March 19, 2168
The Priest stood in a narrow alley south of Hollywood Boulevard, the skirt of his black cassock flapping in the wind. The stiff, double-breasted robe clung to his chest, the trappings of a general at war with the flesh. Thunder rumbled overhead and he squinted at the sky. “Where are you?” he asked.
He didn’t get an answer.
Mist fell through the gap between the old brick walls, beading on his black hair which he wore slicked back. He dropped his gaze, wiped his face, and his fingers grazed the Collar. An electric shock made him flinch and chilled him to the core.
On the wall to his right, someone had stenciled an inverted pentagram, shining with cold blue light that bled into the mist. The pentagram was two meters wide with a goat head in the center, circled by a narrow border filled with Hebrew letters. He read the glowing script and whispered, “BAPHOMET.” Sparks crawled across the seal as if he’d cast a spell. He knew that what he saw was not a magic show; the demonic seal was made of countless nanites. He touched one of the letters and the characters shifted, spelling out the first law of the damned--“Thou art God.” He smiled, lowered his hand and the letters shifted back.
“Come,” the Collar prodded him. “Our wait is nearly over.”
The Priest crept along the wall and peered out of the alley. Across the street stood a gothic church, converted into a nightclub. Streaks of light fanned through the scarlet glass in the rose window, and over the doors, “Church of Steel” was backlit with red neon. He felt more than heard the music leaking through the doors, the heavy beat pounding like a mechanical heart.
Crowded on the steps of the church and spilling onto the sidewalk, were several dozen men and women dressed for a nightmare. Black vinyl was the fabric of choice for many of the hacks, making them look like they were painted with crude oil. Piercings gleamed on pallid faces, spikes jutted from lips, and tattoos scrawled across their skins like tribal hieroglyphs.
Some of the tribe had been enhanced by strange technologies, their hacked genes making them an endangered species. One couple had long black horns that curved down their backs, and when they kissed their horns clacked with a hollow sound. A woman with a shaved head went without a shirt, exposing the chrome vertebrae imbedded in her spine. Instead of hair, tentacles snaked over one man’s shoulders, writhing with purple bioluminescent suckers.
Then there were the old school hacks who worshipped Rice and Poe, anachronisms dressed for a Victorian funeral. Their eyes glowed in the dark like jewels lit by flames, their irises injected with luminescent proteins. Cool poses of disdain appeared de rigueur, but a few who didn’t give a damn broke convention and laughed. These hacks embraced the scene with a wink and a nod--everyday was Halloween in the shadows of the towers.
“Dressed to kill,” the Priest said.
“Or be killed,” whispered the Collar.
The Priest scanned the pale faces. “Travis isn’t here.”
“Patience, the night is young and murder is a virtue.”
“We’ve been waiting all night. That whore said he would be here.”
“Trust me. Hell calls, and the heart will answer.”
The Priest clenched his jaw. It all came down to the heart.
The Collar had first spoken to him during his ordination, while he lay face down on the floor of the cathedral, arms spread at the feet of the cardinal.
“Fear not,” the Collar said. “I’ve got places to take you. You have much to learn before you enter your Father’s house.”
In the years that followed, the Collar led him on a pilgrimage of flesh. His teachers had been high class hookers and back-alley whores. He crossed every boundary until all that remained was taking a human life or forfeiting his own. Just when he thought that he could take on no more sin, Father Funes, the chairman of the Vatican Space Commission, put him in charge of Project Ezekiel.
The VSC had launched the project a decade ago, to reestablish contact with its off-world colonies. Fifty-six years had passed since Rome lost contact, and the first colonies they found were nothing but graveyards. The colonies were early casualties of the Great Collapse, which followed in the footsteps of the Red Death nanoplague. His appointment to director came as little surprise; he’d been the head of R&D under Father Funes, and brokered a construction contract with Tesseract, which gave them a cut rate deal on a fleet of starships in exchange for exclusive rights to exploit exo-tech.
With his appointment, the Collar told him that the time of purging was at hand. He would wash his robes in the blood of the martyrs. None of them appreciated the honor that was theirs, but one by one, through love and the knife, they came to an understanding.
“He’s coming,” the Collar said.
The Priest scanned the street. A glossy, black speed bike roared overhead. Instead of wheels, plasma coils spun like balls of lightning. The biker shot between the buildings, hunched like a jockey. When he reached the cross-street, he leaned hard to the left, pulled a one-eighty and sped back toward the church. Brakes flared beneath the bike and it landed near the alley. The biker shut down the engine and removed his helmet.
“Travis,” the Priest sighed. He sank into the shadows.
The man was in his late twenties, his head shaved to the scalp. The hustler climbed off his bike and removed his leather jacket. The Priest was surprised to see that he wore no shirt beneath it, exposing his lean, muscled torso to the cold. A red, Chinese dragon tattoo covered half his chest, clenching his nipple in its jaws like a pearl. The Priest ached, remembering the night he tasted it.
Travis turned around and tossed his jacket on the seat. A metal rod with red lenses gleamed on his spine. He walked away and pressed his key fob, setting the alarm, and a shiny black carapace slid over the cockpit. Sensing he was being watched, Travis glanced his way, his eyes narrowing to slits beneath his heavy brow. Could Travis see his face gleaming like marble? Perhaps he saw the white square glowing on his throat. Travis frowned, turned away, and strode toward the club, the heels of his biker boots thudding on the pavement. When he reached the middle of the street, he reached behind his back and touched the metal rod between his shoulder blades. Scarlet wings unfurled and slowly beat the air. The traceries were holograms of angelic grandeur.
“Beautiful,” the Priest sighed, stunned by the display. He wrapped his hand around his neck and felt the Collar tremble.
A group of hacks were smoking near the doors of the church. Travis climbed the marble steps and his tribe embraced him. He returned their hugs, laughing, slapping backs, folded his ruby wings and went inside the club.
“Now,” the Collar said.
The Priest went after him. Several hacks looked his way with fleeting disdain, and a girl he passed as he entered the church looked embarrassed for him. His cassock wasn’t a faux-pas, it was a cliché. Perhaps he should have taken it further and capped his teeth with fangs. The scrawny boy in the ticket booth didn’t seem to care; a Chinese girl in a snakeskin dress was gnawing on his neck. The Priest paid the cover with a dead man’s credit card and pushed through a pair of black velvet curtains.
Fog flooded the sanctuary and pooled around his feet. Purple spotlights washed over the crowd on the dance floor. The DJ in the pulpit above them changed the music, and a sultry female voice rode synthetic waves, sighing about fallen angels “chasing wings of steel.” His eyes were drawn to the crucifix that towered above the altar. The marble cross was surrounded by a nimbus of green lasers, which made Christ look like a deep sea god passing judgment on the damned.
He wandered down a gallery that ran along the dance floor, a circus of atrocities that mocked God’s son and saints. He passed a topless woman in a cruciform, rebar cage, and saw her nipples had been crossed out with electrical tape. A bald girl in a gasmask hung from a stake, twitching as red lightning forked up her legs. He could hear her moaning through her breathing tube. What would the French think of this bondage Joan of Ark?
He paused before a naked man in an executioner’s hood, who tensed and groaned while shackled to a St. Andrew’s cross. A nun in a rubber habit poured wax on his chest, tipping the glass chimney of a votive candle. Some of the wax had dribbled over his crotch and hardened into white stalactites that hung from his shaft.
The spectacle froze the Priest. He struggled to swallow. Nothing had prepared him for these obscenities. But a more honest part of him felt like he’d come home, the part that throbbed between his legs to the beat of the music.
The Collar tightened like a leash. “This is not your playground. You are not allowed to taste the fruit of Hades’ garden.”
“But it’s so sweet,” the Priest said, caressing the man’s thigh.
The Collar choked him and he yanked away his hand. Gasping, he clutched his throat and reeled toward the dance floor.
“See with my eyes,” the Collar said, loosening it’s grip. “See what has become of the house of your Father.”
“It’s still His, all of this, the beauty and the terror.”
“You have work to do. Another fruit to pluck.”
The Priest nodded weakly and searched for his angel. The dancers swayed with hypnotic grace to the alternating beats, reaching up and swinging down like they were plucking apples. None of them paid attention to their siblings in extremis. Even Hell failed to shock with enough exposure.
Then he spotted Travis leaning on the bar. His ruby wings hugged his back, given substance by the fog. The Priest glided through the crowd and squeezed in beside him.
The bartender, a tall woman in a red vinyl tank top, had a sharp face, pearly skin and burgundy hair. Frosty white contact lenses blotted out her eyes. She filled a glass with red wine and set it in front of Travis. He winked at her and she stroked his chin, her brow creased with regret.
Travis spotted the Priest in the mirror behind the bar. He met his gaze with cool disdain and took a sip of wine.
“What are you having?” the bartender asked.
“Same thing as the angel.”
The woman glanced at Travis and he raised an eyebrow. Sneering, she filled a glass and set it on the bar.
“You remember me,” the Priest said.
“How could I forget?”
The Priest smiled, lips closed, and paid for his drink.
Travis swirled his wine and stared into his glass. “They think you’re wearing a costume.”
“You’d know all about that.”
Travis set down his glass. “You shouldn’t have come here.”
“I saw your bike, very nice. Very expensive. Wasn’t I the one who made the down payment?”
“Leave before you get hurt.”
“That’s gratitude for you.”
The Priest reached for his glass and Travis grabbed his wrist.
“Not here,” Travis snarled. “I’m not fucking around.”
The Priest calmly stared at him with black, unblinking eyes.
Travis swallowed and released his arm. “What do you want?”
The Collar rasped, “To split your ribs and lick your beating heart.”
The Priest muzzled the Collar. “I think you know.”
“Fuck off,” Travis growled. “I’m not on the market.” He grabbed his drink, shouldered the Priest and strutted away.
“You still eating Lotus?”
Travis froze in his tracks.
The Priest smiled into his glass. “Hard to get these days.”
Travis stormed toward the Priest, his face an angry knot, and spun him around. “How the fuck would you know?”
The Priest sighed, looking bored. “I’ve got connections.”
“How much are you holding?”
“Enough to show you God.”
Travis’ eyes smoldered. “Be more specific.”
“You’re full of shit.”
“Trust me. I’m a priest.”
“Yeah, and I was an altar boy.”
“That explains a lot.”
Travis looked like he wanted to kill him. “What do you have in mind?”
“You know the alley across the street with the glowing pentagram?”
“Sure I know it, the Devil’s Snatch. Next to the Pan’s Pipes bookstore. Did a rivet girl there once, after Church got out.”
“Meet me there in five minutes. I’ll head out first. You feed me your junk and I’ll send you to heaven.”
“That’s it, just a blowjob? No reciprocation?”
“Just promise me you’ll put your heart into it.”
“What’s the catch? With what you’re holding, you could have your own boys’ choir.”
“But I wouldn’t have you, and you’re so very special.”
“Okay, you’ve got a deal. But I swear, if you burn me...”
“There’ll be Hell to pay.”
Travis strutted away.
The Priest gave a thin-lipped smile. “Don’t forget your wings.”
Peter Romito slouched in the back of a yellow hovercab, the worn vinyl seat sticky with human residue. Thank God it was dark so he couldn’t see the stains; after a night spent turning tricks, he didn’t need reminders. The cabin reeked of cigarette smoke mixed with body odor, poorly masked by cheap vanilla air freshener. Thanks to the old black man flying the cab, he’d smell like an ash tray when he met his dealer.
He shivered despite the warm air blowing from the heater. It didn’t help that the rain had soaked his black lambskin trench coat. His dark eyes were black holes with the pupils blown, and his chalky skin made him look like a drowning victim. He wiped his face, his second best physical feature, and gazed out the window at the City of Fallen Angels.
Storm clouds blotted out the stars and rolled over the towers, titanic structures that surged into the sky. Some of them were dazzling geometric puzzles; others curved and twisted, warping light and space. Far below, an older city had been smothered by the towers, crumbling blocks and monuments of concrete and stone, the labyrinthine graveyard where he had been born.
The cab banked and soared over Melrose Avenue. Plasma coils churned inside the cab’s dented fenders. The vibrations from the engine settled in his teeth. He looked at his trembling hands and clenched them into fists. An entire day had passed since he swallowed his last hit, and his wetware was shorting out, in need of a fix. Taking a deep breath, he leaned back in his seat. If he panicked, he’d get swallowed by the terrors.
For weeks he’d been stretching out the time between each fix, but kicking Slam on your own was a death sentence. Treatment meant getting his brain scrubbed by nanites, which would quarantine the Slam retrovirus. The only thing that scared him more than bugs in his brain, was the fear that his girlfriend would abandon him. Tony was six years older than him, a streetwalker gone straight, and he loved her with all the love he didn’t have for himself.
As if he sensed Peter was drowning and wanted to push him deeper, the old black man at the wheel turned on the stereo. The voice of Billie Holiday crackled over the speakers:
“Sunday is gloomy,
My hours are slumberless
Dearest, the shadows
I live with are numberless...”
Peter looked at the driver in the rearview mirror. Had he picked the song just to torture him, or was grandpa simply feeling nostalgic? Everyone was going retro, obsessed with the past, chasing the ghosts of time like half-crazed reincarnates. Blue dots underscored the old man’s sunken eyes, glowing on his cheeks like tiny fireflies.
The driver met his gaze. “Does my ink surprise you?”
Peter shrugged. “We’re all marked one way or another.”
The driver’s tattoos got brighter. “You on some bad shit, huh?”
Peter smirked. “Being on shit isn’t the problem.”
The old man narrowed his eyes. “How old are you?”
“Old enough. I turn twenty-one tomorrow.”
“Well, tomorrow’s here. Happy birthday, kid.”
Peter huffed. “Been a long time since I was a kid.”
“At least when I was your age I had something to live for.”
“You saying that I don’t?”
“I’m saying that I did.”
“So what happened,” Peter asked, knowing he’d regret it.
“My son was hooked on Slam. He shot himself. My tattoos are the tears I shed when I buried him.”
“Jesus, I’m sorry.”
“Then do yourself a favor. Give yourself a birthday present. Get off that shit.”
“Yeah, well, thanks for the advice.”
“Consider it a gift.”
The cab shuddered, struck by a sudden gust of wind. The voice of Billie Holiday crooned in the background.
“Gloomy is Sunday,
With shadows I spend it all
My heart and I
Have decided to end it all...”
Peter winced. “For Fuck’s sake, would you turn off that song?”
“Sorry, hit a nerve?” The old man killed the music. He reached for a pack of menthols sitting on the dash, lit one, took a drag and slowly exhaled. “So, have you got any plans for your birthday?”
“My girlfriend’s taking me out.”
“You’re shitting me. Well, there you go. You do have something to live for.”
Peter wiped his mouth, feeling sick with guilt. “I’ve changed my mind,” he said. “Forget Sunset Terrace. Take me to the Reef, landing platform twelve.”
The old man fought back a smile and punched in the destination. Sunset Terrace was skin central, but the Reef was residential. “Had enough for one night?”
Peter didn’t answer. He dug his phone out of his coat and speed-dialed Tony.
“How’s it going, babe?”
“I’m doing all right.” Tony’s voice grew cautious. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, everything’s fine. What are you doing right now?”
“I’m just working on a painting for my new show. It’s too normal, though. Kinda turns my stomach. I’m ten seconds away from slashing the canvas.”
Peter smirked. “That’s my girl.”
“Where are you right now?”
“In a cab, a couple minutes from your door.”
“Really? Come on over. I’ll make some tea. I just hope you don’t mind if I smell like turpentine.”
“Heh.” He squeezed his nose. “My favorite perfume.”
“I love you.”
“You too.” He ended the call.
The cab flew past an egg-shaped ring that arched into the sky with a hologram projected inside. A broken DNA chain spiraled in the center, looking like a staircase on the verge of collapse. Stars spun around the chain, repairing the links. The image zoomed out through the eye of a middle-aged Latina, and a ring of light washed over her face, obliterating decades. She smiled and fading text replaced her lovely skin--“End Time. Born Again. ReNEwTM with Dynagene.” The holovid blinked out and the loop started over.
The driver huffed. “Whatever happened to growing old gracefully?”
Peter stared at his own reflection. “There’s no such thing. LA’s morgues are packed with beautiful corpses.”
“Rotten hearts in young skins, that’s the real problem.”
“Well, when they hand out new hearts, I’ll be the first in line.”
Beyond the egg, a scarlet reef skirted the Hollywood Hills. The crescent of glass towers branched like coral growth. Bands of light scored the towers, made of countless windows. Tony’s tower, the tallest in the Reef, stood at the center. Near the top, a ring of spikes curved upward like fangs, a dozen blazing beacons, carving up the night.
Red light spilled inside the cab as it glided through the Reef. The cab slowed and hovered over one of the landing platforms. The plasma coils rose in pitch as the cab slowly descended. Peter’s door lifted open and the air hissed out. The cab fare flashed on a meter wedged between the seats. Peter punched in a tip and pressed his thumb on the scanner. The meter dinged when the charge went through and he climbed out of the cab.
“Thanks,” he said.
The old man tipped an imaginary hat.
The Priest waited in the alley, hugging himself. Finally, Travis emerged from the church. Fog streamed from his nose as he padded down the steps and crossed the glassy street, his ruby wings aglow. Glancing back to make sure he wasn’t being followed, Travis ducked into the alley with the glowing pentagram.
“Where’s your car?” Travis asked.
“Who needs a car?”
Travis wiped the rain from his scalp. “The storm is getting worse.”
“A good night for a baptism.”
“You’re a sick fuck, you know that?”
The Priest didn’t deny it. He reached for the hustler’s belt.
Travis pushed his hand away. “Show me what you got.”
The Priest pulled out a vial of glowing, ice blue liquid. Lotus, despite it’s name, wasn’t a narcotic. It amped the user’s senses with an orgasmic rush, feeling like a million volts charged your nervous system.
Travis whistled, impressed. “Where did you get it?”
The Priest remained cool, detached. “From a man who doesn’t need it.”
Travis gave him a sly look. “You didn’t kill him, did you?”
The Priest rocked the vial. “Would it make a difference?”
“Not really.” Travis smirked.
“Good, I’m glad that’s settled.”
“One more question, Priest. How do you want to die?”
Travis leapt into the air and kicked him in the chest. The vial flew from the Priest’s hand and he crashed into the wall. Before the vial hit the ground, Travis blurred with speed. He caught the vial in one hand and landed in a crouch.
The Priest slid down the wall. Pain shot through his ribs. He stared at Travis, shocked by how quickly he had moved.
Travis hunched in front of the Priest like a gargoyle. “You should have done your homework, Priest. Time stops for the Lotus eater.”
The Priest drew a breath and winced. “Synaptic enhancement.”
Travis smiled and tapped his nose. “Another gift of the Lotus. How do you think I cut through this city like a razor? I can fly at two-hundred clicks without even blinking.”
“Keep him talking,” the Collar rasped. “The real fun’s just begun.”
“Hush, I’ll handle this.”
“Who the fuck you talking to?”
“Try looking behind you.”
“You think I’d fall for that?”
The Priest shrugged. “Either way, the devil’s got your back.”
Travis glanced over his shoulder at the Seal of Baphomet. “Yeah, he does, doesn’t he? Looks like you picked the wrong God.”
“Not quite.” The Priest punched him in the mouth. Blood flew from his lips in a thick, ropy spray.
Travis snarled and lunged at him, swinging his fist, but the Priest dodged and the hustler’s knuckles cracked against the bricks. Travis still clutched the vial, which shattered with the impact, spraying blue light through his lacerated fingers. He howled and clenched his wrist like a snake had bitten him. The Priest tackled him and punched him again. The rain quickly diluted the blood that ran down his chin. Lightning forked overhead, whiting out his skin.
The Priest stared at the sweet spot of his heaving chest, pulled out a lightblade and hit the power switch. A thin blade of blue plasma emerged from the guard, with a curved edge like boning knife. Travis stared at the blade and shuddered violently. Shards of glass poked like fins from his palm and fingers. The Lotus, mingled with his blood, shimmered in the wounds.
“Oh, Shit,” Travis moaned. His teeth began to chatter. Enough of the drug had entered his veins to kill a dozen men.
“What do you see?” the Priest asked.
Travis thrashed and groaned. Fragments of his ruby wings sprayed across the pavement.
“Tell me!” the Priest demanded.
Travis tried to focus. The Collar shone brighter, brighter, lighting up his face. “Oh, Christ,” Travis moaned, his eyes rolling up. His chest hitched like he’d plunged into an icy lake.
“He’s dying,” the Collar said. “His heart’s about to burst.”
The Priest reached under his arms and hauled him off the pavement. Travis leaned on his shoulder and he stabbed him in the gut.
“Momma,” Travis whimpered. He shuddered and went limp.
Blood hissed on the blade as the Priest withdrew it.
He kissed Travis on the forehead, laid him on the ground, yanked off his boots and socks and tugged down his pants. The skinhead’s cock rolled across his thigh like a giant, bloated maggot. Even now, the sight of it made him ache with longing. He wadded up Travis’ pants and wedged them under his back, propping up his shoulders so his wings could unfurl. Travis moaned and blood bubbled from his lips. Was this how the angels looked when they fell from heaven?
The Priest sliced across his chest, then carved through his sternum and pried apart his ribcage, exposing his heart. The sight of the beating organ filled him with awe.
“Quickly,” the Collar rasped, “before his soul escapes.”
The Priest nodded weakly and went back to work. He severed veins and arteries, ripped out the heart, clutched it against his chest and bowed his head.
Normally, he wrote a Bible reference near the body, finger-painted with the blood of the sacrifice, but he knew the rain would wash away his message. Rising to his feet, he walked down the alley, wondering why he felt a pang of remorse. None of his other victims made him feel this way. Then he remembered what he did to a hustler named Peter. The boy was barely old enough to shave when he tied him to a bed, and torturing him felt like he defiled something holy. When the time finally came to collect Peter’s heart, he would need the Collar’s strength to carry out the act.
Pulling out his phone, he called his hovercar. A few seconds later, a black sedan glided overhead and landed in front of him, blocking the alley. The door rose and he popped the locks on a ribbed metal briefcase, which he’d left on the seat when he put the car on autopilot. He dropped the heart in a plastic bag and zipped shut the seal. Blood oozed from the severed arteries, pooling in the sack. He opened a second bag containing a wet towel, cleaned his hands, wiped the locks and gently closed the briefcase. Setting the case on the passenger seat, he climbed behind the wheel. The door sealed like a coffin lid and he soared into the night.
Labels: Church of Steel, Crucifer, goth, hack, lightblade, Lotus, Project Ezekiel, R.J. Crowther Jr., slam, Vatican Space Commission