Unlike the usual Word Association, this time the pitch-phrase had to fit as the title of the piece.
Soi's hair was black when she asked me for the favor, but as soon as I said yes it blossomed a yellow like the naked sun. I remember her that way; emotions on her sleeve and her heart, and in her hair.
She was beautiful that day, which wasn't surprising - everyone is beautiful if they want to be. What made Soi special was that she was beautiful even when she didn't want to be; she was natural. She didn't need any mods or tweakers, no symmetry shifts, no opalescent mother-of-pearl teeth. Sure she had them, just like everyone else did, but they were just something that she wore, they never covered or dimmed the integrity of the fire that glowed in her eyes and skin. She was animated with it, and she seemed fully alive to me.
"Math" she said, and I still remember the way that my name slid between her lips like soft taffy, stretched on the vowel, and whispered on the end, "I want you, I need you, to do something for me."
I was speaking in variant Iambic Pentameter that day; I'd downloaded the mod the previous night and it wouldn't get on my nerves for another few hours, so I said
"I think you ask but know, too soon, my answer:
I'd like to hear the cost of your favor."
She smiled, showing extended eyeteeth, wet with her own bright red blood; the Believers had just left a state of interest in undeath, for which Soi had expressed herself as a classic Vampire, early 2nd millennium. She still wore the pale skin and long nails, along with the teeth, and I was pretty sure that she'd had her heart stilled too. I doubted that she had gone as far as true cell death and reanimation - she didn't have the money or the time, though I didn't doubt for second that she would have done it if she could have. I'm sure that some of the True Believers, the hardest of the hardcore, and the ones with long running stock-based trust funds from their Great-Great's, had probably killed themselves down to the DNA, revived by some modern-day femto-machine miracle to wander in the streets groaning and casting long looks toward the rest of us, half-blood thirst, half aggrieved melancholy for their so-called betrayed innocence. I had a tendency to roll my eyes at some of the True Believers more extreme stances, but it wasn't an act for the them. It never was - they embraced the current ideal as whole-heartedly as they could; lived it (or died it) to it's fullest. The strength of that certainty, of their passion for the current creed, always made me feel slightly guilty and ashamed of my own apathy.
Maybe that guilt, a faint heat and pressure filling my chest at the sight of her, had something to do with why I hadn't slept with her. I was pretty sure that she would have me, from friendship and mutual flirtation if nothing else. I knew she had a lot of lovers, but who doesn't? Maybe I was waiting because that was part of the pleasure; the appetitive instinct, the hunger and the unfilled desire being more enjoyable than the satiation? Or maybe I was just nervous around a pretty girl. I don't know.
She wanted me to get a book for her from the Biblios, something old and precious, and definitely off-limits to the public. She wanted a Bible, King Jake Version she said, which was cute, but I was a bit surprised she'd even heard of it at all. No one pays much attention to the old religions these days, not with Believers and Sensationalists and Negates all vying to make and take the grab of the minute by minute headlines. Still, I could guess, roughly, why the Believers might be interested in Christianity, even though it was what, 5, 6 millennia dead by now? They'd have respect for the power of a belief that at it's height had been held by almost half of the human population. They probably wanted to pay it homage or give it rebirth or something. It almost certainly had something to do with their newest belief-state. Whatever it was, nicking something like a Bible would, without doubt, be enough to get me censured or disbarred if I was caught.
I scowled at her, and arching my eyebrows melodramatically, said
"A look from you is worth a smaller crime
But thieving relics of antiquity
Carries quite the pretty penalty, love.
So heavy the risk for your looks alone?"
Soi didn't play along, she didn't slide up against me or imply any kind of fleshy reward for my risk. She could have tried to bribe me, or beg me, but she didn't. She just asked again, and she was totally sincere.
"We need the book Math. It's important. You know that."
I knew it was important to her, that she really believed she needed it, that for her right now it was her one focus and her one desire. She made me wish that I had that kind of razor keen devotion, and that's probably why I copied it for her.
"I can hardly ignore such pure intent
As I find shining from your dulcet eyes
Besides, what is there that I find worthy
Of possessing more than your gratitude?"
I smirked and played the hidden saint, but in retrospect, though, I think that the purity of the look in her eyes actually made me uncomfortable. I think that was my first inkling of it. At least, that's what I'd like to think. But maybe that came later.
Lynnaeus came to me about a week after I'd stolen the book.
"Math, my avatars were just rechecking the active records and it looks like the entire King James Bible has been copied and distributed to an address outside of the Biblios." She blinked nervously and stared into my fishtank. "What do you think we should do about it?"
Lynnaeus has been my student for the past two years. She's a polyglot and an overachiever, and one of the most sincere people I've ever met. So I lied to her.
"What? Are you sure?"
"Yes, the log notes show that a facsimile was made about ten and a half days ago in the early morning and transmitted broadband off campus. The address must have been a roaming provider because I can't find it now." Her face was blank and calm and she wasn't wearing any makeup, though she had roses growing through her straight brown hair.
"Huh. Does it look like someone has hacked the system? Are there any fingerprints on the servers?"
"No...it was done with an authorized hard pass...so, I, uh...you'd think it must have been someone from the Biblios who did it. But I guess, that someone could have tried to make it look that way, I mean, I don't think any of us would have done something like that." She grimaced a little.
I leaned back in my chair, feeling the springs creak beneath me, and pushed back from my desk. Sighed. "It's not as unbelievable as you might think Lynnaeus. Sure, it's unethical to take a censured book, but there are a lot of temptations. Someone could have posted it on the black and white market, in which case we'll certainly hear about it on the news, or they could have been a plant or paid off by the Free Speechers. Or they could have even made a copy just for their own collection." I omitted the possibility that someone could have made a copy for a friend. I was trying to be subtle.
She scrunched her face unattractively. Though I wasn't that old back then, Lynnaeus was much younger than me. She couldn't have been much more than eleven, though back then I was only in my late fifties. She was a child, and she still held to a belief in right and wrong, good and bad. I consoled my conscience with her naivete.
She said "I just don't understand why someone would do that, why one of use would do that. These books are offline for a good reason. I mean, they could hurt someone, or start a riot. That Bible has been correlated with hundreds of highly infective memes, and some of those have linked to global wars, atrocities, intolerance, anguish, genocide and suicide. Why would you risk letting something like that out?"
I shook my head, but I'm not sure whether I was agreeing with her, nodding in condescending bemusement, or just trying to clear my head; maybe a little of all three. "That's all true Lynnaeus, and it's all exactly party line too. It's what we're taught but it isn't what really happens. Do you honestly think there are any memes in that book that are more dangerous than something put out by the Negates or more passion-provoking than the ideas of the Believers? To paraphrase the book itself 'Is there really anything new under our new sun?'"
Her eyebrows shot up and she shifted her weight backward as if she'd been slapped. I felt immediately the worser for it, quoting the book to her that way. It was a tacky to say the least, and definitely broached the bounds of polite behavior. It showed that I had read it, and that I held in at least partial contempt the ideas I'd spent the better part of two years teaching her. I was a hypocrite, but that was something I was used to. It was news to her.
I talked a little longer, letting the conversation drift toward the mundane, spoke long-windedly of my time as a student, how becoming jaded was inevitable. I was like a man on a pulpit, preaching to convince the congregation and, by speaking it aloud, convince myself. If I just said these things, if I could make the sin and the crime meaningless and unavoidable, a matter of everyday failure and not some special fault of my own, then I was excused from guilt. In telling Lynnaeus of the weakness of her philosophy, I could tell myself that my indifference was simultaneously correct and unimportant. I know now how much I wanted to believe that.
In the end I told her that I would file the report, but that I didn't expect much would come of it. I suggested she take another look at the digital file to see if it could have been hacked (knowing that it hadn't been). And then I turned myself back to my work, implicitly dismissing her. I didn't see her leave the room, but I heard the door close behind her, a quiet click.
The news came across the broadband a few weeks later. I woke up to it, the calm clear voice of the AInchor sussurating in my subconscious, my body splayed across the white sheets, and peach-pink sunlight stealing through my 452nd floor window.
"Good morning Dr. Baltimore, welcome back to the waking world. We hope you enjoyed last night's dream scheme, please remember to update your preferences and log lists with the Dream Company to avoid repetitious or unpleasant imagery. Would you like me to scan local headlines, Federal news, scores, or weather?"
"Today is the fourth day on the clear cycle, with temperatures peaking at 24.23 degrees and a humidity of 63.2%. A two day rain cycle will begin in three days, and the average temperature slope will begin to fall towards aphelion within the next fortnight. Votes have been tallied for the True Color sky poll, and the communal tropospheric color for the next workweek will be "carnelian"! We're sorry that your vote, "cornflower blue" was not the most popular this week, but please keep voting!"
The AInchor continued to rattle off the weather, the economic state, the latest political scandals and revolutionary ideas. Her voice faded into a drone within my skull. I was sitting on the edge of the bed, and rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, thinking about what stimulate I was going to take to get the day started, when it said caught my attention.
"The Theosophy of True Believers has announced that they have adopted a new substantive state of belief. There will be a pan-Federal demonstration this morning in all public parks and forums, during which the True Believers will put forth for public consumption, the ideals and essences of this newest state of belief, which they have succinctly labelled 'The Second Coming.' Check in later for more detailed reports, or select directions to your most convenient local venue."
I stood up, grabbing my pants as I went to the shower, clicking on the button to bring up the overlay map in my head. I was sad that Soi hadn't filled me in, but unsurprised. She was on the inside, she was a Believer, and even if I was her friend, I wasn't. She wouldn't ever trust someone who didn't believe the way she did. Still, I wanted to see this. I was excited.
The spectacle, or revelation, depending on your perspective was unfolding down on the beach at the Golden Banks, and I knew that Soi would be there. It was the closest park to her congregation.
The crowd thickened to clotting the closer I got to the waterfront, but I pushed my way through. The Believers were broadcasting already, sending out a deep base-beat over the broadband. The thump-badda-thump would have been loud enough to shake everyone's teeth out of their skulls if it had been real sound, and not just in our collective heads. They were chanting over the music, that part in real acoustic so that all together it sounded like an old school rap, and they spoke as one unit, one thing, one voice, endlessly repeating:
"We are the children of God! We suffer under collective sin! Embrace our divinity! Through us forgiveness! Through us heaven!"
Their mantra shook the ground. I knew it was being repeated in lockstep synchrony across the whole world, in every park and playground, in every communal garden and public cemetery.
I pushed through to the leading edge of the crowd, and as the people around me parted, suddenly I could see the Believers. There were hundreds of them, staked out in the perfectly groomed sand, sun ringing off the water behind them. They were Jesus. Jesus in all his shapes and incarnations, from the literal to the metaphorical, the masculine, the feminine, the beatific and the hideous. There were perfectly constructed Christs, bleeding sheets from their sides, heads wreathed in rose thorns or acacia or bullets, hanging from crossed posts of cedar, ebony, plastic and steel. I saw a man with weeping palms and flowing white robes, a jointed blade licking his lips and his eyes literally on fire. There was a woman whose stigmata were mouths that sang, a child wearing a halo of golden butterflies and hummingbirds, her intestines hanging in loops down to her feet. A giant Christ whose limbs, torso, and head were each made of multiple Believers, fused skin to skin. A Christ crucified on purple neon, with live sparks arcing between his teeth, a Christ with invisible skin and a burning heart levitating in his chest, a Christ whose body was made of the same wood as his cross, whose wounds dripped pitch and sap. The whole crowd of them rocked and swayed, they cried tears of blood, or milk, or diamonds or bright white light.
I don't think there was anyone in the watching crowd who didn't think that they were as beautiful as they were disgusting.
I scanned the conglomeration of reborn saviors, looking for Soi. I found her in the fringe, where the bay water lapped at the sand. She was hanging crucified to a thin support of balsa and aluminum, plastic ties supporting her slender nakedness, exaggeratedly large railroad spikes transfixing her wrists. There was a crown on her head, and as I moved closer to her, I could see that it was made of living wasps, tied together and crawling over one another as they stung and stung her upturned face. Her cheeks were slick and shiny with tears, but she was smiling and laughing, as impaled by joy as she was by metal. She stared into the bright carnelian sky and sang the glories of a god that she hadn't even heard of a few months ago. I couldn't tear my eyes from her, and I felt, for a brief moment, the infectious power of her hosannas.
Then I caught a glimpse of Lynnaeus standing in the crowd off to my right. I turned to watch her watching them. Her pale face was close-lipped and her eyes were serious, as they always were, even when she was laughing. Her stare was so intense that I could almost see it, a physical link connecting her to the Believers; a slender cord that stretched between them. I didn't know what was on her mind, whether it was respect or disdain, but she was taking them seriously. In some way, she must have been thinking about the stolen Bible, must have seen that the coincidence here was too great. Even if she'd never read the book, she must have known something about it. She was a curator of the Biblios, and she knew thousands of books, their epochs, their genres, their gists, why they were free or banned. She pursued the ideals of that knowledge with a passion that seemed to large for her small frame. I was proud of her then, as a teacher is of a student that exceeds him. I was proud to know someone as good as her. Someone so certain.
Standing there, my gaze moving between Lynnaeus and Soi, I felt flushed, and then sick. Here were these two women, who I guess that I loved, or at least respected, but so different, so dichotomous. But then the underlying symmetry began to show through and I saw them as fading mirrors of each other. To me, they both suddenly seemed bound and stretched on the crosses of their understanding, devoted to their world views so completely and passionately that they would happily suffer and die under that burden. And it occurred to me that this kind of belief was something that I wanted too; a God or an ideal that was worth living and dying for, something that I could climb onto and bleed over. Something that I could believe in.
But I looked at them, and the crowds and Christs surrounding them and I realized that I didn't have that kind of belief, and that there was nothing in me that could feed a flame that pure. I knew that all I had, deep inside the wizened, Gordian alcoves of my heart, were questions and doubt, uncertainty, sarcasm, and skepticism. I think I began to weep, but my weeping was lost inside the hushed tears of the crowd and the wailing of the heavenly chorus before us.
I don't know how long I stood there, watching and being watched, praying and being preyed upon. I don't think it was hours, but I can't be certain. What I do know is that at some point, or over some time, I realized that it wasn't their belief that I envied. I was, and am, incapable of that, but the lack of it doesn't leave a hole inside of me. I do not miss the ability to believe in some external philosophy or dream, anymore than a fish can miss walking or a rock can miss flying. I did not want to haul myself onto Soi's the rotating merry-go-round of Soi's belief. I did not want to carry the inflated weight of Lynnaeus' academic dreamscape. Their visions were their own, and whatever they saw in them, I could not see.
And that's when I saw the light.
The trick, as I've come to see it over the long years since then, is not to find a belief that you can embrace, but to embrace whatever it is that is inside you already, without shame. The Believers, for all their good intentions, keep drifting from hope to hope, and they'll never find the perfect state they're looking for, because it doesn't exist. And the workaday philosophies of the academy or of ethics and reason, will always be more satisfying on paper than in reality. We live in a world that we can shape at a thought, where we can make our cities, our bodies, our sky into any image we desire. What we can't reshape our minds though - in their essence, they never change. The best we can do, is be true to ourselves, whatever those selves might be.
And that's why I left that park, and then left the city. I quit my job at the Biblios, I said a quick goodbye to Lynnaeus and I never spoke to Soi again. I moved as far away from the world-shapers, and the dream revivers, as I could and I kept moving. I've watched the world and the people in it, and seen as much as I could see. I've tried to make sense of things, knowing that things can't be made sense of. As best I can, I live what I believe, and as best I can I believe what I live. And that's kept me more satisfied than a thousand saviors, or a thousand gemstone skies.