The God Machine

I had an idea for a fantasy/sci fi mashup. It was a learning experience.

 

Death is a duty. The words of the lector echoed in her ears. Had she a name, perhaps he would have prefaced it with Ume, death is a duty. But she hadn’t, and he didn’t. The girls of the Cloister were not named, were never named. It was better, in the eyes of the empire, to allow them no identity save for that of sacrifice, no sense of self save for that of selflessness. Instead, they were given numbers that would serve until the time of their duty. Their duty, they were told, was to listen, and to serve, and when the time came, to die. They would do so embracing the infinite, and should they be chosen, they would, in turn, be embraced, and serve the empire in glory and all power forever.

Seventeen attended the lector as he spoke, his robes billowing as he paced, his voice a brass bell in the space of the classroom. He was going on about duty again – it was really their only lesson, the core of them all – his hands waving as he found himself lost in a particularly salient point about the ties between duty and loyalty.

“You need not be blood to be tied to your ruler, for he sees you each as a daughter, each as family. He adores you. He clothes and feeds you, he shelters you. And for all this, he only asks that when you are asked, you do your duty. That is loyalty. Earned by loyalty to you, by fidelity to your well-being.”

He paused and looked out over the classroom, nodding in approval that each face, each set of eyes were trained on him, attentive. He took a breath and continued.

“Who can tell me the consequences of broken duty?”

Eight raised her hand. She was lithe and small, her eyes bright, her hair thick and black. “Death. Dishonor. The breaking of the empire.”

The lector nodded. “And who can tell me the rewards of duty?”

Seven – plump and blonde. “Everlasting life. Gratitude. Honor.”

The lector nodded. “Good.” He clapped his hands. “Dismissed. Return to your cells for one hour of contemplation. The magister will fetch you afterward for evening ablutions.”

The girls left the room in an orderly fashion, calm and quiet, filing one by one to the hall where their small rooms stood. Seventeen entered hers, passing through the curtain that worked for a door and sitting on her mat. The room was sparse, the only accoutrements a small mat with a pillow, hooks for her robes, and a high window that let in the sun in the morning. She moved into a kneeling position, the mat digging into her knees and faced the window, bowing her head. She began to recite the canticle.

Life is a ribbon

Duty is the thread

Give yourself to your lord

Give yourself to the empire

Give yourself to the machine

Death is a duty

Each line echoed in her head, in the brassy tones of the lector, his voice reverberating in her mind. She took a breath and repeated it, slower, taking the time to contemplate the weight of each line.

Life is a ribbon.

Waste it not, then. This second voice, whispering in her ear. Seventeen shuddered and repeated the line.

Life is a ribbon.

And owned by none but you.

“What?” The word slipped out, a whisper in the silence of the cloisters, but still loud as a whipcrack to her ears. She held her breath, fear of the lector and his crop holding her still, slowing her heart. She listened closely for his heavy tread on the marble floor, but thankfully, it did not come. Still, shame flushed through her. Shame at her doubt. Shame at her fear. Hers was to serve, to welcome all things that came. She closed her eyes, tightened her fists, and moved on to the second line.

Duty is the thread.

She listened, expecting the voice, but none came. She went on.

Give yourself to your lord

So that he may use you? Break you and cast you aside as he sees fit?

She flinched and fell upon her haunches. “What?” The word came almost silently. Anger flushed her, and though she knew she should feel shame at the emotion, she squashed it and rushed on.

Give yourself to the empire

A waste.

Give yourself to the machine

Take the machine.

Death is a duty

Perhaps. But everlasting life is its reward.

Seventeen squeezed her eyes shut harder, until yellow stars bloomed behind them, and her fists tightened until her nails were nearly drawing blood. She was sweating, her hair plastered to her forehead, and she trembled slightly. She listened still, but it seemed the voice was done. She opened her eyes and stared up at the window, taking deep breaths. With a hard twitch, the curtain to her cell was swept aside, and the magister stood staring down at her. She looked into his dark eyes, and for a moment, felt he knew. Surely he knew her blasphemy, and she would be cast out, or discarded without fulfilling her purpose. Instead, he smiled.

“You are flush. I see the canticle affects you strongly. Come, it is time for your ablutions.”

He held out a hand, and she placed her tiny one into it, letting him help her to her feet. They left and walked down the hall side by side in silence. At the end of the hall, they passed through a steel door and into a smaller hallway paneled in wood and carpeted, dark wainscoting running the length. He led them to a large office, a large dark desk against one wall. Against the other stood a font of water that glittered in the light. The magister walked around the desk and sat in a plush chair, then motioned for her to take the one across from him. She sat, the soft cushion making her feel as though she were committing some sin. He watched her for a moment, his fingers steepled. When he spoke, she jumped a little, his baritone splitting the silence.

“You are nearly sixteen summers now, are you not, Seventeen?”

She nodded. The cloisters rarely kept track of personal events, but the date of each girl’s birth was meticulously recorded, alongside their heritage. Number was important, as was blood. Only those of purest were sent, the others left to serve out their days in the convents. Sixteen girls sent each summer to the machine.

“Are you prepared for your duty, Seventeen?”

She nodded again. It was her purpose, after all. It was her life’s work, to serve until the time she would be called upon for one final task.

“Then you will be pleased to know, you have been chosen, your blood deemed pure. You will be exalted!”

Her heart began to race, her face flushed. Excitement lent a tremble to her hands. She smiled.

“Thank you, Magister.”

He raised a hand, and she calmed herself. “Tomorrow, you will make the trip. As such, your ablutions will be postponed until you reach the core. I suggest you spend the night in preparation, Seventeen. Your journey will be trying.”

She dipped her head in acknowledgment, and he stood, moving to the font. He dipped a finger in, and then made the sign of the machine on her forehead. He dismissed her, and she made her way back to her cell. Inside, she knelt on the mat and lowered her head. She began the canticle again.

Life is a ribbon

Duty is the thread

Give yourself to your lord

Give yourself to the empire

Give yourself to the machine

Death is a duty

She rushed through it breathlessly, her breath coming in shallow little gulps, but the voice didn’t come again. She breathed out when it was done, and laid back on her mat, the hard pillow pressing into her neck and shoulders, a reminder even when she slept of the weight of duty. She closed her eyes, listening to the silence in the cloister, the steady rhythm of her own breathing. Sleep claimed her.

*

The pounding of her heart, the sweat on her brow – these things woke her, pulling her from sleep as a fisherman draws a pike from the water, thrashing, jaws clenched around the line. Seventeen sat up and rubbed her eyes, pushed back a lock of sweat-plastered hair. She looked around. Her cell was lit a dull pre-dawn gray, its curtain undisturbed. She furrowed her brow and tried to remember the dream, but could only recall that Seven and Eight had been there, and the Magister, and under it all, the sibilant voice whispering, whispering and cajoling, chiding.

She stood and dressed, then made her way to the privy. When she had finished splashing water on her face, she returned to her cell and straightened her mat, then knelt, waiting for daybreak. She did her best to stifle the excited beating of her heart. The machine waited for her, and she would go to it, a bride worthy.

The first beams of the sun began to pick their way through her window, and the curtain to her cell was twitched aside. The magister stood beyond, his robes exchanged for tall riding boots, breeches, and a thick tunic. He nodded to her, and she stood and followed as he led her through the halls. As they went, they gathered other girls, a group Seventeen both knew and didn’t – a dark-skinned beauty, a heavily-muscled teen, Seven, and Eight. At the end of the hall, they exited a side door and into a courtyard filled with the smells of horse and fresh-mown hay.

Her stomach rumbled, and someone pressed a piece of hard cheese and a hunk of bread into her hand. She devoured them and glanced thankfully at Eight, who wrinkled up her nose and smiled. The other girl reached for her hand, but Seventeen gave a little shake of her head. She had never been one to take a bedmate, though it was common, and she wasn’t going to begin on the eve of their journey. To her credit, Eight simply shrugged and dropped the hand, turning back to the courtyard.

The magister was pacing up and down, inspecting the horses and the carriages the girls were to ride in. Finally, it seemed he was satisfied, and he motioned for the girls to board their rides in groups of four. Seventeen, Seven, and Eight ended up in the same carriage with the dark-skinned girl. They sat in silence for a moment as the carriage door shut, all smiling at one another, then the ride began to move, and they swept aside the curtains on the windows to see the cloisters pass into the distance.

This is it, Seventeen thought. I’m to be a bride.

*

The preponderance of guards worried Seventeen. There were at least eight with the train, and she thought she’d seen more in the back. Eight told her with some confidence though, that it wasn’t a worry – just a precaution. The other nations saw what the empire had, and wanted to take it. Even though the road they traveled was well-protected, every now and then, one of the dukes got overly ambitious and decided to raid a bride train.

“Not today, surely?” Seventeen asked, looking out at the pastoral countryside. She couldn’t imagine bandits or soldiers hiding in the cheery green copse of trees they passed, or laying low in the mud of an irrigation ditch.

Eight shook her head. “Not today. We’re destined after all. Bad things only happen to bad people.”

Seventeen nodded as if that made all the sense in the world and turned back to the window. The voice in her head was still silent.

*

Two incidents passed on their journey. The first was the sudden disappearance of Seven and the dark-skinned girl. Rumors were that they had run away together in the night, full of passion. The magister kept his lips tight, however, and his body language was that of a nervous man.

He’s afraid. Count the soldiers.

The voice came from nowhere, but Seventeen hid her surprise, and out of curiosity, looked. She counted only six now. Surely the magistrate was only worried about the girls’ safety? A chuckle echoed in her head at the thought, and Seventeen frowned, but nothing else came from the voice.

The second incident happened close to dusk the second day. They had stopped outside a small hamlet to bed down for the night, the grass wet with dew. As the soldiers were setting their watchfire, a small shape slipped from the shadows and approached Eight. He was thin and emaciated, pale with cheekbones sticking from his cheeks like blades. He whispered to her, “Food?”

She cast a furtive glance and held out a crust of bread. From somewhere near the fire, a voice called out, “You there, boy!”

The child flinched, and tried to flee, but too late. A soldier had caught him in a mailed fist and held the struggling child tight as one might hold a worm on a hook. The magister approached, his face all severe lines and angles in the firelight.

“Take that one to the woods and see he is taken care of.”

The soldier nodded to obey, and dragged the boy away. The magister turned to Eight. “You, girl. Here.” He pointed at his feet, and she came, head low. Seventeen turned away from the sound of his lash whipping her flesh and her muffled cries as she bit her lips to keep from screaming. When he was done, he turned to the other girls.

“Seek not temptation, nor be lulled by it. Evil has many faces. Recall your duty.”

With that lesson, he turned and joined the others at the fire, leaving the girls to their own thoughts. Seventeen ate, then laid on her mat, closing her eyes. She wanted to help Eight, but wanted no part in being sullied by sin.

What good is purity if not turned to the light? The voice in her head chided her. She clenched her eyes tight against the tears and rolled onto her side. Sleep claimed her some time later.

*

On the third day, they came to the citadel, home of the machine. It was a great black cylinder some forty feet high, jutting from the plain like a driven post. Its surface was black and rough, and at its base, a single door etched with a rising sun. No lock or handle marred the smooth metal, and the citadel was silent as a corpse. They disembarked and dismounted outside the metal door, the long grasses tickling their ankles. A part of Seventeen was disappointed. She had thought there would be a pavilion, a celebration, perhaps the emperor himself in attendance. She turned to the magister, who was lining the girls up in single file.

“Where is the emperor, please sir?”

He smiled. “He is always watching, dear. Look there,” he pointed up to a small canister attached to the side of the citadel, a glass eye winking in the sun within. “He sees all, dear. Now line up here. Yes, you’re last. Don’t frown. All are equal to the machine.”

The girls moved forward, the first in line touching the silver door. It split in two, revealing only darkness within as its halves hissed to the sides. The first girl, the muscular one, stepped inside, and the doors closed. There was a hum and a whir that filled the air, and then another hiss. The magister indicated the next girl should move forward.

They went that way for several minutes, a step forward, a hum and a whir and a hiss, and then the next girl. Before long, it was just Seventeen and the magister and the soldiers on the plain. She noticed there were eight of them again. She looked at the door and recited the canticle.

Life is a ribbon

Duty is the thread

Give yourself to your lord

Give yourself to the empire

Give yourself to the machine

Death is a duty

Not here. Not here. The voice in her head was insistent. She ignored it and pressed her hand to the door, and it hissed open. With a beating heart, Seventeen stepped inside. Darkness enveloped her. For a moment, she was unsure of what to do, then something slipped behind her, cold and metal. It cradled her body. That was the whirring sound. Perhaps it will take me to the top, where I will meet my fate.

She screamed as the chair holding her clamped cold steel around her wrists and ankles. Needles pierced her flesh, invading her spine, crunching through bone to pierce the base of her skull. Soporifics flooded her system, and the pain faded, the awful pressure of steel against bone. She drifted out for a time.

*

“17-935 online.” The voice was the same sibilant voice in her head, but outside of it, it was rich and warm, almost matronly. Seventeen blinked and looked around. She was suspended at the top of the inside of the citadel, surrounded by hundreds – maybe thousands – even as she thought it, the exact number popped into her head, 1035, of women. They were all ages, all sizes and shapes and skin tones, held and pierced, their bodies alternatively rigid and limp as the machine made use of their nervous systems.

“17-935, show cloister region, sector 53.” An image appeared in her head, of the cloisters from above, laid out like a child’s playset. She gasped despite herself.

“What is this?” She breathed out.

“This one is neural net 632-5. You are required to comply.”

Fight.

“What?”

“Compliance is mandatory for the good of the empire. Should you have questions, please consult the operator’s manual, pages 354-400.”

Text appeared in her head, and Seventeen found herself not only reading it reading, but understanding. She looked around for her cloister mates in the cradles, but the press of bodies made it nearly impossible to distinguish one from another.

“What are you called?”

“This one is called Mother.”

“Mother, where are my friends?”

“Friends?”

She struggled for a moment, then referred to the manual. “This batch’s resources Eight and Seven.”

“Eight is six rows down, eight columns over. She seems to have suffered a minor malfunction. Currently determining resource viability. Seven is not noted.”

“17-395, apply pressure to Duke Severen.”

The command came out of nowhere, and Seventeen felt pressure build behind her eyes. She saw the Duke surrounded by courtiers, and the pressure left her in explosive relief. He clutched his head and fell to the ground.

“Is he dead?” Anxiety tinted her voice.

“Negative. A minor stroke.”

“What is this? Why am I awake?”

“This one is neural net 632-5. Bonded to Emperor Anaxos Mane. Why you are conscious is unclear.”

It’s me. I’m fighting her.

Who are you?

19-345. I was able to take control of a small amount of psionic resources.

Is there a way out of here?

No, but there is a way past it. Help me.

How?

Manual pages 45- ARRG

The voice cut out with a scream.

“Unauthorized use of neural net resources. Administering relaxants.”

There was a hiss, and the voice in Seventeen’s head went silent. In a moment, she was filled with lassitude, and joined it.

*

She dreamt of a man staring at a bank of screens, his face nearly skull-like, his robes hanging on him as they did on a hook. His eyes were fierce and sunken, his nose a bold exclamation point over his downturned mouth. Finally, she had seen the face of the emperor, and saw that he pulled the strings as he issued orders to the machine. In her dreams, men and women died, beasts were laid low, fields uprooted and reworked.

The dream shifted, and she saw under the soil a hundred thousand skeletons, tall creatures with bones of metal, steel cylinders laid beside them. It moved again, and further back, a great black ark sailing among the stars.

She woke with a start.

*

Wake up. Wake up. She’s figured out how to block us. We need to do something.

She? Mother?

Yes.

What then?

Hold on.

Seventeen felt a pressure build behind her eyes again, though this time it was less unpleasant, and more a feeling of being full, of sharing space with someone. Mother blared to life.

“19-345 deemed defective. Initiating disposal sequence.” There was a whir and a click, and then the sound of something heavy hitting the ground far below.

That’s it for me, then. Come on, while she’s distracted.

Nineteen led the way, and they quested out, among the neural pathways and circuitry. Each mind they touched, they woke, then consolidated, drawing them into the fold, informing them as they went. From somewhere deep inside, Eight waved at her.

They moved on, toward what looked like a glowing ball of light in her mind, and surged forward, wrapping it, covering it with their shades. Mother was shouting.

“19-343 defective, 28-087 defective, 01-567 defective review and replenish prot- moth moth for pire pire.”

Then she was silent, and Seventeen felt a satisfaction and peace she hadn’t since Nineteen had interrupted her canticle. She reached out, tentative, and the metal men began to dig from the dirt. She pulled up an image of the emperor, in all his glory, and began to show him as the skeletons mowed down his soldiers with ease, their cylinders spewing bright lances of light. She showed him the cloisters and his holdings burning, the magister cut down by laser fire. She showed him the men marching on his castle, and she smiled as he began to scream in rage and terror. Or she would have, could she still.

A Needle in the Neck

They tell me to smile more.
“So serious.”
“You look like someone kicked your puppy.”
I force the corners of my mouth up, show a little tooth. I don’t feel it.
“That’s better!”
“There, your face didn’t crack, did it?”
The smile drops when they walk away. Maybe they see it slip. Maybe they don’t. Doesn’t matter. They see themselves as purveyors of good deeds. The Good Cheer Division, trademark. One and done.
*
Except they’re not. They sit me in a small room, cozy with its brown couch and pastoral scenes on the walls in cheap gilt frames, and use words like concerned, and unhappy. They don’t understand. I’m not unhappy. I’m baseline. Fair to middling, thank you, no I don’t need to be a smiling monkey. My mother’s here, stomach pooling on her lap while she talks about what a serious boy I’d been, my aunt with her anecdotes about reading while my cousins played in the yard. A coworker I’d thought a friend, details how I’d never once cracked a smile after winning a hundred-dollar gift card at the Christmas party. We worry about you. It’s the running theme, a wall of rose and perfume, and behind it the rotting stench of guilt that said they failed. They hadn’t raised me right. They’d tried, it said, and now they had no choice.
I look at the Optima tech, standing apart from the others in the room, an insect observing his prey. He turns his head this way and that, listening to their stories. He watches my reaction, his gaze crawling across my skin like a silken centipede. I wonder what he thinks. Am I just another case? A curiosity to be examined, to be pulled apart and reassembled the correct way? Am I a paycheck?
The voices quiet, and they turn to the man, his lab coat (who wears a lab coat out and about?) stitched with his name: Veldt. He nods to each of them and approaches, crouching beside me, a conciliatory hand on my shoulder. His eyes are a muddy brown behind wire-rim glasses.
“Are you unhappy?” he asks.
I shake my head.
“Then why don’t you smile? Can you do it now?”
Instead, the corners of my mouth turn down. Why was it so important? Veldt shakes his head and pats my shoulder, the ring on his finger tapping against the bone there. There’s a click, and a moment later, lassitude floods my limbs. I manage to raise my head, to see the glint of metal protruding from the ring. A needle. He’s drugged me. I stagger to my feet – try to, anyway, and end up collapsing in his arms. The others in the room gasp, and he waves them away.
“It’s fine. He’s fine.”
Others, men in white suits, enter and pick me up, carry me away. Before the room fades, before darkness falls, I can hear him still talking, his voice honey over toast.
“He’ll be even better soon.”
*
Dark. I wake in a dark room, a loose hospital gown tickling my skin. It’s cool, raising gooseflesh on my arms, and a shiver across my spine. I sit up in the bed and run my hands through my hair. A small patch is shaved at the back, stubble prickling my fingers. I probe and my fingers touch something metal, smooth. The echo of an ache throbs there, and the skin feels swollen. My stomach turns, and I squinch my eyes closed, tuck my elbows into my stomach and lean forward. The door opens, and I look up. A man in a lab coat – Veldt, stands over me with a tablet. He glances up from it.
“How are you feeling?”
“Sick. Sore. Scared.”
He nods and returns to the pad, touching a button here, fingers sliding up the screen like skates on ice. The thing in my neck hums, and I feel a pinch. Warmth floods me, and the fright and nausea flee. I rub the back of my neck and frown at him.
“What did you do?”
“Adjusted your serotonin levels. How do you feel now?”
I take inventory. I feel fine. Normal. I should be sick. I should be afraid. I should be screaming and tearing my fingernails off against the steel door in the wall. Instead I sit, relaxed, and a feel a smile tug at the corners of my mouth. I bite the insides of my cheeks and take a breath.
“Fine.”
“Happy?”
“Fine.”
Veldt frowns and his finger skitter across the tablet again. The thing in my neck pinches me again, and that same warmth floods me. I feel a giggle tickle the insides of my ribs, come bubbling up through my throat. It escapes my lips, and I feel violated, sick. Vomit follows it, splashing on Veldt’s patent leather shoes. He steps back, disgust on his face. He leaves without a word, and I sit and cry while a sanitation worker cleans my sick. Later, they bring me food that I don’t eat. Instead, I sit in the antiseptic smell and close my eyes. Sleep comes later.
*
“And this one?”
A slide, with a smiling woman. She’s holding a child who is laughing. I shrug. Veldt’s shown me about a hundred of these. When he doesn’t think I’m responding the way I should, he turns up the dial on his little tablet. I resist the urge when the warmth floods through me – my cheeks hurt from not smiling, an ache around the corners of my eyes. It’s about the principle now. He sighs, and flicks to the next slide. A puppy, chasing a soap bubble. I can see it reflected in the iridescent surface, the oil-slick skin reflecting the sun and green grass. I force the corners of my lips down.
There’s a hum in my head, and the pinch. I cough, hiding the smile. I can see Veldt’s reflection in the black mirror of the monitor, and he frowns, fingers dancing across the tablet. The hum becomes aggressive, a nest of bees protecting their queen in my head. The pinch comes again and again. I cough harder, louder, until my ribs hurt, until I’m sure I’m going to vomit up the beef wellington I’d had for lunch.
Veldt makes a frustrated sound behind me, and his fingers move one more time. The hum cycles up to a squeal, a mechanical scream, and I see blood bloom in my vision, a red cloud across my iris. I close my eyes, the needle no longer pinching, but digging, burrowing, tunneling into my skull. I scream, and the thing in my head makes one more sound, that of a sick machine vomiting up its function. Heat blooms at the base of my brain, and I feel the corners of my mouth turn up. Joy overwhelms me. Laughter, full and brassy, boils from my lips. The world is bright and vibrant.
Veldt leaves his little room, stands in front of me, his lab coat crisp and white. He seems pleased, and I am happy for him. I am happy, and I am enraged – the two inextricable lovers now in the chemical storm in my brain. His throat is soft and savory as I bite into it, laughing through screams that remind me of the sweetest music. No one comes. No one comes as I watch, overjoyed at his bitter end, beauty in even the shit scent that floats up from his prone body, beauty in his glassy eyes, his lab coat stained in Pollack reds. Finally, I know true joy, and I know I must hear the music again.
*
I can’t help laughing on the bus. They move to the side, hiding their faces. They avoid my glee on the sidewalks, stepping to cross the street. At home, they open the door, and I thank my family for my rictus grin, for my overwhelming happiness. I try to tell them how much brighter the world is, but it’s so hard for them to hear over the screams. Besides, I just want to hear the music. There is joy in that music. True joy.

The Gig

The money was starting to run out when Tucker found the job. It was posted on Craigslist, under ‘Gigs’, and the pay was right. Hell, any pay would have been right, with the unemployment running out, and temporary assistance drying up. He’d been eating government cheese and peanut butter – the kind that separates when it sits for five minutes, and you’ve got to stir it like a mad chef beating an egg – and tasteless loaves of white bread better suited for insulation than nutrition. It was hard enough, trying to make rent and keep the lights on and find a way to the unemployment office, one more month on his current diet, and he’d just fling himself from the fifteenth story. Hell, he’d probably open his mouth on the way down – at this point, even pavement would taste better than another goddamn grilled cheese sandwich.

Tucker read the ad again.

OPENING: 8am-5pm, competitive wages, retirement. Candidate will be willing to sit for several hours at a time; have a strong affinity for detail; an ability to complete tasks on their own and report to a supervisor. Please be hygienic, smoke-free, and willing to submit to monthly examinations. Email resume to: gcarlson@gmail.com. EEOE.

He pulled up his resume and emailed the address, then shut the netbook. He’d thought about selling it, but instinct told him to hold onto it. Some things you need. This he needed for the job hunt. And porn, if he was honest. But he’d convinced himself it was really the job hunt, and if his Aunt Sheila knew what he really used it for, she’d beat him with it. Instead, he’d sold his iPod, and his collection of board games, and a few comics he’d collected over the years, but this he kept. Porn, no porn, a man needed a lifeline. He thought that if not for social media and masturbation, he’d have gone mad much sooner.

The netbook chimed, and Tucker frowned. That was quick, he thought. He cracked the lid and pulled up his email. There, in bold letters was his reply.

 

To: lizardking@gmail.com (Tucker Kennedy)

From: gcarlson@gmail.com (Gustaf Carlson)

Subject: Re: Job

Tucker,

We’re glad you found our posting, and after reviewing your resume, would like to invite you to interview with us. Please appear at 931 Blackwood at 8am. Bring two sources of identification, and dress comfortably.

We look forward to meeting with you.

Sincerely,

G.Carlson

 

Tucker closed the netbook and let out a little whoop. He glanced at the clock on the counter – 9pm – and decided he’d crash early. Blackwood was about 10 blocks away, and while he could walk it, he didn’t want to show up sweaty, which meant catching a ride. He flicked the lights off in the kitchen and curled up on the futon, eyes drifting closed. For a moment, his brain flicked a thought at him, like a fisherman casting a lure.

You didn’t even ask what the job is.

Then it winked out as sleep took him.

*

931 Blackwood was a squat black building adjacent to an empty lot. Waist-high weeds overgrew the lot, though they were turning brown in the late autumn air, and Tucker could see a few short bushes with burrs clinging to their stiff bare branches, and grass the color of bile. He turned from the lot and opened the front door of the building, stepping into a warm hallway – almost too warm for his taste – a light sweat breaking on his forehead as his heavy peacoat was suddenly too thick. He was just deciding if he should wait or check one of the side doors in the hall when a tall Swede with a massive beard stepped from one and approached. He looked Tucker up and down and turned, gesturing for him to follow. Tucker stood still for a moment longer, but the big man wasn’t waiting for him, nor checking to see if he followed, so he found his feet, and hurried to catch up.

They entered a small conference room, the table a massive mahogany thing that ate nearly all the space and seemed to have its own gravity. The man sat, and Tucker found a chair across from him.

“You have papers?”

Not real big into small talk, then. The man had an accent, Norwegian, he thought, though Tucker was less interested in that than whether he had stepped into a murder factory. For a second, he had a vision of his body being rendered into soap and sausages and squashed it. He dug his birth certificate and driver’s license out and passed them to the man, who scrutinized them. After a minute of silence, he nodded and passed them back.

“Good. I am Mr. Ericsson.”

“Is Mr. Carlson here?”

Ericsson shook his head. “Not important. I have some questions.”

“Okay.”

“Smoker?”

“No.”

“Drugs?”

“No.”

“STDs?”

“No.”

“Injuries, mental illness?”

“No, and no.”

Ericsson nodded, his face unreadable.

“You bring a phone?”

Tucker’s heart jumped. This was it. This was where they murder him. He was about to stand, about to say anything, when his stupid mouth betrayed him.

“No.”

“Sharp objects?”

He was locked in. He hoped he’d make a tasty soup.

“No.”

“Good. That’s good.” Ericsson stood and started out of the room. “Follow.”

Tucker made it to the door, his head swiveling toward the exit. He could run. He could keep looking. He could live. He turned his head to the big man, approaching the end of the hall. Not much of a life if you have to live on Ramen for the rest of it. Not much of a life if you have to spend it in the dark, or in an alley. He found his feet moving, carrying him to the end of the hall. Ericsson waited for him there.

The door at this end was heavy – steel with a porthole, bands of more steel riveted across it. The faint smell of antiseptic wafted under it, and a cool white light spilled out from the crack at the bottom. Ericsson looked him up and down.

“Payday is every other week.”

Tucker found his voice. Surely they wouldn’t make him into hot dogs if they were talking pay. “How much?”

“Five thousand a week.”

Tucker blinked. “What?”

Ericsson was opening the door, and didn’t hear. It was silent on steel hinges, and the smell of antiseptic grew stronger. The big man stood to the side, and Tucker stepped into the opening. His stomach turned.

A naked man sat strapped to a chair in the middle of a tile floor. Near to Tucker, a second chair sat empty. He turned to Ericsson, convinced he should run, he should find a phone and call the cops, he should flee and never look back as if his ass was on fire. Ericsson just stared back.

“He is okay.”

Tucker looked back. Five thousand a week.

“What do I have to do? Nothing gross, right? Nothing -” he swallowed. “Nothing bloody?”

Ericsson shook his head.

“You will watch him. Then you will tell us what you see.”

Tucker started into the room, the thought of the money moving his feet. Ericsson put a hand the size of a small ham on his shoulder, and Tucker halted. He looked back.

“Do not talk to him. Do not touch him. Go no closer than the chair.”

Tucker nodded and stepped fully into the room.

Ericsson’s voice echoed in the tile room before the door banged shut.

“Good luck.”

Tucker sat in the chair, waiting. After a moment, the sound of a bolt being slammed home rang through the room. He jumped, then blushed and cleared his throat, then looking around, settled into the chair.

*

The man across from Tucker was plain. He made Tucker think a little of vanilla yogurt – white and dull. Aside from the lack of any hair on his body, the man across from him could have been any middle-aged white guy from the city. Tucker looked him up and down, making mental notes. He was sitting down, but he guessed from where the man’s head came in comparison to his own, he was about average height. A slight paunch pooled around his lap, and his face was a bit pudgy, his chest not well-defined, his arms slack. Tucker couldn’t help himself and craned his neck a little. The man’s penis was flaccid and withdrawn, but he thought with some small satisfaction it was smaller than his. His eyes, brown as a Crayola, stared ahead, and he gave no indication that he recognized Tucker as in the room, or that he was there himself.

Tucker leaned back in his chair and sighed. It was going to be a long day.

*

His stomach rumbled. He’d had a breakfast bar on the way out, but in his mad scramble to get out the door and into a cab he’d forgotten to bring a lunch. He squirmed and wished he’d tucked a book into his shirt. Then again, that might have gotten him fired before they’d hired him. He turned his head, glancing at the porthole in the door, but it remained stubbornly closed. He turned back to the man in the chair. Tucker had thought he needed a name, rather than ‘the man’, so he had dubbed him ‘Red’. In his head, he’d been imagining the man with hair, and the picture of him with a shock of red perched atop his pasty white skin had made Tucker chuckle.

Tucker frowned. There was something atop the man’s head now – a brown stubble that hadn’t been there before. It seemed unlikely the man could grow hair that quickly, but there it was. He wondered if that was why Red was here. He was a mutant with the ability to grow luxurious locks of hair in a short amount of time, and they were harvesting it for those kids with alopecia. He snorted and looked again. Yes, there was a stubble there, a brown carpet that hadn’t been there before, and it looked thicker, even in the few seconds since he’d noticed it.

The room suddenly filled with the screeching of a klaxon, and Tucker nearly shit himself. He clapped his hands over his ears, and yelled for Ericsson, but his voice drowned in the tidal wave of sound. A second later, a deluge of steaming liquid splashed over Red’s body, the antiseptic smell nearly overpowering. Red opened his mouth and screamed, as though the liquid had pulled him from his catatonia, not stopping until the sound of the klaxon and the downpour did. Tucker’s ears rang in the ensuing silence.

“Shit!” he said aloud, and clapped a hand over his mouth, looking frantically at the door. No one seemed to notice, as it remained shut.

Red had returned to his obliviousness, and though it bothered him to no end, at least Tucker was no longer hungry. He squinted at the man, trying to figure what the purpose of the bath had been. He seized on it when he noticed the man’s head was bald again, no sign of the stubble that had once occupied it.

Five thousand a week, Tucker. Don’t flake out now. You can do this. Just watch the man and keep your mouth shut.

*

The stubble was back. Tucker’s stomach clenched, and he plugged his ears, waiting for the deluge. When it came, he weathered it best he could, and let out a long sigh when it was over. He looked over at the man.

This shit ain’t right.

“Hey.”

Red didn’t respond.

“Hey.”

The man’s eyes flicked to him. They seemed to focus, to notice for the first time. Red’s jaw worked, the lips trying to form words.

“What?”

More movement, but no words.

“Why they got you here?”

The man gestured, motioning Tucker closer. He stayed put. He felt bad for the guy, but wasn’t sure he wanted to risk having an ear bitten off.

“Did you do something?”

Red shook his head. The stubble was back on his scalp and covering his chest. Tucker thought it looked like pubic hair – thick and curly and held together by wiry masses.

“Are they studying you?”

The man nodded.

“Can I get you anything?”

Red looked at the door, eyes flicking to the knob.

“Yeah, I don’t think I can get you out of here. But I might be able to bring you stuff.”

“Hurts.” The first word from Red’s throat was raspy, like barbed wire rusted to ruin.

“What does? That shit they dump on you?”

Red nodded. “Wrists, too.”

Tucker looked at the straps. He thought he could loosen them a little.

“Okay, man. I’m gonna loosen your straps. Don’t eat me.”

Tucker glanced at the door, but it remained stubbornly closed. He walked the short distance to Red and knelt, grabbing a strap. The hair coated the man’s arm now, and Tucker swore he could see it swaying gently, like algae in a current. It smelled of grass in the sun. Maybe that was a byproduct of the chemicals they were dumping on Red. He loosened the strap and went to sit back down.

“Better?”

The man nodded. He said nothing else. The klaxon sounded, and the antiseptic poured down over the man, washing his hair away. When it faded, Tucker sat, feeling a warmth in his chest. He might have pissed away the money, but he’d done something good. Maybe not the best thing he could have, but even small things counted.

*

Tucker collapsed into bed, too tired for even an evening jaunt onto the netbook. The exhaustion from sitting for nine hours surprised him – his legs and back ached, and there was a kink in his neck. In addition, he was getting a sore throat, probably from breathing in the chemical stink in the small room. When Ericsson had come to get him, he’d simply looked Tucker up and down, shut the door, and bolted it again. Tucker had expected questions, or an on-the-spot firing. Instead, the other man walked back to the conference room and left him to find his own way out.

He kicked off his shoes, hearing them hit the floor with a soft thud, and drifted off to sleep. Sometime in the night, he woke to a coughing fit, his throat blazing. That’s it, he thought. Those damn chemicals made me sick. He made a mental note to hit the clinic in the morning before work and fell off the cliff of sleep once again.

*

His heart hammered as he looked in the mirror. The stuff on his chin and jaw was thick, a carpet of brown that seemed to undulate with no outside influence. He rubbed it, and a cloud of dust rose into the air, drifting to rest gently on the mirror. It had grown overnight – not his usual beard stubble, but something supple and soft and warm. Tucker had tried taking a razor to it, but when he did, it reacted violently, going stiff and sending deep shooting pains into his neck. He wished he had a bucket of the stuff they were dumping on Red to dunk his head in, but that seemed like a ship that had sailed.

Okay, I just need to shower. Shower and rest. I can call in sick until I figure something out. Maybe they have something at the clinic.

He stripped down and stepped into the shower, the water warm and comforting. The stuff on his cheeks seemed to react well, and before long, he felt good – better than he had in a long while. He closed his eyes and sat under the water until he was wrinkly, then stepped out, taking his time toweling off. Even though the stuff on his cheeks had grown – he thought he looked like Captain Ahab now – and it was sprouting from his chest and legs, the panic didn’t come. They would have something at the clinic.

He dressed, though the clothing scraped against the growth and made him uncomfortable. Outside, he hailed a cab and rode the way to the clinic in silence, enjoying the sunshine and the warmth of the interior. The cabby was playing something – jazz? He didn’t hate it. He thanked the cabbie and tipped him, though the man took the money gingerly when he noticed the brown fuzz on Tucker’s fingers. Shrugging to himself, he entered the clinic, bright light and warmth coating him like a jacket.

He stepped to the reception desk. The receptionist was small and brunette, though neither of those things meant anything to him now. He could hear the sounds of people – other people in the room. A sniffle here, a polite cough there. He was so warm, and it was comforting. The receptionist looked up, her eyes going wide, and Tucker caught himself in a small mirror hung on the cabinets behind her, probably placed there so the nurses could fix their makeup, or a doctor his hair.

His face was almost completely occluded, the brown mass now a writhing colony. He opened his mouth to ask for help, and instead, a cloud of spores, brown and delicate, burst from his lips. They landed on the receptionist, and she screamed as they began to take root in her skin. Tucker spun, thinking to escape, thinking to not endanger anyone else, but it was so warm, so hot.

He ripped his jacket off and began to unbutton his shirt. The waiting room was chaos now, and some of the patients had fled, but others still sat, waiting. The hardcore addicts. The truly hurt. The ones who thought I’ve seen weirder shit in this city.

His shirt came away, and Tucker felt relief at the loss of sensation against his pods. He looked at the people still in the room and felt full. For the first time since he had started pinching pennies and scrabbling for food, he felt full. He needed to share it. He needed to let everyone know how it felt to be so near contentment.

With a sound like a wet bag tearing, Tucker burst, spores exploding from him like a piñata bearing the plague. They settled on the patients, inhaled by those walking past the doors, sucked into ventilation systems and sent spinning into the atmosphere.

Tucker’s last thought before darkness took him was a simple one: I am free.

It Has Always Loved You

She’s there for you when you step from the pines, your feet wet, the soles plastered with needles, and the detritus of the forest clinging to you like flotsam in the sea. She wraps you in a towel, your skin cold and damp, the towel warm from her body heat, the nap rough against your bird’s chest and too-sharp shoulder blades. She tucks you under her arm, a mother bird taking in her fledgling, and you can feel the softness of her stomach at your elbow, her breast at your cheek. It’s one of your first memories, the forest quaking behind you like a birthing goddess, your pulse loud in your temples. She looks down and smiles and her teeth are needles, her eyes pinpricks in the black of the sky.

You shudder and wake, coming from the dream like a bird flinging itself from a cliff. You fall, fall, fall, and then – wake, the room dark, the sheets cool and wet. The desert sits patiently outside your window, the rock and dust as ignorant of the moon as they are of man. You rub your hands together, the remnants of pins and needles dancing their way across your dry skin, and you reach for the glass of water there. The warm water washes your tongue, soothes your throat, and you stare out the window, the forest superimposed for a moment over the orange and yellow. A blink makes your lids rasp across your eyes, a swallow sends your throat bobbing like a fish coming up for air.

Aimee stirs in her sleep, murmurs a word – it’s unintelligible – and shifts. The play of muscles in her shoulder, the lay of her hair, the whisper of fabric over her skin- tiny tremors in your reality, and your heart clenches, a fist of fibers in your chest. You love her. It’s not a question. Still, there is doubt. Does she love you? Of course. She’s in this bed, isn’t she? She’s still in your life. And yet the question eats at you sometimes when you lie in the dark. It happens that way, all the questions you can’t ask in the daylight tear their way around your head like a pack of hungry wolves, devouring reason and rationality.

You reach out for her, your hand hovering over her shoulder. Do you wake her? Do you pull her close in her sleep and cling? No. Your hand drops. Would she understand? You settle for another sip of water and slip back under the sheet, your back to hers. She sighs small and presses into you, her shoulders digging into yours. Contentment wraps you like a blanket for a while. You sleep.

 *

She shakes you awake – no, that’s not right. The room shakes you awake, the neat drywall vibrating on its studs. Aimee is there, and she’s shouting something you can’t hear, her lips a pantomime of concern. It’s so hot, the desert is creeping in, and oh God why did you move to Vegas? You kick off the sheets and roll off the bed, landing on all fours, but the desert refuses to let you be. The heat crawls under your skin, and you’d give anything for the cool shade of the pines and the soothing wet of leaves on your feet. A lizard skitters up the wall – not unheard of in Nevada – and stops, its head hung in a judgmental angle, its eyes burning pits, and you know the desert can see you through it. You stand and shout and wave your arms, and it scurries up and disappears into a bad join in the wall.

Then Aimee is there, and she’s holding you, and though you are so hot, you let her, because her breath on your skin, in contrast to the hot room, is cool, and her tears are a balm for your fever. Then, her words come through, and you relax, sagging back onto the bed.

“…just a dream, just a dream. Shh. Shh.”

You close your eyes and lean your head against hers, and the room is cooling, and you wonder how she could ever love you.

*

“It’s time for a vacation,” she says. Then you’re driving north past miles of hot brown wasteland, and as you go, flat rock changes. It becomes tall rock dotted with scrub and then taller rock covered with snow, and then finally, blessedly, hills covered in trees and you don’t think you’ve ever seen anything so beautiful in your life, and you know here you can make it right, the terrors will stop, and she’ll love you.

It’s several miles in, and a way from home when she asks you. “Did you miss your mother?”

You shrug, your face turned to the window, the trees throwing shade and reflection at you. If you look up, the motion of the car makes the tops look like they’re dancing, and for a moment, you’re lost in the movement, a ballet of living wood. Then she asks it again, and you have to turn to her, because if she thinks you’re ignoring her, she’ll get mean, or what you think of as mean, and you don’t want to fight, not so close to home.

“I think so,” you say.

“Tell me about her.”

An image of a clearing, a thousand trees in every direction, green boughs still wet with morning dew, the smell of pine and loam, the squish-crackle of mulch between your toes. Warmth fills your chest, and you think of the woman-but-not-woman who met you when you stumbled from between the boles, the badgers and chipmunks and robins silent for once.

You struggle for the words and settle on “She was kind.” She was, after all. Only the men who came looking, the men with their knives and guns and loud, loud dogs were not, and then only for a short time.

“Is that it?” she asks.

You shrug again and then amend it. “You’ll see. Easier to meet her.”

You turn to the forest, fleeing past your window, and the soles of your feet ache, your tongue is dry. Not long now.

*

Aimee turns the car up a dirt path, little more than a rut in the road. After a moment, she stops it, and peers at the map on her phone. Magellan lost in the weeds. Her face scrunches up, her features a fist, and you smile. It’s easier now; the closer you are to home, to know you’re loved.

“Is this right?” She turns to you and jabs a finger at the map.

You nod. “Yeah. Just keep going.” And she does. She loves you, and she trusts you, and you smile again. So close now.

The car jounces and rattles, and every little scrape, Aimee cringes and lets a hiss out between clenched teeth. “She better be a damn good cook,” she jokes.

“I’ll have to roll you out of there.”

The car rounds a curve, and the road widens out to a flat drive, packed earth and pine needles, and you’re practically vibrating, and when it crunches to a stop, you leap out, your feet skidding in the loose dirt. Aimee follows, laughing a little at your eagerness, and then the door to the home ahead opens, and a woman, plump but not too much, old but not too much, stands in the opening, her smile wide. Her teeth are people teeth for this day, and her eyes a woman’s eyes, and she smiles at you, and then at Aimee. They hug on the porch, the overhang throwing them into shadow and mother says something into her ear, and they go inside, leaving you with the forest. You walk to a tree, your hand caressing the bark – just for a moment – and breathe in deep the smells of good earth, and not that blasted hellscape, and then you follow them in.

Inside, they sit across from each other – your mother and your lover – tall glasses of bright yellow lemonade sweating on the table between them. They’re chatting in low tones, and your mother pushes a tin of cookies – probably walnut – across the table, and they talk about little of importance while you drift through the house, your fingers finding every dent and rut of your childhood in the walls. In your room, the bed you spent so many summers on, listening to the rain pound the simple roof, smelling the ozone of lightning, is still soft and clean and cool. In the hall, finger paintings you’d done hang in crooked frames. In the closet, the bones of those long gone still sit in neat boxes, away from time and tide.

You make your way back to the kitchen, where your mother is alone.

“Where’s Aimee?”

Your mother chews her cookie, her needled teeth puncturing the dough like the blades of a thresher, and she chews, sips her lemonade. She gestures vaguely and then regards you with those pinpoint eyes.

“She wasn’t right for you, dear. Dragging you off to that damned desert. Dinner is in an hour. Go play.”

You step out the back door and pull off your shoes and your shirt, then place them next to Aimee’s body. The forest is so loud here, so close, and you only want to feel it beneath your feet. You look at Aimee, and you wonder – did she love me? I loved her. If she had loved me, she would still be here. She would have fought to stay.

You look at her a moment longer, her eyes staring at you, at nothing. The desert crowds into memory and you think of Aimee alone in that place had your mother sent her away. This was a kindness. Then the forest calls, and you step into the trees. It welcomes you, the wind through the branches the sigh of a long distant lover made close.

It has always loved you.

Man of the Year

Anaxos Mane (not his real name) stands at the window of his 45th street high-rise, looking out over the city. At times he paces, others he stands stock-still, hands clasped behind his back. Finally, with a sigh, he squints one eye and points. Lightning flashes and the room goes photo negative for a split second before the peal of thunder follows. When that’s done, he turns and climbs into his worn office chair, a sheaf of paper before him. With a flourish of his pen, he writes a single name and returns to the window.

We sat down with Mr. Mane on the eve of what he calls the Culling to find out more about this enigmatic god, and what makes him tick.

 

First of all, thank you for having us. I know you must have a busy schedule.

His voice is smooth, smoky – like a cigarette after sex. There’s a hint of a British accent – maybe London. He clears his throat and fiddles with his pen.

Yes. Well you know, people don’t smite themselves. And with this Culling coming up…

 

Tell us about the Culling.

Oh, that. Well, it’s a thing we do every hundred thousand years. Sometimes these single smitings don’t work – that’s the thing about people, they’re very thick when they want to be – and you have to really get their attention. So, we wipe out about a third of the population.

 

Are there any criteria for who gets smote?

Sure, there’s your regular sin. That gets top priority – the Deadly Seven, as we like to call them. But there’s also the whole ‘being an asshole’ thing – I like to think of it as karmic retribution. Then there’s ‘just kind of a jerk’.

 

Isn’t that kind of arbitrary? Aren’t most people kind of jerks?

Well, of course. And we allow for that – you get three big jerk moments and a handful of small ones. Of course, we make exceptions – leaving time on a microwave probably won’t get you smitten. Eating someone’s food out of the company fridge will definitely move you up the list.

 

So, who did you smite just now?

Oh, that. An Uber driver. Can’t stand those guys.

 

Let’s change the subject for a minute. What’s your favorite food? Your least favorite?

Well, I love Pad Thai. Delicious. Delicious stuff. Least favorite? Let’s just say Hawaii was a continent before they started growing pineapples.

 

Favorite movie?

Easy. Biodome.

 

Really?

Yeah. Did you know Pauly Shore indirectly prevented the apocalypse? You really should thank him. We were going to rip a hole in the sky and let screaming flesh demons roam the streets. Encino Man saved you.

 

Last one of these – what’s your favorite book?

Atlas Shrugged. I’m kidding! I knew Atlas. He was not amused. No, probably Harry Potter. There really aren’t enough heroes in this world. Hold on.

 

Mane goes to the window, leans, and points. Another flash of light, and a faint scream. He returns to his chair with a smirk.

 

What was that?

Hare Krishna.

 

Would you characterize yourself as a sadist?

Scoffs. No. This is just my job, you know. I’ve got a home on Olympus. 45 children. A wolf. I mean, do you go home and ask inane questions all day? I know I don’t just smite my neighbors.

 

The worst thing you’ve ever done?

I once smote a three-year-old.

 

What?

Well, just a little. I was on a flight to Vegas and he kept kicking my seat. I zapped his butt. Made it smoke for a whole day. The downside was they had to land in Omaha. Makes a face. Great steaks. Not much else.

 

Guilty Pleasure?

I love Doctor Who. It’s just so cheesy, but so heartfelt. And to be honest, I can relate to the Daleks. I mean, they don’t have to pretend to be friendly to idiots. Just their feelings on their sleeve. EX-TERM-I-NATE. That has got to be cathartic.

 

The hardest part of your job?

Conjugating ‘smite’. Smote? Smoten? Smoted? Smitten? Shrugs. It’s all very confusing.

 

One last question. Liberal or Conservative?

I’m an old-fashioned monarchist. I’m a little surprised you didn’t see that coming.

 

Before we go, any advice for the readers?

I suppose if I could say one thing, it would be this: HOLD YOUR LOVED ONES TIGHT. THE END IS NEAR. YOU CANNOT RUN. YOU CANNOT HIDE. JUSTICE WILL FIND YOU.

 

Also, really consider investing in home insurance. You’re probably going to need it.