The sun hardly shines in Lima, and never in
October. Maybe it’s because Mama Cocha is jealous of the sun god, Inti. Maybe
it’s because she is enamored of Ilyap’a, and his clouds give her comfort.
Either way, Mother Sea rules. It is her city.
The other gods have kingdoms of their own.
My pilgrimage was to Inti’s domain: Machu
The flight from Miami lasted six hours. The two
other passengers in my row asked for new seat assignments. No one wanted to sit
next to the giant of a man with passionflower leaves growing out of his ears
and red wires circling his head like a turban. If it hadn’t been for the sick
baby across the aisle, maybe I could have stretched out and slept. It would
have been the first time in forty-eight hours.
A deep numbness clutched my limbs and my
chest—not just a lack of physical sensation, but a deadening of emotion. I
thought sleep might restore some semblance of feeling to my body, if not my
person. But no go.
From the Lima airport I took a taxi into the
city proper. We skirted along the ocean, mirroring the undulation of the
cliffs. Surfers paddled out into the meager waves, and a briny stench permeated
The taxi driver dropped me at a bus station
where I could get a ride to Cusco. He shot me a scowl when I tipped him.
Because of my implants, he thought I could afford more.
The journey from the coast to south-central
Peru took fifteen hours, with only the briefest of pit stops. Suddenly my plane
ride didn’t look so bad. Sleep was still elusive, and an elderly man from Puno
grilled me the whole way. He asked me why my skin was green, and if my
palm-scanners could fry his brain, and if it were true that all cyberplants
believe rainbows have feelings.
I did not know the Spanish word for
chlorophyll, or how to explain to a non-believer that rainbows not only have
feelings, they are each Cuichu. If nothing else, I was able to communicate that
my scanners would have zero effect on his brain.
Thankfully he was polite enough not to ask
about my pilgrimage, or my family.
The train ride to Aguas Calientes, at the
foot of Machu Picchu, was much more pleasant. The domed skylights revealed
glaciers at the tops of high ridges, and beautiful snakes and hummingbirds in
the foliage that encroached upon the tracks.
A small boy in a Hawaiian shirt and khakis
ran up and down the aisle in my train car—at least until the snack cart came
and his parents plopped him back in his seat. His exuberance and touristy
attire reminded me of my son, Kivanҫ. Kivanҫ had always wanted to go to the Big
Island and see Mt. Kilauea spill lava into the sea.
He’d never gotten the chance.
Quickly, I shoved Kivanҫ from my mind. I felt
like a zombie, blank inside. I hadn’t yet cried for my son—the tears refused to
Not thinking of Kivanҫ made me think of my
wife instead, and how I’d made her stay behind to deal with the arrangements. I
hadn’t wanted her to come with me, but I hadn’t wanted to leave her behind,
either. I had no choice; I had to go. It was time for my pilgrimage. The
spores from my myxomycete grafts were starting to fall from the fruiting bulbs
on my shoulders. When the gods call, you do not ignore them.
Even if your son’s body is not yet cold.
“No, Isaac, not all cyberplants are called to
the sacred places in South America,” Azra had explained when we first began
dating. “But I hope to be, some day. It is a very special thing, to be chosen
by a god.”
She was the shining star in my dark sky. Had
been since we were in college. She introduced me to the church, to cybernetic
implants and genetic grafting. She taught me how changing your body gets you
closer to the gods. She gave me the one thing I’d never realized was missing
from my life: faith.
I only asked her out on a dare. Every day,
for a year and a half, I walked by her on the quad without saying a word. Her
strong, middle-eastern features were pared with skin that was an alluring shade
of mantis green—and I found her intimidating. Sometimes I still do. If my
roommate hadn’t called me a gutless, mod-less, ball-less townie, I never would
have realized she spoke English, let alone was such an intelligent, dignified,
My world, my body, and my mind would be
completely different without her.
When the train pulled into the Aguas
Calientes station, I disembarked as quickly as I was able. I didn’t want to
look into the faces of the happy parents who had their Hawaiian-shirted boy in
tow. My boy would never get a Hawaiian shirt.
On the platform, an assortment of languages
assaulted my ears. The quick staccato of Japanese, the bellow of German, and
the seductive trill of Spanish all mingled into a garbled cacophony.
I dropped off my bag at the cyberplant temple
before searching for dinner. The sanctuary sat tucked behind the rest of the
town, up against the wall of the narrow gorge. The buildings looked like an
industrial complex for state-of-the-art engineering, but they were surrounded
by a lush garden of subtropical plants. The priest seemed to be expecting me,
though I hadn’t told anyone in the church that I’d been called by Inti.
When he first approached, I could not tell
what gender he was, nor what nationality. Almost all of his human parts had
been inundated with some aspect of plant or machine. Large, orchid-like petals
surrounded what had once been a face, and all of his soft orifices had been
replaced with mechanical likenesses. I could only tell he was male when he got
close enough to shake my hand. The mildewy sent of the jungle hangs heavy on
“They have called,” he said, wrapping
willowed arms around my mid-section. Like most people, his head only came up to
my chest. “You should go immediately to the task.”
“How?” I asked. I didn’t fully understand why
I was there.
When I’d first asked Azra to describe a
god-call to me, she’d been evasive. “That is very private. Between the ‘plant
and the god. We do not ask—it is rude.”
Now that I’d entered into a sacred covenant
between myself and the sun god, I knew the truth. No one speaks of it because
not even the summoned cyberplants understand it.
“Go up the mountain, to the sacred city,” the
priest said. His voice sounded like shards of tin and glass tumbling together.
“Feed from the god who called, and the task shall be set.”
It better be important, I
wanted to say. There better be a good reason Inti called me now.
Instead, I asked him to recommend a good restaurant.
“I do not know,” he said. His petals quivered
as though amused. “I am fed only by the scans. The gods are my sustenance.”
I shuffled out into the narrow streets of the
riverside town and followed my nose. The shops and restaurants poured onto the
sidewalks, as though the buildings couldn’t contain them. Potatoes and corn of
every breed sizzled and boiled in front of small stalls and on push carts. I
bought some popped grains and found a place I could get decent guinea pig. What
the heck, this is supposed to be a special occasion, I thought. I might
as well indulge.
The rodent was roasted whole, and brought to
my table on a bed of vegetables with a radish in its mouth.
I’d just taken a bite and was letting my
taste-buds decipher the duck-like flavor when three men approached. They were
all young, taut, and reeked of B.O. They crowded around the table, making sure
to invade my personal space.
Before they could speak, the middle-aged
woman who ran the establishment jumped in. The four began arguing emphatically
in Spanish, and I had no hope of following. The youths broke—one in a black
shirt pushed the proprietor to the back of the restaurant, and the other two
lifted me by my arms. They were stronger than they looked.
“You gringos with your implants—looking for
Inca gods like they’re real,” said the one on my right. “Rich verdes and
blancos coming here for mystics and coca—taking your pictures and leaving us
I let them hold me, unsure if trying to shake
them would be more trouble than it was worth.
“Verde. Don’t have anything to say, Verde?
You like twisting up your junk with mold and wires? Think only people who can afford mods can get
Kivanҫ was only eight when he died. Too young
for implants. But just the right age for his first graft. The church doctors
had assured Azra and me that grafting was easier on young subjects. Plants and
children meld well, they’d said.
But the cells weren’t supposed to get into
his spinal fluid. The spores weren’t supposed to germinate in his brain stem.
The graft wasn’t supposed to kill him.
“There is no heaven,” I said bluntly. And I
wasn’t sure there was a continuation on Earth, either. Not anymore.
At that moment my son’s body was at a
specialty mortician’s. He wouldn’t be made up and placed in a coffin for
viewing and burial. That’s not what happens when a cyberplant dies. Kivanҫ
would be mummified, bound sitting upright, and when he was ready we would take
him home and pretend like nothing had happened.
He would sit at the table when we had
breakfast, and on the couch when we watched TV, and go to my mother-in-law’s
Death was just another state, very much like
Or so I’d believed. I wasn’t sure now...
No, I didn’t believe it anymore. Kivanҫ dead
equaled Kivanҫ gone. He’d disappeared from the universe.
The third man returned, having shooed the
owner into the kitchen. The other two maneuvered me out from behind the table,
and I realized their aim was to beat the shit out of me and take everything of
value off my broken body—because I was a ‘wealthy’ foreigner, or because I was
green, I wasn’t sure. Clearly they’d never dealt with any cyberneticly enhanced
people before, or else they’d realize they were digging for a dangerous bone.
The plant grafts help cyberplants to commune
with the spirits of the Earth.
The mechanical grafts help us to harness the
power of our gods.
The two men on either side held me erect. The
third pulled back for a gut punch.
Artificial muscles rotated my arms forward
with enough torque to dislocate any normal shoulder. The two young thugs
crashed into each other, their faces smashing together and collapsing like
cardboard boxes. Blood seeped from their noses as they fell to the floor.
The third man managed to jump back the moment
I moved. He narrowly avoided becoming the meat in a townie sandwich.
Without a word to his buddies, he bolted for
I’ve never been a violent man. Gentle giant,
my mother used to say. So my first instinct was to help the two with broken
noses to their feet. But the owner had seen it all from the kitchen, and came
out screaming as I bent toward them. She clutched a frying pan in one hand and
shook a finger at me with the other
“Estoy ayu—ayudando,” I said.
“No, you no help,” she said firmly,
brandishing the pan. “You leave.”
I held up my palms and backed away,
abandoning my dinner.
When I entered the street I heard a shout. “A
él! A él!”
Up the road to my right was that damned third
man, with a patrolman at his side.
A flash of white alerted me to the whistle a
split second before the officer brought it to his lips.
I dashed left.
Orange, green, and blue storefronts blurred
together as I ran. Tourists leaped for their lives. Locals cussed me to the
hills. I tripped over a cobblestone as I hooked a left corner and almost took a
dive—luckily my enhancements compensated for my natural lack of balance.
The whistle blared behind me.
My only saving grace was the shock and
discomfort of everyone I encountered. Despite the officer demanding that
someone stop me, no one interfered.
I wormed my way through a narrow passage that
could hardly be called an alley and found myself on the river front. Turn left
and I would head toward the train station. Right and I hit the road that led up
the mountain to Machu Picchu.
No more buses lined the sidewalk. No tourists
were getting picked up or dropped off. That meant it had to be after six. The
site was closed for the day.
My instincts told me to go for the mountain.
It was why I’d come in the first place. If I could get there, Inti would
If Inti could protect anything, that is.
Not far past the last hotel, a narrow bridge
carried the road over the boulder-filled Urubamba River. On the other side, it
immediately began to ascend.
I closed my eyes and took a moment to connect
with the Apu—the mountain gods and influences. Then I began to climb. But I
didn’t take the switchbacks, I went vertical, through the orchids and ferns and
Boots crunched across gravel below me,
underpinned by the rumble of the river. “Loco Verde!” came a close shout. I
glanced back. There was my would-be assailant, sans officer. “You are dead, eh
gringo?” He pulled out a handgun.
I suddenly longed for that stranger on the
bus from Lima.
Reaching for another handful of foliage, I
kept climbing, knowing he meant to follow. In the next instant there was a flash
overhead, followed by a rolling boom. A sound like sizzling bacon
preceded the sudden downpour.
The gods of thunder, lightning, and storms
Trees and taller bushes did little to keep me
dry, and I didn’t care. I kept moving upwards. Nearby rustling spooked me at
every turn. I felt a phantom bullet pierce my spine every time thunder made a
sharp crack through the air.
Darkness swamped into the valley. The natural
extinguishing of the sun had been hastened by the dense storm.
Black figures loomed up around me. The
silhouette of a man morphed into a big cat, and then into a formless shadow.
When I took a misstep or slipped from a hand hold, I could sense a body close
to mine—ready to pounce, ready to shoot.
The storm sent chill winds through my soaked
clothes, making it all the more terrifying when I felt hot breath on the back
of my neck.
As I reached the third switchback I looked to
see if the man was still following me.
Something snaked out of the trees behind me,
hunched and seething. I blinked and it was gone, another blink and it was back
again. Whether it was the man, my imagination, or Supay—the god of death—come
to claim me, I did not stop to consider.
Terror was all I knew. Terror drove me ever
This was not what getting summoned by a god
was supposed to be like. I’d come for spiritual understanding, communion, but
thus far all I’d found were selfishness and segregation. Were these the gods I
worshiped? Self-centered beings who cared not for the plight of humanity—or
worse, found amusement in it? Why had
Inti not allowed me to mourn before my summoning? Why now were the gods and spirits of the
skies putting extra obstacles in my path?
Why would I want to complete a task for these
For hours I struggled up that mountain side.
Whatever chased me was unrelenting. If it was the man, I couldn’t imagine why
he hadn’t turned back. But I desperately wanted it to be him. A human. If it
were an animal or deity stalking me instead, I couldn’t expect the swift end a
bullet to the brain would bring.
After I’d crossed a switchback in the road
for the tenth time, I was ready to give up. Nothing was worth this struggle—the
water flowing into my eyes and mouth, the thorns and sharp sticks in my hands,
the mud piling up in my shoes—I couldn’t take it anymore. I wasn’t sure how
many more road crossings would get me to the top, and I didn’t care. I was
A wide slip of white caught my eye as more
lightning cut through the clouds. There was a waterfall nestled amongst the
That’s where I’ll go, I
thought. I’ll sit in the waterfall and let the universe do what it will.
Nothing was worth this. My little boy was
gone, and there was no more suffering I could endure. The core of my life had
already been snatched away, why should I bother to retain the last scraps?
The gods took no notice of Kivanҫ when he was
sick. They could have given us signs so that we might have saved him before it
was too late. The grafts were in their honor and they couldn’t care less.
So I wouldn’t care anymore, either.
I waded into the waters, picking a spot about
halfway up the fall to sit. I let it soak me through. It hadn’t been a warm
day, and the temperature was rapidly dropping. If the dark figure didn’t get
me, the chill might.
Which was fine. I’d go be with Kivanҫ if I
The bottom had dropped out of my soul when
the doctors said that he was gone, and all of my emotions had leaked away.
There were so many things to feel: anger, hate, and despair. But I couldn’t
access any of them. I couldn’t feel enough to blame, I couldn’t feel enough to
Now, exhausted and shivering, with nowhere
left to run and no more willingness to do so, the tears finally fell.
They mingled with the rain. It was like the
Andes were weeping, too.
All I could think about were cyberplants. How
could something that had seemed so wonderful and pure, that had brought Azra
into my life, led me to such an end?
My thoughts stuttered.
Turning off my self-pity, my fear, my horror,
I stood to face the demon that had mirrored me up the mountain. “Come out,” I
shouted at the darkness. “You can drive me to the top, but you can’t have me. I
belong to someone else.”
A flash of lightning lit the road below the
waterfall. There stood not a man, but a puma, her head lowered, her eyes
blinking slowly through the rain. The sacred animal of transition, a symbol of
the human realm.
I tensed, expecting her to pounce—to tear
through my throat like the frond of a delicate fern. She lowered her nose to
the ground and sniffed once before all went black again.
Here it comes.
Another bright flash. Instead of revealing
the glint of teeth and claws, it illuminated the last of her tail slipping back
between the vines.
She had spared me.
“Ah-ha!” I yelled, triumphant. I’d looked
into Supay’s realm and lived.
Selfish gods or no, I would fulfill the
summons. If I didn’t like the task they set me, then damn them. They could go
wherever gods go when humanity forsakes them.
I had Azra, I didn’t need them. My faith and
love were embodied in her, not in the religion we shared.
The air started to smell less like putrid rot
and more like fresh greens. But it wasn’t the environment changing, it was me.
Working on blind adrenaline, I reached the
visitor center. I bolted past, aiming for the Inca-carved steps. No one stopped
me. If there were guards I didn’t see them and they didn’t see me.
Slogging across dangerously slick stones, I
made my way to the famous guard house, from where the most iconic pictures of
the ruins had been taken.
There I huddled inside the ancient walls under
the restored roof, waiting for the rain to end, the night to wane, and my sun
god to appear.
I awoke the next morning curled in an
unnatural position. My joints were stiff and protested as I stood. The air
smelled crisp and new. It was light out, though the sun itself had not yet
breached the mountain summits, and the birds were singing. Since no one had
come to haul me away, I figured it was still early yet.
Emerging from the guard house I permitted
myself a moment to survey the ancient complex. The city lay in a saddled dip
between two peaks, and its structures followed the rise and fall of the land.
Terraces cascaded down the steep cliffs. The thatched roofs that had once
covered the dry-stone walls were gone, leaving the apartments open to the
Dense clouds rolled in and out of the valley,
occasionally swallowing the ruins and mountain tops before spitting them back
A handful of brown and white llamas grazed
out on the southern terraces. Plastic tags in their ears indicated they were
free-range chattel. They ignored me and I pretended to ignore them.
After a big stretch, I realized my climb was
not yet complete. I still had to make my way up a portion of the Inca trail to
the Sun Gate.
The trail was steep, but nothing like I’d
struggled through the night before. The main danger came from the cloud cover.
One wrong step while the path was enshrouded could send me tumbling back to the
My sense of time seemed to shift with the
fog. Was it twenty minutes to the top or two hours? I couldn’t tell.
When I finally reached the ruins that
represented the gate, I hesitated. Just beyond would be the scanner-globe. It
would interface with my palm-units and alert Inti to my presence. Then I would
receive his gift of food and his task.
Seeing no sense in putting it off, I
swallowed my trepidation and approached.
The globe hovered above the ground, an
ever-shifting, round version of a Rubik’s cube, constantly trying to solve
itself. Its surface was mostly black, and when a part moved it sometimes
revealed a red or purple light beneath. It was about two feet in diameter, and
floated another foot from the dirt.
Scanner pads with Spanish labels jutted from
different portions of the sphere. As they flew by, my eyes struggled to pick
out the one I wanted. There: Escanear en busca de sol.
Scan for Sunshine.
My palms went to it of their own accord.
A beam of sunlight descended from an
unnatural direction in the sky, spotlighting my form. The chlorophyll in my
skin began working in earnest.
I felt well rested and well fed in a matter
of minutes. The exhaustion seeped out of me, and I wondered how anyone could
avoid believing in the power of ancient Earth spirits.
The light continued to feed my grafts, and I
could feel the fruiting bodies, heavy with spores, begin to burst under my
T-shirt. I pulled it off, and a dust-like cloud hovered around me.
The spores were the link. It was through this
wispy mist that I would hear the voice of a god for the first time.
What it would sound like, I didn’t know. I’d
once asked a woman who had been called—before I’d realized such questions were
rude. She’d refused to say.
Now it was mine to discover.
I waited. The wind picked up, swirling the
spores, and I held my breath.
No sound. No voice. No special sensations.
The cloud spread, dissipated, and slowly
settled to the ground.
Had Inti ignored me? Maybe he’d never meant
to summon me in the first place, hadn’t meant to trigger the sporing.
A faint yellow hue was visible on the dark,
wet dirt. My spores created a strange pattern—the concentrations here and there
reminded me of stars. A constellation. The Pleiades—the guardian stars of
agriculture and husbandry.
Was it a sign?
A vibration worked its way up my legs, coming
from deep in the mountain. I saw the spores swarm, germinate. It all happened
too quickly for my eyes to follow or my mind to comprehend. Cells divided and
mingled. They doubled in numbers, then doubled again and again. Their groupings
began to take on shape, familiar forms. Limbs. Torso. Head.
I took steps back, into the low stone walls
of the Gate, and watched with horror as the figure gained features. A nose.
Eyes. Fine lips. Pudgy cheeks.
Very human, but all plant.
Tubulars covered the skull where there should
have been hair. It had petals instead of fingernails, fleshy succulent leaves
instead of teeth.
When it spoke I thought I had died the
night before. Its voice wasn’t the booming timber of a god, or even the breathy
vapor of a spirit. Its voice was Kivanҫ’s.
My knees turned to jelly, and I slid down the
“Daddy, Inti says I can come home now. He
says I’m done being sick.”
Is it you? I thought I asked
the question out loud, but it only reverberated in my head.
“Daddy, can we go home?”
Was this real? How could it be real?
My mouth parted and words came out, but I
didn’t feel like I was speaking. My body was acting despite the stagnation of
my mind. “Tell me where you wanted to go. What is the one place you wanted to
visit more than anywhere else in the world?”
The memory of the boy on the train stuck out
firmly in my mind’s eye.
“I want to see the volcano spit into the
sea,” he said happily.
It was him. It could have been the trick of
an evil spirit, but it didn’t feel like one. This felt right. It felt good—it felt.
My chest swelled with more feeling than it had in days, as though the creator,
Viracocha, had breathed life back into me.
Inti had called me so that my son could be
I ran to Kivanҫ and scooped him into my arms.
His flesh was cold and malleable, very unlike a human child. But the body
didn’t matter. My son’s soul wouldn’t have to occupy a dormant mummy. It could
grow and learn and experience.
It could hear me when I said, “I missed you.”
Together we strolled down the Inca trail,
cyberneticly-enhanced hand in divinely-germinated hand. Kivanҫ’s new tubers
slithered this way and that over his bulbous head.
As the sun’s disk rose above the peeks, I
looked back towards the Gate. There was Cuichu, the rainbow, embracing the
sacred land for as far as I could see.