73. Roger Smith

Roger has five fingers on each hand, and two eyes. He has skin. He wears clothes that cover his skin. His fingernails grow at the usual rate. He has the same number of feet as he has legs, which is two. His heart beats often, causing his blood to circulate. Yes, Roger is in every way an ordinary human person.

Roger is not from this city. He was born in a different city, where his family and anyone else who might have known him for more than two years must surely live. Now he lives in an apartment, alone. The apartment has a kitchen and a bathroom, as well as a bedroom. He uses all of these, for their intended purposes.

Roger works in a glue factory. He does not take unseemly pleasure in the deaths of horses. His job is to scalp the horses that are dead. It is an unremarkable, even tedious job. Roger often talks on the phone. In these conversations he is mostly silent. Occasionally he says the names of colors, such as “black,” or “red” or “dark red.” They are ordinary colors, as might be found in a box of crayons.

Roger is not a spy. He is not from another planet. He is not a creature wearing a human skin, or else we are all creatures wearing a human skin. He is not planning anything. He is not informing anyone. He is not going anywhere. He is nothing. He is not important. Don’t worry about it.

72. Gerlyn Cassette

Gerlyn runs Mimi’s bakery and coffee shop on 133rd, and she’s seen to it that no one will ever trace the revolution back to her. Even so, it wouldn’t do to call her paranoid, or even careful. She mixes her doughs and batters by smell and touch and memory, and the kids who help her out in exchange for free cakes have to learn to do the same. But her carelessness is meticulous. The smartest of them will notice this some day, many years down the line, when they have already done what she is training them to do.

All the kids come to Gerlyn for advice because she’s older than them, plus since she has no kids of her own she’s not likely to be mixed up in any of their squabbles. She doesn’t give advice, though. She asks questions. When she likes the answers, she smiles and hums and asks more questions. When she doesn’t like the answers, she stays silent until the silence builds up so heavy her victim has to say something else to squirm out from under it. Then she asks more questions.

She’s never told the kids about her philosophy, but somewhere in their hivemind it is known, extracted carefully from her silences and shared from peer to peer. Gerlyn does not believe in rules any more than she believes in recipes, does not believe one should be punished for breaking them. She believes that the worst thing a human being can do is place themselves above any other. She believes in paying one’s way through hard work, but she doesn’t believe in paying – no one pays for the baked goods at Mimi’s unless they’re strangers who don’t know any better. Most of all – and this she does say, and often – she believes that if you see something broken, it’s your job to fix it, no matter who broke it.

She teaches them these things, and she teaches them to work. To prepare ingredients, to flatter customers, to order food, clean floors, and keep books. Nothing she teaches them is illegal. It doesn’t have to be. Anyone with internet access can learn to make a bomb, or pick a lock, or set a fire. The thing that takes teaching is the willingness to do it. The revolutionary mindset. That, not coffee or cakes, is Gerlyn’s primary product.

71. Rebus Fallon

The Right Reverend Rebus Fallon is always sweating. Not buckets, not enough for anyone else to really notice, but enough to make his high forehead shine in the light streaming through the stained glass windows on a Sunday morning. The sweat is his aura, it is an extra stratum of skin. Even in winter, he sweats. He sweats and he shivers.

Rebus is not unhealthy. At fifty one years old he still runs the charity half-marathon to end bone cancer every year. His times are competitive. He doesn’t snore, his knees never bother him, and he’s raised two daughters and a son well enough to send off to college. The reverend is, the doctors tell him, in remarkably good health for his age, which he assumes means he’s doing something right.

What Reverend Fallon doesn’t tell the doctors is that he can see God. Any time he can see the sky, there’s God – sitting slump-shouldered on a cloud or lounging in the crescent of the moon. God is black in the daytime and white at night, and He is the reason Rebus sweats.

You see, Rebus can see God, but only see. God never speaks, never claps His hands or shrugs His immense shoulders. He simply looks, and not always at Rebus. Some days God will look at a hummingbird, or a derelict tractor. Sometimes God looks at nothing.

But Rebus, Rebus always looks at God. During sermons especially. He sends his words up through the stained glass windows, and smiles a smile he hopes will be returned. The churchgoers sit transfixed, they eat up his words, but he speaks for an audience of one. He searches his Master’s face for any sign of an opinion. He craves the nod, but dreads the head-shake.

70. Ilona Power

Ilona Power used to design bank software. Now she designs laser light shows. She is, in fact, the only designer of laser light shows whose name draws a bigger crowd than the band she works with. This is because she takes liberties. Where a lesser designer would simply code a visualization of the music being played, Ilona composes a whole complimentary score, and then converts that score into a visualization. The result is a kind of two-part harmony the audience don’t even know they’re experiencing. They’re not used to thinking of colors as sounds. Ilona is, though, because she’s been blind since birth.

Her partner Koda had to make some adjustments to Ilona’s original code, to iron out a few discordant results Ilona couldn’t have noticed. Koda didn’t have to change much, though. It is beyond anyone’s power to improve upon the strange designs Ilona’s machines concoct from music. You see, Ilona is the living embodiment of the old grade-school mind-blower: what if the green you see isn’t the green I see? Ilona has never seen green. Her only green is the green she hears, assigned sight-unseen to an r-g-b code whose given name seems right to her. It is not what a seeing person would have chosen. It is far beyond mere synesthesia.

Koda is a DJ too, in his own right. Ilona does the visuals for all his shows, at the rate they established years before she got famous. She never misses a performance. She stands in the press of the crowd, far from the front, and feels the colored patterns trace their way across her face. The bass booms, the crowd roars, and she sees nothing but music.

69. Sam McEntire

Sam McEntire is only 11 years old, but he’s got an adult’s understanding of what forever means. An hour waiting for epoxy to cure, that’s not forever. A month of searching the jagged landscape of the junkyard for the right hand-brake, that’s not forever. Seven years, until he’s old enough to work at the racetrack, well, that’s only seven years. The only thing that’s forever is forever, and Sam knows what forever looks like.

Sam’s dad was a racecar driver, one of the best ever to come out of their proud little town. There are two schools of thought on his death two years ago. One, supported by fans and fellow drivers, is that a misaligned axel and an overactive sparkplug worked together to cause the explosion. The other, supported by a number of mechanics including the owners of the junkyard where Sam now spends his summer days, puts it up to driver error.

Of course, that doesn’t stop the junkyard owners feeling sick about it, especially the ones who worked on that pit crew that day. Sam benefits from their remorse in the form of hands-on tutoring in the mechanic’s art. He’s spent the summer building himself a go-kart out of mufflers and a motorcycle engine and the cast-off parts of a dozen long-dead cars. Right now it’s sitting on the grassy hill behind the junkyard, waiting to make its inaugural journey.

The only question left for Sam is, does he climb inside the car himself, or get someone else to do it? Either is possible. Either feels like choosing sides. But whichever he chooses, it will be for the same reason: Dying’s not so bad for the one who dies. It’s the ones who live that hurt.

68. Hilea Zelnick

She is small, in a way that makes her easy to underestimate, and to feed on long spaceflights. She is reserved and affectless, in a way that makes others desperate to befriend her, or at least to make her laugh. She is wise beyond her years, but looks half her age. She is Hilea Zelnick, Earth’s greatest liar.

Insomuch as the Terran Hegemony will acknowledge her as an employee, she is officially listed as a diplomat. When she accompanies the interplanetary delegations, however, that is rarely her title. She is some other, minor thing, important enough to justify her presence but not important enough to occupy much time. She has been a linguist, a custodian, a munitions expert. She is often a botanist.

Hilea is fluent in some thirty-seven languages, and picks up more like suns pick up cosmic debris. She is so adept in these languages that she can flawlessly pretend not to speak them, then play a gratifyingly quick study under an altruistic alien tutor. It is another of the ways in which she is good at making friends.

Hilea’s job is to make the galaxy’s other sentient species think it was their own idea to join the Terran Union, under the strict terms the Union dictates. She “leaks” tantalizing rumors of Union life to the aliens she befriends. She seduces them with her eagerness to understand their culture. In truth, she lies very little. As with the Bonsai trees she keeps, it takes only the occasional suggestion of a barrier to create the patterns she desires. With words and with silence, with laughter and with lies, she shapes her new acquaintances into their homeworlds’ own greatest liars.

[Face by Frank Tasty]

67: Chelsea Ko

Chelsea Ko writes at a college level, which, it turns out, is several years older than most people read. Because of this, she can choose her own age on the internet. For some, the question might be, “what age do I choose?” For Chelsea, the question is “Why choose just one?”

With the drug-dealers she’s a 23-year-old Lebanese boy named Qasim, and the deliveries she arranges are always accurate down to the ounce. With the software pirates she’s a Chinese manufacturing technician named Jin, whose uncanny faculty for cracking DRM restrictions has earned him the nickname “JinX.” With the hacktivists she’s a 38-year-old British man named Lyle with quite a few high-profile friends in amongst the royalty. About half of those friends are also Chelsea, but the other half are real.

But who is Chelsea? That’s a rather difficult question. It is much easier to say who Qasim is, or Jin, or Lyle. She is the yolk in the egg – small, soft, and very young. Twelve years old, if you go by chronological age. In the glow of the computer screen she can forget all that, forget that she is tiny and peculiar, that she is always either irrelevant or a curiosity. Among her scores of identities, not one is a woman, or young. And of all the messages she writes – to criminals and activists and spies and princes – the most difficult are the ones she must write as Chelsea.

[Face by Jamie Sanchez]

66(6): Jimmy Flaco

Back in highschool, a teacher told Jimmy that if we could see every organism floating in the air around us, we’d go crazy. These days, Jimmy Flaco wishes he could see those organisms. It’d block out the other things he can’t help but see.

He’s the lead singer of a rock band, and like most of the good ones he made a pact with the devil years ago. He didn’t ask for a good voice, though, or a marketable face, or a perpetually hard cock. His voice is a hand-saw drawn across the hood of a rusty Studebaker, his strong cheekbones are always drenched with nervous sweat, and the only shit that gets him hard these days … well that certainly isn’t marketable. Jimmy asked to see inside people. He wanted to tell the truth with his music, and he figured he ought to know it first. The devil shrugged, and now Jimmy sees souls.

Written on the soul of every person, like the rings in a tree, is a record of every awful thing they’ve ever done. The most beautiful people Jimmy meets – the ones who did trade for eternal beauty – have gnarled ghouls walking around inside their perfect skins. He can tell a child-murderer at a glance. He sees souls even with his eyes closed, and though his body is failing – from all the stress and heroin – his eyes will never age.

The visions of corruption aren’t the worst part, though. Every time he plays a show now – and he has to play shows, to packed arenas – he gets to watch the whole audience give their souls to him. They vomit them up alongside their frantic cheers, and their ugly ghosts float around him to caress his sweaty brow, run spectral fingers through his damp hair. Everywhere he goes, he is followed by the souls he’s stolen with his voice. A whole army of them, fawning over their unwilling master. Before he dies, which he hopes will be very soon, he needs to find something good to do with all these souls. He needs to find a way to phrase his truth in such a way that it can, if not give them back their souls, at least make their souls beautiful again.

[Face by Frank Tasty]

65: Jonaya Gould

An object in motion tends to remain in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. Basic physics though it is, it was a comfort to Jonaya in her youth. It seemed to imply immortality, if she could only keep moving and avoid outside forces. These days, immortality no longer seems so appealing, and the simple little maxim is comforting to her for another reason: she is curious about the outside force.

It is not that she is eager to die. Jonaya Gould loves her life. And why shouldn’t she love it? Few are paid the kind of money she’s paid, to do the kind of wold-changing physics she does. The Department of Defense has been kind to her. And she is not bothered very much by the lives her weapons take. For the most part her missiles stay in their silos, a direct consequence of the beauty of the trajectories she has calculated for them, of the horrifying elegance of her target selection.

War, because of people like her, is leaving the realm of the physical. It is fewer and fewer people fighting over larger and larger areas. It is peace by dilution. Jonaya’s goal is to write equations so exquisitely deadly that they must stay equations, and so write peace. Anyway, that was her goal when she began. Now she’s restless. A plan in motion tends to remain in motion until acted on by an external force, and Jonaya can already plot a dishearteningly predictable geometric progression for this plan, an arms race running for another thousand years. It is Xeno’s paradox: the missile can never quite be launched. Peace will never quite be declared. There is always half the distance left to travel.

Jo no longer asks herself how many hundreds, or tens, or fractions of a person will die in coming years. She asks where they will go when they do. What will happen to those people’s minds? And why do we all seem so anxious to avoid it? In her fine suburban home, Jonaya is building a machine of wood and glass and marbles, a complex contraption that fills the whole house. It feels good to work with her hands, after all these years. When her heart stops beating, the machine will begin to work. A marble will roll down a slope, dominoes will fall, a mousetrap will snap shut, a bucket will tip out its gasoline, a match will strike itself. With beautiful complexity, her house will burn, and the fire will consume all her papers – all her careful notes on the peace to come and the equations to ensure that peace. And the fire will spread, to wherever the wind will take it.

After these long years of being the object in motion, it will feel good to be the outside force for a change.

[Face by Bobby Reichle]

64. Elmo

Elmo was never very observant. His sister always told him so. And he never resented her for it – merely took it the way he took all his sister’s sayings: as truths he was powerless to change. She told him he was too trusting, too. He shrugged and smiled, gap toothed from a bully’s skateboard to the face.

“You’re right,” he said. “But what am I gonna do about it? Not trust people? I can’t not trust people. If I stopped trusting one person, I’d have to stop trusting everyone to be fair, and then how would I know stuff?”

“You’re too fair, too.” Said his sister. And he shrugged. And so on.

These days, Elmo’s sister has cause to thank him for his trust and for his fairness, now that the nerves inside her arms and legs and face and hands have stopped responding to her orders and she’s reduced, more or less, to a frustrated voice shouting in a condemned mansion of meat. They don’t have the tech yet to fix her, but they do have the tech to put a camera in Elmo’s forehead and network it to her eyes, patch her voice into his ears and give him what she always said he lacked – a brain in his head.

He had to lose his eyes to keep the channels from overheating, but he doesn’t mind. He really never was very observant. Now his sister describes to him what he sees, editorializing and guiding. And if ever anyone comments on the blackened, empty sockets he shrugs, smiles, and says “Hey, it’s not like I can see ’em.”