My essence will live on. All the advertising and testimonials confirm this. But I’m still skeptical.
I’ve avoided interstellar body-hopping my whole life. Every time the studio wanted to send me somewhere, I refused. Now they won’t renew my contract unless I go to Hathor. They show me pictures of the vessel waiting for me there. He’s a tall, muscular man with a well-defined jawline, indicating mainstream appeal.
I’ve always been a short, sinewy man with a mostly undefined jawline, indicating counterculture and open spaces.
Leading-man looks would ruin my personality. I’m an antihero. Flaws, quirks, hang-ups, conflicting motivations — they’re my trademarks. Last year, the Wall Street Journal said I had “the most imaginative and obscure affectations of anyone in my demographic.”
But now that I’m in prison everyone forgets that.
The Chief Human Resources Officer, Richard, rented out one of the warden’s suites so he could make the pitch. He stands over me, arms folded, wearing a million-dollar suit. I’m in beige coveralls. Guards stand outside.
I put the vessel’s pictures back in the file, and throw it on the table.
“I didn’t see any pictures of his penis,” I say. “I’d like to know what kind of penis I’m getting into. It’s pretty important.”
Richard exhales through his nose, and talks into the Ether. “Do we have any pictures of the vessel’s penis?” He stares at the floor with his mouth open, waiting for a response, then looks up at me. “Sorry, that’s a negative.”
“So we’re dealing with a completely unknown penis size here? Come on. Does anyone have an idea? Anecdotal evidence? Ether archives? Anything?”
Richard is deadpan. “Nothing that we’re aware of.”
“Don’t mock me. You guys could find something. You’re just lazy.” I pick up the file and shake it at him. “You didn’t even bring me any pictures of what he looked like when he was still walking around. He could have a gummy smile for all I know. I could go around the rest of my life with a small penis and a gummy smile. But you guys don’t care. You’d prob’ly think it was funny.”
Richard’s hands are folded in front of his crotch. “Let’s go over your choices…” He looks over my shoulder when he talks. I take it as a sign of disrespect. “For your crimes you’ve been sentenced to life in Penitentiary of America. Your Permit of Immortality…revoked. You’ll grow old and die at the whim of nature.”
I scoff, mutter under my breath, “Whim of nature.”
“Your only chance at redemption is in Hathor.” He points at the file. “And that vessel is your ticket.”
“Why Hathor? I don’t have any followers over there.”
Richard smiles and sits down across the table. “Are we done with the penis questions now?”
I raise my eyebrows and nod at the asshole. “What’s the pitch?”
“The promo. I figure something like, ‘Brad is back. New body. New exotic locale. What random, bizarre, and awesomely life-affirming mishaps will he get himself into next?’”
Richard leans back in his chair, crosses his legs. “I’m afraid your contract will not be so familiar. We want you to find someone for us.”
“What? Don’t you have people for that?”
“We do. And they’re working on it. But we’re exploring every avenue.” Richard hands me a piece of paper from the file. “This is a transcript of a Q-E from Alan March.”
“Commodore Happy Pants?”
Commodore Happy Pants was the stage name Alan used for his children’s feed, Commodore Happy Pants Presents, which was cancelled eight months ago after his disappearance.
The transcript reads, “I’ve discovered the answer to the eternal question, and it is in no way horrifying.”
Richard waits for me to look up. “We caught it in the Ether two days ago. What do you make of it?”
I laugh. “It’s ridiculous.”
“You knew him,” accuses Richard.
“Yeah, but barely.”
“The Q-E originated from somewhere on Hathor. But we think maybe that was just a jumping off point for him. We think he might be on Orcus.”
“So how am I supposed to find him? I don’t know how to find people.”
“You’re his best friend. Maybe he’ll find you.”
“Best friend? I’m not his best friend.”
“You’re the only person he ever associated with outside his own feed.”
“We were colleagues. I had lunch with him a few times, that’s it.”
“That’s more than anyone else.”
I shake my head. “Why do you want him so bad anyway?”
“Breach of contract.”
I bow in my chair. “God forbid,” I say, and smirk. “So what makes you think I’ll give up my best friend to you guys?”
Now it’s Richard’s turn to smirk. “Your body and your Permit of Immortality will both be waiting for you here on Earth if you do.”
I shake my head. The most powerful corporation/entity in the world can’t find a man that goes by Commodore Happy Pants.
The next morning, I’m reconnected to the Ether. Feels like I’ve woken from a dream.
I’m introduced to Alex, a big hairy man with an intimidating Adam’s apple who’s to be my “guide” on Hathor.
“You look like a man who likes his mutton,” I say to him, trying to be funny.
“What’s mutton?” he says.
“If you don’t know what mutton is I’m not going to explain it to you.”
He looks at me with his eyebrows all screwed up, like he’s trying to figure me out.
I give him my poker face.
“Download this,” he says, breaking the silence.
I receive a link in my inbox, and follow it to information on the history of Hathor and Orcus and the basics of quantum travel.
“Hathor was discovered by astronomer, Mathew Kroeger…The first colonists arrived about fifteen hundred years ago, after spending over three centuries in suspended animation aboard the spaceship, Unflappable…The early years were full of hardship…cancer, neurological disorders, contaminated test tubes…high instances of fortitude and stalwart resolve…
“Within the next five hundred years, two new worlds were colonized…With mind teleportation, travel between the worlds became instantaneous. Brain-dead bodies, otherwise known as vessels, were kept alive with machines, and available for a substantial fare…trade between planets mostly tourist-based…intergalactic class emerges…new worlds secede from Earth…the black market…authorities…death.
“Hofletter Intergalactic launched the first and only ship to reach Orcus. It was an unmanned voyage with a cargo of eighteen vessels auctioned off at record prices to wealthy and powerful bidders who wanted to experience the thrill of being the first to walk on a new planet…Three of these “pioneers” made the leap from Hathor to Orcus. They were never heard from again.”
Alex sends me a link to a video. She says, “This is classified, but Richard got us clearance.”
I watch a man walk out of a spaceship into a barren landscape. The camera follows him until he disappears over a small hill. The video cuts ahead to a crowd of people in strange clothes gathering around the spaceship. The camera zooms in on several of their faces. They’re angry. They climb onto the hull. They beat on it with clubs and rocks. The camera is destroyed.
“Where’d they come from?” I ask.
“No one knows. No other ship has made it to Orcus.”
“So they’re aliens?”
“No. The government says they’re human; they just don’t know how they got there. Agents teleported into some of the vessels to investigate, but once they left the ship no one heard from them again. The military launched an expedition, but that won’t arrive for another sixty years. So control of the ship was returned to Hofletter Intergalactic, who’s been selling off the remaining vessels to whoever is rich and crazy enough to buy them.”
“Jesus,” I say. “What about Hathor? You been there before?”
“I’m from there,” he says. His eyes are unfocused, searching the Ether.
“It’s all freaks and weirdos in the feeds,” I say. “Transgenic humans, silicon consciousness…Everything’s legal there. But not population dampening. God forbid they should keep the freaks down to a minimum.”
“Didn’t I just say I was from there? Underneath they’re the same as people here.” Alex turns his giant head and stares at me. “I’ve never eaten the flesh of a fully grown sheep,” he declares.
“Mutton. Why do I look like I like mutton? I don’t get it. Are you making fun of me?”
A laugh escapes through my nose. “No, I was just, you look like you could really tear meat off a bone, ya know. Hearty.”
“Hearty,” he repeats, and looks at me with his eyebrows again. “You’re kinda cute. I can see why Cassandra loved you.”
I throw up my hands, roll my eyes. “I’m cute? Why would you bring her up?”
“I followed the last few months of your feed.”
“What you did to her was wrong. She loved you, really loved you. You know that, don’t you? And I think you loved her too, but you were just afraid.”
I hang my head. “Jesus. Is this a joke?”
“You can’t run away from your emotions,” Alex continues. “I know Cassandra’s company annihilated your father, but she had nothing to do with that. She was just an employee.”
All I can do is shake my head. Everyone in the world seems to have an opinion on my love life.
I was huge towards the end there. Mad Brad Hammerfish. I pretty much dominated the 18-to-25-year-old heterosexual male demographic.
Millions subscribed to my feed every day. My followers and I perverted the mainstream from the inside with our insincerity and intense self-awareness. We bought eighty-eight percent of all Erupto sold worldwide, seventy-six percent of Fang, ninety-nine percent of Grinder’s Beef Sleeves. We enjoyed hunting, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, boxing, and watching baseball, but only because we did them with style. We challenged stereotypes and commented on their overarching cultural implications with our swagger. We rode combustion motorcycles from the 20th century–vintage Hondas, the ones that look kind of like vintage Triumphs. We wore suits while we rode them, and our ties flapped in the wind. We shopped exclusively at RockFlesh Sporting Goods, drank at Mickey Sevens’, and worked out at Body and Spirit so we could eye-dog chicks–or smell-goods, depending on which slang numbers you looked at. We also wore aviator frames with the lenses taken out. We pretended like bad smells didn’t bother us. We stockpiled fireworks, raised our own chickens, and slept under an overpass once a year.
We were the Brad Nation.
But that was before Cassandra.
She didn’t even have a nation. Her subscribers called themselves a clique. Cassandra’s Clique.
We were a celebrity power couple, one of the biggest, which is fine, good for business, but then she infected me with her reality.
I first noticed it in the bathroom, when I couldn’t overcome the urge to shave my tongue-in-cheek mustache.
My colleagues called it love. I called it death.
I alerted the emissaries in my brain: Kill everything that isn’t Brad.
Of course, that broke Cassandra’s heart.
A month later she killed herself. Pills.
Over six percent of her clique joined her. Only a small portion of those had their stomachs pumped in time.
Her parent company’s stock fell almost seventeen points. I thought the free spirit clause in my contract would protect me. I was wrong. The courts ruled I was in breach.
After three days of brain scans and psychological tests, Alex still doesn’t think I’m ready for mind teleportation.
I spit on the carpet. “Three days. How am I not ready?”
Alex looks at me with pitiful eyes. “Mind teleportation requires a rock solid sense of your own identity. Without that you can go mad.”
“Are you kidding me? I know who I am. I’m Mad Brad fuckin’ Hammerfish. My identity’s in black and white, every fuckin’ detail. Look at my old contract.”
“That’s your public persona, Brad, not the real you.”
“They’re the same thing. Some of my fans followed me every minute of the day. I couldn’t put on an act that whole time. It’s not possible.”
Alex slaps another pitiful look on me. Pisses me off. “Don’t look at me like you just dropped a bomb of insight on me. I know who I am.”
“Do you?” he says.
“I don’t like you.”
“You’re hiding something. A more sensitive side perhaps. That’s why you dumped Cassandra. You’re afraid to let it out. You’re denying it, pretending it doesn’t exist, but it’s there and it’ll drive you mad if you don’t confront it.”
“There’s nothing there. I’ve been under hypnosis. They didn’t find anything.”
“This is deeper than hypnosis.”
I scoff, mutter under my breath, “Deeper than hypnosis.”
“You’re not ready.”
“This is stupid,” I say. “I’m going over your head.”
“That’s a mistake. This is for your mental health, Brad. Don’t be stubborn. I’m bringing in a specialist.”
I look Alex in the eyes and quote one of my most popular slogans, “There is a tomorrow, and it’s right now.”
After talking to Richard, my leap date is bumped up a week
Alex logs an official complaint.
I’m so nervous before the leap they give me drugs so I keep still inside the QET tube. A low, constant hum reverberates around me. The countdown begins. I take deep breaths. Alex told me most people experience an intense feeling of euphoria at the moment of teleportation. I wait for it after the countdown ends, after the collapse, but it never comes.
Damn sedatives. I open my eyes.
An electric motor whirs, and the tray I’m lying on begins to slide. I press my chin against my chest and see strange feet moving down a dark tunnel toward a white light. The tray stops in the light. Needles poke me in the arms. A voice says, “Do not attempt to stand.”
I attempt to stand, almost fall. My head is heavy, so is my body. Tubes and wires hang from me like seaweed, and my heart drums against the inside of my chest.
I squint at my penis, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the light.
“Satisfied?” says a woman’s voice.
My head jerks up. A naked woman lies on her side in the adjacent tray. “It’s me,” she says. “Alex.” Huge breasts, mischievous smile.
“Yuck,” I say.
She sits up. “Don’t be a prude.”
“Are you kidding?”
“Wanna see if it works?” she says, nodding with her chin at my crotch.
I think of Alex’s wiry beard back on Earth, and his neck with its intimidating Adam’s apple. “You’re making me upset,” I say.
She laughs, gets up, walks toward me. “Let’s see how you’re doing.” She picks up a Halo from the counter and crowns me with it. She’s a head taller than me. Her nipples stare into my eyes. “198, 32, 59. Not bad. How do you feel?”
“Weird,” I say, scratching my head. “I feel conscious of every move I make, even my breathing. I can’t breathe without thinking about it. And my voice sounds weird, nasal. Weird.”
She looks down on me and smiles like a mother. “That’ll go away. Remember, though, there will be some residual chemicals in your new brain, maybe even some stubborn synapses. You might find yourself having foreign reactions, impulses. Don’t let it scare you.”
“Why does my head itch so bad?” I say, scratching with both hands.
“You have an incurable disease of the scalp.”
“Are you kidding?”
“No, I’m sorry, I’m not. They didn’t want me to tell you until after you leaped. They thought you might back out if you knew.”
“This is unbelievable.”
“No, it’s just mild itching. You’ll get used to it.”
“Mild itching! Jesus Christ.”
“Think of it as an incentive to finish your mission.”
An automaton brings us clothes. Alex has to help me dress my new fumbling body. “There you go,” she says. “You look nice.”
We walk through scanners as we leave the terminal and enter a public dining area stuffed with humans of all shapes and sizes: floating fat men with little wings, fish people in aquariums on the beds of small, honking trucks, people with abnormally large heads, people with abnormally small heads, three-armed people, four-armed people, people with tails, cyborgs with windows into their internal organs, a man with grass for hair, an ambulatory refrigerator…
“Jesus Christ,” I say. “This is what happens when you don’t put any limits on self-expression.”
“Don’t be so old-fashioned. Have an open mind.”
The limo driver has the face of a giant cat. Ram’s horns spiral out from the top of her skull.
“Do you have a sister?” I ask her. “I just saw someone that looks just like you.”
She raises her chin. “I have a sister but she looks nothing like me. I have never seen anyone that looks like me.”
“One of a kind huh?” I say, smiling.
“Leave her alone,” says Alex, tugging on my arm from inside the limo.
“You’re telling me there’s no one on this planet with a cat face and horns?”
“Not like me.”
I get in the car. The door closes behind me. “I don’t like these people,” I say.
“What is your problem?” says Alex. “You just got here.”
“Everyone thinks they’re so…ya know? They’re vain, I can tell. A whole planet full of vain people. Oooh look at me, I’m a cat, or look at me, I’m a walrus slash zucchini hybrid creature that can drink poopy water if it has to.”
“Sounds like Earth to me.”
“No one on Earth drinks poopy water.”
“I mean that Earth is full of vain people just like here. Look at you. You had your own clothing line, your own colognes, and that whole retro fad thing. You’re as vain as they come.”
“That’s different. I’m a trendsetter.”
“That’s different. I’m a trendsetter,” Alex repeats in a higher pitch, mocking me.
Outside the window, the capitol of Hathor’s northwestern province looks like any city on Earth, if you ignore the pedestrians. The architecture is a little more modern perhaps, less sharp angles, but nothing too impressive.
We park in the basement of the hotel downtown where the press conference is taking place. My company is pretending to launch a new feed for me here on Hathor. They’re hoping the publicity will get Happy Pants’ attention, make him want to seek out and contact his “best friend.”
The hotel conference room is a pathetic sight: a handful of reporters and a lot of empty chairs. “This is bush league,” I whisper-slash-yell at Alex while we walk onto the stage. “You guys couldn’t drum up more publicity than this?”
“You’re not that famous here.”
“Bullshit. This room should be packed. This is your fault.”
“What? This wasn’t my responsibility.”
I look down at the branch representatives sitting at the table next to the podium. “Which one of you idiots is going to introduce me?”
They stare straight ahead, silent, smiling, ignoring me.
“Did you hear me?”
I look at Alex. The mic is picking up every word I say, but I don’t care.
“They’re ignoring me. I think I offended them,” I say, incredulous. “Corporate didn’t even have the decency to send me sycophants.”
I stomp to the podium. My footsteps echo through the silent room. There’s supposed to be less gravity here, but I feel heavier. “I’m Mad Brad fuckin’ Hammerfish,” I shout into the mic. “I’m here. Love me.”
As I kick over the podium I realize that this is what corporate wanted. They wanted me to make a scene–more publicity that way. The realization only fuels my rage. I start throwing chairs into the audience. “I’m being manipulated!” I cry. “I have an incurable disease of the scalp!”
I drop to my knees. Alex rushes to my side, bends over, puts her hands on my shoulders. “It’s okay,” she says. “Breathe. You’re okay. The leap is catching up with you, that’s all. I should have given you more time. I’m sorry”
I get up, shake it off. “Take me to Mickey Sevens’. I need a drink.”
“I don’t think they have–”
“They got one here. I checked before we left. It’s by downtown. What day is it?”
“Tacos and Jell-O shots night. Perfect.”
Thank God for quality control. Mickey Sevens’ is packed with freaks, but the maple bar and banisters, the dining room layout, the bizarre trinkets and replicas of rare baseball memorabilia hanging from the green walls, make me feel at home.
“Let’s eat at the bar,” I tell Alex. “I always eat at the bar.”
We sit down. I shout at the bartender: “Hoof hoof. Tacos and Jell-O shots for me and my friend.”
He barks like a peanut salesman. “Hoof hoof. Tacos at the bar, tacos here, we need tacos at the bar.”
I grin at Alex as a tray of green Jell-O shots is smacked down in front of us. “You’re buying, right?”
She smiles, says, “This isn’t covered by per diem.”
“Oh don’t be a butter-rock,” I say.
“Butter-rock? What’s that?”
“A cheapskate. You know? Don’t be a butter-rock.” I throw my head back and squeeze a shot down my throat. “You never heard someone called a butter-rock before?”
Alex shakes her head, laughs. “No. How do you get cheapskate from butter-rock?”
“A cheapskate never turns on their heater. Too expensive. So their house is always cold, which means the butter they leave out is cold, and everyone knows you can’t spread cold butter on untoasted bread.”
“What a ridiculous, arcane expression. Nonsense.”
“It tested well in our focus groups,” I say, and hand her a shot. When she turns to grab it from my hand, I notice two dark stains on her chest where her nipples should be. “Are you lactating?”
She looks down. “Damn. Yes. I guess it’s been a while since I harvested.”
“You have a baby?”
She laughs. “Oh, no. I lactate all the time. I’m transgenic.” She points at her breasts. “There’s spider silk in there. That’s how I put myself through college. Spider silk is a highly sought-after building material.”
“You’re part spider,” I say. “Jesus, that’s disgusting.”
Alex’s smile disappears. She throws her shot at me. Jell-O explodes in my face. “Bigot,” she says, then turns and walks out.
I lean back against the bar and frown, grumble. I slam three more shots and wipe my face. “You’ve never seen a scene before?” I yell at the weirdos staring at me. “You’re all vain.”
A large woman in the corner catches my eye. She seems normal, looks familiar. After two more shots, she notices me staring at her and waves me over. I shove half a taco in my mouth and snake through the dining room, leading with my head.
“Do I know you?” I say, sitting at the empty chair across from her.
She smiles. “You get in a fight with your girlfriend?”
“She’s not my girlfriend. She’s a spider. Can I have one of your tacos?”
“Sure. You like tacos, don’t you?”
“I love tacos,” I say, and take a bite. Most of the filling spills in my lap. My new body can’t handle its liquor.
I point to where I was sitting. “I have my own tacos back at the bar. I’ll bring them over. No. Maybe they’ll bring them over.” I wave at the bartender and shout over everyone’s heads. “Bring me my tacos! Tacos for the lady!”
“It’s okay,” she says. “You can eat my tacos all night.”
“No, I have tacos. We’ll share.”
“Ahh. You’re cute.”
I lay my forearms on the table, hunch over, lean my head to one side. “I’m not usually attracted to big ladies, but there’s something about you.”
She giggles, then growls, “Grrr.”
“Whoa,” I say.
Without thinking, I hold my taco to her mouth. She takes a bite. “Thatta girl. Big bite.”
She giggles and wipes her chin. Now it’s my turn with the taco. She encourages me while I devour it and slurp down another shot: “What a big boy you are. Such a big boy with a big appetite.”
As I’m about to take another bite, I vomit on my shoes. “Oh God,” I say with my head in my lap. A woman at the table next to us screams. The taco lady helps me up, half carries me across the room. We bump into tables, elbows, backs. We knock over drinks and plates. A waiter is yelling something at me. “It’s okay,” I say as we’re walking out the door, “I feel better now.”
The taco lady guides me down the street and up some stairs to her place. At her front door she tells me her name is Lola, and takes me by the hand, leads me inside. I flop onto her couch. “My shoes stink,” I say.
“It’s okay,” she says.
Lying down, I hear loud, clanking stomps in the kitchen, and look over. A robot body with a human head enters. The body looks like it was rescued from the scrapyard. The head isn’t brand new either. Lips and eyelids are missing from the face. The skin around the neck is stretched thin and bolted down.
“What the hell is this?” I say, jumping up.
“I am Paul Jorg-en-son. You have my bod-ee,” it says with a halting, inflectionless, electronic voice.
I put the couch between us. “Lola! Go get help!”
“She will not help. She is my lov-er.”
“I don’t have your body, man. My company gave this to me.”
“And they took it from me. I want it back.”
It stomps slowly toward me, a grotesque and permanent expression of surprise on its face. Lola looks on, grinning, cheering: “Get him, cupcake! Don’t let him get away!”
I try to juke Jorgenson, but the room is too small. A metal hand latches onto my thigh, lifts, and presses me gently against the ceiling. “Pre-pare the tube,” he says.
Lola skips into the bedroom.
“What are you doing?” I say. “Just wait. I can find another body. You don’t need to do this.”
Lola squeals, “Get him naked.”
“Shut up,” says Jorgenson.
I notice Lola undressing out of the corner of my eye.
Jorgenson carries me into the bedroom, stuffs me into a QET tube. “Pre-pare for a-ni-a-lation.”
I scream and try to squirm free, but Jorgenson straps me down.
And the tube is humming!
It grows stronger and stronger until I can’t hear anything else.
Then it stops.
“Hey,” I yell. “Heeeeey!”
Someone loosens the straps around my legs, and I worm my way out. Alex is standing over me, smiling, wearing a clean shirt. Jorgenson is a heap in the doorway.
“What happened?” I say.
“After I left you we got a lead on Happy Pants, so I followed your beacon here to get you.” She points at Jorgenson. “I zapped that thing after it tried to attack me. Then I saw your legs.”
I sit up. “Where’s Lola?”
“The woman? She ran down the fire escape.”
I hug Alex around the waist, press my ear against her stomach. “Is this okay?”
She puts her hand on my head. “Poor baby,” she says.
My company’s agents tracked Happy Pants’ Q-E to an apartment eighteen miles west of the capitol, where his mother lives under an assumed name. They found the vessel he was using on Hathor in one of the rooms, lying in bed hooked to machines. His mother had tucked him in.
“The scanner showed no brain activity,” says Alex, when we’re back in the limo. An appliance specifically designed to alleviate itching of the scalp is attached to my head. While Alex and I talk, it gently rubs, scratches and applies lotion. “That means he leaped somewhere right?” I say.
“Right. He’s saving the vessel in case he wants to come back.”
“Where’d he go?”
“They think he went to Orcus.”
“Then it’s over, right?” I say. “No one comes back from Orcus.”
Alex turns to me. Her eyes say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Her mouth says, “You’re right, but Richard wants to make sure. He wants you to make sure.”
“Make sure of what?”
“Make sure he’s on Orcus. They think he’s there, but they don’t know.”
“They want me to go to Orcus? This is insane.”
“I know, I know.”
“Jesus, what did Alan do anyway? I’m not going there. There’s no way. Tell them. Tell them no.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah I’m sure. Why? You think I should go?”
“I think you should think about it.”
I rip the appliance from my head. “People who go to Orcus are never heard from again. What do I need to think about?”
Alex throws up her hands. “What would you rather do: go back to prison and die there, or have a chance at life again? This is your chance. ‘There is a tomorrow, and it’s right now.’”
I smile, shake my head.
She rests her hand on mine. “Your father is there,” she says, “or at least his body is.”
“He’s one of the vessels they sent to Orcus.”
“Hofletter Intergalactic is a subsidiary of the corporation that sued him.”
A silent moment passes while it sinks in. I hold back tears. I talk and hold back tears. “He’s been there this whole time?”
“Yes, in suspended animation.”
I was ten when he violated his contract. They wiped his brain clean and made him a vessel, but I never knew where they sent him. I’ve been afraid of running into him ever since—in the street, a restaurant, at a party—running into a stranger in his body. I don’t know if I could handle it. Turns out I had nothing to worry about. He’s been on Orcus this whole time.
Alex strokes my hand. “He was the last vessel to be inhabited. If Alan is on Orcus, he’s running around in your father’s body.”
I sigh, and say, “That’ll make him easier for me to find.”
She perks up. “So you’ll do it.”
I nod, and hold up my hand. “Brad-slam.”
“Brad-slam. The season of do has arrived.”
“Whatever,” she says, and slaps my hand.
I have a full beard and a shoulder-length mop. My new vessel acquired them while in suspended animation. The beard stinks, but I don’t take the time to wash it. I want off this planet as soon as possible. I find pants and boots, leave the hospital gown for a shirt, and stumble down passageways to the main hatch, while the computer protests about my rehabilitation time.
I struggle to spit words out: “Oh-hin ha. Oh-pin hatsss-sh. Open hatch.”
The computer obeys. A dry heat breaths into the ship, warms my aching bones. I squint and shield my eyes from the alien sun as I take my first steps on the planet surface.
“Demon!” I hear a man yell. “Demon! Imposter Jesus. Demon.”
I look around. My vision is cloudy, but I count four men rushing toward me. I put out my hands. “Whoa,” I say. “I’m Brad.”
The men stop and cower for a brief moment, then continue. The one leading the charge holds a gun-sized cross rigidly above his head. “Demon!” he shouts. “Imposter!”
I turn to run but I’m too slow. They grab me from behind, throw me down. One of them yells something in a strange language, and kicks me in the ribs. Another gets right in my face. “We will not relent,” he whispers. “Do you hear me, Satan? We won’t fall for your tricks. Never again. Send as many demons as you wish. We will vanquish them one by one. We. Are. Vigilant.”
They start dragging me.
“I’m not a demon,” I cry. “I’m Brad. Brad Hammerfish. I’m looking for Alan March. Commodore Happy Pants. Alan March. He’ll tell you.”
We stop. Someone behind me asks, “You know the Commodore?”
“Yes, yeah,” I say, craning my neck to see who spoke. “We’re best friends.”
I’m helped to my feet.
“How do you know the Commodore?”
“We’re best friends. I told you.”
“Are you a demon?”
“Demons are liars.”
“I’m not a demon.”
“We shall see.”
The men on either side of me tug at my arms and start to walk.
“You taking me to Alan?” I say.
I ask again.
Nothing. They’ve decided to ignore me.
We walk for miles following an uncovered aqueduct through a desolate land full of red rocks and red sand. The heat is a burden. When I need rest I’m allowed to sit and drink from the slow-running water.
My captors are dressed like they just came from a crappy Halloween party. Their costumes are unimaginative, straightforward, un-ironic–cowboy, pirate, Roman centurion, and what I’m guessing is an indigenous Peruvian.
I ask the questions but I don’t get any answers.
Before sunset, we reach the lip of a canyon. Fog creeps over its walls like steam from a giant cup of noodles. We follow a trail snaking down. After half an hour or so, we dip under the fog, and I can see a cluster of buildings on the canyon’s floor, surrounded by acres of lush farmland.
We walk through fields of corn as daylight fails. I see strange creatures with two legs and four arms working between the rows. They’re long, lanky, and have the complexion of an oil slick.
“What are those?” I ask, not expecting a response.
“Angels,” says the Peruvian.
A crowd of costumed people lines the main street and stare as we enter town. Mongol, priest, conquistador, businessman, swami…none of them are holding a drink.
Incongruous houses stand side by side, a yurt next to a Victorian, a chalet next to a Pre-Antonian Empire…
I see someone in the crowd that looks like Cassandra. As I get closer, I become certain. “Cassandra!” I yell. I try to run to her but I’m held back. “Cassandra, it’s me.” She looks confused and frightened. “It’s me. Brad. Mad Brad Hammerfish. It’s me.”
I’m yanked into a squat adobe building with tiny little square holes for windows. They throw me in a back room, and stand guard at the door. I yell for Cassandra out one of the windows: “Cassandra. It’s me. It’s Brad.”
She doesn’t come until later that night. The Peruvian lets her in.
“Brad?” she says.
She’s as pretty as the last time I saw her–bangs, sleepy eyes, slender neck, tight jeans, thighs. Thighs.
“You’re alive?” I say, and go for a hug. She shrinks away. “It’s me,” I say. “I know I don’t look like me but I swear.”
“Why are you here? You don’t body-hop.”
“I know, but…I’m looking for Alan; I’m looking for Happy Pants.”
“They want me to, that’s why. They sent me to prison after you died, took away my permit. I do whatever they want.”
“I’m glad to see you’re still holding onto your dignity.”
“Don’t be weird,” I shoot back. “I’m trying to survive.”
She smiles, shakes her head.
I sit down, look at her feet. “I’m sorry I dumped you. It broke my heart when you killed yourself. Turns out I really loved you. It took me a long time to start feeling at least kind of normal again”
She looks at the ceiling, says, “Oh God. Come on.”
“What? What’s wrong?”
“You’re so full of poo. I don’t know why I ever looked past it. Now that you’re an ugly bearded guy I guess it’s harder for you to hide your true soul.”
“That’s nice,” I say. “You’re the one who faked your death and got me sent to prison.”
“I didn’t fake my death.”
“What do you mean?”
“I died. And then I woke up here. Same with everyone else you’ve seen. Didn’t you notice how weird everyone’s dressed? They all come from different times, different places.”
“And they all died? They died and came here?” (Incredulous smile) “Is this heaven?”
“No. Purgatory. That’s what everyone thinks, anyway. They still feel pain, still die, but the angels always fix them, bring them back. No one ages. Did you see the angels?”
“They take care of us. Feed us, shelter us. Alan thinks they’re aliens.”
“You’ve seen Alan?”
“Yeah. He’s popular here. He brings news of Earth back from the ship. Everyone wants to know what’s happened since they died. Some of these people are thousands of years old. They’ve been here praying for thousands of years to get into heaven, but God’s not listening. They thought the first guy to come from that ship was Jesus, until he started harassing the women. Now they think everyone from the ship is a demon. They’ve killed them all, except Alan and you.”
“Why didn’t they kill Alan?”
“They tried, but I stopped them, at least for a little while. Then he started giving everyone news and using the ships computers to figure out what everyone’s decendents have been up to. Now people love him. Some of them think he’s Saint Peter.”
“So he’s big man on campus, huh? I just mentioned his name and those freaks let me go. Does everyone do what he says?”
Cassandra doesn’t answer. She stands up. Her eyes go blank, her face loses all expression, and she starts whimpering like a dog having a nightmare.
“Cassandra?” I grab her shoulders, shake. “Cassandra.” She just whimpers. I yell for the Peruvian. He doesn’t come.
He’s on my right as I leave the room–a sniveling statue. I walk outside. The whole town is whining, moaning, crying all at once. They stand in the street, expressionless, entranced.
A man is weaving through them toward me. The walk is unfamiliar, but I recognize the face, the body. They once belonged to my father. I almost cry with the rest of the catatonics. I know it’s Happy Pants in there but I almost cry.
“Welcome, Brad,” he says, and raises his arms. “You’ve come just in time for communion.” He places a hand on my shoulder, slides it down my back, and gently leads me into a brick house across the street.
“There’s something wrong with Cassandra,” I say.
“She’s okay. Communions come without warning.”
We sit at the dining room table. A woman whimpers in the other room.
“What are you talking about, communion?” I say. “She’s a vegetable. Everyone’s a vegetable.”
“The aliens are communing with their dead through Cassandra, through these people.”
“What aliens? How do you know that?”
“I used the ship’s computers to learn the language of the field hands, the ‘angels.’ I eavesdropped, recorded. They ignore me so it wasn’t hard.”
“How are aliens communing with their dead through Cassandra?”
Alan smiles, and raises his index finger. “Human consciousness bends the unified field in a way that allows their dead to ride it like a wave, and live as long as we live, through us. They have to pick the right human, though, one that’s compatible.”
“It is the reality of this place. For whatever reason these aliens can only live so long. My best guess from what I’ve overheard is a couple hundred years.”
I can’t look Alan in the face. I stare at the table. “Why aren’t you communing?” I say.
“I came here of my own free will, as you did. We were not chosen like the others. Their bodies, their brains, their thoughts and feelings, their essence were recreated here so some alien could come visit their dead father or mother every once in a while. No one ages. Cassandra won’t age. The angels keep everyone in the mind and body that is most compatible.”
“If these aliens are recreating everyone so perfectly, then why are they waiting until they die. Why not just recreate them whenever they want.”
“I’m guessing they don’t want the spirits, or whatever you want to call them, getting confused. If there are two spaces in the unified field being bent in the same way, then maybe the spirit will show up on Earth and not here. I don’t know.”
“I know the real reason you came here,” he says. “Same reason I did. You’re looking for your father.”
“Don’t make this weirder than it is, Alan. I came here to find you and get my life back.”
“I lost my father too, you know. I thought he might be here, but he’s not. I miss him. Do you miss yours?”
“I don’t remember much about him.”
“Why? Was he not around much?”
“Yeah, he was around, but he wasn’t around, ya know?”
“He didn’t love you?”
I snort. “I didn’t say that. He loved me; he just didn’t express it through hugs and stuff. He did it through things like cantaloupe.”
“Yeah. He used to sneak me a slice before dinner sometimes. He’d cut away the rind so it was easier for me to eat. I didn’t really like cantaloupe but I ate it anyway because I could tell it was his way of…ya know?”
“My dad ignored me too.”
I roll my eyes.
“I used to think it was my fault,” Alan says. “On the way back from the store sometimes he’d take me to this big hill in our neighborhood and put the car in neutral so we’d coast down. I thought it was the funnest thing. I’d scream and laugh and he’d tell me not to tell my mom, but when we got home I’d always tell her. And she would lose it. She was half crazy anyway. Finally, one time he stopped at the top of the hill and told me, ‘If you tell your mother again, this is it. We’re not doing this anymore.’ Sure enough, when we got home the first thing I did was tell my mom. And she lost it, started hitting him. After that, he never took me down that hill again. I’d beg him but he wouldn’t do it…I still don’t know why I told my mom. I don’t know what was wrong with me.”
“Jesus, Alan, I don’t want to hear that. That’s a sad story.”
Alan laughs and says, “Sorry.”
When the town stops crying, I find Cassandra. She’s out in the street with everyone else, wandering. I grab her. “Cassandra,” I say. “Are you okay?”
Alan stands behind me.
“Where am I?” she says.
“After communion, they experience temporary amnesia,” says Alan.
“It’s okay,” I say to her. “We’re going home.” I wrap an arm around her shoulders, and start leading her out of town.
“You can’t go back,” Alan says.
“If you do, then I won’t be able to go back. And I want to have that option. There’s no chance for me if our company knows I’m here for sure.”
“Leave me alone, Alan. I just want to go home. I just want to be myself again.”
“I’m sorry, Brad. Don’t try it. You can be happy here.”
I keep walking, but Cassandra stops. “I’m staying here,” she says.
“What? No. Come back with me. I love you now. I know I do.”
“We’re together now,” Alan says.
I look at Cassandra, incredulous. I point to Alan. “He’s in my father’s body. Is this a sick fantasy for you?”
“Don’t be mean,” says Alan. “Accept.”
The villagers gather around. “Oh fuck this,” I say, then turn and bolt.
“Grab him,” I hear Alan shout.
My legs are taken out from under me, and my face slams into the ground. I curl up in the fetal position while I’m kicked over and over. They shout, “Demon! Kill the demon!”
I hear Alan and Cassandra yelling, “No! Stop!” Then my hands slip from around the back of my head.
When I regain consciousness, Cassandra’s worried face is hovering over me. I try to speak, but I cough instead–blood in my mouth tastes like metal–pain in chest, tightness in stomach. I vomit.
Alan is here now, smiling. He’s holding a chunk of cantaloupe, trying to feed it to me. I’m dying and the asshole is pretending to be my father.
“It’s okay, my son,” he says.
I shut my mouth, refuse. The cantaloupe bumps against my lips.
|Corey Mariani’s short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine and Lore. His novel, Passenger Through Time, was recently published by World
Castle Publishing. He is a graduate of McKinleyville High School.