In the story, a Cathar revivalist sect is being persecuted by a fundamentalist government, in a historic mirror of the Albigensian Crusade some decades in the future. In Portland, Oregon, things have gotten especially bad since the big quake leveled most of the city, and in the wake of an earthquake came a devastating sickness that killed many thousands of people.
Keith Montrose, a Cathar antique store clerk, is offered an old NES console in an age when poor air quality has made the plastic on most of these consoles turn to dust.
But there is more to this console than meets the eye.
This was inspired in no small part by Philip K. Dick's musings about God reaching through to this world from the "trash layer," so credit where credit is due.
"Would you take $1100?"
Keith Montrose shifted from foot to foot as the nervous fellow on the other side of the counter considered his offer.
"That's not much for an original NES in working order," the wild-eyed man said quietly. "I saw one go for $8000 on an online auction just about a week ago. They're getting rare these days, what with the air quality. It's hard to find them with the plastic this good, most of them are all yellow and crumbled. I saw one that belonged to my best friend's great-grandfather, it was just a pile of dust on top of some circuit boards and wires!"
"Well, I agree about the plastic, but I have no way to test it," Keith replied. "I only have one TV old enough, and it's back at home. If it doesn't work, $1100 is more than generous for a donor model in good condition."
"I have video of me using the thing, look!" the wild-eyed man replied insistently, unfolding his Omnax and stretching the screen, then selecting a file on his desktop and playing it.
"See? Even the gun works. That's Duck Hunt," he pointed out excitedly as the video played.
The video certainly seemed convincing, but there were innumerable ways to fake such a video.
"I'll tell you what," said Keith, "I'll offer $3000."
"$5000," the wild-eyed man said. "I can't sell it for a penny less."
Keith shook his head. "I want to believe you, but we'd have to see it for ourselves," he replied. "If you can bring a suitable TV in so we can test it here in the shop, we can talk about going over $3000. Otherwise, take it or leave it."
The wild-eyed man put the seventy-five-year-old game console back into its box, looking miffed but keeping his voice calm. "Fine, I'll come back with the TV," he hissed.
"We'll be here waiting," Keith said. "What was your name again?"
"Randy," the wild-eyed man said as he skulked out the door, placing a respirator over his stubbly face as he walked out into the brown haze of the evening.
"That one give you any trouble?" Chaz Milton, an elderly fellow with a kind smile, stepped out of the curtained office behind the counter.
"Nah, probably a hoaxer trying to sell worthless junk," Keith replied. "Since when did 'Antique Store' come to mean 'come try and fool us?' It didn't used to be this way."
"Even in my day, the antique biz was always full of hoaxers," Chaz replied as he wiped the dust off an early 20th century typewriter on a shelf behind the counter. "I remember once when I was about six, a fellow sold my father a chair that he swore was genuine Chippendale, and even Dad was convinced it was real. He took it to an appraiser about ten years later and found out it was a replica made in China. A damned good one, too. He lost six grand on that gamble."
"I meant nothing of any value comes through our doors any more," Keith grumbled. "It's all just..."
"...garbage?" Chaz offered.
"Yeah... garbage. I swear, if I have to see another piece of turn-of-the-century mass-produced Americana or another cheap Chinese forgery from the 2010s, I'm going to puke. I had a guy come in here with a sword the other day, swore up and down it was a 17th century Landsknecht sword. You know what it was? It was a late 20th century wall-hanger with bat wings on the hilt! Bat wings, Chaz!" Keith fumed.
"Something good will come through the door," said Chaz. "Just wait, it'll come."
"And another thing... nobody buys anything. They're all selling now," Keith pointed out.
"Times are tough," Keith said. "Just keep holding out for the big sale. You'll see."
The little bell on the door rang and keith and Chaz turned to see a heavy-set man in a heavy rain coat step in. He pulled off his respirator, hanging it on a hook by the door.
"Good afternoon, sir, can we help you?" said Keith.
"Yeah, I have something I'd like to sell," the big man said, taking a small blue presentation box out of his coat pocket. "These coins belonged to my grandfather, they were given to him as a present back when he was just twelve years old. They've been in the family for years... I hate to have to sell them."
"Well, let's see them," said Keith as Chaz stood by, changing the receipt roll in the late 2010s cash register they still used.
The big man reverently opened the box to reveal the fronts of two "Fifty State" quarters of the sort still found in pocket change once in a while, along with Lincoln Memorial pennies and the pre-facelift Roosevelt dimes.
"Wait, you haven't seen the best part!" the big man said excitedly, as if sensing Keith's disappointment. He turned the coins over to reveal a colored applique of an American flag and an eagle on the back of one, and the Twin Towers with the motto "United We Stand" on the other. "See? Isn't that awesome! This has got to be really valuable, right?"
Keith swung his head toward Chaz with a serpentine motion, glaring at the graying old clerk.
Chaz slumped visibly. "I'm sorry, sir, but this isn't really the sort of thing we're interested in at the moment," he said diplomatically.
At that the big man put the coins away and reached into his pocket, taking out a long red ribbon with a gold pendant in the shape of a Cross of Toulouse, like the Neo-Cathars used to wear.
"Sir, you do know that's an illegal item?" Keith said nervously.
"It isn't to your liking, Mr. Montrose?" the big man said, holding the pendant inches from Keith's nose.
Keith felt his mouth and throat go dry. "I think you should leave," he said quietly to the big man.
"I was only trying to sell you some excellent merchandise," the big man said.
"I think you should leave," Keith repeated, kicking his foot nervously against a box of old lace.
"Alright, jeez..." the big man growled, putting the pendant back in his pocket and shuffling toward the door, putting on his respirator, and stepping out into the sickly brown haze.
"What was that all about?" asked Chaz.
"It was nothing," Keith replied, his hands shaking.
"Need the rest of the day off?" asked Chaz.
"Yeah," Keith said, not once looking at Chaz as he grabbed his rain coat and respirator, put them on, and made for the door. "I'll be fine by tomorrow."
"See you then! Get some rest," Chaz said warmly.
Keith stepped out into the street. Crumbling buildings left neglected for years, abandoned cars with their plastic eaten away by acid rain and bad air, and mountains of trash punctuated the old Victorian sidewalks of the once-prosperous city of Portland, Oregon.
In the thick haze, one could only see a few hundred feet in any direction, and here and there the body of some unfortunate who forgot their respirator or succumbed to the Twitching Death lay sprawled across the sidewalk.
The Twitching Death was the latest evil to come out of the rapid decline in conditions on earth since the last great surge of the oil and mining industries. The air quality in most urban areas was so poor that without a respirator you would die within ten minutes anyhow, and the Twitching Death- a fever that seemed to thrive in the earthquake-ravaged cities of Portland and Seattle- made going anywhere one might actually meet other people a risky business.
Already, about two thirds of the population of Portland had died. In another year, perhaps everyone would be dead, or maybe a few would survive and be left to inherit the crumbling remains of the old city.
Perhaps the next generation would have to rebuild everything from scratch, Keith thought as he spotted the little yellow rounded pod that would take him home. He frowned as he got to his little two-seat urban pod; the plastic was already starting to corrode visibly and in another year, it would be entirely useless to him. The tires, too, were starting to look a bit cracked and dry-rotted, but thankfully still held air... for now.
He opened the clamshell top of the little upright vehicle and sat down, closing the top. The pod, recognizing an RFID chip in his wallet, responded by starting up, displaying a cheerful welcome graphic of wind blowing through daisies. A pump somewhere behind the bench seat activated noisily, and the brown mist that filled the pod began to replace itself with clean air.
Keith took off his respirator. "Take me home," he said to the pod.
"Right away, sir" the pod said in a cheerful synthetic voice, pulling out into the desolate streets where a few people here and there tried desperately to go about their lives as if nothing happened.
The pod made its way slowly down the city streets, around wrecked cars, collapsed bridges, and bodies left to rot where they fell. Inside the relative safety of the pod, the yellow fog lamps that cut through the brown haze created a surreal landscape, less a city and more a distant nightmare.
"Put on some music," Keith instructed the pod.
"What music would you like to hear?" the pod asked smoothly.
"I don't know, something pretty," Keith said. "Something to take my mind off... all of this."
"One moment please," the pod replied, its screen displaying an animation of a stylized clock face.
A slow and beautifully melancholy female voice began to sing in an ancient modal melody, far older than anything Keith had ever heard his pod play for him.
"What is this?" Keith asked.
"Hill-Dee-Guard-Von-Bin-Jen, Voice of the Living Light," the pod said.
Keith looked at the screen. Hildegard von Bingen. A strange sort of selection to play for him- Hildegard hated Cathars almost as much as the current government did- but at least it took his mind off the chaos and decay all around him for a moment.
Keith closed his eyes and tried to remember Portland as it was, back in the 2030s when he was just a child. Back then it was a vibrant city, untouched by major earthquakes and unaffected by the violence that had ravaged the major cities in California, the Midwest, and the entire East Coast around the time he was born. Portland as it was, a safe haven from the problems of the world that people from all over beat a path to.
No one knew that the barely-noticeable brown film staining cars and clothes across North America back then would become a toxic cloud that would linger in the still air of the Columbia valley, lifting only slightly for a few clear days a year. No one saw the approach of the Twitching Death. No one thought that an earthquake would ravage the city and no one would bother to rebuild.
After about two hours of navigating the difficult terrain of the city, waiting for the ferry across the Willamette, and struggling across the hills toward his apartment on the West Slope, Keith arrived at home, the sunset blood red above him from the filthy air.
He stepped into his apartment, checking the cheap air quality meter by the door to make sure his filtration system was working, and removed his respirator.
His girlfriend, Tara, was in the living room watching the news projected from the Omnax dock in the center of their coffee table.
"Home early?" she asked.
"Yeah, slow day," Keith said. "Tends to be that way, when you're selling something nobody cares about any more."
Keith sat beside her, laying back and sprawling on the couch, leaning away from her and gazing toward the corner of the room sadly.
"I'm sure business will pick up," Tara said. "You have to keep hoping, after all. I mean, what's the use in living if you don't have hope?"
"I ask myself that every day," Keith replied, still gazing into space. He sighed, sat up, and turned to her. "We're the last antique store in town, and if we can't make a big sale in the next few weeks there will be none. Also, I think they're onto us, Tara."
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"A guy came in trying to sell a Cathar Cross pendant," Keith replied. "They know we were involved. If they find out we're still active, they'll come for us in the night and that'll be it."
"Why can't they just leave us alone?" Tara sighed.
"They need someone to blame for the Twitching Death," Keith grumbled. "Why not the only people who didn't take the Religion Act seriously?"
"Was it just you, or were they trying to get Chaz too?" Tara asked.
"We were both at the counter. I don't know if they knew about Chaz or not, he was never that vocal about it," Keith said.
"Maybe it was a mistake," Tara said. "Maybe the guy didn't know what he had."
"Maybe," said Keith, going quiet. He could only hope...