For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. - 1 Corinthians 13:12, The Holy Bible, King James Version What does God need with a starship? - James T. Kirk, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
The next morning when Simon awoke, it was drizzling a soaking spring rain outside his somewhat grimy bedroom window. He rose and peered outside, the dark morning failing to greet him; it just sat there, as if suspended by a shadow, dense and squat like a toad, giving him nothing back. Simon felt instantly and appropriately morose.
He sighed and went into the kitchen, where he saw Michael scrambling eggs, a distracted smile on his unlined face, naked to the waist and wearing an old pair of Simon’s blue jeans which were far too big, the waistline nearly double what Michael required. Then he saw the flesh on Michael’s chest, arms and stomach, scored with deep grooves and scratches, red-purple scars running in all directions. A patchwork quilt made of meat. Simon gasped involuntarily and Michael looked up.
“Good morning,” Michael said, putting down the bowl with the scrambled eggs in it. “Did you rest well?”
“What happened to you?” Simon said, frozen momentarily in place, now seeing that Michael’s arms were equally abraded, all the way to his wrists.
“Pardon me?” Michael seemed puzzled. “I was just making these eggs…”
“No, no. Those marks all over your body. I don’t remember seeing them before…” Simon’s brow knit, remembering clearly Michael’s disrobed spelunking session of the evening before. “What happened to you? Were you in an accident?”
“No. These scars are just a by-product of the extrusion.” Michael picked the bowl back up and began to whisk the eggs some more, turning away from Simon to the stove, giving him for a moment his bare back, which Simon noted was stippled with dot-like scar tissue, raised like welts, in neat, straight rows and columns. A grid. A matrix.
Not random, Simon thought. Not random at all. Then, at a loss: “Where’d you get the eggs? From the uh—?”
“From your refrigeration unit,” Michael said softly. “I was intrigued. Did I transgress by not asking permission? If so, I apologize.” A tentative smile.
He doesn’t get it at all. Simon thought. He think I care about the eggs.
“Mi casa es su casa,” Simon said. “How come you didn’t use the c-machine?”
“Well,” Michael said, caution abating in his tone a s he spoke. “Some things can only be understood by actually experiencing them. ¿Habla usted español?”
“Uh huh. I mean, sí. I need coffee.” And – without being fully aware that he had done it – Simon placed his hand on the c-machine, sitting dark and squat on the counter, and thought: Hot coffee, extra sweet and extra cream, in a mug.
Again, the squirming, (not as noticeable now) and the soft chime. Simon reached in through steam and removed the coffee. Raised it under his nose, sniffed at the rich aroma and sipped.
“Do you have plans for today?” Michael asked, moving to the stove and pouring the eggs into a waiting skillet. They sizzled appropriately and Michael actually giggled. “Wonderful,” he said. “Much fun!”
“Well, it’s Sunday,” Simon replied, still focused on his coffee. “I usually take my mother to church.”
Michael nodded, moving the eggs around the skillet with a metal spatula. “Church, I see. I’m uncertain of the familial privacy protocols in this situation, so forgive me if what I ask is…indelicate: Is your mother aged?”
“Mom? ” Simon said, his voice going soft. “She’s, uh…not got long. She turned seventy-three this year.”
Michael noted Simon’s head was slightly bowed and nodded in affirmation and began doling eggs onto two plates. “Church. Very good. Like eggs, I suspect a church service can only be truly appreciated in real-time.”
“Well, sure. I guess you can come along if you want to,” Simon said, taking a plate of eggs from Michael’s corrugated arm. “But, uh…shouldn’t we contact your family, or friends? Let them know where you are and that you’re all right? I’m sure someone is worried about you right now. Do you have a phone number for them? We could call.” Simon jutted his chin at the phone on the wall.
“No, there’s no need,” Michael said nonchalantly, moving with a slow grace to the table. Simon followed as if pulled by Michael’s invisible wake. “I assure you: No one is worried about me. I’m quite safe.”
They sat across from each other, leaning forward intently over their plates, like two chess masters contemplating a strategy. “You see, Simon. I’m protected.”
“Protected?” Simon said around his eggs, and then reached for the salt and pepper, shook them both liberally over his food. Michael broke into a wide grin. “Wondrous!” He took the salt from Michael, shook some onto the palm of his own hand then unceremoniously licked it, his grin widening.
“Yes, protected. This – all of this – has all been designed and provisioned for. The path is unchanging.” All this while shaking a disturbingly large quantity of salt over his own eggs. Then Michael stopped and looked at Simon, suddenly both still and serious. “You are too, now, you know.”
“Huh?” Simon managed, his gut going cold all at once.
“Protected. Part of the plan. Guided. A founding member of the Expectant.” Michael put down the salt shaker and then delivered a deluge of black pepper rain down on his eggs.
“I’m actually not religious at all,” Simon said, shock giving way to his rainy morning gloom. “I just take mom because she likes it. She has Alzheimer’s and so I want her to have something to look forward to, and to remember…” Simon felt strangely embarrassed at this admission, accompanied by a well-known greasy feeling of guilt.
Michael frowned. “Alzheimer’s is a chronic neuro-degenerative disease that usually starts slowly and worsens over time and is the cause of 60% to 70% of cases of dementia in humans. The most common early symptom is short-term memory loss. As the disease advances, symptoms can include problems with language, disorientation, mood swings, loss of motivation, and other behavioral issues. As a person’s condition declines, they often withdraw from family and society. Gradually, bodily functions are lost, ultimately leading to death. Although the speed of progression can vary, the average life expectancy following diagnosis is three to nine years. No cure or significant treatment exists?” This last clearly a question, delivered with arched eyebrows.
“We should definitely go to church then. I’d like to meet your mother.” Simon shrugged and nodded. “Good.” And Michael slid a generous helping of salt-and-pepper-encrusted eggs into this mouth.
A beat. Simon watched Michael chew once, saw his expression change, and then a hard swallow. “Agghh!” Michael gagged, when he could make a noise, then reached across the table and took Michael’s half-empty coffee mug from in front of this plate, downing it in one long gulp.
Simon just couldn’t help laughing. Michael somehow in that moment brought up Simon’s memory of his long-dead little sister Megan, when she was three and had picked up their father’s open beer bottle and guzzled it eagerly, only to be bitterly disappointed. She ended up with most of the beer down the front of her shirt and in tears. But that first shocked, instinctive gagging reaction was so pure. Michael’s reaction was just the same.
Wiping his mouth with his napkin, Michael, his voice grainy and strangled, said: “You might have warned me, Simon.”
“Hey, I don’t know how you take your eggs,” Simon said, still smiling. After a moment, Michael smiled back.
The c-machine produced a dark, pin-striped suit, new shiny back wing-tip loafers, a dark violet tie and a white Oxford shirt, all neatly folded, which Michael quickly put on, surprising Michael by tying – without a mirror – a nice four-in-hand knot.
“Nice suit.” Simon said. “I should print myself one or two for work.”
“I don’t think you should go back to work, Simon,” Michael countered, sliding on the jacket. “But we can discuss that more later on. Are we ready to go?”
Yeah,” Simon said. “I’ll need to hit the ATM on the way. We’ll need something for the collection plate.” He took out his wallet, opened it to show it was empty. Michael peered in cautiously.
“You require funds?” Michael queried.
Again smiling, Simon said, “Yes, Mr. Profit. I require funds.”
Michael nodded his head. “And an ATM is a device which dispenses money?”
“Oh come on. Are you from outer fucking space or what, man? You honestly want me to believe you don’t know what an ATM is?”
Michael’s brow knit. “I’m not from outer space. I was born in Texas and Reborn in Vermont. But my point, Simon, is that if what you need is a money-producing machine, you have one right here.” And he placed his hand on the c-machine, and said softly, “$10,000 US in denominations of tens, twenties and fifties. I’m going to go the bathroom to be all biological,” Michael said. “Back soon.”
Simon removed three stacks of bills from the device’s maw, all brand-new, holding them in both hands. “Jesus H. Christ. This is really illegal!” He pulled a bill out, held it to the light. “Feels real,” he muttered. “This can’t be okay...” Then Simon was rolling up the tens and twenties and shoving them into his pants pocket.
The c-machine to Simon’s right made a new noise, one that Simon not heard before, and it wasn’t a bong, beep or chirp. It was a sigh. As it exhaled, the c-machine began to divide itself exactly in half in a vertical line from back to front, a mid-line deepening into the blackgrey material, the new edges pulling back from one another with that same weird semi-liquid twisting not-quite-movement. Simon watched transfixed.
Now there were two identical black boxes, sitting one aside the other, perhaps three centimeters apart. Both grew slowly and in perfect synchrony to a new, large size.
Michael walked back in, having combed his hair. “Ah, good! All done!” He picked up the closest c-machine and said, “Did you get the money? Are we ready to go?”
Simon was staring the at the newer c-machine still on the counter. “Five minutes to copy one…” he said slowly. “Five minutes.”
“Three minutes and fifty-eight seconds, to be more accurate,” Michael corrected, tucking the box under his arm. “Shall we go worship?”
Their voices rose and fell together:
“Father-like He tends and spares us;
Well our feeble frame He knows.
In His hands He gently bears us,
Rescues us from all our foes.
Widely yet His mercy flows.
Frail as summer’s flower we flourish,
Blows the wind and it is gone;
But while mortals rise and perish
Our God lives unchanging on,
Praise Him, Praise Him, Hallelujah
Praise the High Eternal One!
Angels, help us to adore Him;
Ye behold Him face to face;
Sun and moon, bow down before Him,
Dwellers all in time and space.
Praise with us the God of grace.”
The congregation, a group of about twenty-five people (including four unruly children), belted out the opening hymn. From the back row, Michael sang loudly and well. From the front row, seated with his mother, Simon barely sang at all. Simon’s mother was a small, shriveled woman who did not sing, and kept her head bowed.
Michael had insisted on sitting alone, not explaining his reasons, all the while firmly guiding Simon and his mother to the front of the nave, then he had returned to the back. As the parishioners came in, they noticed him there, better dressed than anyone else in attendance, his black suit and starched white collar looking somehow priest-like, the violet tie rather like a purple stole. Michael smiled and nodded at each stare. He seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.
The hymn ended; there was a concordant shuffling and settling as people sat, a defeated sound of old dry wood under pressure. Then the pastor stood from behind the pulpit and approached. “Let us begin with our Greeting,” he said solemnly, his voice stern and yet subdued.
Simon said: “Peace be with you,” to the old man on his left, who shook his hand and replied “And also with you.” Watching him carefully, Simon’s mother took his hand and said: “Peace be with you, young man.”
“And also with you, Momma,” Simon answered, as gently as he could, and kissed her forehead.
Simon looked over the crown of his mother’s little grey head and saw that absolutely no one was acknowledging or much less greeting Michael, who, apparently unperturbed by this Yankee cold shoulder, smiled back at him broadly and then waved gaily. He was still waving when a pretty young woman in her mid-twenties came in and sat next to Michael in the pew. Michael turned and extended his hand. She took it, and smiled, said something Simon couldn’t hear. Then he thought he heard Michael say: “Have you ever seen one of these?”
Simon couldn’t hear the rest of what they said over the general murmur of Greetings, but as he turned back around he saw Michael lifting the c-machine so the young woman could see it better. Then Simon’s mother extended the offerings plate, which in reality was an ugly white wicker ex-Easter basket. Simon reached into his pocket and then grinned, all at once remembering the money he had brought.
He put it all in the basket. All of it, in two thick hand-fulls. Smiling even more broadly as he saw his mother’s surprised expression. “It’s okay, Momma,” Simon said softly. “I’ll just print more when I get home.”
“That’s nice,” his mother said, watching Simon push the neat stacks of tens and twenties to the bottom of the basket and then sprinkle the existing loose ones and five over them, so they would not be seen right away. Simon passed the basket on to the nice old man on his left; then reached to his wrist and started a timer on his watch.
They sang another hymn and Simon looked back again at Michael. The girl was gawking at a huge diamond ring on her finger. “Jesus, he proposed?” Simon said, astonished, and his mother slapped his arm.
“Don’t blaspheme,” she said, not turning her head. Simon was still watching Michael and the girl, then noticed that the offering basket was leaving the nave, toted primly by a rotund, florid woman Simon knew as Marcie, to be counted somewhere else.
Somewhere close, I hope. Simon glanced at his watch.
The pastor was tall, lean and autocratic. His face, serious to point of caricature, was not yet old, but already it glowered like a much older man’s. His hands gripped either side of the pulpit, forcing his knuckles to the white with tension. He did smile from time to time as he spoke, but the smile never touched his eyes. Those eyes were full of intensity and passion and holy rage and they glared not at the congregation, but at some imaginary spot above and to rear of the church-going, a spot perhaps ten feet over Michael’s head, at whatever Evil he saw there.
“Let us pray,” he said. “Our Father–”
There was loud shriek from out in the narthex, followed by a decidedly deep-throated flwump! as Marcia Rayeburn, emptying the offerings into a cardboard box reserved for such solemn duty, discovered Simon’s tithe, and promptly passed out.
Simon looked at his watch. “One minute, thirty-seven seconds. Hmm.”
“Good bye, Emily. Enjoy your trip!” Michael said, shaking the woman’s hand at the end of the service. Simon had to approach slowly with his mother, who was tired and cranky and just wanted to go home and take a nap, so he noticed that Emily had the c-machine crooked under her arm. She was all smiles.
Emily left, nearly skipping, looking at her new ring. Michael winked at Simon, then turned his attention to the nine-year-old boy waiting patiently for attention in front of him. Simon was closer now and could hear the boy ask Michael what the black box was. Was it magic?
“Kinda sorta,” Michael said. “Want one?”
The boy’s gaze dropped to his scuffed Sunday shoes. “I don’t have any money,” he said, defeated.
“That’s okay. It’s free. It’ll just take me a minute or two to make a copy–” Michael said and reached for another c-machine seated next to him. Simon hadn’t seen it before, the pews had blocked his view.
“Oh-No-you-do-not!” A woman in her mid-thirties announced and snatched at the boy’s hand. pulling him (obviously her son) to her ample thigh much like a fisherman hauling in his catch.
“Uh oh,” Simon said, stopping. His mother nudged him. “Moose shit,” she said. “I need a smoke.”
Her child pinioned to her leg, the woman promptly got right in Michael’s face. “What’s wrong with you?” she said, her voice strident with indignation. “You can’t just give shit to my son without going through me first!”
“Ma, that thing spat out a diamond ring!” The boy exclamed, his voice slightly muffled by his mother’s leg.
“Be quiet, Dustin! Don’t make me cross,” he shushed, looking fixedly at the c-machine.
“I’m sorry,” Michael responded softly, clearly taken aback. “Uh, would you like it?”
“Well, I’d say that was a good start. Oh, yes. Decidedly. In, say…a month or so, we should reach the recommended minimum energy density level,” Michael said from the passenger seat of Simon’s put-put-putting car. They had just left the church and were now headed back home, Simon’s mother accompanying them in the back, a Marlboro dangling from her lips. Michael batted absently at his tie. “This gets in the way quite a bit,” he said, frowning down at it.
“Look, let me get this straight in my head, if you don’t mind, Michael,” Simon said. “Okay?”
“I was wondering when you were going to reach synopsis,” Michael surmised, looking out the passenger window at the passing green. “Lovely. Go ahead.”
“So the c-machine is some kind of super hi-tech mind-reading matter replicator that can reproduce just about anything–”
“Yes, more or less,” Michael said, nodding.
“–Food, money, diamond rings–”
“All that and more, yes.”
“What about illegal stuff?”
“Hell, I don’t know. Guns, drugs, poison…?” Simon gestured at the windshield in a manner meant to encourage Michael to give a detailed response.
“Certainly all that and more. And yes, before you ask: Many, many people will use the c-machine, which is a divine gift, after all, to achieve various hedonistic ends, or to grope after power while the term still has some meaning.” He shrugged. “People. Whatcha gonna do?”
“And you just gave away three of those things to complete strangers.”
“And they’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on, and so on…” Michael said, his voice effeminate and sing-song. All at once, there was a cold iron bar in the hollow of Simon’s gut.
“So why won’t someone use it to make a nuclear bomb or —”
“There are certain, very loose, safety protocols in the firmware prohibiting the fashioning of weapons of mass destruction. For instance, you cannot produce a nuclear bomb because items that emit levels of radiation damaging to human DNA are 403 forbidden.”
“Oh, well, that’s comforting,” Simon said sarcastically.
Michael shook his head in mild exasperation. “You are so dark, Simon. And worse than that, you’re a bit dim for such a bright man. You immediately ask about the possibility of harm when presented with a – I say again – holy gift. You approach this gift in fear!”
“Yeah, no offense, but when you say ‘holy’, I kinda get the feeling you really mean the other thing,” Simon said defensively. (If he hadn’t been driving, he would have crossed his arms.)
“You haven’t thought once about all the virtually unlimited good that this offers!” Michael argued, karate-chopping with one hand for emphasis. It was the most human gesture Simon had seen him use. “If I had presented with you a miraculous shovel, would you ask if it could be used to kill someone? Of course not! But it could, yes? Although that’s clearly not the intention, no – the Divine Mandate – that the Eschaton has brought to humanity today. The c-machine will forever end hunger and want and provide the world with nearly everything it needs for as long as it needs! And you ask me if it’s dangerous?”
Simon looked over at Michael, who was now a little red in the face, and more agitated than Simon had seen so far. “Okay, you’re right, I guess. It’s just…well, it is a little frightening, I guess. Shit is going to get very weird really fast.”
Michael sighed heavily and shook his head. “It’s just that you have been taught to fear what you don’t yet understand, Simon. Allow me to help you with a simple demonstration.” And he turned to face Simon more fully. “Wouldn’t you like to cure your mother’s Alzheimer’s?”
“Whazzat?” Simon’s mother said, from the back of the car.
Later, after his mother had taken the Elixir and was resting quietly on his couch, Simon took his hand from atop the c-machine, then turned to Michael and said. “A month is a pretty long time. I mean, an awful lot can happen in one month. This box makes money worthless, right? The entire global economy will shit the bed pretty much overnight, won’t it?” He looked at Michael, who was sitting on the end of the couch in the shaded early afternoon light, his black suit resplendent.
“Not overnight, but pretty quickly.” Michael said, nodding. “See what I meant about not going back to work?”
“I work at a hospital, dude! There are sick and injured people there! What if all the doctors and nurses decide not to come to work any more? What’ll happen to those people?”
“That’s actually unlikely to happen, Simon. But they can all take the Elixir, just like your mother did,” Michael said, patting the woman’s small, bony shoulder. “No more need for doctors and nurses then, Simon. Not ever.”
And Simon took out the small silver chalice, identical to the one that his mother had used, now resting on the coffee table, equally lovely in its curlicues and ringlets, something a French prince might have used a few centuries ago. Simon stared down into his cup. A syrupy silver-blue liquid sloshed and crawled down there. It most definitely did not look nice. And it had a raw, somehow plastic odor, very faint.
“Come on, what are afraid of? I told you that you were part of His plan.” Michael was watching Simon very closely.
“Is this even remotely safe for me to drink?” Simon shook the chalice, saw the blue-silver syrup go slightly lumpy. “I’m just wondering how crazy I am.”
“You’re not crazy; the fact that you are hesitating now is proof of that. But, Simon, I can’t make you take it. You have to decide whether or not to do this.”
Simon tilted his head back and poured the Elixir onto his tongue. It seemed to be somehow absorbed almost instantly, even before he swallowed, leaving a strange sweet-bitter tang in his mouth. Other than that, there had been no taste at all.
And now it was gone.
Simon shivered, felt warmth in his gut as if he had just taken a stiff shot of bourbon. Then he looked at Michael, who was waiting expectantly, arms folded.
“My point is,” Simon said, cocking his head to one side and setting down the chalice next to his mother’s. “That a month may be too long, with too many variables to consider; we should accelerate the time table if we can.”
“I agree,” Michael said.