers in silence.
“One more row, Samuelssen,” Donte says. “Tell someone to open up the garage. I’ll bring the tractor in, in fifteen minutes.”
Jorgen watches Donte’s draped and veiled form climb back up into the tractor’s seat, lifting his hem to avoid stepping on it.
“You’ll have to tell me more than that one day,” he says to the sunset, once the tractor’s engine is running and he’s sure Donte won’t hear.
The next afternoon brings a flare warning. The volatile Sapphire is ringed with monitor satellites orbiting close in, almost skimming the fusion fire. When early signs of a brewing flare erupt, the signal races to Cradle and the warning sirens sound; those who are outside have only minutes to find shelter. At the call of the sirens, Donte is close to one of the shelters in a field of rice near First Landing River. The door of the shack is standing open and he climbs down the steep steel staircase behind it, into the cool. There are only a few other people in it when he arrives. They trade hellos gingerly; everyone knows he goes covered but most of them still feel it’s strange. Donte does his best to ignore it (like the itching, it follows him everywhere) and pours himself a cup of water from the hand pump near the chemical toilets. He picks a spot far from the door and sits down on the concrete floor to wait. Most flares last only an hour or two.
As with all flares, many people are caught farther from shelter than others. The ones still out when the flare hits don’t drop dead, they make it to shelter also; they’ve just had a dose of radiation, maybe a torso X-ray per minute’s worth. More people straggle in to the shelter Donte has found, a few of them carrying bits of metal or wood they’ve used to attempt to shield their genitals from the invisible shower of charged particles. Hope I didn’t catch a mutant out there, they say almost invariably, as common a cliché as how about that weather or hold my beer and watch this.
One of the latecomers, covered and veiled like him, wanders over to Donte, begins to turn to sit, hesitates…
Copyright 2013, S.A. Barton
Cover art copyright 2013, Erik Elliott
With a crash, chunks of the wooden arm blocking the exit of the garage we had just come from clattered into the street intersecting the one we’d just run across, and the Rikers’ car roared into the road. It slid across the lanes, slammed into a parked car side-first, then dragged in a door-to-door sideswipe, tires smoking.
The police car snaked into a second U-turn and crossed a T in front of the Rikers, stopping in the middle of the road.
The Rikers’ car slewed in a panic stop, then reversed into its own cloud of smoke, tires still howling like the damned. Streaks of distortion leapt from the arm of the passenger out over the hood, taking bites out of the side of the police car. The two officers rolled out of the other side of their car, drawing their guns, shouting into their radios. We were forgotten.
We bolted behind the chicken restaurant.
“How did they know we were there?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t understand,” Elvison said. I looked at him in the dim predawn light.
“Keep thinking. Let’s head toward my truck in the meantime,” I said. We walked down the alley behind the chicken restaurant, a narrow passage behind businesses punctuated with small green dumpsters. I peered down the next crossing street—blessedly, a narrow one-way lane with no traffic on it—for clues as to where exactly we were. Nothing. I hoped we wouldn’t have to turn around toward the faint wail of police sirens receding behind us.
I wondered if they’d catch the carful of Rikers, or if they’d get away. The car chases I saw on the news or on the primetime cop shows never seemed to get away, so I figured probably not.
Still, one could scatter from the rest, get away, find us again. I didn’t think it was going to happen soon, but that didn’t mean I could stop looking over my shoulder. And the worry was keeping me from thinking.
I stopped behind a fabric store, pulled my phone out of my pocket. It had a map thing on it that I hardly ever used. I entered my hotel’s address. We were only three blocks away. Home free. I could still just barely hear sirens in the distance as the police chased the Rikers. In fifteen minutes, we could be driving away into the rising sun. I kept expecting something to go wrong, but nothing did. We reached the garage, took the elevator up to where my truck was.
“That computer thing of yours, the car-starter… do you think they could track one of those things?”
“I don’t see how. When it’s off, it’s off. It’s not like one of those phones you buy where the company that sold it to you knows where it is all the time. It was built just for this trip, and it’s made to do what it does without being noticed.
“Okay. And your electric gun, same deal?”
“Uh-huh. What are you getting at?”
“When you took your hair off, there were lights and controls inside. They’re on all the time, aren’t they?”
“No they’re not on all the time, or no you’re not giving that up?”
“It can’t be that.”
“Why not? What’s the one thing they’d expect a priest of Elvis to have on him at all times? You’re wrong; it has to be that.”
“Yes, Elvison. I’m sorry.” I stuck my hand out, palm up. “Fork it over. I’m not taking you home to meet the wife unless I know those Riker bastards aren’t going to be able to follow us.” He sighed, unclasped it from his neck. Held it over my hand, dangling full length, a thick gold chain in its compressed form, showing no sign of what it actually was. He sighed again. He knew he was wrong, and I was right.
It dropped into my hand. I picked a wad of napkins out of the trashcan in front of the elevator buttons, wadded it up, jammed the wad into an empty drink cup and shoved the whole mess into the middle of the night’s trash. The morning janitor would be by any minute to empty it.
The sun was coming up on a new day as we drove out of town. We didn’t talk much as we drove, just little bits and pieces as we went past towns and in and out of the states between Nevada and the western border of Kansas, where I decided it was time to stop for the night and get a little rest. Elvison thought we should push on and complained at me until he saw the remaining Rikers on the news, billed by the talking head as a ‘bizarre new California cult’. I wondered how California had gotten roped into the story, but when people talk cults I suppose people think California. They had been apprehended while digging through a dumpster behind the parking garage we’d escaped.
“I told you that you were wrong,” I told him. And then I sneezed three times, hard. A wheeze deep in my lungs turned into a cough that turned into a huge wad of green phlegm in a Kleenex from the complimentary box on the nightstand between our beds. I took a few deep breaths, experimentally. There was a rattle forming down deep that I didn’t like at all. I looked over at him, thinking about the people we’d talked to during the day. Fast food clerks. Gas station attendants. The motel clerk. And thinking about some of the things he had said back in the diner.
“I think you were wrong about those plague years, too,” I said quietly. “I don’t think we have twenty years. I think you brought it with you.” I could feel the fever sweat springing up on my brow. He leaned over, put a hand against my forehead, sucked air through his teeth when he felt the heat.
“I hope you can forgive me. I knew not, baby.” He touched his hand to the empty air over his forehead, to the coif that he’d abandoned in a trash can in the desert. In the end, struggling for breath, squinting to separate vision from hallucination, I told him to leave me behind, to go out and spread his word.
Why not? People would need something to hold on to through the coming apocalypse. It might as well be the King.
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Flash fiction: Socrates, Unafraid
Copyright 2013, S.A. Barton
Cover art copyright 2013, Erik Elliott
“Elvis asked him if he had been faithful, and the man told the truth. The King answered him, “To thine own self be true, baby. You did what you had to do when times were tough. But you never shifted from the Word in your heart. I see it written there. And in the end you came right back to where you belong. To Elvis the King, and to His Word.” The Word is in my heart. And in the end I will come right back to where I belong just as He said. Yes. I’m in danger, just like the man was when he was robbed. And so are you, too.” He reached up and took his hair back up, reached into the scalp side. There was a single beep, and the hair retracted until it vanished into a thick, flexible golden ring. He undid a catch in it, hung it around his neck, then took off the sequined jacket. The ‘jumpsuit’ was two pieces, the jacket’s hem buttoning inside the waistband of the pants. Once the jacket was off, he was a bald man with white slacks and a white tee shirt with an odd U-shaped scoop neck, and a funky gold chain. Not too flashy, at least not for Vegas.
“Now what can we do to make you look a little less like the man in that diner?”
“Um.” I looked down at myself. Jeans, a plain black polo shirt, work boots. I was clean shaven, and my hair wasn’t detachable. I kept it short, almost a crew cut. Shaving me bald wouldn’t make a big difference. “Not much. Sorry.”
“Well, if there’s anything I’ve learned from the priesthood, it’s that nobody really notices a guy in plain clothes who’s standing next to a priest. Not really. The vestments are too impressive, and nobody can take their eyes off the coif.”
“Maybe. It’s not all that rare to see a guy dressed like Elvis in this town. On the other hand, it’s a big change so maybe it’ll be enough. Next thing, we have to get back to my truck. I can’t just abandon the thing.”
“Someone would ask questions sooner or later.”
“I don’t guess law enforcement changes much from century to century. Just the laws,” he said. “Why don’t I go get it? You’re the one who might be recognized.”
“That could work, you certainly drive well enough for a man from the future.”
“The modern car was designed working from the remains of ancient cars. The only thing to get used to is the smell of an oil lubricated combustion engine. It ain’t pretty.”
“What if the Rikers find you on the way?”
“Not likely. I’ll be hard to pick out of a crowd without a coif. There’s really nothing else for them to find me by. I should have hidden the thing when I showed up.” He hung his head. “I haven’t gone about this the smartest way,” he said.
“There will be plenty of time to worry about the mistakes you made yesterday tomorrow,” I said. “Right now… suppose I go in and play nickel slots until you go back. Disappear into the crowd.”
“Sounds like a plan. From the few days I’ve spent here, it seems like people can spend hours in front of those machines.”
I realized that behind us, I could hear an idling car. It seemed to me that it had been there idling for a while. Maybe only seconds, maybe minutes. It was hard to tell. For people who live in cities, the idling of a car is a natural background noise that often passes without raising a thought, like the rustle of leaves in the wind or the distant honking of geese in the country.
Maybe it was all of the coffee. Maybe something I had seen in the edge of my vision in an unconscious glance over my shoulder finally registered. Maybe it was something… else. But without thought, without a look to see if my suspicion was justified, I grabbed Elvison by the shoulder of his T-shirt and yanked him past me, toward the narrow concrete stairs. He wasn’t a small man at all, but I moved him easily, as if he were nothing more than a teddy bear full of fluff. Teetering in surprise, he descended in a jerky, barely-controlled dance.
Squiggly heat-lightning pulses cut the aluminum railing to shiny scraps where he had been a moment ago. I followed Elvison into the stairwell, sneezing at the stink of burned hair from where their shots had nearly clipped my ear and arm.
“One thousand years! Where’s your god now, hairball?” one of the Rikers shouted from behind us. We hit the back of the stairwell in a shower of pulverized cinderblock. The air just over our heads swam with the distortion of their gunfire as it ripped into the wall. We ducked down the next flight, moving as fast as we could without falling. Above, the Rikers’ car revved and tires squealed as they followed us down the much longer car ramp.
“Hairball?” I asked between gulps of breath.
“Makin’ fun of the coif,” he answered. We reached the bottom of the stairwell and Elvison shouldered through the emergency exit. A light over the door began to flash red and the jangle of alarm bells filled the parking garage as we left it behind. Nothing but a thin strip of gravel landscaping and a narrow sidewalk separated the exit from the street. A few cars flicked by in the mostly-empty street, their drivers’ eyes wide as they looked toward the noise of the alarm.
Above, tires screamed as the Rikers tore through the garage. They were only a couple of levels up, coming down fast. Somehow, I didn’t think they’d take the time to stop and pay on the way out.
“Come on,” I said, and bolted into the street with Elvison on my heels. Horns blared, no crashes. Traffic was still light. But as we reached the other side, I heard a short bwoop from a siren, saw red and blue reflect off the glass front of the fried chicken restaurant in front of us.
“Stay where you are,” an amplified voice said from the police car we had run out behind. It swung into a U-turn to come down our side of the street.
Part 5 of a serialized novelette
Copyright 2013, S.A. Barton
Cover art copyright 2013, Erik Elliott
He set the cellphone on the dashboard. The car started on its own, but Elvison fumbled around, confused, until I realized what he wanted and showed him how to get the headlights on. We pulled out, heading toward the edge of town, barely ahead of the sirens.
Two miles away, he parked the car and took a different one. A two door instead of a four door, black instead of red. He headed back into the strip and picked a different casino a mile away from the one we had started at. He drove up to the top of the parking garage in the open air, parked, fiddled with the cellphone-thing for a minute, nodded, stuck it in his pocket, and got out. I followed suit.
“Somebody will find this car. Then all they have to do is check the camera footage and they know what we look like. Maybe you go back to your time, but I’m staying here. I’ll probably get arrested.” Back to his time. I guess I pretty much believed him, then.
He patted the pocket he’d stuck the cellphone gadget in. “The cameras aren’t seeing us right now. This thing can keep that up pretty much as long as I want it to. If you don’t get farther than about three meters from me, they won’t see you either.” We made our way to the nearest stairwell, walked down a couple of levels.
“Look, what was that all about back there?” I finally asked. He stopped, stepped over to the edge, looking out over the gaudiness of the city. I settled in next to him, elbows on the aluminum tubes of the guardrail. The neon crawled over the skyline like lightning over the face of a thunderhead.
“The Rikers are followers of Rike, who they say lived for a thousand years and tried to unite the world under one religion. Theirs, of course. In their scripture, the Great World War was an alliance of his enemies and he was killed when they destroyed Old Berlin with a nuclear weapon. Like real history, but with a twist. Rikers believe that when they can bring the entire world under their rule, Rike will see that they have accomplished his goal and return again to rule them in a perfect utopia where death and suffering will be abolished.”
“The Great World War? There was the Great War—World War One—and there was World War Two. Two cities in Japan were nuked then, but not Germany.”
“Gemmay is the name of their purgatory, where the souls of the dead who serve Rike wait for his return so they can be reincarnated. I’ve never heard of Japan.”
“Have you ever considered taking a history book back to the future with you? I think you folks have a few things mixed up,” I said.
“Like how long Elvis lived. I noticed. I thought about reading some histories, they can’t be that hard to find. But…” he trailed off.
“But you really aren’t sure you want to find out,” I finished for him.
“Yeah. I grew up knowing that certain things were true, you know? And I come here and it’s all mixed up. It doesn’t make any sense. I’m supposed to send a message back, I have a dozen drop spots that they’ll check for it in my time. I have no idea what to tell them.”
“Well, when you get back, you just explain… oh.” If he was sending a message back in time, he wasn’t going back.
“Uh-huh. You got it, baby.” The uh-huh and the baby were all Elvis. How had they gotten that right when they obviously didn’t know a damn thing about major events like World War 2? My head swam, I was getting dizzy with the effort of wrapping my brain around it all.
“I don’t know about you, but I need sleep. Maybe some of this will make sense in the morning. But first… here.” I leaned over to fix the hole in this hair, wondering how much hair spray was in it to make it so stiff it would hold the shape of a bullet—or squiggly energy-thing—hole. He jumped back, eyes wide.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“Fixing the hole in your hair.”
“You don’t touch a man’s coif. Not unless you mean it. I’m not a same-er anyway, so it wouldn’t do you any good.”
“Never mind.” He reached up under the front of his hairline with the index fingers of both hands. There was a click, and his hair came off in his hands. I stared at him. Underneath, he was bald as an egg.
“Hey,” I said, my confusion vanishing. “That’s perfect. Change your clothes and I doubt anyone would ever look at you and think you were the same guy from the diner.” He turned the hair around in his hands, peered at the hole, then turned it over and started messing with something inside. I could hear a faint beep beep beep in time with his finger motions, like he was pressing buttons. Faint multicolored lights flickered, coloring his hands, making them seem oddly delicate. Busy, he didn’t respond.
“Stop for a minute,” I said. “Did you hear me? Stay bald, it’s the perfect disguise.”
“No matter what I’ve seen here, I’m not ready to abandon the faith. Not by a long shot. I can’t turn my back on Elvis.” He put his hair back on with another click. There was no sign of the hole.
“You don’t have to give up your faith,” I said. I thought, but it would be a good idea if you did. Your faith is kind of stupid. “You just have to, you know. Not dress like him. You’re pretty close to my size, I can lend you a shirt and a pair of pants until we can get you to a store. It’ll be a lot easier to avoid being questioned by the police about a shooting involving a man dressed like Elvis if you don’t look like Elvis.”
“These are holy symbols,” he said, bowing his head and touching his hair, then shaking one of his sequined lapels at me. “I don’t just take them off. They’re marks of the priesthood.”
“Around here, they’re worn mainly on stage by people putting on a show, and by one of the suspects in a pretty destructive shooting that left at least one dead guy on the street for the cops to pick up and puzzle over. Maybe two, I don’t know how bad off the driver was. If you want to avoid jail, or maybe a mental institution where they’ll try to convince you that you’re not really from the future after all but instead some amnesiac from the sticks who made it all up in his head, you’ll stop wearing those around all the time. I’m sorry if it conflicts with your faith, but you’re in danger. Looking like that makes you a target for those Riker people, too. Think about it.” I took a gamble. I wasn’t a big church man, but I had seen enough holy rollers to know that sometimes people picked and chose parts of their religion to justify ways to do whatever it was they wanted to do in the first place. No matter how holy they were, or thought they were. “What would Elvis do?” I asked him, and I looked him in the eye.
“Well-l-l…” he said slowly, “there is the story of the man who denied Elvis three times. Once because he was hungry and the boss wouldn’t hire Kingsfolk. Once because he was sick and the healer hated the faith. And once because he was afraid, and the robber cursed the King’s name in his hearing.”
“And what happened?” Everything hinged on his answer. And I didn’t know the faith.
Copyright 2013, S.A. Barton
Cover art copyright 2013, Erik Elliott
“It’s the Adversary’s servants,” he said, rooting around in his jacket with one hand. Oh, God. He’s got a gun, I thought. I wished I had one of my own, but the only gun I owned was a shotgun that didn’t come down out of the attic unless it was duck season.
“Satan?” I asked, mind spinning. There was no more shooting, but what if they came back?
“Who?” He shot me a sharp look, like I was the one who was crazy.
“The Devil. The Lord of Hell. The author of evil in the world. You know, Satan,” I said. I was giving a Sunday school lecture on my hands and knees in the broken glass of a shot-out window. Tires squealed outside in the street. They sounded distant, but not distant enough. The shooters turning around, maybe a block or two away, it sounded like. The other few customers were scrambling for cover, except for one damn fool who went right out through the broken frame of the front door. I silently wished him luck, then forgot about him. I had problems of my own to tend to. Behind the counter, two waitresses and the cook argued with each other about which one of them was going to stand up and call the cops.
“’Devil’ I get, but no. It’s Rikers, I’d guess. They think we’re trying to take over the world for Elvis. Probably because they’re trying to take over the world for Rike. Conversion by force of arms is part of their holy book.”
“But why are they here, why are they shooting at us?”
“Told you,” he said, peering over the top of the upended table. There were holes big enough to fit the bottom of a juice glass into along the upper edge that hadn’t been there before. Obviously it wasn’t tough enough to stop whatever the ‘Rikers’ were shooting. “They think we’re trying to take over the world for Elvis. Specifically, I’d guess they think I’m trying to change the past to wipe out their religion. We told them our project was just meant to verify the truth of the scriptures and nothing more. I don’t think they believed us.” He had something in his hand that looked like a travel sized electric razor with a black cap over the shaving heads. Outside, engines roared, the sound swelling fast.
This time I saw the action. Two cars roared past, two people hanging out of one and three out of the other, the third firing over the roof from the opposite rear window, butt hanging out in the breeze over the asphalt. There was a mass of flickerings, like little balls of that heat distortion you see over a hot road in the distance, but moving too fast for eyes to really get hold of. Things began to break and burst in the diner. Behind the counter, the argument about who was going for the phone stopped in favor of screaming. I flopped onto my back, wriggling backwards across the floor, looking for more cover. Bits of diner and diner tables flew through the air around me. In front of me, Elvison stood with fragments of table flying around him, returning fire with little bloops of distortion from his travel razor. Holes appeared in the metal side of the first car, and one of the shooters disappeared back into the car with a howl. The back tire of the second car exploded with a bass bomp and it slewed out of sight with a squeal and a crash of crumpling metal and breaking glass.
The last fragments fell to the floor. Outside, there was the metallic grunk-grunk of a missed shift, and the fading howl of an engine pushed hard, fleeing into the distance.
“Sonovabitch,” Elvison said, his back still to me. He put a hand up to his head.
“Are you hit?” I didn’t know what I’d do if he was. I could take him to a hospital, and they’d lock him up the minute he started talking about where he was from. He turned around. There was a neat hole through his coif, a little off center to the left. I could see neon flickering through it from the signs two streets over.
“Not so I’m bleeding,” he said.
“There were three guys in that car with the tire you shot out,” I said, looking around for a weapon, any weapon. I settled on the metal pole that had held a round two-top table before one of those squiggly gunshots had gone through it. Holding it by the pole, the flared base would make a fair mace. It was heavy enough. Maybe too heavy. The metal weight in the bottom probably weighed twenty pounds. But it was all I had.
“Four guys,” he corrected. “One of them was driving.” He stepped up to the frame that had once held a picture window’s worth of plate glass and stuck his head through it, peering down the street. He looked back at me. “C’mon. Or don’t, I guess. It’s not really your fight.” He stepped out through the empty pane, travel razor held out in front of him.
He was right, it wasn’t my fight. I had nothing to do with a religious war from the future. I found myself following, not quite sure why. Maybe it was because the odds didn’t seem too fair to me. And I kind of liked Elvison, never mind that he was weird as a petticoat on a pig.
Outside, the car of ‘Rikers’ was across the street, nose first in the brick corner of a pawnshop—luckily, not one of the 24-hour variety. The driver was face down in the remains of the airbag, blood trickling into his collar from his ear. The back doors were both open with nobody in sight. The passenger was struggling to pull himself out through the window. He froze when he saw us approaching. Without a word, Elvison raised his shaver and shot the man through the head. The struggling man’s left eye disappeared and a bowlful of bright pink oatmeal slopped against the broken bricks behind him. He collapsed, half in and half out of the car, flopping out of sight. I jumped at a sudden clang, and realized I’d dropped my makeshift club, nearly mashing my foot.
“What… why…” I stuttered, staring. Suddenly Elvison didn’t look like such a great companion after all. Shooting back at faceless assailants in speeding cars was one thing, but killing a wounded man while his legs were stuck in a wrecked car… that was cold-blooded murder. Wasn’t it? Or was that just what the end of a real fight—a life-or-death fight—looks like?
“Let’s move,” he said quietly. “The other two are bound to be nearby. Maybe they’re running, and maybe they’re hanging around waiting for a good shot, or for the other carload of zealots to come back. Plus there are the authorities to worry about. I can’t imagine the police around here just let gunfights in the street happen without doing anything about it.”
“Uh. No, they don’t. Look…”
“Follow me or don’t follow me. I could use your help, but we have to leave now and talk later.” He put the deadly electric shaver back in one pocket and pulled a cellphone out of the other. He pointed the cellphone at the nearest car and I heard the click as the power locks opened. Briskly, he walked toward the open drivers’ side door. “C’mon,” he said, but he didn’t look back.
Everything in me that gave a damn about self-preservation in me said no. There were people looking to kill him. Stealing a car was a crime. If I wasn’t picked up for questioning about what happened at the diner, I’d surely be arrested if we got pulled over in a stolen car.
On the other hand, I was curious as hell; it’s not just cats that curiosity kills. And twenty years towing cars in Ypsilanti… well, I didn’t have any regrets. But the most exciting thing I’d done since I was a kid was visit Niagara Falls on vacation ten years back. Niagara Falls is a pretty sight, but it’s not exciting at all.
I got in the car.
Copyright 2013, S.A. Barton
Cover art copyright 2013, Erik Elliott
“Jesus Christ,” I said, “are you trying to tell me you think America is Heaven?”
“Archangel Jesus Christ may he look over us and keep us safe in the name of King Elvis the Lord all our days Amen,” he snapped, the words coming so fast he sounded like an auctioneer. A pissed-off auctioneer, at that. Alarmed at the intensity in his words and eyes, I wondered if I’d made a mistake talking to this possibly—probably—crazy man. But his outburst was short-lived; he deflated and slumped back in this chair.
“Look, uh,” I said, “are you in a cult or something?” I regretted the words the instant they came out of my mouth. If he really was crazy, that was probably the exact wrong thing to say.
He gave me a frown. A small, lost Mona Lisa of a frown. “That’s probably how it started, from what I’ve seen here. One of the first things I learned after I arrived was that Elvis was dead. The King, dead. According to scripture, he lived through all of the Epidemic Ages, up to the refounding of the great Church in Vegas. Nine hundred and thirty-three years he lived, so says The Book. The epidemics won’t start for twenty years still, if those dates are right, and he’s already gone. Been gone and dead for decades. And dead of overdoing drugs and food, like a flawed human being, not the spirit of the Lord living in the flesh. And if that’s true—and I’ve heard it from more than one person here—then maybe The Book is just a story and my life has been lived in service of a lie. Dammit.” He looked down into his coffee and I gave my Denver omelet a try. Not bad, but nothing to write home about. He took a bite out of his peanut butter cheeseburger, and then another. I watched him eat and thought about what he had said.
“Epidemics. Twenty years from now,” I finally said.
“You’re from the future.”
“And you worship Elvis.”
“Thankyouverymuch,” he said. Just like I’d say amen in church. I wanted to believe him. He didn’t look crazy—at least, he didn’t look any crazier than any other person eating a peanut butter cheeseburger while dressed in a white sequined jumpsuit in the middle of the night. The look in his eyes said ‘shellshocked’ more than it said ‘crazy’. We finished our food, ordered pie and got a top-off on our coffee. He did that saying grace thing over it again.
“No offense, but are you saying grace for the coffee?”
“Coffee is sacred to the King. It’s part of the Eucharist. We don’t use it as an everyday drink. It’s strange having it like this, with a meal, like it’s just something wet to wash food down with.” He took a sip, shook his head and gave a little snort of a chuckle under his breath.
“What do you usually drink it with?”
“Nothing. It’s only for services.”
“That’s a shame,” I said, and I meant it. I had never thought of coffee as a holy beverage before, but I certainly did have a kind of reverence for it, upon reflection. A lot of people did.
We sat drinking coffee for a while, looking out the window. Even in the middle of the night, the road didn’t stay empty for too long between cars. We watched them go by in ones and twos; the people in them came in ones and twos also. No families out and about so late. The men were gray and drawn; the women mostly painted and showing plenty of skin.
“You know,” he said after we had watched for a while, “at first I thought they were priestesses or nuns.”
“Who?” I asked, puzzled.
“The prostitutes. You know, we’ve been watching them go by?”
“How would they be nuns, dressed like that, out in the middle of the night in cars with men?”
“Well, they’re not dressed quite right, sure. But still.”
“How would you expect a prostitute to be dressed?”
“Heh. Most of ‘em wear the white jumpsuit, just like a priest or a monk. Sequins for ordained, no sequins for lay.”
I laughed. “No pun intended?”
“What?” His face was blank.
“You said, ‘lay’. That can mean what you said, someone with a church who isn’t official. But it also means sex. You know, you get laid.”
“Huh,” he said, “I guess we don’t use ‘lay’ that way in my day. You rock, you get rocked.”
“I guess that makes sense,” I said, “that fits right in with Elvis. So no celibate priests. Or nuns, I guess, if ‘hooker’ means the same thing to you.” I wondered again if I should be having this conversation at all. A casual conversation over coffee, with a probably-madman cult member talking about the theology of a dead rock star and the religion of two thousand years from now. But with two cups of coffee under my belt and the waitress pouring me a third my desire to sleep was gone. This guy and his tall tale were just the ticket, the unreal cherry on top of the big fat sundae of unreality that was Vegas in the wee hours.
“Oh,” he said, answering my question, “they’re not the same thing. A prostitute who wears the suit and sequins, she’s taken holy orders and her fee is a tithe to the King. If she’s a nun, well, she’s expected to marry when she comes pregnant and it’s an honor for any man to raise the King’s children. If she’s a priestess, odds are that sooner or later she and some lucky priest will get hitched and the kids come up in the church. Some women sell sex on their own, without the blessing of the church. That’s not just immoral, it’s blasphemy. Doesn’t happen much, I don’t think.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said, forgetting myself. “How can a whore be a priestess? Sounds like some kind of pagan nonsense,” I said.
“The King told us to be fruitful and multiply,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “How in the world do you do that without sex? You expect church leaders to show the way. In all things.”
“But hookers?” I knew arguing religion with a stranger was a bad idea, but I couldn’t help myself. That just sounded so wrong, so sinful.
“Not hookers, dammit,” he said, giving the table a rap with the flat of his hand. The spoons jumped on the shiny tabletop, but only a little. “A hooker is keeping it for herself. A prostitute is doing it for the King, and fifty percent goes to the church.”
“So the difference is how much money she makes?”
“She shouldn’t get anything? She’s bringing money into the church, isn’t she? A priest or priestess gets paid for preaching.”
“It just seems so… don’t your churches just turn into… I don’t know, dens of vice?” It sounded like something out of a very old movie, some melodramatic line from a corny goody-two-shoes with an unnaturally square jaw. But I didn’t know how else to say it.
“Not really. There are laws about that kind of thing, and the church has its own rules. There’s nothing wrong with sex as long as you don’t use it to hurt people. It’s about the most natural thing we do aside from eat. If you want to see unnatural, watch what goes on in a bank. Then go watch the animals for a while. See if you see an animal explain compound interest to another animal anywhere in the natural world. You won’t find it, but pretty much anything more complex than an amoeba has sex in one form or another. Get down,” he finished, and he kicked the table over and yanked me down behind it. The glass of the window exploded, crunchy grains showering over us as we ducked our heads.
Part 2 of a serialized novelette
Copyright 2013, S.A. Barton
Cover art copyright 2013, Erik Elliott
I slapped a couple of bills down on the bar, picked up a basket of pretzels and followed him down the gauntlet of zombie slot players, out through the front doors. White jumpsuit painted by the constant neon flashes of the Vegas night, he sat heavily beside one of the marble-ringed fountains. I set the basket of pretzels down on the stone an arm’s reach from him, sat down on the other side of it. I wasn’t sure why I had followed him. He looked like he needed to talk. I needed to talk, maybe.
“If it doesn’t matter if you talk about it, why not talk about it?” I said. He let a single reluctant chuckle out and ate one of the bite-sized pretzels.
“I came here to see the King,” he finally said, “but the King, peace on his name, is dead.”
“You didn’t know Elvis was dead? Where are you from?” His accent was odd, hard to place. Maybe there was some little Podunk country somewhere that had never gotten the news. His words sounded a little bit deep South, a little bit—I wasn’t sure, maybe India. It was strange.
“I was born right here. Vegas. Where the King was born.”
I wasn’t all that sure where Elvis had been born, but I figured it was probably closer to Graceland than Las Vegas.
“Tell you what. I’m done gambling and you don’t look like you’re going anywhere. Why don’t I buy us a couple of burgers and you can tell me about it.”
We found a little diner a couple of blocks away. Like half the places in Vegas, it was trying way too hard to be somewhere and somewhen else. Vinyl records plastered the walls, and we chose a table as far away from the Motown-spewing jukebox as we could. He ordered chunky peanut butter on his cheeseburger. The waitress, blank eyes staring through deep crow’s feet that said she’d seen it all, didn’t show any reaction except making an extra scribble on her order pad. I just shook my head. To each their own.
“I was born right where that casino is,” he said once the coffee was poured. He sipped it, looked startled, and put it down fast. He bowed his head, touched the big black coif that jutted out over his forehead like a sunshade, then picked the coffee up and sipped again. The wife and I had fallen out of the habit of saying grace when the kids left. But if he was serious about it, what the hell. I put my coffee down too, mumbled a word of thanks under my breath and looked back up at him.
“I was born here in the Year of the King 2238,” he said, “right on Kingsmas. With a birthday like that I knew I was born for the priesthood, even before I was old enough to understand what that meant.”
“The Lord’s own birthday. My folks couldn’t really afford to send me to a church school, but I bullied them into it. My dad got a second job, my mam started taking in kids as a wetnurse.”
“A what? Wetnurse? I didn’t even know we had wetnurses. That kind of thing is just in third world countries, not in America.” When I said ‘America’, he blinked and gave me a funny look. Then he bowed his head and touched his coif three times fast.
“King Elvis the Lord reigns forever in Merica,” he said, the words sounding like they were in quotation marks, words he had recited so many times that the meaning had worn off of them. “When I was a kid in the church school, I wondered if I could go to Merica one day. When I was ordained, I knew my place was assured. Now I’m not so sure. Now… now I wonder if there even is a Merica. And I know it’s a sin,” he said, his voice dropping to a rough whisper, a hoarseness that comes with shame, passion, or both. “I know it’s a sin, but I doubt. Maybe I’m not going there at all.”
“If you’re not going to Merica,” I said, dropping the ‘A’ like he did, “where are you going?” I asked, curious. He looked up at me like you’d look at a kid who just said something funny, but not that funny.
“Hell,” he said, letting the word drop with a nod that jiggled his huge black hair.
Part 1 of a serialized novelette
Copyright 2013, S.A. Barton
Cover art copyright 2013, Erik Elliott
The inside of a casino at 3 AM is a strange place. It’s half-dead just like everywhere else in town at that hour, but it’s not deserted. Not by a long shot. The lights blink and flash, no matter where you look. Corpses painted in neon, eyes wide, sit mummified while their undead right arms pump coins into slots and jerk levers. They stare at cards and push chips while gratis drinks grow warm and flat at their elbows, ignored. They throw dice, groan, and ask God what He has against them. They dig deeper into their graves, the money that they live and breathe leaking through their fingers, blood from financially slashed throats soaking into the sand of Vegas.
A very few of them, like lucky me, dig their way out. When the sun stood overhead at noon of yesterday, I was signing a title loan against my truck to a pawn shop for a stake to win my savings back—twenty grand, a meager thousand for each year I’d spent towing cars for the city of Ypsilanti, Michigan. Finally, fifty bucks up from where I’d started fifteen hours earlier, I pushed away from the blackjack table convulsively, breaking free of its spell. Through plenty of luck and a little skill, I had clawed my way back from the brink of disaster—it was harder than you’d think to stop rather than push my luck a little farther. I could damn near taste the extra thousand dollars the little devil on my shoulder told me I was sure to win, or maybe five thousand. Maybe I could double my money. I took a deep breath, let it out, and kept walking away. In a casino the temptation isn’t on every street corner, it’s right under your nose the whole time.
The texture of the green felt pulled at my eyes somehow. It felt as if the light was tacky, squelching against my eyeballs like wet paint on a roller. I closed my eyes and knuckled at them hard as I turned my back. Opening them again, I looked out over the rest of the room; it was leached of color, dull and weak in my eyes after hours of staring at the lush deep green of the card table.
The only thing that stood out to me was the crawl of rhinestone across the broad white back of a lone Elvis impersonator—or ‘tribute artist’ as they prefer—at the bar, a dead zone of empty stools marking the radius of dejection that emanated from him. I should be jubilant, I thought—I had just saved myself from ruin. But I had won twenty thousand dollars and done nothing but get back to where I was when I walked in the door. He was still there after I cashed out my chips; I slipped easily into the dead zone, his dejection and mine harmonizing, and sat down next to him. He turned his head to me, his enormous black lacquered pompadour nodding slightly under its own weight.
“Hey, baby,” he said, his voice not quite deep or smoky enough to be a good Elvis, but not bad either.
“Um, right,” I said, wondering just how drunk he was. “Are you doing a show here?” He took a slow sip of his beer and I took the opportunity to order one for myself.
“No,” he said, staring down into his glass. He looked over at me again, pensive, eyes piercing for a moment before filming back over with sadness and alcohol. He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, deciding if he wanted to say more. Finally he gave a tiny shrug and a heavy sigh. “I didn’t know they did shows here,” he said, voice low. I leaned over a bit so I could hear his thick-lipped mumble. “I was expecting a church.”
“Um,” I said again, and sipped my beer, giving myself time to turn his words over in my head. “Bob Harris.” I stuck out my hand. He introduced himself as Elvison Gracer. “You mean the other imper… uh, tribute artists don’t respect Elvis enough? The original, I mean.”
“I shouldn’t be saying anything at all,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s going to matter.” He shook his head sadly and pushed his beer away, the sodden napkin under it tearing into soaked shreds on the deep polish of the wooden bar. “I need to air my head out.” He stood up. He was steady on his feet, obviously not stumbling drunk despite his odd choice of words, but the way he looked around the room—he struck me as a man in shock. Maybe he’s like me, I thought, except he didn’t win it back. Maybe he lost it all…