It was a roughneck expedition a week out of LA and deep into Nevada's "Big
Empty." In keeping with true western cowboy tradition, the roughnecks
traveled on horseback. Specially bred and modified for the harsh climate,
their steeds weren't much more than bone and gristle, fitted out with just
enough wires and electrodes to keep their jerky-dry muscles moving. The
horses' brains were housed in oval-shaped, high-impact-plastic bubbles in
their bare skulls. Turns out, a brain doesn't take up much room when all it
has to do is understand Giddyup, Whoa, and turn Left or Right.
The crew's patron saint was Teresa of Avila. A hunchbacked angel traveled with
them. Saint Teresa loved the disfigured. The cowboys all wore bright masks to
hide scarred and radiation-burned faces that were more Dadaist than C.M.
Ten days beyond the dusty canals of the Venetian resort on the
Vegas strip, the cowboys spotted a cyborg crew bringing in a herd of
cattle and slaves from up north. The cyborgs were all drip tubes and
leaking joints where the desert had worked its way inside and fouled
their prosthetics. The longhorns were all skinless, like walking
butchers signs, the better to dissipate the heat. The slaves were pitiful
and stinking, as slaves often were. Feynmann made a big show of
thanking the Lord that all their tongues had been cut out, so
they couldn't start begging for food or rescue. Cassiel, the
roughnecks' crippled angel, got down from his mount and went to the slaves.
He pressed his hand to each forehead and blessed them. In fits of gran
mal religious ecstasy, ten or more of the slaves threw themselves onto
the horns of the bulls, dying in heavenly agony. The cowboys nodded to
the cyborgs, acknowledging this breach of decorum. They knew they
were protected as long as they traveled with their angel. Still, the
cyborgs looked none too pleased, so the cowboys moved out.
When the next Friday rolled around, the roughneck crew all fasted. They force fed
Cassiel a fist-size chunk of peyote, then took turns skin-popping
N-dimethyl-5-methoxytryptamine until the crew was on a vision quest that was
an E ticket neural hotrod through the Milky Way, with pit stops in Heaven and
Hell. They hadn't had anything to drink for days. LA was as dry, as Teller
liked to say, as "the moon's puckered gray asshole." The cowboys had been
subsisting on their own recycled urine and angel sweat. The hallucinations
slammed them hard. They stumbled across the sand and onto the cracked glass
plains of Alamogordo.
Feynmann was the one who pointed out the vision
to his caballeros. Saint Teresa, luminous and smelling like rose petals, had
appeared and was having a hard bump and grind with Cassiel in the black
glass emptiness. Muddling back to camp, the cowboys dragged a laser borer
out (careful not to disturb the rutting lovers) and sank a test well.
A gusher of faintly glowing, cyan-colored heavy water erupted over
their heads. The cowboys whooped and danced in the radioactive
rain, celebrating with shots of Jack Daniels and Three Mile Island Ice
Hungover and exhausted from capping the well, the cowboys slept
through most of the next day. At sunset, they nailed Cassiel to a cross
made from wood they'd dragged all the way from a beached gondola at
the Venetian. They burned Cassiel on the cross as an offering to
Teresa, then ate his flesh for strength. The angel's bones they laid out in
a Sefirot to mark their claim on the land and the precious water
"A hot ride, but a good one," said Alvarez as they headed back
LA-way to conscript a crew to tap the well. They laughed about all those
poor saps cooped up in bunkers back in the city. The cowboys agreed that
it was a good day to be alive and riding the open range.
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Richard Kadrey is a member of a small group of innovative writers, including William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Pat Cadigan, Tom Maddox, and others, who changed the face of science fiction in the 1980s. He also creates art. He lives in San Francisco.