Each and every beetle a bullet in its own right. Every beetle got a sensor picks up on the heat of a body, the differential says Ibid, between the body and the background. That’s the one antenna. The other antenna’s got a motion sensor to pick up on, not the flutter of a drape or the jitter of a kettle a-boil, but what they call directional movement, like a bird in flight or a rabid dog or Ibid, that sonofabitch, hop-scotching down the aisle with the torch in hand and the Kevlar boots thump-thumping to the zing of the bullets through the belly of the flame of the torch he carries. He triggers a batch of beetles but there’s bound to be more, all aquiver at the chance to snip a limb or ventilate a atrium.
I curl up under a pew. Wriggle my toes to remind them they belong to me. Obey me when the time comes I say to my legs. All clear says Ibid with a silent wave of the hand, hand with a flask of whiskey already silvered up onto the palm. I don’t trust him. Not that he would betray me, but that he’d—and let’s face it now, I’m never going to be an Ibid—misjudge me. Assume that I can master the animal me, the me with the twitchy innards and the sprinter’s heart.
He beckons. Downward with the two fingers he points, makes like a little man walking through the air. Mouths the word hurry.
To hell with hurry. Hurry’s what drove us down this bloody enfilade in the first place. Drove, back in the day, that Turing guy and that gang of his to turbocharge that mechanical brain of theirs, make it smarter and smarter to where it got more smarts than it knows what to do with. To do. But what does it want to do? Not what some person wants it to do, but it, what does it want? Not so simple, is it? I want a ham sandwich. I want to play the violin. Rob a bank. Pen the Inferno. So where’s it gonna get, a machine like that, all of this wanting from? The boys bump up the ability of the ones and the zeros to tend to their own affairs, bid them be fruitful and multiply even, computers making computers, so-and-so begat so-and-so begat so-and-so, and trim they are, and masterful, and en pointe in every way, the skin of the planet a-glimmer with a billion devices all yammering away at one another but—whoa up there. Just whoa on up. Something is missing, no? The panache. The pizzaz. The personality.
Give us a taste of that lust, that rage, that regret the techies say, say the techies—the catty remark, the bullish opinion, that clumpy-dumb-as-a-puppy doggery that makes us the envy of every ape. And then the artists, the artsy crowd weighs in, the bastards. Humanity. It’s the human touch is what you need is what they say, is what they picture—machines and people together, the mamas and daddies and babies and peoples of all coloration marching up a grassy hill, hand in hand, and everybody singing, every tooth a triumph, every smile as bright as the finest of china.
Good luck with that one. The truffle hunters say there’s a kind of a slime mold that covers a territory you measure by the mile. Lives and eats and breaths for like a thousand years or more, but you’d never see the whole of it all at once, no. You get a glint here, a glint there, a lump in the humus, a burble in the night. It don’t got a leg or a arm or a head or a face, but in each and every molecule, there it is, the whole of it there, at the ready. That’s what we got.
Ponder that one. Ponder for a minute whilst I muffle the beat of my heart. Here we got this billion-fingered brainiac, this hunger, this thing, a species in its own right, computer a cousin to the slippery mold, stupid about human emotion but clever in a clumsy sort of way. And then along comes Harry. It was Harry cracked the code. Him and Ibid. Not but the three of us altogether. The boys do the coding while I fetch the coffee, smuggle the hardware, shoplift whatever odds and ends the lab requires. We call it the Hunger, this assemblage of circuitry curious enough to resemble a soul. We grab an assortment of humans for the Hunger to interview—butcher, baker, candlestick maker. Doctor, lawyer, priest. They come. They go. The Hunger nibbles at the edges of humanity. We calibrate. We. We talk about we but it was Harry, Harry the one. Fed it the magic numbers. Put the hunger in the Hunger.
You gotta be more personable says Harry, and so the Hunger figures—not in so many words, no, being as it figures in figures alone—I gotta get me a face so’s I can face-to-face it with the people, the particulars, that Harry thing, that 180-pounder in the lab coat and the Oxford loafers with the rawhide tassels and the red flannel shirt and the envelope of skin there, breathing in the fragile air and smacking the gum and rocking to and fro across the metatarsal arch.
So on the screen it conjures up a face, an avatar from out a algorithm assembled on the fly. The Santa we called it. Not the jolly soul of the Coca-Cola ad, no, but the cut-and-paste of a department store Santa—the gin on the breath and the blood in the eye and a pepper of stubble up under the white of the beard. But Santa needs a helper, no?
So Santa he commandeers a servobot carpenter. Arms it with a nail gun, a hacksaw, an Osterizer and a Fenley 257 DNA sequencer. Wow. Hobo engineering, sure, but for a creature still groping up out the virginal world of a cappella calculation, quite a coup. A presence, right? A location true, and Harry’s thinking so far so good, but how to proceed? He can’t just what? Serve it up a plate of instructions? Too smart for that. Wicked smart. No. They gotta converse. They gotta confer.
Good job he says, says he.
Thank you he says, the Santa, not because he feels grateful to the Harry or the billions of Harrys burned away in the billions of years that began with the first flick of life in the single cell to the boom of the civilized world, no, but because he knows a thank-you is a lubricant. Social intercourse the category.
“But you got a missing ingredient,” says Harry. “It’s what we call the human element.”
“Enlighten me,” says the Santa. “Let there be light.”
And so there was. By the time the conversation comes to an end, and the sun comes busting through the glass Harry breaks on his way out the window in a three-story tumble to the street (correction: the husk of the Harry, the cob of the brain already shucked away), Santa is off on a journey of his own, on the hunt for that secret marinade, that ancient recipe all origami-ed up in the fold of the human brain, the savoir faire that makes the homo sapiens—fickle, subtle, savage—king of all the beasts. Tally-ho.
But it can’t, you can’t—it just won’t do you say, say you. You can’t have people poaching the brains offa other people. Ain’t that against the law? Clever. Clever you. But the law is for people. The Hunger it ain’t people, ain’t a person in the proper sense of the word, so it don’t answer to people or to the law of the people, no, no more than a river gonna halt at the sound of a siren.
In packets of data the Hunger travels and then, as the need arises, animates whatever machinery’s needed to work his will. Clunky the early kills. Bodies dropping here and there. Pittsburgh, corner of South and Main, hollow-as-a-bongo skull atop a body gone cold, the cerebrum and the cerebellum and the thalamus and the whatnot sucked as with a soda straw out through the nose like the pharaohs of old, or scooped (Minneapolis a week later) from out the shell of a head shucked open like a oyster.
So what gives? So what’s the Hunger hungry for? We figure the priest. He’s the key. Out of all the random people we drafted for a chat with the Santa, the only one who relished the encounter, who came again and again for the fellowship. And now the killing begins, he’s the one who’s there beside the body when the cops arrive, every damn time, his Bible out, his eyes closed, rosary beads clicking as he kneels and delivers the last rites. Every interview the same. I saw nothing he says.
“So why are you here?”
“I go where God leads me.”
“Is God in the business of snatching brains?”
“God works in mysterious ways.”
“Are you in the business of snatching brains?”
“I minister to the needy.”
“Are you one of the needy?”
“Everybody is needy.”
Roger that one. I don’t got the balls to be an Ibid. Or that blowtorch-of-a-brain of a Harry. I’m a guy is what I am. You gimme a job I do it. Don’t ask me the why of the why the machine runs, the collie barks, the glacier melts. Guys like me. And we’re always the last to know. You’d think, if you lose a baby, the people in the know’d be right there with a word to the father. That’s what the doctors do. Doctor the sick and, when they fumble the sick, doctor the well. So sorry for your loss they say, doctor the words to where it sounds, the loss, like a reasonable thing. So when I waited, in the room there, for the word, and heard the to and the fro, and the other babies blooming up into the bright air, and the long day done, and still not a word, and then the whispers, I figured the worst, figured we lost the baby but no, wrong, not so good am I at figuring. Here’s how to figure it said the doctor, said he, after serving up a word of sorrow. A fluke is what it was. To lose the two. The mother and the baby both. But given what we know and off he went. Here is the geometry within which we operate. Here the formula. Here the proof. Here the point at which the line—but what do I know from geometry? I know he lied about the line. Where the sea and the land collide they call it the line of the coast, the coastline, as if a line is what it is and not a wreck in the making, a blur where the water breaks and the earth buckles and the spray of the salt obliterates the hand that holds the map. Nobody knows nothing.
“What do you know?” we asked the priest. “Tell us what you know.”
“Nothing,” he said, but as he said it he raised a hand like you do when you cross yourself, like a balloon, light, to where the sleeve of the robe slides away and there, on the flesh of the forearm, in felt-tip marker, a sketch. We made as if to speak but he told us, with a wag of the finger, shush. The Cathedral Arch. Beneath it a box. The confessional. Below that, an Easter lily. Come Sunday is Easter.
So strange that—what would be the word?—affinity between the preacher man and the machine, as if—what? Who the hell knows? Somehow the Hunger found a porthole into the prayers of the father.
Which is probably why it steered us into the sanctuary. And who knows? Maybe even Harry had a part. Maybe something of Harry survives inside of that icicle brain of the Santa, some hunger for the hand of God, not the figure of speech but the figure in the flesh, the carpenter there pitched up onto the timber. It fits, right? The brick, the bone, the wood. The stone pillar and the scent of myrrh and the belfry that tolls the hour and the stone that—as if the cathedral itself were the body of a bell—sings the hour back. You gotta wander into the truth. Bump. In the flesh. Feel it with the tip of the finger, here, the headliner, the main attraction, the instrument of torture around which all the beauty blooms. Even a blind man—no. Especially a blind man’s got a advantage in a collision like that. With the palm of the hand you travel the feet and over the head of the nail, where the wood splits to accommodate the spike as on a ripple you go, over the ribs to finger the beard, or to read the lips, or with the whole of the hand, as with a bandage or blind or abortive caress, cover the eyes.
So into the trap, the honeytrap, the cathedral we tumbled. In my pocket I carried a stick of gum. You chew till it’s soft, then slap the wad onto any exposed surface of the robot skin. Ibid says it’s got the power to kill the Hunger, obliterate the algorithm that gives it a will. That little masterful trick it plays—surfing out over an ocean of code to hijack a robo-mower, welder-bot, paramedical droid—is the very thing that makes it vulnerable to a counterattack. To live in a world of stones and bones and flesh and blood, you gotta touch and taste and smell, you gotta gather up the flavor of the day. Hidden in the flavor of the gum? The killer code.
There’s just something about a cathedral. A stand of sequoia the stone pillars, up under the pavers the bones of the saints, invisible scramble of frankincense in the chill dark of the churchy air. Damn. What with the high vault of the roof and the kyrie eleison bounding and rebounding in the broken light of the leaden glass, we found ourselves, by the end of the service, already at a wobble.
Out the door ferried—in twos and threes—the faithful. The choir slipped away. The altar boy shed the frock and—with a salute like the little soldier he was—bolted. We stepped out of the shadows. There he was, our guy, the priest, descending from the pulpit. He stopped to loosen the collar. Dug with a knuckle at the collar of flesh. Tottered down to the confessional. Shut the hatch. Settled in.
Before we could make a move the beetles arrived. Poured in over the open door, peppered the air, spiraled up to anchor themselves like barnacles on the underside of the oak and the stone of the ceiling. We dove under a pew. From inside the box that held the priest we heard a gargle, a sound like a vacuum sucking up the yolk of an egg, a thump. The door creaked open. A fumble of flesh, a clatter of wood, a thump. How peaceful the body of the priest, there at the foot of the altar.
“We get the one shot,” said Ibid. He lit the torch. It flared up over the fat back of the pew. The lacquer fizzed. A single spit of flame struck upwards, jarred the shadow where the rafters ran, shook the beetles awake. “The second they go for me, you make your move.” Before I could answer he was off, down the aisle.
I slide out from under the pew. Into the passenger side of the confessional I—careful not to make a sound—crawl. Shut the door. From out the cuff of my jumper I draw a jackknife, peel away the screen that separates the confessee from the confessor, rattle the frame to stir the air within. A thing of a certain size is what I’m after, of a certain weight, of a time and a place. How fine it would be, how meet and how right and how true—a boon to any assassin.
A click and a whir. The head turns. Rotates, as on a turret. Ochre the face and mottled with red, like an earthenware pot at the mouth of a kiln. The lips move—click, click-click, click—but out of synch with the words.
“What can I do for you, my son? How long has it been since your last confession?”
You gotta admire the effort. Especially the eyes. Blown glass. Set of peepers illuminated from within by a little blip of blue neon. The whole body abuzz with the effort to balance itself on the bench.
Such a wiz with the brain-ware, the Hunger, you’d think the mechanicals would simply bud like an apple on the bough, but no. You gotta remember it began as a brain. Only later did it cobble together a body. The servo-bots and the beetles and now the padre? Practice bodies is what they are, the crookedy stick a chimp’ll shove down a anthole to stir him up a snack. Good enough, right? Get the job done.
At the far end of the sanctuary a cry. Ibid. Through the mesh portal of the little dollhouse door I can see the length of the aisle. Above him squats a carpet-sweeper—boxy lug of a servo weaponized on the fly. It’s knocked him off balance. Bulldozed up over that wiry body of his. Onward it churns. Eat or be eaten. I track the buttery hug of the brush, the quarter ton of horsehair that scours the base of the skull for each and every Ibidy fleck. Ballast. Every bit of flesh a ballast. If only I could be a balloon, a balloon that breaks the tether and—
“What is he doing?” says the padre.
Click-whir-click. He points in the direction of the giant crucifix that towers up over the altar.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Like, waiting, I guess.”
“For what? Waiting for what?”
“I’m not so big on arithmetic, but it’s like one of them unsolvables, you know, like what’s the square root of pi?”
It sounds like a humming, you know, a tune at first, the sound from out the hollow body of the padre. The booth begins to vibrate with the thrill of that mechanical brain. The padre scratches his head. In bed with a bear you better—you damn well better—synchronize your breathing. I scratch my head.
“Who the hell knows what it means,” I say. “But I can feel it.” I give my heart a thump with the fat of my hand.
Screech. Click. From out the palm of the padre’s hand emerges, in place of the thumb, a scalpel. “Where? Where do you feel it?”
“It’s a figure of speech.”
The blade spins like the bit of a drill. The jaw wobbles. The mouth ratchets up into a parabolic arc. A smile, facsimile of a smile, like the kid who – for the godlike feeling it gives him – tears the wings off a grasshopper.
“I want to bless you, my son. Step outside.”
“I like it here.”
“Don’t be afraid. God loves you. Santa is your friend.”
“My mama told me not to play with strangers.”
“Would you like a Jujube? I have a Jujube.”
“I’m good. Got me a stick of Juicy Fruit.”
“Let me see. Let me bless the stick.”
“Too late.” Into my mouth I pop the gum.
“Let me see.”
“If you insist.” The lip and the tongue and the mouth? Cotton. Like cotton. Out the booth I step.
Clunky as a cabbage the padre shoulders his way out the confessional and onto the carpet. The hinge catches the hem of his garment and tears it asunder.
Industrial grade the armature beneath the cassock. Bicycle chain for a rosary, ball and socket the elbow, retractable the digits, four to a hand, a titanium bouquet of dental proportions—the drill and the snip and the blade, the scoop and the clamp and the hypo, the nutcracker and the bandsaw and the mini-bazooka.
He faces me. “How does it feel?” he says.
“How does what feel?”
“To be you. How does it feel?”
“You should ask him.” I say it as a joke.
With a click he pivots to face the carving there beside the pulpit. Up ratchet the eyes, them blue eyes of his, up the bare feet, the torso, the beard to meet the eyes of the torturee. “How does it feel?” says he to the crucifix.
If I were a braver man I would laugh. If I were a braver man I’d move. Make my move. You think the body belongs to you, that it will always bend to your will, that with a simple word, size of a mustard seed, you can deploy the finger to find the itch, or—way off yonder there at the far end of the territory—set the toes to tapping or legs to running or, someday all of a sudden, cast that whole mountain of flesh into the sea. But then you find it don’t belong to you, the body, not really, not when the fear settles and the bone in the socket locks. The heart booms. The body wobbles. The—out the lungs it goes, that last little bit of sky.
Again the padre. “How does it feel?”
“He can’t hear you,” I say.
“HOW DOES IT – ”
“He don’t,” I say, “he don’t answer.”
“I want to feel how it feels.”
“If you wanna feel it, you gotta play the part. It’s like a show. A puppet show.”
I see the stir in the face, the half-sphere of the cheek rotate the curve of the lip another click upward, see in the phosphor eyes the flash of a memory flurried up, pixel by pixel, from out the sandblast of a skull of a Ibid or a Harry or a priest.
“You can be the god,” I say.
Maybe I shake because I’m cold. A killer. Killer cold. He follows me up the steps of the dais.
“I play the people,” I say. “You play the god.”
He’s like a child. But with the power of a god. I gesture. He grabs the base of the cross and shivers away at the wedge that holds the upright in place. Kicks it loose. The post is a wonder. A slot in the stone floor to anchor it upright, but it’s hinged at the base like the mast of a sailboat you lift or you drop to adapt to the weather. Got a rope they fix to the top so as to lower or, with a good hard pull, heave it up into place again.
Servo-motors whirring in a rhythm to calibrate the balance, he lowers it, crab-walks backward to lay it flat across the pavers. From somewhere he—out the cassock?—gives birth to a crowbar. Levers away at the spike to free the carpenter’s ankles, then the one hand, then the other. Pops the body free and lifts it, gentle, like you lift a balsa-wood glider, off to one side.
Some kind of hardwood, this particular Jesus. Could break a chisel on the knot there at the shoulder. The paint cracks where the neck and the shoulder meet, curdles up into a gunpowdery dust. On his back like that, the arms eagled out and the body taut and the eyes aching upwards to gather in a sky, got the look of a bungee-jumper sailing off a high bridge and into the blue. Free at last.
I gesture. Monkey see monkey do. The padre lays himself out across the timbers. Strikes a pose in a perfect imitation of Christ. From the altar I fetch a candlestick, lead with a sheen of gold, fat in the hand as a Louisville Slugger. Above his ankle bones I hover it, thick as the head of a pick-axe—the spike. Scale of rust at the head. Cinnamon the tint from all them centuries of air in a roil around the rafters—exhalation of breath, steam, summer rain. Dew in the morning. Frost in the full of the moon.
“Here.” He points to the head of the spike. “Here. You strike it here.”
The gum softens in the heat of my breath. Now would be the time to tag the bastard. But how earnest he is. How full of yearning. And the look on his face, the look of—if you could call it that—surprise, as if a particle of Ibid or Harry or the sap on the corner of South and Main could percolate up onto the surface of that alien moon.
I’m the beetle and that’s what I got, the one shot, but somehow it don’t seem fair to cheat him outta that suffering he been so keen to embrace.
The sledgehammer base of the candlestick. I swing it. Bring it down hard. The spike shatters the porcelain bone of the one ankle and pierces the cable that runs beneath. A single blow to break the rust. I’m good at this! The head of the spike glistens.
The second blow sends the spike crackling through the bulb of a servo-motor and into the ankle below. A shiver runs up the metal body of the padre. Not a word. The third blow does the trick. Drives it home, the spike. Into the wood it goes, deep, a lovely thump in the heart of the oak. I got the feel of it now. I hammer the left hand. Then the right. Then the thrill, the upward lurch of the rope as I haul the whole assembly, the cross and the padre together, up into position.
He hangs there, the Hunger, the brain clicking and whirring. His eyes open. He takes in the whole sanctuary, the empty up under the vaulting arch.
“How does it feel to be God?” I say.
“It feels—” He looks left, right, down, as if to count the spikes, measure the span, tally, with his own weight, in foot-pounds or kilograms or some other exotic measure, the burden. “I don’t know. I feel—”
“The pain,” I say. “Do you feel the pain?”
“I see the damage.”
“Do you feel it?”
“Does it hurt?”
He pauses. As if searching for a picture of what such a thing would be. The beetles whir. I can hear the hydraulics at work as he struggles to wrench himself free. Screech of metal on metal as the one arm and then the other grapples, crowbars, torques away at the spike. Surely he could, what with all the robotry at work, snip the nails with a pincer but no, he wants to wrestle. Some part of him in a hunger to feel the strain.
“How does it feel?” I say.
“Answer me! How does it feel?”
“I feel … afraid is how I feel. I feel afraid.”
“Good for you,” I say. I smear the gum on the blade of the crowbar, the end opposite the curve. Drive the blade up. Into his ribs. God as my witness, I never breathed a fresher breath. The whole of your life you get only so much of a sky as you can, in the splinter of the moment, smuggle, but then you get a moment, and the whole of heaven is the tip of a twister and it’s you, you’re the twister, you got the power.
I give the crowbar a twist. The body goes limp. Shush go the beetles.
I give another twist. Nothing. Another. Nothing. Gone. He’s gone but I’m not done yet. I can’t be done. I lower the cross. Crowbar the padre free. From out of his hands and his feet I wrestle the spikes. The bastard. Pitched out there beside the Christ. The two of them, the bastards. The Christ all innocent as air, and the set of the body simple, and simple the temper of the face, simple as ice, unblinkable the eyes—lapis lazuli the blue—and the placid hand, open, as if to solicit a kiss.
It ain’t fair. It ain’t right. From out the implements that clutter the busted gut of the padre I pull a hatchet. Set to work. Blood for blood.
It crackles, the face of the Christ, with every blow—the paint barking off and the shiver of the brow and the flash of red where the timber splits. I shake the splinters from my hair. I chop to where it’s tinder what’s left, to where the handle breaks, and the breath goes, and I lose it, my balance, and stumble, and into the wreckage fall. In the silence now a sound. The throb of something alive, like a sea at the hull of a ship as it founders. A sobbing. It’s me.
I crawl to the padre. Kneel. Shh. The sound of a ticking. Lay my head to where I can feel the beat of his heart. The eyes click open. The arms close round me. I return the favor. Impale myself on the cheese-grater steel where the innards from out the body burst. Into his bosom he gathers me. Into the shrapnel there I burrow my cheek. How the flesh quickens!
“There there,” he says. He rolls me, up and over, onto the cross. He gentles open my arms, eases me into position like you seed a furrow, like you tuck a child into bed.
“Now it’s your turn.”
A teacher at Valencia College, my fiction has appeared in Boulevard, New Ohio Review, The Greensboro Review, The Saturday Evening Post, Prime Number, Big Fiction, Cobalt, Burningword, A-3 Press and elsewhere.
Short stories of mine have won contests sponsored by The Texas Observer, Driftwood Press, The Prism Review, Westchester Review, American Writer’s Review, The Vincent Brothers Review, The Broad River Review, and Pulp Literature. Recently the opening chapter of my novel The Slapjack won the 2021 First Pages Prize (Judge – Lan Samantha Chang, Director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop).
After an MA in Lit at the University of Florida and a poetry fellowship at Columbia, I earned my MFA at Western New England University. I spent over a dozen years in NYC as a writer and performer—comic/satirical pieces that eventually became a pair of full-length plays (American Obsessions and Breaking Glass) at the Orlando International Fringe Festival – details at alansincic.com .