A novel by Scott Kelly
© Scott Kelly 2010-2012 all rights reserved
2056. Banlo Bay (formerly Houston)
The plaque in front of me was engraved with the words "Survival is triumph enough."
I ran my hand over the side of the wall, feeling the ridge where brick met mortar. I hadn’t planned on coming—shouldn’t have, but it was on my way, and the Banlo Bay Historical Sites Committee sent a nice letter inviting the survivors to their memorial. It was a single salvaged wall of the orphanage, each brick inscribed with the name of a kid who died here. The grand opening of a gravesite.
The sentiment was stupid. The telltale signs of decay crept in only a few blocks down; this monument should’ve been real wall and not some bauble. Still, bystanders gathered to admire the carnage that occurred here years ago, as though it was some long-forgotten history.
“Sorry,” a woman mumbled as she stepped on my toe.
“Sorry,” I counter-apologized.
The misstep pressed her shoulder against my chest, her head below my chin. Hadn’t been this close to another person in years. Her scent struck me: fresh-cut petals of lavender or lilac or something. The nearness, the sensation was dizzying—rusted departments of my brain cranked into shambling frenzy.
I moved away, then turned to watch her. Big brown eyes perplexed with gloom, a chocolate brown ponytail and tanned skin. She looked confused about being sad. Survivor guilt was baffling.
She must have run from this orphanage as a child, like me. She must have felt the danger in the air and snuck past the caretakers who thought corralling us inside the building would be safer. She must have sprinted across the grounds only to turn and see swarms of thirsty, terrified people force their way into the only building with running water and electricity for miles. Then she must have seen it burn.
The start of a twenty-one gun salute. I flinched so hard I nearly inverted.
Policemen in black coats shot their weapons into the sky as a sign of respect and surrender. The way things were going, though, I’m guessing the ritual had new meaning to the firing squad. They were taking shots at God for all this shit luck.
The crowd grew; people stepped out the small shops that lined the street. Downtown Banlo Bay filled the horizon, a gleaming glass city. When you could see that skyline, it meant you were safe. Relatively, anyway.
Enough of this. I’d die someday too, and I wouldn’t even get a brick to show for it.
Was it wrong to be jealous of a burnt orphan corpse?
At last, the policemen lowered their rifles, loads blown and chambers empty. The fireworks were over.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something suspicious: a Stranger. Someone who didn’t belong; someone wrapped in a trench coat, towering over those around him. Gloves, scarf. Not an inch of flesh revealed. Conspicuously inconspicuous. He wore a tall hat with a wide brim, some kind of black Victorian thing, mottled with moth bites and burn marks. Everyone was politely avoiding him. You never talked to Strangers, and this guy was definitely strange.
But I was aware of the danger. A Stranger was the worst thing in the world to be standing in the middle of a crowded bunch of upright citizens.
I made my way to the back of the crowd.
The sound of shooting returned suddenly in stereo and as a chaotic, arrhythmic mess. People started screaming.
I turned in time to see the Stranger in the trench coat and hat firing an assault rifle into the air. Throughout the crowd, three more men in similar clothes began firing upwards, just mocking the salute, spinning in place and peppering the sky with ammunition.
Strangers, fucking with people again, pushing the world past the brink.
Someone bumped into me, then another, pushing me onward. People ahead of me tried to turn and run. Tension rose. More gunshots. Havoc was cried, and the dogs were loosed. The wall of flesh in front of me expanded like a lung, forcing me into the mass of squirming bodies trying to escape.
Not my first mob. The only way to survive was to be the fastest rat in the swarm. I turned and ran. Some of the people I pushed past were standing on their toes, trying to see what was going on, trying to see if it was anything serious.
Gunfire was always serious. I looked at their faces and I saw cadavers. Curiosity was a luxury; these were sparse times. The smart ones were running with me. We collided like atoms; the crowd reached critical mass, and I was at the crest of a great upset.
Then I was caught, so suddenly my arms whipped out in front of me. My leg was trapped between two bodies trying to smash through the same space—I jerked at, trapped animal, losing my shoe in the process. Anything not to get trampled.
My struggles were successful; I broke free. Not too far ahead was a break in the road where the crowd could thin out. I focused on it, ignoring everything around me.
The nice-smelling woman, the one who stepped on my foot, screamed. I watched her go down hard as an older lady behind her used the young brunette for balance.
The pretty girl’s hand shot out and grabbed my ankle; her fingers clenched my foot. My shoe was gone, and I could feel her cold skin. My first female contact in years.
She was already on the ground, lost. I jerked my leg out of her grip with manic strength; she was beyond saving. Lilacs and lavender had no place on the streets of Banlo Bay. Her face was twisted with terror; another cadaver. I just turned and ran. Heroics were a luxury.
A month later.
It wasn't a good day. I had to get my Citizen Card renewed.
If you had a job, you had a card, and if you didn't have a card, you might as well be a Stranger. I did my time diving in dumpsters and drinking from drains; I wasn't going back.
My local neighborhood Banlo Bay City Center was a dismal building, a stout block of bureaucratic order which was slept around, pissed on, and spray painted by the hordes of disgruntled people who wanted to get cards but couldn’t. This was the gate holding back the muddied masses who desperately sought protection in America's last sanctum of civility.
I pulled open the door and was met by a warm waft of stale air that smelled like a hobo with morning breath blowing across his armpit and into my nose. I settled in place behind several dozen other dour faces, a progression of gradually worsening moods that crescendoed with myself at the rear.
An hour into my wait, a foot stepped onto the back of my shoe, pulling it half off my foot as I inched forward in the line. I ignored it politely until it happened again, then again. I half-turned to see the offender out of my peripheral, but something I smelled sent my memory into overdrive. It was that beautifully alien scent on my sinuses again—the scent of lilacs and lavender.
“Excuse me,” she said.
I turned to face her.
“Haven't I seen you somewhere before?” she asked. Soft brown curls, big brown doe eyes, elegant chin, sculpted neck. Young, vibrant, and curious about each new thing. A fawn. My world used to have a place for them.
“I doubt it,” I mumbled. I’d rather her not remember me at all than be remembered for abandoning her. But from her face, it was clear she knew exactly who I was. “Wait—maybe at the opening of the Chapel Hill Orphanage Memorial.”
“Yes, the Strangers! I still have the bruises to show for it,” she said, smiling now and pulling back her sleeve to reveal a slender arm with a yellow bruise which looked at home beneath her skin.
“Shit, yeah. I’m glad to see you got out of there.” No thanks to me.
“Barely,” she said. “So, what’s your name?”
“I’m Clark Horton,” I said, extending my hand. She took it. Oh God yes.
“I’m Erika Bronton. You’ve got a space to fill,” she said, motioning in front of me where an opening had appeared. I moved forward to fill it.
A few minutes passed before she spoke. “So you were at the Orphanage?” she asked. "When it burned?"
"Yeah, I was." Don't like thinking about it. "You?"
"You're next," she said politely, nodding at the line in front of me, leaving my question unanswered.
She was right. I faced the man behind the desk. He looked like someone who was practiced in pretending to be patient but was always on the verge of snapping. It was a veneer shared by most everyone within the confines of Banlo Bay; it was the mortar that held the city together.
I handed him my card; he reviewed, then stamped it.
“You’re done,” the man said and slid my card back to me. I pocketed it. We used to be required to wear them on our shirts, but derelicts kept running by and ripping them off.
I began walking back toward the entrance when Erika grabbed my shirt sleeve. “Hey, wait for me,” she said. “It’s gotta be fate that we met two times like this.”
The person behind her cleared his throat with some significance.
“I’m going, all right?” She stepped up to the bureaucrat and pulled three crumpled documents from her purse, spilling them onto his desk.
“Moira Blocker,” she said. “I need to renew.”
The worker looked at his computer and then back at her, making no effort to hide the skepticism on his face. He repeated this activity several times.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said, “but I can’t renew this. You don’t have your ID-a, your STM-9, or your DSM. The last time someone went to check on your situation, he reported an incorrect address. You don't even appear to have a job. To be honest, ma’am, you shouldn’t be here in the city at all. I think you need to see the Warden.”
Erika took a step backwards, stepping on my toes for the tenth time since I’d met her. This time, though, she didn’t apologize; from where I was standing I could see her hand dive into her purse and clench something there.
“I have a new address. That’s why there's the confusion. He can vouch for me,” Erika said, turning around and tugging at my sleeve. “I live with him. Please, I have lived here my whole life. Please, you have to let me stay."
I raised my hands up like I could somehow block the fact I was being drawn into this.
“Sir?” the worker asked.
“Tell him our address,” Erika said, her eyes widening. “It’s so embarrassing! I just moved in with him, and I don’t even have it memorized yet.”
I didn’t want to get involved.
“Sir, if she’s living with you, then you need to fill out the proper paperwork to reflect it. Frankly, I’m getting tired of both of you, and I think I’ll let a Warden settle this. Please step in line behind me and to my right.”
He motioned us to a much shorter line over his shoulder which led to an office door.
The Warden deported people. I'd end up on a train heading out to the wilderness where I'd be killed by bandits, soldiers, or Strangers.
A shadow began to creep across Erika’s face, a shade I was very familiar with. It crept in the cracks of frown and frustration lines of every face in the city—the skulking specter of desperation. The arm leading into her purse became stiff.
“I can’t see the Warden,” she mumbled to me. “You let me die once. You owe me.”
I gripped Erika’s suspiciously tense arm with one hand and began to drag her backward to the exit. “I have the forms at home,” I said loudly as I used my free hand to push between the tightly packed bodies that formed various lines. I didn’t want to end up in the Case Warden’s office any more than she did. "We will sort this out and come back, sorry to waste your time."
Uniformed officers were closing in on us. The door was in view, only a dozen feet away but blocked by hundreds of pounds of milling, unhappy biomass.
A shoulder checked my chin, and a belt buckle scraped the small of my back as I forced my way through. My only connection to Erika was my grip on her arm, and I heard her cursing as she was crushed between bodies.
A police officer stepped in front of the exit and pointed at us.
Erika tried to jerk her arm out of her purse, and for a second, I almost let her. I knew there was a weapon down there.
“Don’t do it,” I hissed. “It isn’t worth dying for.”
“In here or out there, I'm done for,” she whispered back.
“Well, thanks for taking me with you,” I said. “Jesus, what is your problem?”
“There’s no place for me anymore.” She tugged at her arm again, trying to pull her hand free. I barely had the strength to stop her.
“I have a plan,” I said. “Trust me. Just let go of the gun and take your hand out of your purse. Please. It isn't worth it. I will tell them you're staying with me."
I felt the muscles in her forearm go slack, and she lifted her empty hand from her bag. An officer reached through an opening in two bodies, grasping claw aiming for Erika.
I took a deep breath and tried not to think about what I was about to do.
I gave the man nearest the cop a hard shove. He slammed into the bodies in front of him; by the time he untangled himself from the resulting mass of angry limbs, I was gone. He shoved the man who'd been behind me, while I began squeezing through more bodies, trying to distance myself and Erika from the reaction I set into motion.
Where one man was shoved, another turned and shoved him back. In the crowded space, no one was innocent. A man’s wife received an accidental elbow to the face, and her husband delivered a punch to the mouth of the offender. Entropy begat entropy. The thin veneer of civilization was pulled back with one simple act of aggression.
This was Banlo Bay.
I slipped around the ensuing onslaught and managed my way behind the policemen, who were now struggling in the melee.
I slipped out the door with Erika, then pressed myself against the brick wall of the building, cold sweat forming around my face, hands shaking. “Jesus,” I said. “Let’s go, now.”
I gave one last look at the door that contained the growing energy within the City Center, developing from a slow roar to an explosive show of force as the engine of chaos I had ignited reached full steam. As Erika and I walked as quickly and inconspicuously as we could away from the disaster we’d created, the door finally burst open as tumbling, tussling bodies scrambled over each other to fight or flee.
2. White Cat
“What the hell is your problem?” I huffed as we put the building behind us.
“I’m not usually like this, I promise. I just…” she said as her voice cracked, eyes watered. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t have anything. I don’t have anywhere to go. They were going to send me into the Red! I'm sorry. I shouldn’t have gotten you involved. I’ll go. I’m so sorry for what happened.”
Erika Bronton turned and began to walk away.
She was a beautiful girl, and I hated to see her cry. Even more, though, I hated the way she’d almost gotten me exiled from the city. I decided to let her keep walking.
Except, before she was more than ten feet away from me, she stopped and turned back. This time she was smiling.
“Wait,” she said. “Maybe it is a sign. Maybe this means something, you know? Like fate.”
“There’s no fate,” I said. “It’s getting dark anyway, and I need to be getting home.”
Erika walked back over to me and looked directly into my eyes. We were about the same height. I diverted my gaze to her full, curvaceous mouth, glistening where her wet, pink tongue rose from her warm depths like a shark fin to lightly caress and moisten her top lip.
"Tell me about yourself," she said. "Come on, I will walk with you."
I didn't really want her walking with me. First, I didn't know the area very well. Second, she might figure out where I lived.
Erika turned and pressed her shoulder into mine. She took a step forward, and I did too.
"I am a security guard, sort of. At Tasumec Tower." I pointed at the skyline of downtown Banlo Bay. "That big grey building."
"The tallest one?"
"That's the one."
"You must be very brave, to be a security guard," she cooed.
I laughed; at first reflexively, then again at the notion I might be brave. "You are the first person ever to think that. I just watch the security cameras all day, I don't even have a gun. What do you do?"
“I’m an artist,” she said, sounding very serious about it.
“Some people don’t think it’s important anymore, the way things are,” she lifted her hands and presented Banlo Bay and its tenuous grip on order to me. “I think it’s even more important. If we forget about art, what do we have left?”
Our lives, for one.
She looked at me expectantly, so I asked her for more information. “Alright, so what kind of art do you do?”
“I’m a Situationalist,” she said. “You know, a performance artist—an actor. It’s like being in a play except everywhere is the stage and everyone is a performer whether they know it or not."
“For instance?” I asked.
“For instance, once I covered myself in fake blood and lay in an alleyway for two days straight. And then another time, I dressed up like Santa Claus and passed out toys straight from the shelves of department stores.”
“Sounds crazy,” I said honestly.
“I was involved in a sort of protest with my art once, and I got arrested for it. That’s why I had to give them a fake name. They won’t let me live here otherwise.”
“A protest?” I asked.
“It was noble, I promise. So, where do you live?"
Gulp. "Y'know, over there. What about you?"
"I'm homeless, since yesterday. Tonight will be my first night on the streets, you know. I hope I survive."
I sighed. Here it came. I tried to cut her off preemptively—I hadn't survived the collapse of the civilized world by falling for simple cons. "You know, I am barely surviving on my own. Probably going to lose the place soon, I just can't afford it. And it's a bad neighborhood, you know?"
We crossed another street. We were moving away from downtown, which meant things were getting progressively more dangerous. I never strayed; this girl was trouble.
Erika stopped walking, folded her arms. "I guess I'll just sleep here, then."
The brick building to our left was abandoned and boarded closed. Trash strewn the streets, and only bent and huddled figures clad in filthy clothes scurried in and out the alleys surrounding us. A far cry from the gleaming cleanliness of downtown, where I worked.
She turned and stepped over to the building, sitting down and resting her back against it. "This is home now." Her voice cracked.
"Well, good luck," I said.
She scoffed in disbelief. I turned and began walking away.
"You would just let me die out here?" she called. "What kind of man are you?"
"A survivor," I said.
I heard the dual click-clack of sandaled feet behind me; I thrust my hands into my pockets and kept walking forward. Not even sure where I was anymore, but I couldn’t go home with her following me.
"You just inspired me," she said, as though that meant something. I felt her shoulder rub mine again. "I have an idea for a Happening."
I sighed. "What's a Happening?"
“A piece of art that I do. Sometimes they last for months. I’m going to start a new project, and I need a subject. The way you saved me in there, the way you asked me to trust you—and then the way you abandoned me…I had this moment of inspiration, this divine spark. I know what my next piece will be, and you’re going to be it,” she said.
“No way. The spotlight is really not my thing, trust me.”
“No, look…just hear me out. I think what I want to do is, I want to pick one person—that's you—and just worship them for like half a year."
"Worship them?" I asked, not quite sure I wanted to understand what she was talking about.
"Yeah, you know, I'll believe everything they say or do must be absolutely correct, because that person will be God. Because maybe all that's important is devotion, you know? Hundreds of different types of believers across the Earth, and they all feel good about it. Maybe I can prove it doesn't matter who God is. Then, after it’s over, I'll write about how it worked out—I have to have publishing rights to the whole thing, not you—and bam! Good story, right?”
I fumbled through her feed.
“I’m trying to prove the act of believing in something is more important than what you believe in,” she offered.
“It’s a cool idea, I guess, but I’m not your guy. I’m not omnipotent—hell, I'm not even potent. Worshipping me is a terrible idea.”
She reached for my hand, squeezed it. I froze.
"You know what I am saying, right? I will do whatever you want. Anything. For months. Please, just don't make me sleep out here."
"Will you leave me alone?"
"Please, Clark. The police are going to find me, they're going to send me out into the Red. You know what happens to girls like me out there? We get raped, we become slaves. Would you do that to me?"
I have watched more terrible things happen to people than I care to remember. The only reason I wasn't one of them, was because of my ability to keep my mouth shut and stay hidden.
I began walking again.
“So, where do you live?” her cheery voice sounded off behind me.
It looked like she was going to Happen all over me whether I liked it or not.
“I’m not telling you,” I said, “because you’re not coming. I don’t know you. What am I doing even talking with you? I must be out of my mind.”
My ears were pricked by the howl of a dog; I turned to see if I could spot the animal. There was no trash on the streets; people knew it would invite trouble. The feral dogs were a big problem.
I hated dogs. People got bitten, torn up, infected, and died because of the beasts. Meningitis, rabies, bacteria…I’d heard even their ticks would get you killed.
“I’ll protect you,” she offered, noticing my nervous glances. She walked up close to me and put her arm around mine. “I’ll do anything for you. Anything."
It wasn’t comforting. Instead, it was another alien act in the day’s abduction that put me off center and made me nervous.
“I don’t understand why you’d want to do this. Do you just need a place to stay? I can let you stay with me, maybe for a night. You don’t have to do all this weird shit if you’re just desperate,” I said finally.
Erika stiffened. “Of course not. It’s an experiment, like I told you. I am not a beggar, I am an artist. What you are doing is the same as standing still so I can paint your portrait,” she reasoned.
So that’s how she kept her pride. Not a prostitute, just an actor playing one.
“Except you’ll be sleeping in my house. Eating my food.”
“Gods are supposed to provide for their worshippers.”
“For months, though, and you’ll be living with me.”
“It’s gotta be real. I will be the greatest devotee you’ve ever had, I swear. I'm a performance artist, and you're my next piece."
Another howl cracked the silence, this one much closer. I became very aware that Erika and I were alone in an abandoned part of the city. Two hunched canine figures materialized out of their shadowy surroundings: a lean brown dog with a long torso and a muscular blonde dog with shaggy hair. Each were indecipherable mutt mixes that were a standing testament to the Darwinian triumph of their ancestors. They were about thirty feet away, down the street.
The canines trotted down the street directly toward us. Erika and I froze. Many citizens had been mauled by the animals, who along with the cats and rats overtook abandoned portions of the city.
“Get out of here!” I shouted shakily.
The dogs didn’t understand, or else didn't care.
Erika moved stiffly to pick up a rock from the curb and threw it. It clattered harmlessly on the ground in front of them; both dogs sniffed it idly and kept moving toward us.
“Don’t run,” she said.
I wanted to run. As the dogs approached a low vibration shook the air; the quiet growl of a hunting dog. The two animals separated, so that we were flanked by the two as they closed the gap between us.
“We need to run.”
“They’ll just chase you, don’t run,” Erika hissed.
The dog turned its attention toward me. It was snarling now, the hair on the back of its mangy neck making an effort to rise from the matted, greasy hide.
It paused a few feet away. We made eye contact. I could see its simple mind coming to a deadly decision. It crouched down on its haunches, preparing to leap at me. The muscles wound tightly, compacting into a dangerous dense space.
“Clark!” Erika cried in a sharp warning.
The dog hunched, snapping its jaws.
“It’s okay, Erika,” I said. My voice was so shaky like I was speaking into a fan. I was twelve years old again, hiding in a closet while drifters ripped the walls apart to pilfer our copper wiring.
“It’s okay, Erika,” I repeated.
If dogs could really sense anxiety, I must have looked like a wounded rabbit to them. There were fifty flavors of fear peaking through my pores.
I blinked. The dog leapt. I ran.
As I took off down the street, I could sense the dogs shadowing me. This only fueled the cycle, and my legs struck the ground with frenzied renewal.
Again, I heard that soft baying moan, the guttural growl. I pushed even harder until the only feeling in my body was the dull pain of my feet pounding the concrete. I didn’t have to look behind me to know they were keeping pace with me; their hungry, rhythmic panting was a sick chorus in my ears. I flitted in and out of alleyways, looking for anything to dart up or into.
At last I spotted a fire escape ladder hanging from one of the buildings and I clambered up it, weightless in my fear. All I could think about was the approaching onslaught of fang and claw; of the dull pressure of a dog bite jerking my body; the sensation of being torn apart drowned out by the shock of losing limbs.
I was only a few feet off the ground when the dogs slowly turned the corner into the alleyway. Two more canines had joined in the hunt. I watched them slink slyly up to where I hid, and in a moment I was surrounded.
All four resumed barking in unison. I was possessed by the bulging eyes and wet fangs of the grotesque quartet.
Erika turned the corner and shouted my name. I saw fright wash over her as she spotted the four dogs that kept me trapped up on the ladder. One by one, the dogs’ eyes turned from me to her.
A shrill whistle shattered the tension and left all parties looking about nervously.
The dogs, myself, and Erika all stared down the alleyway at an approaching figure. A woman with spectacularly thick, dark hair and olive skin, wrapped in a flowing trench coat and charcoal-colored scarf, and crowned by a towering gray hat—cone-shaped with a wide brim. She walked regally down the opposite end of the alley, moving toward us.
The newcomer was trailed by a cavalry of cats. They slithered like sea snakes through the trashcans and boxes that littered the alley. Dozens of pairs of glowing yellow eyes would appear from under some refuse in the alley and then dip into the veil of darkness, only to reappear alongside her a few feet ahead. It was impossible to gauge how many animals followed her. Their eyes twinkled like a swarm of fireflies, giving her all the impression of some luminous faerie creature.
She was undoubtedly and very obviously a Stranger—the most dangerous entity to run across outside, particularly at night. They walked the untamed darkness with no regard for their own safety, a part of some deeper plot that should not involve average citizens. It seemed to me that they were somehow in cahoots with the dangers of the night; they were on the same team as the beasts and poisons.
The woman walked into the alleyway corner where our drama was unfolding. One of her pure, white cats leapt up to me, rubbing against me affectionately. I was too afraid to push it away.
Beneath her bundled cloak was a tight black dress that clung to her. It was visible only for a moment through the many veils of thick fabric; I was half-afraid to admire her, because she seemed so confident and dangerous. The Grapes of Wrath pressed into a shapely wineglass.
The woman whistled again, this burst even louder and more shrill than the first. All attention was directed at her long coat sleeve, which was slowly rising. Cats, dogs, and the frightened children that we were all trained our vision to it.
A long, delicate finger extended from the depths of her sleeve and pointed away from the alley.
The dogs followed the path of her finger, retreating and disbanding into the darkness.
“It’s okay,” the woman said, her voice smooth and even. “You can come down. Are you alright?”
I was still paralyzed.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” she reassured me. “Those dogs looked mean. You shouldn’t be afraid of them though. They act however the people around them act.”
“Thank you,” Erika stuttered. “Thanks for saving us.”
The Stranger laughed a tinkling laugh.
“It was nothing,” she said. “I always appreciate a little excitement at night, don’t you?”
I tittered nervously as I climbed down the fire escape, feeling exposed as my legs dangled, seeking purchase on anything below me. At last, I let myself fall to the cement.
“What’s your name?” she asked. “You don’t have to be afraid anymore. The dogs are gone. And you, girl—what’s your name?”
“Erika Bronton. Pleased to meet you,” she said, breathless.
“I’m…I’m Clark,” I said as the Stranger flitted her eyes toward me. “We have to go. Thank you for saving us.”
“I’m Whisper,” the Stranger said. “It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“I’m not going to hurt you,” the cloaked figure called again. She extended her hand as though in a peace offering; Erika took it nervously, and they shared a long handshake in which Whisper brought her other hand over Erika’s and held it there, holding the moment hostage. I was afraid the Stranger would never let go.
But then she did, and she took a step toward me.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but we have to go,” I said, feet moving without my consent once more.
As our feet struck the pavement in unison, I turned to look at Erika. She was the first woman in my life since the Collapse, and I’d just ousted myself as a total weakling in front of her.
“You can stay, but you probably want to go pick another God,” I said to her between desperate gulps of air. “I already almost got you killed.”
“My God is no average god,” she said, smiling.
A month later.
“Lunch, breakfast,” Erika said, pointing at two different brown paper bags from her nesting place on my couch. She groaned as she leaned over, blankets and pillows draped around her, ass exposed, to grab an enormous pitcher of water she constantly sipped from.
“Thanks,” I said.
Inside the breakfast sack were two bags of pretzels and a bag of cookies. Inside the lunch bag I found sour cream chips mixed with one-third jalapeño chips. Erika was a culinary disc-jockey when it came to vending machines, but had never touched a stove in her life.
“What’re you going to do at work today?” she asked.
I sat down next to her. “Sit and watch monitors,” I said, reaching for the remote. “Let me get warmed up.”
She grabbed the device out of my hand. “No news, I told you. We watch cartoons or nothing.”
I wondered how God must have felt when it was just Him and Adam kicking it. How long had it taken before Adam got bored, and how much did that depress the Big Guy?
“Alright…well, I’m gonna be late anyway. You stay out of trouble. Find a job or something.”
“Worshipping you is my job. I told you that already. I tied all of your ties for you. They are hanging on those hooks in your closet door.”
It was weird, but it only scratched the surface. I found little altars, shrines, and prayers scattered about the house, some with scented candles burning alongside them, others with crude drawings of my face. I think she was bored.
As I prepared to leave, the phone rang. Erika dashed from the couch, slid across my tile floor and snatched up the receiver before I could make a step toward it.
“Is that for me?" I called into the kitchen.
“It’s no one. Just go to work,” she commanded.
I waved goodbye to her and stepped out my door to Banlo Bay. There was a choir of birds chirping, a sun shining. It almost felt like I was living sometimes, like I’d put the past behind me and I would really get a chance at a normal life. Never mind that I’d be one of the only ones who would.
A job, a pretty girl living with you…not too bad, considering the world is on the edge of collapse.
It was hot out already, even in the morning. The heat was relentless in Banlo Bay. There was hardly anyone on the bus, and half of those who were had face masks on.
I realized then I must have missed something. I grabbed a newspaper off the seat next to me, and saw a front-page reminder that it was migration season, and we were all supposed to be watching out.
Birds chirping. Shit.
Too many geese had flown through the chemtrails, and the feathers they dropped could make you sick or sterile. I’d forgotten my mask, and half of my coworkers wouldn’t even be coming to work.
Still, no point in going back now. Instead I went on to work, and resolved to fix the television issue with Erika as I sat down at my desk. If I could have watched my news like I usually do, this wouldn’t have happened. She thought it was too negative. Except, now stuck at work with no coworkers and no work to do.
So when three armed figures appeared on the cameras outside of the building, I was alarmed. Two of them were tall, cloaked and with wide-brimmed hats. Strangers. The third was a man who seemed to be leading them, a man who flung open the lobby doors and strode in with purpose.
Normally, the tower would be surrounded with security, but because of the migration threat, the place was barren.
Between his short beard and wide aviator glasses, it was hard to see any face buried behind the accessories of the man who led the Strangers. He may very well have had kind, small eyes or a weak chin, but I couldn’t tell you. His long legs stretched out in front of him like an insect antennae, and he sauntered everywhere he went, never rushing—even with a gun in his hand. At times, the leader seemed to move about the room as though dancing to music only he could hear.
I pressed the alarm that would send the police to the tower. Sweat dripped from my face and onto my keyboard, and my fingers trembled. Years of working here, and never anything like this. Still, I was locked away in the center of the sprawling skyscraper, and surely I was safe. Right?
I watched their leader leave the two of them in the lobby, travel up the elevator to the eighty-third floor, shoot two men, and use their computers.
Then, with my knot of dread tying itself tighter and tighter, I watched the leader take the stairs, slowly working his way down from my top set of monitors to the very bottom left. And that’s where he stopped.
These were the cameras that watched the floor I was on. He was heading toward me.
The door banged against the frame like war drums. It was clear that the wooden sheet wouldn’t last; the force of his kicks vibrated the barrier savagely. I was trapped inside the dark security room with only the dead faces of gray monitors for light.
“Open…the fucking…door!” he shouted between kicks. He shot through the door; the bullet tore through the panel.
There was a long pause as he tried the doorknob again.
“If I can’t see you, you can’t be you,” the leader mumbled angrily.
I crouched underneath my desk and pulled my knees to my chest. All I could do was pray that one of those bullets didn’t rip through me.
I shouldn’t have come to work today.
“I don’t necessarily want to kill you, whoever you are. I just need that footage.”
I remained silent. The last thing I wanted was for him to know I was in there.
“I know you’re in there!” he shouted, exasperated.
“I know this door only locks from the inside, and I know there’s only one door that leads into that room. Just open the door; I will stand back. I just need access to those computers. Do as I say and you won't be harmed.” As though he had only just realized he was screaming at me, he softened his voice. “Hey, it’ll be fine.”
I didn’t say anything. My vast experience in hiding had taught me that assailants often talk to you kindly and offer empty promises just to lure you out.
Then he started kicking again, and in moments his boot was through the door. He cursed and struggled to pull his foot out of the hole he’d made.
I pressed myself into the corner underneath my desk. I saw his thick hand, adorned with a single large ruby ring, reaching through to turn the doorknob.
The leader stepped into the room and pointed a large silver pistol at me, as though he’d known where I hid all along. I noticed his beard and hair were a striking dark crimson color—the color of fresh blood. He was maybe six feet tall, but seemed ten from the way he towered over me.
The intensity of being in the same room with him was unbearable. It felt like I was standing in the same room as Napoleon, Hitler. This guy was some kind of Genghis Khan, I swear. There was some presence to him that was overwhelming just from. I held my breath until he looked at something other than me.
“Where is the footage stored?” he asked angrily, staring directly into my eyes.
I cowered and stuttered, “It’s—"
“It’s where?” He cocked the gun meaningfully and pressed the long barrel to my temple.
“In that locker,” I said, pointing a trembling finger toward the security box that held the taping mechanism. The security boxes were made of heavy steel with large locks.
He tried to open it, to no avail. The lock didn't seem as scared of him as I was.
“Key,” he said simply.
My heart dropped, and I couldn’t respond. I didn’t want to have to tell him that I’d lost the key, but I truly had no idea where it was. I’d never used it.
“Key!” he roared, this time pushing the gun into my face again. “I am going to kill you if you do not give me the key.”
I was too petrified to respond. No one ever told me how to unlock it. My head shook back and forth again.
“Shit!” he screamed, kicking my chair with his alligator-skinned boot and sending it tumbling. “Get up!” he shouted. When I couldn’t move, he grabbed my wrist and yanked me from my hiding place, banging my head against the top of my desk as he did. I stumbled up. “Are you there?” he asked, shaking me violently.
“Yes,” I mumbled.
“Where is the key to this locker? I don't have time to waste standing here. I need this footage. What is your name?”
“Clark,” I said.
“Clark, normally, I would spend time with you and help you to change your mind about me. You see, I am not a bad person—if you knew why I killed the people I killed, you would most likely even agree with me. But I don’t have time for that.” He stopped shaking me and put an arm around me so that the gun was resting against my chest. He tapped the barrel against my sternum to accent his words. “I’m not a bad guy, Clark. Just open the lock for me,” he said.
“I can’t,” I forced out.
“Okay, look, I actually am a bad guy. I’m going to do horrible things to you until you give me that key.”
My mind was caught in the same endless feedback loop of terror—I couldn’t form thoughts, make plans, or argue. Just that constant Fsscccccccccccchhhhh, the static of over-stimulation, running through my head.
He brought his pistol up to my shoulder, and it looked like he was going to shoot me.
“Last chance to…” his words trailed off, and his eyes averted to the host of monitors in front of us. “Shit,” he said. He released me, and I crumpled to the floor in a fetal position as he stalked out of the security room. He turned out the door and pointed his gun at me; he fired a shot without looking, as though it were an afterthought. The sound was deafening in the closed quarters, and the bullet hit the floor only a few inches from my left eye. Dust and fibers erupted from the carpet and into my face.
When I could breathe again—when I could think again—I looked up at the monitors and saw what had worried him. Police cars were filling up the camera view outside Tasumec Tower.
I watched as he rushed down dozens of flights of stairs, a cell phone to his ear. There were several police cruisers outside the building, and I could see officers approaching the lobby.
The two people he’d brought with him—the Strangers waiting for their leader in the lobby—were apparently talking with him over their phones. One of them repositioned himself so he could ambush any police officers who dared entered the building. The other, a woman, pulled out a large revolver and lazily loaded it, pinching one bullet at a time between two fingers and dropping it daintily into each chamber of the six-shooter as though she thought they were filthy things.
Their uniforms—if you could call them that—consisted of the vast tumbling granite gray trench coats that stretched out over their bodies until they seemed impossibly large and nebulous, a mummy of layers meant to announce their presence as nothing other than unwelcoming. The female—a fact made apparently by her long dark hair and tall stiletto heels—was crowned with an enormous black Sunday hat, fashionable a century ago, if even if then.
I wanted to scream to the approaching policemen and warn them of the ambush, to tell them not to move through the door, but there was nothing I could do. Two officers rushed forward, guns drawn, only to be attacked the moment they stepped through.
The male Stranger, who’d been waiting in ambush, moved his two cavernous sleeves to the first officer’s head and snapped his neck with a powerful, grossly unnatural twist.
Before the body had even crumpled to the ground, the cloaked figure had already moved to his next target. He was hunched menacingly as his enormous cloak billowed away from him. I saw his lithe, lizard-like frame outlined perfectly until the fabric caught up to his movement.
The second policeman was met with the same dark hands around his neck as he was pushed to the ground and the Stranger kneeled over him, the fabric from the coat seeming to eat them both, and then I lost view of the horror.
Just as I saw more police cars pulling up outside the tower, the leader reached the lobby. He grabbed his female compatriot, and they bolted out the front into the swarm of cops.
At first, the police seemed tense and ready to open fire, but then the female stepped forward and seemed to be talking to them, lecturing them. The uniformed men soon began to lower their weapons, faces filling with inexplicable sadness. It seemed impossible, like the woman was scolding small children.
The leader pulled her away, and the trio continued down the street, out of camera view.
The police snapped back into motion. I watched dumbly as they swept into the tower. They came storming up the staircases and took their time searching every room. I was stuck in that tiny room, staring at the bullet hole in the floor, for what seemed like eternity.
I watched with a general sense of dread as they worked their way up to me. We made hesitant contact and radios were frantically barked at until I was identified. Soon, my room was crowded with officers who intruded on my personal space and touched my computer. I fidgeted as they asked me about what footage the cameras had of the intruder; I watched them try to bring up the digital file, only to find that it had all been erased somehow.
I wasn’t surprised. The man who’d broken down the door had gone straight for the hardcopy backups, which he shouldn’t have known about. They were locked up in a heavy cage and were touched only twice a year to switch the hard drives out. The copies we used daily were stored on the network, where others could access it; this is what had been erased.
“Do you think he was trying to kill me?” I asked the detective while I stared at the hole in the floor of my office. Even after surviving the Collapse, it was probably the closest I’d ever come to dying.
“War is to man as motherhood is to woman,” the detective said, writing me off with some kind of ridiculous proverb.
“What?” I asked. “What does that even mean?”
“It’s just a saying…and Escher doesn’t miss,” the detective said quietly. He was distracted, reading some sort of file as he talked to me.
“Is that who was up here? Escher?” So the leader had a name.
“It was Escher,” he said. “They call him the Red King. As in, he’s king of the Red zones—he leads the SSS.”
“Secret Society of Strangers.”
“Well, did you guys catch him?”
The detective’s grip tightened on the file he was holding. “No.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because they’re freakin’ magic, alright? Jesus.”
“But it looked like—”
“What it looks like with the Strangers and what it is are almost always two different things. We’re doing what we can.” He said it in a way that encouraged me to drop the subject.
I shut up.
“We need to check your ID…just standard stuff,” he told me moments later, seemingly apologetic. I couldn't blame him really. The police that were left in Banlo Bay had to do a job better suited for a military—except there was no more Federal government, and so no more military.
“No problem,” I said, happy to do anything to get me out of there quicker. I reached into my back pocket and found it empty. “It’s missing,” I stammered. “I had it when I came in. I know I did. My card pass is in there. I couldn’t have gotten up the elevator without it.”
The detective asked the officers if anyone had found it. No one had. “Is it possible that Escher took it?” he asked.
“Yes, I guess it’s possible…but I don’t know. He grabbed me out from under the desk, but it was all a blur. Oh, God! He has my—my name, my address…even my city card.”
“Don’t worry. I can issue you a temporary pass.” He pulled out a pad of forms from his back pocket and began writing. “This will be good for two weeks, alright? You need to have a new card by then.”
“I have someone at home. They could go over there, try to find her, and—”
“How would they know she’s there?” he asked. “And why would they want to go?”
I decided not to tell him about the cage where the hardcopy footage was locked. The less reason I gave the Strangers to dislike me, the longer I would live.
“Why wouldn’t they? How do I know what they know?”
“Look, you’ve had a long day. Go home, take a rest. You’ll be fine. If you need anything, all 911. We’ll come just like we always do,” he said, trying to placate me.
It wasn’t going to work, though. They couldn’t even protect themselves.
I shivered, already reaching for my phone
“How confident are you he wouldn’t try anything?” I asked again as my phone made its maddening third and fourth rings.
The police officer had already turned away.
Then the receiver lifted. “Yes?” Erika asked.
“Jesus, you’re okay. I didn’t know what to expect. I thought someone might be after you.”
“What are you talking about? Why would anyone be after me?”
“It’s been a hell of a day. Am I on the news? Is there anything about Tasumec Tower being attacked?” I asked.
“No, nothing like that,” she said. “Just a cat chasing a dog with a butcher knife.”
“On the news?”
“There’s nothing. Come on home, my Lord. I have a new altar prepared for you.”
“I’ll be there soon. Keep the door locked.”
5. Up and Down
She waved me in with a healthy pink smile.
“Has anyone tried to break in? Has anyone called?” I asked immediately.
“What? No. Nothing, flat, zero. Just another boring day,” she answered, stepping aside so I could enter my living room. “What happened?”
I told Erika everything.
“Very interesting,” Erika said in a faux-German accent. “If I didn’t know you, I’d say it was made up.”
“It wasn’t made up. I swear it really happened. They could be coming here right now.”
“And you didn’t tell the police that the footage in that cage has Escher recorded on it?” she asked.
“No! He knows where I live, you think I want to piss him off?”
“That seems very opportune,” she said wryly. “So do you think the police have that footage now?”
“I don’t know, maybe. Probably not.” I said miserably. “He has my wallet, Erika! I can’t believe it. You think I should have told the police?” I collapsed backwards onto the couch.
Erika stepped up behind me and put her hands on my shoulders. The feeling was electrifying. I could feel her long nails digging into my skin as she kneaded my muscles. “No, I think you did the right thing. And the way you were so worried for me?” she asked. “That was sweet.”
“Yeah, I guess so. I’m God, after all. I gotta watch out for my disciples.”
“Well…” she said, tracing a finger up and down my shoulder. This made my face heat up with burning, chemically unstable blood. “I’m okay, so don’t worry about it. They won’t come here.”
“I don’t know if I want to go back,” I admitted.
The phone rang rudely, interrupting us.
Erika picked it up from its receiver and immediately pressed it back down, hanging up abruptly. “We don’t need that right now. But c’mon, it isn’t so bad. Be tough. He’s gone. If he wanted to come for you, he’d be here, right? I say stand your ground. Tough this one out.”
My shoulders slumped. It seemed unfair, but I stopped arguing because I knew it was only making me look more afraid than I already was. I was so focused on my confrontation with Escher that I didn’t even notice when Erika started tenderly rubbing my earlobe. I brushed her hand away reflexively. Nothing sexy about my impending doom.
I woke up the next morning still groggy from my fitful sleep.
I got up in time for work out of habit, even though I still wasn’t set on going. Stepping foot back in that office bothered me in some profound way; it didn’t feel like the same place anymore.
“Fine then,” Erika said suddenly as I sipped the coffee she always had brewing in the kitchen. “We’ll both go, if you aren’t going to get dressed.”
“I don’t want to go,” I told her. “Escher could come back for me.”
“God is a lot of things,” she said, “but I don’t think God’s supposed to be, y’know, such a pussy.”
“Is that what you think of me?”
“Sometimes,” she said.
“I don’t think you get it. It’s the goddamn Serengeti out there, and I know I’m a leaf eater. So how do the herbivores stay alive? They stay alert, they run, and they don’t take risks. They see that danger coming a mile away. You don’t call a gazelle a pussy because he doesn’t fight back when the lions come.”
“And they stick together,” Erika said. “So is that how you see yourself? A gazelle?”
“Actually I was thinking rabbit, but that does sound better.”
“Sorry if that sounded mean,” Erika said. “I understand. You grew up in a dangerous time.”
“I’ve seen a lot,” I said. “I’ve seen what happens to heroes. You ever see a heroic gazelle? That’s what the lions want. And for the record, I think God must be terrified of a lot of things.”
“As for my Lord, He is what He is. It is not my place to question what He does, but please go on anyway, sir.” Her hands were clasped together in her lap as she gazed downwards at my spotless kitchen floor.
“God must be scared of failure, right? He must be afraid of what his own creations think of Him. Otherwise, why would He go through so much trouble to impress? Why would He make himself known at all?”
“Perhaps,” Erika said simply. She looked up and changed tact suddenly. “I picked out some clothes for you, if you want to get dressed. I’ll go with you. I want to see this bullet hole that you somehow miraculously survived. Maybe this Escher thinks you’re dead.”
I brightened a bit at the thought. He hadn’t really looked to see if he’d missed or not when he shot at me, so maybe he just assumed he’d hit me. It didn’t make me feel completely at ease, but it helped some.
I didn’t particularly want Erika to come to work with me, but I wasn’t sure she completely believed my story. I wanted to show her the bullet hole so she’d have no choice.
We rode the bus side by side as we left my tidy neighborhood and approached the ever-looming metropolis of downtown Banlo Bay. The skyscrapers gleamed against the morning sun; the city was a shining testament to mankind’s continued insistence on order. The city itself had sprung from where Houston once sat and grown northwest away from the Gulf. The bay was as forgotten as the marshlands, but the name was as insistent on a proper existence as the rest of the city.
National guard had become highwaymen as the Fed went bankrupt; schools had no teachers, and prisons had no wardens. If the water you drank and the food you ate didn’t make you sick, the air would kill you. To me, it was as though all of the politicians and movers and shakers and honest citizens and good people of America had watched every aspect of their lives turn into a sick satire of itself, and only after the war was lost did they gather together on the outskirts of downtown Banlo Bay and yell “Stop!”
The wealthiest of residents could afford to live in the actual downtown area, but most of us regular folk had to make due living in the area immediately surrounding the central city. It was unfortunate, because when the gates slammed shut, there was no doubt downtown was all that would be left standing.
“I hate the city,” Erika said.
“I love it. It's so orderly, so clean and shiny. Makes me feel like the world still exists, you know?”
“The world still exists, it’s just a little different is all,” she countered.
“Not into a world I want to live in,” I sighed. “I want neighbors, barbecue, and a dog. A normal, friendly dog.”
“You want to live in the 1950s?”
“Definitely. You gotta admit, it beats this.”
“It wouldn’t be the same if I knew it was all going to end,” Erika said sadly.
“But still—no shit, no fan. Sounds dreamy to me.”
“Fair enough,” Erika said. “Is this where you work?”
“This is it,” I said. We could only see the first few floors from the bus, and the
giant charcoal-colored tower took up a full city block. It was surrounded by dozens of towers just like it, but none stood taller than Tasumec.
We stepped out into view of the tower and climbed the stairs up to the ground level.
“This is my elevator,” I said, walking her into the cool breeze of the lobby.
“Is this where the fighting happened?” she asked.
“Yeah, right here. Actually, I think two cops died right over there.” I splayed my hand out in the direction of the doors we’d just walked through. “It’s so bizarre. It’s like it never happened.”
Erika was uncharacteristically silent and only nodded her head. I wondered if she thought this was all some elaborate ruse to impress her.
There was still the bullet hole.
The elevator doors slid open.
The common area was full of security guards on break. I walked past them with Erika in tow. I wasn’t really planning on doing any work today, I just wanted to show Ms. Bronton around the office. Afterwards, I’d leave early and just count it as a sick day, like I’d never arrived.
“So, this is me,” I said. The door swung open, and I gawked at the unblemished floor. A small square of patched carpet was the only evidence of my adventure. “Well, that’s kind of a letdown. Still, though, check it out—a new patch of carpet. That’s pretty exciting, right?” I said lamely, my moment robbed.
Erika pranced around the small office lovingly, despite the fact that I’d let her down.
“One minute. I gotta tell my boss I’m not going to be staying today. Give me a second, and please don’t touch anything.”
I left the office and walked hurriedly down the hall to find the shift supervisor. The plain beige halls were empty, even when the tower was fully staffed, and my own footsteps were the only sound I could detect. Still, I couldn’t shake the dreadful feeling I was being watched.
I made myself ignore the anxiety. It was difficult, but since there was obviously no one else in the narrow hallway, I forced myself to keep going.
You’re just paranoid.
I reached my aging supervisor’s office and gave him my message. He waved me off with a noncommittal “Feel better,” and I was on my way.
I hurried to where Erika was. “C’mon,” I said. “There’s not much else to do here, but I’ll show you where we can get some good dumplings.”
Erika was spinning around in my chair, her legs extending from her khaki shorts like the stamen of an exotic bloom. The entire room smelled different when she was there.
”I’m sorry about the letdown,” I said, motioning to the floor.
“It’s alright, Clark. You don’t need a bullet hole to impress me.”
I went to work alone for the rest of the week, and I couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched, of waiting for the hatchet to swing down on me.
The sensation never happened in the same place twice; the feeling seemed to strike at random. I was eating lunch in the common area once, and I couldn’t shake the feeling until I hid in a bathroom stall—and only then did I finally feel safe.
One morning later in the week, I was startled to find that the door to my office was unlocked. Normally it locked automatically anytime it was closed, necessitating a key for each entry. As I twisted the knob and prepared to push, I nearly shit myself when I felt the door being pulled from the inside.
I couldn’t see a hand on the door even as it was wrenched out of my hands and pulled fully open. I felt something brush into me, and suddenly there was a part of a man in front of me. Despite his only half-visible body, he was the most ordinary looking person I’d ever seen.
I realized why I felt like I’d been watched all week. This diminutive man was so normal, so absolutely unnoticeable, that I couldn’t possibly see him until he bumped into me. Even now, he was only faintly visible. If I stopped concentrating on him, he would begin to fade from my attention, and for a confused moment I found myself wondering why I was afraid of the door in the first place.
“Where are the hard drives?” he asked. Suddenly, he became much more solid; he had a very recognizable, nasally voice.
“They’re inside,” I stuttered. “In the big steel cage.”
“They’re not in there,” he said. “Escher wants them. You’re hiding them. You’re in way over your head, Clark.”
“What does Escher want? I’ll do anything,” I pleaded. “Please tell him I’m sorry.”
“Sorry won’t cut it.” The man shook his head. “He hasn’t told me to kill you yet, but I bet the next time I come out here, it’ll be to finish you.”
I gulped. “I don’t know where the hard drives are if they aren’t in there. I promise. You have to believe me.”
“I don’t,” he said. “So my advice to you is to brace yourself. Escher is going to cast a plague on you worse than Columbus did America.”
He stepped out of the doorway of my office and began walking toward the main lobby. As he reached the area where other people stood milling about, he began to vanish. I tried to focus on his hand or his shoes, and each time, I’d find my attention diverted to someone’s sparkling watch or the colorful tie of a coworker. There was nothing noticeable about him.
I sat down at my desk and concentrated on little details in order to even remember I’d bumped into him at all. I focused on the moment when he’d threatened my life; this frame was vivid in my memory, and when I focused on it, the rest of the event unfolded in my mind. Once I had the story straight in my head, I wrote it down so I could study the details and make the whole experience solid.
Once I’d separated reality from fiction, I searched the cage. The Unnoticeable Man had apparently picked the lock, and now the door swung open. I’d only seen the contents of the cage once before. It was a machine with racks of hard drives and gently glowing green lights. Above each slot in the rack was a label giving a range of dates, displaying the timeframe for the recordings that were held on each drive. Just as he’d said, the slot in the machine that should have held the past month of footage was empty.
I unlocked my front door and stepped across my threshold.
“How was work today?” Erika asked from her place on the couch. I could see her curly brown hair cascading over the back of a pillow as she lazily flipped through a magazine.
There were a thousand things I almost said. “Okay,” I lied instead.
Erika kicked her feet out in front of her and admired her own toenails. “We need to talk,” she said.
My heart was already racing in my chest, and the promise of a ‘talk’ didn’t help much. I couldn’t think of a way to breach the subject with Erika. I could tell she thought I was making all of it up; she was just too nice to tell me. Maybe she was waiting for a chance to leave me. Maybe that’s what the conversation was about, and that in itself was as scary as Escher coming for me.
“Come on and sit down,” Erika said, leaning up and patting the space where her head had lain.
I nervously walked over to her and sat down. The cushion was still warm from her body.
“You ever think about getting out more?” Erika asked me from across the couch where we lay sprawled, our feet intertwined and our heads facing each other on opposite ends like some ancient ornate Greek bench.
“I think about it,” I said. This wasn’t an avenue of discussion that I liked. “I just…don’t.”
“Why? Don’t you get lonely?”
“Not now that I have a psycho killer after me, no. I feel very wanted, believe me.”
Erika looked at me skeptically. “You don’t have to…do that.”
“Do what?” I asked, realizing I was angry. “Make up the stories so you’ll think I’m exciting? Isn’t that what this is about? You want out of this deal because I’m so goddamn boring, right?”
“I just mean…well, making some more friends. I don’t find you boring at all. I just don’t think it’s normal for someone to be so, uh…so solitary,” she said softly.
“Right. I’ve had friends before. I watched most of them die, either from thirst, or to keep from becoming slaves, or because they couldn’t run as fast as me when danger came. For five years, Erika, I survived the worst of it. Five years of hiding, of scrambling, of watching everyone adjust to the fact their way of life was gone. And you know what the biggest problem was, out there in the Red? Other people. Just look at the front page there.” I pointed at the newspaper on my coffee table. “That guy molested his step-daughter. Statistically, if you know 100 people, you know people who molest children and steal and lie on a regular basis, and who knows what else. Do you really want to have to deal with that? I don’t. People can’t hurt you if they don’t know you. I mean, just look at this.” I held up the daily newspaper, which sat open-faced on the table in front of us.
That day, another person afflicted with IED—Intermittent Explosive Disorder—had gone off his meds. It was becoming more and more common, as though we didn’t have enough to worry about. This particular IED had unloaded a clip of automatic gunfire in a crowded fast-food restaurant.
“Why do you think people do that?” Erika asked, voice sad now.
“People still think they’re owed a certain way of life. When they don’t get it, they get angrier and angrier at the world around them, I guess. Without medication, half of the people in the city would probably snap,” I said. “I just…I don’t need people in my life. I’m happier alone.”
“In the wild,” Erika said, “animals control their own population density. Some animals need a lot of space—each tiger might have ten square miles to herself. If you tried to fit more tigers in that space, they would kill each other until there was only one left. Maybe we’re like tigers, Clark. Maybe they just can’t fit ten million of us into one city.”
And then I heard it: the sound of cloth on glass—a soft knock against my window. Erika and I were instantly silent; it wasn’t a natural sound and demanded our complete attention. It was the sort of sound only a living thing could make.
I studied Erika’s face and was certain that until this precise moment, she hadn’t believed a word I’d said about Escher or the Strangers.
“They’re coming for me,” I said into my hands as I rubbed it over my clean-shaven face. “I was going to tell you, but you wouldn’t believe me. The Strangers are coming to kill us.”
I looked at the window, and all I could see was that brim of a large hat and tall, upturned collar. There was no face. I looked out the front window, and it was the same thing. I ran into the kitchen—the same thing. They had surrounded the house. He’d come for me.
I sat on the couch for what seemed like an eternity of quiet madness as I gripped the cushion beneath me with both hands. Maybe two or three minutes of just sitting there, knowing I was trapped.
I turned to check on Erika, who had become pale with fright. A thin layer of sweat shone on her forehead. My mind was in terror overload. I couldn’t talk. All I could do was tremble and keep my death grip on the couch.
The door came open—softly, even though it was dead-bolted.
It wasn’t Escher though. It was the woman, the one I’d seen in the alleyway, Whisper. I realized she was the second Stranger who’d been at the tower. She stalked into the living room, appearing to float over to us. A small black cat peeked out from one of her sleeves. It made its nest alongside her pale, slender arm, which she kept crooked to hold her pet in place. “It’s time,” she said. “I was told you were warned?”
I could see more Strangers outside the door.
“Nice to see you again,” Erika said meekly to Whisper.
“It was smart not to run,” she said.
My mouth wasn’t working.
“Where are you taking us?” Erika asked.
”You can’t know that,” she said, voice like silk.
Whisper reached into her robe with her crooked arm and revealed a small amber vial. She poured a few drops of it onto a small handkerchief and offered it to me. “Breathe,” she said. “It will go easier if you comply.”
I reached my hand up shakily to take the soft white square of cloth.
“Now,” she said.
I couldn’t bring myself to inhale the fumes from the cloth. I didn’t know what was on it. Is this going to kill me?
Just as I thought the Stranger was going to say something, Erika leaned over and pressed the cloth into my face for me. I could feel the heat from her small hand as her fingers cupped the side of my cheek.
Smelled funny. Smelled like sleep.
As the light dimmed around my eyes, I saw Erika hold the rag up to her own face and inhale.
6. Fish and Frogs
I woke up in the trunk of a car with a hood over my face and my hands cuffed behind my back. I could feel Erika’s body jostling against mine. I tried to comfort her, but she seemed unconscious.
The car stopped, and I was carried out of the trunk and tossed around some more. Again, I reached around for Erika and called her name, but it was no use. I spent maybe an hour with my hood on in a cold room and my hands pinned behind me on a cement floor, listening to my heart thump.
Finally, strong hands lifted me up from the floor and placed me in an aluminum chair. A hand dove into my pants pocket and pulled out my cell phone.
When they finally took the hood off, Escher’s face was only inches from mine.
Five Strangers stand behind him, some in trench coats and others dressed savagely in torn clothes, tattoo-strewn skin greasy in the light.
“Where is Erika?” I asked Escher, trembling. My voice cracked as I spoke, and I blushed.
“She’s our prisoner.”
Escher paced back and forth in front of me. He was dressed like some sort of pimp caricature with a deep purple velvet robe and matching top hat. I couldn’t see a weapon on him, but that didn’t make him seem any less dangerous.
“You’re afraid, aren’t you Clark Horton? You aren’t the only one. Do you know what really killed America?” he asked.
“No…no, I don’t.” I would say anything to get out of the spotlight.
“Fear killed America. We thought that if we were just secure enough, if there were enough safety procedures, we’d be safe, but safety is a myth. They used airplanes against us, and in response we made airplanes unusable. We used trains instead. Then they put a bomb on a train, and those were taken away. Soon just the threat of an attack was all they needed.
“We choked our own society. We thought that lions and wolves eat with knives and forks. We didn’t realize our enemies would use our fear against us. It’s a sick cycle, Frightened Boy. You, like America, need to wake up.”
I sat petrified, watching him.
“Excuse me,” Escher said suddenly. A lithe, dark-skinned man with set of quotation marks tattooed over his temples stepped up to the purple-robed leader and opened a wooden box, similar to one a wealthy man might use to store his cigars. Inside was a syringe filled with a thick red liquid. It looked like blood.
Escher took it out of the case and carefully injected it into his arm with the familiarity of an experienced junkie. When it was empty, he appeared dizzy for a moment. Then he looked down at his arm, at the injection site. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing serious. I don’t use drugs. My dreams are frightening enough.”
I stayed quiet.
“Now, for you.” The leader of the Strangers bent over until his eyes met mine. He stared into my face, gaze unfocussed. I sat uncomfortably for thirty, forty seconds until at least he blinked again and began speaking. “Let him go,” he said.
Someone I couldn’t see stood over my shoulder, and they untied my hands at his command.
“You are free to move about, but be cautious. You cannot leave, and there is more to be afraid of here in the Orange than the Strangers. You are welcome to stay with us for a period of time, but you must know—I know you have the footage taken of me while I visited Tasumec Tower. I know the police don’t have copies of it, which is the only reason you are still alive. You will be free to leave when I have my hard drives, and I am satisfied yours are the only copies. As you could imagine, I have a lot on my hands. Enjoy my hospitality.”
I stood up and rubbed my wrists. I was feeling extremely nervous, like I may as well have had green skin considering how much I stood out. But then again, given my company, green skin may have helped me blend in more.
A slender white cat slid out from under my chair and coiled itself around my leg. Its small, wise face seemed to be smiling at me.
I felt a presence behind me and turned. It was a face I’d been seeing a strange amount of.
“Whisper,” I said.
“Hello again. Fancy we should meet here.”
“She’s around, I believe. She isn’t captive. She’s been asking for you…seems to think highly of you.”
“Something like that,” I murmured.
I took in my surroundings for the first time. I was in an abandoned shopping center. Racks and shelves had been restacked to create rooms and corridors, and shopping carts had been torn apart and welded back into makeshift fences. Everyone I saw was eccentric and bizarre; it felt like being in some burlesque army. I didn’t really understand what everyone was doing around me, but they seemed busy. Pots of stew boiled over small fires, knives were sharpened around flaming trashcans, and weapons were being taken apart, cleaned, and reloaded. Modern computers were hooked into old gas generators, and assault rifles were stacked in large heaps under bulging camouflage tarps.
I walked around the chamber I was in, marveling at the inner walls they’d built from the gutted store. As I neared a curtained doorway, I heard a low growl. It seemed too monstrously low to be animal; I could feel the vibrations in my stomach.
A hand gripped my shirt and yanked me backwards. I nearly fell over and immediately panicked as I saw the ferocious, scarred black head of a Doberman peering at me through the curtain. I felt like I had awoken Anubis.
“It snarls at foes, it guards his throne, it gnaws on bones,” the man with quotation marks said to me. The lithe, long arms were contoured with ropey muscles, and I realized with startled revulsion this was the same man who murdered those policemen with his bare hands, in the Tasumec Tower lobby. He offered no other explanation, but none was needed.
I noticed that Whisper’s cats were watching from a safe distance.
I stumbled backwards and found my way out of the gutted shopping center, feeling as though I was intruding on something forbidden at every turn. I became aware that no matter where I walked, Whisper was in eyesight.
I stepped outside into the night. Smelled like tire fires. Everything around me was covered in boards or bars and wrapped in fences, as though this was an invading army that’d set up hurried defenses. An abandoned highway intersection wrapped up into the sky, covered in garbage and lifeless cars, collapsing under its own weight.
Everywhere there was cryptic graffiti in excited spurts of bright colors. I didn’t understand it at all, but it was beautiful in a strange sort of way. I could not fathom how people had reached the tops of buildings and sides of highways without scaffolding or lifts or even ropes and ladders.
“Someone holds their feet,” Whisper said, soft voice coming from behind me. “There are two people involved with graffiti. Someone paints the tag, and someone else holds them over the ledge. Do people do that sort of thing where you live?”
I stood in silence.
“Clark!” I heard Erika’s familiar voice behind me, and relief gushed through me. She was practically running at me with a hand waving in the air. She looked unharmed, and a short, fat, angry man was trying to follow her, cursing as he waddled.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Of course, my Lord.” She smiled. “I used to live in an Orange Zone many years ago. I’m used to this sort of thing.”
I realized then that I hardly knew anything about Erika’s past.
“Clark, meet Grundel.”
“Pleasure,” I said to the sweaty, fat figure before me.
The balding, rotund man only grunted. He wiped a meaty hand off on his torn jeans and offered it to me. It felt like gripping a spoiled ham. “I heard what Escher said about this kid. Frightened Boy. Hah!”
“His name is Clark,” Erika said defensively. “’Frightened Boy’ is a mean name.”
“The fuck it is. He is what Escher says he is,” Grundel frowned at me. “I’m supposed to keep an eye on you two until you cough up whatever it is Escher wants from you. You don’t exactly fit in around here, so don’t think you can just slip away. You’re live bait in this part of town.”
I found myself unconsciously stepping backwards as Grundel spoke. Globs of pink spit flew from his mouth and felt cold and gross on my face.
“I don’t have what Escher wants,” I tried to explain.
“Then you better find it fast. No one here is going to tell the Red King he’s wrong on this one—not when we can just watch you die and have it over with instead.”
“Well what the hell am I supposed to do?”
“I’m not sayin’ you two are totally screwed, kid,” Grundel said. “She’s pretty. He might keep her around…so there’s hope. But you, you’re fucked.”
Erika frowned. “Fuck off,” she commanded the equally pudgy, podgy, and dumpy man. “We’ll be fine. Escher isn’t going to kill us. He’ll understand, and Clark will get us out of this.”
“Mouthy bitch,” he mumbled. “Believe in whatever gets you through the day.” Now Grundel looked dismissively off into the distance at a fight between two dogs.
There was a pause as I searched Erika’s face for signs of the dread I was feeling. She looked excited rather than terrified, though, like this was some theme park ride and things were well under my control.
As for myself, I’d switched into a sort of macabre resignation and was only dreading the moment in which I’d be killed. I hoped I’d be shot in the head without warning, or at least something that didn’t require pain or cringing.
“Come on. My place is just a block over.” Grundel pointed toward an abandoned convenience store. Looked like it just needed a hard kick and it’d collapse. “You two can sleep there.”
I was eager to get away from the Strangers and be with Erika. My entire world felt out of place, and Erika was the closest thing to comfort that I could cling to.
In the background, an old radio played white noise at high volume. Words floated around in the static mess, but nothing intelligible surfaced. Grundel leaned forward and listened to the radio with great focus, though, nodding his head at the sounds of the static as though it spoke to him in a language only he understood.
I’d hoped for something romantic—I could have used romantic. It was Grundel’s radio, though, and it was his home, so I didn’t dare ask him to turn it off or change the channel.
“I knew there was something strange about you,” Erika said. Her breath tickled my shoulder as she looked into the side of my neck. “I just knew I had picked someone special.”
As often seemed the case with Erika, I didn't know how to respond to what she’d said. I pretended, though, because she’d been at this act for a while, and I was getting comfortable with playing along.
“Everything will be fine,” I told her. “There is a larger plan at work here. I know exactly what is going to happen.”
“Am I safe in you?” Erika asked.
“You’re safe in me. I will protect you.”
God lies. There was no plan, and I had no idea what I was going to do. She believed in me, so I echoed that. Isn’t that God’s line anyway? "Just stick with me long enough, and I promise that everything will start to make sense in the end."
Today I’m scared I had let Erika Bronton down.
I woke up to the smell of meat cooking over an open fire. It smelled savory until I peeked out my window and realized it was feral dog being roasted over a metal industrial bin.
I rose to my feet and approached the main room of the hut, but heard voices and froze. Whisper and Erika were speaking.
“So, tell me about Escher,” Erika asked.
“He’s the leader,” Whisper said. “That’s all you really need to know. He founded everything you see, and he’s in charge of the Strangers.”
Her voice sounded the least bit excited for the first time since I’d met her. I idly wondered what her role here was. Was she Escher’s girlfriend? I imagined sex with her would be like going at it with a bag of ice—all sharp edges and cold, forbidding places.
“Where did Escher come from, then?” Erika asked.
I wished Erika wouldn’t be so curious about him. I was, too, but it made me feel inferior. It made me think maybe God felt this way about airplanes and the Internet.
“I heard he used to be rich,” Grundel said, “and gave up his life of luxury for this. But Whisper has known him longer than just about anyone.”
Whisper only nodded her head. It was clear she wasn’t going to divulge the story.
“Well, if she won’t talk,” Grundel continued, “I only know—”
“Shut up, Grundel,” Whisper said calmly, almost kindly. He immediately quieted himself.
“He organized this…this society?” I asked from the doorway between the two rooms.
“Some of us used to have jobs like you, and all of us are rather disenchanted with the system. All of our homes and property fell to the Orange Zone and eventually went Red. Do you know how many people were left out in the cold, in the anarchy? Let me tell you a secret about anarchy,” Grundel said. “It’s only anarchy for about five minutes. Then, the biggest guy realizes he’s King—or at least until two guys band together and think they are. Escher? Well, he’s about 1,000 guys. Escher with a few thousand guys? That’s not just tribal warfare anymore—that's a fuckin' army,” Grundel said. Then he looked at Whisper and stopped talking.
“Escher is a force of his own nature,” a high-pitched, nasally voice said from a corner of Grundel’s makeshift home. I hadn’t noticed him before, of course.
“Sneak,” Grundel uttered sarcastically. “I hate you, Sam.”
I saw Erika’s green eyes refocus fuzzily as she realized that a fifth person had been in the room for some time.
“Nice to see you again, Clark,” Sam said, taking a step forward and shaking my hand. As soon as I touched him, his presence solidified in my mind.
“I’ve seen you before,” I said vacantly. “In Tasumec Tower.”
“Yeah, and I told you this was going to happen…and it did. You shouldn’t try to keep things from Escher.”
“Why don’t you take a walk with me, Clark?”
Erika began to protest, but Whisper laid a hand quietly on hers, letting her know she had no choice in the matter.
The morning light played strange tricks on the Orange Zone. Where it had seemed alive the night before with campfires and small gatherings on every corner, it was now completely empty and seemed deserted. It was easy to imagine how the police had a hard time tracking the Secret Society of Strangers; half the suburbs in America looked like this.
“How do you do it?” I asked, looking to my left and right, then to my left again, and finally finding Sam.
“Disappear?” he asked, smiling.
“Yeah. Pretty amazing.”
“I bet you’d be pretty good at it yourself…well, I mean if you had the proper tools.”
“Why do you say that? And what do you mean by 'tools'?”
Sam pulled a rusty, ruined watch from a chain on his belt. The brass had long ago faded to green and brown, and the glass was smashed across the face. “This helps,” he said, “but there's more to it than that, of course.”
“How does that help?”
“If Escher ever wants you to know, he’ll explain it,” he said.
“So how do you know I’d be good at it?” I asked as we stepped past Strangers attending to their morning duties.
“Just your look. And hell, you noticed me, and most people never do.”
“I’m very conscious of people watching me,” I said.
“I’ll have to be extra careful around you then,” Sam grinned.
“So how did you meet Escher?” I asked as we walked slowly down the street. “Are you some sort of spy?”
“Better.” He smiled. “I’m shy.”
“It’s as much about not noticing other people as it is about not being noticed yourself.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Probably not. Have you ever felt someone looking at you?”
“All the time,” I said.
“We naturally sense each other out. It's sort of a mental check we subconsciously make before we have contact with someone. It’s hard-wired into us, and it shapes how we act around everyone we see. It’s why we feel comfortable walking up to some people but feel the opposite way with someone else.”
“I don’t really feel comfortable walking up to anyone,” I said.
“Anyway, I skip that. I never send out that feeler, never initiate contact. Thanks to my tools, I am able to just not send out those unconscious signals that other people respond to—sort of like how dreading being singled out always gets you singled out.”
“That sounds too easy to work,” I said.
“You say that, but it's not as easy as it sounds. Try standing in the corner of someone’s office for seven hours trying as hard as you can to not notice the man sitting three feet away from you.”
“Beautiful women must be your downfall,” I said, grinning.
“That goes for everyone,” he said sagely, “but there is more to it than just that. Escher gives the power, if he trusts you enough,” Sam said. “Some of us are more. You don’t understand yet, and maybe you can’t, but some of us have made huge sacrifices to follow Escher.”
“Some of you?”
“Those of us who are closest to him.” He stopped me in front of a barred-up liquor store. “And here we are. It’s been nice knowing you.”
Sam snapped his fingers within an inch of my face, distracting me for a moment. When I was finished blinking, he was gone.
I looked around, wondering if I could spot someone that my senses refused to recognize. After a moment, I gave up and stepped into the store.
The shelves had been pushed to either side of the entryway, creating a makeshift cage for anyone who entered. Inside, two men in camouflage jackets stood guard with guns in their hands. A fashionably intense man lounged in a royal blue bean-bag chair between them.
I noticed that when he relaxed, he looked a good deal older than I’d expected. He might have been in his early fifties.
"Hello, Frightened Boy," his voice boomed warmly.
"Sir," I mumbled.
"Be happy to see me! This can be resolved. You can go back to your old life soon." He reached into his robe and withdrew a square of black leather. Inside, he withdrew my City Card and presented it to me.
I choked on that for a moment. "After I've seen all of this? You'd just…let me go?"
"Well, yeah. I mean, your old life has a rapidly approaching expiration date, but you can enjoy it for as long as everyone else will get to. And you won't be far away. If you cause trouble, we'll come and get you again. No place is far from me." He put the card back in his pocket. “You’ll get it back when I have the footage.”
"I don’t…” I blubbered.
“Either way, my domination is inevitable. The pieces are already in place. Make no mistake, Banlo Bay will fall. And after it does, it’ll finally be a wonderful place. People will trust each other, love each other. There is only one enemy that thwarts our progress.”
"Who?" I asked.
Escher paused for a moment before he said, "It’s nothing to worry about. It’s not something you need to know. All you need to do is give me those hard drives, and then you can go on with your life.”
Shit. Of course, except I don’t have them or know where they are. I didn’t want to tell him that, though—what if he killed me?
"What keeps me from floating out of my chair?" Escher asked.
"Gravity, I think," I said. My head was spinning trying to keep up with him. The sudden shift in conversation was making me uncomfortable.
"What is gravity?" he asked.
"Newton defined it pretty well, I think. It's like you said—it's what is keeping you in your chair."
"No!" Escher shouted, standing up to illustrate his point. "Newton was my kind of scientist, because science is bunk—a waste of time and no better than religion—but Newton didn't try to explain why things happened. Newton's theory of gravity only measures forces in this galaxy. He never said what gravity is or why it's there. He only measured it. We still don't know what gravity is."
"We'll know eventually," I replied, somewhat defensively. I subscribed to science.
"We'll have a better guess before long," Escher said. "The Bible says Adam was placed on the Earth, and the first thing he did was name things, categorize things. This is very telling. It is man's first instinct to explain, to marginalize, and to assess threats. As man becomes fat, man becomes bored, and when he takes this to the next level, science is born. Man names the tree, but the tree existed first. It exists whether or not we call it a tree. Science is constantly wrong. It stays in one place, but the world keeps spinning." Escher sat down before he continued.
"Are you really sure a floor can’t also be a ceiling? I stay in my chair," he said, "whether or not we know why. Why? Because it has nothing to do with the universe. Science is obsessive-compulsive behavior from a bored species, no better than putting all your peas in neat columns before you eat them."
"But gravity explains the entire universe."
"It's 80 percent wrong actually," Escher said.
"But, dark matter—"
"Dark matter is what? A variable in an equation that represents what is wrong with Newton's theory, that's all. It could be quantum loop gravity or causal dynamical triangulated space time or super string theory. Or it could be because God said so…or none of it might exist and it’s all a single imagining.
“What makes you think human beings are capable of understanding the universe? Maybe our senses simply aren’t capable. We don’t expect a mouse to understand why he is in a maze, do we? We only expect him to muddle through,” Escher reasoned. “Or maybe we’re all creating the world around us as we move through it, but I’m creating it much better than anyone else—or maybe it’s just all me."
"It's better than nothing," I said. “And because of science, we have engineering. Cars, planes, trains—”
"It's infinitely worse than nothing," Escher replied. "People say religion is the great killer, that religion starts wars and commits atrocities. Maybe so, but science made them dangerous. Science armed them. Science is a base instinct of man, a way to keep him occupied and blind to the truth of the world. Science breeds ideas like drilling holes in skulls to let bad spirits out. And even worse, the need to explain things—that turns into a need to know what to fear. That’s how he controls us. That’s how he keeps us afraid of our own shadows and keeps us from trusting one another."
"If science is crap, like you say, then what is the truth?"
"Tessellations are the truth. The tessellations that I draw.”
You're not the truth, I wanted to say. You're insane. But you are surrounded by armed guards, and you're a volatile terrorist, so I'll just smile and nod.
Instead, I said, "Science is man's best attempt at making order out of the things around him."
"You've just described religion as well, my new friend. You're admitting that science offers nothing worth believing in and little worth hoping for. ‘Science will save us. Technology will set us free!’ Wrong! Science got us here, to the end of civilization. It’s my turn to take a crack at the problem."
He stopped talking for a moment. I didn’t say a word, but he seemed to expect this. Instead, he studied my face, and ironically, I found myself wishing he would start talking again.
“I need that footage,” he said to me, changing tact again, making me think everything he said before was only to catch me off guard for this moment. Every moment with Escher seemed to be like this.
“Who were the men on them?”
“Bad men. They deserved to die, and they knew why.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“No one else can know why they died. There are forces out there that could stop me if they had that sort of information.”
“That’s why you can’t leave until I get those tapes. I know you probably want to stop everything you know and love from being torn down brick by brick, but be reasonable. If I have this tape, I can prevent myself from having to kill everyone. You get me those tapes, and I don’t have to go that far.”
“Great. Yeah, I’ll get them,” I lied.
“You do want to go back to work, don’t you? To your life?”
I hesitated for a moment.
“Ah-hah!” Escher shouted. The sound was like a gun clap, and I flinched.
A day job wasn’t the only life I’d ever known. Life used to be a lot different, before the Collapse.
“What does that life in the office mean to you?” Escher asked. “What am I really destroying?”
“Fake laughter, cold coffee, and gold watches,” I mumbled. “This isn’t the only life I’ve ever known. It’s the closest thing to normal, though.”
“Why do you think the world fell apart?” he asked.
“I don’t know for sure. The Illuminati? The New World Order? Someone must be responsible for this.”
Escher laughed. Then he looked down at the cheap linoleum checkered tiling on the floor and retreated to his half of the board, no longer threatening to strike my last few scattered pawns.
“You should think hard before you establish in your mind that there is some terrible entity responsible for the world’s evils. I would question the existence of such an entity like you’d question the existence of God, because you’re really elevating them both to the same place. No, the answer must lie elsewhere.”
Then Escher stood up and picked a long silver pistol from a nearby table. He pivoted suddenly, and the barrel was in my face.
“You should be wondering why I’m not pulling the trigger right now,” Escher said.
I only gulped.
“The first reason is because I’d still like that footage.” He took a moment to clear his throat and pointed the gun just an inch to the left of my ear, away from my head. “The second is because I have a good feeling about you, Frightened Boy—and my good feelings are your reality.”
8. Rippled Surface
The Strangers seemed to have a lot to do, so Erika and I were left on the sidelines to watch and worry. I didn’t mind so much; these were both things I excelled at.
The second night fell swiftly over the deserted shopping district, and the absolute darkness of the city streets was broken up only by the occasional fire. The entire campground was hastily thrown together, an amalgamate of past and present technology. Sharp sticks were wielded as weapons when ammunition couldn’t be had or spared. A fixer was just as likely to be repairing a worn firing mechanism as building a 7,000-year-old pitfall trap over a fissure in the street.
Escher didn’t seem to be in any hurry to force the footage from me; it was obvious he had me on a short leash. Now that I’d seen the way he operated, I tended to believe he could reach me anywhere. Even the gleaming orderliness of Downtown Banlo Bay—seemingly his antithesis—did nothing to slow him.
I’d wanted to talk to Erika on our little mattress in Grundel’s extra room where we slept, but she insisted on taking a walk. I had no choice but to agree. Besides, she’d found a change of clothes and was in this tight white shirt, the kind with the little straps that go over her shoulders. She had a white bow in her hair to match, and looked radiant. I could have read by her light.
“I had to raise myself,” I told her. I’d never talked about my past with her; I’d never had the courage. Now it seemed like death was certain, so I didn’t need to look around every corner. There was no reason to be anxious; I knew exactly where the danger was.
“What do you mean? Where were your parents?”
“Dead,” I said. “It was up to me to make sure I didn’t get in any trouble—that I got to school on time, finished my homework, stayed safe, and so on.”
“That’s terrible,” she said. “What happened?”
“They were never exactly there for me anyway. When I was twelve, they had themselves cryogenically frozen so they could carry on their love in some utopian future. I was too young to join them, but they did it anyway. Obviously, their love was more important than the son it created.”
“So they’re still frozen somewhere?”
“No. They died six months later during a power outage. I got a postcard in the mail to let me know. You know…one of those 'We regret to inform you' kind of postcards.”
Erika was silent.
“I guess realizing how fragile and weak you are, how ultimately powerless, what else can you do? I’m a fucking field mouse. I am Frightened Boy,” I said.
“That’s not true, and you aren’t powerless. Look where we are! In the middle of the base of a secret revolution. I don’t think most people could have gotten this far.”
“You mean captured?” I was skeptical. Things had been very bizarre lately, but none of it was my doing, and I certainly didn't feel special because of it.
“You’re just looking at things wrong,” she said. She took a few steps in front of me and twirled in place.
None of this seemed real. It was only a few weeks ago that not being approached by a Stranger—really anyone who wanted something from me—made it a good day. Maybe not good, per se, but manageable. Life had seemed so dangerous and upset around me that I was grateful just to make it to work and back without something terrible happening.
Now, I was starting to realize there was more to life than that. It still didn’t mean I wanted any part of it, though—only Erika. Of all the things life had to offer me, I’d politely decline all of them but her. I’d never really had a girlfriend, big surprise.
“Erika, we need to talk,” I sighed. I didn’t want to talk about anything with her that wasn’t pleasant.
“Knock it off,” I said. “Erika, do you know what happened to the hard drive at my office? The missing one—the one Escher wants? He seems very sure that I have it.”
She bit her lower lip and widened her eyes, looking very much like she was trying to hold her words in. “Even if I did, do you really want him to have it?” she asked, grinning suddenly. “Trust me, everything I do is to keep you safe. I trust you absolutely, so how about having a little faith in me? That's why we’re out here tonight. What wouldn’t a faithful disciple do for her Lord?”
I noticed we had ventured a ways from the center of the makeshift camp.
“Erika, of course I want him to have that hard drive. Then he’ll leave us alone and we can go home.”
“I don’t think there’s ever going to be a home again, Clark. I think we should play our cards right and make a new home for ourselves. Whatever is going on out here, it’s big. I’ve been in camps of roamers before, and this isn’t one of them. This is an army. That hard drive is our only bargaining chip. As long as I know where it is, they need us. As long as they need us, we won’t die with everyone else.”
Headlights turned the corner, and the entire street shone with alien light. As the beams turned to face me, I noticed the strange outline of the car they were attached to; steel flaps around the headlights and side windows, heavy cattle-catcher guard on the bumper.
“Who’s this?” I asked.
“An old acting partner. We did a few shows together; he’s going to bail us out. We’ll go get the hard drives, move them somewhere safer.”
I started to object, but Erika pressed a soft, pale finger to my lips. She leaned in and kissed my cheek.
The car rushed forward and screeched to a halt. An old family car with mismatched metal plates welded to its body; its stripped black tires stopped an inch from my feet.
The moment this vehicle rocked back on its wheels, two things happened: I froze, and everything around me exploded into action.
A disembodied hand and face appeared inches from behind Erika, one hand wrapping around her mouth and the other her waist. She attempted a muffled scream as Sam pulled her back and away from me.
I turned back around, and the menacing figure of a Stranger in full regalia was standing in front of the car. The collar from her long charcoal trench coat rose up to high cheekbones, hiding her face. Only the twinkling, starry eyes of the feline leaping from her shoulder toward me gave away her identity.
I twisted as the cat pounced; it dug into my shoulder, screeching hiss in my ear. I ignored the pain of the scratching and grabbed the cat by the torso, dumping it on the ground just as a third figure barreled into me, knocking the air from my lungs. The ground went vertical, gave me vertigo, and soon I couldn’t see Earth at all. The dark-skinned, bald-headed man with the quotation marks had his knees on my chest and was grappling with my hands, trying to reach my throat. Trying to stop his arms felt like trying to redirect a river with my hands.
There was a tremendous motion above me, and suddenly the weight from my chest was gone. On the ground next to me was my attacker, clutching his ribs.
An enormous black man—the driver of the armored sedan—picked me up by the collar of my shirt and set me on my feet. “Hurry the hell up!” he shouted, shotgun in one hand.
All I could think about was protecting Erika. I rushed toward the sound of her struggling. Sam came into full view just as I remembered it was his hands on her. For some reason, this infuriated me, as if he had broken some unspoken trust.
Reason escaped me as I charged into him. I had imagined I would do something brave or useful, but I panicked at the last moment and just jumped onto him, dragging both him and Erika to the ground with me.
Both Sam and I scrambled and stood up over Erika’s fallen body. I was about to—to hit him I guess…or do something.
And then suddenly, I was ten feet away and on the ground, my back pressed against one of the simple metal buildings that lined the street. The pain didn't hit me immediately, but then there it was. It felt like my ribs were digging into my lungs, and I could only pant feebly, unable to draw in a full breath.
Then I saw him, standing there over Erika like he owned her. I stared at him as the driver began carrying me away.
Escher was grinning.
The driver threw me into his car like I was luggage, then jumped into the driver’s side and slammed his foot to the accelerator. I could barely hear the squeal of the tires over the pounding of my heart.
The car swerved to narrowly miss Whisper, who hissed violently. Her dissent was mimicked by a chorus of smaller hisses. She held a large revolver, aimed right at my head. I watched the barrel of the gun track my face perfectly for several seconds.
“What the fuck is going on here?” the driver asked.
“You left Erika! We have to get Erika.”
“What? You think we can just charge back there and grab her?”
I turned around to look out the rear slats of his makeshift tank and saw that the number of black shapes coagulating in the street had increased. My heart fell. “No, I guess not. We need a plan though. We can’t just leave her.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, buddy. The Strangers have her. The police won’t do anything. They won’t even go near the Orange Zone.”
Erika. Now that I’d had her, I had to have her back. What kind of God am I, anyway?
“How did you even find us?” I asked the driver. “And who are you?”
“Erika called. I owe her. Who are you?”
“I’m Fri—I’m Clark. Clark Horton, what’s your name?”
“Call me Guts.” Black hair in tight cornrows jutting out the back of his bandana, shotgun resting haphazardly between us. “I’m a delivery driver.”
“So, what now?”
“Hide, I guess. I was hoping you had an idea. That was the extent of my heroics back there,” he said, rubbing his face with a big hand.
“I don’t even know if we can hide,” I said. “Can you really stay clear of them? Can’t they find us? And we have to save Erika.”
Guts shook his head. “There are gangs out there, and there are tribes—old military units, police forces that lost their paychecks and their patriotism. Every now and then, I meet someone who will talk about the Strangers, but no one fucks with them. They raid cities, they attack barracks. It’s an army.”
Guts plowed over decrepit super highways with cracks and fissures in the concrete as wide as my fist. His heavy steel-plated vehicle shuddered and groaned as the suspension bitched about every contour.
We were heading in the general direction of downtown Banlo Bay. The thick smog the metropolis emitted reflected the gangly mass of lights like some deep-sea organism that was its own sun.
“I have a place,” Guts said. “We’ll be safe there, at least for a while. What do the Strangers want from you anyway?”
“Footage,” I replied. “I don’t even have it, and I don’t know where it is.”
Erika might have known where to find it, but I wasn't about to tell Guts that. The less people knew, the safer she’d be.
We closed in on one of the inner loops of Banlo Bay. At last, Guts exited into a parking garage and hid his car in a back corner on the lowest level, as far away from human eyes as possible. We stepped out of the garage and into the dingy outdoor halls of the apartment complex Guts apparently called home.
As we approached the door, he halted and put his hand out to stop me. Guts ducked down, grunting as he threw himself onto the floor. I gawked as he dodged, and barely saw the small blue object hurtling through the air on a collision course with my face.
“Fuck!” I yelped as the hard plastic block bounced off the side of my head. My vision blurred, skull pulsed with pain.
“Did you see who threw that?” Guts asked.
“No! I didn’t see…I mean, shit. Ow! What the hell?”
The hard plastic block started ringing. While rubbing my head, I stretched down to pick up the cell phone. “Hello?” I asked, uncertain.
“Clark Horton?” the voice on the other end asked.
“Yeah? Hey, why’d you throw this phone at me?”
“That was only my courier. I need you to listen very carefully. We don’t have much time. I need to guarantee you are who you say you are.”
“I’m a little bit busy actually,” I said.
Guts had picked himself up from the floor and was examining the letter nailed to his door.
“I know all about the Secret Society of Strangers, and I know about Escher," the Voice on the Other End said. "I know you have something he wants, and I can help you…but first you have to prove you are who you say you are—that you are, in fact, Clark Horton.”
“How’d you know I’d be here?” I asked.
“I keep an eye on things,” he said. “I work for the good guys, for order.”
I stopped doing everything except listening to the phone. I couldn’t turn down any potential help. I was doomed without it.
“So prove yourself,” the Voice commanded.
“You prove yourself first,” I rebutted.
“War is to man as motherhood is to woman. It’s something we say around here.”
My heart jumped—I’d heard that before. The detective in Tasumec Tower! Who is this guy?
“My name is Clark Horton. I’m five-foot-five and 130 pounds. I have brown hair. I have type-B blood, I am allergic to dogs, and I’ve never had the measles. I am—or, was—a member of the security staff in Tasumec Tower, in the city of Banlo Bay,” I said to the phone, hoping one of these facts would be enough.
There was a pause. On the other end, I heard keys being tapped. In the background, another voice said, "Yep, it all checks out."
“Wait, how many of you are there? Who are—?”
“Not important,” the Voice said, silencing me. “If you want to live, you’ll answer my questions quickly and directly. You were captured by the Strangers, correct?”
“Yes, and I just escaped. They’re going to be coming for me. You’ve got to help me.”
“Tell me where they are camped out,” the Voice said.
“Yeah, sure. My friend is there too, she’s still a hostage. You’ve got to rescue her. Guts, can you tell this guy where you found us?”
I handed the phone to Guts, and he relayed the location.
“I believe you then,” came The Voice’s response as Guts handed the phone back to me.
Guts stared at me while pointing at the letter on his door. “You should read this,” he whispered. “I don’t think it’s safe here.”
“The cell phone you are holding has enough battery life for one day. If I don’t save you within twenty-four hours, you’re dead.”
I looked at the face of the phone. There were two out of five bars left of the charge. The little port where a plug would normally go was filled with glue.
“There’s a letter here for me,” I said, “on the door of my friend’s apartment. Should I read it?”
“Yes. And, who is that with you?” the Voice asked.
“He calls himself ‘Guts’. He rescued me from the Strangers.”
The click-clack of more typing. Next, I heard a chorus of voices, barely audible through the phone. Quite a production.
“Well, go on then. The more time you waste, the quicker you’ll die. Read the note,” the Voice said, more irritated now.
I began to read:
What I give form to in the day light is only one percent of what I have seen in darkness.
“That’s it,” I said to the Voice.
“Usual cryptic Escher nonsense. So, where are these hard drives with the footage he’s after?” the Voice asked.
“Don’t you mean what are the hard drives? How would you know all this?” I asked.
“Just…" The Voice snapped and then paused to regain his composure. “Look, here is how this is going to work. Escher knows where you are. He knows because he knows pretty much anything he wants to know, one way or another. You are already surrounded by Strangers. They’ll probably force you to lead them to the footage they’re after and then kill you.”
“And what alternative are you offering?” I asked.
“You give me those hard drives instead. I’ll deliver you from evil.”
“Why does everyone want them so bad?”
“Because those are the only recorded images of the man you call Escher. All others have been erased. If I can record his face, I can trace his past. If I can trace his past, I can prove to him that he’s not God and that we are not all figments of his imagination. If I can prove that, then maybe I can stop his disruption of reality.”
“You’re both crazy. How do I know this isn’t a trap, that you're not working with them?”
“You know as well as I do that no one would have to work this hard to trap you, Clark. Walk to the edge of the fire escape and look out over it.”
I motioned to Guts and stepped out onto the fire escape.
“Do something,” the Voice said.
“Just do something—anything.”
I waved my arm, feeling a bit foolish.
“You just waved your right arm into the air,” the Voice said. A chill passed over me. “You are just a twinkle in my all-seeing eye. If you don’t believe me by now, I may as well hang up and—”
“No, don’t,” I interrupted. I took a deep breath. “I’ll tell you. I can get the footage,” I lied. That hard drive was my only bargaining chip, at least for as long as they thought I had it.
“Well, then let’s get that hard drive. Like Escher, I am after it as well. If you can deliver it to me, I can guarantee your safety.”
“That isn’t enough,” I said. “You have to save Erika too.”
“I’ll do my best,” he said, not sounding so pleased. I had the feeling he wasn’t used to being bargained with.
Guts snatched the phone from me. “You get nothing unless you can guarantee her safety.”
I heard murmurs from the phone but couldn’t make out what the Voice was saying. Guts looked ashen for a moment and returned the phone to my hands.
“I’ll do my best,” the Voice repeated. From the shocked look on my friend’s face, that wasn’t at all he’d told him. “Let’s try and remember that we’re on a real time constraint here. You’re both going to be dead if you don’t start running. Put me on speaker phone.”
I clicked the button. Guts huddled close to the phone as well, sharing in the conversation.
“You’ve both wasted too much time here doubting me. Strangers are coming. Where are the hard drives?” the Voice asked.
“I hid them in Tasumec Tower,” I said shakily. “Where do we go?”
“Where in the Tower?” The Voice asked.
“I see one!” Guts shouted. He had opened up the fire escape door and was peering down at the ground. “I see one of them down there.”
“Somewhere only I can find them,” I said. I only needed to fool the Voice long enough to get to the center of Banlo Bay; I’d be safe there.
“Fine,” the Voice said. “Now both of you, run! Down the fire escape, as soon as you hit the ground, I need you to cover two blocks straight out from front of the apartment complex. There’s a bus stop there, and a bus will be waiting on you.”
Guts and I stopped, looked at each other.
“Go!” the phone commanded.
I ran. Guts trailed behind.
“There’s not going to be a bus! It's three in the fucking morning!” I shouted even as I was bounding down the metal fire escape. I tried to ignore the fact that I was four stories in the air. If the Voice responded, I didn’t hear it.
I was leading the charge down the third, second, and first floors. The fire-escape ladder leading to the ground was up; I kicked it downwards, and it struck the ground with a clank. I flew down the ladder and landed soft.
I turned back for a moment to see if I had been followed. Deep in the murky black of night, I thought I saw a large figure just across the street. This was all I needed to send my brain into terror overload. Guts hit the ground with a thud next to me, but I was already charging across the front of the lawn and into the first street I had to cross.
“They’re all around you, closing in,” the Voice chirped from my hand. Apparently, he knew just what to say to keep me running. “Jump the fence to your right—now—and run across the complex until you come across another street. There will be a bus waiting for you there. Run as fast as you possibly can and don’t stop until you’re inside.”
As the Voice promised, a bus waited across the street. Looked empty, out of place in the night.
As I crossed over to the second street; something caught my eye. It almost looked like a statue or the trunk of a tree, but a closer inspection made me freeze. A figure cloaked in a charcoal-colored trench coat and wearing a hat with a long, circular brim. The moment I saw him, he moved toward me, cloak billowing. Seconds to act, and I only froze.
“Let’s go,” Guts said. His thick fingers wrapped around my wrist, and he pulled me into motion.
We began running together across the grassy lawn to the street when I became aware that the shadows in the darkness behind me were twisting. I was grappled and wrenched out of Gut’s grip and onto the ground; my attacker took me by surprise. So focused on getting past the Stranger in front of me I hadn’t seen the trap lying in wait. I was thrown onto the grass so hard that for a moment, the night sky spun above me.
The phone fell into the grass. I struggled to crawl over and reach it as my attacker pulled at my legs.
“Give it up, kid! Come on. You’ve got places to go. You don’t want to keep Him waiting.”
I kicked my feet helplessly, never connecting with anything but heavy fabric. I may as well have struggled against cretin curtains. The bus began to pull away. Guts reached the edge of the street and only now turned to realize I wasn’t with him.
The first Stranger intercepted Guts, and he too wrestled with an amorphous fabric assailant. I watched him struggle just as a fist struck the side of my head, dizzying me with the spinning sky once again.
Then blue and red lights shaded the green lawn and disrupted the darkness. My attacker froze, as did I. A police cruiser crawled down the street. The bus stopped suddenly, waiting for the officers to pass.
I lunged for the cell phone and felt relief as I gripped its cool plastic body. It was my only chance at survival.
The Stranger who was grappling with me let go of my legs and took a few steps backward, sinking into the shadows. I waved for the cruiser to come to me as I staggered to my feet, relieved by my luck. I could see two officers inside; they opened the doors and stepped out in unison.
“Do you see the police? I did that. Try to get on the bus. It won’t work for long.” Only the sound of the phone pierced the silence, meeping pitifully into the eerie quiet. The entire battle had frozen; I could see that Guts was free as well and was twisting about to find the Stranger who attacked him.
The police stopped as something caught their eye. I turned and looked down the street where a lone figure stood, his feet on either side of the double yellow lines of the pavement.
It was Him in a burgundy jacket, big aviator glasses, and a short-cropped beard. He held a cigarette between his fingers like a conductor’s wand. Escher stood perfectly still, blocking the policemen’s path.
The two cops looked like rabbits in his headlights. They ducked slowly back into their cruiser. Apparently afraid, they turned off their warning lights and pulled a U-turn to leave in the direction from which they came.
As soon as the vehicle turned, time snapped back into motion. My attacker lunged at me again, and I was barely ahead of him. I ran for the bus, which was empty save a lone driver. I shouted to Guts to stop trying to fight and follow me, as I flew past him into the buses’ waiting door.
I climbed on. My pursuers did not enter the bus. Never been happier to see the camera mounted at its rear, recording the passengers getting on and off. These signs of civilization were gateways to the Voice’s power, and the Strangers must fear them.
Out the window, Guts punched and kicked a large flowing figure. It was impossible to tell where the cloak ended and the body inside it began, so all of his frantic blows seemed to hit only empty air. Another Stranger approached from behind him.
I banged on the glass of the bus. Guts twirled his head, dreadlocks spinning. This seemed to break his bloodlust, and he turned to charge into the bus. The Stranger launched himself at Guts’s waist, and even as he latched on, it was clear the large delivery driver wasn’t stopping. He dragged the Stranger a few feet before at last his attacker let go, and Guts was on the bus. The moment he stepped inside, the vehicle accelerated, sending him stumbling down the aisle.
Escher blew a ring of smoke at the bus as it spun past him.
“I…I saw Escher,” I managed to breathe heavily into the phone after I had ducked safely down into a rear seat. “He was there.”
“I know,” said the Voice.
“How did you get the police to come so quickly?”
“Because I run Banlo Bay. This bus will take you downtown in good time.”
“Why did the police just leave like that?”
“They were afraid of Escher.”
“Well, why didn’t the Strangers follow me onto the bus? It's not like them to back off.”
“They were afraid of me.”
“Afraid of you? Who the hell are you?” I asked.
“I will tell you this—it is extremely rare that I take a personal interest in something. You don’t know how lucky you are,” the Voice said, somewhere between a smirk and a sneer.
“Trust me, I appreciate it. So…what’s the next step?”
“Right now, hundreds of policemen are attacking the camp of Strangers from which you escaped,” he said.
“Wait,” I said. “Are you Illuminati?”
“Ah, so you’ve found me out,” the Voice said. “I am Illuminati, I am Bilderberg, I am NWO, I am Skull and Bones, I am the Freemasons. All and one.”
“How is that possible? I thought the Illuminati hated the Bilderbergers for causing the Great Collapse?” My personal theories on the Collapse I’d survived.
“You’ve only scratched the surface, Clark. There is an entire world operating underneath and above your own. Previous to now, you were only a resource to be controlled. You’ve been given a glimpse at how it operates.”
“So why are we running from Escher then?” I asked.
There was silence on the other end. I turned to Guts, who was panting and clutching his side in the seat across from me.
“Who is Escher really?” I asked.
“I don’t know who he really is. I hope to capture that footage, use our facial recognition software to answer that question. He thinks he is a reincarnation of the famous twentieth-century graphic artist Maurits Cornelis Escher, somehow alive in our time due to his painting of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. As a result, the man calling himself Escher thinks this is all a dream he’s having as the artist. He believes reality is only a figment of his imagination.”
“So if he’s insane, why’s he so hard to catch?”
“Because reality actually seems to do what he wants it to do.”
“That’s impossible.” “Yes, it is. But I’ve seen bullets stop in front of him, seen doorways appear out of nowhere. I’ve seen him escaped locked vaults without opening the doors. He knows things he couldn’t know, and events always seem to unfold perfectly in his favor. I have no other explanation. My only hope is to convince him he’s not Escher, and to do that I have to find where he really came from.”
“What if he’s really Escher and we’re all in his head?”
“Then when I kill him, we’ll all cease to exist,” the Voice said. “Now, the bus is going to circle the city until morning, when we’ll enter downtown and take advantage of rush hour to confuse the Strangers. I’ll call again when the sun comes up.”
The bus bounced on the road, and I realized I’d been asleep. The early morning sun was rising, and I’d be reaching downtown at the same time I would if I’d been going to work like a regular human being—like the kind of human being I’d hoped to be, at least before I met Erika.
Dawn rose on a pack of wild dogs roaming the fields of rubble and overgrown grass just outside of the feeder road of the highway, migrating toward an old warehouse that’d been swallowed by ivy.
The highways were the tracks in a house of haunted horrors; you were fine as long as you didn't get off the ride.
As the bus pulled into the outskirts of downtown Banlo Bay, I watched the throngs of people walking into the metropolitan center. Some were homeless—just waking up, beginning their daylong search for food. Many were marked with the effects of rubella or small pox, polio contorting their bodies like melting wax museum figurines.
The phone buzzed in my lap. I fumbled with it for a moment and answered.
“There will be Strangers waiting for you at every bus stop in the city,” the Voice said.
“So you're saying I’m fucked?”
10. House of Stairs
“Not if you get me that hard drive,” the Voice said.
“Alright, alright. Just keep me alive, and it’s all yours,” I lied. The city streets were crowding with workers on their way to the grind, and the nearly empty bus was crawling along slowly.
“I’ve had time to do a little prep,” the Voice said. “There’s a small store across the street from the bus stop. I need both of you to run there. I left a gift for you in the back. There will be Strangers all over the city, so move fast.”
I told Guts. He pointed out the window at the bus stop. Amongst the crowd of people waiting to get on the bus, was a man in a trench coat. It could have been anyone, really, but not someone you’d walk up and talk to unless you knew him first, so it was probably a Stranger.
“So what do we do?” I asked. “There’s one right at the bus stop.”
Tall towers raked the sky like clawed hands and rose above me, caging me in. Their tips stretched out of sight even if I craned my neck. Trapped again.
“I’ll handle it,” the Voice said. There was a long moment in which nothing happened, in which I waited for the Voice to follow through on his promise.
And then, the buildings lit up. Shrill sirens filled the air, and warning lights flashed blindingly. The bus was stalled maybe fifty feet from the stop where the Stranger waited.
“I called in a bomb threat,” the Voice said. “To them all.”
Workers just arriving to their jobs were rushed out to the streets, spilling off the sidewalks and into traffic. The traffic lights signaled a complete stop for all vehicles as emergency services swept the scene.
Fairly routine for a Monday morning. There was always a threat, rarely an attack.
“Make a break for it,” the Voice said. “Get out of the bus and cross two blocks over. You’ll see a little magazine shop. Go inside.”
The bus driver opened the doors for me well before our stop, and I could see that the cloaked figure trying to make his way through the crowd toward me. I ducked in front of the hot, roaring engine of the bus and squeezed my way through the peeved hordes trying to reach their destinations despite the threat of eminent death. Glad I was still wearing my work clothes; I blended in perfectly.
Guts barreled through the civilians. The people around us were soft and small like me, and he towered over them.
Before long, the threat of the bomb would be diffused. Firemen would return from the buildings and tell its denizens to head back inside; tell them that today would not be the next in a too-long list of days infamous enough to be referred to only by mm/dd.
I reached the shop door and ducked inside. I stepped to the back and stooped down below an aisle with Guts. Guts motioned at the phone, then covered his mouth; I put the phone on mute.
“You think it’s a good idea to go to that tower? You’re gonna be trapped. You really trust whoever’s on the other end of that phone?”
No. I shook my head, looking at the mammoth man helplessly.
“So you gotta take destiny in your own hands. You need to get out of the city. You got two people way bigger and way meaner than you, the Strangers and this Voice, and their only interest in you is something you don’t even have. When you get to the tower and they find out, you’re fucked either way.”
“So where do I go? What do I do with the police and the Strangers after me.”
Guts stood. “You bluff, and you pray. Come on, get a backpack.”
Obediently, I grabbed a Princess backpack from the closest rack. Pink wasn't exactly my color, but beggars can't be choosy.
"Come on, we’re making a bomb,” Guts instructed. “Or something that looks like a bomb. We need something electronic.”
“Electronic? Like what? This is a convenience store.”
“Is there a phone in the back?”
I pushed my way through a door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY, fear of the Strangers overcoming my usual anxieties about doing things that signs say not to do. A small beige service telephone hung from the wall.
The Voice meeped weakly from my pocket, and I ignored it. Guts was right. I yanked the convenience store phone from the wall and placed it in the backpack, making sure the bundle of cord and wires were visible.
Guts followed me with two 2-liter bottles of soda in his hands—one red and the other, green. The labels had been stripped back. He stuffed the bottles into the backpack then left the wires strung loosely over them, and left the backpack half open. It looked like I imagined a homemade bomb would, having only seen them on TV. I reasoned that since most people had ever seen one either, it would probably look pretty convincing.
“Now what?” I asked Guts.
Guts nodded. “The subway,” he said. “It moves, it’s crowded, and the Strangers won’t want to be trapped there with the police waiting for them at the next stop.”
“Right,” I said. “The subway, good idea. I can get out of the city, I guess, or hide somewhere. Shit.”
Not a hard decision to make when you don’t have any choice. Besides, I didn’t know if I could go back to a home without Erika.
Guts looked at the fake bomb on my back and then at my pale, bloodless face. . “C’mon…we’re about to get shot.”
The twin barrels of a shotgun pointed in my general direction, gripped in the white knuckles of a trembling shopkeeper. Rather than try to explain to him that I wasn’t dangerous, I rushed out of the store, ignoring his protests.
Shocked by how the city had come alive again. Cars zipped by, people stepped around me like I was a rock in a river, even with the little girl’s backpack on my shoulders. With Guts’s imposing frame next to me, I must have looked like a bona fide Stranger.
But even amidst this stream of organized chaos, I could sense two bodies walking directly toward me. I moved in the opposite direction.
In an attempt to look casual, I put the cell phone up to my ear.
“What are you doing? Where are you going?” the Voice asked. “That’s not the right way.”
“I’m sorry, man,” I said. “I really am. I have to go. I, uh…I just don’t have the tapes. Thanks for your help so far, but I can’t help you. I’m sorry, really.” I hung up.
Now, truly helpless. I dashed across the street blindly, fear leading me to take more risks. A bus blasted its horn in an angry attempt to reprimand me, freezing me in my tracks.
Guts took the lead and pulled me quickly down a street-side escalator, forcing his way through the mounds of blubber spilling from the sides of fatter pedestrians.
We reached the open station floor just in time to see the tail of a train disappearing down the tunnel. Shit. Minutes to the next one.
I pulled the children’s backpack from my back and placed it under the bench at my feet as I sat down. I seemed to be moving unnoticed in the crowds of Banlo Bay, who attempted at all costs to avoid contact with fellow human beings. Even if I were naked and waving a sword, I would probably have met no resistance.
With the pretend bomb out of sight, I scrunched myself up behind a column, hoping to remain undetected. Guts was too large to do even this and simply sat on the bench, hoping to look as normal as possible despite the sweat dripping from his brow.
“You there,” a voice behind us said in an authoritative way, “take your hands out of your pockets.”
I peeked out from behind the pillar. A policeman was standing behind Guts, one hand near the holster of his gun and the other on his radio.
“Officer, thank God,” Guts said. “We need your help.”
“We?” he asked. “Stay right there.”
“There are Strangers after us,” Guts said. “Look…there’s one right over there.”
He pointed up and behind the officer at the staircase, where I could indeed see a faceless trench coat descending the stairs.
The officer did not look behind himself however and seemed to be paying more attention to the familiar voice coming over the police intercom. “Large black male, six-five, dreadlocks, white tank top, wanted for assaulting a police officer last night.”
"Whoa!” Guts said. “I didn’t do anything like that. I love the police. You’ve got the wrong guy.”
The officer took a step backwards.
“Suspect should be bleeding…I repeat, bleeding,” the radio crackled again.
It suddenly dawned on me why the voice sounded familiar. It was The Voice.
“Voice!” I shouted from behind the pillar. “I’ll do what you want. Just let us go.”
Suddenly, the officer turned in the direction of my voice. I peeked out from behind the pillar and could see the nervous fear in his eyes. It was a fear I was familiar with myself—the fear of Strangers. It was this fear that led him to draw his gun and point it at the pillar.
As Guts took a step backwards, he nodded toward the tunnel where a train was quickly approaching.
“Step out into the open,” the officer commanded.
I did as I was told, and immediately the situation intensified.
“Backup! I need backup,” the policeman said into his radio. “We’ve got the SSS here.”
“Roger. They’re already on the way,” the Voice said over the radio.
“No backup!” I yelled, somehow hoping the Voice would hear me. “I’m sorry I hung up on you, Voice! Please just give me another chance.”
“Sir, calm down. I need you to lie down on the ground and interlace your fingers behind your head.”
“Man, this isn’t what it—”
Before I could finish, Guts took a step toward the officer, which made him turn suddenly and point his gun at the large man. The cop stopped giving directions and seemed more concerned with staying alive until backup arrived.
“Confirmed. I have the suspects here in…in custody. Requesting backup again.” Then he started shouting.
“Down on the ground, right now! Both of you! DOWN NOW!” Another officer arrived behind him, gun already drawn. Guts obeyed and lifted his hands into the air.
The train had stopped behind us. We were only a few feet from safety. People were pouring out of the train just as another policeman arrived and began guiding people away from our standoff.
“Go, Clark,” Guts said. “I’ll get arrested. You can come bail me out later. Deal? We’ll explain the whole thing.”
“Neither of you are going anywh—“
I lunged toward the bench and swung the backpack up from under it, holding it in my hands. “I have a bomb,” I whispered quietly, not believing my own ears.
No one seemed to hear me. I unzipped the backpack, revealing the red and green bottles and bundle of wires.
“Bomb!” Guts’s booming voice echoed up and down the underground chamber.
I could sense the door to the train closing behind me even as he yelled. Guts turned suddenly and shoved me with one hand as he grabbed the backpack with the other, sending me flying into the train car.
“I have a bomb!” Guts screamed again, holding the backpack into the air. The doors in front of me slid shut.
Pandemonium swept like a shockwave out from the suspicious-looking object, filling every onlooker with an urgent need to do the only thing we were ever taught to do to protect ourselves: run.
The train started moving just as I heard a series of loud popping noises. I crawled over to the glass doors and peered out them just in time to see Guts’s body fall backwards onto the tracks, bullets piercing his gargantuan frame.
By the time I looked up again and wiped the hot sweat from my face, my subway car was empty. I crawled up into a seat and curled into the fetal position.
I was pretty much dead, I knew. I would try to run because it was all I knew, but even during the worst of the Collapse things weren’t this bad. I was never a target, I was always one of the herd.
I was on death row, and the subway car was the last mile to the electric chair. This burned itself into my brain as the metal box raced through the tunnels of Banlo Bay. Without realizing it, I feel asleep to the mantra, just waiting to be executed.
The wide circle of the train track sped around the city, sometimes briefly rising out of the tunnels to avoid the complex sewage system. In these moments, I could see an angry orange sun trying to shine from behind the greasy smudge of the downtown skies.
I was lost.
Then a soft voice licked my eardrum, crossing the precipice of my panic attack. A female voice sung out behind me, lips only millimeters from my ear. Felt her warm breath, the percussive, wet tap of her tongue on her teeth, and the slight crack of her lips parting.
“’Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.’
That’s Yeats. 'The Second Coming.' It’s one of His favorites.”
A warm, furry creature jumped into my lap and pressed itself against my face, coiling around my neck before stalking flirtatiously across me to gaze out the window. The Strangers.
I turned around expecting to bump noses with Whisper but instead found her to be at the back of the train, walking steadily toward me.
When I turned around and looked up toward the front of the bus, giant brown aviator glasses took up my view so completely I might have been wearing them myself.
Escher’s face and mine filled the same space, and I was four years old, being scolded by my father again.
“Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi troubles my sight,” he said. “Do you know what the Spiritus Mundi is, Frightened Boy?”
“No,” I whimpered.
“Yeats believed it was the spirit of the world—the common knowledge we all share, the symbols that are universally true to every human, no matter the breadth of his experience or knowledge.”
“It’s a fantastic concept,” Whisper said, “but to believe in it requires a belief in God.”
“This is true,” Escher said. “Or a belief that you are God. I think the Spiritus Mundi is one's own vision, because whose vision do we have to trust but our own? Can I ever see through another person’s eyes?” he appeared to be trying “No, I cannot. Therefore, objectivity as you know it is a lie. There is no such thing. There is only your subjective interpretation of reality. So there is no shared experience, there is only me,” Escher said.
I turned away, and something hard scraped across my skull. Out of my peripheral, I see Whisper is holding a pistol against my skin.
“Don’t kill me,” I said, closing my eyes. “I’m bait. You have to get out of here. That Voice—that person on the cell phone—he can do things. He cheated me. He tricked me. Please don’t kill me.”
“My work is a game, a very serious game,” Escher said.
Escher stared through my eyes, a pair of high-voltage blind-the-shit-out-of-you spotlights blasting into my two dim candles. I was staring right back, but I couldn’t see a thing. “You’ve been working for the other side,” Escher said.
“He didn’t know he was,” Whisper said. “The other side can be very convincing. Besides, they must be done with him. Police after him, us after him? I think he was meant to be disposed of.”
“By us,” Escher said, “and if we fail, I’m sure Little Brother will use this opportunity to try and kill all of us—just as I’m sure he did tonight after this shit told him where we kept camp.”
I clenched my fists and my teeth so hard that my gums hurt and my fingernails ached. Could feel the bullet.
“I had a good feeling about you, Frightened Boy,” Escher said. “And you immediately betrayed me.”
“But you can’t be wrong,” I pointed out. “If I only exist in your head.” Didn’t believe it, but might keep me alive.
“So then why did I trust you?”
“He was only trying to save himself, and probably the girl.”
“She worships him. I find that idea both offensive and disarmingly naïve at the same time, but you are right. His motivation was pure, even if the results were disastrous,” Escher admits.
“I didn’t do what the Voice wanted me to do, either,” I pointed out. “I ran from both of you equally.”
“What will it be, Escher?” Whisper asked.
The cat mewed pitifully.
Escher’s gaze continued to violate my most delicate opening—the tight enclosure of my iris.
And then he backed away.
“Let’s see how long he lasts,” Escher said. “The cat wants it, anyway.”
I exhaled what felt like an hour’s worth of stagnating breath.
“He’s going to live, but he’s going to work for us,” Escher said. “He has a large debt to repay—especially since we have to fight our way out of this goddamn tunnel.”
“Anything you want,” I squeaked. “As long as—”
“As long as what?” Escher interrupted.
“As long as Erika is okay.”
“We’ll see about that,” Escher said. “You’re going to need a real bomb if you want to stand up to the Voice.”
“It was The Voice. He told me to do that.”
“Is that what you’ll tell the police? They have you on film. They’ll know your friend didn’t work alone.”
“The police?” I gulped.
“If you’re lucky…if they don’t just take you to a basement and shoot you. I saw your face on the news. The next time you unleash a wave of unholy terror on the general populace, try and do it without making that face.”
“What face?” I asked defensively.
Escher screwed up his face into a look of mock horror. Whisper laughed. I blushed.
“You saw me?” I asked.
“You were on camera. Congratulations.”
“So, wait, they think I’m…what?” I asked, horrified.
“One of us,” Whisper said. “Now, we’re stopping. Stay low.”
A body slammed into mine and tripped me into the floor so that I was lying on the ground as a horizontal hailstorm of gunfire ripped through the glass of the train. After a dozen seconds, it stopped.
I craned my neck to see Escher standing tall with Whisper behind him, aviator glasses somehow a darker shade of brown than before, blood-red beard and long purple bathrobe contrasting the military fatigues beneath it.
The person who had pushed me to the ground—had saved my life—was Sam.
Of course I hadn’t seen him before.
Escher stood in front of the sliding metallic doors with his feet parted at shoulder width and his hands at his sides. As frantic voices shouted at him to drop to his knees, he slowly and defiantly lit a cigarette.
“The barking and braying of dogs,” Escher murmured in the direction of the policemen. “Whisper,” he said.
Whisper nodded and opened her mouth. I felt hands clamp over my ears. I turned, shocked, to see Sam still kneeling behind me. There were yellow foam plugs in his ears.
I saw Whisper mouth some words—what she said, I have no idea. She spoke for some time with the expression of a college professor explaining to a child the very rudiments of the subject she taught. Through the bullet-ridden glass of the train, I watched the expressions on the officers' faces begin to droop. Their tense mouths distorted into weak frowns. Tears began to roll freely down the staunchest of faces, and others had fallen completely apart and were bawling into their hands, all thoughts of combat forgotten. One by one, each of them dropped onto the ground in a fetal position, some crying softly and others howling in lament.
Whisper stopped talking, and Sam released my head.
I stood. Escher walked out over them, carefully sidestepping each sniveling man. I rushed after him.
The policemen lay whimpering on the ground. I wondered if I could affect an escape, if I could run up into the streets of the city and get away from the Strangers. I glanced behind me and saw Escher watching me closely.
“What did you do to them?” I asked Whisper, horrified.
“I only told them the truth,” she said. The cats that were always at her side were mewling pitifully, as though they were echoing the sentiments of the men who were curled up on the ground.
I knelt down beside one of the men. “What’s the matter?” I asked, very curious what one woman could have said to depress a dozen men to this degree.
“Go away,” he said in a deadpan voice. “It’s not worth it. Just go away. Go away! Or better yet, just kill yourself. That’d be easier. That’s probably the best way to go.”
“C’mon,” Escher said impatiently.
“What’d she do to them?” I asked, abandoning the shivering cop.
“She told them the truth,” he said. “She told them it was all their fault.”
We didn’t walk up into the open air of the city, as I hoped. Rather, Sam dashed ahead of us and began to lead us further down into the maze of access tunnels that allowed workers to keep the subway system running.
“We don’t go into the city without a large force,” Escher explained. “The Voice, as you call him—we call him Little Brother, or the Ministry for Popular Culture—is too strong up there. He and his cohorts can manipulate the system, as you have seen. He can see through the cameras, set off the alarms, and send out the police. There’s really no way around him except brute force.”
“George Orwell predicted the government would spawn Big Brother, an immutable force that watched our every move and monitored us for compliance. That’s just not likely," Escher said. "Mankind won’t respect that kind of obtrusion. Little Brother is a lot cleverer, but he’s smaller, weaker. He whines, he tattles, and he scares. He creates rumors and conspiracies, tells people everything is out to kill them. Says the birds are poisoned, the water is poisoned, and that everyone is a murderer or a rapist. If you are all a figment of my mind, then this distrust is my brain tumor. Little Brother leaves people with their freedom, but he makes sure no one wants to use it.”
“Is he some kind of government agency then? I bet it is. They’re always planning shit like that,” I said.
“I don’t know,” Escher said. “That day in Tasumec Tower, I thought I might find out. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.”
“So those two men you killed were—”
“Part of his network. What he does is too much for one man to accomplish. The Voice you spoke to was their director. He is the cause of my sickness, of the cities’ sickness, and he is what I must cure to save myself,” he said. “He is the reason I cannot wake up. He has me trapped in this nightmare.”
Escher stopped suddenly, and so did the rest of the group. He reached down into his snakeskin boot and pulled out a syringe filled with a viscous red liquid. Without a word or a pause, he injected it into his arm.
Whisper and Sam politely looked away, but I could only stare stupidly. It was blood.
After he was done, Escher carelessly flicked the empty syringe onto the ground.
“Things fall apart,” he said with a grin, and the group started marching again.
We walked through miles of identical service tunnels, through hundreds of evenly spaced lights. Five small pipes were spaced out in parallel lines on the ceiling, and I had the odd notion we were notes marching through sheets of music—only I had no idea what song we were playing.
“We’re here,” Sam said finally as he stopped in front of a door that looked very much identical to the dozens of others we passed.
Escher banged once on the door with such force that it sounded like someone had struck a very deep gong.
Moments later, it opened up to reveal a small group of oddly dressed men and women that I could only guess were Strangers. I noticed the man with the quotation marks tattooed on his forehead, as well as Grundel far behind him.
As I followed our small group into the room, I realized it was a much larger area than I had first assumed. It appeared as though we were in the basement area of an office building. Storage crates and loading palettes covered the floor, and as I followed Escher through the space, I noticed there were many more Strangers inside.
Not knowing what else to do, I followed closely behind Whisper. I’d long since lost sight of Sam, which was not unexpected; any time I walked into a crowded space, he became invisible again.
I followed the two of them up a flight of stairs and into the unlit, unkempt lobby of an aging office building. I guessed we were somewhere on the outskirts of the city, in an older tower that no one had bothered to tear down. With the rate at which downtown Banlo Bay had expanded, shrunk, was built and then rebuilt atop itself, many such structures were left to decay.
Escher let himself into an office on the first floor. I heard a woman’s voice from inside the room, a voice I already knew. I followed Escher into the office.
“Erika!” I exclaimed.
“Eureka,” Escher said.
“Clark!” she appeared from behind the door and hugged me close. “I’m glad you’re okay. I saw you on the news. You were the most frightened terrorist I’ve ever seen,” she said. Then her voice dropped. “I heard what happened to Guts. I’m so sorry I never…”
Her eyes moistened as she hugged me. I couldn’t say a word.
“See?” Escher said. “She’s fine. Yay.”
I noticed a long chain connecting Erika’s foot to the large wooden desk that took up most of the space in the small office.
“She’s a troublemaker,” Whisper said. “We had to chain her up.”
“Well, can’t you unchain her now?”
“Don’t bother,” Erika said, grinning. She bent over and opened up the lock she had apparently picked in Escher’s absence.
He clucked his tongue, then sat down behind the desk and propped his feet up on it. “Well, we’re all back together now. Frightened Boy, you may be curious as to why I’ve decided to let you live. It’s because I have plans for you…or rather, I have plans, and someone must carry them out, and I’d rather risk you than someone I care about.”
“Okay,” I said, apprehensive. I didn’t really want anymore adventure. I felt lucky enough to still be alive, and I had Erika, and that was enough. I was already thinking about exits.
“First,” Escher said, “we have this for you. It was Sam’s idea, really, but I like it. Hats are a necessity. They protect us from Little Brother’s all seeing eyes. Not to mention, it’ll help distract people from your face, which recently has become fairly famous—or infamous, as the case may be.”
He pulled a starched red baseball cap from the desk and tossed it to me. It was gaudy and looked like something a little kid might wear in a Norman Rockwell painting. There was an insignia on the front: "The Waves."
“Who are The Waves?” I asked.
“Long story,” Escher said dismissively.
“So where’s my apple pie?” I asked, putting the cap on my head. Erika frowned at it.
“It makes you look even more American,” Whisper said. “Not that we aren’t all American—but you? You embody it.”
“You’re everything that is wrong,” grinned Escher. “With a dash of something extra, I think, or else you wouldn’t still be alive.”
Erika’s fingers closed around my hand, and I thought I knew what that “something extra” was. I was a God to someone, after all, no matter how ridiculous the pretense behind that belief was.
“Smile, Frightened Boy. You’re going to do some great things for our cause. You’re going to visit our friends at WNBB. You will give them this disk to play on the air. Hopefully, you will then escape and return here to meet me.”
Escher reached into his desk and pulled out a compact disk in a clear jewel case. He tossed it to me. I failed to catch it, and it bounced from the palm of my hand, my fingers stupidly clasping air a moment too late. I scooped it up from the floor, my cheeks beginning to flush.
“Why? What’s this about?”
“WNBB broadcasts the news throughout Banlo Bay. They are nothing but puppets operating under Little Brother, and haven’t spoken a true word in years. This is one of the ways my nemesis controls the city, and I’d like to offer a little antidote. Something small.
“You don’t have to go tonight,” he said, “and when you do go, you can take her with you. You’ll be accompanied by Mal, as well. If you should happen to abscond with my very valuable disk there, or if you try to summon help from the authorities, he has been told to kill you both, no questions asked—not that Little Brother wouldn’t do the same. Your chaperone doesn’t talk a lot, so I wouldn’t try and reason with him. And he'll kill her first.” He emphasized his point with a lazy finger aimed at Erika.
“So who is he?” Erika asked.
“His name is Mal. He has a peculiar set of tattoos on his forehead, and he does one thing and one thing only.”
“Murders people,” Whisper said.
“Well, there are an awful lot of them, and someone has to do it,” Escher smirked. “I’ve found Mal to be very useful. Anyway, that’s all for you two. Just remember—be there in time for the morning news.”
There was no real bargaining with Escher. He seemed amused by how flustered I was.
“Okay, we’re done here,” Escher said, wrecking my train of thought with his two cents on the track. “Send Mal in on your way out.”
Erika apparently had questions as well, and I had to drag her out of the office by the hand. I felt like the day’s adventures had finally ended. Finally stopped running from Escher, and for once, I had several hours ahead of me in which nothing was urgent.
The dark-skinned, tattooed man stood outside Escher’s office, arms crossed. This was the Stranger who I watched murder several policemen with his bare hands, through the monitors in Tasumec tower. Creepy.
“Escher wants you in the office,” I said to the assassin. He stared at me with coal-black eyes. The tattoos on his forehead barely stood out against the dark pigment of his skin.
“You don’t talk much, do you?” Erika asked.
He pointed at his forehead.
“What about it?” Erika asked.
“I think we’re supposed to read between the quotes. Read his mind,” I said.
“Oh, right. The quotation marks. I get it. Hah.”
Mal pushed his way past us. I watched him stalk off—the man who might kill us tomorrow. He moved smoothly, lithely; every muscle in his body was visible. He had the figure of a gymnast or an Olympic swimmer.
I should have been terrified, but I felt detached—as though my brain was all out of whatever chemical instilled fear. As many times as I almost died in the past week, I was all out of give-a-shit.
Erika and I slept huddled up on the fourth floor of the repurposed office building, holding each other together in a cubicle. It was as private a place as we could find; every floor we stepped into seemed to house a few Strangers. Some were playing cards, talking, or drinking together, and they all had one thing in common: they stopped whatever they were doing and stared until we left.
“I knew I’d see you again. I have faith,” Erika said. Her voice was barely a whisper in my ear.
“I wish you’d knock that off,” I said. I couldn’t express it to her, but I wanted her to just like me for me, without the gimmick. I wasn't in the mood for art, or to be worshipped.
“I wouldn’t be much of a disciple with an attitude like that.”
“Seriously, what have I done that is worth worshipping?”
“Everything you do is worth worshipping,” she answered. She paused for a moment. “However, your question raises an interesting philosophical debate. That is, does God know that what He does is special at all? Is God even aware of everything He is responsible for—which is, in fact, everything?”
“There’s nothing special about me,” I said.
“You tried to rescue me from Escher,” she said.
“Tried and failed.”
“You succeeded eventually, and you managed to avoid Escher for a pretty long time.”
“That was The Voice,” I said.
“It’s a guy I met, uh…well, on the phone. They call him 'Little Brother'. Apparently, according to Sam and Escher, he is somehow responsible for everything I’ve ever been afraid of.”
She smiled, and I could feel it next to my ear. She wrapped an arm across my chest. My heart jumped, and my pulse raced.
“He can’t be that great. I’ve never felt particularly afraid of anyone,” Erika said.
“Yeah, I’ve noticed. How do you do that?”
“I’m just not,” Erika said. “They’re just people…y’know, humans. Plus, I have you.”
For some reason, that idea bothered me.
“We need to focus. We have a big day tomorrow. I have no idea how we’re going to make them play that disk.”
“We’ll be fine,” she said. “It seems easy enough to me. We’ll go and ask.”
I wasn’t so sure about that, but her reassurance comforted me. “So, do you feel like you’re getting what you want out of worshipping me?” I asked.
“Oh, definitely. The Bhagavad-Gita teaches that the only way to live life without accruing bad karma—or sin—is to do everything out of duty for one’s God. In that way, even the sinful acts you commit aren’t actually sins, because you are only following instructions, the way a soldier never gets tried for murder after a war is over. I couldn’t have picked a better god if I had invented him myself. ”
You did, I thought but dared not say.
“If we survive this,” I said, “I mean, this whole Escher and the end-of-society thing, will you still worship me?”
Erika shrugged noncommittally. “Nothing is forever, Clark.”
God must have felt this way when man first discovered fire.
Erika woke up that morning to find me still awake. “What’s the matter?” she asked as we searched about our little hovel for our meager possessions. I owned one cell phone that couldn’t be recharged, the red baseball cap that Escher had assigned me, and now (by her own insistence), Erika.
“Nothing,” I said. I’d been thinking about Guts for a while. The depression did a good job of covering up the confusion and frustration and dread.
She rubbed my arm above the elbow. “Seriously? Nothing?”
“It’s…it’s nothing. I’m just stressed.” I didn’t want to bring her down. She hadn’t really known him.
She rubbed my back. I moved away from her. I had other things to think about—like dying.
“How are we going to do this today?” I asked.
“Improvisation,” she laughed. “We’ll just go with the flow.”
I didn’t think she was taking this very seriously.
“Aren’t you worried about getting captured…or killed?”
“In my experience, there is a certain way things are supposed to work out. Just relax, Clark, and let events unfold like they’re supposed to. Besides, I trust you. I know you’ll lead me in the right direction.”
I had no idea where to go or how to get there, and my legs felt weak and shaky as I descended down the flights of stairs that led to Escher’s office. When we reached the bottom we laid eyes on Mal, who was standing in a particularly menacing fashion at the fire exit—I suppose making sure we didn’t try to escape.
I noticed a single weapon on his body, but it didn’t look like it was made for combat. A rusted dagger in a leather sheath rested on a chain around his neck.
I didn’t try to talk to him this time, as he didn’t seem inclined to do much speaking anyway. Instead, I went straight to Escher’s office, keeping Erika tightly in tow. Mal made me nervous for her.
I pulled open the door. Whisper was seated at his chair with a pale cat in front of her on his table. She was stroking it gently and apparently speaking softly to it.
“Where’s Escher?” I asked.
“He’s gone, I’m afraid. I do not know when he’ll return. He has some things that only he can accomplish.”
“We have a few questions about this mission of ours,” Erika said.
“He means for you two to figure things out on your own,” replied Whisper. “Think of it as a way to win back his trust.”
“Win it back? When did he ever trust me?”
“His first impressions of you were favorable, though piteous. It’s rare that Escher likes anyone,” Whisper said. She straightened herself, apparently realizing she was speaking more than was required. “Anyway, it’s time you two leave. I have a map so you will at least know where you’re going—and don’t try to lose Mal. He’ll follow you, and if you misstep, he’ll most definitely kill you both. He wants to.”
“What is he?” Erika asked.
“A killer,” replied Whisper. “I told you before. If compassion is the essence of being human, he’s not human. Mal is a serial killer. He lacks the ability to feel empathy for other human beings, and left to his own devices, he would only cause pain and havoc. He only listens to Escher..
“Frightened Boy,” she continued, “you need to understand that what we do here is very important. You have to succeed in your mission at all costs. If this does not succeed, Escher will enact Project Epoch.”
“And what is that, exactly?” Erika asked.
“No one but Escher knows for sure. He says he came across Epoch in his travels before arriving in Banlo Bay. What he means by that, I’m not sure. Epoch is the moment in which one realizes all knowledge is false, but what that means to Escher is anyone’s guess. He refers to it as a last resort, though, so it must be dire. It would be best if we didn't find out.”
I took the map she offered. It was a brochure for the trolley system in Banlo Bay, with a red X marking the location of the WNBB broadcast studio. The colorful pastel illustrations of such a barren and dangerous city were a darkly ironic contrast. Was Banlo Bay ever happy? I wondered.
I donned my red cap, silly as it was, and Erika and I set out of the double doors of the abandoned office building that we had come to understand was a Stranger camp. The early morning sunlight sandblasted the sleep from my eyes as my pupils drank in the fluorescent beams.
Erika held the map out in front of her and directed us forward. Mal was only a few feet behind, his tall, dark form drawing the attention of anyone who happened to walk by. Maybe Escher had put some thought into this after all. No one could possibly notice the relatively normal Erika and I when a shirtless black man covered in strange tattoos glared at everyone who came near like a starving tiger stalking his cage.
“So, what’s the plan?” Erika asked.
“What do you mean?” The news station’s call letters were coming into view.
“I mean, haven’t you thought of anything yet?”
“What happened to ‘just wing it'?”
“Well, I mean…didn’t you think of anything?” Erika asked. I could tell she was a getting nervous. “I wish—”
“What?” I snapped at her. I was a little irked that I was supposed to think up everything. “You wish Escher was here?”
She looked sharply at me. “I was going to say that I wish I had a gun.”
I sighed. “First off, we’re not going to shoot anybody,” I said. I turned to our accompanying Stranger and asked, “Mal, would you wait across the street?”
“You look like you kill people for fun,” Erika accused him.
He nodded, agreeing.
“That’s going to make it hard to earn their trust,” I said.
Mal shrugged and walked to the other side of the street, where he turned and began to glare as us.
“There must be a back entrance or something,” I said. “We can’t just walk through there.”
“Why not?” Erika asked.
“Because they’ll ask us who we are, that’s why.”
“So you’re telling me you think the receptionist there is going to stand up and physically restrain you from walking past her? Look at her, Clark.” Erika nodded at the woman. She had gray hair and wore glasses and was perched behind the large rectangular desk just inside the Plexiglas doors of the news station.
She was pretty small. One punch to the face, and…I shook my head. “Erika, I’m not punching an old lady,” I said. “I don’t give a shit. Let’s just try it your way then. Let’s walk through.”
Erika opened the door and motioned me inside. Mal stood across the street, watching us with his arms folded.
We stood in the lobby. Rather than waiting to get permission, we marched past the receptionist. She watched us with big questions in her eyes.
“We have to be inside,” I said, without looking at the older woman. My cheeks burned red.
“We have to be in there right now,” Erika added awkwardly.
We pushed open the dual doors that led inside the station. As they closed behind us, Erika whispered: “See? Easy.”
“You wanted to shoot her,” I accused.
The station was a crowded office, and the stares of the people who worked there only deepened my blush. However, in the land of distrust and paranoia, no one stopped to ask what we wanted or where we were going. Like me, they preferred to mind their own business and keep their heads down.
Not understanding the layout, we chose to walk through the largest sets of doors we could find, moving through corridor after corridor of double-doored hallways until at last we reached one with signs warning us to REMAIN SILENT! FILMING.
We crossed these doors, sending us into an airy, dark accommodation that seemed miles removed from the rows of tightly packed cubicles we’d just escaped. The lights were focused down toward the center—the news desk—and we moved through the shadows unnoticed.
They were between shoots; the studio was deserted.
Flint Amstrong, the news reporter I watched for most of my adult life, shuffled through a stack of newspapers in the opposite corner of the studio.
I’ve let this man make me afraid most of my adult life. But the world was dangerous, wasn’t it? I began to wonder how much of that danger was Little Brother’s doing and how scary the world really was. I thought back on the hundreds of stories I’d heard Flint Amstrong report that might be false. Did the dogs all really have rabies? Was bird dander truly infected with deadly parasites? I didn’t know. Was I wrong to distrust everyone?
Erika strode forward purposefully. “Mr. Amstrong? Could I have a word with you?”
He turned around. His steely gray eyes and structurally sound silver hair glinted as he faced the light. “Do I…know you?” he asked. He sounded exactly like he did on the news—every word urgent and dramatic. When he noticed that Erika, he undid the button on his sports coat. It fell open just as he put a hand over his heart and flashed his smile.
“I’m a big fan,” she said as I stood back near the doors and watched her act. “I have a favor to ask.”
“What favor…would that be?”
“I need you to play my tape on the air,” she said. She rubbed her toe against the ground, held her arms behind her back and pushed her chest forward.
“Is it…a demo?” he asked as he smoothed back his hair. “We…” he turned to one side and then looked back at her. “We aren’t hiring, but maybe for you…” He took off his glasses. “Maybe for you, miss, we can make an exception.”
“Something like that,” she said. “I really want you to see it.”
“Well…we can’t air it, obviously, but…I can take a look. Why don’t you come into my…office?”
“I’d rather do it in the control room,” she said with a devious grin.
“I…see,” he said. “It’s not very…” He cleared his throat. “Uh, it's not very private in there. Why don’t you come back to my office? Maybe you can be my new…weather girl.”
I ground my teeth together until my eye sockets hurt.
Time seemed to slow down as a dark fist came from the shadows near Mr. Amstrong and connected with his head with such force that blood flew out of his mouth and across Erika’s face. Mal stepped out of the shadows, melding with the darkness surrounding him. His tattoos were the only part of his body darker than his skin, so they seemed transparent against the lightless corner of the studio—as though the shadows were climbing up his chest and arms like abhorrent veins, pumping darkness through him.
He stepped forward into the staggering news anchor, knocking him backwards as he punched him in the lower back. He followed up with a series of vicious blows to the man’s spine that landed before Amstrong hit the ground.
But Mal didn’t stop there. Instead, the killer continued pounding into the newscaster’s fallen form until his body was laid out flat on the hard studio floor, and then he began stomping into the back of the man’s head. Erika stumbled backward from the gore, mouth agape.
I turned away, unable to stomach the ferocity of the attack. I heard cracking and squishing sounds coming between the pounding of the stomps on the solid floor.
I moved toward Erika, averting my eyes from what must have been Amstrong’s exploded skull. I grabbed her hand and pulled her along with me as I headed toward the empty booth that housed a long series of monitors, keyboards, and soundboards.
I wasn’t completely alien to video-monitoring equipment, as I had worked with similar stuff in Tasumec Tower. Still, I didn’t know how to start a live broadcast.
I popped the CD into a large computer and began to look around for some sort of program that might control the broadcasting schedule. I was intensely curious as to what was on the disk, what Escher’s message to society would be.
Then, the monster was opening the door and stepping into the booth with us. Erika and I started backward, moving away for every step forward he took. The fingertips of his left hand were scarlet, and something resembling a long piece of stretched-out gum that’d been run through a bowl of scrambled eggs was stuck to his shoe. The brains of the anchorman.
Only fear kept my stomach clenched, kept me from vomiting. “Please don’t kill us. We haven’t failed yet,” I cried. I pushed Erika behind me, and she fell over a small wastebasket. We were forced as far into the corner as the room would allow.
He ignored us, but rather leaned over the computer and worked quickly, as though he knew exactly what to do. He probably does, I realized.
Everywhere his hand went, he left a sticky blood trail. I noticed a red mark on his right wrist—the tattoo of a red bat, deformed and drawn in a classical, cartoonish style.
The monitors above us turned on, but only displayed a black screen. Mal pressed one last button, then stepped back and looked up at them.
This was it—Escher’s disk was being broadcast. I watched, unable to breathe, but ten seconds later, the screen was still blank, black.
Mal looked confused for a moment but then shrugged and walked out the control room. He stalked across the studio floor and stood stoically in front of the double-door entrance we had come in from. He licked his lips, and moments later, a security guard burst through.
Before the officer had time to react or even raise his weapon, Mal’s hand was wrapped around his throat. The struggling officer’s eyes exploded with red, and I knew his veins had burst from the pressure Mal was forcing into his skull. The smiling Stranger held him up with one arm even as the guard’s legs dangled limply under him.
He didn’t stop crushing the dead man’s neck until another officer burst through the door, and then he tossed aside the first lifeless body and thrust the edge of his hand into the throat of the next man. It was obvious from the way his head limply lolled that not only was his windpipe crushed, but his spine was dislocated as well.
Tears were rolling freely down Erika’s eyes by now. I looked away in disgust and focused on the still-blank screen; I wasn’t sure what I was watching. I didn’t know why this was important or if it was working at all.
It wasn’t until four minutes and fifty seconds into the black screen, while Mal was on his third victim, that a simple white message appeared: “This five minutes of peace was brought to you by the Secret Society of Strangers.”
I grabbed a crying Erika’s wrist and pulled her out of the control booth, but she resisted. “Get the CD,” she said. “Escher wanted us to.”
She was right. I popped the disk out and put it back into its case and into my pocket.
If we had been good criminals, we would have planned an escape route, but we hadn’t. I didn’t wait for Mal; I didn’t want to be anywhere near him, and I'm sure Erika didn't either. I hoped he died in the studio.
We rocketed out of the studio through a fire escape door, alarm bells ringing noisily as we pushed it open. I stopped in the daylight; it felt alien after the grisly mess of the shadow-infested newsroom.
My hand froze around Erika’s wrist. I bolted off with her in tow, running as fast as I could. We ran together back the way we had come, sirens and police cars alighting in the distance.
Four blocks away from the news station and three blocks from our destination, Erika began to tug back at my arm.
She had to stop. In my blind panic, I could have sprinted for miles.
Erika gulped down thick breaths of air and leaned up against the side of an abandoned liquor store.
“That was…” she panted, “…terrible.” Tears fell freely down her face.
13. The Fall of Men
We jogged toward the makeshift base of operations for the Secret Society of Strangers. The exterior of the building was sweat-stained with dark moisture like a nervous fat kid. Whatever lettering crowned the tip of the office had long since fallen, save for two irregularly-spaced capital Os, which stared jealously in the direction of the modern buildings in the newer downtown area that swept northward.
The doors were locked, but someone cracked them open to usher us in. We stood, still mentally smashed from the shock of what we'd witnessed. I didn’t know where to stand or what do to. We had been successful, I assumed, but I didn’t feel like it.
Mainly, I'd learned that the Strangers were serious. There would be murder.
We didn’t catch sight of Escher or Whisper until later in the evening. During the few hours that passed, I had time to come to terms with what had happened in the newsroom; Erika, however, was distant and cold.
We knew Escher entered the building long before we saw him because every Stranger simultaneously began scrambling to get their things in order. They threw down their playing cards, stowed away their bottles, or reassembled the wide array of weapons they had been cleaning.
When he eventually stalked past the loading bays where Erika and I were sitting, he looked like he'd been at war—dressed in camouflage with a black bandana on his head and a black submachine gun bumping against his hip, dangling haphazardly from the strap on his shoulder. He marched past us and into his office, paying notice to no one. A line of Strangers piled up at his door.
For over an hour, the line diminished as men and women stepped into his office to deliver reports before exiting hurriedly with relieved looks on their faces. When at last the queue had cleared, I stood nervously outside his door; Erika was with me but facing the opposite direction, looking as little like she was standing in line as she possibly could.
At last I entered, Erika in tow.
Escher was hunched over a colored map of Banlo Bay, pushing pins into it and making notes. “It’s coming together splendidly,” he announced.
“What is, sir?” I asked.
Before anyone could say anything else, Erika rushed forward and leaned over his desk, until her face was inches from his. “How could you kill those people?”
Escher’s eyes narrowed, suddenly focused on Erika. “We were shooting bullets at each other. These things happen…and how do you know what I’ve been doing today?”
She backed up a few inches, confused.
“She means Mal,” I explained.
“Oh. I didn’t kill those people then, did I?” He shrugged off our confused looks. “Mal can be a bit…excessive. I’m sorry you had to see him work. Since he had to intervene, I take it you were unsuccessful?”
I looked down. Erika fumed, tried to talk but couldn't, then turned and stormed out of office. She tried to slam the door but I was standing in the way, and it only bounced off of the back of my foot. She turned around again, glared at me, and kept walking.
“It played,” I said. “We got it done…like you wanted.”
“Let’s give credit where credit is due,” Escher said. “Mal got it done, just like he always does, without fail. I ask for something to happen, and it happens. You can see why I keep him around—others too. I am building this movement with their help. They are parts of me, what I have found so far. Everyone is a part of me, but some are more important than others. Like Mal—my mind’s representation of the hunter in me. You might be able to be like him, you know. Not a killer like him, but just as effective.”
I didn’t have a response to this; it was just more Escher craziness. I wanted to remind him I never signed up to be a revolutionary.
“Why the blank commercial? What did this do to further your cause?” I asked.
“Public relations,” he said simply. “I felt it, when the video played. My mind is in turmoil, Frightened Boy. Sometimes I just…” he pushed his palms to his eyes. "Sometimes I feel like my mind is at war with itself. And that's those people, those people in Banlo Bay who hate each other and are afraid of each other. And why do they do that? Because of the news, Frightened Boy. That's a big part of it. And when it turned off, even for a minute, it was like…it was like the pain in my head just stopped. I had peace."
I shook my head.
"I have things to do, but in a couple of days, I’m going to give you another chance to prove yourself. You're right, this wasn't a total failure. And you didn't betray me. You aren't dead yet.”
“Can I do it without Mal?” I asked.
He didn’t say anything, only stared. I took my first step out of his office when all hell broke loose.
As it occurred, all I saw was a bright flash and all I heard was an impossibly loud bang. Then my hearing was consumed with a muted hum, like listening to a dial tone under ten feet of water. I clutched my head.
When I could see again, large figures clad in black body armor with black helmets covered by bulletproof faceplates filled almost every empty space in the lobby of the office building. All of them held large assault rifles.
My brain hurt from the flash-bang. I looked around desperately as the contrast in my vision returned, and I spotted Erika being ordered at gunpoint to put her face down on the ground with her hands over her head.
I did the same thing without being asked.
From my place on the floor, I peered through Escher’s office door. He hadn’t moved; there was a stern look on his face, but not one particularly consumed by worry.
“Secure!” a shout came from upstairs and was echoed throughout the building.
A silver-haired man in a business suit walked through the door. He had a pistol holstered at his side and a small headset on, but otherwise looked more like a lawyer than a commando. My first assumption was that these men were a SWAT team, but after being unable to find any badge or other identification on them, I was unsure. I was sure they weren't local, but I wondered if they could be Feds. Seemed impossible. There hadn't been a federal government since the Collapse.
The silver-haired man walked purposefully through the lobby and into Escher’s office, the door to which was secured by two soldiers. No one else had entered.
“M.C. Escher,” the silver-haired man said. "Back at the office, we call you the Prime Culprit."
“The Prime Culprit?” Escher asked. “I like that. The Prime Culprit…” he seemed to be rolling the phrase around in his mouth. “We call you ‘Rush’ around the office.”
“That’s my name,” Rush said, sounding nonplussed. “Where is the Cat lady?”
“She’s out and about,” Escher responded. “Can I ask what the purpose of your visit is?”
Rush pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket alongside a box of matches. “Want one?” he offered Escher.
Escher accepted, and now plumes of smoke rolled out the office door. I looked over at Erika, who looked positively bemused.
“So, how are things at the department?” Escher asked.
“You know the situation,” Rush said. “Unwell.”
“It’s all right. You’re doing the best you can.”
The silver-haired man sighed. “We just don’t have the resources or support we used to.”
“Failing at every turn for a handful of decades will do that to you,” Escher said.
The man tensed up then relaxed, as though remembering there was an audience present. I could see some of the men who captured us shifted their weight restlessly, visibly annoyed at having to hold their pose for so long.
“The task we were given was impossible,” Rush explained. “Like you said, we did the best we—”
Escher cut him off. “I said you did the best you could,” he said. “This is the third time you’ve had me at gunpoint, Rush. You didn’t get it done the other two times. What makes you think this time will work out for you?”
“I don’t even really want to say,” Rush said, rubbing his palm into his the side of his face. “You’re just gonna get all trippy on me anyway. I do this because I have to, Escher, not because I enjoy it. We’ll start killing people if you resist.”
“That would be foolish. Look at that boy there.” To my horror, he pointed at me. “He’s not one of us at all. He's just an innocent office worker—the embodiment of your failure to protect your citizens, an avatar of fear and anxiety.”
I was still wearing my red cap; I certainly did not look very threatening.
“That ‘boy’, that 'innocent office worker' is a wanted terrorist,” Rush said.
Escher shrugged in response. “He’s still a nice guy."
“Thanks,” I murmured, which earned me a rifle barrel to the spine.
“Don’t kill him just yet,” Escher said to no one.
Rush didn’t have time to voice the confused look on his face. Sam’s arm wrapped around his neck and a bulky revolver pressed against his forehead. The nigh-invisible Stranger pulled Rush to the corner of the office as the two nearest soldiers stormed the office.
Bullet holes cracked through the front of Escher’s desk, and the two men fell down at the door. Escher stood up, knocking the table onto its back as he did so, and continued firing the small machine gun I'd seen dangling from his hip earlier. Two more men fell, including the one standing over me.
“Get down to the tunnels!” Escher yelled. Gunfire shattered my perceptions as every thunderous crack distracted me from any action I might make. Strangers around me struggled with their captors—some had guns, but more fought with their bare hands.
It was Erika who tugged at my arm and pulled me toward the stairs leading down to the loading area, down to the tunnels from which we'd arrived.
I looked back to see carnage shaking the very walls of the building. Escher was dragging an unconscious Rush with one hand and firing his gun with the other—Mal ran past us and ripped the helmet off of a soldier with one hand while spearing two fingers on his other hand three knuckles deep into his eye socket. Grundel lay bleeding on the floor; several other Strangers appeared to have been shot. More of Escher's men poured down the stairs from the upper floors of the building.
A gaunt woman with short green hair wielded a thin knife and was practically dancing from man to man, swishing her long, straight blade like a conductor’s wand; she seemed as mad and violent as Mal. Blood streamed from the stiletto point like sparks from a child’s sparkler. In the close quarters of the office building, the invading soldiers were having a hard time aiming their high-caliber rifles in a way that wouldn’t hit one of their own. Escher’s giant hound, as vivid in my memory as during my first horrifying encounter with it, bounded up the steps behind me, nearly knocking me over.
At last, I tore my eyes away from the battle and stumbled down the steps into the relative calm of the loading bay. Erika was in front of me, looking back every few steps to make sure I was following. Escher was close behind, an unconscious Rush in tow.
Sam appeared at the door and opened it for us.
Whisper stood behind it. “Come on, come on! We’re evacuating."
“What about the others?” I asked as I passed through.
“They know the drill. They know where to go. Don’t worry about them,” Sam said. “And if not…well, it’s what they signed up for.”
I shook my head as I followed them down the tunnels. A fat rat guarded the tunnels up ahead, with patches of mangy peach skin pocking its fat, hairy body.
The Black Plague. A tracking collar. Genetically-tuned nano-viruses. There were a hundred reasons I used to fear rats, and now I wondered how many were Little Brother's creation.
I looked over to the leader of this rebel uprising. He loped easily along a few steps ahead of me with Rush over his shoulder like luggage. Occasionally, he looked back and pointed his gun at the tunnels behind him, but only Strangers followed us. The number of them in tow seemed very small in comparison to the hordes in the old office tower.
As I rounded the bend, I saw Escher stopped at a crossroads in the tunnel system. He waved me forward, and I turned and watched as other Strangers reached the crossroads. Escher passed Rush’s body off to one as he waved the others to the right or left.
He directed everyone away from the path he told me to take.
A shot fired down the tunnel behind us. The first armored soldier had rounded the bend.
“Just go!” Escher shouted at me and pointed down the tunnel.
I turned back in time to see Whisper aiming and firing her giant silver revolver at the men who were rounding the corner.
“Fuck this,” Erika panted behind me, catching up. She jogged heavily, with leaden hands and feet. Apparently fear did not give her the same infinite adrenaline that it did me. Either that, or she just wasn’t afraid. “I'm an artist. This isn't my scene,” she panted.
“I think Escher would say the same thing,” I said as I jogged along with her.
A burst of gunfire retorted behind us. Escher and Whisper were following, firing down the tunnel at the policemen.
“Where are the rest of the Strangers?” Erika shrieked.
“I sent them away!” Escher shouted over his continued blasts of gunfire. “It’s just us.”
“Why didn’t you send us away?” I shouted.
“You’re good luck,” Escher replied. “Now come on…we’re going up.”
He ran ahead a dozen yards to a small service ladder. He clambered to the top, stopping occasionally to fire at the soldiers who were coming up behind us. I watched the barrel of his gun nervously, preying it didn't intersect with me.
Escher pushed open the manhole to reveal daylight he pushed it the rest of the way open and climbed through. Erika and I followed, then Whisper.
The shock of the bright light was nearly as great as the realization I was in the middle of a crowded outdoor subway station. We'd interrupted life-at-average in Banlo Bay. Maybe the last place life worked like this in the world. People walking, talking, communing. Fake laughter, cold coffee and gold watches.
And Escher with his big gun, and Whisper with her magic voice, and Erika with her acting life of acting out life. What the fuck did I get myself into?
Escher pulled us out of the way, struck out an arm and shoved us back he crouched over the sewer opening, weapon trained on the black hole. A helmeted head passed through; Escher fired. The head snapped backwards and dropped down the hole again, like a groundhog checking for predators. The helmet must have contained the blood spatter.
The crowd began to panic. Women’s high-pitched screams filled the air like sirens across a Dresden skyline. This wasn't the New World anymore.
Whisper leaned over me, gripped Escher's sleeve and tugged.
Escher turned, angry, half looking at her and half down the scope of his gun. Like I was watching mom and dad fight while he drove us to church.. Whisper grabbed his eyes with hers and led them to the crowd around us, to the terrified civilians. The Red King seemed to reconsider, standing and jogging down an alleyway between ourselves and the city.
I grabbed Erika, pulling her along as I rushed to follow.
The train station we popped up out of was on the outskirts of town, and it didn’t take long before we were under the nearest freeway and within the safe confines of an Orange Zone. The moment we passed the marker designating the upcoming socio-economic wasteland as hazardous, Escher relaxed. Homeless men roasted garbage in trashcans; they smiled and waved at him. Street urchins ran away from their games of catch and peeked out from behind corners to see him pass.
As the day wore on, I noticed that for the first time in my life, I was walking through an Orange Zone and wasn’t afraid. This was nothing like the Blue areas of Downtown, or even the Green safety of my suburban neighborhood. This was lawless, the police did not patrol here. No one gathered the trash, or powered the generators.
Were these really just people trying to get back on their feet? I spied three men standing on the corner together and know that before, I would’ve guessed they were a gang looking for someone to rob.
An old car drove past, and I wondered if the driver was going to throw gasoline-soaked rags at us. I heard a crying baby and wondered if it was a tape recording made to lure women to their deaths.
Were there really thieves with loaded syringes who’d rob you and leave you with a some incurable disease? Gang initiations that required robbing, stealing, killing, beating people, or running over pedestrians? Did some gangs really require new members to knock on the door of a stranger and kill them when they opened the door?
Could there be LSD and Strychnine on the pay phone buttons? AIDS-infected syringes glued to gas-pump handles? Nails in the fruit? Staged medical emergencies? Wolves at the door? Blood in the river of souls? Was it really such diabolical times?
We walked for several hours. My feet ached, and each time Erika began to voice a complaint, I squeezed her hand to remind her we were the uneasy guests of two armed murderers. “I forbid it,” I murmured into her ear.
She seemed to accept that.
At last, Escher stepped up to an abandoned auto shop and pounded at the door. An elderly Mexican man opened it. As he realized who knocked, his look of disgust dissipated and was replaced by an apologetic stumbling over his own speech. Escher didn’t say a word, but rather put a hand down on the man’s shoulder and stepped inside. He motioned for us to follow.
The inside of his shop was transformed into a haphazard living room, constructed of gutted cars. Car seats were made into beds and chairs, and reconstructed air conditioning units and fans pumped air in from outside; a sedan in the corner purred softly, a host of wires running from underneath its hood to the fans and lights. An exhaust system led from the car-turned-generator and pumped out the open window.
“We’ll be safe here,” Escher said. “It’s been a long day for all of us. I think you should rest.”
He jumped into a disemboweled convertible and laid across the back seat, combat boots in the air. Whisper moved to the furthest corner from the main entrance and sat cross-legged on the bare cement.
Erika and I found space on the floor together.
Whisper had focused all her attention on a white cat that bore a single black stripe from its nose to tail—like a reversed skunk. Escher was dismantling his gun and cleaning it. Erika and I mainly tried not to look at each other or the dirty old man who was fiddling with some car parts in a separate, much smaller room.
“Tell me about your parents,” Escher said suddenly, cracking the silence several hours after we’d arrived.
“Who?” I asked. If Whisper heard, she didn’t bother to respond.
“You first,” he said to me.
“They were liberals. They hated this country and loved it at the same time.”
I loathed telling him the truth—they’d died cowards' deaths; they’d been cryogenically frozen in hopes of avoiding the Collapse everyone saw coming. Died in a goddamn power outage, like spoiled lunchmeat.
So I lied. “They were sent to Gitmo,” I said. It came easier than I expected. “I haven’t heard from them in a quarter of a century. They’re dead, I am sure.”
Escher only nodded again. “And you?” he asked Erika.
“My mom was a performance artist like me,” she said. “I never knew my dad.”
“You’re a performance artist?” Escher asked, his eyes widening. “All the world is but a stage, and we are but actors upon it. Truer words have never been said. They are words so true that no other words ever need be said after them, save for the sake of drama.”
Erika smiled for the first time that night. A pang of jealousy swept through me. I didn’t say a word though.
“Well, go on,” Escher told her.
“Performance art is true art,” Erika continued. “No pens, no paper, no instruments—just life. No roundabout way of showing people the way they should act. Throw away the pen and pad and become the poem, you know?”
“You’re a person after my own heart,” Escher said.
I watched Whisper as the two spoke. It seemed suddenly that she was very small and childlike. She pulled her hood up over her head and stroked the feline on her lap. I wondered what had happened to her parents, what had led her to lead this life. Escher didn’t seem to notice she existed. I wondered—did working with Escher mean she had to admit she was nothing but a figment of his imagination? Would Escher ever respect someone he didn’t believe was truly a person?
Erika continued: “Like I said, my mother was a performance artist to the end. She never had much, never had any respect or recognition—but she always put her art first, even when it came to her death.”
“How?” Escher asked.
“Six days before Halloween, while I was away with relatives, she hung herself in the front yard. For a week and a half, people walked by her house and up to the front door and right past her rotting corpse. Everyone thought she was just a Halloween decoration—an elaborate wax figure—put there to scare people. They didn’t cut her down until a neighbor came to complain about the smell and realized where it was coming from.”
There was a long pause. No one seemed to know what to say.
“That’s fucked up,” Escher spoke at last, chuckling a bit.
If Erika was offended by his flippant response, she didn’t show it. “What about you, tough guy?” she asked. I hated to hear her act the least bit curious about Escher. Somehow, it reminded me of all the things I wasn’t and he was.
He cleared his throat and looked down at the ground then straight up at the ceiling. He leaned back against the end of the gutted vehicle that was his bed. “I was painting a gateway, using a mathematical equation called Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. That’s the last thing I remember. I’m probably lying in a hospital bed somewhere, in a coma, in the real world—or maybe I’m just passed out on the floor of my studio. I don’t know. I woke up here in this world a few years ago.”
“Where did you wake up?” I asked.
The Red King shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about it. Everything that happens around me is representative of something from my past reality. You are all just figments of my imagination. It’s useless for me to tell you, because you cannot understand and already know, anyway. I used to think I could just explain it, but it’s not that easy.”
I don’t remember going to sleep, only checking my watch intermittently throughout the night, always disappointed how little time passed. My mind dragged itself on hands and knees through the night. No one seemed to be sleeping but Escher and Whisper’s cats.
Shortly after dawn, Escher let out an enormous yawn, stretched his arms, and jumped to his feet out the side of the vehicle turned bed. He surveyed his dismal compatriots and clicked his tongue disapprovingly. “You’ve got to learn how to make yourselves sleep,” he told us. “You never know when and where you’ll be forced to take a nap.”
Whisper regained her same impenetrable posture, apparently recovered from whatever depression struck her the night before. Once more, she was the beautiful angel carved into a sixteenth-century church, the stoic maiden on the front of an ancient warship.
Escher continued to ignore her. In fact, it seemed Escher took Whisper’s presence entirely for granted when there were others about.
He made his way to the filthy, grime-covered sink in the corner of the shop and washed his face and hands. The water sputtered haltingly out the faucet in shifting shades of gray and brown.
Erika let out a soft “Gross.”
“Where are we going today?” I asked Escher.
“To a new base, where we’ll summon the Strangers,” he said.
“And then?” Erika asked.
“That’s enough questions, I think,” Escher said.
As we set out the door, Erika complained, “Do we have to walk?”
“No,” Escher said simply and then began walking away from city.
Erika stood impatiently, awaiting some further explanation, but none was offered. At last, she sighed and began jogging after him.
We stumbled across a long line of people in front of a makeshift grill. “Feed us,” Erika chimed from the rear of the party.
I was starving too. It’d been at least a full day since I’d eaten, but I wasn’t about to start complaining to our leaders.
When they turned a deaf ear to my perky, brunette disciple, she turned to me. “Bless me, Father,” she started, “with my daily bread. I am hungry, and I turn to you for food.” She trailed on into the Lord’s Prayer, but I was too uncomfortable to listen.
This got Escher’s attention. He stopped, turned around, and faced us. “What’s this?” he asked, an eyebrow raised in suspicion.
“It’s, uh…hard to explain,” I stammered.
“Try,” he commanded.
Erika stopped her prayer and stepped in front of me. “He’s God,” she said simply. “I worship him.”
“It’s…something she decided to do on her own,” I apologized.
“And I thought I was messed up,” Escher grinned. “What the hell inspired her to worship you?”
“Divine signs,” Erika said earnestly. “He appeared when I needed him most.”
“Does he answer your prayers?” Escher asked with a cruel tinge in his voice.
The subject seemed to attract his attention in a very unwelcome way. He probed into our strange relationship like he would an enemy combatant—like he had done with me that day in Tasumec Tower.
“Always,” Erika replied. “One way or another.”
“You know, there is a way of thinking—that to worship someone is to believe yourself to be a part of them. In other words, you might only be a figment in his imagination. Would you be willing to admit that?”
I reflexively took a step backwards.
“We’re wasting time,” Whisper interrupted. “There are more important things we could be doing. Let's eat and keep moving. We must not lose sight of the bigger picture.”
Escher raised his right arm and pointed at a man cooking some sort of meat over a metal bin. “Garsón!” he shouted. “Bring us your finest dish.”
The dirty man looked over at Escher then panicked and looked back to his food. He finally shook his head and picked a skewer up from the bin. A black, charred mass was curled pitifully around the thin metal pole.
Escher frowned but spied a fresh package of half-eaten bread beside the man. “Just the bread will do,” he said.
The man brought it over to Escher like a sailor walking down to the edge of a plank to retrieve a nickel. With each step he seemed to move slower and slower, more certain this was a trap.
Escher snatched the bread from him and handed it to Erika. “There,” he said. “I have fed you.”
I have never felt like a god, and in fact, the whole idea made me feel ridiculous and uncomfortable—but just then, I wished I could smite Escher.
We passed through commercial areas full of decayed mom-and-pops, practically fossils. We moved so far away from the center of Banlo Bay that we were neared Red Zones, completely uninhabitable for decades past, abandoned by the Fed, the State, and the City. The wild.
Our party reached the edge of the ruined commercial district until nothing but a line of tall, green pine trees rose up ahead. The trunks were thick, and the leafy coverage even thicker, so the ground beneath the trees was very dark and cool. I was struck by the stark contrast of this forest to the bleak urban landscape I was accustomed to, in which the only trees were very purposefully placed.
I realized we must have walked out of the city and into a land I’d sworn to myself I’d never return to. The suburbs. The real suburbs, too, not the tightly-packed neighborhoods I lived in; here, there were once golf courses, manmade lakes, and nature walks; space was as abundant as one’s imagination in using it. These suburbs, the satellite cities away from the heart of Banlo Bay, were the first to fall.
I looked over at Erika. Her eyes seemed equally enchanted by the forest. Even Escher seemed to relax. A smile crept onto his face as he led the march down the street, which had been steadily dissolving under our feet until now it was more of a gravel pathway than a road, leading us into the untamed woods.
The suburb looked as though the foliage of the place declared war on everything man built there. Trees grew up out of the middle of roads; ivy covered everything. Street signs and lamps were so coated in plant life that they looked like Seussian trees. Most everywhere we walked, we had to be wary of tripping over the thick roots that ripped from the concrete like stitches in the earth.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“This is my paradise,” Escher said. “When Banlo Bay looks like this, maybe I’ll finally wake up.”
Whisper seemed at home as well. Where usually there were only one or two cats about her, they seemed more drawn to her now, and a trail of a dozen felines happily trotted after her.
We passed a public school that’d been eaten by ivy.
“This is what happens if you go a few decades without human intervention,” Whisper said. “Well, sort of. These plants were introduced by the city planners. They aren’t native. Without anyone here to keep them in check, they ran rampant. Still, it gives me hope for the future. Earth can get over almost anything, it seems,” she said.
I asked Erika if she’d seen anything like this.
“My mother took me to South America once. I saw the rainforests there, and I never wanted to leave. It was beautiful. Clark, I love it here! Look at what your will has wrought.”
I shook my head. Escher frowned at our exchange, but Whisper took his hand and pulled him forward.
Erika noticed this exchange as well and let out of soft hmph.
Despite our sore feet and aching backs, walking through the forest seemed effortless, as though the trees rejuvenated us. We passed a large meadow crowned by a few trees and a beautiful lake dappled with lily pads. I imagined it must have been a golf course in a past life.
At last, we crossed into a large, completely shaded dome of trees. I realized after stepping into it that we were inside the remains of a church, the amphitheatre of the sort of sprawling super-churches that were so popular so long ago when space hadn’t been at a premium.
A forest twisted and bent at dizzying angles in a massive interlocking mesh above and around a large hill. Trying to follow any single branch up to its pinnacle made my eyes blur and my mind refuse to accept it. From one far end of the mass of trees, the remains of a metal structure jutted out like the last wall of a crumbling Roman masterpiece. Rows of seats were eaten by moss and covered with so much earth that they looked like grassy knolls.
“Escher and a few of us restored this a long time ago…well, more or less,” Whisper said.
“Alone?” Erika asked.
“Well, sort of. Sam was here and Lux and Grundel…” she trailed off as she mentioned him, and a pang of sadness crossed her face.
“We’re all hurt for Grundel’s death,” Escher said. “I’m weaker for it, and with no one to man the radio, we may never find Little Brother if he leaves Banlo Bay again. At any rate, welcome to Alhambra. At moments of great enthusiasm, it seems to me no one in the world has ever made something this beautiful and important.”
I looked at Whisper, who shook her head and held up a hand to silence me.
I approached the remaining wall of the church saw delicate inscriptions that grew into strange patterns etched onto the stone. I was interrupted as Escher climbed up one side of the crumbling brick, hoisting himself up vines and branches, nimbly reaching the remaining portion of the roof. We heard his footsteps echo hollowly through the church, as though God were knocking politely on the roof.
“He’s going to light the signal fire,” Whisper said, “and the rest of the Strangers will come.”
I looked at Erika, and she returned my glance.
“It’ll be a while,” Whisper said. “Don’t get lost,” she called at our backs as we exited the church, eager to step out from under Escher’s shadow.
I walked side by side with Erika Bronton across a parking lot that’d cracked like a melting arctic disaster. We walked into a baseball field in which the stadium lights were overgrown with moss to look like monstrous palm trees, melted in their own chlorophyll. Escher was behind, atop the church, towering over his realm, arms crossed with a bonfire burning at his back.
Ahead of us was a large pond. I walked to the edge, curious if anything lived in it. Leaves from the trees stole much of the surface of the water from my view, and their reflection on the glassy plane was as vivid as the large orange fish I could see within it. Erika gasped at the sight.
Her hand was dangerously close to mine, and I wanted desperately to reach for it. It seemed childish, though, or at least that’s what I told myself. Kids hold hands. Adults kiss.
“Erika, I…” I stopped and she looked at me. Suddenly, all I could feel was anxiety. I desperately wished she’d look forward again; look around us; do anything but look at me. Shit, why did I call attention to myself?
Erika smiled. “Clark,” she said. “You know, if there’s anything you want, you just have to ask me, right?” There was a suggestive tone to her voice that made me even more nervous.
Of course, that was just it. I could have asked her to have sex with me and spun it within the game she played of me being her Lord and Savior, but that felt awful to me, unnatural and nerve-wracking. I would never be able to bring myself to say those words.
This worship she played at with me—or maybe it was real, I didn’t know how far she committed herself to this role—it separated us. It let her do anything, but only in jest. Not truly. Not truly have sex with me, only play this character who would have sex with me.
But, I wanted Erika.
These thoughts raced through my head, but all that came out of my mouth was: “Okay.” And I walked off, leaving her behind.
There was something else I wanted to talk about. “Escher,” I started then faltered.
“You’re the one I chose,” Erika said, reassuring me.
“Whatever,” I said.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“What’s with you and these games? Why does everything have to be something else? Can’t we just be two people who are basically doomed, captured by a madman, and waiting to die? Why do I have to be your God and you’re on some fancy spiritual voyage? Can’t you just admit the only reason we are together is because you needed a place to stay and I was an easy target?”
I knew all of this was true, and I knew Erika knew all of it was true. The difference to me was that I lived with that truth. Everything Erika did—all the worship, the so-called "art," was just to put a spin on that truth.
Erika didn’t answer. Her head tilted back slightly, and her eyes began to water. Tears climbed up over her eyelids, and a drop came tumbling down.
“I’m sorry,” I said immediately. “I didn’t mean it.”
“You just don’t have any faith,” Erika sniffed. “It’s okay, though, 'cause I have plenty.”
I sat at the base of a towering oak tree Erika enthusiastically clambered up. She asked me to join her, but there was no convincing me to climb that high.
I knew I didn’t have faith. It explained why I wasn’t an optimist—or a sucker, for that matter. Erika seemed to be able to willingly trick herself into believing things, so I wasn’t sure if she was either or both.
Strangers began trickling into the overrun forest camp only an hour after Escher started the black smoke signals.
I was surprised that I was beginning to recognize the members of this private army. Mal stalked through, and the knife-wielding woman with green hair, and the same Speedo-clad hulking figure from before, with Rush in tow.
I figured Rush was a part of the Homeland Security Department—except, the Federal Government wasn’t any more powerful than the Strangers or any number of militias and cities that’d sprung up after the Collapse. Just another roving gang.
“What do you think about him? Do you think he’s insane?” Erika called down from on high. Who the ‘he’ was needed no explanation.
“I don’t know. You have to see it through his eyes, and then it starts to make a lot more sense. He thinks we are merely a part of his own imagination, pieces of his fragmented psyche. How would you act in that situation?” I asked.
“But he’s saying he owns reality. He’s saying nothing you’ve ever experienced is real,” Erika said. “How pompous is that? Doesn’t that kinda piss you off?
And they’re telling me everything Little Brother has ever told me is a lie. Either way, my own reality is fabricated. “I guess,” I said instead. “He seems sure of it.”
Erika dropped down out of the tree above me and dusted off her tight blue jeans.
“Let’s go back,” I said, directing my eyes to the ever-thickening flow of Strangers entering the suburbs. “We want to get a good seat for whatever is about to happen.”
“Wait, Clark—what about the other stuff? Whisper and the disappearing guy and Escher never getting shot? How do you explain all that?” she asked curiously, her eyes wide and inviting me to impart some secret knowledge.
“I don’t know, obviously,” I said. “I don’t think I exist purely in Escher’s head, because I remember growing up and existing a long time before I met him. On the other hand, it’s like the Voice says—reality does seem to respond to what Escher wants. Maybe the truth is somewhere between the two.”
She looked disappointed. So, in a rare moment for our relationship, I told her what I really thought: “I think reality is a democratic process, and Escher counts for way more votes than the rest of us.”
Strangers filled what was left of the mega-church, hundreds of them standing shoulder to shoulder and watching for their leader. All was silent, save the shuffling of leather and the clinking of ammunition.
The Red King stood atop the grassy mound that’d overtaken the stage of the mega church. Blooming flowers drooped down like lights from the ceiling, and draping vines made makeshift cables. A line of Strangers fed into the epicenter of the suburb, and the bulky soldier who drug Rush along set the captive on his knees at Escher’s feet.
Sweat dripped down from the silver bangs that’d congealed like tarred feathers over his forehead. His hands were tied behind his back, and his head tilted upwards at Escher, held there by the edge of his hand.
The leader stood stoically in the center of the stage, staring down at Rush. The other thousand-plus people in the room were just observers.
“Rush, I want you to tell me about Little Brother,” Escher said.
The silver-haired bureaucrat looked up once again, a question in his eyes. “Who?” he asked.
“The Liar, Co-Intel-Pro, The Fascist—whatever you call that lying piece of shit that stank up this place.”
Rush blinked away the sweat and seemed to perspire even harder, sweat rolling off the bridge of his nose and onto the ground. “We have resources,” he said. He sounded brave, but the way he tripped over his own words belied his fear. “We are the federal government of the United States of America.”
“You were. You are a lost cause,” Escher repliedy. “The sleeping giant is old and frail, stupid and forgetful.” He drew a silver handgun from behind the thick purple coat that covered his army fatigues and directed the semi-automatic pistol to Rush’s forehead. “We’re just drawing ourselves into circles here. I need to know what you know,” Escher said, rubbing the barrel of the gun against the man’s forehead. “Don’t make me scoop all that knowledge up off the floor.”
A slight whimper broke from Rush’s throat.
Escher began to pace back and forth, sometimes letting the barrel of the gun drift lazily off its target, keeping a steady, silent intensity for several long moments.
Finally, Rush broke down under the eyes of a thousand collective Strangers that were conducted by the tip of Escher’s gun.
“It’s us,” Rush said. “Not my department, but we let them in. We were losing power, and they told the head of the FBI they could give us our control back using the media—newspaper, television, movies, and radio. They said they could make people more open to leadership.”
“Where did they come from?”
“Counter Intelligence Programming from the forties, always running. When we fell apart, when Congress refused to meet and any semblance of control was gone, they kept going. Co-In just kept operating. I think they want to retake power. Please don’t kill me.”
“How did you find us?” Escher asked, dropping down into a crouch so his eyes were level with Rush’s.
“Little Brother revealed a spy in our own ranks, and she offered us a deal. She said she could give us one of our biggest targets for free. Said they had another spy in the Strangers. That spy told us where you were.”
“A spy?” Escher asked. He looked down at his captive, then paced away from Rush, turning his back.
“Are you going to kill me?” Rush asked the back of Escher’s head.
Without turning, Escher replied, “Smile when you die, Rush. That moment lasts forever.”
Understanding his fate, Rush began to shout, “This is the world! I am real…this is real! This is not in your head. Wake up, Escher, wake up! Please wake up…”
Escher shook his head, and the pistol popped off like a brat’s balloons.
Rush’s body fell backwards, a steady stream of blood and brain matter spilling toward the edge of the grassy stage. The audience fell into an even stricter silence as the body of the chief field officer of the Department of Homeland Security lay at their collective feet.
Escher shook his head, looking frustrated. He holstered the gun behind his back and turned to address the congregation. “We were attacked by someone who knew where we were, who knew our plans,” he announced. His voice cracked unsteadily; his agitation was visible. “So we had to change our plans. It seems like we have a new enemy. This is to be expected. We will continue from here. We will strike the…” Escher seemed to trail off then he looked downwards, lost in thought, mumbling to himself.
This went on for a few seconds until Whisper appeared at his side, clutching his arm and tugging him back and away from the center of the grassy mound that made the stage. Sam stepped forward from the crowd with the brown cigar box, and I knew at once what was inside of it—a syringe filled with Escher’s blood, kept nearby until requested.
Whisper addressed the crowd. “Please excuse the Red King. He has exhausted himself defending our army against this new threat. We do not know how many agents are left within the DHS. It is possible every man who is left was there at the downtown base. It’s also possible we could be followed and attacked tonight. We’ve abandoned all Green and Orange Zone bases. Our final assault on Banlo Bay is looming, and I ask that you all find ways to prepare despite this setback.” She dropped her arms and returned to Escher’s side. No one spoke.
And with that, the meeting of the Secret Society of Strangers was over.
“Who is using who?” Erika asked me under her breath as the Strangers began quietly filing out of the gaping holes in the walls of the church.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Look, I get that Whisper and the others closest to him are supposed to believe they are nothing but divisions of Escher’s whole mind, but what if they don’t really think that? What if Escher just happens to be this incredibly charismatic figurehead and they feed into that delusion so he remains a competent leader?”
“I doubt it,” I said, remembering the pain in Whisper’s face as she sat alone on the garage floor only a night before. “I think Whisper is legitimate, and probably the others as well. They mentioned another one—Lux. And Grundel is dead. If he was a part of Escher’s mind, what happens, then? Did Escher lose a part of himself?”
“I don’t know,” Erika admitted. “What if the spy is someone close to Escher? What if Sam or Whisper or someone is really just using him?”
“I doubt it,” I said. “Why would he even think there is a spy?”
“Well, how did Rush find their base?”
“Well, someone had to tell him.”
In the back of my mind, there was one terrible answer. There was, in fact, a single person who stood out in my mind as a spy. There was one individual who had mysteriously entered into the story with no real motivation, who’d manipulated events for motivations beyond me.
How the spy might have planned it, or if the person was really a spy at all—that was beyond me. What I did know was how it was going to look to everyone else.
What if Erika Bronton was that spy?
I spent the rest of the evening avoiding all human contact, particularly Erika. I was worried about her. Hell, I was worried about myself. If Erika was some sort of spy from Little Brother, I wondered if I would side with her anyway. Could I let Escher kill her, like he killed Rush? Could I stop him, anyway?
When nightfall came, Erika finally rooted me out of my solitude and pulled me toward a series of crumbled brick buildings that’d put up a strong front in the green war Mother Earth waged here.
As we neared the huts, she relaxed her grip on my upper arm and instead took my hand. “I was talking to Sam,” she explained.
“What’d Sam have to say?”
“Lots,” she said noncommittally. “He thinks I’m the spy. Do you think I’m the spy?”
“I don’t know, Erika.”
“Don’t say that, Clark. I’m not the spy.” She looked hurt.
“Look, I didn’t mean it like that.” I leaned in close to her. “Even if you are the spy, that’s okay. I’m on your side. I’m not going to sell you out to Escher. You know that, right?”
“I’m not the spy!” she whispered harshly.
“Okay, fine, but are you being totally honest with me? Isn’t there something you want to mention? Didn’t you hide that footage somewhere, what got us into this whole mess?”
“Look, you're right in some ways. I saw you in the crowd and I needed a place to stay. You looked safe enough. It’s just that I had seen you at the memorial, too, and it seemed so coincidental that I’d run into you again,” she said.
“Wait, what?” I asked.
“I was never in the orphanage,” Erika said. “My mom raised me until I was sixteen, and that’s when she died.”
I was a little stunned, but somehow it wasn’t much of a surprise. “I don’t really care about that.”
Except now I had to wonder if she had been waiting there for me for weeks, some instrument of Little Brother’s plan.
“Would you really stand up to Escher for me?” she asked.
“Yeah, of course, but there’s something I need to—”
Erika wrapped her small, warm body around mine in what I thought was a hug. I was intoxicated by the feel of her slender legs against mine. All other thoughts melted. “Clark, we get to sleep under the stars tonight. Isn’t it beautiful out here?”
I looked up and around at the giant misshapen trees, growing proudly and wildly anywhere they could find purchase; at the tiny patches of night sky through their cover; and at the stars that shone through them. It was beautiful, and I told her so.
“You would know. You made it,” Erika said.
“Stop that,” I said. Then, realizing I had said it, I voiced it again. “Stop treating me like I’m your God.”
“That’s the game, stupid,” Erika said. She stopped and turned to face me, and her hands hooked into the top of my pants.
My heart shot up to my throat. “Do we have to play games?”
“Yes, Clark, we have to play games.” She looked directly into me. I forgot about our argument as she held my gaze and moved breathlessly close. All conceptual reservations vanished as the immediate took forefront.
This was it. I was supposed to kiss her. I leaned my head in, closed my eyes on one last vision of her face filling my field of view, and my lips touched something soft and warm. It was her lips. My lips were touching Erika’s lips! I pressed them together experimentally, gently pinching her bottom lip between mine. I felt her lips move in response. She was kissing me back.
She was kissing me back.
And then the enormous strangeness of it dawned on me. The trees seemed to shoot up ten times as high around me, stark sentries staring down.
All eyes on me, I heard a voice in my head say. Don’t screw this up. I stopped kissing Erika and pulled back. The panic rose.
She leapt up into my arms, almost knocking me backwards, and kissed me again, wet tongue crossing my lips and joining mine. Her small, warm hands rubbed up and down my chest over my shirt as her tender little mouth kissed and panted hot breaths of air into my neck, my ear, my shoulder. My hands nervously roamed her back like a child in an antique shop, afraid to touch anything for fear I might break it.
My glasses were pressed against my face, smeared with my nervous sweat. Erika turned up to my face and leaned in to kiss me sweetly on the lips.
A shrill meow slit through the silence like a siren. I swiveled around sharply and saw a small white cat staring intently at us from only a dozen feet away, motionlessly watching our private display. Suddenly, the crowded feeling was back.
Through the murky darkness, I thought I could make out Whisper’s shape.
I tried to relax, but the sensation of being watched kept me from getting any real rest.
Erika slept soundly, snoring softly.
I untangled myself from her, searched my surroundings. Magical meadow. Hard time believing I was really there. Trees towered tall as bank buildings.
I caught a flash of color amongst the thickest portion of the trees in front of me. Fear rose in my stomach as I realized it as Escher himself, dressed like a rock star in charcoal gray jeans, a purple shirt, and the very same crimson jacket he wore the first day I met him. Any hope he somehow forgot about me was dashed.
I thought he might be coming for Erika, and I had to do something about that. I stepped out away from our little hovel and met Escher as he moved swiftly through a thick concentration of trees. “Hello, Escher,” I said, as though we were friends; as though he didn’t scare the shit out of me; as though being near him wasn’t my least favorite thing in the world.
“Frightened Boy,” Escher said, “you’re coming with me today. There’s something important I have to take care of, and I want you to be there.”
This was worse than him coming for Erika—I was the one who should have been hiding. Nevertheless, I tried to sound calm and collected. “What have you got in mind?”
“A few things. I think it’s time you and I really got to know each other.”
“Okay,” I mumbled. “What do you want to talk about?”
“Let’s walk. Come with me.”
Escher seemed to know the best ways to navigate the trees, and soon we were far out of sight of the space Erika and I shared. I realized I wouldn’t be able to find her again if I tried.
A lump of dread stuck in my throat, but I soldiered on. If I was going to save her, I was going to have to do it with Escher’s help. I wasn’t going to go head to head with him and come out of it alive, I knew. There was simply no competition.
Escher led me to a camouflaged jeep. The rear of the vehicle was filled with toolboxes, automatic rifles, hand grenades, and pistols.
“What—umm…” I started. “What are you going to do with those?”
“I’m going to assault a heavily guarded compound today. Frightened Boy, I have to admit, I’m growing to like you. Today is something of a test. Today, we will get to know each other. I’ve got some suspicions about you.” He turned to me and tapped his head.
“What kind of suspicions, sir?” My panic rose a notch.
Escher laughed. “I don’t think you’re the spy,” Escher said. He clapped me on the back. “I think you’re up here,” he said, tapping his forehead with his other hand. “I think you might be a piece of me. Today we are going to find out. All you have to do is stay alive.”
My throat muscles refused to swallow. I was going to drown in my own saliva, and I was almost certain this might be worse than being the spy.
Escher turned the keys in the jeep and it roared to life. He drove expertly through a winding clearing of trees amidst the all-encompassing flora of the forest. “I made this path, you know,” Escher said proudly, looking around.
“You cut through the clearing?” I asked. It would have been an impressive feat, and I didn’t see any hacked-away branches. In fact, the path we were on seemed naturally formed.
“You still don’t understand,” Escher said. “You will though. Or, I will understand, and when I do, you will—because you're me. Or, my anxiety, anyway. And once you're fixed, I will be stronger.”
I couldn’t wait. “So, what exactly are we doing today?”
“This,” he said. He pulled a folded sheet of paper from inside of his jacket pocket. “This is the drug pipeline into Banlo Bay. The train stops here, outside the city, to be unloaded. These are the plans that Sam drew up of the facility. ”
I looked at the map. It showed our point of entry—along the tracks of the train, toward the front of the rectangular station. The warehouse where the shipments were sorted and eventually loaded into trucks was located at the opposite end of the compound. It was clear we'd be approaching from the front, attacking along the train tracks; it seemed like the most obvious opening. Red dots indicated where guards would be posted. There were at least twenty, and Escher’s plans showed him storming the gates.
“This is the train station where, once a month, millions upon millions of capsules of antidepressants arrive for sorting and shipping. The pills are another way Little Brother controls the country. That first time I met you—inside your little office building—your eyes had that glazed look, that happiness you didn’t earn. You were on them?”
“Xanask,” I said. God, I missed it.
Escher pun the wheel suddenly, spinning us away from a thick wall of trees. Soon, we were out of Kingwood and into an open plain—a wasteland of short grass and dried dirt. About fifty yards to our right were train tracks. Behind those, over the horizon, were the shining tips of buildings that must have been twenty miles away—downtown Banlo Bay
A pack of wild dogs, startled by our noise, scampered away from the jeep and into the trees. Escher maneuvered the vehicle sharply off its course and into the thick grass; a wall of dried stalks had grown so high that they shielded the already camouflaged vehicle from view.
A train bombed through the tracks behind us, easily going triple the speed of the jeep. The trains had to be armored, and they had to be fast. Who the hell knew what was out there in that vast divide between the cities? There was no law in the Red.
I wondered what would happen if his plan worked, if he destroyed a month’s worth of drugs that most everyone in the city was dependent on. Was it really a good idea? It was terrorism. Some people needed those meds.
Then again, to Escher those people were a part of his mind. And if they were on drugs, maybe that meant he was on drugs too.
The wall of noise and steel passed, and Escher drove us over the elevated tracks. I flew fully out of my seat, and without a seatbelt, only the laws of trajectory kept me from flying out the jeep.
The Red King drove parallel to the train's right side, staying even with the last car of the train, hiding us behind it. As the train slowed, so did Escher, until we parked a few hundred yards away from the fence marking the train station's entrance.
He hopped out of the jeep in a single motion, leaping over the seats and door and landing on the ground, then began digging through the arsenal of weapons sitting loosely in the back of the truck. “Get out of the truck. Follow me, do what I do. If something should strike you as being important, then let me know. It could be pivotal."
Escher set about strapping most of the arsenal to his body. A black pistol went in each boot. The silver pistol he’d killed Rush with was tucked into his pants at the small of his back. He removed his red jacket to strap on a harness with two small submachine guns, and then he put the jacket back on. A large rifle with a scope that was half the length of the barrel went across his back, and then he wrapped a set of binoculars around his neck, hooked some sort of blowtorch onto his belt. He opened one of the two boxes, and it was full of grenades.
"You're ridiculous," I said, standing beside him with my hands in the pockets of my slacks.
"What? Am I overdoing it?" He pulled the rifle from his back, stared at it in two hands. "Okay, maybe this." He opened the coat and unhooked the two submachine guns. "And these." They were dumped back into the bed of the truck. "I'll stick with this." He patted the silver pistol where it sat holstered at the small of his back. "It doesn't really matter, Frightened Boy. When I kill someone, I'm only forgetting them. The bullet is just a symbol. It's the way this dream works."
“Where do you get all of this shit?” I asked, incredulous.
“I imagined it," Escher said.
He counted up and down the cars of the train and then clipped eight grenades to his belt. He tossed one to me, which I promptly dropped. He didn’t seem to notice, so I put the heavy metal orb in my pocket.
“You know that grenade I gave you?” Escher as he strapped a long, straight-blade knife onto his belt.
“Yes,” I stammered. The grenade.
“If they capture you, if they have you surrounded, wait until you’ve given up, but don’t let them search you. The second they close in and start to search you, you pull that pin while it’s still in your pocket. Do you understand me?”
“Can’t I get a gun instead?”
“Do you know how to use one?” Escher asked.
“Pull the trigger?” I asked.
“Can you reload it? Clear a jam?”
“No,” I admitted. I’d never fired a gun.
“Then no, you don’t get a gun.”
Escher looked at my face and chuckled. “Don’t worry, Frightened Boy. They’ll kill you regardless if they capture you. At least this way you will have contributed."
Escher hefted the rocket launcher over his shoulder and began walking further to the right in an arc, away from the docking station as well as the train. I struggled to keep up with his easy lope, weighed down as he was with the green metal tube hefted over his shoulder.
After five minutes of this steady pace, Escher suddenly dropped down to his stomach and began to look through his binoculars. We reached an angle where the furthest edge of the farthest side—the back of the complex, relative to where we had entered—of the unloading dock was visible.
“Here we go,” Escher said to himself. “Here we go.”
He picked up the rocket launcher lifted it onto his shoulder. Without taking a split second to aim, he fired.
The sound was deafening; a blast of hot smoke fired from the back of the hollow launcher just as Escher dropped it to the ground. He was on his feet running back toward the train—and the train station—before the rocket finished its flight.
All I had to do was keep up.
The rocket connected destroyed the far corner of the complex—the exact opposite side from which Escher was now approaching.
I raced after Escher. Barely kept him in my sights. First we heard shouts and screams. Seconds later, they were drowned out by sirens.
Escher intersected the stationary train about 100 yards before he reached the unloading station. He hadn’t been spotted yet.
So far behind that I might lose him. Might end up arrested. Would I pull the pin, blow myself up? No, never. Better to just keep up. But, no matter how hard I pumped my legs—and I’ve done some serious running in my time—I couldn't reach him.
A wall of heat and force overtook me from behind. Explosions began erupting in the train, each a dozen seconds behind a charging Escher and only a few yards behind me. He tossed grenades into cars of the train. There were eight explosions, one for each grenade he’d brought, each sending hot wind chasing up my calves and bare arms.
By the time he reached the front edge of the compound, fire and smoke consumed the blue sky. There could be no doubt about where the attack was coming from now.
Rather than running into the train depot, Escher ran around the right side of the building toward the original detonation he made with the rocket.
The silver pistol was gripped in two hands. Escher prepared to step around the corner, ready to fire. I rushed and accidentally turned the corner before him.
A bullet zipped by my left ear. The shot had been fired from my left and above. The Red King turned and unloaded a shot into a police officer standing only a dozen feet away from us, behind and atop the wall we were pressed against.
“See? It’s gonna be fine,” Escher said as he charged toward the gap in the wall his rocket had created. "This isn't a firefight. This is an argument in my mind I am having with myself—an argument I cannot lose."
I struggled to peel my trembling body from the ground and chase after him, running alongside me down the length of the complex to the smoldering hole of the rocket's detonation.
Escher's arm jerked madly, pistol firing each time his arm snapped to a stop, some mad painter making slashes across a canvas. He walked as he fired, making steady small steps inside the compound.
I scooted to the edge of the entrance, could feel the hot, torn metal on my back as I craned my neck to watch the battle.
The leader of the Strangers shot relentlessly, never reloading, gun's clip seemingly infinite. Didn't seem to matter to him very much that he was being shot at; even though armed guards aimed weaponry at him and pulled the trigger, there was no result.
A barrel aimed at Escher was an argument he should die, and Escher always won that argument.
The rain of gunfire stopped. Escher seemed satisfied, at least for the moment, that we were safe. He turned and pointed at me, then at the stairway in front of him. I stepped over the
I followed him up a small flight of stairs to an office that overlooked the warehouse floor. Three timesheets were taped to the wall, near a timecard machine. Escher read his way down it.
“Fuck. Missed one."
He dropped the list and stalked past me, almost knocking me over. I followed close behind him, eager for the protection he offered. We were on the bottom floor of the warehouse again, this time heading toward the center of the train station, where men would have been unloading this month’s supply of antidepressants if they hadn’t been so interrupted with their deaths.
“Fucking freeze!” a voice shouted behind us. And then there was gunfire, popping like fireworks only a few yards away.
Escher turned to face his attacker, a security guard standing bow-legged with a semi-automatic pistol in two trembling hands, unloading his gun into the center of the Red King's body.
The Stranger continued approaching. The bullets did not pass through him, did not enter him, they simply weren't. As they passed through Escher they ceased to be, lost their argument.
By the time Escher approached the security guard, the gun only offered empty clicks. The hand of the Red King reached out over the gun, to the wet, red face. Fingers covered eyes.
And then there was no security guard. No clothes, no scared eyes, no hands holding the gun. He simply wasn't.
I didn't know what to say, and so said nothing. It was true, though.
It was true about Escher. He decided what real was.
I watched him pull the large butane torch out of its holster and light it, and a bright blue flame jetted forward. Enough butane in one of those compressed canisters to burn down just about anything. I watched idly as he walked past cardboard boxes and wooden crates, applying the torch as he moved past. The smoke grew dense and black; I choked as I stumbled to the hole from which I'd entered, coughing when I reached the sun.
A few minutes later, Escher emerged. "Good work," he said, tossing the butane torch onto the grass and walking toward the jeep.
17. Bond of Union
Escher and I arrived back at the Stranger's camp without anyone being the wiser as to what we’d accomplished—well, what he’d accomplished. I wondered if every time he disappeared he was out doing something as incredibly dangerous and exciting as what we’d just been through.
Couldn’t think about much. Couldn’t even think about Erika, even if I knew where she was. I spent an hour sitting down next to a tree in the center of the camp, my head between my knees while I tried to stop the world from spinning. What was Escher? Was he immortal? What was he capable of?
The hum of the camp was disrupted by a singular figure walking into their midst. It was clear he didn’t belong—not because of the way he looked, but by the way each of the Strangers reacted to him.
The intruder wore an old pair of sneakers, tattered blue jeans, and a gray hoodie. His face was feminine, a delicate chin, angular cheekbones, and dark brown hair with bangs down the right side of his face, covering one eye entirely. A boxy, black set of headphones covered his ears, the cord running into the backpack slung across his back.
Nothing about the man seemed too strange except for the way he carried himself. He appeared oblivious. He was just walking, either completely unafraid or completely unaware of where he was. Could have been at the bus station in Downtown Banlo Bay, or at the mall, anywhere but sauntering through a jungle into a camp of terrorists.
A Stranger, a shirtless man with two clowns tattooed on his back, approached the newcomer. “Hey, you. Stop. Seriously? You think you just get to walk through here?.”
The newcomer kept walking. The Stranger backpedaled to keep up with him; now all eyes were on the uninvited guest. A symphony of bullets sliding into chambers, of clips being pushed into guns.
Frustrated, the Stranger lifted the headphones from the newcomer’s ears.
Instantly, an ear-splitting noise burst through the air. A nauseating sickness overcame me as my vision spun like I’d been placed inside of a kaleidoscope that was aimed directly at the sun. I felt like someone was driving railroad spikes through my ear canals.
Strangers curled up into themselves, hands on their heads to escape the aural assault. It was the sound of gears grinding, of machines fucking, of aliens using power tools to perform abortions on whales.
Through the haze of my deteriorating vision, I watched Whisper move rapidly toward the newcomer, walking in her authoritative way with her high-heeled feet jutting from beneath her thick trench coat. She reached the man, who finally stopped walking and simply with a bored expression on his face, and yanked the cord from where it ran in his backpack.
There was relief. The silence was warm and inviting. All guns were immediately pointed at the newcomer.
Whisper raised her hand, signaling for them to hold. “He’s one of us. This is Lux. He’s come home.”
“Hello, Whisper,” the man said, voice bored.
Escher peeked his head out from a nearby tent. “Did I hear something?” The Red King sauntered out, apparently in the middle of sponging himself off. Pants soaked with water, bare chest shining from the sunlight that pierced the canopy of leaves above. "Lux!" he shouted. “You’re back! How was America?”
“Detroit, L.A, New York. They’re all falling apart. The scenery was excellent though.”
“You must be tired. That’s a long way to walk.”
“I get around,” he said. “The shoes fit nice.”
“So what brought you home?”
“The inevitability of destiny, I suppose. I can walk and walk and never find the answers I need. That has been made abundantly clear to me.”
“Then I’m glad you came home,” Escher said. He tried to put an arm around Lux, but he stepped away.
Escher watched the newcomer with a serious look. "I have news," he said, looking up and projecting the words into the forest. The Strangers became still, and listened.
"Tomorrow we're attacking the city. Tomorrow, Little Brother will be in Tasumec Tower. We will go there—fight our way there, if we have to—occupy the tower, and kill him. "
"How do you know that?" Lux asked, arms crossed over his chest.
"I learned it," Whisper said. "It is why that one was tapped, he worked at the tower." She pointed at me.
"Why now? Why tomorrow?" Lux's voice rose.
"Little Brother, then Rush. We were attacked twice in a week. There is a spy among us, and subterfuge is no longer an option."
"A spy? How do you know?"
"He told you, we were attacked twice in two days," Whisper answered tersely, hands making then unmaking fists at her side.
I caused the first one, actually. But they knew that.
"You can't just attack the city! That's war." Some color reached the Lux's cheeks.
"Not the city. Just Little Brother. I am doing this so that I don't have to attack the city," Escher said. "This is like brain surgery. We go in, we fix the problem. Once Little Brother is gone, the city will heal itself. If I can't win like this, then there is no other option. If I can't kill Little Brother, I will have to kill everyone. I will be forced to destroy Banlo Bay with Epoch."
Lux stared at the Red King, jaw unhinged. None of the hundred Strangers in observance argued.
A finger looped itself gently around my hand.
“So, how did it go?” Erika’s warm face was an inch from mine, whispering wetly into my ear. Everything else was forgotten while I sneaked off with her to tell her everything I’d been through that day.
We spent that evening a few hundred feet from the Strangers, sitting near the sky, cradled by an oak tree.
"Escher made him…disappear?" Erika asked.
"Disappeared. Just, vanished. Popped out of existence. It was insane."
"You sure you weren't hallucinating?"
"No. No, I'm not. It felt real, though."
"Well, I'm glad you lived."
It was a beautiful night—like most in Kingwood Forest—and Erika had convinced me to climb higher into a tree that I had never climbed before. I focused on her legs climbing above me rather than the ground below me.
My stomach lurched every time I looked down, but any time we tried to talk on ground level we were watched. Instead we built a makeshift nest—a place in the tree where two wide limbs met the trunk that created a sort of Y-shaped bed in which we could lay.
Erika's hand climbed up my shirt, pressed against my bare chest. "You see the new guy?" she asked.
"I did. Lux? Who is he?"
"Get this: Whisper's ex-boyfriend. The plot thickens." She smiled.
I closed my eyes to think. What if Escher wasn't the only one who could change reality? It looked like Whisper could, and Sam could. What if I can bend the world to my will? It’s stupid. It’s crazy, first off. And second, it clearly doesn’t work—I mean, look at you. But I haven’t tried, I reasoned.
So, I set my mind to a task. When I open my eyes, Erika will be right in front of me, and she’ll start kissing me. When I open my eyes, Erika will be right in front of me, and she’ll start kissing me.
I forced it to be true. I pictured every detail of what I’d see when I opened my eyes. I made myself believe it was true. It had to be true, so much that my head ached from the focus.
Finally, I opened my eyes.
Erika was gone.
I looked around frantically.
“Clark, get up here!” Erika called from dozens of feet above me.
“No way,” I said, masking my disappointment.
“You have to see this,” she called down in hushed tones. “It’s…amazing.”
Swayed by the calling of her voice, I set to the task of climbing further up the tree. I used my hands to steady myself even on the tiniest steps, and I never had less than three limbs touching branches. It took me forever to climb, while Erika seemed to clamber about the trees like she was designed for it.
Finally, I reached her sneakers, climbed up her calves, her creamy white thighs, her tight abs, her full breasts, her slender neck, her cheeks, and then I was at the tip of the tree. The world was open, no longer the emerald cave of the forest. We were above it, but only by a few feet. Treetops lay out like an expanse of grass before me, and the night sky glittered with innumerable stars.
“Amazing,” I said.
“You created it all.” Erika grinned, kissing me softly on the cheek. My weight shifted for a moment, and I felt myself slipping backwards imperceptibly. My heart jumped, and I clung to the tree with all of my strength, pulling myself toward the trunk so hard my body ached from the rough bark.
I turned around to look in the other direction and a bright object seemed to eat up the skyline. Stars disappeared in a vortex around it; the constant gray haze was turned orange by the millions of lights that forever ran in Banlo Bay. Buildings rose up like crooked teeth capped in gold.
"That’s what he wants to turn off.”
“Look at it and look at the space around it. It doesn’t fit,” Erika admitted.
“It’s like a tumor."
"Would you want to destroy it?"
"So you heard Escher too? No, I wouldn't want to destroy it. It's what people wanted, for better or worse. They made that city for themselves. But you can only believe that, if you believe those are real people in there—real people who don't deserve to die."
The large wheel of a truck crushed the grass inches from my feet.
I’d overslept. I felt Erika scramble to her feet a moment later, tugging at my collar to get me out of the way. There was a surreal moment in which I thought I might be deaf, wondering why I didn’t hear the roaring engine of such a large vehicle. Then four Strangers passed, pushing the back of the truck while a smaller man sat inside, steering.
A voice pit-a-patted directly on my eardrum. “Where were you two last night?” Whisper asked. She leaned up against a tree, a half-dozen feet away.
I pointed up. “We were up there, watching. Have you ever been to the top of the forest?”
“Many times,” Whisper said.
I couldn’t imagine the stoic Whisper scrambling up a tree. Maybe she flew.
"Why are they pushing the truck?” Erika asked.
“Stealth,” Whisper said, then frowned. "I will be keeping a close eye on you today," she said to Erika.
Erika only muttered and turned away.
“Don’t worry about her,” Sam said, nasal voice coming from behind me. “She’s just in a bad mood.”
“It’s hard not to worry about her,” I replied. “She didn’t expect Lux to come back, did she?”
“We all thought he was gone for good. When Escher arrived in Banlo Bay from the Red Zones, he was alone. He met Whisper and Lux first and recruited them. As they learned more and more about just how he thought and what he had in mind, Whisper believed in him completely. Lux had reservations, not least of all because Escher took his girlfriend away.”
"It's a hard idea to admit, that you aren't a real person. That you are just a figment."
"Tell me about it." Then he looked over his shoulder. "There's another problem, though."
“The girl, Erika, she’s not doing you any good. You need to get rid of her,” Sam said.
“I can’t,” I said. “I love her.”
“Some of the Strangers think she is the spy."
"Is Whisper one of those Strangers?"
“She suspects. But Escher doesn’t like her either, and she’s not going to last. It doesn’t help that she keeps acting like you're some kind of god. Can you imagine how much that irritates Escher?”
“I’m not going to let her go,” I repeated. “As long as I’m around, she’s staying.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Sam sighed as he stepped into a crowd of Strangers and disappeared.
I followed after the long caravan of trucks being pushed along by sweating Strangers. The trucks were a mix of jeeps, Humvees, and a half dozen other old military vehicles I couldn’t recognize. At the front of the line was a giant armored vehicle with ten wheels and tiny metal slats for windows. Boxes of ammunition and first-aid kits were carried on the backs of the hundreds of Strangers that’d inhabited Kingwood Forest for the past week. I spotted Escher a few trucks ahead, surrounded by Whisper, Mal, and Lux.
“What’s the battle plan?” I panted as I spoke to Escher.
“Today we’re hunting Little Brother,” Escher said, “and we’re going to catch him. You’re going to play a very important role, Frightened Boy—though you don’t know it yet.”
“Alright, what’s the role?” I asked.
“Final showdowns. Big explosions. The death of the antagonist,” Escher said, grinning behind his aviator sunglasses.
“How?” I asked. "Be specific."
“You know the tower. You can get us in, unlock the doors, tell us where the traps are. You are my secret weapon. Don't worry, you don't need to fight—Whisper will protect you.” Escher said. "You will lead me to Little Brother. I will confront him and cure my mind, and by tomorrow all this will be over. I will finally awaken."
"Can't you just…unmake him? Like you did with that guard?" I stumbled on a raised root.
Escher shook his head. "I've tried. So many times, I've tried. I don't know him, though. I don't know what to imagine. Little Brother is my cancer, he's something more than just an argument like that guard, or even you are. That's why I didn't want him to have footage of my face. I'm worried he's like me, and if that's the case then who knows what would happen if he had my face? But he'll get the footage eventually, Frightened Boy. It's best if I strike first, before he can take advantage of it."
"Are you sure he's there? In the tower?"
"Whisper believes so, and I believe Whisper," Escher said. "She has been invaluable to me. And, Erika will be going with you."
I stopped walking. Cold sweat clung to my skin like spider webs.
The person behind me shoved me forward.
"Why Erika? What does she know?"
"Whisper wants to keep an eye on her, in case she's the spy."
Shit. Didn't know what to say. What could I say? Nothing useful, nothing that would change his opinion. So I said nothing.
Erika's arm looped through mine.
"Escher wants me, you and Whisper to stick together. We're going up in the tower together," I told her. "I can make the elevators stay on, and I can watch the cameras from my office while Escher…storms the place."
"I don't trust Whisper."
"She doesn't trust you," I said. "She thinks you're the spy."
"I'm not a spy. But I did hide the footage." Erika held her hand in her chin, ran her fingers around her jaw.
"It's in your office. You said you lost the key, I found it while I was cleaning your house. Why? I was bored, Clark. Very bored. So bored."
My heart sank. "Why did you lie to me?"
"I never lied to you, I just didn't tell you what I'd done. I can find the footage again once we're in your office and give it to Whisper, maybe that will change her mind about me."
I looked at her and smiled. "Yeah, maybe that'll work. Okay, yeah. We can get out of this."
"See? You created a great future for me." She squeezed my arm. "We'll be fine. We'll be fine."
The column of troops stopped marching. We were at the tree line, at the entrance to the Orange Zones of Banlo Bay.
“Suit up!” Escher’s voice yelled from up ahead of the line.
Strangers reached into trucks and bags and pulled out gray trench coats and hats. Victorian hats, top hats, hats for ship's captains, dusted off and molded them into shape, and soon we were surrounded by the eerie image of the Strangers I'd become familiar with.
I watched my red baseball cap float down the line from hand to hand, apparently passed down by Escher. It reached me; I gripped the rough cotton and put the cap on my crown.
Strangers began loading guns and strapping machetes to their belts.
“Are we all set?” Whisper asked, addressing Erika and I.
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered. Erika only squeezed my wrist.
"Frightened Boy, you'll drive. It'll be easier for me to defend us if you do. Just go where I stay and keep calm."
"Yeah, sure," I said "Calm. No problem."
Shit. Hadn't even driven a car in five, six years. Hate driving.
Whisper motioned for Erika and I to follow. We walked up the caravan's long line of vehicles until she stopped at a silver jeep. "This is us."
I opened the door for Erika to sit in the back, then climbed inside.Tested my feet on the pedals; barely reached. The seat wouldn’t adjust; nearly everything was ancient and corroded.
Around me, engines roared to life. The heavy bass of the armored car echoed in my ears and throat.
I put my foot on the gas. The jeep jerked forward, eager. Bumped gently into the jeep ahead of us; the Strangers craned their necks and glared.
The line of trucks began to move, the last few yards out of their forest sanctuary and into the very outskirts of Banlo Bay.
The cracked and punished pavement hadn’t been maintained in a decade or more, and the vehicles rattled furiously over the pothole-ridden roads. The big armored car took lead, and plowed over barrels and stacks of garbage, clearing the way for the rest of us.
Out of the corners of my eyes I saw rag and bagmen peeking out from under cardboard bedding to watch as the brigade passed. Some children whooped and hollered, but most scattered as the heavily armed army of Strangers passed.
In the distance, I could see the steep on-ramp of the freeway. It felt like the approaching first drop of a roller coaster. Escher’s mammoth armored vehicle pulled onto it, and then the rest of the long train, and I squeezed the wheel with both hands until my knuckles were pale.
I focused on the vehicle in front of me and pulled into line. The skyline of Banlo Bay was visible through the hazy gray morning. The two worlds were about to collide.
The first police car to spot the rolling brigade slammed on its brakes to avoid confrontation. It followed from a distance until one of the jeeps broke away from the train and turned around, racing toward it.
The first shots popped out over the horizon as the patrol car was riddled with bullets; the Strangers squealed into a U-turn and pulled back up into formation.
I looked to my right at a family sedan. Two kids had their little faces pressed up against the window, wide eyed at Whisper’s long leg and heeled foot pressed up against the dash of the jeep. The wind whipped her cloak further back to reveal the chrome revolver in her hand.
Whisper extended the gun toward the skyline.
“Pow,” she said, mimicking the recoil that the gun would deliver.
“You’re not scared?” I yelled over the rush of the wind.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Whisper said. “We aren’t even real, remember?”
A long line of blue and red lights met us at the entrance to downtown Banlo Bay.
Not acting like the police I thought I knew, though. Instead, I heard gunfire, saw muzzle flashes. Heard whistling disturbances in the air, and—they were shooting at us! I ducked low in my seat, until I couldn't see the road, only the tail end of the vehicle in front of me.
Escher led the trucks into a line perpendicular to the direction of the road. I pulled up behind one of them, not quite in formation. “Get up there,” Whisper hissed.
I made a sloppy U-turn and pulled skittishly into a small gap, moving forward in halting steps. Whisper leapt from the vehicle before we came to a stop.
“Get down,” I told Erika. “Hide somewhere.”
She ducked into the floor of the jeep, pressing herself between the two seats. I crouched down as I opened my door, pressed my back against the little truck. Could hear Erika's voice out the open rear door.
I watched Strangers exchange gunfire with the police. Looked like some bizarre children’s game; peeking over vehicles to see if the other side was watching; firing until they ran out of bullets, at which point the other side would peek their heads out and begin firing—like a sequenced dance.
“Move!” Whisper interrupted with a shout from the opposite end of the vehicle we were using as shelter. She gripped my arm and led us to a thicker line of vehicles to hide behind.
As I ran, bullet holes peppered the area where I’d been standing. “Erika!” I called out. Her hand rise meekly, signaling she was okay.
“They’re trying to keep the fight out of the city!” Whisper yelled as she pulled me further away from her. “They want to engage us out here.” She leaned out from the side of a truck and fired three shots into the body of the nearest car.
“It looks like it’s working!” I shouted back to her. “What do we do?”
She didn’t respond; her flawless face clenched into a snarl with each shot from her gun.
I searched up and down the line of jeeps for Escher. He crouched behind the wheel of the largest truck, on his stomach firing an assault rifle in small bursts up and down the line. He aimed with his precision, picking the next target seemingly at the same moment he shot at the first. If you couldn’t see the bodies falling, you might think he was simply firing and aiming like a bored child might with a water gun.
I opened the door to the jeep and slid down onto the ground, careful not to let my head rise up over the seats to become a target.
Lux sat with his back up against the same vehicle, his arms folded across his chest. His headphones were on, and he didn’t seem to have any weapons.
I crawled across the line toward him. “What’re you doing?” I shouted over the noise.
He didn’t respond. His face looked calm; he closed his eyes and tilted his head downwards. I assumed his music was playing.
“Move!” Escher shouted. His voice seemed thunderously loud, and it was clear over the arrhythmic mess of the battle. Lux responded immediately to this command, making me wonder if he was ignoring me.
Suddenly, Strangers were starting toward their vehicles. Whisper leapt forward, grabbed the collar of my shirt and dragged me into a run toward ours. Erika rose meekly from the floor and brushed her hair back behind her ears.
The jeeps began to peel out toward the line of policemen with Escher leading the cavalry charge in the colossal armored vehicle. I waited for an opening and blasted into the line about halfway through, my heart pounding in my throat and the constant static of terror tunneling my vision and blinding my mind.
I watched as Escher plowed between two police cars, slamming them out of the way with the heavier vehicle and barely slowing down in the process. The line of Strangers began to pour through the gap, firing shots down at the police as we did so.
“Everyone duck down,” Whisper commanded as we tore through the gap Escher had created. As I slunk down until my head was below the dash, I saw the police cruisers seemed to have been shredded with bullets, almost all suffering from flat tires. As we sped through, the body of a Stranger fell from his vehicle in a spurt of blood, rolling on the cement, victim of a policeman's bullet.
When we pulled far enough up the highway to put the cruisers out of sight, I finally exhaled. My hands were cemented to the steering wheel, cramped and unresponsive. “Good plan,” I murmured.
“Did you think we hadn’t thought this out?” Whisper asked.
“No, I just…”
I glanced up at the rearview mirror and caught Erika's eyes. She looked terrified.
“I just need some faith,” I said to her and to no one.
I followed the line down the exit ramp and into the heart of Banlo Bay. Police waited at nearly every turn, exchanging fire with the Strangers as we sped past. On each of these occasions I could only duck low, stay as close to the jeep ahead of me as possible.
The streets were mostly clear as we rolled between the colossal skyscrapers; the familiar alarms already sounding, a computerized voice speaking over it in slow, calm tones, instructing office workers to remain in their buildings. Something like a bad techno song.
“This is it,” Whisper said.
Tasumec Tower, endless grey-glass ziggurat. How long ago was it I worked there? Felt like ages. Couldn't have been.
Our army fanned out down the streets, stopping in areas of cover behind the gargantuan buildings. Strangers leapt from them, forming tight groups of four and hiding behind massive the architecture of the area—cement columns, stone gardens, sheltered vestibules. Whisper pointed forward and I continued down the road, closer to the tower. Strangers now camped at every corner, guns ready.
The police crept down streets and at the edges of the Stranger defenses, firefights erupted as they were pushed back to find cover of their own. The Secret Society had the area around Tasumec Tower pinned down.
I drove as fast as I could—thirty-five—toward my old job, borderline seizures wracking my body every time Whisper fired her revolver at a cop that was entrenched behind a piece of cover. I turned the last corner around a skyscraper and came face to face with the hulking black, glass tower that was Tasumec.
But there was a problem: Dozens of police stood outside the front entrance to the tower, rifles resting on the tops of immense, bullet-proof riot shields.
“Back up! Back up!” Whisper shouted.
I slammed the jeep into reverse while it was still spinning forward, causing a grinding crunch in the innards of the vehicle that threw everyone forward. I felt Erika slam into my seat, which made me slam my foot down harder on the gas and sent us flying backwards into the side of the building behind us.
We slammed heavily into the cement; the steering wheel of the jeep caught me in the chest as I flew forward.
“Out!” hissed Whisper, rubbing the side of her head.
We clambered out, cursing as we found new bruises and sprains from the crash. I clenched and unclenched my fists until I could feel my fingers again.
Whisper cursed under her breath.
“We have to proceed.”
She pulled the trench coat tigher and grabbed her hat from the back of the jeep, sculpting the tip into a crooked point and then pulling it over her hair.
Two cats—black as an oil slick—climbed from a nearby gutter and circled her, purring softly and hugging her legs like expensive fur boots. As she took her first step toward the battalion, they followed her obediently at either side.
Erika looked hopeful for a moment.
“Cover your ears,” I said. “Trust me.”
I clamped my hands down over my head.
Whisper moved closer to the group, perhaps forty feet away. There was a sudden shift, and soon all rifles were pointed at the Stranger in the flowing cloak.
She raised her hands in the air in surrender, coming to a halt. Then she began to form words—too quietly for me to hear, thankfully.
Immediately, guns began to droop down and aim began to waiver as Whisper’s lecture began to drag the soldiers into a deep depression, gnawing at their will to live.
“Earplugs!” came a shout wracked with sobs. “Earplugs! That’s the one!”
Shit, I thought as the force lowered their weapons momentarily to insert yellow foam pads into their ears. Immediately, two of them split from the group and began to flank Whisper, apparently intent on taking the second-in-command of the Secret Society of Strangers as a hostage.
What do I do?
I was helpless. I tried to summon my will; I looked into the back of the jeep, hoping for a gun, for a grenade, for anything. Whisper stood with her hands raised, she took one step back then another, looking at the jeep then at her attackers.
The sound of twisting metal and sinking ships echoed up the street alongside the vacant rows of buildings, forcing glass from five, four, three blocks away to pop out the windows and shower down over an approaching jeep with a sole occupant. The glass rain followed him as he sped down the next block. As he approached, the sound of hell grew louder. My vision tunneled; Erika moaned and fell to her knees, hands clutching her skull.
Once Lux was on the same block as us, the sound was so deafening I was blinded. The sensation was maddening. I squeezed my skull but it seemed to have no effect; as though the music was coming from the palms of my hands.
Through the swirling funhouse mirror of my vision, I saw Lux’s jeep bounce up the steps and directly into the center of the armed men. He jumped from it, standing with his earphones around his neck.
The effect it had on the officers in front of Tasumec Tower was the same as it had on me; those that could still stand dropped their guns to clutch their heads. Whisper began firing rhythmic shots at the fallen men, executing each of them in succession from left to right.
Finally, Lux pulled the headphones up onto his ears. The relief was instant—my skull ached from the pressure; my arms ached from the exertion.
Whisper turned and motioned us to follow her. Erika and I jogged after her as she continued to walk toward the glass doors to the Tower. With one hand at the door, she lifted a hand to her mouth. "Proceed," she said into a slim black walkie-talkie. "The tower is clear."
Then she turned to Lux. “What are you doing?” Voice a vicious rasp. “Did Escher send you?”
“I thought you might need help,” Lux said, shrugging.
“What the hell, Lux?! Get back to Escher! For once, follow some fucking orders!”
I stood sheepishly to her side, awkward party to this mess. The pool of blood forming beneath the pile of dead cops was seeping up to my shoe, so I stepped away.
“I thought…” he paused. “Never mind,” he finished, turning around and stepping into the jeep. It was apparent from his expression, his feelings were hurt.
Erika opened her mouth. I tugged on her hand to keep her quiet.
“Idiot,” Whisper hissed. She pointed us toward the glass doors.
“Get us in.”
I gulped. The security doors would be locked, but hopefully codes wouldn’t have changed from the last time I’d been here. It’d be another two weeks before that happened.
I moved shakily up to the keypad and entered in the six-button sequence that would let us access the tower. I sighed in relief as I heard the locks click open.
Whisper held the door for us as we stepped inside.
Two security guards had their guns ready, aimed at Whisper as a greeting. She fired her revolver through the folds of her cloak, hand covered completely by the giant sleeve. The guards fell before firing their weapons.
Tasumec Tower was still in full swing; everyone had arrived for the workday. I knew the standard operating procedure for the tower well. I’d spent years here. Workers would be told to stay in their offices, and the local out-of-shape security personnel would be in the hallways outside, posted on each floor. The elevators would be locked down, but I could override that.
I led Whisper and Erika to the service elevator and entered a separate code—a security master code I’d been issued—and we were granted access. Whisper steeped inside first; Erika and followed nervously. I punched the button that would lead us directly to the floor of the security center and to my old office. The fiftieth floor, in the heart of the building.
I shared glances with Erika as we shot up the center of the building. Whisper was statuesque; lips pressed tightly together, hands held out in front of her, gun readied beneath the cloak. .
A friendly ding let us know we’d arrived. The doors slid open to reveal an empty corridor; security would have been dispatched from here to the floors occupied by tenants. I led the way to my old office, where I’d sat for years and watched countless hours of footage, helping to coordinate security for the building.
A lump formed in my throat as I stood outside the old door to my office. Whisper shot through the lock and kicked it open. Inside, a man in his forties that didn’t look too much unlike me was cowering in his chair, his hands in the air.
“Don’t!” he shouted as Whisper shot him in the head. She dragged his body out through the hallway and into a nearby bathroom; a slick, thick swatch of blood tracked his progress.
Of all the death I’d seen since this started, somehow this death disturbed me most. My nameless replacement could have been me just as easily as it was him; he’d just met the wrong Stranger at the wrong time.
“You, get the elevators running to the top floor. Lock all the doors you can except the front entrance and tell me when Escher is in the lobby.”
I nodded, hands sweat-slicked and heart pounding. I stepped around the corpse at my work station, leaning over his body, careful not to get any of his blood on me.
“And you, girl,” Whisper said. “Where is the footage of Escher?”
“In that desk,” she said. “Behind the drawer. I put it there when Clark brought me to see his office one day.”
Escher appeared on the lobby monitor, with Mal and a dozen Strangers I couldn’t name. “Escher’s here,” I said. “In the lobby, moving to the elevator.”
Whisper ripped the shelf from the desk; the heavy aluminum tray flew back against the wall, narrowly missing Erika, who yelped and jumped back. The senior Stranger reached in, felt around, retrieved something. The hard drive.
“Good,” she said.
“So we’re good now? We know she’s not the spy?”
“How do you lock the front doors?” Whisper asked. I stared. “Now that Escher is inside. To keep him from getting flanked.”
“He’ll be trapped,” I warned.
“Just show me.”
I clicked through the tower’s security software. “This is it,” I told her. “You want me to do it?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Yes,” she said.
I pressed the button. When I turned back, I saw Erika’s eyes wide.
Whisper walked to the phone, picked it up. Pressed zero. “Connect me to suite 820.” A pause. Then: “Okay, they’re yours.” She hung up.
“What the fuck was that?” Erika asked. “What are you doing?”
“I’m giving Escher to Little Brother, to keep him from destroying Banlo Bay,” Whisper said, and pointed her gun at Erika.
My heart stopped. The spy. Whisper is the spy.
The concept grew within my mind even as my body was torturously slow to react.
And then, somewhere miles beneath my placid yellow sea of cowardice, there burst a tiny bubble of red, red anger. That bubble rose to the top, threatening to break the surface, burst, and paint the entire waters red.
I grabbed Whisper by the shoulders and shoved her backwards. Her firing arm trapped underneath mine; she fired a bullet into the wall behind me.
Erika ran. “Clark, come on!”
Whisper shoved me back; I stumbled against the wall, feet in front of me. lot stronger than I’d expected.
“There’s no reason to run, Clark Horton. There’s no reason to fight, either. It’s over. Just lay down, take a rest. Think about what you’ve done.”
Whisper’s voice was a thousand voices in my ears. She was right, there was no reason to go on—there was no point, Escher was trapped now in the center of Banlo Bay and he’d be killed, and then I’d be killed, and Erika would be—
“—Clark!” Erika shouted. “Come on!”
I blinked. Whisper’s grip on me was gone. I could sense bullshit.
I shoved Whisper back against the wall, both hands deep in the leather of her trench coat, then darted down the hallway and snatched a confused Erika by the wrists, pulling her to the elevators. I stopped at the number pad to enter in the code that would let us get the hell out of there.
“Clark, open this fucking thing!”
I fumbled with the numbers. I tried again, but my hands were shaking so badly that I couldn’t enter it in.
“Just tell me the code,” Erika demanded, exasperated. I told her; she entered in the numbers with nimble fingers. God I love her.
As I dove into the elevator, a shot rang out. Whisper stood at the end of the hallway, pistol raised, cloaking still billowing out to her left as she’d just turned the corner, revealing black stiletto heels and black skirt.
Erika Bronton’s body slumped forward lifelessly, a foot from the elevator, just as the doors closed.
Lavender or lilac or something.
I watched as a lock of her hair slid up between the cracks of the doors, pulled from her body as I traveled to safety, tears already streaming down from my eyes.
Heroics were a luxury.
My mind reeled. I took deep breaths between sobs to try and calm myself, trying to make sense of what had just happened.
I sniffed back a face full of tears. I’d lost Erika; this hardly seemed to matter. Still, Whisper was not far behind. She’d have to take the stairs, and if I didn’t want to die as well, I had to run.
I was good at running.
She orchestrated a way to get Escher, his generals, and almost all of the Secret Society of Strangers in one place at one time.
What can you possibly do to help?
I don’t know. The door’s about to open. Lace up your shoes, Clark. It’s time to run. You’ve got to warn Escher, or else Erika died for no reason at all.
Bullets streaked by the elevator entrance; a body collapsed at my feet. Still, had to find Escher. Had to let him know what happened.
When I looked closer at the dead Stranger on the ground, I realized it was someone I knew. Sort of. Someone I could barely remember, but I must have—
Sam. It was Sam’s ordinary, forgettable corpse at my feet.
So much death. Couldn’t even miss him, not in the shadow of Erika. Couldn’t lose it now, had to hold it together. Had to find Escher.
I peeked out the elevator. Policemen stood in formation behind riot shields, assault rifles drawn. They controlled the entrance to the tower, the only exit that remained unlocked.
The Strangers were pinned against the far side of the lobby, trapped there, and I stood between a barrage of gunfire.
Still, had to act. Couldn’t let Escher die, couldn’t let Erika die for nothing.
Deep breath. C’mon, Clark.
I ran. Feet pounded the smooth linoleum floor, heard bullets—no, felt bullets fly past like angry insects. Dove to cover, behind one of the thick stone walls of the lobby. Turned and found Escher standing in the open, machine gun in hand, constant rat-a-tat punctuating the calamity, the loudest drum being banged.
“Escher! It’s a trap.”
“No shit,” he shouted back. Furious look on his face. For the first time since I’d met him, he was bleeding, cut across his arms and forehead.
I yelled again, back pressed against the cold stone of the lobby:
“Whisper is the spy. You’ve been set—”
Escher dropped the gun, spun around, and grabbed me by the throat before I could finish my sentence. I felt myself flying backwards toward the side of the nearest building; I crashed into it with his hand still around my throat. His skin was burning, impossibly hot for a healthy human; the searing sensation was almost as painful as his fingers crushing my windpipe.
“Impossible,” he stated.
“It’s the only way,” I croaked. “I was there. She killed Erika, tried to kill me. She is controlling the tower, this is a trap.”
Escher stared into me.
Still couldn’t breathe; he was killing me. “She killed Erika,” I mouthed. “Kill me if you want. Go ahead. I deserve it,” I choked out. I no longer had the air to form words.
He dropped me. I fell to the ground, my legs stretched out in front of me.
“Fuck!” he boomed. “Shit, fuck. Fucking fuck. Shit!” He kicked the machine gun with a heavy boot, sending it spinning out onto the asphalt. A hail of return fire began to sound off from down the street. Everything around Escher was being peppered with bullets, but he didn’t seem to mind.
The heat coming from Escher intensified, and I scrambled back as I felt the hairs on my arms begin to curl. When bullets came close to him, they ignited in glowing bursts of light, seeming to burn up in little bursts of flame as they crossed into his atmosphere.
I peeked around the corner around and watched policemen moving into position on all sides of the lobby, using Escher’s distraction to pulling their wounded back to safety and amassing in larger numbers. We’d overstayed our welcome, yet we’d accomplished nothing.
For the first time, I took stock of the Strangers. Not looking good; many were bleeding on the floor even as they continued shooting; and most could not walk. They piled into the meager cover provided by the office, some resting guns on their fallen comrades for balance.
“There’s no exit,” I said. “No way out of the tower.”
Escher raised an arm and waved us toward the rear of the lobby. I raised myself shakily to my feet and hugged the wall, following him slowly as he marched toward the last defensible position of the tower.
Amongst the small crowd of Strangers—perhaps thirty—I could see a few familiar faces: Mal was shooting savagely toward the police behind us, and even Lux picked up a gun and begun shooting, though it looked unnatural and unwieldy in his hand.
Escher led the way by a dozen feet. He kicked a small submachine gun up into his hands. As he stalked toward his assailants, he fired an impossible number of rounds without reloading. The aura of fury around him was sweltering; the dozens of bullets heading toward him at any given moment must have evaporated as they crossed it, like unworthy asteroids entering Earth’s atmosphere.
Escher pointed toward a supply closet, a barely-visible white door. “In here!” he shouted, though it was no longer necessary. Those that were still alive were within earshot.
The closet didn’t go anywhere; I knew it didn’t. I knew every inch of the building. It brooms, mops and nothing more.
But when Escher opened the door, it led to a stairway. Impossible. Still, he walked down it and out of view—I followed, Strangers pushing by me, shoulder-to-shoulder with them.
Escher crouched at the bottom of the narrow stairway, where he pulled something up from the ground. Another impossibility—a sewer cover. He reached down, hooked a finger into it, and in a display of Herculean strength, lifted the heavy steel plate from its place on the ground and placed it against the wall behind him. Without a second thought as to depth or direction, he leapt down the sewer entrance that never should have been there.
Mal, Lux, myself, and a handful of Strangers followed.
The last remaining Strangers followed Escher through miles of twisting, filthy tunnels, clambering up mountains of shit and raw sewage through a maze that seemed impossibly long and complex.
I was exhausted. The fumes made my head ache, and the emotional trauma of the day weighed heavily on my mind. Even Escher showed signs of uncertainty and slowing. He stopped at each branching pathway and looked first left, then right.
There were no police in sight. Either they’d considered the battle won or they had no method of following us.
Finally, we entered an expansive dead end. The chamber was alien; a gargantuan waterfall of clean water flowed from some unknown source thirty feet in the air. The chamber housed a large cement platform that was dry underneath the waterfall, large enough to hold what remained of us. The smell was mostly blocked out by the running water.
It was a dead end, but it was an end nevertheless—a place to stop. I had the eerie notion that we weren’t exactly trapped under the city. This place seemed too large, but I didn’t know where else we could be.
Escher didn’t seem to know where to go or what to do. I watched as he sat with his back up against the wall, stretched his legs out in front of himself, and stared blankly into the rushing water. For the first time since he started his mission to reunite his mind, he had completely and totally failed. He’d been betrayed.
I sat down near him but faced away. Tears rolled freely down my face. I hoped my sobs were drowned out by the sounds of the water.
Erika was dead. It didn’t really matter where we were or what we did.
20. Drawing Hands
I must have cried myself to sleep. I woke up to face the same grimy gray walls and sounds of rushing water that became my new prison.
We’d been down there for hours with no food and barely any light. The last remaining Strangers spread out on the cement, backs to the walls. Many were injured, and most were resting. There was no food and no medicine for them.
Mal looked restless. Escher was catatonic, staring into the water.
I crawled over to him. I had begun to wonder about exactly where—and more importantly, how—we were. The vastness of the chamber seemed improbable, given that we were probably not very deep underground. “Hey,” I whispered.
Escher didn’t respond.
Lux spoke from Escher’s side. “You know where we are, don’t you?” he asked.
“I have an idea,” I said. “This must be how he feels. Where do you think we are?” I was scared to voice it—it sounded crazy.
“I think he created this chamber and this maze,” Lux said.
I squirmed uncomfortably at the thought. “Impossible,” I murmured, though I didn’t really believe it. The way the sewers had progressed into this room, the way the manhole had appeared—it seemed like Escher had created the entire thing out of a need to escape, and now he was simply stuck here, leaving us a victim of his catatonia.
I crawled clumsily over to Lux’s other side and leaned back against the wall with him. I rubbed a tear off of my cheek with a rough sleeve.
“Sorry for your loss,” he said.
I didn’t know what to say. “I’m not the only one who lost someone.”
“Samuel Jesse Meskee. That was his name. I’ve known him for ten years, and already I can’t remember what he looked like. If I could, I’d tattoo his face on my arm,” Lux said.
“He was a good guy,” I replied, eyes low.
“Did Whisper really betray us?”
“Man I…yeah, she did. She killed Erika.” Erika would have survived if I had just punched the numbers into the keypad correctly, if I wasn’t such a nervous wreck. Fuck me and fuck my weakness.
“Mrs. Umiker. Jetta Umiker—that was her real name. She hated it. I went to school with her, y’know? I wonder when she turned sides,” Lux mused. “I never thought she would—I can’t imagine why.”
I had my own opinions, but I kept my mouth shut.
I think she loved a man who thought of her like a glorified slave or at best, a psychological footnote. The image of the sad, haunted Whisper I’d seen that night on the floor of the garage came back to me. I didn’t dare ask Lux, but I could guess their history. That’s probably why Lux left, because Whisper fell in love with Escher.
I looked at Escher’s face to see if any of what we’d said had registered. He didn’t seem to be able to hear. “We have to wake him up somehow. Snap him out of this,” I said.
“We’re trapped here without him,” Lux agreed. “He brought us here. I’ve never seen him do anything like this.”
“I think he’ll snap out of it,” I said, trying to sound hopeful. What was it Erika had been so adamant about? Faith. I owed her that much. I could have a little faith in Escher.
“I’m sure he’ll come back and blow the whole city up or whatever it is he’s trying to do.”
Escher blinked. The force of it was such that I leaned back from where I sat.
He remained still. I looked at Lux, who seemed equally confused.
Suddenly, Escher leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes, a slight smile on his lips.
Today, I am scared I made a monster ten times worse.
“I must divide the plane,” Escher said after several more hours. “We must begin again. Order and Chaos. Epoch is the only way."
“That’s the answer,” Escher said, talking to himself, voice flat. “They won’t listen. They only reject freedom. They reject me. Division, like chemotherapy, destroys the good and the bad. I’ll take it all away. And finally, I’ll be able to move on. I must excise one part to save another,” he said. “It won’t be easy. I wanted to do this slowly. I wanted to dismantle Little Brother and see if I could heal the people of Banlo Bay, but that plan failed because I was betrayed. Now there is no choice but to sever the limb, to find a cure for what ails me. Epoch is out there somewhere. I’ve seen it before, and I’ll find it again.”
Escher closed his eyes again, and we waited longer.
I was starving, but Mal made me lose my appetite. He licked his lips at every wounded Stranger, apparently contemplating cannibalism.
“You’re going to have to stop him if he tries to eat one of them,” I told Lux.
Lux chuckled. “Good luck with that.”
I looked at Mal, who was crouched on his feet, arms bent over his own knees. The soulless serial killer turned and looked at me with bloodshot eyes.
If Escher didn’t wake up soon—if he didn’t lead us out of here—Mal would kill us one at a time. I doubted if all of us combined could hold him back.
“I think he’s close to the edge,” Lux murmured into my ear. “Escher keeps him in check usually.”
I shuddered as Mal stood and began pacing up and down the length of the flowing water. I prayed Escher would come to his senses soon; each time Mal’s feet passed in front of me, a chill slithered up my spine, and I’d feel for a moment he was going to reach down and pluck out one of my eyes or strangle me until I gurgled blood and white foam.
One of the wounded Strangers was bleeding steadily from a wound on his calf; the crimson stream had reached the small river we sat around. The man’s injury appeared infected, probably from marching through miles of shit and sewage. Sweat formed around the man’s brow, and he’d fallen into a fevered sleep.
Mal started paying particular attention to this one. He soon shortened his pace to only walking back and forth before him with a look on his face that was more expressive than any vocalization could ever be:
Why not now? He’s going to die anyway.
A bullet in the head would be infinitely more kind than staring into the eyes of Mal as he choked the life out of him. Lux seemed to be thinking the same thing; he’d silently shifted his position so a pistol was concealed in his lap, his hands wrapped around it in.
After an eternity of pacing, Mal lunged for the wounded Stranger. Calamity erupted in the cavern as those who were nearby scrambled away. One man fell into the stream of water, and those who weren’t struggling to put distance between themselves and Mal were rushing toward him. Soon, two men were trying to pry Mal’s hands from the wounded man as he was lifted into the air by his throat. The man beat his arms feebly against Mal’s chest and neck, trying to break his grip.
Mal fixated on the victim in his hands; the people trying to pull him away had no effect on his posture. He was connected firmly to the ground, and they may as well have been trying to uproot a tree. The black tribal tattoos that climbed up his chest and arms seemed especially dark as he grinned manically at the thrashing Stranger.
Lux finally uncrossed his legs and walked over to Mal, pointing the pistol directly at his head. The barrel was less than an inch from his skull.
Mal turned to look at Lux. The two stared directly at each other as the rest of us squirmed backwards, wishing the chamber was larger.
With a sickening pop, similar to the sound of breaking fresh branches away from a tree, Mal twisted the struggling man’s neck and dropped his lifeless corpse to the ground—all while staring at Lux. Lux lowered his aim and his eyes and sighed, his bluff called.
Our spirits were further dampened by the act. Mal returned to sitting down at the opposite end of the corridor from the rest of us, apparently placated by the murder. He didn’t seem interested in eating the body and only needed to take its life. The killing alone seemed to feed whatever part of him was hungry. He simply stared at the dead body curiously. I imagine the Strangers wanted to toss it downstream so they didn’t have to sit so close by, but all were scared to touch Mal’s fresh kill.
Lux returned to his spot next to Escher and me. “Shit,” he murmured, echoing the feelings of everyone in the chamber.
“Where’s he from?” I asked Lux an hour later as we warily eyed Mal.
“Him?” Lux asked, pointing the tip of his gun at Mal.
“No, Escher. You’ve known him a while, right? He must have said something about where he’s from.”
Lux chuckled softly.
“Yeah, he’s told me. You won’t like it though,” he said. “It doesn’t help anything.”
“I’d still like to know what I’m into,” I said. “What’d he tell you?”
“He told me this story the day I left to go on my big walk. He told me that in another alternate reality, he was the artist M.C. Escher. In this past reality—I guess really just the 1940s—he used to draw this freaky math shit. Pictures of looping staircases, hands drawing each other, reflections fighting—all made from these crazy formulas he got from mathematicians.” Lux stopped to swallow hard as Mal suddenly lifted his hand up to scratch his bald head.
“Anyway,” he continued, “according to our Escher here—this comatose black hole of surreality—he started fooling around with an equation called Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, trying to draw it. Now this Gödel was apparently a real sonofabitch. His theorem disproves mathematics, sort of. Or, what Escher said is, it proves there are more things true in life than can possibly be proven.
“So he started drawing this gate, kind, out of this theorem. Now, our Escher here thinks he tore reality with this picture. He thinks he got sucked in and created this world,” Lux said.
“Shit,” I replied. “That is crazy.”
We survived another four, maybe five hours in the timeless depths of the sewer chamber that may or may not have been a creation of Escher’s tormented mind before Mal began licking his lips again. If I’d had a gun, I would have considered killing him, if it wasn’t more likely that I’d botch the job somehow and end up dead.
All the injured among us had taken to attempting to look as healthy as possible, leading to much painful flexing of cracked bones and stretching of bruised backs.
As Mal stood again to restart his torturous pacing pattern, Escher finally spoke. “Calm down,” he said.
Mal returned to a sitting position.
At last, Escher stood up. Thank God. “We need to get out of the city,” he said simply. “They’re gonna be all over us. We gotta get out of here. The Strangers will go back to Kingwood. Lux, Mal, and Frightened Boy will be coming with me. I know what I have to do now.”
Fuck. Oh well. I was ready to die, if need be. No more Erika. Didn’t care too much either way.
Escher led us back through the tunnels. He turned right, left, right again. We crawled through an impossibly small space with disgusting sewage lapping at our knees, and we reached a ladder. The exit had been so close that I felt a little stupid for not discovering it myself, assuming that was possible.
Escher climbed through first, heaving the heavy manhole lid to the right and poking his head through. I followed with Lux behind me, thankfully separating me from Mal.
We came to the surface in an Orange Zone on the outskirts of Banlo Bay—seedy, dark, and dangerous. The skyline of downtown Banlo Bay loomed over us like an angry giant, reminding me we were only a few miles from what had been the most heated battle in the history of the Secret Society of Strangers—indeed their final battle, judging from the few who were left.
Escher sat down with his remaining Strangers and explained to them how to get back to Kingwood without being seen. Then he turned to myself, Mal, and Lux. “We’ve got places to go,” he commanded.
We followed Escher’s lead, walking for hours, sticking to alleys and staying off major roads, snaking our way through the Orange Zone in an attempt to find a way out of the city.
As we walked, we were greeted by the usual sights that fill any man’s walk through an Orange Zone: small groups of men on street corners glaring angrily and suspiciously at anyone who walked past, challenging anyone who dared to make eye contact; sick people—sick from polio, rubella, schizophrenia—that no one cared about enough to help.
I also saw the type of person I once was—a person looking at the ground, stopping only once every few seconds to glance about and make sure they weren’t being watched or followed, a person whose worst fear was being approached by anyone.
I was starting to see what Escher was preaching. I could finally see what my problem was.
Welcome to Banlo Bay! We are the paranoid humanoids, and we’ll be avoiding eye contact with you and otherwise pretending you do not exist. Have a good day, or have a bad day…hell, have anything but anything to do with my day…
Too late to matter, though. Too late to matter without Erika. You loved her. You always learn your lessons too late.
“Fuck Little Brother,” I said with finality.
“I agree,” Escher said. “I don’t know what I did wrong to make this happen. I feel like I must have been through three worlds. It’s metamorphosis in magic mirrors. Order is repetition of units. Chaos is multiplicity without rhythm. This pattern, this strange loop, became twisted. There’s logic here, but it’s hard to see. I just can’t pierce the veil and see the pattern—not anymore. The only way is to wipe it clean until it’s a manageable size.”
Not helpful. More nonsense.
Together, we passed through alleyways and mostly uninhabited streets, looking as normal as we possibly could, though it certainly wasn't normal at all. After six hours of walking north, we decided to take up lodging for the night.
We found a bar whose roof sat an angle that would make surrealists proud, and Escher knocked on the door boldly. The place was closed, armored in iron bars, but there was movement inside.
Escher was halfway through his second set of knocks when we heard keys clattering, bolts being undone, and much cursing. A fat, pale balding man with a desperate comb-over stood behind the doorframe and held a shotgun level to Escher’s head.
“We need lodging,” Escher said simply, as though the gun was not there.
“Why the hell would you knock on a door that says it’s closed? You read? My bar is closed. I don’t want any trouble—I’ve got dogs.” The man pointed a thumb behind him where there sat a half dozen mutts, all chained to posts some six feet from the entrance to the door and looking like they'd eat anything that blinked. If a burglar were to get into the bar, he wouldn’t get far. The animals made an effective security system.
“This is Escher, the Red King,” I said. “We only need this place for the night.”
“Red King, huh? I saw you guys on the news. I don’t want you here. I know they’re coming for you. Gonna turn this whole place into a war zone. Go on! Get out of town before it’s too late.”
Escher looked downward. He faced the man again and exhaled, and then he stepped to the side. “Barkeep, I’d like you to meet Mal,” he said. As Mal walked by Escher, grinning, Escher whispered to him, “Try and keep it all in one room, would you?”
Mal put his hand on the long shotgun, pushed the barkeep back into his own shop, and closed the door behind him.
Lux and I waited patiently for about half an hour as thumping, chopping, and gurgling sounds played out from behind the iron bars of the door. I tried to look nonchalant, looking and down the street and pulling my red cap down low on my head. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged on a street corner.
Finally, Mal opened the door. His hands were coated in blood, but it looked like the maniac had been kind enough to clean up for us. As I cautiously entered the bar and Lux locked it behind me, I took stock of the situation.
There were six empty leashes resting limply on the ground, still connected to their posts. There was a bloody towel stuffed under the bathroom floor, apparently to keep the gore from seeping outside.
Escher stepped behind the bar and began pouring drinks. He drank Irish whisky neat, and Lux had a gin martini. Mal didn’t drink.
“What about you, Frightened Boy?” Escher asked me.
“I’ve never really gotten drunk,” I said.
“Well, there’s only one cure for that. Rum and Coke! The beginner’s drink.”
He poured me one with two perfectly square ice cubes. I stared at the gradient of colors ranging from watery caramel to coffee brown swirling at the bottom.
I took a drink. It wasn’t awful, and it felt warm. Some part of the hole in my soul that Erika left was filled by the alcohol.
Soon, I was halfway through my second one and feeling quite free. I turned on the television in the bar.
The news was on—some bullshit about dangerous pollens.
“Stay inside. That’s what it’s telling you,” Escher said.
Another story, and this one was about a missing child.
“Rapists and pedophiles everywhere. Keep the kids locked up inside,” he said. “That’s what this means.”
Next, a five-car pileup.
“Don’t drive! There are drunks on the road, and you’ll die. Fear for your very lives,” Escher said, slurring sloppily.
A gun fired, and I spilled my drink all over my shirt. Escher had fired into the newscaster’s forehead, turning his brains to glass shards, sparks, smoke, and silicon. Visions of Mal’s treatment of Flint Amstrong came to mind.
“People would be a lot more peaceful if they stopped worrying about what they cannot change,” I said. “Take me, for instance. I figured I was dead from the minute I met you, Escher, so every day I’ve been alive this past month has been a bonus.” Except Erika. Didn’t need that.
“It’s been nice knowing you, too, Frightened Boy. I’m glad you’ve made it this far. I’m almost sad it has to end.”
I woke up to the sound of a battering ram crushing the door to the bar. Tear gas attacked my eyes and lungs as I gasped to get a hold of the situation. Police swarmed in. The first one fell where he stood as a bullet from the barkeep’s shotgun, held by Mal, peeled his flesh back. Before I was fully awake, I was cowering behind the bar, using it as cover.
I peeked over the bar and out a window: three trucks, maybe four, and dozens of SWAT officers. They’d found us.
I turned and saw Escher sitting in a yoga position with his eyes closed. Lux had his hands on his headphones, looking like he was ready to take them off any moment.
Mal stood and continued firing shots at those who entered; the tear gas had no effect on him as he brought the invasion to a standstill.
They’d wait us out or bring in heavy artillery.
Escher pulled his pant leg up. Tucked inside of the upper part of his right boot, like pens in a shirt pocket, were two red syringes. Escher pulled one of the two out; it was full of a viscous red liquid that could only be one thing: his blood. He injected it into one of the bulging veins of his inner arm. “I need you all to close your eyes and form a chain,” Escher said, the peaceful look in his eyes undisturbed by the gunfire and bloodshed. He stood up over the counter, directly into the line of fire.
The sound of gunfire continued, but Escher remained standing. Something about him seemed different, comforting. Suddenly, I was okay with this insane plan.
“If you’ve ever trusted him,” Lux said, “now is the time.” We both grabbed one of Escher’s hands.
I’ve never trusted him.
“Keep your eyes closed,” Escher warned.
I felt a hand, calloused and sticky with blood, grab onto mine. Mal.
"You don’t want to try and see this,” Escher said.
I couldn’t bring myself to close my eyes; I needed answers.
I immediately regretted it. I was catapulted out of consciousness and surrounded by a simple pattern of repeating rectangles that formed a cell around me. All sound ceased. I felt as if the room I was in had been transported to the bottom of the ocean.
Everything around me was a simple grid of rectangles. A single rectangular shape in the floor caught my attention, seeming to stand out from the rest in an impossible twist of perception. I noticed it was a parallelogram, slanted on its edges.
The sounds of the violence around me had been drowned down to a muted hum. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t take my eyes off the figure in front of me—the simple shape.
“Now!” Escher said, his voice clear and inescapable.
Suddenly, the shape exploded into a cascade of repeating variants of itself, a shape twisting impossibly into its own cannibalization, gaining color in patterns as it collapsed backwards into infinitely small tessellations, creating a looping tunnel that seemed to continue forever in front of me. To my right I could see outside of shape, where the tunnel snaked onwards for miles, maybe thousands of miles, into the dark space around it. I could see that the loops became a spiral that seemed to swallow itself far in the distance.
“Take a step,” Escher said. “Just one.”
I wasn’t even sure I still had legs. I took a step forward as his drawing hand tugged at mine.
Escher released me. I was back on Earth again, out of the polygonal room. I looked around, confused. We were four blocks away; the police were still raiding the bar where we had stood.
“Where…how?” I asked Escher.
He only grinned.
We sneaked further away toward the outskirts of the Orange Zone to Kingwood. I didn’t bother asking Escher why we were returning.
We made it into the cool, beautiful forest, and Escher lead us through the seemingly endless variations of overgrown roads and monumental trees until we at last reached the opening that held Escher’s base, the mega-church that’d been half-reclaimed by nature.
The moment I saw it, though, I knew something was wrong. The smell of gunpowder and blood wafted from it in billows of stench.
Escher put an arm out to stop us and drew a pistol from beneath his clothes. Mal cocked the shotgun, visually thrilled at the amount of killing he’d been doing lately.
We slowly approached the large opening to find the source of the smells: fifteen dead Strangers, all with bullet holes like shiny new black buttons. They had been the remaining survivors of the Battle of Banlo Bay, but now they were just more for the body count.
Escher fired his gun into the air, and a body dropped from a tree. The man’s body armor wasn’t the sort that any of us had seen before. He was wearing a tight, black Kevlar suit, a small gas mask, night-vision goggles, earphones, and a belt full of God-knows-what. Escher’s bullet had penetrated the spot where his helmet met the collar of armor, driving directly up into his jaw. The man’s helmet seemed to contain most of the gore, so only a sick drizzle of blood spilling from his mask gave away his condition.
This was more money, more armor, more weapons, and more technology than I’d ever seen packed onto a human being.
I was staring into the reflective black goggles of one of Little Brother’s men. No more police, no more pulling strings; Little Brother was getting desperate to see Escher die. This was the private reserve.
A dozen or more men in identical uniforms whizzed down cables from the treetops, dropping like black curtains over a stage.
From the center came a figure holding a large television set. She was partially recognizable; in fact, her emotions were what made her a Stranger. She looked basically like she had before. Maybe a little guilty, but more than a little pissed. And that air about Whisper which had made her seem magical, the reason everything she did was so cool—was gone.
Without saying a word, she put the television screen down on the ground. She pressed a button on its front, and an image appeared.
It was a fat man, balding badly. He had brown hair—or at least, around the edges of his head and the wispy puff of it that came from his forehead, as though someone had ripped the horn from a stuffed unicorn doll. He had on a simple headset; his hands were on a keyboard in front of him. “Nice to finally meet you face to face,” he said, and I knew who he was. I knew that Voice.
Before I could say anything to Escher, he responded. “Little Brother.”
“We can negotiate your surrender, Escher. This doesn’t have to get violent.”
“There is nothing you could possibly say that I would be interested in hearing,” Escher replied.
“I know where you came from,” the television said. “I know your past. I have your face, I found your record. You were a soldier during the Collapse. During the battle for Detroit, you took a bullet to the head. They evacuated you in time, got the bullet out. You’re just a regular person, like anyone else. Everyone you kill is a regular person as well, Escher. You’re an excellent fighter because you were trained to be a soldier. Can’t you see?”
“No,” the Red King said. then shot the man closest to Whisper in the chest, splitting him open.
Mal appeared from behind, fired two shotgun blasts into the backs of two of their helmets, and ripped the rusty dagger from the chain on his neck and clutched it in his right hand. With his left, he pulled back the head of the man nearest him, gripped his throat, and his windpipe in his fist. At the same time, he thrust the rusted blade up into the armpit of the next nearest operative.
Lux released his headphones from his head, and I turned around, dashing through the familiar camp.
As war and the sounds of Lux’s headphones raged behind me, I ran through the deserted base at that speed I could only obtain when I am faced with eminent death—or, really, any threat at all. At last, I found Escher’s jeep—the first one he’d taken me out to the Train Supply Station with days ago. I turned the key, and the vehicle came alive.
I went forward until I hit a tree, then craned my neck and began driving backwards toward the gunfire. I squealed to a halt and honked the horn.
First Lux—headphones back over his ears—and then Escher jumped into the jeep after me.
I saw Mal so completely covered in blood that all of it simply could not belong to the Co-Intel operatives, but with his old iron dagger, he lashed lavishly, leaving spurts of crimson fluid wherever the tip reached He’d never looked happier in his life. He took bullets from the agents like boxers took punches. Six were dead and bleeding at his feet. Mal’s mouth gaped to catch as much of the flying nectar as possible, some biblical demon incarnate.
Escher picked me up and threw me into the back seat. “I’m driving,” he said, slamming his foot down on the gas.
My last sight before we peeled out of sight was Whisper facing the Mal with a gun in her hand, the two of them the last alive.
21. Sun and Moon
Escher rode hard out of Kingwood Forest and into the surrounding brush lands. He took Lux and I out and away from the train tracks and onto a faded trail that’d once been a busy street. It was so worn and cracked at this point that entire sections were impassible and had to be driven around with care.
Now that we were out of Banlo Bay, Escher seemed to relax a bit. He bit into a cigar he’d pulled from the truck and commandeered the jeep with a smile. Lux sat quietly, his headphones pulled over his ears, and simply watched, expressionless, as what used to be Texas passed around him.
So, we’d lost another one. Guts, Grundel, Sam, Mal—maybe Whisper, and of course Erika. I didn’t like my chances for survival very much. I supposed it didn’t matter; I had been dead from the minute I saw the big red spot of blood on Erika’s blouse.
The plains surrounding Banlo Bay were flat and dry, an endless expanse. I thought about my two companions. They had history here. They’d explored, seen the world, and fought in wars.
Well, I had history too. How many rotted logs had I slept in during the Collapse? How many ditches had I hidden in?
Hoped I’d never be back here. Now, everything else I had was gone. If there was any future at all for me, this would be it.
Good riddance, future.
I looked at the back of Escher’s head. This man wanted to destroy Banlo Bay, though I wasn’t sure how. But he was wrong, wasn’t he? There were innocent people in that city. People like I was, weeks ago. Did I want Escher to succeed? If he did have a way to destroy the city, would I try to stop him? Little Brother was there. Little Brother deserved to die, after all. But surely not along with millions more.
Erika, what should I do?
I decided to settle for the second most random decision-maker I could think of. I pulled a coin out of my pocket, a meaningless relic from my old life. Heads, and I would try to save Banlo Bay. Tails, and I'd run the first chance I got.
I flipped it low: heads.
I flipped it again: heads.
Fucking Christ. Give me a break here, Erika.
I flipped it again: heads.
Escher slowed the jeep to a halt as the sun began to fall on the grassy plains of the Red Zone. Traveling over the dangerous, uneven terrain was uncomfortable, tiring work. We bounced constantly about in the vehicle, each bump taking Escher’s foot off the pedal and crashing it back down. We had been following traces of a highway, but dust and cracks had obscured it for some miles, and we weren’t sure if we had driven off of it or not.
“Do you even remember where it was?” Lux asked Escher.
“Of course,” Escher said. “It will make itself known to me when the time comes.”
“You were delirious when you saw it first,” Lux said. “Maybe you imagined—” he stopped himself, realizing the futility of the argument.
“You should give this up,” Lux said. “It isn’t worth it. Besides, I don’t know if I can live with it.”
“You don’t have to live with it,” Escher said. “Only I do, and I think I’m going to enjoy it.”
“What if I try to stop you?” Lux asked.
“Then you’ll get stopped.”
My ears burned with nervousness at the conversation. Was this Project Epoch? I had to know. “So what’s Project Epoch? What are you two talking about?”
Escher turned to me and then looked at Lux. He grinned smugly around the fat cigar in his mouth. “Why don’t we stop here?” Escher said. “It’s been a long day, and I don’t think trying to navigate the jeep over these roads in the dark is going to get us very far.”
Escher pulled the jeep to a stop alongside a tall rocky crag, outside of view—not that it mattered. We hadn’t seen another person since we’d left Kingwood Forest.
An hour later, we found ourselves behind the shelter of the cliff, sitting around a small campfire on a warm night. Lux was cooking cans of dried foods that we’d manage to salvage from a ration pack in the jeep. I didn’t want to think about how ancient the food must be, and my hunger overtook my disgust.
“We might as well kick back and relax.” Escher said. “Frightened Boy, come tomorrow, you and Lux and I will likely be the only human beings alive in a 1,000-mile radius.”
“Why?” I asked instead.
“What do you mean, why? I think the idea is pretty clear at this point.” Escher grinned.
“I get it—reuniting a fractured mind, eliminating the cancer that is Little Brother, but how do you plan on killing everyone?”
“I really can’t tell you that, without telling you how I got here in the first place. Do you want to hear?”
“Yes, very much so,” I answered.
Escher leaned back and looked up at the waning sun and rising moon.
22. Magic Mirror
“The best way I can describe it to you is as a dream. I had a long, long dream that I lived a life in another time. I dreamed about mountains of Italy. I remember learning the seventeen sacred patterns of translational symmetry. I dreamed about the smell of sticky bread and freshly cut wood. I remember coming to America. The last thing I remember is trying to draw Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. I think that may have set this into motion,” the Red King announced.
“What is that?” I asked him.
Escher stared up at the night sky as he spoke, his voice strangely detached. “It’s something a mathematician was working on in my time. It’s mathematical proof that more things will always be true than can be proven—proof that we can’t understand the world around us. Sometimes I can still see the work I used to do. It just appears to me. Like when I saw Whisper, I knew I’d seen her somewhere before. She was from this past dream. So are you, Clark, and you, Lux. You’re all people I once knew, all part of my old life somehow.
“It all used to be so clear to me. As time passes, everything becomes less certain, and it starts to make too much sense. That’s why I take my own blood—it’s recursion. Recursion reminds me of what brought me here. It’s more of the math that made me.
“I woke up in a plain white room. No one was around, and I thought I must be in Heaven. I had no body. I just simply was. I thought I must be going crazy. I’m certain I still am.
“It seemed like weeks. I’d see patterns everywhere I looked, infinite loops climbing up into themselves. First it was my hands, then my body, and soon I was recreated in my entirety. Eventually moebius strips built themselves into lamps, into a bed…
“Reality was like soft clay. I could bend it however I wanted. It became clear to me that I was trapped in my own head. And I wasn’t simply moving things with my mind. I just worked really hard to believe they were a different way, and they would be—at least for a while. The patterns that’d turned themselves into a bed and a lamp continued to develop into carpet, windows, a doorway. I was building the world around me.
“I was here. This reality had begun to construct itself in my mind. The world was taking shape, but almost immediately, things started to go wrong,” Escher said. His speech had picked up speed as events became clearer to him, and now he spoke in hushed, excited tones. " The area around me turned into a military base. I was terrified by what I saw, and that influenced everything around me. I could still see the pattern that bound it all together, but the figures it was making were all sharp, dangerous angles and polygonal pandemonium.
“And then, the first doctor came. He looked so real. I marveled at his skin, still with a few rough parallelograms visible below the surface but mostly looking like the real thing.
“They made me watch television. It was a window into the darkest part of my mind. It said to never trust anyone. Never trust a Stranger. Never help someone in need. Mind your own business. In all that, my own paranoia was made tangible. This is what the television was telling me, but why was it letting me know these things? Why would my own mind want to show them to me? How sick with paranoia was I?
“After a while, a doctor started interviewing me every day for a week, trying to see if I was fully functioning I guess. I didn’t ask. I could see right through him. He was so basic, such a bad facsimile of a living person.
“‘Who are you?’ he’d ask. We sat on either sides of a giant metal table with heavy metal chairs bolted to the floor.
“‘I’m Escher.’ I knew that much. And when I looked at something, I knew how to use it. The television remote, doors, cars, and whatever else I saw was like I’d already known how it worked before. Or, more accurately, I’d just made the entire thing up in my head.
“At the time, I thought asking questions of the doctors would be a waste. I didn’t understand yet that I could unlock information about myself through the world I’d created. I thought it was a stupid, crazy thing to talk to a figment of my own imagination. He wasn’t even fully formed. He had triangles for irises.
“You have to understand, Frightened Boy. All I’ve ever done is make order out of chaos, and now it wasn’t working. My mind was full of chaos, and I had no idea how to make order of it.
“If you can understand what a dream is—I don’t know that—then what would you do? If you knew it wasn’t real. So I picked up the table and bashed his skull in, just to make his image go away,” he said, sighing.
“So your first instinct was to be violent?” I asked.
“I couldn’t…reason with them. I regret it too. I never lifted a finger against a man in my last life, but you have to understand my frustration. But yes, it’s possible that this initial violence set the tone for all of my later encounters.
“I’d built myself into a military base, and everything was locked down. I didn’t care—I’m God. They couldn’t possibly hurt me.
“I walked out into a hallway. Two soldiers had been watching from the glass, and they had seen me kill the doctor. Of course, he was just a part of my imagination, so I wasn't really killing anyone—just erasing an illusion. Winning an argument with myself.
“They met me at the door with rifles raised, ready to kill me. I put a hand on the barrel of each rifle. It was too easy because they were so slow. I had their side arms out of their belts before they could turn around. I shot them both in the head.” Escher talked in quick staccato bursts as the memory of his first kills haunted him.
“So you’d never killed anyone before?” I asked. “This was your first time?”
“I just—I knew what had to happen. They couldn't possibly kill me because they were a part of me. They are only put in the way to scare me, more and more of them as time passes. I think the escalating threat is typical for a dream—the faster you run, the slower you go. The more of them I kill, the more there are the next time. I have to plan everything very carefully because of this.
“But ‘fighting’ these men, if it can be called that—everything was so slow—every motion I made was amplified 100 times. It’s my reality. It wasn’t impressive, and it wasn’t even fun—no more so than using an eraser on a sketch.
“I lost my temper initially. I just wanted to wake up. I didn’t want to hear what anyone had to say and didn’t believe it could be useful. I walked down the hallway, out of the medical ward, and killed three more guards on my way out. I shot a pregnant woman in her hospital bed, right in the head. It didn't matter…she didn't matter because I made her up.
“They shot back at me, but they never come close to hitting me. I was only fighting myself, so there could be only one victor.
“I killed them all. Blood made it hard to walk. Every footprint looked like a wax seal. I found all the blood they’d taken from me, in a freezer. They had taken plenty while I was unconscious. I took it back with me. It was taken before I woke up to this new reality. When I re-inject it, for a minute, reality becomes like water—because of the recursion. Without it, sometimes now it is more like chiseling brick.
“I also found some old items from my past life, things that either traveled with me or that were so important I had to recreate them. My knife, my shoes, my headphones,my compass, my radio, my cap. I even found a small white cat, a pet I’d kept when I was a child. My very first pet.”
“You gve that stuff to—“
“Whisper took the cat, Lux took the headphones and shoes. Sam took the compass, Mal took the knife. These artifacts made them extensions of my will. I thought the artifacts also made them loyal, but I was wrong. I am beset on all sides.
"What was wrong with me? What would cause my mind to make a world like this? I had to find myself. Everything was a clue. Everything was telling me something. I couldn’t have imagined how expansive the world I’d created was. Of course, the more I try to find that out, the larger the world gets.”
“So you think you might have been better off if you’d stayed in the hospital?” I asked, trying to piece together some sort of reality in his version of events.
“Maybe,” Escher said. “It’s hard to say. You can’t imagine how mad it has driven me, knowing that just by exploring with thoughts the world I’ve created I might be making the problem worse.
“Eventually, after I killed everyone, I left the military base. On my way out, I found a large bunker built into the ground. I was still looking for significance in everything, so I searched for some in that and found it in spades. It was an old nuclear silo. Strange that it looked so well preserved. The equipment seemed to be functioning. I knew that this, being one of the first sights my mind created, must be important. There must be some reason for a nuclear missile. I never forgot it.
“But I didn’t act on it. I didn’t know there was any world out there to destroy, yet. I spent years in the Red just trying to piece things together, interviewing every rock and every bird, hoping they could give me some clue as to what was wrong with me.
“I learned that Banlo Bay was where most of the fear came from. I heard rumors of Little Brother’s existence.
“I realized I was not entirely alone. I was simply broken into many parts. The terror in me, the weakness in me, the evil in me were all Little Brother.
“I learned more about Little Brother. I left a path of destruction in my wake, and I was merciless in my hunt for knowledge. I wasn’t interested in dicking around on this plane of existence. I just wanted to get out of here as quick as I could. The more I kill—or erase, as I like to think of it—the simpler things are. If I kill Lux right now, that idea and concept will be gone from this world. The more people I kill, the simpler the pattern is. Hopefully, if I just simplify things enough, like by killing everyone in Banlo Bay, I will be able to see what is wrong and fix it,” he said with some finality.
“Sounds crazy,” I admitted, “but I realize it’s pointless for me to tell you that. But since I think that, it must mean a part of you doubts yourself, right? Or else I wouldn’t be here doubting you now,” I said.
“True,” Escher said. “It’s why I tried to surround myself with people who seemed important to me, people who were meaningful in my personal life before I became trapped here.”
“So is their pattern erased forever then?” I asked him. I choked on my words, remembering Erika.
“I don’t know,” Escher said. “Maybe they will be recreated within this image, or maybe they are erased forever. I don’t intend to stick around long enough to find out.”
My mind swam.
There was a long pause as Escher continued making eye contact with the stars, and finally, he spoke again. “As I first started exploring Banlo Bay and the area around it, my reputation grew. Someone was fighting the fear. Whisper and I organized people. I figured that if every average ‘person’ is like a cell of my brain, the more I can get on my side, the better. We dressed up like Strangers because Strangers are to be feared, and that fear gave us the strength we needed to move about freely. We wore hats with huge brims so Little Brother couldn’t see us from above, from his cameras.
"The Secret Society of Strangers was born. I met the others—Grundel, Mal, Sam, and granted them the items I brought with me from the place I entered this world. I have a last vial of my own blood here in my boot. I began plotting against Little Brother, recognizing him as the source of the disquiet in my mind. But then I was betrayed, and Little Brother won the battle for Banlo Bay. But all that time, I never forgot about what I saw there in that missile silo from my birthplace. It always remained an option, albeit a brutal one. Like giving myself a lobotomy. But still, crude as it is, it’s my last option. That is Epoch. I am going to find this missile silo and launch its contents at the city.”
At last, Escher leaned his head back and closed his eyes. I’d call it "sleep," but I’m not sure that was something Escher did.
I wasn’t sure what to make of Escher’s story. I was real. I had a history and a free will. I didn’t think I’d ever change my mind about that, no matter how much proof Escher seemed to have. I wasn’t a figment of anyone’s imagination.
Lux and I looked at each other, and while I’m no good at picking sentiment up out of other’s eyes, I think we were in agreement: We couldn’t let Escher destroy Banlo Bay. There had to be some morality, some right and wrong in this world, and surely killing millions of people qualified as “wrong,” even if it killed Little Brother in the process.
Even if it means killing Little Brother? Killing Whisper? Avenging Erika.
Okay, maybe. I don’t know. Shit, I don’t know.
I woke up with the sunlight beaming into my eyes.
As I squinted past the fire in my pupils, I saw Lux’s form standing over me, offering me a hand up. “You should never sleep facing east,” he said. His hand felt warm, and the simple advice was comforting.
“What’s the situation today?” I asked, groggily rubbing the palms of my hands against my eyes, clearing the colorful spots from my vision.
“West. Today, we head west. Epoch is west.”
“How do you know?” Lux asked.
“We’ll get there today. I know because we aren’t really going to it. It’s coming to us.”
We rode in the bumpy jeep for hours, until the sun crossed over our heads and raced ahead of us to the west. Sometime into the afternoon, we spotted our first helicopter. It hovered nearly out of view just to the south, a black vulture circling slowly as we sped toward the first place Escher could remember. I pointed them out to Lux, but neither man cared. They’d deal with them when they had to.
Finally, after hours of driving along broken highways, Escher turned off onto a set of city streets hairy with green stalks and finally into a path only marked by the width of the gap in the trees that walled it.
Now the helicopter was joined by its flock, and they sped ahead of us and out of sight.
The channel of trees opened up into a spacious set of hills that rolled out untamed for miles. Dotted on one of the hills was a set of stone structures that stretched defiantly up away from the hungry earth. The place was ruined, destroyed, and ancient like the castles of antiquity I’d see on television as a child. It was burned to the ground so that only the stone structures still stood; the roofs mostly gone.
“This is where I came into this world,” Escher announced.
When we could make out the details of the old military compound, we saw the helicopters had landed just ahead of us, a couple hundred yards. Men were stepping out of them, in formation, around the center of the base, forming a perimeter around the ruins. Even from 200 yards away, I could see the black and white uniforms of the Co-Intel-Pro soldiers.
Escher slowed the jeep to a halt a few hundred yards away from the ruined fortress. “Get out,” he ordered as he stepped from the vehicle.
I did so, feeling the dry grass crunch beneath my feet.
“Duck,” Escher said softly.
Lux kicked my legs out from under me. I heard a gunshot. He fell with me to the ground, and the two of us lay on our backs, staring up at the sun.
“Snipers,” Lux groaned.
I could see maybe twelve or fifteen of them from various perches and positions around a small bunker that stood only a few feet up from the ground and led down into it. Across from it was the military base—or hospital, I suspected—that Escher had described. The ivy had stitched over the scars that bore witness to the destruction he’d caused here.
Escher dropped to one knee but didn’t lay flat like Lux and I. A black beetle crawled across my hand; I shook it off. Then the Red King began walking steadily toward his birthplace.
One shot, and then two more. The sniper blasts were loud; loud even compared to the thousands of gunshots I’d been subjected to in the past weeks. Each bullet impacted the ground somewhere near Escher, never seeming to come into contact with him—as if the snipers were impossibly inept shots, and I knew that wasn’t the case. Escher was making them miss.
Escher walked steadily toward the bunker in the center of the compound as we stumbled, crawled, and ran clumsily in the grass behind him.
When we were about 100 yards away, we heard a megaphone shrilly ordering us to stop and negotiate. It was Whisper’s voice, but all the power was gone from it. It didn’t feed directly into my brain like a sexy murmur; it was just a woman’s angry voice.
“You are not God,” her voice shouted. “You were a marine. You arrived here after you took a bullet to the head. You are hallucinating. You are a regular person. Your name is not Escher. Everyone you kill is a person like yourself, a fully realized human being that you are robbing of life.”
She repeated this three, four times, each time her voice grew louder, more frenzied.
When Escher was within a hundred yards of the ruined compound, the rapid fire of assault rifles sounded. The Red King responded by running; the space around him warped as did so, each bullet bending its course into the air behind him. He dodged, weaved, and rolled—leaping ten feet forward and bouncing five back as a rocket detonated one second too late, where he would have been, half the time on his hands rolling or flipping one way or another.
A bullet hit the ground so close to my ear that the small explosion of dirt rained onto my face. A shock ran through me. I sprinted up from my position on the ground and bolted across the battlefield.
I spied a bunker leading underground at the edge of the compound, and decided it was good cover. I ran toward it, legs pumping and arms flailing, then slid to a halt as I reached its safety, colliding with it and scrambling clumsily down the steps. At the end of the stairway, perhaps twenty feet down, was a concrete wall.
I heard Whisper’s voice above, shouting out orders and regrouping.
Escher stood his ground just outside the bunker, letting loose round after round on anyone who dared aim at Lux, who was scrambling as fast as he could to join me. At last Escher dove into the bunker as well.
Lux whipped the headphones from his head. The familiarly horrific feeling washed over me. I started to black out as I heard chainsaws perform delicate mating rituals and my eyes began to ache inside of my skull. Vomit and bile rose in the back of my throat.
Lux tossed the headphones out to the front of the bunker, holding onto the end plug connecting them to whatever infernal device in his backpack caused the ruckus. The distance between myself and the headphones brought small relief. The bullets stopped coming.
A grenade bounced against the wall and clattered down the steps. Instantly, Escher was on it, grabbing it while it was still bouncing.
As he did so, I made my move. I was already on the ground, on my knees from the crippling sounds. Escher’s boot was right there in front of me. He was bending down to pick up the live grenade and throw it back.
The syringe! I snatched it from his boot and slipped it into my pant pocket, praying the lunatic was too distracted to notice.
He held onto the grenade for a moment, squeezing it like he was testing a piece of fruit. When he threw it back, it exploded in midair, the shrapnel shredding the men who were pressed up against the walls outside the stairway, waiting to make their entrance. The explosion went up and outwards, over our heads and through theirs.
“The door, Escher!” Lux said, as if he needed to remind him. “It’s not going to open.”
I stared back at the concrete wall at the bottom of the staircase. This was a door?
And then, there was a new Voice, one I’d hoped I’d never hear again. “Escher, I’ve finally got you. Don’t you understand, Escher?” Little Brother’s voice said, impossibly loud, coming from a speaker somewhere nearby. Never here in person.
Little Brother continued. “Escher, you’re insane. You need to seek treatment. We can take you in safely. Look, I have proof, Escher. Proof. I have your face, now. I do apologize for the delay, or we would have been properly prepared for your arrival. I’m looking at the logs right here. Your name is Eli Hutchens. You were rescued in December of 2048 during the battle for Detroit. You are just sick, Escher—mentally. You need psychiatric treatment. A bullet passed through your frontal lobe. This is no alternate universe, Escher. I'm sorry, but this is real life. This is the only life that exists. This is life. You’re not in purgatory, and you’re not on the path to enlightenment. You’re right here. You’re here with me, and your name is Eli.”
Escher faced the doorway. He didn’t respond. Instead he dug his fingertips into grooves in the worn, pitted cement that formed the wall that was keeping him from his destiny.
And then, he lifted.
Every vein in his arm grew fat, pumped high-octane, threatended to burst. Veins in his head popped out like poorly soldered circuitry.
And he lifted.
He closed his eyes; he took a deep breath. Then another, still lifting. The veins receded; the muscles stopped straining. He relaxed, but he was still lifting.
The gate began to creak and move, to moan and crawl up over his head as simply as if he were lifting a garage door. Dust and plaster rained down on him as he pulled the hefty block up into its frame. The gears ticked as it lifted, and when it had reached its apex, it locked with a click.
Inside, I saw my worst fear: a nuclear warhead, the size of a school bus, sitting in perfect condition, encapsulated in this cement chamber for five decades. We were reopening the pyramids of the Lost Pharaohs. Lux and I ducked into the chamber, and the stale air and dust encased my nostrils.
“Now,” Escher said, “to launch.”
He reached into his boot, but his hand came up empty. Immediately, he looked at me. Stadium lights to my dying candles. “Give it to me,” he said. “We don’t have time. Just give it to me. I can’t do this without recursion. This will require a great bend in reality.
“Look, Escher,” I said, backing up as he began walking toward me, “I am a part of you, right? I’m your paranoia, your fear. There must be a reason I took the blood from you. I know what you want to do. There must be another way. I’ve been running my whole life. I can’t be the guy that runs away while you kill millions of people.”
Lux was checking outside the blast doors to see who was coming. A bullet blasted into the chamber, the sound amplified impossibly by the acoustics. The sound of this particular gun was becoming familiar.
A disheveled woman in a black dress with a white cat in one hand and a tremendous silver revolver in the other walked down the steps.
“Escher,” I pleaded, “Escher, please don’t kill these people.”
“Frightened Boy, they killed Erika. Didn’t you love her? I saw it in your eyes. Doesn’t she deserve vengeance?”
Maybe. Maybe she did. Shit. But killing all these people can’t be right, she wouldn’t want that.
Of course, she doesn’t want anything. She’s dead now.
Whisper raised her revolver at Escher, but then she seemed to think better of it. She saw the syringe in my hand and pointed the gun at me instead.
I couldn’t pay attention to her right now, though. I was trying to save the world.
Whisper said to me, “If that thing launches while we are in here, we will all be incinerated, you included. You’ll be dead, Frightened Boy…and so will Escher.”
She was probably right. Didn’t feel much like living, anyway.
Little Brother’s voice came over the loudspeaker again. There must have been a microphone on Whisper’s person, and now he was a part of our conversation.
“Frightened Boy, you have freedom now.” His fat voice breathed laboriously over the speaker. “The people of Banlo Bay have freedom. Escher wants them to die. He thinks they are part of his mind, but we know that’s not true, don’t we? Something like that is just—not possible. What we have, Frightened Boy, is freedom. We have freedom to go to work, freedom to live what lives the world has afforded us. We have stability, and a chance at a family. You, Clark Horton, are free. I can allow you to return to your old life like nothing happened. Leave this Escher mess for me to clean up. We owe you one. We owe you a chance to be free again.”
I’d never been free—I’d just been running loose. Little Brother took everything that mattered from me. This was liberation.
Whisper aimed her revolver at my hand.
Escher pointed a finger at the cat in her arm; it attacked reached up and swiped a claw across Whisper’s face. She struggled with it, firing her gun into the air and hitting nothing.
For Erika. I’d destroy the world for Erika. Destroy the world because it wasn’t really there.
When Escher met me halfway, I thrust the syringe into his arm, my thumb on the plunger. “I’m not doing this because I’m in your head,” I said. “I’m doing this because I’m a human being, and that matters. Do not fuck this up.”
Escher shook his head. He didn’t have an answer for me.
I pushed the plunger down into Escher’s arm. The blood coursed through him. Old Escher met New Escher, causing his recursion.
Whisper shrieked, hurled the cat from her, and shot it.
“Run!” Escher told me. “I’ve listened. Run far.”
I didn’t know what to say or what to do. Escher began glowing with a soft, radiant aura. He took on a broken, jagged appearance with sharp edges and angles. The Red King stepped over to the missile controls and pressed his hands against them. He didn’t touch a button but just rested there. I started backing out toward the exit.
Lights turned on. Fires started lighting in the room; the missile was launching.
I did what he said. I ran up the steps and across what was left of the stunned Co-Intel-Pro ops, and ran into the field where Little Brother’s men had parked their helicopters.
Smoke rose from the bunker. Sirens blared. Steel plates creaked together as they opened up, and the grass above the bunker began to move.
The roar was eternal. I shielded my eyes and ears.
Whisper and Escher were still in the chamber together, burning to nothingness.
The missile launched up out of the silo on a course for Banlo Bay. I could see it rise and rise, higher and higher, heading steadily toward the place I knew the city was, even though it was too far to see. A part of me saw Escher in the missile, in Epoch—in his attempt to simplify the pattern by destroying some of the variation, some of the chaos which ran rampant in his reality.
But the bomb didn’t fall to the ground. Instead, it exploded in the air—miles over the city.
I looked away as the bomb exploded. I’d heard it could make you blind.
The burst of wind was warm and smelled like chemicals. It felt like the entire field had been overturned and was flying at me, and there was grass cutting at my face. I clutched my head between my arms and looked at the ground beneath me. Five minutes later, when everything was still, I could see the blast cloud. It looked impossible, like the moon exploded in the sky.
I picked up a grenade from a fallen soldier and held it in a clenched fist.
I found one of Little Brother’s operatives cowering in the field, gawking at the smoke and gases lingering in the air. He told me he lost all radio communication; couldn’t get orders from his boss.
I told him, "Take me back to the city."
He refused, of course. "The radioactive fallout will kill us," he said. He was a pilot, and had a sidearm.
I showed him my grenade, and he told me he could take me close. "Take me to Kingwood," I told him.
Lux approached, headphones around his neck but silent. I tried to smile at him, but couldn’t. He joined me in the helicopter, in my uneasy truce with the pilot who had no master now and no stake in what happened.
In the air, we started to talk. I asked the pilot what he thought happened to Banlo Bay, since the missile missed its target.
“EMP,” he said.
“Electromagnetic Pulse. Happens every time a nuke detonates. Electronics are fried.”
“For how long?” I asked.
“Forever,” he said. “Computers, cell phones, televisions…if this helicopter wasn’t military grade, if the wiring wasn’t shielded for this sort of thing, it’d never fly.”
“How long will it take them to rebuild it?” I asked.
“Rebuild?” He laughed. “More like abandon. I’m talking total meltdown. Bank records, credit card bills, even cars. Everything electronic will be ruined. Is all that stuff even manufactured anymore?”
Lux told the pilot to drop us off in Kingwood Forest, where we could see the skyline of Banlo Bay. Every light was turned off. Every alarm was silent. Every broadcast was dead. Little Brother had been turned off, his power stolen. If he was a part of Escher, like Escher predicted, then he might be dead as well.
Soon, the walls would come tumbling down, and every puddle of water would be a bird feeder; every highway would be a garden, and every park, a forest; every onramp would be nothing more than a gently sloping hill.
I was not afraid of nuclear fallout; Escher would not damage Kingwood Forest. The trees would protect me.
Lux and I stood near the great church. He waved wordlessly, and began walking away from the city.
So I was the last one. Someone needed to pull the Strangers back to together, to prepare the city for the life to come. Someone needed to guide the thousands of paranoid, terrified citizens into a realization that people could help each other, that everything was not lost. Someone needed to rebuild, to restart, to carry on Escher’s vision for reality.
But what was reality? What was it now, without him?
Difficult to say. All questions of reality had become unreliable.
Didn’t matter. I was here. Erika was gone, but within me still. Maybe I could live as fearlessly as she did, once.
Someone needed to prepare everyone else to live as the Strangers lived. Someone needed to prepare them for real life.
Survival is triumph enough. Funny, didn't feel like triumph. It was enough, though. I was still alive to try and make things right—for the first time in my life, truly alive and capable of making something right.
I pulled my red baseball cap up over my head. It fit perfectly.
Today, I am scared of…fuck it.
Tag der Veröffentlichung: 29.01.2010
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