The morning after the coup d’etat, we walked up the rocky trail behind Elkin’s house to the Prozac Tree. Our late dinner party had gone all night, fueled by old records and new wine. Elkin’s earthen neo-adobe sheltered us from the arroyo-cleansing thunderstorm we watched blow in across the canyon from Chihuahua, and from the bad news trapped on the other side of the ridgeline, where the wireless network ran out of reasons to relay on.
I followed my laughing new friends up the wet crunchy trail. There were six of us: Elkin, her visiting friend, Jae Li, Katerina G., Jack Crile, Paul Madero, and me, Nathaniel O. They were backlit by dawn light that seeped over the ridge to feed the sparse leaves of the little tree, illuminating the covert blues of its pharmaceutical sap. The trunk was staked, rising up four feet or so, then delicately branching out into clusters of white fruit and tear-shaped leaves.
“It’s fucking gorgeous,” said Katerina, a custom clothier who maintained her atelier up the road in Marfa. “Can I eat it?”
“Naturally,” smiled Elkin, the irony an unstated given. “It’s not actually Prozac, though I did use some ingredients from that vintage recipe.”
“Just like Mama used to make,” said Madero, a pill-tanned real estate developer who spent his returns on overpriced art and the company of those who made it.
“I wish,” said Elkin. “My mother’s primary antidepressant was Sauvignon blanc. Part of how I got here.”
Elkin was a bio-artist. A genomic surrealist who mixed hardcore life science and rich kid whimsy to create living sculptures. She had a real-deal biotech pedigree—a PhD and a half and a baroque atlas of names to drop of the exotic labs where she’d studied or worked or loved. Boston, Gwangju, Ingolstadt, Baja. Fancy dress for a fortysomething daddy’s girl from River Oaks trying to do something more interesting than the lawyers and surgeons and MBAs she’d grown up with in Houston. She was a little older than the generation of kids who had grown up with the first do-it-yourself home gene splicing kits and launched a cultural revolution more profound than the one driven by personal computing fifty years earlier, but that seniority only made her a more powerful Hera-like personality on the scene.
“What’s the base plant?” I asked.
“Sassafras,” said Elkin. “I love to say that word. Like having your brain licked with a big wet tongue.”
“You can lick mine any time,” said Katerina, depositing one of the fresh white nuts under her own tongue.
“If only I had one,” said Madero, knocking his shaved dome. “What else are you putting in my pinball head with this freak?”
“A slice of agave for climatic hardiness and that hardy edge,” said Elkin. “Classic MDMA in the fruit, with a secret sauce psychotropic kicker from the landlord’s personal stash of unpublished pharma patents.”
“Filé gumbo big fun tonight on el rancho,” said Madero, plucking a stout looking nugget for himself. “Remind me to thank him.”
“Bring on the psychonauts,” said Jae, a Toronto-based televisual artist who was helping Elkin with some supporting components of her upcoming show.
“Viva the Rat Queen,” said Crile, the old athlete, using our hostess’ favorite Tejana nickname as he removed his shirt to soak up the rising sun. “Long live the dead white rats!”
“No live animal testing on this one, honey,” said Elkin. “Unless you count y’all.”
I took a smaller fruit, and walked along the ridge a hundred feet or so, nabbing a nice aerie perch. Below, the solar panels and rainwater gutters and copper roofs of the Colonia glinted in the sun like desert constellations. Six hundred buildings among the five discrete settlements strewn across the valley, from mega-yurts to converted ship container eco-manses to watery galleries and clean warehouses. A dusty archipelago of lunar land even the Comanches had avoided, now transformed with the money of the ultra-rich and the energy of the aggressively artistic. Sold off a dozen years ago to a group of Bohemian developers under a 99-year lease by the legislature, the nine-figure annual rent funding the State’s coastal reconstruction band-aid projects. The deal included a State constitutional amendment—a private charter that gave the Colonia the legal independence of a microstate. Free Republic, complete with a panoply of flags. It now flourished as a tabula rasa private playground for autonomous “research”—artistic, cultural, political, sexual, and interpersonal experimentation—by those who could manage the entrance fee.
I had arrived six weeks earlier, taking up a three-year land art fellowship endowed by the Virilian Investors Culture Fund. My project site was just visible to the northeast from this perch, off the Marfa road. A few early scratchings of rearranged rock were apparent in the sun. Kindergartner Nazca lines punctuated at one end with the tiny safety orange dot of my pygmy earth mover. Small progress.
I placed the synthesized white fruit on my tongue and let it dissolve into the heat of my saliva. It tasted like a cross between aspirin and dandelion milk. Kind of like the stress meds they used to pack in our MREs. Drone droppings, we called them, emotional enhancers for never-ending battles in the dried-out grey bed of Lake Balkhash and the empty desert beyond. Reminding me that this new life, this new desert, could only ever be a photofilm negative of the one that came before, even if in raging color. What would it offer to fill in the parts of me left behind?
And the light filled the world of rocks before me, washing over the big sky landscape with watercolor blues and browns and brights.
“Not very polite for the new boy to leave the group, Nathaniel,” said the light. The voice of Elkin, standing nearby, reeling me back in. “I’ve been watching you. Framed through my kitchen window every morning, boy playing with rocks. I kind of dig it.”
I turned and took in her knowing smile. She had effortless gravitas despite her elfin physique. Manicured cowgirl tan sprouting flaxen grey-blonde shorns and sweating well-born confidence through her faded black T-shirt and brown dungarees, absentmindedly kicking the dust with her custom boots of homegrown blue sharkskin.
She sat with me. Below, our companions laughed at Jae’s rocktop sun dance as they passed around a bottle of enhanced water and improvised their own stick and bone musical accompaniment, sharing the germinating seeds of Elkin’s crazy bounty.
“We should collaborate,” said Elkin. “Earth plus life. It could be fun.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I work mostly alone.”
“Pass along some of your pain,” she said. “You’ve got more than your fair share. Whereas my stuff suffers from a deficit. And a surplus of silly.”
“Really?” I said. “I heard that you cracked your own half-life.”
“The gift from Great-Grandma?” said Elkin. “Yes, I found that packed away in the attic of my genome. Not exactly a calendar date for my death, but definitely a protoplasmic inevitability. It’s a good thing, I think, like most deadlines. Helps you burn more brightly.”
She smiled a smile that carried other feelings with it.
Desert breeze, last gasp of the dissipated night. Elkin clasped my hand.
My prosthesis shivered, and I leaned for the sun.
Chariots of the Gods
I found an old bicycle at the D.A.V. in Alpine. Forty bucks. Vintage hard tail, logos long chipped away with the rest of the paint, save for a few stubborn flecks of faded yellow. I stripped it down, tossed the gearing, wrapped black surplus rims with fat round slicks, added rear discs, and had myself a beautiful utilitarian single speed. Pure, simple, soundless self-powered machine.
I disdain the sound of engines and power tools, a predilection compounded by my three years sleeping under the bombardment of smart bombs, IEDs, RPGs, and enemy drones. The earth mover wasn’t working for me. It alienated the earth, argued with the wind, and stained my forty-acre canvas.
So now I rode the bike, dragging a twenty-foot-wide, home-made rake behind me at walking speed. Carving a long slow jetty under the unyielding gaze of the sun. The image in my head, inchoate as it is, reveals multiple facets. Whirlpool, target, pictogram, circuit design, wound. A beautiful abstraction, the elaborate pattern a kind of post-tribal fractal that will morph with earth and sky, providing a different experience each time the mapping satellites pass over. And a private tincture that aerates the soul pain of my ravaged body.
I remembered a plain like this one, on the other side of the planet, and the after-crew of PMC janitors roaming in the morning with their sensors and trailers and bodybags, trying to collect missing parts in matched sets. And then the rock and sand conjure their wintry mirror some years earlier, walking with Dad on New Year’s Day across the fresh morning snowfall of his place in New Hampshire, trying to explain my decision to quit grad school and join the Marines.
He challenged me to defend my impulsive decision, calling me self-indulgent. He couldn’t understand that was exactly what I needed to cure. I needed to experience the struggle of the Real to earn my right to manipulate the imagined. In the end, we both were right.
The fallen snow blowing off the icy cover turned to hot dust. I started thinking about another tool I could make that would help me carve my piece, and escaped back into my blacksmith’s reverie, pedaling in wide circles under the desert sky while I drew blueprints against the back of my forehead for a simple rock-grinding combine that could write Olympian hieroglyphics of fresh-made dust.
A Moveable Beast
The thing in the dish smiled at me. The teeth were individually perfect, like products of the most advanced cosmetic dentistry, the white of fine porcelain. But they were irregularly spaced around the confused labial mouth from which they grew, and out of mouthly order, making them seem accidental. Wrong. The varying pink fleshy parts seemed to subtly breathe, with clumps of tawny follicles goosebumping in a dance of anatomical absurdism.
The smiling vayjay was disembodied, seated in a pillow of some purplish electro-organic gelatin that presumably sustained it, surrounded in turn by the stainless steel walls of an artisanal Petri dish laser-etched with beautiful terrible derivations of Sumerian monsters. A tiny red diode slowly pulsed on and off within the recesses of the goo, revealing the operation of some subtle circuitry that programmed the piece.
“If only it could sing,” said the woman standing next to me, another visitor to the gallery. This was the opening of Elkin’s new show for the Colonia Open House weekend, an annual four-day festival of investors, culturati, corporate sponsors, and Bohemian turistas.
“What would it say?” I asked, before I realized she was not talking to me, but rather dictating notes to her pad. A critic perhaps, preparing to upload a report to Neura. She looked at me, slight grin. “Leave me alone, obviously. Je mords.”
I moved with the circulation of the room into the more crowded main gallery, where a half-dozen loosely themed pieces were on display. Elkin, deploying the business skills learned from her father, had negotiated a co-branding deal with Somnus Labs, the next generation stem cell bankers that had pushed the regulatory envelope with their new exchange. Depositors, many of them celebrities, granted permission for Somnus to sell their un-anonymized raw cellular material to others, in exchange for a cut of the action. Resulting in a nascent market for designer organs, one Elkin was promoting with her avant-garde hacks.
“Textual Healing”: A perfect one-inch-by-one foot cube of liver tissue grown from the cryonically preserved umbilical cord blood of Dexter Fidelio, the cinematic bad boy better known for his trashings of rehab clinics than for his sporadically luminescent performances. Alternating sides of the cube were tattooed with some of his better-known movie script banalities, stenciled out in varying fonts.
“Montezuma’s Offering to Venus”: An actual functioning human heart grown in the perfect symmetrical shape of a greeting card Valentine heart, attached to an elegant weaving of colored plasticine tubes and suspended in rosy saline liquid within a clear plexiglass box lit from below with a smoky white light. The raw material, reverse engineered embryonic stems of Mari Dawood, the Canadian supermodel who had perished the year before when her private car was forced off a Milanese freeway overpass by marauding freelance papparazzi.
“Greetings From Airstrip One”: A single blinkless grey eye cloned from the material of Senator M. Matheson, the Chairman of the Special Standing Committee on Homeland Security, trapped in a black polymer box, but viewed from the strobe-illuminated interior on a crackling video display across the wall. On other smaller closed circuit displays around the room, images from the myriad surveillance videos the eye was monitoring, within the Colony and in distant metropoles.
Other, less singular pieces. Like the collection of “artificial” nails for sale in beautiful little packages in the gift shop—based on the actual fingernails of famous hand models, in some cases literal reproductions, in others modified —to enhance their vestigial clawedness, to imbue the nails with indigenously “painted” colors, “weathered” with cracks and stains and bite marks. Or the living wigs of hair of famous catalog models worn by Elkin and the gallery staff.
In the main room, Elkin stood atop a chair and greeted her crowd, brushing back Linda Okone’s wild red bangs with her commandingly gesticulating little hands.
Later, a group of us drank infused waters and spliced cocktails at one of the cafes in the heart of the public cluster—the main node of the Colony, at its core a rough analog for a Mexican paseo. The plaza had been transformed for the weekend into a spontaneous shantytown of designer tents, teepees from outer space, and architectural lean-tos. The fountain burned a liquid blue bonfire, an invention of one of Madero’s hipster handyman boyfriends. Mobs of visitors and colonists mingled around, drinking and dancing and laughing and arguing about the new work. Costumed interns passed out samples of the latest capsulized concoctions of our resident pharmaboys, while the DJ nearby cleverly mixed his improvised Fezcore with the simmering crescendo of the crowd. From the heart of the mob, Crile emerged, a head taller than the rest, dancing cocky like he had just arrived in the end zone carrying the ball.
As he approached our crew, Crile stretched before he sat, cracking his neck and shoulders. It sounded like sheet metal being crumpled inside the fist of Hephaestus.
“Jack has more spare parts than my old Carrera,” said Madero, laughing with his grungy young companion, Karl, an assistant to one of the local painters.
“I run better than any Porsche,” said Crile. “At least the parts that matter.”
Crile scratched his silvery buzzcut, flexing a bicep that pulsed with the texture of manufactured tendons and polymerically enhanced blood vessels. He was one of the alpha generation of real celebrity cyborgs, a Texas star college quarterback who was among the first to go straight to the UFL. The Ultimate Football League was the first to abandon professional athletics’ anachronistic insistence on the prohibition of performance enhancements, be they pharmaceutical, biomechanical, or genetically engineered. It was a genius stroke by the founders. The audience was far more interested in superhuman performances than fidelity to nature, and the athletes were addicted to the potential of even greater power. Crile hadn’t played in a decade, but was still a public figure, famous for his stamina in withstanding fifteen-plus years of pounding on behalf of the Los Angeles fans, by defensive linemen morphed into raging anthropomorphic hippos and bipedal Mack trucks made of pink flesh and steel bones. He also did media—partycasts and extremophile hunter porn more than sports commentary. Even now, there were people in the milling festival crowds noticing him, a rare sports figure who was considered an icon of charismatic cool even among this post-urban hipster crowd.
“Hey, Jack,” said Jae, nodding at a pair of younger women crossing the way, “looks like you’re being ogled.”
“Art sluts,” said Elkin. “The best kind.”
“I think he prefers his sluts of a more Apollonian mold,” teased Madero. “They’re the only ones who can handle the hardware.”
“Hey,” laughed Crile, popping pills with his infused water. “Not everything needs to be supplemented. Some performance enhancements just come naturally. Straight from Mom. Just ask the Queen. She can take whatever any boy’s got.”
Everyone laughed, jazzed by the crackling electricity of the night, though Elkin’s had a sharper edge. It was a rare weekend to have so many crowds of interesting people exploring the scene. It was usually more serene, a refuge of decadent cerebral and sensual exploration, the insistent effort of the very rich and imminently bored to stave off ennui and create a more aesthetically stimulating world.
Crile leaned back, both hands behind his head, the disarming textures of his subcutaneous implants revealed against the stretched black cotton of his designer T. He ignored the girls as they approached, trailed by a smallish man in an old school jacket.
“Elkin, you’ve outdone yourself this time,” said the man. “I want to commission a piece but I’m afraid to ask what it would cost.”
“That’s the problem with being a writer in a world without royalties,” said Elkin. “In for the weekend, Ned?”
“Yes, plus a day or two at the back end. We spent last weekend in Austin, rented a vintage camper for the first time. You remember my partner, Claire—last summer, Chicago—and this is her sister, Miranda.”
“Fantastic,” said Elkin, nodding at the women. “I want to see your caravan.”
“Absolutely,” said Ned. “But first we need to discuss your show. You can read my write-up next week, but I can tell you that your sponsors are very happy.”
“How do you know?” asked Elkin. “You’re just their bard.”
“What else is there? Critic-for-hire, business developer, talent scout, and improvisational participant, all rolled into one.”
“Nice work if you can get it,” said Miranda.
“Who needs royalty checks when you have a biomed executive’s expense account?” added Claire. “He’s here to plug the project, renegotiate your deal, and treat us to tomorrow’s parties, all at the same time.”
“I see,” said Elkin. “And I have just the cocktail for you to try. Have you met Mr. Crile?”
The party continued at Madero’s hacienda just beyond the edge of the cluster. The crowd was ripped—owl juice and other locally distilled psilospyrits. Karl programmed the music box, and the house danced as much as the crowd. Crile was down to the base layer, splayed on a bulbous foam settee, giving Miranda and Claire a guided tour to his enhancements and implants and scars. Elkin tugged at my arm.
“I have to show you something,” she yelled in my ear.
We walked back through the panes of liquid glass, over the footbridge to the north wing, the tattooed kaleidoscope of manufactured koi swimming in the stream of purified rainwater running beneath. Elkin led me past the quiet private quarters of Madero’s older male wives and the giggling playrooms full of mischievous guests, down a hallway to an unlit room.
“Take off your shoes,” said Elkin.
The floor was artificial turf—cool, clean and alive, like the green of a fine golf course without the moist earth underneath. The walls and ceilings were matte black, illuminated only by the diffused light of moon and stars slipping around the occluded skylight created by a plate suspended underneath a slightly smaller aperture.
“This is a nice installation,” I said. “Who did it?”
“Cadma,” said Elkin. “Madero’s cousin, from Santiago. Go lie down in the center. Let your head go.”
I complied. We lay there as time slowed, retinal rods opening up to the subtle blue-white glow. In time, the walls began to move in our peripheral vision, revealing dim animations. A monocolor moving image of some shadowed Dionysium, a soundless, rapacious dream in near distance. If you turned to look directly at the images they disappeared back to still black, undulating again when you returned your gaze to the eclipsed skylight. Elkin moved closer. The piece lured out our carefully guarded needs and vulnerabilities, like small forest mammals slipping tentatively out into the bright dark after moonrise.
“Let me in,” said Elkin, drawing on my forehead with a designer fingernail. “Share whatever it is you’re hiding in there.”
I pushed back.
We kissed. We rolled on the fake grass. We made out hungrily, until my tongue found something loose inside her, the taste of torn tissue. I pulled back and Elkin reached two fingers in, producing a discarded bicuspid.
“Sorry,” she laughed. “Here’s what’s hidden inside me. Offering for the tooth fairy. New project—not mine, but my dentist’s. He’s growing new permanents for me, right inside my own jaw. Sharper and whiter, with a healthy dose of chimpanzee. Check it out.”
I ran my little finger over the pointed bump in the gap.
“Monkey teeth? You are definitely more committed to your work than me.”
“Are we so different?” she said, touching me.
“Don’t,” I said.
“Why not?” said Elkin. “The war? I heard. I’m not afraid.” She ran her hand down my abdomen. “I need new surprises. Who knew total emasculation could be the ultimate alluring machismo.”
The accumulated chemical cocktails of the long night bounced the stars off the ceiling.
“I need to see what’s underneath your scars,” she said. “Literally, and speculatively. Don’t be afraid of that.”
She moved on me, and the room breathed with us.
Life on Mars
With a morning thunderstorm in the forecast, I picked up Elkin before dawn and we headed out to the site.
We had begun a collaboration. After spending some time with me exploring the work and assisting me with some of the labors, Elkin brewed some bacterial contributors to my piece, from a strain of dry weather dormants.
We worked well together. The input of an intimate as consultant was healthy for both of us. The health of other parts of our relationship was more tentative.
I borrowed one of the community trucks for the occasion, a restored and fuel cell-converted fifty-year-old pickup. We drove up the old ranch road on Caspar Mountain, then off road to our favorite overlook spot. Elkin brought a pot of coffee, from a friend’s homemod beans. We sat in the cab and drank it from her little thermos cups while the cumulonimbus bulged out and stacked up over the plain below, cracking long and loud like God rearranging the wooden furniture in heaven.
“It’s a beautiful piece,” said Elkin. The cloud-filtered light of the gathering storm brought out weird colors in the rock, revealing new facets of the jetty. “You get so lost in it. Like a galaxy of stone.”
“It’s trying. We’ll see.”
“You are going to love your new interns when they wake up,” she said.
“How many of them do you think there are?”
“Billions. Wait and see.” She sipped her coffee. “I wish you would let me take some fucking pictures.”
“I know, but I told you, the piece doesn’t work that way. Pictures will just end up in galleries and coffee table books.”
“T-shirts!” smiled Elkin.
“Right. They violate the site-specific essence of the work.”
“It’s okay,” said Elkin. “I bought a day’s worth of satellite surveillance.” She pointed up and smiled.
I considered that. “Okay,” I said.
A dark blue filter washed over the plain as the sky darkened. The shower started, steady then intense. Twenty minutes, then it broke as fast as it began.
Light cracked through. As it hit the jetty, swaths of bacteria bloomed scarlet in the channels, like pools of blood seeping into the honeycombed expanse of a white paper towel. Red rivers of rocks that had learned to give up their ghosts.
Elkin smiled, big and full of wonder.
“Thank you,” I said, meaning it for once.
Big Two-Headed River
Crile, naturally, was the first one to catch a fish. “Get your ass over here and shoot a film,” he said from the other side of the river. “I don’t want to play with this mutant too long.”
I waded across toward the Mexican side. The water moved fast around big Crile standing there grinning in his custom antitox wetsuit. He held the beast up by one hand shoved into the mouth, fingers through the right gills. The way he caught it.
“So that’s how it’s done,” I yelled. Crile was a devotee of deepwater hand fishing, a kind of extreme sports variation on old-fashioned redneck noodling in which you grab the fish from their mudbank and logwood lairs, using your hand as bait. His particular specialty was finding extreme mutations in toxic bodies of water.
“It’s all about the reflexes,” he said. “No thought—just kill. Pure caveman shit.”
“I can’t even see anything in this water,” I said, “even with these fancy illuminating goggles of yours.”
The fish was huge, with a head almost as big as Crile’s. Unlike Crile, it had long whiskers of slimy flesh sticking out from its cheeks. Variation on a catfish, but with translucent tissue, wrong proportions, and black eyes.
“What does that thing weigh?” I asked.
“About one-twenty, I’d say,” said Crile. “Not the biggest I’ve wrestled, but big enough. And definitely ugly enough.”
“Those are some teeth,” I said, filming a close-up with my handheld. Crile’s suit was torn at the forearm, bleeding in spots. “Looks like somebody mixed in a little barracuda.”
“Want to give her a kiss goodbye?” asked Crile, setting the beast back in the fast running water for release. “I’m gonna take a break and patch up.”
We sat on the bank of a sandy shoal midriver. Crile peeled off his suit and tended his cuts while I pulled lunch from the cooler.
“Meatbread?” I proffered, holding up a small protein-infused loaf from the Boulangerie Bellona in the North Node.
“In a minute,” said Crile, stretching his suit sleeve against the sky to spot the holes. “I want to get this done so I can relax.”
“Suit yourself,” I said, breaking off a bite and quaffing a glass of unaltered Malbec. Oenophilia remained the domain of rigid naturalism.
Crile hunched over the cooler cover, painting patches on his suit.
The sun in the valley sucked up the heat from the grains of the Chihuahuan desert and poured it on us like a dry waterfall. Even through my sunglasses, I had to squint as the light glistened off the distended titanium nodes of Crile’s vertebral reconstruction.
“What does it feel like to have your spine replaced?” I asked.
“It hurts like fuck,” said Crile. “Then after about a month, when things start to settle in and integrate and they give you your first tuning, you feel like you could throw a car down the street. It’s fucking awesome.”
On the far bank, a feral Mexican scampered along the reeds, nervously checking us out.
“How does it feel when they plug a million dollar dildo in where your dick used to be?” asked Crile, smiling without looking.
“Army paid for it,” I said. “Officer’s perk. And I don’t think it costs them quite that much.”
“Come on,” said Crile, flicking epoxy at me.
I drank more wine and considered.
“I guess it’s like putting clothes on a phantom limb,” I said.
“This is what I get for hanging out with artists,” said Crile. “People who talk in riddles without punchlines.”
“It works as well as my artificial leg, which is saying something.”
“Can you feel anything?”
“Like I said. It’s phantom. Simulated. Twitchy neural stuff.”
“Can you reprogram it?”
“Sure, you know how it goes, just like any of your major enhancements. You’re supposed to leave it to the docs—they get seriously pissed off at DIYs.”
“I bet that doesn’t stop Elkin,” said Crile, chomping off a fistful of veggie chorizo.
I shook my head, smiling against interest.
“You don’t need to answer that,” said Crile. “Believe me, I know all Elkin’s tricks.”
Pandora flirts with the Bad Magi
I woke up restless the morning after my birthday, jarred by some lingering smell of Elkin. I watched the sun push its way across the stucco. My leg was hanging on the wall. The rest of me was set on top of the dresser, next to a wormless bottle of Mezcal and a vintage paperback monograph by de Maria.
In time, I hobbled to the bathroom, took a leak sitting down, rinsed my teeth, and then inspected the refrigerated case Elkin had left with me when she went home. Its machined metallic precision was totally incongruous with the hand-painted tiles of the countertop. It emitted a barely audible hum, elusive but alluring, like a post-industrial aum.
“I made it for you,” said Elkin at the party the night before, without explaining the it. “Don’t open it until you are alone.”
I looked in the mirror at my scars. The rough rippled tissue punctured with the tiny nodes where my prostheses attached. I looked at the scars behind my eyes, hidden in plain sight in the light brown prow of my “male model mongrel face,” as Katerina called it—“the face of every race and no race.” I remembered hand-to-hand combat on a mountain cave hunt gone bad, spilling another man’s blood in the snow. I remembered the blast, and the hallucinatory morphine haze as I watched them wrap my severed leg in icepaks and load it next to me in the chopper bay for evac.
There was a note from Elkin.
“This is for you. And for me. To share, when we are together. To share the pain and pleasure it is designed to transmit. Both ways.”
I popped the latches on the case. Pressure equalized with the hiss of a bottle of sparkling water. The contents were something else entirely. Alive. A new color of flesh. Heartless, but pulsing nonetheless.
Spelunking Other Archipelagoes
On a run to Marfa for materials, I ran into Katerina on the street. She persuaded me to join her for a late lunch. I’m not sure we’d ever had a proper one-on-one conversation before, with Elkin always around to dominate the scene. So we had some catching up to do.
We talked about the restlessness of fashion’s creative cycles, the politics of the Colony, my war, her Russia, the new planets, the fashion lessons of her pogrom, our favorite comics, the end of nations, the business of art, and selected highlights of our romantic pasts. Across a café table, the pallor of her skin was like a cold drink of milk in the middle of this big sky desert, and her gallows laughter at my grisliest war stories mixed a fresh flavor of simpatico. Arctic core waters degenerated into Dr. Watson mojitos and peeled artifice. She gave me a tour of her atelier, and we got stuck in her private apartment.
My fingers admired the orthodontic imperfections of her crazy mouth, and the diverse hues of her unbleached incisors. She tasted like sweet fresh cabbage and raw jalapenos, and she swore in Russian like a B-movie submariner.
She played cascading dirges of dissonant Siberian art metal and moved against me out of sync. Our clothes ended up on the floor. When she encountered Elkin’s alien gift, she laughed uncontrollably, making first contact only after mystery trumped composure.
The laughing turned to something else when the connection was made. The tissue-to-tissue dipole, the transmitter of all the real feelings and sensations lost in the clumsy imperfections of language and the stumbling wrestlings of lovemaking. Tandem rush through cascading rapids, riding Elkin’s flesh-bridge together, while the ghost of its creator lurked in the dark corner of the ceiling.
Later, we held each other, mining the fleeting intimacy of a curiosity we both knew could not endure, and I tried to excise the Other from my mind, being afraid to remove it from my body and end this suspended moment.
I had a dream that it talked,” I said. “Talked to me. And secretly reported to Elkin.”
“More true than you knew, Nathaniel,” said Madero, poking a lump of vegan simulated cabrito with a disinterested fork.
Elkin had dragged me to Madero’s for an impromptu brunch. Turned out it was a business luncheon, with Elkin’s critic/scout friend Ned the surprise guest.
I flipped the pages of the printed contract Ned had proffered with my eggless migas, unable to actually focus on the text. Elkin twisted the stem of her glass with two hands, while Ned leaned forward in an effort to engage me with his Manhattan Seawall variation on dealmaker charisma.
One of Madero’s wives scurried to and from the kitchen, looking for ways he could serve us.
“Obviously, you’ll want to have your agent look at that,” said Ned.
“He doesn’t have one,” said Elkin. “Too stubborn.”
“I can get you hooked up with my entertainment lawyer friend in L.A.,” said Madero.
“License and Marketing Agreement,” read the heading of the contract, a generic description of twenty-some pages of turgid lawyer prose, plus appendices.
“And tell me what my upside is again?”
“You get royalties equal to half a point of our net profits from sales of the units,” said Ned, “and continued rights of use.”
“Rights to use my own organ.”
“Actually, theirs,” corrected Elkin.
“This remarkable little miracle of improvisational biomechanics Elkin developed was something she did as a work-for-hire for Somnus Labs,” explained Ned. “Incorporating our core intellectual property.”
“And my genetic material,” I said.
“Correct,” said Ned. “Without your prior written consent, creating in the process a monumental breakthrough: a replicable formula for the growth of a fully functional, putatively natural, one-hundred percent human tissue-based substitute organ. The sensory functions of which can be felt by both, um, users—the wearer and the target, if you will. Giving new meaning to the phrase, ‘go fuck yourself.’ It can be grown as either a supplement or a full replacement, as the circumstances of the patient may require.”
“Or desire,” added Madero, looking at his wife.
“I think the jury’s still out on the fully functional part,” I said.
<p“Well, according to the research notes Elkin has shared with us, it performs exactly according to specifications. Understanding that those specs involve some atypical features, and are still subject to the physiological limitations of the user.”
“Fuck you, too,” I said.
“The ability to modify the basic design is immensely compelling, recognizing there is significant lab work and fine tuning to be done. Take it out a generation or two, consider the possibilities Elkin is already playing with to integrate characteristics of other genomes, and you really have the killer app for cosmetic applications of our stem bank. The first set of patents should issue within the year.”
“Designer johnsons,” laughed Madero. “From you, from movie stars, from the doodled boy-dreams of your inner Freudian cartoonist, fully customizable to express the undreamed self-delusions of every man on earth. What more ultimate work of art could you want to express the narcissistic spirit of the age? It will be to drugstore E.D. remedies what the supercomputer was to the personal calculator.”
“Yeah, that may be, Paul,” I said. “But I guess what I feel like right now is I wouldn’t fuck this guy with your dick, and Elkin can have hers back.”
I pushed the contract away.
“Let’s talk about it later,” said Elkin, looking like she had a lot more to say. “Read the contract, do the math, and think about our collaboration before you make up your mind. This is about a lot more than business. It’s about our immortality.”
I looked at her lackadaisical power hair, and agate eyes with their mesmer stare.
“You had this idea before you even met me, didn’t you?”
I stripped the right pedal from my bike, made my own clip to allow my true leg to pedal solo, hitched an ultralight camping trailer to the rig, and headed toward the unsettled eastern quarter of the Colony lands to find a new spot to work and live.
Before I left, I buried my old prostheses at the jetty site.
<p”>In the late afternoon that first day, I found a boneyard in the rocky flats above a small canyon. Skeletons of the desert’s dead, bleached by ultraviolet. Local animals, and crazy bones, like the skeletons of anthropomorphic cartoon characters made real. Relics of homegrown chimeras gone feral, the forgotten toys of some crazy rancher’s kid trying out his splicing kits on the livestock and local fauna? They mostly collapsed when you tried to pick them up, like fossilized snow sculptures, so I just sketched them against the back of my forehead.
I camped there that night, hobbling around at the edge of the canyon herding ghosts. The moon lied, as usual, and the next day I moved on.
I found a good spot. The relics of an old mercury mining camp that I turned into a squat, a perfect desert studio. Elkin comes by once in a while, and brings the thing with her for its feeding. It’s hard to say no, for all the reasons you know. Sometimes I even ride back to Elkin’s place and spend the night.
I made a little work table of salvaged slate at the far end of the site, the seat a broken granite boulder. Shaded by a brown tarp held up by repurposed old lumber, I admired the unvaried stonescape of loose rocks as far as the eye could see, laden with the fossilized remains of Cretaceous bivalves, sparsely vegetated with spartan brush and one patch of creosote and lechuguilla. I poured water on the rocks from a little glass I’d made from the lower half of a bottle of Topo Chico, maybe trying to revive an ammonite, or maybe seeing if I could just grow the ruins of the future.