It's those damn drones, I think, winding my way through this wrecked city with nothing more than a rifle and a stopwatch counting down my final moments of life.
The drones are a distraction; so much visual rhetoric cluttering up my sightline. Each one seems locked into its own patterns, with no seeming discrepancies to give away either fighter's movements. Just there to record, they told me. Not part of the action. I suppose I should believe them, at least to the point where I know they wouldn't want to disrupt their own ritual. But then that's the problem, really. The parts that don't matter.
Custom trumps law... And so I find myself staying away from the roof tops, just sticking to the ground floors for the most part, taking the largest buildings for maximum cover. Down here the rooms are all grown over with vegetation and rust. I carefully make my way from shadow to shadow, sidestepping rotten sections of floor that have collapsed into stinking pools of fetid water. Sunlight bursts through sections in the wall as I scan the area for my enemy, blackness and blue sky vaulting upwards like a cathedral marking my progress.
It's as I'm entering one of the courtyards that a pelican suddenly bursts upward from the undergrowth in a squawking rush of feathers, marking my position and then sure enough a bullet careens off a brick wall about half a foot from my elbow. Luckily I'd kept good cover or I'd be a goner... But now Daryl knows where I am.
We're only two hours in and things are already heating up. Two hours with thirty one to go. That's right: they numbered it that way.
It's that stupid.
There's power in cliche. Because it really is true now that the living cannot be distinguished from the dead. Or at least it's a lot harder these days than it used to be.
When someone comes back it's like nothing. Major injuries notwithstanding, they look the same, act the same... all of their cognitive functions like memory and identity remain intact. And the need to eat doesn't emerge right away, instead coming on slowly, gradually. But what is in place immediately upon return is an absolute, unshakeable belief system.
Take my girlfriend Sandra, for example. For over two days she held off with me, and that was a lot considering how affectionate she normally was.
“I think I might have a cold or something,” she said, eyeing me cautiously. I stared back at her, feeling the bottom drop out of my gut as the realization sunk in.
“When did it happen?”
She smiled sadly, pulling back a lock of red hair from her eyes. “Tuesday, I think I first started to feel...” Then she looked back at me and froze. After a moment she spoke again but she still didn't move.
“I'm pretty sure it was a blood clot.” Her voice was as still as her face. She'd told me about this before; her plaque condition. And like most things I can't control, I tried not to think about it. We both did.
I watched her like that for a while, thinking over the past two days, the time we'd spent together here in our cabin, as well as in town. She'd been her normal self, just a little more distant than usual. And of course the reason for this was obvious now.
Her face had gotten smaller, now. Her voice barely rose above a whisper.
“Are you going to kill me?”
I took a deep breath and let it out. “No.” Of course not. I'd already thought it through. And even then I could see in her, the intent to use that part of me.
That evening we made our way to the eastern gate, through a garden pathway. The night was silent but for a gurgling stream that flowed alongside the path, and the full moon cast a serene glow over the trees as we approached the wall.
Sandra pulled back her hood and turned to face me. To her credit she didn't make any hand symbols, just used her eyes to plead, to implore.
Come join me.
I held my ground, made my face unreadable, my thoughts full. I remember the smell of water and greenery filling my nose as I stood there with Sandra. I remember feeling her breath move the air between us. Eventually she dropped her gaze and nodded.
I nodded back, slowly. “Goodbye.”
She turned silently and began to make her way towards the open gate. I watched her as she cast her gaze around furtively, hesitating just before the exit. Then she looked back at me with a quick smile and stole through the gate and out into the open.
She didn't make it ten paces before they cut her down. As I said, I'd already thought it through. And I wanted her to die free.
“You want to check me too?” Daryl had raved at me, being held back by a group of women while the medics took away Sandra's body. His eyes were like short circuiting plugs in his head as he fumed away. “Want to check to see if I turned too you son of a bitch?”
Daryl was our neighbour across the small pond where we'd lived. I had no idea he had such strong feelings about Sandra. But then in hindsight I probably should have called him on his offer. Might have saved me a whole lot of grief.
There are districts. For starters, there's the living districts and the dead districts. There are agreements between these districts; rules of engagement, so to speak. Then there are the barter districts where there are some very different internal rules. About a week after Daryl disappeared I found myself in a barter district, and that was how I got taken.
In the basement of a sparse brick building at the centre of a tent bazaar, I'd found myself trying out what I thought would be some high quality cocaine. I took a whiff of what they handed me and the next moment the bare dirt floor rose up and slapped against the side of my face. Watching the legs standing around as my vision went black I knew: the dead had me.
Got to keep moving, keep breathing, try to think. I dart across the street away from the direction of the shot, ducking low between wrecked cars and then bursting through the door of a burned out pharmacy. Towards this way the buildings become shorter, which equalizes things a bit I hope. Taking advantage of the time it'll take him to make his way down here, I book it through the buildings and across another block before settling behind the wall of a car wash and waiting. With my rifle I scan along the houses and fence lines and try to formulate a plan. What's the best approach to take? Shouldn't I have the sun at my back when I face the enemy?
Sun's at his back. Should I double back? How important is it to have the sun at my back?
With a deep groan I lower my rifle and lean back against a wall painted with bubbles and clouds of blue steam. This is ridiculous. I don't know what I’m doing with any of this, does anyone really? I mean aren't we just running around until one of us gets lucky enough to-
The bullet comes flashing in as a hot bright jolt through my arm and then I drop my rifle and let out a high keening wail of fright and pain that sounds ridiculously familiar to me. With a desperate scramble I crawl across the floor, dragging my rifle by it's strap, and it's as I roll through the doorway with shot's hitting the floor behind me that I realize what was so familiar: That was a Wilhelm scream.
Daryl made his pitch at a car dealership.
We talked about doing it for months. Isn't it obvious that it's the only move to make at this point?
Car dealerships are very geometrical places. I was seated at a chair before a desk – his desk, I guess, with all of the cars arranged like a congregation around us, and there he tried to pitch me on becoming a living dead cannibal. He was even wearing a suit. Of course I wasn't his personal choice for their fraternity.
Sandra was going to join me together on that journey, but then for some reason she tried to go without me- With this a brief flash sparked his narrow eyes. Since you killed her that leaves you as the candidate for her replacement.
I looked at him quizzically. Daryl and Sandra... I really had no idea. These people, they do love their triangles.
“I would have thought you'd want to kill me too.”
The reddened flesh of his face settled into a mask of implacable calm. It was a look I'd seen before with them. There are many deaths.
This made me smile. “Great. So just go ahead and skip all of this then.”
Some do, some don't. The ladder rises nonetheless.
I knew there was no reasoning with any of this but I figured I'd ask anyways. “So I guess that whole calling us “the dead” bit has reversed now, is that it?”
He just leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers together under his double chin.
And that's the thing right there. There's no such thing as consistency with this lot, not really, not if you just flip everything all the time, the only thing consistent then is power. Power and predation.
Our powers predate your polarities.
My whole life I've played it cool but the truth is underneath I've always been a panicky wreck and that's on full display now. Hot breath bursts out of my tortured lungs in gasping shrieks as I race down the street, bullets whizzing through the air around me. Clutching my injured arm I stumble around a brick wall into a vine covered alley way, hurtling up a ramp to an open loading dock. Blood streams down my side as I run across the dock and through a doorway that takes me directly into a dilapidated warehouse. My boots kick up clouds of dust, causing me to double up in a desperate choking fit.
Burning tears spring from my eyes as the world spins before me and now I can see Daryl at the car dealership and he is showing me things, he is talking to me.
Everything you were raised with was designed by us. Or at least we inspired all of it. Controlled it. And with it, we controlled you.
Most of it is stuff I'd seen before. All of the usual numbers and symbols and ways of presuming your culpability somehow. But then I notice something different.
ZOMBIES ARE COCOONS OF REPEATING TIME. It's a cheap photocopy comic book, something hand made by a nobody. On the cover is the image of a zombie's head splitting open, revealing a being of light that emerges from within the zombie cocoon.
You should see what we did to this guy's life. We planted the ideas in his head through our culture. Then we took his work and folded it into our philosophy and left him with nothing. NOTHING.
Is this your vision for evolution now? Zombie butterflies?
Why not? It's all under the influence of our minds. Look at what we did just with the power of our belief – we reversed the very nature of Death itself. It takes time but with the proper inculcation for it's members, the master mind can accomplish pretty much anything.
Grey broken shelves loom past my vision as I gasp for air. Where do I go? What's the best position? My heart is pounding and my head is feeling light, my vision going blurrier with each breath I take. I find a table next to a break room and set my gun down before collapsing in a chair. Hesitantly, I pull back the sleeve of my jacket to check my arm.
The bleeding has almost stopped; it looks like he only winged me. But this gives me little comfort. Because I know why.
And the thought surges up from the back of my skull like a raging fire:
Look for the signs.
But... But I said no.
There was a ritual that they performed before this whole Most Dangerous Game routine. This took place in a barber shop, a real old school looking place with the chrome lift chairs and the shaving brushes and of course the Barber Pole.
They had bound my hands and placed a surgical mask on my face but left my eyes uncovered. Daryl stood at my side, leading me by the arm to the first of three barber chairs, each with a figure standing next to it. These were the initiates- the people who had accepted the offer. I found myself before a middle aged woman with a wide nose and a long mane of raven black hair, holding a straight razor in her left hand. Her eyes were covered with a green blindfold.
“Do you reject the gift of the 34th degree?” Her voice contained that strange combination of dullness and charged energy that always seemed to occupy these rituals. My silence was presumed to be assent.
With a final breath she drew her razor across her throat. Blood spurted from her neck onto my chest. Convulsing silently, she sank to the floor at my feet, her blood pooling over the black and white porcelain tiles.
Daryl quickly marched me over to the second chair, fronted by a skinhead in a red dress sporting a green beard and purple blindfold.
“Do you reject the gift of the 34th degree?”
The second initiate died from a pair of scissors straight to the heart, the red dress folding downwards like a wilting rose. I had time to wonder at the amount of determination it takes to shove a pair of scissors into your own heart, and then was roughly pulled over to the third and final figure.
He couldn't have been more than a teenager; a thin, slump shouldered boy with messy brown hair hanging in his face– I wondered why no blindfold. And while he had a glazed expression in his eyes, there was something else there, something trying to get out. He was scared.
“Do you reject the gift of the 34th degree?” His voice was weak, uncertain. In his hands were an icepick and mallet. I'd heard of this– a certain way to kill yourself without destroying the part of the brain needed to return. It was in the flyers that they dropped on our towns, along with the propaganda that had brainwashed all three of these people to come here, to give themselves over to this way.
No, I tried to say, but somehow I couldn't even so much as grunt through the surgical mask. Daryl's grip tightened on my arm. Trying to speak brought no sound, only a desperate projection of thought. Don't do it. I pleaded with my eyes, but he'd already raised the ice pick to his left eye, already got the mallet in place. My silence presumed to be assent to a rejection, a reverse confirmation, a negative yes.
It was just before he killed himself that the kid fixed me a look with his right eye, a look that told me that it had all been an act, a way of showing me just how powerless I really was. Then TUNK! went the mallet and the icepick drove into his brain. He flung back and bounced against the chair before fetching himself up between the counter and the hair bin.
Daryl pulled again on my arm, drawing me on shaky feet to the centre of the room to watch over their resurrection. I bent my head back and stared at the slowly spinning ceiling fan overhead and waited, desperately clinging to the hope that the kid had missed his mark and wouldn't be returning. But then sure enough, one by one the initiates stirred and slowly got back to their feet, and it wasn't long till all three of them stood before me anew, facing me down with a hatred in all five of their eyes that went deeper than thought.
Shards of glass cartwheel through the air around me as I dart across the length of a bus station waiting area, firing shots back at the windows in a frantic attempt to at least create some cover for myself. This seems to work, as the enemy's shots grow silent for a space. I take advantage of this by making my way to a stairway leading down below.
He's driving me to ground. But what other options do I have? Descending the stairs into the shadows, I remember that I have a flashlight clipped to the barrel of my rifle. The light's beam plays out over an underground mall, with a smashed open gateway into a subway off to the left, and a corridor straight ahead for about fifty metres before banking right and continuing out to the shops. My heart slams crazily in my chest as I hesitate, trying to make a decision. Subway or mall?
Before I can make up my mind a tapping sound from behind catches my attention. Turning around, I see some sort of a rounded object bouncing it's way down the stairs.
My first instinct is run off to the side into the subway, but the gate has so much debris that I might get hung up there, so instead I sprint straight ahead down the corridor. The tapping grows louder in my ears as I run, compulsively trying to work out the blast radius, and right when I reach the bend a loud and abrupt pop goes off behind me. Dropping into a slide on the linoleum floor, I grab the edge of a kiosk and spin myself around the corner just as debris spatters the walls and floor of the corridor.
Just like with the shot to my arm; he isn't trying to kill me. He just wants me injured.
It's really starting to sink in now: that cold trembling sensation from my hands to my gut. That ancient dread... With an audible shudder I try to shake it off, get to my feet, keep moving. The corridor looms ahead in the stuttering beam of my flash, offering rows of cave entrances through broken glass and hanging wires, and while I move along the sound of dripping water mingles with the squeaks of rats that scatter away from the light.
If you can't beat them, join them: the motto of those who choose to become initiates. After all, it's inevitable that you die. Why fight nature?
You're going to come back anyways, they say. Clearly the magic works, they wouldn't all believe in it if it didn't work. Why say no to this power?
You've been using our language without even knowing it. Casting the spell for us.
Given the proper incentive, the human mind can adjust to almost anything. I have to be very careful about that, especially now. Because the pressure is growing within me, the rising pulse of grasping, desperate need to find a way out, any way at all. It wants me to doubt myself, it keeps asking why, why, why...
Why are you doing this to yourself? For what are you rejecting all of this? And look at you now; running scared, cold and wet and about to die. About to become food.
All because you said no to Life. Even better than that: Guaranteed Life.
Survival above all.
And as I grope my way towards the back of an electronics store to look for an escape, Sandra's face rises up in my mind's eye. We’re standing together on the porch behind our cabin, it's our first night together at this place, and Sandra looks out at the pond and draws her fingers through her hair, glances at me with a smile like falling leaves... People think that a pond is stagnant, but that's not true. She turns back to lean her elbows onto the railing and gaze out across the water.
All bodies of water are fed by the sea and go back to the sea. It only takes time.
The head sat, haughty and imperious at the forty yard line, facing the obliterated half of a football stadium, beyond which lay the truncated cityscape that was to serve as our field of play. A microphone was placed on the astroturf before its face, and as I approached from the tunnel I could hear the speakers overhead, crackling with feedback. The head's eyes locked onto mine once I reached the spot before it. It's skin was black and blue, stretched tight over it's skull. I could tell neither gender nor age, even with the hair running from the back of it's otherwise bald surface, pure white hair in a line extending all the way back to the goalpost.
A rifle was placed to the left side of the microphone, a stopwatch to it's right. As I bent to retrieve the rifle the head spoke up.
This feedback laden screech froze me in a half crouch, gaping at the head while it stared right on back at me, with it's eyes fixed sideways in a baleful glare. Then I realized that the feedback was caused by it's teeth grinding together as it spat out it's words.
THOSE WHO ARE WITHOUT LANGUAGE ARE WITHOUT RIGHTS.
Keep it together, I reminded myself. Remember how much of what they do is based in theatre.
Bloody spittle flew from the head's teeth as it continued to hold me in it's terrible gaze, made all the worse by the normalcy of it's soft brown eyes. What had those eyes seen in life that led to this state of being? Had the mind within ever dreamed it would find itself here, like this?
The power of belief can be a terrible thing.
I picked up the rifle without kneeling, straightened up and stood directly in front of the megaphone. The teeth ground to the point of breaking and the head seethed like a ball of writhing worms.
YOU WON'T TAKE A KNEE BECAUSE YOU ARE TOO WEAK TO BE A MAN.
After checking the rifle out I then retrieved the stopwatch, groaning inwardly at the number from which it had begun to count down as I picked it up. Tucking the stopwatch in my pocket I straightened up to regard the head one last time. It's voice rasped and echoed throughout the stadium.
YOU ARE A COW WHO WANTS TO BE A HORSE. NEVER A MAN; FOR WE ARE THE ONLY MEN LEFT IN THIS WORLD. AND SO NOW YOU MUST RUN, COW. RUN FOR YOUR ILLUSION OF FREEDOM.
AND DIE FROM YOUR HORSE SENSE.
I didn't particularly feel like arguing with a reanimated cranium, so I kept my comment short and sweet:
And I was gonna do it, I was about to take the kick and send that bastard skull flying straight through the uprights, when I noticed something at the goal line, a bright red flash of flame starting at the end of that long white line of hair. Something had caused the head's mane to catch on fire, and following the forward rush of flames my gaze dropped down to the head again and what I saw made my jaw drop.
The head was smiling the weirdest smile, this wide almost friendly smile with the corners curled all the way up, the eyes all bright and shiny with some kind of perverse exuberant joy.
It was when the flames reached the head that it started to laugh, a cackling pitched foghorn bleat that only raised to a higher volume as the head burst into a mass of roiling fire. This deranged cackling shriek continued unabated as I stumbled away and began to jog towards the open end of the stadium. It's all an act.
I spotted a figure leaning in the shadows of the opposing tunnel, watching me as I passed by. He straightened up and stepped forward. It was Daryl. His head was freshly shaved, glowing white like a helmet around his reddish face, with eyes radiating a cold stalking hunger that was no illusion whatsoever. It showed me the why of it all, the reason that they eat us.
They eat us for ritual. They eat our rites.
He racked the rifle at his side and motioned with his head towards my exit.
If you won't return as my comrade then you can come back as my shit.
I had to fight down the impulse to break their rules and take a shot at him right there. Instead I kept my pace forward, the impossible laughter of a staged tragedy rising from behind. It was once I reached the path beyond the stadium that the drones fell into place alongside me, a silent accompaniment through the blasted out zone that surrounded the city. They had cleared everything away except for an area of about ten or so blocks that started as an abrupt wall of skyscrapers, before giving way to smaller buildings that led to the sea. A city turned into a miniature replica of it's own self.
As the laughter faded into the distance I tried not to think about all of the ways they had to put on their little play act. It could be this way, or along a stretch of highway with armoured cars, or in an octagon cage match. So many forms of theatre available for those of the entertainment set...
When the first shadows of the city came within reach the drones pulled away to take up their positions around this second stage. I stepped into the darkness with the truth held firmly in my mind: I'm not ready for this at all.
Like a mole burrowing through a tunnel I'm moving through a twisting warren of back corridors, winding my way past debris and collapsed walls. Fitful bursts of emergency lighting wash over the wreckage before me, bringing to mind the working generator indicated on the map Daryl allowed me to see during my briefing. I must be getting closer to the shoreline... It's while rounding a corner into a larger area that I'm confronted by the sight of a dead body laying on the concrete floor. Well, not much of a body, really. Mostly it's just hands and feet with a bit of arm and leg lying in a massive explosion of blood and torn clothing spread out over the concrete floor.
I can see on the wall down a ways a blood spatter next to some bullet holes, showing where the victim was hit. Drag marks on the floor, even the tell tale zigzag marks of flailing heels, over to the kill spot. And set right within the zone of bloodletting, facing the carnage like a therapist staring at a rorschach blot, is a simple aluminum folding back chair, taken from a stack of chairs leaning against the wall nearby.
They had a nice seat and helped themselves... A single cigarette butt stubbed out in the centre of the seat winks at me like a sick joke. The smell of copper and shit rises up in a wave to my face, and I have to hold my breath as I stagger past the scene, almost wiping out against the stack of chairs before turning and breaking into a run.
I can feel my boots sticking to the floor from the blood I stepped in, diminishing with each step while the grip of terror grows ever the stronger around me. I don't want to end up like that but I also know...
I don't ever want to be the one who sat in that chair.
A slamming door echoes menacingly from down the hallway. He's near.
Through a service door I burst out into the sunlight of a library, eyes squinting as they adjust from the gloom of the back corridors. From out over the bay sunlight streams in through tall windows, highlighting the dust that sits over the rows of bookshelves. I move quickly across the carpeted floor, scanning the overhead balconies. Did he have time to flank me?
The thought reminds me to check the stopwatch I'm carrying. Folding the cover open I peer at the timepiece. Four and a half hours in. I flip the stopwatch closed and look around the place, trying to think.
I don't want to be like them. But I have to play their game. Is it possible to use the signs to my advantage? But then I wouldn't know where to start... There's signs everywhere, everything's geometry and math around here. All of the knowledge but no way to read it... For some reason I remember a line from a book that I did read a long time ago.
In voodoo cultures the Witch Doctor can hold sway over entire villages. Awakening in a shallow grave after having been drugged into a coma, the victim of Zombification simply believes themselves to be a living dead slave.
Yeah well looks like they're trying to convince me that I'm living food. And doing a good job of it. And then it hits me again, that cold deep shiver of encroaching weakness, of knowing the inevitable- With a violent start I shake my head and step between one of the bookshelves. My breath has gotten out of control, and I have to lean against a shelf and put my hands on my knees, trying to get myself back together.
It isn't over yet, not by a long shot. And no matter what happens, I know I made the right choice. Then Sandra's face comes forward in my thoughts...
You're not going to kill me, are you?
And I can see the head again, on fire, laughing at me, and somehow it doesn't make enough sense. I'm picturing another line patched into the stadium loudspeakers, a pre-recorded voice. Which is something they would do; more theatre, more power. A play act to make you react. But it still doesn't work.
The victim sees himself as a living dead slave
Like puppets performing a dance routine the three initiates drop all at once to the checkered barbershop floor. YOU ARE A COW. Daryl's eyes glitter like razors between his greying temples as he smooths down his tie with a ruby ringed hand. With the sheer power of our minds we altered the nature of Death itself.
I can't stop shaking. I know I need to stop, need to keep going, need to have a plan. Read the signs. I slam my fists against my ears and squeeze my eyes shut.
What have we done to ourselves? What are we becoming?
Something changes in the air. I can feel myself go very still as total silence descends upon the library.
The cold feeling in my gut rises up and becomes a hot spike in my chest. I slip forward and start to move quietly between the shelves. My heartbeat slows down into a regular rhythm. Everything starts to shift slowly as I pad along, angles folding and unfolding, and I can sense the push and pull between us... Of course this is what they've claimed, this ability. But there is always more; so much more.
Silently crawling my way up a length of stairs to the upper level, I watch the main area from between the railings and try to keep my breathing shallow. There's no movement amongst the tables and shelves, so once I reach the top I start to step more quickly, keeping low and in the shadows. My thoughts ebb and flow with our movements through the library, circling and stalking each other carefully amongst the slowly decaying books. Knowledge is motion, motion is flow. All water leads back to the sea.
After sliding back towards the centre of the building I find myself crouched low behind a dying potted plant, scanning through the balcony for a sign down below. It only takes a few seconds before I spot it; just a brief sweep of shadow against a back wall. Then again, a dark form seen through the shelves, passing by silently. I can tell from the direction he's going that he's trying to cut me off from the shoreline, so I decide to do a switchback instead. A strange thrill passes through me as I begin to move quietly away, and I have to remind myself not to get too confident.
I emerge from the library into a larger atrium, still intent on finding a way around Daryl so I can make it to the shore. The place is so filled with light that I have to shield my eyes for a few seconds, before taking in the walls of arching glass, capped over sweeping marble beds with sprawling greenery that still thrives from an artificial spring. As I look up at the dome ceiling a sudden sense almost the opposite of deja vu hits me. Forget about all of their double meanings and just see. Look past the pattern and know the purpose that shows itself freely. It's as though I can see the way the buildings had been speaking to us, letting us know all along...
Or I'm just guessing numbers in a bean jar.
My boots on the linoleum floor bring forth strange echoes that conspire with the sound of running water to fulfill the peace of the sun drenched atrium space. Slowly I prowl down the steps like an animal in a forest. I can feel the sounds in here starting to work on me as well, taking the hot spike in my chest and subduing it easily. I feel light as air, just floating along through the acoustics of this place. In the centre of the atrium a grand piano sits on a raised platform, and I can see two objects placed upon this piano, glittering silver sigils set atop polished mahogany. One of the objects is a tuning fork set to standing, and the other looks to be a spoon laying flat...
I should get out of here. Take a wider berth, maybe try to stay outside this time. Through the windows I see drones circling by like a dull reminder. But I still should go.
But it's still going.
And now I'm crossing the wide marble floor and mounting the steps towards the piano with it's resonant tabernacle. I approach cautiously, hesitating in a vacuum of doubt. A sudden jolt up my spine causes me to spin around, gun scanning the entrance. After a few moments I relax again but really, what am I doing here? He's going to find me like a sitting duck.
But it's still flowing.
It flows for you.
He's going to kill me. I don't want to die. I don't want to be eaten alive. Eaten to life. But the piano pulls my attention back to her dual display. The frequency flows streaming shows for me; pick up the spoon, strike the fork. The fork knows. See the pillars, find the way through the way out.
My lines for
To dream war under glass
Of a criminal boredom made to last
As I lift the spoon in my hand I'm already hearing the fork sounding low it's reverberant note, just barely audible over the piano's alabaster shimmer. And then I'm back at the Car Dealership with Daryl and I realize that he's still making his pitch. Because this is all one big pitch. All of it.
Daryl leans forward in his chair, grips the corners of his desk and looks me straight in the face with his eyes wide open. You have always existed. You always will exist.
There is no escape.
He sits back in his chair and crosses his legs, looks casually away. In light of this truth, he waves a hand nonchalantly, To eat or be eaten, it really makes no difference.
His eyes slide back over to me.
Only the eating.
I'm always looking for my own signs. Signs on my own. It is written upon your own heart...
And now I realize that it's the intent. And I know that I have to choose the right death over the wrong life.
When the spoon strikes the fork it's as though all of the piano's keys are being struck along with it. I set the fork carefully back in its place and step back, feeling the sound rolling off of me. The note grows exponentially around the atrium while I ride the waves across the room, boots adding echoes as I walk, before taking up a seat on a granite bench set within a windowsill.
Although I've never been that good with guns, I manage to get all of the bullets out save for one. One bullet. The right death.
And then I wait silently amidst the dreaming sound. The drones circle and watch, blighting the clear blue sky beyond the windows. How I wish I could go outside once again. To breath freely once again. Do I see myself as a slave? Or sacrifice?
The beauty of our way is that it can be any way that you want it to be.
But that's not true. Because freedom isn't free. There is no other way.
By the time Daryl shows up I've got the gun planted on the floor between my legs with the barrel pointed at my chin. But as he enters I can see that his own rifle is hanging slack from its strap at his side. He doesn't even notice me, just stares straight at the piano as it rings its siren. Then he starts to march forward, plodding down the steps into the room.
I almost laugh at the sight. He's acting like an actual zombie. The note is still holding itself complete in the air, and with a trance like gait he shambles up the platform and comes to an abrupt stop before the piano. By this time I've got my rifle up in my hands again.
With a shaking hand Daryl picks up the spoon, stares at it in seeming incomprehension. I shoulder my rifle and take aim. After a few seconds he reaches out with his other hand, grips the fork's twin pillars between thumb and forefinger.
The note dies so gradually that it almost seems like a part of the silence that follows. Daryl stands completely still with his back to me, both hands extended at his sides like a circuit breaker. My rifle's point holds steady and true. My aim is sound.
He believes himself to be a living dead slave.
Slowly, Daryl turns around to face me, still holding the spoon over his chest. And as I line his face up in my crosshairs I can tell that it's not me that he's looking at. It's not anyone at all.
Now just take that belief and invert it, and you have Dead Living Masters.
My wish is granted when I push open the twin glass doors at the far end of the atrium and step out into the warmth of the midday sun. One of the drones descends and hovers about ten feet away from me, before dropping a knapsack on the ground at my feet.
FOLLOW, says the drone, and although it's really the last thing that I want to do right now, I do it anyways. I pick up the bag and I follow the drone.
Once we get down near the shoreline the other drones join us, forming an escort on both sides as I walk away from the city stage. Seagulls careen overhead, crying angrily at the drones. I breath in the salty air, still hardly believing that I've made it. Soon the sides of the path show freshly trimmed grass, and I can see a well maintained beach further in the distance. A beach with people.
Families, couples, young people and old, they're all just enjoying a day at the beach– swimming, playing, getting a tan. Most of them pay me no mind as I pass by, and those that do seem barely concerned much less hostile towards me. A frisbee falls to the ground nearby, and when a young woman runs up to retrieve it she stops and speaks to me.
“Congratulations!” she cries out in a chipper voice, bouncing on her toes with a big smile on her pretty face. Then she turns and bounds off in the sand on coltish legs, returning to her friends. I continue on, baffled by her seeming friendliness. There are more paths intersecting with mine up ahead, filled with people on bikes, roller blades, parents pushing strollers... The forever people, communing with the mortal world. And I'm just walking along through it all like a part of the scenery.
After awhile the path turns inland, climbing away from the beach, over a sparsely driven expressway and into a green corridor between sections of subdivision. Every hundred meters or so there's the concrete posts marking where the power lines used to stand. All of the houses have solar panels now, and in the backyards there are more families, now turning to watch me as I pass by. Again, their faces seem strangely friendly, almost as if they'd like to invite me over for a visit. I don't spot any barbecues.
And so, garlanded by a monarchal train of drones I continue my walk of no shame, exculpated traitor to the illuminated dead. And as I walk I try not think about how none if it seems to really matter. I try not to imagine a burning animatronic head, or blood squibs beneath silicone skin. Or a retractable icepick. How deep into delusion would you have to be? Is it possible to hypnotize the whole world?
Mundus Vult Decepi
It's late afternoon by the time we reach the desert. There's no path left now, just sand blowing around my legs as I follow the line wherever it takes me. I know I should be tired after all I've been through, but honestly I just want to get out of here.
I don't know where I'm going but I know that I need to go there. Maybe the drones are leading me to death by thirst, but then the desert's all there is from here on out, anyways. Checking my bag I find a thermal blanket along with a full canteen and some dried ration. I pull from the canteen, drinking deep while trudging along. Looks like I'm in for a long walk.
That night I sleep alone with the drones under the stars, on top of a large circular rock with a perfectly flat surface like a hockey puck. I lay there looking up at the sky and try to remember the constellations. I should have remembered the constellations. Don't even know why I believe in God. I just do. Even now. I guess in my way I'm always praying.
The drones are still hovering overhead when I drift off, but that morning I awake to find them all settled on the rock surrounding me like a pack of dogs. We rise together and make our way out across the dunes. I munch on a ration bar as I walk, relishing the cool morning air while it lasts. The early sun casts long and dim beneath a grey haze covering over the sky, but before long that burns away into a blue cloudless expanse. I take off my shirt and wrap it over my head in a makeshift turban, using the stopwatch in my breast pocket as a fastener behind my neck. In the distance the mountains shimmer like grey water. As the day grows longer the sun rises higher in the sky, marking my passage like a travelling sundial against the shifting sands.
By midday we've arrived at our destination – the town of Nowhere, pop. Nobody, situated at the base of Nothing mountain. At least that's what the sign says.
I'm standing at a dilapidated toll booth. The sign I'm reading is a piece of cardboard leaning against the wall of the booth. A broken yellow gate hangs listlessly across a road that only materialized out of the sand just a short ways before the booth. The town lies about two or three miles beyond this spot from the looks of it. I see dozens of buildings and even a few cars, but can't spot any people from this distance.
Taking a closer look at the booth I see a second sign next to a change bucket. PLEASE CONTRIBUTE SOMETHING DEAR.
This gives me pause. Something dear... At the sound of a hum from behind me I turn around to see one of the drones floating close by.
GIVE, speaks the drone.
I think of Sandra, hesitating at a border just like I am now. Looking back at me one last time.
Then I remember the stopwatch. I pull it out of my pocket and examine it briefly. Counted all the way down to zero, now.
Their watch; my time. Seems the perfect toll to pay, after all. I slip the timepiece into the change bucket where it lands with a heavy thud. The empty room beyond the window pays mute witness to my contribution. The drones don't count in this regard. They only order and account for others; they don't actually witness anything for themselves.
Only the empty truly sees.
A rush of wind stirs across the road. With a shrug of my knapsack I saunter over and through the gate, craning my neck to watch the drones as they rise up and begin to move away. It figures this would be their last stop.
And so I straggle on into the town of Nowhere, a freedman vagabond late arrival to the apocalypse, here to count coup over the bartered souls of an unremembered land. To be Nowhere is to be free, the furthest distance from this world while still able to be at all. But I think there's someone here waiting for me, someone I left behind a long time ago. A time older than forgiveness or pain, either way. Everything now thoroughly scoured away by the sun and the sand, till all that remains is the returning.
The mountain overhead shines in the full bloom of the blazing sun. I walk on to my new home of forgotten fortunes and old lives, and pray that this life will be the right one for me after all.
Here is a musical composition of mine, related to this story.