Fittingly, it began at the end of the world, New Delhi. The job now over, the American was about to board the first of many trains west when a slumped and shambling beggar in a ratty shawl stopped him on the platform. “Rupees, rupees,” the familiar whine. The American sighed and smiled and said, “Sure, all right. For old time’s sake.” It was eight-thousand miles to Madrid, but God damn India had a way of converting distance to years.
He offered the wretch a few coins, but the figure in the shawl slapped them away, which caused a hell of a scrum amongst other beggars on the platform.
“Hi, hi, what for hell’s sake is this, I’ll show you,” said the American. He had a temper, and often raised his hand. But the beggar stood erect and kept on standing until he was at least a foot taller than the American, not a small man himself. Arms lashed out from under the shawl and hands of unimaginable strength grabbed the American by the shoulders and lifted him near, toes scraping the boards. Despite the violence and surprise of the situation, the American wasn’t a coward. He summoned the nerve that had distinguished him from others in the Great War and looked up at the face under the shawl. All he saw was darkness.
“Meet me along the Ebro, where hills are like white elephants,” a woman’s voice said. She dropped him on the platform, spun around and vanished into the crowd, which gave way even though no one in the endless throng behaved as though they had seen her.
As he rose and dusted himself off, he thought he heard a different woman’s voice call out “It lets the air in, Joey.” The words made his blood run cold, yet he had no idea why.
It doesn’t take long to rationalize away the strangeness of India when your thinking is influenced by reals of absinthe and opium-dipped cigarettes–the latter being the distant progeny of madak. Even in the well lit year of 1926, there were still yogis in every square of that ancient land, routinely performing what’s considered impossible in the occidental view, yet living no better than beggars. The poor Brits tried so hard to bring order to this singular land; but the old lion was aging, and suffered cirrhosis of the imagination.
It also doesn’t take long to push aside strangeness when you have been dead for going on five-hundred thousand years, your consciousness stored in an infinite Cloud, still aware and thinking yet ignorant of the greater reality. In Cloud, monotonous journeys do not take place, though such trips exist in memory.
Thus within the same moment the American arrived at a station along the Ebro, with a memory of nineteen days of endless transfers onto other trains at other stations automatically installed in his mind. His mood was light; soon he’d be in Madrid, at the arena with the other aficionados of the fights. Although he knew he was in Spain, there was little to distinguish the emptiness along the Ebro from that of the East other than the presence of a nun and soldiers on the platform.
A small cantina stood beside the station. The American had an hour to pass before the train to Madrid arrived. He sat at one of the tables outside the cantina, melting dollops of anis del toro in water and smoking his opium-dipped cigarettes.
The land was flat, baked white by the incessant sun, which never caused the American discomfort; though he was aware of the concepts of hot and cold he did not feel them unless such was vital to a particular afterlife experience. The foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains appeared much closer than they actually were. In life the American was profoundly ignorant of Spanish topography. He had it in mind that the place was a vast desert, briefly made bearable by the oasis cities of Barcelona and Madrid. Cloud enhanced this ignorance to the level of believability; Cloud existed to serve, not educate.
The American glanced up from his drink and was astonished to see the nun he’d spotted earlier on the platform sitting across from him.
“Hello, Shogg,” she said.
And the American briefly exited his half-million year dream.
Upon waking, he knew that the nun was a Vicar, a hybrid of human, program and faith; one of the keepers of Cloud in whom each of the billions of brain prints taken before death continued on as a recognized form of life called a Shogg. And he remembered that his name was Joe Scott, just another Shogg, who flickered in and out of a store of infinite realities, living only within the moment, interacting with “nils”–virtual actors of no genuine substance generated by Cloud. Shoggs were the only “real” items in their universes. Every now and then (“now and then” as in every five to ten-thousand years or so) a Vicar would suspend the program and check in on the Shogg; a “wellness” visit of sorts (albeit a snarly one). This was perhaps the twentieth such visit during Joe’s eternal afterdream.
Even though ages had passed since Joe was removed from his knowledge of brain prints and Vicars, he snapped out of his 1926 fantasy without confusion. His conception of the station and Spain remained as it was, and the mindless nils still scurried about as though they really had cares and lives and thoughts.
“I saw you on the platform in New Delhi,” Joe said. “Why didn’t you wake me then?”
“Because I wanted you here,” Vicar said.
All Vicars were female, and each one could project endless, fantastic guises, especially when they interfaced in Cloud. This one made a lovely nun: dark-skin, high cheekbones, face similar in shape to that of a cat, yet she had the silver eyes telling of her race. Even during Joe’s distant time, few persons had seen a Vicar in her actual form other than in images. As they evolved, the telepathic Vicars conveyed less threatening appearances to the masses than that of the powerful three meter tall beings they were.
“I don’t understand.”
“Big news Shogg,” Vicar said. “Since you last awoke, Vicar science has progressed even further. Of course your kind had nothing to do with it; your kind stopped growing scientifically a long long time ago.”
“Your kind,” Joe muttered. He only took it half-way personally. Though brilliant, Vicars were not known for their tact. “So, what has your kind developed now?” That I could possibly give a shit about?
Vicar laughed. It was a musical sound more like birdsong than something a person might emit.
Vicars, though technically servants, had little respect for Shoggs, and in no way ever took their opinions seriously. And although Joe hadn’t forgotten that she was a telepath, he apologized for the not giving a shit crack anyway.
“So, Vicar,” Joe said, dissolving another dollop of absinthe in water (which was real to him), “What’s the big news? Opening a Vicar charm school, perchance?”
“Since we last looked you up, we discovered a way to brain print the dead.”
This didn’t surprise Joe. Although brain printing could only occur with living persons, it had been theorized that necro-prints may happen someday, the only surprise was it had taken this long. Regardless, there was a glimmer in the Vicar’s silver eyes that Joe didn’t much care for. And for the first time he wished that Shoggs were telepaths.
“Congratulations,” Joe said, lifting his glass. “I’m certain your parents are very proud.”
More musical laughter; without males, Vicars weren’t born the common way. To “make” a Vicar required genetic material from the “mother” undergoing a long process in which biology, technology and theology were fused into a singular being.
“I hope that your resilient sense of humor holds up under the light, Shogg,” Vicar said.
A silver orb, the only form of telepathic reception a Shogg had, took shape in Joe’s mind. It revolved slowly and suddenly vanished and was replaced by a scene from Joe’s mortal life, which played out as it had on a prehistoric social media site:
A young woman, more of a girl, was standing atop a footstool, her back against an open door, a belt looped around her neck, its ends apparently fastened to the other side of the door. Her face conyed resolve and a palpable sense of relief; it is as though a great struggle has come to an end.
And she said “Sorry, Joey, but I can’t let the air in,” with a clear strong voice as she stepped off…
The vision vanished.
“I’m only partially educated in the words of your time. Tell me, Shogg, tell me about the ‘You fucking cunt’ that’s screaming out of your head right now. Maybe it will be of use at that charm school you so wittily alluded to.”
“You goddam well know what it means. Why show me that?”
“Long ago, you had tithed that memory to the Vicar, who in the technical sense, is my mother. You tithed it to her in a vain effort to escape that memory you have just re-lived for the first time in hundreds of thousands of years. For in your early afterlife the vision you just witnessed followed you everywhere, and ruined every afterdream. Although she could not delete you, she took the memory out of your mind and held it as her own. Which I inherited upon my mother’s rise to Bishop.”
“So, you’ve gone back on her promise?”
“Not at all, Shogg. When I allow this boring little fantasy of yours to resume, you will not remember it. For it is now mine and shall be for eternity. You can only know it when I want you to.”
When fully up, Joe never wondered what possessed his race’s ancestors to invent Cloud and Vicars, and how it came to be that both, created as servants, had become masters. It traced back to the prehistoric chosen churches and elected governments that ruled the world for millennia. Then upon humankind’s ultimate realization that there was neither an all powerful God nor any other intelligent life in the universe, and that humankind was nothing more than a temporary accident, it made sense–in a sideways fashion–that they would invent a Supreme Being they had no control over. A Cloud-like Heaven who taught humankind how to evolve the Vicar race, “from scratch”–so to speak–beings who only grew emotionally from extracting the painful memories of humans and making those their own. For whatever reason, Vicars preferred the darkness to the light. In the end people found that they preferred comfortable chains over the hard freedom of truth.
Then something occurred to Joe.
”Hey, wait–does this have something to do with printing the dead?”
Vicar rose from her chair, and kept rising to her full height, shedding the nun guise. Before vanishing she said “Meet us in the dark, Shogg. There we will grant you what my mother could not.”
For a time, the American’s afterdream continued without memory.
The American caught the train to Madrid. He was looking forward to seeing if the new matador the touts were championing was worth the hyperbole. Probably just another farm boy who grew up in a pasture.
The sun set as red as Antares behind the foothills, darkness fell steadily, and when the train stopped to collect a few passengers and pick up the mail at the last village before Madrid, the American exited his car for a smoke in the cool evening air.
“Hello, Joey,” a young woman’s voice spoke from behind.
And he remembered everything. Goddam Amy, killing herself on FaceBook like that because he wanted her to have the abortion. He had thought himself so wise and worldy, even quoting that fucking Hemingway story…”It’s nothing Jig, they just let the air in.” Thus stupidly securing the defining moment of his life by proxy. And he knew that somehow all those years of running had finally come to an end.
He turned, and Amy emerged from the shadows. He also caught a glimpse of Vicar, on the platform, chanting Last Rites.
Amy plunged an unseen knife into Joe’s heart, and calmly stood back, and he fell to the ground.
And as he lay dying, Vicar came to him. A silver orb opened in his fading mind.
“My mother did her best to delete you at your request, but forestalled it until a purer form of justice could be dispensed, by, at the time, an unreachable hand. The ledger is balanced. Sleep, now, Joe. Nevermore a Shogg.”
Upon the completion of Joe’s deletion, Vicar motioned Amy to her side.
“Shogg, endless vistas will now be yours if you open your mind and tithe me your little poisons.”
Image – Pixabay.com